When it comes to discovering the most popular synthwave artists of all time, many get mixed up as to just who to look for. Some reference acts from the 1980s and others cite acts that emerged in the 2000s.
The most popular synthwave artists take inspiration from synth-based pop, new wave and electro to create songs that have a retro feel but are generated by modern instruments. Some of the biggest names in synthwave include The Midnight, FM-84, Waveshaper, and many more.
What doesn’t change though is the sound of a synthwave song. With a significant lack of vocals, exaggerated synth loops and high tempo, you will know immediately when you hear a synthwave song.
The genre has gained a cult following in the 21st century with listeners looking for a retro sound but with a modern twist.
What Is Synthwave?
When talking about synthwave, there’s one thing that needs to be one thing established – it is very much a modern genre. Songs sound like hits from the 80s, yet everything produced comes from the 21st century. It doesn’t mean older acts weren’t hugely influential though.
A lot of what makes synthwave work comes from foundations laid down in electronic music from the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, the hallmarks aren’t hard to miss. The rhythmic sections often feature fatty thuds inspired by 1980s acid house. Not forgetting distorted bass lines magnetized like the big French house hits of the 1990s.
There was also a big influence of nu-wave in the 1980s too. This comes with big synths providing the main melodic hook, and using this to substitute out a main vocal line. Many synthwave songs forego a vocal line at all. With almost all sounds influenced by a synthesizer in some shape or form, you quickly get a hint of what synthwave is all about.
Who Are The Most Popular Synthwave Artists?
French DJ Kavinsky is often cited as the man who put synthwave on the map. Strongly influenced by the French house scene, Kavinsky used the genre’s platform to make his work stand out. With many of his songs featuring robotic bass lines, vocoder-sung lyrics and a clean melody over the top, there’s a notable sound to his work.
Reminiscent of hits produced by luminaries such as Daft Punk, Kavinsky found huge success in the 2000s as the flagbearer for synthwave.
Take the success of his main hit – 2011’s “Nightfall”. The song has over 250 million views on YouTube and was featured prominently in the award-winning movie Drive. Since then, Kavinsky has enjoyed huge success with his debut album OutRun going gold in France as well as charting prominently in both North America and Europe.
How Perturbator, AKA James Kent, emerged as a synthwave icon is a fascinating story in itself. Notably starting in several low-key black metal bands, Kent turned his back on heavy metal and focused on music based on interests. The Paris-based DJ created music heavily influenced by early video games and melodies from the 1980s.
Perturbator’s heavy-synth-laden bassline and synth-chord harmonies have caught on with fans worldwide. His songs feature in-game franchises such as Hotline, gaining over 250,000 followers on YouTube. Mix this in with collaborators from both the metal and electronic worlds and here is an artist that crosses over multiple musical spheres.
British band Gunship has never been far away from the main musical spotlight. The English duo Alex Westaway and Dan Haigh are perhaps best known for their work with Fightstar – one of the UK’s most successful rock bands of the 2000s. But Fightstar’s 2010 hiatus led to the birth of Gunship – an act that saw the duo embrace the electro-laden wells of synth-wave. Since then, there has been no looking back for Gunship.
The act has seen both their albums – Gunship & Dark All Day – chart in the UK Album Top 40s, and they’ve since reinvented themselves throughout the 2010s. The band recently gained hundreds of thousands of followers with the 2018 single “ Dark All Day”, gaining over 7 million views on YouTube. Since then, they have gone on to collaborate with several cult icons such as Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and famous tattoo artist Kat Von D.
Dance With The Dead
Dance With The Dead has looked to try and showcase synthwave as a crossover genre. Sacrificing vocal lines and adding heavy guitars to the mix, they sound much more of a metal-influenced artist than other synthwave acts. You will still find many sections featuring synth melodies in their songs, but they come with power chord riffs to add a unique thickness to their work.
What has also earned the Anaheim duo some notoriety is their ability to rework iconic songs in their style. They’ve remixed everything from Master of Puppets to We Will Rock You. These remixes themselves have garnered millions of views on YouTube alongside their original compositions.
Power Glove is an act who have found success without needing mega-success on the charts. Instead, the Aussie duo reached millions thanks to their work creating soundtracks for numerous different types of media. If you hear rhythmic synths sprinkled with light harmonies, they’re likely from Power Glove.
The Melbourne group has seen their influence spread far and wide. Not only did they do the soundtrack for the 2013 hit game Far Cry 3, but they were also featured in cult hit films such as Hobo With A Shotgun. Having collaborated regularly with media giants such as Ubisoft, Power Glove’s sound is almost always heard even if listeners don’t realize who is behind the music.
If anyone can carry synthwave into the mainstream, it could well be The Midnight. A collaboration between US singer Tyler Lyle and Danish producer Tim McEwan, The Midnight have found a sound destined for radio greatness. With McEwan’s synth-laden beats mixed with Lyle’s indie-pop vocals, they’ve created a blend that has caught on worldwide.
A quick look at their progress has shown just how far the band has come. Where their 2016 debut Endless Summer released to little fanfare, their fourth release Heroes charted in mainstream charts in the USA, Australia and the UK. With the first single “Gloria” now sporting over 10 million views on YouTube, it shows that the band’s influence continues to grow to this very day, making them one of the most popular synthwave artists today.
There’s something calming about what Electric Youth brings to the table. Underneath Austin Garrick’s heavy synth beats, the ethereal vocals of Bronwyn Griffin give a soothing tone not found with other synthwave artists. It’s a blend that gives the band a unique sound that catapulted them to success throughout the 2010s.
Most of this success came via their 2010 breakthrough single “A Real Hero” – a collaboration with French producer College. The song’s cameo in the 2011 movie Drive turned it into a massive hit, and even earned a nomination for the 2012 MTV Movie Awards. Since then, Electric Youth have continued to channel their success including a mainstream deal with Sony, and collaborations with iconic acts such as Depeche Mode and PNAU.
At the end of the day, many of the most popular synthwave artists of today have left their mark in one way or another. The genre has gained a cult following which has expanded across the music, video game and film industries. It’s this media crossover that has helped the likes of Electric Youth and Power Glove become household names. Synthwave’s rise in popularity has also given experienced musicians the chance to refresh themselves successfully as the likes of Perturbator and Gunship have proven.