It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call “Levels,” the career-making early signature song for Swedish superstar DJ Avicii, one of the most important pop songs of the 21st century. With its simple structure, booming hooks and soaring vocal sample, the song became a mainstream U.S. hit at a time that such EDM jams were still not generally considered potential crossover fare, proving the massive audience that already existed for dance music stateside, which would only get exponentially bigger in the years to come.
Though the song was copied — often liberally and explicitly — by hundreds of imitators to follow, the blinding shimmer of “Levels” never dimmed, even through years of exhaustive overplay. Like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” or any number of other iconic songs in rock and pop history, it remains the purest sonic distillation of a discrete moment in musical history, one that will never be watered down for anyone fortunate enough to have experienced it.
While Avicii — who was tragically found dead today (Apr. 20), at the age of just 28 — would go on to enjoy bigger top 40 hits, it’s the singular rapture of “Levels” that will undoubtedly soundtrack the late DJ’s introduction to the great cosmic rave in the sky, an anthem so naturally in tune with the most visceral forms of musical and physical connection that it absolutely should have the power to cross realms. Here are ten of the biggest reasons why.
1. It earned its full-length edit. The version played on radio that helped propel it to a No. 60 peak on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 2012 — excellent for a dance near-instrumental, though hardly reflective of the place the song held in ’10s pop culture — ran a scant 3:20. But for the full impact of “Levels,” all 5:39 of its full-length version was needed, with peaks that rose and crested throughout in near-perfect symmetry, as majestic as the mountains cartoonishly superimposed in the background of the song’s music video.
2. The ringtone-of-the-Gods hook. Like Orbital’s “Chime” or Darude’s “Sandstorm” before it, Avicii’s “Levels” uncovered a synth hook of unnerving simplicity and unthinkable potency. No math to explain this thing’s power: Trying to unpack the brilliance here would be like asking Keith Richards to explain why the “Satisfaction” riff still whips Boomers into a frenzy a half-century later. But it was epochal essentially from first listen, a hook that fills your head until it runs out of room, then seeps its way through your entire bloodstream and just keeps going. That it might not even be the most memorable refrain of “Levels” is about the only thing you need to know about the song’s greatness.
3. The clouds-parting break. After the synth melody and skipping beat drop get their first extended workout, the hook dissipates into a ghostly repeating echo and the drums drop out entirely, as the skies open up a distant voice appears to arrive from on high. You don’t know what’s coming, but you know it’s going to be big.
4. The euphoric vocal sample. No, Avicii wasn’t the first major DJ to lift Etta James’ inimitable voice from the 1962 R&B classic “Something’s Got a Hold on Me”: Colorado downtempo maven Pretty Lights got there back in 2006, and hell, even Christina Aguilera had resurrected the song just a year prior for the Burlesque soundtrack. But this was always the way the vocal was meant to be reappropriated: a heavenly siren’s call beaming down on the masses, a burst of sunlight after what feels like weeks of synth-storming.
5. The rising synth whistle on the second go-round. After “Levels” finishes off round one with the James sample, it gears back up for a second time through, virtually identical to the first time — except for a briefly burbling whistle sound that augments the hook at around the 4:10 mark, rising to the top of the song like carbonation in a glass of Coke. It sets the second run through apart, allowing the song to reach another… well, another level.
6. The title. Indeed, “Levels” doesn’t appear in the song’s lyrics — all two lines of them — but remains an inspired title for Avicii’s signature composition, which is very clearly all about elevation, in all of its many forms. The literal elevators on the single cover are a little on the nose, but forgivable — few songs this decade brought listeners higher.
7. It mashes up with everything. There was a two-year period after the song’s 2011 release where you could search “Avicii Levels [Random Contemporary Hit Song]” into YouTube and be all but guaranteed to get at least a couple results of amateur DJs trying to mash the songs up. Some of them worked better than others, maybe — a blend of “Levels” and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” was a particular fixture of star DJ sets for a while — but none of them sounded totally unlistenable, with the instrumental’s power always managing to carry the day.
8. It sounded amazing at festivals… It was a cheap crowd-pleaser for less-adventurous DJs, sure, but it still felt like a moment whenever whoever was spinning deigned to drop it — even though you knew that every time, the music was gonna be cut at the vocal break for the audience to belt it out entirely on their own. Needless to say, they were usually up to the task.
9. …But it also sounded amazing at weddings. What really made “Levels” such a special song was that it wasn’t just club kids and festivalgoers who were privy to its power — the thing crossed over to the most mainstream corners of American culture as well. (It was helped, of course, by Flo Rida’s eventual top 5-charting “Good Feeling” single, essentially a less-formidable hip-hop vocal edit of the Avicii banger.) In particular, there was nothing quite like hearing it emerge between Rihanna and Pitbull smashes at a wedding, a clarion call for the last remaining stragglers still nursing a drink at the bar or futzing with their appetizers to stop stalling and get on the damn dance floor already.
10. The sentiment. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love with dance music won’t need explanation as to why “Ohhhh, sometimes, I get a good feeling, yeah/ I get a feeling that I never, never, never had before…” is the exact sentiment to express at the center of an ecstatic 4/4 anthem such as this. But a quick extra second’s attention to the “yeah” at the end of the first line, tossed off by Etta after a pause as a sort of self-confirmation, like wow, this is really happening, huh? Listening to “Levels,” sometimes you couldn’t help but wonder.