Listen to this track by Akron Ohio-bred cult heroes Devo. It’s “Beautiful World”, a single as taken from their 1981 album New Traditionalists. That release followed up what many consider to be their breakthrough in 1980’s Freedom of Choice which featured their ginormous hit “Whip It”.
This song follows the template set by that release in that it’s full of synthesizer and vocoder textures matched with twangy surf-guitar. Along with that, this song reflects a more pop-oriented approach and a much toned-down experimental side. The lyrics don’t reflect the high-mindedness of some of their earlier work either, full as it was of theories about the devolution of society from which the band get their name.
Even if this is true, this song is no ball of pop cotton candy. As accessible as this song is, and as in line as it is with the new wave sound that was very marketable by 1981, it still has an edge to it that works against its cheery title. Read more
Listen to this track by London-born, Sudanese-originated musical genre-defier now based in Brooklyn, Ahmed Gallab who records under the name Sinkane. It’s “Mean Love”, the title track to 2014’s Mean Love, his fifth solo record.
Maybe it’s his continent-spanning international experience that allows him to seemingly know no bounds when it comes to creating pop music that can’t be easily filed. But in any case, Sinkane’s music has explored several stylistic paths from krautrock to funk, Afrobeat to free jazz. In addition, he’s lent his instrumental talents to a range of artists including Caribou, Of Montreal, and Yeasayer. He served as musical director to a show celebrating the music of early Nigerian synth innovator William Onyeabor, himself something of a maverick when it came to unexpected instrumentation and disregard to musical barriers, while at the same time appealing to a distinct pop sensibility.
This particular tune, sung in a keening gender-neutral falsetto, incorporates soulful torch singing style in an R&B vein, coupled with a weeping pedal steel line that suggests the sounds of country music. There is something distinctly 21st century about this, even if the connection between these two poles has always been stronger than most immediately recognize. Maybe too, there are other connections that this song reveals which are of a more personal nature, specifically surrounding the concept of otherness, and of being a stranger in a strange land. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time experimental electronic outfit turned stadium-ready synthpop merchants Ultravox. It’s “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” as taken from their seventh album Lament. The song was an important stage in the revitalization for the band who scored top ten chart showings around the world (but not in the States – whaaat?).
The song features the vocals of lead singer Midge Ure, a seasoned musician who’d by this time played with bands as diverse as Thin Lizzy, Rich Kids (with Sex Pistols original bassist Glen Matlock), and Visage. It was through the latter band that he came to Ultravox, bonding with Billy Currie who also played part-time in Visage. When he came into the fold is was to replace original Ultravox lead singer John Foxx when Foxx left for a solo career.
Midge Ure’s obvious songwriting talents and incredible lead voice helped to usher in a new era of more pop-oriented direction. Within this new era for the band, “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” is a career highlight, and known for the accompanying video which reflected the lyrics about a last ride home before some cataclysmic event with the man on the wire crying “it’s over, it’s over!”.
As kids listening to the radio and watching videos at the time, most of us knew what that meant. Because apart from the pop appeal of the track rooted in some of the aesthetics of the time, this song captured something else which was very pervasive in pop culture and the general atmosphere of that era; fear.
Listen to this track by London-based synthpop trio Bronski Beat. It’s “Smalltown Boy”, their biggest hit, released in June of 1984, and eventually appearing on their first record Age of Consent by the end of the year. Before this, they were three housemates living in Brixton, south London; Steve Bronski (after whom the band is named), Larry Steinbachek, both of whom played keyboards, and Jimmy Somerville lending his uniquely calibrated pipes as lead vocalist.
The single was a smash success, gaining top ten showings all over the world, and only after the three friends did only a brief stint of gigs before signing with London Records. Besides the clear thematic content in the song itself, another aspect of the song was assuredly brought out by the video which enjoyed heavy rotation. In it, Somerville portrays a young man who is on a train, reflecting on what it was that set him out on his journey; that the small town where he is from is too small for him, and for others like him.
In many ways, it’s a pretty simple narrative. But, it was, and is, tied up in a common thread that we’re still working our way through as a society today. Read more
Listen to this track by synth-pop movers and dark-dance auteurs Depeche Mode. It’s “Personal Jesus”, their return to the top 40 US charting single as taken from 1989’s Violator.
It would be a song that would secure their continued success in North America, and establish them as a key alternative dance pop act that had evolved from their original incarnation of fresh-faced Kraftwerkian synthesists, under the creative guidance of co-founder and original member Vince Clarke. By the end of the 1980s, head writer Martin Gore had successfully steered the band’s material into the darker corners of human experience. This song would be one of the best examples of the establishment of their work as having much darker, psychologically complex themes compared to when they first started out.
For instance, there is a distinct human dynamic outlined in this song that most bands were not exploring in the mainstream; the willingness to be subsumed by another. But, is this just about sexual roleplay tied up in religious imagery as it is often assumed? Or, are there implications that go beyond that? Read more
Listen to this track by post-disco inspired entity with an otherwise varied musical wardrobe, Broken Bells. It’s “Perfect World”, the opening track to this year’s After The Disco, the follow up album to their self-titled record put out in 2010.
Broken Bells includes James Mercer, known mainly for his work as vocalist and guitarist in pop-with-shades-of-melancholy outfit The Shins. Brian Joseph Burton who is better known as producer and sought-after sonic colourist Danger Mouse is the other half of the equation.
The record itself pulls from a melange of sounds, but they weren’t kidding when they put the word “disco” in the title. This was a safe bet by 2014 maybe, what with Daft Punk proving that disco grooves are alive, well, and adaptable to all kinds of musical fusion in the 21st century. But, the “after” is important, too, what with a decidedly early ’80s post-disco synth-pop textural palette characterizing their approach.
But, that “after” is reflected thematically in the lyrics as well, which may be the more compelling element in what you’re hearing in this song.
Listen to this track by Los Angeles new wave Europhiles and future Top Gun soundtrack fixtures Berlin. It’s “The Metro”, a single that was featured on their 1983 album Pleasure Victim. A hair’s breadth just before Madonna, and in the years just after the type of synth-based music that was pioneered by Kraftwerk in the late 1970s, Berlin hit the middle ground with a sort of Americanized version of European new wave, which may explain their band name.
This song was one of their bigger hits, just after their initial international hit subtly titled “Sex (I’m A …)” that had scored a chart placing on the Billboard top 100, but hadn’t cracked the top twenty. This one was always my favourite, their first on a major label (Geffen), and with a sound that captured the essence of the classic synthpop era that would soon disappear in the years that followed.
Yet, even after this song enjoyed its initial success, it would continue to be a signature for a band well beyond the era out of which it came. And it would offer a tale that captures a classic post-punk approach, too – ambiguity.
Listen to this track by Montreal new wavers and safety-dancing pop music purveyors Men Without Hats. It’s “Pop Goes The World”, the title track to their 1987 record of the same name. The record was a hit in Canada, even if everywhere else in the world they would remain to be known as one-hit wonders with 1982’s “Safety Dance”.
Even if their fame was only defined by a certain range by 1987, principles Ivan and Stefan Doroschuk still had something to say about the nature of fame , particularly when it came to the music industry. After all, as most musicians do, they spent their energy pursuing it.
What this song does is make a comment on it once removed, and through the persons of Jenny (playing bass), and Johnny (playing guitar), who form a band to pursue worldwide success. Those names even appear in the album credits, along with “a little baby” on keyboards (the one featured on the cover, maybe?), and “J. Bonhomme” on drums, referencing the traditional snowman-styled mascot of the Quebec City winter carnival, and making a pun on Led Zeppelin’s departed stickman at the same time.
But besides the non-traditional band line-up, they throw something else into the mix too with this song, which perhaps aligns it with Cold War 1980s yet remains to be universal here in the 21st century; the end of the world! Read more
Listen to this track by electronic-pop foursome and first-phase blippy synthesizer enthusiasts from Basildon, Essex Depeche Mode. It’s “New Life” a key track and second single from their debut 1981 record Speak & Spell.
This song would mark the band’s initial sound, under the creative leadership of Vince Clarke. Clarke would soon leave the band after the album gained traction, and form Yazoo (aka Yaz), and then Erasure later in the decade. Under Clarke’s influence those bands would also demonstrate a notable dexterity when it came to catchy synth-pop.
Incredibly, he would put this skill on display even this early on, with one of my favourite Depeche Mode songs, built on a compelling synth figure, helped along by vocalist Dave Gahan’s distanced and appropriately detached singing style. “New Life” would be their breakthrough hit in Britain, partially on the strength of their performance of the song on Top of the Pops. In the years that followed, they’d build a significant audience on our side of the pond with a succession of albums that moved them into darker thematic and sonic territory.
Despite all that, Clarke would soon cut his losses and leave the band after this record and the tour that followed. But, what is it that his influence brought to the band?
Listen to this track by Tainted Love men and synth-pop vectors Soft Cell. It’s “Bedsitter”, a single as taken from 1981’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. This song was a part of a set of songs that explored landscapes of anonymous club liasons, drugs, and all around seediness that reflected the environments responsible for them; New York, where the record was made, and London, the city in which Soft Cell were based at the time.
Even if the times and places in which this song was made were influential on how the music came out, then so was the mood and emotional states of singer and lyricist Marc Almond. This is not a happy tune, with fun times out at the clubs on Saturday finding the song’s narrator at home alone on Sunday morning. Is that any kind of place for a pop star? Well, therein lies the genius of this song. It’s not about the pop star; it’s about the audience.
Besides the scenes and themes of indulgence of course, we get a whole point of view that sheds light on, or perhaps casts shadows on, the mindset of a whole subset of music fan listening to the radio, or watching Top of The Pops in 1981. Read more