Electronic dance music (or EDM, as wikipedia calls it) encompasses a broad spectrum of genres all brought together by the common element of being produced electronically. EDM spans from boring and repetitive to ground-breaking and avant-garde. A lot of people are into EDM these days, for a number of reasons: it’s used in clubs; pop music has taken an electronic angle in recent years; EDM is great for background listening; EDM is addicting. A lot of people listen almost exclusively to EDM, and I disagree with that habit. As good as electronic music can be, it just isn’t good enough.
To explain my issues with EDM, I must first divide it into categories. This is no easy task, on account of the vastness of the genre, but with the guidance of this nifty website, the subgenres I’ll use are:
House is the pop music of EDM – it is catchy, repetitive, and simplistic. Examples of house music are David Guetta, Deadmau5, and Daft Punk. This is a basic house song. People will talk about how a group like Daft Punk revolutionized the genre of house, but comically, all any of these guys are really doing is taking a sample and playing it about 100 times to a steady drum beat (don’t bother mentioning Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack, it isn’t house music). There’s no use trying to justify house – it is club music, plain and simple. It is made so you can make a fool of yourself on the dance floor to it. Anyone that listens primarily to house is really no better off, musically, than someone who listens to purely pop music.
Trance is probably the “most listenable” type of EDM, because you could be listening to it for hours and not know when one song stops and another one starts. Household trance artists are DJ Tiësto, Armin van Buuren, and Paul van Dyk. Like house, it is designed to sound appealing, and it is essentially never going to deviate from musical techniques that produce that sound. However, the difference is that trance, in going for the “you are on drugs” ethereal vibe, will frequently go beyond the very calculated, structured nature that house lives and dies by. While trance is clearly still dance music, it is superior to house due to the fact that it is dynamic. Take Tiësto’s Adagio for Strings and compare it to Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger. Catchy and wildly popular as the latter song is, Adagio for Strings has much more depth. Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger is quite literally doing the same thing for 4 minutes, and Adagio for Strings has some form of musical adjustment occur at least ten times throughout the song. This comparison is basically how one can easily state that trance is better than house.
Techno is a bit difficult to explain, as the commonly understood “techno” often bleeds into the other subgenres of EDM. For the purpose of differentiating it, I will cite artists such as Jeff Mills (one of techno’s founders), The Prodigy, and Scooter. Techno is the first of the EDM genres so far that really implements dissonance. It comes across as something like “industrial” EDM. It is abrasive where house is bouncy and trance is chill. While it continues with the standard 4/4 dance beat that the aforementioned genres employ, techno will take some unusual musical liberties that you never see in house or trance. An example would be Spitfire, by The Prodigy. With the heavy hitting guitars and drumline, there’s no denying that it sounds quite different from what’s been covered so far. It is hard to say whether techno is better or worse than trance, any more than you could say if industrial is better or worse than hard rock.
Breakbeat is where things start to get interesting. Genres like house and trance generally use the standard “four on the floor” beat pattern, and breakbeat does not, tending toward polyrhythmic beats. Breakbeats are employed all across EDM, so it is hard to take an artist and say “this is breakbeat, and nothing else.” To give a general idea, I’ll suggest Bassnectar, Freeland, and Freestylers. “Do You,” by Freeland, is a simple example of breakbeat. Breakbeat is inherently more complex than “standard” EDM, but it’s relatively hit-or-miss in quality, regardless. Just because the beat is shuffled around doesn’t make a repetitive dance song less repetitive or more original.
Jungle is characterized with high speed breakbeats, usually generated from the amen break, as well as a decent amount of auxiliary sampling. It is arguably the spawning point of Drum ‘n Bass (which sounds fairly similar to jungle, until you reach more progressive derivations), and includes artists ranging from The Dream Team and Andy C to the more contemporary Pendulum. Andy C’s song, “Origin Unknown,” is almost cookie-cutter Jungle. That it is also cookie-cutter DnB is why people often consider them the same genre. In my opinion, jungle is more original with breakbeats than other genres in EDM, and more artistic in general. Just take a song like “Welcome to Europe,” by Squarepusher, and compare it to “Push Up,” by Freestylers. Squarepusher makes Freestylers look like house music. All in all, if uptempo EDM is what you’re after, the fairly clever genre of jungle/dnb is a secure way to go.
Hardcore is quite simply ridiculous. Anyone looking for an example of uptempo EDM gone wrong can find it in groups like Altern 8, Dune, and Party Animals. This is rave music, and it is the most obnoxious thing to come out of Europe that isn’t Aqua. Here is an example of hardcore, try not to kill yourself while listening to it. Moving on to better genres…
Downtempo is easily my favorite subgenre of EDM, and there is no use in hiding that fact. It is not because it is my favorite that I say it is the best, but because it is the best that I say it is my favorite. Downtempo encompasses some fantastic and creative genres of music such as trip-hop (groups like Massive Attack), chillout (Boards of Canada), and ambient (Biosphere). It is amazing what a difference slowing the tempo of electronic music can make. Downtempo is more than euro club trash – it is intelligent. It is rich in musical experimentation, and the product is songs like Dayvan Cowboy, by Boards of Canada. Anybody who believes that EDM is limited to head-pounding “um PSSH um PSSH” beats would do well to get into this genre.
All that said, I don’t believe listening to EDM alone can ever provide the best that music has to offer, even if you only listened to downtempo. If music were to be described as a city, EDM would be a single building. This building would be very tall, to envelop all of EDM’s genres, but at the end of the day, it’s always the same building in the same place. This can be said of any genre of music, but rarely do you see anyone subscribe to a single genre as rigorously as fans of EDM tend to stick to theirs. The more you listen to something like trance, the more you’re just listening to the same rhythm over and over, and surely anyone could appreciate the merits of trying something completely different. As diverse as EDM comes across, it’s still a bunch of guys sequencing samples together on their computers, often very repetitively. Enjoy what EDM has to offer, but don’t limit yourself to it. (65daysofstatic is a good transition band)