Top 10: Synthwave 101 Albums

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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 Set88:88 (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. LazerhawkDreamrider (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 MurderCurrent 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. KristineKristine (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 1984Turbulence (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 1983Lovers 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. SyntaxIsland 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 AttackDeja 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 MatosTurbo 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. CollegeTeenage 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.

Honorable Mentions: MAVSWilderness; Kung Fury soundtrack; BotnitTo the Max; FM-84 – Atlas; The MidnightDays of Thunder; LazerhawkSkull and Shark; Electric YouthInnerworld.

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! 

Where to Buy/Listen to my Music

I’ve released 2 albums and 1 compilation EP on Timeslave Recordings. The most recent of these is Concrete Island (2018), the soundtrack to an imaginary film from 1983 set in the present day. It’s dark and moody. Currently available on limited edition vinyl, cassette and (unlimited) digital.

Prior to that, I released Cosmopolis (2017) – a dreamier, more nostalgic synthwave album. The vinyl and cassette runs sold out, but you can still get digital copies.

My earlier stuff is available via my personal Bandcamp. I don’t really use it much anymore, but do plan to do the occasional single there, like “Skiers vs. Snowboarders,” which is available now for whatever price you want to pay.

You can also find my stuff on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc.

 

Streaming

My preferred streaming service is Spotify. I definitely encourage you to follow me and add all my songs to your favorite playlists 😉

https://open.spotify.com/embed/artist/6efaB8Z4oqKHAdrdf578jJ

I’ve also got a few songs on YouTube, like “Shadows in the Neon Rain, which is up on NRW’s website and is close to reaching 500,000 streams!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Announcement

Over the past several years, I’ve had the pleasure of mastering a lot of great music–most, but not all within our synthwave scene. However, because of some major changes in my life, the amount of time I have for music-related activities is set to sharply decline. Though mastering has been an enormously gratifying experience (one that I treasure), in this context I need to prioritize my own productions. As such, I will no longer be taking on new clients–for the foreseeable future, at least. I will, however, continue to work with my regular clients.

If/when this changes, I will make another announcement to that effect.

 

Part-Based and Pattern-Based Approaches to Synthwave

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Hello All! I’ve neglected this blog for a few months, but had thought to start up a new post series where I look at synthwave through a conceptual lens. The first topic I want to cover is arrangement, by which I mean, how parts cohere into a song. -G

Part- and Pattern-Based Music

There are, essentially, two main approaches to composition and arrangement: (1) part-based and (2) pattern-based. These approaches are not mutually exclusive; there is also a lot of overlap and hybridization (more on that later). Fundamentally, though, part-based and pattern-based music differ structurally and philosophically.

Part-based music is divided into discrete sections, usually referred to as “verse,” “bridge,” “pre-chorus,” “chorus,” etc. The chorus is the main hook–the section that should, ideally, be the most memorable and elicit the strongest emotional response. The other sections exist to build tension for the chorus, imbuing the moment it arrives with release, which then triggers euphoria.

Pattern-based music, by contrast, is divided into a series of interlocking patterns, which are then combined to induce a hypnotic state. Tension comes from subtle alterations to meta-pattern, or from pulling pieces out and then slamming them back in again. Euphoria may derive either from these moments or from the hypnotic state itself.

Whether you realize it or not, you are already deeply familiar with both. Most pop and rock music is part-based. Most classical music–think Beethoven or Mozart–is also part-based, as is big band jazz. But dance music is usually pattern-based, as is much traditional folk music. Jazz from bebop on is also pattern-based, featuring a single groove and then a series of improvised riffs off that groove. And whereas Beethoven and Mozart generally wrote part-based music, Bach’s fugues are decidedly pattern-based. So is most contemporary classical music.

Part-based and pattern-based music are not, however, mutually exclusive categories. Rather, it helps to think of them as both a Venn diagram and continuum. Techno, African traditional drum music and contemporary classical present what are, in my view, the most radical visions of pattern-based music in existence. But hip-hop resides in the fuzzy border region between part- and pattern-based music, as does vocal house music, EDM and a lot of extreme metal.

Part- and Pattern-Based Approaches to Synthwave

Both part- and pattern-based approaches are well represented in synthwave, and have been since it’s inception. To illustrate, here are two of my absolute favorite early synthwave tracks: Electric Youth’s “Right Back To You” (part-based) and College’s “Teenage Color” (pattern based):

Notice the difference in how they build tension and release. “Right Back To You” is all about setting up the chorus, which is infectious and downright euphoric. “Teenage Color,” by contrast, builds tension slowly, by introducing, dropping and modulating patterns into a tightly-constructed, hypnotic collage.

“Ocean Drive” by Miami Nights 1984 is another one of my favorite pattern-based synthwave tracks. Listen how it slowly builds up to that killer synth solo:

Now consider the MPM Soundtracks classic, “Daydreamer,” which is a wonderfully nostalgic, part-based instrumental:

Examples of hybridization abound as well, especially but not exclusively when pattern-based producers do the odd vocal track. Two of my favorite examples are “Hand in Hand” by Makeup and Vanity Set and “A Real Hero” by College and Electric Youth:

Part-Based vs. Pattern-Based Music: Is One “Better” for Synthwave?

You’ve probably guessed by now that my answer is “no.” Synthwave draws on both the part-based pop and pattern-based dance music traditions, and both halves of the equation are important. In other words, there is and should be room for both approaches.

In recent years, though, synthwave has been moving away from pattern-based styles like outrun and toward more part-based approaches, most notably with the vocal pop style that Iron Skullet calls popwave, but also in instrumental music.

I like a lot of that stuff, some of it dearly, but pattern-based music holds a special place in my heart. I love the feeling of being entranced by interlocking rhythms–the moment when the various pieces link together almost geometrically–and the feeling of motion that emerges from subtle changes to the meta-pattern. I love hearing DJs create new pastiches by merging two or more pattern-based tracks into something new and original. And I love being in the peculiar headspace that emerges from dancing to music where the performer is backgrounded to the experience, rather than watching a performer on a stage.

I want synthwave to build a DJ and club culture the way it is building a live music culture; and I want synthwave to celebrate pattern-based music just as it celebrates part-based music. Because why not? Both are awesome–and complementary to one another. (Plus DJ sets are a great way for artists to get exposure, while DJing can be a solid source of music-based income, but those issues deserve their own dedicated blog post.)

More Listening

I’ve already linked to a bunch of awesome music, but here are some more of my favorite part-based and pattern-based synthwave tracks, as well as a couple of mine at the end:

Makeup and Vanity Set – “A Glowing Light, A Promise” (pattern-based)

The Midnight – “Los Angeles” (part-based)

Vandal Moon – “Baby Sounds” (part-based)

Betamaxx – “Redlining 6th” (pattern-based)

Mitch Murder – “In the News” (hybrid)

The G – “Shadows in the Neon Rain” (hybrid)

The G featuring Vampire Step-Dad – “The Color of Television” (hybrid)

The G – “City Lights” (pattern-based)

Synthwave Artists Pick Their Top Releases of 2017

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Happy Holidays! To celebrate the end of the year, I’ve asked some of my fellow synthwave producers to stop by and share their favorite releases of 2017. What you’ll see is a diverse cross-range of what the genre has to offer, from surprise new albums from beloved and well-established artists, to dynamic debuts from up-and-coming producers. -G

Vampire Step-Dad: Retroglyphs – Retroglyphs

I did a bit of thinking before I could make a statement like “Best Synthwave Album of 2017”, but in truth, the decision is pretty easy.

I ran into Retroglyphs on Twitter in February 2017, when they were just 3 months old. On first listen, I was impressed that they were a real band, and that they had really captured that 80’s pop sound VERY well. It wasn’t until later, in August when they put out their first album, the eponymous “Retroglyphs” that I heard “One More Kiss” and I was hooked. Preceded by “Wild Road”, I was very excited to hear what the rest of the album was going to bring me. What follows is well thought out rollercoaster of emotions and sounds. Starting out pepped up and happy, the album takes a turn for the dark, sadder side of things, and even dips in some angry, frustrated tirades. And each song starts with a hook you’ll be singing to yourself for the rest of the day. This is a truly solid album that I’ve listened to on repeat many times since August.

I really look forward to seeing where these guys go with their sound, and I sure as heck hope I can share a stage with them some day.

Check out Vampire Step-Dad’s latest, Nightshift!

Syntax: Droid Bishop – Lost in Symmetry

Traveling through the dimensions of space, time and speakers, an entity known as Droid Bishop created a world of pure unadulterated joy for lovers of all things synthesizer years ago. The depth, maturity and complex nature of Droid’s melodic and ornate output created a deep sense of respect and admiration for those in the then burgeoning synthwave community. The emotive nature of each chord progression through an arpeggiated wonderland of twists and turns in each track coupled with welcoming warm pads, impressive percussion and dynamic changes and bridges immediately display a proficient producer who manages to effectively draw on the sensibilities with such a retro yet completely modern vibe. His understanding of song structuring and inspiration is impressive and deep, as each track yields such a unique identity and feel. And let’s face it, Droid Bishop has to be the best synth based moniker in recent times.

Droid Bishop’s Lost In Symmetry is a shining example of this powerhouse producer’s work. Delving into uncharted terrain with complexities and moods which garner the strongest of feels and emotions radiate through the release. From slower ballad type compositions to his signature driving synthwave, the journey in sound is remarkable and is without a doubt the strongest and most lasting release of the year. Do yourself a favor and add this wondrous work of art to your stereo collection. Whether you are serenading a loved one, impressing a friend for the first time, or driving the streets at night feeling invincible and vulnerable, the release has it all. 10/10

Facexhugger: The Encounter – Bad Mood

Starting off the album with Behemoth IV sets the tone for the album and it doesn’t let up. This has been in heavy rotation for me since it’s release.

Check out Facexhugger’s latest, Chasing Replicants

The G: FM Attack – Stellar

Picking a favorite synth record for 2017 is tough, because there are a few I’ve really enjoyed. But in the end, 2017 was the year we got a new FM Attack album.

Stellar is an evolution of the sound FM Attack developed on Deja Vu and Dreamatic. While FM Attack has always incorporated diverse influences, from post punk to house, Stellar takes another step away from the core tropes of synthwave. It is especially notable for its use of guitar as texture, as well as its decidedly introspective tone. But in the end, the warm vintage synth tones still take center stage.

This one’s a slow burner–an album that gets better with every listen. If you want synthwave that pushes boundaries, this is a good place to start.

Check out The G’s latest, Cosmopolis

Vandal Moon: Drab Majesty – The Demonstration

Drab Majesty’s latest LP “Demonstration” brings a new level of sacredness to new wave & postpunk music. It’s a perfect record from beginning to end, and pays tribute to everything that came before. Romantic vocals, shimmering guitars & synthesized beauty.

Check out Vandal Moon’s latest, Teenage Daydream Conspiracy

Computronic: Michael Oakley – California

The first thing that grabbed me about Michael Oakley’s new album California is how “easy” the music and vocals sound together–as though no effort was needed to make it sound so naturally perfect. It’s the kind of music that, as a music producer, I hate to listen to because it makes me question my own skills as an artist. Having said that, I can’t stop listening to this album.

This is what happens when a music producer is not only a talented musician but a damngood singer as well. You get the essence of the artist in each track. A complete expression of their nostalgic look back on their teenage self. This album brought me back to lying on the grass with my walkman on and staring at the sky, driving my first car on the highway and feeling that spike in my heart when I would hold a girl’s hand for the first time.

California is pure nostalgic emotion. My only complaint is that there aren’t enough songs. I feel like the lights have been turned on at the dance and I don’t want to go home yet.

Check out Computronic’s latest, Even the Score!

Night Raptor: The Midnight – Nocturnal

When I first listened to “Crystalline”, it just made sense to me. From the shakers mimicking a train pulling into the station to the crystal neon rain droplets cascading throughout the song, it just all made sense. The whole album makes sense.

Nocturnal is a very well-produced audio journey into neo-noir streets–and there is honesty in the writing that is felt. My two favorite tracks from the album are “Shadows” and “Light Years” (feat. The wonderful Nikki Flores). “Shadows” is a driving composition, complimented by a story of the darkness that resides within us that could rear its ugly head at any moment. There is a deep truth and understanding to this that I feel I can relate to. Being human, we can all make regrettable mistakes that will follow us forever like shadows underneath. “Light Years” offers us some solace in its melancholic arms telling us it will be ok, that eventually we will find that feeling lost long ago.

Nocturnal is a masterpiece of a Synthwave album and is powered by this nostalgia of feelings long lost or artificially created in memories. It will immerse you in its warm synths and addicting saxophone, so thoughtfully played by Thomas Edinger (it really does tie all the tracks together well, weaving its way in and out of them like some neon lit serpent). The lyrics and sincere tone of voice will stir your emotions and bring them out into the open. Get lost in this beautiful music and let it inspire you.

Check out Night Raptor’s latest, Night Raptor EP

Dreddd: Hello Meteor – Pantropic

My favorite album of the year is pretty tough to nail down, as The Midnight and Perturbator were strong entries for the genre of synth to the wave. BUT…out of left field, my favorite album was Pantropic by Hello Meteor. From the very first note to the last, it’s a master class in music, from amazing sweeping melodies, deep soundtrack vibes, and some of the overall best vibes out there. I’ve never listened to a record that described my experiences with each track. I mean, alot of what makes the album amazing is that every song is like a really good memory, and it really makes you feel. Honorable mentions to Skeleton Beach, and The Crusader.

Check out Dreddd’s latest, The Heavy Album

 

Echosynthetic’s Producer of the Year Award

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So I woke up to a wonderful piece of news today: synth blog Echosynthetic awarded me the John Fryer Producer of the Year Award!

Your first questions may be “who’s John Fryer, and why is this award named for him?” Fryer is a founding member of goth/dreampop collective This Mortal Coil, as well as a famous producer. He’s worked with an incredible number of synth-based artists I hold near and dear, including Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Clan of Xymox, Wire and Nine Inch Nails.

In Echosynthetic’s words:

What better way to frame this award than by naming it after one of the all time great record producers, John Fryer. His work in the studio has touched just about every single person who enjoys synthpop, EBM, new wave, or industrial music, whether you know it or not.

So winning an award named after Fryer is an incredible honor in and of itself. But Echosynthetic also had this to say about my work as producer and mastering engineer in 2017:

As I was sitting down to make a short-list of nominees for Producer of the Year, one name kept popping up on some of the best releases of the year. Not just quality records…no, I mean records that helped define synthwave in 2017.

Most creative types tend to be endlessly self-critical, and I’m no exception. Somewhere, deep down, you always doubt whether your stuff is good enough. Knowing that people connect with the work I do never ceases to amaze me, and could never get old. I’m incredibly grateful to Echosynthetic for this honor, as well as to all my mastering clients for believing in me and letting me work on their amazing music. And last but not least, a big thank you to all the people who have bought, streamed or otherwise supported my music over the past two years. I owe each and every one of you a debt of gratitude.

 

 

 

 

3 Releases with The G

I’m a firm believer that, for any musician, listening widely is as important as listening deeply). So I’ve been taking a break from synthwave and seeing what else gets me moving. Lately that’s been techno and house, and specifically, a mix of classics and some of new artists doing throwback stuff (also sometimes referred to as lo-fi). Here are a few releases I’ve got on heavy rotation right now.

 

1. Peggy Gou – Seek for Maktoop [Technicolor, 2017]

I first discovered Gou, who is originally from Korea but now based in Berlin, by accident. I was trawling YouTube for lo-fi stuff and hit on “Jen High,” a quirky, playful deep house cut. Her latest, Seek for Maktoop, jettisons the lo-fi house approach for a more romantic, Detroit-inflected style of techno. But what’s really great about Gou is that, even as she references the classics, her stuff sounds fresh and innovative. The best of both worlds! Top cut: “Maktoop”

 

2. DJ Windows XP – Sometimes I Feel Happy, Sometimes Sad [Who’s Susan, 2017]

I’ll admit, at first I was just in it for the name. But the truth is that, ridiculous as it sounds, DJ Windows XP may be the best house producer around right now. Every track is jam-packed with feeling. Top cut: “Maybe It Was Me.”

 

3. Palms Trax – Equation [Lobster Theremin, 2013]

Still my favorite release on the too-cool-for-school label Lobster Theremin. At first, Equation feels almost simplistic, but that belies a melodic complexity that emerges on repeat listen. Top cut: “Late Jam.”