As genre names go, EDM is about as vague as "indie." While it's useful shorthand for the post-millennial rave movement's superstar DJs and producers, it doesn't give much insight into the stylistic diversity of the music. Its artists may share an affinity for dramatic, wind-up builds and earthquaking drops, but there's still a world of difference between Skrillex's glitched-out mayhem, Diplo's baile-funk bangers, and David Guetta's big-tent trance.
Then there's Swedish producer Avicii, who essentially makes straight-up house music with an ear for the kind of universal, candy-coated pop melodies that his homeland seems to produce with astonishing ease. More than six months after its official release, his 2011 electro house anthem "Levels" is still gaining momentum as one of EDM's defining singles. Its apex arrives about halfway in when it halts on a beautifully optimistic but fleeting vocal hook. That moment, in which Etta James gets sampled, cut up and transformed into a glittery house diva, lends a life-affirming touch of humanity to the track's mechanical stomp, and it's a major reason why the song has found such a huge audience.
These moments appear to be something of a specialty for Avicii. His follow-up single, "Silhouettes", is a glistening progressive house number with guest vocals that recapture that all-too-brief endorphin rush on "Levels"-- and this time, those vocals run through the entire song. Lyrically, "Silhouettes" is an up-with-EDM rally cry, but musically, it's closer to the radio-ready dance cuts produced by current Swedish pop icons Robyn and Little Dragon. "We've come a long way since that day," sings guest vocalist Salem Al Fakir, as sparkling synths and pulse-like thumps build to a pupil-enlarging, major-key climax reminiscent of the Field, "and we will never look back." Here, the filter knob twists, evoking the aural sensation of a rapid ascent in altitude, before plunging sharply down a stomach-in-throat drop the size of the Kingda Ka.
If "Silhouettes" strikes you as more than a little cheesy, you're not wrong. I've sometimes wondered at what point I'm just listening to the modern equivalent of, say, DJ Sammy's "Heaven". But Avicii is one of the few artists from his world whose singles work as well for me in headphones as they do on festival stages, and his knack for balancing pure FM pop hooks with genuinely affecting vocal tracks makes his wide-eyed positivity an easy pill to swallow.