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10 Essential Synth-Pop Albums

Get familiar with the origins of synth-pop by diving into 10 of the genre’s essential records.

The introduction of synthesizers in prog-rock, disco, and Krautrock during music’s post-punk era foreshadowed the rise of synth-pop, which emerged as a distinct genre during the New Wave movement of the late 1970s and throughout the ’80s. In the wake of punk rock’s schism, artists looking to experiment with non-rock and avant-garde influences turned to polyphonic synthesizers to create a more accessible and commercial sound for listeners.

Defined by its use of synthesizers, drum machines, and sequencers (often in place of instruments), synth-pop was adopted by numerous new wave artists hailing mostly from the United Kingdom. These acts’ physical style — coupled with the introduction of MTV in 1981 — helped spur the popularity of synth-pop in the United States and led to great commercial success for its artists during the Second British Invasion.

Synth-pop was instrumental in the development of house and techno, and cemented the use of the synthesizer as a major element of mainstream pop music. Today, synth-pop continues to reign on US and UK charts as the genre’s early adopters and new millennium pop acts work within the style. Get familiar with synth-pop by diving into 10 of the genre’s essential albums.

Violator
by Depeche Mode

Electronic, Synth-Pop
Violator
Depeche Mode
2016
Electronic, Rock
Vinyl, Album, Reissue, 180 gram
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Depeche Mode, formed in 1980, is one of the biggest synth-pop artists still working in the genre today. The band’s seventh studio album, Violator, is its best-selling and blends synth-pop, alt-rock, and dance styles to create a sprawling, trippy atmosphere. Violator is well-regarded by fans and critics alike who’ve called it Depeche Mode’s best album and a benchmark electronic pop record.

Rio
by Duran Duran

Rock, Pop
Rio
Duran Duran
1982
Rock, Pop, Synth-Pop
Vinyl
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Duran Duran was a leading band in the Second British Invasion. Known for being early adopters and innovators of the music video format, MTV propelled Duran Duran and singles from their self-titled debut into the mainstream. Their second studio album, Rio, was released in 1982 and saw the band experiment with more live instruments, including vibraphone, marimba, and other found instruments during production. A remixed version of Rio helped the record find commercial success in the US, spending 129 weeks on the Billboard charts.

Dare
by The Human League

Electronic, Pop
Dare
The Human League
2014
Electronic, Pop, Synth-Pop
Vinyl, Reissue, 180g
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The Human League began as an experimental electronic music outfit in 1977 but pivoted toward synth-pop following an exodus of all of the band’s founding members except Philip Oakey. The 1981 release of Dare, which featured new female vocalists Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, saw The Human League embrace a more commercial pop sound and provided the band’s biggest hit “Don’t You Want Me.”

Songs From The Big Chair
by Tears For Fears

Songs From The Big Chair
Tears For Fears
2014
Rock, Pop
Vinyl, Reissue, 180g
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Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith formed Tears For Fears in 1981 after the dissolution of their former band, Graduate. Their debut album, The Hurting, spawned three hit singles — but it was their second album, Songs From The Big Chair, that garnered commercial success for the band stateside. Primarily influenced by prog-rock, Songs From The Big Chair was praised by critics for its lyrical honesty and polished approach to pop.

Die Mensch·Maschine
by Kraftwerk

Electronic, Synth-Pop
Die Mensch·Maschine
Kraftwerk
2020
Electronic, Synth-Pop
Vinyl, Reissue, Red Translucent, 180g
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Kraftwerk formed in 1970 and was part of the experimental Krautrock scene before embracing electronic instrumentation in their work. Widely considered to be pioneers of electronic music, Kraftwerk was among the first successful acts to incorporate synthesizers, drum machines, and coders into popular music. Die Mensch·Maschine is the band’s seventh studio album, which saw the group adopt more danceable rhythms into their self-described “robot-pop” style.

Welcome To The Pleasuredome
by Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Welcome To The Pleasuredome
Frankie Goes To Hollywood
2020
Electronic, Rock, Synth-Pop
2 x Vinyl, Reissue, 180g
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Frankie Goes To Hollywood emerged as a synth-pop band from Liverpool, England in 1980. The band’s first single, “Relax,” was released in 1983 and quickly climbed the charts in the UK. However, it was banned by the BBC after broadcaster Mike Read declared the single’s cover art and lyrics obscene while on air. By the time of the 1984 release of their debut album, Welcome To The Pleasuredome, the band had become known for their provocative visuals and subject matter.

Actually
by Pet Shop Boys

Electronic, Pop
Actually
Pet Shop Boys
1987
Electronic, Pop, Synth-Pop
Vinyl
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Bonded by their mutual interest in electronic and disco styles, vocalist Neil Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe formed Pet Shop Boys in 1981. Influenced by other synth-pop and New Wave artists such as Depeche Mode, The Human League, and Soft Cell, Tennant and Lowe aimed to make catchy and commercial — yet sophisticated — pop music. Their 1987 album, Actually, is loosely focused on politics in Britain and offers listeners social commentary with a satirical flair.

Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)
by Eurythmics

Electronic, Pop
Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)
Eurythmics
2018
Electronic, Pop, Synth-Pop
Vinyl, Reissue, 180g
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Unable to experiment with pop and avant-garde styles as members of The Tourists, Annie Lennox and David Stewart struck out on their own in 1981 as Eurythmics. Signed to RCA Records, the duo released their debut album — which blended electropop, psychedelic, and Krautrock styles — to disappointing commercial success. However, their mainstream breakthrough came with the 1983 release of Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This). The driving synth bass line on the title track, plus Lennox’s bright orange hair and androgynous style in the music video, helped the song become immensely popular and cemented the duo’s status as pop icons.

Upstairs At Eric’s
by Yazoo

Electronic, Pop
Upstairs At Eric’s
Yazoo
2019
Electronic, Pop, Synth-Pop
Vinyl, Reissue, 180g
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After leaving Depeche Mode and looking for a vocalist to sing on a demo, Vince Clarke formed the synth-pop duo Yazoo with singer Alison Moyet. Debut album Upstairs At Eric’s, released in 1982, was praised for its deft blend of Clarke’s synth melodies with Moyet’s soulful, bluesy vocals. Though the band split a year later, Clarke and Moyet’s combination of electronic instrumentation with soul-inspired vocal performances influenced other artists, including LCD Soundsystem and La Roux.

It’s My Life
by Talk Talk

Rock, Pop
It’s My Life
Talk Talk
1984
Rock, Pop, Synth-Pop
Vinyl
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London trio Talk Talk — made up of frontman Mark Hollis, drummer Lee Harris, and bassist Paul Webb — achieved commercial success in the early 1980s with a string of synth-pop singles, namely “Such a Shame” and “It’s My Life,” which both appeared on their second studio album. It’s My Life, released in 1984, was internationally successful and the title track became a smash hit (and did so again in 2003 when the song was covered by No Doubt). Despite this, Talk Talk made deliberate moves that pushed them away from the mainstream, like purposely lip-syncing poorly in the music video for “It’s My Life,” and began experimenting with what came to be known as post-rock in their later works.

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