As we draw closer to the end of the year, Neon Fawkes and I decided to once again put on our serious caps and deliver to you our top ten albums of 2021. Let's face it, this past year pretty much looked like a post apocalyptic B-Film. Fortunately for us music lovers, it had a decent soundtrack. We'd like to take the time to thank the below artists for making our 2021 a little more enjoyable.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
NF: Look. I get it. We’re Starcadian fans. We fought our bias on this, and we still feel that this album is simply incredible. Is it pure Synthwave? No. Retrowave? No. Future Funk? No. What is it? Like his prior works, this album is a mélange of retro sounds, and unlike the prior albums, this includes some crazy surprises that really veer off the rails. It is, simply put, a triumph of what was, what is, and what will come. The album pays tribute to songs from before, sounds you may know, and yet it now thrusts forward with some incredibly unexpected vibes.
Beginning with "Neonhead", Starcadian grips his fans with a sound we are familiar with, then takes us on this incredible whacky trip through disco, funk, cyberpunk, synthwave, and...I can't even think of a definition. Starcadettes will recognize the vibes in "Culture", "Propaganda", and the awesome nod in "Causality" (which features some amazing sound track epicness at the end...you must wait for it). Throw into this mix some batshit insane sounds and beats in the likes of "Gutter", "Lovebeats", and of course, "I Demoni". Starcadian had been working on this for a while, but the tease and release were a surprise. There were no hints earlier in the year. He came out of nowhere and simply dropped this work on us. I liken it to "Random Access Memories" by Daft Punk. It's that good.
DG: Radio Galaxy by Starcadian is brilliant. While it didn’t take us long to come to a consensus on this as our album of the year, It will take me a lot longer to explain why. With Radio Galaxy Starcadian delivers on his signature blend of funky jams, engaging lyrics, and mythical world-building, but for me, there is so much more.
For me, it’s about the expert pacing with each track complementing the previous. It’s the way Starcadian creates atmosphere by letting some tracks breathe, like with “Gutter” and “This City Is Going To Kill Us Babe”, only to thrust the listener into an intergalactic cave rave with “Cannibal Gods” and “I Demoni.” Every song fits the narrative with each track built on the previous. Radio Galaxy is an album that takes the listener on a journey to the edge of something both amazing and terrifying. It somehow manages to be both experimental and elegant at the same time. It’s an album that’s easy to fall in love with, but complex enough to reward the listener with something new with each listen.
DG: I have yet to find another artist that captures the innocence of my youth quite like Arcade High. With Kingdom II, Ryan and Patrick have really done something special here. It’s an album that is not only a pleasure to listen to, it also somehow managed to completely reinvigorate my sense of wonderment and imagination once only kept in my youth. With Kingdom II, Every song is an adventure worth taking.
Built on their critically acclaimed Kingdom released in 2016, Kingdom II is a true successor. The album features some familiar refrains and once again delivers on the mix of chip and conventional percussion elements they’re known for. Song styles transition from EDM dance-club to old school arcade, and it’s all done seamlessly. With increased production quality and just the right blend of vocals and music styles, it‘s not only on par with their previous efforts, but it surpasses them in leaps and bounds.
While the technical aspects of the album are something to celebrate, the bottom line is Kingdom II is just plain fun to listen to. You can feel the love and passion that Patrick and Ryan have put into this work. Lovers of the genre will find this album an absolute pleasure to listen to. Whether fans are jamming out on the direct Daft Punk influenced “Slay,” or belting out the cheeky lyrics, “Don’t get yourself killed” on DGYK, there is something here for everyone to enjoy.
Line up your quarters for this one. Kingdom II will have you here for a long time.
DG: Boardwalk Arcadia is an example of something that knows exactly what it wants to be and delivers exactly that thing perfectly and unabashedly. It’s a straightforward synthwave album that delivers everything you see on the side of the box. There’s no debating that this is a true synthwave album, and a damn amazing one at that.
With Boardwalk Arcadia, you will find some incredible songwriting along with some of the best vocals you’ll ever hear on a synthwave album. Pat Dimeo, the main producer and vocalist on the album, really elevates the bar. While there are no duds on the album, you might want to check out some of our favorites like “Love Somebody,” “Runaway,” and the titular track (drink) “Boardwalk Arcadia.”
DG: Cruise Control by Max Cruise is one of those albums that really should be in every synthwave fan’s collection. The finely polished production and creative energy evident on the entire album exemplify everything I love about synthwave. It features fast-paced outrun grooves, exemplary guitar work, and top-notch vocal delivery from one of the best vocalists in the business, Pat Dimeo. The album has so much to offer to true fans of the genre. It’s not just about fast cars and neon sunsets, either. There are some sophisticated selections on the album that set the bar high. It couldn’t be more evident than on “You and Me Again,” a track that features numerous chord changes and progresses to one of the best refrains I’ve heard in years. The ethereal vocal talents of Alessandra Gonzalez set this song as a standout on the album.
Another stand-out track for me is the opening track "Dangerous Love." If that sax doesn't grab you, you simply don't have a soul. Do yourself a favor and go out and pick this one up immediately. You won’t be disappointed.
DG: When it comes to artists that consistently deliver top-quality synthwave albums Waveshaper is at the very top of the list. With Mainframe, Wavershaper once again delivers with his signature french house sound. From the second the needle drops, the listener is transported to a wonderful journey of sights and sounds that hearken back to the early days of Daft Punk and M83. Mainframe is a total joy to listen to from start to finish. If you’re into arps (and who isn’t?), you're going to love this album.
While being a fairly straightforward “arpeggio” album, the middle track “Save Room” adds variety with its relaxed chillsynth vibe. All that follows is a fun joyride of amazing beats and synths. True lovers of the synthwave genre need to look no further– This album is the perfect album for you.
NF: Right...so....Moakley may have an unfair advantage here considering the talent he worked with to bring this album forth. Yet, as we all know, he is an incredible songwriter, producer, and mixing/mastering genius (he's helped many other artists in this regard). Odyssey is a slight departure from his prior "’80’s synthwave" sounds, and instead pushes forward into the '90’s while still paying tribute to the sounds of both decades. Michael's wonderful vocals are paired perfectly with the underlying musical compositions, and they really tug at your heart.
Out of all the albums on our list, this one deftly touches your heartstrings, and then pulls at them, making your eyes tear up a bit. With help from friends such as Ollie Wride, Dana Jean Phoenix, Mecha Maiko, Jon Campbell, and many more, Mr. Oakley delivered something that I play when I'm feeling emotional, or when I need to feel "alive". Tracks of note: "Wake Up!", "Is There Anybody Out There", "Babylon" (careful, this one is haunting and it's an earworm), "Glasgow Song" (I'm pretty sure this is a favorite of many...DJP and bagpipes...come on), "Real Life", and the single that released earlier, "Queen Of Hearts" (perfect pop tune). Synthwave needs to evolve and push forward, while still keeping rooted in it's love of "yesteryear". Oakley shows us the way forward here.
NF: Folks who know me know that I lean towards more dancey, energetic synth, but I'd have to turn in my synthwave badge if I didn't agree with Groot that this belongs in the top 10 of 2021. Betamaxx is a staple of synthwave, and with this album, he went chill and did it PERFECTLY. Mr. Maxx knows what he's doing.
This release, from start to finish, is the best relaxing trip through lush synth and evocative vibes one can get. It's city pop meets vaporwave meets synthwave. Every track (if you listen from start to finish) perfectly blends from one dreamy feel to another. Tracks to pay attention to: “Winter Games”, “Downhill”, “Sarajevo”, “Horizon”, and the last track, “Ceremony”, that gives me classic orchestra feels, yet stays smooth and simple. It's a slight departure from Betamaxx's earlier sounds, but with this release, he shows he's capable of growth, change, and he knows how to master whatever he sets his sights on. The best part? We all benefit!
NF: OK, we may be cheating here. This is an EP, and L'Avenue has since dropped another album called Azure this year, but I'll be damned if this release isn't something special. If you are looking for the perfect "synthwave" or "dreamwave" album, this is it. Simply put, L'Avenue knows his aesthetic and the sound that should accompany it.
Listen to this album, and you'll imagine yourself swinging in a hammock under some palm trees on a boardwalk in the sun. Tracks that really stand out are "Kelly" and "Forever". Don't stop there, though. Listen to this EP over and over again, and feel your soul mending, healing, and glowing with peace and happiness. The sampled sounds of birds and cheering on the tracks simply add to the feeling of happiness.
NF: I feel for those who have not heard this album yet. With all the talent in synthwave, BMX Escape is one of the artists who, I think, deserves serious attention. Like the album reviewed next, it is a concept album that not only conveys a story, but the selection and order of the tracks simply "fits".
Hailing from France, it's no wonder the talent is top notch. The French just have a knack for electronic music. Jump into this album and listen from start to finish. You’ll feel like you've just watched a Hollywood blockbuster. Tracks of note: "Codename Jody Theme", "My Crush", "Thunder Arcade", and "Love's Escape". This album has perfect outrun sounds, beautiful and lush synthwave vibes, and incredible collaborations with the likes of Hubrid, Megan McDuffee, and By Forever.
DG: Beyond Stars tells the story of two lovers risking everything to escape a ravished city that’s on the brink of destruction. It’s an over-the-top synthwave rock opera of epic proportions that delivers on incredible storytelling, imagery, and epic guitar solos.
While it’s an album that delivers lots of great songs and a great storyline, diversity is where this album shines. You get a full-on Bon Jovi power ballad on “I Remember”, only to be followed up by some straight-up sci-fi bangers like “Lightspeed” featuring Shadowrunner. The album covers a wide range of concepts from killer synthwave power tracks to intimate piano ballads. It has something for everyone.
Speaking of features, the “who’s who” on this album alone is worth the purchase. You get some amazing collabs from synthwave greats like Turbo Knight, Dimi Kaye, Van Derand, and of course, Shadowrunner. It even has some fun voice-over work by Nightride FM’s own Kaarin Zoe Lee. These collabs offer even more diversity and make the album shine.
Grab this album today and soak up the fantastic music and storytelling. If you’re looking for more, we can accommodate that. Check out Nightride FM’s exclusive story-driven broadcast that ties everything together into one epic experience.
We have to admit, there were an incredible number of albums released this year, and they were nothing but quality. The following list is our "honorable mentions", but in reality, they drove us nuts trying to decide which fell into the top ten. Thus, if we could do a top 100, they'd all make the cut.
In no particular order, these are albums you absolutely, definitely, positively MUST acquire: