Some say hardstyle was 2014’s biggest dance music trend, while others claim, at least for EDM, it was the year of Melbourne Bounce. But neither holds a candle to another pattern: mainstream producers claiming to go “underground” or “indie.”
These two terms aren’t interchangeable, of course. “Underground” implies exclusiveness into a metaphorical club populated by minimal, downtempo styles. “Indie” is that vast, ambiguous void between what gets to the tops of the Beatport and Billboard charts and what appeases your average Brooklyn hipster pretending to go to a warehouse party at Verboten.
In this sense, going “indie” indicates a producer is rediscovering his roots. Take Steve Angello, whom many long-time dance music listeners consider a mainstream scourge. If you can recall, the guy that was once one-third of Swedish House Mafia used to put out decent dance music a decade ago. Tracks like his remix of Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” with Laidback Luke or collaborations with Eric Prydz might have captured what was trendy at the time, but at least there was variation, rather than the interchangeable sounds his trio put out since the late ‘00s.
Angello seemed to realize that the progressive house sound SHM pushed was starting to get lame, so in February 2014, the producer stated he would make an “indie” album. He claimed it’s “not an attempt to create pop or hit songs, it’s straight music.”
As well, Angello pushed this agenda throughout the year, and in November, he told Mixmag that he’s been getting his Size Records artists to put together tracks for the club, rather than a festival atmosphere.
About this approach, he said, “Some of them think I’m evil! We have an artist right now that’s getting really big and is being offered lots of festivals and I said ‘Listen, your next tour is a club tour’ and he was like ‘F–k that I don’t want to do a club tour’ and I was like ‘You’ve got to. We’ll do it small. 150 people, great soundsystem, no LEDs, just back to basics.’ Now he’s actually getting more excited about because it’s something different!”
Angello’s back-to-basics attempt caught the attention of other big-name producers. Steve Aoki claimed he would begin producing deep house under a different moniker, while Tiesto already took the plunge with his Club Life sets. Similarly, Afrojack and Calvin Harris looked back at the styles that made them popular in the first place, while others like W&W and David Guetta dabbled with hardstyle, still an “indie” sound on this side of the pond.
Yet not all efforts were equal. So looking at the mainstream-to-indie year in review, how do these tracks stack up?
David Guetta & Showtek – “Bad”
Perhaps the most prominent, “Bad” is what happens when a house producer who’s been on a five-year mainstream high collaborates with a duo that churns out generic hardstyle-influenced house and wants a bigger profile.
“Bad” is a track that seems to benefit both parties without doing much at all. Yes, listeners bought it, Guetta now seems like less of a pop music cash grabber, and Showtek have another Beatport chart-topper under their belts, but for all intentions, it’s dull piffle that rests on the strength of a high-pitched vocal line – no hardstyle or house present.
Verdict: An all-around failure, except for where money is concerned.
W&W and Headhunterz – “We Control the Sound”
W&W shot to headlining status less than two years ago with “Lift Off,” an aggressive trouse oeuvre that indicated trance isn’t dead but is moving in a different direction. And in an era in which the bland, vocal-driven, major key stuff of Anjunabeats and Armada is the face of trance, W&W were a much-welcomed change of direction.
With hardstyle gaining popularity, it only made sense to blend the heavier beats and repetition of W&W’s variety of trance with Headhunterz’s versatile production. Hardstyle purists have been complaining since “We Control The Sound” came out over the fall, but the track exemplifies effective genre-blending.
Verdict: It’s EDM and it’s not, and it’s a much-needed kick for mainstream trance’s lassitude.
Tiesto – “Back to the Acid”
Acid house made a comeback this past year, and everyone, including Tiesto, jumped on the bandwagon. But these days, there’s no trend Tiesto won’t try out (Indie pop! Deep house! Dirty Dutch!) and acid house fell into his grubby grasp.
Being mainstream doesn’t have to mean a producer’s put out god-awful music, but “Back to the Acid” couldn’t decide on what it wants to be: An EDM interpretation, an homage to 1989, or something completely different. No one knows, and this track’s so boring, you’re likely to not care, either.
Verdict: “Back to the Acid” is why long-time dance music fans think all EDM sucks.
Calvin Harris – “Slow Acid”
Calvin Harris established himself as an electro-trance-synthpop hybrid powerhouse with I Created Disco and Ready for the Weekend, and then “We Found Love,” 18 Months, and $66 million annual earnings happened.
Yet if Harris’ name wasn’t attached to “Slow Acid,” the track wouldn’t have garnered so many negative reactions, from “What happened?” to “Why is Calvin Harris attempting acid house?”
“Slow Acid” alone is a gradual, winding homage to the original house music subgenre without appearing dated nor getting bogged down in modern EDM clichés, like “Back to the Acid” above. The swinging, downtempo feel, an updated but not directly EDM production style, and creepy, dirty quality (that is, before you watch the music video) make it kind of an enigma.
Verdict: More of this version of Calvin Harris, please.
Laidback Luke – “Bae”
Laidback Luke saw his profile concurrently rise with electro house’s popularity, and he exemplified mainstream talent at the time: someone who had come up DJing in the clubs and who could put out a decent track.
Yet that Lil’ Jon and Steve Aoki collaboration practically destroyed his credibility. “Bae,” in a sense, is damage control. Fitting in with the future house style pushed by up-and-comers like Tchami and Oliver Heldens, it does what electro house used to do: seem legitimate while appealing to mainstream audiences.
Verdict: It’s a case for allowing more fluidity between mainstream and “underground” styles.
Afrojack & Martin Garrix – “Turn Up the Speakers”
As a David Guetta protégé, Afrojack came up into the mainstream in the same way: riding on vocal-driven house tracks and ignoring his origins. “Turn Up the Speakers,” his collaboration with Martin Garrix, appears as an effort to bring his electro style to mainstream audiences, but what results is a half-baked Dirty Dutch track.
Verdict: Afrojack, we know you’re trying, but Nicky Romero, Quintino, and Chuckie do it better.
Steve Angello – “Wasted Love”
For all of the producer’s talk, “Wasted Love” feels like Swedish House Mafia, part II. The track keeps it light and melodic driven with the synth lines and rests on the strength of the vocals, but as far as not going “pop” is concerned, Angello misses the mark.
Verdict: Try again.
Axwell Λ Ingrosso – “Can’t Hold Us Down”
Steve Angello may have distanced himself from the remaining two-thirds of Swedish House Mafia, but Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso seem to have a better idea about what going in a different direction means. “Can’t Hold Us Down,” with its six minutes and vocoder instead of vocals, dabbles with more traditional dance music elements, but it’s not a spectacular track. Rather, it seems to be more of an understated introduction, telling audiences to wait for something better.
Verdict: Not mainstream, but not especially memorable.
Porter Robinson – Worlds Album
From coining his own sub-subgenre (“Complextro”) to saying he hadn’t ever been to a club before his first DJing gig, it’s kind of easy to hate Porter Robinson. But the producer prodigy pulled an Avicii-like move with Worlds, his debut album that came out in August. It’s not EDM, and it’s not traditional pop music, although it resonated enough with audiences to reach No. 18 on the Billboard 200. Rather, tracks like “Sad Machine” and “Flicker” maintain an upbeat, euphoric quality that hints at Complextro’s incorporation of chiptunes.
But much like True last year, Worlds feels like a hard push for the prominent producer to do something different, but in the process, Robinson crams too much in and has a grand vision that hits a middle ground.
Verdict: Mediocre experimentation that’s neither clichéd nor fully innovative.