Cutting to the chase, these are what I consider the greatest trance songs of this decade, up until the end of 2008. Once 2009 starts to take form (and there are quite a few songs out now that are promising), I'll update the list. So anyone curious about what trance music is all about should definitely check out these songs. That is basically the gist of this tower of artist and song names. Of course, while this project was done very subjectively, I do find that most of the songs are those that have achieved stellar appeal inside the music world. Though in the spirit of personal opinion, several of my "favorite" songs may or may not be in this list, so believe me that coming up with this list was not done in a few snappy minutes. I compiled this list over the course of several days after playing old tracks, researching songs that I may not have heard before, all to gain perspective and to sift out the songs that didn't make the cut. Those not familiar with trance should realize that are literally several hundred tracks each year by hundreds of artists that have their debut, then either flourish or fall out in a couple weeks. This list hardly dents the surface with regard to the number of songs that are out there.
I could go on all day about why I love these songs, but I think for the sake of productivity, I'll just briefly describe each of the top 5. I may go back to describe a few others. But these songs are just a few of the reasons I love trance so much. Hell, it's not even a hobby, it's a passion.
Unless otherwise noted, the song names imply their original versions.
1. Solid Globe
- North Pole
No clichés in this, the top rated song. Solid Globe produced this tour de force in 2003, landing at #1 in Dutch dance charts for a time (highly unsual for a trance track, due to the more underground nature of the music), and not to mention basically elevating the prestige of trance music to a remarkable level. I feel it's hard to really to put into words, and doing so would fail to do this song justice, what North Pole does as a whole. But I'll give it a go. North Pole plays around with the old, early 1990s trance feel with a much stranger, new style of synth sounds. The song opens up with sweep sound rich in flanger and resonance (I know, what does that mean in layman's?) Basically, it makes the song sound, well, kind of "spacey", a word I normally despise using to describe trance, because it's so overused and lazy. Nevertheless, it may be appropriate in this special case. Just understand that it opens this adventurous track on the right foot. The bassline strums along as any trance song would, only it's more plucky, and is underlined by a vast number of percussion sounds. A hollow drum instrument breaks through every 4th measure or so, providing the song with a rather exotic tone. As the song goes to break, these spooky synth sounds enter, quickly followed by the skeleton to the song's melody heard in airy pads. Though as the song progresses, this only morphs into a sort of twisted hybrid of melancholy chords, sweep sounds (filtered white noise) that are completely in sync with the rhythm of the melody, and fierce supersaw synths. After the first breakdown, the song splits momentarily, going back to how the song started. The bassline beats along and keeps the flow of energy at a smooth pace. Then, something happens. A second breakdown! The second breakdown in North Pole is like a shocking encore. When that bassline builds up and the kick drum rushes in the melody once more, the massive blows hit ever harder, leaving anyone still recovering from the last breakdown with little chance to lose interest, and the mayhem begins anew. It in fact only makes the song even more dramatic and addicting. As the song then slows down for the last time, the melody tapers off after the second breakdown in a simple, melancholy chord progression, alone with a kick drum, that lasts an eternal 10 seconds. The song winds down even more, ending the way it began: with a plucky bassline and myriad percussion instruments. Yes, so that is North Pole. Every second of the song has something worth listening to.
2. Fictivision vs. C-Quence
Symbols may possibly be the epitome of epic, uplifting Dutch trance. It rendered international support after renowned DJs like Tiësto, Armin van Buuren, and Paul van Dyk promoted the song in their radio show mixes and concerts in the breakout year of 2003. This is one of those songs that can annihilate a dance floor. The melody, which hooks your memory in a short time, suddenly interrupts as the song's groove is in full force. During the breakdown, the brilliant melody echos to the left side of your speakers every other beat, building a tremendous atmosphere. Though both Bart van Wissen (Fictivision) and Joris van der Straten (C-Quence) collaborated on this, I feel as though Bart's influence is far more noticeable. The one bar delay between the reverse cymbal and a successive cymbal crash at each 16th measure, with a deep sub-bass filling the emptiness, is a common technique by Bart. The general bassline and synth sounds have that classic Fictivision feel as well (as evident in his other works such as Ringworld and Out of Orbit.)
3. Above & Beyond vs. Andy Moor
- Air For Life
That electronic music and vocals should join forces shouldn't be totally unexpected. In fact, the first song credited with being categorized as "trance" was full of vocals and belongs to the duo "Age of Love" in their self-named 1990 hit "Age of Love." Yet vocals in trance music are almost a secret and the songs that did contain vocals were often less about chorus lines and more used to expand the atmosphere. Since the late 1990s, vocals and trance have had a somewhat awkward relationship. Vocals could (and often did) poison otherwise wonderful tracks if ever the lyrics and vocal styles were, not to mince words, too cheesy sounding. To have the audacity to put vocals in a track meant realizing what could happen if done wrong. The brilliance of Air For Life was to maximize the intrinsic humanity in hearing voices and then provide a symphony of sounds as the ongoing backdrop. The intense, driving bassline to Air For Life has that Andy Moor feel while Above & Beyond, I would assume, provided the heavy lifting as far as vocals and pads were concerned. The person responsible for the lovely vocals is Carrie Skipper. And for those not in the know, a "pad" is simply a type of synthesized instrument used to have very airy and melodic sounds, sometimes imitating strings instruments or wind. And at any rate, this track hit all the right chords, pun not intended. There's a constant driving bassline contrasted by the more melodic and spiritual aspects to uplifting trance, a project that brought the best of both worlds into one amazing tune.
- Hello Strings
Hearing this song even just once, it's not hard to see its appeal. In the context of 2004, when the quality of trance (depending on one's point of view) was either cresting or breathing new life, this song became somewhat of a timeless gem. Like several of the others on this top trance list, the cliches of trance are dashed away in Hello Strings. Every element provided in this song promises an impeccable mixture of creative beat arrangements, inspirational chords, and tasteful basslines that should leave any musician envious. The original of this song, which runs a rather short-lived 11 and a half minutes (and the song is such a tour de force that they really do go fast without ever allowing a single dull break), opens with a melancholy melody, manifested in the sort of ambience that was seen in the early trance songs of the early to mid-1990s. This ambience is broken apart a minute inward, and the song's structure gradually comes to life. The rich use of reverb and delay effects on basically every sound could fill even a closet with vast atmosphere. The beauty of the central melody is suffocating, even if fairly simple, using orchestral synths that appropriately adhere to the song's name. The breakdown is accompanied by this and a groovy electro-bassline. Indeed, it's also a floor uniter. I imagine this to be the kind of song that would send shivers throughout my body as I look outward towards the vast night sky of New York, Philadelphia, or some other major cities.
5. Orjan Nilsen
- La Guitarra
There's a story behind this song. Norwegian producer Orjan Nilsen's brother, Ernst Ove Nilsen, passed away in December 2007. Perhaps Orjan could explain this best, "I made the melody as I closed my eyes and thought of the good times we had. So this melody has both a piece of me and him in it."
La Guitarra debuted in mixes early in 2008, no later than February of that year, and its consistent appearance throughout the year was highlighted by becoming one of top ranked songs of 2008, well used in starting up mixes with a light feel. La Guitarra works its magic in a few ways. By combining progressive and tech trance's capacity to produce sensible cacophonies and melodies to remember, La Guitarra has a flawless rhythm that is both energetic and relaxing.
To its detractors, La Guitarra represents everything that is wrong with the present trance scene, based on the accusation that it has been obscured with house music. Some of its harshest critics completely dissociate the song with trance at all. But for supporters of songs of the likes of La Guitarra, this one has become only another crucial shade of trance's underestimated and grand diversity, namely its consistent ability to stir emotions through melody and atmosphere through endless means. In the major break of La Guitarra, when Orjan Nilsen's melody in honor of his brother is strummed away on an acoustic guitar, it uses the unmistakeable component of trance music that is responsible for maximizing the unique timbres to instruments (such as guitars) by adding the surround sound effect.#6 to #80
6. Andy Moor & Adam White present Whiteroom
- The Whiteroom
7. Dréas Presents Havannah
8. Octagen & Arizona
- Solarcoaster (Midway Mix)
10. Mike Foyle
- Pandora (The Blizzard Remix)
12. Fictivision vs. Phynn
- Escape (Phynn mix)
13. Ralphie B
- Perfect Blue
15. Perry O'Neil
- Monkey Forest
- For You (The Blizzard Remix)
- Ode to '99
19. Lemon & Einar K
21. Cape Town
22. Matti Laamanen
- Viola (Armin van Buuren Remix)
24. Super8 & Tab
- Helsinki Scorchin'
27. Arizona vs. Passiva
28. Rank 1
- Phoria (Jorn van Deynhoven Remix)
30. Jan Johnston
- Flesh 2002 (Noel Sanger's 5AM repo mix)
31. Above & Beyond
- Good for Me (Above & Beyond Club Mix)
33. Nitrous Oxide
- Frozen Dreams
- Metaverse (Gareth Emery Remix)
35. Jas van Houten
- Heaven's Gate
36. Robert Nickson
37. Agnelli & Nelson
- Holding on to Nothing
38. Super8 & Tab
39. Mike Foyle
- Shipwrecked (John O'Callaghan vs. Mike Foyle Club Mix)
- Beautiful (Alt+F4 Remix)
41. Kyau vs. Albert
- Always A Fool
42. Jonas Steur
44. Octagen & M.I.D.O.R.
45. Filo & Peri
- CQ (Seek You)
47. Nu NRG
- Dreamland (Whirloop Remix)
- Ocean Rain
50. Mike Koglin vs. P.O.S.
- Untitled Audio (Nitrous Oxide Remix)
51. Li Kwan
- Point Zero 2004 (Matt Darey Remix)
52. Terry Bones vs. Fred Baker pres. Water Planet
- Introspection (John Askew mix)
- My Religion (Lange Remix)
- Volume One (Anjuna Deep Mix)
57. Mike Foyle
- Bittersweet Nightshade
- Purple Haze
59. Paul Oakenfold
- Southern Sun (DJ Tiësto Remix)
- Touched By The Sun (Envio's Sunrise remix)
61. Empirical Labs
- Turtle Beach (Outback Remix
62. Alex M.O.R.P.H. pres. Everest
63. Project Medusa vs. Exor
- Moonshine (Exor Mix Part II)
64. Signum - Come Around Again 
65. Jose Amnesia - Follow Me (Giuseppe Ottaviani Remix) 
66. Above & Beyond pres. Tranquility Base - Oceanic (Super8 & Tab Remix) 
67. Firewall - Sincere 
68. Kamil Polner - Heart Of Sun 
69. Simon Patterson - Smack 
70. Darren Tate - Prayer For A God 
71. Eon - Pocket Damage 
72. Thomas Bronzwaer - Certitude 
73. Witness of Wonder - Emotion in Motion 
74. Alex M.O.R.P.H. - Sunshine (Nitrous Oxide Remix) 
75. Motorcycle - As The Rush Comes (Gabriel & Dresden Sweeping Strings Mix) 
76. Three Drives - Sunset On Ibiza 
77. O'Callaghan & Kearney - Exactly 
78. Alex M.O.R.P.H. - Walk the Edge (Alex M.O.R.P.H. B2b Woody Van Eyden Mix) 
79. Thomas Bronzwaer - Resound 
80. Orjan Nilsen - Prison Break 
As this list was constructed, some of my expectations were met. The year 2004 was an especially standout year, as was 2003. Trance then just seemed to sound rather deep and melodic, leaving overly sugary-sweet songs at a greater distance than some other years. From 2000 through parts of 2003, trance was very focused on going an extra mile with sounds that were introduced in the end of the 1990s and expanding on vocal tracks. I would describe a mass proportion of trance from that little epoch to have been largely based on supersaw leads, arpeggiated chords to span a vast duration of the song, and 140 BPM type stuff. Just rather fast-paced and all about breakdowns with arm-raising melodies. It helps to mention that the "Gods of trance" (Tiesto, Ferry Corsten, Paul van Dyk, and Armin van Buuren) all had their heydays around this time. Yet, a lot of trance from 2000 to 2003 thrived on the more ambient aspects as well. Then the 2003/2004 period took the formulations behind 1998-early 2003 and breathed in a new life that was often deeper darker, more interesting, and naturally raised the expectations for trance.
What can I say about the time period past 2004? Well, progressive trance seemed to increasingly shift towards the influences of house music. So-called "uplifting trance" (which is a reference to a style which invokes arpeggiated chord progressions more than referring to a particular mood... trust me, lots of "uplifting" trance can sound rather anti-uplifting) was upward bound around 2006 after a bit of a lull in 2005. Trance in 2007 and 2008, as I said, really shifted towards a more house influenced style. So called "tech trance", which incorporates the overtly synthesized, monotonous sounds of techno into the basics of trance, skyrocketed. The tempo of an average song on one of Armin van Buuren's weekly "A State of Trance" episodes had slowed down considerably since 2003, just eyeballing the situation. Vocal trance was ubiquitous for a time and uplifting trance, save a few blockbusters that came around late 2007 and early 2008, had lost much of the originality and depth that it witnessed in the decade's earlier half. Needless to say, it alienated a vast number of people while still yet inviting another batch of people. It isn't unfair to say that trance was not nearly as interesting or original in recent history as it was between 2000 and 2004. As of February 2009, this trend continues, though my early thought is that trance has begun to shift once more towards more originality and depth.
OK, now go listen to those songs and come back telling me how much it blows pop dance music out of the water. :-)