Ten Interesting, Obscure Synth-Pop Albums.
Synthesizers + vocals is a simple formula, but it doesn’t have to sound formulaic. The requirement to be pop constrains the parameters of experimentation here, but sometimes just being cool or catchy is all you really need.
1. “инфинитезималь (Infinitesimal)“ - тема креста (Tema Kresta/Cross Theme) (2018). Epitomizes the “too cool for school” Russian female vocal aesthetic on a label I might have to own the entirety of, Bastard Boogie. Monotone spoken word more than rap or singing in general, this is slow-to-midtempo and not so distinctive in the electronic accompaniment (excepting a sax solo on the first track), but the overall effect of these songs is darkly mesmerizing. Deliberately changing her cadence to contrast with or match the music exactly is a neat trick, too. She tries English and sings about her Russian language on the penultimate track, a special treat after well establishing the album’s mood and modus operandi.
2. “A Chain of Islands” - Brothertiger (2019). Impossibly smooth and melodic, this 99-cent EP doesn’t win points for originality but works well with slight variations on conventional chord progressions and a layered keyboard sound evocative of the 1980s. Formerly on the criminally under-appreciated Mush Records. https://satanicpanicrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/a-chain-of-islands-ep
3. “La Plaga” - Mireia Vilar (2019). I’d be lazy just to call her new album a Latin version of ONUKA, but the catchiness is right up there. Will also have to work my way backward to her earlier album like I did with the Ukrainian chanteuse. This one’s almost all en español, and the production hits the sweet spot without going overboard. Not sure why there’s an English PSA at the end. https://mireiavilar.bandcamp.com/album/la-plaga
4. “Välkommen in till Hallen” - Hallen (2013). They’re no Hot Chip, but a very strong $2 RIYL. Poppier, funkier, and clearly more comfortable with their Swedishness than The Notwist are to sing in German, another clear point of reference. Harmonizing and light rapping on the first track, and then they go mellow but keep up the harmonies. They like to work with organs, pianos, and a warbling baseline. Self-released, apparently.
5. “HiiDE” - BABii (2019). A tip of the hat to whoever got to this one first to give it five stars. I’d probably give four, but it definitely feels current and cool. Female vocals over nice electronic production draw artistic attention to repetition. I could close my eyes and imagine it was on Warp. https://babii.bandcamp.com/album/hiide
6. “S/t” - Unalaska (2015). More guitars in this one than in most synth-pop, and it wouldn’t be a proper list without some to push the borders. Rather chill and cheap. I hear traces of both Clearlake and Shimmering Stars in the vocals and overall tone. The synths and guitars are either dueling or having a civil conversation on this EP.
7. “Lose My Rhythm” - Desert Sound Colony (2018). After two EPs I loved for being on the dancier edge of post rock, this one finds them fully embracing a standard dance beat. The title should be taken ironically, then? I definitely prefer the two earlier ones, but this is still fine for someone who just wants to shake a leg. Still a little spaced out, but adding repetitive lyrics might also put this one closer to house music. I don’t think the remix at the end of the $1.49 four-tracker adds anything by going minimal, maybe subtracting from the overall enjoyment. https://desertsoundcolony.bandcamp.com/album/cracks-in-my-soul
8. “Tv” - electricfield (2019). I mentioned there not being much experimentation on this list due to “pop” being in the name of the genre, but this EP has just enough distorted vocals over its electronica to fit. $2 and part of a large but iffy catalog, this one might bore people who demand flashiness, but it’s both catchy and kooky in its own mellow way. https://electricfield.bandcamp.com/album/tv
9. “Наступит Июнь” - NOnameZZZes (2019). Russian hip-hop over very electronic beats is short, varied, and 99 cents on this EP. I prefer the tracks when he/they (the female backup singer is a nice touch) sing rather than rap.
10. “Costa do Marfim” - Cachorro Grande (2015). Decidedly a psych-rock and not a synth pop band, they tried to embrace the robots on this inexplicably 99-cent full length album. These Brazilians can do no wrong in my view. Check out their other albums any way you can, and then try this one as a curveball.
On other lists but worth mentioning again: “Recollected Memories” - The George Kaplan Conspiracy (2019). “Saint Claude” - Christine and the Queens (2015). “No Saviors” - Clavvs (2019). My Skin Against Your Skin. “With Julia” - Kid Francescoli (2018). “Translation” - Transfigure (2017). Le SuperHomard. Psapp. Juana Molina. Priest.