Ten essential electronic albums – Part V and VI

The birth of the Golden Age of electronic music began with our next entry. 1980 was an awkward year of transition as technology was tentatively embraced with childlike flutters of uncertain expectation. But the next album marked the emergence of a more confident approach using the technology as a tool to make better and better music as opposed to some exotic novelty. As 1980 gave way to 1981 (the year, I posit, that was the high water mark for electronic music, the watershed year, if you will), things were a’changin’. For a time there, electronic music would become the mainstream, the norm, the gold standard of music. It was brief but it was memorable.

Gary Numan: The Pleasure Principle (1980)

With the single release, “Cars” Gary Numan became the first to truly traverse the divide. The first to go over the wall and record a huge mainstream hit on both sides of the Atlantic that was unapologetically electronic. The song stands up against any other of its time, genre be damned. In many respects it was a perfect single for the time. Robotic but supremely catchy. Lyrics that meant little but felt like they had some underlying quality we couldn’t quite put our hands on. The melody is so simple yet so perfect, it’s a wonder no one had written the song before. It defines the album and marks the key turning point in the history of electronic music.

But this album had much more going for it than just this emblem of its time and genre. “Engineers”, “Films” and best of all, “Metal” all show what an exceptional songwriter Numan was. The album pulses along, start to finish, with little in the way of soul or heart but an awful lot of spirit and chutzpa. This album, more than any before it, took the principles of pop songcraft and grafted synthesizers onto its skeleton. Ultravox had shown it was possible to do well (and Numan acknowledged them several times publicly as a major influence), but Numan perfected the art. Soft Cell and Human League would have much bigger electronic hits over the next year and a half (with “Tainted Love” and “Don’t You Want Me Baby”, respectively), but it was Numan who truly showed the way.

 

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark: Architecture & Morality (1981)

OMD don’t get nearly the credit they deserve for their role in pushing the boulder of electronic music up the hill. However even cynics acknowledge Architecture & Morality as their masterpiece, an example of a band at the height of their powers showing how it’s done.

With their first albums, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Organization, OMD showed they belonged in the upper echelons of those bands that were blazing a new trail, but with Architecture & Morality they showed they were wise and future-thinking enough to recognize that synth pop wouldn’t get it done long-term. Finally, with this album an electronic band showed they could connect on a deep emotional level with listeners. At the same time they expanded the perameters of sound and blasted the doors of conventional expectations of the limits of studio sounds right off the hinges.

In a series of sonic experimentations (that would go to even odder, less accessible places in their next album, 1983’s Dazzle Ships), OMD moved from the straight-ahead electro pop of “Electricity” and “Enola Gay” to something much darker, more sinister and more challenging to the listener. Using cinematic stylings on tracks like “Maid of Orleans” and “Sealand” and the title track, OMD expanded the notion of what a somewhat mainstream electronic band was capable of. Dazzle Ships would go further, using toys (toy drums, Speak & Spells) and analogue instruments to grow the sound they first developed on Architecture & Morality but this album is both stronger and more self-aware, and more importantly gave the genre permission to experiment again after falling into a bit of a pattern. Suddenly it wasn’t just the industrial bands doing the experimentation in relative obscurity, now it was out in the open for all to see.

 

Next: Vince Clarke takes it to the next level and the biggest band in the genre realize their full potential and power.

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