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20 Best Chicago House Records

In honor of the legendary Frankie Knuckles, the 20 greatest singles from the booming movement he helped create

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Nearly every variation of the untz played in today's festivals and clubs owes something to the recently departed legend Frankie Knuckles, the DJ and producer who helped foment the early, classic version of house in Chicago. But Knuckles wasn't the only influential producer in this era, which spanned the Eighties and early Nineties. Here's a look at 20 essential Chicago house records – by Knuckles and others – that serve as required listening for any devoted student of dance music.

By Arielle Castillo, Geeta Dayal and Keith Harris

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Frankie Knuckles presents Jamie Principle – “Your Love” (1987)

Principle's original recording of "Your Love" was already more lush, more conventionally tuneful, more European than what other Chicago producers were constructing at the time. Knuckles, who'd been showcasing the younger musician's tracks in his DJ sets, only enhanced those qualities on this reworking. "Your Love" is built from contrasts: Smooth washes of synth blanket harsh minimalist arpeggios, a sneaky bass figure creeps below a dominant snare boom, and the indefinite yearning of the vocal seems to express a desire for both sexual ravishment and emotional companionship.

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Phuture – “Acid Tracks” (1987)

Phuture was a trio comprised of Earl "Spanky" Smith, Herbert "Herb J" Jackson, and most famously, Nathaniel Pierre Jones, better known as DJ Pierre. "Acid Tracks" was Phuture's most famous creation, and one of the most legendary tracks to emerge from Chicago's house scene. "Acid Tracks" was a radical departure from the more soulful house sound championed by producers like Larry Heard. The bizarre, skeletal 11-minute epic elevated the rubbery "acid" timbres of the Roland TB-303 synthesizer to bold new heights; the track's overtly electronic, futuristic feel made it seem like a transmission from outer space. When the late DJ Ron Hardy debuted the track at his Chicago club, the Music Box, the crowd went wild, and dancers dubbed the mysterious tune "Ron Hardy's Acid Track." The name stuck. "It's a sound no one's heard before," Pierre recalled to The Independent in a 2012 interview. "It's not a piano sound, it's not a string sound, you don't know what it is, you just think that sound is Acid."

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Liz Torres feat. Master C & J – “Can’t Get Enough” (1987)

Early house wasn't just a boys' club. Torres' early tracks bridged the sensibilities of house, synth pop and strains of Latin freestyle to bring a fresh female and Latina sensibility to the genre. Later strains of diva-house started with throaty celebration anthems like this.

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Frankie Knuckles feat. Jamie Principle – “Baby Wants to Ride” (1987)

A masterpiece of S&M transcendence. Not even Prince (a clear vocal influence) ever plunged into such a delirious confusion of the erotic, the spiritual, and the political.

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Adonis – “No Way Back” (1987)

Adonis was 19 years old when he made the dystopian classic "No Way Back," one of Chicago house music's most iconic tracks. "No Way Back" was a smash hit for the Trax label; according to some estimates, the single sold over 100,000 copies. The lyrics —"Release my soul / I've lost control / Too far gone / Ain't no way back" — seemed to perfectly encapsulate the feeling of being lost in music with no way out. Adonis' cold, minimalist vocal delivery — no ornamentation, or obvious emotion — made "No Way Back" sound effortlessly cool, and utterly terrifying. The stripped-down track, devoid of extraneous flourishes, still sounds ruthlessly modern.

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Screamin’ Rachael – “Fun With Bad Boys” (1987)

Born Rachael Cain, Screamin' Rachael wore a series of influential hats, from being a recording artist, to heading the influential Trax Records, to being an early adopter of "hip-house," the sub-genre that featured rapping over dance music decades before David Guetta. Listen for some of its rhythmic seeds in this 1987 track co-produced with Afrika Bambaataa.

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DJ Pierre – “Box Energy” (1988)

"Box Energy" is one of those tracks that clued-in DJs and producers speak of in hushed, reverent tones. Several electronic music legends have tried to create their own versions of the tune, most famously Aphex Twin (under the alias AFX), who did a sped-up remix in 2001. "Box Energy" has no vocals — just waves upon waves of disorienting Roland TB-303 "acid" basslines pinging back and forth like rubber bands over a bass drum and the occasional snare. It's a concentrated laser beam of energy that seems powerful enough to melt dancefloors, foreshadowing Pierre's later excursions into his radical "wild pitch" concept in the early Nineties.

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Fast Eddie – “Acid Thunder” (1988)

Fast Eddie Smith was a pioneering house DJ with radio shows on Chicago's WGCI and WBMX, and his track "Hip House" would later pioneer the oft-disparaged dance-rap style of the same name. On this earlier track, he made the most of the modulated Roland TB-303 bass squelch dominating house at the time, making it clear why they called it "acid." Acid thunder may not be as corrosive as acid rain, but its ominous enough to cause the timid to take shelter from as the vocals cry out "Your kind of lovin' is stormin'" in ecstatic terror.

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Lil Louis – “French Kiss” (1989)

For all the pseudo-romantic flailings of contemporary EDM diva anthems, it's hard to match the raw sexiness of this track, whose vocals came courtesy of Shawn Christopher. But Louis also stretched house's characteristic build-ups to their most dramatic extreme for the era. "French Kiss" is one long, drawn-out crescendo to a climax — get it? — and it hits an almost techno-like, robotic trance.

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Virgo Four – “Do You Know Who You Are?” (1989)

Not to be confused with Marshall Jefferson's Virgo alias, Virgo Four was the collaboration of Eric Lewis and Merwyn Saunders. "Do You Know Who You Are?" is the graceful and uplifting opener on their remarkable four-track debut, released in 1989. An ebullient synth keyboard line ripples over a buoyant beat — party music to play as the sun comes up.

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Frankie Knuckles – “The Whistle Song” (1991)

Knuckles at his most angel-hair delicate, seeming to soundtrack the latest moment possible in the longest night imaginable. An ambient synth wash and feather-brushed cymbals provide just enough structure for an electronically modulated flute to roam carelessly, its open-ended abandon suggesting, in the best possible way, that its melodic improvisation might go on forever. The synthetic chirp that joins in, and gives the song its name, suggests and inspires a spirit of camaraderie that's jaunty but never corny.

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Cajmere – “Coffee Pot (It’s Time For the Percolator)” (1992)

Curtis A. Jones ditched grad school in the early Nineties, returning from Berkeley's chemical engineering program to Chicago, where he establishing his own label, Cajual, and began producing under the name Cajmere. The electronic burble here, adorned with a synth whine and whipped into shape with a snare thwap, might first suggest Pac-Man squooshes if the voice repeating the subtitle didn't remind you what was brewing. Neither as far out nor comically dark as the meta-commentaries on club life Jones would release under the name Green Velvet, but the playful ingenuity of "Coffee Pot" helped spearhead the second wave of house in Jones' hometown.

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