Here’s an example of how incredibly weird 2021 truly was: On the same day I heard that ACTORS canceled their big comeback tour, EBM legends Nitzer Ebb announced a string of dates across the US. It was clear no one knew what the hell we should be doing in 2021.
For a few brief months at the start of summer, the vaccines made it seem like life would return to normal. I even went clubbing for the first time in 16 months (thrashing about to Skinny Puppy with a mask fogging up your glasses was peak 2021). Then the Delta variant hit. Fucking delta variant. In many cities, clubs that had just reopened closed again or instituted policies like limited capacity and proof-of-vaccination.
This year’s music was equally manic. Numerous artists released songs recorded during last year’s lockdown, and the themes reflected isolation and loss. Yet there was also an underbelly of hope trickling across the zeitgeist. Artists sang of joy and intimacy and of all the things we missed most. As my mood waffled between delight and despair, I found comfort in a broad stretch of music.
For the third year in a row, I present my 100 favorite songs of the year. As a reminder, I only include each artist once on the list in order to share the love.
The complete list:
100 Alien Skin – “Cold War Pop”
I can’t think of a better way to kick off this list than with the infectious “Cold War Pop” from Australian artist Alien Skin, who is former Real Life keyboardist George Pappas (of “Send Me an Angel” fame). “Cold War Pop” perfectly captures that camaraderie we experience when finding someone else who listens to dark and foreboding synthpop that originated in the Cold War era. Plus, who doesn’t love a lyric like, “I’m fixed from my headdress to my makeup, fixed with my Checkpoint Charlie eyes.”
99 BLACKBOOK – “Nobody Home”
Speaking of Real Life, BLACKBOOK’s “Nobody Home” is built on a nice ’80s riff that intentionally recalls “Send Me an Angel.” The mysterious Swiss band has developed a nice rep for composing compelling tracks about everything from the resistance to fake friends to work-life balance. They released a handful of singles in 2021, and the best is “Nobody Home,” which could be about mental illness, urban development, or pandemic-era desolation.
98 Electro Spectre – “A Different Kind of Love”
Norwegian band Electro Spectre promises to move in a more melodic direction on their long-awaited next album, which will be called Stereo Dreams. Its first single offers a superb teaser. “A Different Kind of Love” delivers that classic synthpop vibe with lush, dreamy synths and some of the most elegant vocals you’ll hear all year.
97 Cicero – “River of Lies”
Scottish-American musician David Cicero released his debut album, Future Boy, on Pet Shop Boys’ record label, Spaghetti Records, way back in 1992. He’s produced several singles since, but it’s taken nearly three decades for the follow-up album, 2021’s Today. “River of Lies” is the album’s standout track, and it’s easy to hear the Boys’ influence. Cicero’s soothing, melancholy voice resembles Neil Tennant himself. The music is wound-up energy with a big Eurodance beat that culminates into a roaring boom.
96 Elektrostaub feat. Patrik Hansson – “We Are Dreamers”
In November, German synthpop act Elektrostaub released his second album, Reliance, which boasts an impressive roster of featured singers from the dark music scene. It’s an outstanding collection of songs, but pre-release single “We Are Dreamers,” featuring Patrik Hansson of Vanguard, has stuck with me all year long for its triumphant energy and Patrik’s always charming vocals. You’ll see Patrik appear on this list a few more times.
95 MORE – “Provoked by Motions”
Swedish synthpop trio MORE turn down the tempo but crank up the gloom on their mid-2021 single “Provoked by Motions.” It’s a bit darker than what we’ve previously heard from MORE (last year’s bleepy single “Constant Loop” made my list of the best synthpop songs of 2020), but ever present is frontman Magnus Dahlberg’s terrific, melancholic voice. “Provoked by Motions” will appear on MORE’s forthcoming sophomore album, due out in the near future.
94 XOR – “Saturn Returns”
Newcomer XOR is North Carolina artist Matthew Borman, who is the bassist for the goth-tinted post-punk band Secret Shame. As XOR, he combines electronic elements with his guitars and makes the type of elegant, introspective synthpop that recalls the classics of OMD. “Saturn Returns” wallows in melancholy with lyrics like “I always spend my time thinking of somewhere else” and features some of the most gorgeous piano I’ve heard this year.
93 Italoconnection feat. Francesca Diprima – “Since You Went Away”
The bubbling electronic arpeggios of Italo disco made a big splash in 2021—you’re going to see its influence several times on this list. No one embraces the genre’s sunlit buoyancy better than Italian maestros Italoconnection. It’s in their name after all. “Since You Went Away” is my favorite track from their excellent 2021 album, Midnight Confessions Vol. 1, for its foreboding atmosphere and cinematic scope, which finds performer Francesca Diprima making a lovesick phone call in a storm.
92 MeLLLo – “Hunt You Down”
It’s been more than five years since we last heard a proper album from Greek synthpop duo Marsheaux. Bandmember Marianthi Melitsi is keeping us satiated with singles she’s releasing under her solo project, MeLLLo. “Hunt You Down,” her latest track, churns along with the same effervescent charm, and the song pops (literally) just before she dips in and out of the lines of the chorus: “Have you ever… seen the fear… in my eyes.”
91 enter:me – “This Situation”
Former deZeption lead singer, Claus L. Hansen, is the artist behind enter:me, and he’s off to a rollicking start with his first EP, Thoughts of an Ordinary Man. Standout track “This Situation” is built on a galloping beat, twinkly keys, and Hansen delivering melancholic lines like “Tell me why you sit and cry by yourself in that lonely chair.” Hansen is particularly inspired by New Order frontman Bernard Sumner, and you can hear some of Berny’s influence in enter:me’s cadences.
90 Urbandoned – “To Get There”
This mesmerizing track from German postpunk project Urbandoned introduces so many nice elements that pile up into one helluva song. It kicks things off with twinkling keys, adds a rollicking bass, then some crunchy guitar licks. By the time the desolate vocals kick in around the two-minute mark, “To Get There” has already taken off into a swirling vortex of dancefloor emotion.
89 Memoria feat. Nicklas Stenemo – “Along the Sea”
Sweden’s Kite released a handful of singles in 2020 (“Hand Out the Drugs” ranked number two on my list of the best songs of the year), but they were relatively quiet this year—they’re hard at work on EP VII. Singer Nicklas Stenemo did show up for a guest spot on this gorgeous darkwave track from Stockholm artist Tess de la Cour, better known as Memoria. Their voices sound sublime together, and the song builds to a breathtaking crescendo.
88 Fonohead – “Fighting Monsters”
Electonic musician Fonohead amps up the tempo on “Fighting Monsters,” yet still retains the sublime melodies and playful, introspective lyrics he’s become known for. “Fighting Monsters” even touches upon the type of urban details (“Just mind the gap and go ahead”) that he captured so superbly in last year’s track “Metropolitan Child.” Ultimately, it’s a far darker song about battling emotional monsters like jealousy and deceit.
87 Atlantic Popes – “Clouds and Years”
A warm waft of nostalgia permeates the tones of “Clouds and Years,” the latest single from Atlantic Popes, the German project of Alphaville cofounder Bernhard Lloyd and singer Max Holler. It kicks off with a playful set of keys, followed by Max’s wistful vocals. On the chorus, he croons, “All my life I used to ride above the skies.“
86 ee:man – “Searching My Soul”
German newcomer ee:man mines influences from across the industrial landscape for this pitch-black dance tune from his debut album, Echoes of Life. “Searching My Soul” combines a ruckus EBM beat with body music lyrics (“Body and mind… body and mind”) that results in the best kind of upbeat gloom.
85 La Mécanique – “MDMA”
I don’t speak a lick of French, so for months I had no idea what Canadian artist La Mécanique was singing about on his summer single “MDMA.” No matter. The song conveys plenty of emotional depth with its soothing darkwave aura and gorgeous melody. I finally used Google to translate the lyrics, and it’s a heartbreaking lament about someone he’s lost.
84 Somegirl – “Such a Liar”
Somegirl is Milwaukee composer Stephen Mork whose music features different female vocalists from across the world. The vocals sound cherubic on “Such a Liar,” which comes from his 2021 EP Both Sharp & Sweet, but it’s really all about that thundering beat. Stephen packs the track full of body-moving energy and mindbending sound effects that tumble all across its enormous tempo.
83 Korine – “Sunshine”
“Sunshine,” a one-off track from Philadelphia’s Korine, arrived less than a year after their monumental album, The Night We Raise, number three on last year’s best albums list. Trey Frye’s bubbly synths make “Sunshine” a summertime antidote to that album’s wintry discontent, while singer Morgy Ramone somehow finds happiness from a broken heart: “It’s all special to me, it’s all sunshine.”
82 Hallows – “All That Is True Dies”
You won’t find a more unsettling song on this list. “All That is True Dies,” from Seattle duo Hallows, envelopes listeners with menacing, ominous atmosphere. Both bandmembers Vanne and Dom sing on the track with delicate, turmoil-filled voices. Their synths create a rich, layered sound that melds into a cacophony of post-punk and synthpop soundscapes.
81 AEX – “Erebus Arise”
Two things I love: dark synthpop and Greek mythology. When the two combine, it’s like the best gift ever. Erebus is the god of darkness in Greek mythology and the subject of Danish band AEX’s “Erebus Arise” from their second album, AEon deuX. Atop a haunting, echoey synth cavern, they invoke the god with this darkened passage: “Under my bed, the shadow creatures play.”
80 A Million Machines – “In This Cell”
California post-punk band A Million Machines released a full-length album in 2021 and has already followed it up with a new single promising the next one. “In This Cell” is an irresistible blend of pulsating synths, lightly purring guitar, and a deep monotonal voice that is absolutely hypnotizing.
79 Zanias – “Untethered”
Zanias is the solo project of Linea Aspera’s Alison Lewis, a grandiose artist with one of the best voices in the dark music scene. She recorded her second album, Unearthed, during the pandemic, and every line of first single “Untethered” invokes the era’s loneliness. “Would you have left him if you’d known you’d only be alone?” she asks. The track’s ethereal soundscape pummels along a driving beat as Alison bends her voice around the lyrics, turning closing mantra “At least I know I tried” into numbing ooze.
78 PART2 – “Everything Is Here”
PART2 is a synthpop trio that’s been making music as far back as the ’80s, according to posts on their Facebook page. Yet I’m struggling to find further information about them. All I know is they’re producing a new song each month, and latest track “Everything Is Here” has a gorgeous melody with layers of beautiful synths. I’m looking forward to more music (and hopefully more info!) about this promising band.
77 Felix Marc – “Drift”
German musician Felix Marc had a massive 2020. Two projects he’s part of, Diorama and Frozen Plasma, released full-length albums. In 2021, he returned to his solo work with a pair of smart, energetic songs that will likely appear on an upcoming album. The second of those songs, “Drift,” warns of a time without humans, and there’s even a computerized voice that opens the track with this playful line: “Hi Felix, thanks for playing with me.”
76 Chvrches – “Asking for a Friend”
Scottish trio Chvrches plunder horror movies on their fourth album, a return to form following LP3’s aim-for-the-charts misfire. They invited none other than The Cure’s Robert Smith to guest on pre-release single “How Not to Drown.” But it’s opening track “Asking for a Friend” that captures that early Chvrches’ magic with an incredible build that blasts off into the empowerment refrain, “You still matter.” It’s Chvrches’ best song since “Clearest Blue.”