The synth revival has been on an upward trajectory for a number of years now, with the Drive soundtrack acting as a catalyst, and the music of Stranger Things enhancing and expanding the reach, interest, and influence of the instrument and music laden with it. But like all trends, they fluctuate, and there is always one hyperfocused sub-genre that gets more attention than others.
Currently, in the synth world, the focus has been on the synthwave genre, an 80s soundtrack based style of synth music that is instrumental more often than it is not, and currently flooded with hundreds of ambitious producers all doing the same thing. While there is some synthwave here, let it be known this is not exclusively a synthwave list.
While synthwave as a genre has developed and become increasingly proficient across the music world over the last few years, my personal foundation is rooted in the synthesizer influenced vocal pop and dance side of things, less in soundtracks. Generally speaking, I tend to focus my efforts on that which is more accessible.
That being said, this is the best synth songs of 2018 list, curated by myself along with the fine folks at Indie Discotheque. This list being genre defined but not genre specific, the goal here is to find the true crème de la crème of synth-filled music of the year, a balance of both songs that are attractive to connoisseurs of music and songs that have found reach and made an impact across the world.
1. CHVRCHES – My Enemy feat. Matt Berninger
“My Enemy” is hands down the best of the songs released on the CHVRCHES album released this year, a slow jam that has a beautifully balanced layering of synths paired with vocal performances by Matt Berninger and Lauren Mayberry. It’s a duet that really has an impact, a musical flow that I likely will never grow tired of. The composition of the closure of the song is a favorite part, with what seems like dozens of flute-like flutters, layered and fading away.
2. Robyn – Missing U
It’s so great to have new music from Robyn. It’s personal music lyrically, and musically we are awash in some well produced, satisfying synth work. We are introduced to the song with twinkling sounds that wash over us before the foundation sets in with warm, thick chords. Robyn’s voice is always on point and really pulls at your heartstrings in this track. It’s my favorite from her new album Honey, as reviewed here at Magnetic upon release.
3. Conro – Trippin’
For the most part, I ignore all that is Monstercat and what the label embraces in electronic music, but occasionally one of their artists surprises with a song or two that stand out. This is the case with Conro, whose awesome logo aside, put out a couple of tracks in September that are worth your time. Between "Trippin," with its juicy synth licks and falsetto vocal treatment, and his electro house cover of Earth, Wind, and Fire's "September," we have a lot to enjoy.
4. Jaguar Dreams – Just Life
"Just Life" opens slowly with grand, heavy synth stabs and immediately conjures thoughts about great synth ballads like "Someone Great." This is a song that accomplishes larger than life atmosphere. Jaguar Dreams is a new band from Brooklyn that claims they want to sound like everybody, that life is a collective experience, and we are all in this together. Despite this, they maintain a niche sound, oozing with beautiful synth work that is remarkable. My eyes are open.
5. Bob Moses – Heaven Only Knows
We are embraced by this song the moment it starts, with harmonized vocals greeting us with warmth and ease, topics of self-sacrifice and paradise. Once the synth hits, it’s as if we’re jumping into a warm thickness that takes some time to penetrate the atmosphere, but the piano and distant percussion elements of the track are able to masterfully keep this deep synth foundation tied to the lighter, heavenly nature of the song to achieve the balance it needs.
6. Chrome Sparks – Still Think
The string effects in the introduction, while paired with the minimalistic percussion provide a stunning introduction to a track that only continues to grow in its beauty as the additional layers of synth are introduced. By the time the vocals are introduced, there is a whirlwind of sound passing through your ears. The primary phrase of the song, “I think about you all the time,” will be swirling through your head for days. A gorgeous piece worth listening on repeat.
7. Jerry Folk – Another Night
It's another night, and the synth is high pitched and slow tempo. We're grooving to a fine beat with some whirrs and wails and a beautiful upper range vocal performance by Jerry. The separated elements of the song, including the composition of the chords are satisfying. I especially like the upper register synth with pitch bending effects. I enjoy the minimalistic nature of the percussion and how the track doesn’t seem over-compressed like many of its contemporaries.
8. Vök – Night and Day
“Night and Day” is a synthpop track that immediately grabs your attention. Premiered here at Magnetic, the synth stabs and bass work really envelops you into the track. It’s a song for those midnight moments on the dance floor when everyone’s looking for a few slow jams, exploring the thoughts of those who want, and individual passion extends beyond rational reason. This is a possessive song, with lyrics that declare, “it’s just a matter of time, you will be mine.”
9. Metric – Now or Never Now
I've been waiting a long time for new music from Metric and I'm so happy they've chosen this song to be one of their singles. The whole album is out and it’s worth a listen, but this is the song that best captures what I enjoy most about this band. It's a steady groove with feeling, and while we have trademark guitar work woven throughout the song, it's the singing of Emily Haines, the arpeggiation, and the warmth of the synth chords that pull everything together.
10. Uffie – Drugs
Don’t walk away from Uffie. The drugs and the clubs are nowhere near as awesome. This is Uffie at her most vulnerable, the most stripped down I’ve ever heard her. The lyrics are to the point, with phrases like “don’t need your Gucci sorrys.” Warm synth rhythms build behind her with each verse. The simplicity of the song and the way her voice stands apparently adds a layer of seriousness to her message. I’m so glad Uffie is back and I’m excited to hear more from her.
11. St. Lucia – A Brighter Love
This love is bright, but is there a brighter love? Bass stabs greet us with some down-pitched "oohs." I always love how smooth the vocals of Jean-Philip Grobler are in his songs. He has a unique singing style that is distinctly him, you always know when it’s a St. Lucia song playing. "Searching for a night light in the dark" is a great lyric, as in the chorus duet. Falling asleep on empty streets are always eye-opening experiences. Has that brighter love been found?
12. Black Moth Super Rainbow – Mr. No One
Providing an aged experience in music has been a thing over the last couple of years, but there are not many examples where I can say I appreciate the result. This is an exception, where the distorted effects of the song truly enhance the work, providing this used analog effect as if the audio itself has been sunburned, and Tobacco has carefully applied a generous amount of aloe to soothe the mood. The simplicity of the melody and minimalistic percussion enhance this.
13. Molina – Hey Kids feat. Late Verlane
Another slow jam, the synth work in this song is fantastic. The arpeggiation in the introduction sets a warm tone laid over a minimalistic, over a compressed drum beat. Once the moment of full bloom occurs, a clean bed of percussion emerges. Each verse has its own treatment, which adds a truly unique nature to the track. The choral bridge is beautiful, with its multi-layered, multi-tonal harmonization. I would love an extended version of it remixed into a new song.
14. Cavego – Hafjell
Rooted in the Nu Disco movement and following in the footsteps of artists like Lindstrom, Prins Thomas, and Todd Terje comes Cavego. Out on Eskimo, Cavego brings us the Gudbrandsdalen EP, a six-track beauty that is filled with vintage synth, recorded in the family’s remote cabin in Norway. Hefjell is named after the location of the giant slalom events in the 1984 Winter Olympics and invokes the inspection of the piste by the skier prior to launching into the competition.
15. Emil Rottmayer – Open
The song introduces us with a very playful, echoing synth and a simple drum pattern. The effect is best heard in headphones, produced extremely well in stereo. Let this sink in, turn it up, wrap your mind in it. Then once the bass kicks in, you'll lean back in your chair, put your hands behind your head and say, "oh, yes!" This masterpiece is downtempo and instrumental, but very satisfying in how rich the sound is, perfect driving music for cool summer nights.
16. TimeCop 1983 – Back to You feat. The Bad Dreamers
TimeCop 1983 does a phenomenal job capturing the combination of a heartbreak relationship theme and the atmosphere of post-sunset, driving as the lights streak past your windshield driving music. Shadows, echoes, memories. This is a breakup song and he’s doing his best to get over it, but still trying to find his way back. This song uses an enveloping synth swirl, pulling you in with an aural drone, the glow of the night sky, helping you sort it all out and find your way.
17. Kim Petras – Close Your Eyes
Honestly, I could just play the introductory “close your eyes” repeatedly, in the darkest of rooms, on a surround sound system, while I lay on the floor in the middle of it as it swirls amongst my spirit. The percussion in this song is persistent and commanding, with synth work that grabs you and pins you down. Kim Petras is in control here, you are at her whim. She will devour you and there is nothing you can do about it. Don’t fight her power, just close your eyes.
18. Nina – Sleepwalking
One of the standout albums of the year, Nina’s Sleepwalking really brings a breath of fresh air to the synthpop genre. Her vocal performance is relaxed yet projects an impressive range and complexity. Are we dreaming? The rise and fall of the emotion throughout, accented by the dynamics of the arpeggiation and layering of multiple synth sounds is captivating. This is one of those songs that you don’t want to stop. With each play, Nina holds us tighter, keeping us close.
19. Cloud Battalion – Storm City
Any song that starts and ends with rain falling is a song that I’m always drawn to. These are the types of compositions that can go in a multitude of directions. Here at “Storm City,” being thrust into a vulnerable open brings us into a place of memory. Once the synths come into play, we know we’re going to get a song that is completely epic. Everything about this song is thick, wet, and laid heavy. Thunderclaps, grand melodies, a soundtrack for a hero on a mission.
20. Magdalena Bay – Ghost
Synthpop for pop lovers. A pop song for synth lovers. The synths are laid thick in this track, with some unique, glitchy textures and a subdued string element that hangs out in the background of the left channel. The chords are powerful and pull you in, although there are times when they pull you in so well, it makes the vocal difficult to focus on. Perhaps that's the point if she’s feeling like a ghost. Unable to be seen, it's the other elements around her that drown her out.
21. Otha – I’m on Top
“I dance like a queen, and my dress is a dream. Oh, look at me now, I’m not coming down.” Otha has done it again. Following up her single “One of the Girls” from earlier this year, “I’m On Top” continues the momentum with this song that completely envelops you into the synth and sets you into a dancefloor grandeur that’s hard to top. What attracts me most to this track how ambitious it is both lyrically and musically while holding a nonchalant, monotone attitude.
22. SpaceInvader – Tourismo
Released at the very end of 2017, “Tourismo” by SpaceInvader is one of the gems of the instrumental synthwave scene. This is a genre that has exploded over the last few years, with underproduced bedroom projects flooding the feeds at an almost overwhelming rate. What SpaceInvader accomplishes is not just polished production, but more important is crafted compositions that are unique to hear, yet still have the retro mood everyone so badly craves.
23. Free Love – Pushing Too Hard
The twinkling of the synth in the introduction of this song is mesmerizing. It grabs your attention in a way that can't be released, and the clarity of the bassline that joins it brings an immediate focus to the song. The vocal treatment is atmospheric through its echo. I'm always a fan of the French language in electronic music, and this song is no exception. The language swap that happens in the song from French to an English chorus flows easily with the music.
24. Anoraak – Oblivion
The release of this track is a grand departure for Anoraak, who on “Oblivion,” has taken a dive headfirst into distinctly Norwegian sounding nu-disco feel, channeling the type of music that artists like Todd Terje produce. It’s that synth-heavy style with a bounce, yet the way the synths glow sound as if the northern lights are awash in the night sky while a small, yet enthusiastic crowd dances in the open air around a grand fire.
25. Fort Romeau – Pablo
If the award existed, Pablo might win the Best Arpeggiation of the Year award, because the way these synths swirl around your head is such a satisfying thing. I often talk about songs that are like a wrapper, and this is 100% what I mean by that. It's one of those lay down in surround sound kind of songs that you want to play on repeat.
26. Soulwax – Essential Three
Soulwax has really surprised me with Essential. Essential Three is a minimal masterpiece for a dark room, mostly percussive but with these echoing waves of synth adding some fantastic texture to keep the song flowing. The vocals are in French and subdued with an air of mystery.
27. Robert Parker – Silent Kiss
Yeah, it's simple arpeggiations and a drumbeat for much of it, but I can't think of too many times or places where I don't want that. The melodic synth work that overlays the arpeggiation keeps my interest. The vocal treatment has a bit too much echo for my tastes but it works. This is midnight floor filler at the modern Italo disco at its finest.
28. Chad Valley – See-Through
Chad’s singing is so clear, it’s a joy to hear such steady sound and projection from his voice. The music is very well-designed pop, with crisp percussion and glowing synth textures. The vocals are laden with catchphrases like “give it up,” “all I want, all I need,” “sometimes,” even the premise of the song, “see through it all.” With such a beautifully crafted song and vocal performance, it’s easy to enjoy.
29. Molyneaux – Closer
This is a throwback party anthem for all you ladies and gentlemen who want to get closer and get higher. Molyneaux has recaptured this style of synth music perfectly, and don't get me wrong here, because it's the classic feel that has attracted me, but now that he has mastered it, I'd like to hear it modernized with today's technology.
30. Betablock3r – Make You Happy
"Make You Happy" is a beautifully written, synth-laden pop ballad, with a steady percussive bed to keep you moving with the one that makes you smile. The piano work in the introduction is satisfying in a Bruce Hornsby kind of way, and I wish it was carried throughout the song. Perhaps next year we'll get that epic piano solo.