VVMPYRE Presents… The Top 50 Tracks of 2021

2021 in music was weird, especially within this community. I mostly resorted to checking music in this community, and while I am sure something from the Bruno Mars & Anderson Paak record or JPEGMafia would be worthy of this list, none of those were my primary listen. Instead, the world of synths and the world of gothic darkness led me to the path that defines what you will hear on this list. That said, there were two different stories in each half of the year.

In the first half, 2021 was a decent year with some cool releases, but the highlights were very obvious standouts that would top all the rest by a country mile. In the second half, 2021 was a phenomenal year for music that truly saw many artists releasing some of their best years and new artists fully coming into their own. The end result of both set the world of music ablaze and put forward talents that could easily define the new decade like Night Leather and ELYXIR, reinventing others like CZARINA, and spelling out the new chapters of talents like Thought Beings and Male Tears.

My cutoff for this list was December 3rd, 2021. Anything released after that did not make it onto this list, and will be considered for 2022. Even with this, there are some incredibly tough cuts I had to make, some songs I expected to be in my top 10 in the first half just barely made it onto the list. Some tracks I also waited on if there are albums due for each of them, which is why you won’t see Draven’s “Cauchemar Noir” or CZARINA’s “Medusa” here among others. What a year it has been, let’s begin its summary with:

50. Vara Sky - Aggressive

This year, I challenged myself to be daring in exploring my music taste. I had dived somewhat into Industrial and EBM, but discovering Industrial Techno was a big moment for me. That said, while most artists stood out in singular tracks, Vara Sky as an artist stuck with me. If I had to demonstrate with just one track, this brutal mayhem of relentless kicks, fun samples, and a barrage of bass is the way I would do it. There is almost something melodic about the execution of this, in spite of the lack of a distinct melody in the same way one would traditionally recognize a melody. It oddly sticks with you, and Vara’s ability to consistently do this is what separates her from the pack.

49. Jonny Fallout - Magic Love (Flux)

2021 offered many interesting sounds and unlikely combinations of sounds, but perhaps one of the least predictable came in Jonny Fallout’s seamless blend of Synthwave and early to mid 2010’s Electro Trance. The track evolves through many different progressions from a euphoric breakdown that begins the track, to a dance break that would have its place in a Robots with Rayguns track, straight into the verses with the Electro wubs clashing with the synth grooves and retro drum machines playing a progression not far from Andy Moor or Ferry Corsten. The vocals match this, with an airy male vocal filling an occasional hook, and the main vocalist channeling her inner Aruna with the vocal fx further complimenting this vibe. It’s fun, it’s irresistible, it’s sexy, it’s a good time.

48. Fluid Ghost - Bedroom Smoke

When the main goal of your track is a “dance” track meant to get people on the dancefloor, there is seldom need for much more to be of a solid quality, but this “Dark Dance” track from Fluid Ghost has a lot to its groove. While it focuses mostly on a simple 3-note synth melody, it constantly builds atmosphere and tension throughout to intensify the groove, to make it even more captivating, and even more haunting. It doesn’t feel like there is one constant progression, it is always moving.

47. Draven - Silver Coffin

While this year saw past Darksynth kings GoST, Carpenter Brut, and Pertubator pursue directions outside of their main music course, I would say this year established three new Darksynth kings in the meantime. Meet the first of them, the Greek king of horror himself, Draven. With a logo inspired by the Evil Dead franchise and a knack for larger-than-life productions with a brutal bass assault, there is no stopping the mayhem that Draven’s tracks have created. This track with its haunting pianos, massive progressions, and barrage of buildups is only the beginning of what is the path of an artist I expect to be a favorite in 2022. This track only has grown on me since I initially reviewed it, and there is bound to be more to come.

46. CONNÖR - Cybernetic Satan

I had such a hard time deciding between this track and Draven, but what is clear about this one is that CONNÖR is another addition to the list of Darksynth kings. Where Silver Coffin excelled in its horror and tension, Cybernetic Satan delivers in riff after riff with a constant shift in synths and sections to further emphasize the heavy beats. This all peaks into a collapse that leads into a breakdown at the end. This Drumstep-esque finale with the giant choir demonstrates CONNÖR’s ability to balance melody with brutal, heavy climaxes that keep the energy regardless of tempo. Alongside another solid single after this one, it proves for a bright future for the German Darksynth talent.

45. VH x RR - The Fray

While producer Von Hertzog cited an influence other than Trap to reflect the aspirations of some of the elements within this track, but while I cannot recall what he exactly cited, I can point to this as an example of artists in this circle and scene willing to move forward. More than anything else, VH x RR’s sounds have consistently shown an ability to move themselves with the modern age, with the tasteful pianos and building synths on top of the 808 drums. Assisting this just as much as Von’s production is Rob Rowe’s vocals, shining with the subtlety of Chris Martin and the wisdom of the veteran singer he is. However, he’s still willing to ascend and match the passion of the instruments surrounding him, reaching a blissful set of heights constantly as the chorus reaches. In a genre full of retro pastiche, VH x RR are the sound of modern day.

44. A Dollar Underwater feat. Andy Thorton - The Perfect Dark

If you asked me what a band named “A Dollar Underwater” would sound like, my last answer would be a Synthwave act whose best track splits the difference between Def Leppard and the Sisters of Mercy, but here we are. This track takes the massive anthems of darkness that were at the epicenter of Floodland and pulls them alongside a more conventional Arena Rock structure, set to a tasteful range of synths not far from your typical Synthwave track. This also includes a strong guitar solo at the end of the track and a set of lyrics that confronts its darkness to try to find the light, a common theme of this album. Few tracks this year were able to make what on paper sounds like such an odd combination of sounds and concepts sound so natural together, but it’s the demonstration of A Dollar Underwater at their best.

43. Antipole & Kill Shelter - Raise the Skies

There is always a price for those who shatter those around them to reach the higher places they ascend to. Pete Burns aka Kill Shelter managed to personify this principle with this haunting Goth Rock anthem that resonated with many in that scene this year. Pete’s production and bellowing vocals are matched by the fantastic guitars contributed by Norwegian guitarist Antipole, balancing the signature sounds of both artists to a tee. The end result is one of the year’s darkest tracks, that may indeed ascend to the heavens in its massive sound, but it won’t be praying for you.

42. CFFNDRGGR - Vengeance

While only three tracks in, this South Carolina Darksynth producer already has the pieces to become another addition to the genre’s throne. The track hits with a heavy bass alongside a pair of drums that switches from being a traditional Synthwave sound to using a live Metal drum kit, a foundation already set for an interesting track. Topped with a haunting piano riff and a tense set of synth atmospheres, the only thing that’s more impressive than this effortless horror is the break-ins with a massive set of Metal chords that set the mid-tempo track into double time. The dynamics make for a massive banger that alongside the quicker “Conjure” and a solid cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout” show a lot of potential going forward.

41. Paradox Obscur - Inferno (Dimi Kaye Remix)

Among the Greek gods, perhaps the most underrated is the Greek god of guitar, Dimi Kaye. He delivered many quality guest appearances and tracks, but perhaps the high point this year was laying his take on Greek Darkwave duo Paradox Obscur’s anthem from last year “Inferno”. Dimi ramps the production to maximum with the big drums and Metal guitars, matching the big synths and vocalist Kristii Ann’s declarations of the world deteriorating and “mysteries beyond the sun”. Topping this all off is Dimi’s classic soloing, the final piece of a staple among synth fans, Metalheads, and Goths all.

40. Young Empress - Lost Time

There comes a time where we must all find a way to prove ourselves one way or another. What happens when it comes to that fleeting moment varies for each one another, but for Young Empress, that meant bringing the absolute best in their music. That is what this track is all about, not just in the lyrics where they channel the vibe and energy of Flashdance to step themselves up, but in their absolute best production with a fiery guitar and a catchy set of rhodes chords. This isn’t too far from their brand of Synthwave-driven Soft Rock, but it still manages to rock out with both a sax and guitar solo, and a workout of a chorus that is accentuated by a fantastic composition and structure. They sought to prove themselves, and they certainly did.

39. Architrave - Blissed Out

The desire for escapism is certainly something that will be discussed later on, but it is captured in this moment opening up Architrave’s great album this year. The tight synth grooves alongside the Post Punk bass and 90’s breakbeats make for an excellent combination. The spacey pads reflect the distance between reality and the perceptive feel of realness in social media. The hook captures that contrast, and could be interpreted in a myriad of ways, all towards the same goal of wanting to find something worthwhile. If this mood is what it feels like, you can take my phone and take me there too.

38. Ash Code - Fear (Clan of Xymox Remix)

While Clan of Xymox’s album left me a lot to be desired in many aspects, it was a nice surprise to see them lend a hand to Ash Code’s latest single and deliver in spades. Their remix delivers an impressively catchy sitar riff alongside the synth bass and industrial drum machine, a combination that earns its “WHOO WHOO” after the riff. Adriano Belluccio’s vocals below the pain and emotion many of us felt this year and the last. As he cries “Time please be kind, press rewind”, no matter how anyone has felt about everything that has happened, we are all there with him.

37. Power Rob - Gloria

You don’t have to change the landscape of music to deliver a good or even a great song, and this is perhaps the best case for it. The euphoric production provided by Elevate the Sky does its job as a Synthwave ballad, elevating the powerful vocals by Power Rob himself to massive heights. This is just a well written and well composed song with great production, topped alongside a guitar solo that adds to the classic fun of it all, not a lot more to say.

36. GHOSTECH - I Built A Cage

On the surface level, the combination of Darkwave with Outrun Synthwave seems a little bit of a stretch, but once you think about the common tempos and a few common roots, it makes too much sense. GHOSTECH doesn’t think about it much as he brings together this tasteful track that features not just a slick production decked out with a big hook and a big bass, but a surprising vocal performance. The lyrics are an honest reflection that is accentuated by the vocal performance, reflecting on the idea of the “cages” we build around ourselves “from the inside” from a personal perspective. Perhaps this connects a fair bit too close to home, but there’s a ton of charm to this and the really solid production here, a big grower for me this year.

35. Neaon - Ultraviolet

I have seen many alike Neaon’s Synthwave style to Shoegaze, but this track among others demonstrates there is a fair bit more to it. The ethereal vocals and synths are there as per usual, but there is a very Pop feel to this. The lyrics are essentially an overly colorful love song, but they resonate alongside the production. It really takes you places, assisted not just by the excellent synths, but a guitar solo that is one of many small hints towards a future Synthwave shredder. It makes for Neaon’s best abilities to ascend to heavenly peaks, creating the musical borealis you would absolutely vibe to her album in.

34. Cat Temper - The Meoward Spiral

Sure, the puns in the titles help, but even if you take those away, there is no taking away from the sound that is definitely Cat Temper regardless of its transformations. The distinct brand of fun synth progressions with highs and lows, even a key change at an end are all part of what makes him so enjoyable. This album showed the cat embracing big Darksynth basses, some heavy guitars, and some drum machines very esque of early Nine Inch Nails, and this track checks all the notes. The difference here is mostly in how this track is the most fun you will have with Cat Temper, and possibly the most fun you will have with a track all this year. More than anything else, that spirit in of itself is distinctly Cat Temper.

33. C Z A R I N A - Atomic: Ad Invitium

The trilogy of CZARINA singles this year were all absolutely incredible in their own ways, and this one being the start of them all was a fiery explosion of sounds that I expected to make my top 10 at the year’s first half. The chorus with a melody I remember as soon as I mention the song alongside its intro and post chorus, the sway of vocal effects alongside the massive drum machines and bass warping make for a larger-than-life track. It constantly finds a way to lift itself up further, and keeps you hooked on the journey through its futuristic pursuits. I heard many tracks and albums attempt to understand the relation of man and machine, but made it feel quite the way this track takes you.

32. ACTORS - Cold Eyes

There is not a lot to say about this track’s great qualities. This track has a really fat bassline. The call and response nature of the various elements that interact constantly in the production makes for a fun listen and that drum has you joining in even if you are sitting down. The constant buildup and variation with each buildup keeps up the energy as it moves like the memes that spread around this album’s artwork. You almost forget the track is supposed to be dark until the subtly shrieking synths creep in more and more to raise the tension. “Blood red lips” ... this is about vampires, isn’t it?

31. Corlyx - The Echo

An anthem to celebrate death that is just as haunting as it is quite enjoyable and catchy. Caitlin Stokes’ vocals particularly shine with her personality glowing with the vocal melodies throughout. Together with a combination of a massive Post Punk bass, a New Wave drum groove that could only be more 80’s if you did it on a Linn, and a set of guitar riffs full of Indie and Alt Rock influences makes for a nice blend of new and old. If you’re more on the traditional side of Goth Rock and Darkwave but are tired of basic nostalgia, Corlyx has you covered, and their next singles they only have more to offer up.

30. Honey Beard - Lighthouse

Perhaps one of the things I most appreciated about the darker side of New Wave in the early 80’s was its willingness to be grown up while also connecting with a traditional Pop sensibility. Honey Beard really tapped into that with this one right here. There is this emotional urgency of trying to hold oneself together, pleading for the help of someone else to guide them through. The magic is really in how effortless Honey Beard connects this to a lot of very ethereal and memorable melodies throughout, both in Gaz’s vocals and Tom’s production. There is a magic to this that I hear in say Michael Oakley’s best (Who mixed and mastered the album) or even in the early 80’s pastiche of Twin Tribes that shaped their 2018 Darkwave debut. While this release did not do as well as their past, I personally would say this is among their best, and it has only grown on me even as I played their track in my New Year’s Eve set.

29. Bunny X & Don Dellpiero - Perfect Paradise

I alluded to in a previous review the term “Pop Perfection”, and while I would find it egregious to overuse this term, it’s about the only way to describe Bunny X’s latest album. This track’s infectious disco guitars, synthwave bass grooves and modern synth leads that make up Don’s original instrumental only ascend further with the vocals from Bunny X themselves. The melodies on their own are a summer smash, especially on vocals as solid as Bunny X had. This was enough to earn the well-deserved acclaim of Kim Wilde, one generation in tune with the Kids of America to the next.

28. Night Leather - Aisle

The amount of odd turns Night Leather’s debut album takes into its gothic perfection is certainly astounding, but I am not sure I expected my favorite aside from the track we will talk about later would be essentially a Drake track. However, while artists like Drake, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and Majid Jordan have all attempted to ride this slick brand of retro 80’s R&B with elements of Synthpop, the difference between all of these people are both the vocals and the lyrics. The tradeoff between singers here is wonderful and adds a dynamic to the awkward tension in the love scene. It’s a very real scenario that makes the more sappy lines a lot more genuine and sometimes desperate, accentuated only further by the wild vocal performance by Ryan Ward particularly and the production that warps with it. If “Perfect Paradise” fits the blossoming relationship, “Aisle” fits love at first sight and all of the reality that comes with it.

27. Lucia Cifarelli - Girls Like Me (Special K Mix)

If I told you the singer of KMFDM was trying to make Pop music, this is about the closest you could imagine it being. The original is certainly quite good, but this mix on the single really helps take this track up to the next level. The bombastic Trance-esque progressions alongside an infectious vocal and an even more irresistible chorus that would have you singing if the beat did not keep you glued to the dancefloor. The breakdown after the first chorus esque of Psy Trance is just one of many twists and turns this track takes. It constantly finds a way to vary its rhythm, and by the time that final chorus hits, you never realize you just went through a 5+ minute track. The female empowerment anthem lyrics coming from one of the most empowering women in alternative music feels almost arbitrary, but they are nice.

26. Syst3m Glitch - Young, Wild, and Free

I have always wanted a Synthwave vocal track to personify the magic of the 80’s from tracks like And We Danced by The Hooters, the sort of thing that was modernized by tracks like Walk the Moon’s Shut Up and Dance, and Syst3m Glitch finally gave me my wish. The twinkly synth bells alongside the sax courtesy of Jesse Molloy start a heart racing track that personifies not just the escapism of these types of tracks, but also how they never last forever, and the desire to hold on. The rush of the guitars and Bobby’s vocals add onto this, giving the feel of the end of the night as you wish it could simply never end, with that end slowly creeping in. Even the best of nights have their ending, but I will hold on for a little longer if the end result is holding onto a track this damn good.

25. JNNY COBRA & Dark Smoke Signal - Download Complete (Riff Pimps and Euro B-Boys Go Crazy Hardstyle Mix)

The Bandcamp review for “Straight Ballin’ Off the Left Hand Path” by a favorite user I follow, palehorse666, started by saying “I have no idea what I just listened to, but by God it was amazing”. This perhaps best describes how I feel after hearing this track. I could attempt to describe the chaotic mix of breakbeats, Drumstep, and Darksynth that bashes these elements like they are all one in the same, but I’m not sure I quite could. I could declare JNNY COBRA another successor to the throne of Darksynth, but I’m pretty sure that already goes without saying. It’s best just to listen to this, and experience it for the first time, and let the reaction to it settle in for you.

24. Ghostemane - Hydrochloride (MORIS BLAK Remix)

Addiction is certainly a tough subject to tackle in any song, but perhaps even moreso it is capturing the feeling of it with music. With the chaotic production of scattering bass and hard-hitting Industrial drums, MORIS BLAK managed to personify this effortlessly with his remix of this Ghostemane track. I have listened to the original, but whereas that track is in your face and puts emphasis on its lyrics, this remix manages to capture an atmosphere that goes beyond them and perhaps accentuates those words. The line “I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE” hits much harder after a big buildup and the words are accompanied by a warping bass that only shifts as the track moves forward. There is not a shortage of bangers that MORIS BLAK dropped this year, but this track managed to go beyond that and deliver something much darker.

23. Echoberyl - Salomé (Suffer Me)

Sometimes all a track needs to go off is just a really catchy lead riff. Sometimes that riff is a couple of chords, sometimes it is a couple of notes, but for Echoberyl, they only needed to use two. The ever addicting two note bass riff that prevails the track is instantly sticky alongside the constantly shifting production. The haunting vocals from Cecilia, the synth atmospheres that wail infrequently, the orchestral, rave, and even crowd noise stabs that call to Boy Harsher, and a simple but groovy drum beat are all things that pile on. It all sits on top of a set of haunting lyrics inspired by the one-act tragedy by Oscar Wilde. The lead single that was the start to an excellent journey led forward by Echoberyl in 2021.

22. Alpha Chrome Yayo - Dead Air

There is no shortage of great tracks from Alpha Chrome Yayo this year, but in a year this good with this many excellent songs, it takes a very special track to make it to this list. With that in mind, this magnum opus really balances ACY’s fun with his artistic brilliance. This plays in of itself almost like a radio play or a short film within the track itself. The track captures the mood perfectly with the relentless bass, the scattering synth melody that dissipates in your head like the strange waves that the script describes. The amount of imagination executed in this track truly sets you into its world and prepares you for the excellent adventure throughout the rest of the album. Truly, in many regards, a track to be remembered for.

21. Michael Oakley & Dana Jean Phoenix - Glasgow Song

The atmosphere that Michael Oakley’s Odyssey truly brought at its best is a special type of connection that could only be compared to the realism and everyday feelings of John Mellancamp and Bruce Springsteen. The way Oakley uses Synthwave to personify these moods, and even the callback with the sample of Tears for Fears’ “Shout”, it’s very easy to feel a lot from every listen. It’s only made even more magical thanks to Dana Jean Phoenix’s amazing vocals that play effortlessly off of Michael. This track, more than any other, truly defined what made him a special artist this year and what makes Dana a great collaborator at her best.

20. Eva X - Machine

Given the jump in quality and the transformation and evolution Eva X had this year, this almost feels self-aware in its lyrical content. But even that aside, this track takes the best of PC Music production and adapts it to Darkwave with the sort of strange quality that defined 2021, smashing it with Eva’s pleas to accept her as the person she wishes to be. As someone who had to go through a massive artistic shift, perhaps this hits a little too close to home, but there are a lot of ways this is a very universal message. Pair it with a tasteful set of shock, some edge with the vocal effects and even some guitars in the second verse, and Eva has turned herself into the gothic equivalent of a Pop idol. There was not a shortage of these this year, but Eva has proven herself more than a standout, both with this track and her newest single I highly recommend.

19. VH x RR - Shattered Bones (Mesh Mix)

It is always hard to pick which version of a VH x RR track to include on my lists nowadays because their maxis always include so many amazing versions. However, while the original take of The Fray sat with me best, this Rock version of Shattered Bones landed with me best. This almost feels like what an Imagine Dragons track should do, the heavy synth bass sits well on top of the slamming drums and the crunchy guitars. It all reaches a brutal buildup with Rob Rowe’s vocals, not brutal in the direct sense as much as you feel the tension in every word and through the progression. You truly feel the doom in Rob’s words, the sense of age crumbling down, the feeling of seeing too much. It unfortunately summarizes how a lot of us felt this year, and while there is not very much I personally could do to add to this subject, we can all say we are right there with Rob.

18. Male Tears - Model Citizen

There is a balance between fun, insane, and plain brilliance. Somehow, this track manages to capture all three. James’ vocals on “Trauma Club” certainly had some highs, but this is still his peak alongside the amount of playfulness and the varying personality. It accentuates the already solid beat with a floor-filling bassline and a hard-hitting drum machine that’s topped with some synthwave leads, a few rave stabs, and an odd arp that adds some interesting atmosphere. This is all alongside James’ lyrics that personify the very essence of “selling your soul” to an almost literal extent, as if accepting his newfound success with his label through virtue of “selling out” in the most haunting way possible. I, for one, welcome our soul-eating Darkwave overlords.

17. AGNIS - Slavic Witch

Empowerment through music is a very interesting concept. In a world full of cheap female empowerment anthems, it feels like a treasure when one finds a way to do something new. However, Darkwave focused around slavic chants, tribal drums, and a church bell was not quite what I expected. That said, just feeling the music is enough to move you in quite a way in its haunting atmosphere that captures the protests it was inspired by. This is further assisted by AGNIS’ enchanting vocals that bring in complex layering that only further accentuates not just the realm of what AGNIS can do, but the emotion laid within the track itself. A mystical experience, if there was a way to best describe it.

16. Black Angel - Alive

Certainly, the best guitar riff of the year, by far. Black Angel has a knack for massive Goth Rock that only finds its way to continue to reach more massive heights as the song moves along, and this song checks all the boxes there. What truly separates this from other Black Angel tracks is not just its commitment to its elements, up to including the soulful backing vocals at the end, but its massive energy. For a song whose main hook is “I feel so alive, but know that I’m better off dead”, it certainly has a lot of life to it. It breathes darkness, and you can feel it in the heavy guitars, the thick bass, and those haunting vocals. For three years, Black Angel has been happy to give us at least one anthem where they are this devoted to going all in, and I am certainly happy to praise them every time they do it.

15. Sapphira Vee feat. Chris Connely - The Unknowing Muse

Almost every release from Sapphira has one track that I would highly consider as a candidate for best of the year. However, this track is particularly special, and in a weaker year could easily top it. Her vocals have never sounded better, a wispy tone perfectly playing the role of this dark muse alongside the gothic poetry and beautiful production. The lush bells work well alongside the synth bass and Vee’s vocals, but perhaps the star of the show is Chris Connely. I have enjoyed his work before, but this is still his best work to date, the vocal layering within all of this is masterful, the melodies still catch in my head as I write this review without even the music on. Even with Chris aside though, this is Sapphira at a new peak that demonstrates her artistic creativity, and it seems like in 2022, she will only continue to go further down the experimentation rabbit hole. From already hearing “What is This?”, I look forward to seeing what comes of it.

14. Sam Haynes feat. Destini Beard & Gary Bennett - Incantations At Midnight

Some artists are just gifted at doing certain things effortlessly. For instance, Gary Bennett can effortlessly deliver a slick guitar line with maybe a few fills and a solo where necessary. Destini Beard can effortlessly deliver a haunting vocal with dark storytelling and an operatic range. Sam Haynes can effortlessly deliver a horror synth production with catchy melodies and solid peaks and valleys. However, when this talent is meshed together and brings new elements to essentially become a 90’s Darkwave pastiche, that is truly when you have something amazing. It’s even better when everybody has a good time, and it’s apparent just by listening that everyone enjoyed making this track. Sam Haynes’ tracks are meant for amusement parks, but he brought us the actual park for this one.

13. Jonny Fallout - Hypnotized (Cybertherial)

While “lightning in a bottle” is a term I egregiously use, and mostly only in retrospect, it is the only way I can describe the instantaneous feeling this track gives off. The almost timeless progression that comes across in the intro and swells with the vocals as the blend of Trance and Synthwave in this track effortlessly clashes into its ethereal peaks. As the Above and Beyond energy reaches further peaks with the vocals sticking with you, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s the same quality as the real thing. Perhaps that is not the point, but perhaps the journey that it takes you throughout. You’re right Fox, Cybertherial might be the best way to describe this.

12. Angelspit - Don’t Know Zero

Throughout 2021, a fair few of some of the political speakers who shaped who I am today threw out their principles in favor of grifting while acting like they themselves were the “rebels” as they stood by the powerful. To have a song that called that out resonated with me already, but to have it be this good is a whole other thing. The Industrial grooves alongside the surprisingly fun set of synth leads that play a rather catchy melody throughout, doubled by a brutal bassline. Zoog Von Rock’s classic sarcastic delivery comes in, and it’s doubled by Miss Ballistic at her absolute best, delivering an even better performance at the third verse for what might just be the verse of the year. It’s fun, it’s in your face, and most of all, it is unapologetic. Deal with it.

11. Echoberyl - Medea’s Revenge

The darkness of the old tales is not unheard of as an element of Goth music as a whole, but few have captured the horror, the emotion, and the magic in the same way Echoberyl did with this track. Retelling the vengeful Greek tale of the sorceress Medea, this track hits with a dark bassline that only gets more impactful as it is stacked with Cecilia’s vocals echoing the same melody, additional synths, a tight atmosphere, and an occasional guitar fill. The aforementioned vocals only get more twisted as the track carries on, the second verse ending with tears, only for a maddening laugh to replace it by the end of the final verse. The end result is a track that perfectly masters Echoberyl’s dominance of both the dance floor and dark story telling.

10. Bunny X & Sellorekt/LA Dreams - Can’t Wait

There are some tracks in Pop that no matter what their lyrics, the perfection of the instrumental alongside the vocals and the excellent vocal melody will always make it a magical experience. It’s always nice when the lyrics are nice, say an anthem to the anticipation of finding success, but this track from Bunny X was always going to be a goldmine. That melody in the riff is as timeless as classic Bunny X and they have never sounded this phenomenal vocally. The guitar stabs, those rhodes chords, even that little drum fill and the arp that slightly reminds me of The 1975. It’s all carefully put in place by Sellorekt/LA Dreams and if there ever comes more from this pairing, well, I can’t wait either. For now, we have an anthem that could go to the weekend, to the celebration of life, to many things, and I’m sure there are some of us in this scene that will stick with this track for a good long while.

9. NightRazor - Godslammer

I’m sure when Synthwave really began to kick in, no one could have anticipated the many evolutions it would have. Among those, perhaps one of the least predictable was Jason Hoffman slamming together the drums of Nine Inch Nails with the classic synths of Gary Numan and a constant set of evolving grooves with pianos, increasingly stranger synths, and one of the loudest basslines of the year. But that is what we got, and it only gets heavier as it goes further as well, leading into a track that is both worthy of dancing and headbanging. A future Synthwave classic.

8. ELYXIR & Neilio - Mother Mania

While perhaps many might not directly associate this track with “Cyberpunk”, I think this track channels it in a way that perhaps explains how this track has stuck with so many. While the message ELYXIR sent with this one is quite universal, this was meant to take a stab at social media and resonates to that same energy. Converting that to Popwave with Neilio’s excellent production does wonders. He essentially takes a lot of the complex detail, even in synths that stick in the background, to melodies that Iron Maiden would have done on a track from their peak era in the 80’s and gives it the Pop sensibility that allows it to really stick with you. The guitar riffs are just as sticky as highlights of that era like “Wrathchild” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, with a solo that clicks with just as much technique as melody. ELYXIR’s vocals are harder to describe with any other word than “impeccable”, but her performance unleashes the sort of quality you would expect from the artists this “retro” pastiche is supposed to take influence from. Perhaps “retro” is not the right word for this one as much as it is “evolution”.

7. AGNIS - Light & Fire

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, rock bands would embrace their rockstar-isms with odes to themselves throughout their sets. Some of these you might not realize fit into this category, but inflict just as much swagger and badassery, such as AC/DC’s “Back in Black”. AGNIS channels all of that into a thunderous anthem, declaring herself “The Fire”, “The Light”, and feeling “the life”. With a vocal performance like this that goes off the walls with its range of notes that casually hits operatic highs you would expect from Mariah Carey more than any Darkwave track, and both a haunting piano and a drum and bassline combo that will keep you on the floor, she certainly earned all of that. The effortless nature of not just AGNIS’ vocals but the combination of elements in the production makes this feel so natural in spite of how unique it is, and certainly is an anthem to not just define AGNIS as an artist to watch for, but to define AGNIS and her transformative style. Even all of that aside, this is the best vocal performance of 2021.

6. Thought Beings - Strange Matter

I noted in “Lighthouse” the darker side of the early 80’s but while Honey Beard perhaps embraced the spirit of it into their brand of Synthwave, Thought Beings looked at that pastiche and went all in. The Post Punk bassline with the bizarre but dark synth touches and the shifting pads that really let you feel the mysteriousness of the track really makes this a standout. Orion’s vocals channel somewhere between Andrew Eldritch and the early vocals of Tony Hadley, and the backing vocals give a ton of melody that truly stick with you, accentuated further by the occasional shouts that give a horror feel. Putting it all together is the lyrics that less describe something directly as much as they paint a picture and a mood. There is something certainly more to it, and the vocal performances throughout make it feel much darker than it may even be. Still, Thought Beings have been delivering exciting release after exciting release and after having heard word of an album in 2022 and perhaps a surprise from Orion, I look forward to a whole lot more from whatever this group of people has to offer.

5. Michael Oakley - Is There Anybody Out There? (Jon Campbell Mix)

Throughout this list I talked about tracks that resonated with other people in the scene and with myself personally, but perhaps more than any other, this was the one we all felt together. A lot of us felt a lot of moments where we were lost and trying to find our way to some place or another, and Michael Oakley was there to give us the perfect soundtrack to that. The impeccable bass groove, the 90’s synth chords, and the classic Synthwave drums that go through a seamless motion alongside the muted guitars that ring of classic Trance, it’s a journey that is impossible not to feel. Oakley’s vocal performance only accentuates it further, grasping onto the desperation to find “somebody else like me”, it grabs your hand like the best of the artists Oakley certainly inspires from. Much like the best of Synthwave this year, he found a way to not just be retro, but to evolve that sound forward. This simply is Pop perfection, not just a track that will stick with you for a short minute, but that you will keep going back to. I certainly did throughout the early fall, and I thank Oakley for giving us all the soundtrack to finding ourselves one way or another.

4. Anniee feat. Midnight Hi-Fi - Running to You

If Oakley’s music journeys take you through the motions of reality and finding your place, Anniee’s music takes you to the theater. The three-act structure of this track really stands out, alongside Anniee’s performance that channels a lot of Sarah Brightman and Kate Bush, and Midnight Hi-Fi’s vocal calling to perhaps the best vocalist Brightman herself has ever paired with, Chris Thompson. He also brings his guitar to deliver the best guitar solo of the year, with an emotional resonance that clicks just as much as the vocal performances and the lyrics of a hopeless romance. As if that wasn’t enough, the track delivers a masterful Synthwave production that restrains the track when necessary to focus on the vocals and ascends with a beautiful set of arps when the vocals aren’t there. The end result of all of this is perhaps something I could only describe as Synthwave’s “Stairway to Heaven”, a timeless piece that ascends beyond the genre’s limitations and goes for an absolute grandiose piece. In a few years, maybe a good while, I could see this track going beyond this very scene itself.

3. Minuit Machine - Vanity

For as much as club culture can be personified by mainstream music as this sort of lavish lifestyle, as if there is zero consequence to all the sex, drugs, and decadence, it can be just as much a nightmare. This is why I have always appreciated artists who have done this before, and while I will give credit to The Weeknd for bringing that to the mainstream with the Trilogy, I think no artist has ever done it quite like Minuit Machine. In that sense, Vanity is their magnum opus, spelling out their main message in the lyrics soundtracked to the goth club banger to end all goth club bangers. The switchups between the heavy one-note groove esque of EBM and the subtle Darkwave grooves, tied together with a dark atmospheric breakdown that gives you room to breathe before the beat strikes again. The darkness really puts an emphasis on the message, as Hante personifies the addiction, madness, and insecurity within the decadence of the club culture they personify with their sound. Minuit Machine have always been in line with the greats of Goth culture and music at their best, but with this one, perhaps they find themselves in line with the classics.

2. Night Leather - SAFE WORD

Whereas Vanity found itself dancing to its own decadence, this track manages to find itself flirting with hookup culture and its own decadence and attempts to connect with its interests. The production must first be emphasized, because it is the best instrumental of the year. The blend between Darkwave, Disco, and EBM is a rather odd collection that is as chaotic as anything from Night Leather is. However, it manages to use it to reach massive climaxes that take influences that could range from 90’s Breakbeat (I.E. The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim), Swedish House Mafia, Cut Copy, and Twitch-era Ministry. All smashed together, by the way. Ryan Ward’s vocal performance only emphasizes the chaos even more, and a unique layering that balances between Post Punk and touches of the weird side of 00’s Indie Rock.

The lyrics themselves deserve a bit more shake than perhaps they might seem at first. SAFE WORD leans on the kink side in order to give a darker perspective, but perhaps the connection is more apparent in the last verse. Ryan attempts to hit on this girl and notes that it looks like she is “dying to get out of this town”, and that she “better take that to the grave”. This truly reveals the nightmare of it all, many people looking for an escape as they look forward to something they may never truly achieve. This says a lot not just about many in that club culture, but also even about many indie artists in the scene they are in, perhaps they are even aware of that sense of doom themselves. I simply hope that with the fantastic quality of releases they have and the album that has already been delivering quality singles out not too long after I post this review, they aren’t taking themselves to the grave. I’d like to see them stick around for quite a while longer.

1. C Z A R I N A - Wonderland

On the topic of escapism, 2021 has been a rough year for a lot of us. Loss, personal frustrations with the pandemic, and other matters that led us to range from being hurt to being outright traumatized. We all wanted to find some place. CZARINA truly took us to that place this year, and with this track really uplifted the spirits of many, myself included. The transcendent production with the ascending strings, a hooky piano, and a massive drum machine that could be heard from the mountains truly embraces the magic that she describes as being inspired by her move to Galicia. It’s difficult to say a whole lot, because it is best heard and experienced for yourself. The lyrics equally match this energy, personifying rebirth, the spirits of nature and cosmos, and the gods and fables that have always shaped CZARINA’s lyricism. The abstract nature of them allows many interpretations, and in their own way shape their own universal message, allowing everyone to find their own “Sacred Wonder”. Indeed, I would put this track itself as a sacred wonder, and my top track of 2021.

I thank you all who take the time to sift through this all, and to everyone who made it to the bottom, you are amazing! This article took a bit out of me, but it was a pleasure to do it. Not only is this the last article I have written in 2021, but it might possibly be the last article I do for Pop Art Avenue. There will be more details on this soon, but in addition to this, my most recent single “Afterlife” might be one of if not the last I send around to the Synthwave community. I actually did not send it over to many places because I felt it was not in their interest and did not fit what they would normally share. 2022 will be coming with a lot of changes for myself, and where that lands me regardless as an artist, as a writer, and in whatever music community I settle in, I appreciate all of you. So many people I learned, enjoyed, and interacted a lot with this year. CZARINA of course, Dimi Kaye, Quelle Horreur, Neaon, NightRazor, Kemikziel, Draven, Von Hertzog, Mas, Kaarin Zoe Lee, Forged in Neon, Whitney Tai, Luna Coverdale, Outworld Sounds, Orion of Thought Beings, Sapphira Vee, Best Korea, Architrave, GHOSTECH, Echoberyl, Caitlin Stokes, FoxPuppy, Anniee, Eva X, ELYXIR & Neilio, Male Tears, Cat Temper, of course Michael, Kal El Jagger, and way too many more! Thank you all for leading me on this journey, and I look forward to seeing where it goes next year.

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