Musik Music Musique 2.0 - 1981

Various Artists: Musik Music Musique 2.0 – 1981

This 51-track compendium of 1981-vintage synthpop tries mighty hard but ultimately falls short. Licensing issues likely kept some of 1981’s best from this set.

Musik Music Musique 2.0 - 1981
Various Artists
Cherry Red
15 October 2021

From an aesthetic point of view, almost everything about Musik Music Musique 2.0 is excellent. The second volume of Cherry Red’s year-by-year synthpop compendium is smartly yet compactly-packaged. The three discs each fit into sturdy cardboard sleeves, which then fit inside a sturdy cardboard box. There’s a sizeable booklet with track-by-track liner notes that are informative, notwithstanding a few factual errors. The price, 51 tracks for about the cost of a two-disc set, is more than reasonable. Yet Musik Music Musique 2.0 just can’t overcome the considerable drawbacks inherent in such an undertaking.  

Selections are always a conundrum. Does anyone need or want another anthology with “Tainted Love”, “Vienna”, and “Girls on Film”? No. Would a rundown of 1981-vintage synthpop be complete without Soft Cell, Ultravox, and Duran Duran? Also no. Therefore, Musik Music Musique 2.0 attempts to split the difference, including lesser-known b-sides and album tracks from those well-known artists.

“Khanada” isn’t bad at all. With a funky rhythm, moody synths, and pretentious lyrics, it perfectly represents Duran Duran. But it’s likely not people’s favorite Duran Duran song, and it’s dispensable to all but the most die-hard fan, who probably already has it. Soft Cell’s Très sassy “Frustration” makes a better case for itself, yet the extended sax riffing alone should have disqualified it. The Ultravox selection, “I Remember”, with Conny Plank’s motoric production and Midge Ure’s urgent, wailing guitar, is admittedly a minor masterpiece, something Musik Music Musique 2.0 doesn’t have enough of.

The collection does feature enough familiar gems to catch the consumer’s attention. OMD‘s sublime “Souvenir” should be heard by everyone on the planet at least once, so its inclusion is welcome. Heaven 17’s “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” is indeed groovy and, in hindsight, frighteningly prescient. Tracks from Tears for Fears and A Flock of Seagulls are presented in single versions that at least offer a slightly different perspective. The listener can decide whether these less-polished versions are superior. Yello, Visage, and Spandau Ballet also make appearances.

What about the other three dozen or so tracks, then, many by artists that not even the most thorough musicologist would remember? Any hidden gems or shoulda-been smashes? There are a few. “Cue”, from Yellow Magic Orchestra, who were significant in their native Japan but more of a fringe concern elsewhere, is an excellent example of how the best synthpop somehow uses icy technology to enhance emotion rather than stifle it.

“Science Fiction” by Alan Burnham may be a find for collectors. A rare b-side produced by Daniel Miller of the Normal and Mute Records fame, it is a chilling, razor-sharp specimen of the genre, still sounding contemporary 40 years later. The best discovery and the best track of the entire collection is New Musik’s “Twelfth House”. The band, featuring future A-Ha producer Tony Mansfield, indeed should have been bigger, and “Twelfth House” is elegant and tragic with hooks and exciting sound effects, too.

With any anthology that aims to be comprehensive, omissions will be scrutinized. Musik Music Musique 2.0 presents some glaring, if not totally surprising, ones. Depeche Mode are notoriously loath to be included in anything that might peg them as an “’80s band”, so nothing from their Speak & Spell. Human League’s Dare is considered one of the best synthpop albums ever, much less 1981. Here, it’s shut out. It’s the same thing with New Order, Simple Minds, and Kraftwerk, who released crucial music in 1981. One imagines licensing issues are the issue.

Musik Music Musique 2.0 does raise a couple of interesting points, if not intentionally. First, being a genre named after an instrument rather than a specific style or concept, “synthpop” is a pretty ambiguous descriptor. Did the disco remnants of Virna Lindt’s “Young and Hip” and the stark post-punk of Second Layer’s “In Bits” ever really inhabit the same milieu? Second, in any given year, a lot of music is released that ranges from blandly passable to barely listenable, and Musik Music Musique 2.0 includes a fair share of both. When it comes to pop culture, a lot of what history forgets is forgotten for a reason.

So, Musik Music Musique 2.0 demands careful playlist programming of listeners of all persuasions. Completists may find it redundant, while curious dabblers may be overwhelmed or indifferent. If this collection is destined to inhabit such purgatory, at least it will look good while doing so.   

RATING 5 / 10