Ten essential electronic albums – Part I and II

There are several key benchmarks in the history of contemporary electronic music. Each one moved the genre forward an inch (or in some cases, a mile) and stands up today. There are literally hundreds upon hundreds, perhaps thousands of incredible electronic albums over the years and it’s almost impossible to pick out ten guideposts but a few would make anyone’s list, a few more would strike many as odd (and feel free to chime in with those you think were shockingly omitted). I do this list chronologically instead of in preferential order because to rank the best of the best is a mug’s game.

Kraftwerk: Autobahn (1974) 

How could any such list not include Kraftwerk? And while Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine would make worthy additions to any such list as this (and both of which I prefer artistically), it really has to come down to the groundbreaking Autobahn. The 22-minute title track makes up most of the album and its sheer originality, its ability to wrench emotion and soul from a robotic-style delivery mark its place in music history, while tracks like Kometenmelodie show off their playful side and their ability to create evocative soundscapes. And considering they were able to create a master work like this using 1974 technology is staggering. They showed that an album not need fretted instruments and traditional rock stylings to work. Sure, there were earlier electronic albums, but Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach and Louis & Bebe Barron’s Forbidden Planet soundtrack or Edgard Varèse’s Poem Electronique didn’t have the forward-looking breakthrough appeal that Kraftwerk brought to the table. Even now the album feels ‘important’ to the history of music and you feel the significance in every bleep and drum machine tap.

David Bowie: Heroes (1977)

This is, of course, not a pure electronic album but it did more to inspire a generation of electronic artists than almost any anything recorded before electronic music’s Golden Age (1980-83). Bowie took his act to Berlin in the mid-to-late 70s where he experimented with new sounds and thanks to the presence of Brian Eno, brought synths to bear in pop/rock music as no one had before him. Coming off the equally interesting Low, Bowie was still in the mood to bring the synth and the songcraft represented some of the best of his long career. Opening with the hard-rocking Robert Fripp-guitar-coloured “Beauty and the Beast” it careens through the catchy pop of “Blackout”, the slinky melodious “The Secret Life of Arabia” and back to the title track, one of the most poignant rock songs ever recorded spanning all genres. On Heroes, Bowie showed what could be accomplished using electronics, moody tones and a distinctly European mindset that would have repercussions throughout the next two decades and beyond.

Next, we’ll look at a compilation album that paved the way for the Golden Age and a classic electronic band that paved the way to the mainstream…

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