These are the must-have albums and releases which I feel define the genre.
This is by no means meant to be interpreted as a Be-All/End-All definitive list. Rather, these are the albums which attracted me to the genre. If you’re looking for suggestions to build your music library, or wish to better educate yourself on the history of synth-pop, this list might be a good place to start.
These are the albums that had a profound impact and influence on me as a musician/producer, and have withstood the test of time and remain vital recordings which still retain a special place in my heart.
Ranked in no particular order……….
Autobahn – Kraftwerk (1973): Some will argue that this is more Prog-Rock than anything else, and that may very well be true. But this was the album that put Kraftwerk on the map, and at the time of its release there was nothing even close to it in terms of similarity and lasting influence. This is the point where the likes of Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and all the early pioneers of Musique concrète passed the torch on to the Düsseldorf duo of Florian Schneider & Ralf Hütter, and thus began the modern age of electronic music. This was my earliest memory of hearing the synthesizer, and it had a profound influence on me. My dear mother (now 80 years-old, God bless her!) is who turned me onto Kraftwerk at the early age of 5. She had heard Autobahn on the radio and went out straight away to the record shop and bought a copy of it. I remember pressing my ear up to the stereo speaker to hear every new sound. It was pure magic! Autobahn is a song that stuck with me for years afterward. It fascinated me to no end. It was the birth of my love affair with the synthesizer, and it happened before I even knew how to read. To me, this album represents the origin of modern electronic music, and its importance and influence on later artists such as OMD, Ultravox and Depeche Mode simply cannot be overstated.
Vital songs: Autobahn, Kometenmelodie 1, Mitternacht
Architecture & Morality – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1981): With the release of this, their third album, OMD broke away from being just another futuristic synth band, and created the first bona-fide artistic piece of work in the synthesizer age. The recording of this album saw the use of the Mellotron, and all manner of tape loops and clever studio tricks. Combined with the synthesizers and electronic gadgetry OMD was already renowned for, the end result was sheer brilliance. Whereas Kraftwerk always tended to skirt around the edges of pop, OMD (perhaps by accident) embraced the pop essence via their cavalier sense of experimentation. The album was, and still is, far ahead of its time. Thirty-plus years on, it holds up remarkably well and sounds as fresh as it did the day it came off the presses. There are few pieces of electronic music that sound so ‘organic’ (for want of a better word) and naturally beautiful as Maid of Orleans’. The drum cadence and melodic riff of the song just leave me swooning. This is an album that defies description. Words fail to illustrate how beautiful this album really is. Moby once said that this album played a huge role in him choosing to play the synthesizer and make music for a living. Influential, indeed.
Vital songs: Sealand, Maid of Orleans, Georgia, She’s Leaving, Souvenir
Dare! – The Human League (1981): When the synthesizer went into the pop mainstream in the early-80s, this Martin Rushent-produced gem took the world by storm. Depending on whose side of the story you choose to believe, Phil Oakey fired Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, and hired two teenage girls he’d met while dancing in a club in Sheffield to be his backing vocalists/dancers. The result was a much more aesthetically-pleasing ensemble to look at, and worldwide chart success, something Human League had failed to achieve when Ware & Marsh were still in the band. Nothing deep or intellectually stimulating on this album. Just good old-fashioned melodic hooks and good looks. No collection of electronic music would be complete with this essential recording.
Vital songs: Seconds, The Sound of the Crowd, Don’t You Want Me, Love Action
Speak & Spell – Depeche Mode (1981): Proving that 1981 was perhaps the most significant year in the history of synth-pop, Depeche Mode, now regarded as the most commercially-successful and influential synth band of all-time, released their debut album on a relatively unknown independent label known as Mute Records. It was full of hooks and teeny-bopper electro-beats, and lyrics (mostly penned by Vince Clarke) that were obscure and left most english-speaking souls scratching their heads as to their meaning (See New Life, Any Second Now). While this would be Vince Clarke’s only album with Depeche Mode, he would leave behind a legacy of extremely listenable synth-pop gems which, while a FAR cry from the direction Depeche Mode would eventually veer off towards in their subsequent releases, still sounds brand-new and fresh. Just Can’t Get Enough is quite possibly the most melodically infectious tune ever written. Once you hear it, it’s stuck in your head forever!
Vital songs: Just Can’t Get Enough, New Life, Photographic, Puppets, I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead.
Power, Corruption & Lies – New Order (1983): Living proof that synthesizers and guitars can peacefully coexist on a rock album. Their second album as New Order, this outing really demonstrates the direction that the band would go in future releases. While it wasn’t included on the initial release of the album, Blue Monday would end up becoming the most significant piece of music in the history of dance music. The album is an object lesson in post-punk perfection from start to finish. Rising from the ashes of Joy Division, New Order were the perfect post-punk band, and the synthesizer, because of its ease-of-use and limitless possibilities, is the PERFECT punk instrument. This album would lay the ground work for New Order’s subsequent formula for success wherein their synths would only serve to underscore Sumner’s tenuous vocals, Stephen Morris’s otherworldly drumming, and Peter Hook’s trademark method of bass playing…… which was the glue that held it all together. New Order NEVER sounded better or more innovative than they did on this album.
Vital Songs: Your Silent Face, Age of Consent, Ecstasy, 5-8-6, Blue Monday
The Man Machine – Kraftwerk (1978): Released at the height of the popularity of Disco, this album is (thankfully) anything but. It contains Kraftwerk’s most pop-oriented track (The Model) and the album as a whole really thrives on rhythmic precision. From the album’s iconic cover art, to the precise metronomic beats of the title track, this is one of the most accessible albums by Kraftwerk. As with all of Kraftwerk’s back catalog (Autobahn thru Tour De France Soundtracks) this album was given a proper and magnificent re-mastering treatment in 2009. It sounds so crisp & clean in its re-mastered state it will bring tears to your eyes. Well worth picking up.
Vital Songs: The Man Machine, The Model, The Robots, Neon Lights
Trans Europe Express – Kraftwerk (1977): Kraftwerk’s sixth studio album, and along with Autobahn, is one of the most influential albums of the genre. Known for its club-friendly title track, whose influence stretched as far as Detroit and New York to the ears of some of Hip-Hop’s founding fathers, this album began Kraftwerk’s journey from experimental synth-pop to more dance-oriented music. Radiohead, Madonna, Afrika Bambaataa, Derrick May, and countless musically diverse artists have given nods of respect to this album. It’s the one Kraftwerk album which seems to end up on everybody’s list of influences. Like any legendary or landmark album, it’s meant to be listened to and not written about. So I’ll leave it at that.
Vital Songs: Europe Endless, Trans Europe Express, Metal on Metal, Hall of Mirrors
Dazzle Ships – OMD (1983): When this album was released, OMD had been tasked with following up the greatest album of their career with an equally impressive masterpiece. Not an easy task for ANY artist. At the time of its release, it was savaged by music critics and fans alike for being too experimental. It contained collages of musique concrète and random eastern european radio broadcast snippets strategically placed between the melodically melancholy synth-pop tunes that were interspersed throughout the album. Far too weird for some, but perfectly sensible and provocative for those like me who really ‘got’ what it was all about. Don’t ask me to explain it, cuz you either get it or you don’t. Suffice to say, the end result of this exercise in experimentation yielded OMD an album that, while it didn’t quite measure up to the greatness (commercially) of its predecessor, was no less influential and crucial to the burgeoning genre. Thankfully, in recent years, many of those same critics who lambasted it for being too ambitious and artsy when it was released, now praise it for being what it was…… a true work of innovation that has withstood the test of time. Like many of Kraftwerk’s albums, it’s meant to be absorbed while listening, in order to truly get the feel of it, rather than to be simply listened to.
Vital songs: Radio Waves, Telegraph, Silent Running, This is Helena, Of All The Things We’ve Made, Genetic Engineering, ABC Auto-Industry
Black Celebration – Depeche Mode (1986): From 1981 to 1986, in the span of five years, Depeche Mode evolved from being just another sickening teeny-bopper band to bona-fide stadium-filling rock stars. When Vince Clarke left with no advance warning upon the completion of their debut album, Speak & Spell, it SHOULD have spelled the end of Depeche Mode. After all, Clarke wrote all but one of the 12 songs on the debut album. Overnight Martin Gore was thrust into the spotlight by shouldering Clarke’s songwriting duties all by himself. Gore’s melancholy and moody songwriting style stands in stark contrast to Clarke’s upbeat and cheerful fare. Depeche spent the next four years delivering three albums wherein Gore penned the bulk of the songs (with Alan Wilder sharing an occasional song himself), and the themes of each album gradually grew darker. Exploring themes ranging from capitalist imperialism and environmental issues, to religion and sexual politic, Depeche Mode were growing up…… fast! Embracing sampling technology early on, DM served up the magnum opus of all dark synth-pop albums when they released Black Celebration. It is THE quintessential Depeche Mode album. This album was the turning point for me personally in terms of making the decision to devote my life to electronic music. No album before or since has been able to pull such a rich depth of emotion from the machines as this masterpiece. No matter the type of day I’m having, this album is where I find my musical solace & refuge. I owe this album my life in more ways than one. It is Depeche Mode’s finest moment, and the greatest dark synth-pop album ever made….. PERIOD!
Vital songs: Black Celebration, Stripped, Here Is The House, New Dress, It Doesn’t Matter Two, Dressed In Black, Fly On The Windscreen – Final, Question of Lust.
Peace – Anything Box (1990): Internationally Anything Box may not be as well known or appreciated as they should be. Hell….. chances are, even in the States most people have likely never heard of them. But this band from Paterson, NJ are one of the most important bands in the history of synth-pop, and this, their debut album (sadly now out of print), is a must-have for any serious aficionado of synth-pop and/or electronic music. An avid admirer of both The Beatles and Kraftwerk, principal member, Claude Strilio, is both a lyrical genius and deft synth programmer, which is the perfect recipe for synth-pop success. This album is everything a truly great synth-pop album should have; melodic hooks that get stuck in your head for weeks, and sing-along choruses that get the toes tappin and the booty shakin! In a market that’s ruled by British, German, and other Euro-centric acts, Anything Box is a much-needed, welcomed breath of fresh air. This album is just pure fun from beginning to end.
Vital songs: Jubilation, I Felt The Pain, Living In Oblivion, Lady In Waiting, Carmen
Happiness – The Beloved (1990): With a healthy dose of house-influenced psychedelia, The Beloved arrived on the scene in the late 80s. Fusing elements of pop, acid house, and synth-pop, this album is one of the best examples of the late-80s/early-90s club scene. One of the most solid albums of its era in terms of programming, production and songwriting, it’s one of the few albums of its time that doesn’t sound dated. Beloved front man, Jon Marsh has one of the most unique voices in all of pop music with a voice that’s more like a hushed, spoken delivery than an actual belted out approach. Yet it works, and works well. I’ve worn out two copies of this album thus far. One of the best albums to listen to when road tripping.
Vital Songs: The Sun Rising, Scarlet Beautiful, Wake Up Soon, Found, Hello, Time After Time
A Secret Wish – Propaganda (1985): Chances are, if you get Trevor Horn to produce your album, you’re gonna have a hit on your hands. So it was with Propaganda’s debut album. Often referred to as the female Kraftwerk or the German ABBA, Propaganda gave us one of the most endearing and enduring synth-pop records of all time. Featuring the one-two punch (no pun intended!) of vocalists Suzanne Freytag and Claudia Brücken, this album is a defining example of electronic art. Freytag provided spoken narrative to the music written by Michael Mertens, and Claudia Brücken, perhaps Europe’s best-kept secret, infused the rigid synth pieces with a warm breath of life. Horn’s Midas touch at the producer’s helm helped develop the album into a dark, yet glorious example of how great German pop can be. It’s art in every sense of the word and a sheer delight to behold.
Vital songs: Dr. Mabuse, Duel, p:Machinery, Dream Within A Dream, Frozen Faces
Please – Pet Shop Boys (1986): I absolutely adore the Pet Shop Boys. When it comes to pop excellence, they reign supreme. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are one of the greatest songwriting duos in the history of music, to say nothing of synth-pop and dance music. Their contributions are every bit as outstanding to the world of music as Lennon/McCartney, David/Bacharach, or any other songwriting team you can think of. Nobody understands the soul of dance music or its intricate connection with pop as well as Tennant and Lowe. Their debut album was a NY/Italo disco-influenced fountain of synth-pop goodness. At first glance one might be tempted to dismiss the Pet Shop Boys as just another disposable pop group writing mindless and forgettable lyrics….. and sadly, many critics (at least in America) do. But a careful examination of Tennant’s lyrics reveal far more than just a throw away pop act, and Lowe’s musical arrangements are sheer brilliance. When it comes to electronic pop, it does not get any better than the Pet Shop Boys, and Please is a pure pleasure that keeps on satisfying the listener year after year.
Vital songs: Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money), Love Comes Quickly, Two Divided By Zero, Why Don’t We Live Together, West End Girls
The White Room – The KLF (1991): Love ’em or hate ’em, and there’s a fair number of people on either side, The KLF’s brief run of releases made a significant impact on the world of electronic music. The KLF were a joke (quite literally) who laughed all the way to the bank when the music establishment bought their shtick hook, line, and sinker. This album helped kick off the 90’s techno movement as grunge and so-called ‘Alternative’ music drove electronic pop back into the underground & clubs. It combined healthy doses of hip-hop & reggae with acid house and even a touch of country music courtesy of Tammy Wynette. It’s like a sonic train wreck; you don’t wanna listen, but ya just GOTTA!
Vital songs: Last Train To Trancentral, The White Room, 3AM Eternal, No More Tears, What Time Is Love
En-Tact – The Shamen (1990): Another seminal album that set the stage for the electronic scene in the 1990s, and heralded the arrival of the rave scene to mainstream audiences. With healthy doses of TB-303 & Juno-106 baselines, and overtly psychedelic themes, it was the coolest thing to listen to at the time. Mr. C’s raps add that cool touch of hipness that keeps the album from sounding too dated. While not their most solid effort, it paved the way for other 90s-era acts like 808 State, The Prodigy and Orbital who also found mainstream success. You couldn’t go to a rave between 1989 and 1992 and not hear The Shamen. Their music thrived on rave culture, and vice-versa.
Vital songs: Move Any Mountain, Omega Amigo, Hyperreal (Orbit), Possible Worlds
Dubnobasswithmyheadman – Underworld (1994): From the band which evolved from the pseudo-prog rock act, Freur, to the alt-rock band that gave us 1988’s brilliant dance club anthem, Underneath The Radar, Underworld reinvented themselves as a 3-piece, and returned in ’94 to deliver one of the most amazing electronic albums ever made. It’s a difficult one to accurately describe, but the best word I can think of is ‘epic’. It’s a perfect mix of techno, acid house, and dub, and they finish the album with a good old-fashioned synth-pop track just to emphasize how well-rounded they are. It’s one of those albums that you can get lost in (in a good way). It’s almost a transcendental experience when listened to with headphones. In the years that would follow, Underworld would become the greatest live act in electronic music, and set the standard for greatness as the genre moved into the new millennium. Just as Kraftwerk’s Autobahn was a seminal moment 20 years earlier, this album, for me, signaled the next great moment in the evolution of electronic music.
Vital songs: Mmm… Skyscraper I Love You, Tongue, Dirty Epic, Dark & Long, M.E.
Vegas – The Crystal Method (1997): Proving that the Yanks weren’t to be outdone during the techno boom of the late-90s, the American duo of Kenny Jordan and Scott Kirkland dropped this electronic masterpiece on an unsuspecting world that was at the mercy of corporate radio. The big beats, sultry vocal samples, and raunchy lead synths are simply glorious. Little wonder then, that many of the albums tracks ended up being licensed by Mazda and Universal for adverts and films. One of the best electronic albums of the late-90s.
Vital songs: Trip Like I Do, High Roller, Bad Stone, Keep Hope Alive, Busy Child
Sugar Tax – OMD (1991): Paul Humphreys, Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper had left OMD before Andy McCluskey began working on the band’s follow up to 1986’s The Pacific Age. Humphreys had (arguably) always been the component of the band that came up with the memorable hooks and more experimental aspects of OMD’s sound, so his departure left many fans of the band concerned that the very essence of OMD may have left with him. However, the release of this album quickly laid all those fear to rest. From start to finish, Sugar Tax is a solid synth-pop album that ranks among the best ever recorded by the band. While their cover of Kraftwerk’s Neon Lights leaves a bit to be desired, the rest of the album is really a top-drawer effort from McCluskey. It’s one of my most-listened-to albums, and I’ve already worn out three copies of it. If anything, it shows that Andy McCluskey is a brilliant songwriter and world-class synth programmer in his own right.
Vital songs: Speed of Light, Walking On Air, Was it Something I Said, Pandora’s Box, Sailing On The Seven Seas, Then You Turn Away
MCMXC A.D. – Enigma (1991): Along with Barry White, I would wager that more babies have been conceived whilst listening to Enigma than perhaps any other recording in modern history. It’s ethereal and erotic. Some classify it as new age, others label it as cheesy porno music, but no matter its classification, I love it! It’s the perfect album to relax to, un-wind from a stressful day to, take a long drive to, or…… make babies to. Combining Gregorian chants with hip-hop beats, and lush, evolving synth pads results in one of those rare pieces of music that defies time and trends. Michael Crétu knows how to combine those new age and ethnic elements into a pop environment better than anybody before or since. He has since released several albums as Enigma, many of which are quite good, but this remains his finest moment.
Vital songs: Callas Went Away, Knocking On Forbidden Doors, Sadeness, Mea Culpa, Way To Eternity, The Rivers of Belief
Actually – Pet Shop Boys (1987): The stellar follow up to their debut album, this album shows Tennant & Lowe refining their craft by dropping some of the most potent songs in their vast catalog. Containing a fair balance of radio-friendly singles and album tracks, there’s not a sub-par track on the whole album. Being a massive fan of the Emulator and Fairlight CMI samplers, this album occupies a special place in my heart as that’s pretty much all they used when creating this album. I was a teenager when it came out, and I remember listening to it for days on end and never growing tired of it. It was a nonstop joy to listen to then & now. ‘Kings Cross’ in particular still gives me chills. Sheer genius.
Vital songs: Kings Cross, I Want To Wake Up, It’s A Sin, Shopping, Heart, It Couldn’t Happen Here
Violator – Depeche Mode (1990): Depeche Mode were already riding a massive wave of success in the US before this album came out, but they really hit full stride when it hit. This is DM’s most commercially successful album, and yielded them 4 successful chart hits. I would say they hit their creative plateau with this album. It also marked the end of an era in many ways. This was the last album wherein the synthesizer would be at the forefront of their music. All of their subsequent releases would prominently feature guitar, live drums and even gospel singers in some instances, more so than their beloved synthesizers. Violator was the pinnacle of their career. Many people consider this to be their best album. In many ways it is. It certainly deserves to be. But for me they achieved perfection 4 years earlier with Black Celebration. Still, if you’re ever going to introduce somebody to Depeche Mode’s music, this is prolly the best album to do it with. Not a bum track on the whole record. And hey…… Johnny Cash covered Personal Jesus. That’s plenty validation of DM’s greatness right there.
Vital songs: Halo, Clean, Waiting For The Night, Policy Of Truth, Personal Jesus
The Innocents – Erasure (1988): The album which broke Erasure in the States. I instantly fell in love with not the radio singles, but rather the deeper (and far superior) tracks like ‘Hallowed Ground’ and ‘Phantom Bride’ which never made it to the radio. Erasure really hit their stride with this album. Vince Clarke is the undisputed King of Synth-Pop, and this album shows just how deep his talent as a songwriter goes. This album was released before Vince Clarke began eschewing digital synthesizers in favor of the vintage modulars and analog beasts.
Vital songs: Phantom Bride, When I Needed You, A Little Respect, Hallowed Ground, River Deep Mountain High, Ship Of Fools
Upstairs At Eric’s – Yazoo (1982): To further showcase the brilliance of Vince Clarke, my list would not be complete without mentioning this 1982 masterpiece. After abruptly leaving Depeche Mode, Vince got to work right away on his next project by teaming up with Alison Moyet, one of the most soulful and underrated female singers of our time. He brought his technical wizardry and synth know-how with him when he left DM & crafted one of the most soulful and funky synth albums the world has ever known. Moyet’s old-school bluesy vocal styling and Clarke’s new romantic synth-pop sensibilities made for one of the oddest musical pairings, but it worked surprisingly well, although it only lasted for two studio albums. It was a short-lived project, but it delivered a lifetime’s worth of incredible synth-pop on this album alone.
Vital songs: Bad Connection, Only You, Winter Kills, Don’t Go, Situation
Information Society – Information Society (1988): Along with Anything Box, INSOC are perhaps the strongest example of American synth-pop, and certainly the most commercially successful. Hailing from Minneapolis, MN, this group of Star Trek-crazy synth gurus delivered one of the funnest albums of 1988. It was all over the radio and MTV back when said network actually played music videos. There was nobody else around at the time who seemed to take such an unbridled joy in creating music with synthesizers and samplers. It really made me take notice. Their eponymous debut featured a nice mix of straight-forward synth-pop and experimental freestyle electro jams. They were the coolest band on the planet for a brief period of time in the late-80s. Like me, they were true geeks at-heart and were proud of it!
Vital songs: Over The Sea, Running, Walking Away, What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy), Tomorrow, Something In The Air
Music For The Masses – Depeche Mode (1987): How do you follow up a masterpiece like Black Celebration? You release an equally smashing album of synth-pop perfection with more radio-friendly singles and more uniquely identifiable sounds, and then promote the hell out of it. That’s pretty well what happened with Music For The Masses. Europe was already convinced of DM’s greatness, but things took a little longer in America. Whereas its predecessor didn’t generate any radio play in the States, such was not the case with MFTM. It yielded not one, but two MASSIVE club hits, and helped break DM to a larger audience in the US than they had previously experienced. Of course, this all culminated & climaxed with DM playing to a sold-out crowd of over 60,000 screaming fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA on June 18, 1988. A band that got hardly ANY radio (or video) play outside of Los Angeles and New York was suddenly selling out one of the biggest and most prestigious football stadiums in North America. The critics were confounded and the fans were validated. This album is undeniably one of the must-haves of the genre. As Violator would show just a few years later, Depeche Mode were only getting warmed up…… in America at least.
Vital songs: Never Let Me Down Again, Strangelove, Things You Said, Behind The Wheel, Little 15
Escape From Television – Jan Hammer (1988): Most people know of Jan Hammer because of his work scoring the weekly television drama, Miami Vice. Few people are aware that Hammer had been a very successful prog-rock muso who had worked with the Mahavishnu Orchestra & Jeff Beck long before he brought music to the world of Sonny Crockett & Ricardo Tubbs. As the title implies, this album is a showcase of the songs which he composed for Miami Vice. The music of this groundbreaking show was one of the integral aspects of its success, and Jan Hammer hit a home run with it. With his profound use of the Fairlight CMI, Yamaha DX-7 and Memorymoog synthesizers, he brought each episode to life with his masterful touch. Jan Hammer is one of my biggest influences as a musician, and this album played a big role in his becoming one of my influences.
Vital songs: Evan, Crockett’s Theme, Forever Tonight, The Trial & The Search, Miami Vice Theme
Salvation – Alphaville (1997): Alphaville’s name will forever be tied to their 1984 synth ballad, Forever Young, and while it’s a fantastic song, this is truly unfortunate. Alphaville have much better songs to offer to the world than a song which has been so grossly over-played. This album is not only Alphaville’s finest moment, it’s also the best synth-pop album of the 1990s. The last Alphaville album to feature founding member Bernard Lloyd, he and core member Marian Gold really outdid themselves on this one in every way. Infused with an element of urgency, longing, and melancholy, the album is replete with fantastic hooks and melodies. Gold’s soaring operatic vocals really drive it home. It’s a world-class effort from the get-go. It never left my CD player for 3 years. One of my most prized possessions.
Vital Songs: Dangerous Places, Spirit Of The Age, Pandora’s Lullaby, Wishful Thinking, Flame, Guardian Angel
Another Minute – Cause & Effect (1991): Like many people, when I first heard Cause & Effect, I swore I was listening to Depeche Mode. Whether intentional or otherwise, lead singer Rob Rowe is a dead-ringer for Dave Gahan, and the tracks on this album are so well done, they sound as though they could easily be songs that didn’t make the cut on Violator. Hailing from Sacramento, CA (although Rowe is British), C&E complete what I call the Holy Trinity of American synth-pop along with Anything Box and INSOC. Very dance-oriented, this album helped get me through my sophomore year of college. One of my favourite albums of the early 90s. The tracks may bear an uncanny resemblance to Depeche Mode, but in this case that’s not such a bad thing. So long as it’s original & tastefully done, I have no problem with a band (especially an American one) that sounds like Basildon’s favourite sons.
Vital songs: Farewell To Arms, The Beginning Of The End, What Do You See?, Another Minute, You Think You Know Her, The Echoing Green
Esperanto – Elektric Music (1993): Karl Bartos left Kraftwerk in the early 1990s to pursue his own solo career. He had been involved in the creation of all of Kraftwerk’s landmark albums between Radioactivity (1975) and Electric Cafe (1986), so he knew a thing or two about electronic music. This album is now out of print, so good luck finding an affordable copy of it, but it’s an album that should be a part of EVERY synth guy’s music library. Simply put, Karl Bartos captures the spirit and essence of Kraftwerk better than Kraftwerk do. All the things to love about Kraftwerk (i.e. the vocoder, the electro beats, the quasi-futuristic digital synths, and manipulated vocal phrases) are present and accounted for on this album. As far as I’m concerned, this is the album Kraftwerk SHOULD have been able to put out during the 17-year gap between Electric Cafe and Tour de France Soundtracks. Andy McCluskey of OMD sings on Kissing The Machine, a track which he co-wrote with Bartos. It’s quirky, experimental and fun as hell to listen to!
Vital songs: TV, Crosstalk, Kissing The Machine, Esperanto, Overdrive
Technique – New Order (1989): Ibiza! New Order’s last album released on Factory records, and it’s one for the ages. It was heavily influenced by the Balearic sub-culture, as evidenced on tracks like Fine Time and Mr. Disco. It’s a pretty fair balance between guitar-driven tracks and all-out synth-driven, bass-bin thumpers. New Order were just hitting the peak of their popularity in the UK, and would be commissioned to write the official theme song for Britain’s 1990 World Cup team shortly after this album hit the streets. I was fortunate enough to have seen New Order during their Technique tour in July of ’89. It was a quasi-religious experience for me. I had already fallen in love with the band’s music years before, but the dance-pop songs on this album, and their Alt-rock sensiblities really sent me over the top. This is the perfect album to listen to on a breezy summer day. Just something mysterious about Peter Hook’s bass & Steve Morris’ programmed 909 beats. Pure heaven!
Vital songs: Vanishing Point, Mr. Disco, Dream Attack, Guilty Partner, Round & Round
Yes – Pet Shop Boys (2009): The Pet Shop Boys blew my expectations out of the water when they released this album. It’s one of the few albums released by a band of the Pet Shop Boys’ stature and experience that really impresses and astounds in a way nobody ever expected it to. While not an overtly dance-heavy album, it does have some of the strongest hooks, melodies, and lyrics to be featured on a Pet Shop Boys album since perhaps 1993’s Very. Far too often it seems that bands want to focus on reinventing the wheel as it were when it comes to releasing new material. On this release the PSB seem comfortable with who they are and recognize where their strength lies, and don’t try to be something they’re not. They’re best at being themselves. They do it well on this album. It possesses all the characteristics that their iconic albums have, and leaves you wanting another listen. And another. And another. And another……….
Vital songs: The Way It Used To Be, More Than A Dream, King Of Rome, Pandemonium, All Over The World
The Pacific Age – OMD (1986): Against my will, this album eventually became the album which really got me hooked on OMD. As a teenager living in upstate NY, this was one of the albums which provided the soundtrack for my days hanging out with my friends and cruising for girls. Along with OMD’s Best Of album, which also came out around the same time, OMD was one of those bands whose music rarely left my cassette player. As I became a more serious musician later on, I learned about the sampling technology which Paul Humphreys had used on this album, and ended up falling in love with the subtle brilliance of the The Pacific Age album even more. It’s a far cry from OMD’s earlier albums like Dazzle Ships and A&M, but its impact and influence on me has been profound despite the fact. A bit on the mellow side, and perhaps a glimpse of things to come sound-wise when Humphreys, Holmes and Cooper would eventually split off from OMD to form the Listening Pool, but I still love this album. One of the better albums from the 1980s to feature the Fairlight CMI & Emulator II samplers.
Vital songs: We Love You, Forever (Live & Die), Stay, Southern, Goddess of Love, The Pacific Age
Substance 1987 – New Order (1987): Normally an album of remixes and extended versions shouldn’t be included on a list such as this. But New Order’s Substance is a clear exception to the rule. Most of the tracks on this album were never included on an actual studio album release. Rather, they were one-off singles and songs that had been written for films instead of actual album tracks. This collection also serves as a fantastic best-of overview of sorts for the band up to the 1987 point of reckoning. It chronicles how the band began with a new name and an unsure-of-himself lead singer (Sumner) trying hard to fill the shoes of the departed Ian Curtis. Starting off with Ceremony, which had essentially been a Joy Division demo, and still sounded a lot like Joy Division, to True Faith, which showcases just how far both Sumner and New Order had come from their rocky rebirth. It’s one of the most important album releases in the history of music…… PERIOD! A definite desert island disc. If I were stranded on a desert island, this is one of the albums I’d want to have with me. Vital. Absolutely vital to synth music.
Vital songs: Perfect Kiss, Thieves Like Us, True Faith, Bizarre Love Triangle, Everything’s Gone Green, Confusion, Temptation
A Broken Frame – Depeche Mode (1982): It seems that both fans of the band AND the band themselves like to pretend that this album doesn’t exist, which is very sad. While it may be a rather awkward album, which I’m sure reminds Depeche Mode of a very uncomfortable & awkward time in their career (Vince Clarke, their chief songwriter, had just jumped ship & left them in the lurch), it still contains some EXTREMELY solid songs. Without question, there are some stinkers on here (Meaning of Love, Monument). However, it also contains what may be the finest and most over-looked song in the entire Depeche Mode catalogue, The Sun and the Rainfall. It’s a significant album if for no other reason than it shows Depeche Mode’s resilience, and refusal to quit when conventional wisdom tells them to pack it in. It’s detached, uneven, and absolutely gloomy. Aside from Playing The Angel (2005), this is perhaps their most depressing album to listen to. But that’s part of what makes it so brilliant. I really wish they’d give this album the respect and attention it deserves.
Vital songs: The Sun & the Rainfall, A Photograph of You, My Secret Garden, Nothing To Fear, See You, Leave In Silence
Pretty Hate Machine – Nine Inch Nails (1989): Trent Reznor has issues. That’s pretty much the theme of this album. He uses machines, he was once in love, but is now filled with disdain & hatred for those he once loved, and it’s pretty scary some of the things he sings about. Hence, Pretty. Hate. Machine. All of my lame-ass joking aside, whether you find the lyrical content offensive or not, you can’t deny that this album is an amazing piece of electronic art. Somewhere amidst all that rage, spite, and anger are some truly engaging melodies. This was the album I’d play when I would break up with a girlfriend or get pissed off at my college roommates. It’s the closest to speed metal that a synth dweeb like me will get. Trent Reznor was influenced by the likes of Human League and OMD, so it’s not really surprising that if you strip away some of the distortion and heavy f/x in his music, you’ll find the same classic melodic synth-pop which influenced me hiding under the extreme polish and veneer of his Nine Inch Nails.
Vital songs: Down In It, The Only Time, Sin, Terrible Lie, Head Like A Hole
Dream Into Action – Howard Jones (1985): In the mid-1980s Howard Jones could do no wrong. He had an uncanny knack for writing 4-minute synth-pop hits. He reached the height of his success with this album. It’s just a blast to listen to. You get the impression that HoJo really enjoys what he does. Several of the songs on this album ended up being hit singles, and for a while HoJo was consider the best synth player on the planet. Phil Collins even helped out for a remix of No One Is To Blame. He’s still undeniably one of the best, and this album was his high point for me.
Vital songs: Like To Get To Know You Well, No One Is To Blame, Look Mama, Hide And Seek, Bounce Right Back.
Voices & Images – Camouflage (1988): Another instance of ‘Is-it-live-or-is-it-Depeche Mode?’. When I first heard Camouflage in the summer of 1988 I swore it was a new Depeche Mode album. Of course, the singer’s thick German accent is what ultimately gave it away. But musically, mind you, it was as close to Depeche Mode as you could ever hope to get, and for synth guys like me, that was a very good thing. It was deep and melancholy, but it also had one hell of a good beat behind it. You could dance to it or you could also just chill out and relax to it. It’s one of the most solid late-80s era synth albums ever produced. I think it’s a technically perfect German synth-pop album in the same vein as Hubert Kah, Peter Schilling, and even De/Vision’s early work. The Great Commandment was the big hit from the album, and it’s one of the finest synth-pop songs ever written. But it’s overshadowed and outshined by several other tracks if given the chance.
Vital songs: That Smiling Face, From Ay To Bee, The Great Commandment, Music For Ballerinas, Strangers Thoughts, I Once Had A Dream
Still Life – The Listening Pool (1994): If you like the late-1980s era of OMD, chances are you’ll really like The Listening Pool. This is the band that formed when Paul Humphreys, Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper left OMD in 1989, and their sound continues in the more organic/traditional pop format which found its way onto OMD’s Crush and Pacific Age albums. It’s a more mature-sounding pop than synth-pop, but it’s REALLY good. What it does, is it shows just how vital Paul Humphreys was to the ‘soul’ of OMD. Andy McCluskey is undeniably the face , the mind, and the voice of OMD, but as this album shows, Paul was the heart and soul. The album shows Humphreys, Cooper, & Holmes refining their skills as pop song writers and honest-to-goodness traditional musicians. Paul Humphreys’ voice is simply angelic. There’s no other way to describe it. He sings lead vox on several ballads and mid-tempo tracks on this album. Meant To Be, in particular, and several others sound like they could’ve easily been singles off some lost OMD album. Great songwriting and great pop. A must-have for any OMD or pop/soft-rock fan. Oh….. and Martin Cooper created the painting which was used for the album’s cover art.
Vital songs: Meant To Be, Still Life, Wild Strawberries, Oil For The Lamps Of China, Hand Me That Universe, Blue Africa
Cowboy – Erasure (1997): This gets me a lot of grief when I talk with my fellow Erasure fans, but this album is my all-time favourite Erasure album. Released well after their heyday, it contains their most solid and consistently good synth-pop since The Innocents. For me there are no fillers on this album. Every track is strong enough to stand on its own merit.The ballads, in particular, are where the album really shines. If you’re lucky enough to have the limited-edition run of the album (which I am), it also contains two of the finest cover songs ever recorded; Magic Moments and Blondie’s classic Rapture, complete with Vince Clarke rapping! I think this was the last really great album Erasure have released. There have been a few moments wherein they’ve recaptured their old glory and greatness since this album was released, but no album released since Cowboy has been this solid or consistent.
Vital songs: Save Me Darling, Treasure, Precious, Don’t Say Your Love Is Killing Me, In My Arms, Rain, Worlds On Fire
Chorus – Erasure (1991): As Erasure headed into the 1990s, instead of embracing new technology, and the Korg M1 and Roland JD-800 series of digital synthesizers, Vince Clarke bucked against the prevailing trend of the time and embraced analog synthesizers, which had all but fallen out of fashion and favor by 1990. So Chorus was recorded with 1970s technology in terms of synthesizers because Vince felt it brought more warmth to the feel of the recordings. He was the first famous synth guy to revert to analog technology in the digital age, and in the years that followed, others would follow him in doing the same. From a songwriting perspective, this album is rock-solid and undeniably stands as one of Erasure’s strongest albums. The whole album is a non-stop synth-pop paradise. Quite possibly one of the finest examples of the genre.
Vital songs: Love To Hate You, Siren Song, Am I Right?, Home, Joan, Breath Of Life
Introspective – Pet Shop Boys (1988): One of the most unique Pet Shop Boys albums, if for no other reason than its relatively few number of tracks (just 6 total!). Each song on the album is at least 6-minutes in length, and two of the songs on the album are cover songs. I never particularly cared for Always On My Mind or Left To My Own Devices, but the rest of the album is absolutely fantastic. What really send me over the moon is the piano solos in both I Want A Dog and Domino Dancing. The album is worth it for those two songs alone.
Vital songs: I Want A Dog, Domino Dancing, I’m Not Scared, It’s Alright
Naive Art – Red Flag (1989): The late-Mark Reynolds, lead singer of San Diego-based synth-pop duo, Red Flag, had one of the most lovely male voices of the genre. This album is one of the best synth-pop albums ever recorded and is vital to the history of the genre. For starters, it was produced by Paul Robb of Information Society, and is one of the most danceable albums of the late-80s. Sounding like a Depeche Mode knock-off at times, Red Flag establish their own identity rather quickly and succinctly with powerful dance-pop tracks like If I Ever, Russian Radio and Count To Three. But where they REALLY excel is ballads and slower-tempo tracks. Their piano-driven ballad, Rain and the accompanying classical piano piece, Für Michelle, show Red Flag’s true depth of talent. This album belongs in every synth-pop library.
Vital songs: Für Michelle, If I Ever, Rain, Save Me Tonight, All Roads Lead To You, Russian Radio
Showtime – Nitzer Ebb (1990): One of the absolute best, if not THE best EBM/Industrial band on the face of the Earth! The thing that makes me like Nitzer Ebb more than NIN is the fact that Nitzer Ebb brings the thunder like no other electronic act. Their drums and rhythms are something you don’t just hear….. you FEEL them! The synths are dark and brooding, but the feel of the songs is still upbeat and dance-worthy, or perhaps ‘mosh-worthy’ is more like it. I got to see them open for Depeche Mode in 1990, and seeing them perform live was an experience I will never forget. If you like your synth-pop to be a bit more on the aggressive side, this is the first place you should look.
Vital songs: Getting Closer, Lightning Man, Fun To Be Had, One Man’s Burden, Rope
Shelter – Seven Red Seven (1991): Hailing from Chicago, IL, Seven Red Seven are perhaps the most important underground synth-pop act of all time. I had the pleasure of hosting them as one of my headliners for SynthStock ’96 and they put on one of the most energetic live shows I’ve ever seen. Nothing fancy, just rock-solid, techno-infused synth-pop. When synth-pop was driven underground in the 1990s by grunge and so-called ‘Alternative’ music, Seven Red Seven helped keep the American synth-pop flame burning bright. Long out of print, this album, along with all of 7R7’s other releases, are now available on iTunes. Buy it now, you’ll thank me later. A Definite must-have.
Vital songs: You’re The Answer, Thinking Of You, That Way Again, She Won’t Dance
Trip – Cause & Effect (1994): The last C&E album released on a major label. Released a few years after the death of founding member, Sean Rowley, and dedicated to his memory, this album yielded one chart hit for the band with It’s Over Now. It carries on with much of the same straightforward synth-pop formula of their debut album, but it also features live drums, courtesy of new member, Richard Shepard, and more guitar, courtesy of Rob Rowe. The songs have a decidedly edgier and raw quality about them, but are still fantastic nonetheless. The album is also far more subdued and melancholy than its predecessor, but it doesn’t detract from the overall feel or quality of the album one bit. It’s a shame that their label, the BMG-hosted, Zoo label, folded shortly after the album’s release. I think C&E got lost in the shuffle, and that’s a shame. One of the better albums of the mid-90s.
Vital songs: It’s Over Now, Shakespeare’s Garden, Sinking, She Said, Inside Out
Heartbeat City – The Cars (1984): My favourite band from Boston, and one of the most influential New Wave/Rock bands of the 80’s, The Cars released this gem in the middle of the Reagan decade. Produced by rock legend, ‘Mutt’ Lange, the album yielded 4 Top-20 singles and was the most commercially successful cars album. Heavy on the synth, it had massive crossover appeal and is widely regarded by critics as one of the best albums of the 1980s. The album’s title track is what really does it for me on this one. Bassist Benjamin Orr would provide the lead vocals on Drive, one of the most powerful synth-driven ballads of all time. Any serious music fan, to say nothing of any serious synth-pop fan, should have this album in their collection.
Vital songs: Heartbeat City, Drive, You Might Think, Magic, Hello Again
Man Of Colours – Icehouse (1987): More a pop record than a real synth-pop record, but hey, weren’t most pop albums released in the mid-80s synth-pop in one way or another? This was the album that broke Australian act, Icehouse into the American mainstream. It’s success in the States was helped by the chart success of two great singles, one of which, Electric Blue, was written by John Oates of Hall & Oates fame. It’s more on the mellow side, but it has gobs & gobs of the Fairlight CMI and Prophet-5 on it. Lead singer, Iva Davies, is one of my favourite singers in all of pop music. This album is the perfect album to put on when you want to un-wind after a rough day. Mellow & relaxing, and undoubtedly is Icehouse at their best.
Vital songs: Crazy, Man of Colours, Electric Blue, Heartbreak Kid.
Doot-Doot – Freur (1983): From the band that would one day become Underworld, and redefine how we think about electronic music, comes a synth album like no other. This album shows Karl Hyde and Rick Smith in the early days as part of a pseudo prog-rock outfit from Cardiff, Wales. While the music on this album is closer to college radio alternative fare than outright synth-pop, it still has a few songs that meet the bill very succinctly. The title track is a shining of example of that. The songs themselves are so well structured, and Karl Hyde’s voice is so mesmerizing that it’s easy to get lost in the music. Quirky, strange, and sometimes just plain weird, it remains one of my all-time favourite albums in any genre.
Vital songs: Riders In The Night, Doot Doot, Runaway, The Devil In Darkness, Hey Ho, Away We Go
Vertigo – Boxcar (1990): Another fantastic little-known Aussie band, their sound is a bit like New Order. In fact, their lead singer, Dave Smith, sounds a bit Sumner-esque on a few songs from this album. The album is very much a product of early-90s dance music trends, so some of it it does sound a bit dated. But it’s a non-stop party filled with killer melodies and upbeat goodness. The percussion and drum programming are what stand out most to me. In ’91 this was one of my go-to albums when I needed a good lift or strong music to work out to. In 2013 it still works quite well for that.
Vital songs: Hit & Run, Gas Stop (Who Do You Think You Are?), Insect, Freemason, Lorlei, Comet, Vertigo
Madstock – Candyflip (1991): If you’ve ever heard of Candyflip, you’ve just won major brownie points with me. If you actually own this record, you are a true devotee of synth-pop. They came along as the Mad-chester scene in Northern England was drawing to a close, and their childlike image stood in stark contrast to the ecstasy-fueled binges and mind-altering experiences they were extolling in their music. Their music has a funky, albeit trendy 60’s hippy vibe to it, but it actually works remarkably well in a processed synth-pop format. Another one of my go-to albums from ’91 to ’92. Very sad that they disappeared so quickly. It’s impossible to have a depressing day while listening to this album.
Vital songs: Love Is Life, Madstock, Redhills Road, This Can Be Real, Strawberry Fields Forever
Wild! – Erasure (1989): Their Crackers International EP notwithstanding, this was Erasure’s follow up to their smash album, The Innocents. It’s a bit darker than its predecessor, but it still finds a way to be upbeat and rather light on the ears. Some of Andy Bell’s lyrics are quite deep and introspective, but with Clarke’s can’t-miss musical arrangements they’re all top-drawer results. Piano work is quite heavy on this album, perhaps more so than on any other Erasure album. It’s that arpeggiation in Blue Savannah that really astounds me. While most of the songs are ballad and mid-tempo variety, there are a few notable dance-oriented numbers. It’s one of Erasure’s better albums when all is said and done, and it’s the last Erasure album recorded wherein the majority of the synthesizers were MIDI-equipped. All subsequent Erasure albums would feature significantly more analog synthesizers than digital synths.
Vital songs: Drama!, Blue Savannah, You Surround Me, How Many Times, Piano Song, Crown of Thorns, Brother And Sister
Boss Drum – The Shamen (1992): This is my favourite Shamen album, and quite possibly my favourite early-90s era techno album. It’s the perfect album to get people dancing, and features some of the most enjoyable TB-303 action I’ve ever heard. Mr. C is given more time on this album to rap than on En-Tact, and it really helps keep the album from becoming dull and repetitive. I always found Mr. C to be a far more interesting frontman than Colin Angus. Nothing but a terrific electronic album. The chorus from Ebeneezer Goode….. ‘E’s are good! E’s are good!’. How tongue-in-cheek can you get? Once more proving that if you put a good beat behind it, you can get away with just about anything.
Vital songs: Ebeneezer Goode, Boss Drum, Phorever People, Comin On, LSI (Love Sex, Intelligence)
Conscience – The Beloved (1993): A bit more laid-back than Happiness, this album is all about getting lost in the music, and this time around that’s not exactly a good thing. Steve Waddington, Jon Marsh’s co-founder, had departed the band and had been replaced by Jon’s wife, Helena for the recording of this album. The exit of Steve Waddington meant less guitars and more synths. O happy day! Or so you’d think. It resulted in a very funky, groove-oriented album, but it never quite takes off. Unlike its predecessor, the ballads on this album left a lot to be desired, and for the most part, really weren’t very good. But two of the more upbeat tracks were certifiable knockouts, and they’re the whole reason I’m including this album. The lyrics for most of the songs tend to have a new age quality about them, and cosmic enlightenment is a recurring theme throughout the entire album. Quasi-spiritualism, if you will. But the music is what matters the most, and while the album doesn’t suck by any means, it disappoints overall. Nevertheless, Sweet Harmony is one of the Beloved’s best songs, and it’s one of the top synth-pop songs of the whole decade. I listen to it for that, and that alone.
Vital songs: Sweet Harmony, Outerspace Girl
Lexicon of Love – ABC (1982): Whenever I think of ABC I think of elegance and class. Produced by Trevor Horn, this was ABC’s first album. It is widely regarded as one of the finest pop albums of the 80s, and with good reason. Between the actual production team and session musicians who helped record the album, most of whom would go on to form the Art of Noise, it should come as no surprise that this album is a solid synth-pop effort. Martin Fry is one of the best frontmen in all of synth-pop, and possesses one of the most soulful voices in the business. Drummer Carl Palmer has been one of the most sought-after drummers in the music business over the past thirty years. Lexicon of Love is just dripping with musical talent.One of the best albums of 1982, and an album that still sounds remarkably fresh three decades on.
Vital songs: Poison Arrow, Tears Are Not Enough, The Look of Love (Part One), All of my Heart
Send Me An Angel ’89 – Real Life (1989): Hands-down, my favourite band from Australia, and one of the most underrated bands of the new wave era. This album is another best-of collection which deserves to be mentioned as a proper album. It’s also a rare instance where a re-recording of a band’s biggest hit surpasses the original recording in every possible way. If you’re looking to get the best possible introduction to one of the best bands of the 80s, look no further than this collection. While the title track is the biggest and most obvious draw, the lesser-known tracks are every bit as good, especially Catch Me I’m Falling, which just might be one of the best songs from the whole new wave era. I was fortunate enough to work with Real Life on two different occasions during my career, and they are, without question, my favourite group of guys that I’ve ever worked with. I was a big fan of theirs long before I met them. This album belongs in every new wave/synth-pop collection!
Vital songs: Catch Me I’m Falling, Send Me An Angel ’89, Babies, Always, One Blind Love, Hammer of Love
Forever Young – Alphaville (1984): Another instance where the whole album is overshadowed by the hit single. Quite possibly one of the most-requested slow songs of all time, the album’s title track certainly deserves the fame and recognition. But there are so many other songs on the album which are better and stronger than the title track. Marian Gold is quite possibly one of the greatest male singers this side of Freddie Mercury, and the synths on this album mix so well with his soaring voice. The songs on this album are expertly arranged and superbly mixed. One of the finest examples of 80s synth-pop there is. Another classic album which belongs in every synth-pop library.
Vital songs: Big In Japan, Sounds Like A Melody, Summer In Berlin, Jet Set, Forever Young, A Victory Of Love
Into The Gap – Thompson Twins (1984): One of the finest albums recorded with a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer. This is the album that broke the Thompson Twins into the US mainstream, and at the time of its release I fell head-over-heels in love with it. To this day, my all-time favourite synth solo is the one featured on Doctor! Doctor!. I was so proud of myself when I finally figured out how to play it. The whole album has some fantastic synth-pop moments, and some of the best songs on here are songs that never became singles. Of all the bands from this era that no longer exist, I’m saddest about the Twins. I would love to see them reunite for a tour and/or album. Although I think there’s a better chance of seeing The Smiths get back together before we’ll ever see a Thompson Twins reunion taking place. Still….. I love this album.
Vital songs: Sister of Mercy, The Gap, Doctor! Doctor!, Hold Me Now, You Take Me Up
Very – Pet Shop Boys (1993): This was a rather significant album for the Pet Shop Boys. For starters, Neil Tennant came out, and wrote several songs about it. But for me the biggest draw to the album is their cover of the Village People’s Go West. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY does covers as well as the Pet Shop Boys. They took the minor disco hit and turned it into one of the most powerful synth-pop anthems of all time. It’s one of my all-time favourite songs. I have a ritual of playing it every time I travel back to Utah from anywhere east of the Mississippi. The song exudes awesomeness! But the other tracks on the album are no less awesome. The ballads, in particular, are where this album really shines. It was easily one of the best albums of 1993, synth-pop or otherwise. Neil & Chris were definitely on top of their game with this album. Oh….. and for a special treat, listen for the hidden track after Go West. It features Chris Lowe actually singing for once!
Vital songs: Go West, Dreaming of the Queen, Can You Forgive Her?, To Speak Is A Sin, Yesterday When I Was Mad, The Theatre, Postscript (I Believe In Ecstasy)
Hunting High & Low – A-ha (1985): Sure, we all know about Take On Me, and what an awesome video it was. But that wonderful single, brilliant as it still is after all these years, is far from being the best track on the album. That honor belongs to the album’s title track. It’s one of the most beautiful ballads I’ve ever heard, and Morten Harket’s unearthly falsetto just sends it over the top. But there are several other synth-pop gems on the album which shouldn’t be overlooked. The synths tend to be somewhat sparsely arranged, but with a voice like Morten’s driving the songs, who cares? This album remains my favourite A-ha album.
Vital songs: Hunting High & Low, Blue Sky, Take On Me, The Sun Always Shines On TV, Train Of Thought
Construction Time Again – Depeche Mode (1983): Important for the fact that this was DM’s first album to feature Alan Wilder as a full-time member, this is also the first DM album where the band embraced sampling technology and a spirit of sonic experimentation. Several songs have a definite industrial feel about them, but there are still several traditional synth-pop tracks as well. Two of the better songs on the album were penned by Wilder, but the album’s biggest track, Everything Counts, is one of Gore’s. This is also the only DM album where the band go political with most of the lyrical content. Covering everything from capitalism, socialism, Nuclear War, and the environment, the album has a decided socio-political slant to it. But the draw for me is how heavily they relied on samplers to make the album.
Vital songs: And Then, Two-Minute Warning, Shame, More Than A Party, Told You So, Everything Counts
Mad, Bad & Dangerous To Know – Dead or Alive (1987): Unfortunately, most people know Dead or Alive for their massive ’85 hit, You Spin Me Round (Like a Record). However, their best work is featured on this album, which was released 2 years later. It’s 100% dance floor fodder and makes no apologies for it. The album’s lead-off track is Brand New Lover, which among other things, contains a blistering guitar solo. This is the song which Dead or Alive should be remembered for. Produced by the legendary Stock/Aitken/Waterman studio team which also brought them success on their previous album, this album is an enjoyable listen from start to finish. If you’re only going to own one Dead or Alive album, this should be it.
Vital songs: Then There Was You, Brand New Lover, Special Star, Hooked On Love, Something In My House
Communication – Karl Bartos (2003): As I said earlier in my review for Elektric Music’s Esperanto album, Karl Bartos does Kraftwerk better than Kraftwerk. That’s no more evident than on this album, his third solo venture. He’s dispensed with the Elektric Music moniker & opted to go with his own name, which is a smart move because people should know how amazing he is. He doesn’t need a moniker. The songs on here are Kraftwerk-esque masterpieces that leave you wanting more. It’s also one of the best-mixed and mastered albums I’ve ever heard. If God played electro, he would sound like Karl Bartos. This is what every great electronic album should aspire to be.
Vital songs: Cyberspace, Reality, I’m The Message, Ultraviolet, The Camera, 15 Minutes of Fame
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – OMD (1980): OMD’s debut album is simply brilliant. Recorded between 1978 and 1979, it’s one of the most essential albums of the entire synth-pop genre. Like Kraftwerk’s albums which preceded this release, this album would go on to influence many other artists, most notably Vince Clarke. The album is significant because OMD took very cheap synthesizers and keyboards and got very BIG sounds out of them. The songwriting is fantastic and the overall feel of the album is still fresh and relevant. My favourite tracks are the non-singles like Almost and Julia’s Song. A definitive piece of synth and new wave history here, folks. I love it!
Vital songs: Almost, Red Frame White Light, Bunker Soldiers, Messages, Electricity, Mystereality, Julia’s Song
ESCM – BT (1997): I’m a big fan of BT. Like me, he grew up listening to all the great synth-pop and electronic acts of the 70s and 80s. BT is unique in the sense that unlike most of his modern electronic music peers actually writes, plays and arranges his own music. Contrary to what many think, he’s not (just) a DJ. He’s classically trained and it shows in his music. Perfectly at home doing a remix of today’s hottest dance music, or composing a moving score for a motion picture, BT can do it all. This album is pure instrumental bliss. It’s epic and ethereal. I like it most of all for the atmosphere he creates on tracks like Flaming June. One of my favourite instrumental albums.
Vital songs: Flaming June, Remember, Orbitus Teranium, Firewater, Love Peace & Grease
Rio – Duran Duran (1982): There’s a reason why Duran Duran were all over the airwaves in the 80s, and contrary to popular belief, it’s not (just) because of their un-Godly good looks. Beneath all their eye shadow and lip gloss was one hell of a talented band. This album was HUGE in the 80s. Duran Duran are one of the few exceptions to the boy band rule; they actually write their own songs and play their own instruments. The synths on this album are simply dreamy. Nick Rhodes creates some incredible layers with his Jupiter-8 and various string synthesizers. This album defined the new wave sound for a whole generation. Every song on the album is a world-class hit. This is a must-have album for every music library.
Vital songs: Hold Back The Rain, The Chauffeur, Hungry Like The Wolf, Save A Prayer, Rio