Let’s face it. Most dance music is expendable. It’s too often merely utilitarian, spit out from recording studios as if from a factory. That was true for disco, arguably the first modern genre designed explicitly just for dancing. And it remains true today, with the proliferation of EDM and obscure sub-genres. I find a lot of this music monotonous and unlistenable, especially when boosted by too much compression. You can hear that effect now in many tracks: a sucking, rapid alternation of loud and soft that irritates the eardrum. Yet, some tracks manage to rise above the rest. They enter the repertoire, and continue to attract our interest.
I restricted my choices to songs in English, and songs rooted in dance as a dedicated type of music. Plenty of songs exist that are danceable, in all manner of popular genres from rock to hip-hop. You won’t find those in this list. I also restricted my choices to songs I actually like.
Precursor — Honorable Mention
I Got You (I Feel Good) — James Brown (1964, Funk). Before dance music became its own genre, there were dance crazes. During the 60s, new dances sprouted like springtime wildflowers, often in reaction to particular songs. But something new was brewing. Funk and R&B/soul, best exemplified by the propulsive music of James Brown, laid the foundation for disco. Based on a classic twelve-bar blues pattern, “I Got You” features Brown using his voice to punctuate the song’s rhythm. The horns pop with tight syncopation, a signature element that features so prominently in ragtime and jazz, those other styles closely aligned with dance.
Top 10 Dance Songs
Stayin’ Alive — Bee Gees (1977, Disco). Most disco lyrics featured fun and fluffy subjects like dancing, love, and getting laid. But from another perspective, those lyrics could seem just plain silly, especially when paired with cookie-cutter arrangements. “Staying’ Alive” broke that mold. Written for the film Saturday Night Fever, the lyrics mention dancing, yes, but as an antidote to the struggle to survive from one day to the next. The song and movie launched disco into the mainstream and spawned the disco craze of the late 70s.
I Feel Love — Donna Summer (1977, Disco). Prior to this song, disco recordings typically featured orchestras, beats marked by the kick drum, and walking bass lines. Producers Georgio Moroder (music) and Pete Belotte (lyrics) created a different sound with “I Feel Love.” Unusual for the time, Moroder recorded all parts except the kick drum with a Moog synthesizer. The song gave birth to a new style, electronic dance music (and more specifically, techno), that would eventually dominate music made for dancing.
Thriller — Michael Jackson (1984, Disco/Pop). Written by songwriter Rod Temperton and produced by Quincy Jones, “Thriller” became a sensation. Its unusual subject matter of ghouls and monsters raised the song above the mundane. Horror icon Vincent Price added a spoken word recitation to the bridge.
Erotic City — Prince (1984, Dance). Prince could write dance and party music in his sleep. His early songs in the 70s aligned with the traditional disco camp. But by the time of Purple Rain, he had trailblazed a more electronic sound that became a hallmark of the 80s with synths and drum machines. An electronic vibe pervades “Erotic City,” especially with the synthetic manipulation of the vocals. Prince credited Parliament/Funkadelic with inspiring him to write the song. Sheila E sings the chorus, turning the song into an erotic duet.
Vogue — Madonna (1990, House). Madonna often seeks inspiration from dance music. With “Vogue,” she turned to the New York ballroom drag scene and wrote about a dance style involving poses. Of course, dance songs commonly use dancing as their subject, but this song is a masterpiece. With its lyrics emphasizing self-expression, complex major/minor harmonies, and slow-rapped bridge citing Hollywood icons, Madonna created a powerful classic. Co-songwriter Shep Pettibone produced an arrangement based on House music, which had evolved in Chicago as an electronic dance style during the early 80s.
Groove Is in the Heart — Deee-Lite (1990, Retro House). This song personifies trends popularized by rap: samples, DJs, and guest performers. Herbie Hancock’s 1966 song “Bring Down the Birds” supplies the backing tracks. Other samples are mixed in. Q-Tip raps, and guest bassman Bootsy Collins brings the funk. The core trio of Deee-Lite—Towa Tei, Lady Miss Kier (who sings throughout), and DJ Dmitry—share writing credit with Q Tip and Hancock. The song serves up a festive blend of house, funk, rap, and retro 60s flower power.
Music — Madonna (2000, Electro-Funk). What can be better than a song about the power of music? It brings people together and mixes the bourgeoisie and the rebel. The sound of early electronica like Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” and Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” infuses the arrangement. Producer Mirwais Ahmadzai shared writing credit with Madonna.
Get Lucky — Daft Punk, featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers (2013, Disco). This song brought together four music luminaries: legendary producer Nile Rodgers behind the disco group Chic, French electronic music duo Daft Punk, and producer/performer Pharrell Williams. The simple, catchy arrangement blends classic disco roots with Williams’ contemporary vocal style, proving that disco still has life despite the ascendancy of house music as the default club sound since the late 80s.
Love Shy (Sam Divine & CASSIMM Remix) — Kristine Blond (2017, House). This song exemplifies that deejay mainstay, the remix. While there have been dozens of remixes of Kristine Blond’s 1997 dance hit “Love Shy” (see my post on DJs Remix “Love Shy” for Different Tastes), this version stands out for its power and musicianship. The tempo has a less hurried feel. The rich piano texture in the chorus and the overlaid vocals create a strong emotional pull. I especially like the way Divine and CASSIMM manipulate the verse/chorus structure and harmony, delaying the chorus to create a climax that surpasses the original.
Low — Todrick Hall (2017, Rap/House). The LGBTQ community has long featured as the vanguard for dance music trends. “Low” provides the climax for Hall’s musical masterpiece, Straight Outta Oz, a gay, autobiographical retelling of The Wizard of Oz. Fitting that the opus would end with a dance track! Lyrics cleverly work in Oz references in the context of a dance party. Hall takes the rap in the first verse, and drag icon RuPaul takes the rap in the second.
Song List on Spotify
You can hear snippets from these tracks below, or the full tracks on my Spotify playlist Top 10 Best Dance Songs of All Time.