It’s hard to believe that house music, once the most underground of sounds, has now been with us for a full three decades. What’s even more mind-blowing than the Chicago-born genre’s longevity is its nightlife dominance, a remarkable position for a sound that was birthed in clubs populated by the disenfranchised—namely, gay people of color—to find itself in. The explanation is simple: With its propulsive bass-and-drums framework and it’s metronomic, 120–something thump, it’s basically a synthesized, skeletal version of disco. And like disco, it’s really, really fun to dance to. Dig into the best house music songs of all time below—then, for more dance music, check out Reade Truth’s best techno songs.
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Best house music of all time
First recorded by Jamie Principle (hailing from—yep—Chicago), the “Godfather of House” Frankie Knuckles made the track famous with his slightly punchier version, still featuring Principle. The arpeggiated synth-line that introduces the track signals something special is about to happen, and over seven-and-a-half minutes it certainly does, marrying a heartfelt electronic love song with heady dancefloor bliss – something that so many house tracks strive for but so few achieve. It’s been covered and reworked by many, but Knuckles and Principle’s version is the one that has rightly gone down in dance music history.
The mechanical, acidic take on house that Adonis perfected on “No Way Back” in 1986 mixed retro-futurism with the spirit and soul of classic Chicago house, retaining more than enough funk in its lifeblood to fill any dancefloor.
Chicago-based production/vocal outfit Fingers Inc. may only have been active for a few years in the mid-’80s, but they released some undisputed gold during that time. Easily at the top of the pile is “Mystery of Love,” an epic, atmospheric vocal house journey that seduces the listener but also demands some dancefloor action.
This number from Chicago’s Lil’ Louis was one of the first house tracks to enjoy both considerable commercial success and heavy club airplay on its release. Even one listen to its infectious, unrelenting groove and orgasmic tempo shifts is enough to understand exactly why it got everyone so excited.
To those who regard electronic music as being devoid of emotion, we give you this staggering 1986 masterpiece from the saintly Larry Heard (under his Mr Fingers alias). The ultimate break-of-dawn anthem, the combination of butt-shaking low-end acid bass and bleary eyed synths make this more vivid than an acid flashback.
Its alternate title is “The House Music Anthem”—and sure enough, this 1988 party-starter sums up what the genre is all about. The thumping disco-derived kick-snare pattern, those hissing hi-hats, that banging piano, and most of all, its lyrics—“give me that house music, set me free/lost in house music is where I wanna be”—set the template for the hundreds upon hundreds of imitators that followed.
One of the few tracks to find a home at both house parties and hip-hop throwdowns, this Todd Terry–produced classic, along with the similar “Party People,” is his sampledelic masterwork. With a frenetic drumbeat underpinning borrowed bits and pieces from Malcolm X, First Choice, the Jacksons and Afrika Bambaataa (among others), the song title isn’t so much a question as it is a command.
Though its lyrical subject matter is just what the title implies—taking a little time out to shake the sheets—“Break 4 Love” has a moody, melancholy edge that takes it far beyond the sex-track realm. (Its distinctive, much-borrowed rhythm and bassline don’t hurt.) Fun fact: The song’s orgasmic moan is sampled from the scene in Airplane! where Randy is blubbering to Dr. Rumack that she’s never been married.
Helping pioneer the UK strain of Chicago-licked acid house with 808 State wasn’t enough for Gerald Simpson, who also recorded this seminal sizzler of a track on the side. Heavily influenced by the psychedelic side of house, ‘Voodoo Ray’ also utilised trippy, tribal rhythms, making for a multicoloured post-rave odyssey that still sounds deliciously heady today.
Based around a couple of simple but utterly hypnotic loops, “Chime” rang out Orbital’s floaty take on house loud and clear. It also soundtracked countless chill-rooms across the land as the perfect example of ambient-leaning dance music which still had enough of a pulse to dance to, should you be able to drag yourself off the bean bag.
One of Detroit techno don Kevin Saunderson’s housier, poppier moments—under his Inner City project with singer Paris Grey—also became his most well-known. With its unashamedly upbeat vocals and colourful ’80s synths all over the place, “Good Life” showed that dance music wasn’t all about heads-down raving in a dark basement club—it could also be (whisper it) happy, for no damn reason at all.
Those springy piano chords, those kaleidoscopic synth stabs, those driving beats… They just always sound great. Detroit’s Derrick May (working under the name Strings of Life here) might be a techno pioneer, but he arrived there by feeding Chicago house through a futuristic, funky shredder, epitomised by this timeless track. Back in 1987, it heralded the era of rave, it accelerated house, it sounded sublime then and still does now.
The house scene is about more than late-night revelry—traditionally, at least for committed house heads, part of its traditional allure lies in its commitment to an idealized world of peace and harmony. If you think that sounds hippyish, give this one a spin—we’ll wager that you’ll be ready to “walk hand in hand…and make it to the promised land,” too.
One of the finest example of how dance music could do more than just borrow hooks and melodies from pop, “Where Love Lives” went one step further. UK singer Alison Limerick’s rich vocal lines are layered over upfront house beats, creating the perfect crossover record, aimed right at the mainstream, but still retaining the dance music credentials of all involved.
In the mid- to late-’80s, the Windy City production unit Master C & J recorded some of the creepy-crawliest house tunes committed to vinyl, before or since. This 1987 release sees frequent vocalist Liz Torres intoning an eerie manta of the song’s title, while a despairing, lovesick narrator whispers a plea for relief that never comes. It’s as starkly elegant as house gets.
If you break it down, “The Poem” is a pretty simple number: There’s a wandering bassline on repeat, some swirling echoes, a floating-toward-heaven flute, and a bit of spoken-word heaviness courtesy of Mutabaruka (“dis poem shall speak of time, time unlimited, time undefined”). But that’s plenty—there aren’t many deep-house cuts deeper than this one. “The Poem” is hazy, late-night, dubbed-out perfection.
When they started mucking about with a Roland TB-303 synthesiser, Chicago trio Phuture (featuring DJ Pierre) probably didn’t realise they had stumbled across the squelchy, jagged sound of acid house—house music’s weirder, cooler, wide-eyed sibling. But they had and it sounded amazing. Released in 1987, “Acid Trax” was the first and fiercest of many early tunes that went on to shape the sound of rave.
Few, if any, UK acts managed to nail the sound of Chicago house like Manchester’s 808 State. Not only did they find the US city’s groove in “Pacific State,” they also stamped on their own inventive mark, via a hyperactive bassline and a wailing saxophone hook that shouldn’t work but absolutely does.
Hinged on an explosive loop of stuttering, multi-tracked vocals, this 1986 classic brought the thrill of robotic machine-funk to a wider audience after its release on seminal Chicago label Dance Mania. Those hypnotic vocal surges still send shivers down spines today.
Released in 2006, when house was being drowned out by the sounds of amped-up electro, the totemic figure of Larry Heard quietly dropped this magisterial piece of vocal-acid treasure. It’s been a DJ favourite ever since (for everyone from Ellen Allien to Julio Bashmore) thanks to its pulsing bleeps and plaintive vocal vibes.