2013 might go down as the year synthpop absolutely dominated my music life.
Maybe that’s because I’m 42 years old.
I grew up listening to bands like Duran Duran, Human League, ABC, OMD and the Thompson Twins. And synthpop takes me back to those happy days, only this music is new. Don’t get me wrong: I love the 80s and 80s music. But sometimes I wish 80s music would just go away. I’ll be out at a club or restaurant somewhere and hear some 80s song I’ve heard a million times, like The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” or The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now?” and I’ll twitch, twitch because those songs have been run into the ground. How can I be nostalgic for something that never really went away? Synthpop bridges the gap: new music that sounds like something from 1982.
On the other hand, a lot of new music these days is… meh. Except for a brief period when I was a teen, screaming guitars have never really been my thing, and these days loud guitars just give me a headache. Loud guitars and cheap beer is a guaranteed headache.
What’s worse, as I approach middle age, I just don’t give a damn to hear rich 19 year-olds tell me how bad life is. Oh no, someone broke your heart, Taylor Swift? Cry me a river! Get in your private jet, fly to Rome and drown yourself in gelato for all I care. Love sucks? No shit. Welcome to an exclusive club called “The Human Race”. We’ve all been dumped before; if you feel the need to talk about it, there’s a group that meets at the Y on Tuesday evenings – bring cookies. Miley Cyrus? One Direction? Blech. People listen to this manufactured, over-produced crap? Really? And by “over-produced” I mean “Martin Hannett is rolling over in his grave”. Arctic Monkeys? The Strokes? Better, but too damn loud. The Lumineers? Arcade Fire? Mumford & Sons? Do people actually listen to these bands when not trying to get a girl in a sack? The 1975? Are these guys old enough to get into a R-rated movie by themselves? Justin Timberlake? You mean the guy who gets to sleep next to Jessica Biel on a bed stuffed with $100 bills? Yeah, that’s relevant to my life!
I don’t know. I mean, I just feel weird. I’m obviously “too old” for MTV and Capitol Records to give a damn about me, and I’m fine with that. Relieved, actually. But I also feel waaaaayy too young to be joining the Michael Bublé fan club. I’m not ready to shop for records at Cracker Barrel, thank you very much. So synthpop is where I find myself at the moment.
Below are my Top 10 Albums for 2013. Remember, this list is about complete albums, not albums with just one or two tracks I really liked. More on the individual tracks I liked in a “Music By The Numbers” follow-up post, scheduled for 12/16.
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#10: Au Revoir Simone – Move In Spectrums
Brooklyn-based Au Revoir Simone formed in 2003 and have put our four studio albums, including one of my faves from 2009, Still Night, Still Light. London’s The Times newspaper called their music “a collision between The Waitresses, Stereolab and Kings of Convenience”, while one of their biggest fans, director David Lynch, called their music “innocent, hip and new”. This album certainly is new. While their previous albums were an unconventional take on conventional pop music, this album is… lighter, airier and freer than any of their previous efforts. About halfway through the album, the music seems to lose structure completely. And that’s not entirely a good thing. On the one hand, if you like experimental music, it’s right up your alley. If you don’t, you’ll be likely to skip the rest of the album, starting at about track 6. It’s still a good effort, though. Even though it goes off the rails, it’s good to experiment. But maybe they’re just not the band to do it.
#9: Emilíana Torrini – Tookah
Of course I was excited when I heard that Emilíana Torrini was releasing her first new album since 2008’s Me and Armini. And when I heard the first single off the album, “Speed of Dark”, I became SUPER EXCITED… because it reminded of her 1999 album Love in the Time of Science. If you know me, you know that Science is one of my all-time favorite albums. Produced by Roland Orzabal of Tears For Fears, Science was one of the best electronic albums, well.. ever. But then some bad things happened in Torrini’s life, and 2005’s Fisherman’s Woman was a mostly acoustic mopefest. It was still good, mind you. ANY Emilíana Torrini is a good thing. But I missed, so missed, the electronic Emilíana. The aforementioned Me and Armini was kind of more of the same: good, but not the artist I loved so much. It’s almost like… imagine if Human League decided to do slow, acoustic versions of their songs all the time. Maybe it would be good, or maybe it wouldn’t. But it’s not the sound you fell in love with. And sadly, Tookah is mostly more of the same, plodding Torrini we’ve come to know over the past few years. “Speed of Dark” is the only really “electronic” song on the album, except for perhaps the title track. The bulk of the album – “Caterpillar”, “Autumn Sun”, “Home”, “Elizabet” – is the same downtempo stuff she’s been doing for years. Which is fine. But not what I wanted. Having said that, it’s still good, though.
#8: Carla Bruni – Little French Songs
Confession Time: I’ve fallen in love with songs sung (in French) by French girls. But it’s more specific than that. Oddly, the singers must be French; French Canadians, Belgians and Swiss need not apply (which is odd, I know, since Bruni was born in Italy). And the music must be mostly voice and guitar, with perhaps a few violins or accordions thrown in from time to time. This album is the perfect example of what I’m looking for. I first fell for Bruni’s music with “Quelqu’un m’a dit” from the album of the same name, as used in Hans Canosa’s 2005 film Conversations with Other Women. And this album is almost as good. maybe even better. Mostly written by Bruni herself, the album is light and breezy. If you speak French, you might find that the music is actually quite clever at times. For the rest of us, don’t fear: it’s lovely. In fact, the music on this disc is exactly what it says on the tin: “Little French Songs”. And that’s a good thing!
#7: Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe
Holy crap! This album is AWESOME! But to appreciate it, you first have to understand what Julianna Barwick’s music is. It’s basically just loops of her voice, beautifully layered on top of each other, with minimal accompaniment, usually in the form of piano or synthesizers. Much of the time, there are no “lyrics”, yet the full range of emotions are there. You don’t explicitly know the loneliness or happiness or her music… you just feel it. I like to think of it as music ghosts would listen to, or maybe music that ghosts would make. It has the ethereal grandeur of Cocteau Twins, the icy beauty of Sigur Rós, and the freedom to experiment of Brian Eno, all in one glorious package. Her previous album, The Magic Place, made #9 on my 2011 list of best albums, and this one is even better. Only problem is, her music is very… specific. This isn’t something you throw on at a party, or while you’re driving around town running errands. But if you’re in the mood for something like this… it’s absolutely, positively perfect. In every possible way.
#6: Postiljonen – Skyer
Postiljonen are a Swedish trio that are both synthpop and dream pop, yet not really either. This album is pretty amazing in that it can easily be overlooked, yet is top quality when you remember that it’s there. Several times this year I’ve searched my music, looking for something to listen to and would come across this and think “well… okay, I guess”. But then I’d find that I’d listened to the album all the way through twice in a row without thinking about it. This is music that doesn’t want to be analyzed or inspected; it just wants to be listened to. Each song is beautifully crafted, almost delicate. It’s almost enough to transport you away to another world. It’s an album that grows on you. You hear one track and think “wow… that’s pretty good”. And the next track is good. And the track after that, and the track after that. “We Raise Our Hearts”, “On The Run”, “Supreme”… it’s like there’s no filler at all on this album. One gets the feeling – and I mean this in a good way – that America’s “secret tastemakers” – those anonymous hipsters who select music for TV shows and commercials – are big fans of this band. And you should be, too!
#5: OMD – English Electric
When the Music Revolution comes, one of the crimes I will be tried for is ignoring OMD all these years. Sure, I liked “If You Leave”, “So In Love”, and “Enola Gay” as much as the next guy who grew up in the 80s. I had Architecture and Morality on vinyl… and even listened to it a few times! But this year, thanks to this album, I went through an OMD renaissance of sorts. I got my hands on Dazzle Ships, and found it to be one of the most underappreciated albums of the 80s. But this isn’t about Dazzle Ships. It’s about English Electric. If the band’s 2010 comeback album, History of Modern, was kind of a miss, this disc fires on all cylinders, recapturing the magic that made them such an influential band in the synthpop scene. Sometimes the music is strangely familiar: “Night Café” could be from the soundtrack to a lost John Hughes film. “Decimal” features layered samples of voicemail systems, not unlike Dazzle Ship’s “Time Zones”, which featured shortwave time announcements. And “Kissing The Machine” (with Propaganda’s Claudia Brücken) recalls Kraftwerk at their best. In fact, Kraftwerk influences are all over this album, creating a kind of “Old School within Old School” world that it’s a lot of fun. But it’s the single from this album – “Metroland” – that really brings it all home:
#4: Soft Metals – Lenses
This album, from boyfriend\girlfriend duo Ian Hicks and Patricia Hall, is surprisingly good. It’s like you’ve gone to a friend’s house, and there’s a bowl of candy there you never tried before. So you eat one… and it’s pretty good. So you have another, then another and soon the bowl is empty… or, in this case, the album is over. One of my favorite quotes about this album comes from Creative Loafing Charlotte. In a review, Hall’s voice was described as being “bored stiff at the edge of the galaxy”… which is an odd way of putting it, yet is totally accurate. You’ll find traces of Human League and OMD in this, as if those bands were traveling through interstellar space. Like Skyer. this is an album I’d overlook, until I realized I’d listened to it three times in a row. Good stuff.
#3: Washed Out – Paracosm
Ernest Greene of Perry, Georgia became a huge hit on the indie scene with his first two releases, the Life of Leisure EP and first album Within and Without. People loved his lo-fi synthesizer sound, which one reviewer said was like “an old OMD demo tape that had fallen into a tub of Vaseline, and someone spent hours alone in their room, trying to recreate that exact sound”. That’s a bit hyperbolic, but it’s not far from the truth, either. But then, on this album, that sound changed. Greene moved out of the country, becoming less insular. And he’d traveled all over the world on tour for Within and Without. He branched out, adding a barrage of old synths, like Optigans and Mellotrons, to his bag of tricks. Where Within and Without was beautiful, but slightly colorless, the kind of album you listen to on the ride home after a long night of hootin’ and hollerin’, Paracosm is a full-blown riot of color and richness and depth. One review said that some of the songs on this disc “sound like sunscreen smells”, and they’re exactly right. This isn’t an album you listen to in the dead of night like other Washed Out discs. It’s something you listen to in the middle of the day. Something for listening to at the beach, or rollin’ with the top down or sunroof open. And just because the music has changed – sounding more like conventional lo-fi than a man hopelessly trapped in a synthesizer – that doesn’t mean that Greene has lost any of his eye for detail. Every sound on this album feels perfectly in place. What’s better – and this is the true genius of Ernest Greene – you feel like he could have just thrown it together like that in a few minutes, rather than agonizing over it for weeks in the studio.
NOTE: The above video is an unofficial, fan-made video. For some reason, Washed Out really attracts fan-made videos. At one point, there were like… dozens on YouTube.
#2: CHVRCHES – The Bones Of What You Believe
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the Internet when it comes to pop music, it’s that the Internet Hype Machine is for real. Take Rebecca Black and “Friday”. Is there any doubt that this song would have gone nowhere in the days before the Internet? But once YouTube came along, and thousands of blogs and tweets sent people to the video, she became something of a “star” (for better or worse).
Well, the Internet Hype Machine can work for real bands, too. When three Scots got together and formed a band called “CHVRCHES”, the Internet roared to life (the odd spelling of the band’s name, inspired by Latin inscriptions on buildings, is to make them friendly to search engines). Blogs talked about how great they were. Tweets and Facebook posts linked to early versions of the band’s songs. Fans could barely contain themselves.
After what seemed like years of hype, the band’s first album finally came out in September, and sure enough, it was worth the wait. Well, mostly. CHVRCHES is one of those bands that has one main singer (in this case, the cute and smart Lauren Mayberry). But one of the guys also sings as well, leading me to instantly skip those tracks. It’s not that his voice is bad, it’s just that after Mayberry who would want anyone else to sing for them?
CHVRCHES’ music sounds like happy little synthpop, but Mayberry’s got more going for her than that. Like so many other bands I’ve loved over the years, the music is happy and fluffy, but Mayberry’s lyrics are pretty dark:
I’m in misery where you can seem as old as your omens
And the mother we share will never keep your proud head from falling
The way is long but you can make it easy on me
And the mother we share will never keep our cold hearts from calling
– “The Mother We Share”
And if I recover
Will you be my comfort
Or it can be over
Or we can just leave it here
So pick any number
Choose any color
I’ve got the answer
Open the envelope
I’ll give you one more chance
To say we can change or part ways
And you take what you need
And you don’t need me
Their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, is pretty damn solid. Yes, I don’t care for the few songs sung by one of the guys in the band, but I’m positively addicted to the songs Mayberry sings. I go through them one by one, listening to them over and over again. Here’s hoping the band has a long, fruitful future ahead of them!
#1: Marsheaux – Inhale
Synthpop bands face a particular challenge: how to sound like early Depeche Mode, OMD or Human League without sounding exactly like early Depeche Mode, OMD or Human League. For some retro bands – like The Stray Cats or Big Bad Voodoo Daddy – it’s easy: the music they make is louder and faster than the material they’re inspired by. Although “(She’s) Sexy + 17” sounds similar to music by Bill Haley & His Comets, no one would ever confuse the two. Marsheaux walks the fine line between “inspired by” and “exact copies of” better than any other synthpop band I know. Their music sounds like something from 1983, yet it’s also fully contemporary. I love synthesizer music, but even I sometimes find it hard to listen to early synthpop stuff, because the synths sound so… brittle and mechanical. Depeche Mode’s “Dreaming of Me” might have been groundbreaking in 1981, but if you listen to it today the music sounds like a cheesy Nokia ringtone from 1997. So I guess it would be accurate to say that Marsheaux captures the zeitgeist or ethos of early 80s electronic acts, but with fully modern instruments.
And this album captures Marsheaux at their very best. While there are some tracks I like more than others – ironically, the two singles “Inhale” and “Alone” are my least favorite songs on the album – every track is solid. From the opening track, “Self Control” you know you’re in for a great time with this album. The next song, “Secret Place” is one my favorite songs ever; when the band released a teaser for the album, I listened to the 15-20 seconds of “Secret Place” over and over and over again. For months.
And it just goes on and on: “To The End”, “Come on Now”, “Never Stop”, “August Day”, “Over and Over” and “End is a New Start”. It’s just one great synthpop song after another, each heavily inspired by that early 80s sound, but never becoming a gimmick or crutch. The girls – Marianthi Melitsi and Sophie Sarigiannidou – are from Greece, so English isn’t their first language. The words to their songs aren’t terribly “erudite”; they’ll never be confused with Bob Dylan or Paul Simon with their mysterious allusions. But, in a sense, it works out better for them: their appeals to love, loss, loneliness, and joy have a universal appeal, and don’t need obscure allusions to Coleridge or Yeats to make their point. And the girls’ voices blend so well together! Oh my gosh! You could travel the whole world and I don’t think you’d find two women who sound better together than these do. One more thing – and this is just me talking – I love the odd way they sometimes force words to fit the meter. I don’t know if it’s because they’re not native English speakers, but they sometimes come up with… interesting ways to pronounce things. In “Secret Place”, for instance, there’s a line that says “Beneath the bright blue”, in which “bright” is pronounced “bri-yet”. It’s freakin’ adorable.
Honestly, this is one great album from one great band. That they haven’t gotten more exposure is criminal. In a world where truly awful music tops the pop charts, these two women have found a way to bottle everything that was awesome about early 80s music, and (most importantly) make it their own. Since these girls are from Greece, they must be familiar with the story of King Midas… because like him, everything these two ladies do turns to gold!
It just so happened that I was on vacation when Inhale went on sale at Amazon’s MP3 store. I bought it, and copied the files to a flash drive (the car stereo has a USB port). I played the album for my good friend Scott, and he said that this song, “To The End”, was his favorite Marsheaux tune ever:
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This is a short list – in alphabetical order by artist – of some of the other albums from 2013 that I liked but just weren’t good enough to make the Top 10. I’m sure that I’m forgetting a few, so don’t send me angry emails or Facebook messages if I’ve forgotten one of your favorites!
The Beautiful Spies – Just Fascination: Oddly, there isn’t a lot of information about this band on the Internet. The Canadian synthpop’s site only says that their “new CD ‘Just Fascination’ is now available and they are currently in rehearsal for shows in 2013”. Which implies that the disc was released late last year or early this year. But the album wasn’t scrobbled on Last.fm until a few weeks ago, soooo.. Anyway, I’ve only had this album for a couple of weeks, and it’s really good.
Boardwalk – Boardwalk: Light, breezy dream pop from California. Mike Edge and Amber Quintero do the lo-fi, home recording thing really well. This is one of those albums that, if you like it at all, you will instantly like. And, compared to most other bands on this list, it’s one of the most guitar-heavy, too. This band kind of sounds like what Best Coast would sound like if I was in charge of the band.
Feathers – If All Now Here: NY based singer-songwriter Anastasia Dimou moved to Austin and reinvented herself as Feathers, an electronic band that was The Guardian’s “New Band of the Day” on January 28, 2013 and was called “the discovery of SXSW 2013” by the LA Times. The band opened for Depeche Mode, Washed Out and Blouse (amongst others) this year, too. They’re pretty good! Not “Top 10” good, but good nevertheless.
IO Echo – Ministry of Love: This band had an early “15 Minutes of Fame” as “the band with the cool song in Sprint’s Palm Pre commercial“. They then disappeared for a few years, only to reemerge with this pretty solid album in 2013. It’s worth a listen!
Loveliscrushing – Ghost Colored Halo: Like the Cocteau Twins? Because this band sounds almost exactly like them.
Mazzy Star – Seasons of Your Day: This is Mazzy Star’s first new album since Among My Swan all the way back in 1996. Amazingly, the band sounds exactly the same. If you told me that this album was a “Japanese Bonus Disc” from Among My Swan or an disc of outtakes and b-sides from Swan, I’d totally believe you. Of course, that isn’t necessarily a good thing: you’d think the band might have branched out at least a little bit in the past 17 years. One good thing about this album: it proves that Hope Sandoval needs Dave Roback. Sorry but Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions sucks.
Nightlife – Days In Other Days: Who knew they even made synthpop in Ann Arbor, Michigan?
Gary Numan – Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind): Not my cup of tea, really. It’s far too loud and depressing. But the funny thing is, it sounds like Nine Inch Nails.. if NIN were still good. HEY TRENT! GARY NUMAN IS TAKIN’ YOU TO SCHOOL, SON! Although I don’t listen to it much, this whole album is pretty good!
Sapphire Slows – Allegoria: The stage name of Tokyo-based Kinuko Hiramatsu, this album is dark, murky, shadowy, and ghostly.
She and Him – Volume 3: M. Ward has always been pretty good, and Zooey Deschanel’s songwriting skills are actually developing quite nicely. Only problem with this album is that I feel like I have to turn it off after three songs or risk having to turn in my Man Card.
Still Corners – Strange Pleasures: Another solid effort from this dream poppy British band. I can’t believe they came to Snug Harbor here in Charlotte – and tickets were only $8! – but I passed on the show… since it was on a Tuesday! I’m such a dumbass sometimes.
Team Ghost – Rituals: OMG! Something approaching actual “rock and roll”? Well, yes… sort of. It’s a collaboration between producer Jean-Philippe Talaga, Christophe Guerin and Nicolas Fromageau (who used to be half of M83). The album’s a bit darker than M83’s latest offering, but there are actual guitars and drums here!
The Virgins – Strike Gently: Not a great album as a whole, but I really dig their mismash of 2010s indie and 70s New Wave (a la Modern Lovers, Talking Heads or maybe even The Cars). My fav tune of theirs – “Flashbacks, Memories and Dreams” – could almost have been a Top 10 hit from 1979.
White Lies – Big TV: Not as good as their previous work, with a lot of “more of the same”. But I still like their “what would Ian McCulloch’s band sound like if he’d been born 20 years later” sound.