Rock music has come a long way, you know. Charting the evolution of the genre, mapping its seemingly infinite offshoots and hyphenated mini-trends—these would be full time jobs, lifelong careers. Rock twists around with soul, bops along with funk, embraces pop, and (often horrifically) flirts with rap and hip-hop. All of this hybridity speaks to rock ‘n’ roll’s revolutionary spirit, its classic refusal to work cleanly within established borders. Of course, these experiments often come with plenty of controversy among fans and critics alike; when rock, for example, hooks up with the sheen and pulse of dance music, many people are historically just as likely to stare awkwardly at the floor or flee the room as they are to start shimmying. Those who stick around and are willing to get their blood moving have been—for decades now—rewarded with some of the best, most exciting, and most inventive popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Today, dance and rock have become so intricately involved with one another that it almost seems beside the point to mention their pairing—look at LCD Soundsystem, for example, who made recent headlines by playing its final show at the legendary Madison Square Garden, a rare feat for an indie dance-rock band with little radio play.
The days when disco and the Bee Gees represented all that is evil to the rock world are long over. To celebrate, here’s a list of ten essential dance-rock albums. There are plenty of worthy records and bands not included here (apologies to ESG, Dinosaur L, and Depeche Mode, to start), so read on and make your own list in the comments section. Get those hips moving.
German pioneers Can were avant-garde before English-speaking people knew how to pronounce “avant-garde”. While its 1971 double LP, Tago Mago, is rightfully considered the band’s opus, Ege Bamyasi sees Can streamlining the rhythms and liquid guitars that marked the sprawling Tago’s most directly-accessible moments. From the psychedelic-tinged funk of “I’m So Green” to the druggy and cyclical “Spoon”, it’s impossible to listen to Ege Bamyasi and sit still. “Vitamin C”, with its shouted “Hey YOU!” chorus and soft-loud dynamics, sounds as fresh today as it must have 40 (!) years ago.
Recommended tracks: “Spoon”, I’m So Green”, “Vitamin C”, “Sing Swan Song”
David Bowie’s progression from the “plastic soul” of his mid-1970’s output to the masterful Berlin Trilogy begins here, with 1977’s classic Low. Sharing ideas and energy with visionary collaborator Brian Eno, Bowie pushed his sound away from conventional 1960s and ‘70s influences (pop, soul, funk) toward something new, something marked by ambiance, something non-linear and cyclically-minded. A song like “Art Decade” doesn’t only sound different than older Bowie—it sounds different than most anything else recorded by a famous rock musician at the time. In other words, this may not be the best album to simply toss onto the speakers at your next dance party. Nevertheless, to understand where the intersection of dance music and rock music gained steam, Low remains essential. “Speed of Life”, for example, goes a long way toward predicting house music’s rise a few years later. So, while many of these tracks skew toward the ambient side of electronic music, an equal number blend more straightforward electronic-tinged dance sounds with Bowie’s rock ‘n’ roll chops to ingenious results.
Recommended tracks: “A New Career in a New Town”, “Be My Wife”, “Speed of Life”, “Breaking Glass”, “What in the World”
Autobahn (1974) is generally regarded as the masterwork of German Krautrock progenitor Kraftwerk. However, it’s Trans-Europe Express that offers listeners the distinct pleasure of hearing the group flirt more directly with rock music. The record is almost certainly Kraftwerk’s catchiest collection of songs, and Express manages those melodies while keeping the band’s foundational conventions—repetition, hypnotic beats, vocal manipulation—intact. Still, to call Express a rock record—or a dance record, or an electronic record, or any other available moniker—ultimately feels reductive. This album contains multitudes; press play (you can also dance, if you want to).
Recommended tracks: “Europe Endless”, “Showroom Dummies”, “Trans-Europe Express”, “Metal on Metal”
For a while in the early 2000s, Gang of Four sounded like the most influential band in the history of rock music. The ubiquitous dance-punk trend, which had its high points in groups like the Rapture and Bloc Party and its low ones in innumerable imitators, borrowed liberally from the classic Leeds, England group’s sound—see how many reviews of those bands you can find that call guitars “angular” or “spiky”. But all right, those descriptors fit; Andy Gill’s guitar is often used less as a melodic lead than as a noisemaker, almost becoming a percussive instrument on tracks like “Natural’s Not in It”. At the very least, Gill serves as a counterpoint to bassist Dave Allen’s forceful playing, anchored by Hugo Burnham’s relentless hi-hat and kick drum. Vocalist Jon King had a better voice than most punk-derived bands would allow, and he used it to great effect, harmonizing with his bandmates while also delivering scathing political screeds. Its followers are legion, but Gang of Four still sounds like an original.
Recommended tracks: “Ether”, “Natural’s Not in It”, “Damaged Goods”, “At Home He’s a Tourist”
You know Liquid Liquid even if you don’t know you know—Grandmaster Flash lifted the bassline from its 1983 cut “Cavern” for his classic “White Lines”. Ironically, while that melody became one of the most famous in all of hip-hop, Liquid Liquid itself remained largely obscure until a crucial 1997 reissue collected the group’s output—three EPs from 1981 to 1983—and reissued it on a single disc. It may be stretching things a bit to call Liquid Liquid’s music “rock”, but consider the group’s sound rock ‘n’ roll, deconstructed. Elvis Presley scandalized the United States by acknowledging rhythm and shaking his hips; Liquid Liquid made music almost entirely constructed out of percussion, whether on a drum kit, congas, marimba, or anything else that could be slapped with a hand or struck with a stick. Richard McGuire’s bass guitar locks into similarly cyclical grooves, as do Salvatore Principato’s vocals, when they’re present at all. Liquid Liquid stripped rock music to its bare heartbeat, and paved the way for all those post-rockers to come after.
Recommended tracks: “Cavern”, “Lub Dupe”, “Groupmegroup”, “New Walk”