Electronic music in 2017…
If 2017 proved anything it was that the field of electronic music is a broad one. A lot of songs grabbed our attention across 12 months of intriguing, captivating and often challenging music. While many classic synthpop acts proved that they could still hold their own, the next generation of electronic artists also demonstrated that they could craft unique tunes that didn’t rely on the past.
Here are 25 songs that are not presented in any particular order, but as whole were the standout tunes for The Electricity Club in 2017.
GARY NUMAN – My Name Is Ruin
The release of Gary Numan’s 21st studio album Savage (Songs From A Broken World) marked the synthpop pioneer’s highest charting album since Telekon back in 1980. This latest body of work transmited a thoughtful concept, centred around the modern-day issues that would seemingly put into question the survival of the planet.
‘My Name Is Ruin’ was the first single to emerge from the album. It gives Numan himself something to be especially proud of, given his daughter, Persia, provides the unique backing vocals on the track. The results – an eclectic mix of the angelic-like choral tapestry set against robust dance-driven beats.
VITALIC (ft. David Shaw and The Beat) – Waiting for the Stars
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.
Vitalic, aka Pascal Arbez, had been operating since the late 1990s as an underground artist, but achieved a larger profile with the release of his debut album OK Cowboy in 2005. New album 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, which in places is deliberately out of tune. Featuring vocals from David Shaw, there’s a Moroder-esque beat driving this squelchy and engaging electropop wonder.
AUSTRA – Utopia
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.
The familiar bassy synth tones that Austra’s Katie Stelmanis has crafted as part of the classic Austra sound provided the foundations for ‘Utopia’. This rumination on the “collective depression”, that Stelmanis suggests is a result of city living, has strong hooks and melodies as some smart percussive frills keep the song moving along.
EMPATHY TEST – Bare My Soul
London-based duo Empathy Test took us by surprise this year with each successive song. On ‘Bare My Soul’, the soaring melodies and heartfelt lyrics have a particular power that manages to undo all those tired old tropes about synthpop being cold and unemotional in one song.
The lyrics offer up brief vignettes, each of which manage to elicit the idea of something being both “tragic and beautiful”. At the same time, there’s a subtle building up of layers of electronic elements that culminates in a powerful delivery that’s both mythical and melodious.
TR/ST – Destroyer
One of Canada’s electronic music gems re-emerged earlier this year with a new song and talk of a new album. ‘Bicep’ delivered the trademark sleazy synths and unsettling sounds that made TR/ST (aka Robert Alfons) such a captivating act over the course of 2 previous albums.
‘Destroyer’ shows a departure of sorts here for Alfons, with a much more restrained composition. It’s a more nocturnal affair peppered with reedy intermissions, although Alfons’ grimy vocals are present and correct. The video itself is produced by, and stars, choreographer Ryan Heffington (Sia, Lykke Li, Florence and the Machine, Arcade Fire). It charts a journey through a late night streetscape which is interspersed with oddly unsettling choreography.
OMD – La Mitrailleuse
Culled from their 2017 album The Punishment Of Luxury, ‘La Mitrailleuse’ takes its inspiration from a painting by the artist CRW Nevinson (regarded as one of the most famous war artists of World War I). Nevinson was deeply affected by what he saw in France during World War I, which had a profound effect on the paintings that he produced at the time. This included the 1915 work La Mitrailleuse, which translates from the French as “the machine gun”.
In the hands of OMD, ‘La Mitrailleuse’ is composed of a mesmerising droning intro which leads to a rhythm track designed to emulate explosions and, in particular, machine-gun fire. Meanwhile, Andy McCluskey intones “Bend your body to the will of the machine”. It’s the perfect companion to Nevinson’s work which sees the style of the soliders rendered in angular shapes, suggesting a merging of man and machine – a theme carried over in the video, which again features the distinctive style of Henning M. Lederer, who previously worked on videos for OMD’s English Electric album.
SUSANNE SUNDFØR (feat John Grant) – Mountaineers
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.
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 with its lines about “Jumbo jets spiralling down like vultures of the stars”. It’s suggestive of the type of composition that This Mortal Coil were noted for with the emphasis on the voice to provide an compelling hypnotic effect.
When Sundfør comes in, the song suggests a coming to the light from a great darkness, a sudden revelation (“What it means/Now I know”) and builds to a choral symphony that takes the breath away.
DEPECHE MODE – Cover Me
Released in March this year, Depeche Mode’s 14th studio album Spirit has proven to be one of the most divisive collections of new songs in their 37-year career. A sonically-challenging (and often unsettling) listen, the album has certainly divided fans; many of whom haven’t gotten over the fact that Alan Wilder left the band 22 years ago. By contrast, most music critics were united in their affection for the new album, praising the band for their aggressive and new approach, and also for Martin Gore’s politically-charged wordplay.
Like ‘Broken’ on Depeche Mode’s previous album Delta Machine, singer Dave Gahan once again provided the album’s best track in ‘Cover Me’, a slow-building, other-worldly electro-ballad with a Bowie-inspired lyric: “It’s about a person who travels to another planet only to find that, much to his dismay, it’s exactly the same as earth” Gahan explained to Rolling Stone magazine. Featuring some sinister electronics and a beautiful coda that recalled ‘Clean’ from 1990’s career peak Violator, this was space-aged synth rock at its finest.
LOLA DUTRONIC – My Name Is Lola
As Lola Dutronic, the Toronto/Düsseldorf electronic duo of Richard Citroen and Stephanie B have carved out an impressive career of engaging pop tunes. They jumped back in earlier in the year with a sequel to one of their best known tunes ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead, but it was their love letter to Berlin later in 2017 that stood out for us.
Continuing the duo’s talents for crafting accessible electronic pop with engaging melodies, ‘My Name Is Lola’ is a track that Richard Citroen describes as “a bit of a departure from our usual ‘Wall Of Sound’ approach, we’ve taken on some of Alle Farben & Robin Schulz’s colours”. It’s a quirky pop tune that’s a lot of fun and includes shout-outs to all of the duo’s favourite Berlin haunts.
DICEPEOPLE – Synthetic
Dicepeople, an electronic outfit from London, had a very busy year with several live performances and also a muscular cover version of Depeche Mode’s ‘Strangelove’. The group have an emphasis on strong visuals as part of their live shows and they draw inspiration from the likes of Depeche Mode, John Carpenter, Siouxsie Sioux, Front 242 and all points inbetween.
‘Synthetic’ is pretty much on-point with its brooding gothic synth melodies against a burbling electronic background. Atashi Tada’s vocal lead is tweaked and distorted and lends the whole affair a cyberpunk aesthetic.
LEGPUPPY – #Selfie Stick – Narcissistic Prick
Electro punk outfit LegPuppy have a knack for cultural commentary. Take ‘Selfie Stick’, which the 4-piece outfit released earlier this year. There’s a brooding quality to the song; a prowling tonal mood with cynical synths that provides the foundation for a lyrical dragging on Instagram culture (“Instagram that pic/Snapchat me a vid/I’ll show you my dick”). It’s a timely theme in a world where people are measured on the number of followers they have on Twitter or the belief that 17,000 ‘Likes’ can provide a fig-leaf of sorts for an empty, shallow soul.
Or as LegPuppy themselves put it: “Welcome to the Age of Narcissism where our future leaders are more interested in how many likes their stupid selfie gets on social media. Where their heroes and inspirations are Reality TV stars.”
ELYXR (feat Naoko of Princess Problems) – Godspeed
Seattle-based electronic musician/producer Kasson Crooker put together a new project for 2017 which sought to include his particular take on electronic music with a diverse range of singers.
‘Godspeed’ marked one of these releases, with the vocals coming care of Naoko Takamoto (Princess Problems). There’s a raw energy at work on a busy composition that also seems to elicit a sense of unease. Despite this, there’s a kinetic quality to the electronic melodies threaded through the piece. Conceived before Trump’s US victory, ‘Godspeed’ was penned as a reverie on the concerns such a presidency would bring. Lyrics such as “gather up your belongings/’cause he’s coming” pretty much seals the deal.
CURXES – In Your Neighbourhood
When Curxes first made their presence known several years back, they brought with them a very different approach to electronic music that presented one of the more captivating acts on the scene. Pulling from a variety of influences, the Curxes unique sound of stark pop ran through songs such as ‘The Constructor’ and ’Creatures’.
Describing themselves as “a decorative set of bones, channeling the ghosts of Discothéques past”, Curxes were a perfect fit for the first Electricity Club event staged in 2011. But it was a journey that also saw them later remixing the likes of Chvrches on the Scottish trio’s 2013 Recover EP.
‘In Your Neighbourhood’ (taken from new album Gilded Cage) shows Roberta Fidora opting for a much more languid style of singing combined with a warm, engaging layer of electronics. Meanwhile, the video is a strange amalgamation of a lost children’s puppet show and a TV repair shop.
THE SOUND OF ARROWS – Beautiful Life
‘Beautiful Life’ marked the welcome return of Swedish synthpop outfit The Sound Of Arrows in 2017. It’s a composition that continues the electronic duo’s talent for cinematic pop, but there’s also a more organic element with big string arrangements prominent in the mix. “Turn up the music and bring down the rain” suggests the dreampop lyrics atop subtle synth rhythms. Meanwhile, the track is given plenty of epic sweeps courtesy of the strings section.
The band later released new album Stay Free, presenting a more grounded take on the classic Sound Of Arrows formula.
PIXX – I Bow Down
Taking her name from a nickname associated with her grandmother, Hannah Rodgers embarked on her musical career as Pixx in 2015. A former Brit School student (where the likes of Adele and Amy Winehouse had their roots), Rodgers signed to the 4AD label at the impossibly young age of 19.
Debut album The Age Of Anxiety, presented a collection of songs that offer up electronic music that’s both accessible, yet also has a sense of quirkiness and charm. ‘I Bow Down’, for instance, starts from simple foundations before building an insistent beat that works its magic. The video, with its strange visuals, also keeps things interesting.
FIFI RONG – The Same Road
The soulful, beguiling style of Fifi Rong has been winning over both the press and the public for many years via releases such as Next Pursuit and Future Never Comes. It’s an impressive catalogue that also suggested that the London-based musician had carved out her niche and was happy with heading in that particular musical direction.
However, her new release ‘The Same Road’ sees Fifi do a left turn with a tune that’s distinctly more electropop-orientated than previous outings. Here, the lush soundscapes are put to one side for a cleaner, sharper approach to song arrangement. Electronic melodies echo through the song, augmented by Fifi’s familiar mesmerising vocals. At the same time, this is a tune crafted in the form of contemporary electronic music, rather than as a pastiche of ‘80s synthpop, which is always a bonus.
By bringing onboard the mixing talents of Max Dingel, who previously worked with the likes of Goldfrapp (as well as White Lies and Muse), the dynamic qualities of ‘The Same Road’ presents an engaging number that’s likely to surprise long-term Fifi Rong enthusiasts.
WAAKTAR & ZOE – Open Face
With much of the attention this year centred around a-ha’s new acoustic project, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy’s collaborative album with singer Zoe Gnecco, World Of Trouble, passed by almost unnoticed earlier this year. Which was a shame because this was as good as – if not better than – a-ha’s last studio album Cast In Steel. In fact, one such track, ‘Open Face’, almost made it on to a-ha’s 2015 comeback album, but was overlooked in favour of inferior cuts such as ‘Door Ajar’.
Released as a single in April this year ‘Open Face’ is certainly the most electronic track on the New York-based duo’s album, and boasts some fine Kraftwerkian synth work from Kurt Uenela, who has also collaborated with Dave Gahan on some of Depeche Mode’s recent releases (including this year’s Spirit).
THE RUDE AWAKENING (feat Brooke Calder) – Let Nothing Take Your Pride
When he’s not promoting the likes of the Synth City event electronic music event, Johnny Normal also spends time on writing and composing under his own steam.
Under the banner of The Rude Awakening, which sees Johnny bringing onboard the talents of Brooke Calder (Lolly Pop, A*O*A, POP INC), new release ‘Let Nothing Take Your Pride’ offers a reflection of our times in its themes. There’s a defiant tone to the track which deals with anyone who’s come under fire from life: “Struggling with your conscience I try to make you see/but all around your friends surround taking a piece of me”. Revolving around themes of resilience and fighting your corner, the song could be said to be a rallying call for those that have been beaten down.
The track (which also saw its live premiere at September’s Synth City event) draws from the classic synthpop template with an anthemic pop approach peppered with synthetic brass stabs. With some polished backing vocals by long-time friend and collaborator Brooke Calder, ‘Let Nothing Take Your Pride’ presents an electropop tune with some whack.
PARRALOX – Electric Nights
Johanna Gervin once again demonstrates that she’s one of the finest voices in the world of electropop with her vital vocals on ‘Electric Nights’.
It’s a euphoric floor-stomper crafted in the style that only Parralox can pull off. ‘Electric Nights’ also comes with a suitably dynamic video packed with visual delights. It’s an explosion of primary colours and effects that lends the whole affair a dayglo sheen. The composition actually dates back to 2002, back when Roxy was part of the Parralox line-up (she also co-wrote the song). The tune was submitted to the Australian Independent Music Awards – and apparently won Best Dance song in 2003, but plans to release it seemed to get delayed due to Parralox’s hectic schedule.
BRUCE WOOLLEY & POLLY SCATTERGOOD (with The Radio Science Orchestra) – Video Killed the Radio Star
When it comes to pop tunes, there’s a select few that manage to be immediately recognisable regardless of whatever decade they were recorded in. So the iconic opening bars of The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ have been so impressed on popular culture that it’s difficult to imagine that there’s anyone unfamiliar with the tune anywhere on the planet.
The song was reimagined earlier this year care of one of the tune’s original composers – Bruce Wooley – in collaboration with dark pop chanteuse Polly Scattergood. The new version (which carries the subtitle of ‘Dark Star’) opts for a radical deconstructed adaptation of the song in conjunction with the Radio Science Orchestra (a project established by Bruce Wooley). As a result, Polly Scattergood’s laconic vocals in tandem with the orchestral arrangement lend the song an intriguingly evocative sound that still manages to lose none of the original composition’s power.
MARNIE – G.I.R.L.S
The release of 2013’s Crystal World album demonstrated that Helen Marnie continued to display a talent for good electronic music, even while Ladytron were on an extended hiatus.
Drawing comparisons with the likes of Ladyhawke and Goldfrapp, Marnie’s latest album Strange Words And Weird Wars has opted for a much more electronic palette on this release, which also throws a nod or two to synthwave. ‘G.I.R.L.S’, with its cheerleading chants, offers up one of the strongest tracks on the album. It’s Pop with a capital ‘P’.
TWIST HELIX – Little Buildings
There’s an energy to Twist Helix that definitely leaves an impression. Hailing from Newcastle, Twist Helix consists of singer and synth player Bea, bassist Michael and drummer James.
New release ‘Little Buildings’ (taken from forthcoming album Ouseburn) has a solid sound to it which is helped by their willingness to embrace a variety of instrumentation, including guitar and live drums. The result is a robust tune which is topped off with Bea’s powerful vocals.
SIMEN LYNGROTH – The Waves
Simen Lyngroth is a Norwegian singer-songwriter with a distinctively soft and crystalline voice, who is currently enjoying a dual career; as both a member of folk-pop trio Ask and as a solo artist exhibiting more electronic influences.
Awash with snowcapped melancholia, debut solo album Take All The Land is strongly influenced by Radiohead and features a number of fine jazz-infused electro-ballads. Arguably, one of the album’s most immediate and commercial cuts was ‘The Waves’, and it was duly released as a single in October. Deviating from the formula slightly with its use of programmed electronics, this was a standout track from one of this year’s most exciting new releases.
SAILOR & I – Chameleon
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…
Nestling among the tracks on the album, ‘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.
VOI VANG – Mirror
As one of the artists performing at last summer’s Silicon Dreams event, Voi Vang made an impression as someone to watch.
‘Mirror’ demonstrates her knack for dancepop with an electronic flavour. The track starts out with a plaintive piano melody before transforming into a much more dynamic outing. Bouncing between pop and EDM elements, there’s a captivating use of rhythms and melodies to produce a powerful dance floor filler. It’s also a track that reveals Voi Vang’s impressive vocal range, which has a punchy, direct power that sits in tandem with the driving electronic beats.
Text by Paul Browne and Barry Page.
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.