The Best Electronic Albums of 2010
Is it that time already? Hard to fathom a year has passed since we crowned IAMX as having had the best electronic album of ’09, but here we are. It’s been a very different year for electronic music than last. In 2009 we saw a handful of albums (four at least) that were spectacular, and opened up a wormhole in the genre that led us to incredible new places. For balance we also had a great number of albums that were simply “great” to round out our ten. This year is markedly different. There wasn’t a single release that would qualify as transcendent in the way that handful were last year. What we had instead were a much larger pool of “really good, really enjoyable albums”. That makes the art of building a best-of list that much more challenging. A whole lot of good instead of a select few greats makes for a big pot of soup and that’s a harder thing to differentiate. Still there were a number that floated to the top.
When we build a list such as this we are looking for quality lyrics, well-constructed songs and above all, a sense of true resonance – songs that stay with us and stay fresh. There were albums we gave strong, positive reviews to that within months felt stale, and others that received luke-warm reviews that grew stronger with each listen. This made for a very different list than we might have predicted in the summer or early fall.
Need to say it up front: people love lists. Softsynth is no exception, and accordingly a lot of thought goes into ours. Last year at chart time our readership quadrupled and we’ve had emails and tweets asking when the top 10 is due this year, so we know there’s interest in these posts more than any other through the year. Accordingly we get more debate and even the occasional angry post questioning our choices. How could you choose that, how could you exclude this, and the ever-popular, I can’t believe you consider that to be an electronic album!! It needs saying: this is subjective, as are all of our posts. Debate is awesome and most utterly welcome, but the caveat still needs stating.
It was a big enough challenge breaking it down to a top 25. Going deeper to a top ten harder still. There were a number of great, enjoyable albums that we celebrate outside our top ten from across the genre including Nitzer Ebb, Kant Kino, Hot Chip, Tikkle Me, Cindergarden, Ellie Goulding, Psy’Aviah, Goldfrapp, Ego Likeness, tenek, Hungry Lucy, Ambra Red, Android Lust, The Golden Filter, Alice in Videoland, Diorama, Edge of Dawn, How to Destroy Angels (which was such brilliant work, but after going back and forth we decided a five-song EP shouldn’t be in the mix as the best of the best, but we look forward to a full-length very much), De/Vision and our toughest drop, Parralox (and we know full well with the passage of time this is one we may regret not including in the 10, as its recent release may just have not given us enough time to sit with and properly get to know it over a glass of wine in front of the fire, learning each other’s deepest secrets). Each one of the above albums was terrific and made 2010 a solid, enjoyable year for electronic music, they stayed fresh, and displayed songwriting and performance chops and would have been on a longer list. But this is about the best of the year, the best of the best, the top 10 best electronic albums of 2010. To whit…
10. LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening
The albums on this list fall into two main categories, those that break new ground and those that do something we’ve heard before but do it exceptionally well. This is the one entry that fully straddles that line. LCD Soundsystem released what it said to be the last album under that moniker and it’s a fascinating choice on which to go out. The world’s best electronic band using traditional instruments to achieve their electronic sound, LCD Soundsystem have given us a dance album with alt cred, thoughtful, penetrating lyrics, and the occasional party anthem. It’s fun, powerful and occasionally blissfully dumb (see: “Drunk Girls”, “Pow Pow”) all at the same time and a treat all the way through.
Highlights: “Dance Yrself Clean”, “I Can Change”, “All I Want”
9. Future/Perfect: Dirty Little Secrets
Nothing new here, this is pure, old-school synth-pop done extraordinarily well by people who perfectly understand the genre. What can we add to that? It works because of the displayed fealty to what makes electronic pop music work the way it’s supposed to. Crisp synth lines, tight, syncopated sequencing, simple drum patterns, terrific, unparalleled hooks, and lovely vocals. It’s not the deepest album of the year (though there are a lot of deceptively deep lyrics throughout), nor the most original but damn if it isn’t one of the most thoroughly enjoyable.
Highlights: “Discover Me”, “The Hunter”, “Solitary Star”
8. Muchuu: Adventure We Go
One of the more unusual entries on this list, we had never even heard of this brother/sister duo before this March and it took us a long time to get our heads around exactly what this was, but when it finally began to hit home we realized how special the album really is.
One of two very young (21 and 19) bands on the list, Adventure We Go is appropriately child-like. It’s also the most atmospherically magical album we heard this year, utterly evocative of a child-world where real, old-school magic is still possible. It’s lovely and draws an involuntary smile whenever it’s on. Sweet and surprisingly mature musically, it’s smart electronic pop done divinely.
Highlights: “Somebody Tell Me”, “Coral and Shell”, “Getaway Train”
7. Miss FD: Monsters In the Industry
Another hard one to classify, the former Frightdoll (out of Florida) is rife with industrial and darkwave trappings, but has a more accessible sound than one might expect, making it hard to say exactly what sub-genre this might fit into. Harsher in places than synthpop, more tuneful than industrial, it’s something…other.
But damn it’s good. Lead single “Together Forever” was straight ahead pop, almost chart pop, in its stylings. The rest of the album is a more varied package but whether the more aggro side of things or the more melodic like single “Enter the Void” – one of our favourite electronic singles of the year – it simply works, beginning to end, managing to be both incredibly raw and polished at the same time.
Highlights: “Enter the Void”, “Break Your Control”, “Thunder in the Blood”
6. Marina & the Diamonds: The Family Jewels
It quickly becomes clear how many albums on this list defy easy description. What to make of this odd, spectacular display from the UK’s Marina Lambrini Diamandi. Commercially very successful in the UK, if unheard of Stateside, it’s chart-friendly pop driven by electronics and more orchestrally conventional instrumentation. It’s often weird, sometimes beat-heavy (like the awesome Shampain), sometimes practically symphonic and lyrically fascinating. Despite its charty goodness, it’s an odd duck and hard to pin down exactly what it is exactly. It’s all the more intriguing and fun for it.
Highlights: “Shampain”, “I Am Not a Robot”, “Hollywood”
5. Ashbury Heights: Take Cair Paramour
The much-delayed new album from Sweden’s Ashbury Heights is both an artistic triumph and a tragedy. Commercially unsuccessful, it caused a full-on meltdown from band leader Anders Hagström who blamed his record label for the album’s lack of success and went on a de facto strike. However, lost amongst the angst and drama is a remarkably solid, consistent electro-pop album that draws beautifully on traditional styles. The song writing is whip-smart and Hagström’s knack for a hook is almost unmatched in the genre. Divorced from the silliness, the album is chock full of strong tracks that have only grown stronger on repeated listens since its release in the summer. It embodies the very definition of resonance – the power of these songs doesn’t fade one whit with the passage of time and perhaps it will end up being Ashbury Heights’ swan song but if so, they’ve gone out with a bang.
Highlights: “Crescendo”, “Dancer’s Nocturne”, “I Can Kill You So Easily”
4. Bunny Lake: The Beautiful Fall
One of many surprises to us, Bunny Lake were a solid, if unspectacular Austrian electro-punk band who had their best days ahead of them. With the release of The Beautiful Fall, they may have reached that point. A near-flawless album, it sees the band tamping down the dirty side they’ve played up more historically and they’ve concentrated on delivering a more accessible, brilliantly executed electro-pop collection. Like #5, this album has grown since its release in April. With dueling vocalists we get a nice soupcon of different styles on display and the contrasts work perfectly. Not nearly as simplistic as at first glance, it’s very cleverly written, with many wonderful, seductive layers hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered on multiple listens. One of the more emotionally satisfying electronic releases of the year.
Highlights: “Army of Lovers”, “1994”, “Into the Future”
3. The Girl and the Robot: The Beauty of Decay
We knew from pretty early on in the year what our top three would be and it hasn’t budged since those early months. What has bounced about has been the order of the top three which has moved with the tides. Truth be told they are so close on any given day they could shift about and hold equal validity. But on this day this is the order that stands.
This is one of those cases where there’s nothing particularly unique about this album, not even anything all that special, it’s a simple case of perfect execution. Twelve slices of electronic perfection. As fresh as upon first listen, it may have been our number one had the album included “Howling Winter”, a treasure buried on the b-side of the “Whole”/”Flowers” single. As it stands it has to settle for just “really sensational”.
Highlights: “Crash Course in Hate”, “I Lost Control”, “Another Love”
2. System Syn: Strangers
Perhaps the coolest thing about preparing a list such as this is re-discovering those albums that were such surprises. There are a record number of those on this year’s list, none more surprising than Strangers.
From first listen this darkwave treat was great but it took some time to really “hear” it. Sometimes industrial-flavoured, this is an album that has perfectly found the absolute exigency at which the harsh side of the electronic world meets melodic listenabilty. There is so much anger contained in this album it’s surprising it doesn’t combust from the emotion but there’s equal parts humanity which keeps it contained just barely enough. It’s hard as hell to pull off but Clint Carney has perfected the elusive art. Brilliant songwriting that will stand the test of time with not a single weak point to drag the album back to earth(with particular points for the best kiss-off song we’ve heard in recent memory in “Here’s to You”).
Highlights: “God and Country”, “Rex Mortuus Est”, “Here’s to You”
1. Chew Lips – Unicorn
Words fail when trying to do justice to this utterly unique album from UK trio, Chew Lips. Released at the very beginning of the year it hasn’t left heavy rotation on the Softsynth playlist since.
The first great asset you are hit with is the powerful, peerless-in-2010 voice of Tigs. Shockingly mature and “lived-in” for someone so young, it’s an entity unto itself. Her deep, powerful vibrato wouldn’t feel out-of-place in a jazz club and acts as such a staggeringly perfect counterpoint to the electronics we have to go back to Allison Moyet during her Yazoo days to find a comparable example.
Then you are struck by how mature the songwriting is here. Tig’s lyrics are often sad, always clever, and surprisingly deep. The melodies created here sound like they are being created by a band so confident they had to have spent many years becoming a cohesive unit instead of just two years under the collective belt. Again, this is a young band and to create sounds, key changes, hooks, dips-and-soars and pure on-their-sleeve emotion like this defies all logic, but they have managed it. They have succeeded on the most fundamental level when the listener finishes the album and starts pining for the follow-up with bated breath.
We rarely throw around the term “genius” but within this genre (even though it’s hard to pin down exactly where in the genre this fits as they play so successfully with sounds and themes), but in this case it’s due. It’s a rare work of art that must be consumed and savoured by the true electronic fan.
Highlights: “Karen”, “Eight”, “Gold Key” (but in truth, not a bad song in the bunch…)
This has been a surprising “best of” list for us. A number of these bands are brand new to us, with no meaningful history in the movement yet they delivered more interesting and challenging albums than some of our most reliable industry champions like De/Vision and Goldfrapp (who delivered fantastic/perfectly serviceable albums this year, respectively). It was a good year over all with some lovely surprises, if not that blockbuster time capsule album for the ages. Maybe 2011 will see a couple of those. Meantime we have a nice collection of solid electronic music, in all its forms, to help us remember the year that was.
Watch: Chew Lips – Play Together