It has been forty years since a heady moment when disco, new wave and DIY post-punk overlapped in the charts. In 1979, you could choose from Joy Division’s “Transmission,” XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel,” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” The singles section in Woolworths found rockers, punk stragglers and assorted trendies pressed shoulder-to-shoulder in the hunt for the latest cool release.
Fast forward four decades and plastic singles have been replaced by digital streams. The mobile phone has replaced the jukebox. Musical tribes are smaller and less distinct. The NME is dead, and people are just as likely to stay in and watch ASMR videos on YouTube as dance to the latest underground hit. The power of music might have become just as diffused, had there not been a steady flow of work from reliable artists.
This year’s chart is dominated by veterans who have proved their capacity for brilliant and emotive music. Several were part of the alternative sound of 1979, and others have been brought up in the spirit of those times. Their youthful rebellion has become mature reflection, but no one can accuse Wire or Page of having cashed in. They haven’t sold out or sold up, and no price can be put on their integrity or talent.
They are joined by a new wave of independent artists, including Rein, Karin My, Pieces of Juno and Lau Nau. These are songwriters and producers operating outside of the mainstream music industry while subverting its conventions. Unlike the DIY artists of 1979, they have access to means of production and distribution that rival those enjoyed by their commercial counterparts. In the virtual Woolworths singles section, their material stands out strongly.
19. VARIOUS ARTISTS – STUMM433
The story goes that Simon Fisher Turner observed that Mute were approaching the catalogue number 433. He suggested to Daniel Miller that Mute Artists should celebrate the acts on the label with versions of John Cage’s notorious composition, 4′ 33″.
As conceived by Cage, the musicians are meant to prepare to play and then put aside their instruments for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The discomfort of the audience and the sounds of the concert venue are the performance.
So, how does it work as a series of field recordings? Results may vary, as the disclaimer goes, but there are delicate and surprising versions included courtesy of a staggering list of artists. The line-up includes: A Certain Ratio, A.C. Marias, ADULT., The Afghan Whigs, Alexander Balanescu, Barry Adamson, Ben Frost, Bruce Gilbert, Cabaret Voltaire, Carter Tutti Void, Chris Carter, Chris Liebing, Cold Specks, Daniel Blumberg, Depeche Mode, Duet Emmo, Echoboy, Einstürzende Neubauten, Erasure, Fad Gadget (tribute), Goldfrapp, He Said, Irmin Schmidt, Josh T. Pearson, K Á R Y Y N, Komputer, Laibach, Land Observations, Lee Ranaldo, Liars, Looper, Lost Under Heaven, Maps, Mark Stewart, Mick Harvey, Miranda Sex Garden, Modey Lemon, Moby, Mountaineers, New Order, Nitzer Ebb, NON, Nonpareils, The Normal, onDeadWaves, Phew, Pink Grease, Pole, Polly Scattergood, Renegade Soundwave, Richard Hawley, Richie Hawtin, ShadowParty, Silicon Teens, Simon Fisher Turner, Michael Gira, The Warlocks, Wire, and Yann Tiersen.
STUMM433 is also the most tenderly packaged release of the year. In a translucent Perspex box are four records, a set of candles with the scent of silence (a riff on Simon & Garfunkel?), and a certificate signed by Mute Artists’ supremo, Daniel Miller. Miller appears in no less than three guises on the compilation: as Silicon Teens, The Normal and part of the trio, Duet Emmo.
Fans expecting a new Nitzer Ebb EBM track will be disappointed, but those with an open mind will find plenty to enjoy. It is a lot of 4’33″ to take in during one sitting, so best enjoyed rationed out in what Chris Carter once referred to as the space between. STUMM433 is a year’s worth of Sunday night experimentation in one package.
18. THE HIDDEN MAN – Desert Place
It is a complete mystery who The Hidden Man is. It is no secret, however, that this cover of the 1981 underground hit, “Desert Place,” was one of the best surprises of the year.
As we said when it came out:
Originally released by The Twins in 1981, it is a slick, more energetic version in the hands of the mysterious Swede behind the mask and vocoder. It has more hooks than a butcher’s shop and adds hi-NRG gloss for a perfect shine.
17. COVENANT – Fieldworks Exkursion EP
The experimental angle was in full display in 2019. Besides STUMM433, the biggest name in Swedish dark wave also felt the lure of the laboratory.
Released as a German tour exclusive, the Exkursion EP was billed as the first release of an upcoming cycle of records on Covenant’s Fieldworks theme. Each member of the group contributed one song, based on field recordings from their travels, blended with found sound.
The band explained:
It’s an angry reflection of the interesting times we live in and we use field recordings as a medium and vessel to challenge our perception of media, manipulation and agendas kept hidden from us. The “Fieldworks: Exkursion EP” also revolves around spirituality, taking cues from old texts such as the Mayan creation myth Popol Vuh, ancient temples like the Pantheon in Rome and lingers on the beauty that is life itself.
The strength of the material comes from its sensitivity towards the sources and the diversity of approaches taken by the group. As usual for Covenant, it is more thoughtful than the average EBM head-banger and more textured than the typical pop song. You can’t dance to it, but you will have fun trying.
16. RATIONAL YOUTH – Cold War Night Life [Reissue of the Year]
When it was first released in 1982, Cold War Night Life was a unique, original album. It easily stood up with John Foxx’s Metamatic and Depeche Mode’s Speak & Spell as a genre-defining release. Uniquely, it came from North America. The US artists who used synthesisers were quirky, like Devo or Our Daughter’s Wedding, but in Montreal things turned out differently when a record store clerk and his studious friend came together over a shared love of electronics.
Rational Youth were the love child of Kraftwerk and YMO, raised in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Cold War. Far from Europe, but in the most European of North American cities, Tracy Howe and Bill Vorn learned to sequence modular and keyboard synths under the threat of an endless nuclear winter.
The tone of Cold War Night Life reflected those pressures, but also the determined spirit of youthful resistance. They sang about kids in Poland dating under martial law, Germans dancing on the Berlin Wall, Trotsky getting assassinated, and planes that flew into eternity; and they did it with funky bass lines and drum machines linked with electrical pulses. They sound they made was novel and compelling, but it wasn’t exactly as they imagined it.
A reissue by Universal provided the opportunity to play with the mastering. The new, deluxe version of Cold War Night Life that came out this year not only served as a reminder of Howe’s capacity for melody; it was also the first to sound the way the artists intended.
15. JEAN-MARC LEDERMAN EXPERIENCE – 13 Ghost Stories
Belgium’s Jean-Marc Lederman (Fad Gadget band, The Weathermen, Kid Montana) reached out to singers he respected from around the world and asked them the same question: “You can come back to earth for ONE day, as a ghost. What do you do?”
As with previous Jean-Marc Lederman Experience projects, the instrumentation he provided to the vocalists was classy and varied. The vocals they returned to him were personal and cleverly constructed. The contributors to this project include Christer Hermodsson, Louise Fraser, Stefan Netschio, Juliette Bossé, Jenna Fearon, Agi Taralas, Elena Alice Fossi, Yvette Winkler, Mark Hockings, Natasha A Twentyone, Alice Gift, Christa Jerôme, Rascal Hueppe, Julianne Regan, Darrin Huss, Rexx Arkana, JP Aston, Nicola Testa and Louise Love.
As one might expect with such a diverse set of singers, themes and styles are varied. They have their own ways of haunting the world.
14. PIECES OF JUNO – Metanoia
Norway’s best songwriter at the moment, Juno Jensen, produced the next instalment in her “coloured wig” series this year. Named for the Greek term for changing one’s mind, Metanoia is a showcase for the elegance of Jensen’s songwriting and vocalisation.
As we noted in our review:
The album opens with the question, “Is this a dream?” The ethereal piano behind Jensen’s voice on “Fortuna” draws you into into an endless space where everything is vapour, so perhaps it is.
The wash of the sea enters the frame on “Ocean Floor,” with Jensen’s emeraldine vocals dancing like blades of kombu on waves of reverb. On this album, she has collaborated again with Freddie Holm, who brought in the multi-instrumentalist Bebe Risenfors to add wind and brass to the sonic palette.
“Strawberry” and “Bluebell” have Jensen singing with a purr that will trigger the ASMR sensitive listener. Her style could be lifted from a cocktail lounge at the edge of imagination, combining an intensity of purpose and breadth of expression that is unique in our playlist.
13. KARIN MY – Time to Go/Voices in the Wall
We have described Karin My as Sweden’s secret weapon before, and she went all out this year with three excellent releases.
Starting with “The Silence,” My demonstrated a capacity for songwriting that is in the top tier for Nordic artists. She followed up with “Time to Go/Voices in the Wall” and “World from Orbit,” capturing our ears and our hearts all over again.
My captures loss and longing like no one else in this list, and we are looking forward to hearing more from her in 2020.
12. ERIC RANDOM – Wire Me Up
The former Buzzcocks roadie, Eric Random, produced one of the finest albums of the year. As we noted in our interview:
Random’s new album, Wire Me Up, is a stunning collection of electronic tracks that puts most recent techno to shame. Released as a double album on vinyl, it’s a strong return to the turntable by the veteran multi-instrumentalist. It’s been two years since Two Faced hit us, and in that time Random has created a meisterwerk of bubbling, rhythmic electronica. His early, industrial dance style is there in the background, but the sound is evolved, sophisticated and upgraded.
It is next level material, made with the intuition and insight of an musician who has worked with some of the most iconic artists of our times. It stretches between the cosmic German sounds that came from Conny’s Studio to acid-flecked dance material, and it covers a range of moods while maintaining an eye on the dancefloor.
11. SPOONS – The First & Last Time
Canada’s Spoons hit the spot with a new album that was a genuine surprise. Their first in eight years, New Day New World, yielded this terrific single. Gordon Deppe’s vocals are as strong as they were in the 80s; and, together with bassist and long-time collaborator, Sandy Horne, he has struck a nostalgic chord.
10. MACHINISTA – Anthropocene
This was the year that Machinista’s guitarist shed his mask. It was also the year that the Swedish poptronica act returned to London. In their pocket they had a new album, collecting all of their loose ends from the past few years and showing off material that proved their relevance.
Our take was positive:
The Italo roots of Richard Flow’s instrumentals are on show, but so are EBM and pop influences. The addition of BRD’s guitar and Karin My’s cello takes the sound away from the specialist DJ section and into other areas of the record shop.
John Lindqwister’s vocals and lyrics are as taut as ever. The themes are dark: “The Scare” seems to be about news of the mass shootings that America specialises in; “Let Darkness In” reminds us that “God left us long ago.”
The main exception is, possibly, the stand-out track on the album: “Ásfriðr” finds Lindqwister having his pain taken away by the arrival of his daughter. It is first class and classy poptronica with positive vibrations, a Goldfrapp influence and cello work by Karin My.
It is great to revisit old friends in “Pain of Every Day” and “Seconds Minutes Hours.” It seems like they have been with us for a while, but they are in great company with the new songs brought to life here.
Life is the thing that gets in the way of making great music, but they both come together on Anthropocene – an album it has been worth waiting weeks, months and years for.
9. EMMON – Like a Drum
Sweden’s Emmon roared back this year with a single inspired by an opening slot for Nitzer Ebb in Stockholm. The project has always been one of the sexiest to come from the North, but with “Like a Drum” its seductive powers are at their prime and the song leaves you dripping in sweat.
8. LINEA ASPERA – Preservation Bias
The big news of 2019 was the announcement that Linea Aspera will be getting together for dates in Europe. The duo of Alison Lewis (Zoe Zanias, Keluar) and Ryan Ambridge were Britain’s dark wave hope but came apart amicably in 2013. The release of this album served as a reminder of how good they were and the first sign that there is more to come.
7. MINIMAL COMPACT – Creation Is Perfect
The return of Minimal Compact was one of the year’s happy surprises. Creation Is Perfect dropped into our letterbox as a book-with-CD package, allowing us to visualise the mood of the band while the music played.
Combining reworked material, like “Statik Dancin’,” with a new song, “Holy Roller,” the international beat combo showed why they are still relevant in a world being taken over by hipsters in short suits and purple socks – they are just better!
6. CRYO – The Fall of Man
Sweden’s best EBM act returned with a full album. That was an exciting event, and we were thrilled to co-present them at The Quad in Gothenburg, where they demonstrated their live chops.
Cryo have the ability to make intense rhythms and uplifting synth lines that cut like a scalpel across the standard EBM template. Martin Rudefelt has been doing this since SoundSequence, and the Juno 106 is his battle rifle in the struggle against complacency. Together with Torny Gottberg, the Progress Productions label boss and partner in Cryo, he has been subverting conventions and expectations like no one else in the Swedish scene.
From the opening sounds of “Know Your Enemy,” Cryo are locked and loaded. They empty a full magazine of beats and call in waves of pads to insistent effect. The forces of oppression are engaged and exposed.
The Fall of Man is dance music for the end of days.
5. WIRE – Cactused
There are exciting things happening on the Wire front.
The post-everything band are the subject of a documentary film that is in production. They have a new album coming out in the New Year. And they have shown off a new single, “Cactused,” that acts as a teaser for both.
Still in their psychedelic phase, “Cactused” finds Wire in great form. While bands like Depeche Mode languish in American blues-rock, Wire continue to find new veins to mine. “You better watch your step,” warns Graham Lewis, and he isn’t half right.
4. FRAGILE SELF – Fragile Self [New Artist of the Year]
This has been the year in which anyone with a narcissisic personality disorder was excluded from our world.
The key to understanding these disorders is the lack of a stable inner core. Good timing, then, that the London-based duo of Anil Aykan and Jonathan Barnbrook revealed the results of their Fragile Self project. Drawing on the works of psychology classics, and applying the Thematic Apperception Test to their sleeve design, Fragile Self went deeper than anyone has ever done into the meaning of mind and personality in a single album. To elaborate their investigation, they also created an elegant 480-page book for the deluxe edition of their debut album.
3. REIN – Off the Grid [Single of the Year]
The Queen of electronic body music, Joanna Rein, shed her old skin and emerged with a fresh sound just in time for TEC 006.
“Off the Grid” provided the first glimpse of her unique style – can we call it melodic EBM? – that fuses the heavy-duty bass lines she is known for with a more radio-friendly production. The result is a blistering combination.
2. LAU NAU – Land without God [Soundtrack of the Year]
The Catholic Church in Ireland has a lot to account for. The documentary film, Land Without God, tells the story of a family essentially destroyed by the machinations of the institution that was meant to bring them closer to salvation. It is a heart-rending tale, and the soundtrack provided by Lau Nau is haunting.
Lau Nau has produced many of the most interesting and stimulating releases that have emerged from the north in the past decade. She has the kind of voice that weaves its way through a room like the smoke from a candle, flowing and winding on the air. These days, she plays with a suitcase modular system that processes sounds with a delicate touch. Her music touches the parts of the soul that other experimental artists cannot reach.
Land Without God finds her joined by long-time collaborator, Pekko Käppi, on bowed lyre, and with vocal contributions by Tuija Kuoppamäki. An Irish feel comes from concertinas played by Cormac Begley.
The story told in the film is about an epic disaster that will resonate through the generations. The soundtrack is just as large and powerful in its resonances.
Lau Nau plays in London on Saturday, 1 February 2020, at Cecil Sharp House.
1. PAGE – Fakta för alla [Album of the Year]
Page’s Eddie Bengtsson is sometimes called Sweden’s Vince Clarke. That’s not because he fiddles with SH-101 patterns; it is because he has a magic touch when it comes to clever pop songs. These days, he could as well be called Scandinavia’s Gary Numan or the Nordics’ Billy Currie, given his mastery of the Moog and the elegantly robotic style they pioneered.
Fakta för alla [EN: Facts for Everyone] draws on Ultravox, Numan and Dramatis for influence, but it never becomes derivative. Bengtsson’s distinctive style is ever-present, but he has clearly found a groove in the soaring saws generated by his equipment.
This is Page’s best album, but it is also their most mature. With darker sounds and textures than ever seen in a Page recording, it has levels of complexity and sophistication normally associated with fine whiskey. Savour it.