15 Landmark Dance Tracks from 1991

by Steve Jansen

14 September 2011

As a precursor to PopMatters' upcoming retrospective on music in 1991, Sound Affects takes at look at 15 pivotal tracks from the year where dance music's potential to amaze seemed boundless.

The late, great Tony Wilson of Factory Records fame reckoned contemporary music revolutions occurred every 13 years: the Beatles’ first album was released in 1963; after which in 1976, punk kicked off; then 13 years later, in 1989, dance music came up smiling. Aside from the fact Wilson’s theory ran aground shortly after—otherwise, 2002 should have been something amazing; well, better than Britney Spears’ Crossroads—I would argue any attention paid to dance music would best be spent on 1991.

For those 12 glorious apex months, dance music’s potential to amaze seemed boundless. In part because, after Acid’s Big Bang and the outward formation of what was fast becoming a dance universe all to itself, so many bright new worlds of possibility began to sparkle, ripe for exploration. In 1991, the dance music scene was so much to do with that the brilliance of The New: the thrill of fresh and exciting styles, new and instant possibilities realised. No doubt because it was an underground scene—totally self-sufficient, and unhindered by the big-wheels-turn-slowly scheduling processes of the mainstream music industry. What was a thought on a Monday, was a tune on a Tuesday, pressed, circulated, played out and well on the way to being a must-hear by Friday. The majority of all this only made possible by the creative application of sampling and sequencers and the lax (but soon to contract) state of general copyright law.
Strangely though, even when dislocated by time and pulled away from their underground roots, the vast majority of the following 15 tracks now sound like pop in the broadest sense. That’s inevitable, I guess, because everything gets assimilated. What was outer-edge musically once has to—by the very birthright of commercial gravity—become today’s core and staple sound. Fair enough, all things change, and time must pass. But, believe me, for that single summer of 1991, with dance music at the year’s heart, and such thrills coursing through your veins, it was entirely and briefly possible to feel like you were at the sharpest, leading tip of what life was really, truly and most beautifully all about. What follows, is in no way a definitive top 15 dance tracks of the year, nor is it the 15 best. That’s a subjective call too far, in a genre way too broad to measure so precisely. Instead, these are 15 dance tracks—some pure, some nearer pop—that help tell the story of what the form was up to in 1991.

“I Wanna Give You Devotion”

As a British act, Nomad stand as an historical marker, illustrating the dual fascinations of dance music going into 1991. Musically, it’s close to the roots of house in the Chicago sound, but the vocals and rap are distinctly English (yet even saying that, they suggest perhaps New York’s new jack swing). Plus, there’s that euphoric synth-strings sound of house (via disco), and the horn-loop is utterly R&B.

Mirroring the American/British duality of rock ‘n’ roll as it progressed into the 1960s (when the Beatles, in thrall to America, created their own sound which was perversely exported back to the USA), dance music as we now know it may well have exploded out of Britain, but was ultimately born on the ultra-underground Chicago and Detroit warehouse party scenes. Which, in turn were a machine-made homage to Germany’s Kraftwerk; all as a bizarre evolution of disco. 

“3AM Eternal”

KLF stood for Kopyright Liberation Front, reflecting the desire of Bill Drummond (the non-hatted, front-seat passenger in this video) to (at least in the late 1980s) create a British answer to hip-hop. The fact that Drummond and musical partner Jimmy Cauty became the KLF and jumped aboard the emerging dance scene only goes to show how broad the genre’s gene pool was—and how open it was to and accepting of interpretation.

In truth, “3AM Eternal” (a paean to—as the video depicts—that fuzzy, loved up come-down-from-Ecstasy hour after a rave) is borderline punk in its sensibilities, yet at heart is a cleverly considered pop track, albeit one sneakily employing dance music affectations (rising crowd elations, thumping bass-drum kicks, the drug-friendly width and reverberating nature of its sonic palette). For the song’s rebellious spirit, the KLF were taken to the heart of the dance scene, even if the records were never played in clubs.

The Source with Candi Stanton
“You Got the Love”

Forget the hoopla about Florence and the Machine, the cross-genre excitement of an indie act covering a dance tune. This mix of “You Got the Love” had it all bagged back in 1991. Starting life as a white-label before receiving an official (read: legally approved) general release, this is simply Candi Stanton’s sublime a capella gospel vocals cleverly grafted over an instrumental mix of Frankie Knuckles’ legendary “Your Love”. Mash-ups are common currency now, but back in 1991 they were rare. When they did happen, though, they were done live—and invariably blew the roof off.

Massive Attack
“Unfinished Sympathy”

One nation under, well, two grooves—that’s about the best way to describe Britain as a dance nation, circa 1991. While house was the dominant notion, across town in small, sweaty cellar clubs, an offshoot scene was building, in praise of the break-beat; fueled by the very tracks from which American hip-hop’s hottest samples were being quoted. Into the middle of which, decidedly lopsided—more hip-hop than house—came Massive Attack, gaining major attention upon the release of their second single, Unfinished Sympathy”. Released ahead of the album Blue Lines in February of 1991, the track has since become a classic. Built from strings and heartbreak and looped-beats, it would—thanks to its widespread adoption as dance music’s come-down track of choice—be the song to help cross the band over to a whole new, broader audience.

The Shamen
“Move Any Mountain”

For some reason, British alternative rock bands seemed to gravitate towards dance quicker than most. Perhaps because that genre was already somewhat enthralled to the psychedelic optimism of the Byrds and narco-icons such as Stone(d) Brian Jones. Case in point: the original Shamen, which existed as a weird, none-more-1980s hodge-podge of psychedelic guitars and drum loops (think: Primal Scream when they were rubbish being serenaded by an over-caffeinated drum machine). However, by the album In Gorbachev We Trust, the Shamen was already dropping none-too-subtle lyrical hints of transformation (“MDM-Amazing / We are together in ecstasy”). So when they reappeared as they are here—a salivating duo on behalf of the Ecstasy party—it didn’t really come as much surprise.

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