By the late 1980s, the influence of various DJ-driven music scenes — from disco and house, to hip-hop and electro, to techno and industrial — were converging into what would become known as “rave.” Developing across the globe at clubs and underground events, rave was in full swing by the early ’90s, subject to controversy and heading in myriad sonic directions.
By decade’s end, the scene would give rise to sub-genres from drum & bass to IDM to happy hardcore, with the commercially successful tracks often garnering the “electronica” label. In time, the first superstar DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Sasha and Digweed toured the world, while electronic acts played major festivals and an underground phenomenon became part of mainstream culture. What happened in dance music at the end of the 20th century was essential in shaping the sound and feel of the 21st century scene — from international mega-festivals to local underground communities. This influence is celebrated on recent re-releases, like the fresh Agent Orange re-work of Winx’s 1995 classic “Don’t Laugh,” released last month via Nervous Records.
In that throwback spirit, we present 10 of the most essential ’90s rave hits. Given the profound number of hits released during the decade, it’s less a definitive list and more a celebration of some key classics, with “rave” intended as a catch-all for the artists who came up during the initial late ’80s and early ’90s movement, and whose work in the ’90s captured the essence of the decade. Now, let’s rave.
Winx, “Don’t Laugh”
1995 was a killer year for Josh Wink, with the producer’s output that year including “Higher State of Consciousness,” probably his best-known track, which in time became a staple of late ’90s dance floors. No less influential, though, is “Don’t Laugh,” which he released the same year under the alias Winx. At a time when DJs were becoming better known than the artists they played, creativity and flexibility in the booth were paramount. “Don’t Laugh” offers both: its hook is maniacal laughter that builds, bursts and repeats until you start to feel like you’re trapped in a funhouse. Last month, “Don’t Laugh” made a comeback via a new remix from New York DJ/producer Agent Orange that’s been picked up by superstars like Carl Cox and Umek.
Joey Beltram, “Energy Flash”
At its very best, a party will transport you to a fantasy world. Good DJs will make you lose track of time. Visual artists and lighting designers can trick you into believing you’re somewhere other than a ramshackle space in a desolate part of the city. It takes a lot of effort to accomplish that, but in 1990, Joey Beltram accomplished the effect on his own, in one song. “Energy Flash” is a truly transformative track, sucking listeners into a vortex with a big, bass-y whoosh and whispers of the word “ecstasy” before dropping them off into an alien realm. House, techno and acid house existed before the ’90s, but “Energy Flash” primed the crowd for the last decade of the 20th century, and remains a blueprint for how modern dance music should work.
The Future Sound of London, “Papua New Guinea”
In little more than 30 years of existence, The Future Sound of London has crossed genres in electronic music and influenced countless artists along the way. Their name may have sounded presumptuous at first, but in reality, it became an understatement. Take “Papua New Guinea,” from their 1991 full-length debut, Accelerator, which in many ways forecasted what was to come in dance music. The vocal sample is taken from the Dead Can Dance song “Dawn of the Iconoclast,” and in the years that followed, such ethereal, female vocals — typically favored by the goth crowd — became fodder for dance floor jams. (Check Messiah’s use of This Mortal Coil’s cover of “Song to the Siren” with Elizabeth Fraser on vocals for “Temple of Dreams,” and Utah Saints sampling Kate Bush for “Something Good.”) Rhythmically, this track is a precursor to breakbeat, which would gain popularity later in the decade. Plus, the track’s ambient intro foreshadows the direction that FSOL themselves would take with their 1994 album, Lifeforms.
Messiah, “Temple of Dreams”
Messiah’s 1992 hit “Temple of Dreams” is ‘90s dance music at its most bombastic. Its central vocal samples include a clip of Richard Dawson in the film The Running Man, asking, “Who loves you and who do you love?,” juxtaposed with Elizabeth Fraser singing, “Did I dream, you dreamed about me?” It’s a strange mix of references that could only make sense in the ‘90s, when sampling was still a fairly novel art form.
One Dove, “White Love” (Slam Mix)
Scottish three-piece One Dove existed for an all-too-brief moment in the early ’90s, releasing one full-length album, Morning Dove White, in 1993. In that time, though, the group was cool AF. Their first single, “Fallen,” initially came out on Soma Records, the label whose co-founders include the DJ duo Slam. Andrew Weatherall, who had DJed at the famed London party Shoom and produced Primal Scream’s landmark album Screamadelica, was a producer for Morning White Dove. These collaborators all come together on the brilliant Slam mix of One Dove’s single “White Love.” Weatherall/Sabres of Paradise and the band produced the track, then Slam came in and extended it to about 15 minutes. In the process, they built the sonic tale of a really good night out. It begins with early evening bliss, slowly building as you find the groove, then dissolves into ambience, coming to a dramatic pause before erupting into all-out, peak hour madness that lets up just long enough to allow you to you catch your breath before the pounding begins again.
Saint Etienne, “Cool Kids of Death”
Sorely underrated and quietly influential, British indie pop group Saint Etienne’s adventurous spirit was on full display in the ‘90s. Their 1991 breakthrough — a cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” — featured remixes from Andrew Weatherall and Masters at Work. Subsequent tracks would get treatments from the likes of Aphex Twin-alias Quex-Rd, Autechre and the Dust Brothers. Truth be told, however, the British trio could turn out a jam without much remixing involved. That’s the case with “Cool Kids of Death.” Taken from the 1994 album Tiger Bay, the track is an amalgamation of dance influences, from dub to techno to acid house. To people who only know Saint Etienne for pop songs, the track may seem like it came out of left field, but if you listen closely to their catalog, you’ll hear their deep love of dance music and experimentation.
Underworld had been kicking around since the late ’80s, but it wasn’t until 1994 that they solidified their sound with third album, Dubnobasswithmyheadman, which includes the beloved track “Cowgirl.” There were a lot of strange trends that surfaced in the ’90s, from jelly sandals to pacifier necklaces. On a much smaller scale, another ’90s-ism was country-inflected dance music, of which “Cowgirl” is a clever example. Here the influence is subtle, existing in the twangy synths that grow more pronounced after the track’s six-minute mark. That same year, The Grid (featuring Soft Cell’s David Ball) would take a more blatant stab at techno-Americana with “Swamp Thing,” which incorporates banjo into the otherwise-electronic track… but even that wasn’t as obvious as the 1995 worldwide dance hit “Cotton Eye Joe,” from the Swedish group Rednex.
Green Velvet, “Flash”
If you’re going to flash back to the ’90s, you can’t go wrong with the catalog of Curtis Jones. Straddling the worlds of house and techno with his monikers Green Velvet and Cajmere, the Chicago native spent the decade releasing tracks that would in time become classics of the era, from “Brighter Days” (with Dajae), to “Percolator,” to “Preacher Man” and more. In 1995, Green Velvet dropped “Flash,” which would become an anthem for multiple generations of club kids. “Good evening, parents,” it opens, before our narrator goes on to describe a few compromising scenes involving the “bad little kiddies.” The irony of this track is in how it’s aged: In its time, the scenarios sounded like tongue-in-cheek references to nightly news reports on those crazy ’90s kids and their weird dance music. The line “Camera’s ready, prepare to flash,” has come to mean something altogether different in the 21st century — which may be why “Flash” has stayed relevant, even garnering a new batch of remixes, including one in 2016 from Eats Everything.
Laurent Garnier, “Crispy Bacon”
Laurent Garnier’s career launched at legendary Manchester nightclub, The Haçienda, and rose in France along with the popularity of house and techno. By the time Garnier dropped “Crispy Bacon,” from his 1997 sophomore full-length 30, “electronica” had become a buzzword. Riding a line between the underground and mainstream, at its core “Crispy Bacon” is a techno masterpiece, with the original mix clocking in at nearly 10 minutes of bubbling heat. An abbreviated version of the track was also cut with a video from Quentin Dupieux, the French filmmaker known to electronic music fans as Mr. Oizo. It’s a wonderfully strange clip featuring a toilet that doubles as a record player and a speaker pulsing in a bathtub that illustrates the ‘90s connection between dance music and arty music videos.
Jeff Mills, “The Bells”
Emerging from Detroit’s now-legendary techno scene, Jeff Mills came to prominence as part of the collective Underground Resistance and has maintained an eclectic career that’s extended to film and fine art. In 1997 he released “The Bells,” a track that would become a techno classic. For anyone who assumes that the ’90s were all glitter and mad hatter outfits, “The Bells” is reveals another side. This is hard-hitting techno with a powerful beat that could kick even the most lethargic crowd onto the dance floor. It’s a relatively short track– the original version clocks in at under five minutes– and at 138 bpm, it packs in a lot of energy. Yes, “The Bells” will make you move, but it’s also tense and heavy, and sets the stage for what’s to come in the next century. After words like “rave” and “electronica” fell out of fashion, techno would continue to bubble underground. The sound that came to life in Detroit nearly two decades earlier would go on to influence subsequent generations of artists, who would add their own localized touches while building a truly global genre.