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.
Can – Ege Bamyasi (1972)
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 – Low (1977)
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”
Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express (1977)
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”
Gang of Four – Entertainment! (1979)
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”
Liquid Liquid – Liquid Liquid EP (1981), Successive Reflexes EP (1981), Optimo EP (1983), all collected on Liquid Liquid (1997)
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”
New Order and more…
New Order – Substance 1987 (1987)
Purveyors of a genre (new wave), kings of a decade (the 1980s), and a reinvention of another classic and essential band (Joy Division), it’s difficult to overstate New Order’s artistic and commercial success. One can’t go wrong with any of the classic LPs the band released in its first decade, from 1981’s Movement to 1989’s Technique, but Factory Records’ compilation of the group’s singles, Substance (or Substance 1987), provides the most bang for your buck. A de facto greatest hits record, there’s not a skippable or unwarranted inclusion to be found here. Superfans may have a few complaints—“Ceremony” and “Temptation” are re-recorded cuts, not the original versions, and some songs have been shortened—but the music still shines. Bassist Peter Hook’s signature high-necked style created some of the ‘80’s most delectable melodies. Some of the programming and drum machine work may sound dated, but that’s part of the charm. Drop the needle and soak it up.
Recommended tracks: “Ceremony”, “Temptation”, “Thieves Like Us”, “The Perfect Kiss”, “Bizarre Love Triangle”
Fugazi – 13 Songs (1989)
A combination of the seminal District of Columbia band’s first two EPs, Fugazi and Margin Walker, 13 Songs is Fugazi’s most straightforward—and to some ears, most successful—release. While Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto’s guitars brilliantly play the field from hardcore chug to post-punk refraction, it’s the peerless rhythm section of bassist Joe Lally and Brendan Canty that gives Fugazi its true strength. Lally takes punk’s long flirtation with dub to new heights, laying down grooves both rock-solid and immediately catchy, while Canty drums with a fury and creativity still unmatched by his band’s many offspring two decades later. Fans of MacKaye’s most celebrated previous act, hardcore titan Minor Threat, may have been surprised when they turned up at Fugazi shows to find less of a circle pit and more of a dance party (not that MacKaye would’ve stood for the former—check Jem Cohen’s 1999 Fugazi documentary, Instrument, for wonderful clips of Fugazi’s legendary energy as a live band and MacKaye’s equally timeless chastising of poor audience manners). These days, we take the cross-pollination of punk and dance music for granted, but Fugazi represents the ultimate initial embrace between the attitudes of the two worlds. Keep your mind sharp and your hips shaking.
Recommended tracks: “Waiting Room”, “Bad Mouth”, “Suggestion”, “Margin Walker”, “Glue Man”
Daft Punk – Discovery (2001)
Daft Punk was the first house act to achieve true rock star status (quite an accomplishment for two robots). Discovery proved controversial upon its initial release, as many critics and listeners found its amalgamation of styles too different—read, too ambitiously eclectic—from the group’s hit debut, Homework (1997). In retrospect, this record sounds more prescient and more aware of things to come (and therefore more fitting with Daft Punk’s futuristic schtick) than Homework. Yes, this is electronic music, but its foundational elements lean heavily on rock and pop. That’s the reason the record and the band were able to achieve such commercial success: these are rock songs written for the synthesized future. The blissful “One More Time” borrows its structure less from traditional electronic music and that genre’s extended 12” cuts and more from the classic verse-chorus-bridge-chorus mold of rock music. If you still have doubts about Daft Punk’s rock bona fides, just check the virtuosic shredding on “Aerodynamic”. (PopMatters review)
Recommended tracks: “One More Time”, “Aerodynamic”, “Face to Face”, “Something About Us”
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem (2005)
LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy perfected his craft on his band’s second album, Sound of Silver (2007), moving into more emotionally-driven, musically-eclectic territory. Still, while LCD Soundsystem may lack in sentiment when compared to Silver or the group’s swansong, This Is Happening (2010), it compensates for the absence with pure, unadulterated energy. “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” pays tribute to Murphy’s predecessors (hey, they’re right before him on this list, too), as does the brilliant, name-checking, self-effacing “Losing My Edge”, LCD’s first song. Throughout the album’s two discs (the latter of which also collects the group’s early singles), Murphy tries on different voices and different musical ethos, all to wonderful successes—the dance-punk of “Tribulations”, the just-punk of “Movement”, the disco sheen of “On Repeat”. No one saw this record coming, and it’s amazing to think of where Murphy and LCD Soundsystem went next, but the band’s debut remains the most consistent bet for the dance floor. (PopMatters review)
Recommended tracks: “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House”, “Tribulations”, “Movement”, “Losing My Edge”, “Yeah (Crass Version)”
Future Islands – In Evening Air (2010)
Future Islands have not yet received anywhere near the attention of many of the acts on this list, but the up-and-coming Baltimore trio represents how intricately intertwined dance and rock music have become in this new decade. Vocalist Sam Herring possesses a wonder of an instrument, growling and cooing with equal resonance; his bandmates, bassist William Cashion and keyboardist/programmer J. Gerrit Welmers, create lo-fi washes of melody and noise to provide a backbone for Herring’s howling. In decades past, Herring would have fronted a more straightforward punk band. Now, he’s able to bring his preternatural energy and impressionistic lyrics to his group’s driving, pogo-ing rhythms. Cashion has clearly studied Peter Hook of New Order’s idiosyncratic and quietly brilliant work with the bass guitar, and Welmers knows how to get the most out of his simple drum machines. If Future Islands are a mark of where we’re headed in the coming years, we’ll be doing just fine. (PopMatters review)
Recommended tracks: “Long Flight”, “An Apology”, “Inch of Dust”, “Swept Inside”