Top 25 electronic albums: 2000-2009 – Part II

The top 25 albums of the aughts continues as we count down to #1. There’s a lot of variety in these albums, coming from across the spectrum of electronic music, so many great ones that got left out but the cream rises and herewith, the cream…

10. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver (2007)

For a time it looked at though LCD Soundsystem would be a run of the mill dance-electro act. A very good one but one that hardly stood out from the pack. That all changed with Sound of Silver.

This album was a fascinating experiment of creating electronic music using almost entirely acoustic instrumentation and it works far better than it has any reason to.

We first witnessed the Sound of Silver-era version of the band when they performed “North American Scum” on Letterman and we were transfixed.The song is largely emblematic of the album. Heavily percussive, it beats along like a runaway train with scream-spoken-occasionally sung vocals and thoughtful lyrics (okay maybe not all that thoughtful; we know “Europe” has lots of mimes, how about just “enjoyably odd”?). James Murphy’s enjoyable project has a heavy disco influence but doesn’t go for the easy or obvious hook. Each track forced you to be patient as the songs draw you in slowly (witness “All of My Friends” with its excruciatingly slow build before the percussion comes in to break the built tension) and while at first this can feel somewhat tedious the rewards are so plentiful when you arrive at your destination all is forgiven. Thoroughly fun without being disposable it stands as one of the most original recordings the genre has known.

9. Necessary Response – Blood Spills Not Far From the Wound (2007)

There are few greater joys than stumbling upon a band, or an album by accident that ends up completely blowing you away, maybe even changing your perceptions of the music you listen to. Knowing nothing about this band, we came across a track called “Forever”, on the Machineries of Joy Vol. 3 compilation. It was a fine EBM-flavoured song that we thought little of thereafter. But it grew on this blogger. Kind of got stuck on the back corner of the brain, like a nugget of popcorn rind gets stuck up under your gum line. Then we sought out the rest and what a revelation.

A side project of Aesthetic Perfection’s Daniel Graves. While that band is a harsh industrial-flavoured project, Necessary Response was an outlet for Graves’ more accessible work. More darkwave, less industrial. He even opened for De/Vision on a US tour as Necessary Response. And the album is chock full of some of the best electronic songwriting in many years. Moody and catchy at the same time, tracks like “Vapor” and the nearly-eight-minute “Elements” are delightful, tightly packaged darkwave treats. Graves’ voice is surprisingly solid too. On Aesthetic Perfection, his voice is usually distorted and scratched but here it’s clear as glass and has a lovely tone. (Who knew?) Song for song, you would be hard pressed to find a better album of the subgenre (sadly Graves has recently suggested he is burying the project to focus on Aesthetic Perfection, our loss).

8. Venus Hum – Big Beautiful Sky (2003)

Sweeping and expansive are the words that keep coming to mind regarding this album. Rarely has a title been more appropriate. Two years after their fine, serviceable, often inspired self titled debut and right before they enjoyed their most high-profile moment in the sun with their collaboration with the Blue Man Group on “I Feel Love” they recorded this precious gem of an album. To this day we’re not clear if it’s the broad synth washes or Annette Strean’s unequalled voice that dictate the tone of the album but meshed together it is a work of art.

Even after decades of following electronic music it wasn’t until we experienced this album that we realized how broad, how overwhelming emotionally and frankly, how damn lovely electronic music could be. Take “The Bells”, a slow build sweeping ballad that lifts yourself out of your seat as Strean hits the chorus, or “Montana” that just makes you happy to listen to. Few songs made us smile so involuntarily and so stupidly upon listening. We still have that reaction to the song all these years later.

Yes the lyrics can be a little precious here and there but it fits. It makes sense here. It belongs. It is part of the fabric of this wonderful album. Their 2009 album, Mechanics and Mathematics may be even stronger as a whole but as with Assemblage 23 (who released their own marvelous new album within weeks of the new Hum), it’s too new to judge as part of the decade-proper. One cannot judge the long-term merits of an album in a matter of weeks (but expect to see it on the ’09 best). Meantime, we have this earlier manifestation of their genius for breezy, fun songs with layer after layer of technical proficiency and emotionally complex melodies. The pleasure is all ours.

7. Ladytron – Witching Hour (2005)

Sometimes a band takes a major leap in messing with their successful formula and it ends up screwing them, damaging them forever after. Then there are those occasions when such a change makes you look at a band as though you just had laser-eye surgery and suddenly see with a greater clarity and focus than you had ever imagined possible. Such was the case with Ladytron when they released Witching Hour, their masterpiece.

Already one of the genre’s greatest bands, they shook things up, transitioning from the Kraftwerk-like minimalism of “Seventeen” into music that “swings”. Suddenly the band had a little groove going on. Basslines burbled, guitars and drums fleshed out the sound and made for a richer, more complex stew (important was how they used the traditional instruments, not letting them overwhelm the synths so much as blend with them to create something new something rich, and creamy). Vocalist Helen Marnie is the real star here though. She changed up her monotone, her emotionless (albeit tuneful) delivery and replaced it with a voice rife with emotion, one that dips and soars in conjunction with the new layered sound. The high point is the lyrically bleak/instrumentally minimalist “International Dateline” (Woke up in the evening/To the sound of the screaming/Through walls that were bleeding/All over me) where Marnie hits the chorus and wails “Let’s end it here!” and we defy you not to be lifted from your shoes. Pure power, pure emotion and purely wonderful.

6. Nine Inch Nails – With Teeth (2005)

Nine Inch Nails had a damn productive decade, not to mention their most creative. In addition to With Teeth, released a full six years after The Fragile, we got to enjoy Year ZeroGhosts I-IV and The Slip, all the latter half of the decade. And while each could stake a claim to a spot on this list, and while Year Zero is more ambitious it wasWith Teeth that saw Trent Reznor and Co. hit all the right notes.

As difficult to classify as any NIN material, this album enjoys some of Reznors’s richest songwriting, as dark and influenced by his battles with drugs and alcohol as any of his collections. From the fascinating electronic instrumental track “Beside You in Time” to the repetitive, looped piano-driven “Right Where it Belongs” to the troika of awesomeness that is “Only”, “Sunspots” (with it’s greasy, oily synths powering the chorus) and “Everyday is Exactly the Same”, each so wonderfully constructed, each blending electronics, industrial and rock influences into a pastiche that is uniquely NIN, at their very best no less.

5. The Postal Service – Give Up (2002)

Precious and twee, sure, but man, can Gibbard ever write a hook and what is electronic music without a good hook? (answer: Empire State Human). Ben Gibbard’s non-Death Cab venture and future blueprint for Owl City, The Postal Service was a (thus far) one-off dabble in twiddly electronica and its power still resonates almost a full decade later.

As minimalist as it gets, there is no IAMX bombast, Venus Hum sweep, Daft Punk grooves or Depeche Mode lyrical heaviness here, it’s as breezy as a mid-autumn day. Constructed by sending tapes through the mail it has the resonance of tapped notes on a Casio and the vocal delivery of someone winging it in their bedroom with a microphone and a cassette recorder. So why does it work so well? Why is it so damn fun? Gibbard’s own sense of fun is palpable here, for one thing, and it’s highly contagious. Producer Jimmy Tamborello has constructed some of the most bubbly, effervescent electro-pop ever recorded to DAT. There was a reason so many of these tracks were used as background for television commercials. While entirely original in its sound it owes something to vintage Human League, especially on “Nothing Better” (which Gibbard has admitted is his tribute to “Don’t You Want Me Baby”), and the updating of what made Human League special back in the day with Tamborello’s sense of a hook melds into something unique and beautiful. “Clark Gable”, “Recycled Air”, “Such Great Heights”, “Sleeping In” – track for track you will be hard pressed to find an electronic album released this decade with more flair and surety. It knows what it wants to be and succeeds at it in spades.

4. Fischerspooner – Odyssey (2005)

One simply has no way of anticipating what Fischerspooner has planned one album to the next. Following their successful, wildly experimental and often downright odd debut, #1, there was more curiosity than bated anticipation awaiting this follow-up. The last thing we were expecting was relatively straightforward electropop.

As much performance artists as musicians, Fischerspooner shed much of the pretension that surrounded their previous effort and replaced it with staggeringly mature, well-constructed pop music. The energy here is infectious. Suddenly Fischerspooner were dance music. They were electroclash. They were pop. They were confidently marching forward as a real band, less a pure studio creation. Sounding like everything from Bowie to the Faint, to Postal Service the sound is all over the place and a little messy but when it gels, as in the slow burner “A Kick in the Teeth” or in the rocker “Just Let Go”, or the perhaps overly cheesy-political, but pretty bold for its time, “We Need a War” or just on rock-solid pop sings like “Happy” or “Cloud” it’s as good if not better than most of what the decade had to offer.

3. MESH – We Collide (2006)

Electronic rock at its purest, most perfect. MESH had much to offer on their previous two albums, producing some of the world’s finest, most authentically deserving of the electronic mantel passed on by the 80s’ best synthpop with a nice edge to round it all out. But it was on We Collide that it all started to feel like magic. Crunchy guitars were suddenly at the fore. Drums seeped into the mix. Vocalist Mark Hockings found a whole new gear, not to mention an enhanced set of steel balls. The combination of the new energy and the electronics they had already mastered was a source for real sparks.

The album is best summed up by the song “Step by Step”. One of the best electronic songs ever recorded, hands down, it’s all key changes, seizure-inducing sequences blazing forward, so-intense-it’s-on-the-verge-of-funny vocals, thrashed guitar chords and a performance that leaves the listener exhausted after listening. The album is like that writ large. Sometimes the intensity (which is the key buzzword of the album) gets to be too much, too unrelenting, but taken in chunks it’s oh-so rewarding. Hockings has never sounded better. There is a clarity and smoothness to his voice we had never heard before, and it works beautifully as he harmonizes with himself on “Crash” or does key-change verse vs chorus trade-offs on songs like “What Are You Scared Of?” or “My Hands Are Tied”. he had suddenly developed into a powerful vocal force in his own right.

When you’re left wheezing at the end of the album the band throw you a lifeline with the almost whispered, muffled “The World’s A Big Place” and you can finally exhale properly. A fine workout well earned.

2. Radiohead – Kid A (2000)

Has there ever been a more inventive, risky, complete reworking of a band? Maybe the Beatles in 1967, but we would suggest not. So much has been written about this album and will continue to be over the coming weeks as it lands on numerous best-of-the-decade lists (and well deserved it is), that there is little we can add. This is very much Johnny Greenwood’s album. His constructed swirls and beats drive each song over the cliff into an entirely different existence where other albums would shiver, confused and alone. Less songs than architectural wonders. Thom Yorke’s vocals act as part of the music rather than as a stand-apart set of vocals in and if themselves, often nonsensical bleats and “oohs” and the swirling mess should sound like so much noise. But instead it lands in a strange kind of order. The odds of it working are in infinitesimal and yet…

Take “Everything in It’s Right Place”, disjointed vocals, orderless blips and bleeps, loops and yet it’s utterly, utterly compelling as a song. In the end it’s not just noise, it’s a marvelous, melodic song, unlike anything else on the planet. It harks to early Pink Floyd but this is something…more. Something, dare we say it, genius…

1. Goldfrapp – Supernature (2005)

We can throw around the word “perfection” like it was so much play money. What does it mean, really? When it comes to electronic music, fans of different sub genres will have their own definition but here’s ours: Catchy. Melodically memorable. Clear, crisp synths. A note-perfect voice that soars on the strength of a programmed bit of percussion or a chilly synth line. Songs that you can listen to over and over again and simply never tire of them. Such is this third album from the UK’s Goldfrapp.

Why does it work so well? Simply put, they took a formula was already working beautifully on their previous album, Black Cherry, and hyper-accelerate everything ten-fold. Alison Goldfrapp is sexier than ever – no small feat; the synths are crisper than ever; the beats unrelenting; the ballads affecting and moving; the lyrics poignant. “Number 1” is the ultimate love song; “Beautiful” is just that as the chorus rises up from the pit of your stomach; 70s sounds and affectations permeate throughout but mix with perfectly modern dance sensibilities. Twelve note-perfect songs, not a bad one in the bunch. Pound for pound, song for song. it’s electro-pop and disco, electro-clash and dance, sweet and intense. It’s a constant dichotomy that works as no other album has this decade. As another performer said – one who would never end up on a list like this one but who, in this case was prescient – “simply the best, better than all the rest.”

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10 Responses to “Top 25 electronic albums: 2000-2009 – Part II”

  1. Excellent couple of posts sir, very enjoyable and you’ve highlighted a couple of albums that completely passed me by (Necessary Response and Fischerspooner’s “Odyssey”). Biggest surprise though is the absence of The Human League’s “Secrets” but then everyone will have his own list, its diversity is part of the beauty of electronic music after all.

    I made a Spotify playlist of your list (for your European readers) – it’s at:

    See also:

    http://www.marsheauxforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=518

    Keep up the good work!

    Cheers,

    Jer aka Afront

  2. “Has there ever been a more inventive, risky, complete reworking of a band?”

    U2’s Achtung Baby.

    Overall, great list. I’m wondering, though: not a Primal Scream fan? I would think that XTRMNTR might warrant a mention, given your tastes.

  3. softsynth Says:

    Achtung baby. Good one, yes.

    Funny thing about lists (and a reason I’m particularly fond of them) is the never-ending “what about (fill in blank)?” It’s a constantly moving board which is infinitely fun. Were this a top 30 list we would likely see additions of albums by Rezonance, Depeche Mode, Massive Attack, more NIN, and Primal Scream. Were it top 50 it would be ever more diverse. That Maginot line has to lie somewhere :). Human League would end up in there somewhere too. Could easily have been a top 100 but who has the time…?

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by afront: Spotify playlist: Softsynth’s Top 25 electronic albums of the decade http://SPOTIFY.ly/cbg (source: http://bit.ly/8DpN0T)…

  5. This is a helluva list. Lots of good stuff for me to explore! Like you, I was pleasantly blown away by Fischerspooner’s Odyssey. I had no expectations coming into it, just exploring on iTunes one day when I happened across one of the songs from this album. I was hooked! The experience of listening to Odyssey continues to get better each time I return to it. The songs are catchy, bouncy but never cloying or sappy. Just pure synthpop fun!

    I’m glad to see that Mesh’s We Collide made the list. It’s near the top of my all-time best synthpop albums, too. It’s too bad A Perfect Solution isn’t as good (click here for my review of it: http://modernsynthpop.com/mesh-a-perfect-solution/).

    Thanks again for putting these lists together!

  6. A_Lee_Oath Says:

    Thanks for introducing to all this music. I took the ’00 off listening turn of the 20th century music. Jumping back in to contemporary stuff, I was surprised MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular was not mentioned. I guess they have not proven themselves.

  7. Loved Oracular Spectacular but found some of it uneven. Based on about half the album consider it a fantastic piece of work overall. Maybe if we did the top 50 :)…

  8. Martin Woodgates Says:

    Good to see mesh at 3rd place (although personally speaking they would have been number 1), they are so underrated worldwide, as to ‘A Perfect Solution’ not being as good, thats a matter of opinion.

    I found APS took a few more listenings to get into, but when you have created an album like ‘We Collide’, which is as close to a masterpiece as you will find in this genre, mesh were bound to struggle to create a worthy successor, I think mesh did their very best and created a fabulous album!

  9. Great list, thanks for that, a lot of new electronic music for me to check out. But I was surprised there was nothing by Underworld, my favourite electronic band of all time. Granted some of their best work was recorded in the 1990s, but 2002’s ‘One Hundred Days Off’ and 2007’s ‘Oblivion With Bells’ are very strong albums and would certainly be in my top 25 of the decade.

  10. What a great list! Never could expect Goldfrapp, Imogen Heap, Bjork, IAMX and Ladytron in one list.

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