I’m counting down my 100 favorite songs of the year. Just a reminder that I only include each artist once on the list in order to share the love.
25 Annie – “The Streets Where I Belong”
I was resistant to Annie at first, possibly because of the diary-style lyrics about DJs, guitar players, and beauty queens. But damn did this song charm my pants off. “The Streets Where I Belong” is intoxicating, melancholic synthpop that makes you feel like you’re driving along an open road during Bruce Springsteen’s heartland synth-rock era. That melody sounds straight out of “Dancing in the Dark.”
24 ManMindMachine – “RetroFuturist”
This song title’s portmanteau “RetroFuturist” has five syllables, but ManMindMachine stretches its pronunciation out into an entire chorus. It’s a fun and memorable vocal, but don’t miss the rest of the lyrics. Lines like “Your world is dying” add a compelling arc to the song’s thumping beat.
23 Diorama – “Sensation”
Diorama’s latest album is packed full of stunning, aural details, and they seem to pop out of nowhere from behind every line of “Sensation.” There are the ricochetting electrons that blast across the verses. The robot voice that sounds like you wandered into a mind.in.a.box song. And there’s this killer line: “Where are your demons? I’d like to greet them.” It’s quite an experience.
22 Pandoria – “Crush”
What do you do when you’re an old-school EBM artist who wants to get back to making music? Rearrange the letters of your old band’s name, and add some modern-day melodies to your former sound. Thus, Pandoria rises from the ashes of Paranoid. “Crush” is the project’s debut single, and it’s a killer combination of glossy, modern-day futurepop with EBM influences.
21 Fatigue – “Slavering”
Fatigue, a dark synthpop project from Massachusetts DJ Lillian Edith Martin, made a helluva impact in early 2020 with the bouncy, energetic single “Slavering.” You can detect the influence of Swedish band Priest on this club-ready track, though Lillian adds her own fiery touch. Nearly a year later, I still love stumbling onto new discoveries from this song, such as the line, “Lusting as a slave to electricity.” I know that feeling!
20 Choir Boy – “Complainer”
“Complainer” is the standout track from Choir Boys’ second album, Gathering Swans. It’s a song about self-pity that opens with the lines, “Oh my life. What a pitiful thing to hear,” then finds Choir Boys subverting his own message with the chorus, “I’m just a complainer.” That snark, combined with the bubbly keys and Choir Boys’ cherub voice, makes the song feel maudlin and charming at the same time.
19 Rotersand – “Whatever”
“Whatever,” my favorite track from Rotersand’s sixth album, is a futurepop anthem with a squealing synthline that gives the song some serious energy. They obviously wrote it before the COVID-19 pandemic began, but these lyrics feel so consequential: “Whatever it takes me. If even it breaks me. I dare to play my part.” At the end of the chorus, Rascal croons, “I’ll be standing tall.” A powerful message to keep your head up.
18 Rein – “Dystopia”
If you ever wondered what Janet Jackson and Nitzer Ebb would sound like on the same record, look no further than “Dystopia” from Swedish artist Rein. She wields a ton of influences on her debut album, from old-school EBM chants to thumping techno beats. But the wildest surprise is that touch of mid-90s new jack swing. They all culminate perfectly on “Dystopia.”
17 Unroyal – “The Cruelest Design”
Sweden’s Unroyal was my favorite new artist of 2019 for their elegant, emotionally resonant take on modern-day synthpop. They made a surprise appearance this year on the Progress Productions 100 compilation with “The Cruelest Design,” a superb beauty that confirms the praise. Progress has yet to confirm if Unroyal has joined their roster, but it would be a perfect match.
16 Eyes Without a Face – “The Grift”
Eyes Without a Face, named after the Billy Idol song, debuted in 2020 with two songs and then promptly disappeared. Their social media accounts are gone. I hope the project isn’t dead because “The Grift” is a thundering darkwave track that’s masterfully produced and full of mesmerizing touches. I love the powerful “HUH!” that crashes the song just before the 4-minute mark.
15 Aeronaut V – “Waiting”
Aeronaut V is a new band from Finland with a dark, vibrant sound that will appeal to fans of VNV Nation and Covenant, two strong influences I hear in their song, “Waiting.” It’s an incredible track with a lot of dynamic electronic sounds flickering in the background. The lyrics are melancholic with a memorable chorus: “I’ll wait for you until the end. And it kills me. The promise that I made. I die a little every day.”
14 Scheuber/Wollank – “Burn the Sun”
Dirk Scheuber, cofounder and keyboardist of Project Pitchfork, returned to his solo project in 2020, and he’s teamed up with newcomer Danny Wollank for a promising new sound. “Burn the Sun,” one of two songs from the duo, has a tremendous beat, intense synth melody, and a dark, sensual vibe. This song is pitch black, and I worship it.
13 Toal – “Unreal World”
What an incredible voice. Toal’s vocalist Luzi Lacole is a powerhouse with the confidence and range of a trained classicist. She lets loose on “Unreal World,” the band’s massive, bombastic best. At times, she’s whispering in your ear like a Viking witch; moments later, she’s hitting incredible high notes on the chorus.
12 Nation of Language – “On Division St”
If you read mainstream music sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum, Nation of Language is the breakout synthpop star of the year. They combine sprightly, Vince Clarke synthlines with indie vocals that have been widely compared to The National’s Matt Berninger. The synths really shine across “On Division St” so of course it’s my favorite.
11 Tobias Bernstrup – “Challenger”
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was a defining moment of the mid-’80s and of my childhood. The entire world watched it explode and the seven astronauts inside die. So it’s startling to hear Tobia Bernstrup capture the moment with such playful tones and lyrics that charm: “One minute and 30 seconds, disintegrating at the speed of sound. We touch the face of God before we fall to the ground.” But there’s something extremely compelling about finding such beauty in the face of tragedy.
10 Assemblage 23 – “Epiphany”
“Epiphany” opens Assemblage 23’s ninth album with a boom, and Tom Shear says what we’ve all been thinking this year: “I just can’t take it anymore, this is killing me.” It’s a pummelling introduction to an album that finds Tom tackling socio-political issues more explicitly than ever before. Over the years, he’s shared his mental state with us numerous times, but now he sounds fed up. Who can blame him?
9 BlakLight – “Isolation”
There was no more beautiful sentiment in 2020 than this one: “Come on take my hand. Let’s dance in isolation.” The debut song from new band BlakLight is intentionally about getting through COVID, but it’s also a passionate emotion for anyone who’s ever longed for another’s touch.
8 Korine – “Fate”
“Fate” is a lovely, melancholic tune from Philadelphia duo Korine, my favorite from their phenomenal album, The Night We Raise. I adore the simple but mesmerizing synth riff and the way singer Morgy Ramone elongates the last line of the hook: “Dancing in a setting suh-un.”
7 Fonohead – “Metropolitan Child”
New artist Fonohead is a nomad. His global travels inform his songcraft, and he lays it out plainly on his incredible debut song, “Metropolitan Child.” By way of soothing, ambient soundscapes, he reflects upon a day spent exploring—coffee and cigarettes, streetlights, marble statues. I simply cannot get the sublime chorus out of my head: “These are the parts of my exciting adventure. Of being a child of metropolitan nature.” At a time when most of us are stuck at home, it’s the perfect reminder of the beauty of urban adventure.
6 Black Nail Cabaret – “No Gold”
Black Nail Cabaret’s Emese Arvai-Illes is one of the best singers in the dark scene and beyond. Her vocal acrobatics take flight on “No Gold,” a song that emphasizes messy emotions over material possessions. Musician Kristzian Arvai gives a masterclass in mixing vocals as sound—the final minute that features Emise’s mysterious yelps atop his breakneck synths is an absolute stunner.
5 Beyond Border – “Construction”
Beyond Border is my favorite new artist of 2020. You’ll hear why on “Construction,” a massive, dancefloor stomper with frenetic blasts of sound, twinkling synths, and the thickest beats of the year. But there’s a clear message to be found, too. The song delivers a catchy, unflenching chorus about our own undoing.
4 Promenade Cinema – “Nothing Nouveau”
I like my synthpop to sound epic. “Nothing Nouveau” is the epic, nearly 8-minute long centerpiece of Promenade Cinema’s second album, Exit Guides. The synthesizers swell and fall, making it feel enormous, while a ratcheting tap-tap-tap noise adds an element of tension. The song is about a performer facing negative reviews, so when Emma Barson fights back with the emotional plea, “All you hear are violins,” it feels both grandiose and intimate.
3 Empathy Test – “Fear of Disappearing”
There are so many remarkable tracks on Empathy Test’s third album, Monsters, but the song that stands out to me is “Fear of Disappearing” for the way it feels like a four-minute therapy session. From lines like “Stay close to your television tonight” to the hook, “It’s a low, lonely time to be alive,” Isaac Howlett’s words capture the emotional torment we all felt living through a pandemic (inadvertently, I suspect, as it was written before 2020, but those are the nicest kind of surprises). Lyrics aside, it’s also a lovely song with layers of throbbing synths and twinkling keys that tumble across one another, propelled by the beat of Christina Lopez’s powerful drums.
2 Kite – “Hand Out the Drugs”
The trick to writing a good COVID song is to couch your message in a clever metaphor that can stand the test of time. Kite does just that on their third outing with producer Blanck Mass. The drugs in question are the parties and good times we all so desperately crave but have been denied due to social isolation. It captures our COVID anxiety superbly. Years from now though, the drugs might mean something else we’re missing (actual drugs perhaps?). It’s a terrific, blissed-out song that finds Kite perfecting their Blanck Mass partnership, incorporating his swirling, buzzsaw electronics without losing the rich, analog sound that makes Kite feel so warm and organic.
1 Hearts of Black Science – “Servant”
I had actually forgotten about Hearts of Black Science. The Swedish duo’s last album, Signal, came out in 2015, and the project has mostly gone silent. But what an incredible reintroduction. “Servant” is a bloody epic of a song, a dark synthpop masterpiece with throbbing electronics, shoegazey guitar, media samples, and even a neon-lit synthwave breakdown in the backhalf. It’s a lot without ever feeling indulgent. Thematically, the song’s lyrics represent everything music meant to me in 2020: “I am the servant sent to you when you suffer.” It gives me chills every time I listen to it, and I can’t wait for a new full-length from this underappreciated artist.