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The Top Ten Techno-Pop Records of All Time



Trip through some hi-tech classics with Mark Jenkins

Electronic instruments appeared in pop music fairly early on – think Joe Meek’s “Telstar” and Gershon Kingsley’s “Popcorn,” more familiar as a hit for Hot Butter using a Moog Modular synth – but it was some time before an ell-electronic single made an impact.

Most people trace the rise of techno-pop from Kraftwerk’s 1974 album and single “Autobahn,” and some would say you could fill a Techno Pop Top 10 with Kraftwerk music alone. But let’s look at some other classics as well, in no particular order.

10) TELEX “Looking For San Tropez” (1979)

The Belgian version of Kraftwerk if you like, with much singing in French, the trio led by Dan Lacksman (an early member of Deep Forest) had a softer, more romantic sound but an equal number of catchy melodies. Lacksman, who used a Moog Modular system, Sennheiser, and other vocoders and later a Fairlight CMI sampler, created songs like “Moskow Discow” and “Twist A San Tropez,” and there are several brilliant albums including “Neurovision” and “Wonderful World.” The band even appeared on the Eurovision song contest, and you can’t get much more (techno) pop than that.

9) ERASURE “Wonderland” (1986)

The duo of Vince Clarke with Andy Bell on vocals produced many all-synthesizer albums and performed them live – including from a “tank” moving around the stage with keyboards strapped to every side. Their debut “Wonderland” and its single “Who Needs Love Like That” remains a favorite, but there’s a lot more music, most of it on Daniel Miller’s Mute label, a haven for many techno-pop and more experimental electronic bands.

8) LADY GAGA “Poker Face” (2008)

Not entirely devoted to electro-pop – she can play and sing piano ballads with equal effectiveness – Lady Gaga made her breakthrough with the single “Poker Face,” and it’s a classic example of the field. The song opens with a heavily echoed analog-style sequence that’s quickly overlaid with voices, drums, and more sequences. But it moves around quickly – there’s no sense of ponderous repetition here. Her debut album “The Fame” is an essential listen.

7) GOLDFRAPP “Felt Mountain” (2000)

Alison Goldfrapp’s band features electronics, mainly by Will Gregory, who uses a vast array of modular and keyboard instruments. “Strict Machine” from their 2002 album “Black Cherry” was a successful techno-pop single, though it’s very similar to Gary Glitter’s 1972 classic “Rock And Roll.” 

6) NEW ORDER “Blue Monday” (1983)

Not of course purely a techno-pop band, this follow-up lineup to New Order did make innovations with instruments such as the Linn Drum machine, the Emulator 1 sampler, and the Octave Plateau Voyetra synth. This archetypal hit single was available only on 12” vinyl, becoming the top selling 12” of its time. A human voice sound was sampled from Kraftwerk’s “Radio-Activity,” but otherwise the use of staccato drum and cymbal sounds and simplistic synth basslines was novel and remarkable.

5) THE HUMAN LEAGUE “Reproduction” (1977)

Specifically influenced by seeing Kraftwerk perform in 1975, the quartet from Sheffield were all avowed non-musicians who put together tracks with little attention to conventional musical rules. The result on “Reproduction” was a bizarre set of pop songs about most unusual subjects – circuses, addiction, old TV shows and so on – that used synthesizers for bass, melody, and percussion sounds, but also to fill in for fuzzed guitars. Phil Oakey’s distinctive voice hovered over these compositions, and the band image was completed using slide shows and film projections.

The second album “Travelogue” was also brilliant, and then came a change, the band splitting in half to create Heaven 17 (with some important hits such as “Fascist Groove Thang“) and a rather different Human League. After a couple of false starts, this Phil Oakey-led lineup came up with “Dare” and the single “Don’t You Want Me Baby?”, often quoted as the best charting electro-pop song of all time. This flipped back to the rather more pointillistic style of early Depeche Mode, and led to an albums career that still continues today. 

4) YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA “Yellow Magic Orchestra” (1978)

As a hotbed of music tech development, it’s not surprising that Japan spawned a top techno-pop band. Ryuichi Sakamoto, Harry Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi, and Hideki Matsutake programmed and played the music, no doubt influenced by the synth success of Isao Tomita in the world of classical music (Matsutake had been his musical assistant).

YMO created half a dozen albums plus remix and live releases, their debut and “BGM” being among the most popular. Sakamoto of course went on to a feted career in experimental and soundtrack music, while Matsutake’s music as “Logic System” is also well worth seeking out. 

3) YAZ(OO) “Upstairs At Eric’s” (1982)

On leaving Depeche Mode, Vince Clarke teamed up with blues singer Alison Moyet (the band was known as Yaz in the USA since another band was already using Yazoo) and again used an array of monophonic synthesizers such as the Sequential Pro One to create some catchy, straight-to-the-point chart singles.

“Upstairs At Eric’s” and the single “Don’t Go” are important, and later Clarke went on to form Erasure with singer Andy Bell (see above). In a hit by The Assembly also under his belt, Clarke became one of the few musicians to have No.1 hits with four different bands. In a recent, more experimental solo album ”Songs Of Silence“ (2023), he specializes in synthesizing brass, bass, and other band and orchestral sounds using a huge range of keyboards and modular systems.

2) DEPECHE MODE “Speak & Spell” (1981)

The boys from Basildon – a little town just outside London – spent very little time as a conventional pop band before going for an all-synthesizer sound. Their instruments were small monophonic synths such as the Yamaha CS5 and Teisco 110F, leading to a counterpointed, precise sound ideal for the four-minute pop song. Again Vince Clarke was the main songwriter initially, and the album was produced by Daniel Miller, who added some larger synths such as the ARP 2600 – that he also used for drum sounds.

Although Clarke left (for Erasure) and the band adopted sampling and other new technology as well as re-adopting the guitar for a more industrial, rocky sound, their early albums are still held out as classics by techno-pop fans. Founding member Andy Fletcher passed away recently leaving just the duo of Dave Gahan and Martin Gore to continue, with a new album “Memento Mori” released in 2023. 

1) KRAFTWERK “Computer World” (1981)

It’s inevitable that Kraftwerk should be high in this chart – the band is generally credited with inventing techno-pop on the “Autobahn” album in 1974. But the breakthrough was arrived at by a circuitous route via the tapes-and-ring-modulators experimentalism of Karlheinz Stockhausen, a grounding in brutalist art and architecture, and the desolate musical landscape of post-war Germany.

Ralf Hutter (keyboards) and Florian Schneider-Esleben (flute) met in Dusseldorf’s Schumann music academy, and through various band lineups started to create very odd experimental music – using chimes, gongs, and percussion one minute; human breath, a harmonica, or a lap slide guitar the next. After two experimental albums they introduced an early synthesizer (the EMS Synthi A) as well as electric pianos and organs.

The sound became a little more accessible on their third album ”Ralf & Florian” – they had a high quality vocoder built for them and started to take apart home organ drum machines, adding Wolfgang Fluer and Karl Bartos to play these via metallic sticks and pads.

Adding a MiniMoog for hand-played basslines and a little electric guitar from Klaus Roeder, the result was the deeply electronic but also romantic and human-sounding “Autobahn.” Lyrics in German complete the sense of mystery, and a single length edit from the album’s epic title track broke the band worldwide.

On subsequent albums they added sequencers, different types of (again often specially commissioned) drum machines, and later digital synthesizers and sampling. “Computer World” (1981) was their masterpiece, the live tour taking out a starship-like array of gear and forging a new type of rhythmic music with a combination of high-tech, human voices, and musical toys.

Some would say that any Top Ten of techno-pop could mainly consist only of Kraftwerk albums – “Radio-Activity,” “Trans-Europe Express,” “The Man Machine,” and the late and rather sparse “Electric Cafe” (aka “Techno-Pop”) all having their fans. The band’s current live performances are more closely based on “The Mix,” an album revising their most popular tracks. To many, Kraftwerk, a band that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary now with only one original member remaining, still sounds like the future.

Kraftwerk has announced a week-long residency at Disney Hall in Los Angeles this summer (2024).

Also worth studying: Deep Forest, Grimes, Gary Numan, Soft Cell, Yello, Ultravox, Duran Duran, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (OMD), Ultravox!, John Foxx, Giorgio Moroder, Royksopp, Men Without Hats, Blancmange, Fad Gadget, Thomas Dolby, Silicon Teens, DAF, Japan, Buggles, La Roux, Little Boots, Cabaret Voltaire, Daft Punk, Air, Nash The Slash, and selected Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, Sparks.

Of course a lot of pop music now (Duo Lipa, Ellie Goulding, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj) is primarily electronic, but that doesn’t necessarily make it techno-pop. Also, I haven’t attempted to include E/IDM (electronic/industrial dance music) artists such as Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, Rammstein, Chemical Brothers.

MARK JENKINS wrote the book “Kraftwerk: 50 Years – The Ultimate Discography” (currently out of print) and in 2024 will be performing a live set of Kraftwerk and related music around the UK and elsewhere.

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