It’s behind us, and a new year has begun. The year of 2020 was one that upended norms and affected lives in ways both positive and negative, giving new perspectives and priorities, but was also drastically polarizing and taught us a lot about people we know (or thought we knew).
Many of us have, for the most part, remained home this year. Music has been our escape from reality; sound helps us travel, albeit sonically, while we have been unable to travel otherwise.
So many artists, unable to tour or perform live, instead redirected those energies into creating new sounds. The synth-filled tracks that were released over the year were plentiful and numerous, and I wish I had the time to provide a deep dive into it all. Nonetheless, what is gathered for you here are the songs that I believe both meet aural expectation and achieve a reach that make them the need-to-knows of the past year. These are tracks that were released from December 2019-November 2020. We’ll catch December 2020 a year from now.
These tracks are not all inherently “synthwave” or ”synthpop,” as I take a wholistic sound approach to this genre, not status or structure, but seek influence that traces roots from synth influence across the board. This is a lot of influence, and provides for a wide-eyed and exciting format. The music and influence herein is also what provides a foundation for Indie Discotheque; we bring you not just this Synth chart, but the Disco/Funk and Indie Dance charts as well.
Take time to enjoy and explore the sounds below, and feel free to explore the Spotify playlist if you want to dive into this sound even more.
1. Jai Wolf - Moon Rider feat. Wrabel
The way “Moon Rider” builds is an absolutely epic experience in the right context. This is one of those tracks that need to be on high volume; you will want to feel the synth. Jai Wolf's repetitive up-pitched sample that accompanies the introduction is an instrumental that you might you sing in your head for months on end, and Wrabel’s vocal is both passionate and heartfelt.
2. Surf Mesa - Somewhere feat. Gus Dapperton
Subdued guitar accents and bells push forward into a tempo that screams danceability. The processing of Gus Dapperton’s vocal pairs beautifully with the stabbing synth textures. I love the acoustic nature of Surf Mesa's percussion in “Somewhere.” There is nice vocal layering across the track, with compression applied that creates a warbling effect to the backing synth textures.
3. Amtrac - Radical feat. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs
Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs’ voice should be in more demand. He has really embraced this subdued, chill vocal vibe in the last year, and “Radical” grabs ahold of this tone in a fantastic manner. Amtrac has crafted an atmosphere with heavy Circa-2000 Underworld influences. This is by far my favorite track on this year's release, Oddyssey, which was featured in April.
4. Cubicolor - Wake Me Up
The soundscape presented in the introduction immediately conjures images of water rushing through a forest, and the organ soothes as it sets the harmonic tone for the vocal. The upper register of Tim Digby-Bell’s vocal is a both soft and powerful vocal to the atmosphere created in “Wake Me Up,” a Cubicolor song that maintains focused serenity as textures are peppered throughout.
5. The Midnight - Deep Blue
The music of The Midnight always comes with an undeniable level of momentum, and “Deep Blue” meets that mark, with its beautiful, balanced vocal and synth. Tim Daniel McEwan’s vocal pushes through with inflection and phrasing that defines the band’s songwriting. And of course, a hit from The Midnight wouldn't be the same without a clear, projecting saxophone solo.
6. Slow Magic - Somewhere feat. Woven in Hiatus
Slow Magic has a way with music that for whatever reason I’ve never been able to pinpoint. I don’t like everything this project releases, but then a track like “Somewhere” comes along. Perhaps it's the addition of Woven in Hiatus, or the twinkle of the synth that makes its way across the track. Whatever it is, this is a beautiful track that deserves to be on this list.
7. Voyage - Aura
Chill synth keeps dominating. It’s unstoppable. And music from projects like Voyage are going to keep the genre moving forward. The pulsation in the introduction of the track is one of those moments that make you want to turn it up as loud as it can go. Once the beat kicks in, there is no turning back. The atmosphere created is a place you won’t ever want to leave.
8. Sovate - In My Heart
This might seem elitist and whatever, but chances are I’ve been following Sovate and the progression of this project longer than you have. I am so unbelievably proud to include this track in this year's best of synth list. You have no idea. It’s an absolutely gorgeous track, which follows the chill synth trend. Well done, my friend. Looking forward to what’s in the pipeline.
9. Emil Rottmayer - L.E.V.E.L
The synth work in “L.E.V.E.L” is bouncy and layered. The overlap of sounds keeps building as the track progresses, and Emil Rottmayer creates an atmosphere that surrounds as your eyes close and you find yourself swept away into a new level of being. This is one of those tracks that has both simplicity and complexity.
10. Washed Out - Too Late
It’s never “Too Late” to sit back and listen to a new track from Washed Out, and this mellowed out ballad has such an atmosphere, with layered vocals that echo across beautifully orchestrated synth harmonies, pulsating bass tones, and percussion that ties it all together.
11. Tensnake - Somebody Else feat. Boy Matthews
While Dagny (our #12 track of the year) is singing about somebody, Boy Matthews is singing about “Somebody Else.” I didn’t expect this track from Tensnake, but I love this synthpop side of the project. It’s beautifully produced with some great synth work, and I’m excited to hear more like it.
12. Dagny - Somebody
The synth work in this pop track from Dagny is so dreamy. It fully engulfs you in the moment, reminiscing of new experiences with others in the most personal of ways. This is a track with momentum and a vocal that pulls you into the moment. You never feel this way with somebody.
13. A.L.I.S.O.N - Always in My Dreams
What’s a synth chart without the music of A.L.I.S.O.N? This is chill synth at its finest, a project that always delivers and brings a fully enveloping sound to the ears, and a stand-alone composition that is both memorable and one you’ll find swirling in your mind for days.
14. WhoMadeWho & Adana Twins - Immersion
We’re shifting back into a bit more pop-ish realm with one of this year’s releases from WhoMadeWho, the legendary remixers and curators of the last couple of decades. These guys have always had an amazing taste for alternative dance, but their work with Adana Twins brings forward the synths and they create some beautiful sounds together.
15. Roosevelt - Sign
I’m glad this is the track Roosevelt made available to everyone on Soundcloud, and I wish more artists, including Roosevelt, would open their catalogs beyond the paywall. “Sign” is an amazing work, with a melody I find myself singing unexpectedly; “come back and give me a sign with your love.” This track builds in a way that really pulls on the emotional strings.
16. Georgia - 24 Hours
Right now I know the party people are seeing the light. I wish 2020 offered us the opportunity to enjoy the crowded floors and the beats. Hopefully 2021 will find us some relief, because right now life is just not the same. Our hearts are taken until we can begin again. Georgia knows we can take this 24 hours at a time.
17. Alpha Room - Skydive
Alright, you have me figured out, I like chill synth with beats. Alpha Room has this for us with “Skydive,” a track that includes some fantastic brass sounds during the break in the track. It’s not enough! I’d love to hear more artists explore brass instrumentation, because I think it works really well with the genre.
18. Grum - Running feat. Jindau
I had my fingers crossed for this Grum album. I’m one of those old school die-hards who fell in love with Grum during the Heartbeats era, and have been generally disappointed since he dove headfirst into progressive trance. “Running” gives us a taste of the classic Grum, with pulsating bass and tingling arpeggiation.
19. Nina - Automatic Call
“Automatic Call” is a late 2019 release, but definitely still qualifies as one of my favorite releases of the year. The work Nina has released has been nothing short of spectacular, and the title track from the album is beautifully crafted. The synth work pulls at the heart, along with Nina’s passionate vocal performance.
20. Forhill & Youth 83 - Into Dust feat. Tima
This is the combination. Can I say, “WOW!?” Wow. From Tima’s vocal, to the merging of sounds with Forhill and Youth 83, this is part pop and part chill synth. This is where the genre needs to go. More! More! The percussion is clear and pronounced, providing momentum. Take notes everyone, “Into Dust” is a fresh look at the genre.
21. Marie Davidson - Renegade Breakdown
“This time I am exploring the loser’s point of view; it’s a ‘Renegade Breakdown.’” There’s an almost Pink Floyd aspect to this masterpiece from Marie Davidson. I am in love with the way she approaches the lyric and presentation of vocals. The music structure provides well complimenting accent synth, and the momentum across the song is unstoppable.
22. Brothertiger - Livin’
Why doesn’t Brothertiger get more attention? The songwriting he brings is always absolutely tops, with synth layering and soundscape that you simply don’t want to escape. It’s not just the unbelievable production of instrumentation, it’s also vocal processing and mixing. This guy is an absolute master. Please spread this music; its beauty needs to be shared by all.
23. Goldroom - Do You Feel It Now? feat. Love, Alexa (Nicolaas Remix)
If I could name a “remixer of the year” it would be Nicolaas. I keep waiting for him to push original music, but these remixes are absolutely to die for. Did I think a Goldroom track could sound like this? No. Absolutely not. And I’m a huge Goldroom fan. If you’re not already a Nicolaas fan, you will be now.
24. Limon Limon - Long Distance
Another amazing project that has pushed forward in 2020 is Limon Limon. “Long Distance” is the synthiest of the music the project has released this year, but all of the music is fantastic. I’m a big fan of this vocal style, and it pairs really well with the arrangements presented in the band’s songwriting.
25. Mint Julep - Stray Fantasies
This was an early release this year, but an important one. There is hardly a track on Stray Fantasies that you won’t want to hear again. The title track is just as deserving as any on the album; Mint Julep is a wife and husband duo who create this beauty from their living room. We featured how their music is made earlier in 2020.
Here’s everything in a playlist: