As much as dance music claims to go forward, trends sporadically look toward the past.
In 2008 through 2010, a handful of acts explored ‘80s synthpop sounds, but with a safer, slicker sound that might have been appropriate for Alphaville but too tame for a Depeche Mode album. Out of this group of artists (La Roux, Frankmusik, Little Boots, and Owl City on a mainstream level, and more indie acts like Dangerous Muse), La Roux never put out a follow-up to their debut, Frankmusik and Little Boots went more indie EDM, and Owl City couldn’t produce a hit that matched “Fireflies,” while Dangerous Muse, even though still regularly performing, never released a full-length album after their strong string of early singles.
This was followed by last year’s disco revival, that, beyond a Daft Punk single and an Avicii track, never fully materialized, nu-disco aside.
But with affinity for the ‘80s now behind (or living only through producers that still use analog equipment) and the ‘70s interest seeming so passé, the ‘90s are starting to have their mainstream moment.
While the ‘80s transitioned from upbeat disco to darker synthpop, gave us house, techno, and freestyle, and had DJs and synth players coexisting, the ‘90s was where house and techno began flourishing in Europe (and going out of style in the U.S., beyond raves and warehouse parties); saw synthpop disappear, particularly in the U.S., but develop into Eurodance; experienced the rise of U.K. Garage that developed into dubstep from the 2000s; and found a moderate balance between “authentic” and successful with electronica, which was popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
Along with subgenres that rose and fell, the ‘90s and into the 2000s shifted from synthesizers to producing and DJing, and if a vocalist had been added to a track, he or she was likely a house singer; think Paris Gray of Inner City, Crystal Waters, Barbara Tucker, and CeCe Peniston. With pop stars and singers about to break mainstream (think Foxes or Aloe Blacc) now being added to the top house tracks, this side of the subgenre has largely been forgotten on a mainstream scale.
So at least for the next year or so, which ‘90s trends have returned?
1. Genre Revivals
While older electronica performers are still kicking around, like John Digweed, Paul Oakenfold, and Richie Hawtin, Daft Punk managed to score a hit last year with Random Access Memories and “Get Lucky.”
Whether the success of this album and single means older electronica performers will get their time in the spotlight remains debatable, Random Access Memories signified a dual retro trend: An older act getting attention for being even more retro. And it seemed to work – but it just might have been a stroke of luck, pun aside. Considering the state of mainstream electronic dance music and the length of Daft Punk’s career, Random Access Memories ended up being in the right place at the right time. Should Daft Punk had put the album out in 2010, no one would have cared, as mainstream listeners were enamored with the “new” sound of David Guetta.
But while this electronica act may be experiencing another chapter in their career, U.K. Garage sounds started returning in 2013, both on mainstream and independent releases.
The glitch, synth- and drum machine-based quality, itself influenced by house and techno, saw its heyday in the ‘90s, evolved into dubstep over 10 years, and then returned as Future Garage more recently, as if to distinguish itself from the wub-wub-wub of standard dubstep tracks.
Capturing this older sound was Disclosure, who shot from being nearly ignored on the live stage at last year’s Ultra Music Festival to having a hit on the Billboard 200 chart. Settle and its singles “F for You” and “White Noise” reflect the analog-in-transition sound from nearly 20 years but pair it with modern vocals, and as something different but not too recognizably retro, it has been getting audiences’ attention.
While Disclosure, like Daft Punk, might have just gotten lucky from their modern interpretation of older sounds, the trend’s pervaded more independent releases, like Atlantic Connecticut’s The Limit EP, which we reviewed last year.
The SMOG records release was promoted as “future soul,” but its U.K. Garage influence is unmistakable, from R&B-esque vocals to the glitchy, jazz-tinged house production. At times, The Limit appeared at home with the post-dubstep trend and at others timeless with its blending of retro and modern sounds.
2. Can You Tell if It’s Progressive House or Eurodance?
Modern-day, mainstream house producers like to think they’ve evolved from the days of throwaway singles – a.k.a. Eurodance in the ‘90s. Although this new interpretation isn’t as formulaic, top tracks stick with a vocal-driven template that blends both house and trance sounds.
How the music gets promoted has changed, with progressive house producers having more of an active, visible role, instead of being secondary to the “face” of the group. Still, the quickly-churning approach, either from the short timeframe a track would have success in the ‘90s to the demands of social media today, means you have the rare gem amongst a bunch of same-sounding garbage.
And just like Eurodance produced groups that could make a couple of hits and have careers (think The Real McCoy, La Bouche, Masterboy, and 2 Unlimited in the ‘90s) or fade into obscurity almost instantly, progressive house producers end up having similar paths: a string of hits, or a single, definitive tune.
3. House singers get recognition
Back at last year’s Winter Music Conference, a panel featuring Barbara Tucker touched on the fact that house singers rarely get the attention they deserve. As a result, the rest of the conference featured an evening event focusing on house singers and included two vocalists (Tucker and newcomer Alexis Jordan) in the in the IDMA’s lineup of performers.
WMC and the IDMAs followed Jesse Saunders’ Pure House Music festival in Las Vegas’ Downtown, which included singers amongst the lineup of DJs and performers.
Still, with the exception of these instances, house singers appeared to be one trend that had long since passed, save for underground performers, like Khalid Rivera, or those flourishing under the mainstream, like Ultra Naté and Chris Willis. David Guetta once worked with Barbara Tucker, but had since shifted to working primarily with pop stars, as this served as his introduction to the North American market. Similarly, Benny Benassi, who worked with Sandy, Naan, and Dhani on …Phobia, began working with Chris Brown, Kelis, and Apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas over the past six years.
What 2014 brought, however, is renewed interest in CeCe Peniston, one of the more prominent house singers of the early ‘90s. Unlike contemporaries such as Crystal Waters, who puts out new music these days without much fanfare, Peniston appears on Markus Schulz’s latest album of original material, Scream 2, and collaborated with “Junior Sanchez” on “Without You.” While Peniston could simply be getting lucky, especially after not putting out a full-length album since 1996 and only releasing singles sporadically since then, Schulz and Junior Sanchez could be looking for singers that know how to blend with electronic dance music instrumentation, rather than ride along and skim on top of it, like many pop stars tend to do.
Schulz’s “Make You Fall” has a retro-modern feel to it. Unlike the crop of performers added to vocal trance music or pop house, Peniston’s voice glides amongst the trouse production, completing the overall texture but allowing Schulz to shine in the process. Frankly, both Schulz and Peniston haven’t sounded this good in a while, and if her inclusion signifies renewed interest in house singers, then bring it on.