The Best Electronic Albums of 2009

Finally recovered from the exhaustion of compiling the decade’s best electronic albums, we now turn our attention to the best of this year. Two changes to the initial plans. We had reported earlier we were going to do an all-genre-inclusive list, as we did last year on this blog and as we have in previous years in the earlier incarnation of the blog. Given the huge number of predominantly electronic albums that were released this year, or more specifically, the large number of great electronic albums, we have done an about-face and will stay true to the blog’s mandate and share what we think are the best of the year – electronic only. (The only two albums clearly effected by this change are the exceptional new works from The Dead Weather and Placebo, and we’ll hear from them elsewhere, see below…; and as always the definition of “electronic” is somewhat loose – see our own definition in an earlier post.)

Second change, we had also mused about doing a singles of the year list. Ha, we say. Ha! Overwhelmed with the sheer number of exceptional singles we throw in the towel. Simply too onerous. We will instead do the 2009 Softsynth playlist – all genres this time and not just singles but album tracks too. Despite the move to a singles society thanks to iTunes and the like, we still look to album tracks for some of the most interesting, challenging work out there. Those songs, electronic and otherwise that have blown us away or just kept us moving throughout the year will make up the official Softsynth playlist. We’ll get to said playlist soon enough, for now, the best in 2009 electronic albums…

First off, what an embarrassment of riches this year. Choosing just ten was nightmarishly difficult. Just thinking of the fantastic 2009 albums that didn’t make this list by Tenek, Northern Kind, La Roux, Little Boots, Seize, Phoenix, Parralox, Moderat, aha, Client, Collide, Claire Voyant, The Big Pink, Marsheaux, M83 and Lily Allen, not to mention the rather agonizing choice between Imogen Heap’s great new album Ellipse and what ended up making it at #10 – and all this not to mention those scores of electronic albums that were just “fine” – it makes one’s head hurt trying to pick just ten that clicked more than the rest. But click some did.

Secondly, we cannot go without mentioning Depeche Mode’s Sounds of the Universe, which was one of the most highly anticipated genre albums of the year and one of the most disappointing in terms of expectations vs. reality. Unthinkable that a list such as this would not include them at any time, but alas no. That said, if the bonus material in the deluxe package was isolated as a stand-alone EP that might well have made the list. Tracks like “Ghost” and “Light” are far more interesting than most of what ended up making the actual album and these “unfinished” tracks make one wonder what would have resulted had they simply “stopped” the recording of the rest of the songs a little earlier. Alas.

The albums that stood out the most in 2009 were original, melodically and lyrically strong, memorable and had real staying power. Many albums that were released at the very top of the year sound every bit as fresh at the end (and interestingly our top three were all released in the first weeks of 2009). Others were released toward the end but resonated so strongly and evoked such an emotional appeal that they couldn’t not be included.

So, without further ado…

10. Fischerspooner – Entertainment

Based on past experience we’ve learned the more we enjoyed a particular album, the greater the letdown on the followup. This year we saw a number of exceptions to this rule. Following up their rock solid sophomore album, Odyssey, Fischerspooner graced us with a delightful, pop infused sequel. Very much in the spirit of is predecessor, this album was a delightful collection of electro-rock, sometimes experimental songs that crossed back and forth between odd and catchy.

Start to finish, fun, danceable, lyrically thoughtful and utterly satisfying.

Highlights: “Door Train Home”, “Amuse Bouche”, “The Best Revenge”

9. VNV Nation – Of Faith, Power and Glory

Based on feedback to our own review of this album this will likely be the least popular choice for this list but it has proven impossible not to include it. Another light-years jump away from the more industrial roots of the band, and perhaps a leap too far past the perfection of Judgement, it still manages to land on its feet.

Ronan Harris has become ridiculously “musical”. Melodic in a way one would have been hard pressed to anticipate just five years ago, he has moved away from the banging percussion and shouted vocals (when there were vocals at all) to become a veritable tunesmith. So why, as a fan of said banging and shouting would Softsynth embrace this new direction? Because he has, if anything, improved as a songwriter, penning anthemic song after anthemic song (as in our Judgement recap in the best of the decade list, the word that comes up more than any other these days when describing VNV Nation) and one’s soul soars when listening. Not every track lands but when it does there are few albums released this year that were stronger.

Highlights: “Where There is Light”, “Defiant”, “The Great Divide”.

8. Bat for Lashes – Two Suns

An album as sonically breathtaking as Natasha Khan is physically, something one would have been hard pressed to even contemplate previously. Sweeping and majestic, Khan’s voice oozes like syrup, as thumping percussion brackets synths and strings and the listener is taken on a journey to a gauzy, Narnia-like land which bears only passing resemblance to our own. More than any other album released this year one travels someplace new when listening to Two Suns and it’s a remarkable accomplishment. 2009 marks the year Khan took her place as one of the masters (mistresses?) of the craft.

Highlights: “Moon and Moon”, “Siren Song”, “Peace of Mind”

7. Venus Hum – Mechanics and Mathematics

We’ve already gone into great detail celebrating this great album’s merits in a vcry recent review, so we won’t belabour the point except to say, with each passing week the fondness grows ever stronger. Nashville-based Venus Hum have created an album as light as air, as effortless as a cloud, as joyful as any album released this year. Both relentlessly retro and forward thinking it can’t fail to put a smile on your face. Annette Strean remains Softsynth’s favourite singer on the planet, bar none, and she’s an unquestionable joy to listen to here, even when the lyrics threaten to drag the odd track down somewhat, her airy-yet-powerful vocal keeps the party swinging. Tony Miracle’s compositions here are deceptively simple – underneath the surface lies layer after layer of synth washes that would stand up in any era. Their strongest album to date and one of the true highlights of the year.

Highlights: “Bryan Sometimes”, “Magic Between Us”, “Mechanics and Mathematics”.

6. Dragonette – Fixin’ to Thrill

Hate the title, love the album. In fact this is one of those albums that a) came in with low expectations on the part of this blogger and b) came out of the box sounding great and has only gotten stronger.

We honestly thought that the band behind our pick for #1 album of 2007 was a one shot-wonder. So perfectly calibrated to its time, Galore, was a wonder, largely electronic but more hybrid than anything else. Word was this one would be far more organic but it’s exactly the opposite.

Likely the most inherently fun album of the year they picked up right where they left off and have kicked up the dance and pop influences even more. Masters of the hook they deliver on song after song, no dud in the bunch. Even sleepers like “You’re a Disaster” which seemed initially like low points, slowly reveal layers of awesomeness beneath the surface on repeated listen. It’s confection but a treat no less for it.

Highlights: “Stupid Grin”, “Easy”, “We Rule the World”.

5. Metric – Fantasies

As a Canadian blogger we know we should be more attuned to Canadian music but frankly year after year of being disappointed by local and regional offerings have embittered us. And yet, here we see two Canadian artists back-to-back, first Dragonette and then this remarkable album from Metric.

Plucky as hell with some of the most mature songwriting of the year, Emily Haines and co. have crafted a masterwork that is as strong punching the crap out of an electronic-rock song as they are in balladic bliss. Showing variety and a creativity that rivals any band on the planet they have achieved one of the most finely balanced and tuneful albums of the year in any genre.

Highlights: “Help, I’m Alive”, “Twilight Fantasy”, “Collect Call”

4. Assemblage 23 – Compass

As with Venus Hum, this album was reviewed very recently by Softsynth so we won’t redouble the efforts except to add that, like Venus Hum, though even more so, this album seemed stronger today than ever. Without question now, the best album A23 has yet produced. Dark, depressing, morbid, macabre, and awesome. The beats belie the lyrics, which by the way are collectively the most poetic and heart-rending lyrics written this year. Tom Shear gets better and better with each release and this is his peak to date.

Highlights: “Alive”, “The Cruelest Year”, “Grind” (though truth be told the whole damn thing is a highlight…)

3. Polly Scattergood – Polly Scattergood

One of the most breathtaking surprises this year was this corker from London’s Polly Scattergood. A one time piano chanteuse, she emerged into a full-fledged electronic artist on this sparkling debut. Yes, the lyrics are oft-times pretentious, but those lyrics mesh so beautifully with the electronic washes and gorgeous melodies that all is quickly forgiven. Scattergood’s lovely voice is the perfect vehicle for dark songs about prostitutes and love lost.

One of the most wholly original albums released this year it bears some passing resemblance to the likes of Imogen Heap or Tori Amos but she repeatedly veers off in sonic and lyrical directions only imagined by others of her ilk. A triumphant debut that doesn’t seem to age one whit.

Highlights: “Bunny Club”, “Untitled 27”, “Other Too Endless”.

2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz

Our top two albums won’t come as any surprise to those who have read our best of the decade list. Two 2009 releases stand as among the best of the past ten years so it would stand to reason that they would rise up as the best of this year. One such album is this wonder from Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Blending their post-punk rock ethos with electronics effortlessly, as though they had always worked within this medium, Karen O and friends have crafted a masterpiece of sadness, angst and dance pop. Not an album we had any business anticipating but one that shone a light of joy into the scene at the very top of the year and one that has kept right on shining throughout the year. Almost unequaled in its brilliance.

Highlights: “Skeletons”, “Zero”, “Heads Will Roll”.

1. IAMX – Kingdom of Welcome Addiction

No other album could have held down this spot this year because no other album came close to achieving this level of emotional resonance in 2009. Chris Corner , already among the genre’s greatest heroes dating back to his time as a Sneaker Pimp, has perfected the formula. Big choruses (like, BIG), dark, sweaty lyrics (including our favourite of the year:

You look good in leather in bars

Breaking things, breaking hearts

You look good in pleasure, in hotels

Loneliness is the key to break that spell.)

It just works. Corner’s voice has developed into a powerful, lusty, sexy instrument, the electronics have strengthened into a powerful force all their own. And the songwriting is without equal this year. You will be hard pressed to find an album with more songs that make their hair on your arm stand on edge. And you will be hard pressed to find an album as good released this year. Corner has created an angsty work of art.

Highlights: “Teargarden”, “Running”, “Kingdom of Welcome Addiction”, “Shipwreck of Life”, “I Am Terrified”, “An I for an I”….

That’s our list for the year. Our playlist is yet to come, but these are the albums that rocked the Softsynth house in ’09.


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7 Responses to “The Best Electronic Albums of 2009”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jer White, Philipp Anz. Philipp Anz said: @pollyworld Polly, would you call yourself «an electronic artist»? Since your Nr. 3 in these Top Ten: http://bit.ly/7WRm5R @eardrums […]

  2. Another fine post Softsynth collective! We’ve been discussing it on Twitter, where @eardrums (http://eardrumsmusic.com/) said:

    @afront Would you call Bat for lashes, Metric, Polly Scattergood electronic albums?? I was a bit surprised to find them on this list…

    As for VNV Nation, well I now think it’s their best album ever! It’s certainly their most consistent with the least amount of filler. Ditto A23 – a career best.

    I blogged a list myself recently – here’s my Top 20 Synthpop Albums of 2009:

    http://pansentient.com/2009/12/top-20-synthpop-albums-of-the-year-part-i/

    http://pansentient.com/2009/12/top-20-synthpop-albums-of-the-year-part-ii/

    Not a lot of cross-over, but it was you who put me on to Dragonette so thanks for that!

  3. softsynth Says:

    Point well taken about what constitutes electronic music. We have blogged about it frequently – what makes for an “electronic artist”? We went into it here a bit: https://softsynth.wordpress.com/2009/05/28/are-we-witnessing-the-next-mainstream-electronic-wave/#more-291.

    Our definition: There are many subgenres in the world of electronic music including what we call hybrid bands, those that employ many traditional rock trappings but one of the main identifiers is their use of synthesizers (or in the case of an LCD Soundsystem, instruments that approximate the same sound). Metric would fall into this category. To the three bands mentioned I would reply, “Collect Call”, “Siren Song” and “Bunny Club”, each an unabashed electro track. In each case drum machines or programmed percussion and synths permeate the albums. It’s the defining flavour, or character of each album. Bat For Lashes is the biggest stretch but it feels like she belongs among us. I for one am more than happy to welcome her :).

  4. softsynth Says:

    Oh, just to add: Of course those are not synthpop bands at all but again, we tackle all forms of music made in large part by machines. No one loves synthpop more than me, but there’s so much more to the movement. and a “Bunny Club” is just as much an electronic song as La Roux’s “Tiger Lily”…

  5. softsynth Says:

    Jeez, can’t seem to remember to include in one post: afront – great list. Note that most of the albums on your list were at least in our “notable” section of mentions at the top of the list. Were we do have done a top 20 almost ten more from your list would have been on this one. Of the 18 from your list I’ve heard, all were awesome…

  6. Cheers softsynth, yes I did notice your “good but not quite good enough” list at the top 😉 Incidentally, there was some more discussion about your list on Twitter where Philipp Anz (@p_anz from http://www.fingermag.com/) asked Polly Scattergood whether she would call herself an electronic artist:

    Polly replied “If I had to box it, I guess I would, mainly coz if the amount of synths n stuff” (http://twitter.com/pollyworld/status/6477874445) – so I guess that’s clear vindication for you! 😉

  7. inertia:creeps Says:

    From that list I like a lot: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz! (my album of the year), Metric – Fantasies, Bat For Lashes – Two Suns.

    Definitely I should check VNV Nation – Of Faith, Power and Glory (Judgement was amazing) and Assemblage 23 – Compass

    PS:
    1. If there is ONE album from 2009 that you should check right now that’s Way Out West – We Love Machine. I bet you will love it from the very first listen!

    2. What about my list: http://www.last.fm/user/alin1/journal/2009/12/27/3a87pz_best_electronic_albums_of_2009 ?

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