Some dance music genres emerge from specific cities, the way dubstep came out of Bristol and house and footwork came out of Chicago. Future bass is not one of those genres. It's a sound that was bred online, in SoundCloud mixes and Spotify playlists, forged by young producers for whom the very concept of genre has become increasingly irrelevant. In a way, it's less of a genre than an end point for electronic music, because what comes after the future? Nothing.
However, amorphous though it may have been at its outset, as future bass has grown in popularity over the past few years, we can start to see the outlines of its form and trace its roots. The simple explanation is that it's a pretty, more chilled-out version of trap and dubstep, and some of its adjacent subgenres and jokier aliases — chillstep, lovestep, cutestep, dubwave — point to those origins. But you can also hear traces of glitch, IDM and the L.A. beat scene in its serrated synths and off-kilter beats, and the ghost of tropical house (R.I.P.) lives on in its blissed-out, poolside vibes. Dig deeper and you can even find relatively obscure genres like purple and wonky in its DNA. It's a mongrel of a genre, which is a big part of what makes it so interesting.
The term “future bass” has been floating around since at least 2009, but its breakthrough year was 2016, when Flume dropped his genre-defining (and Grammy-winning) second album, Skin, and The Chainsmokers cribbed from its most basic template — watery synths, midtempo beats, pretty (usually female) vocals, drops that lead to pop hooks rather than annihilating bass — for their insanely massive hit “Closer.” It was also the year that gave rise to masked DJ/producer Marshmello, who is to future bass what Tiësto was to trance — a toxically infectious strain that will probably spread the worst version of the genre like a pandemic.
This list is meant to serve as an introduction to future bass, not a definitive ranking of its best songs or most influential artists. Several of the best-known producers often associated with the genre — Porter Robinson, Mura Masa, NGHTMRE, Cashmere Cat — aren't included, while a handful of others seldom connected to future bass are (you'll see). My goal was to pick 10 tracks that both trace the genre's evolution and illustrate some of its most common elements — and that, more importantly, don't suck. If you're new to future bass, I hope these tracks will make you a fan. If you're already a fan — well, I'm sorry there's no Marshmello.
10. Disclosure feat. Eliza Doolittle, “You and Me” (Flume Remix) (2013)
Most agree that Australian producer Flume's laid-back rework of this Disclosure track is future bass's big-bang moment. Flume (aka Harley Streten) strips away the original's jittery U.K. garage beat in favor of a dramatic, strings-driven intro and a chorus that rides a buzzsaw synth line and a rolling, half-time beat. By employing the build-and-drop dynamics of trap and dubstep on a more chilled-out track, Flume laid the basic blueprint most future bass producers have been following ever since. He also, not incidentally, created one of the genre's best remixes.
9. Louis the Child, “From Here” (2016)
If Flume and Odesza were the first stars of future bass, the barely-out-of-their-teens Chicago duo Louis the Child represent the sound's next evolution. A track like “From Here” has all the classic elements of future bass — mellow vocals, trap/hip-hop beats and handclaps, playfully wonky synths — combined with a sophisticated melodic sense that's helping push the sound further into mainstream pop music. In fact, The Chainsmokers' “Closer” owes its future bass touches to Louis the Child's Frederic Kennett, who co-wrote the track — but don't hold that against them. Louis the Child's own tunes are way less douchey.
8. Joker and Ginz, “Purple City” (2009)
This track is more of a precursor to future bass than the actual thing, but I'm including it because it's an important touchstone in the music's early development. Bristol, England, producer Liam McLean called his gritty mutation of dubstep “purple sound” (a term he's since distanced himself from), and its combination of buzzy synths and slowed-down, hip-hop–influenced beats was a direct influence on numerous future bass producers, especially younger artists such as Denver's Gunskt and London's Digital Mozart, who sometimes bring a little more swagger and menace to their sound.
7. Odesza feat. Zyra, “Say My Name” (Ganz Remix) (2014)
Seattle duo Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight, better known as Odesza, have quickly become one of future bass's best-known acts, with a sound that's pretty and melodic without sacrificing any of that dance floor–igniting low-end whomp. “Say My Name” is one of the genre's most widely played tracks, with remixes galore, but Dutch producer Ganz's glittering take really stands out for the way it pumps up the energy with whooshing synths and a cleverly chopped and filtered spin on Zyra's sweet vocal.
6. RL Grime, “Reims” (2017)
The L.A. beat scene never really gets enough shine for its influence on future bass — but scan the playlists of most future bass DJs and you're likely to find more than a few tracks from Brainfeeder, New Los Angeles, WeDidIt and other Low End Theory–affiliated imprints. Among the artists on those labels, the one whose music provides the clearest link between the beat scene and future bass is WeDidIt's RL Grime, who found his own back door into the scene by juxtaposing pretty, almost ethereal melodies and pitch-shifted vocals with hard-hitting, trap-influenced beats as far back as 2011, when he was called Clockwork. Today, impeccably produced, anthemic tracks like his recent “Reims” point the way toward future bass's, um, future.
5. What So Not, “High You Are” (Branchez Remix) (2013)
Up until 2015, Flume was also one-half of What So Not, an awkwardly named but awesome duo with fellow Aussie producer Emoh Instead. Though Flume would go on to become the reigning king of future bass, the original version of this 2013 single is actually an electro-house track. It's the remix by New York producer Branchez, with its slow-rolling beats and skittering synths, that's become one of the defining anthems of future bass. (A shout-out must also go to Australian singer KLP, the uncredited deliverer of the track's killer vocal.)
4. Alison Wonderland, “Run” (2015)
Yep, here's yet another Australian getting in on the future bass action. To be fair, Sydney DJ/singer/producer Alison Wonderland doesn't operate strictly within the confines of future bass; her sets hopscotch across everything from trap and dubstep to house and garage. But many of her best singles, including this spacey, evocative jam, are prime examples of future bass at its most otherworldly.
3. Keys N Krates, “Are We Faded” (2014)
This Canadian duo are responsible for some of my favorite examples of vocal manipulation in the future bass genre, chopping and pitch-shifting their singers in such a way that the vocals carry the track's rhythm as well as its melody. They also get bonus points on this track for dropping in some drum ’n’ bass beats, giving a nod to another of future bass's many progenitors.
2. Major Lazer and DJ Snake feat. MØ, “Lean On” (2015)
Purists will hate that I included this track because it was a massive pop hit by two of EDM's most notorious style-biters. Just the fact that it was a massive pop hit will prompt some to argue that it's not really a future bass track, even though it has all the genre's characteristics, albeit with the addition of Major Lazer's trademark dancehall/moombahton lilt. But give credit where it's due: The success of “Lean On” inspired many a talented young producer to make their drops a little softer, their synths a little more melodic, their beats a little bouncier. Plus, it's just a way better song than the other massive pop hit that cribbed from the future bass playbook, The Chainsmokers' odious “Closer.”
1. San Holo, “Light” (2016)
If I had really wanted to end this list with a “definitive” future bass track that represents what's happening in the genre right now, I probably should have gone with something by Marshmello or Madeon or Porter Robinson, who have all brought the sound to festival mainstages by making it poppier and more anthemic. But I personally find all those guys to be varying degrees of terrible, so instead let's end it with a less heralded but rapidly rising star of the genre: Dutch producer Sander van Dijck, aka San Holo. His tracks are in the same verging-into-cutestep terrain as Marshmello's, but the best ones, like “Light,” manage to be gorgeous without descending into full-blown cheese. In the end, that's what future bass promises: a chance to vibe out on the dance floor to beats that are danceable but not bludgeoning, set to melodies that are sugary but not nauseating. If the genre's best producers can keep delivering that combo, the future looks bright, indeed.