2017’s best electronic albums…
This year saw a wealth of electronic music talent competing for the attention of the public. There was a good balance between classic acts that were still capable of crafting solid tunes – and also contemporary acts often taking electronic music in unusual and interesting directions.
Here are 15 albums that are not presented in any particular order (aside from our top choice), but as a whole were the standout long-players for The Electricity Club in 2017.
Album(s) Of The Year
EMPATHY TEST – Losing Touch/Safe From Harm
The blossoming of grassroots electronic acts in recent years has brought a lot of bright talent to the fore. London-based duo Empathy Test have attracted critical appraisal and also managed to smash their PledgeMusic goals to fund their debut albums.
The choice to release two albums rather than one was a topic that Empathy Test’s Isaac Howlett addressed in an interview with TEC earlier this year: “We… felt that the new material was too different to the old to be on the same album. We didn’t like the idea of a double album so we decided to create the album we should have put out in 2015 (Losing Touch) and the album we wanted to put out now (Safe From Harm), and release them both at once”.
If there’s one thing that emerges from Empathy Test’s material, its the chemistry between Howlett and Adam Relf that allows them to compose songs that sound so polished and captivating. Here, there’s a sense of mood and melancholy that’s as heartfelt as it is unique. Relf has also done a stunning job in not only crafting a smooth, engaging production for the albums, but the sleeve designs show that he’s got some artistic chops into the bargain.
On Losing Touch and Safe From Harm, Empathy Test have delivered not one, but two of the finest albums of the year. Standing as a testament to the heights that contemporary electropop can ascend to, Empathy Test suggests that the genre is in safe hands for the future.
TEC Review: Losing Touch/Safe From Harm
GARY NUMAN – Savage (Songs From A Broken World)
Without covering historic pastures, it’s fair to say that those who are familiar with Numan’s work in recent years will connect upon first listen. Savage is unmistakably modern-day Numan. Not only that, unsurprisingly, it has Ade Fenton DNA stamped all over it.
It’s a carefully calibrated mix; a formula that’s based on the sure-fire template previously witnessed on the highly acclaimed Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind), delivering a flawless production of intrigue; a soundtrack that brings together the atmospheric, the lonely, the eerie and, in places, the added drama of colourful crescendo. In summary, a sub-genre that’s more than suitable.
TEC Review: Savage (Songs From A Broken World)
HANNAH PEEL – Mary Casio : Journey To Cassiopeia
Out of all the electronic music releases in 2017, Hannah Peel’s latest opus has to rank as one of the more intriguing albums to reach the ears of music enthusiasts.
Mary Casio : Journey To Cassiopeia is a concept album of sorts that revolves around Peel’s alter ego of ‘Mary Casio’. Drawing from her influences of electronic pioneers Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, Peel’s back story for Mary Casio is as an elderly stargazing electronic musician. Her lifelong dream is to leave her mining town home of Barnsley in South Yorkshire and journey into space.
The album presents an aural journey of delights, its unusual approach to combining synths and brass managing to present something both accessible and unique. It’s also a testament to Hannah Peel’s seemingly endless abilities to craft new and intriguing ideas out of the ether. It’s a cosmic journey that delivers.
TEC Review: Mary Casio : Journey To Cassiopeia
DEPECHE MODE – Spirit
For the majority of fans and critics choosing not to view Depeche Mode’s latest product through a Vince Clarke/Alan Wilder kaleidoscope, 14th studio album Spirit represented something of a return to form for the veteran synth-rockers. Whilst we weren’t as enthused about Spirit in our original review, there was still plenty to admire about one of the band’s most defining albums of recent years.
First single ‘Where’s The Revolution’ set out the band’s stall, exhibiting some more aggressive – and politically charged – wordplay. Despite its production flaws – ironed out during the Global Spirit shows in the summer – this was a serviceable enough slab of electro-blues. The more ambient ‘The Worst Crime’, meanwhile, spoke of “misinformation” and “misguided leaders” in a less cluttered arrangement. But perhaps the album’s definitive ‘call-to-arms’ statement was represented via the discordant and angry ‘Scum’, featuring some particularly vitriolic swipes from Gore.
Impressive album opener ‘Going Backwards’ had already provided a portent of what was to come, with main songwriter Martin Gore delivering some pretty harrowing lyrical concepts throughout. Gore himself sang the lead on ‘Eternal’, an ephemeral ballad in which the protagonist declares his eternal love in the midst of an apocalyptic horror. Elsewhere, Gahan consolidated his reputation as a more-than-capable songwriter with the Bowie-influenced ‘Cover Me’, while serviceable synth-pop arrived courtesy of ‘No More (This Is The Last Time)’ and ‘So Much Love’.
But, despite its high points, the album suffered from poor production and, disappointingly, featured tracks bordering on filler (see ‘Poison Heart’ and ‘Poorman’).
TEC Review: Spirit
AUSTRA – Future Politics
Many of the releases of 2017 seemed to reflect a troubling period in contemporary culture, particularly with politics providing a turbulent backdrop. Austra were one of those outfits and the release of their album Future Politics offered up some thoughtful insight into troubled times.
Casual Austra fans might be a bit glum that the baroque pop elements that the previous albums held so strong are less evident here. Electronic music enthusiasts will perhaps find Austra adding further colours to the particular musical palette that the Canadian outfit have carefully crafted since 2011’s Feel It Break. Certainly Future Politics offers up a more intimate and personal approach than previous outings, but as an album it still offers up rewards from patient listening.
TEC Review: Future Politics
THE SOUND OF ARROWS – Stay Free
When The Sound Of Arrows appeared to disappear following the release of their 2011 debut album Voyage, it seemed like one of the brighter hopes for electronic music may have gone forever. Stefan Storm and Oskar Gullstrand had brought an optimistic element to their widescreen pop that immediately stood them apart from their contemporaries.
Stay Free is a very different affair to Voyage with a much more grounded sound than the magicpop of old – an evolution in The Sound Of Arrows sound that was hinted at in the earlier Kids Of The Apocalypse output. As Storm suggests: “It’s less conceptual than Voyage and a little more about having two feet on the ground, maybe gazing up at the sky rather than floating up into space this time.”
There’s always been a desire for the outfit to develop and grow rather than repeat themselves and Stay Free offers a solid collection of songs that stands proud against a busy modern music scene.
TEC Review: Stay Free
SUSANNE SUNDFØR – Music For People In Trouble
While the success of her 2015 album Ten Love Songs managed to raise the profile of Norwegian musician Susanne Sundfør, new album Music For People In Trouble took Sundfør back to her singer-songwriter roots. Although the album boasts some fine electronic flourishes, there’s also more nods to jazz and traditional instrumentation.
But the album switches gear for compositions such as ‘The Sound Of War’. Here, it’s the sound of birdsong and rivers that open up a multi-part composition while Sundfør delivers some often grim words (“Leave all that you were/‘Cause you won’t need it where you’re going tonight”). There’s a more mournful quality to ‘No One Believes In Love Anymore’ as the title certainly implies with its thoughts cast on the topic of doomed romance.
‘The Golden Age’ features stunning immersive synth arpeggios and Sundfør’s mesmerising voice (“I wake from a dream/to be in another dream”). But the album’s crowning achievement is clearly the epic ‘Mountaineers’ which starts with the basso profundo voice of John Grant. Here, Grant’s sonorous delivery echoes from the depths. When Sundfør comes in, the song suggests a coming to the light from a great darkness, a sudden revelation and builds to a choral symphony that takes the breath away.
TEC Review: Music For People In Trouble
MARNIE Strange Words And Weird Wars
The release of the Crystal World album in 2013 demonstrated that Helen Marnie continued to display a talent for good electronic music, even while Ladytron were on an extended hiatus. Strange Words And Weird Wars features material penned over a 2-year period and showed a marked direction for the pop end of the scale.
The pulsing beats of ‘Alphabet Block’ was a good example – a track that Marnie herself described as “shoe-gaze electropop”. Similarly, ‘Bloom’ invites the listener to throw shapes on the dancefloor. “I’m in trouble again/in a no man’s land we’ll bloom” suggests Marnie on a track that boasts strong vocal melodies. Meanwhile, ‘G.I.R.L.S.’ with its cheerleading chants offers up one of the strongest tracks on the album. Equally, ‘Electric Youth’ invites the listener to reflect on nights of teenage abandon on a track that has a bright, airy quality to it.
The album ends on a high note with the rhythmic wonder that’s ‘Heartbreak Kid’, its bass-heavy arpeggios setting the scene for the emotional punch in the vocal delivery. But it’s the melodic flourishes and arrangement that gives this track the polished pop that’s such a central theme to the album as a whole.
TEC Review: Strange Words And Weird Wars
SAILOR & I – The Invention Of Loneliness
Swedish electronic musician Alexander Sjödin caught everyone’s attention in 2017 under the moniker Sailor & I. Debut album The Invention Of Loneliness bounced between icy pop and beats-driven electronica…
‘Chameleon’ has a subtle power to it that can take a few spins to appreciate. There’s a dark piano melody over which Sjödin’s yearning vocal offers hints of change or transformation. Meanwhile, a gradually-building slab of stark electronics gives the track a dark pop appeal. ‘Fire On the Moon’ utilises a lot of elements to arrive at the big, cinematic sound of the final composition. There’s a warmer feel on ‘Supervisions’ with its use of tribal chants and driving bassy synths.
The Invention Of Loneliness is an album that adopts a range of styles that include both the glacial pop of the likes of ‘Chameleon’, as well as more instrumental compositions such as ‘Supervisions’. There’s also a competent sense of production on this release that gives the material a vital humanity next to the icy thematic tunes.
TEC Review: The Invention Of Loneliness
VITALIC – Voyager
There’s a robust quality about the electronic tunes contained on this latest release by Vitalic, which appeared to signal a strong start for electronic music in 2017.
Voyager draws from a wealth of influences, including nods to the likes of Giorgio Moroder and Cerrone. Certainly, standout track ‘Waiting For The Stars’ is an unabashed nod to Arbez’s favourite ’70s and ’80s songs. Featuring vocals from David Shaw, there’s a Moroder-esque beat driving this squelchy and engaging electropop wonder.
But Voyager also features an appreciation for classic synthpop too. Written as a tribute to ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Normal, ‘Sweet Cigarette’ features similarly deadpan lyrics against machine-like rhythms. There’s also a wealth of hooks and melodies all over ‘Use It Or Lose It’. Elsewhere, ‘Nozomi’ takes its inspiration from the Japanese shinkansen trains. As a result, there’s a constant sense of movement at play driven by the relentless rhythms and the oddly off-kilter synths.
Those that are fans of contemporary electropop will not be disappointed by the contents of Voyager – it’s also a demonstration that decent electronic music can cross many boundaries.
TEC Review: Voyager
PIXX – The Age Of Anxiety
The themes on The Age Of Anxiety, not surprisingly, touch on elements of anxiety – a condition that Hannah Rodgers (aka Pixx) endured from a young age. In particular, she suffered from insomnia caused by persistent nightmares. Songs such as the bassy ‘A Big Cloud To Float Upon’ refer back to her being in primary school age 9 and watching the clock slowly count down. Every ‘tick’ represented one step closer to the dreaded time when she’d have to go to sleep.
Meanwhile, ‘Waterslides’ (which is one of the album’s finest moments) was inspired by an odd nightmare of being trapped in a waterpark surrounded by faceless figures. The song itself is structured around plucked melodies steering the listener to the engaging chorus: “Don’t follow me into my dreams you don’t belong here”. But the album boasts many gems, including the seductive charms of ‘Your Delight’ – an immersive dreampop world which entices the listener to be drawn in by its mesmerising melodies.
The Age Of Anxiety is an album that offers up a combination of smart pop tunes married with thoughtful lyrics, which at the same time presents an evolution of electronic music that suggests there’s still horizons to reach for.
TEC Review: The Age Of Anxiety
A-HA – MTV Unplugged Summer Solstice
It was something of a surprise when a-ha announced plans to release a live acoustic album, having resisted such offers for a number of years. The band had of course performed many of their songs in more pared-down versions during their career, but never on this scale. Further credence was added to the project with its subsequent MTV branding and, in the spirit of the original format, several guest artists were introduced during the shows (notably Ian McCulloch and Alison Moyet). Several locations were touted, but the band settled for Giske, a remote Norwegian island.
The subsequent MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice album was released in an array of visual and audio formats. The double CD version was a fine document of the two-day event, featuring stripped down versions of classic hits, alongside deep cuts and rarely-played songs. The band also performed two new songs (‘This Is Our Home’ and ‘Break In The Clouds’).
The band was also able to tap into its progressive rock past with a stunning version of ‘Sox Of The Fox’. Aka ‘The Vacant’, the song had originally appeared on the rare album Fakkeltog by Bridges, a Doors-inspired band that included Paul Waaktaar-Savoy and Magne Furuholmen.
Arguably the biggest surprise of the show was the version of ‘Take On Me’, presented in a fresh, ballad-like arrangement. It created a huge online reaction, and the band eventually released a studio version of the track in December.
Whilst some of the arrangements are a little leaden and plodding, it’s a largely crowd-pleasing set, and a fine addition to the band’s impressive catalogue.
TEC Review: MTV Unplugged Summer Solstice
GIRL ONE AND THE GREASE GUNS – Night Of The Living Electrical Appliances
Proving that there was life beyond a series of eclectic 7″ singles (neatly compiled on the album The Strange Little Lines That Humans Draw In The Dust), Girl One And The Grease Guns returned with their first proper album earlier this year.
Stating that the material on Night Of The Living Electrical Appliances was aiming to be “pure electro-pop with more experimental, darker sounding tracks”, the outfit have delivered an album that certainly boasts pop elements on tracks such as ‘He’s A Replicant’, ‘She’s A Calculator’ and ‘Emergency (Dial 999)’. But their more experimental side is evident on the likes of ‘Telegraph Street’, ‘Mute Your Gums’ and the eerie album closer ‘(She Sits) In The Freezer’.
As ever, the enigmatic outfit’s love for ’60s girl groups, combined with a ‘garage punk’ aesthetic, delivers an album whose raw energy weaves a particular magic on the listener’s ears.
TEC Review: Night Of The Living Electrical Appliances
KELLY LEE OWENS Kelly Lee Owens
Perhaps the most striking thing about the debut album from Kelly Lee Owens is its fractured nature. At heart an electronic album, the tracks contained within dart between ambient soundscapes and beat-driven compositions. It’s not a million miles away from the the sounds crafted by the likes of Japanese musician Sapphire Slows in its mesmerising electronics.
The gauzy ambience of opening track ‘S.O’ manages to drop the listener into a warm, immersive cocoon. ‘Arthur’ (a tribute to avant-garde composer Arthur Russell) opens with a soundscape of birdsong and nature sounds. Later, it weaves in subliminal beats combined with a breathy, indistinct vocal. Meanwhile, ‘Anxi.’ (featuring Norwegian artist Jenny Hval) is an intriguing dreamlike composition featuring an amalgamation of dreampop, spoken lyrics and glitchy electronica.
Kelly Lee Owens, as an album, drew critical praise from a range of commentators this year. Owens is clearly someone with a voice and with an interest in exploration. Her debut album provides an intriguing foundation, but it’s what comes next that’s going to convince us to continue exploring with her.
Further reading: Kelly Lee Owens
LO FIVE – When It’s Time To Let Go
Wirral-based electronic musician Neil Grant (aka Lo Five) describes debut release When It’s Time To Let Go as “deep landscape electronics” and “an album of wild spaces and intimate rooms”. It’s an apt description for an album of reflective reveries that both challenges and surprises the listener.
Peppered throughout with evocative chimes that suggest some lost ice cream van song, there’s also a plethora of natural sounds weaved into the mix. Compositions such as ’Sabre Contusion’ have a raw electronic component combined with a fractured production. There’s a more reflective element to ‘Machinations of the World’ with its rainfall effects and soothing tones. While ’Leave You Alone’ offers up haunting qualities with a dub-like approach to synth tunes.
Closing track ‘The Emergence Of Something Familiar’ has a suitable downbeat finality to it with its stark piano and nocturnal atmosphere.
Lo Five presents a sound that’s quite tough to easily categorise. When It’s Time To Let Go throws up plenty of challenging compositions, yet at the same time has the comforting allure of the familiar.
Further reading: When It’s Time To Let Go
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.