The Orb - Little Fluffy Clouds
Our synth-based soundtrack to the past 35 years continues and concludes right here, as we select the essential songs from 1990 to 2008 (If you haven't already, check out part 1). This was the period in which synth pop gave way to dance music (though not completely), but we kick off in an ambient vein with The Orb.
Featuring Rickie Lee Jones in conversation over some insistent beats and synth melodies, Little Fluffy Clouds is probably the best track to have emerged from the madness that is The Orb's studio. We thought it was something to do with nuclear testing in Arizona, but it’s not. It’s about little fluffy clouds.
Aphex Twin - Analogue Bubblebath
Analogue Bubblebath shows the best of the tuneful side of Richard James with a stand-out synth riff and enough incidental touches to get over the fact that the beats are bit early 90s. And he probably wrote it while asleep. In a tank. Bloody genius.
Orbital - Lush 3.1
Choosing one Orbital track was a tough call, as each of their albums contains at least one absolute gem. But whereas some 90s tracks haven’t worn well, being too based around the ubiquitous TR-808 drum machine and TB-303 bassline synth, Lush 3.1 has fared better and is sounding as good as ever when the reformed Orbital play it live.
William Orbit - Water From A Vine Leaf
What is it about the ‘90s and artists featuring the word ‘orb’? Anyway, the beats are a bit dated, but Water From A Vine Leaf has a rolling bass and synth strings to die for - and Beth Orton’s vocal isn’t bad either. It also features a majestic breakdown that a million trance acts couldn’t subsequently better.
Pentatonik - Movements Part 2
If you want lush (Orbital notwithstanding), this is it. If it were a lawn, you’d be able to play crown-green bowls on it. Movements Part 2 is from Pentatonik’s Anthology album, which is well worth tracking down for more of the same: synth strings and arpeggios have never combined quite so well.
Leftfield - Open Up
Leftism is one of the best electronic albums ever made, simple as that, and this was one of its many highlights. With screaming leads from both John Lydon and the synths, its sheer power just rolls over you. It’s the kind of music that should have dated but still sounds as good as ever a decade on.
Josh Wink - Higher State Of Consciousness
Any list of the top synth tracks has to include a nod to acid house, and this is probably the finest example with the best filtered synth you could ask for.
Underworld - Pearl's Girl
Born Slippy is the Underworld tune that very much summed up a moment in time, so it’s left to another of the band’s tracks to walk away with the timeless prize. Pearl’s Girl has just about everything: driving beats, breakdowns and a massive filtered synth line. If it doesn’t move you, you are officially dead.
LFO - Loch Ness
LFO produced some real classics in the 90s, but time hasn’t been too kind to some of them. This, on the other hand, is a beautiful slice of rolling synth loveliness - all gooey and swishy like walking through long grass on a summer morning. Mmm.
Prodigy - Narayan
Liam Howlett and chums have consistently proved that it’s not the amount of stuff you throw at a song that counts - rather, it’s all about one or two massive sounds (and huge beats, of course). This track, however, does have a bit more in it than most Prodigy tunes. On top of the fat sounds and beats, there are insistent leads, a massive clap and even a chanty bit for your spiritual side.
Air - Kelly Watch The Stars
Loads of people suggested that we include an Air track and, with its fat bass, this is probably the band’s standout synth moment. Air made synths cool again in the late ‘90s and heralded the arrival of chillout, so we can hold them personally responsible for all those ruddy compilations on which this track doubtless appeared.
The Chemical Brothers - Hey Boy Hey Girl
A Chemical Brothers track that really does show how a couple of simple synth riffs can be so effective. Of course, the beats and arrangement help, but underpinning it all are some incredible basslines and filtering madness to keep you fixated with it all even if there’s not much else (apparently) going on.
Ulrich Schnauss - Nobody's Home
In which Schnauss announced to the world that melodic, dreamy synth music was alive and well and living in Berlin. Yep, great electronic music doesn’t have to be all about massive beats and filters. Layer it up, layer it some more and once you’re done, pad it out. Simple and sublime.
Boards Of Canada - Music Is Math Like Kraftwerk
BoC rarely speak, resulting in a fervour around them that means whatever track we include here will be the wrong one. Music Is Math is one of the band’s most approachable numbers, though, and it demonstrates some of the incidental production techniques - or happy accidents - that have brought them so much acclaim.
Goldfrapp - Strict Machine
Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory knows more about synths - and has used them better - than most, and its balls-out, in-your-face beats and unashamed synths made this track easily fight its way into the top 40. It’s so brash that it even knocks some of Gregory’s own more ethereal synth moments aside.
Jon Hopkins - Second Sense
One of the UK’s leading electronic composers is a secret to most people, but many of those in the know have asked to work with him and so far he counts Eno, Imogen Heap and Coldplay as collaborators. This is the highlight of his superb Contact Note album, a wafting and gracefully melodic catch if ever there was one.
Ladytron - Destroy Everything You Touch
Ladytron were one of the first of the new wave of synth bands and have lots of great tracks to choose from, but for the sheer energy and driving synth action behind a great song, this track wins by a nose.
Junior Boys - In The Morning
With piercing leads, melodic arpeggios and dreamy sequences, this track lurches around like a pissed-up Romero zombie but somehow manages to pull it all off with aplomb. The album from which it comes, So This Is Goodbye, is a bit of a find too.
LCD Soundsystem - Someone Great
On occasion, Someone Great sounds like a long-lost Human League or A Certain Ratio recording (which is a good thing, by the way). James Murphy weaves together a great arrangement that sounds contemporary, futuristic and totally retro at the same time. That’s great synth music for you.
The Killers – Human
It’s difficult to predict a classic track, especially in synth land. Some of the great acid house tunes, for example, really are the sound of their time. Of the current crop of synth-using artists, including Crystal Castles, deadmau5 and Ladyhawke, the Killers have probably done the most to bring the machine back to the fore. A classic? Only time will tell.
Disagree with our choices? Got a nomination for the best synth track of 2009? Let us know in the Comments section below.
For a complete guide to making synth music on your computer, check out Computer Music Special 38, Make Synth Music, which is on sale now.