So that was 2015 then: what another great yeat for synthpop! But I nearly didn’t manage this year’s Pansentient Top 20 Synthpop Album rundown, as I was busy writing a book- please check it out, it’s a geeky techno-savvy modern fable (with embedded Spotify playlists 😉 )
While writing my book, I of course listened to A LOT of music – and a lot of that was NEW SYNTHPOP. I have a Top 20 for you below the fold, but before that, bookmark these special non-synthpop Pansentient playlists from 2015:
One final note before we begin: PSL’s Top 20 list is traditonally SYNTHPOP ALBUMS ONLY – this had restricted things in the past (hello, Kite and your EPs) so this year we are a little bit more open (also provides a dash of Krautrock, futurepop maybe – still probably no guitars though ;).
Another final note: this year’s commentary is shorter than usual due to circumstances fully under our control.
Cheers, let us know your own favorites below & have a great New Year 2016!
Jer aka afront
Pansentient League’s Top Synthpop Albums 2015
20. Kosmischer Läufer: The Secret Cosmic Music of the East German Olympic Program 1972-83: Volume 3
The third long-player in Kosmischer Laufer‘s excellent series of synth-mellow krautrock instrumental albums. Perfect dreamy and inspirational retro-synth music to get lost in, Kosmischer Laufer were frequently my go-to band for early-morning/late-night listening in 2015.
The reason this one is only Number 20 is because it’s just out and I’ve not heard it much yet. The previous two I’ve played A LOT though, they’re brilliant!
- File next to: Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre, Neu!, Warm Digits
- Spotify’s #1 “Discovered on” Playlist: Spotify’s Fresh Finds
19. Rainmode – On
A solid debut from Sweden’s Rainmode, On is synthpop aimed at the modern masses. There’s a few tracks I’d skip (like “Seizures“) but gutsy chart-friendly synthpop deployed on the likes of “The Foghorn” make On well worth repeat listens. And who else can hear early Duran Duran in the deliciously smooth “Ballroom Barricades“?
18. Purity Ring – another eternity
You can keep your Grimes – For me, Purity Ring‘s second album is by far 2015’s superior slice of glitchy withchy synthpopery. The three singles are a good taster for the whole album: you’re assured of consistency, as Megan James (vocals) and Corin Roddick are purely synergetic. It is all of course a bit goth – just a bit – so not to everyone’s taste. Me, I love it obvs.
17. Parralox – Aeronaut
I’ve been a huge fan of Parralox since their beginning, but synth-masetro John von Ahlen seemed to run out of steam a couple of years ago, releasing perhaps one cover song too many. Luckily, “Aeronaut” is a big return to form: John’s got his songwriting mojo back (although I do wonder why this wasn’t released under his Empire State Human moniker, where JVA also takes full lead-vocal control. I miss the girls 😉
16. Marsheaux – A Broken Frame
This really shouldn’t work at all: a synthpop covers album of a lesser-known synthpop classic. Song by song. But dammit it DOES work, and very well too! Marsheaux‘s Greek-inflected vocals are perfectly suited to the songs on this not-for-everyone’s early Depeche Mode album. Couple that with some tight, modern production and what you get is one of the surprise synthpop delights of 2015. I’ll try not to be so dismissive of covers in the future, Σας ευχαριστώ για το μάθημα , κυρίες 😉
- File next to: Depeche Mode (duh), Client
- Spotify’s #1 “Discovered on” Playlist: Drive Soundtrack
15. Carpenter Brut – Trilogy
Carpenter Brut‘s Trilogy brings together his three EPs into one killer synthwave long-player. The Giallo-flavored 80s soundtrack schlock still reigns supreme, but there’s also some jaunty, uplifting numbers here (and a surprise non-instrumental in the form of “Anarchy Road“). So it’s not all sci-fi horror-movie synthwave, just mostly. Pour les Pervs.
- File next to: Perturbator, Kavinsky, John Carpenter
- Spotify’s #1 “Discovered on” Playlist: Hotline Miami 2 OST
14. Northern Lite – TEN
I have some catching up to do if this, Northern Lite‘s tenth album, is anything to go by. Masterfully put together, TEN has 10 bright futurepop club songs, each perfectly paced with vocals coming from somewhere between Dave Gahan and Eskil Simonsson. If futurepop is still a thing, this album must surely be its new gold standard.
- File next to: Covenant, And One, Depeche Mode, LCD Soundsystem
- Spotify’s #1 “Discovered on” Playlist: Kontor.FM
13. Man Without Country – Maximum Entropy
I’d been keeping an eye on this band for a while, as earlier releases showed a lot of promise. The new long-player doesn’t disappoint: single “Laws of Motion” (with vocals from Morgan Kibby) is a highlight, and “Catfish” has a great housey vibe to it. The album includes a cool cover of The Beloved‘s “Sweet Harmony” (now there’s a band I would LOVE to see return!)
- File next to: Hurts, Mesh, M83, iamamiwhoami
- Spotify’s #1 “Discovered on” Playlist: Spotify’s Brain Food
12. Rodney Cromwell – Age of Anxiety
Somehow Rodney Cromwell
‘s debut album is both fresh and familiar at the same time. A new wave album for sure, Age of Anxiety
dallies with minimal synthpop but with a quirky heart instead of a frozen one. The brilliant “Black Dog
” is New Order
” reduxed, while “Cassiopeia
” is the sweetest little synth ditty I’ve heard all year. No wonder Rodney Cromwell
was voted to top “best newcomer
” by The Electricity Club’s editor-in-Chi
- File next to: New Order, Blancmange
11. Gateway Drugs – Dare Tonight
South Africa’s Gateway Drugs are my secret find of 2015: it seems so anyway! Others may disagree, but I reckon Dare Tonight is the perfect summer synthpop album. The album cover might suggest synthwave, but this is really more like something the Human League might have put out in the mid 1980s (I think “Louise” must be a particular Gateway Drugs favourite). That’s not to say this album is for everyone: some synthpop pals reckoned this was a bit too cheesy and twee for them, with all its youthfully jaunty pop songs and perceived lack of substance. But hey, sometimes all you need is a little bit of cheery pop and these boys deliver it to your room with a cherry on top.
- File next to: Human League (Hysteria-era but without the politics)
- Spotify’s #1 “Discovered on” Playlist: Retro & Smoov
10. Kite – I – VI
Since it’s Christmas(ish), this year I am letting Kite into this usually ALBUM-ONLY rundown. After six fabulous EPs, it would be rude not to after all. And amazingly, number VI is quite probably Kite‘s finest EP yet. Synthpop with poignancy is how I think of Kite: their Nordic blend naturally reflects the colder seasons, and you can hear the proto-industrial creeping in to the epic opener “Up For Life”, another progressive synthpop track (just without the orchestrals).
- File next to: The Knike, a-ha, Tikkle Me, Prince, Trust
- Spotify’s #1 “Discovered on” Playlist: Programming
Heaven 17 gig in Paisley Town Hall, 2015. © Jer White
09. Blancmange – Semi Detached
Much like their contemporaries OMD, Blancmange returned from the wilderness with a new “sounds-like-greatest-hits” album a few years ago, then followed it up with a career-defining release of new songs. For OMD, that was English Electric. For Blancmange, Semi Detached is surely destined to become a fan favourite. A Synth Britannia album through-and-through, the song-writing and especially the wonderful lyrics elevate this album above most this year. NEVER write off the original versions!
- File next to: OMD, Ian Dury, Frazier Chorus, The Fall
- Spotify’s #1 “Discovered on” Playlist: Spotify’s 12″ Classics
08. John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
So firstly, yes: John Grant sounds a like the Divine Comedy‘s Neal Hannon. But you maybe knew that already: Mr. Grant has some notoriety, and I’m not just talking about his sweaters. There’s also a fair bit of guitar on this album, and fretless bass, etc. But there’s enough synthpoppynes to warrant the inclusion of Grey Tickles, Black Pressure. Check out tracks like “Sung Slacks“, “You & Him“, or the wickedly THL MKI-ish”Black Blizzard“). I know that once I get into the lyrics, I’ll find more treasures (yay Spotify again btw: click the Lyrics button et voila). Everything But the Girls‘s Tracey Thorn duets with John on “Disappointing” – so good to hear her again!
07. Johan Baeckström – Like Before
Sweden’s Johan Baeckström
has featured on our EOY lists before: as half of Daily Planet
in the Pansentient League’s Top 20 Synthpop Albums of 2014
. He follows that up with this blinder of an album. Daily Planet
rules still apply: if you like your synthpop Erasureseque
, then this album’s for you. I love that vibe, and Johan totally nails it here. While Dancing With Ruby
flirt with something different (see below, and their remix of Baeckström’s “Starlights
“), Like Before
targets one sound throughout. This could be risky, but Johan’s songwriting chops are first class: track-after-track, another electro-earworm. That little synthy bit on “Come With Me
” – this was with me for weeks!
06. Electro Sensitive Behaviour w/Perry Blake – Modern Love
So firstly, yes: Perry Blake also sounds kinda like the Divine Comedy’s Neal Hannon (cf. John Grant above). That is of course a good thing. And like Hannon, the lyrics on this album are wonderfully quirky and inventive. But Electro Sensitive Behaviour are true to their name: Modern Love is perfectly synthpop; sequenced so the listener never gets bored, and some great wry Hannon-esque humor to keep you involved. It’s great to hear some fun and cheekiness sometimes, and this album is filled with it.
- File next to: Divine Comedy, John Grant, Sparks, Neosupervital
05. Dancing With Ruby – In the Interest of Beasts
I reviewed Dancing With Ruby‘s brilliant In the Interest of Beasts over at The Electricity Club. Suffice to say, this is a superb “debut” album (like Parralox, DWR aka Northern Kind recruited a new vocalist in the form of the wonderful Charlie Sanderson). Deceptively deep and socio-ecoligically aware, Charlie’s co-songwriting is a shot in the arm for imagineer Matt Culpin.
At its heart though, this album’s crisply produced synthpop beat just rocks. Take a listen to “Spider” or “Still Waters“. Then album closer “Dance Move Feel” – the summery synthpop song of the year. I can’t wait to hear more from them!
- File next to: Usual and some unusual suspects
04. IAMX – Metanoia
Me and Chris go way back. Back to the start of the Sneaker Pimps. But then we went our ways. His solo stuff – I liked it, don’t get me wrong, it just never had that zazz I’d heard in the ‘Pimps. I checked out his new albums but so-so I thought until: wham! Metanoia comes out this year and it’s fu*cking genius, there’s no other way to describe it. If I wasn’t in such a happy mood, this album would probably rank even higher. Wickedly infectious, IAMX take the listener into a personal space that some may think should be left alone. Not me though: Metanoia is just too good not to listen to repeatedly!
03. Black Nail Cabaret: Harry Me Marry Me Bury Me Bite Me
Black Nail Cabaret‘s second album is an essential box of electro-goth tricks and synthpop-cabaret delights. Hungarian duo Emese Illes-Arvai (vocals) and Sophie Tarr have crafted an album that gets under your skin, much like IAMX above but with feminine curves. The vocals are gorgeous throughout, both enticing and haunted. You’ll be mesmerised, especially on tracks like “Hair“, “Satisfaction” (slow Kylie!) and “Down Again“.
- File next to: Client, Antony and the Jonsons, Vile Electrodes
- Spotify’s #1 “Discovered on” Playlist: Pansentient Synthpop 2015
02. Susanne Sundfør– Ten Love Songs
This came out at the start of the year and it still sounds as fresh as that first day of listening. Championed by everyone who’s heard it, this beautiful album of Ten Love Songs has everything a music fan could want. The fact that it has a synthpop backbone is a bonus for us long-term listeners. I chose “Delirious” as my song of the year on The Electricity Club, but it could have been almost any song on this album. The central masterpiece: “Memorial” is a truly epic 10 minute song: progressive synthpop that proves once and for all that love can be unbounded from both time & synthesiser. The wash of orchestra must have cost a bob or two but it’s worth it: as I said, this album has a song for everyone.
- File next to: Anywhere really but try Goldfrapp, Depeche Mode, Divine Comedy, Fever Ray, Tori Amos
- Spotify’s #1 “Discovered on” Playlist: Spotify’s Chillout Lounge
01. CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye
These three wise Scots, they’ve only gone and done it again: picking up from where Bones… left off, Every Open Eye just says nyah to the naysayers and instead sticks with the winning formula of pure synthpop. Except this time it’s EVEN BETTER THAN THE LAST TIME! I cannae say how delighted I am that this album is so good. Every track is pure dead brilliant: even the blokey song is pretty good (you need to see him dancing to it). “Clearest Blue” is of course my other song-of-the-year, listening to it is like pressing the “spine-tingle” button on-demand. Absolute barry stuff guys, thank you!
I saw these cats a while ago
in a wee Edinburgh basement bar gig below an art gallery: now they’re all over American prime-time TV and suchlike, carrying the synthpop sound back to where it belongs: as music for the masses. G’an yersel, Churches!
CHRVRCHES gig in Dundee, November 2015. © Jer White
Trailer: Pansentient Synthpop 2015 (Spotify Playlist)
Our popular Spotify playlist below features all the above artists, and many more besides. These playlists are curated throughout the year then pruned in time for the winter. Synthpop satisfaction guaranteed!
Trailer: The Turtle at the Bottom of the Garden
My other project this year was this daft wee geeky book for kids (small & big) called The Turtle at the Bottom of the Garden.
“A funny, loopy story for kids about a boy jumping from turtle to turtle. He doesn’t care that it’s turtles all the way down…”
Set in near-future Scotland, Jer White’s The Turtle at the Bottom of the Garden is a quirky, modern kid’s book with built-in re-readability, a geeky glossary, Spotify playlists and other treats. With every chapter beautifully illustrated by Edinburgh artist Adam Howie, The Turtle at the Bottom of the Garden is available now as a 160-page paperback or soon direct to your Kindle!
Out now from Amazon (UK/EU) or CreateSpace (USA)