I thought about calling this post 'Was 1990 the best year for electropop, ever?' but two choices fluffed it up.There used to be an argument that an era's defining music came at its midpoint - so, for the 1980s, that came with Live Aid, for the '90s some might say it was Definitely Maybe. Others, though, manage to be ahead of the curve, setting out to define a decade, and beyond, from its start…
1. Behaviour, Pet Shop Boys (1990)You won't be surprised I've put this first. For their fourth album of original material, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant decided to return to working with a single producer for the first time since their debut, Please (1986). The duo decamped to Harold 'Axel F' Faltermeyer's Munich home studio, where afternoons were spent sampling the former Giorgio Moroder-programmer's draught beer; in contrast with much contemporary pop built on digital samples, they would use analogue synths. From opener Being boring through to closing number Jealousy (the first song the Boys wrote together) it's uniformly brilliant, with the sole exception of How can you expect to be taken seriously? (later paired as a single with their cover of Where the streets have no name/ Can't take my eyes off you). While Being boring was the group's lowest charting single up to that point it's become a live favourite, heralded by that funky, skittish intro; Behaviour also produced my favourite PSB single, So hard, and some of their best lyrics: 'Tell me why don't we try/ Not to break our hearts and make it so hard for ourselves?'
2. Violator, Depeche Mode (1990)
This is a remarkable album, most notable for singles Enjoy the Silence (with its iconic video) and Personal Jesus (covered by Johnny Cash) but boasting many other great tracks. I was intrigued to read that Pet Shop Boys used Violator as a benchmark for Behaviour. Like that album, Violator makes a lowkey start, with another single, World in My Eyes; producer Flood (who had previously worked on such electro classics as Erasure's The Circus and Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine) immediately sets out the album's very precise sound, typified on Halo, Waiting for the Night, Blue Dress and Clean. I wonder if it's a template the band have tried to replicate for their more recent albums, though without such strong songwriting (or bass, it can sometimes feel). It works best in its use of nuanced vocals and percussive noise, giving way to brushes and guitars for one of my favourite tracks, The Sweetest Perfection, the rockier Personal Jesus - and then there's Enjoy the Silence. The Mode have never been better.
3. Technique, New Order (1989)
Whereas a couple of the albums here
- Behaviour and Chorus -
sport a deliberately retro manifesto that means they still almost sound futurist, Technique was both ahead and very much of its time. I would have sworn it was released after Behaviour and Violator though it hasn't aged quite so well. Pet Shop Boys are well-known for underpinning great pop songs with contemporary club tropes (Can you forgive her? from 1993's Very album springs to mind, the only pop song I know whose title is taken from a novel by Trollope), but the only album other than Technique I can think of that so absorbs dance culture successfully in a pop idiom is The Beloved's Happiness (1990, natch). New Order harnessed the acid house boom and the Manchester foursome immersed themselves in the Balearic scene (the album was partly recorded in Ibiza), while managing to preserve Peter Hook's distinctive basslines (All the Way) and their own roots (Love Less). Round & Round prefigures True Faith while stand-out opener Fine Time includes those bleating sheep samples prevalent in the ambient scene. Great lines, too: 'Hey, sophisticated lady... You've got love technique'.
4. Chorus, Erasure (1991)
Erasure followed the massive success of the gloriously OTT Wild! (1989) - featuring Drama!, Blue Savannah and Star - with the back-to-basics approach espoused by Pet Shop Boys' Behaviour. The opening, title, track is all bleeps, bloops and burrs, in service of a tremendous pop song; catchier still is Love to Hate You, which has the audacity to open with a crowd going wild(!) and harks back to some of the greatest, campest, disco classics. All the artists here are fascinated with remixes but Erasure chose some of the oddest collaborators to rework the singles from this album, notably for the Am I Right EP (including The Grid, below, and tremendous Warp-ers LFO). Since then, the duo's output has been somewhat patchy, which may have lead critics to miss out on the unrivalled songcraft of I Say I Say I Say (1994), Erasure (1995) and Nightbird (2005).
5. Electric Head, The Grid (1990)Another duo, making quite a different sound. I wouldn't say the debut album by Dave Ball (ex of Soft Cell) and Richard Norris is underrated, instead underknown. I hesitated between the aforementioned Happiness and Electronic's self-titled debut for this slot but Electric Head is hugely influential. The Grid did become more poppy in successive albums 456 (1992) and Evolver (1994) but this has many mindblowing, sampler-delic moments: A Beat Called Love, This Must Be Heaven, Intergalactica and Dr Celine. Floatation, their first single, is the band at its most blissed out and serene, and makes a fine pairing with The Beloved's The Sun Rising (the two bands shared a record label, EastWest).