So 2013 then: what another great year for music! Especially if you’re a fan of synthpop, electropop, new wave and the like. From classic-era heavyweights releasing career highlights (OMD, Pet Shop Boys, Alison Moyet) through to expectation-defying returns to form (Depeche Mode, Covenant) and dynamite debuts (CHVRCHES, Vile Electrodes), this past year has shown that the long-form album is still king.
You can listen to what I thought were the best songs of the year here: Pansentient Synthpop 2013 Spotify playlist. This 200-track playlist has been curated to cut the crap and only present the finest selection. Compare that to Pansentient Synthpop 2009, when it was a struggle to even come up with a Top 40!
There’s been so much great music this year that it was sometimes a struggle to keep up. But if you’re looking for an opinion from someone who lives-and-breathes this stuff, first have a read at The Electricity Club’s End of Year Review 2013, and then check out my choices for the Top 20 Synthpop Albums of 2013 below!
It’s Not Synthpop But I Like It
Before we begin, I must mention a few still-electronic-but-not-synthpop albums that I really got into this year:
- Shpongle – Museum of Consciousness. The best Shpongle album in over 10 years, this is a fantastic journey around the world of dreamy, tripadelic, psybience with a brain.
- Container 90 – Working Class League. I couldn’t have hoped for more from this: EBM certainly has its limitations and can easily get repetitive, but these Swedes are the only EMBers who can bring something new to the table. Progressing the genre, they mix up social commentary, fuck-you attitude, lashings of humour, and exhausting danceability; all while seeming to have such a bloody good time of it too. There’s even a John Lennon cover here ffs!
- Benji Vaughan – Even Tundra. The second great Twisted Records album of the year (after Shpongle), this is a beautiful slice of electro-ambience (but not the kind that sends you to sleep after 10 minutes).
- Front Line Assembly – Echogenetic. What a kick-ass return! Over the decades, FLA have always merged in elements of the sound-de-jour into their music, but the light touches of dubstep here are a stroke of genius. This song “Deadened” is a killer tune, it could well be my song-of-the-year.
- iVardensphere – The Methuselah Tree. I file iVardensphere in my “Electro-Industrial” folder in Spotify, but tbh these guys defy all classification. This album has to be experienced, it’s an electro-tribal imperative. After every listen I come away feeling that I’ve just experienced something deeply profound, something serious as shit that puts everything else into sharp perspective. I can barely begin to describe it, so instead go read this fascinating and insightful interview with Scott of Ivardensphere over at I Die: You Die.
Top 20 Synthpop Albums
Here’s my first batch of 10 albums:
- British Electric Foundation – MQD3. Martyn Ware – the godfather of synthpop – teams up with a whole host of star singers for some more music of quality and distinction. Mercifully dropping the funk of earlier outings, this album strips things back to darker synthetics. Covering songs from the 60s to 90s, MQD3 makes you re-appraise songs you didn’t think much of first time round. Andy Bell’s cover of Kate Bush’ “Breathing” is one highlight, as are both Glenn Gregory’s covers. And Heaven 17’s other fine vocalist Billy Godfrey gives Jimmy Somerville a run for his money on Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy.”
- Carved Souls – Dismantle. It’s been a bit of a hit-and-miss year for Conzoom Records, but this overlooked sophomore album from Carved Souls is definitely my pick of their 2013 releases. The band compare themselves to Assemblage 23 and Apoptygma Berzerk, but personally I think Carved Souls have delivered an album that easily beats those band’s recent releases.
- Torul – Tonight We Dream Fiercely. Slovenia’s Torul have been around for a few years now but haven’t really impressed me much in the past. They’ve definitely nailed it with this infectious and hypnotic album though.
- Space March – Mountain King. While Parralox took a breather this year with a covers album, Australia’s other great synthpop band gave us a delightful “symphonic journey of retro-electro, classical and dream pop.” Mr. Vince Clarke gave this album a big thumbs up and I’m fully in agreement! “Someone Something Sunshine” is a highlight; bright but tinged with a little melancholy. “Mastermind of Crime” has some great lyrics, while “Too Much Time on my Hands” is a lovely bleepy bleep song.
- Social Ambitions – Hunger. I do feel I miss out sometimes by not speaking Swedish, and a fair few of the songs on this synthpop album are sung in that language. But ultimately good songwriting will always win me over, and Hunger has much to offer. A few songs don’t quite hit the mark for me, but the ones that do I can easily listen to again and again.
- Henric de la Cour – Mandrills. This album has been creeping up my play list for a while now, the more I listen to it to more I like. I’ve read about Henric’s struggle with a rare illness, and there’s certainly a slightly foreboding feel to this album. This is introspective synthpop at a superior level, but no matter what the circumstances behind its production it fully stands up on its own merits. Henric’s duet with Susanna Risberg on “Shark” is another contender for single of year, and if you’ve not seen it check out the wonderful video!
- Marsheaux – Inhale. I’ve always been a bit more critical of Marsheaux than most of my synthpop peers, but all my complaints are finally undone with this excellent album: I think its their finest work to date. Everything comes together perfectly, from the sharp production and catchy tunes to the vocals and lyrics. Standout songs “Self Control“, “Come on Now” and “Inhale” prove that Marsheaux sound like they’re finally having some fun, and I reckon they’re all the better for it.
- Little Boots – Nocturnes. It sounds like a lot of synthpop purists were disappointed with this album, but for me it’s one that I keep on going back to. Like Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Make a Scene album from a few years ago, it’s the sheer quality of the songs that overrides any modern pop messiness. If anything, Nocturnes is a more consistent affair than her debut Hands ever was: this is the perfect summer party album.
- Depeche Mode – Delta Machine. Well finally! It’s about time Depeche Mode released a good album again, and while there is a bit of bloat filling up this album it’s definitely their best – most electronic – album in years. Of course to some, Delta Machine might be a great blues album ruined by bleeps and squeaks, but at this point in the game any Depeche Mode album that has that spark of genius we know they’re capable of is something to be thankful for.
Top 10 Synthpop Albums
Ten great albums there – but here are my absolute favorites of the year!
Emika – Dva
After her brilliant debut album, I thought things had gone awry for Emika with subsequent singles seeming a bit aimless and self-indulgent. So my expectations for DVA weren’t that great, and indeed the first track – an ominous orchestral number – made me think she’d gone the way of The Knife (i.e. up herself). How wrong I was though: since first listening, this album has really gotten under my skin, the sub-bass gone sub-dermal. DVA is an intense, maudlin experience, punctuated with uplifting resonance (“Dem Worlds“, “Sing To Me“) that highlight the superb sound design and production. You can keep your dubstep then: DVA is how I like to rattle my bones.
Noblesse Oblige – Affair of the Heart
Affair of the Heart is one of those pop albums that’s full of memorable songs. There may be a bit of live bass here and there, but this is most assuredly a synthpop record of the European kind. Highlights include the single “Runaway” (an unashamedly fun slice of synthpop), “Vagabonde” (Anne Pigalle-esque vocals to a disco beat and probably my favorite track on the album), and a cover of the Eagle’s “Hotel California” that, at eight-and-a-half minutes, never outstays its welcome and brings some appropriate electronic atmosphere (and Japanese koto strings) into the mix.
Covenant – Leaving Babylon
I’ve been waiting for over 10 years for a worthy follow-up to 2002’s Northern Light. Both Skyshaper and Modern Ruin were OK albums, but both left me wanting. Now Leaving Babylon finally shows Covenant at their best: it’s full of broody scandi-synthpop, upbeat futurepop and pulsating electronic dance tracks. It may have taken a while to arrive in full on Spotify (I hate those “samplers” they completely ruin the flow of the album), but it was definitely worth the wait. Like VNV Nation, a Covenant song is always instantly recognisable; just this time it all gels together perfectly into one feature-length album that seems to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Pet Shop Boys – Electric
The first of four “old order” artists on this list and what a fabulous surprise this album is! Last year’s Elysium album was about the dullest thing I’d heard all year, so I’d as good as written off the PSBs. But then the single “Axis” came out and I was bowled over. This is the Pet Shop Boys?? No way! A sublimely cool slice of pumping retro hi-NRG, it also acts as the perfect statement of intent as the album opener. Electric is a dance album through-and-through, even including Bruce Springsteen cover “The Last to Die.” Single “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” sounds like it was always a classic PSB song, while “The Last to Die” verges into VNV Nation territory. I honestly think this is the best album they’ve ever made!
Alison Moyet – The Minutes
Another unexpected treat! Yazoo’s “reconnected” reunion tour a few years ago was an undoubted success, and it got me super-hyped for the possibility of some new material from Alf & Vince. That hasn’t happened (yet), but in a way that doesn’t matter: The Minutes is a magnificant return to elctronica, loaded with fabulous modern synthpop numbers (checkout “Filigree” for example). Collaborating with Guy Sigsworth has led to some of Moyet’s best-ever work: The Minutes fully deserves the acclaim its received in the mainstream press, and it was delightful to see Alison Moyet in the UK Top 10 Album charts again.
Karl Bartos – Off The Record
The next-best thing to a new Kraftwerk album is always a new Karl Bartos album. And in the case of Off the Record, I seriously doubt Herr Hütter and current friends could have done much better. Although I tend to skip the opening track (and imo ill-advised lead single), from “Nachtfahrt” onwards this is just a glorious album. Playing out like an alternative The Mix, Off the Record feels like a Kraftwerk greatest hits package, with Karl expertly touching on the signature sound of Kraftwerk from Radioactivity onwards. It’s difficult to pick out favourites – so I won’t. Just start from Track 2 and enjoy this retro wonder of the future…
Northern Kind – Credible Sexy Unit
Here’s a band that’s very dear to my heart. For fans of the Vince Clarke-ian style of synthpop, a new album from Northern Kind will always be an event. From the off, Credible Sexy Unit lays down its template with “Yours“, a fantastic slice of jaunty sing-along synthpop. And taken as a whole, the songs that make up this album form exactly what you’d expect from Northern Kind: retro-amped chipper tunes, superlative singing, enduring song-writing, and a professional attitude that belies their indie sensibilities. Credible Sexy Unit will surely please any discerning synthpop fan, especially those seeking a bit of cheerful enlightenment. You can read my full review over at The Electricity Club!
CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
What an amazing year it’s been for Chvrches. From the backwater streets of Glasgow to synthpop’s modern global megastars, this is the gateway band to persuade the masses about the joys of synthpop. Because what still astonishes me is that despite their now huge appeal, Chvrches are still 100% a synthpop band with an album-full of songs that I – single white male, wrong side of 40 – think are some of this year’s best musical treats (and I include the “blokey” songs in there too!) . All four superb singles are present and correct, as well as a host of achingly good tracks like “Science/Vision” , “Lungs” and “We Sink“. So aye, Chvrches eh: bloody hell, this is barry stuff but!
Vile Electrodes – The Future Through a Lens
My most-anticipated album this year was always going to be the Vile Electrodes debut. It’s been over a two year wait, but boy was it worth it! On first listening, I found The Future Through a Lens surprisingly introspective and a little bit downbeat. But it’s not really a dance album: these songs demand attention and constantly reward careful listening. Opening with a brilliant instrumental – a broody, John Carpenter-inspired number – the eleven songs that follow are all dazzlingly good synth songs. Lead vocalist Anais Neon controls the mic audaciously, dreamily crooning and weaving her way over the music. Highlights include “Drowned Cities” (which still reminds me of Front 242 but I think I’m alone there), “Proximity” (still superb despite its age), and the cybergasmically awesome “Damaged Software.” And album-closer “Deep Red” is surely the synthpop ballad of the year, a timeless epic that’s both melancholic and warmly optimistic.
OMD – English Electric
As the decades roll by, most bands are never able to repeat their creative glory years and instead rely on royalties from Greatest Hits repacks to pay the bills. Not so Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. While 2010’s History of Modern was (and still is) a great album, it always felt like a last-gasp sing-a-long reunion with The Best of OMD. But now with English Electric they’ve proved that musical genius sometimes never fades. Since its release in April, I’ve given this album countless playthroughs and it’s still a joy every time. Some thumping synthwork lies within, backed up with Andy McCluskey on peak form. At least half this album instantly screams “OMD classic!” while the rest demonstrates the no-compromise attitude of old. With hints of the musique concrète that smothered Dazzle Ships, there’s nonetheless no filler on English Electric: even the abstract “Atomic Ranch” serves as a perfect bridge to the final song. Synthpop fans could not have asked for anything more: English Electric is a crowning achievement in the OMD catalog and my absolute favorite album of the year.
So where’s Feathers, you’re wondering? Or Marnie, mr. kitty, Maps, Soft Metals or VNV Nation? All good electronic releases, but none quite caught my attention like the ones I’ve listed above. The Sound of the Crowd album arrived too late to my ears to give it a proper listen, and the brilliant Kite still steadfastly refuse to release an album. Other opinions are of course available! Check out Softsynth‘s Best Electronic Albums of 2013 and of course The Electricity Club‘s 30 Songs of 2013.
In 2013, synthpop fans have never had it so good: and with Spotify I’ve gorged myself to the max! Happy Christmas everybody, see you next year.