From its 1980s roots in black, Latina and queer communities in cities like Chicago, Detroit and New York, electronic dance music exploded in the 1990s, taking techno, rave, jungle and other permutations worldwide. But nothing exemplifies 90s dance music better than house, whose driving groove is the heartbeat of club culture.
He was everywhere, both the dominant force in the underground and the chart-topping sound of the day. And it transformed as it spread, creating countless styles. There was deep house, marked by dark moods and a soulful expression; gospel house, combining dancefloor deliverance with spiritual union; minimal house, blippy and supple, and that’s just to name a few. The house can be lean and slender or neatly arranged, leather-hungry or drift-loving.
The following list, presented alphabetically by artist, includes house tracks featured on our Top 250 Songs of the 90s, as well as those that didn’t make that count but are still crucial to the genre. These are the tracks that best defined 90s house, the ones that forever changed dance music and move us today.
Read Pitchfork’s list of the best songs of the 1990s here and best albums of the 1990s hereand discover our complete 90s package here.
Barbara Tucker: “Beautiful People (Underground Network Mix)” (1994)
Produced by Masters at Work, “Beautiful People” combines songwriting in the tradition of disco legends Gamble and Huff with the edge of ’90s house. The 1994 single topped the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs and will forever be remembered for Barbara Tucker’s vocals, which were sampled by Louie Vega of Masters at Work under his Hardrive alias and later used by Kanye West on 2016’s “Fade.”
But there’s so much more to the song than a single (admittedly powerful) line, as Tucker’s sassy, nostalgic delivery rides a wave of jazzy chord changes, exquisite high notes and throwback organ. ‘church. She has one of the most recognizable voices in house music: her soulful undertones, immaculate control and hint of indeterminate naughtiness are enough to draw even the most introverted wallflower to the floor. Working under his Hardrive alias, Masters at Work’s Louie Vega would end up zooming in on two particularly powerful measures of Tucker’s performance to create the equally iconic hit “Deep Inside,” a sleeker, more tracked cut from 1993 – out a few months later. before Tucker’s single – which was later to be sampled by DJ Rashad. –Ben Cardew
Listen: Barbara Tucker, “Beautiful People (Underground Network Mix)”
Jaxx Basement: “Fly Life” (1996)
While they would go on to make much bigger hits like “Red Alert” and “Where’s Your Head At,” nothing quite captures Basement Jaxx in headlong dancefloor mode like “Fly Life.” Released amidst a string of club-focused EPs, the British duo proved in the five years leading up to their 1999 debut album, it’s a harsh, insistent slice of sample-heavy disco house in the vein of “U Can’t Hide From Your Bud”; it stood out from the crowd with its incessant thumps and hair-raising vocal line that stretched wordless melisma into psychedelic flourishes. The “Brix Mix”, meanwhile, threw a vocal gruff ragga in the stew, proving the adaptability of house music and signaling Basement Jaxx’s impending post-genre future.–Philip Sherburne