2012 has felt very much like a transitional year for electronic (and in particular synthpop) music: the 2nd golden age of synthpop drew to a close, and its former key players took leave to write new material and make way for a new new generation. Consequently there weren’t quite as many stunning albums this year compared to previously, and this list of my 20 favorites fell into place relatively easily.
The quantity and quality of singles and EPs from new bands in 2012 has been exemplary: check out the Pansentient Synthpop 2012 Spotify playlist for proof! And with bands like Chvrches, Curxes, Severin, Strangers and The Voyeurist all making hybrid-synthpop waves towards the end of the year, there’s ample evidence that 2013 will be another excellent vintage.
While the electropop sub-genre de-jour of 2011 was hauntronica, this year saw the rise of minimal wave: that post-punk style of cold electronica with its DIY feel and 3-minute “pop” songs. You’ll see this reflected in the list below, with perhaps as many 7 of the picks fitting into this area.
Here then are my Top 20 Electronic Albums of 2012, covering synthpop, minimal wave, electro-industrial, hauntronica and all the synthetic sounds in between. Each has links to listen to the album on Spotify: enjoy!
20. Grimes – Visions
Everybody seems to love this album, and in parts that’s justifiable. Claire Boucher’s popularisation of witch house has required a lot of edge-smoothing but traces of hauntronica remain (including a skull-tastic album cover). Second track “Genesis” is sublime and contender for single of the year. “Visiting Statue” is beautifully sharp and Dead Can Dance gothic. But there’s quite a bit of filler to found on Visions - too much filler for my critical ears – and so Grimes just scapes into this Top 20 list.
Read about Grimes live here at The Electricity Club.
19. Jonas Seltsam – Eisberg Voraus
This album is one of those random finds that occasionally pop up on my radar (in this case, a search for “EBM” on the New on Spotify page) that end up becoming a firm favorite. Despite the cheap-looking album cover, Eisberg Voraus is a very well made album full of chirpy germanic synthpop. It’s not quite futurepop, nor is it electro-industrial; this has an oldschool bleep-bleep feel, and the German vocals are perfect for this kind of music. There’s even a hint of Trio‘s Da Da Da in there! Check out track 2 “Im Schnee” (“In the Snow”) for a good representative sample.
Read this review on Ruhrschall.com.
18. Led Er Est – The Diver
Led Er Est provide coldwave minimal with a mission. Released on Sacred Bones Records, it seems that for minimal post-punk electronica New York is the place (it’s also home to Veronica Vasicka’s brilliant Minimal Wave label and project). This album perhaps less focused than Lust For Youth’s release (see below), but that does mean there’s room for variety through experimentation. Third track “Kaiyo Maru” is one of my favorites, proudly wearing a synthpop sensibility that might be overlooked by some electropop purists (see also Agent Side Grinder below).
For more, see this review on Prefix Magazine.
17. The Pain Machinery – Restart
Complete Control Productions is a new Swedish label that’s gained a fair degree of acclaim in the past couple of years (they released the wonderfully retro-industrial Severe Illusion album No More Alive Than You Deserve last year). Restart is The Pain Machinery‘s seventh album and I think it’s their most rounded release so far. Comparisons with Nitzer Ebb are inevitable, thanks to Jonas Hedberg’s soundalike vocal work and the general “hard rhythmic machine funk” style. This album’s short but perfectly formed, acid-EBM at its best.
For more, read this excellent review on I Die: You Die.
16. Lust For Youth – Growing Seeds
The monochrome cover of Growing Seeds (“an LP recorded in 2012″) befits the music perfectly: this is classic minimal wave that sounds like it should have been recorded in 1982. The vocals echo plentifully, the synths sometimes sound slightly out of tune and each song never outstays its welcome.
For more, check this in-depth professional review on The Quietus.
15. Schramm – Schramm
Schramm are another band I stumbled across after a random New on Spotify genre search. The album cover album meant that I just had to give it a listen, and was delighted to find something that mixed the electro-industrial of Funker Vogt with the vocal stylings of Rammstein. Most of the EBM/electro-industrial blogs I follow seem to have missed this one which is a real shame, as this album offers a great mix of electro-industrial and EBM both old-school and new.
See the review of the preceding EP on Brutal Resonance.
14. Soviet – Life Begins At Rewirement
I love some of the short movies you find on sites like Vimeo and Futurestates, which specializes in thoughtful science fiction. I was particularly moved by the film “Life Begins At Rewirement,” where a middle-aged man struggles with his decision to commit his elderly mother into a revolutionary nursing home alternative that has solved the rapidly growing Senior Citizen overpopulation by “uploading” them into virtual realities. What made the film particularly poignant was Soviet‘s beautiful soundtrack. Ethereal and ambient (but with inexorable purpose), the soundtrack takes you on a journey from realization to download and eternal bliss. Watch the full film on futurestates.tv!
13. (((S))) – The Moon Is My Sun
Nils Lassen is (((S))), a one-man-project from Copenhagen. This excellent album passed me by until Petri Teittinen sent it to my Inbox on Spotify with the message “How’s this?” After a few listens I was hooked on this Danish minimal wave synthpop. Track 3 “Shadowboxing” is up-tempo stripped-back electropop of the finest classic kind; track 4 “Truthdrug” is an addictive new-wave ride. A few songs have New Order guitars, a female backing vocalist, a bit of Moroderisms… but essentially this is an album with an authentic pre-digital 16-track pop sound. Here’s the only review I could find, on necroweb.de (in German).
12. Ultravox – Brilliant
If I’m honest, a new album from Ultravox was not something that got me as excited as some of my musical contemporaries. Sure I’d quite liked them back in the 80s (the 1980s), I bought some of their records, loved all the singles but was never a huge fan. But the more I’ve listened to Brilliant to more I’ve liked it, and that’s kinda taken me by surprise. All history aside, this is a really good album. And much like OMD did with last year’s History Of Modern, Ultravox have made what’s akin to a “Best Of” album but with all-new songs. Each track has a familiar Ultravox feel to it, but each sounds fresh and new at the same time. Songs like “Rise” and “Live” show that Ultravox can still write a killer pop song, and while it’s no “Vienna,” “One” is one of a few good ballads that round off the album. For an in-depth review, check out this one on Softsynth.
11. AlterRed – Dollstown
With intelligent lyrics, grandiose arrangements and vocals that channel mid-80s era Midge Ure, Dollstown keeps on getting better with every play. At first I thought it was lot like IAMX, but whereas Chris seems to have written himself into a self-repeating Corner, AlterRed show a flair for invention and creativity that the electronic genre is much in need of.
Here’s a good review of Dollstown on Goth Times.
10. Flux – Motivational Chants
Finnish trio Flux offer excellent European-style synthpop, and for me Flux are the jewel in label Electric Fantastic Sound’s roster. I’ve followed them for a while now and was suitably impressed by this their 3rd album, packed with memorable (and melancholic) synthpop. With beautiful vocals, mature songwriting and tight production, my only complaint is that the album is too short! Luckily the singles include some excellent mixes, such as the Free Pussy Galore mix of “Defences” (under the band’s new moniker of Flux Fin).
For more, check this review on Side-Line Magazine.
09. Oblique – Refraction of Light
Titans are masters of the edgier side of synthpop. There were quite a few bands releasing this kind of music in 2012, but what rose Titans above their peers is Dan Von Hoyel’s incredible voice. While most electro acts have serviceable but often similar-sounding vocalists, Von Hoyel is unique: he almost croons his lines, displaying “phonaesthetics” rarely heard in this genre (yes, track “Apex Predator” does even feature the phrase cellar door!).
Check out this review on the excellent Blackvector Magazine.
07. Dead When I Found Her – Rag Doll Blues
If you liked the Mommy Hurt My Head album from a few years ago then you’re gonna love this. Track 1 “No More Nightmares” has the best intro of any song I’ve heard this year, starting with just a piano, then adding some eerie fx and spooky samples before letting rip into full-on 1990s Canadian style electro-idustrial. Rag Doll Blues is littered with horror film samples, just like a Front Line Assembly or Skinny Puppy album from back in the day. The vocals here are softer and less distorted than has become the norm, and there’s a good degree of variety among the 12 tracks that make up this album. Closing track “Stainless” builds into a superb piece of dark synthpop; a wonderful, chilling album closer. Read this superlative review on I Die: You Die.
06. Metroland – Mind the Gap
It’s going to be impossible to talk about this superb album without mentioning the K word. From Mind The Gap‘s concept through to its songwriting and execution, Metroland have created the best tribute to Kraftwerk I’ve ever heard. Released on Alfa Matrix (a firm favorite label of mine, but typically more known for their hard electro-industrial releases), Belgians Metroland have come up with one of the suprise delights of 2012. Chronicling a trans-european train journey, this album is full of authentic klingklangian treats (and you’ll also learn a thing or two about luminaries like Harry Beck). Read Johan Wejedal’s review over at The Electricity Club.
05. Chromatics – Kill For Love
Starting (somewhat unexpectedly) with a cover of Neal Young’s “Into the Black,” Chromatics finally produce the masterpiece they’ve been threatening to make for some time now. Track 2 “Kill For Love” returns us to the Drive soundtrack and the faux-retro-electro vibe that Chromatics themselves pioneered five years ago. I nominated this as my song of the year over at The Electricity Club, but it could so easily have been any number of songs from this album. Stylistically the Chromatics palette mixes in a bit New Order, The Cure, John Carpenter soundtrack music and even the Rocky theme (“These Streets Will Never Look The Same“). But it’s the pulsating electro-heart that keeps this lengthy album on-track and on mission. Definitely worth the wait! Here’s a fine review from Alex Denney at the BBC.
04. Continues – Continues
Another band with a hard-to-google name, but despite that it’s well worth tracking down this most excellent album. Continues is Dan Gatto, L.A. USA resident who sent me a copy of his album back in June. The cover art intrigued me and I always give whatever’s sent to me at least a cursory listen… and I found I really liked this, I liked it a lot! The style is minimal (but generally upbeat) synthpop, with husky vocals that remind me of someone I can’t quite put my finger on (Richard Butler from Psychedelic Furs?) No matter, this is a unique piece of work and a prime example of superior American synthpop. Check out this interview with Dan Gatto at I Die: You Die.
03. Digits – Death and Desire
I featured Digits’ single “Lost Dream” on my Synthpop 2011 playlist last year: an excellent track, but it only hinted at the quality of this album. Moody and brooding, there’s something intoxicatingly late-night about the tracks on here. Similar in places to Kelley Polar, the synthesized introspection has a distinct North American flavor which might appeal to the growing army of fans of the Drive soundtrack. The tempo varies across the album (and at times reminds me of Shakatak), but even at its highest BPM this is an album to listen to properly rather than have on in the background. The occasional duet (courtesy of Bad Passion) adds some variety and dispels the loneliness. Here’s what Paul Lester at the Guardian had to say.
02. Agent Side Grinder – Hardware
A collaboration with Henric de la Cour (on single “Wolf Hour“) put me onto this album from Agent Side Grinder at the start of 2012. Eleven months later and it’s still one of my very favorites of the year: this is synthpop with a post-punk attitude, probably too gritty for some (although songs like “Rip Me” sound they came straight from a Blancmange album) but for me Hardware is a pitch-perfect album full of wonderful, moody music. Vocally styled like Nick Cave (Nick Cave and the Bad Synths?) for most songs, the prevalent edginess does sometimes give way to more pop moments: Hardware has depth and variety. It may only have 8 tracks, but each brings something different and makes for absolutely intoxicating listening. Here’s a blinding review from I Die: You Die.
01. Light Asylum – Light Asylum
My god, that voice! When I first heard the Light Asylum album, I genuinely thought they had three different singers. There are three photos of singer Shannon Funchess on the album cover, and this neatly reflects the three different vocal styles displayed within. Not since Alison Moyet have I heard such a powerful, emotive female voice on a synthpop album. For while a punk aesthetic forms the veins of this album, its outer skin is gloriously electronic.
I’ve played this album multiple times this year. The first two songs are probably the weakest (and placing them at the start is Light Asylum‘s only mis-step), but from “IPC” onward all I want to do is keep on turning up the volume. “Heart of Dust” and “Sins Of The Flesh” show Light Asylum’s goth-electro side; “Angel Tongue” has Kraftwerk overtones fronted by more amazing vocal dexterities, and on “Shallow Tears” – I think this is my favorite on the album – Shannon’s voice is truly stunning: it sends shivers down my spine every time!
This is a truly wonderful electronic album full of light and dark soul: my Album of the Year.
Missing In Action
Here are a few albums you might have expected to see above:
- Daybehavior – Follow That Car. I’d hoped this album would show up Spotify, but alas there’s no sign of it. But check out this review on one of my favorite music blogs, Bop2Pop!
- Compute – The Distance. Some of this I absolutely love (especially lead track “Dawning Days“). But to me the album’s a bit inconsistent. I fully expect their next album to be superb!
- Future Perfect – Escape. As above: it’s not on Spotify so I only got to hear this album once. Check out Petri Teittinen’s favorable review at Authentic Synthetic though.
- Pet Shop Boys – Elysium. To my shame I never really got much of a chance to listen to this. Who knows, maybe it’s the best thing they’ve ever done. Probably not though.
- Hot Chip – In Our Heads. I didn’t really like Hot Chip until the brilliant One Life Stand album in 2010. Unfortunately, this new album takes them back to my “meh” category.
- iamamiwhoami – miniKin. A few good tracks on here, but ultimately for me this wasn’t that good an album. The Electricity Club liked it though!
- Social Ambitions – Anticipation. I really liked this, but at only 5 tracks it’s more of an EP than an album so reluctantly excluded above.
- Vcmg – Ssss..hit. Sorry guys, but I think this Clarke/Gore collab is just awful bland techno.
A few not-so-electronic albums really caught my ear this year. Here’s my Top 5:
- The Soft Moon – Zeros. Brilliant dark post-punk guitar music, shades of The Cure and Joy Division.
- Anyplace – Dark Fantastic. Fun punk-pop with synths. I love the Freezepop-like track “I Am A Robot” and there’s lots more good songs here too.
- Cold Showers – Love and Regret. Brooding indie fill to make up for the lack of albums from The Editors and Interpol.
- Soulsavers – The Light The Dead See. Best thing Dave Gahan has done in a very long time, superb soul-searcher of an album.
- Claudia Brucken – The Lost Are Found. After her star-turn in videogame smash L.A. Noire, Claudia returns with an album full of melancholy covers. See this review at The Electricity Club.
Until next year!