The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #43: Levels by Avicii (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #43: Levels by Avicii.

As I write my way toward the end of this entire countdown, certain themes are beginning to stand out as being characteristic of the evolution of music over the past sixty years; one of the main themes being the impact of technology on the way music is created, shared and listened to by others.

For me it started with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. I can remember being dazzled at how innovative Brian Wilson was when it came to working with sound recordings to create the marvellous harmonies he made for the album, “Pet Sounds”. *(You can read about that here).

From there, we had the birth of sampling and how Hip Hop, in particular, rose to prominence in the music world. It was amazing to me how someone like DJ Shadow could create an entire smooth flowing, jazzy song out of fragments of pre-recorded sound, often fractions of seconds long. *(You can read about that here).

Once sampling became common practice, it wasn’t long until bands such as Radiohead or artists such as Beck, started using computerized technology to alter sounds in ways that allowed them to be repeated, stretched out seamlessly looped and so on. *(You can read about that here).

Finally, it was technology of a different sort….the synthesizer and drum machines….that helped launch the genre of Disco which, in time, evolved into the genre now known as Electronic Dance Music. *(You can read about how Disco started and how EDM is going, here and here).

As you can see from the last link, which was the incredibly popular EDM song, “Sandstorm” by Darude, Electronic Dance Music is engaged in a period of growing popularity. It is spreading beyond the boundaries of its genre and merging with other genres to create new, hybrid versions of music never seen nor heard before. In the case of “Sandstorm”, that crossover is with Classical music. In both cases, Classical Music and EDM both deal with sounds, as opposed to words/lyrics and so, they seem like natural musical partners going forward.

The further proof that we find ourselves in new musical times is the crossover success, from the world of EDM into the world of mainstream Pop, of Swedish DJ, Avicii. While there are many DJs in the EDM world who are “stars” there, it was Avicii who became the first crossover star and, as such, his importance to today’s current music scene cannot be understated. What Avicii had managed to accomplish in today’s world of music draws a direct parallel line to what Brian Wilson began a half century ago. Avicii was every bit the musical prodigy that Wilson was. Here is his story and why he mattered so much.

Avicii was born, Tim Bergling, in Sweden in 1989. As someone born in 1989, Bergling grew up in the world of the Internet, Social Media and the integration of technology into our everyday world. For many people of his generation, the use of technology dictates how they interact with their world. Life is less organic for people born in the last thirty years. That is not a good thing nor a bad thing but, it is a fact of life. When applied to music, it is just as easy to someone to make music using their laptop in their basement or bedroom than it was for people of my generation to pick up an acoustic guitar and strum away on the back deck. How technology is used today to create music is only limited by the imagination of the user. The whole of the world’s recorded songs and sounds are available online for manipulation and rearrangement. So, for that perspective, the emergence of Electronic Dance Music is much more than a simple trend that has a defined shelf life. Electronic music making is how it is done these days. And no one did it better in the 2010s than Avicii.

Avicii came to prominence as a Club DJ and had many hits while in that scene. The greatest of his EDM hits was a song called, “Levels”. In fact, there are many who consider “Levels” to be the most important EDM song of all-time because of how it came to represent the genre in the eyes of mainstream listeners. “Levels” opened the door for Electronic Dance Music, as a genre, to crossover into other genres; especially, Pop. The impact of this can be seen in this week’s BillBoard Top 100 list which has almost no traditional guitar/drum groups listed at all. Virtually every performer listed is either a solo singer or else, a group that makes their music using electronic technology. The fact that so much of today’s music is made using computer technology means that it is ready-made for delivery to consumers via streaming services such as Apple Music or Spotify, to be enjoyed on wireless earbuds.

Avicii proved to be more than “just a DJ” when he released the song called, “Wake Me Up”, which was a traditional Pop song. Both of my girls were fans of the song when it came out a few years ago and had it on their own playlists on their iPod Shuffles, when those were a thing. In all of the music that Avicii released, his smiling, handsome face was never far away from the sounds he was creating. He was a good-looking young man, who made positive, joyful music for people who were searching for a musical genre that spoke to them and their lives. As such, he was the biggest of the big stars at EDM Festivals such as Tomorrowland, where positivity, safety, inclusion and fun were the mantras. His prodigy-like ability to create music out of mere sounds made him today’s equivalent to the original innovators such as Brian Wilson and The Beatles.

And so, it was with great shock that Avicii passed away due to suicide at the tender age of 28. He had been suffering from Depression and other mental health disorders that stemmed, in large part, from pressure he put on himself to continue to produce more and more music for those who loved his work so. While he is now gone, having passed in 2018, his impact lives on in how musicians create their music today and how accepted Electronic Dance music has become. He was a visionary for his times. “Levels” was the song that announced his arrival on the scene just a few short years earlier. It is, also, his legacy and his gift.

As you will see shortly when you watch the video I am enclosing in this post, Avicii used a sample from the late, great Etta James, to anchor “Levels”. Her song, “Something’s Got a Hold On Me” was about the power of being in Love. For Avicii, “Levels” was about the power of happiness and love and community, all through dance and music. The video for “Levels” you are about to see comes from a public memorial that was held after his death. It is easy to see, from the reactions of those playing on stage, as well as, those lucky enough to be in the audience that Avicii was loved and adored and will be sorely missed. The tears that flowed were real for all involved.

For such a young man, Avicii accomplished an awful lot in his 28 years. It isn’t just anyone who can place an entire genre of music on their shoulders and lift it up onto a higher plain but, that is what Avicii did with the world of Electronic Dance Music. So, without further delay, here is the song that is heralded as being the most important EDM song of all-time, “Levels” by Avicii. Enjoy.

May he rest in peace.

The link to the video for the song, “Levels” by Avicii, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Levels”, as performed live at the Tomorrowland Festival, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Wake Me Up” by Avicii, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Avicii, can be found here. ***You should really check this out. It is very touching

Thanks, as always, to KEXP for playing music created with vision, passion and innovation. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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