The eclectic genre of synthpop is one with a long and storied history. A lot of people can be attributed to its origins, so it can be tough to pinpoint exactly who can be credited for its inception. However, there was a scene involving multiple artists in the '70s who were essential in developing the genre as we know it today. So let’s start there, and work our way up through the decades, going through the many events and notable artists who shaped synthesizer pop as we know it today.
It was the invention of the Moog synthesizer in 1964 by Robert Moog that changed it all. Replacing the Mellotron keyboard by way of electronic-produced sounds, there was suddenly a wave of progressive rock bands like Yes and Pink Floyd using it in their music. Over in Germany, there was a new scene of progressive rock known as “krautrock” that was bubbling. Bands like Kraftwerk, Can, Neu!, and Faust were using the Moog to their advantage. Kraftwerk would be the group to most utilize the Moog, and while experimenting with electronics on their 1973 album Rolf and Florian, it was the release of Autobahn in 1974 that changed it all.
The 22-minute title track from Autobahn is a sprawling ambient tune, with multiple sections that make use of things like Moog bass, electronic percussion pads, phasing, and vocoder vocals. The catchy Beach Boys-esque chorus of the song brought newfound success for Kraftwerk in the UK and the US. After extensive touring, the group released the one-two punch of Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine in 1977 and 1978. These albums really honed in on the pop aspects of Autobahn, ditching the Moog for the Synthanorma Sequenzer, which allowed for far more elaborate electronic sequences, eliminating the need for repetitive key playing.
Kraftwerk's efforts seemed to predict the oncoming electropop phenomenon. In 1977, Italian producer Giorgio Moroder collaborated with singer Donna Summer for the single “I Feel Love.” Utilizing the Moog for the backing track, “I Feel Love” featured electronics that were unseen at the time. It peaked in many countries at the time, including Australia and the UK. The song was a breakthrough in the club scene, serving as something of a starting point for new wave and electronic-based disco to come.
Synthesizers made a big wave in art rock in 1977 and '78, too. David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy of albums, Low, Heroes, and Lodger, all utilized the Moog and EMS Synthi AKS. Electronic pioneer Brian Eno contributed greatly to those three records, and he also produced Devo’s debut album Are We Not Men? We Are Devo in 1978, fusing punk rock with an offbeat use of synthesizers. In New York, art punk duo Suicide utilized synthesized electronics for their debut album. A minimal, chilling take on punk, it would provide inspiration for many indie rock bands to come.
Out in the East in Japan, Yellow Magic Orchestra was developing their own brand of synthesizer-based pop music. 1979’s Solid State Survivor was entirely electronic-based, relying heavily on vocoders for singers Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s vocals. Use of micro-composed programming and animal sound samples made their brand of quirky pop music especially endearing.
The release of “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles and Devo’s album Freedom of Choice honed in a new era of synthpop, aptly titled “new wave.” The invention of the MIDI keyboard in the early 80s simplified the creation of electronic effects, signaling a dominating force that would come to define much of pop music throughout the '80s. New wave became the norm, and with it, a multitude of groups like Duran Duran, The Human League, and Tears for Fears would come to thrive in the changing climate.
After the death of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in 1980, the remaining members formed New Order. New Order implemented synthesizers seamlessly with post-punk, a sound they hinted at on Joy Division’s final album Closer. While their 1981 debut Movement was light on synths, New Order’s 1983 single “Blue Monday” would prove to be a monumental moment in the development of synthpop. At seven minutes, the song features a driving beat from an Oberheim DMX drum machine that develops into moody melodies, atmospheric synthesizers, and a strong bassline from Peter Hook. “Blue Monday” would become an anthem in the club scene, going on to be the highest-selling 12” single of all-time.
New Order’s 1983 album Power, Corruption & Lies was another smash hit for the band. It showed them fully embracing synthesizers in their music, melding electronic sequencers with post-punk to create the dance-rock hybrid that the band would be famous for. As New Order was making waves of their own in the rock world, the generation of new wave was making strides in the world of MTV. Groups like A Flock of Seagulls with “I Ran” and A-ha with “Take On Me” thrived in the new, mega-popular video format environment.
As dance-pop was making a craze due to the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson, Duran Duran was focusing more on the synthesizer aspects. Their album Rio was a smash hit, and they would continue to have success throughout the 80s. Groups like Erasure and Pet Shop Boys made waves in the UK. Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears found success worldwide, with Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair reaching number one on the charts in many countries, no doubt due to the massive influence that exposure from MTV had at the time.
Synthpop’s popularity waned greatly throughout the '90s. It may have been oversaturation, as synthesizers had been dominating nearly every facet of radio music throughout the previous decade. Grunge was making its way into the mainstream, with MTV and the general public turning their heads to bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains. Many rock musicians were lashing out at synth-based music, claiming that it lacked soul, focusing too much on robotic effects to remove the human element from music.
That’s not to say that there weren’t synthpop gems released during this period, though. Pop giants Depeche Mode released what is arguably their masterpiece, Violator, in 1990. Songs like “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence” were massive hits for the band, and their success would continue through the rise of grunge rock with their album Songs of Faith and Devotion.
Synthesizers were thriving in the underground, too. Bands like Disco Inferno and especially Stereolab were finding interesting ways to experiment with synths. Stereolab’s 1996 and 1997 albums Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Dots and Loops were experimental pop masterworks. The combination of space-age synthesizers and Lætitia Sadier’s heavenly voice on “Cybele’s Reverie” is just one fine example of the group’s unique take on synthpop. Over in Australia, Savage Garden would find modest success in synthpop toward the end of the decade.
The turn of the new millennium is when synthpop would find a newfound reemergence. Seattle’s The Postal Service, a collaborative duo consisting of Jimmy Tamborello and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, set the scene for the rest of the decade with the release of their electronica-tinged pop debut (and only album) Give Up in 2003. Melancholic and lush, the songs of Give Up were like a breath of fresh air. Poetic lyricism and energetic electronic beats made the album a unique release at the time. Some would argue that Owl City, whose single “Fireflies” you just couldn’t escape from hearing on the radio around 2009, was an imitation of The Postal Service’s sound.
In Sweden, brother and sister duo Olof Dreijer and Karin Andersson's project The Knife were starting their own sort of synthpop revolution. 2003 single “Heartbeats” was a massive success in Europe, finding more success worldwide through the years, thanks in due part to a well-known cover by José González. It was their 2006 album Silent Shout that really shook up the game, though. It’s a spellbinding release, filled with cold, nocturnal synth flourishes, strange vocal effects, surreal songwriting, and dark, futuristic beats, all the while being incredibly catchy and danceable.
The rising bands in the post-punk revival scene like The Killers and The Bravery were also quick to adapt synthesizers in their music. In the indie scene, groups like Ladytron and Cut Copy fully embraced synthpop. Cut Copy’s 2008 album In Ghost Colours was a particularly strong release for the genre. Elements of trance and house combined with electropop beats and all-out synthesizer goodness left everyone who heard it on the dancefloor. Out in France, Phoenix was enjoying newfound mainstream success with their worldwide breakthrough release Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Infectious melodies and soaring synth leads were made all the better by the album's tight, glossy production.
Synthesizers were also making a big comeback in mainstream pop. La Roux and Lady Gaga were dominating the airwaves in the late 2000s. Songs like “Just Dance,” “Poker Face,” and “Bulletproof” were gigantic, inescapable hits, bringing electropop back into the public ears by making heavy use of synthesizers and electronic beats. Towards the end of the decade saw the birth of multiple different synth-based indie genres. Canadian duo Crystal Castles’ eclectic self-titled debut experimented with a wide-ranging synthetic soundscape palette, helping to popularize the short-lived “witch house” scene that included artists like Salem and Balam Acab.
In the southern United States, South Carolina’s Toro Y Moi, Texas’s Neon Indian, and Georgia’s Washed Out were the key players that dabbled in a mellow, reverb-heavy take on synthesizer pop. Coined as “chillwave” by the media, the genre quickly made the rounds of the indie blogosphere in the summer of 2009. While the scene was short-lived, it spawned some very impressive releases, including Neon Indian’s Psychic Chasms and Washed Out’s High Times and Life of Leisure EPs.
2010 and Beyond
With synthpop back in the world of mainstream and indie music, the genre would prove to be more timeless than early detractors had thought. Pop stars like Ke$ha and Beyoncé topped charts worldwide, while more and more independent artists continued to embrace and experiment with synthesizers. Artists like Toro Y Moi, Neon Indian, and Washed Out were moving away from the "chillwave" label, finding their own unique sounds on future releases.
The release of Nicolas Winding Refn's film Drive in 2011 starring Ryan Gosling featured an exceptional soundtrack, consisting of stylish, '80s-retro synthpop of the likes of Chromatics, College, Electric Youth, and the mighty opening credits theme "Nightcall" by Kavinsky. Also in 2011, French electro-rock group M83 went full-on synthpop with their double album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. “Midnight City” in particular is a strikingly good single. With its slick production and infectious hook, the song became a huge hit for the band. M83 would continue their trajectory of synthpop on 2016's Junk, evidenced by the mighty single "Go."
Carving her niche with two previous under-the-radar releases, Canadian artist Claire Boucher came into the indie spotlight with 2012's Visions, under her stage name Grimes. A soft and surreal take on electropop, songs like "Oblivion" and "Genesis" garnered a lot of attention for her. While Visions is mellow and ethereal, 2015's Art Angels is where Grimes would truly find her voice. Melodic and playful, Art Angels fully embraced the pop tendencies Grimes was playing with in the past.
Also coming out of Canada, coldwave duo TR/ST were working with a much darker take on synthpop than many of their contemporaries. Heavy and pulsating beats accentuated by singer Robert Alfons' slithery, druggy voice dominated their 2012 self-titled debut, a sound that continued on 2014's Joyland. Back in Sweden, The Knife was gearing up for their swan song, 2013's epic Shaking the Habitual. Over 90 minutes in length, Shaking the Habitual takes many strange turns, going from twisted electropop to dark ambient and drone, proving to be an ambitious release for the genre of synthpop. It was a magnificent end to The Knife's career, as they sadly broke up in 2014.
Coming out of Glasgow, Scotland, CHVRCHES made waves in the indie blog circuit with the release of hyper-catchy singles like "The Mother We Share" and "Recover." Their 2013 debut The Bones of What You Believe is a tour de force of synthwave production, earworm hooks, and melancholic songwriting. 2015's Every Open Eye is another high mark for the group as they continue to find rising success, collaborating with Paramore's Haley Williams on the single "Bury It."
Synthpop has undergone a lot of change over the decades, falling in and out of relevance with the changing musical landscape. As the turn of the millennium signaled a newfound resurgence for the genre, artists around the world are making strides in experimenting with the sounds of the past to shape the future of synthesizer-based pop music. It would be safe to assume that synthpop is here to stay, as the genre continues to evolve in ways few would have expected to see.