I’ve seen a few “essential synthwave” lists going around (for example, this one from Iron Skullet), so figured I’d join in with a few of my own. This first list celebrates the classics – albums that have had a major impact on me as an artist and fan, and which in my opinion have stood the test of time. So if I was teaching a “Synthwave 101” class, this is what I’d put on the syllabus.
Is it an objective list? Not at all – in fact, no top 10 or “essentials” list can be, because art is subjective. Rather, I chose the albums below because they are (a) are meaningful to me and (b) arguably important for the genre. The word “arguably” is key there, though.
Bottom line: I want you to given them a listen. But if you bounce off them, that’s totally cool; like every listener, I have my biases and preferences – and they may not match your own. But enough about all that…here is my “Synthwave 101” syllabus – 10 classic albums I keep going back to…
1. Makeup and Vanity Set – 88:88 (2015)
If you ask me, this is hands down the best synthwave album ever released. It is foreboding, mysterious and optimistic by turns. It is compositionally sophisticated, exquisitely produced and high concept – the sequel to a film of the same name.
2. Lazerhawk – Dreamrider (2017)
Every Lazerhawk album is a unicorn – beautiful, exciting and completely different from all the others. It was hard to pick just one, but Dreamrider is pure molten gold. “Somnus” may be the most emotive synthwave track I’ve ever heard.
3. Mitch Murder – Current Events (2011)
Mitch Murder’s finest is one of the genre’s defining moments. The production is silky smooth and the compositions are still surprising, even after all these years. One might even call Current Events the high point for synthwave’s playfully meta take on the ’80s. *sigh*
4. Kristine – Kristine (2012)
A lot of synthwave makes reference to the ’80s, but not a lot of it actually sounds ’80s. Kristine’s debut album does. And it’s got some serious tunes too. This is epic singalong material.
5. Miami Nights 1984 – Turbulence (2012)
“Ocean Drive” is up there with “Somnus” in my book, but for very different reasons. This is party music, which somehow manages to be perfectly evocative of the ’80s without sounding anything like the music actually released in that decade. And I mean that in the best possible play. Plus it’s the rare synthwave track that house DJs will play at clubs. Oh, and the rest of the album is pretty badass as well.
6. Timecop 1983 – Lovers EP Part I/II (2016)
No one in the genre makes music as lush, dreamy or wonderfully nostalgic as Timecop 1983. And over the past 5 years, he’s consistently put out high quality stuff, so it was tough picking an album to highlight. In the end, I went with the combined Lovers EPs – which to me best captures his aesthetic. This is a version of the ’80s that never quite existed, but should have.
7. Syntax – Island Universe (2015)
Tough choice between this one and Transmissions, but in the end, Island Universe just speaks to me more. If you like spacewave, this is pretty much the gold standard. Lush and dreamy to the core.
8. FM Attack – Deja Vu (2013)
Deja Vu features “With You Tonight” and “Magic,” which are among the best vocal tracks the genre has ever produced. And this is one of those albums where the synthesizer’s soul really shines through – a testament to Shawn Ward’s skill as a producer. On top of that, you can hear the influence of both ’80s synthpop and dance music – welcome and to this day still underdeveloped areas for synthwave artists to explore.
9. Le Matos – Turbo Kid Soundtrack (2015)
I love me some soundtrack music, and this one is a beauty. Easily my favorite release from Le Matos, and a big reason why Turbo Kid is such a memorable film.
10. College – Teenage Color EP (2008)
One of the first and still one of the best. It’s a testament to College’s success that very few artists have even tried to emulate his minimalistic, pattern-based approach. Still sounds unique and fresh.
Liked this post? Check out my music and stay tuned for my next Top 10, which will feature lesser known synthwave artists I want you to check out!