Project X Dances With History Via “Mixmag” And The BBC

Michaelangelo Matos | July 22, 2008 10:00 am

As part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Michaelangelo Matos breaks down top-ten lists from every genre imaginable. After the jump, he sifts through two lists of dance tracks picked by two different segments of the British populace:

Twenty years ago was Britain’s “Second Summer of Love,” in which acid house and ecstasy began to hit London club life and charge the charts with homemade variations on American house and techno records. Naturally, the British media has been celebrating. In particular, both Mixmag and BBC Radio 2 have caught the anniversary spirit by issuing a pair of Top 10s decided by their audiences.

To be fair, Mixmag‘s list isn’t tied to Second Summer of Love nostalgia, per se. (The magazine took care of that a few months ago with a cover package on acid.) Mixmag celebrated its 25th birthday with its May issue, which offered a Top 5 Tracks list for each of the magazine’s years in operation. The magazine then opened the floor for discussion, asking readers to submit nominations for the best tracks of its lifetime. The results were printed up front in the June issue:

Mixmag‘s Top 25 Dance Tunes of the Last 25 Years (reader poll, June 2008): 1. Underworld, “Born Slippy” (Junior Boys Own, 1994; reissued 1996) 2. Massive Attack, “Unfinished Sympathy” (Wild Bunch/Virgin, 1991) 3. Stardust, “Music Sounds Better with You” (Roulé, 1998) 4. Energy 52, “Café Del Mar” (Eye Q, 1993) 5. Prodigy, “Smack My Bitch Up” (XL, 1997) 6. Wink, “Higher State of Consciousness” (Strictly Rhythm, 1995) 7. Laurent Garnier, “The Man with the Red Face” (F Communications, 2000) 8. Liquid, “Sweet Harmony” (XL, 1991) 9. Faithless, “Insomnia” (Cheeky, 1996) 10. Tori Amos, “Professional Widow (Armand’s Star Trunkin’ Funk Mix)” (Atlantic, 1996)

There are few surprises here if you’ve followed dance magazines over the past few years, particularly in England. The dance canon, in many ways, is even more set in stone and immobile than the rock canon, with the second half of the ’90s generally seen as the music’s “mature” period, the way late-’60s/early-’70s rock culture is seen as that style’s peak before punk cleared a different path. Hence, Underworld in peak position–and showing up again on the list at No. 21, with “Rez,” the only artist to place twice besides Thomas Bangalter of Stardust and Daft Punk (“Around the World” finished 11th).

This may be the signature way in which dance culture differs from rock culture, in particular the modern rock Al Shipley writes about: they’re nostalgic for opposite halves of the ’90s. Modern-rock radio is a living monument to the lost promise of corporate grunge and alt; lists like this one genuflect at the moment when dance music seemed to have as much promise as rock once had–and when the music itself seemed bolstered by the idea. Two records in the Top 10 from the decade’s first half defined moments in the second half: “Café Del Mar” standing in for trance’s late-’90s global sweep, “Born Slippy” the biggest film soundtrack luck-out ever. (Ditto 19th-place “For an Angel,” by Paul Van Dyk, which like “Café Del Mar” came back even stronger five years after its release.) Broader-appealing four-four-driven genres–trance, techno, house–were approaching pop accessibility while digging deeper into their own stylistic grooves. Surely that largin’-it anthemic sheen pushed the likes of “The Man with the Red Face” and “Insomnia” and (yep) “Born Slippy,” because all these years later they all still sound dull to me. (Bring it.)

For all the Second Summer of Love’s place in U.K. pop lore, not many of its anthems made it into the Mixmag 25. “Unfinished Sympathy” came too late and isn’t really a rave record anyway (too slow), and beyond that only four records on the list could be said to fit into that period: “Sweet Harmony,” Jamie Principle’s 1986 house anthem “Your Love” (No. 14) and a pair of 1990 records, Orbital’s “Chime” (No. 23) and the Age of Love’s “The Age of Love” (No. 25)–and the latter rode in on Jam & Spoon’s classic remix from 1992 anyway. The only record prior to the Second Summer is exactly the record you’d expect, New Order’s “Blue Monday” (1983), which finished 15th and provided one of the few surprises of the list by not finishing Top 10.

“Blue Monday” also finished, surprisingly, out of the other dance-music Top 10 decided by the people–in this case, the listeners of BBC Radio 2, which has recently devoted a number of programs to its history. But as you might expect, the Top 10s couldn’t be more different: one was decided by the folks who purchase a monthly dance magazine devoted to the minutiae of club life and the other by a people who listen to the radio.

BBC Radio 2 Listener Poll: The Top 10 Dance Records of All Time 1. Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (Epic, 1983) 2. Donna Summer, “I Feel Love” (Casablanca, 1977) 3. James Brown, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” (King, 1970) 4. Rhythim Is Rhythim, “Strings of Life” (Transmat, 1987) 5. Alison Limerick, “Where Love Lives” (Arista, 1990) 6. Soul II Soul, “Keep on Movin'” (10/Virgin, 1989) 7. Fingers Inc., “Can You Feel It” (Jack Trax, 1988) 8. Inner City, “Big Fun” (Virgin, 1988) 9. S’Express, “Theme From S’Express” (Rhythm King, 1988) 10. The Charades, “The Key to My Happiness” (MGM, 1966)

(HT to SoulBounce)

This list is obviously more historically inclusive. Broader definition of “dance music,” too–one I agree with even if my basic impulses draw me to usually mean “post-rave” when I talk about the concept. But the interesting thing to me is that this list doesn’t begin with the Second Summer of Love, but ends with it–and that half the selections are fully of it. (“Keep on Movin’,” again, belongs more to the R&B side of things than the house side.) There’s also a marked difference in tone between the late-’80s stuff here, which is full of possibility, and the late-’90s stuff on the Mixmag list, which is fuller of power. One is embarking on something new, the other consolidating its gains. It seems that the BBC voters look back at the Second Summer of Love as a culmination, while the Mixmag readership sees it as the first step toward a culmination to come. I’m sympathetic to both sides, but I have to say I prefer the BBC list simply because the pre-rave records are completely unimpeachable.

Well, most of them. The real surprise of the list, of course, is the No. 10, a 1966 New York R&B obscurity that’s a favorite of Northern Soul fanatics. I’d never heard of the song or the group before seeing this list, largely because I shy away of diving into Northern Soul compilations, of which there are many–I figure I own enough Motown box sets I don’t listen to enough. (Northern Soul is essentially mid-to-late-’60s U.S. R&B tracks that heavily reflect the Motown blueprint and have been forgotten by all but the U.K. faithful.) But sometimes the collectors have a point. Hunting to find an MP3, I discovered one only via a dodgy Russian site–no thanks. I also found it’s on a compilation called Northern Soul Connoisseurs, and I heard it via the YouTube clip embedded here:

Is this really the tenth-best dance record of all time? It probably isn’t the tenth-best Northern Soul track of 1966, in all honesty. The real question is, who organized the get-the-vote-out effort it certainly took to place the song tenth? How many mailing lists were consulted? Was bribery involved? There’s simply no way a song this obscure somehow wound up on a list like this unless some serious ballot stuffing went on. (Has Obama hired them yet? Could he still?)

Still, the point was made–and made well. I like this song tremendously. As the YouTube uploader notes on the clip’s page, the thing keeps unfurling, big and broad and strong, for its entire just-over-two-minutes length. And the visuals definitely enhance the music, from slow-mo images of Northern all-night dancers going for it to the quasi-animated stills of producer Tom Wilson, also behind such other perennial Greatest of All Time records list honorees as “Like a Rolling Stone” and The Velvet Underground and Nico. Those are records I found and learned to treasure after seeing them on lists like this one. It’s good to still find some surprises left in the form.