I’m counting down my favorite synthpop, futurepop, and darkwave songs of 2021. As a reminder, I only include each artist once on the list in order to share the love.
The complete list:
50 Uncreated feat. Mark Hockings – “Hand Grenade”
Swedish musician Patrik Hansson has already appeared once on this list once for his guest turn on Elektrostaub’s track “We Are Dreamers.” Here he is on the other side of the booth as the creative mastermind behind his solo project, Uncreated. He’s enlisted Mark Hockings, the unmistakable voice of Mesh, for a powerful track called “Hand Grenade” that’s an explosive metaphor about interpersonal turmoil. You’ll see Patrik one more time on this list.
49 Mildreda feat. Cyan – “Blame It on the Moon”
Belgian project Mildreda gets most often compared to electro-industrial greats like Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly, but “Blame It on the Moon” is practically a Covenant song. Its forthright, Eskil-like lyrics and futurepop effects add a dancefloor dimension to the crunchy beats and psychological turmoil of Mildreda’s second album, I Was Never Really There.
48 Ultra Sunn – “Silver Smile”
Belgian duo Ultra Sunn belongs to the same school of minimal synth music as bands like Boy Harsher and Linea Aspera, but they overcome the comparisons with an extremely danceable sound. “Silver Smile,” a delightful darkwave track from their Body Electric EP, showcases the band at their best, deploying dynamic rhythms, horny synth lines, and Sam Hugé’s insanely smooth vocals.
47 The Rain Within – “We Are They”
The horror movie complex served as a thematic backdrop for a number of albums this year (most notably, Chvrches), but The Rain Within’s Andy Deane embraces it more fully than anyone else on his latest album, Horrorshow. He builds dark, disconcerting atmosphere on every track, covering subject matter that could soundtrack classic scenes. The menacing “We Are They” feeds mistrust and paranoia, forcing us to contemplate becoming our own enemy.
46 Unroyal – “Victoria Square”
Swedish duo Unroyal is one of my favorite new artists for their elegant, emotionally resonant take on modern-day synthpop. In 2021, they officially joined the Progress Productions roster and began teasing their sophomore album, which is due out next year. “Victoria Square,” our first taste of the album, layers dreamy synth lines atop a romantic storyline about an internet couple planning to meet IRL in London.
45 Kanga – “Violence”
Los Angeles-based electro artist Kanga released her sophomore album this year, You and I Will Never Die, a 12-track collection of throbbing darkwave featuring Kanga’s graceful, delicate vocals. “Violence,” my favorite track from the album, starts off slowly with hazy, Middle Eastern sounds that crash into a high-tempo metallic beat, while Kanga coos on the chorus: “Do you like what you see, all this violence in me.”
44 Neuf – “Silicone Suit”
Swedish band Neuf, named after the cruel nine card in a tarot deck, makes music that evokes the memory of timeless, classic EBM and industrial from the likes of Front 242 and DAF. Their just-released debut album, Electroacoustical Murder, contains a single called “Silicone Suit” that captured people’s attention earlier this year. “Silicone Suit” is a seductive, mid-tempo romp with a slinky beat and frontman Svante Englund’s defiant vocals about a destructive relationship.
43 Llumen – “The Dark in Her Eyes”
Belgian electro act Llumen makes densely layered electro with cold, steady beats and emotionally charged lyrics. His second album Polygon Heart, recorded after a serious health crisis, was preceded by “The Dark in Her Eyes,” an eight-minute opus of dark, thumping electro with melancholic lyrics and sinister melodies.
42 Danny Blu – “Predator”
“Predator” is the first single from New York artist Danny Blu’s next album, which should be coming next year. The dark pop song showcases Danny Blu’s pop and industrial sensibilities and how he deftly blends the two—at times, his vocals reach highs that sound like none other than Michael Jackson, and those HEYs are reminiscent of The Weeknd.
41 The Foreign Resort – “Send Your Heart to the Riot (Creux Lies Remix)”
I don’t typically include remixes on my best-of lists, but I’m making an exception for The Foreign Resort’s “Send Your Heart to the Riot” because Creux Lies has reimagined the song as a synthpop sparkler, and, to be perfectly honest, I missed it the first go around. “Send Your Heart to the Riot” comes from a collection The Foreign Resort released this year called OutRemixed that features several post-punk artists remixing the songs from their 2019 album Outnumbered.
40 Love & Revenge – “With Love You See”
Love & Revenge is a new side-project from Rascal, the unmistakable voice of Rotersand, and Axel Ermes from Girls Under Glass. The darker, beat-driven project has thus far produced eight songs across two EPs, and my favorite of those is “With Love You See,” which offers an inspiring message about embracing love over hate.
39 Devours – “Feckless Abandon”
Vancouver artist Devours makes chaotic, chirpy synthpunk that’s equal parts weird and sentimental. He’s at his most accessible on tender ballads like “Grape Crush” and “Two Kids,” but my favorite moment from latest album, Escape From Planet Devours, is the fist-in-the-air triumph of “Feckless Abandon.” Atop a bomb house beat and sketchy electro, he declares, “I refuse to live my life like a victim.” It’s the empowerment anthem of the year.
38 Gary Numan – “I Am Screaming”
Synthpop pioneer Gary Numan released his staggering 18th studio album this year, furthering a late-career renaissance. Much of his recent work follows a hard-soft-hard formula he borrows a tad too liberally from Trent Reznor, but “I Am Screaming” is a mid-tempo track that starts slow and builds as the drama intensifies. Like the other tracks on Intruder, it’s told from the POV of our battered and bruised planet, and I love the idea that she’s screaming to be heard.
37 FORM – “You”
German super-producer Rob Dust makes the kind of upbeat, life-affirming electronica that I adore. He’s going to be all over this list, probably behind some songs I’m not even aware of. He’s a full-fledged member of the multi-national synthpop trio Form, who released their second album this year. “You,” the album’s first single, combines aggressive beats with synthpop song structure and singer/songwriter Mark Bebb’s vibrant vocals.
36 Nightcrawler feat. Maxthor – “Fire Within”
Spanish musician Nightcrawler, a pioneer of the synthwave scene, typically makes dark synth thumpers that employ movie samples or John Carpenter-style synth motifs instead of vocals—that’s not always my thing. But on the feisty “Fire Within,” he employs another Spanish artist, Maxthor, to provide vocals and guitar, which gives the track dark pop structure, making it very much my thing. If that’s not enough, Nightcrawler’s pipe-banging clanks ratchet up the song’s industrial menace.
35 The Saint Paul – “Melancholy of the Sun”
The latest album from German electro band The Saint Paul is an excellent collection of dark, energetic synthpop called Core that explores what makes people tick. Its centerpiece is “Melancholy of the Sun,” a deeply philosophical track that features a seismic beat and lyrics that encompass the cosmos: “Molecules linked by chemicals mixed with energy and dust of stars.”
34 Ghost Twin – “Become Control”
The secret sauce behind Canadian duo Ghost Twin is the uncanny combination of Karen Asmundson’s baroque vocals and husband Jaimz’s love of industrial music. They probably think of “Become Control,” from their 2021 album Love Songs for End Times, as a Jaimz song—he even takes lead vocals. It is a fucking maelstrom. Swirling electronic layers clamor all over its thumping beat, and I love every second of it.
33 XP8 – “Back to Light”
Long-dormant futurepop duo XP8 made a surprise return in 2021 with a pair of songs created to mark the band’s twentieth anniversary. But don’t get too excited. The new tracks are apparently a one-time-only thing, and there are no further plans to release more music. It’s too bad. “Back to Light” is a much-needed blast of techno-infused energy into dark nightlife.
32 Rotersand feat. Evendorff – “Grey”
German band Rotersand released “Grey” all the way back on New Year’s Day, and it’s been in my heavy rotation since. “Grey” has dark, trance-inducing beats and mysterious layers of electro that sound virtually nothing like the music of their previous album, How Do You Feel Today, which had arrived just months earlier.
31 Aesthetic Perfection feat. Isaac Howlett – “Save Myself”
Aesthetic Perfection’s Daniel Graves and Empathy Test’s Isaac Howlett are long-time friends who have collaborated on an unexpected synthpop delight. “Save Myself” is a lovely, introspective duet stacked atop a fiery futurepop beat with warbling Aesthetic Perfection electronics. It’s just one of twelve songs Aesthetic Perfection produced this year as part of his “12 Songs in 12 Months” project.
30 Leathers – “Reckless”
Leathers is the solo project of ACTORS keyboardist Shannon Hemmet and a vital opportunity to let her glossy synths and sleek vocals take center stage. Her charming, dreamy single “Reckless” has a cinematic scope brought to life by melancholic synthlines that rise and fall across its beat. When she sings, “You don’t have to be so cruel,” you can imagine the drama that led to that line.
29 The Distant Minds – “Bedlam”
I’m new to The Distant Minds this year, so all I know about them is that they are a British project that’s pumped out a handful of singles since 2014. I became an instant fan the first time I heard “Bedlam,” which has a bomb house beat and distinct New Order vibe to it. The Distant Minds is planning to release their debut album next year, and this is definitely a band to keep an eye on.
28 In Good Faith – “Rising”
There are a handful of singers making multiple appearances on this list thanks to guest spots and multiple projects. Kai “Iggi” Németh is one of them. Before he became the voice of Beyond Border, last year’s best new artist, he was the frontman of German band In Good Faith, which has been making propulsive synthpop since 1998. It’s easy to see why Kai is in such demand—he commands a regal voice that’s powerful and comforting. The spectacular track “Rising” was In Good Faith’s only new song this year, but you’ll see Kai again.
27 Current One – “Inside of Me”
I haven’t actually done the math, but I suspect Sweden is the best-represented country on this list. At this point, I’m convinced every Swede has a secret synthpop project. Current One, for instance, is an unknown Swedish artist that’s been tinkering around with music as far back as 1994, but he’s just now starting to release finished songs. “Inside of Me” is his best track yet, a bombshell of a song full of syrupy synth riffs and dynamic vocal changes.
26 BlakLight – “Nightmares”
Barely two years into their existence, California synthpop band BlakLight has already honed an incredible gift for capturing the zeitgeist without being too obvious about it. Last year’s “Isolation” served as a mantra of sorts for the first year of the pandemic, while this year’s “Nightmares” is an apt metaphor for post-Covid confusion. “I’ve been waiting for another day,” Brian Belknap speaks for us all on a chorus that ultimately concludes with “The nightmares, they are here to stay.” If Covid sticks around much longer, I can’t think of a worse nightmare.