Top 25 electronic albums: 2000-2009 – Part I
As the decade draws to a close, blog after blog and magazine after magazine have been publishing their end-of-decade best-of-the-aughts music lists. Allow Softsynth to dive in to that crowded pool.
It’s been a busy and exciting decade for electronic music after the dry-ish decade of the 90s that saw a genre in transition, unsure of what was to come next as the golden era of the 80s passed by and the resurgence was yet to come. Since 2000 we have seen ups and downs among the subgenres with some of the most interesting music those subgenres have ever produced bubbling up this decade. In the coming weeks we will share our annual best of the year list – the only time we break from the declared mandate of this blog and we include what we thought were the best albums of 2009 regardless of genre – but for now, we share part of the best of the decade in electronic albums.
We have spent more time than usual preparing this list, one that is as subjective as any other (and we have seen some electronic best-0f-the-decade lists that have swung wildly across the spectrum – to the AV Club you would swear that “electronic music” consisted of little more than the DJ community, for example) based on our own tastes but we try to be as inclusive as possible, knowing that 50 fans of electronic music will come up with 50 different permutations. We started with nearly 100 of the most notable electronic albums of the decade with the various electronic subgenres and whittled it painstakingly down to 25. Some released this year may well stand the test of time but haven’t marinated long enough – including new work from Venus Hum, and Assemblage 23. Only two 2009 albums have made it to this list, and both were releases at the very top of the year. On further reflection we may wish to have added the 2009 offerings from the above two or others (and it would be a safe bet that each will be in our best of ’09 list so stay tuned). For better or worse, here’s the best of the rest:
25. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz (2009)
Released just this year Yeah Yeah Yeahs embraced their inner electronic artist and produced their strongest, most emotional, and frankly best sounding album to date. It sounded like an odd idea – the post punk of Karen O and company blended with synths. How was that supposed to work exactly?
Well, work it did, as they produced one of the most shockingly effervescent albums of not just the year but the decade, electronic or otherwise. What turned out to be the nicest surprise was the way O’s normally aggressive weapon of a voice worked with the electronics. The album is also more ballad-heavy than one might have thought but these tracks, especially “Skeletons” are among the strongest. A perfect mesh of rock and electro led to one of the most solid offerings the genre has seen this decade.
24. Goldfrapp – Black Cherry (2003)
With Black Cherry Goldfrapp turned a major corner. Previously they were an ambient, thoughtful electronic group, full of airy, floaty songs that you thought a lot about more than actually “enjoyed” per se. With this album they dug into the sheer power Will Gregory and Allison Goldfrapp had at their disposal.
One listen to the explosive crunch of “Strict Machine” and there’s no mistaking this was a whole new Goldfrapp. Ballsy, in your face, energetic and more than a little dirty, they began to embrace the power heavy electronic pop/dance music could unleash. “Train”, “Tiptoe”, “Twist”, each in your face and unrelenting. And even the softer fare here had a propulsive energy. Unlike anything we had ever heard before it, Goldfrapp were writing a new book that would soon pay even greater dividends…
23. Apoptygma Berzerk – 7 (2002)
We could be forgiven for forgetting what Apop once were. In recent years they have reached for a more mainstream sound complete with pop sensibilities, rock-based instrumentation and accessible lyrics. But once upon a time these Norwegians were a pure EBM/gothy confection, as good at that as anyone else on the scene. Their peak during this period was on this album. The angry, barked vocals, the relentless, sequenced synths, the pounding programmed drums, the whole album feels like an electro assault.
None of it would matter if the songwriting wasn’t so good, but it really is. “Mourn”, “Half Asleep”, the awesome, if troubling violence of “Deep Red” and shredding “Non-Stop Violence” – song after song it’s a symphony lyrical angst and musical joy and it works beautifully throughout. They’ve never sounded better.
22. Imogen Heap – Speak for Yourself (2005)
Weird and brilliant. Brit Heap is a breathy oddball who knows her way around a clever turn of phrase and a keyboard equally proficiently. The sublime lead single “Goodnight and Go” summarizes what’s best about the album. The track shimmers and the tone bobs and weaves until you are almost seasick. She uses percussion in almost unimaginable ways including using vocal samples for sequence lines seamlessly (a trick she uses far more on her equally -strong-but-too-new-for-posterity followup, this year’s Ellipse) and her voice, all hiccups and swirls is a fantastic instrument in itself. On softer tracks (“Closing In”, “The Moment I Said It”) and faster ones (“Headlock”, “I Am In Love With You”) alike, she comes off as an artist that is wholly unique, despite reaching, desperate attempts to label her the latest Lilith Fair progeny. On this album she proves she is so, so much more.
21. Zeigeist – The Jade Motel (2008)
We’ve only very recently written about this remarkable Swedish band who only managed to produce this one rich, surprisingly thoughtful album last year, so we won’t revisit it in great detail but suffice it to say, take one part The Knife, one part Scissor Sisters and blend with a touch of freaky-artist and you have Zeigeist. It remains sickening that they only managed to release this one album before calling it a day, but what an album it is that they’ve left us. From the guiltless synth pop of “Wrecked Metal” to the exceptional S&M ode “Cuffs” they knew their way around a synth beat with vocalists Per and Princess trading provocative singing duties to great effect. One cannot help but wonder what else they might have produced had they managed to stay together a little longer but in the meantime we have this treat to enjoy forevermore.
20. Erasure – Nightbird (2005)
Erasure have not had a good decade. From the woefully underproduced Loveboat, to the dreadful acoustic experiment, to the horrific Light at the End of the World, it’s been a series of unfortunate misses that have tainted the memory of this once-towering band.
And then there was Nightbird. Out of nowhere came a startlingly good, perfectly crafted piece of electronic pop confection. A depth we had never seen from the duo before topped by better-sounding electronics than we had ever heard Vince Clarke produce. Powered by the near-perfect lead-off single “Breathe” the album is charged with song after song of Andy Bell’s best-ever vocals. Start to finish the album was a refreshing, memorable treat that has stood the test of time and still sounds fresh today.
19. Komputer – Synthetic (2007)
Formerly I Start Counting, formally Fortran 5, whatever David Baker and Simon Leonard call themselves at a given time, they are true devotees of electronic music and their love for the genre shines through on everything they touch.
This third album from the band is their most complex and at the same time, in many ways, their most accessible. Their first, The World of Tomorrow, is straight ahead Kraftwerkian vintage electronic music; their second, Market Led, was almost fully experimental bleeps and bloops and frankly, not a lot of fun. But with Synthetik, Komputer reached a new level, one that was every bit as Kraftwerk-descended as anything that had come before, but with a beating heart to go with the cold German-influenced electronics. Their ode to the ubiquity of constant noise (“Headphones and Ringtones”) choking out every bit of silence or ambient noise we once knew is both profound and catchy. “Like a Bird” deals with isolation in a crowded world while again causing one to marvel at how well contained the lovely electronic rhythms propel the song. While much of the album is repetitive and droney it works on such a thoughtful level you’ll wonder why Kraftwerk never had the foresight to record exactly this album.
18. Shiny Toy Guns – We Are Pilots (2006)
In full, brutal honesty, Shiny Toy Guns seem like they may kind of be ass holes. Now, that’s not particularly scientific but their very demeanor does not endear listeners to the band. But that aside (not to mention their shit-tastic followup, Season of Poison) this is an unbelievably confident, brilliant electronic pop/rock album.
Most know the album for their hit “Le Disko”, but ultimately it’s actually among the weaker songs on the album. Employing the fashionable dueling vocalists, Chad Petree and Carah Faye Charnow, that are so de rigeur these days, the album casts a wide net including some more experimental work, songs that lend themselves to the rock side of the equation and those that are pure electropop like the flawless “You are the One”. Not the most original creation of the decade it simply deserves to be on this list because it has so many awesome, kick ass songs. The songwriting is near-perfect, the production rock solid and song after song simply delivers.
17. Bjork – Vepertine (2001)
This combination of strings, chamber orchestras, choirs and electronic beats did more to bring out the strength of Bjork’s voice than anything that has come before or since. Bjork has always recorded interesting material depending on her mood or that of her producers, but this was her most fully realized of the three albums she released during this decade. Listen to “Hidden Place” “Cocoon” or “Pagan Poetry” (the latter being on of Softsynth’s all-time favourite videos incidentally) and you quickly realize you are listening to something wholly original. Something you have simply never heard before. On this album she shifted the posts to expand what we could justifiably consider “electronic music”. But that wouldn’t be enough on it’s own. No, what makes this among the best albums of its genre of the decade is that soaring, gorgeous voice of hers coupled with these clever beats and the lush strings to make a sound fully onto itself. She always has the potential to top her best – something liberating about being as eclectic and “of herself” as she is – but she would be hard pressed to ever produce an album as beautiful and meaningful as this one.
16. Assemblage 23 – Meta (2007)
Their newest album, Compass, may be even better but that late 2009 release needs more time to germinate. Meantime, we have this wonder. Album after album Tom Shear has improved on the already impressive tracks laid down previously. It’s a rare glimpse at constantly forward-moving trajectory. Shear, better than most at the balance, can combine anger (and oh so bleak is this category of anger), bitterness, and pain with incredible beats and power-driven synths. He’s not the only one doing it but he makes it look so easy, so utterly effortless.
This album showed a more accessible, dare we say ‘pop’ vibe than his previous works. All the key A23 ingredients were there but there was suddenly an additional layer on deck. The sheer power of “Truth” and “Raw” were unmatched the year this album was released, it stood out alone as the one album that was willing to kick the shit out of electro conventions. Beginning to end, sheer EBM-industrial influenced electro-rock pleasure.
15. IAMX – Kingdom of Welcome Addiction (2009)
Let there be no surprise that this was the best album released in 2009, hands down, genre be damned. When Softsynth does up its best of the year list it will be number one, no mystery. Other best of the year lists won’t reflect that and it’s a shame because it stands head and shoulders above everything that’s come down the path this year. We look for albums that may contain a song that goes straight into our hearts. You know what we’re talking about – that song with the chorus that gives you the shakes a little, that makes the hair on your arm stand up on edge. That song with the bridge that makes you open your eyes a little wider in pleasant surprise. That verse with lyrics that make you smile and shake your head in wonder. This album has no fewer than four such songs (“Teargarden”, “I Am Terrified”, “Shipwreck of Life”, “Kingdom of Welcome Addiction”) – something we can’t ever recall having heard before, with the exception of the album that is number one on this list. The remainder of the album is merely brilliant. Bombastic throughout, but brilliant. The third album from former Sneaker Pimp Chris Corner fires on all cylinders. Romantic, weird, twisted, danceable, powerful, dirty. Everything you could want in an album. Corner is in perfect voice soaring and purring song to song. It’s a work of electronic genius.
14. Daft Punk – Discovery (2001)
Daft Punk occupy an interesting place in the world of electronic music. From the synthpop of “Digital Love” to the balls-out aggro-electro of “Aerodynamic”, every song is instantly identifiable as Daft Punk and no one else could it be. Oft imitated since, no one has been able to achieve quite what these French oddballs have. Sure it’s “just” club music but does anyone on the globe do it better? On this album the boys achieved perfect balance between organic emotion and cold electronics. Tough to pull off but pull it off they do.
Many will get caught up in the silly costumes, the endless gimmicks, the “anonymous robot” schtick, but dig down into the marrow of the music and you will discover the joys of pure dance pop done the way it’s supposed to be.
13. Huski – Love Peace Pain (2006)
Some albums are on here because they broke down barriers, or opened up a new way of thinking about a given subgenre, or because it had the potential to change music. Then there are those albums that have taken up residence on this list because they’re just that damned good. Melanie Garside has since gone onto critical acclaim for her excellent work as Maple Bee, but it was here that we heard her at her most playful and her most energetic.
There’s not a whole lot to say here. It’s just wonderful, wonderful music. Mostly languid, balladic and swirling, each song is a tasty treat, a lovely showcase for Garside’s enviable voice. Not the most special of the decade by a long way but song for song, one of the most enjoyable.
12. VNV Nation – Judgement (2007)
VNV Nation have been on a long journey to flesh out their sound year after year, album after album; from EBM instrumental purity to hard-edged electronic pop-rock with earnest lyrics angry for the state of the world and yearning for change.
Anthemic is the word that comes up over and over again as one listens to these tracks. Never more so than in “Testament” which sounds like a big stadium show closer, “Nemesis”, a preachy “watch what we’re doing because it’s all going to blow up” bombast, or “Illusion” a pretty but sad plea not to take the easy way out. Ronan Harris expanded into entirely new territory on this album and while many think he left all that made VNV Nation what it is, behind, in fact it was a building upon the EBM/industrial roots that made this album so strong. The combination of those roots, which once consisted of a lot of banging and processed sequence lines, with a more sophisticated sense of pop sensibility meant for the most fully realized VNV Nation album to date and among the most solid and entertaining of the decade.
11. Parralox – Electricity (2008)
Simply the best synth pop album of the decade. Each subgenre has their champion and this is the standard bearer for synth pop.
Many bands try to emulate or pay tribute to the electronic bands of the early 80s, many of whom do it very very well (La Roux, Northern Kind), but no one has achieved it so well as this Australian duo. It was the only album recorded with John Von Ahlen and singer Roxy, who left after the album was recorded but what genius they managed to squeeze in there while they were together.
Clearly a tribute in part to the great bands of the 80s (right down to song titles that reference O.M.D. and Yazoo) they took what was best from the era, the power and emotion behind the synths as opposed to the surface sheen and it works flawlessly. They even manage to do justice to an electronic version of Radiohead’s Creep(!). Danceable, smooth rhythms, and lyrics that sound good but mean little, just like the synth pop of yesteryear and brilliantly so.
Next: the top ten electronic albums of the decade…