Photo of Ultra 2016 courtesy of festival

We Reviewed All the EDM Number Ones That Nobody Has Ever Heard Of

From Bruno Martini and Zeeba to Cash Cash and Brian Justin Crum, these are the anonymous new stars of the post-Spotify world.

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05 April 2017, 8:03am

Photo of Ultra 2016 courtesy of festival

Many people have declared EDM dead (including our recent report from Miami Music Week). Squeaky Dutch synths and heavy drops have become the sole province of vodka-in-the-Camelbak knuckleheads and Marco Rubio jogger humanoids. Of course, there's more electronic music with mainstream crossover appeal than ever before—it just sounds totally different than it did when dance music stormed the charts seven years ago.

As EDM 2.0 outgrows festivals and frats and invades supermarkets speakers and film soundtracks, it's adopted a new house-trained demeanor. Nowadays, the prim electronic music most Americans encounter in everyday life is a gentle, melodic echo of its former roid-rage excess. This sea-change has swept in a new generation of chart-destroyers like the Chainsmokers, Kygo, and Flume, who specialize more in bubbly atmosphere and vocal manipulation than stadium-sized drops and hyper-masculine noise.

Beneath this upper crust of brand name producers lies a busy ecosystem of lesser-known artists cranking out endless iterations of the sound to feed the gaping maw of the market. The formula is simple, blending elements from house, pop, and trap—technicolor synths, soaring topline melodies, pitch-shifted hooks, and tasteful drums that won't distract you while you're running, shopping, cleaning, or having sex. Artists without mainstream recognition can make serious money pumping out these pleasant, anonymous grooves, which are swept up by million-plus follower Spotify playlists like DancePOP and Fresh Electronic. This sound is more of a comfort utility than a lifestyle identity, used in the same way as light and heat to create pleasant background environments. It's pretty, uptempo, and eerily devoid of any cultural specificity—universally accessible music that comes seemingly from nowhere.

Billboard's Hot Dance/Electronic Chart launched in 2013 in order to track what the publication described then as the "burgeoning dance scene," based on a combination of digital downloads, radio plays, streaming numbers, and "reported club play" according to a "panel of 140 club DJs." For its first few years, it mainly featured EDM mainstays like Martin Solveig, David Guetta and Kaskade. These days, while the Las Vegas mega-club titans still appear, a new breed of artist has taken over. Currently, the top 10 slots boast recognizable names like Chainsmokers, Calvin Harris, and Zedd—go lower, though, and you'll find relative obscurities like Illenium, Raye, Brian Justin Crum, Gryffin, CMC$, ALOK, Cash Cash, Bruno Martini, Zeeba, Sigma, Jonas Blue and MAX.

Hold up—who are these people? Is their music any good? Strap on your wide-brim porkpie hat and your deepest v-neck floral-pocket tee and join me as we explore the world of the most famous EDM stars nobody's ever heard of. You can listen to a playlist of all these songs below.

1. Starley - "Call on Me"

Chart position: #9
Spotify Streams: 23 Million

This song, currently at #9 on the chart, is sonic Zara. Not only does it sound like it was designed specifically to blare in the Spanish fast-fashion empire's storefronts, but it actually resembles the clothing sold there. Australian singer Starley's lumpy fusion of Ed Sheeran-esque acoustic guitar, Jack U-lite vocal effects, and a thumping house beat reflects the same kind of casual trend-hopping that defines Zara's design approach. It's the musical equivalent of those sheer mesh tops with extraneous zippers and leather patches favored by Instagram baddies worldwide. Sure, it's a little extra, but when you're wasted with your friends, who cares?

2. Bag Raiders - "Shooting Stars"

Chart Position: #15
Spotify Plays: 63 million
No modern pop chart is complete without an old song that's been dragged out of obscurity by an absurd meme. This time the honor goes to "Shooting Stars" by Australian synth-pop duo Bag Raiders. It's an inoffensive chillwave ditty originally released on their 2010 self-titled debut album, which reached #7 on Australia's ARIA charts and promptly sank into the depths. That's where it would have remained if not for this viral video, in which a man jumps off a bridge and lands in a field, his arms swimming in time to the song's spacey groove. The meme spawned dozens of copycat videos and propelled the song back into the limelight, proving once and for all that few forces in the universe are stronger than our thirst for lowest-common-denominator physical comedy.

3. Martin Jensen - "Solo Dance"

Chart Position: #18
Spotify Streams: 163 Million
To you, discriminating and informed consumer, tropical house is last year's pot roast. To Swedish producer Martin Jensen, however, it's a suckling pig eternally rotating on the spit at the global dance luau. Jensen is a wizard at postmodern social media marketing—according to his Wikipedia page, he "became a worldwide viral phenomenon on Facebook, because of his videos where he took funny sounds from other viral videos and made them into tropical house mixes."

These include "Tropical Duck Army", which is pretty funny, and "Minions on the new track!," which is kind of dark. When he's not setting 9GAG on fire, Jensen takes advantage of his massive meme-grown fanbase to peddle tunes like "Solo Dance," an infuriatingly chipper trop-pop morsel.

4. DVBBS and CMC$ featuring Gia Koka - "Not Going Home"

Chart Position: #30
Spotify Plays: 53 Million
One fascinating thing about this kind of music is how effectively it's been scrubbed of any identifiable reference points. EDM 1.0 was at least vaguely associated with a beach-ready, pill-popping, Ibiza/Miami lifestyle; EDM 2.0, edges sanded away, appeals to musical.ly-addled tweens, college-age festival-goers, action-movie-loving retirees, and everyone in between. The way producers pitch-shift vocals into rhythmic squeals of melody transcends language and borders. The end goal is universality, simple emotions writ huge in the sky like planets. Anyone can understand what the songs want to say. Done badly, it's pandering and forgettable—done well, as on this lush Lorde-ish pop gem, it's gorgeous, tender, and a bit scary. This is digital music at its most seamless, a man-machine fusion honed by algorithms we barely understand to fit snugly into our lives.

5. Jax Jones featuring RAYE - "You Don't Know Me"

Chart Position: #19
Spotify Streams: 100 million
Jax Jones sampled Booka Shade and M.A.N.D.Y's 2005 Ibiza classic "Body Language" for this threadbare secondhand fedora of a single. Living up to its name, "You Don't Know Me" is almost impossible to hear, let alone form an opinion about—it slips in and out of your mind, leaving only the vague sense that you're missing a big sale at Target.

6. Gryffin and Illenium Featuring Daya - "Feel Good"

Chart Position: #21
Spotify Streams: 10 million

These days it's not uncommon to find electronic musicians with unwieldy "Ill" pun names. I have a soft spot for ill.gates, an MPC-wielding steampunk with an active Patreon and an unending series of intricate burner haircuts. Sadly, cruel fate gave chart success not to this charming specimen but rather to the remarkably bland Illenium, who, according to Wikipedia, likes nature—"[it] keeps me centered"—and moved to Denver after seeing Bassnectar at Red Rocks. His favorite hobby? "Going to the movies."

Illenium's hit "Feel Good" is a collaboration with someone called Gryffin, whose press photo makes him look like a lost NPC from Grand Theft Auto. Their co-production melds stale EDM 2.0 tropes with a touch of snoozefest post-rock guitar, and is saved only by a powerful vocal feature from 18-year-old singer Daya (who also appeared on the Chainsmokers' 2016 hit, "Don't Let Me Down"). Her swooping melody injects some much-needed humanity into the mix through sheer force of will.

7. San Holo - "Light"

Chart Position: #24
Spotify Plays: 50 Million
San Holo sounds like the name of a Central Valley outlet mall or a line of Crate & Barrel earthenware mugs, but is in fact the up-and-coming Dutch DJ responsible for this perfectly adequate Flume bite. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but candy-paint synths and muscular drums set this one a few ticks above its competitors in the neutered trap category.

8. Jonas Blue and RAYE - "By Your Side"

Chart Position: #28
Spotify Plays: 143 Million
You may remember British producer Jonas Blue from 2016, when he was one of two people to release a tropical-house cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car." "By Your Side" proves that his impulses for weapons-grade kitsch are still operating at full force; I resisted its canned Cheez-Whiz strings and tinny drums until about the fifth time I heard it, when the delirious hook finally drilled through my skull and laid its larva deep within my weak and willing mind. Don't fight it. I promise you'll feel great. All Hail God-Emperor Jonas Blue.

9. Cash Cash and ROZES - "Matches"

Chart Position: #38
Spotify Plays: 4 Million
ROZES made her name with an appearance on the Chainsmokers' multiplatinum single "Roses." Here, she does her Florence Welch-meets-Hayley Williams dramatic yelling thing over production from New Jersey trio Cash Cash, who shoehorn Flume drops into the framework of a stuffy One Direction-style ballad. It feels ripped from the climactic scene of one of those sci-fi movies where teens in metallic bodysuits break out of a dystopian maze and make out in a zero gravity chamber.

Bonus points for the surreal lyric, "You're made of matches, and you burnt me to the ground."

10. Whethan featuring Flux Pavilion and MAX - "Savage"

Chart Position: #50
Spotify Plays: 15 million
Whethan's artist name sounds like a magically effective weight-loss product; his single "Savage" sounds like a series of belches from a lumbering elephant. Perhaps this is the fault of the vocalist MAX, whose throaty bray doesn't help this mess find its footing. Or maybe blame lies with Pavilion, the bleach-blond dubstep producer. In any case, the song's half-hearted attempt to fuse EDM 2.0 tropes with filthy low-end make it feel lost in time.

Sidenote—have you ever noticed Pavilion's eerie resemblance to Republican senator Lindsey Graham? Have they ever been in the same room together?

11. Alok and Bruno Martini featuring Zeeba - "Hear Me Now"

Chart Position: #43
Spotify Plays: 150 million
The award for best name goes to Bruno Martini, who sounds like a minor Simpsons character who opens a fancy cocktail competitor to Moe's Tavern. I wanted to love "Hear Me Now" purely on that basis, but it's sadly the worst thing on this list. Someone (Zeeba, I guess) croons over someone else's limp guitar strums (Alok? Martini? Who cares?). There's also a tepid kick drum and unforgivable Lumineers-core whistling for good measure.

12. Brian Justin Crum featuring Toy Armada and DJ GRIND - "Show Me Love"

Chart Position: #45
Spotify Plays: 33,000

This is one of the few songs on the chart keeping the torch alive for EDM 1.0, courtesy of fourth place America's Got Talent-finisher Brian Justin Crum. There's something charming and a bit sad about the way Crum unloads his fulsome tenor all over Avicii-era trance synths, pleading for Jersey Shore fist-pumps from a generation who've moved on to gentle swaying. It's not surprising this one barely moved the needle on Spotify. Ultimately I can't hate on this kind of schmaltz, even as I'm envisioning it playing faintly in the background of a 2011-era PUA training video where the instructor shows his followers how to run game in the lobby of a Hard Rock Cafe.

Ezra Marcus is on Twitter.

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