I first got into synth-based music through retrowave and it remains one of my favorite sub-genres. It has continued to expand in sound quality and many artists are developing it in new and exciting ways. This article rounds up some of my most beloved 2021 releases that capture a nostalgic spirit, while extending the music in fresh directions.
"Diamond Field" by Diamond Field
I enjoyed the strong ‘80s pop vibes that emanated from Diamond Field. It took me on a luscious, well-produced sonic tour through compelling melodic writing, first-rate performances and engaging lyrics. I was pulled in by the dynamism of the album that got to the essence of what made ‘80s pop great without resorting to cliché.
I found the sheer caliber of the guest performers to be impressive on Diamond Field. The vocal guests all showcased their unique voices well and many of them also contributed superbly crafted lyrics, compositions and arrangements. The instrumental guests imbued all of their performances with deep musicality and demonstrated top-notch chops on their instruments.
Andy Diamond, the man behind the whole project, managed to create active music full of the restless energy of the ‘80s on the album, while avoiding pure pastiche. Diamond managed to produce an album that felt all of a piece while smoothly combining retro sounds and modern production. I enjoyed the engagement I felt while listening to the album.
Another reason I enjoyed Diamond Field was the top-notch production values of the album. Each sound was super sharp, clear and full of auditory detail but they all combined into a harmonious whole. For me, the quality of the album is evidence of the intense care that went into making it.
”From City to Beachfront" by Beckett
I was so strongly attracted to From City to Beachfront because of the way that Beckett channeled the jazz fusion elements, smooth glide and funky beats of city pop on the album. It captured the energy of the genre which grew up in Japan’s technological explosion during the ‘80s.
The way in which Beckett approached the melodies on the album was a strong factor for my enjoyment of it. He wrote catchy, clean and positive melodies on the album that embraced jazz’s influence on city pop. Beckett remained firmly rooted in Japanese pop’s deeply melodic nature on From City to Beachfront.
I also had my ears caught by the synth instruments that Beckett chose to use on From City To Beachfront. There was a creamy smoothness and easy going feeling about the sound palette on the album that I enjoyed.
The instruments ranged from shimmering chimes to tasty jazz organ and from energetic piano to luscious xylophone. I was also pulled in by the classy guitar sounds and sharp, clear horn punctuation on the album.
For me, From City To Beachfront’s most compelling aspect was the pastel hued imagery it created for me. It generated a charming, nostalgic retro vision through it’s funky “city” vibes and smoothly cruising, sun-drenched sounds.
”Miami Squeeze" by Zak Vortex
Zak Vortex’s Miami Squeeze was an energizing, lushly varied album that blended retro-inspired synths together in an engaging style. It had the virtue of being full of vintage synth sounds that interacted in a fresh, new way.
I was first drawn to Miami Squeeze by its high level of audio production. It had an intensely clear soundstage in which the different elements stood out sharply while still coming together in a harmonious whole. I was also attracted to the textural details of the music that were enhanced by the high production values of the album.
Another aspect that enticed me about Miami Squeeze was Zak Vortex’s facility with synth sound combinations. He chose unique synthesized instruments like kalimba and hang drum that each had different tonal and timbral qualities. His ability to contrast and complement shimmer, grit, shadow and uplift as he combined different synth elements resulted in a varied and compelling end result.
The melodic quality of this album was a strong factor in my enjoyment of it. I felt that Zak Vortex composed melodies that were deeply expressive and emotional. I was especially enamored of his skill at hovering in between variable emotional states within a single melody, creating a complex landscape of feelings.
Miami Squeeze also had well-considered bass and percussion elements on it. There was a broad tapestry of unique percussion instruments and the velvet bass depths formed a tidal, supporting framework for the other musical components of the album. As a whole, they gave the album a strong base from which to grow.
”American Summer" by Lavallette
American Summer took the luxuriant profusion of synth sounds and energy that are the best parts of retrowave music and added a level of nuance and polish to them that raised them to another quality level. Daniel Schuster’s abilities on guitar and synth were further enhanced by Sophia Sorrentino’s expressive vocal performances. There were also superb contributions to the overall sound from Patrick Russell and Knight Wolf 1981.
The heady emotional state of American Summer was a decisive factor in my attraction to the album. It concocted a potent mix of melancholy, yearning and piercing nostalgia as it unfolded. Sophia Sorrentino’s vocals were a significant part of that emotion as she injected them with deep feeling and aching expression. The song lyrics are full of a mixture of joy and loss and the uplifting melodies are leavened with a dose of yearning nostalgia.
The melodies that were written by Daniel Schuster were another component that drew me toward the album. He crafted melodies that danced on the line between hope and melancholy as he wove a lavish selection of synth sounds together. I was also drawn to his arcing guitar solos that flew through the music.
Another reason I found Lavallette’s album so compelling was the musical guests featured on it. Knight Wolf 1981 has wild guitar chops that add dynamism to the music and Patrick Russell’s voice was an ideal complement to Sophia Sorrentino’s as they duet on “American Summer.”
"Boardwalk Arcadia" by Pat Dimeo (and Guests)
Boardwalk Arcadia radiated the emotionally complex sensation of youthful dreaming regarded through the lens of adult nostalgia. The songs explore the synergy and contradiction between teenage idealism and the demands of growing up.
Pat Dimeo’s voice brimmed over with expression and a tragic ache as it wove through the textured, well-produced music. Boardwalk Arcadia is like a childhood Polaroid fading into a summer lost forever in time.
Pat Dimeo put in a masterful vocal performance on Boardwalk Arcadia. His voice was tremulous when expressing pain and full of dynamic power as he sang out about hope. I was especially drawn to the way he expressed hurting, gentle nostalgia as he sang. He interpreted the emotion in his lyrics well.
A strong reason for my enjoyment of the album was Pat Dimeo’s skill as a melodist. He creates melodic content that walks the line between tragedy and uplift. The melodies exist in a world that knows youth has gone, but yearns for the feelings it generated to persist regardless. I enjoyed how they became an integral part to the album’s atmosphere.
The fact that Boardwalk Arcadia featured live instrumental elements was another reason I especially enjoyed the album. The drums, saxophone, keys and percussions were all played live which added a strong feeling of connection to the music for me.