What makes some techno songs “bad”? The same things that make songs bad in other genres — a lack of originality or creativity that results in artists using the same old tropes and tricks to create a hit with as little effort as possible. For techno music, that usually means synths that swell and beats that plod along predictably before exploding erratically for 10 seconds just before some big drop, a cheap tactic to make people think the music has changed when all the DJ needs to do is turn all the volume knobs up to 11. There’s plenty of bad techno music, and there’s plenty of good techno music, but these tracks fall somewhere in between by wasting their potential with lazy songwriting and lousy production value.
1. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” by Bob Dylan (Messengers Remix)
I know this song would be good without techno music, because I’ve heard it. This is but one hilarious example of one of the most confounding trends of EDM culture — remixing old classics. Sure, it might work fine when artists build upon an old P-Funk groove or repurpose an 8-bit video game soundtrack from yesteryear, but when artists start rejiggering heavily lyrical acoustic tracks by Bob Dylan, remix culture has gone a few steps too far. The riff and beat added aren’t particularly bad — they just don’t make sense. Does anyone really wish they could dance to Bringing It All Back Home-era Dylan?
2. “Spastik” by Plastikman
Richie Hawtin, aka Plastikman, released “Spastik” in 1993 but remains relevant to EDM culture today. Perhaps that’s thanks to his obvious knack for polyrhythmic, unpredictable beats — a skill that’s on full-display here, as this eight-minute track consists of little more than subtly morphing drum solos. Or rather, drum machine solos, using a synthetic, often tinny effect that gets tiring far quicker than an actual drum would. If “Spastik” were produced today, the percussion might have a richer sound, but as is, it quickly becomes a chore to sit through.
3. “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” by Skrillex
Dubstep is built around a production technique that sounds like an overextended electronic fart, overproduced and distorted with enough bass to make ravers head bang as well as twirl their glow sticks. Skrillex, aka Sonny Moore, has deservedly become synonymous with this obnoxious EDM subgenre, which thankfully seems to be falling out of style. “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” is as repetitive and relentlessly aggressive as your typical dubstep song, but I must admit the central synth riff is pretty damn great and uplifting. It’s just the context I hate.
4. “Big Fun” by Innercity
Undoubtedly a major milestone in electronic music (even if it’s not a particularly good song), “Big Fun” was techno’s first introduction to the world of popular music, sneaking a pulsing dance track into the charts based on the strength of a female-sung hook. “We’re having big fun” isn’t the catchiest of hooks but it works well enough, along with the tinkling keyboard solo, but every time those synths fade in over the lyrics, it’s difficult to take the music seriously. It just sounds as though technology wasn’t ready to create an all-electro track in 1988.
5. “Strings of Life” by Rythim is Rythim
The song is called “Strings of Life,” so why are the song’s orchestral flourishes immediately drowned out by the typical overblown synths as the song builds up around one minute into its overlong seven-minute runtime? The propulsive piano and strings lay a solid foundation within that first minute, but this pioneering techno track from 1987 doesn’t do anything interesting with them. Points for not sounding as horribly dated as most ’80s techno tracks though.
6. “Take You” by Wildfire
There’s a crucial line between good and bad techno music, though it’s difficult to tell where it lies with some songs. “Take You” begins with what I consider to be good techno music — ambient while still being interesting, engaging without being overwhelming — before descending into a messy haze of overproduction it seems all EDM songs are required to have. The synths swell and the beat intensifies, and “Take You” becomes another overblown mess rather than seeing the value of restraint, even minimalism, in electronic music.
7. “Give It Away” by Penthox
Lots of techno songs start with perfectly passable vocal melodies, and then undermine them using the typical production tricks. The vocals in “Give It Away” are dreamy and laden with heavy emotion, the sort of melodic ballad you wouldn’t mind hearing a dozen times a week on your local hit radio station, but they’re unfortunately only present in between the familiar synthed-up breakdowns. I’d like to see the strong vocals put to better use in another context, but to Penthox’s credit, his breakdowns are spare and distinct enough to make me bob my head in spite of the wasted melody.
8. “Don’t You Worry Child” by Swedish House Mafia
It’s all about the vocals when it comes to Swedish House Mafia, whose songs coast on the strength of their heartstring-tugging melodies rather than trying to do anything adventurous or unusual with their music. The hook is easy to sing along with and could have been a good starting point for a fully-realized vocal track, but instead it does nothing more than service the same buildup you’ve heard in every other song on this list.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf
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