2013 END-OF-YEAR REVIEW. ALBUMS: THE TEN BEST

If you’re a fan of electronic music, 2013 goes down as one of the most prolific years for new releases of synth music than perhaps any other year since 1981. The question isn’t who DID release an album this year, but rather, who DIDN’T?!?

Depeche Mode, Erasure, New Order, OMD, Gary Numan, Nine Inch Nails, Billy Currie, John Foxx, and the Pet Shop Boys all released outstanding new material. Notably absent……. Duran Duran, Tears For Fears, Alphaville, and Kraftwerk. But sources confirm that both Tears For Fears and Duran Duran are already at work on new material for 2014. However, we DID get a new Karl Bartos album, which is every bit as good as a new Kraftwerk album, and maybe even a tad better. Either way, I’m not complaining.

2013 was a killer year to be a fan of electronic music!

So many solid choices to choose from, but I had to narrow it down to my top-ten. So I did. Here’s the general blueprint I followed in making my choices…….

THE CRITERIA:

  • The album must have been released between January 1, 2013 and December 1, 2013
  • I had to have a minimum of a dozen plays of every track on the album
  • The album had to prominently feature the use of the synthesizer
  • I had to award the album no fewer than 4 stars if I was going to review it, or if I already DID review it

Without further ado, I present to you my top-ten choices for the best albums of 2013………….

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Number 1: English Electric by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark 

The competition wasn’t even close on this one. From the moment I first heard their brilliant ‘Metroland’ single back in February, it was obvious that Paul Humphreys and Andrew McCluskey had something special lined up for us, and when the album finally dropped in April, it revealed that the album was truly something special indeed. Returning to their experimental electronic roots with joyful exuberance and reckless abandon, they released what I consider to be the greatest electronic music album of the past year. With a sound that nestles it right between their Dazzle Ships and Junk Culture albums continuity-wise, English Electric is a textbook example of why OMD are so vital to the art form of electronic music. While Depeche Mode and so many other bands of their era try to re-invent the wheel as it were, in regards to keeping their sound fresh and relevant, OMD unapologetically defy that approach by showing that not only are they still relevant and hip, but they haven’t forgotten how to make the type of music that made a generation of fans and musos fall in love with them in the first place.

In short, this is OMD doing what they do best…….. BE OMD!

Along with Architecture and Morality and Dazzle Ships, English Electric completes the trifecta of OMD’s brilliant display of experimental, but deliciously accessible synth-pop. This wasnt just the best synth-pop album of the year, folks. Oh no! I feel we will still be extolling the virtues and glory of this album 25 years from now. This was an album for the ages. This wasn’t a comeback album. This was a good old-fashioned schooling session of how it’s done. This was the Master showing why he’s still the Master.

If you’re only going to buy one album off this list, THIS is the album it should be!

Best pick of the album: Night Cafe

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Number 2: Random Access Memories by Daft Punk

When I reviewed this album earlier in the year, I said it was the perfect album for summer. Well, folks, it sounds just as good in autumn and winter. With a sound that’s the perfect marriage of Disco and Electro, with a healthy dose of funk, this album is pure ear-candy. The additions of Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder as collaborators only spiked the coolness factor. I could not get enough of this album back in June, and I still can’t. It has an appeal that extends beyond the realm of electronic music. Furthermore, it’s been nominated for a Grammy. If there’s any justice and common sense, it will come home a winner. Like OMD, these guys are true masters of their craft.

In the modern era, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better act than Daft Punk. They’re the definition of cool.

Best pick of the album: Lose Yourself to Dance

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Number 3: Off The Record by Karl Bartos

The former Kraftwerk member once again outshines his former band, and beats them at their own game. Karl Bartos makes the sort of music Kraftwerk should be making. Or more succinctly, Bartos makes the type of music I wish Kraftwerk were making. It’s electronic music in its purest form. While Off The Record doesn’t contain ‘new’ music per se, as the songs are all old demos and songs that Bartos had developed over the past 20-plus years or so, they’re still new to us……. and they sound !@#$#*&% BRILLIANT!! Besides, these demos of Karl’s sound better than most of Kraftwerk’s Tour De France Soundtracks album did. It seems blatantly obvious to me that the spirit of Kraftwerk is alive and well in the music of Karl Bartos. While we’re not likely to get a genuinely new Kraftwerk album in our lifetime, Karl Bartos is only too happy to fill that void. And we’re all the richer for it.

Best pick of the album: Rhythmus

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Number 4: The Satellites of Substance by Jonteknik

If you can sense a rather Kraftwerk-heavy slant in my rankings, you’re absolutely correct. Whereas Karl Bartos is a former member of Kraftwerk, Jon Russell might as bloody well be! Nobody understands that all-important soul aspect of electronic music better than Jon. With his latest full-length lp, Russell has taken that timeless sound of Kraftwerk and infused his own identity into it. In the absence of a new Kraftwerk (or Bartos) album, Jonteknik is the next-best thing. The Satellites of Substance is pure electronic bliss from start to finish. It also doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming too self-absorbed, which so many similar artists fall victim to. Each song is unique in its feel and lasts just long enough to keep your interest without becong boring. Jonteknik is the brightest star in the indie electronic scene. This album shows why.

A few weeks ago Russell announced his collaboration with Martyn Bailey (see below) on a new group called Apt. To say that I’m excited for this new project would be an extreme understatement. Great things are about to happen. Great things.

Best pick of the album: People at an Exhibition

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Number 5: The Secret Garden by Alien Skin

In regards to melancholy synth-pop, nobody does it better than Alien Skin. NOBODY! This is undeniably Alien Skin’s finest offering to date. It’s a true pleasure to listen to. The musical tapestries George creates simply encapsulate the listener in a world of dark, yet hopeful musical poetry. His voice is angelic, his music otherworldly. Alien Skin is one of the most vital artists of the indie synth-pop scene. The Secret Garden is a rare album that evolves with each listen. Each listen is a new experience, and undeniably better than the last.

The perfect album for a rainy or snowy day…… or really any day.

Best pick of the album: My Secret Garden

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Number 6: Red Sky Supernova by Martyn Bailey

Undeniably the finest pop album of 2013. In our day and age, the one-two punch of a singer/songwriter is an increasingly rare thing. Especially with the all the pop singer reality tv shows and Idol programs, so much of the music we’re presented with today by the music industry is pre-fabricated and pre-packaged…… much like Morrissey warned us of back in the 1980s. So when an artist comes along who writes their own songs and actually performs them, it seems like the art form of music creation isn’t a lost art after all. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Such instances are even rarer in the field of electronic music, where so much emphasis is put on the technology that gets used. So often the actual ‘songs’, if you will, get lost in the creative process via the application of technology. Martyn Bailey is one of the ultra-rare examples of a musician who builds a solid song as his foundation, and then adds the synths and gadgets (albeit sparingly) to help beautify the final product. The synths are more of an afterthought.

Red Sky Supernova evokes the best elements of Bowie, A-ha, Depeche Mode, and perhaps a dash of Kate Bush. It’s melancholy, it’s mellow, but it packs one hell of a wallop! It’s appeal is broad. While a Supernova signals the death of a star in the universe, by contrast, with Red Sky Supernova, we’re watching the birth of one. A very brilliant one at that. And we’ve got ring-side seats, baby!

Best pick of the album: Last Astronaut In Space

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Number 7: Lost Sirens by New Order

As with Karl Bartos, the tracks on Lost Sirens aren’t exactly new. Rather, they’re outtakes and demo tracks that didn’t make the cut for New Order’s 2005 masterpiece, Waiting for the Siren’s Call album. But for us, they’re still new. The tracks on here are a bit guitar-heavy, but they’re incredibly solid examples of what makes New Order so great. We’re still waiting for the first post-Peter Hook New Order album, but if this is the truly the last we’ll ever hear Hooky gracing a New Order album, it’s a great one to go out with. Sumner has never sounded better, although it HAS been almost ten years since these songs were actually recorded. Nevertheless, this tasty little gem satiates the ardent New Order fans such as me until the next truly new album arrives.

Best pick of the album: Recoil

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Number 8: Electric by Pet Shop Boys

In the past, Tennant and Lowe have designated their albums that are tailor-made for the dance clubs with the tag of Disco. But on this one, they’ve decided to go a different route, and release an album constructed for the dancefloor that stands confidently on its own merit. Not my favourite PSB release of recent years, but still a solid effort from Neil and Chris.

Best pick of the album: Vocal

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Number 9: Like Totally  by Pacific Deep

One of the most promising new indie synth-pop acts to make their debut this year. A truly international duo, with one half residing in the United States, and the other half residing in New Zealand. This was one of the most anticipated releases of the year for me, and it didn’t disappoint in the slightest. Carl Grace and Raymond Hayter of Pacific Deep embrace the retro sound of 1980s-era synth-pop, and put their own unique spin on it. Splendid lyrics, and some of the most insanely hook-laden melodies this side of Erasure. Remember the name of Pacific Deep, folks. They’re here to stay!

Best pick of the album: Night Fable

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Number 10: Nebula  by Heliophile

Another newcomer on the indie synth scene that appears to be destined for greatness hails from the Netherlands. Gijs van Ouwerkerk, the man behind Heliophile, presented us a compact, yet powerful package of brilliant edgy synth-pop. My only criticism of it is that with only 4 songs, it leaves the listener wanting more. But it’s undeniably one of the strongest releases of the year. It makes me eager to hear what a full-length album from Heliophile will sound like. If you haven’t made his acquaintance yet, I strongly suggest you do so. The title track is mind-blowingly good! One of the most solid debuts by an indie synth artist in a long time. I hope he’s around for a very long time.

Best pick of the album: Nebula

BRING ON 2014! 

Jimm Kjelgaard – December 2013

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