The rise of synthesizers in Pop music
This is not the usual article about the primordial soup of electronic music. So it's not a story about the first electromechanical piano from 1867 or the first computer music from the 1950s. There were already many electronic musical instruments in the 1960s, but they were a nerdy niche. The article "35 essential Synth Pop songs of the history" is about the triumph of Synth Pop and acceptance of electronic music, which was soon to become mainstream from that time on.
The genres of New Wave, Post-Punk or Disco are often used on one or the other track. There is rarely a clear-cut musical style, as everything is influenced by everything else, which makes blends sound more interesting and is important for progressive development.
However, these are the essential Synth Pop songs from 1978 – 1986 before synthesizers was accepted as mainsstream music. They build the fundamental sound of Synth Pop until today. We celebrate those musical pioneers by honouring them in this important list '35 essential Synth Pop songs of the history'. In addition, this list also contains all the important tracks that have shaped my musical taste and inflamed my heart for Synth Pop.
The 35 essential Synth Pop songs in chronical order
Blondie – Heart Of Glass (1978)
Debbie Harry and Chris Stein wrote the song 'Heart Of Glass' already in 1974–1975. However, the song only became a Synth Pop Disco pearl with the help of producer Mike Chapman in 1978. 'Heart Of Glass' is taken from the album 'Parallel Lines' by 'Blondie'. The song was released as a Single in 1979.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 1, UK: 1, US: 1
Kraftwerk – The Model (1978)
'Das Model' by Kraftwerk is probably the best-known and commercially most successful song by the German band from Düsseldorf. About the pioneers of electronic music there is not much I have to say. 'Kraftwerk' has influenced more than just the genre of Synth Pop. You can read about my personal relationship and first contact with their music on the page 'The story behind the origin of Electrozombies'.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 7, UK: 1, US: –
Gary Numan – Cars (1979)
'Cars' is the lead Single from Gary Numan's album 'The Pleasure Principle' from 1979. After the rebranding of 'Tubeway Army', this was the first release as 'Gary Numan'. The music video still radiates the wonderful aesthetics of 70s space age design. I guess this is my favourite 70s music video.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 45, UK: 1, US: 9
OMD – Electricity (1979)
Shortly before the beginning of the new decade, the debut single 'Electricity' by 'OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark)' is released. The warm, analogue sound of the 70s can still be clearly heard through the characteristic bass line. The naive synthesizer melody, however, catapults the track into the early 80s. As you can see from the peak positions in the charts, this song was not worth mentioning on mainstream radio, but for the electronic pioneers of OMD it is the fundament of their successful career.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: –, UK: 99, US: –
John Foxx – Underpass (1980)
After John Foxx left 'Ultravox', 'Underpass' was the first single as a solo artist. The single was released in 1980 on the iconic Synth Pop classic album 'Metamatic'. The music video is typical 80s, but fortunately not in the cheesy music video style. Despite its considerable age, the song is simply timeless and would work just as well as a new song today.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: –, UK: 31, US: –
Visage – Fade To Grey (1980)
To this day, 'Fade To Grey' by 'Visage' is one of the figureheads of the early 80s New Wave / New Romantic movement. In terms of content and sound, I find this song absolutely timeless. Cold, minimalist sound for an uneasy mood, disguised in an easily digestible Synth Pop song. Ingenious!
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 1, UK: 8, US: –
Kim Wilde – Kids In America (1981)
With a deep pumping bass line, the hit 'Kids In America' opens the year 1981. The post-punk influence can be heard and seen strongly. With this debut single, 'Kim Wilde' also had her international breakthrough. A musical rocket launch, so to speak. Mistakenly you would assume a number 1 hit here, but except in Finland and South Africa the single never made it to the top of the big charts. Nevertheless, a fantastic song.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 5, UK: 2, US: 25
The Human League – Don't You Want Me (1981)
Of course "Don't You Want Me" by 'The Human League' to in this list is an obligatory entry. This is an absolute classic in terms of the orgin of Synth Pop and New Wave. The song from the must-have album 'Dare' is still the band's most commercially successful song. The song had numerous number one placements worldwide and even more top ten entries.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 5, UK: 1, US: 1
Soft Cell – Tainted Love (1981)
The song 'Tainted Love' by 'Soft Cell' is probably the most famous cover version in the history of the early Synth Pop / New Wave movement. The original is by 'Gloria Jones' from 1965 and Soft Cell secured several number 1 hits in various countries with this classic.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 1, UK: 1, US: 8
Yazoo – Don't Go (1982)
After Vince Clark left 'Depeche Mode', he had a short band project with Alison Moyet called 'Yazoo' before his band 'Erasure'. The songs that were released were all successful. The most influential, however, was "Don't Go" from the 1982 album "Upstairs At Eric's".
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 4, UK: 3, US: 1
Heaven 17 – Temptation (1982)
The music video is visually an 80s icon, while the song itself has aged very well. You don't really notice the song's age. The song is taken from the album 'The Luxury Gap' and is still a must at every 80s party.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 11, UK: 2, US: 34
A Flock Of Seagulls – I Ran (So Far Away) (1982)
In the song 'I Ran (So Far Away)', many typical 70s song elements (drums and bass) can still be clearly heard and filtered out. Skilfully mixed with a synthesiser, the band 'A Flock Of Seagulls' has turned it into an early 80s New Wave classic. Interestingly, the song was not so well received in its own country and had its highest placement at No. 43. Unjustified, in my opinion. For me, the song was worth a No. 1 ranking. At least they managed to do that in Australia.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 31, UK: 43, US: 9
ABC – The Look Of Love – Pt.1 (1982)
Everything about the song 'The Look Of Love' is so early 80s. The clichéd stage music video, the lifestyle in the lyrics and of course the typical Synth Pop sound with the funky guitar in the background. 'ABC' may be the most notorious "Poppers" of the 80s, as they are just not a gritty band for the Synth Pop and New Wave movement, but the song still influenced many and is loved by every Synthie.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 36, UK: 4, US: 18
Kajagoogoo – Too Shy (1983)
In early 1983, the song 'Too Shy' by 'Kajagoogoo' was released from the probably lesser known album 'White Feathers'. Here, radio-standard Pop music merges with Synth Pop elements, which were commercially extremely successful. However, it was more popular with the very young target group (tweens and teenagers). Even though the band released several singles, only 'Too Shy' was heard on the radio. For Kajagoogoo, this is only a one-hit wonder, while Limahl had another brief success as a solo artist with 'Neverending Story'. BTW. The Single 'Too Shy' was produced by none other than Nick Rhodes and Colin Thurston (Duran Duran).
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 1, UK: 1, US: 5
Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) (1983)
The first music video I saw of 'Eurythmics' was 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)'. The song and visuals was revolutionary in terms of sound and aesthetics at that time. The atypical, androgynous Annie Lennox in a fantastic, abstract music video and the cold electronic sound were way ahead of the time. The song is not only burnt into my memory and has left its mark.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 4, UK: 2, US: 1
Madonna – Holiday (1983)
Only (or already) the third single 'Holiday' helped 'Madonna' to her international breakthrough. The song comes from the self-titled debut album 'Madonna'. Now, from today's perspective, most people think: "What is Madonna doing in this list?". Madonna mainly stands for radio-friendly Pop music. In 1983 it was a different story and 'Holiday' was an extraordinary Synth Pop hit.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 9, UK: 2, US: 16
Real Life – Send Me An Angel (1983)
The band 'Real Life' made it into the charts twice with the song 'Send Me An Angel'. The first release from the album 'Heartland' (1983–1984) and then an updated version from 1989. A Synth Pop song that the Cure Heads movement also danced to, beside darker tracks in the underground disco.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 1, UK: –, US: 29
New Order – Blue Monday (1983)
Anyone who wants to fill up the electronic dance floor today, just start 'Blue Monday' by 'New Order'. This icebreaker is a guarantee for a dance-happy audience. When the song appeared in 1983, however, the track was revolutionary in sound. The band managed to successfully combine Post Punk with Disco elements to create this masterpiece. Incidentally, it is one of the few tracks that made it into the British charts with a remarkable (not radio-friendly) length of 7:29 minutes.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 2, UK: 9, US: 5
Alphaville – Big In Japan (1983)
The debut single 'Big In Japan' by 'Alphaville' from the legendary Synth Pop album 'Forever Young' was a huge success for the band. Number 1 in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland and numerous Top 10 placements in other countries. Even though the song is very poppy, the lyrics are typically rather dark and deal with the dreams of a different life of a drug addict.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 1, UK: 8, US: 66
Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Relax (1983)
I think 'Relax' from 'Frankie Goes To Hollywood' has more number 1 rankings worldwide than any other song in this list. So it was a popular song in 1983! Well, there's no denying the song has hit potential. The cool electronics were way ahead of their time back then. The question I still ask myself today (I was only 9 years old when the song came out) is whether the song was so successful because it was good or because it was so controversial? There were several radio bans because of the suggestive, sexual lyrics and the music video was also banned for a long time. MTV, for example, did not air the first version of the music video because of the scenes of a S&M gay nightclub. Forbidden things magically attract young people in particular, perhaps that's why the run on the Single. I was too young to understand, but loved the song deeply.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 1, UK: 1, US: 10
Spandau Ballet – Gold (1983)
Another important hit with earworm potential is 'Gold' by 'Spandau Ballet'. If tracks like 'Relax' were still provocative, other bands have subverted the system more subtly. Synth Pop had to become more and more radio-friendly in order to get a certain fan base. The New Wave band achieved this goal with this hit, among others.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 16, UK: 2, US: 29
Tears For Fears – Shout (1984)
As with many other Synth Pop songs, 'Shout' by 'Tears For Fears' conveys a serious message via a catchy, radio-ready song. It's about political protest, at the time of the cold war, against the possible consequences of a third world war. More widely interpreted, protesting in general and not simply accepting suffering and injustice. By the way, there is a fantastic cover version done by 'Scandroid' that you should listen to as well.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 1, UK: 4, US: 1
Ultravox – Dancing With Tears In My Eyes (1984)
The classic 'Dancing With Tears in My Eyes' by 'Ultravox' is one of those Synth Pop / New Wave songs where the synthesizer is not necessarily the dominant instrument. It is more or less balanced with the analogue instruments like bass, guitar and drums. Today standard for many Pop songs, but at that time still a novelty and for many too electronic.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 7, UK: 3, US: 108
Duran Duran – The Wild Boys (1984)
Besides the cool, electronic sounds of 'Wild Boys', the music video should be mentioned here as well. It embodies the early 80s like no other. Doomsday atmosphere, No Future Generation, Mad Max styled setting, cyborgs and mullets. In addition, the cost of the video was over a million pounds, which was an astronomical amount at the time. But in return, worldwide broadcasting and success were as good as guaranteed. The song landed several No. 1 placements worldwide or in the front ranks of the Top Ten.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 1, UK: 2, US: 2
Talk Talk – Such A Shame (1984)
The British band 'Talk Talk' is also one of the bigger ones of the early 80s Synth Pop and New Wave movement. Their biggest success was with 'Such A Shame' from the album "It's My Life". Side fact: What sounds like a supposed elephant sample at the beginning of the song is an artificially produced synthesizer sound!
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 2, UK: 49, US: 89
Dead Or Alive – You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) (1984)
Alongside Boy George (Culture Club) and Steve Strange (Visage), Pete Burns from 'Dead Or Alive' was another great androgynous light figure of the early 80s Synth Pop movement. With the song 'You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)' from the album 'Youthquake', the band managed to score several number one hits and numerous other top ten entries.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 2, UK: 1, US: 11
Depeche Mode – People Are People (1984)
Of course, 'People Are People' by 'Depeche Mode' should not be missing from this list. For one thing, this song is special because, despite its radical sound ideas and effects, it managed to achieve several top ten positions and even number 1 in Germany. And Depeche Mode doesn't have many number 1 positions. The music is probably too unwieldy for the mainstream. Furthermore, the band made their international breakthrough with 'People Are People' from the album 'Some Great Reward'. I also have a very personal connection to the song, which I explain in more detail on the page 'The story behind the origin of Electrozombies'.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 1, UK: 4, US: 13
Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy (1984)
Jimmy Somerville from 'Bronski Beat' had a fantastic hit with 'Smalltown Boy' by reflecting the homophobic people in his old town lyrically. The tragic lyrics are transported via a very catchy Synth Pop melody and therefore rightly deserve the success. This is also a classic dance floor filler till today.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 3, UK: 3, US: 48
Pet Shop Boys – West End Girls (1984)
1984 was the year of the great international Synth Pop breakthrough. More and more bands landed chart positions with electronic songs. One of them was none other than the 'Pet Shop Boys', who immediately shot through the roof with their debut 'West End Girls'. The accompanying debut album 'Please', which was released almost two years later, also landed decent chart positions and sold more than 3 million copies worldwide.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 2, UK: 1, US: 1
Anne Clark – Sleeper In Metropolis (1984)
Besides the big chart placements and how Synth Pop and New Wave made it more and more into the radios, there was also a small revolution in the underground club scene. While at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s mainly Disco or Rock dominated the discotheques, smaller clubs also offered electronic music a stage. In addition to the chart hits already mentioned, new, darker bands like 'Front 242', 'The Neon Judgement' and 'Anne Clark' were also playing. With Anne Clark's biggest hit 'Sleeper In Metropolis' she is still played in clubs today.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: –, UK: –, US: –
Kate Bush – Running Up That Hill (1985)
'Running Up The Hill' is without a doubt a brilliant song! It's weird to think that singer-songwriter 'Kate Bush' makes almost exclusively acoustic music and that her biggest hit is a Synth Pop / New Wave icon. Or did this song just get more attention in 1985 because more radio playtime was being given to electronic music? Here, the boundary between scene music and mainstream is softening more and more and is difficult to separate in retrospect.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 3, UK: 3, US: 30
Propaganda – p: Machinery (1985)
Cold, metallic-sounding precision was also to be heard from the German Synth Pop band 'Propaganda' in 1985. A band name that was provocatively chosen just 40 years after the NS regime of the Third Reich and at the peak of the RAF and therefore caused quite a stir. Of course, the Düsseldorf band only flirted with it and even if they were not quite as successful as 'Kraftwerk', the band does not need to hide behind their city colleagues. Songs like 'p: Machinery' were also played more in dark clubs than on the radio. Still, an important and great song.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 26, UK: 50, US: –
A‑ha – The Sun Always Shines On T.V. (1985)
'A‑Ha' had countless Synth Pop hits in the 80s as a boy band with an extreme girl charm factor. Yes, I know this should be the bigger hit 'Take On Me', but I just like the second single 'The Sun Always Shines On T.V.' much better. It's a bit darker and doesn't have that huge Pop factor. Not true, it does, but the music video with the mannequin dolls is really creepy. Synth Pop has definitely arrived in mainstream Pop in 1985.
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 5, UK: 1, US: 20
Erasure – Sometimes (1986)
From 1985 until the end of the decade, the charts are virtually overrun by electronic music, mostly Synth Pop. What was still underground a few years earlier, at the end of the 70s, now dominates the charts. Among other things, 'Erasure' made their grand entrance into the world of the greatest Synth Pop bands in history in 1986 with the song 'Sometimes' along with "Oh L'Amour".
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 2, UK: 2, US: –
Level 42 – Lessons In Love (1986)
The song 'Lessons In Love' by 'Level 42' was very successful selectively. Similar to 'Kate Bush', the band comes from a completely different musical direction. Since the beginning of the 80s, the band has produced music styles such as Jazz-Funk or Pop-Rock. With the use of synthesizers, the band first slid somewhat in the direction of New Wave and then had its greatest success with the Synth Pop hit in 1986. Those were the golden years of Synth Pop!
Peak position in the charts: Germany: 1, UK: 3, US: 12
Listen to our Spotify list of '35 essential Synth Pop songs of the history'
And here is the official Spotify playlist for this article. Ideal for on the road, while doing housework or just to enjoy and dream.
Have you enjoyed the list of '35 essential Synth Pop songs of the history'?
Of course there were many other amazing bands that contributed to the New Wave / Synth Pop revolution. Nevertheless, this list ends here. If you think a band or song should definitely be mentioned, please post it in the comments below. After review they will be approved and the list of '35 essential Synth Pop songs of the history' can be extended.