As of April 6, 2014, at 10:47 p.m., the Top 5 singles and albums in the dance category on iTunes could not be more different, apart from superstar Avicii appearing on both. The two charts are a perfect reflection of a split in electronic music today.
The songs at the top of the singles list include the wildly popular “Turn Down For What,” the obnoxious “#Selfie,” Avicii’s “Hey Brother,” the overplayed “Animals” by Martin Garrix and Calvin Harris’ “Summer.” Sorry for the negativity right off the bat: I have, at some point or another, enjoyed listening to all three tracks I just criticized. However, the only times I have actually heard and enjoyed them was in a social or live setting. The formula works: Have a massive bass explosion at the drop, incorporate a Twitter-ready phrase just before the beat returns and use a simple, repetitive synth melody. Instant success.
None are really what you would call casual listening songs – ones that most people would not pick to listen to while doing homework, lying in bed or reading a book. That is, unless you can write effective essays while turning up (and falling through floors), in which case more power to you.
Just below the singles, the albums are almost a complete 180-degree shift. Aside from the Ultra Music Festival 2014 compilation (which is supposed to showcase songs from a live set), the music is more diverse, complex and typically melodic. At the top sits Skrillex’s eclectic “Recess,” accompanied by the latest, always reliable “A State of Trance” release from mainstay Armin van Buuren and Avicii’s first album “True.” Say what you will about Tim Bergling, but his debut was an intriguing, innovate step forward. There is a reason Pitbull decided to include acoustic guitar and harmonica on “Timber,” and it is thanks to tracks such as “Wake Me Up.”
However, the latest and best entry in the Top 5, at the time of this post being written, sits at the No. 4 spot: “Drive,” the end result of four years of work from Gareth Emery. What sets the album apart from other releases is that there are no “extended mixes” to be found. While every song could easily find its way to a club or festival, it was designed to be listened to in the traditional sense. The songs are carefully arranged to be enjoyed as a cohesive whole, as well as on their own. This makes buying the continuous mix a worthwhile use of money.
Musically, while every track sticks around the 128-130 beats per minute range, each has its own clear style and direction. Gareth seamlessly blends together synth-driven tracks with guitar, piano and beautiful vocals from a wide range of singers, including Gavin Beach, Bo Bruce and Christina Novelli, last heard collaborating on “Concrete Angel” and returning for “Dynamite.” The instrumental tracks are just as strong, relying more on progressions of textures and layers rather than a huge drop.
The most noticeable aspect of “Drive” is the emotion. Likely inspired by his cross-country road trip through the United States, combined with not featuring “that drop sound,” the songs are as much about the journey as they are the release. It is as contemplative as it is dance-worthy, the perfect blend of high quality musicianship and knowing what will get people out of their seats and moving to the beat.
This, to me, is the most striking distinction between Gareth and artists such as Martin Garrix and DJ Snake. Yes, they are all talented, craft memorable songs and throw down impressive live sets. However, the latter two are primarily focused on releasing a string of singles and remixes of said singles, all geared toward a festival-esque setting. There might still be some raw emotion present, but it is less focused, more surface level. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this strategy, it does at times make for some repetitiveness. Case in point: Compare “Animals” with “Wizard.”
On the other hand, Gareth Emery and his contemporaries, such as Kyau & Albert, dive far beneath that surface level. Not only can they build an impressive album, but they also consistently put on high-energy shows showcasing a variety of styles, from trance to more chilled-out house and back. They thrive off the rise and fall of the crowd’s energy and emotions, taking their fans on an adventure rather than just playing banger after banger, forgettable drop after forgettable drop. To me, this is a more enriching and memorable experience.
In the end, I will still rage hard whenever I hear “Turn Down For What” at a party. But years from now, looking back on this time, it won’t be those moments I remember. I will remember the time I pressed play for the first time on “Drive” and for a brief moment, left everything else behind. This is the music, for me at least, that stays with you, that means something; and I hope that I’m not alone in that.
Until next time: No retreat, no surrender.
Some other noteworthy songs off Drive: