25 Chromatics – “You’re No Good”
Chromatics surprise released a new album called Closer to Grey (the biggest surprise was that it was not long-promised album Dear Tommy). The album opens with a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” but it’s second song, “You’re No Good,” that really kicks off the album’s cinematic scope. Singer Ruth Radelet’s airy vocals make this song feel like it was recorded in a dream.
24 Rroyce – “Parallel Worlds”
There’s a clever little synth noise in this song that sounds a bit like a horn. It’s my favorite part of “Parallel Worlds,” which was the lead single from Rroyce’s latest album, Patience. I quite like the rest of the song, too, especially its catchy chorus: “You just can’t imagine how it feels.”
23 Grendel – “Fire & Light”
“Fire and Light” may just be the most straightforward synthpop/futurepop song Grendel has ever recorded. It’s got a pretty catchy chorus with some nice imagery perfectly suited to a night out at the goth club: “Dancing in the cold night, we’re bringing the fire.” And yet, when you listen to the song within the context of the entire album, you begin to fully appreciate the message Grendel’s making here. We are living in the crumbling of civility, but we can get through these difficult times if we just keep dancing and moving forward. The song’s ability to stand on its own and become something else entirely as part of a cohesive works makes it feel really special.
22 Operators – “Faithless”
At one point near the end of this sprawling 6-minute plus song, Dan Boeckner sings “Come take your place among the living dead.” Wait, what’s this song about? Essentially, it’s lamenting the fact that we’ve become mindless, capitalist drones who’ve lost anything real to live for. We’ve become faithless. That’s fucking bleak. The theme doesn’t exactly match the fast-paced tempo and vibrant synths of the music, but that’s exactly what gives this song its power.
21 Iris – “Take the Pain”
Iris made a welcome return in 2019 with their sixth studio album, Six, an album that has its fair share of amazing songs, including lead single, “Third Strike.” I am most drawn to “Take the Pain.” The track features Martin Gore-esque lyrics that could be construed as S&M (that’s probably not what it’s about), but it also has the fastest tempo on the album and an insanely simple, catchy chorus (it’s just “Take the pain” over and over) that’s going to give this song real longevity.
20 Drab Majesty – “The Other Side”
Los Angeles darkwave aliens Drab Majesty released a dreamy, mesmerizing collection of genre-defying songs called Modern Mirror. “The Other Side” is the album highlight and its most upbeat track. It has a prominent synthline that twinkles throughout and easily the catchiest hook on the entire album: “Why should I just walk away for you to come around another day?”
19 HEALTH – “Feel Nothing”
I live for contrasts. Something dark, something light. Something sweet, something naughty. Something loud, something soft. No one in the entire world of modern music does contrast quite like Health. Their music consists of chugging industrial noise offset by the lithe, delicate vocals of lead singer Jake Duzsik. “Feel Nothing” piles on hard, and it delivers one of my favorite lines of the year: “We didn’t choose to be born under a dying sun. Just let us cool the burn.”
18 The Faint – “Quench the Flame”
“Quench the Flame” is built on a progressive house beat, but it’s the John Carpenter-style synthline and the quietly delivered vocals that make it feel right at home on this list. According to the notes at Bandcamp, the album it’s from is about “modern society, the internet, and ego — specifically social media and its dark effects,” which kinda puts the song into perspective. Maybe we should stop using social media to set everything on fire.
17 Agent Side Grinder – “Allisin Sane”
This song absolutely goes for it with a massive, propulsive beat that would be a monster in a club. The synths and reverbing vocals swirl all over like flashing lights. And the thing is, it’s not even the best track on Agent Side Ginder’s outsanding album, A/X. “In From the Cold” and “Stripdown” were both released as singles in 2018 so I can’t include them here.
16 The Present Moment – “New Day (In Another Dimension)”
There’s not much to “New Day (In Another Dimension).” Steady beating kick-drum. Simple little synthline that changes pitch a few times. The warm, comforting voice of Scott Milton with just a bit of reverb. It all feels very clean and tidy, and it comes together to create an absolutely monumental synthpop song. This track feels like pure joy, a sharp contrast to the somewhat foreboding warning of the bridge: “Follow your heart, things fall apart.”
15 Erotic Elk – “The Living Pain”
Erotic Elk released only 1 song in 2019, but what a stunner. The chorus, “Ooooh, living without you. Ooooh, it’s the living pain,” seems simple enough, but there’s so much romanticism and emotion behind it that gets carried along by the thumping beat and the high-pitched synthline. I’m not sure what to make of the news media samples at the end — at one point I’m pretty sure I hear President Trump saying “America.” That final moment gives the song an entirely new perspective.
14 Model Depose – “Blackstar”
I absolutely adore songs like “Blackstar.” You can’t quite tell if it’s a softly drawn ballad or an electro powerhouse. “Blackstar” is somehow both, and it’s a feat that Model Depose pulls off by piling on more and more layers of sound as the song steadily builds. By the time they get to the chorus a full 3 minutes in, there are so many sounds working together, this song has reached full epic status.
13 Cold Cave – “Promised Land”
It feels like I’ve been listening to “Promised Land” for years. But it actually came out in February 2019, the only song Cold Cave released this year. Perhaps it’s because the melody and backing vocals are very reminescent of Sisters of Mercy. Cold Cave are really wearing their influences on their sleeves here. Literally. The album cover is nearly identical to 1990’s Vision Thing.
12 Boy Harsher – “Come Closer”
You have to see Boy Harsher live to understand just how analog their sound is. There are no glowing Apple logos on stage. Lead singer Jae Matthews uses 2 mics, her standard one and another mic that looks like an old-school CB radio she uses to make the high-pitched, echoing screams that stab your ears throughout “Come Closer” and many of their other songs. It is an incredible experience.
11 All Hail the Silence – “Talk”
I’m probably overthinking this, but there’s something really promising about trance pioneer BT starting a synthpop project. He’s not fucking around either. They asked none other than Vince Clarke to remix one of their songs, and they’re currently on tour opening for Howard Jones. To be honest, “Talk” is an outlier on the album. Its melancholy tone and downright depressing lyrics don’t match the more upbeat, mainstream sound of the other songs. So don’t expect this band to burning up your local goth night. Still, if modern-day EDM, which has grown pretty stale, moved in this direction, I wouldn’t be mad about it.
10 Lust for Youth – “Great Concerns”
The opening verse of “Great Concerns” sums up 2019: “In times of great concerns, what will it take? A flood over Europe, a fist in the face, or what?” The song makes a sudden shift in the chorus that transfers the political to the personal: “It hurts my eyes to see you walking by yourself.” I could sit and ponder that for hours. Fortunately, this is a catchy, beautifully wrought song that makes repeat listens a joy.
9 Fragrance. – “Gone In a Wink”
I keep wanting to make comparisons to Fragrance: TR/ST, Pet Shop Boys, Perfume Genuis (I think that last one’s just because of the names). But none of them really seem to convey the unique and creative sounds you’ll hear in Fragrance’s song, “Gone In a Wink,” that opens his debut album. The playful synths that initiate this song and the thumping bass make the track feel both bright and dark. And damn, is it a deeply sensual song. There are definitely people doing it to Fragrance.
8 Massive Ego – “My Religion Is Dark”
The lyrics may be a bit too on the nose — it’s practically begging to be a goth anthem. But “My Religion Is Dark” actually lives up to its promise. This is an absolutely bloody epic of a song that I could dance to all night long. Marc Massive delivers his vocals from the depths of hell, but it’s those “HAH! HAH! HAH! HAH!” moments that set the song on fire.
7 T.O.Y. – “Silent Soldiers”
There’s something magical about the way German band T.O.Y. are able to create synthpop tunes that are simultaneously gentle and electric. It’s a combination of singer Volker Lutz’s soothing voice and the emotions that they’re able to wrench out of the synthesizers. In 2019, T.O.Y released a single called “Silent Soldiers” that captures that magic brilliantly. This song is halfway over before the beat begins in earnest, but it’s already conveyed so much.
6 Wingtips – “After the Storm”
Chicago darkwavers Wingtips have released 3 excellent singles from their debut album, Exposure Therapy, and it’s kinda surprising that “After the Storm” is not one of them. This song has underground club hit written all over it, from its high-tempo BPM to the clapping high-hats to that bomb chorus: “When you see me, you won’t hear me. But after the storm you’re bound to understand what I see.”
5 Unroyal – “We Play Remain in Light”
This is synthpop how it should be! Unroyal is a Swedish duo who debuted in 2019, and their music sounds timeless, polished, and emotional. All 4 tracks from their debut EP, Rest in Songs, are fantastic, but my favorite is “We Play Remain in Light,” an uplifting song about how we bond over music, in this case, the famous album by Talking Heads.
4 Mordelin – “The Balance”
Mordelin is a brand new synthpop duo from England who released their debut this year, a brilliant collection of 5 songs that feature interplay between male and female vocals. Every song is excellent, but first track “The Balance” is nothing short of a synthpop masterpiece. It is awash in atmosphere driven by a dark, sexy beat, but it’s the unexpected changes throughout that take this song to another level. The little synth motif that drops at the 3:30 mark may just be my favorite music moment of 2019.
3 Felix Marc – “Lost in Grace”
Felix Marc has been honing his craft for nearly 2 decades as a member of Diorama and Frozen Plasma, and on 4 solo records. “Lost In Grace” is the best song he’s ever recorded, a lofty feat. Everything he’s ever toyed with comes together on this one exquisite track, the media samples, swirling synths, and a stunning vocal delivery that gives us one of the most astute lines of the year: “All is lost in grace. I’m tired of the human race.”
2 Body of Light – “Time to Kill”
By the time I saw Body of Light open for Drab Majesty over the summer, their new album had been on heavy rotation in my headphones. Its title track, “Time to Kill,” is an absolutely infectious piece of synthpop with a throbbing beat and a sinister hook. It’s impossible not to sing along, and watching singer Alex Jarson jump up and down on stage while belting it out was one of the musical highlights of my year.
1 TR/ST – “Gone”
Take everything that’s great about TR/ST: the bizarro lyrics, pulsating electronics, that voice. Then make his most accessible pop song yet. The results represent modern synthpop at its finest. Dark and melancholic but relatable. Anthemic but offbeat. A song that evolves with every listen. On first blush, “Gone” seems to be a standard breakup song. But pay greater attention to lyrics like “Days like this I’m slime, I am motionless in the bedroom,” not to mention place it in the context of a 2-part album about shame and self-destruction, and you start to mine greater depth. Is it really about a lover who’s gone, or has he lost his ability to love at all? I’ve listened to “Gone” hundreds of times, and every single time I discover something new.