Few albums show me the range of colors and emotions in a synth like Glass Candy’s B/E/A/T/B/O/X. Johnny Jewel seems to pry out the richest analog tones possible here. It’s a masterful dance album that fills each corner with glitter, but never without melody or feeling. If you wonder why I got so obsessed with synths, look no further than here (and The Knife, but that’s another story).
“Computer Love” demonstrates with a heaven-sent take on my favorite Kraftwerk classic. You’d think seven minutes would wear it out. Instead, Johnny makes decadent variations on their melodies over and over, finding new sweet spots in the harmony. I could listen to that same echoing synth for much longer; it’s like a magnet. The almost operatic fluttering later on takes it to a whole new place. B/E/A/T/B/O/X is a decadent album already, but “Computer Love” is a true journey. When I listen, I’ve entered some haven of digitized bubbles and flowers.
With this fountain of synths backing her, Ida No could douse her face in it. She gives that falsetto title-drop the pure frozen longing it needed. Critics labelled her goofy and ‘detached’, but songs like this show a warmer, gentler side to her that’s just as prominent. She has a barbie-doll glamor that makes a closer fit for a song like this. Ralf Hutter has his charms, but he’s not a big love-song type.
Something about this cover takes the loneliness further. With how they sequenced B/E/A/T/B/O/X, “Computer Love” provides a refuge in the face of paranoia (see “Candy Castle” and “Digital Versicolor”). The way I hear it, this version doesn’t wish for love alone, but for relief in general. It searches the ends of Earth, science, and fantasy for this.
synth pop / art pop
Using more synths this time, Maria Usbeck’s second album emulates a digitized canopy. It’s another one where cold synths prompt human feeling despite their origins. Skeptics will claim they lack feeling but Maria’s music hasn’t lost any of that.
Which brings me to what stuck from Amparo: her incredible talent for calming the listener. Her travels in Ecuador to reconnect with her past continue to influence the effect of her songs. Like home, or what feels like it, Maria’s music relaxes with it’s everyday air. As she composed by herself, everything sounds filtered through her perspective. That is, besides the odd speech from Siri (!) or her grandmother. Envejeciendo is a traveling laptop’s creation.
What struck me about her ‘chill-out’ effect is that it feels so grounded. It doesn’t assume everything is or will be perfect. She doesn’t aim for escapism, as much as that works for other music. Instead, she uses this space to ask questions. Yet she does this without getting bleak; some songs veer on humorous. She seems to find comfort in more realistic conditions. Her lyrics concern aging (the album’s English name) and how new tech changes our thinking. I’m glad to see her explore these themes when few others do and when the cult of youth stays strong.
Envejeciendo peaks at the end with “Retirement Home” and “Nostalgia”. With the album’s richest synths and her own tender voice, they form a compelling mix of cathartic and relaxed tones. “Retirement Home” imagines ideal senior living, with metallic synth-bells adding a spa-like hypnosis. “Nostalgia” matches the title in seconds with breezy synth chords glowing like fireflies. As intended, it’s perfect for those fleeting daydreams of the past.
The drum machine beats are my main gripe as with too many recent albums. And I say this as a synth-pop fanatic! The issue is, no matter how classic the 909 is, the novelty wears after decade-long overuse.
I prefer Amparo but this is a worthy album with it’s own great ideas. It’s very digestible at 27 minutes. Maria’s solo career keeps taking refreshing turns and deserving a closer look.
easy listening / sequencer & MIDI / synth pop / new age
RIYL – Donkey Kong, Super Mario and other Nintendo 64 music; vaporwave, Eyeliner
This ‘album’ gathers commissions K. Yamato stashed away for years. Only after seeing the new online interest for 90s game music did he share them. Some tracks glean from other media, but everything has a certain 90s-VGM flair here.
The early lower-bit jingles make a brief but fun cherry on top. The rest is a tour in digitized MIDI bursting with color. Mallets, synth pads, slick bass, bells and adorable flutes are on the menu. Versatile as expected, Yamoto shifts from 16-bit Outrun synth-pop to deluxe 90s chill-out. Somehow “Pleasant Specter Lever 6” merges a heaven-sent unicorn lullaby with summery disco.
Yamoto fills these bite-sized songs with sweet, romantic melodies, never letting them ramble. The “Spa Tape” tracks near this but their refreshing synth textures won me over. Spa music needs space to breathe after all.
CW is like playing Kirby for half an hour: a quick, simple pick-me-up with no pretension. Anyone curious about 90s VGM and/or the cuter side of synths should look here. No more Yamoto albums followed, but his Pleasant Specter EP from months before is your next step.
For more great video game music on the obscure side, see my top five
As mush as I adore synths, my #1 band didn’t actually use them much. Superstition was the one Banshees album to use them beyond cameos. Guitars were their clear specialty, but I do wonder where more keyboard would have led them.
This metaphysical b-side is one in few exceptions. Beyond Siouxsie and one quiet guitar, it’s all misty fairy synths. Believe it or not, “Sea Of Light” sounds like new age Banshee-style. An uneasy mood sneaks in even so via Siouxsie’s vocal as she sings of near-death experiences. The effects on her voice resemble a distant call for help or gathering wind. This results in a unique middle ground between peace and danger.
It was way past midnight
and she still couldn’t fall asleep.
This night the dream was leaving
she tried so hard to keep.
And with the new day’s morning
she felt it drift away.
Not only for a cruise, not only for a day.
– Double, “The Captain Of Her Heart”
A summer mix invoking the romance, mystery, scenery and varying emotions of a lavish cruise as it begins a long journey overseas. Think sipping a cocktail as you watch the sunset, a romantic embrace by the docks or a suited pianist enchanting the crowd during their buffet.
This naturally doubles as a spotlight for the sophisti-pop genre best known for Sade and Prefab Sprout. Its cross of slick production and synths with elegant piano, strings, clean guitars, sax and/or brass has close ties to this imagery. Many songs take influence from lounge and jazz; others are simply eighties pop with a swanky attitude.
- DOUBLE – the captain of her heart
- VIKTOR LAZLO – balade de lisa
- JEANNE MAS – lisa
- GAZEBO – lunatic
- ABC – confessions of a fool
- MURIEL DACQ – tropique
- STYLE COUNCIL – the boy who cried wolf
- ALASKA Y DINARAMA – un hombre de verdad
- LUXURY ELITE – blush
- A.V. WALKER – night silk
- MOODOID – kasbah
- KIM WILDE – deep in the european soul
- MIAMI SOUND MACHINE – surrender paradise
- PRESUNTOS IMPLICADOS – no hay palabras
- YUKIHIRO TAKAHASHI – brand new day
- SERI ISHIKAWA – quantity of love
- ANNA DOMINO – bonds of love
- GEORGE MICHAEL – the strangest thing
- BRYAN FERRY – windswept
- DEBBIE HARRY – strike me pink
- BEATA KOZIDRAK – zal my tamtych noci i dni
- THE PAINTED WORD – night after night
- ENZO ENZO – pacifico
synth pop / chillwave
RIYL – Brothertiger, Eyeliner, Luxury Elite’s With Love, Esprit Fantasy – virtua.zip
George Clanton’s past making eccentric vaporwave as ESPRIT Fantasy informs his pop songs in interesting ways. He may sing and arrange his songs into verses and choruses now, but vaporwave’s neon shades plaster themselves all over just as they did before. He developed a great ear for that glittery pastel side of eighties synths on the part-composed, part-sampled ESPRIT album virtua.zip, and that stays his strong point here. His tones resemble sea creatures jumping from digitized sea in euphoria; it’s a hugely endearing effect.
George’s vocal style gets overbearing on occasion, but he does bring a lot of energy to these songs. As on Brothertiger’s new EP, it’s refreshing to hear a ‘chillwave’ vocalist this dramatic. Instead of drifting along a shore, he reaches for the stars, bringing this album to metaphysical peaks even at a slower pace (“Wonder Gently”).
By far my favorite is “It Makes The Babies Want To Cry”, where adorable peaks of synth propel his easygoing melodies into pure bliss. The momentum he builds toward the first hit of the chorus makes it so much more exciting.
♥︎ – “It Makes The Babies Want To Cry”, “Never Late Again”, “Keep A Secret”
art pop / darkwave / synth pop / ethereal wave / chamber pop
More like this – Susanne Sundfor’s The Silicone Veil, Goldfrapp, This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears, The Changelings’ “Season of Mist”, Anna Von Hauswolff’s Ceremony
This new Greek artist taps into so many of my favorite things here. Thalassa sweeps over your ears with dramatic strings as Ioanna swoons like a lost 4AD siren-singer, all backed by a gothic synth pulse. A few cliched electro-beats (as on “Messenger”) dull some of the personality in this delicious fusion, but her choruses and melodies are dense enough to keep out of potential dryness. Shout-out to “New Geometry” for her entrancing chant-singing (“Hesitation / I found the answers in your / Hesitation…”) and the crumbling urgency of “Roseate”.
♥︎ – “New Geometry”, “Roseate”, “Out of Focus”, “Swan”, “Ammonite”