The Best Electronic Albums of 2011

This has been something of a peculiar year for electronic music. Some of the most compelling music from the genre has come from unsigned or yet-to-record-an-album bands. Discoveries like Curxes, Vile Electrodes and Nightlife provided some of the most alive, exciting and dynamic electronic music of the year. It was a year where EPs, instead of full albums, which we measure here today, brought us some of the most interesting glimpses of how good electronic music can be from the likes of Softsynth mainstay Miss FD, The Golden Filter, Tenek, or the three aforementioned bands (perhaps the latest example of how differently we now consume music in the digital age). And it was a year when many of the bands that make up the very foundation of this blog and this blogger’s bedrock musical interests, released new albums only to fall flat. In a year when Erasure, Ladytron, VNV Nation, M83, She Wants Revenge, And One and The Human League released new work it felt like assembling this year’s chart would be a pre-ordained affair, and yet it was surprises, resurfaces and new discoveries that provided the real fodder for our best of the year list in 2011. It was a year when Amy Lee of Evanescence, of all people would give us one of our most compelling electronic songs of the year, covering a Muppets song no less. There were curve balls but ultimately, as is the case every year, the best of the best rises to the top…

10. Class Actress: Rapprocher – This spot was a hard one to fill between this album, and a certain terrific Belgian band on Alfa Matrix who produced a solid, awesome album of their own and a hard-edged American industrial-influenced band featuring the brainchild of another band represented on this list who put out an album that perhaps more represented what Softsynth was listening to this year, but Rapprocher – the most purely synthpop album on this year’s list proved just too infectious, too addictive, too all-around listenable to ignore.

Perhaps the album that travelled the furthest distance from initial listen, to the Softsynth review to the place it occupies today, we were hard on it initially, giving it a middling-at-best review of the “keep trying and better luck next time” variety. But these songs stayed behind and would not leave. A loving tribute to the golden age of early 80s electronic music it’s that rare album that could have easily been released in 1983 and it wouldn’t have sounded out-of-place. These are perfectly constructed synthpop songs that show a staggering maturity and musicality to this artist. We say again, though less condescendingly, can’t wait to see what she does next (would love to see what she does moving out of mid-tempo a little…our two cents…).

Choice cuts: “Keep You”, “Weekend”, “Need to Know”

9. Aiboforcen: Dédale – Prior to 2011 we only had a passing relationship with this Belgian EBM band, one of those, “yeah, I dig that band…with that song and…that other song I like…” situations. But with the clever and highly addictive Dédale, they’ve reached a true sweet spot. They use guest artists perfectly employing labelmates like Diffuzion (who may just appear elsewhere on this list…), Leaether Strip and Ayria to give the album a sense of diversity and adventure. Aside from a strange misfire with a cover of U2’s “New Year’s Day” which feels forced and overly affected, the balance of this work is one of the best EBM albums we’ve listened to in a really long time (the subgenre needs champions and it could do worse than this awesome collective).

The album combines melodic pop and hard electronics perfectly; sometimes this blend can sound ridiculous but Aiboforcen execute it with spectacular flare. Patrice Synthea is a lovely singer and when she returns to the mike in between guest vocalists and she contrasts particularly well with the harsher tracks. She’s a huge asset.

It’s a great mix of styles and after seven years of waiting for this one the wait proved well worth it.

Choice cuts: “Time & Space”, “Rhythm of Light”, “Shadows”

8. Little Majorette: Rifle Heart – One of the weirder electronic releases of the year it’s one of those that’s stupid-hard to categorize. A sampling: tracks that sound strikingly like children’s songs, songs featuring child choirs, pretty swinging acoustic-guitar-aided ballads, 60’s girl group stylings, torch songs that wouldn’t have sounded out-of-place in the late 20s, songs featuring Spanish guitar and a tango beat, and weird pop songs that are even harder to compartmentalize. It shouldn’t work. It should be miles-too-cutesy-for-its-own-good. But the songwriting is so smart and fun that nearly every song works in its own right and this Swedish-British mash has given us one of the most original electronic albums of the year (or of many years).

Electronic music isn’t always fun. Even synthpop, which should be the very embodiment of “fun” is often so self-serious that one can be moved emotionally, or moved to dance but not as often be moved to smile. There are lots of smiles packed into this inventive, clever album and this listener is dying to hear what they do next.

Choice cuts: “Saving You for Best”, “A Swansea Love Story”, “Overflow”

7. Huski: Strangelove – We were so prepared to hate it. Early indications were that this delicate soft electronic band had become a boring, traditional rawk band. But those early indications were wrong. While there are elements of the trad guitars/bass/drums thing here (and they are not coincidentally the weakest songs on the album), nonetheless, boy can this duo write a perfect pop song. One would be very hard pressed to find a better written, better executed and better sounding pop song with guts than the likes of “Crying on the Telephone” or “Close to the Edge” and Melanie Garside has one of the strongest, most beautiful voices in electronic music. As a whole it’s an insanely strong album with incredible listenability.

Next time let’s see less of a gap between albums; word is they already have another almost ready to go and if this is the kind of thing they’re capable of we want more, more, more…

Choice cuts: “Close to the Edge”, “Crying on the Telephone”, “First Light”.

6. Firefox AK: Color The Trees – This delightful confection had the benefit of middling expectations. Another artist Softsynth has followed and enjoyed since the very beginning, it was also an artist that never rose to the top of attention mountain what with her pleasant synth ditties that rarely challenged though always charmed. Add to that the underwhelming, curiously chosen lead single “Boom Boom Boom” and you find yourself “looking forward to the album”. More or less. But it wasn’t one of the “counting down the days until it comes out” albums (see; #2-5). So imagine the surprise and delight when it turned out Ms. Kellerman had developed into a staggeringly talented songwriter and musician who artfully spun this collection of synth pop songs into gold. The word “delightful” keeps, albeit rather pedantically, raising its head when the album goes for a spin on the Softsynth playlist. It’s fun, flows beautifully and charms utterly, even when the lyrics take a darker turn. The lyrics are smart and clever and the music contains so many hidden moments, and layered surprises one loses count.

Very much the album that saw Firefox AK move straight to the head of the class and the one that ensures her future as among our genre’s most potentially important.

Choice cuts: “Color the Trees”, “My Sister and I”, “Running On My Own”

5. IAMX: Volatile Times – When we initially reviewed this album earlier this year we didn’t know what to make of it. It lacked the passion and energy of their previous albums and used more traditional instruments than we were used to. We liked it but didn’t really have a good bead on it. And yet it’s remained one of our most listened-to releases of the year as we repeatedly go back to that well. It still sounds fresh and compelling, every bit as much so as it did on first listen. The only difference is we get it more now.

While it doesn’t display the timeless brilliance of the last IAMX album, Kingdom of Welcome Addiction, our number one album from this list two years ago, it brings something else to the table. It has a breeziness, a relaxed flow to the sound belied by the sometimes-sadness, sometimes-bitchiness of the lyrics. And it’s on the lyrics that Corner dominates the scene like no other. The bitterness of “Oh Beautiful Town” is shattering and could keep a team of psychotherapists busy for eons (also? anyone who grew up in a shitty place can instantly identify). It’s the best song of a very solid lot that includes a very Prince-like “Music People” and the hard-edged rocker “Cold Red Light”. It’s deep and layered and builds on the already-strong legacy of the IAMX project and really demonstrates that Corner’s options are limitless.

Choice cuts: “Oh Beautiful Town”, “Music People”, “Bernadette”

4. Blancmange: Blanc Burn – In a sea of high-profile reunions the past couple of years Blancmange managed to fly way under the radar, but while the various comebacks failed to live up to their prospective bands’ legacies this one managed to actually build upon it.

With deceptively dark, often depressing lyrics, the rhythms feel comfortingly similar, the Indian sounds and instruments as though we stepped back in time to Blancmange’s early 80s heyday. The power of this duo’s songwriting has not diminished one whit in all the years. “The Western” may be the year’s most clever electronic song with a beat that belies its sad lyric that tells the tale of the protagonist mired in the “mud and the blood and the beer”. In many ways it’s a middle-aged album written by middle-aged musicians with middle-aged problems but that’s part of what works so well. This is something new. It may sound like a band we remember well from 25 years ago, but the stories they tell now are of a whole new time and for all its lyrical embrace of the mundane, it’s anachronistically exciting. The biggest surprise triumph of the year.

Choice cuts: “The Western”, “Drive Me”, “I’m Having a Coffee”

3. System Syn: All Seasons Pass – Just last year System Syn burst onto the Softsynth radar out of nowhere and blasted its way into our top 10 of 2010. It was a perfect darkwave, industrial-tinged, emotional workout and it set a very high bar for Clint Carney to try to meet. Well, meet it he did with an insanely ambitious multi-media project/concept album, and it picks up right where Strangers left off musically. The tale of the doomed woman at the centre of Carney’s story unfolds track by track with mood changes song to song, but a consistently wonderful melodic sense to counter the aggressive beats.

Carney is fast emerging as one of the genre’s most prolific and consistent artists with a crazy listenability throughout all his work. As he spreads himself thinner among God Module, Imperative Reaction and this project he runs the risk of falling into the law of diminished returns but so far he’s still firing on all thrusters bringing his unparalleled artistry to each project, none more so than on this sensational album.

Choice cuts: “Ordinary Life”, “Good Night”, “Absence”

2. Diffuzion: Winter Cities – Even better than their terrific debut Body Code, Winter Cities defies easy description. A little darkwave, a little touch of industrial, some dance, a soupcon of synthpop, it’s a hodgepodge that blends into a perfect Belarussian stew. Xev’s sometimes creepy, sometimes pretty vocals power the album through a near-flawless blend or songs and the sometimes spooky, sometimes catchy sounds are utterly unique and full of surprises.

Sometimes bands in our genre tread well-worn ground, other times they blaze a new trail. Diffuzion are firmly in the latter camp and they do so gorgeously. It’s a challenging listen and often tries your patience but the rewards are considerable. It’s the kind of album that rewards the repeat listen, uncovering many hidden sonic gems, and it stays with you long after you put the headphones down. An utter electronic triumph.

Choice cuts: “Pure Venom”, “Lace of Veins”, “Playing God”

1. Aesthetic Perfection: All Beauty Destroyed – It was a triumph of bringing together two disparate styles of music that fueled the Daniel Graves machine. It’s an album that quickens the pulse on each listen, the one truly, viscerally “exciting” auditory experience we found this year. The one time we felt fully exhilarated listening to an album. It’s ugly and beautiful both; it’s angry and thoughtful, and it’s the best electronic album released in 2011. Daniel Graves has combined the raw energy of AP with the melodic brilliance of his Necessary Response project into AP Mach II, something new, something other.

As its heart Graves has created an album that – all the trappings aside, the screaming, the anger worn on the sleeve – is replete with wonderfully written songs with hooks to spare, delicate keyboard lines crosscutting the piercing shrillness of the vocals (which we also get to hear with greater clarity than on any Aesthetic Perfection album before it revealing a warmer voice than most would ever have realized), and old-fashioned melodic brilliance. Not always an easy album to listen to it is nonetheless tirelessly brilliant.

Choice cuts: “The 11th Hour”, “The Little Death”, “Hit the Streets”

So there you have it, another year come and gone. We thought the year would be all about some of the big names who disappointed, or Assemblage 23 who have moved their album from this fall to next March (maybe), but it’s a whole new bag out there now and the genre is stronger for it. There’s real diversity here. There’s good stuff coming from every corner of the electronic community and it’s genuinely exciting. The picture for 2010 is less clear. Some of our favourites are going into the studio or readying new albums for release so we’ll see what’s in store, but for now, in 2011, we’ve known some real gems.

Watch: Aesthetic Perfection – Inhuman


23 Responses to “The Best Electronic Albums of 2011”

  1. Robert Logie Says:

    I find it difficult to believe that Interplay by John Foxx and the Maths – my favorite album of 2011 – seems to never be mentioned in your blog. The fact that it was left off thisist is criminal! Of course I realize that there were many great electronic albums released in 2011, but Interplay is close to being a masterpiece by a legendary master

    • Interplay is a terrific album. “Catwalk” just came up on the shuffle as a matter of fact. We’re planning a feature piece on Foxx in the new year, though we’ll cop to not talking about him as much as an electronic blog should (outside of his connection to Ultravox). As to the chart, same old story – 10 spots, too much good music. Interplay not the only one to miss the list we’d have included had we made it a top 20…

      • Robert Logie Says:

        Thanks for responding! The more I listen to Foxx’s recent production, the more I am amazed – from his work with Louis Gordon, to the current material with “the Maths”, I believe his to be the most compelling electronic work there is. It’s fresh and exciting, and holds true to the mystique, drama and uniqueness that classic electonic music stands for!

  2. Been looking forward to your choices Charles! There are a few releases here that I either haven’t heard at all (Aiboforcen, Huski) or only listened to once (Class Actress, Aesthetic Perfection), so this has set me up with some new must-listen albums for the week.

  3. chrisbrandon Says:

    I’m new to this site and I really like what I’ve read so far, but your continued bashing of the new VNV record really puts me off! Automatic is easily my favorite electronic album of the year… though admittedly the new AP record is quite good too. It was an exceptional return to form for VNV after 2 (maybe 3) lackluster releases. If I recall, your review called it Judgment III, which couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, Automatic is FuturePerfect Part 2 as it covers most of the same ground thematically. I’d encourage you to give it another shot.

    Other surprising omissions: Covenant, Necro Facility, Ghost & Writer, and Cut Copy.

    • I like the VNV Nation album on the strength of some of the songs, and more so than when I originally reviewed it (and still regularly listen to it) but it just feels like a letdown after the last couple of albums. They remain one of my favourite bands, unblemished by thoughts pro or con on the most recent album.

      As to the other recommendations, loved the Cut Copy album, *really* loved the Ghost & Writer album (would be in our top 15), have not had the chance to listen to the Necro Facility and really disliked the Covenant album, the first one of theirs I didn’t like. Lots to choose from out there! 😉

      • AcridSwitch Says:

        I absolutely love VNV Nation, and really enjoy the new album. But, I think the new Covenant (as a whole) is much better. Much more variety, and it shows how much they’ve grown as artists in “Modern Ruin”. Automatic is great, and with song like “Nova” and “Control” being the standouts, it isn’t anything new from VNV Nation. Which, don’t get me wrong, that’s why we love them, but didn’t impress me like Modern Ruin.
        Ghost & Writer was a very well balance release, with a handful of good remixes. I’ll have to check out Cut Copy though. Haven’t heard that one yet, or the new Necro Facility.

      • chrisbrandon Says:

        It’s funny how people have different tastes… I thought “Nova” and “Control” are the 2 weakest tracks on Automatic! “Nova” just seems like a remake of “Perpetual” to me… somebody buy Mr. Harris a damn floodlight already, the man is obsessed! Standout tracks for me are “Resolution” and “Radio.” I like “Gratitude” a lot too but the cheesy lyrics remind me of the Golden Girls theme song. :)~

        FYI: Cut Copy is an indie pop band with an 80s throwback to OMD and A-Ha… so if you’re just into EBM and scene bands, it may not be your thing.

  4. The Darkest Star Says:

    – Interesting list (even if there are some unknown [to me] albums).

    – So, you didn’t like Gravity the Seducer by Ladytron?

    – I recommend you to check these electronic albums:
    Washed Out – Within and Without
    Emmon – Nomme
    The Field – Looping State of Mind
    High Places – Original Colours
    Johan Agebjorn – Casablanca Nights
    Phantogram – Nightlife (EP)

  5. Great list, Softsynth. I’ve been adding these albums to my collection. Diffuzion in particular are becoming a favorite.

    I agree that you should check out Washed Out. I know a guy who worked on that album, and it’s quite something.
    The Necro Facility release “Wintermute” was somewhat disappointing, despite two or three strong tracks. NF is a band making a move from Skinny Puppy-emulation to EBM/synthpop, but they still have an album or two until they reach that destination. I expect great things from them once they settle on a sound.

  6. Having been a massive Huski fan since day one, its wonderful to see this amazing band getting some recognition. Seriously buy this album its amazing. You can get form
    also the first album is available there too! 3rd one on its way and I cant wait

  7. The Darkest Star Says:

    @Softsynth: You said you’re an open-minded music listerer. What about this indie rock song, “Still Life” by The Horrors: ? The song is brilliant, also the synth lines & the music video.

  8. […] besten Alben aus diversen Genres, im Elektronik-Bereich siegt Skinny Puppy mit Handover. Die Site Softsynth krönt hingegen etwas spezifischer die eher softeren […]

  9. Misty Jean Says:

    That Inhuman video could have been better without the blackface, yuck.

  10. Aestheitc Perfection = best album of 2011??? A very odd choice that seems to ignore a lot of what’s going on, there were far more impressive releases in 2011 than this. AP in my personal opinion have some nice sounds and composition which are utterly ruined by the truly appaling vocals – that bloke really cannot sing to save his life…he’s a good composer but his music would be greatly improved if he just kept his mouth shut or hired a decent vocalist…

    • I agree! I find the album is average compared to other great releases in 2011 – Interplay by John Foxx & the Maths, for instance.

  11. Awesome Music…

    […]The Best Electronic Albums of 2011 « Softsynth[…]…

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