You will never guess this, but I have been on a small synth pop run lately, thanks to my research of Depeche Mode and Simple Minds. I cannot totally lay the blame at those band’s feet, but after reading a great article about the genre from a few years ago by the great Annie Zaleski on The AV Club’s website, along with another terrific overview of the genre in February 2018 edition of Classic Pop magazine by the legendary Paul Lester, I got my love of the synthesizer reignited. Now, when I become hyperfocused, I usually burn a bunch of CDs from my music computer, pull out all of the appropriate CDs, albums and 12-inch and 7-inch singles. Then, I dig through my music books and magazines collections for related reading material. Finally, I scour the internet for a good 24 to 48 hours for reading material, cutting and pasting information, articles, album reviews and the like into Word documents that work as my research cards of years gone by. The crazy thing about my brain is that I have a nearly eidetic memory. Now, most people with this ability can read something, and they remember it verbatim. My Son #2 is that way. With me, I read and/or write it down, and then I will remember it in my own words. It was a useful way of learning because it was very applicable for the worlds of math and science, in which I was immersed for decades. But, it works out well for me when writing about rock music.
So, while listening to a Synth Pop three-disc compilation and a five-disc compilation of New Romantic music, I started doing three things. First, I began to start a rough timeline of the genre. Then, I began to discover just how prevalent the synthesizer became in the Eighties. After all of that, I began a four hour process of writing down of what I consider to be the 130 Most Important Synth Pop Songs. Finally, this morning, I pared down the list to include one song from each act in order to compile My Top 40 Synth Pop Songs, which I will present to go in a moment.
Now, according to the articles that I read, musicians began tinkering around with synthesizers back as far as the late-Sixties. Big rock and soul artists such as David Bowie, Stevie Wonder and The Who, all had moments of creativity with early synthesizers, as did Pink Floyd, Brian Eno and others. At the same moment in the early-Seventies, a couple of exclusive synthesizer novelty songs became huge hits. These songs include Hot Butter’s “Popcorn” and Apollo 100’s “Joy”.
By the mid-Seventies, Germany was seeing its own Krautrock begin to take off, in which synthesizers played a huge role. Experimental bands like Tangerine Dream, Can and Neu! all set the standard for Krautrock’s basis in synthesizer music. But, the synthesizer’s exclusive use in pop songs did not begin until the most important band of the Krautrock movement entered the fray, Kraftwerk.
Kraftwerk really began to hit their stride in the mid-Seventies on their albums Autobahn and Radioactivity. Yet, their biggest contribution to Synth Pop came when they began to shorten their songs while incorporating many of the trappings of pop music. The band really hit their stride on their 1978 album, Man Machine, and carried the momentum onto 1981’s Computer Love. The title song from the latter would soon become famous when it was sampled for great effect on Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” one of the first “electro-rap” hits.
Still, it was in England where Synth Pop really took off, though it didn’t take long for the genre to spread all through the world, including in Japan, where Japanese artists welcomed the technology into their music with open arms yet were not able to break the US market like their European brethren could. The first exclusively synthesizer hit song popped up in 1977 with Donna Summer’s Giorgio Moroder-produced song called “I Feel Love.” And, more songs trickled in, until 1979, when M’s and The Buggles’ both had huge international success with their songs “Pop Muzik” and “Video Killed the Radio Star,” respectively. Afterwards, the floodgates were opened, and the hits came rolling in.
Sure, we had “traditional” Synth Pop hit songs in the form of Gary Numan’s “Cars” and The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” but we also began to see the synthesizer being used by R&B (Prince), Funk (Lipps Inc.), Metal (Van Halen), Southern Rock (ZZ Top), Dance (Madonna) and even soundtracks (Giorgio Moroder’s score for Midnight Express and Vangelis’ highly successful Chariots of Fire soundtrack). It seemed that the instrument that had once been associated with a cold, detached, mechanized instrument of some dystopian future was now being used as the instrument of choice for the sound of the Eighties. And as the technology moved from analog to digital, the warmth of the instrument improved. Then, mechanized instruments such as a sampler could record and perfectly replay any song that the machine had recorded. Also, computer programs were making it easier for the artist to record their songs on the smart phones and gets “real” sounds from synthesizers to put into their musical creations. No longer did you need to hire Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page to get a guitar solo on your song; you can now push a button on your computer and BAM! You get something that approximates his exact solo. You probably don’t even realize which artists have real instruments and which have created theirs through a computer with synthesized sounds.
But, let’s back up to the time when those synthesizers when relatively new, while musicians were just trying to determine how to use them in the music they were creating. Without further ado (and my literary poo), welcome to Keller’s Top 40 Synth Pop Hits of the 80s (Give or Take a Couple of Years).
40. Thomas Dolby – “She Blinded Me with Science” (1982)
39. The Fixx – “One Thing Leads to Another” (1983)
38. The Cure – “The Walk” (1983)
37. John Foxx – “Underpass” (1980)
36. The Art of Noise – “Close (To the Edit)” (1983)
35. Information Society – “What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy)” (1988)
34. Dusty Springfield – “Nothing Has Been Proved” (1989)
33. Kraftwerk – “Computer Love” (1981)
32. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” (1983)
31. A Flock of Seagulls – “Space Age Love Song” (1982)
30. Paul Young – “Come Back and Stay” (1983)
29. Devo – “Satisfaction” (1978)
28. Communards – “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (1987)
27. Scritti Politti – “Perfect Way” (1985)
26. Creme & Godley – “Crying” (1985)
25. Spandau Ballet – “True” (1983)
24. Tubeway Army – “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” (1979)
23. Falco – “Rock Me Amadeus” (1986)
22. Paul Hardcastle – “19” (1984)
21. The Human League – “Don’t You Want Me” (1981)
20. The Flying Lizards – “Money” (1979)
19. The Buggles – “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1979)
18. T’Pau – “Heart & Soul” (1987)
17. M – “Pop Muzik” (1979)
16. Public Image Ltd. – “Rise” (1986)
15. Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force – “Planet Rock” (1982)
14. Kajagoogoo – “Too Shy” (1983)
13. Duran Duran – “The Reflex (Niles Rodgers Mix)” (1983)
12. Gary Numan – “Cars” (1980)
11. Frankie Goes to Hollywood – “Two Tribes” (1984)
10. Queen – “Radio Ga Ga” (1984). The band that spent the Seventies writing on their albums that “This album was made without any synthesizers” only to start using synthesizers to brilliant effect. Go back to listen to their 1982 album Hot Space to hear a Synth Pop album. They perfected the sound on this song from their 1984 LP The Works.
9. Depeche Mode – “Enjoy the Silence” (1990). Synth pop as well knew if was officially given its kiss-off with the release of Depeche Mode’s Violator album, from which this song comes.
8. Yaz (or Yazoo) – “Only You” (1982). Take Vince Clarke from fresh from Depeche Mode and one terrific female vocalist, Alison Moyet, and you have synth pop heaven, even if the band had to change their name in the States from Yaz to Yazoo.
7. Alison Moyet – “Invisible” (1984). I have always loved Alison’s voice and hold it next to Annie Lennox’ voice as the best of synth pop.
6. New Order – “Bizarre Love Triangle” (1986). What a great dance beat with some interesting lyrics describing an alternative sexual relationship.
5. Pet Shop Boys – “West End Girls” (1986). I have always loved this moody song. Ever since it burst on the radio in the Spring of 1986, I have envisioned it as the first song in my DJ set as a tentative dance mood setter.
4. Donna Summer – “I Feel Love” (1977). The oldest song in the countdown remains arguably the most timeless of them all. Not just for disco fans.
3. Soft Cell – “Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go (12-Inch)” (1981). For the better part of two years, this song packed dance floors at clubs and parties in and around Ball State.
2. Talk Talk – “It’s My Life” (1984). Yes, No Doubt did a great cover of this song, but the original still transports me back to the Bike-A-Thon Week 1984 at Ball State when I rode for my frat’s cycling team. What a race! What a song!
1. Prince – “Erotic City” (1984). Yes, this song is funk, but it’s all synthesizers in addition to His Purple Badness’ and Sheila E.’s vocals.
Now, I can finally put this little obsession with Synth Pop to rest. But, how do I follow this up? Do I go back to the Blues? Early Country music? Americana? Folk? The Blues Brothers? Who knows? Well…I kinda know. Just stay tuned.