One of the things I’ve always loved about electronic music is that it sounds like the future. The artists I grew up listening to—everyone from Pet Shop Boys to Front Line Assembly—used words and bleeps to create dynamic pictures in my mind that rival scenes from science-fiction movies.
This summer, more than ever, it feels like that future has finally arrived. When I started compiling this list, smoke from massive wildfires burning in Canada had settled over the eastern seaboard where I live, making the air difficult to breath and turning everything bright orange. “The sky turns brighter, an evil red,” I sang to myself every time I looked outside.
Meanwhile, the tech industry has been buzzing all year about artificial intelligence, mostly led by the rise of OpenAI’s ChatGPT. AI’s potential seems unlimited—it’s already doing everything from writing blog posts to revolutionizing how people search for information on the internet. My days as a professional writer appear limited, which fills me with great anxiety.
As always, I turn to music to cope. Much of the music I listen to these days seems less intent on predicting the future. It’s here, after all. The songs I keep returning to examine our mortality by ruminating on the past and explore how we’re adjusting to once far-off possibilities like global warming and our ever increasing dependence on technology.
With the first half of the year behind us, I’ve started thinking about my favorite releases. It’s been a strong year for synthpop so far, and the second half looks promising too—we’re finally getting the long-awaited return of mind.in.box, certainly one of the most visionary artists on the scene.
Below are my 25 favorite songs from the first half of 2023. They’re listed alphabetically by artists’ names because I don’t want to commit to ranking them until the end of the year.
APNOIE – “Magic Stuff”
The first single from APNOIE’s debut album is a bomb introduction to the Russian artist’s blend of frenetic beats and sensual lyrics. Dance My Darling’s Aleksandra Snork delivers wild lines like “You must be superhot” in a baby doll voice that makes “Magic Stuff” instantly compelling.
Beborn Beton – “Dancer in the Dark”
Beloved German band Beborn Beton returned in 2023 with their first new music in eight years. “Dancer in the Dark,” now and forever known as the “bowling song,” is a spectacular and dynamic thumper. The song itself has nothing to do with bowling—it’s about dancing while the world crumbles around us.
Dagon – “Room of Ice”
Don’t sleep on Greek musician Dagon’s 2023 album, Goran Sharok, one of the year’s best synthpop releases. It’s full of electric tracks like “Lightning Burst” and “Death Follows Too.” But “Room of Ice” remains its standout for a rollicking beat and clever lyrics: “You did nothing wrong. Except for everything.”
Dead Cool – “Stranger Kind”
At the start of “Stranger Kind,” North Carolina’s Dead Cool drops a head-bopping beat, then fires off an ecstatic synth riff. This hypnotic track is a be-yourself anthem for the strange and mysterious folks who dwell in dark places.
Dead Lights – “I Am Electric”
The devilish and delightful Dead Lights cement their emergence as one of the best and most dependable new acts. Following their debut album in 2021 and a superb EP in ’22, this year they’ve delivered two songs that feel like companions. “You’re my receiver,” they sang on the first, “I am electric,” on the latest. You can’t go wrong with either track, but the energetic banger “I Am Electric” showcases the duo’s gift for dynamic songcraft.
Depeche Mode – “Ghosts Again”
Synthpop legends Depeche Mode returned in 2023 with one of their best songs in years. The introspective and sentimental “Ghosts Again,” a mid-tempo rumination on life and death, takes on added nuance in the wake of founding member Andy Fletcher’s untimely death.
Devours – “10 Things I Crave About You”
Vancouver artist Devours often makes chirpy, sometimes chaotic songs that incorporate chiptune sounds and vocal effects. But my favorite Devours tracks are his tender ballads. The lovely, intimate “10 Things I Crave About You” is Devours at his very best.
Deus Ex Lumina – “Fight Back”
“You’re not just another alien,” Deus Ex Lumina sings on the backhalf of their 2023 empowerment anthem. “Fight Back” is a powerful call to underground subcultures, the demented and downtrodden and alien, to stand up to oppression.
Diary of Dreams – “The Fatalist”
It’s been a big year for veteran acts, including the long-running German project Diary of Dreams. Their latest album, Melancholin, is a stunning return to form full of great moments, but deep album cut “The Fatalist” remains my favorite for its jittery electronics and majestic lyrics.
Ghost Cop – “A Shot in the Dark”
New Yorkers Ghost Cop amp up the sonic tension with hypnotizing beats and swirling electronic noises. But the menacing standout of “A Shot in the Dark” is Lucy Swope’s exquisite, elegant vocals that propel her into the ranks of the scene’s best singers along with Promenade Cinema’s Emma Barson and Black Nail Cabaret’s Emese Arvai-Illes.
Fatigue – “Cold as the Sun”
American synthpop artist Fatigue has been steadily releasing music for a couple of years, and “Cold As the Sun” may be her best yet. A superb showcase for her defiant songwriting chops, just listen to the innovative way she punctuates each line with squishy electronic riffs and builds a rhyming scheme out of multi-syllabic words like “cacophony” with “monotony.”
Fonohead – “Another Mile”
On Fonohead’s fourth album, The Captain Reik Diary, the enigmatic artist sets sail on an emotionally charged journey across the sea. Its literal and figurative center, “Another Mile” is a sentimental synthpop classic that explores the emotional turmoil of leaving someone behind.
KUNT – “Jericho Stand”
KUNT, a dynamic new artist from Sweden, released a few tracks last year, but this year’s “Jericho Stand” was my introduction to the project. Introductions don’t get any better than this. Full of bomb beats and fiery attitude, “Jericho Stand” is an absolutely bloody beast of a song.
Male Tears – “Slay”
California synth duo Male Tears combine EBM beats, futurepop melodies and a host of other influences into a cohesive sound that’s wholly their own. But the New Romantic period looms large over the lyrics of “Slay,” my favorite track from their superb 2023 album, Krypt. It doesn’t get any more tragically romantic than “I would end my life for you.”
The Mystic Underground – “The Backlash Comes”
New York’s The Mystic Underground strike gold on their latest album, Everyone Deserves a Stage, by combining ’90s house beats with ’80s synthpop influences. One of the album’s highlights, “The Backlash Comes,” is a club banger with catchy-as-hell lyrics.
Nuovo Testamento – “Heat”
With two albums under their belt, Nuovo Testamento is not just leading the Italo disco renaissance, they’re taking it mainstream. “Heat,” the ferocious second single from their sophomore album, ignites the dancefloor with pulsating rhythms and instantly memorable lyrics: “I’ll burn it down if you don’t give me what I’m dreaming of.”
Panic Lift – “Smash the Controls”
Panic Lift’s “Smash the Controls” is a furnace blast of industrial pop that combines melodic and aggressive vocals into a single compelling song. It’s a catchy and melodic contribution from the New Jersey band known for mixing up their sound palette.
Red Cell – “Going Back Before Going On”
Since last year, Swedish duo Red Cell has been steadily cranking out superb synthpop singles they eventually collected into an outstanding self-titled set. Their 2023 single “Going Back Before Going On” exemplifies the project’s approach to traditional synthpop in the spirit of ’80s legends.
Séance – “Follow the Leader”
Swiss duo Séance recently returned from a three-decade break as if they’d never left. “Follow the Leader,” the first single from their forthcoming 2023 album, is full of fiery chants and thumping body music that calls to mind EBM greats like 242 and Nitzer Ebb.
Teledeath – “Hotline”
My pick for one of the year’s best new artists, New York’s Teledeath melds influences from the dark music spectrum into an uncompromising and forceful new sound. He’s released a handful of tracks this year, but latest single “Hotline” finds the artist refining his craft and penning remarkable lines like “I’ve reached the end with you ’cause loving you is suicide.”
Torul – “Now I Die Inside”
Now on their eighth album, it’s nice to hear a band like Torul finding new ways to make fresh and creative sounds. The Slovenians turn down the tempo and amp up on the tension on “Now I Die Inside,” which is built on a striking percussive beat.
Video “L’Eclipse – “Almost There”
Swedish duo Video L’Eclipse have a knack for wringing rich, warm sounds out of their electronics. “Almost There,” their 2023 single and a taste of what promises to be an outstanding sophomore album, finds the band at their best, weaving layers of sound that build to a sublime crescendo.
VNV Nation – “Wait”
Many strong emotions run throughout VNV Nation’s cinematic new album, Electric Sun. On an album as cohesive as this, no one track stands out the way “All Our Sins” did on Noire. But second single “Wait” is quietly rising to the top, primarily for the way it unleashes apathy. Ronan Harris sounds pissed at our inaction, and there’s a real menace to the way he delivers the word “wait.”
White Noise TV – “Equalizer”
International trio White Noise TV is at the forefront of a futurepop renaissance, trading in the type of melancholic lyrics and trancey beats that are the trademarks of the genre. “Equalizer,” one of the project’s best, reveals the band’s command of gorgeous melody, contemplative lyrics, and dark electronic flourishes.
Zanias – “Simulation”
The best songs are the ones that feel like they’re written especially for you. That’s just how I feel about “Simulation,” the ethereal opening track from Zanias’ Chrysalis album. These lyrics remind me so much of my young adulthood and immersion into the club scene: “Landed here at twenty-three filled with dreams and pills and ketamine. Finding God on a dancefloor alone.”