The last weeks of 2013 are ticking by, and it can already be declared a vintage year for fans of electronic music and culture. Not only was there a steady stream of high-quality releases from established artists; there were encouraging signs of new artists taking the field, armed with sequencers and bags of groovy waveforms. The cassette format started to make a come-back, encouraged by artisan labels like Flexiwave and Nachos!, while vinyl, special edition CDs and box sets all made headway against the tidal forces of subscription-based streaming. Even promoters got into the act, by putting on festivals that were properly curated, instead of being kitchen-sink events.
Against this backdrop, Cold War Night Life paused to pick out some of the best songs of 2013. From an unusually strong field, we managed to select ten stand-out tracks to make our playlist for the year. If we had a crush on you, this is the mix-tape we would give you for Christmas.
1. Page: Som ett skal
After 2010’s Nu (EN: Now) revived the musical partnership of Eddie Bengtsson and Marina Schiptjenko, the profile and creative output of Page have been reaching new heights. Sweden’s original synthpop act, Page went through several transitions before bowing out at a performance in 2000. The reunion of Bengtsson and Schiptjenko, a decade later, surprised many by reinvigorating their music with mature themes and catchy melodies. Nu came across as a reboot, rather than a simple refresh, of Page’s sound.
The release of Hemma (EN: At Home) in 2013 went even further, showcasing the growing strength and sophistication of Bengtsson’s songwriting while fusing modern and vintage influences. His signature “glamtronica” sound draws upon the best punk, disco and glam rock influences and runs them through a bank of Moog synths. Underpinned by dancefloor-friendly rhythms, the songs on Hemma all come across as having come from a place five minutes into the future.
The most accessible of these is Som ett skal (EN: Like a Shell), which was released by Wonderland Records as a series of limited edition 3″ CD-singles with additional remixes. In a bumper year for electronic music, Page’s effort was peerless.
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2. Rational Youth: Ring the Bells (Live in Ottawa)
Sitting for thirty years in the attic of Kevin Komoda, a box of memorabilia collected from his days in Rational Youth yielded some expected treasures when opened earlier this year. Besides pictures from Kraftwerk’s 1981 show in Montreal, Komoda found recordings from Rational Youth’s 1983 cross-Canada tour. Tapes from shows in Ottawa and Winnipeg were promptly digitised and released as cassettes and CDs, including bundles with rare and unreleased tracks from the RY archives.
The stand-out song from the live recordings is the version of Ring the Bells played in the Ottawa show. One of the best tracks from the classic Cold War Night Life album, singer Tracy Howe’s vocals and the synthetic strings played by Komoda combine to spine-tingling effect. With live Rational Youth shows being organised for Canada and Sweden in 2014, this is a taster of the magic to come.
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3. Hannah Peel: Harbour
Irish-born and Barnsley-raised, multi-instrumentalist Hannah Peel is best known in the electronic music community for her work with John Foxx & The Maths. With her amplified violin and keyboard work, Peel has brought an iridescent quality to Foxx’s stage shows, complementing the contributions of drummer and modular-synth master, Benjamin “Benje” Edwards. Peel’s solo material occupies a different place from Foxx’s, ranging from music-box versions of classic synthpop to ethereal, sweeping pop tracks that are more obviously inspired by a mixture of the Cocteau Twins and Irish folk traditions.
At the end of 2013, Peel won an award for another track, Chloe, which was used in a British television programme, but the song we chose for our mix-tape was Harbour, which comes from Peel’s Nailhouse EP – one of the independent stand-outs in 2013.
4. Cryo: The Portal
The release of Cryo material is always special, but the first single from the forthcoming Retropia album, In Your Eyes, came with an outstanding bonus track. While the A-side single is a definite alternative dancefloor-filler, The Portal is solid evidence that Martin Rudefelt has a deep well of compelling songs to draw upon. Although released in the position of a B-side, The Portal could easily have been a single in its own right. Dark, brooding and uplifting at the same time, it shows why Cryo continue to set the benchmark for EBM.
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5. Julian & Marina: Count the Stars
One of the surprises of 2013 was the low-key release by the electro-crooner duo, Julian & Marina, of their Distance EP, which included this exceptional track. Count the Stars is a wonderful pop song: elegant and charming in equal amounts. It goes a long way to preserve the feeling of early Pet Shop Boys songs, at a time when the PSB are borrowing ideas from Michael Nyman while singing Fabien Society pamphlets, and deserves wider exposure.
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6. Candide: Lustfyllda nätter
They’ve been around since 1984, but Candide aren’t stuck in an old-school groove. They released two singles in 2013, both of which were excellent; but, if pressed, we preferred this tribute to influential Swedish new wave act, Lustans Lakejer.
7. Train to Spain: Passion
After a line-up change, which saw a new vocalist come into the fold, Train to Spain started to write and release uptempo, energetic pop songs with renewed vigour. Live dates across Sweden gave audiences a chance to experience their developing brand of synthpop; a combination of classic electronic sounds and driving sequences that sits somewhere on the spectrum between Yazoo and Front 242. This was one of our favourite songs of 2013, and the combination of Jonas Rasmusson’s music with Helena Wigeborg’s vocals holds out great promise for future releases.
8. Acute Onset: Nosology
Hanna Kihlander and Johan Söderling revealed their musical project with a bang, a bleep, clicks and pulses. Nosology showed that their eclectic combination of keyboards and modular components could be deployed to make infectious dance music infused with influences from DAF to A Guy Called Gerald. The DIY spirit behind this project is exactly right for the time.
9. Vive la fête: La Vision
Belgium’s number one party band, Vive la fête went all Vicious Pink for this sultry but rhythm-infused remix. We made it a Track of the Day, but in truth it is one of the top songs for the year. A bouncy synth line, laid in by remixer Pantser Fabriek, gives it a minimal wave feel, but the vocals of model Els Pynoo take it over the top. More of this for 2014, please.
10. Machinista: Pushing the Angels Astray
The duo of Richard Flow (ex-Vision Talk) and John Lindqwister (ex-Cat Rapes Dog) have conjured up a number of high-quality songs in their short time together, and with Pushing the Angels Astray they have established their place among the most exciting new acts of 2013. Their performance at Electronic Summer was one of the highlights of the festival, and with their signing to Juggernaut in the UK, we’ll be seeing a lot more of them next year.