The Best Electronic Albums of 2012

The annual look back over the year is always so illuminating. Year over year we can see where the trends are, where the most exciting electronic music is coming from.

Last year harder-edged electro was quite prominent. From our choice for number one album of the year by Aesthetic Perfection on down, the industrial influence was riding high. When we compiled the initial rough list for this year it was dominated by albums more on the pop edge, particularly the more experimental quirky pop edge, but clearly melody was king.

It was a good, and more specifically, prolific year for electronic music. This year’s rough list was longer than any year previously and was duly difficult to whittle down.

As always, we know not everyone will agree with this list; if previous years are any indication there may be some heated, even extreme questioning of the choices, Such is the passion that rises from genre-specific music fans, the smaller and tighter the community, the more passionate.

There were some exceptional albums that didn’t quite make the grade for the top ten this year. Those include albums by Mari Chrome, Shiny Toy Guns (which, but for a last-minute switch would have been on this year’s list with their strong comeback, III), De/Vision, Sin Cos Tan,, The Presets, Carter Tutti Void, Passion Pit and Flux. Exceptional, sometimes joyously so, albums, the quality of which should be a good indication of how strong the top ten are. We also need to mention Metric’s 2012 offering. We referenced it when it came out and were somewhat meh on it at the time, while noting that the bulk of it couldn’t make any claim to being an electronic album, but no album has grown more this year on repeated listens, and if the “electronic half” of Synthetica were an album onto itself (“Dreams So Real”, “Lost Kitten”, “The Void”, “Clone”, “Nothing But Time”) it would easily have made our list. At a minimum, it deserves serious attention for it’s considerable strengths.

And with that, to this year’s best of the best…

10. Future Perfect: Escape – This last spot was a struggle to fill, given how many terrific albums were in the running but we couldn’t not acknowledge this fine synthpop album from the U.K. duo. It showed marked growth from their already fine debut, Dirty Little Secrets and they even had the guts to play with their formula with having keyboardist Simon Owen take the mic on several of the songs, as the duo essentially switched roles. That combined with a darker edge and a continued demonstration of fine, thoughtful song writing showed us this band is here to stay and show signs of only getting better. No one doing better classic, old-school synth pop than these folks.

They say their next album will be darker still. T’will be interesting to see. We’re already looking forward to it.

Choice cuts: “War of Words”, “Light”, “We Fly”

9. Tying Tiffany: Dark Days, White Nights – Ever hard to pin down and define, Italy’s Tying Tiffany delivered her strongest, most listenable album to date this year.

One part disco artifice, one part industrial-flecked noise, Dark Days,White Nights was the perfect realization of her ethos. Self described as an EBM artist, she actually pulls in many disparate elements to form a soup that sounds like absolutely nothing else on the market.

Often challenging, this album is at the same time full of powerful percussion, slithering synths and Ms. Tiffany in career-best voice. It’s energetic as hell while also being utterly tuneful.

As an artist she keeps fans guessing, never sure where she’s going to go next, but she keeps delivering. It’s a sparkling example of how good an artist truly willing to compromise can really be.

Choice cuts: “5AM”, “Unleashed”, “Drownin”
8. Ultravox: Brilliant – We weren’t sure what to expect. Too many times we were burned by unrealistic expectations for classic electronic acts making a “comeback”. We loved Ultravox in their day, from the John Foxx era, to the new romantic period borne of Vienna, and mourned their passing (not to mention their final Midge Ure-era album, U-Vox and the littered detritus of the post Ure albums).

So a new album, after all these years – was it going to recapture the magic or was it going to be an awkward mashing together or old and new into something unrecognizable and terrible (which we’ve seen more than once on these “comebacks”)? As it turns out Ultravox did something smart – they figured out what worked well for them in their heyday and did…well, that. Technology may have changed but songwriting prowess and a singular “sound” has not, and they were extremely wise to remember that.

In the end they turned out an album that captures all that made them special in the day. Billy Currie’s electronic piano sounds? Ure’s bombastic theatrical vocals? Old-school synths that could have been lifted right from the early 80s? Songs written for the purity of their sound and for that patented Ultravox-earnestness, rather than trying to fit into some unattainable modern sensibility? All here. In spades. And all that wouldn’t have mattered a damn if the songs hadn’t been as well constructed as these are. They hit their target time after time. So sure, Ure’s voice may have lost some of its range and they may have lost their inherent ability to surprise, but it was in their familiarity and their still-surprisingly-sharp sensibility that they hit their sweet spot and it turned out terrific.

Choice cuts: “Flow”, “Brilliant”, “Rise”

7. Purity Ring: Shrines – rarely does the word “gorgeous” spontaneously pop up so much as when listening to this stunning Canadian creation. Edmonton duo Megan James and Corin Roddick have created a lush soundscape that resembles nothing else on the scene. James’ beautiful voice, coupled with often-unsettling lyrics and sounds that swirl around so much one risks serious dizziness, especially if you chance using headphones whilst listening.

If there was ever a soundtrack to the Alice in Wonderland book, this album would be it. It’s an exciting album to listen to because with each listen you pick something new out of the sonic mess. No two listens are the same.

If there’s a complaint, it’s that so much of this album sounds the same, but taken as whole (it demands a full listen, like we used to listen to albums back int he dark ages) one sees how each songs works as part of a broader whole. It’s a singular listening experience and one of the more innovative electronic experiments of the year.

Choice cuts: “Crawlersout”, “Fineshrine”, “Belispeak”

6. Dragonette: Bodyparts – As we noted in our review, we fully expected to hate this album. Their more recent work had edged into the garbage-pop realm and early signs were this was an album that would be more of the same, a continued huge shift from the sleazy, low-fi electro that marked their debut (which was the first #1 album on our inaugural best of the year list back in 2007), but it wouldn’t be the first time we were surprised by Dragonette. What they delivered instead was the finest straight-ahead electro-pop album of the year.

It’s not all perfection. There are one-too-many disposable album tracks here but when it connects it’s like nothing else. Still oddly dark given the sound, still dirty to a fault more often than one would expect on first listen (to which would add as a bonus their peerless xmas single, Merry Xmas (Says Your Text Message) – the holiday song of the year, bar none), and still possessing of the ability to make the listener move, no matter how cynical the individual, they have done it again.

A great sign of how infectious and listenable this album is can be found in how well it stands in as the running soundtrack to your humble blogger. Almost the entire record is ridiculously motivating on a cold Sunday morning when a runner needs special motivation. Put on “Giddy Up” or “Riot” and suddenly your body doesn’t give you the choice…you’re on the move.

Choice cuts: “Giddy Up”, “Riot”, “Rocket Ship”

5. Chrom: Synthetic Movement – Here’s an album that snuck up on us and never went away. It never got tired, it never became dull, it never lost its edge, it’s just been there since March, astounding with its quiet confidence. Old-school EBM/Futurepop band Chrom have been doing their thing, under the radar for a while but no one did…”this” better in 2012.

These crafty Germans don’t do said thing with a lot of flash, they just do it staggeringly competently. And this album is such a beautiful, full realization of how good EBM-2012-style can still be.

Why does this album stand out so much? Two words: Losing Myself. This ballad is different from anything this band has pulled together before, different from most of what we might here from this subgenre. It’s a sad yet uplifting song so earnest one can’t believe that a band with their track record could have recorded it. It opens the door to the rest of this album with the realization that there’s a maturity and more importantly, a depth here one may not have previously anticipated. Some of it’s harsh, some of it’s pretty and melodic, and all of it’s awesome. The entire project is an unexpected delight and is not one whit less fresh than when we first gave it a spin all those months ago. A real triumph of playing to your strengths.

Choice cuts: “Losing Myself”, “Surrender”, “Slave”

4. Bunny Lake: The Sound of Sehnsucht – What to make of this swan song – sadness over such a tremendous album being the last we’ll ever get from this Austrian wonder, or joy in that they leave us on such a truly high note?

Bunny Lake have played with their essence album-over-album until they at last arrived at their version of perfection. Smooth electronic pop with a uniquely Austrian flavour. They went through their more experimental phase, and while it netted some greatness in itself, it all led in the direction of The Sound of Sehnsucht. It was on this album that they fully embraced their dance side (see: lead single “Follow the Sun”), and yet it’s not so easy to classify. What is “Woods on Fire” with its mid-tempo, feel-good rhythm, coupled with its future-forward risible lyrics; what is “Young Lovers”  with its bubbling baseline and sweet-as-hell lyric, complete with adorable video directed by a young teenager; what is final single “Satellite Sky” with its pop perfection crossed with Austrian horns? What is any of this but a wonderfully constructed pop album with an innovative, pure use of synths to pull out the sound we always knew this band was capable of.

Revisiting the initial question, we’ll take option a) – we’re sad as hell. A band capable of an album this good has no business going away. But knowing it’s happened, we’ll take solace in knowing at least we have this eleven-track wonder.

Choice cuts: “Young Lovers”, “All the Screens Stay Dark Tonight”, “Satellite Sky”

3. Lydmor : A Pile of Empty Tapes – Sometimes we are taken by total surprise by an artist we’d never previously heard of. Such was the case with Denmark’s Jenny Rossander. There’s a weird sense of fun to these songs, not so much with the lyrics as with the music. Listen to the pipes that make up the main sequencer part of “Not Even Real” or the layered synth sounds that form the backdrop of the delightful “Young”, it’s a fun listen. It’s an adventure seeing how inventive and clever she is with her sound choices and each song is propelled with its own unique power, with percussion taking for form of synths bleeps or claps it’s striking how rarely any songs are driven by a traditional drum pattern – one major exception being the spectacular single “Lamppost Light” which is the most traditionally “pop” song on the album and yet even it has its own delightful sense of musical quirk that sees it stand on its own, different from anything else on the scene.

Rossander is a multi-talented musician (watch some of her flirtations on YouTube), with a lovely voice and a way with lyrics that belies the fact that English is certainly not her first language. It’s a marvel hearing what she’s been able to produce from the bare bones of a raw, untested talent. Easily the most exciting new discovery of the year.

Choice cuts: “Lamppost Light”,  “While You Still Can”, “Couples”

2. Assemblage 23 – Bruise – One wishes one could be more profound than to simply say “Tom Shear kicks ass and consistently makes better electronic albums than most of the remainder of the genre could even dream of”. But in this case that’s about as good as it gets. Straddling the line between the harsher EBM style of his earlier work and his ever-in-motion slide toward the more pop end of matters, he has again produced an exceptional collection that doesn’t feel repetitive, doesn’t feel redundant, doesn’t feel one ounce of “been there, done that” even though he hasn’t particularly revolutionized his sound. He’s just that good at writing flawless electronic songs with a sometimes-serious edge to them just to give them that little pop, that little spark.

His secret remains his willingness to go big – big bombast, big spectacle, big bass – he doesn’t crawl downward, he’s ever-moving up, bringing more, making it…bigger.

The kick-drum/bass opening of “Over and Out”, the double bass sound that anchors “Outsider”, the huge dancefloor pop of “Reckless” (one of the mini Softsynths can be seen doing a rather complex dance to this last track on the Facebook page of your humble blogger); the achingly sad lyrics of the perfect “The Last Mistake” – song after song one hears an intricate mix of layered synths over a pulsating backbeat that both tickles the brain and makes the feet move, seemingly on their own. It’s a tricky mix Shear has gotten better and better at over the years and on Bruise, he’s done it as well as it can be done. Until his next album, one supposes…

Choice cuts: “Reckless”, “The Last Mistake”, “The Noise Inside My Head”

1. Karin Park: Highwire Poetry – Wow. Still as exciting on each listen as it was the first time, Sweden’s Park has created a masterpiece. Truly the best works are those that are the most challenging to describe.

Her previous album, Ashes to Gold was a great electronic album with a unique flavour. It led one to be interested in her as an artist but didn’t single her out as “one to watch”. Now she is that and more. Compared to Fad Gadget by some (a very apt comparison actually), with a voice that’s been compared to Bjork (which doesn’t feel right – her voice is wholly something different and new, something entirely in and of itself).

A combination of tremendous songwriting capability, with a compelling voice and bizarre, exciting electronic instrumentation, there is literally nothing else like this on the market. Many artists can claim to be or sound unique, few can demonstrate it so brazenly as does Park on this album.

That’s not to say it only works because it’s weird. A song like the heart-wrenching “Bending Albert’s Law” is a traditional, moving ballad, but is perfectly constructed, one would be hard pressed to find a more touching, sad and beautifully written song this year; “New Era” is a haunting, bass-driven mid tempo song that takes conventional musical rules and turns them into a plodding, creepy masterpiece. “Tension” feels like a pretty standard pop rhythm, but the sounds are constructed in a way that makes the listener feel claustrophobic and twitchy, she actually makes the listener feel the tension of which she sings. Park is capable of playing with the sounds and structures we know intimately and twisting them into only vaguely recognizable art works. It’s a brilliant collection that stands head an shoulders over everything else we’ve heard this year. Original and breathtaking.

Choice cuts: “Bending Albert’s Law”, “Tension”, “New Era”
Such a bounty of great electronic albums. We could have easily done a top 25 list this year. We’re lucky that we are part of a movement that keeps getting better, that keeps changing and growing, and that keeps delivering for us year after year after year. 2013 beckons with what looks to be another great crop, thanks 2012 for such gems, full speed ahead…

Watch: Karin Park – Fryngies


12 Responses to “The Best Electronic Albums of 2012”

  1. I’m glad you changed your mind regarding Synthetica (the latest Metric album). This album is clearly a grower. I like every song on it. Definitely in my Top 5 albums of the year.

    Check also their Reflections bonus tracks (electronic-only instrumentals from various songs from Synthetica):

    If you have Spotify you can listen to all of them.

  2. From you list I know the albums by Tying Tiffany, Ultravox, Dragonette, Assemblage 23. All, very good.

    Other electronic albums that deserved your attention (plus a song from that album):

    Orbital – Wonky

    Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles (III)
    “Child I Will Hurt You”:

    Errors – Have Some Faith in Magic
    “Pleasure Palaces”:

    John Talabot – Fin
    “When the Past Was Present”:

    Kosheen – Independence

    Grimes – Visions
    She’s Canadian by the way.

    VCMG – Ssss

    Ultraísta – Ultraísta
    “Bad Insect”:

    Air – Le Voyage Dans La Lune
    “Sonic Armada”:

    And the last one, an album that isn’t 100% electronic but it’s incredibly gorgeous:

    School of Seven Bells – Ghostory

    I hope you’ll check all these albums or at least to listen to the songs from the links. All these songs are instantly likeable.


  3. These would have to be included in my Top 10: Evidence by John Foxx &The Maths, Foe by Man Without Country, Beams by Matthew Dear, Brilliant by Ultravox, H by Huski, Big Noise Transmission by Gary Numan, Future This by The Big Pink

    • So many good albums there, Man Without Country and Big Pink were contenders, Huski was half a great album and half lesser versions of songs that were on Strangelove (which was on last year’s list); all great choices…

      • There’s so much great electronic music these days I feel like my head’s gonna explode!!! I can’t possibly buy it all, listen to it all or even appreciate it all fully!!! There’s just not enough time in a day. I’m finding that I’ll give something a quick listen and like it, only to come back to it months later and find some real gems that I absolutely love. AAARRRGHHHH!

      • @rdlogie: esp. when you consider that some albums require many listens to fully appreciate them. Plus the time needed to listen to old albums. Clearly, a day is too short… 😉

  4. I would add another album, coming from Greece. Check out the 2012 album by StrangeZero . One of my personal favorites for 2012

  5. Some great choices there I would have added Gary Numan’s Dead Sun Rising ..A brilliant electronic of his best. Maybe Officers on the Twelve Thrones

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