2021 – The Year In Review

Exploring a year in electronic music…

2021 was certainly a busy year for music, which also marked the 40th Anniversary for many records from the classic synth-pop era. This included iconic albums such as Depeche Mode’s Speak & Spell, OMD’s Architecture & Morality, Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, The Human League’s Dare and Heaven 17’s Penthouse and Pavement.

At the same time, there were also plenty of memorable releases from contemporary acts this year. Although the music scene was still dealing with COVID-19 dramas, the return of live music shifted the industry out of the darkness that 2020 had been mired in. There were, naturally, plenty of other memorable events and surprises that marked 2021 out as a special year.

In our regular annual roundup, we cast an eye over 12 months of electronic music action…

The year started off sadly with a loss for the electronic music community when news broke that Sophie had passed. Achieving recognition for songs such as ‘Bipp’ and ‘Lemonade’, Sophie’s 2018 debut album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides earned a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Dance/Electronic Album. She had also worked with acts including Charli XCX, Madonna, Kim Petras, Let’s Eat Grandma and Japanese artist Namie Amuro.

2021 was also a year marking plenty of anniversaries, including the 35th Anniversary of 1986 movie Pretty In Pink. We celebrated that anniversary with a series of special features that spanned our sister sites Wavegirl and Messages, but TEC’s feature focussed on the film’s classic soundtrack which included OMD, New Order, Echo & The Bunnymen and The Smiths among others.

Pretty In Pink showcased mid-1980s culture through a much broader selection of music than previous teen angst films. In doing so, it also demonstrated how varied music of the period actually was. In the modern era, it’s easy to categorise music as slotting into convenient pigeon holes of rock, pop, electronic etc. but the 1980s was actually surprisingly more diverse – and Pretty In Pink’s soundtrack captured that idea perfectly.

Our regular Teclist feature continued to deliver succinct reviews of music that caught our attention. In February, this included Bob Haro’s ‘Pink & Blue’, a perky slice of synth melodies and an engaging percussion element that harkened back to the classic synth era of the 1980s.

Meanwhile, The enigmatic Watch Out For Snakes gave is the ‘chip-wave’ delights of ‘Fight Those Invisible Ninjas’ while Eric C. Powell and Andrea Powell served up ‘Soul to Your Heart’, an immersive outing that had a lush synthwave veneer.

In other news for the first part of the year, a-ha’s Morten Harket made a surprise appearance on the Masked Singer show, while electronic dance outfit Daft Punk decided to call it a day.

Once again, International Women’s Day fell on 8th March, but we decided to use that opportunity (as ever) to also celebrate women in electronic music. This year, we highlighted the talents of Elisabeth Elektra, Polly Scattergood, Annie and Marina among others.

Synth-pop outfit The Rude Awakening kept themselves busy, dabbling in the world of remixes – as well as dreaming up new tunes. ‘It’s OK Not to Be OK’ offered up fragile electronic pop with squelchy synths and breathy vocals weave. It also came complete with a charming animated video.

Web Rumours, aka Em Burrows, unleashed ‘New Wave Heartache’, which our review suggested was “OMD meets Austra”. Huguenot returned with the lush electronic beauty of ‘Sidewalk Sale’, while Platronic gave us the smooth synth-pop heart warmer ‘Maybe Someday’.

March also saw the return of enigmatic electronic outfit Tin Gun with ‘Devils And Angels’, a wonderfully uplifting affair which also served up some New Order-style bass licks.

March also saw the 35th Anniversary for both Depeche Mode album Black Celebration as well as Pet Shop Boys’ debut album Please.

In April, Barry Page explored the history of Gary Numan’s 1992 album Machine and Soul, an album which its maker later labelled as “the worst thing I’ve ever done”. This special feature cast the album in a new light, particularly viewing this era of Numan’s career as a catalyst for bigger things in the future.

‘Breathe Again’, a new release from Sinestar, was dedicated to Sinestar’s sadly departed bass player James Skuse. This news followed on from the announcement that the band’s final gig had been rescheduled to January 2022 (later revised yet again at the end of the year as COVID issues began to resurface).

Alongside other concerts, the Threshold Festival returned this year, including performances by Future Perfect, Moodbay & Ooberfuse. The performances were a combination of live and online shows with a broad range of other artists and acts across 2 days.

2021 also saw the return of Record Store Day, an opportunity to snap up some rare and collectable records. TEC looked at a selection of electronic music entries that might have held more interest for our readers. This included releases and reissues by the likes of OMD, Ultravox, Howard Jones, Suzanne Ciani, Tears For Fears, Tangerine Dream and Harold Budd among others.

This year also marked the return of Chvrches, whose initial offering in the shape of single ‘He Said She Said’ was a little disappointing. The previous album Love Is Dead had been a patchy affair and this new release wasn’t inspiring confidence. “‘He Said She Said’ throws together EDM flourishes with treated vocals on a percussively brash affair which ticks all the right boxes, but lacks any real heft” concluded our review. New album Screen Violence also seemed uninspired when it was finally released.

Color Theory is the musical vehicle for US-based musician Brian Hazard. A long-running electronic outfit that stretches back to the 1990s, whose approach Hazard terms “melancholy synthwave.” ‘The Outset’ was a new Color Theory composition that our review summed up as “a synth crush of goodness in which its starker qualities are offset by Hazard’s casual vocals.”

OMD’s 1991 album Sugar Tax breathed fresh life into the synth-pop outfit’s fortunes at the time. TEC looked into the evolution of the album, which received some negative press from some quarters. “Regardless of the reviews and the tepid sales of further single releases” commented writer Barry Page, “Sugar Tax – which, according to a recent tweet from McCluskey, is set for an expanded reissue – would eventually become OMD’s most successful studio album.”

Electropop duo Moodbay gave us ‘My Thing’, which the TEC review suggested “offers up more of a groove perhaps than on previous outings, broadening Moodbay’s range. Yet Anna Stephens’ soulful vocals are still front and centre, while there’s plenty of subtle electronic flourishes sprinkled across this song that keep the listener’s attention.”

In May, we interviewed The Rude Awakening’s Johnny Normal and Bridget Gray. “The Rude Awakening is about having fun, living, laughing and loving” commented Johnny on the outfit’s mission statement, “Many of our songs are tongue-in-cheek. Someone once suggested our songs may be immoral and condone promiscuity. But they had just missed the point completely.”

The duo also released an EP of cover versions, which included their takes on classic songs by OMD, Tubeway Army, Erasure and Japan. Our review said the Under The Covers EP offered “a warm, engaging selection of songs that breathe with a synth sensuality. It provides a suitable tribute to the originals, as well as being a fine showcase for The Rude Awakening’s talent for tunes and arrangement.”

Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer World’ was another album celebrating its 40th Anniversary, as detailed in a special article on Consequence.

The summer months saw OMD stage their rescheduled You Me & OMD concert. Conceived as part of an initiative to raise funds for OMD’s back stage crew during the COVID-19 downtime, the concert at London’s O2 venue knocked it out of the park. “OMD continue to be a powerful live act with a loyal and enthusiastic audience” the TEC review suggested, “even a year of lockdown can’t dampen the band’s energy…”

In June, Negative Response released a new album which TEC later spun up. “Submersion Therapy offers up minimalist compositions that weave in squelchy synths and treated vocal effects across nine tracks of oddly compelling electronica.”

The summer was also brightened by the latest Marina album. Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land was a stunning release, featuring pop bangers such as ‘Purge the Poison’ and the brooding power of feminist anthem ‘Man’s World’. TEC’s review drew a comparison with Marina’s previous album release: “Love + Fear had been conceived as an album divided into two parts, but it feels like Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land actually lands that concept more effectively. The first half is bold pop with the second half a more reflective and intimate affair.”

The suave electronic pop duo of Cult With No Name returned with Nights in North Sentinel. Simon Heavisides pored over tracks such as the “elegiac” ‘The Automatic Day’ and commented that “‘All Those Things I Admire’ is almost beatific, with its Kraftwerk-echoing intro and a lyric that playfully tears apart the ‘it’s not me it’s you’ narrative.” The review finally summed the album up as “a thrillingly seductive ride through the cracked and distorted hall of mirrors that is our modern world.”

Gordon Chapman Fox grew up in the north and was intrigued by the contrast between the utopian vision that the city planners had envisioned for the towns with the grim reality of the developments themselves. As a result, he conjured up the album Interim Report, March 1979 under the intriguingly-named Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan.

The end result was a strangely beguiling series of electronic reveries, as the TEC review concluded: “Interim Report, March 1979 manages to preserve engaging electronica compositions that perfectly reflect a mundane British mood. It invites reflection while also inspiring visual narratives that have a charm, despite their bleakness.”

July saw The Go! Team return with Get Up Sequences Part One. Ian Parton’s busy musical collages as part of the musical collective delivered, as our review stated: “Its breezy mélange of sounds providing the perfect soundtrack for the summer.”

Following the relative failure of their disco-infused Hot Space album, Queen bounced back with ‘Radio Ga Ga’, a bona fide synth-pop classic. Barry Page looked at the legendary rock band’s use of synthesisers, which culminated in the making of this iconic track.

In August, we sat down with Maya Postepski to discuss topics including Princess Century, TR/ST and Austra, among others. Commenting on her new album s u r r e n d e r, she described the initial catalyst: “I have these pop songs in my bloodstream and I love pop music and it’s really hard to write good pop songs. So, this winter I locked myself in a studio and I had nothing to do because Corona sucks and I wrote all these songs.”

Summing the album up as a “breakup record”, Maya also suggested that “sadness can be beautiful as well when you love somebody. You can be mourning them and still be very reflective of a beautiful memory.”

We also spoke to Darren Laurence, the architect behind anarchic electro-punk outfit Leg Puppy about their musical journey, including memorable live performances (“organised chaos”) and new album The Air in Utopia is Poison, including its commentary on social media. “I think there are so many incredible possibilities with it. I don’t want to get too deep and political, but the problem is, in the last couple of years, it has just become a tool for propaganda and it’s getting a little bit dangerous now.”

Meanwhile, reviewing the album itself, TEC mused: “The Air in Utopia is Poison is a dark groove odyssey revealing an unnerving reflection of post-Brexit Britain.”

Ottawa-based outfit Paragon Cause proved to be another win for the AnalogueTrash label. Michelle Opthof and Jay Bonaparte’s alt-rock project delivered new album Autopilot, which featured the stunning ‘Making Up For Lost Time’, a song which we summed up as “an emotional tidal wave”. The TEC review concluded: “Autopilot, as an album, is another example of Paragon Cause’s winning guitar crush approach.”

Our regular Teclist reviews flagged up Tel Aviv-based Tee Dee Dees. ‘War’, the TEC review suggested, was a “sweeping summer pop banger that’s more than capable of straddling the boundary between nice electropop and big chart action.”

Hailing from Brooklyn, synth-pop outfit Nation Of Language are rapidly attracting a lot of interest. Their heartfelt ‘Wounds Of Love’ demonstrated why. We stated that the song was “a composition that throws a nod to classic synth-pop while still sounding fresh and modern.”

Compilation album Generation Blitz was dreamed up as a creative concept that pays tribute to the Blitz Club’s musical history. Compiled by Martin James and Timo Jalkanen with support from Gary Fones, the album has been billed as an effort that is “reclaiming the 1980s from Stranger Things cosplayers, neon obsessives and Miami Vice nostalgics”.

It also featured some amazing music from a variety of acts, including Nature Of Wires, Parralox, The Rude Awakening, Brutalist Architecture In The Sun, LorD and Master, Blaklight, Tiny Magnetic Pets and Platronic (in some cases, providing exclusive tracks and mixes).

Our review concluded: “Generation Blitz is quite a puzzle-box of a compilation. It successfully manages to invoke the spirit of a classic era, but also marries it with a solid selection of contemporary electropop tunes.” It also made TEC’s Album of the Year.

Electropop duo EmT prescribed some Electrical Medicine, their new album included the squelchy goodness of ‘Voices’ and the sparkling, stylish ‘Connect With Me’. Then there was ‘Diva’, a strident electropop outing with engaging melodic hooks and the wonderful delivery of Ema Walters’ venomous commentary. Describing the song as being about the “fakery of social media, vacuous reality TV ‘stars’ and the selfie-centred, self-obsessed”, the song offers one of Electrical Medicine’s best moments.

One of the year’s surprises was the gothic glory of Dead Lights’ debut album. Conceived as a musical project between Mr Strange and Richard Van Kruysdijk (Palais Ideal), the album featured the dark relish of the Poe-inspired ‘The Raven’, the starkness of ‘Plastic Girl’ and the disturbing commentary of ‘Deleted Scenes’ (inspired by unpleasant stories from within the porn scene). We could find no better description for Dead Lights than “a seedy electro-goth blowout.”

COVID-19’s restrictions still caused issues for some acts. We interviewed Swedish outfit Vogon Poetry, who commented on their own solution: “We instead live-streamed a complete concert from Roger’s living room with the closest friends in the sofa and the rest of the world on link. It actually worked very well but was of course not the same thing as a live concert.”

September brought sad news when we learned that Richard H. Kirk had passed. Known for his involvement with Cabaret Voltaire, he also explored his own path of electronic music through a series of pseudonyms. Reporting the news, Mute posted up a touching tribute: “Richard was a towering creative genius who led a singular and driven path throughout his life and musical career.”

2021 marked a special 40th Anniversary to The Human League for their critically acclaimed album Dare. The Guardian marked the occasion with a special feature on the making of ‘Don’t You Want Me’.

The same month saw another anniversary, in this case marking 40 years since the release of Rage in Eden, the fifth studio album from Ultravox.

Heaven 17’s plans to perform classic Human League albums Reproduction and Travelogue seemed a curious proposition, but Derek Anthony Williams was on hand to provide a critical eye on the experience for TEC. He suggested that the project was “a wonderful celebration of two incredible pioneering albums” before concluding “It clearly meant a huge amount to an audience that early lapped up every second of this event they’d waited most of their lives to happen.”

New Princess Century album s u r r e n d e r arrived in October, a release which our review suggested was “an elegiac album wrapped in themes of lost love and yearning, but also with a beauty at its heart.”

New Blaklight album Into The Void also arrived in October. In the TEC review, writer JJ Leigh summed it up as “complex and beautifully paced throughout. Thoughtful and yet escapes being preachy by a long margin.”

OMD’s classic synth-pop album Architecture & Morality also achieved its 40th anniversary this year. That provided an opportunity for an assessment of the album’s appeal. For Paul Humphreys, the album’s timeless and evocative qualities have preserved its legacy over four decades: “The fact that it opposed the current trends, turned out to be its ultimate strength”.

Meanwhile, Imogen Bebb looked at OMD’s special anniversary release, which consisted of a collection of the album’s singles, alongside B-sides, demo versions and live cuts. Her summing up of the release said “The set is also proof that there is always a new aspect of OMD’s music to discover.”

Equally, Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret celebrated its 40th anniversary. An iconic album that managed to combine a dark, seedy nature with aspects of mundane kitchen sink drama. “It was a record that pushed us into a corporate world that we were totally at odds with” suggested Marc Almond in the 40th Anniversary tour programme, concluding however that “it gave us a mystique that allowed us to be both a cult band and a commercial pop entity.”

Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’s legacy was also cemented by the successful 2021 live show, which saw Soft Cell performing the album in its entirety for enthusiastic crowds. Meanwhile, TEC took a read of Dave Ball’s excellent and informative Electronic Boy, an autobiography that spoke about his life, including his time in Soft Cell.

November saw the release of an EP by Alien Six, a pre-Tenek project which had dipped into the dancepop world between 2005-2008. Jus Forrest reviewed the EP for TEC and came to the conclusion: “…think powerful and exciting, with the added colour of expressive and melodic vocals that really take the tracks to new elevations.”

November also saw the release of new music publication Blitzed. Designed to be a magazine that paid tribute to the spirit of the legendary Blitz Club, the pilot issue featured a wealth of reviews, interviews and features including Martyn Ware, OMD, Nature of Wires, Empathy Test, Spizz Energi, Tiny Magnetic Pets, Fiat Lux and more!

Tin Gun came back with their Reanimation EP, which TEC writer Just Forrest summed up as “Compact yet effective, it combines deep washes of synths, rhythmic punchy basslines and melodic guitars…”

Sadly, November also brought tragic news when it emerged that 808 State’s Andy Barker had passed. A statement from his family read: “After a happy life Andrew Barker experienced a short period of illness and passed away in his hometown of Manchester yesterday, Saturday 6th November. His family and friends asks that people respect their privacy at this time but remember him for the joy he brought through his personality and music. You’ll be sadly missed”.

Fragrance. returned with a new album, which featured the heartfelt ‘Covered In Gold’ (feat. Sophia Hamadi) that had an undefinable sadness. In our review, we said “Salt Water continues to demonstrate Fragrance.’s talent for smart, considered electronic music.”

Radio Babylon, a new album courtesy of music collective Last Of The Fallen Angels, was an intriguing project designed to raise awareness for the homeless. Conceived by Conrad McQueen (AXLS) the album brought together Peter Hook (New Order), Brinsley Forde (Aswad) and Rowetta (Happy Mondays), Victoria Owsnett (AXLS) plus other singers and musicians from around the world to raise money for Musicians Against Homelessness/CRISIS. ‘Kisses’, featuring the unmistakable bass of Peter Hook, presented a very downbeat, dreampop affair topped off with Beccy Owen’s excellent vocals. ‘Ivory Tower’ was a harsher, more aggressive outing care of Tara Tine’s freestyling vocal approach.

In December, we enthusiastically spun up Spray’s new album Ambiguous Poems About Death. The album served up the witty ‘Blurred in the Background’, the hook-laden ‘Félicette (Space Cat)’ and the squelchy disco of ‘Hammered In an Airport’. In conclusion, the TEC review said the new Spray outing “…has a softer aspect compared to Spray’s previous entries, indicating perhaps a more mature approach to the pop duo.”

But the month also brought sad news including the tragic loss of Steve Bronski, co-founder of 1980s pop trio Bronski Beat. Veteran DJ Janice Long also died this month. In a career that spanned five decades, she was the first woman to have her own daily show on Radio 1. She was also a fierce champion of independent music and her passing was met with tributes from across the music community.

Mirror Radius via preston.outatime boasted wintery vibes, which seem to conjure up snow-bound landscapes and arctic desolation. Certainly, opening track ‘Permafrost’ seemed to invoke strong visual ideas through its use of isolated piano notes, washed over with synth textures.

The “pagan electronica” of Gnostic Grain seemed custom-built to appeal to people who are seeking out a darker and much more esoteric experience in their listening adventures. “Inspired by the positivity felt by the approaching change of seasons” according to the duo responsible, but am intriguing album that offered up some challenges.

On that note, we bid farewell to 2021, but look forward to 2022 in the hopes that the music industry can rally around the ongoing pandemic. Stick around with The Electricity Club as we bring you more news, reviews and interviews in the year ahead!


CONTRIBUTOR’S LISTS

IMOGEN BEBB

Top 5 Songs Of 2021

Duran Duran – Anniversary
Red Rum Club – Drown
Inhaler – Cheer Up Baby
Duran Duran – Invisible
Silk Sonic – Smokin’ Out the Window

Top Five Albums 2021

Duran Duran – Future Past
Red Rum Club – How To Steal The World
Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
Inhaler – It Won’t Always Be Like This
Flyte – This Is Really Going To Hurt

Favourite Event 2021

OMD – Eventim Apollo, London

Most Promising New Act

Drive

Best Reissue

Universal – OMD


PAUL BROWNE

Top 5 Songs Of 2021

Princess Century – Still The Same
Vogon Poetry – Atomic Skies
Marina – Purge the Poison
Bob Haro – Pink & Blue
Paragon Cause – Making Up For Lost Time

Top 5 Albums Of 2021

Princess Century – s u r r e n d e r
Generation Blitz – Dusk To Dawn
Marina – Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land
Spray – Ambiguous Poems About Death
Nature Of Wires – Out Of My System

Favourite Event of 2021

Soft Cell – Eventim Apollo, London

Most Promising New Act

Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan


JUS FORREST

Top 5 Songs Of 2021

Duran Duran – Anniversary
Tin Gun – Devils and Angels
Negative Response – Submersion Therapy
Tin Gun – Reanimation (Matt Gunn Mix)
Revolution – Alien Six

Top 5 Albums Of 2021

Duran Duran – Future Past
Tin Gun – Reanimation EP
Negative Response – Submersion Therapy
Rude Awakening – Under the Covers
Generation Blitz – Dusk To Dawn

Favourite Event of 2021

Sinnersday Festival Belgium

Most Promising New Act

Second Woman


SIMON HEAVISIDES

Top Five Albums 2021

Cult with No Name – Nights in North Sentinel
Tenant from Zero – Flight
Gary Numan – Intruder
Actors – Acts of Worship
Logan Sky and Steven Jones – European Lovers

Favourite Event 2021

Soft Cell – Eventim Apollo, London


Paul Browne
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