Synthpop releases in 2016 came thick and fast, with thousands of songs and singles being released throughout the year. This exceptional quantity of course meant a lot of mediocrity and clone bands with nothing really new to say: in 2016 I listened to a lot of so-so synthpop. But amongst all the electropop noise, some fantastic songs and albums emerged – new music with that special something that made me want to listen again. So while most “godfather bands” had little to offer this year (exceptions from the legends that are the Pet Shop Boys and Yello), a few new artists quietly released some superb albums for you to enjoy. Check them out below!
Top 20 Synthpop Albums
Here are my favorites: the Pansentient League’s Top 20 Synthpop Albums of 2016!
click album cover or title to play in Spotify 🙂
NZCA LINES — Infinite Summer
I do love a concept album, so the “far-future Earth” backdrop to Infinite Summer is something I approve of. This is no synthwave season however, think more Hot Chip and Daft Punk. With monster songs like “Two Hearts” and the title track itself, there’s walls of pop channels going on here (and the occasional guitar burst). Songs like “New Atmosphere” may actually get a little synthwavey (but in a good, Dead Astronauts kind of way) and there’s always plenty of Human League circa-mid 80s bass synth going on.
Zoon Politicon – Black in White
Conzoom Records continue to put out fine new euro-flavoured synthpop. This year, Zoon Politicon’s Black in White was a comeback of sorts – their first album since the late 90s. For Conzoom, this is a venture into a more futurepop sound, as Zoon Politicon’s vibe here often sits well with bands like And One and Covenant. The synth-goth of songs like “Dreamer” or “New Phase” are highlights that sound like they’d be fantastic to hear live.
Sinestar – Evolve
Also on Conzoom, Sinestar delivered a debut album that’s stuffed with gig-friendly tunes. Opener “Ready Set Go & Die” must be a sing-a-long favourite, while less-rocky tracks like “Heart of the Fire” evoke Erasure-esque love and dancing. Elsewhere, synth ballads like “The Mirror Song” and “Sentinel” provide some variety in this 14-track album of evolved electropop.
Rocococo – Versailles
This came out early 2016 and instantly went into my rotation. Seattle’s Kasson Crooker aka Symbion Project is the man behind this fun disc of s’pop instrumentalism. Laced in baroque synth stylings reminiscent of Maison Vague with added 8-bit, Versailles has Freezepop DNA spliced with Thermostatic-style chiptune that’s just great fun from start to end. “Let Them Eat Synth” and “Dauphin” are two highlights, but this works better as a complete album concept (see also the de-lovely video for “Mirror Mirror“). Clocking in at just under 40 minutes the novelty never wears off, despite the lack of vocals. C’est synthpop, mais une autre mode entièrement!
My Robot Friend — Open the Book
I first heard My Robot Friend through the single “Waiting” with Alison Moyet back in 2010 and as informed, the album has been worth waiting for. From the New Order inspired tracks like “Goodbye” and “A Practical Joke” to the electro-rock-and-roll of “909“, Open the Book has an Orbital-like starness around it, with Andre Williams adding sassy lead vocals for a third of the songs. “Emancipated Hearts” infectiously mixes Underworld with the Stone Roses, while album closer “Gone” is a gorgeous synth-folk track with memento madchester.
Velvet Code – Black. Blue. Blind.
This album is stuffed with catchy synth songs, each with a unique hook. “Trust Fund Girl” is one my songs of the year, it’s perfect bouncy synthpop. “Say You Love Me” harks back to 2008, but long-term fans are served with two remixes on this 12-track album. “Slave Luv” has a hint of a kinky vocal line, while “Sorry to Meet You” is a hypnotically good electro-ballad, and “It’s Over” is VERY earworm!
Reed & Caroline – Buchla and Singing
Released near the end of the year, Reed & Caroline’s Buchla and Singing is the second release on Vince Clarke’s VeryRecords label. With Reed Hays using only a Buchla modular system, the vocals of Caroline Schutz (Folksongs For The Afterlife, The Inner Banks) add a playfulness as the lyrics dance to “Washing Machine” (a nod to Manchester’s Starbase 109 perhaps?) and songs with cosmic intentions (cf. Vile Electrodes but from the other side of synthpop). About half of this 13-track album is just fantastic: “Electrons” is awesomely Freezepoppy, and “Rene’s Red Room” beautifully flaunts with Enya spirit. “Harmonic Generator” has Caroline vocalising like Trish Keenan while harmomical electronicals carry the song. I love it, I only wish Buchla and Singing had fewer experimental tracks ( “Henry the Worm” does kinda make up for it though 🙂
Highasakite – Camp Echo
Norway’s Highasakite is this year’s essential Scandi release I reckon. With sonic roots in the likes of The Knife and Thermostatic, Camp Echo makes quite a statement. “Samurai Swords” for example is achingly, anthemically catchy, and “Golden Ticket” is smoothly assured synthpop with the emphasis on pop. Vocalist Ingrid Håvik has great range (check out “Someone Who’ll Get It” for example) and there’s a rumble of bombasticness about the production. Closer “Chernobyl” is epic in scope, and a poignant end to a wonderful album.
The Invincible Spirit — Anyway
My EBM-tinted pick this year is the magnificent Anyway from Germany’s The Invincible Spirit, an original 80s band no less. Thomas Luedke helms a maxi 16-track album that instantly plunges you into Nitzer Ebb and Signal Aout 42 territory. “Erase” is a mosh-pit stomper, the kind of thing Front 242 should be doing now, while “Dark Eye” hammers in a Laibach beat to industrious effect. If you like this end of the synth- “pop” spectrum, you’ll love this. Pop purists might not be so excited, but give say “Everytime I Move” a go first.
The Sweeps – Morning Maniac Music
Italo disco saw a huge resurgence a few years ago, but since then I’ve not really heard much new to get too excited about. That is, until The Sweeps’ joyfully vibrant Morning Maniac Music came along early in 2016. Comparisons with Sally Shapiro are fair, but songs like “Never Let Me Down” dial up the synthpop to 11 and “Touch Me” includes that drum break straight outta Dare. “Morning Maniac” swaps out the italo for something more soothing: it’s a gorgeous wee instrumental, perfect for hazy lazy summer days. Closing song “Sputnik” is another sumptuous voxless track, this time splicing Jean Michel Jarre with Space‘s “Magic Fly” for a swirly, synthy sensation.
Sharpies at the ready: it’s time for some synthpop coloring-in with HYPERBUBBLE! They’re currently putting the finishing touches to their much-anticipated Country & Western-themed new album “Western Ware” for release in 2017. Yee-hah!
Top 10 Synthpop Albums
Here’s the Pansentient League’s ten favorite albums of 2016!
I Monster – Bright Sparks
Another concept album on this list, here I Monster (of “Daydream in Blue” fame) provide the soundtrack to the Dave Spiers documentary of the same name, about the characters involved in the invention of early synthesizers. It’s both a great synth record and educational too. As a bonus, if you just want all the vintage synth noodling without any commentary, Bright Sparks is also out as an instrumental version. But you’d miss Philip Loutsis’ Hot Chipped vocals on opener “The fantastic tale of Dr. MOOG and the Birth of the Shimmering Beast” – the “purest” synthpop song on the album. Elsewhere space-disco and progressive electronic make way for one of my favorite songs of the year: “The Bradley Brothers realise the transmutation of the Chamberlin to the MELLOTRON.” Dean Honer’s musical partner Kevin Pearce (Skywatchers) guests with Tara Busch on intoxicating vocals for this neo-pyschedelic cult classic that joins the new Broadcast coven of Innerspace Orchestra, Jane Weaver, Gulp etc. A couple of tracks on Bright Sparks are perhaps a bit too experimental to call this a “pop” album as a whole, but it’s about as synth as you can get (excepting Stewart Lee) so enjoy the crackle.
Marsheaux – Ath.Lon
On the back of their shouldn’t-have-worked Depeche Mode covers album, Athens’ Marsheaux returned in 2016 with this 11-track album of new songs. From the get-go, songs like “Like a Movie” wrap around with retro sound; pure sequenced synthpop, as if circa England 1980s. There’s still a lot of variety and modern touch on Ath.Lon however, “Wild Heart” for example takes a new wave, even goth turn, with Cure-ious guitar and Manchunican beat. It’s a standout track and hints at a very interesting alt.direction for the duo. “Mediterranean” has epic intentions, like a euro-synth Beatles on holiday in the sun. There’s shades of Neon Lights here, but at only ~4 mins long I hope this track gets an extended mix sometime! “Let’s Take a Car” revs Gary Numan to a Hi-NRG beat, while “The Beginning of the End” brings unexpected apprehension juxtaposed in a dreamy, luscious, synthpop wave. The overall template may be familiar, but these Ebay Queens can still excite and surprise.
Vile Electrodes – In the Shadows of Monuments
Three years in the making, England’s Viles returned in 2016 with sophomore album In the Shadows of Monuments. Drenched in atmosphere, this is a brooding, hypnotic set of songs that sees the band develop their electro-existential music. The stark realities on foreboding constructions like the title track and “Into Great Silence” carefully balance the upbeat synthpop of shoulda-been-singles like “The Red Bead” and “Last of the Lovers”. On “As We Turn to Rust” – synthpop’s own Ozymandias – Anais Neon has never sounded finer, as the Swan provides some superlative hi-NRG synth swagger. “Incision” is wonderfully multiplex and probably pretty morbid if you think about it too much. But then this is a “thinky” album; god bless ’em but there aren’t many of those in electropopland 2016. If you’re in the right mood for something fundamental in a Dead Can Dance or 2001: Space Odyssey kind of way, this is the perfect album.
And the Echo – And the Echo
I started at the end with And the Echo – the beguiling, hauntronic song “Year Three” that closes this wonderful album. It’s soulful electro that’s straight outta Portishead, and a far cry from the almost twee La Roux-type synthpop of opener “Okinawa.” Mississippian’s Winn McElroy and Morgan Pennington have crafted a bold album, baseline electronic pop but mixing things up to keep it interesting (although at under 30 minutes this is a short album!) “Smoke and Mirrors” reminds me of New Order vs. the much-missed Mirrors, whereas dance-friendly “Ultraviolet” ups the ante into electro-goth territory. It’s a cool wee album: I’m looking forward to hearing more from this pair!
Pet Shop Boys – Super
I loved Electric back in 2013 and Super is more of the same great upgraded PSB disco-pop music. Neal and Chris must know it too, or is that an ironic album title? It’s pretty remarkable that these boys can put out such a good record, after so many years and so many classics already behind them. Songs like lead-in single “The Pop Kids” (you’ll think it’s a song that was already a huge hit for them) or the Jarre-cha-cha “Twenty-something” are bone-fide new Shoppy Classics. “Groovy” has swank and sass, then the distopian “The Dictator Decides” synthwaves it up a bit. Robo-ballad “Sad Robot World” has some gorgeous synth lines on it; it’s a hauntingly epic tune and worth listening to via some of the bootleg videos on YouTube. “Burn” is a huge song, Hi-NRG PSB that should have closed the album.
School Of Seven Bells – SVIIB
Released back in March, SVIIB is the fourth album from America’s School Of Seven Bells and it quickly became a firm favorite. The Republica synth-rock of “Ablaze” kicks off this album and while not representative, it’s is a great choice for a single. “On My Heart” is modern synthpop at its best, dreamy Drive style with a touch of New Order bass (see also the excellent “A Thousand Time More“). “Open Your Eyes” confirms this as the Electric Youth of 2016: dreamy, soothing synthpop with an undercurrrent of melancholy. The whispery way of Curve (i.e. Toni Halliday) may ring out across several tracks, but vocalist Alejandra Deheza isn’t afraid to test her range: I just love that staccato vocal break in “Music Takes Me” for example. SVIIB is sadly the last album from School Of Seven Bells: I’m just glad they were able to make this wonderful record before the final bell.
Avec Sans – Heartbreak Hi
You’ll instantly think Chvrches within about a minute of London duo Avec San’s debut album Heartbreak Hi and like my weeg’ chums, Avec Sans seem to have cracked it in terms of songwriting. The utterly gorgeous title track for example pulses with Drive soundtrack vibrations, and “We Are” is up there with the absolute best of synthpop in 2016. The jaunty electropop of “Hold On” will send Marsheaux fans into a tizzy, while “The Answer” recalls Sophie Ellis-Bextor both in its vocal delivery and catchy chorus. “Close My Eyes” has several of those rare, spine-tingly vocal flourishes and “Perth” is another hugely infectious song, with its analogue synth swirls and superior vocals that knock the Bon Iver original into a cocked hat. Heartbreak Hi arrived fully formed and instantly became one of my most-played albums of the year (it’s always at my side). Remarkably there’s not a single “filler” track on this album, and it’s pleasingly one of those rare synthpop gems that even the mainstream press picked up on.
Kero Kero Bonito – Bonito Generation
When can synthpop be called J-POP? (or J-POP synthpop?). For years now, Japanese bands have aped the European (and especially English) sound of the times. Kero Kero Bonito (aka KKB) are the return exchange students: a London, England group who slip into Japanese on pretty much every delightful song on this happy album. This is the most fun album I’ve heard in ages, pure bouncy pop with rappish (a bit Uffie) English songs about morning routines, graduating (but not going!), trampolines, and the so-so-sweet “Fish Bowl” – an ode to a pet fish! Like Schmoof used to do, KKB’s Sarah sings about everyday things to a twee synthpop beat. “Heard a Song” is one highlight, a metatextual ~3 minute pop song with some cute team chat in the middle. “Graduation” has hand-claps, M.I.A. basslines and an earworm of a chorus. “Try Me” is a curriculum vitae (“I’m quick to learn and I can work with people in a team!“) with some seriously funky synthpop that’s perfect for a road trip. “Paintbrush” is the only song solely in Japanese, a one-minute music-box ballad, then “Trampoline” bounces into life and you’ll have a smile on your face within seconds. I don’t really know J-POP too well (see Paul at J-POP GO for that), but the Japanese in Bonito Generation sounds great in this context: kawaii enough for me, innit. Like a teen Lily Allan, the lyrics and delivery are mostly what set this album above the rest. In a year with much worry, Bonito Generation is the perfect fluffy pill:)
Yello – Toy
Culturally embedded thanks to several global mega-hits in the 1980s, these two Swiss old boys have gone and done the impossible. I had a suspicion that Yello’s “Toy” was going to be a good album but wow – this really is the best thing they’ve put out in decades! Like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark managed in 2013, Yello have made what sounds like a Best Of album thanks to the faux familiarity of the songs. Quintessentially Yello, there’s no other band in the world that could have made this brilliant album. Boris Blank’s production has pin-sharp clarity throughout: this is a record to test your new sound system with. Dieter Meier – the suavest man in synthpop – deeply sings like he’s never enjoyed himself more, while special guests FiFi Rong and Malia provide the perfect balance. Toy is electronic pop music but Yello make synthpop-with-a-latina-soul: for them it was never about the machines, they were just the tools of love. As a long-term fan of the band, I could not have been happier than with this 17-track album. Merci vilmal Herr Blank & Meier!
Prinze George – Illiterate Synth Pop
Oh my. This just… this album. I can’t. I can’t even. It only takes seconds and the hairs of the back of my neck stand on end and then I’m with her again and saying “but wait, listen to this! listen to this!” but she’s gone and maybe – just maybe – that’s ok because this kind of music is timeless and will never let you go alone. That is to say, Illiterate Synth Pop is a giant of an album by any genre’s standard. The fact that Prinze George have chosen synthpop as their carrier is just… it’s just… thank you. Before you might have said “listen to Yazoo” or “try Soft Cell” when questioned on the heart & humanity of synthpop, but now we have this. Musically along the lines of, say, Austra or Iamamiwhoami, it’s the lyrics and gospel delivery from Naomi Almquist that sets Illiterate Synth Pop apart. It’s the most moving and powerful record I’ve heard in years, with words that plunge to your core and trigger all sorts of emotions: synthpop may have found its Amy Winehouse. With the exception of “This Time” the tempo is moderate on Illiterate Synth Pop but that’s just fine. The widescreen/deep nature of this album demands that you slow things down a little and take a proper listen. This record isn’t for the faint-hearted: take care with the final song “Lights Burn Out” for example, it’s one that always leaves my eyes a little moist. Such is the power of really good music.
Illiterate Synth Pop is my album of the year. I hope you like it too!
*** Spotify Playlist inspired by this album: Pansentient’s Electronic Soul Music ***
Top 10 Synthpop Singles of the Year
- AIVIS – The Wilderness – hands down the top single of 2016!
- Allie X – Old Habits Die Hard
- Johan Baeckström – Like Before
- Battery Operated Orchestra – Radiation
- Christine and the Queens – Tilted
- Dancing with Ruby – Animals
- Innerspace Orchestra – One Way Glass
- Northern Lite – You Are Not Alone
- Sinestar – Ready Set Go & Die
- Tenek – Imitation of Life
Here’s the Spotify playlist:
Videos of the Year
- AIVIS – The Wilderness (Director: @DAN_LOTZ)
- Beyond The Wizards Sleeve – Creation (Director: Kieran Evans) – this video is so cool: they’re mostly dancing backwards!
- Kero Kero Bonito – Break
- Pet Shop Boys – Sad Robot World (UNOFFICIAL VIDEO) – there’s quite a few other unofficial videos for this song
Gig of the Year
- Yello live in Kraftwerk Berlin, October 2016. Their first live performance ever and boy, what a show!
It’s Not Synthpop: Best of the Rest Albums 2016
Outside of the synthpop sphere (but perhaps with some shared history) these albums were joyful discoveries each:
- ABC – The Lexicon Of Love II is just such a super-fun album
- Die Antwoord – Mount Ninji and da Nice Time Kid is dirty electro-rap with a sense of humour
- Beyond The Wizards Sleeve – The Soft Bounce was one of my favorites of the year, flitting from neo-psych to Krautrock and even a little bit of synthpop!
- Las Bistecs – Oferta is the newest entry on this page, thanks to Alex for putting me onto these Spanish sirens!
- Cavern of Anti-Matter – void beats/invocation trex is a krautrockian delight
- The Divine Comedy – Foreverland sees a welcome return to Neil Hannon with a fantastic album
- The Filthy Tongues – Jacob’s Ladder was the Scottish album-of-the-year as far as I’m concerned
- Britta Phillips – Luck or Magic for which I have a Spotify algorithm to thank, picking up on my Broadcast
- Savages – Adore Life is full of early Siouxsie & the Banshees energy and seriously catchy songs
- Symbion Project – Arcadian – fresh from the fun s’pop instrumentalism of Rocococo, Seattle’s Kasson Crooker returned with a host of guest vocalists and a very different album: this is trip-hopped electronica with a touch of Kelley Polar & Emika
Pansentient Synthpop 2016 – The Spotify Playlist!
PANSENTIENT NEW SYNTHPOP 2016 – hand-curated Spotify playlist, with additional selections from WXJL .net – the automatic Spotify DJ with 10,000 watts of power!
Thanks for listening – see you in 2017!