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:
75 Fix8:Sed8 feat. Emke – “Tremors”
Virtuoso singer Emese Arvai-Illes of Black Nail Cabaret, credited here as her solo project Emke, provides guest vocals on this track from German electro-industrial artist Fïx8:Sëd8. The album it comes from concerns a person experiencing psychiatric trauma, and Emese embodies the voice of that character. Her gorgeous yet delicate vocals add a nice twist to Fïx8:Sëd8’s aggressive sound, and the result is a flittery, creepy vibe.
74 Electronic Frequency – “My Own Kingdom”
German electro band Electronic Frequency released a handful of singles in 2021 that showcase the band’s style of pummelling EBM beats, fiery futurepop electronics, and slightly distorted vocals. “My Own Kingdom” hits hard with its instantly memorable chorus: “I live my life in my own kingdom.”
73 Denial Waits – “Tumbleweed”
“Tumbleweed” kicks off with a funky, head-shaking beat, but it’s the rapid-fire vocals and glitchy electronics that reveal Denial Waits’ true calling. They’re bringing trip-hop back. The mostly down-tempo electro from their debut EP recalls the hypnotizing sound made famous by bands like Massive Attack and Portishead, though final song “Tumbleweed” ramps up the tempo.
72 Lucy Dreams – “Silver Lines”
Austrian band Lucy Dreams don spacey personas and perform a kind of dreamy synthpop that’s equal parts fun and sensual. Their 2021 track “Silver Lines” is the lead single from their upcoming debut album. It starts off with a pleasant melody, then cuts the beat at the half-minute mark for a delicately delivered vocal: “The power you… the power you need to prove the golden move.” I love little unexpected moments like that in songs, and I’m looking forward to more from Lucy Dreams.
71 Beat Noir Deluxe – “What She Could Not Tell”
Italian musician Sascha Giacomuzzi, the artist behind Beat Noir Deluxe, takes influence from darkwave, synthpop, and other related genres. Near the end of his 2021 single “What She Could Not Tell,” a track he originally recorded 20 years ago and has completely reworked now, he introduces knob-twisting sounds that feel almost psychedelic. The final song sounds mysterious and hazy, awash in compelling sound layers. There’s also a nice Rotersand remix of this track built for dancefloors.
70 Fragrance. – “Bind Me Up With Your Flesh”
French electronic musician Fragrance., one of my favorite new artists of 2019, followed up his hypnotic debut with another album of deep, sensual songcraft. There are many spectacular moments on Salt Water, but high-energy cut “Bind Me Up With Your Flesh” ramps up the dancefloor with a thumping beat and playful keys.
69 Glass Spells – “Shattered”
California band Glass Spells marry echoey synthwave sounds with strong pop songcraft. “Shattered,” the title track of their 2021 album, finds vocalist Tania Costello delivering ’80s inflected melodies that could have soundtracked a John Hughes movie. Its most memorable line: “Dream of me… in all the colors.”
68 Priest – “Let Your Body Go”
The enigmatic Swedish band Priest is teasing a high-energy sound for its third incarnation. Previous album Cyberhead featured a calmer sound in keeping with the Covid era, but “Let Your Body Go” signals a return to the dancefloor. The track is an energetic, club-friendly banger with a thumping EBM beat and techno elements. Bring on Priest 3.0.
67 Vellocinate – “What Remains”
New York artist Vellocinate tramples all over the post-punk arena, combining guitar and synths into a deeply compelling brew of dark music. “What Remains,” from their 2021 album titled Remains, is a truly mesmerizing song with layers of rich, warm synths and Matthew Wasilewski’s melancholic vocals about long nights and empty houses.
66 Scheuber – “Mindflux”
There’s a lot to report this year from German electronic musician Scheuber. He left longtime band Project Pitchfork, making Peter Spilles the band’s sole remaining original member, and released his latest solo album, Numb. Album highlight “Mindfllux” is full of swirling electronic noises and Scheuber singing contemplative lyrics about sensory experiences: “Deep inside… numbed in velvet light.”
65 unitcode:machine – “Falling Down”
American act unitcode:machine is carrying the electro-industrial torch. In 2021 album, he unleashed his latest album, Themes for a Collapsing Empire, which finds frontman Eric Kristoffer struggling with personal tragedy in the midst of a global pandemic. “Falling Down,” the album highlight for me, pummels your ears with thrilling electronics and an insanely catchy chorus.
64 f.o.d. – “Last Day”
German synthpop trio f.o.d. has been making music since 2002. Their albums tend to split songs between German and English, and their excellent 2021 release Mensch Macht Maschine is no different. “Last Day,” one of the English tracks, showcases the band at their best with catchy lyrics, a thumping futurepop beat, and compelling electronics.
63 Ravenous – “Roots”
German electro band Ravenous returned in 2021 after a lengthy hiatus with a new song called “Roots” that appeared on a collection of unreleased tracks and rarities from the Ravenous archive. “Roots” is a solemn, mid-tempo track stretched across a dark, menacing beat. The production from producer Gerrit Thomas, also of Funker Vogt and Eisfabrik, is sharp, bursting with electronic flourishes, but it’s Tim Fockenbrock’s lovely, somber vocals that lend the otherwise EBM-flavored song with a dark melancholic vibe.
62 Winterbeach – “Playing Dead”
Winterbeach is a wildly underrated Norwegian trio whose name suits their sound. They make ice-cold Nordic synthpop embued with harmonious melodies. On “Playing Dead,” from their 2021 album of the same name, lead singer Tiam exhibits a dynamic range that reminds me at times of Mesh’s Mark Hockings and, during the chorus, of Peter Gabriel. By the end of this dramatic banger, he’s backed up by a lovely children’s choir that adds further depth.
61 J:dead – “A Complicated Genocide”
J:dead is the solo project of Jay Taylor, who has a long history as a live drummer for a number of synthpop and electro bands from Tactical Sekt to Harmjoy. That experience serves him well in j:dead, which blends influences from across the dark music spectrum—he can deftly switch from soothing synthpop vocals to aggro yelps, and he has the vocal chops to pull it off. He shows off all his talents, even a thrilling drum solo, in “A Complicated Genocide,” the title track from his outstanding debut album.
60 Rüfüs Du Sol – “On My Knees”
Australian dance act Rüfüs Du Sol are known for making energetic dance music that whips music festival crowds into a state of euphoria, but they go real dark on this single from their 2021 album, Surrender. “On My Knees” is built on a throbbing beat with electronic riffs that sound like an elephant’s trumpet and brooding lyrics that find frontman Tyrone Lindqvist singing the refrain: “Looks like I’m on my knees again. Feels like the walls are closing in.”
59 Dead Astronauts – “She Haunts Me”
Seattle band Dead Astronauts released a handful of singles from their 2021 album, Silhouettes, but album cut “She Haunts Me” remains my favorite track for its unsettling staccato synthline and its melancholic vocals about a former lover he’s done wrong. “She haunts me, so I know what’s real” is a deeply depressing lyric that fills this song with rich emotional resonance.
58 Kim Lunner – “The Chosen One”
In 2020, Norwegian artist Kim Lunner released his debut album, This Is Me. He quickly followed that with a compelling new single called “The Chosen One.” It’s a mid-tempo number with swirling trance arps that are the hallmark of futurepop, but Kim stretches out his vocals into a strong synthpop melody with melancholic ambiance.
57 Veil of Light – “The Prayer Wheel”
Swiss coldwave duo Veil of Love is known for melding influences from across the post-punk landscape, and their fifth album, Landslide, does just that. Album standout “The Prayer Wheel” features a catchy synthpop melody reminiscent of early New Order with darkwavey atmosphere and tremendous, strutting percussion.
56 Wingtips – “Repetitive”
Chicago darkwave duo Wingtips completely upended their sound on second album Cutting Room Floor, going for a minimalist, broad pop sound that barely resembles the densely layered, gothic electro of their previous LP, Exposure Therapy, my third favorite album of 2019. So It’s a bit ironic that my favorite track is called “Repetitive,” something they staunchly avoided. I can’t help being drawn to the song’s pummeling percussion and the dark articulation of the vocals: “Cut, cut the time we grind, grind, all day and night, night.”
55 A Projection – “Darwin’s Eden”
The reverbing synth chords that open A Projection’s “Darwin’s Eden” fill this song with dark, foggy atmosphere. The track is the first new song from the Swedish band since their 2019 album, Section, and hopefully a sampling of a forthcoming full-length.
54 Unify Separate – “Dying on the Vine”
Unify Separate is a Scottish-Swedish duo comprised of ex-Geneva singer Andrew Montgomery and Lowe frontman Leo Josefsson. Their music combines elements of science fiction themes and social commentary, which you’ll find in abundance on 2021 single “Dying on the Vine.” The track opens with pulsating synths that give way to a thumping beat, while the song’s allegoric vocals touch on the troubling need for validation online.
53 BlueForge – “Break It Down”
German synthpop duo BlueForge embraces a hard rock direction on their second album, Soul Rockets. There are heavy guitars present in second single “Break It Down,” which has a bit of a post-Wilder Depeche Mode vibe when they embraced bluesy guitars. Yet BlueForge retains the catchy melodies and of course singer RooDee’s deeply romantic voice.
52 Creux Lies – “Misunderstanding”
Creux Lies blew me away the first time I heard “Misunderstanding,” the lead single from their 2021 album, Goodbye Divine. Unlike other post-punk bands I’m drawn to, ACTORS for instance, their organic instruments often take lead over my beloved synth lines, but the synthesizer parts are the driving force behind “Misunderstanding,” putting it in the company of dancefloor fillers from the likes of Clan of Xymox and Drab Majesty. It doesn’t hurt that singer Ean Clevenger drops his voice into a deep, gothic rumble that cuts through the fog.
51 Halsey – “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God”
Pop star Halsey tapped NIN sound gods Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to create unsettling soundscapes for their concept album about patriarchy and motherhood. It skips through genres like a particularly skittish Spotify playlist (at one point, Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham plucks a lullaby on his guitar), but the real gem for us synthheads is “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God.” The NIN team graft Halsey’s vocals onto a throbbing beat that would feel right at home on Pretty Hate Machine.