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:
25 VH x RR – “Somewhere In Time”
American synthpop act VH x RR seems like they’re on the verge of making it big. The duo, comprised of music producer Von Hertzog and former Cause and Effect lead singer Rob Rowe, has cranked out a handful of songs that sound polished and mature, the work of master songwriters. “Somewhere In Time” is superb melancholy with intelligent lyrics and compelling arrangements. It remains my favorite song they’ve released so far, but I suspect that will change as their body of work grows.
24 Piston Damp – “Hearts On Fire”
I love the origin story behind newcomers Piston Damp. The Danish/Norwegian duo is comprised of musical arranger/keyboardist/songwriter Truls Sønsterud and singer/songwriter/producer Jonas Groth, whose brother is kind of a big deal: Stephan Groth of Apoptygma Berzerk. They got their start fooling around in Apop’s studio while Stephan was on tour. “Hearts On Fire” is a furnace blast of energy from their debut album, Hearts of Fire, that shows off the duo’s superb melodies and use of media samples.
23 The Mobile Homes feat. Johan Renck – “The Sorrow Stays for Good”
Long-running Swedish band The Mobile Homes returned in 2021 with an excellent collection of romantic synthpop called Trigger. There are many beautiful sentiments on the album, but final single “The Sorrow Stays for Good,” which features guest vocals from Swedish director and musician Johan Renck, delivers that touching blend of melancholy and regret that is basically my sweet spot.
22 Third Realm – “Castaway”
Morbid Attitude almost didn’t happen. Third Realm’s Nathan Reiner intended to release the songs as singles but decided to collect them as a full-length, which likely explains why there’s such a wide variety of styles found on the album, from dark pop to EBM. Opening track “Castaway” captures that old-school futurepop magic with trance arpeggios and melodic vocals. It’s the album’s best track.
21 Spectres – “Tell Me”
“Tell Me” is one of those oddball album closers that sounds almost nothing like the songs that precede it. It’s as if Vancouver band Spectres, who typically trade in the type of guitar-based post-punk rooted in the sound of Joy Division, decided to skip ahead on the influence timeline, taking on the sound of follow-up band New Order. It’s an absolute delight with melancholic lyrics about a romantic entanglement and a bassline that would make Peter Hook proud.
20 Imperative Reaction – “Glass”
For his first album in 10 years, Imperative Reaction’s Ted Phelps is reflective, taking a close look at himself, his past, and especially his relationships. “Glass” is the album’s thematic anchor, a riveting synthpop jam with irresistible electronics and this catchy chorus: “I can see you, but I can’t reach through the glass.”
19 NOPRISM – “Pantherbeat”
New Order’s influence looms large across this year’s list. You can hear their joyous boom all over this track from English band NOPRISM, whose previous singles rarely ventured this dark. “Pantherbeat” piles on layers of stammering synths atop a thundering beat, and the hook is a catchy jam: “Your heart stops, your body shakes.” There’s a big breakdown at the midway point where the synths blast off into twinkling madness. I love everything about it.
18 Solar Fake – “At Least We’ll Forget”
It doesn’t get more cutting than “You want destruction, so kill yourself instead.” That’s just one of several angry missives from Solar Fake’s Sven Friedrich on an album that also includes other choice lines like “I really despise you bad enough not to fuck it up” and “This is what you get, I wish we’d never met.” Someone really pissed Sven off! Yet he delivers the insults with such melodic grace and enchanting sounds.
17 Daniel Hall – “Corruption”
Australian synthpop artist Daniel Hall is prolific—he’s on his 15th album. His latest, Human, is his darkest yet, and “Corruption” is the album’s enigmatic highlight. The track combines dark beats, sinister electronics, and plainspoken vocals that form a pitch-black sound perfectly suited to the song’s subject matter about corrupt politicians and businessmen.
16 Clicks – “I Dream”
Perhaps the best word to describe the 2021 album from Polish music project Clicks is cheeky—he practically thumbs his nose at the aging goth scene. “I Dream” is the album’s surprising sentimental centerpiece, that unexpected moment when he cuts the jokes and contemplates the futures we expect for ourselves and the dreams we have. It’s a straightforward synthpop song with an enormous amount of charm.
15 Tobias Bernstrup – “I Am Become”
Swedish artist Tobias Bernstrup wears many hats. Performance artist. Synthpop musician. Cultural commentator. He’s practically an epic poet on “I Am Become,” a track from his towering 2021 album, Petrichor. On the chorus, Tobias delivers some of the year’s most colossal lines: “I am become love, destroyer of worlds,” while the music finds a nice rolling groove in the reunion between house music and Italo disco.
14 Ashbury Heights feat. Massive Ego – “One Trick Pony”
Ashbury Heights’ Anders Hagström is as much known for his classic style as his shrewd songwriting. But perhaps he’s not always as confident as he appears. “Being who I am is terrifying,” he reveals on their best 2021 single, “One Trick Pony.” It’s a superb study of dichotomy, the eternal conflict between our shy, unassuming personas and the glittering artists we want to unleash.
13 White Mansion – “Cancel the Sky”
Arkansas band White Mansion has been on my radar since they released their debut album, Human, in early 2020. Their only 2021 single, a mesmerizing cut called “Cancel the Sky,” catapults them to the top of my must-hear list. It’s everything I want from music. Hypnotizing beat. Sinister electronics. Deeply dramatic lyrics that pose thoughtful questions like “You said you’d die for me. Why won’t you live for me?” Their second album is coming next year, and I can’t wait.
12 Video L’Eclipse – “Beyond Poetry”
Video L’Eclipse is a new band from Sweden that might just be the most underrated artist of the year. I admit I have somehow overlooked them despite that their music is a carefully crafted brand of melancholy that I devour, but I’m happy to rectify my mistake now. “Beyond Poetry,” the best of the unreleased tracks from their phenomenal debut album, showcases the band’s enthralling, mid-tempo sound and a voice that cuts through your chest.
11 Odonis Odonis – “More”
My initial reaction to hearing “More” from Canadian band Odonis Odonis was so overwhelming that I scooped up everything else I could find from the project. It’s an absolute stunner of a song, a tour de force of dark synthpop with classic verse-chorus-verse structure and exquisitely produced sounds. It turns out that “More” is a bit of an outlier in the band’s noisier catalog, but I didn’t let that deter me from diving into this wildly compelling band.
10 ACTORS – “Killing Time (Is Over)”
It’s impossible to pick a favorite cut from ACTORS’ phenomenal second album, Acts of Worship. But “Killing Time (Is Over)” is a feat of production that showcases frontman Jason Corbett’s gifts behind the boards. He carefully weaves in layers of sounds, fusing guitar licks with keyboard riffs with powerful vocals. From the chorus of “inch by inch” to Shannon Hemmett’s shouts of “HEY!” this track lives entirely on another level of songcraft.
9 Vanguard – “Ragnarök”
Swedish synthpop duo Vanguard is Jonas Olofsson and Patrik Hansson, making his third and final appearance on this list. They released an absolute banger this year called “Ragnarök,” named after the great battle in Norse mythology that leads to the end of the world. They use the myth as a solid metaphor for our present-day global annihilation, and honestly, I gotta give these guys credit for turning a rocky word like “Ragnarök” into a sing-along chorus.
8 Cold Connection – “Trocadero”
Swedish duo Cold Connection is my pick for best new synthpop artist of 2021. They make cold, mechanical synthpop inspired by the genre’s greats like Depeche Mode and Rational Youth, but they do so in a way that sounds modern and mature. “Trocadero” captures that magic superbly. The song, which takes origin from both France’s Palais du Trocadéro and the Spanish Battle of Trocadero, flits across a pulsating beat, while singer Daniel Billqvist performs compelling vocal runs all over the track. “Join the Trocadero,” he whispers, then softly coos “landscape of sadness.”
7 Nation of Language – “This Fractured Mind”
Brooklyn indie synthpoppers Nation of Language wasted no time following up last year’s breakthrough album. In 2021, they cranked out a handful of new tunes, including this krautrock-inspired song about disenchantment and wish fulfillment. “This Fractured Mind” is all twinkling synths and nervous jitters. It is the best song they’ve produced yet.
6 Czarina – “Atomic: Ad Initivm”
It only took American artist Czarina two songs to rocket into the upper echelons of modern dark music. Though she’s been honing her craft for years, she infuses such mythic grandeur and unadulterated talent into her 2021 singles that she commands the attention of everyone in earshot. “Wonderland” is her valentine to her adopted home of Galicia and best synthpop video of the year, but for me “Atomic: Ad Initivm” is her crowning achievement (thus far). It’s all bombastic energy, full of sweeping electronic flourishes and Czarina delivering a mindblowing vocal performance, partially in Latin. I can’t wait to hear what she does next.
5 Pixel Grip – “Club Mania”
Chicago trio Pixel Grip is all unmitigated swagger on this ode to nightlife. Composers Jonathan Freund and Tyler Ommen deliver a blast of frenetic beats that somehow get even bigger as the song progresses, while vocalist Rita Lukea belts out a roaring, spoken word vocal performance almost too fast to be decipherable. Listen closely for choice lines like “Snap your neck just to watch me walk up in the place” and “Take a break like a Kit Kat candy bar.”
4 White Lies – “As I Try Not to Fall Apart”
London band White Lies has been steadily morphing into a synthpop project for years. Early post-punk tracks like “To Lose My Life” have given way to more synthesizer elements in songs like “Tokyo,” which is all ’80s inflected new wave. “As I Try Not to Fall Apart” might be their most synth-driven song yet. Its undeniably catchy lyrics are driven by a sparkling synth riff. I for one love this direction.
3 Nuovo Testamento – “The Searcher”
By now it’s beyond clear that 80s nostalgia is never going to end, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Artists continue to find untapped aspects of the era to exploit, and Nuovo Testamento does just that on their infectious summertime earworm “The Searcher.” They mine Italo disco plinks straight out of the rollerskating rink. Just one listen, and you’ll have “I I I don’t want to see see you” stuck in your head all day.
2 Cold Cave – “Night Light”
At about 40 seconds into “Night Light,” the music comes to a complete halt for an uncomfortably long pause, then blasts off into a bouncy New Order-esque beat. It’s pure bliss and possibly my favorite music moment of 2021. Los Angeles darkwavers Cold Cave somehow manage to make music about love and family (inspired by frontman Wesley Eisold’s newfound happiness) without sacrificing the band’s sinister edge.
1 Beyond Border – “What Makes the World Go Round”
In many respects, the world came to a sudden halt when the COVID 19 pandemic happened. As we were forced into isolation, our cultural outlets shuttered, and we lost the special places that get us through the day-to-day grind. German duo Beyond Border, last year’s best new synthpop artist, understands the importance of nightclubs, dance music, and the intimacy that can only be found on a night out with your friends. “What Makes the World Go Round” lifts you up with a thick, feel-good beat and a wondrous tone captures those feelings marvelously. It’s impossible not to feel inspired by this track, and for that, it’s my song of the year.