The Best Electronic Albums of 2013

Such a different process of culling the best albums of the year without regular blogging beforehand. Without the regular reviews and check-ins it’s a more daunting, from-scratch process to paw through the various offerings from our genre.

And it’s been a cracker year. In some previous years our first cut narrowed the best of the best to 25-30 great albums, but this year numbers more than 40 in the first cut. Some notables that deserve a mention:

– Depeche Mode return with their strongest album in many years promising more life for the band. The kind of life even old school fans could learn to look forward to again.
– Erasure release a holiday album that turns out to be their best since Nightbird. Haunting Xmas tunes with terrific    originals, the likes of which we weren’t sure they could do anymore.
– Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark make good on the previously-mild promise of their comeback with a great return to form with English Electric.
– Technoir, one of Softsynth’s all time favourites come back without singer Julia Bayer, and with Steffen Gehring becoming “all of Technoir” for We Fall Apart and the results are uneven but surprisingly satisfying.
– Another Softsynth favourite, Diffuzion return with a fantastic EP that promises so much for their new album in 2014.
– Polly Scattergood ends the debate of “electronic, or no?” once and for all with her great album Arrows.
– Goldfrapp begin a debate of “electronic or no?” with a strangely unsatisfying new album.
– Vile Electrodes finally, at long last, released their debut full length album and it fulfilled the tremendous promise we knew the band had.

But what of the best? The cream of the electronic crop in this year of plenty? The choices were difficult but there were a “best”. To whit…

10. VNV Nation: Transnational – We’ve been hard on VNV Nation in recent years but only because we love. As is the case with more than couple of artists on this list this year, there wasn’t a lot of innovation from this band’s latest but the solid execution makes up for any case of the samey-sames.

Everything you would hope would be present in a new VNV Nation album is right here. Bombast, anthemic walls of sound, over-earnest lyrics – check, check and double-check. So why does it work so well? Because there isn’t an artist on the planet who can execute the above with the aplomb of Ronan Harris. When he’s on, he’s the best at what he does and Transnational is on. If this is the quality of future output he can go right on releasing variants on the same album over and over again.

9. Maps: Vicissitude – Maps always manage to surprise. More than once on first listen, their albums suggest they would be better enjoyed while seriously high. Seemingly draggy, even monotonous, there end up being so many hidden sparkly moments and interesting lyrical turns and lovely melodic twists, that the listener is gradually won over. And this is their (by which we mean James Chapman) strongest album by far.

On songs like “Built To Last”, “AMA” and “This Summer” Chapman adds more pep and energy to Maps songs than we’ve ever really heard before (while on songs like the wonderful “Adjusted To The Darkness” and “Nicholas” they may be languid but they are simply gorgeous.), and as a songwriter he has grown into one of the most sophisticated artists in the genre. Headphone album of the year.

8. Marsheaux: Inhale – Wow, what a fun, old-school hark-back this album is. This Greek duo have simply perfected the art of the golden-era synth-pop album. Many try (we have an awful lot on the “didn’t make the list” pile to prove it), but few get it as well as these ladies. The combination of melody, beat, instrumentation and simplicity of approach is a hard formula to perfect, but perfect it they have.

Look no further than “To The End” to get a taste of this perfection. Clean synths with just a hint of lo-tech buzz and a pulsing, boppy rhythm, it perfectly encapsulates what makes this album work so well. And with this many top-notch electronic pop songs, it far from stands alone. They take a good long time between projects but if it’s this good when they emerge let ’em take all the time they need.

7. System Syn: No Sky to Fall – Making their (by which we mean Clint Carney) third appearance on our best of the year list, System Syn’s latest, much like VNV Nation’s latest, doesn’t break the mold, but it builds on Carney’s already displayed gifts handsomely. A talented artist in more than one medium, he threads the needle between industrial aggression and melodic pop better than pretty much anyone else in the business. Always with a serious edge, but never alienating. And song for song it’s rock solid.

Listen to the title track and one gets a perfect sense of the balance Carney consistently strikes. Crunchy synths, jarring drum patterns, glass-on-rocks vocals but a pop sense underlying the whole thing. Perfectly executed and he manages to do it again and again, making him one of the most consistent artists in this milieu.

6. IAMX: The Unified Field – Another repeat resident of this list ( a record four, including a former #1), IAMX’s (by which we mean Chris Corner)  album can be summed up as a typical collection of idiosyncratic, thematically confused, but song-for-song brilliant songs. “Land of Broken Promises” with its tango influence, the sexy prowl of “Animal Impulses”, the primal scream venting of the appropriately titled “Screams”, the balls-out electronic rock of “Walk With the Noise” – there’s not a lot of musical unity here but damn if it isn’t magical from beginning to end. We’ve said it before, and it may well sound trite, but Corner remains one of the electronic community’s treasures. He will never make two albums that sound the same and he will mess with his formula over and over and over again but we’ll take th journey with him every time he zigs or zags. He makes the zigs worth it every time.

5. Feathers: If All Here Now – If the bottom half of this year’s list is replete with repeat offenders in the Softsynth winner’s circle, the upper half is home to some exciting, sometimes breathtaking debuts. This Texas four-piece led by Anastasia Dimou was one of the most refreshing new releases in years.

Compared by many to Depeche Mode (we alluded to same in our own review of the album), they successfully snag that balance between song craft and sheer bass-driven darkness. When this is executed well it hits the sweet spot of many in the electronic community, your humble blogger, included. And damn if these folks don’t execute it brilliantly. On uptempo tracks like “Fire in the Night”, lead single, “Land of the Innocent” or “Believe”, they sound like they could have been lifted from Depeche Mode at their most relevant. On slower tracks they step out more onto their own but either way, it’s lovely, sometimes inspired stuff.

4. Sinestar: Singularis – Perhaps this year’s biggest surprise is the debut from the U.K.’s Sinestar. Sometimes sounding like an updated Ultravox (the beautiful, almost symphonic “Butterflies”) other times like something altogether original and thoroughly modern (“Locked From the Outside”). We knew they kicked some ass. Early singles (and b-sides), like “Hurricane”, “Rise and Fall”, or “Lived For” showed what the band were capable of – each song was a great electronic pop gem, with nary a dud among ’em. And now that they have shared a full length album, the trend continues. Song for song you’d be hard-pressed to find a more consistently excellent electronic pop  album – not just this year but in many recent years.

They aren’t reinventing the wheel here but they don’t need to when they are this good at doing exactly this. Sinestar has real legs. Can’t wait to hear lots more from them. They seem like a careful, deliberate bunch in their song choices and when they choose, they choose well. A real sign of maturity in a young band, and one that shows real staying power.

3. MESH: Automation Baby – We were lukewarm on their last release but MESH came roaring back this year with what may well be their best album to date. They are as earnest as ever, which can cut both ways, but when the songwriting is of this quality it all comes together.

When they are on, MESH are some of the best songwriters in all of electronic music, and on Automation Baby they in every way, firing-on-all-cylinders, on.  It would be pointless to try listing the standout tracks from this terrific piece of work. Easier just to say, “The Way I Feel” is undercooked and a little dull and…the bonus tracks are underwhelming. Not much else to pick at here. It’s just such excellent, high quality song craft. There’s huge emotion behind pretty much every song and while it sometimes threatens to overwhelm the materials (and did too often on their last album A Perfect Solution) on this song selection it just…sings. The production is stand-out great too. Their finest sounding album by far. For this kind of material it works. A less-well produced album can be diminished despite great songs (it’s the main ding against the Feathers album), but when it’s this smooth and sounds this flawless it simply augments. Highest of high calibre work from electronic music’s hardest labourers.

2. Chvrches:  The Bones Of What You Believe – We just always knew this would be one of the year’s highlights. Has there ever been an electronic band with this much advance anticipation? Their note-perfect single, “Lies”, followed by the buzzy “The Mother We Share” which broke the band in every corner of the known world, followed by “Now is Not the Time”, and “Recover”- they couldn’t put a foot wrong. Every move they made just reinforced their magic. They found themselves in rarefied air for such an unapologetically electronic band (and an aside – kudos for their owning who they are. How many electronic bands start adding conventional instruments to their live set to make them sound more homogeneous and accessible to the non-electronically-inclined masses? And how often is this fundamentally alienating from the core of what made that band great in the first place. Nice to see a band go the other way and just *own* it. End of aside.) But would the album hold up against such high expectations? Simple answer, yeah, pretty much. It’s not perfect.When Martin Doherty steps up to lead vocals it diminishes the song as compared to lead vocalist Lauren Mayberry’s perfectly suited-to-the-material pipes. A few tracks, like “Tether”, or “Science/Visions” feel flat. But when the songs work well, they are brilliant. “Gun”, “We Sink”, “Lungs”, “Lies” – you’d be hard pressed to find better crafted songs from any genre. It’s a perfect marriage of voice and sound. It’s a (near) perfect debut.

1. Marnie: Crystal World – Ladytron are one of our favourite bands, full stop. But Ladytron albums are often a mixed bag. Different vocalists, varying styles, some of it works like magic, some of it just doesn’t, but the sheer boldness of their ongoing experimentation is thrilling and keeps their fans coming back, breathless, to see what they’re going to do next. What they’ve never been is predictable. Helen Marnie’s debut solo effort is predictable in the sense of, “if Ladytron made the consummate, expected Ladytron album what would it sound like? Or put another way, if we could make our own perfect Ladytron album what would it be?” It would be Crystal World. Produced by bandmate, Daniel Hunt this “half of Ladytron” or “Ladytron light” strikes a perfect note. With a chilliness one might expect from an album produced in Iceland, it’s got a pristine quality that feels untouchable at first, unwelcoming at worst. But spend some time with these lyrics, and more so, these exquisite melodies (listen to the unexpected soar of her vocal throughout “The Wind Breezes On”, or the building intensity of “Sugarland”, or the out of left field vocal harmony on the bridge of “We Are the Sea”, or…or…or…take your pick. There are so many “moments” here you’ll go dizzy searching them out) will simply grow on you like a virus. A very pretty, icy-sweet virus. Nearly flawless, Helen Marnie has transcended simple electronic music to bring us an honest-to-dog work of art. And it’s the electronic album of the year.

Watch: Marnie – The Hunter

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