Digging through the contemporary dance-punk canon of the early ’00s, it’s pretty easy to bridge a few characteristics back to the ’80s glam-metal party, but only at the most basic of levels. For example, the musicianship of both eras is pretty undeniable, but the cock-of-the-walk swagger—stylistically in both hair and riff—can often get in the way, ultimately resulting in a sort of vapid lump of gloop that feels absolutely fucking immovable years later. And that’s really what has made both of the scenes more fascinating in hindsight—they now feel fossilized, their sounds capturing the radio-ready zeitgeists of their respective decades.
None of this is to say that those American Apparel playlists of the ’00s were chock-full of drivel. Dance punk had so many microiterations, each scattering out from a greater aesthetic like the shreds of an exploding firecracker. Hot Hot Heat frontman Steve Bays, for instance, views his background in underground hardcore—where it’s common to be in three to four bands at a time and throw a house show on a Tuesday—as his passage into the decade’s early dance-punk clique. He hoped to temper the high-strung intensity and pretension of hardcore but still keep the audience charged: “I thought it felt way more punk rock to add melodies at the time. To put out an album that was energetic and dancey and—I hate this word—poppy seemed like the most bizarre thing to do in context.”
It’s no secret the faddish screamo-hardcore scene of the late ’90s got brooding and volatile enough to warrant some lightening up. Moving into the new millennium, the doleful synths, white belts, and blast-beats representative of kindred Southern California labels like Three One G and Gold Standard Laboratories began getting traded in for spirited synths, white belts, and disco beats—and a sashay that owed way more to The Make-Up’s Ian Svenonius than it will probably ever realize (see: Orchid becomes Panthers). Once the contemporary dance-punk era really began to dig in its heels—like with the release of Hot Hot Heat’s 2002 debut full-length Make Up The Breakdown—it symbolized a warped confluence of bygone hardcore kids tipping their hats to the OG dance punk and post-punk renaissance of the late ’70s and the styles orbiting the era.
Gang Of Four’s 1979 debut Entertainment! is one of the undoubted pillars of dance punk, what with Andy Gill’s gnarled, shattered guitar chords cutting at rhythms and Dave Allen’s bass lines strutting confidently around melodies. In combination with the exasperated sass of Jon King’s vocals, the funk elements of tracks like “Not Great Men” and the almighty “Damaged Goods”—not to mention that hot, stunted disco-beat rhythm on “Return The Gift”—were aped plenty by not only the ’90s D.C. scene but also contemporary dance-punk bands like The Rapture (more on that later). But outside of the burgeoning English post-punk scene, so much more of late-’70s/early-’80s music can be heard in the hype machine of the new millennium’s first decade: the power-pop panache of Cheap Trick, the Krautrock thrum of Can, the glam of T. Rex, the alien aura of Bowie, the no-wave experimentation of Liquid Liquid, the theater of Sparks, and the forward-thinking electro of Kraftwerk.
Can a rudimentary timeline better illustrate dance punk’s short gestation period? Perhaps. The stretch between 2001 and 2005 felt so poignant in the genre’s rise, fame, and glut—especially as it happened right alongside the hotter-shit garage-rock revival—that its arc seems most easily defined by its watermark albums (and singles). A small but potent sample of the dance-punk canon is provided below so that you can fondly remember a time when keyboardists were coveted punk musicians and too much of everything—from T-shirts to drum sets to lead singers—came in extra small.
All dates are for albums’ or songs’ U.S. releases unless otherwise noted.
Kind of a curious place to begin because the trippy hypnotics and Funkadelic worship of Brooklyn’s hard-to-pin-down !!!—pronounced “chk chk chk” or “pop pop pop” or whatever the hell suits you, really—were enigmatic and slightly out of step with dance-punk up-and-comers who preferred New Order and never bothered with any low end whatsoever. Out on the aforementioned taste-making Gold Standard Laboratories imprint, !!!’s self-titled full-length debut digests more now like a gateway drug, predating the scene’s blockbuster releases.
Frontman Nic Offer desperately tries to sex you up with smoky, drowsy vocals as horns and funk guitar work in unison to lacquer a heady vibe atop the disco floor. The album’s grooves are slooooow burns, because time is never of the essence when you’ve got a good roll happenin’ on that hi-hat. The winking Offer has cleared out plenty of room to shimmy around on a track like “Hammerhead,” while “KooKooKa Fuk-U” layers on additional percussion, adding confetti to its choppy rhythm. !!! is one band from the era that has kept at the grind uninterrupted, and maybe its early role as a disco-funk outsider was helpful in that they had a personality.
Totally unconcerned with easygoing subtlety like !!!, Omaha’s The Faint mostly orchestrates bloated mega-synth jams injected with adrenaline. Instead of feeling lured to the dance floor, you were mercilessly drawn to it like a bird being sucked into the engine of a Boeing 757—and then impelled to move just to keep in rhythm with the shaking of your own skull. The glitz of The Faint, though heavy-handed, attracted those who not only bowed to ’80s acts like Depeche Mode and The Cure but also stylized punks who could simultaneously appreciate a strobe light and a collage of cutout art.
The glitchy, high-sheen synths on “Glass Danse” swirl into a frenzy, eventually burning out to make way for Todd Fink’s gloomy vocals. It’s actually much less complex than it sounds. The Faint love the theater on Danse Macabre, and they’re able to spin tracks with titles like “Let The Poison Spill From Your Throat” and “Your Retro Career Melted” into electro-loaded dance punk that was likely better remembered more for the night out than the songs themselves.
Looking back, Vancouver’s Hot Hot Heat was more of an indie-rock band that grew up within dance punk’s breeding grounds—and the band was happy to take advantage of the toys and styles at its disposal. Playful keyboard-heavy melodies, smart serrated guitar riffs, giddy bass runs, and tactful, cracking nasal vocals defined the scene’s sudden rise. Thanks to Make Up The Breakdown, Hot Hot Heat was once Sub Pop’s biggest selling band since Nirvana. Bays admits:
It’s funny because we were doing the synth dance-beat thing a lot. By the time Make Up The Breakdown came out, we we were trying to figure out how to get away from it. With Elevator we were like, ‘Oh, man, dance punk is so over.’
“Talk To Me, Dance With Me” begins with a basic tinny guitar riff and a cowbell rhythm (the prevalence of cowbell in the scene probably deserves its own minifeature). The track immediately has a hint of danceability, showing off one of Hot Hot Heat’s skills: teasing the jam. Eventually cutting in are the lyrics “You are my only girl, but you’re not my owner, girl,” which no doubt felt plenty clever at the time. But the band’s cleverness mostly lies in how unafraid they are to snatch away a groove—just for 20 seconds—and reintroduce it with new layers added and a redefined hook. “Bandages” includes an off-kilter reggaelike breakdown that’s totally similar in purpose.
Like its contemporaries in Liars, The Rapture was a little more daring. The Rapture’s debut full-length, Echoes, embraces the primal parts of dance music, often focusing, like Gang Of Four, on minimalist rhythms and percussive funk elements; all the while, driving guitar riffs and skronky sax operate independently of the mass. Frontman Luke Jenner—a self-proclaimed record-collecting nerd with a penchant for music history—says he wanted to break sound apart, not unlike the way The Jesus & Mary Chain did on Psychocandy in playing underneath a wall of feedback.
You can do different things and deconstruct without trying to willfully be noise. In The Rapture, the bass and drums were always first, so the guitar would be percussivelike. Everything was more about the rhythm section.
Jenner then explains that he really just wanted to put some energy back into music, that he missed having an era when people did something at a show (he references “dudes like Kid 606 just looking at screens on stage”). The most popular Echoes track, “House Of Jealous Lovers,” features a nearly minute-long intro of a bare disco-funk rhythm before the bass finally kicks in, giving plenty of time to get an audience charged waiting for Jenner’s screeching voice. The slicing guitar hopscotches along with the rhythm but never becomes a focal point—nor do Jenner’s vocals—as the starkness of the track becomes its actual hook.
Franz Ferdinand, “Take Me Out” (U.K. release: January 12, 2004) vs. The Killers, “Somebody Told Me” (March 15, 2004)
Two singles that defined the era’s popular presence, “Take Me Out” and “Somebody Told Me” competed for MTV airtime during the first half of 2004 (with honorable mention going to Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”). The former comes from a posse of Scottish upstarts who somehow played to the “authenticity” of the dance-punk genre via a perfect, crisp disco-dance rhythm, stand-still posturing, and flat-out perfect single-ready guitar lead—with props to a grainy, sepia-toned, steampunk-influenced video that works theatrically without ever feeling stodgy (kind of like how Sparks has always operated).
The Killers somehow felt more a part of the Billboard machine, their Las Vegas glamour combining with Brandon Flowers’ know-how in playing to the camera with wistful facial expressions. Unlike “Mr. Brightside” before it, “Somebody Told Me” is tricked out with big-club synth and a chorus bass line that’s got some legit funk jog to it. The concept for the video is nothing special—more like a “Let’s put everyone in the desert with a big video board, that’ll be cool” idea—but the luster of The Killers, from Flowers’ extra-Jagger-like moves to bassist Mark Stoermer’s dead, glossed-over eyes, augments the mega-single so well you don’t even have to pay attention to what’s happening around the band.
“D.C. had a rep for being lead-footed, and I think we were consciously trying to mix things up and get people in the crowd moving,” explains Chris Richards—then Q And Not U frontman, now pop music critic at the Washington Post. And so with its third record, Power, the Dischord three-piece pushed and poked at its sound, morphing from 2002’s more tempered Different Damage to incorporate the era’s key elements: keyboards, falsetto vocals, and disco rhythms. Richards says the band was more courageous about opening up to experimentation, as they devoured more and more disco and funk music—he makes specific mention of Parliament and Funkadelic and D.C. radio program Jammin’ Oldies—and fully committing to the Purple One.
Prince was a huge influence for us, and a lightbulb went off that no one was trying to sing like him—I wanted to go all the way with that. I ran my vocals through a Boss octave pedal to give it more body. We were emboldened by Dirty Mind. That record is really rickety and raw, and at that time we weren’t afraid to go for it.
Existing within the D.C.-punk incubator that produced Fugazi, The Make-Up, and The Dismemberment Plan—each of which sports its own distinct dance and funk flair—Q And Not U was no doubt more consumed by living up to the city’s lineage than worrying about its contributions to contemporary dance punk. But the jive to a track like “Wet Work,” with its skipping and crystalline guitar line, hot-and-bothered vocals, and percussive ornamentation, blends in so well with the period that it’d be a shame to overlook. The energy of Power feels authentic and raw, because Richards and the others were so giddy to explore and create what he describes as “three one-man bands on stage.”
With loud blown-out bass and barreling rhythms, Death From Above was the Lightning Bolt-lite of dance punk—the bass just wasn’t a mutant nor was the masked drummer. While The Rapture let tracks simmer and percolate, the duo of Sebastien Grainger and Jesse Keeler kicked in doors with over-the-top, bravado-loaded riffs and sinister, sassy lyrics augmented by seething vocal gasps (you know the kind). The sound ultimately felt pretty one dimensional, which explains their initially short life span—though they did reunite in 2011 and released a full-length, The Physical World, in 2014.
When Keeler accents with the offbeat, as he does during the chorus of the album’s best track, “Blood On Our Hands,” the disjointedness of the dance beat becomes unusual enough to make you stop and consider it—which is more than you can say for much of The Faint’s catalog. At its core, the track is typical of the rest of You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine—a dance-punk album title if there ever was one—and Grainger’s cascading vocals being pulled along with the thwarted bass melody make the track stand out.
James Murphy didn’t exploit the elements of dance punk, he’s just far more of a mastermind than your average haircut at altering them to fill theaters rather than 250-capacity clubs. Already a honcho of DFA Records—the label that repped The Rapture, Black Dice, The Juan Maclean, and Hercules And Love Affair, to name a few—Murphy captures that same eclecticism in LCD Soundsystem, only with enough subtlety and fine-tuning to ensure the cut doesn’t lose its mass appeal. In short: He gets to eat the cake, too. Tracks are given long fuses to enable tribal percussive experimentation à la the aforementioned Liquid Liquid (“Too Much Love”) as well as get-downs of gnarly, glitchy, swooping electro (“Yeah”). Out in 2005, LCD Soundsystem feels like the culmination of what the ’00s scene had produced prior—as Murphy also indulges off-the-beaten-path interests.
Cheeky and so darn clever, “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” is an apt opener because it features a fearless Murphy chewing the scenery from the get-go. With the thick, twangy bass line chugging alongside a beat that should require play from a drummer wearing black sunglasses and a Mick Jagger lip flourish, the track seethes with the kind of vibe you find at a packed back-alley, windowless club at 3 a.m. It’s a blast and you feel fortunate to be in on the tip. Murphy sweats out lyrics in the falsetto-hot chorus like he’s grooving along to it too hard between takes in the studio. He sets the stage for the record by basically suspending 100 disco balls in the span of just over five minutes—and not batting an eye in doing so.
Evidenced by the bands that never stopped existing (like !!! and The Faint and Franz Ferdinand) and those that just couldn’t help but reunite—LCD Soundsystem disbanded for what seemed like five months, not five years—the early-’00s dance-punk scene resonated enough to tap into the nostalgia quotient today. Hot Hot Heat, for example, was catapulted forward by Make Up The Breakdown, and now as the foursome’s calling it a day some 14 years since that album’s release, its footprint no doubt feels so much more significant now for the band than it did on the day it dropped. Add that to another reason why albums like Echoes and Power still hold up: Some bands wanted to get people to move without pandering to them—thus subconsciously redefining the genre while it was still developing.