Top 10 British Synth-Pop Albums

Britain in the 1970s, when bloated supergroups and progressive rock bands roamed the Earth, young pioneers obsessed by European experimental music like Kraftwerk, punk’s attitude, and Bowie’s glam-rock and icy Berlin-trilogy, were distilling these influences and dreaming of a future of pop music with guitars replaced by synthesizers.

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Sci-fi movies, the other-worldliness of TV shows such as Dr Who and Blakes 7, and JG Ballard’s Crash, captured the zeitgeist and had a profound effect on a generation of would-be electronic musicians. Wendy Carlos’ orchestrated synth-bass soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was also a big inspiration, sinking deep into the psyche of young British musicians. So too the hypnotic and driving Giorgio Moroder’s concept albums with Donna Summer from the mid-late 1970s. The influence Kraftwerk albums like Autobahn and Trans Europe Express had on the European synth-pop movement was the equivalent of Anarchy in the UK for a generation of punk rockers.

Coming out of the supernova of post-punk, the attitude of the Damned, the Clash and the Sex Pistols inspired a generation of young aspiring musicians with an interest in electronic music to do it themselves. The alienated synthesists with their short hair, trench coats and suits, took the attitude of punk and made music nobody had ever heard before. Unfortunately synthesizers in Britain in the mid-70s were expensive and only associated with technically gifted progressive musicians. However advances in technology by the late-70s heralded the invention of the affordable synths like the Korg Micro-Preset, Selena String Synth, and the Transcendent 2000, inspiring many homemade effects units.

Major record labels would largely ignore synth-based music forcing early electronic pioneers such as Joy Division and OMD towards newly formed independents like the Manchester-based Factory Records. Through the likes of The Normal, a short-lived alias for Dan Miller, owner of Mute Records, Depeche Mode and Vince Clarke’s Erasure and Yazoo would sign to the label, opened thousands of minds to the possibilities of electronic dance music, and later Northern Soul.

It embodied a sense of futurism and importantly sounded interesting and like nothing else that had come before. The future of pop music had arrived and then kicked into the stratosphere with the enormous success of the likes of Gary Numan, Ultravox and Visage, who would launch the synthesizer from a post-punk experimental tool to the instrument of choice in the 1980s. Furthermore artists such as the Pet Shop Boys and New Order, and their inscrutable club cool, would spearhead the future of British electronica and beyond.

It was the antithesis of British rock ‘n roll traditions: four guys, guitar/bass/drums, conventional rock and roll trousers, and despite a Battle Royale taking place between the artists, their fans, and the overwhelmingly vicious rock-based British music press of the day and associated rock traditionalists, their dreams had become a reality.

We present here 10 key albums of British synth-pop from the early formative records of a generation of post-punk musicians who had taken the synthesizer from the fringes of experimentation of the 70s to the centre of the pop stage in the 80s.

1. Tubeway ArmyReplicas (1979)

Replicas

A perfect form of synth-pop came along in the form of Gary Numan from London with a massive hit record, gigantic sales and extraordinary success, he was Britain’s first synth pinup pop star bringing electronic music to the masses and making good use of the minimoog. The future had arrived. He loved sci-fi, he was a punk and alien in appearance. Replicas is a flawless record and was no fluke: A Pleasure Principle (1979) and Telekon (1980) would follow to huge commercial success despite being savaged by the music press. Key Tracks: Down in the Park, Are ‘Friends’ Electric.

2. Simple MindsReal to Real Cacophony (1979)

Realtorealcacophony

The great Scottish band Simple Minds began life as Johnny and the Self-Abusers, unsurprisingly changing their name and developing a stark and powerful sound and stage show, and by this their second album was an uncompromising mix of oblique electronic experimentation and ambient atmospherics. It didn’t sell but the band toured extensively and would go on to conquer the world with their versatile European electro-pop sound culminating with their breakthrough classic New Gold Dream 81, 82, 83, 84 (1984). Key Tracks: Real to Real, Calling Your Name.

3. JapanQuiet Life (1979)

Japan-Quiet_Life

The London outfit began life as part of the punk rock scene with their own distinct brand of glam-metal funk. Their third album Quiet Life is the album where their distinctive sound began to emerge, and transformed Japan from past-tense glam rockers into futuristic synth pop idols. The guitars were toned down in favour of the synthesizer and charismatic singer David Sylvian’s voice shifted from strangulated screaming to a cool baritone. Key Tracks: Quiet Life, All Tomorrow’s Parties.

4. John Foxx – Metamatic (1980)

John_Foxx_-_Metamatic_-_LP_album_cover

Ultravox! leader John Foxx left the band in 1979 after their third album System of a Down (1979), under guidance of renowned German producer Conny Plank, failed to achieve the success they desired. Foxx pursued a solo career and in 1980 released this remarkable solo album further exploring themes of urban isolation delivered in a challenging post-glam electronic pop sound. Key Tracks: Underpass, No-One Driving.

5. Human LeagueTravelogue (1980)

Travelogue-cover

After a brief tenure as The Future, Sheffield’s Human League, with key members Phil Oakey on lead vocals and Martyn Ware on synthesizers, were one of the more important early British synth pioneers and influences. This intriguing second album from the band found them covering Mick Ronson but also included plenty of strong original material. Artistic differences led Ware quitting to form Heaven 17. The Human League would later realise the success they deserved with a new lineup and the landmark Dare (1981) album, achieving global fame and crystallising a new synth-pop sound. Key Tracks: Only After Dark, Being Boiled.

6. UltravoxVienna (1980)

Ultravox_-_Vienna

With the departure of John Foxx and the addition of new lead vocalist in the form of versatile former Rich Kid Midge Ure, Ultravox went from arch post-punk to effortlessly stylised synth-pop cool. It all came together here with the exquisite title track leading the way. This was the start of their best-known and most commercially successful lineup throughout the 1980s. Key Tracks: Vienna, Sleepwalk.

7. VisageVisage (1980)

Visage_cover

Incorporating elements of the developing but short-lived ‘new romantic’ scene, top level talent in the form of Midge Ure and Billie Currie from Ultravox, and Barry Adamson  and John McGeoch from Magazine, joined Steve Strange to form Visage scoring a top 10 hit with the Eurodisco synth masterpiece Fade to Grey in 1980, only weeks before Vienna became Ultravox’s biggest hit and best remembered track. With evocative French female vocals, distant sirens and pulsing layers of synthesizers, it was heavily influenced by Kraftwerk’s icy electronics via Bowie’s cutting edge Berlin Trilogy. Key Tracks: Fade to Grey, Mind of a Toy.

8. Depeche ModeSpeak & Spell (1981)

Depeche_Mode_-_Speak_&_Spell

From the unlikely origins in Basildon, Essex, Depeche Mode reinvented synth music as pop with this groundbreaking debut record. Produced by Dan Miller (The Normal) who introduced the band and leader Vince Clarke to the ARP 2600, Moog and Yamaha synthesizers, this band with their UK Top 10 single, would become the biggest pop act of the year. Heavily influenced by early Human League and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, Clarke unexpectedly quit after this album, however Depeche Mode would go on to enormous commercial worldwide success, particularly in the US, throughout the 80s and 90s. Key Tracks: New Life, I Just Can’t Get Enough.

9. Thomas DolbyThe Golden Age of Wireless (1982)

ThomasDolbyTheGoldenAgeOfWireless

Formerly a session keyboard pro working with the likes of Lene Lovich, Foreigner and even Def Leppard, multi-instrumentalist and studio wiz Thomas Dolby released his first solo album in 1982 packed with thoughtful, introspective, and finely-crafted synth-based pop transmissions to modest sales until the release of the remarkable single She Blinded Me With Science which became a firm favourite in the US. Key Tracks: She Blinded Me With Science, Radio Silence.

10. New OrderPower, Corruption & Lies (1983)

New_Order_-_Power,_Corruption_&_Lies

Emerging out of the ashes of Joy Division, few could have predicted Manchester’s New Order would become one of the seminal groups of the 1980s, essentially inventing the the electro club culture with perfect singles such as Blue Monday which became the best selling 12″ of all time. Departing the tentative steps of 1981’s Movement, this is their first true album and an outstanding set of songs fully realising the creative conflict and originality of their human and electronic sides. Key Tracks: Your Silent Face, 5-8-6.

Further Listening:

Throbbing Gristle – 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979)

Cabaret Voltaire – Red Mecca (1981)

Heaven 17 – Penthouse and Pavement (1981)

Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark – Architecture and Morality (1981)

Soft Cell – Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (1981)

Yazoo – Upstairs at Eric’s (1982)

Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (1983)

Listen in Spotify:

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9 Responses to Top 10 British Synth-Pop Albums

  1. postpunkmonk says:

    An unimpeachable list in that, of course I’ve had those albums for the better part of 4 decades. Only minor quibble? I’d go for “Empires + Dance” over “Real To Real Cacophony” in a heartbeat. And Depeche Mode were never A-listers for me.

  2. Empires + Dance is a marvellous record, great call. Have been listening to it a lot lately. A real favourite of mine. Sons and Fascination too. I actually love them all the way up to and including Street Fighting Years.

    • Ian Ryder says:

      I’m happy to see ‘Real To Real Cacophony’ on the list, a very overlooked gem. I remember hearing ‘Carnival (Shelter in a Suitcase’) on John Peel and experiencing a genuine ‘what the hell was that’ moment. In fact I was listening to that track on a homemade best of in the car yesterday. They lost me at ‘Street Fighting Years’, too bloated and overblown, it felt pretentious which the more ‘arty’ stuff had never done. I have returned to them in recent years, but for me they’ve never reached the heights of those first 5 albums again.

      • postpunkmonk says:

        Ian Ryder – My mental image of “Street Fighting Years” was flatulent whales. Victor Jara would have been appalled.

        • I really really love Street Fighting Years, tha lbum. Bought it when it came out, I was obsessed with Lou Reed and New York, and absolutely loved This is Your Land. Still do. Compared to their earlier more cutting edge albums, it may be bloated and silly but I will always have a special place for it.

      • Thank you for reading and commenting Ian. I’m glad you like Real To Real.. I do as well, a particularly good one from their early days. Thanks for sharing the John Peel reaction, and your home made best of (I’d be interested to see what else what on that compilation). I picked up SFY upon it’s release and cherish it to this very day, probably for sentimental reasons but I bought the recent reissue and love it to bits. The first 5 albums are indeed all gems in their own way. thanks again Ian, see you again hopefully.

  3. I keep that list preciously in my mobile to explore all of those albums. So many I’ve never heard (about). Many thanx.

  4. Pingback: The Human League | Reproduction | THE PRESS | Music Reviews

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