Get ready to groove to the rhythm of history as we unveil our list of the best DJ sets ever; ones that have defined generations and continue to captivate audiences worldwide
Last updated: 5th Jun 2023
Electronic and dance music has captivated global audiences with its infectious creativity, effortlessly danceable beats and entrancing melodies, and at the heart of this cultural phenomenon lie the DJs that made it all happen. But, as always, people are always crying out for the best of the best, the ones who made indelible marks, and the sets that changed the genre; and that's what we've decided to supply you with.
In the late 1970s, electronic music emerged, blending synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers. DJs quickly became tastemakers, skillfully crafting narratives that resonated with audiences. Chicago birthed house music, with DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard refining and popularizing its sound. In Manchester's Hacienda club, the acid house and rave scene flourished, shaping UK dance music history. Ibiza became a pilgrimage site for dance music enthusiasts, hosting legendary parties that attracted devotees worldwide. The French scene added a unique touch with artists like Laurent Garnier and Daft Punk, blending disco, funk, and techno. Yet, in the modern day, technological advancements have transformed DJing, enabling seamless integration of production tools and immersive experiences, with performances becoming multi-sensory spectacles with visuals, lighting, and stage design.
In this list, we're going to try and cover the very best sets from a variety of the aforementioned, celebrating the DJs who have elevated the art form and forever etched their names in the annals of dance music history. Together, we will honour the transformative power of DJ sets that continue to inspire and unite us on the dancefloor; let's get grooving, shall we?
Starting on an absolute pearler, Orbital's headline performance at Glastonbury 1994 is something of a time capsule, allowing us to look back at a time when rave culture was first placed on the world's biggest stage and spread to the masses.
The acid house outfit's set was watched by thousands of festival revellers as well as millions of people at home, with TV coverage of the spectacle said to have cemented Orbital as a leading name in an emerging underground dance sound. A performance that would change the face of music in the UK forever.
Check out the goosebump-inducing video above of Orbital performing their biggest track to date, 'Chimes' live on The NME Stage.
'The Three Deck Wizard' has had many notable moments throughout his career as DJ but one of the most significant has to be his legendary closing set at the sadly now defunct Space nightclub in Ibiza. Paying homage to the internationally adored rave space, Cox played a mammoth 9-hour-long set, opting to mix an assortment of nostalgic club favourites on vinyl for the entirety of the performance. A journey through the timeline of Space, check out the video above to hear some of the records he played.
Fatboy Slim 'The Big Beach Boutique II' on Brighton Beach (2002)
A quarter of a million people descended on the southern seaside town of Brighton twenty years ago to attend possibly the biggest free party the UK has ever seen. At the helm and in charge of making the people move was non-other than Norman Cook AKA world-renowned producer extraordinaire, Fatboy Slim. With plenty of weapons to choose from in his arsenal, it was always going to be an off-the-scale experience. We'll let the above footage do the rest of the talking. Absolute scenes.
It'd be reductive of the DJing art form to reduce the best sets to those chained to the realm of dance music. In 2000, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist demonstrated the power of the scratching on turntables, diverging from the trend of digital files and controllers used by most DJs today.
Their mix, Brainfreeze, showcases their exceptional skill with wax and combines a variety of genres such as breakbeat, old-school funk, hip-hop, and disco. This energetic and genre-mashing set includes samples like kung fu movie dialogue and sound effects, adding a flair and uniqueness rarely seen at the time, which has been widely emulated, across genres, to this day.
Brainfreeze is hailed as one of the pinnacles of turntablism, a historic display of both the artists' talents. It stands out as one of the most remarkable DJ mixes known for its energy and genre-blending style, making it a must-listen experience.
There are few DJs that have done as much for dance music, House in particular, than Chicago's late Frankie Knuckles. A true innovator of the scene who had countless sets we could've chosen from, but we think, this 1992 performance at Ministry of Sound, encapsulates everything the House sensation had to offer.
This was a true amalgamation of the old school house scene that Frnakie was at the forefront of, and is still as groove-inducing as ever. he set the bar for so many producers and is arguably one of the most influential to ever do it. Despite having now passed, the house music maestro's legacy lives on in sets live this; if you haven't listened yet, then indulge yourself, this is house music at its purest.
A lesson in how to hush your critics, Daft Punk's headline performance at Coachella back in 2006 put the doubts of the haters, the commentators who threw shade at their 2005 release, Human After All, firmly to bed.
A set that the likes of Steve Aoki have gone as far as to say 'changed the course of live electronic music' opens to the iconic tones heard in Steven Spielberg's extraterrestrial classic, 'Close Encounters Of The Third Kind'. Erupting in colour and sound, the robotic duo emerges from a UFO-like pyramid that appears to have landed on stage. What ensues is a masterclass in crowd control with the setlist featuring revolutionary dance hits, from 'Superheroes' to 'Robot Rock' and 'Around The World'.
How do you bid farewell to a club that was instrumental in championing electronic music for two decades, in one of the best cities in the world? With a back-to-back live set from two of the most influential DJ names in the business, of course!
Trailblazers of dance music, Four Tet and Floating Points came together back in 2015 to mark the final party at the legendary London club, Plastic People, and it's one that still lives on vividly in the memory of all those who attended. The pair, who'd both held residences at the club over the years, conjured a 5-hour-long eclectic soundtrack recounting their experience of Plastic People over the years. A performance the likes of which clubbers in London might never see again.
Widely known as being amongst the Godfathers of Drum and Bass, Fabio & Grooverider took their first set at Glastonbury very seriously, pushing the boundaries of what the genre could potentially be in the future, and gaining it a whole load of fans.
This set is legendary in the hardcore DnB community and was arguably amongst the most important for the scene becoming the world-renowned force it is today. Plus, whilst the history adds to the gig's fame, it does also help that its none stop energy, with banger after banger, that would hold up at any rave almost 20 years later. If you're a fan of DnB, then dive into this one and experience some history.
One of two founders of the revered dance label, Dynamic Music, production and mix specialist, Solomun showcased his skills on the ones and twos on behalf of Boiler Room back in 2015. What no one could have foretold was just how timeless that set would be.
Almost 8 years later and it's still the most-watched Boiler Room set with a staggering 59 million plays to date. Bringing together old classics with back-then forward-thinking future anthems, it's an authentic adventure through sound that ebbs and flows at all the right points. 2 hours of high-energy tunes and a free workshop on how to conduct a live set from one of the best to ever do it. Aspiring DJs, see video above.
Eric Prydz debuting Holosphere at Tomorrowland (2019)
Part of the French producer's 'EPIC' series of events, 'Holosphere' was first unveiled before audiences at Tomorrowland back in 2019. The impressive concept, which involves Prydz performing from inside a spherical structure, armed to the teeth with mesmerising lighting effects and visuals, provided something of a watershed moment for other artists and event planners in the industry. It changed the perception of what could be achieved from a visual aspect at a live dance event.
The debut of this unique show was made all the more iconic when the stage upon which it was featured collapsed, some days after Holosphere's first display. The temporary stage which was erected in its place wasn't big enough to hold the structure and so only those present during the first week of Tomorrowland 2019 got to witness the show.
Another visually stunning performance that will live on with those who attended Field Day back in 2017, Aphex Twin's left-field performance is one that could never be imitated or reworked. There is no one else quite like Aphex Twin. For 2 hours, guests were induced into a hypnotic state, force-fed hallucinatory visuals alongside off-the-cusp live productions mixed in with some of his most acclaimed pieces of work.
Our personal highlight of this remarkable Field Day set has to be the trippy break-dancing bear, showing off its moves over an ambient break amidst what is otherwise a mind-altering performance from the Cornish mastermind of synth. A must-watch.
Sasha and John Digweed were significant figures in UK garage and house music in the 1990s, and the live mix that best encapsulated their influence and fame has to be their iconic Renaissance collection, recorded live at the club in 1994. Widely hailed as the standard for seamless mixing, showcasing dynamic transitions between tracks, the mix became a defining example of beat matching, leaving a lasting impact on DJs of that era.
Plus, in featuring tracks by renowned artists like Leftfield and Inner City, the Renaissance live mix captures the essence of the mid-90s music scene, offering a curated selection of dance anthems, all of which are effortlessly groovy to this day.
There were plenty of options, almost too many, to choose from when considering The Chemical Brothers, but this one for us takes the crown.
Inspiring, powerful, emotional, haunting... Just some of the many words we could use to describe this exemplary live performance. The Chemical Brothers lit up The Other Stage at Glastonbury 2019 in their usual flamboyant fashion, churning out anthem after anthem - from 'Hey Boy, Hey Girl' and 'Galvanize' to 'Out of Control' and 'Star Guitar' - in perfect time to stirring 3D visuals literally reaching out of huge screens behind the duo towards the crowd.
Moving the audience with a sincere touch towards the end of the show, The Chemical Brothers paid a heartfelt tribute to their friend and figurehead of the rave scene, Keith Flint of The Prodigy, who tragically died earlier that year.
Many noteworthy DJ names through the years have earmarked this particular set as one that stood out or changed the direction of their lives. Among those the likes of Jamie Jones and enduring underground talent, Clive Henry.
There is some debate about when this set actually happened (sounds like it was a heavy one), but one thing has been agreed upon by all who were fortunate enough to be on the terrace of Space that fateful evening, and that was that this particular performance was one of the best the White Isle has ever seen.
Chopping and changing through genres as if possessed by some higher spirit of dance, the radical French DJ succeeded in mixing techno, house and even drum n bass. Putting his neck on the line paid off with the vibe of the crowd said to be electric. No one does it quite like our man Laurent Garnier.
Whilst not yet as legendary as the vast majority of spinners on this list, we simply can't ignore the atomic impact that Fred Again's boiler room has had on the modern dance scene. With 19 million views and counting, this set shot Fred from a relatively unknown producer who was being pipped as the next big thing to... well, the next big thing!
It's a masterclass in modern pad-based mixing and on-stage production that takes a monumental level of skill to pull off. His music is obsessively evocative and truly pushed the boundaries for modern production and dance music. Whilst not yet in the realms of many on this list, Fred's probably going to end up as big as anyone, if not them all; and we can't wait to be able to look back on this one like we do the rest.
Daft Punk produce an Essential Mix as good today as it was back then (1997)
Now, to finish off, this one may be cheating a little, as it wasn't performed to a live audience, but was still mixed live on the coveted BBC Essential Mix show; but we don't care, we're including it anyways, as it's that bloody good. In the early hours of March 2 1997, Pete Tong introduced "two French blokes," aka Daft Punk (yes, we know we've already included them but come on now its Daft Punk!), for their first BBC Essential Mix. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter had only just released their debut Homework, but by the end of the same year, they were stars.
Whilst mainly comprising of classics from that first record, the mix included everything from Roy Davis Jr. to I:Cube to Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ to Ween’s ‘Freedom Of ’76’. This set was genre-defining for the French duo. they showed they were amongst the biggest innovators in the world of dance, and also that they arguably came about 20 years too early. It's a classic for a reason and gives a true insight into why Daft Punk went on to become the electronic tour-de-force that they did. A must-listen.
Check out our What's On Guide to discover more rowdy raves and sweaty gigs taking place over the coming weeks and months. For festivals, lifestyle events and more, head on over to our Things To Do page or be inspired by the event selections on our Inspire Me page.
Header image credit: The World Famous KROQ on Facebook