Electronic pop is the most vocal that it's been in years. Between acts like Planningtorock, Austra and Glasser, we're riding a wave of strong new voices wrapped artfully in idiosyncratic sonics and synth-pop productions. Artists like James Blake and Gang Gang Dance, meanwhile, are using vocals as waveforms to be manipulated, tracing the human/machine interface with wires wrapped around vocal cords.
Some of it foregrounds its singers' impressively supple, versatile voices, emphasizing artifice and quirk, with kinship to not just Kate Bush and Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser but also Meredith Monk and Joan LaBarbara. Some of it relies upon heavy-duty digital processing -- vocoders, reverb, AutoTune -- to make strange and oblique something we normally consider essential and transparently expressive.
And some of it is really just synth-pop with some really good singers. I'm keeping things deliberately vague: I don't want to get hemmed into the usual distinctions of genre or underground-versus-mainstream. What's interesting is how prominent vocals are becoming in electronic music, across the boards.
There are several factors at play, I think. Dance music is gravitating back toward the exuberance of early house records, which often cradled vocals like a beating heart in their steel skeleton claws. Then there's the influence of R&B, as it begins to bubble up across pop culture after years of being absorbed almost subconsciously; it's become second nature for a generation of producers that runs from indie rock to ambient. And finally, indie rock and chart pop are both in the middle of long infatuations with dance-music tropes and electronic artifice.
The result is an unlikely collision of traditions, where the voice is one thing everyone can agree on.