I went to see the Protomen last night, who did a fine job of performing their Mega Man fan fiction for an eager crowd of nostalgia junkies. Makeup + Vanity Set opened, and one of the friends I went with — who was there for the Protomen — asked me about synthwave and how to tell the difference between the good stuff and the bad stuff. I decided to write up a quick primer of where to start with the genre, some of the best albums and artists. I’m not gonna focus much on the bad stuff. You know it when you hear it: chintzy production, generic songs, a sense of having heard it all before. So, avoid that. This isn’t intended to be comprehensive at all, but here are some of my personal favorites to help you know where to start:
I’ve said this many times before, but Perturbator is the apex of the genre, and Uncanny Valley his most fully realized venture into the darksynth genre. Layers upon layers of instrumentation bring his dystopian future into pulsing reality. It’s hard not to get lost in his world.
Gost took a turn into blackened industrial with his most recent release, but Non Paradisi is his most hard-hitting synthwave entry. A terrifying descent into the hell of one man’s making, it’s Satanic synths at their finest.
Carpenter Brut appear poised to become the breakout stars of the scene (unless you count S U R V I V E, who I find interminably boring). This live release perfectly illustrates why. High-energy interpretations of tunes from their three EPs could get a corpse onto the dance floor.
Makeup + Vanity Set is the work of one man, but he’s incredibly prolific — and he doesn’t sacrifice quality for quantity. Wilderness is his finest full-length to date, an ambitious set of soundscapes that envelop the listener in their darkness.
One of the more nostalgia-centered acts in a genre based around nostalgia, The Midnight do a fantastic job of transporting the listener to a very specific time and place. The vocals help provide an easy way in for pop fans, but it helps that they’re over lovely tunes.
The Turbo Kid film was an ultraviolent ode to post-apocalyptic BMX flicks of the 80s. The soundtrack, by Le Matos, functions as both an album from the French Canadian duo and a score to the movie. “No Tomorrow feat. Pawws” is a shimmering delight, one of the finest songs to come out of the whole scene.
Two of the finest artists in the synth scene, OGRE and Dallas Campbell, combined forces to create this imaginary horror movie soundtrack. These Carpenter-esque compositions sound so sinister they’ll creep you out even during broad daylight.
Delightful shredwave from Irish producer Bart Graft, Universe makes for a perfect summertime listen. The guitar pyrotechnics and chill synth backing tracks interweave beautifully.
Let me know if you have any favorites you think would be good entry points to the genre!