2014 has been another bumper year for synthpop releases, but it’s also been a year where quantity has often ruled over quality: 2014 saw many, many decent synthpop singles and albums released throughout the year, but only a small handful have had that “wow” factor. The big-hitter artists – old-school classic bands who’ve seen such a resurgence in the past few years – were largely absent this year (with one big exception), so it was left to the young upstarts to carry the synthpop flame.
While Taylor Swift gave us her kid-friendly spin on synthpop with her hugely successful 1989 album, the underground synthpop sub-genre known as synthwave saw a massive rise in popularity. This post-Drive style has its roots firmly planted in synthpop, so I felt duty-bound to give it due consideration when coming up with this Top 20.
So here then are what I thought were the best synthpop albums of 2014: 20 albums of excellence that I think you’ll enjoy if electronic music is your thing! Of course, you might disagree with me; surprised to see there’s no representation from Client, Röyksopp, Future Islands, La Roux, or Gazelle Twin. Those are all good bands with some great songs this year (see The Electricity’s Clubs 20 Songs of 2014 for many of these), but for this Top 20 I concentrated on complete albums that gave me that joyous tingle that only quality synthpop and electronica can do.
So let’s get started!
Top 20 Synthpop Albums
Sweden’s Vogon Poetry were not what I was expecting at all. Given the Hitchhikers references, I was expecting some kind of novelty record, twee and with deliberately dreadful lyrics. But Don’t Panic is something else: it’s actually a rather good synthpop album! Mixing in elements of Erasure and S.P.O.C.K, Vogon Poetry’s music may often be on the lighter, poppier side of synthpop but they’re never frivolous. Indeed, tracks like “Land of Forever” and “In Darkness Lost Again” have a solemnity that’s quite poignant. And while the album is sometimes a bit rough around the edges, there’s still plenty to enjoy here.
Recommended: The Diceman, Dream Dream Dream, Driven (Never Be Here Again)
Aon is Emmon‘s fourth album and sees her showing no lack of creative energy. The Swedish queen of electropop riffs around the scandi-synthpop template that made her name, but this time adding elements of chiptune, hauntronica, futurepop and a little italo-disco into the mix. Bronski Beat seem to be an influence too, ironically more so on “Felix Baumgartner” than on the (competent but imo rather obvious) cover of “Smalltown Boy”. Aon is Emmon’s most varied album, but there’s still a cohesion that makes for a fine slice of expertly produced synthpop.
Recommended: Protected Lies, Pitch Black, Spoket, Alive
Following their earlier collaboration on an album of A-ha covers, Jon Russell (aka Jonteknik) and Martyn Bailey joined forces again to release Energy, Light and Darkness at the start of the year. Don’t be put off by the cheap looking album cover: there are riches inside. Over the 40-minute runtime you’ll hear 10 songs of smooth, crisp synthpop, all but one featuring Martyn’s falsetto tones. Callbacks to OMD, Pet Shop Boys, and even Tubeway Army are apparent, and it’s clear that this duo show a lot of promise for the future.
Recommended: At Night I Come Alive, Changing Lanes, Pendulum
Australia’s Neuropa have released a fair few albums in their career, but seem to have never quite cracked the European market. I’ve followed them for a few years now and I think Resistor is their finest album yet and sure to win them new fans. With its gorgeous cover art, solid vocals and clutch of good songs, this album oozes new-wave synthpop quality. The Depeche Mode/Erasure sound is still there, but Resistor brings a futurepop edge in the vein of And One and the older Covenant albums.
Recommended: Americana, The End, Pain
If you like your synthpop bright and uncluttered, then this album is surely for you. Swedish duo Daily Planet clearly adore Yazoo – just take a look at the video for Nobody’s Friend (filmed “Downstairs at Alfred’s”) – and take a listen to that gorgeous melody! Anyone can try to ape that sound of course, but Daily Planet have the song-writing chops to back them up. Two has just the right balance of slow-tempo vs. more dancey numbers, lending it the variety that other pretenders to Vince Clarke’s throne lack.
Recommended: Nobody’s Friend, Forgiven, Afraid
Dublin’s Sleep Thieves shimmer awake with You Want the Night, a disco-noir delight of analogue electro with new wave sensibilities. Singer Sorcha Brennan has the looks of Curxe‘s Roberta Fidora and a voice part Enya, part Katie Stelmanis. Her breathy, enchanting styling perfectly fits the discotronic pulse that beats throughout this dreamy, fairy-tale of an album.
Recommended: City of Hearts, Sparks, French Kiss
Cynthia Wechselberger and keyboardist/producer Chris Wirsig’s third album is a theatrical affair. Maybe its Wechselberger’s crooning vocals (halfway between Kate Bush and Future Perfect‘s Rebecca Owen), the thematically linked lyrics, or Wirsig’s evocative songwriting; whatever, listening to this rewarding album gives you a feeling of attending some kind of vaudevillian cabaret. With one big exception (the shockingly out-of-place R&B/rap of “Let Me Walk Alone”), each song is a reflective vignette, beautifully crafted to evoke contemplation, introspection, and little feelings of desperation. All wrapped up in gorgeous cover art, Wisdom & Failure is a curiosity well-worth sitting through to the finale.
Recommended: Confession, Sunset Castle, Last Scene, Wisdom And Failure
With the most ungoogleable name in this Top 20, Norway’s Argh are nevertheless well worth tracking down. Reminiscent of classic 90s German synthpop acts like Wolfsheim, Beborn Beton and De/Vision, Night in the City bounces along with style and confidence that belies the fact that this is Argh’s debut release. While Andreas Rønbeck and Glenn Henriksen take it in turns on lead vocals, a few songs have a female backing vocalist and this really enriches the sound: I wish they’d used her more! Nevertheless, this an impressive debut that only gets better with repeated plays.
Recommended: Absence, Night in the City, Cheating Bird, Higher Love
Starting with “Fountain” back in January, each song that makes up Iamamiwhoami‘s 3rd album Blue has been released separately as a digital single. This gives the album a kind of Greatest Hits feel, as only the final three songs were new to me when I first played the album. An aquatic theme flows throughout this dreamy and soothing and sometimes murky album. From the Chvrches-esque “Vista” to the “Land ahoy!” moments on “Blue Blue“, here finally is an Iamamiwhoami album with coherency and an armada of good, almost mainstream pop songs.
Recommended: Vista, Blue Blue, Chasing Kites
Here we have an album cover that says “witch house”, and a name that says darkwave or goth. But Machinista‘s debut album Xenoglossy is in fact a glorious slab of euro-synthpop, with the spirit of Alphaville and Robert Smith the most obvious reference points. The first half of the album bounces along joyfully, every track a toe-tapper complete with some of the catchiest melodies heard this year. One half of the Machinista duo is Richard Flow (formerly of Pansentient League favorites Vision Talk) and it’s great to hear him again. My initial impression of Machinista wasn’t completely off: lyrically, some of these songs do have a darker tone, such as on the thanatophobic “Pushing the Angels Astray”. Closing with a wonderful synthetic reinterpretation of Bowie’s “Heroes”, Xenoglossy is a fabulous synthpop album that speaks my language from start to finish.
Recommended: Take Comfort in Being Sad, Arizona Lights, Pushing the Angels Astray, Crash
Top 10 Synthpop Albums
Ten great albums there – but here are my absolute favorites of the year!
The past year has seen a plethora of instrumental synthwave music, all emulating that neon-glowing, synth-throbbing “futuristic” 80s sound. A lot of it, it must be said, is pretty bland and derivative but there are two artists in particular who stand out from the crowd. The first is Carpenter Brut, who’s made some fantastic videos paying homage to Takashi Ishii and the Dario Argento giallo scene. The second is Perturbator, the techno-demented “Half Human, Half Synthesizer” alter-ego of James Kent.
Dangerous Days is dripping with dark John Carpenter retrofuturistism and comes across like some manic satanic alternative soundtrack to The Terminator. Not that it’s full-throttle all the way though: there are some lighter moments on this amazing concept album and even some vocals (courtesy of collaborations with Dead Astronauts (see below) and Memory Ghost‘s Isabella Goloversic). Perturbator might be a little too extreme for many a synthpop fan, but if you like electro-industrial, darkwave, or even heavy metal then Dangerous Days could well become your album-of-the-year.
Recommended: Perturbator’s Theme, Hard Wired, She Is Young…, Satanic Rites
Trust‘s first album seemed to be everyone’s favorite debut when it came out a couple of years ago. It didn’t really do it for me though, so I came to Joyland with some reservations. And what an improvement! Now a solo affair, Trust’s Robert Alfons has made an immersive slab of goth-infused electronica. From the pulsating, ethereal intro of “Slightly Floating” to the melodious synthpop of “Joyland” and “Icabod“, this album is bursting with depth. Alfons’ vocal dexterity (you’re left thinking there are several lead vocalists but it’s just one guy) provides variety, character, and just a touch of eerie creepiness.
Recommended: Capitol, Joyland, Icabod
Swedish/Danish duo My Empire of Sound seem to have come out of nowhere with this, an indie gem of an album that mixes synthpop with classical guitar and other “real” instruments. “Feeling electric…” purrs lead vocalist Sidsel Marie Søholm on single “In a Perfect World,” a wonderful scandi-pop song that brings to mind both Fever Ray and a radioactivitat Kraftwerk. The dreamy title track is another highlight, while “Autobahn Lullaby” has a wistfulness reminiscent of Glasgow indie band Camera Obscura. Fans of post-Ultra era Depeche Mode should also find much to like here: The Confession of the Machines is a serious album with gravitas and depth that perfectly mixes electronic and acoustic instruments. I expect great things from My Empire of Sound, which is why I nominated them as Most Promising New Act on The Electricity Club’s 2014 End of Year Review.
Recommended: In a Perfect World, The Confession of the Machines, Waiting for a Lover
The slightly ironically titled Long Play (the runtime is only 30 minutes) is Colouroïd‘s superb debut album, offering 8 tracks of marvellously mutated minimal wave. Singer Ella Moe shimmers above and around the cold wave synths, with an edgy underground attitude sometimes reminiscent of the late great Trish Keenan (check out “Pillow Fort” for example). Self-funded, self-promoted and self-released, Long Play is the epitome of quality DIY synth music and comes highly recommended.
Recommended: Gang, Winter’s Here, TV People, Pillow Fort
Ever aware of the importance of googleability, former Finnish trio Flux re-branded themselves as Flux Fin, brought in vocalist Karoliina Karppinen, and proceeded to release one of the best synthpop albums of the year. “Never Weight Me Down” is minimal electro that gently introduces the album: it’s the only track that’s not quite instantly memorable: from “Radio Liberty” onwards, every song here is an electronic delight. Lead single “Cold Shiver” is a warmer song than its title suggests, while the wonderful “Light Bulb” is full of low-BPM spark, kinda Construction-era Mode. “Let Your Body Roll” spins things around with some hi-NRG beats, before “All Out” delivers some of the promised grit. I love these guys and just don’t get why they’re not as popular on the synthpop scene as they should be.
Recommended: Cold Shiver, Light Bulb, Let Your Body Roll
Dead Astronauts seem to have been adopted by synthwave followers as one of their own (probably due to the Perturbator collaborations), but it fact Constellations is first and foremost a synthpop album and one of the best releases of the year. Their blend of lo-fi new wave from an alternate universe is minimal but often surprisingly upbeat, and the variety of synthpop sub-genres on display means you never get bored. But most of all it’s the fabulous male + female vocals that raise Dead Astronauts above the rest: Jared Kyle channels Dead Can Dance‘s Brendan Perry (with a touch of Nick Cave), while Hayley Stewart brings an essential delicate counterpoint to this wonderful album.
Recommended: These Bones, Weathered Wolves, Parallel Universes, The Pier
I fell out of love with Erasure decades ago, sorry to say, with only 2005’s Nightbird bringing some slight reprise. So my expectations for The Violet Flame were pretty low. But then I heard several friends on Facebook saying how good it was, that Richard X was involved, that it was their best in years… so I gave it a proper listen and was amazed: yes, it really is as good as they say! Like the Pet Shop Boys did last year with Electric, Erasure have made an upbeat, dance-friendly, stomper of an electronic album that’s a joy to listen to from start to finish. From the club-synthpop opener “Dead of Night” through to closing torch song “Stayed a Little Late Tonight“, even the more laid-back “Be the One” and “Smoke and Mirrors” are both still fabulous pop songs. Andy Bell is on top form here and every song has some earwormingly catchy hook or melody: welcome back Vince!
Recommended: All of it!
Le Cassette‘s debut album is retro English synthpop at its best: unapologetically 80s, Left to Our Own Devices leaves the synthwave pack behind thanks to its authentic production and the gorgeous croonings of vocalist Adam McNab. Sometimes like Brian Ferry, sometimes Scott Walker – there’s even a hint of Sulk-era Billy Mackenzie in there. It’s easy to overdose on nostalgia (and trust me, listening to too much of the mediocre synthwave out there can be soul-destroying), but this album is a superb exception. “Digital Power” is my favorite single song of the year: I’m sure it would have been number one for weeks had it come out in 1983. A few songs don’t quite do it for me – “Magnifique” for example – but any 15-track album is bound to have our or two skippers. Le Cassette could be the natural successors to much-missed bands Hoboken and Mirrors: a good, modern synthpop band that gets the vocals so right is such a rare thing.
Recommended: All of it!
You will remember Electric Youth from the Drive soundtrack and the utterly sumptuous track “A Real Hero”. That song closes Innerworld, the Canadian duos debut album. Here is an album full of soothing electro-ballads and shimmering electropop, drenched in nostalgia and youthful optimism. Bronwyn Griffin and Austin Garrick took their time making this album and it shows: the running order is perfect and every track throbs quality and attention, awash with dreamy analog synths and Bronwyn’s breathy, innocent delivery. The stripped-back “If All She Has Is You” is one of many highlights, a Human League Mk I-meets-Enya style cover of John McGlynn’s achingly beautiful lament.
Innerworld is album to blissfully slide into senescence with: it’s quite probably the most comforting collection of songs I’ve ever heard, and certainly close to The Best Thing to grace the synth scene this year.
Recommended: All of it!
Pansentient League’s Album of the Year!
Here is the album I’ve loved more than any other in 2014:
Tikkle Me are an all-female electronic pop-art collective who deserve way more attention outside their native Sweden than they seem to get. I’ve been a fan since I first heard their 2009 EP Butterflies In My Tummy and loved all three singles that preceded the release of their sophomore LP What is Real. This album is littered with gorgeous melodies and feminist-themed lyrics, delivered with knowing innocence by lead singer Frida Herchenröther. Third single “Genius” is just that: a moment of genius pop and a perfect introduction to Tikkle Me’s quirky playfulness with hidden depth; once you dig deeper, most songs tend to reveal a level of intelligence and serious artistry often missing from synthpop. And although it’s hard to categorise Tikkle Me – vocally there’s a touch of Kate Bush, musically there are occasional strings and other orchestrals – this is still synthpop, and synthpop of the finest kind. What is Real is a superb album to find both joy and strength from, be you boy, girl, or undecided. Of course, being Scandinavian there’s a touch of chilly sorrowfulness here (on the song “Cliffhanger” for example), but on the whole Tikkle Me is a sisterhood bursting with hope and optimism and damn fine pop songs. Absolutely my album of the year!
Recommended: All of it!
UPDATE: Read my extended review on The Electricity Club!
Our Pansentient Synthpop series of Spotify playlists has been running for 6 six years now, with this year’s edition being the longest playlist yet! Here’s over 250 quality synthpop songs for your listening pleasure, including all of the artists mentioned above and many many more besides:
And don’t you ever forget: SYNTHPOP’S ALIVE!