If 2013 was a bumper year for recorded music, then 2014 was the year of the live show. Besides carefully curated festivals, like Electronic Summer and TEC 003, there was an ambitious Nordic tour by Rational Youth, Psyche, Sista mannen på jorden and I Satellite, followed by a German-Polish outing for Rational Youth and Psyche. Cold War Night Life sponsored “An Evening with the Swedish Synth” in Brick Lane, showcasing leading poptronica Vikings, Page, Machinista and Train to Spain. Karin Park and Parralox stormed the London stage this year, as well. The high water mark for UK artists was set by Vile Electrodes, however, who warmed up for their show at TEC 003 by winning awards in Germany. Sure, Avicii can fill hockey arenas with EDM DJ sets, but does he hand-make CD sleeves from faux fur, wear hats made from washing-up gloves and sing like a young Debbie Harry? No, and until he does, the Vile ones will have the creative edge.
With that, we are pleased to present Cold War Night Life’s Top 10 Releases of 2014.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
1. Rational Youth – Cold War Night Life / Recordings 1981-84
Pole position in 2014 was easily taken by a set of recordings that were all made by 1984. Rational Youth’s first album, Cold War Night Life, came out in 1982 and quickly took a place in the synth pantheon next to the classic releases from that time, such as Depeche Mode’s Speak and Spell and John Foxx’s Metamatic. Over the years, it has become a cult favourite outside of Canada, with Swedish and German synthers fanning the embers into occasional flames. This year, the leading European artisan label, Vinyl on Demand, lovingly collated it with live recordings, demos, singles and EPs for one of their ultra-high quality box sets. Stunning sound from heavy-duty 180gm vinyl and amazing design mean that this is a package that only comes around once every thirty years.
SINGLE OF THE YEAR
2. Sista mannen på jorden – ”Stadens alla ljus”
Eddie Bengtsson nearly didn’t record “Stadens alla ljus” [EN: “City Lights”] himself. He first offered it to his former band, S.P.O.C.K. It was only after they turned it down that he took the plunge with his legendary project, Sista mannen på jorden [EN: The Last Man on Earth]. That proved to be a good move, as SMPJ fans have come to expect world-class poptronica with themes of space and longing from Sweden’s own Vince Clarke. “Stadens alla ljus” is the story of an astronaut looking down on the Earth and commenting on urban illumination as his air supply runs out. With sweeps that cover the cosmos and sequences set to Warp 4, it’s an evocative song made more poignant by Bengtsson’s emotive vocals. Once you’ve been transported by the chorus, there’s no way back.
The 12” version came with another SMPJ original, “Vem gör det då?” [EN: “Who does it, then?”], as well as two covers: an exquisite version of OMD’s “Stanlow” with Swedish lyrics and a faithful Devo tribute, “Going Under”. The combination was unbeatable in 2014.
3. Hannah Peel – Fabricstate
One of the highlights of the year was receiving a copy of Hannah Peel’s Fabricstate EP on a Saturday when the Sun was shining. We said:
“It’s not just that the record is pressed in red vinyl, mirroring the colour of her hair; nor that it contains Chloe, the award-winning song already heard in a British television production – the thing that sets Fabricstate apart is that it is infused with distillates of folk music but is a thoroughly modern musical cocktail. Take the title track, which begins with a piano accompaniment, but quickly develops a martial rhythm underpinned by Test Dept-esque metal, before razor-sharp sawtooth waveforms come in. Peel’s voice has a delicate quality, which sits against the more dangerous sounds of the instrumental track, setting them off by highlighting just the slightest hint of menace. Folk music for urban living, let’s call it.”
Peel’s talent and technique are solidly in evidence throughout. We couldn’t pick just one song, so the whole EP takes third place in this year’s list.
4. Machinista – Xenoglossy
Machinista’s infectious poptronica travelled well in 2014, reaching London for “An Evening with the Swedish Synth.” Their live show is a razor-sharp combination of up-tempo pop and experimental rock (think Bowie meets Suicide at Nico’s house with lots of Italo records scattered around). Xenoglossy is their first proper album, and it comes filled with the same superb, original poptronica; sometimes pointing at the skies and sometimes in our hearts for signs of life, but always moving feet and hips in tandem. On disc, John Lindqwister’s vocals let rip while Richard Flow runs the machines, and the two Swedish veterans conjur up a sound that is both fresh and electrifying.
5. I Satellite – Zephyr EP
Rod MacQuarrie’s collection of machines is impressive by any standards: he owns equipment formerly housed by Bill Zorn of Rational Youth and Phil Collins, and his studio is crammed with Oberheims, Rolands, Logans and ARPs that can be used to recreate the sounds of classic tracks by everyone from Alphaville to ABBA. With the release of Zephyr, the Kalamazoo-based musician showed off his old-school influences, as well as his ability to construct distinctive original material. Covers of New Order’s “Your Silent Face” and ABBA’s “I Am the City” are polished and respectful; but, by moving more in the direction of Gary Numan and John Foxx, we’d argue that the latter is arguably better than the original version. Tracks like “This Time” and “City Streets” are instant classics, while “Bubbleboy” channels alienation and pain to a mid-tempo beat. It’s pure magic.
6. Karin Park – “Shine”
Karin Park ran a remix competition on Beatport for her 2014 single, “Shine,” but none of the contributions came close to the original. With pained lyrics yielding a glimpse of hope in the chorus, the track sounded best with the attack side of the envelope set high on the keyboards and the beats restrained. Park’s voice is distinctive and sometimes compared to Karin Dreijer Andersson’s, but it’s got a texture of its very own. It provides the emotional overlay that lifts “Shine” to the next level, gliding frictionless over the instrumental track.
7. William Orbit – Strange Cargo 5
It’s perhaps easy for an album given away for free on social media to be overlooked, but the latest instalment of William Orbit’s Strange Cargo series wasn’t exactly a vanity project. The musician and producer, best known in popular music circles for his work with Madonna, Britney and (once, but we doubt ever again) Blur, had the material up his sleeve but just wasn’t looking to cash in on it. He could have charged the market rate for Strange Cargo 5, because it is the type of exemplary poptronica that record companies write him large cheques to use as a platform for their major stars, but he just put it on Soundcloud with the download feature enabled. Pure class – in more ways than one.
8. Parralox – “Crying on the Dancefloor”
We interviewed Parralox just before they appeared in London as support for Polly Scattergood. John von Ahlen’s sophisticated pop sense had consistently impressed us, but we were still blown away by the unveiling of “Crying on the Dancefloor.” With the addition of vocalists Francine and Johanna, Parralox ramped up its capabilities and glammed up its image even further. The accompanying video, in which the band play the role of a talent show jury, revealed them to have a sense of humour, as well as style. Parralox are back on the London stage to warm up for Erasure before the end of the year, and this is certain to be a crowd favourite. We’ve featured a techno mix here by Your Silent Face.
9. Vile Electrodes – “Empire of Wolves”
Drawing enough power to keep National Grid engineers on their toes during live performances, Vile Electrodes are the UK’s leading electro duo. Anais Neon has stunning vocal control, while keyboardist Martin Swan just about keeps the machinery under his spell in their synthetic Fantasia. This high-voltage track came in an exclusive package of remixes, embedded in a faux fur envelope, and it’s coiled to spring out of your speakers with fangs bared.
10. Colouroïd – Long Play
Colouroïd are the Icelandic/Swedish duo of Jòn and Ella Moe. Besides making excellent lower-case M and W minimal wave music, they also run the FlexiWave label from their Stockholm base (which we hear will be relocating to Berlin soon). Their first album is a masterful slab of vinyl, pressed with grooves cooler than the surface of Neptune. From the run-in groove until the stylish inner-label, each side is an icy, voltage-controlled mindscape. With titles like “Pillow Fort” and “Eye Shadow,” we’d say their songs are playful and dark – fifty shades of black, if you will.