Known for its emphasis on rhythm and the use of music technology and high levels of production, techno music is primarily instrumental in nature, lending itself perfectly to DJ mixes. However, many of the most popular techno pieces do include some vocals in addition to synthesizers, multi-tracking, hardware sequencers, and the steady, pulsing beat, usually provided by drum machines, that are the key factors in creating the distinct sound.
1. No UFO's (1985) by Model 500
The brainchild of techno pioneer Juan Atkins, No UFO's is considered by many fans to be one of the most important releases of the genre. With a hard-hitting bass line, strong use of percussion including cowbells, claps, and hi-hats, and insertion of reverbs, this marked the start of Atkins' legendary career as the first single of his newly founded Metroplex label. TIMEOUT London stated, "No UFO's was decidedly, defiantly different to the abundance of smoother, Chicago-style tracks of the time, making its weird, robotic grooves even more alluring."
As recognition of Atkins' contribution to the techno music world, he was awarded a lifetime achievement award by Detroit's City Council, alongside fellow Belleview Three members Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, befitting of someone who is fondly called "the godfather of techno."
2. Strings of Life (1987) by Rhythim Is Rhythim
When NPR was putting together its list of top techno songs, they reached out to top artists in the community for their picks. Label manager at Submerge and Underground Resistance (UR), Cornelius Harris in East Detroit, where the genre saw its earliest beginnings, picked Strings of Life, saying about it, "We're trying to find a place where we can do what we want to do and not be tied into other crap...techno actually served to be a very inspiring aspect of Detroit life, for the whole region actually."
It's how the piano bounces off the beats and the synth rises and falls throughout the piece that creates a musical effect that has inspired other artists like Harris as they developed, and continue to develop, their own unique sound.
3. Voodoo Ray (1988) by A Guy Called Gerald
This innovative piece draws on tribal rhythms and combines them with a psychedelic overtone that still resonates with listeners today. Hitting the UK Singles Chart, according to a 2005 interview in Mojo, the Rham! label ran 500 copies of Voodoo Ray that sold out in a single day. The guy called Gerald, Gerald Simpson, who was with 808 State prior to going solo, is considered an important house and techno influence, particularly in the London music scene. Mixmag and TIMEOUT London tagged this piece as one of the best, and it is easy to see why.
4. Chime (1990) by Orbital
British brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll credit the hypnotic vibe of Chime to the sampling of one of their dad's easy listening records with an Akai Sampler. The track is opulent, rich with sound, and offers a transcendent pulse that comes as a surprise given the brothers' claim it was recorded directly to cassette. The muffled drum synth gives is a defined energy over which muted instrumentations are laid, evoking a dream-like quality. LA Weekly cited Chime as being one of the best tracks in the techno world, and to the joy of Orbital fans, the pair close out most of their sets with this iconic piece.
Find 33 1/3 vinyl, among other selections, for purchase at Amazon for about $12.
5. Spastik (1993) by Plastikman
This tune, called out by Mixmag, credits Richie Hawtin, the man behind Plastikman, as another Detroiter who has greatly impacted the techno scene. From the start, spiraling through a densely complex, rhythmic adventure that plays over the heartbeat-mimicking foundation, it is equally haunting and daunting at the same time. To date, the song continues to be so riveting it has been sampled by the likes of Dubfire (of Washington DC-based Deep Dish), meeting with the same successes as the original.
6. Born Slippy (1995) by Underworld
Originally a B-side selection, after being featured in the movie Trainspotting for many fans of the film it was the initial introduction into the world of techno. Blossoming in its own right, Born Slippy was one of the pieces selected for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games Opening Ceremonies in London - as Underworld were chosen as the music directors for the event. The signature stream-of-consciousness raging by Karl Hyde and heavy use of reverb make Underworld's song a highly recognizable piece deserving of being a representative of the best of techno.
7. Around the World (1997) by Daft Punk
This Grammy nominated song in the Best Dance Recording category has become an anthem for techno fans globally. With a disco-worthy bass line and unique mix of sounds, Around the World may be one of the most accessible techno pieces for those not initiated in the music genre. The sound is infectious, the sampling familiar, yet the song remains unique within its context, including the Peter Frampton-ish talk box-style vocals. From Prawntail to Top Tens, this one is a winner.
Around the World is available to download at Beatports, $1.49.
8. Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites (2010) by Skrillex
Since coming on the techno scene, Skrillex has continued to impress both the techno-loving public and industry professionals. With multiple Grammy Award nominations, not to mention wins including the 2012 Grammy for Best Dance Recording for this best of techno song, Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites is the stuff of which both dreams and nightmares are made. From the fantasy-themed elements to the driving demonic drums, the aggressive pounding from the bass and kick drums, and delicate celestial refrains, its place among the elite of the industry's music tracks is as clear as the voice screaming "Oh, my god!"
9. Levels (2011) by Avicii
With VMA nominations for Best Electronic Dance Music Video and Best Choreography in 2012, in addition to a 2013 Grammy, MTV called Levels game-changing. Sampling the 1962 Etta James hit Something's Got a Hold on Me, Avicii blasted onto the charts as the single became multi-platinum in over 10 countries. The reverberating opening sets the tone for the piece that breaks out into a pulsating beat, leading into an arching bridge rendering Levels with a touch of melancholy that is quickly overtaken by the substantive rhythm.
Find Levels on iTunes for $1.29.
10. Go (2015) by Chemical Brothers
Anyone who is a part of the "Chemmunity" knows this electronic duo has a definite pulse on the techno nation. A 2016 Grammy nominee for Best Dance Recording, Go was featured during the Google 2015 I/O Keynote and in the Sony Need for Speed Gameplay E3 Trailer. The collaborative efforts of Q-Tip's vocals add to the depth and energy that is further lifted by the cascading musical waves of the synthesizers, jettisoning this catchy, dance-worthy piece right up there with the best.
Download Go on Google Play for $1.29.
A Nod to the Genre
Through the use of heavy syncopation, layering of synthesizers, and a variety of rhythm makers, sampling, loops, and multiple tracks, techno has created a strong foothold in the music world. While there are those that may argue the specifics, it seems to transcend boundaries embraced world-wide, as well as bridge the many styles of music from jazz to rap, disco to rock, and anything in between. Whatever and wherever the inspiration may be, it seems that techno music continues to do what it does best... lead everyone to the dance floor.