We did it. We made it through yet another year of COVID, tour cancellations, and mass global confusion. Fortunately, we had music to make it all bearable, though, like last year, music discovery was primarily restricted to home listening as nightlife and concerts remained iffy in most places, if not completely out of reach in others. Here’s hoping next year sees some return to normalcy.
As I was reviewing all of the albums that arrived in 2021 and compiling this list of my favorites, one of the things that immediately stood out to me was the number and quality of debut albums this year. They’re up there at the top of the list, ahead of many seasoned vets. I don’t know if pandemic isolation finally convinced secretly talented artists to finish the albums they’ve long dreamed about, but I am grateful for them. It proves that synthpop and all its many offshoots are finding fresh blood.
I hope you discover something below that you love as much as I do. I’ve included links to Spotify so you can sample these artists, and I’ve provided links to Bandcamp so you can invest in their futures. As always, if you do discover any artists on this list that you particularly love, I encourage you to purchase their music or merch.
Thank you for joining me on this year-end recap and for reading my blog. See you in 2022 for another year of synthpop. I’ll continue to promote new music, mostly on Friday release days, and list my favorite tracks at the end of each month.
- Best new synthpop artist of 2021: Cold Connection
- The year in synthpop cover songs
- 10 best synthpop music videos of 2021
- 100 best synthpop songs of 2021: 100 to 76
- 100 best synthpop songs of 2021: 75 to 51
- 100 best synthpop songs of 2021: 50 to 26
- 100 best synthpop songs of 2021: 25 to 1
25 Elektrostaub – Reliance
German futurepop act Elektrostaub is music producer Patrick Knoch, who taps third-party singers to provide vocals for his songs. The impressive guest list he’s assembled for his second album, Reliance, is a who’s who of the dark music scene: Henrik Iversen of NamNamBulu, Patrik Hansson of Vanguard and Uncreated, Stefan Netschio of Beborn Beton, Alex Rush of Unity One, and many others. While the voices may change from song to song, Patrick maintains a consistent sound of fiery electronics and energetic beats. He’s at his most anthemic on my favorite cut, “We Are Dreamers,” while Norderney’s Jan Dieckmann turns in a nice vocal performance on “Futurism” that closely resembles VNV Nation’s Ronan Harris. Futurepop is alive and well.
BEST TRACKS: We Are Dreamers, The Answer, Loneliness
24 Daniel Hall – Human
Australian musician Daniel Hall has much to say about the world around him, so he sets his thoughts to innovative synthpop on Human, his 15th studio album and darkest to date. On the desolate “Feeling Low,” he bemoans the impact of COVID-19 on his beloved country. He sings of corrupt politicians on album standout, “Corruption,” a dark, bitter lament that is one of my favorite songs of the year. And on “The Fireman,” he pays homage to firefighters who battled Australia’s historic 2020 bush fires. Listening to Human is like having a conversation with Daniel down at the pub about the state of things and how they’re making him feel.
BEST TRACKS: Corruption, The Fireman, The Watcher
23 Chvrches – Screen Violence
Scottish trio Chvrches make a remarkable return to form on Screen Violence, their fourth full-length album. Screen Violence succeeds because the band made two important decisions: They self-produced instead of bringing in a third-party producer like Greg Kurstin who steered LP3 straight for pop radio mainstream, and they adopted a tightly focused theme that examines the intersection of horror movie tropes and the online cesspool. Songs like “Good Girls” and “He Said She Said” challenge misogyny and gaslighting, while “Final Girl” examines the horror movie trend of the final woman left alive. Even Darkwave legend Robert Smith shows up for a very Cure-sounding “How Not to Drown” about overcoming anxiety. I am very pleased to see Chvrches back on track.
BEST TRACKS: Asking for a Friend, How Not to Drown, Nightmares
22 j:dead – A Complicated Genocide
J:dead is not the first artist to combine warm synthpop melodies with aggressive beats and the type of screamy vocals that used to be confined to the scene’s angriest bands, but he’s certainly mastered the art of it. It helps that he has a gorgeous voice capable of pulling off multiple artistic styles and delivering rich emotion. The title track from A Complicated Genocide, his debut full-length, opens with guttural yells that ultimately lead to an infuriated chorus—it’s j:dead at perhaps his angriest. But I really love his softer moments. “Out of My Mind” is wonderful electropop, and last year’s dulcet single “Feeding on Me” is by far my favorite track from the album.
BEST TRACKS: Feeding on Me, A Complicated Genocide, Out of My Mind
21 Fragrance – Salt Water
French artist Fragrance makes throbbing dance music that lies somewhere in a desolate, smoke-filled void between synthpop and the mysterious, hypnotic electro that is the trademark of record label Synth Religion. Salt Water, the follow-up to his 2019 debut, Now That I’m Real, sees him take his sensual songcraft deeper—literally, it seems, as the album has a nice running theme about the sea. Opening track “Forevermore” is an absolute banger, and energetic track “Bind Me Up With Your Flesh” is ready-made for dark, lonely dancefloors. But one of the album’s best moments comes from last year’s “Crisis,” which contains the album’s best line: “You will dance your pain away.” That could be my mantra.
BEST TRACKS: Crisis, Bind Me Up in Your Flesh, Forevermore
20 The Saint Paul – Core
I can think of no greater praise than making a comparison to Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy,” one of the best synthpop songs of all time. German electro band The Saint Paul achieves that distinction on a song called “Viktor” that is inspired by a transgender fan who talked to them after one of their concerts. “Viktor” is not the only person to make an appearance on Core, an album ultimately about human existence. Across mostly mid and high-tempo BPMs, we also meet a superficial man who lives a superficial life on the track “Superficial,” and on the very timely “Triage,” a healthcare worker is forced to make split-second decisions about people’s wellbeing.
BEST TRACKS: Melancholy of the Sun, Triage, Viktor
19 Gary Numan – Intruder
It’s almost hard to believe that synthpop pioneer Gary Numan is still putting out great records 45 years into a fascinating and highly influential career. His latest, Intruder, continues a string of concept records. This outing finds him giving voice to our battered and bruised planet—nearly every song on Intruder is sung in the first person from the planet’s POV. The songs are not as instantly memorable as the tracks from previous album Savage (Songs from a Broken World), which also found inspiration in climate change. But he finds a broader sound palette and changes up the tempo more frequently, moving away from that fast-slow-fast formula that’s become somewhat of a crutch. There are moments of genuine rage. The title track cuts deep: “I could listen to you scream. Pretty music to my ears.” But Intruder is at its best when Numan gets sentimental: “Can you hear me?” he pleads with mankind on the maudlin “I Am Screaming,” and later on “Now and Forever,” he sings “I’ll be in your heart forever.”
BEST TRACKS: I Am Screaming, Now and Forever, Intruder
18 Ghost Twin – Love Songs for End Times
Ghost Twin’s Karen Asmundson has a startlingly beautiful voice and a baroque singing style that puts her in a class of truly gifted singers. She could do anything she wants with that voice. What a blessing that she’s chosen to use her voice to make delightfully charming synthpop tunes, an innovative combination that results in beautiful tracks like the radiant “Blue Sunshine” and the uptempo jam “Babes in the Wood.” That alone should be enough to satisfy any ears craving fresh sounds, but there’s more. Husband Jaimz joins her on vocals to provide remarkable contrast and even takes lead on the powerful track “Become Control.”
BEST TRACKS: Become Control, Blue Sunshine, Babes in the Woods
17 Kanga – You and I Will Never Die
LA-based electro artist Kanga makes throbbing industrial-darkwave that serves as a foundation for her graceful, delicate vocals. On second album, You and I Will Never Die, her sound continues to evolve beyond the abrasive electronics of her debut album, which drew comparisons to Nine Inch Nails. She’s effervescent on “Godless,” which features a bubbling synthline, though Kanga can still deliver hard, sinister electronics on a track like “Moscow.” For me, the standout track here is “Violence,” which finds Kanga singing “Do you like what you see, all this violence in me?” across a high-tempo metallic beat.
BEST TRACKS: Violence, Moscow, Godless
16 Piston Damp – Making the World Great Again
Danish/Norwegian newcomers Piston Damp made their debut in 2021 with a collection of songs that are best described as exuberant. They really go for it with a big, vibrant sound that never falls short of anthemic. Album highlight “Hearts on Fire,” for instance, is an energetic thumper with a bombastic spoken-word bit full of echoey reverb that transforms the song into a ripping KLF-like anthem. That’s one of many touchpoints I detect rolling around in their classic synthpop sound. The DM-flavored “Don’t” has a big honking hook: “We usssssed to be,” while the single “Runaway” recalls the great modern synthpop band Mesh. Piston Damp find ways to stand out though, particularly in their use of media samples that include an actual testimony on the song “Testimony,” creepy laughs straight outta Dark Side of the Mood, and a strange Radiohead-like bit about god and electronic devices on mid-album weirdo “Factor Out.”
BEST TRACKS: Hearts on Fire, Making the World Great Again, Something in Me
15 BlakLight – Into the Void
California band BlakLight wasted no time following up last year’s incredible debut—and they reportedly have enough tracks already written for album three. Into the Void is the perfect title for their sophomore album. They leap headfirst into the emotional turmoil of these neverending COVID times with intellectually honest lyrics (a chorus like “we must adjust… reset and evolve” should be this year’s rallying cry) and composer Adam Collier’s pulsating blips that have become his signature. Their sound though is anything but stagnant. This time around, they’ve added moderate guitars to the mix that increase the tension on “Nightmares” and come close to sounding like a synthpop flamenco on the love-it-or-hate-it “Vampires.” Brian Bellknap’s distinctive vocals and songwriting chops really shine on the singles “Crack” (another poignant lyric for our mask-wearing days: “My disguise begins to crack”) and on “World,” which finds him harmonizing with guest vocalist Magnus Dahlberg from the band MORE. If BlakLight keeps up this pace, they could easily become one of the best synthpop bands in the world.
BEST TRACKS: Nightmares, Reset, Crack
14 Nuovo Testamento – Human
You won’t find a stronger pair of singles this year than the opening tracks from Nuovo Testamento’s debut full-length New Earth. “Michelle Michelle” and “The Searcher” are bubbling, sing-along infections with energetic sounds mined from ’80s Italo disco. The hooks on these two tracks are monster earworms that are instantly memorable. The backhalf of the album skews a bit rawer and darker, reflecting the trio’s background in underground darkwave bands, but still processed through a glistening ’80s sheen.
BEST TRACKS: The Searcher, Michelle Michelle, Electricity
13 Solar Fake – Enjoy Dystopia
I don’t know who pissed off Solar Fake’s Sven Friedrich, but he’s got some choice barbs for them on Solar Fake’s latest studio album: “I just want you out of my mind” and “You’re desperate for attention,” among many others. Enjoy Dystopia is a title that seems ready-made for the COVID era, but I gotta hand it to Solar Fake. While so many other artists lament the loneliness and isolation of our end times, he’s composed 11 dynamic and mostly aggressive tracks that capture what it’s like spending too much time together. The results are bleak. Standout track “This Pretty Life” pretty much sums up our last two years: “This pretty life, you’ve faked it. So that you’ll nеver be left alonе.”
BEST TRACKS: This Pretty Life, At Least We’ll Forget, I Despise You
12 The Mobile Homes – Trigger
Under normal circumstances, I might have written off The Mobile Homes. Most bands that have been around as long as they have—they formed in 1984—become legacy acts, coasting on old classics or trying to capture long-forgotten greatness. (I would name names, but last time I used the dreaded L-word, the band’s fanbase came for me.) The Mobile Homes skillfully overcome the legacy bin with an outstanding collection of modern, mature songs on Trigger, their seventh album and the band’s first full-length in 11 years. Trigger is all gloomy romance swollen with melancholy and regret—one of its most memorable songs is called “Once Upon a Time I Was Handsome.” Its ten tracks are the work of seasoned veterans. Last year’s sublime “Mirror” piles on stuttering electronics, while opening track “Via Dolorosa” delivers effortless cool. There is simply not a bad song on here.
BEST TRACKS: Mirror, The Sorrow Stays for Good, Via Dolorosa
11 Nation of Language – A Way Forward
I don’t know what I expected indie darlings Nation of Language to do for their second album, but it definitely wasn’t this. They sought inspiration from electronic music’s earliest pioneers, bands like Kraftwerk and Neu!, and attempted to recreate the limited sounds of their primitive synthesizers. The results are blips and bleeps that feel somewhat minimalist, but when their songs light up with energetic flourishes, they make magic. “Wounds of Love” is a lovely mid-tempo roller that finds frontman Ian Devaney’s deep voice crooning, “Can I ever get past the wounds of love? Nooo. Nooo. Nooo.” And the rollicking “This Fractured Mind” is the best track they’ve produced yet.
BEST TRACKS: This Fractured Mind, Across That Fine Line, Wounds of Love
10 Cold Cave – Fate in Seven Lessons
Cold Cave has built its brand of synthified darkwave on hopelessness and despair, couched in self-deprecating lyrics like “When you see me you should run and hide.” The project has undergone a poignant transformation, brought on by Wesley Eisold’s embrace of love and the start of his family. Fate in Seven Lessons is his love letter to that transformation and at times plays like a lullaby to his son, Rainer. The album’s best moment is “Night Light,” which finds Wesley repenting for past mistakes and whispering “I love you”s across a bouncy, ebullient New Order beat. Rainer himself shows up on “Love Is All,” talking quietly about flowers and closing the song by playing harmonica. If you’re unmoved by that, there’s no hope for you.
BEST TRACKS: Night Light, Love Is All, Promised Land
9 Odonis Odonis – Spectrums
Genre is ultimately meaningless, even on a site like mine that often deviates well beyond the traditional synthpop sound of its moniker. But genre does serve as a nice starting point, a signpost directing music lovers toward sounds they’re craving. Canadian duo Odonis Odonis trample all over that possibility, breathlessly hurtling from one genre of music to another. That a melodic synthpop gem like “More” appears on the same album as a peak-Ministry screamer like “Get Out” is either ridiculously insane or a deliberate understanding of music history or both. Other tracks on Spectrums might be categorized as noise, techno, EBM, post-punk, drone, and other styles far beyond my knowledge base. At times, the arrival of shredded guitars on “A Body” for instance, I’m not even sure I’m listening to the same band. What Spectrums lacks in cohesion, it makes up for in startling soundscapes and innovative songcraft. This is an album that delivers many times over, making repeat listens a wide-ranging pleasure.
BEST TRACKS: More, Trust, Shadowplay
8 Clicks – G.O.T.H.
Confession time. A few years ago, I started putting orthopedic inserts in my boots before I went out dancing to keep my poor aging knees from aching. So the concept behind G.O.T.H., the 2021 album from Polish music project Clicks, feels especially relevant to me. G.O.T.H. is an acronym that stands for “Getting Old, Tired, and…” He suggests you fill in the H yourself. The album takes aim at the aging goth subculture—he even riffs on Nitzer Ebb’s famous question “Where is the youth?” on the hilariously titled track “Every Bloated Muscle.” It’s all very cheeky and terrific fun. “Clicks.Dead” contains a clap-along beat and self-referential lyrics about hitting number one on the German DAC chart, while album highlight “I Dream” longs for hope and possibility across a head-bopping beat.
BEST TRACKS: I Dream, Clicks Dead, Mr. Nevergonnabe
7 Imperative Reaction – Mirror
Imperative Reaction’s first new full-length in ten years is so much more than a comeback album. Mirror is the culmination of a decades-long career that’s seen its share of electro styles. They all collide here superbly in a collection of well-crafted songs that feature a cohesive theme about dependence and personal identity. Straightforward synthpop tunes like “Glass” and “Intertwined” take cues from Depeche Mode, while frontman Ted Phelps ratchets up the aggression on “Like Swine” with harsh vocals, a pigs-in-filth metaphor, and an absolutely bonkers synth staccato.
BEST TRACKS: Glass, Intertwined, Like Swine
6 Tobias Bernstrup – Petrichor
Italo disco made a remarkable comeback in 2021, but no one carries its torch quite like Swedish artist Tobias Bernstrup. He celebrates the genre’s bubbling electronic arpeggios and playful lyrics on his sixth studio album, Petrichor, named for the smell that frequently accompanies the first rain following a dry spell. The album was one of the year’s best before it was even out. Petrichor’s four pre-release singles hinted at greatness, particularly last year’s stunning “Challenger,” with its undeniably catchy lyrics about the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The album’s unreleased tracks are no less impressive. “Staring” skips along a synth stammer, and my personal favorite cut, “I Am Become,” fires laser blasts across a thumping beat as Tobias sings of world-crushing transformation.
BEST TRACKS: I Am Become, Challenger, Only One
5 ACTORS – Acts of Worship
Vancouver quartet ACTORS double-downs on their status as frontrunner in the ongoing post-punk revival. Their exquisitely produced sophomore album, Acts of Worship, proves every bit as enjoyable as their debut, and in some respects surpasses it. More of Shannon Hemmett’s vocals and gleaming synths is always a good thing—she particularly shines on pre-release sparklers “Love U More” and “Like Suicide.” Yet ACTORS is one of the most Democratic bands—every member is crucial to its sound. The rhythm section, for instance, turns “Only Lonely” into a funky jam, and Jason Corbett’s guitar licks and production skills ratchet up the energy of “Killing Time (Is Over),” an absolute banger that is my favorite cut from the album.
BEST TRACKS: Killing Time (is Over), Like Suicide, Love U More
4 Video L’Eclipse – Predicts
There is no greater joy than stumbling onto a new band so good you want everyone to know about it. With Swedish band Video L’Eclipse, I feel like I’ve discovered an uncharted planet. Though the project formed in 2019 and has dropped a couple of singles, they just released their debut album this year, a collection of warm, analog sounds, Cold War beats, and one of the best new voices I’ve heard in quite some time. Singer Jonas Peterson’s low grave mesmerizes with heartwrenching depth. Predicts is a slow-churning marvel that comes to a moving climax at its two closing tracks, “Overmann” and “Just in Case,” a pair of boldly epic songs that include droning sound effects and, on “Just in Case,” female backing vocals that lend comparisons to peak-era Pink Floyd. The first half of the album also charms. “Luna” practically sparkles with glistening synthlines, while “Beyond Poetry” ramps up the tempo a bit with a stunning chorus. I literally cannot stop telling everyone I know about this band.
BEST TRACKS: Luna, Just in Case, Overmann
3 Pixel Grip – Arena
For people who belong to queer and alternative communities, the nightclub is so much more than a place you spend your Saturday night. It’s a respite from “normal” society, a safe haven where you can be your true self, and a place to find your chosen family. Chicago trio Pixel Grip pay tribute to the unique glamour of queer and alternative clubs on their second album, Arena, a dizzying collection of high-wattage, genre-defying jams. Listening to Arena is a lot like going to a club—”Alphapussy” heralds the unmitigated swagger of strutting past the bar, “Club Mania” cranks up the energy of the dancefloor, while “Play Noble” slows things down for hazy, chill-out moments on the couch. In what’s been a challenging year for nightclubs as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sow uncertainty, it’s nice to be reminded of how much we value our safe spaces. Arena is everything we love about club life.
BEST TRACKS: Club Mania, Alphapussy, Pursuit
2 Beyond Border – Awakening
Beyond Border inject fresh blood into the dark music club scene with the type of wide-eyed optimism and propulsive sing-along anthems I haven’t heard since futurepop’s peak. The German duo’s intriguing blend of thick, club-friendly beats and thought-provoking lyrics will likely draw comparisons to VNV Nation, but careful listens to Awakening, their debut album, should conjure further influences, particularly the harder-to-classify sounds of Neuroticfish. Every track on Awakening warrants a spot on DJ playlists, but highlights for me include last year’s frenetic stomper “Construction” and this year’s forward-thinking anthem, “What Makes the World Go Round,” my favorite song of the year.
BEST TRACKS: What Makes the World Go Round, Construction, Simplify
1 Cold Connection – Seconds of Solitude
It should come as no surprise that some of the tracks from Cold Connection’s debut album have been in the works for ten years or longer. They sound displaced from time, as if they could have been made during synthpop’s heyday in the ’80s or during the genre-hopping streaming era of today. Swedish musicians Daniel Billqvist and Pontus Olsson craft delicately made songs that incorporate cold, mechanical beats, menacing electronics, and emotionally resonant vocals. Album opener “Save Me Now” establishes the band’s Depeche Mode-influenced sound, while “Memories” and first single “Burning Love” deliver some of the album’s catchiest lyrics. Album highlight “Trocadero” showcases the band at its best, a spectacular marriage of music and vocals that convey loneliness in wartime and beyond. Seconds of Solitude is by far one of the best debuts in recent memory and the best synthpop album of 2021.
BEST TRACKS: Trocadero, Burning Love, Memories