10 Best Synth-Pop Albums
Synth-pop is a convoluted, multi-layered thing. It has its roots in 1970s krautrock, thrived in the ’80s during a second British Invasion, took a darker turn in the ’90s and rebounded in the ’00s as both tribute to and expansion of the music’s peak years. One thing they all have in common is the love of big pop hooks and a sense that the landscape is an open playing field for synthesizers to roam. Our list of the 10 Best Synth-Pop Albums spans ’70s pioneers to ’10s revisionists.
Duran Duran’s 1982 album pretty much launched synth-pop into the mainstream’s consciousness, thanks to nonstop MTV exposure. The music would take on more subtle contours as the decade progressed, but in the early ’80s it was all glossy pop hooks and detonating synth riffs. ‘Rio’ packs a ton of them.
This French group is all over the place on its 2011 double-album opus. But the New Wave, shoegaze, dreampop and post-rock elements all come together under the synth-pop umbrella, which, like so many new-millennium synth-pop music, nods to the music’s heyday. This is ’80s revivalism at its most playful and ambitious.
‘Songs From the Big Chair’
MTV opened the door to synth-pop (and bands like Kajagoogoo and a Flock of Seagulls) in the early ’80s, but Tears for Fears gave the music some much-needed credibility in 1985. The British duo’s No. 1 album spawned three hit singles and displayed an assortment of sophistication and American soul missing in so many of their contemporaries’ songs.
MGMT’s 2007 debut doses its springy synth-pop with hits of mind-warping psych-rock and even some good old-fashioned prog. But the core sound on ‘Oracular Spectacular’ is rooted in the frisky onslaught of ’80s synths. Other new-millennium bands may be more faithful to genre, but very few do it as well.
By the time of their 1990 breakthrough album, Depeche Mode had abandoned the bubbly synth-pop of their early records for a darker, more brooding version of it. More than any other band in the genre, Depeche Mode strayed outside the perceived boundaries to discover other shapes and tones within the music. By their second decade, they sounded nothing like Duran Duran (see No. 10 on our list of the 10 Best Synth-Pop Albums) and were taking synth-pop in bold new directions.
‘The Pleasure Principle’
Numan’s 1979 album was one of the first synth-pop records to break into the mainstream. ‘The Pleasure Principle’ reached the Top 20, and its hit single ‘Cars’ made it all the way to the Top 10. In an era when longhaired dudes with guitars were still ruling the airwaves with various disco queens, Numan’s synth-pop achievements are monumental.
This German quartet was pioneering synth-pop back when computers still seemed about as real-world useful as jetpacks. Their best album, 1977’s ‘Trans-Europe Express,’ would influence everyone from hip-hop godfathers to New Wave giants to just about everyone on our list of the 10 Best Synth-Pop Albums. Thirty-five years later, it still sounds ahead of its time.
When Death Cab for Cutie‘s Ben Gibbard and electronic artist Jimmy Tamborello released the Postal Service’s only album a decade ago, synth-pop was basically being played for nostalgia or so deep in the underground that only the most dedicated music fans were hearing it. ‘Give Up’ revolutionized and updated the music for the 21st century, giving it a human pulse as well as finding heartbreak in the sounds of the machines.
New Order’s artsy and cultured approach to synth-pop made them one of the ’80s’ most important bands. They were still picking up the pieces of their former group, Joy Division, on their debut album, but by 1983’s ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ they were pushing the synths and the pop to the forefront, and history was made.
Unlike most of the bands on our list of the 10 Best Synth-Pop Albums, the Human League made their Top 5 1981 LP almost entirely with synthesizers. That they managed to uncover genuine passion and emotion, not to mention humongous pop hooks (especially in the case of the No. 1 single ‘Don’t You Want Me’), in the songs is some sort of miracle. Synth-pop was slowly picking up steam by the time ‘Dare’ came out, but it helped set the template for almost everything that followed.