Top 10 Synthpop Albums of 2010

2010 has been another classic year for synthpop, a 1982 to last year’s 1981 perhaps. Choosing my Top 10 synthpop albums of the year has been incredibly difficult, and that was AFTER I’d excluded lots of great albums on the grounds that they’re not strictly synthpop (Anthony Rother, Edge of Dawn, and the wonderful Pacific! album for example). So with the Edinburgh temperature sub-zero for many days now, I stoked the coal fire, poured myself a few wee drams and gave the following ten albums another listen just to be sure. Oh yes, I’m sure, these ten are crackers! Following part I then here are the Pansentient League’s Top 10 Synthpop Albums of the Year!

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10. Solvent – Subject To Shift

Subject To Shift is a hybrid of minimal lo-fi retro synthpop and IDM (Intelligent Dance Music), with some blissed-out timeless tunes that could have come from any of the previous four decades. Indeed, there’s touches of original experimental electronica, traditional synthpop, acid house and electro in here, all finely textured and superbly atmospheric throughout, with cheery synth lines often underpinned by a dystopian rumble and electro rhythm. Fans of Human League Mk. I have to check out A Product Of The Process and Life-Size Image, and album closer Panoramic has some of the best analogy synth sounds I’ve heard all year.

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9. Hot Chip – One Life Stand

I was wrong about Hot Chip. Back in 2006, sites like Electronically Yours were all over and over Hot Chip, proclaiming them as synthpop’s great saviour and the band who would bridge the gap between the electro-niche we were used to and mainstream success. But I wasn’t convinced and didn’t really rate them. Even their remix of Kraftwerk wouldn’t change my mind. Then at the start of the year I heard the song One Life Stand and was blown away. What an incredible track! With its funky bass-synth and driving beat I just couln’t keep still. Couple that with the uplifting sentiment of the song and that awesomely out-of-key and just plain wrong riff at 2:42 and I was hooked. I thought this had to be a one-off but no: the album is just as good. A mellowness runs through it, but there’s a warmth and feeling holding it all together, especially evident on tracks like Brothers and Slush. I still think their previous albums are a bit limp, but with One Life Stand I became a fan.

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8. Tenek – On The Wire

On The Wire is new wave synth in the vein of Ultravox and early-naughties futurepop. I reviewed the single Blinded By You back in July and loved it. On The Wire lives up to that high expectation, mixing its edgier, goth-friendly electro sound with the odd burst of guitar and retro synth. Production is crisp and sharp throughout the album – that’s one reason why this was the first CD I put into my new Alpine ICE when I upgraded the sounds in my car. There are many standout tracks, but today I especially love The Art Of Evasion: it’s the best song Tears For Fears never did and is a great example of how far Tenek’s songwriting skills have come in such a short time.

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7. De/Vision – Popgefahr

De/Vision have released loads of records over the past 20 years, earning them a legion of fans and respect from both the synthpop and electro-industrial community. I’ve always listened to their releases over the years, but was never that thrilled and always filed them away as “nothing special.” Popgefahr however is something special: a short but brilliant album full of catchy, infectious synthpop, great songwriting and confident vocals. The album has a strong European futurepop feel to it, much-needed with the absence this year of Covenant, And One, and a Wilder/Mode reunion. Tracks like Time To Be Alive and Plastic Heart could be seen as Depeche Mode rip-offs, but De/Vision have the skill and experience to take the Mode sound and run with it. It might have taken them two decades, but De/Vision have finally released an almost-perfect synthpop album: it’s certainly their very best, and proves this sound was a risk worth taking.

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6. Freezepop – Imaginary Friends

Freezepop have come a long way since their debut album Freezepop Forever ten years ago. I’ve been a big fan of them for all that time, totally loving the earlier releases but I did feel they were sorta losing their way by the time Future Future Future Perfect came out. But Imaginary Friends brings them right back into the synthpop game. On first listen I knew it was going to be a killer album by about track four (“Special Effects“) and song after song has some quirky hook or clever construction. Freezepop’s personnel change has done them wonders (Christmas and Bananas replaced co-founder The Duke on this album), revitalising and focusing the band to result in 12 tracks of sumptuous and surprisingly mature synthpop. If you previously dismissed Freezepop as just bubblegum pop then give them another listen: Freezepop 2.0 is an essential upgrade and Imaginary Friends is their best and most consistent release yet.

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5. Hyperbubble – Candy Apple Daydreams

Their name is Hyperbubble (they’re a synthesiser couple) and this is their third album. Thanks to a serendipitous tweet from our man in Finland, I got to see them live and pick up a copy of Candy Apple Daydreams (guaranteed 100% electronic!). Hyperbubble’s blend of synthpop is quirky bubblegum electro-pop with boundless energy and a great sense of humor (think Freezepop, Vic Twenty, S.P.O.C.K or Schmoof). Candy Apple Daydreams is a short album, but nonetheless manages to cram in lots of ideas and is chock full of fun and infectious synthpop tunes. I love the “Candy Apple” theme runs through the album, the crazy synthjamming on Moogzilla Vs. Korgatron (electro-Tarantino!) and Top Ten Lullabyes has such a beautiful Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy ending it always makes me want to listen to the album again.

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4. Mind.In.A.Box – R.E.T.R.O.

This album was a huge surprise to me when I fist heard it. I was expecting some mediocre techno-futurepop (like so much of it is) but instead the 8-bitness of R.E.T.R.O. slapped me back to those Commodore 64 days when the future was still full of robot-controlled rocket ships. Filling the gap left by Thermostatic, Mind.In.A.Box mix their chip-pop interpretations of many classic 80s computer games with modern synthpop to come up with a killer album. With shades of Vangelis and John Carpenter, the sum of this album is greater than its individual tracks. Sometimes stirring, frequently uplifting, R.E.T.R.O. is essential listening for mature gamers and electro fans alike.

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3. OMD – History of Modern

I saw Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in concert a couple of months ago. It was the gig-of-the-year for me, a triumphant comeback from the one of the bands that inspired me all those years ago and helped shape my musical tastes. I’d lost touch with OMD throughout the years though, around the time of Pacific Age when they veered too far from their synthpop roots. By the time Universal came out it seemed to me like they’d lost it for good. History of Modern is superb though: it’s OMD’s best album in a very VERY long time. Similar to this year’s Nitzer Ebb comeback, History of Modern sounds at first like a greatest-hits package: almost every song features some hook or synth line that’s so familiar, so OMD, it takes a second or two each time to realise these are all new songs. And what brilliant songs they are! I love pretty much every track on this album, I could not have asked for anything better from these guys. I could skip Sometimes (although this is my friend teamph‘s favourite), but the rest is classic, pure OMD that could easily have been lifted from Architecture & Morality, Dazzle Ships or Organisation. The pressure is now on The Human League if their forthcoming album is anything near as good as OMD’s, next year will be the 3rd great synthpop year of the century…

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2. Future Perfect – Dirty Little Secrets

Future Perfect are the best new synthpop band to arrive on the scene for some years. Dirty Little Secrets is their debut and it’s an absolute stunner: a classic album packed full of memorable songs and great lyrics, all backed up by one the best vocalists in synthpop today. Future Perfect excel at slow-building verses and killer-catchy choruses, with multi-layered instrumentation and soaring vocals that will take your breath away. It’s so refreshing to hear singers who haven’t been given the generic Auto Tune sound: Rebecca Morgan’s vocal range is given the scope it deserves again and again on this album and this is one thing that makes Dirty Little Secrets a little bit special. I love every song on here but closing track Discover Me is my favourite song of the year; written for a single release on behalf of beat (the UK charity for people with eating disorders), Discover Me is a truly inspirational and uplifting song, it typifies the power of music to move and affect you in a positive way. More than any other band in this Top 10, I’m most excited to hear what these guys do next. More of the same please!

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1. Parralox – Metropolis

In a year that gave us so many great synthpop albums, there’s one that for me stands taller than all the rest: Metropolis by ParraloxMetropolis is the third album from Parralox in as many years and in that short time they’ve come to define the current state of synthpop, melding old-school rhythm & beats, futurist ideals and analogue synth sounds with modern production, design and aesthetics.
Album-opener Ancient Times is a good song but it’s followed by ten consistently fantastic tunes. John von Ahlen is a gifted songwriter and his prolific rate is daunting, writing all but two tracks on Metropolis (the other two he merely co-wrote). Vocalist Amii never sounded better, despite John’s addition to the vocal mix. The duets work particularly well: Machines for example is one of my favourite tracks on the album.  Much of Metropolis is pure disco-synthpop, but it includes some of the best Hi-NRG songs I’ve ever heard: The Supermagic/Miracles combo is the musical highlight of the year for me, Bobby O would be proud!
Perhaps the most enduing track from 2008’s Electricity is the downtempo track Factory Friends. Metropolis has several songs that continue along that poignant path; songs like Acrimony, Failure, and What About You show a maturity and depth that might be overlooked by some who’d write off Parralox as “merely” Kylie clones.
I loved last year’s State Of Decay album but Metropolis exceeds that on every level. Metropolis has depth and range, a grand sci-fi scope that reaches for the stars but always rooted in human emotion.
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