Summer 2021 is upon us. We are halfway through a year of change as the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to subside in some parts of the world. Clubs are starting to reopen, and live music is on the horizon.
Much of the music released this year was written and recorded during last year’s lockdown, so it reflects the emotions many of us experienced during that time: isolation, despair, end-time blues. Standard stuff really for the field of music I cover. But a surprising theme has also emerged among the music that resonated with me most: joy, hope, and yearning for community. Artists are capturing the things we missed and tapping into emotions we’re longing to experience again as we head back out into social spaces.
Last year at this time, I listed my favorite albums from the first half of 2020. While there are many excellent albums out this year, there are far too many non-album singles I love and don’t want to neglect. So this year I’m focusing on individual songs.
Here are my 25 favorite songs from the first half of 2021. These are listed alphabetically by artists’ names because I’m not ready to commit to ranking them.
ACTORS – “Like Suicide”
Canada’s premier post-punk band ACTORS has released three songs from their long-awaited second album, and each one gets better than the last, ratcheting up the suspense for the full-length. “Like Suicide” is everything you want from an ACTORS song—a driving beat, beautiful guitar and synth arrangements, and irresistible lyrics delivered with cool sophistication from frontman Jason Corbett.
Ashbury Heights feat. Massive Ego – “One Trick Pony”
On their only 2021 release so far, Swedish duo Ashbury Heights goes for bright, bubbling synthpop with a guest vocal by the always delightful Marc Massive and a fascinating premise that makes this track really stand out. The song examines the dichotomy between our buttoned-up, daytime personas and the glittering artists we keep hidden inside, something so many of us find relatable.
Beyond Border – “What Makes the World Go Round”
German newcomers Beyond Border were already making a big impact on the scene with their blend of club-friendly beats and emotionally charged lyrics, but this inspiring single feels like a sea change. Futurepop has gotten dire over the years, but “What Makes the World Go Round” is a celebration of music, dancing, friendship—it’s the sort of life-affirming euphoria we’ve rarely experienced since the early days of VNV. When I finally hear this in a club, I will be grinning from ear to ear.
Clicks – “I Dream”
The latest album from Polish music project Clicks is a strong candidate for album of the year. Its cohesive, compelling premise takes aim at the aging goth culture—album title G.O.T.H. stands for “Getting Old, Tired, and…” It’s all a bit cheeky, but there’s also a serious undercurrent running across the album about hope and possibility, themes you’ll find on first single “I Dream,” the album’s most straightforward synthpop song.
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. 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.
Cold Connection – “Trocadero”
Swedish newcomers Cold Connection are my favorite discovery of 2021. They make cold, mechanical synthpop heavily influenced by Wilder-era Depeche Mode but fused with modern futurepop and electro touches. It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite track from their debut album, Seconds of Solitude, but “Trocadero” stands out for its mesmerizing vocal changes that pulse seamlessly across the chorus.
Czarina – “Atomic: Ad Initivm”
Multi-talented artist Czarina does not do subtle. On her grandiose single “Atomic: Ad Initivm,” she combines the vocal prowess of Sarah McLachlan, the mystical flourishes of Swedish rock band Ghost, and the stabbing electronic pulses of Front Line Assembly. If that’s not enough, the music video adds complementary visuals that take cues from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Everything about this is big and bombastic.
Daniel Hall – “Corruption”
Australian synthpop artist Daniel Hall has been making music for years—I believe he’s released 14 albums, not to mention countless singles. On “Corruption,” he combines dark beats, vibrating electronics, and whispery vocals that form a pitch-black sound perfectly suited to the subject matter. The result is his best and most successful song yet.
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.
Form – “You”
There are a handful of songs on this list produced by German producer Rob Dust—apparently I have a type. He’s a full-fledged member of the multi-national synthpop trio Form. “You,” the first single from their sophomore album, This World Is Ours, combines aggressive beats with synthpop song structure and singer/songwriter Mark Bebb’s vibrant vocals.
Gary Numan – “I Am Screaming”
Synthpop pioneer Gary Numan furthers his surprising late-career renaissance on 18th album, Intruder. All of the the album’s songs are performed in first-person from the point-of-view of the planet, which has been battered and bruised by human negligence. Nowhere on the album is the planet’s anguish and betrayal more apparent than on “I Am Screaming,” which finds Numan begging Earth’s inhabitants to pay more attention.
Ghost Twin – “Become Control”
In the run-up to their sophomore album, the appropriately titled Love Songs for End Times, Canadian duo Ghost Twin released a handful of singles with markedly different tones. Each song offered beautiful synthpop and darkwave melodies, but “Become Control” was a blast of swirling energy that grabs you by the throat.
Imperative Reaction – “Glass”
“Glass” comes from Mirror, Imperative Reaction’s long-awaited seventh studio album and their first new music in more than a decade. The album features a running theme about dependence and personal identity that’s very apparent on “Glass,” the album’s catchiest and most synthpop sounding song. I can feel Alan Wilder’s influence all over this track, particularly in the dynamic bridge and the synthline that vibrates in and out of the chorus.
Kanga – “Violence”
I’ve listened to Kanga’s sophomore album, You and I Will Never Die, numerous times since its release in March, and one of its deeper cuts, “Violence,” remains my favorite track. The song starts off slowly with hazy, Middle Eastern sounds that crash into a high-tempo metallic beat. Kanga sings on the chorus: “Do you like what you see, all this violence in me.”
Love + Revenge – “Angel”
Love & Revenge is a new side-project from Rascal, the unmistakable voice of Rotersand, and Axel Ermes from Girls Under Glass. “Angel,” the title track from their ’80s inspired EP, is built on a dark house beat with a shuffling synth layer, while Rascal croons, “I’m an angel, falling from the sky.”
The Mobile Homes – “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.
Neuf – “Silicone Suit”
Neuf is a new project from Sweden with a French name—they’re named after the nine card in a tarot deck. “Silicone Suit” is a dark, atmospheric song about being in a destructive relationship. The hazy electronics and unsettling lyrics put me on edge every time I listen to this song.
NOPRISM – “Pantherbeat”
“Pantherbeat” is the darkest track I’ve heard yet from emerging English band NOPRISM. It features a thundering beat reminiscent of New Order that provides the foundation for layers of stammering synths. 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. It’s a banger.
Piston Damp – “Hearts on Fire”
“Hearts on Fire” is the standout track from the debut album by Danish/Norwegian band Piston Damp, which includes Stephen Groth’s brother Jonas. It’s already an energetic thumper in the classic synthpop vein, but Piston Damp takes it to another level with a bombastic spoken-word bit full of echoey reverb that transforms the song into a ripping KLF-like anthem.
Pixel Grip – “Club Mania”
Chicago dark dance trio Pixel Grip celebrates queer and gothic nightlife on their new album Arena. It’s full of thrilling highlights, including the singles “Alphapussy” and “Demon Chaser.” But track two, “Club Mania,” delivers pounding energy and attitude that best captures the album’s spirit. No other release this year makes me want to get back into clubs as much as this one does.
Rotersand (feat. Evendorff) – “Grey”
On New Year’s Day, Rotersand surprise-released a new song called “Grey” that arrived just a few months after their last album, How Do You Feel Today. “Grey” sounds nothing like the music from that album—it has dark, trance-inducing beats and mysterious layers of electro. Rascal croons, “Grey makes my true colors shine.”
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, a title that might suggest themes exploring the hot, geographic center of our planet. But the album mostly covers our individual cores—who we are as people and the way we behave. My favorite song from the album is “Melancholy of the Sun,” a deeply philosophical track that features a seismic beat and lyrics that would make Stephen Hawking proud: “Molecules linked by chemicals mixed with energy and dust of stars.”
Solar Fake – “I Despise You”
German synthpoppers Solar Fake are pissed off at something or someone on their latest album, Enjoy Dystopia. On the opening track, Sven Friedrich lashes out, “So kill yourself instead,” and the album’s two singles come with music videos that form an ongoing storyline about a woman trapped in a room. I’m hoping the storyline continues with “I Despise You,” one of my favorite tracks from the album. Sven really lets loose here: “And I really despise you bad enough, not to fuck it up.”
Vanguard – “Ragnarök”
“Ragnarök” is the first new song from Swedish synthpop duo Vanguard since their 2019 album, Manifest. It’s named after the great battle in Norse mythology that leads to the end of the world, but thematically it covers our crumbling modern-day world. The fluctuating electronics on this track are mesmerizing, and singer Patrick Hansson somehow turns the word “Ragnarok” into a fiery, roaring chorus. It’s the best song of their career.
VH x RR – “Somewhere In Time”
VH x RR is an American synthpop duo comprised of Von Hertzog and Rob Rowe, the former lead singer of the synthpop band Cause and Effect. They’ve only released a handful of songs, but it’s evident this is music made by experienced vets. “Somewhere in Time” is classic synthpop with polished melodies, a memorable chorus, and Rowe’s beautiful vocals. This is definitely a band to keep an eye on.