Ten essential electronic albums – Part III and IV

And on we go. We arrive at the 80’s. There were many more great albums that saw us through the tail end of the 70’s from Can, Throbbing Gristle, DAF, Neu, Einsturzen Neubauten, even at very end the Silicon Teens, but while all made an indelible impact on different aspects of the genre it would be some time before the more industrial acts, in particular, felt their true resonance (Neubauten in particular were ridiculously influential, and yes, important to the growth of the genre, but their influence owed more to a movement, to a sound, to a general sense of pushing boundaries and experimentation than to a particular album in my opinion. I’ll revisit Neubauten in a separate post before long, because frankly, they deserve it.). The next major waves were in the synthpop vein. For it was this subgenre that opened the doors to mainstream audiences finally embracing music made by machines in conjunction with their humans. Their influence is still felt today.

Ultravox: Vienna (1980)

Ultravox were a key band in the late 70’s for the genre. Across three albums with singer John Foxx (who would go on to be a vitally important solo artist in the broader genre in the 80’s, 90’s and beyond) they embraced elements of kraut rock and punk, and inflused them with Billy Currie’s electronic impulses.

When Foxx left the band, he was replaced with Midge Ure, who along with producer Conny Plank brought the band to a distinctly new place. Gone were the rawer, punk influences (in as much as the punk ethic ever left the early electronic bands, but more on that in the selection below), and in were the New Wave, almost prog-rock flavours. Always melodramatic (sometimes to a fault), it was the perfect sound for the band to embrace. More than any album before it, Vienna showed what a band leaning heavily on synths could do, carrying the sound into a more mainstream, accessible place. Suddenly pop music could be produced using electronics and get away with it. 

For the title track more than anything else, the album paved the way for electronic music to break into the mainstream. But the album is full of tracks that showcased well crafted pop tunes using heavy scoops of synthesizers: “New Europeans”, “Sleepwalk” and “All Stood Still” all sound fresh even today, despite the datedness of some of the analogue synth sounds and the album showcases the group experimenting in their instrumentals like “Astradyne” as they never did otherwise to great effect. The success of the album, particularly the majestic, sweeping title track would show scores of artists what they could accomplish using the drum machines and synths to make stylish,catchy and thoroughly modern pop music. 

Various Artists: Some Bizzare Album (1980)

1980 was a watershed year for electronic music. So many key albums were released during this time and so many of the genre’s biggest artists were starting to form in the petri dish that year. This compilation album released by Some Bizzare Records’ Stevo would have a far greater impact on music than anyone could have realized at the time.

Co-produced by Daniel Miller (who had already kicked down some doors with his electro alter ego The Normal, who’s “Warm Leatherette/T.V.O.D.” double a-side was enormously influential and his “other alter ego” the Silicon Teens, who’s album Music for Parties showed further how deeply electronic music could penetrate the poppiest of pop music; he was also the impresario behind Mute records, which so influenced electronic music forever more it warrants its own extensive separate post), this album saw the debuts of The The, Blancmange, Depeche Mode and Soft Cell (as well as “almost” Fad Gadget, who were supposed to have a track on the album but it was dropped at the pressing). The album also contained electro tracks from across the musical spectrum. The sonic experimentation of Random or Blah Blah Blah, to the mainstream electro-pop goodness of Illustration’s “Tidal Flow”. We got to hear The The and Soft Cell as anything but the mainstream pop artists they became and were treated to industrial-influenced droner-tracks instead. The sprinklings of kraut rock and industrial music melding forever with pop sensibilities showed us what this genre could be, subgenres all nicely packaged and presented all in one forward-looking record.

Miller would go on to devote his energies to Mute records, inspired by what he saw was now possible and the face of electronic music was forever altered.

Next: the mainstream breakthrough we were waiting for and a band who pushed the boundaries of electro pop to the breaking point.

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