The greatest synth tracks from the last 50 years – Part 2: 1998 to 2022

50 synth tracks
(Image credit: Future)

SYNTH WEEK 2022: It’s Synth Week here on MusicRadar – our ongoing celebration of all things oscillating and knobular, where we 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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Previously, in part one we delved back to the very dawn of synth music and picked just one 25 defining tracks from each year, 1973 to 1997. Now our time travelling parade of bangers returns, taking us from 1998 right the way through to today’s new classics.

Our ultimate 50 demands any synth fan’s attention.

Enjoy part two below and don't forget to partake in part 1 right here. Hit it!

1998 – Air – Kelly Watch The Stars

We’ve just got to dip into something a little more downtempo for the '90s wrap up and we’re going with the kings of moody retro nostalgia, France’s very own Air. This track with its fatter than fat bass earns it a place here over any of their more delicate, real world instrument and synth massaging siblings. 

Air made synths cool again in the guitar-heavy push and shove of the late ‘90s and heralded the arrival of chillout as the 30-something’s favourite new low-impact dance music. Shame that we can hold them personally responsible for all those ruddy compilations…

1999 – 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. Superstar DJs, here we go!

2000 – Moby – Porcelain

A tune that either has you rolling your eyes or dancing in the isles. Love it or hate it, Porcelain was the world’s favourite ambient/chill/dance/soundtrack monster finding its way into countless homes that had got out of that record buying habit. Beautifully put together, instantly arresting and catchy and laden with synth and production work that all the wannabe’s spent the next decade dreaming of.

2001 – 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. The turn of the century marked a desire to put shirts back on, put the pills down and – hey – grow up a bit and listen to the music for a change. 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.

2002 – Boards Of Canada – Music Is Math

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. As to what you’re actually listening to on this synth gem… Shh… It’s a secret.

2003 – 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 our top 50. It’s so brash that it even knocks some of Gregory’s own more ethereal synth moments aside.

2004 – Ladytron – Destroy Everything You Touch

Ladytron were one of the first of the new wave of synth bands that should (should) have been absolute monsters. Perfectly timed for a new era of synthdom they never quite crossed over despite having heaps and heaps of great, retro-styled futuristic synth tracks to choose from. However, for the sheer energy and driving synth action behind a great song, this one wins by a nose.

2005 – Pendulum – Slam

What goes around comes around and by the mid-2000s we’re hungry for something new on the synthscape. Picking up the tempo from 2000’s wheezy wind down, Slam was exactly that – a slam in the face with buzzy metallic synths, delivered with a beat – that while entertaining and compelling was – actually impossible to dance to. Just watch the video to see what we mean.

2006 – 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. Go check it out.

2007 – 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.

2008 – 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 crop of synth-using artists making it massive around 2008 (respect to the where-are-they-now likes of Crystal Castles and Ladyhawke) The Killers probably did the most to bring the machine back to the fore. A flash of brilliance that will remain a classic.

2009 – Lady Gaga – Bad Romance

It’s easy to forget what a grip Lady Gaga had on the charts 2008 through to 2009. Just Dance… Poker Face and our cream of the crop Bad Romance, perhaps THE defining pop/dance/synth record of the last 20 years… Go on… Name one better.

The lyrics and vocal delivery are off the hook insane, the beat is idiotically down-tempo, heavy and plodding, the layers (and layers) of synth work are more like buzzing power tools than melodic instruments but oh… That sound… That chorus… That hook. 

2010 – Blackeyed Peas – The Time (Dirty Bit)

Though derided at the time, we’re going to squeeze out of the time closet just long enough to draw your attention to the one that very nearly got away. 2010 era Blackeyed Peas were – in a word – insane. 

Shamelessly forgoing their hip hop, urban roots and reinventing themselves as a European electro outfit (without anyone batting an eye) The Time (Dirty Bit) is a peak Peas ‘do you think we can get away with it’ decision that – quite simply – shouldn’t have been the global hit (setting the band up for years to come) that it was. 

A track that should have been nixed the moment it that was suggested that Time Of My Life be given a new wind, instead went onto reset the pop dance landscape as a “mega radio smasher” worldwide.

2011 – Chris Brown – Yeah 3X

Ah, the early 2010s when – thanks to a little synth magic – hip hop and RnB truly came off the rails and po-faced, straight-laced gang bangers realised that – hey – why can’t we all just party? All bets are now officially off. 

Thus we got Chris Brown enthusiastically emoting over a track that’s more Essex highstreet rather than ‘the’ street. It’s pure electro fizz masquerading as RnB, catapulting what was already the broadest and welcoming of all musical genres into the next level of possibilities. What’s not to love? Especially when the track’s writers recognised the incredible debt of gratitude owed to Calvin Harris’ I’m Not Alone and gave him that richly deserved writing credit. See, he's not such a bad boy after all.

2012 – David Guetta Featuring Sia – Titanium

Synth pop anthemery at its peak. If you thought that synth pop ended with Don’t You Want Me back in 1981 hopefully round about now you’re feeling rather differently. The synth innovations keep on coming, but the brains and creativity levels required to get the most of them just keep on growing even more exponentially. It’s not electro pop as you know it, but this 100% in-a-laptop creation shattered the mould, the club’s walls and quite possibly your ears too.

2013 – Avicii – Wake Me Up

You couldn’t make it up. Avicii, the cuddly, Fruity Loops-loving, fresh-faced teen genius (now sadly departed) was a creative powerhouse cranking out a campaign of mash-up and fusion bangers that delivered new feel and melody that reset clubbing and opened up an increasingly elitist culture to a younger more up-for-it audience. 

Wake Me Up is perhaps peak Avicii ‘Bro-down’, mind-meltingly combining stomping, down and dirty line-dance cowboy riffing with the shiny, steely resolve of a nordic  ice flow. Ye-thaw!

2014 – Iggy Azalea Ft Charli XCX – Fancy

Who dat dat do dat? Let’s answer that one for you ‘cos Fancy is sexy, sassy and next-level cool. First things first, the bass sound on this banger is “the realest”. And this isn’t just about on point raps and searing vocals from the dynamic duo in control of the mics, it’s spacious, smart programming of both sounds and melody with a mix that places every element on a silver platter for your delectation. Face it. This is where synth pop was always going.

2015 – Major Lazer featuring MØ & DJ Snake – Lean On

Nailing a new wave of relaxed, upbeat, synth-driven dance music, Major Lazer’s Lean On was massive through 2015-2016 as the increasingly streaming heavy skew on charts and radio play meant that it just refused to go away. 

Truly international in style it features American electronic dance music group Major Lazer, French DJ and record producer DJ Snake with topline vocals from Danish singer MØ. It’s therefore a mash of mixes and styles that – when combined with the arabic-flavoured video – gives club culture a new globe-hopping vibe. The track set the scene for an increasing acceptance of big name pop stars on credible club tracks with the Cold Water collaboration with Justin Bieber reaching number two soon after. 

Lean On was a global number one in many countries all around the world and in November 2015 was named as Spotify’s most streamed song of all time.

2016 – Zara Larsson – Lush Life

Taking the ball from Major Lazor and running with it, is 2016’s huge pop/club/synth smash. First being a number one hit in her native Sweden for five weeks, the track then began a slow global takeover hitting number one in Mexico and Poland before achieving number three in the UK after a slow 11-week ascent. As of today the track has been streamed over 1billion times on Spotify.

It’s a summer time capsule. As relevant today as it was upon release with timeless summer vibe and energy, reset and redelivered to a global audience via a series of three videos, revamping Lara’s look and keeping the track front and centre all summer long.

2017 – Sigrid – Strangers

It certainly seems that there’s synth-pop gold somewhere in those icy Scandinavian hills as 2017’s breakthrough electronic artist similarly comes for colder Norwegian climes, but likewise heats up the synth power and electricity to the max over the track’s 4:05 duration.

We could have gone for any number of Scandi-Pop Sigrid hits for 2017 (High Five, Don’t Kill My Vibe, Sucker Punch) but we’re red hot for Strangers with its simple, plaintive vocal melody and killer crushing beats plus powerhouse synths. 

Take the time to take in its eery, curtain-lifting behind-the-scenes video and thrill to those hits and drops around the three minute mark. Woop!

2018 – Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa – One Kiss

Yes. 2018 marks the point when they finally managed to make Dua Lipa ‘a thing’. While the appeal is obvious, Lipa limped around for years unable to secure a smash. One Kiss marks the moment she truly went global with a little help from everyone’s favourite Scottish DJ boy-next-door-turned-genius-millionaire Calvin Harris.

Its nodding insistent beat, propelled by nagging off-kilter taps and hits along with that Plain Jane organ sound shouldn’t be as dramatic and absorbing as it with, but with Lipa’s fabulously chic vocals and the track's many drops and lifts, it never gives up from beginning to end. Masterful.

2019 – Billie Eilish – Bad Guy

2019 – like it or not – has to belong to Billie Eilish who’s laidback, publicity-shunning style seems completely at odds with the push and shove all around her. As a tight team with her older brother Finneas, the pair have already spent long years working together in their home studio, by this point, coining a style and sound that’s truly all their own.

At one turn Bad Guy is simplistic and almost comedic but at another it’s wholly unique in a world that’s full of soundalikes and wannabe’s all using the same synth sounds and [shudder] ‘MIDI packs’…

The track is an altogether odd fish that sits uncomfortably alongside the other seemingly ‘beamed down’ 14 tracks on 2019’s When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? album. Just when you thought synth music got samey, here’s the kick in the head you were waiting for.

2020 – The Weeknd – Blinding Lights

Just when you thought that Synthwave had shot its bolt for the last time around 2005 here it comes again, this time in US-endorsed, totally overground, urban approved style. Once again the 80’s synths are bright and sparkling, the beats fast and aerobic and the tales of lost love and regret as familiar as a John Hughes movie. 

However, this time there’s a darker edge as we move away from merely wanting to have a good time (all night long) to gloomy themes perfectly in tune with fears for the future and the state of the world around us. We’re all here to have a good time… For now…

Blinding Lights plays all its aces upfront. The synths are shimmering and chiming, there’s a great vocal performance and eye-catching stage presence from an unlikely performer and moments after your tempo confusion (168bpm??) you’re throwing your head back and looking for your legwarmers. 

OK, so it’s just a hybrid of Michael Sembello’s enduring mono-hit Maniac and the riff from Take On Me, but with ammo like that, what’s not to love?

2021 – Griff – One Foot In Front Of The Other

Here’s to Griff. Still awaiting that final push to really usher in a ‘breakthrough’ but already sat on all the bangers she needs to explode. One Night, Black Hole and album title track One Foot In Front Of The Other… All the hits are there, all delivered with an honesty and sincerity that belies her youth and makes all other pop appear showy and OTT. Plus there’s that sound… And the fact that Griff herself writes and produces… It’s impossible to underrate just how much you should go listen to One Foot In Front Of The Other. Thanks.

2022 – Tiesto & Ava Max – The Motto

It’s big, it's a bit daft, it’s just fantastic. Welcome to 2022. Tell them synthpop brought you here. 

Teaming upstart vocalist Ava Max with the battle-hardened icy blast of Tiesto turned out to be a masterstroke as both step out of their comfort zones for a mid tempo urban banger that’s booming with precisely programmed ambience and attitude.

Sick beats, curious drops and thuds and great vocals sit on a melody and arrangement that’s sure to have any synth pop know-it-all scratching their head. Beginning with a chorus and then bridge (?) the song actually only features a single verse (“Hopped in the range, can’t feel my face…”) which (potentially, suicidely) drops in super-late at 1:18… The result is a track that finishes at a criminally stingy 2:45 but is CERTAIN to have you hitting play again as soon as it’s done. Bangin’.

Want more? Make sure you check out our part one of the 50, taking you from 1973's dawn of the synth through to 1997. 

Daniel Griffiths

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