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The greatest synth tracks from the last 50 years – Part 1: 1973 to 1997

50 synth tracks
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SYNTH WEEK 2022: It’s Synth Week here on MusicRadar – a celebration of all things oscillating and knobular, a time to give thanks to the gods of synth pop, big up the boxes that made it all happen and revel in the amazing music they made. 

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So get ready for the big one. We’ve delved back to the very dawn of synth music and picked just one defining track from each of the last 50 years. It’s a time travelling parade of bangers delivering music both unknown and much loved, right the way through to today’s new classics.

Our ultimate 50 demands any synth fan’s attention.

So let’s get started with PART ONE below – 1973 to 1997 and be sure to then check out part 2: 1988-2022.


1973 – Klaus Schulze – Cyborg

50 years ago marks pretty much the dawn of electronic music and the birth of the  definable ‘synth track’. Back then synths were monstrous, expensive wardrobes (mostly by pioneers Moog with smaller companies cutting costs and playing catch up) and purely the preserve of the affluent prog monster or fiercely independent musical avante garde.

Thus Klaus Schulze's prophetic Cyborg sets the scene for the landscape to come. Lengthy and meandering it’s clearly making the most of the (for the time) unusual synthy goodness to weave its magic being for the most part hissing and sizzling rather than bouncy and melodic. Rather than wowing with smash hits it’s a chilling, hypnotic and suspenseful omen for what was to come. 


1974 – Kraftwerk – Autobahn

With Shultz showing what could be done, it fell to Kraftwerk to make real music. Autobahn is Kraftwerk’s breakthrough. A concept album ode to Germany’s new motorways and the freedom and fun to be had travelling upon them, it saw the nascent Kraftwerk almost completely ditching their acoustic instrument (there is still plenty of lilting flute on board) in favour of the new electronic tones on the rise. 

Autobahn is an extraordinary piece in so many ways. It introduced countless people to electronic music, and its 22 minute title track of chugging, melodic tones brought it incredible success. It remains one of the most unusual US hit singles of all time.


1975 – Tangerine Dream – Ricochet

Decisions decisions… We said Rubycon, they said Ricochet, so we said Phaedra and they said Love On A Real Train… To be honest, pick any of those classic TD tracks and you will get the message big style. To think that this ground-breaking band of synth pioneers were able to reign in the burly, random hardware of the time in order to produce such precise music all those years ago is extraordinary. Close your eyes and this machine-takes-control epic is as fresh today as it was in ‘75. 


1976 – Jean Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part IV)

It’s the big one. Finally firmly placing electronic music on the map Jarre was savvy to the fact that you can’t have a smash synth hit without a cracking tune too. Oxygène – the album – treads just the right side of the line between classic and synth cheese and Part IV is a tune that, alongside Hot Butter’s cover of Popcorn and Space’s Magic Fly, thrust the synthesiser into the mainstream. 

Adopted and integrated by big-name rock and pop musicians, sounds once associated with the avant-garde were now sprinkled amongst the electric guitars, electric pianos, horns and strings that formed the backbone of most hit records of the day.

Oxygene IV was recorded at home, in Jarre’s kitchen on a handful of instruments: an EMS VCS3, and Eminent 310 organ/string machine, an RMI Harmonic Synthesizer, and an ARP 2600. These were then painstakingly overdubbed and layered onto eight-track tape, creating the mould for the countless lone home-recording artist/producers to come. 


1977 – Donna Summer – I Feel Love

It is all but impossible to underestimate the impact of I Feel Love. Released in the summer of 1977, it was a seminal slab of electronic disco unlike anything that had come before it. Famously, one of David Bowie’s sessions for the Low album was interrupted by a breathless Brian Eno who, having just heard I Feel Love, declared that it was “going to change the sound of music for the next 15 years.”

When producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte began work on Summer’s fifth LP, they envisioned a concept album on which each song represented a specific decade and with the final cut being an attempt to create something futuristic the track that launched disco, techno and a thousand other genres was born.

In order to create their prognostic platter, they eschewed the typical instrumentation of disco music – telegraph guitars, thick strings, electric bass, and horns – and brought in a massive Moog IIIP system belonging to classical musician Eberhard Schoener who’s assistant Robby Wedel showed the producers how it’s basic sequencer could be synchronised to tape in order to record multiple tracks in perfect rhythmic lock-step.

Thus the bass sequence, the snares and hi-hats were all were products of the modular synth. The results were a clean, open mix that allowed Summer the freedom to lay down an astonishingly evocative vocal performance.  


1978 – Kraftwerk – The Model

More Kraftwerk. Yes, the red-shirted gang get a second dip for a track that took four years to become a hit. As part of 1978’s Man Machine album The Model had its admirers, but it was only upon its release as the B-Side to 1982’s Computer Love single that it truly won its fans. A quick flip later (after Computer Love inexplicably failed to surface) and that B-side was an A-side that topped the UK chart.

The synth pop transformation of Kraftwerk was truly complete by 1978 and they were by now expert at their signature brand of electronic pop music. An exercise in minimalism, The Model is a near-perfect pop construct, with a simple progression, spare percussion, and a pretty much instantly memorable melody played in octaves throughout. 


1979 – Tubeway Army – Are 'Friends' Electric?

Rounding off the synthetic seventies in fine style it was perhaps this bold chunk of powerful pop that really kick-started synth pop as a genre and set the scene for the revolution to come. And it was all apparently by accident. In point of fact, Numan never intended to get involved with synths, only discovering what they could do when a Minimoog was left in a studio where he’d intended to make a punk album. 

Amazed by the power of the sound he rented both a Minimoog and a Polymoog for Are ‘Friends’ Electric? And the rest is history.


1980 – Ultravox – Vienna

OK picking just one synth smash from smash-through era 1980 was a nightmare… OMD Enola Gay… Human League Being Boiled… Visage Fade To Grey… Sigh… But for all the pomp, circumstance, killer sounds and arrangement it just has to be Vienna by Ultravox.

Sure, it’s more than a little bit self important, but this bold, tiny, raincoat mini-operetta really showed all the competition what could be done with a few synths, a moody black and white video, and Clarke Gable’s old moustache.

As a song, Vienna is a slow burn, from contemplative croon to (intentionally) bombastic pseudo-pomp. Piano and violin make up much of the instrumentation, but the Roland CR-78 drum machine is a constant, as is the bass from the band’s custom Minimoog. Elsewhere syrupy string machines blur with Billie Currie’s almost-out-of-tune piano and famous off-kilter (genuine) violin solo.


1981 – Soft Cell – Tainted Love

A song so perfectly reappropriated by keyboard genius Dave Ball and untam d, extravagant vocalist Marc Almond that it’s hard to believe that it’s a cover version.

Almond heard the original at a club he worked at, and subsequently Soft Cell began to play it in their sets before creating their famous reinterpretation in 1981. To everyone’s surprise the song shot to number one in the UK, riding the new wave of synth-pop popularity with its iconic intro bleep made by running a snare from a Synare drum machine through a Delta Labs DL4 delay unit. The main lead cane from a barely taxed early incarnation of the Synclavier.


1982 – Japan – Ghosts

Despite being rigidly 1982, Ghosts really could have been released at any point in our future. Blending a minimalist aesthetic with haunting synthesised sounds and a melancholic vocal, Ghosts was Japan’s biggest hit before cruelly denying us future greatness by splitting up just eight months after its release. Ghosts reached number 5 in the UK singles chart and set a synth pop benchmark despite not having any rhythm track to speak of. 

Three main synths were used to create Ghosts (and the album Tin Drum): the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Oberheim’s OBX and a Roland System 700 modular for the intro’s haunting melody. 


1983 – New Order – Blue Monday

Blue Monday is propelled by a stomping kick drum from an Oberheim DMX drum machine, a slightly out-of-sync sequencer line, and choirs (allegedly) lifted directly from Kraftwerk's Radioactivity. A distinctive Moog Source bass snakes through the elements pulling the track together while Sumner’s purposely pallid croon drapes it all in a sepulchral shroud.

This synth and drum machine workout – designed so that the band could leave the stage while the music was still playing – went on to become the biggest-selling 12” single of all time. However the expense of producing Peter Saville’s artful ‘floppy disc’ packaging (which didn’t feature the name of the artist or the song) meant that Factory Records actually lost money every time a copy was sold. Needless to say, Blue Monday was eventually re-issued with a slightly more conservative sleeve.


1984 – Pet Shop Boys – West End Girls

The collision in the song – English white rap meets street electro beat – is as pronounced as the happenstances that put it together. Vocalist and journalist Neil Tenant ventures into a Kings Road hi-fi shop to buy a lead for his new Korg MS-10 and meets keyboard player Chris Lowe before sloping off to interview his hero, producer Bobby Orlando, instead of meeting with Sting. “Hey, we should make a record together,” offers Orlando and thus history is made.

And West End Girls was made twice. The first a minor Euro hit but it was Steven Hague’s sterner, slower remake that hit the top spot in both the UK and US and earned the track the mantle of The Guardian’s greatest number one single ever.

Kicking off with the instantly recognisable Oberheim DMX drum machine and layered string samples from both E-mu Emulator I and Emulator II, the meticulously programmed rhythm parts are driven along by a thick, analogue bass line. Played - not sequenced - by Lowe on a Roland Jupiter-6, layered via MIDI to a Yamaha DX7 percussive patch.


1985 – a-Ha – Take On Me

Another hit that endured multiple titles, revisions, and recordings and releases before finally becoming one of the most memorable tunes of the 1980s. Pre-a-Ha, guitarist Päl Waaktaar and keyboardist Magne Furuholmen penned a song for their band Bridges (first entitled Panorama then Miss Eerie) which contained a certain familiar synth riff…

The song endured multiple demo versions and a final recording with producer John Ratcliffe which eventually inked a deal with Warner Bros UK. After an unsatisfactory mix from producer Tony Mansfield, the song was remixed yet again and was finally released to the public… Reaching 137 on the UK singles chart.

Mercifully Warner Brothers America offered to finance yet another version, this time built around a LinnDrum, a DX7 bass, and PPG Wave synth. The main riff was played on a Roland Juno-60, and doubled with a DX7. However it was only when the track was remixed by veteran producer Alan Tarney and sufficient cash flung at that video that everyone concerned earned the hit that was so obviously on their hands. 


1986 – Depeche Mode – Stripped

Gah. Just room for just one Depeche Mode track… So we’re forgoing Everything Counts, New Life, Shake The Disease and Policy Of Truth for the less-crowded synthpop plains of 1986 and the first single from the band’s US-breakthrough Black Celebration album. Yup, the stadium mega-goth era starts here…

Stripped is a dramatic, stomping electro chiller that teams huge drums (from a Synclavier) with clanging Emulator samples all metronomically ran in time with a slowed down sample of a motorcycle engine ticking over. Spine-tingling, leather-clad genius. 


1987 – Mel & Kim – Respectable

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. Is this the most arresting and ear-grabbing intro to any single ever? Incredibly that ‘Tay, tay, tay, tay…’ sampled riff was very nearly vetoed by co-writer and producer Mike Stock for being “too cheesy” but Monsieur Camembert himself, pole position producer Pete Waterman demanded it stay in place.

While being an attempt to recreate the Chicago house records the team had surrounded themselves with in the studio, Respectable is pure London street, mashing up cock-er-ney charm, pop and sass with super-cleaned up UK house music staples, creating a whole new style of 100% electronic music by accident. Criminally overlooked and underrated it remains one of the slickest synth pop/dance tracks of the eighties and a well-deserved UK number one.


1988 – Enya – Orinoco Flow

Taken from the 1988 album Watermark, Orinoco Flow was a global hit for Irish singer/songwriter Enya with all the spacious, lush, new-age characteristics that went down a storm both at home in the UK and in the US.

However, perhaps the most credit should go to Orinoco Flow’s trademark pizzicato chords, courtesy of the ‘Pizzagogo’ preset on Roland’s D-50 synth. The D-50 was a huge hit at the time, a hybrid synth that carried around 100 super-short samples of sound that could be used at the start of a sound, providing the life-like attack from real life instruments. Layering these bow scrapes and wind ‘chiffs’ with synth tones (derived from Roland’s new LA – linear arithmetic – synthesis) produced entirely new sounds with the digital zing 'n' twang of Yamaha’s DX-7 but with the warmth of their own Junos and Jupiters.


1989 – Donna Summer – This Time I Know It’s For Real

Another smash for Donna Summer in our list and another notch on the production bedpost for super producers Stock Aitken Waterman. While the trio could be accused of cranking it out somewhat by 1989 they nonetheless were able to craft Summer – a superstar the trio had previously only dreamed of working with – a pop disco sound that’s as hi-tech and synth (and hook) laden as anything seemingly more credible on our list.

Roland D-50 strings, brass and pianos flesh out the track, as the trio were famous for rinsing every preset on a new keyboard before ditching it for the latest model. The combination with Summer’s effortlessly soaring vocal performance is simply unbeatable.


1990 – Orbital – Chime

One of UK dance music’s most seminal early records, Chime was Orbital’s first single reaching number 17 in the UK singles chart. Originally recorded in the Hartoll brother’s home studio under the stairs at home, Chime was mastered onto the Hartnoll family’s cassette player, which ran a little too quickly, making the final record slower than intended, an anomaly that the Orbital boys only fixed when they re-recorded the track in a professional studio for a re-released version a year later.

Chime therefore - along with many upstart, revolutionary records - represents a welcomed throwback to DIY music making marking an Ed to the ‘polished pop’ that preceded it. 

Chime is a brutally simplistic meal therefore, combining a selection of samples with a chunky bass Solid Bass provided by Yamaha’s bottom-the-line budget DX100 to mesmerising effect. 


1994 – The Prodigy – Voodoo People

Thus the underground had begun. By now we’re in full-on 90’s rave territory and we’re selecting oodoo People to seal the deal and tell the tale. Constructed by the band’s mastermind Liam Howlett from samples, including a guitar based on the riff from Very Ape by Nirvana, the lead sound comes courtesy of Roland’s JD-800 keyboard digital synth rather than the Roland TB-303 acid bassline you might at first presume. 


1995 – Josh Wink – Higher State Of Consciousness

Any list of the top synth tracks has to include a nod to acid house, and this stunning track – actually arriving some seven years after acid house’s rapid descent into uncool – is probably the genre's finest example with some of the best filtered synth you could ever ask for.

It is of course practically all TB-303 being overdriven with distortion pedals then brutally wound up past its maximum cut-off and resonance. All the while the riff is changed, stuttered, relooped and retimed against that ever insistent beat meaning that – remarkably for a tune consisting of just two notes – you’re never quite sure what blissful climax lies just around the corner.


1996 – Prodigy – Firestarter

Our second nod to The Prodge and perhaps THE defining synth music moment of the nineties. Who can forget the first time they heard this one blazing out of their speakers? The first single from third album The Fat Of The Land, Firestarter took more rave-ready Prodigy fans by surprise with its full punk-inspired vocal from Flint. 

Rather than being an entirely analogue creation Prodigy tracks from around the time make heavy use of Korg’s fresh-out-the-box Prophecy virtual analogue synth giving their music a unique snarl all its own. The track was a number one hit in the UK and made Keith a celebrity figure in his own right, thanks in part to the video which saw the demon-haired dancer take to the spotlight.


1997 – Dario G – Sunchyme

From its opening buzzy, badly looped piano chords Sunchyme is instantly recognisable, going on to form the bedrock for a thousand increasingly tribal and chanty house hits to come. 

Its sunny African themed video and chant along chorus created a new, much copied ethnic benchmark for the UK’s previously clean-as-a-whistle dance and rave. Oh, and never forget just how much of a debt the track owes (and paid) to Dream Academy’s infinitely more dour and thoughtful 1985 single Life In A Northern Town.


That's it for part 1… Be sure to join us for the next 25 synth classics bringing us bang up to date for Synth Week 2022. Back soon!

Daniel Griffiths is a veteran journalist who has worked on some of the biggest entertainment, tech and home brands in the world. He's interviewed countless big names, and covered countless new releases in the fields of music, videogames, movies, tech, gadgets, home improvement, self build, interiors and garden design. He’s the ex-Editor of Future Music and ex-Group Editor-in-Chief of Electronic Musician, Guitarist, Guitar World, Computer Music and more. He renovates property and writes for MusicRadar.com.