The glorious sound of the synthesizer – and by that we mean its circuits, the tone and timbre of the machine itself and not necessarily its attempts to emulate ‘real’ instruments – has now been filtering in and out of music genres for more than five decades.
From its inception in the '60s through its progressive and experimental upbringing in the '70s, through '80s synth pop, '90s dance and 21st century anything-and-everything, the synth has provided the tearing leads, insistent melodies, atmospheric pads, searing percussion and rumbling basses behind many of the most iconic tunes ever produced.
There have been the classical leanings of Wendy Carlos, the genre-creating antics of Kraftwerk, the Sheffield steelworks of Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League, the chart- topping tracks from everyone from Depeche to Numan, OMD to Jarre; the experimental Eno ambience, the Vangelis soundtracks not to mention the cycling, pumping, 303-ing and bass-cone shattering productions of Underworld, Prodigy and Daft Punk.
We put together a definitive list of the best synth tunes ever made, covering the last six decades of music production, and asked you to vote for your favourites.
The results are in...
40: Wendy Carlos - A Clockwork Orange
Created back when synth use was more associated with scientists in lab coats, 1972's A Clockwork Orange theme was certainly ahead of its time.
Creator Wendy Carlos was not only a classically-trained composer, but also took a keen interest in music tech, notably giving Robert Moog advice on the development of the first Moog synthesisers, as well as working as a recording engineer during the late 1960s.
Her take on a classical piece (originally composed by Henry Purcell for Queen Mary’s funeral in 1694) used the then-cutting-edge Moog modular synthesizer to play the various parts of the piece, resulting in a uniquely dystopian piece of music that suited the film perfectly.
Legend has it that Carlos read the book that the film was based upon before linking up with Kubrick, and felt she’d be perfect to score the film, with the composition Timesteps being based upon it.
39: OMD - Enola Gay
Named after the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb to be used in anger at the end of WWII, Enola Gay’s cheery synth lines were in contrast to the sombre lyrics, which questioned the validity of the decision to drop a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima.
OMD drew inspiration for their music from early synth pioneers such as Kraftwerk, but had a relatively humble selection of synths and drum machines at their disposal when they wrote the album Organisation, released in 1980, from which Enola Gay was taken.
As with many of their early tracks, there was no vocal chorus as such, with the main lead, played using a then bargain basement Korg Micro-Preset, being the hook.
38: Japan - Ghosts
Blending a minimalist aesthetic with haunting synthesised sounds and a melancholic vocal, Ghosts was Japan’s biggest hit. The group split up just eight months after its release, despite the song reaching number 5 in the UK singles chart.
While synth-driven music was becoming hugely popular at the time, it was still unusual for an experimental track of this nature to become a hit, particularly with no rhythm track to speak of.
There were three main synths used to create Ghosts (and the album Tin Drum): the Sequential Circuits (opens in new tab) Prophet 5, Oberheim’s (opens in new tab) OBX and a Roland (opens in new tab) System 700 modular synth.
The haunting melody from the intro was made using the System 700, with the sound having a thin, crushed tone that borders on the dystopian.
37: Enya - Orinoco Flow
Taken from the 1988 album Watermark, Orinoco Flow was a global hit for Irish singer/songwriter Enya. The song has the spacious, lush sound characteristics of new-age music from this era.
Orinoco Flow’s trademark pizzicato chords were made using Roland’s (opens in new tab) D-50 synth. Roland’s theory was that the hardest part of an instrument to synthesise convincingly is the attack, so the D-50 had around 100 samples of attack taken from real life instruments.
This, alongside the subtractive synthesis engine and various textured sustain samples, gives the patch its strangely synthetic, yet real tone.
36: Harold Faltermeyer - Axel F
If you grew up in the 1980s, then you’ll surely be familiar with this entirely electronic composition from Harold Faltermeyer.
Used as the theme tune for the Beverly Hills Cop films, Axel F (named after Eddie Murphy’s character Axel Foley) was a number one in several countries. Axel F later was released as a bonus track on Faltermeyer’s 1988 album Harold F, likely as it was his best known song.
Faltermeyer’s instrumental track was composed using just five instruments: the Linndrum for drums/perc; a chunky Moog (opens in new tab) modular bassline, brass-style stabs from Roland’s (opens in new tab) JX3P; a Yamaha (opens in new tab) DX7 marimba; and the sound we’ll be focusing on here, the classic Roland Jupiter-8 main lead.
35: Jon & Vangelis - I’ll Find My Way Home
While Vangelis is best known for epic soundtracks for films such as Blade Runner and Chariots Of Fire, he also created a few hit singles alongside collaborator Jon Anderson, with I’ll Find My Way Home being one of those.
Scoring high chart positions around the world, the drums (opens in new tab) have an irregular feel, with densely-layered synths building as it unfolds.
Unfortunately, the origins of the shimmery bell sound aren’t totally clear; neither Jon nor Vangelis have ever allowed much information into the public domain, and then there's the fact that the Top of the Pops performance of this song was mimed on guitar and piano. However, we do know that Vangelis was a disciple of the Yamaha (opens in new tab) CS-80, so it may well have been created using that.
34: Herbie Hancock - Rockit
Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock’s Rockit fused elements of synthesised electronic music, sampling and live percussion, alongside hip-hop influences, to create a truly fresh sound for the time.
Produced by Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn (also then known as Material), Rockit was based on a simple backbeat (opens in new tab) from the then-new Oberheim DMX drum machine, accompanied by a Fairlight CMI-sampled Led Zeppelin guitar stab and the main lead line, which was played by Hancock using a Rhodes Chroma synth.
The finishing touches were the live percussion, and scratches laid down by New York DJ Grand Mixer DXT.Rockit was a big hit, winning a Grammy Award in 1983 as well as five MTV Video Music awards.
The haunting melody from the intro was made using the Roland System 700, with the sound having a thin, crushed tone that borders on the futuristic.
33: Faithless - Insomnia
The track, produced by Rollo and Sister Bliss with vocals from rapper Maxi Jazz, hit No 3 in UK charts in 1996.
As with many dance tracks in this style, Insomnia made heavy use of the contemporary synths of the time.
Exact details of which synth was used to make the iconic plucked riff aren’t available, but it’s likely that the Roland JP-8000 was used – indeed, many subsequent digital synths featured an Insomnia preset.
32: Underworld - Born Slippy
Originally a B-side to a markedly different instrumental track of the same name, Top UK dance act Underworld’s Born Slippy (NUXX Mix) shot to prominence in 1995 as part of the soundtrack for cult British film Trainspotting, and helped the band become one of the biggest acts of that decade.
Combining lush pads, stomping techno-inspired 909 drums and a distorted, almost nonsensical one-take vocal by Underworld vocalist Karl Hyde (struggling with alcoholism at the time), Born Slippy was called the “heartbeat” of Trainspotting by director Danny Boyle and is undoubtedly one of the most iconic dance records of the '90s.
While there’s no clear info about which synth made the trademark delay-soaked main riff, the Waldorf Microwave resident in Underworld’s studio seems a likely culprit.
31: Prince - 1999
Perhaps the only song ever to have its video played for 24 hours straight, courtesy of a VH1 stunt to welcome in its namesake year, 1999 was originally released as a single in 1982.
It’s quite likely that the sound was actually an Oberheim preset as, according to longtime collaborator Lisa Coleman, Prince had a tendency to “just use a preset, and brighten the f**k out of it!”.
The introduction lead part has a brassy, shiny texture to it, and it would have been played using an Oberheim Four Voice keyboard.
30: Michael Jackson - Billie Jean
Not many songs are instantly recognisable just from a couple of synth chords, but Billie Jean is one. The song remains one of the biggest singles of all time with over 10 million copies sold to date.
Co-produced by the legendary Quincy Jones alongside the king of pop himself, the song is a masterpiece of music production thanks to its stripped-back grooves, unique drum sound, clever recording techniques (backing vocals sung through a cardboard tube, anyone?) and creative use of then pioneering music tech.
And painstaking doesn't really cover it; even the mix by Bruce Swedien, who normally nailed his mixes in one take, was done over 90 times.
The iconic, string-like chords in the intro were laid down by session ace Bill Wolfer using a Yamaha CS-80 alongside a splash of reverb for effect.
29: Tangerine Dream - Phaedra
The title track from Tangerine Dream’s fifth studio album was recorded in late 1973, and was heavily based around the Moog Modular synth the trio purchased with their advance from then-fledgling Virgin Records.
Legend has it the band spent hours before each day’s recording tuning the Moog; early analogue synths were incredibly sensitive to temperature and humidity.
The record was a surprise top 20 hit in the UK, but didn’t fare so well in Tangerine Dream’s home country of Germany, with fewer than 6,000 units sold.
Phaedra was the first TG record that featured their sequencer-based sound, with an external sequencer driving the Moog as a substitute for bass guitar.
28: Brian Eno - An Ending (Ascent)
Originally recorded for a documentary on the Apollo moon missions entitled For All Mankind, An Ending was taken from Brian Eno’s 1983 studio album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and was written by Eno, alongside production from his brother Roger and long time collaborator Daniel Lanois.
Specific details on precisely which synth was used to create the track aren’t totally clear, with the then brand new Yamaha DX7 being used on various tracks from that album, but Lanois himself stated that “the main synth was a Yamaha CS-80”, making it possible that a combination of synths was used to create the final piece.
27: Tears For Fears - Everybody Wants To Rule The World
Tackling themes of power, corruption and the Cold War, this was a massive hit for UK band Tears for Fears in 1985. The song combined new wave and synth pop influences, featuring heavy use of synths plus a sprinkling of guitar.
Upon release, the song went to number two in the UK charts, as well as scoring a number one in the US Billboard top 100 and being played over six million times on the radio.
A selection of iconic synthesisers and samplers – such as Yamaha’s DX7 (opens in new tab) – was used to make the various synth parts, with the Sequential Instruments Prophet T-8 (opens in new tab) being called upon for the brass chord sound.
26: Soft Cell - Tainted Love
Originally recorded by Gloria Jones in 1964, Tainted Love flopped upon its release as a B-side to her single My Bad Boy’s Comin’ Home.
The song didn’t hit the charts, and was forgotten until it started getting played at Northern Soul dances about ten years later.
Marc Almond heard the song at a club he worked at, and subsequently Soft Cell began to play it in their sets before doing a recording of it in 1981.
The song shot to number one in the UK, riding the wave of popularity synth-pop was enjoying.
As with many other tracks of this era, the real instruments of Jones’ version were replaced with synths and a drum machine rhythm track, with the iconic intro bleep made by running a snare from a Synare drum machine through a Delta Labs DL4 delay unit, and the main lead coming from a Synclavier (opens in new tab).
25: Depeche Mode - Just Can’t Get Enough
One of the catchiest '80s synth pop tunes of the time, Just Can’t Get Enough was Depeche Mode’s third single. It was first released on Mute Records as a single in 1981, then appeared on their album Speak & Spell.
With the instrumental composed entirely of synthesized instruments over a drum machine beat (opens in new tab), the song reached No 8 in the UK singles chart, and was a big part of the technology-driven approach to music-making that was prevalent at the time.
The sound from the track that is an instantly recognisable earworm is the main riff, which was originally played using the classic Roland Jupiter-4 (opens in new tab) analogue polysynth.
24: Kate Bush - Running Up That Hill
Released in 1985 as the first single from her album Hounds Of Love, Running Up That Hill was the most successful of Kate Bush’s 1980s single releases, with a highest UK chart position of number three.
UK singer/songwriter Bush was a keen user of Yamaha’s seminal CS-80 synthesizer and Linn’s early drum machines, as well as being an early adopter of sampling, with the Fairlight CMI featuring prominently on a number of her records during the 1980s, including this one.
The main riff from Running Up That Hill was created by using one of the included cello samples from the Fairlight CMI, which was then manipulated by Kate Bush in various ways to create the main riff, as well as the backing strings.
23: Daft Punk - Da Funk
Originally released in 1995 as a double A-side single with Rolling and Scratching on the flip, Da Funk sold a mere 2,000 copies until it was re-released on Daft Punk’s seminal 1997 album Homework.
While the track has a very house-flavoured sound, the inspiration actually came from the (now ex) Daft Punk boys spending late nights listening to G Funk hip-hop tunes.
If you ever watched MTV 2, you might remember the iconic Spike Jones video for this track entitled Big City Nights, which followed the travails of a dog named Charles as he navigated NYC with a broken leg, and only a set of crutches and a boombox for company.
22: Star Wars - R2-D2
Set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars is acknowledged as one of the most culturally significant sci-fi series of all time, with the films grossing over $10 billion worldwide to date.
Musically, the Star Wars franchise is best known for the epic orchestral arrangements written by John Williams. However there are also a lot of sound effects peppered through the films, from the hyperspace engines of the Millennium Falcon through to the fizzy sounds of Luke’s lightsaber.
While a lot of these sounds were created using real-life sound design techniques, a number were made using synthesis, including the chirpy, robotic dialogue of R2-D2, synthesised using a classic ARP 2600 (opens in new tab).
Although R2-D2 didn’t speak a recognisable language, sound designer Ben Burtt wanted the robot’s vocal to have a relatable, human quality.
21: The Prodigy - Voodoo People
Voodoo People is a classic slice of '90s rave, constructed by Liam Howlett mostly from samples, including a guitar based on the riff from Very Ape by Nirvana. However, we’re more interested in the iconic, piercing acid inspired lead synth.
This lead sound has a strong TB-303 (opens in new tab) flavour, but was actually taken from Roland’s JD-800 keyboard synth, which featured on a number of classic Prodigy tracks from the era including Poison and Their Law.
20: Orbital - Chime
One of UK dance music’s most seminal early records, Chime was the first single released by the Hartnoll brothers under the name Orbital, and reached number 17 in the UK singles chart following its re-release on Pete Tong’s FFFR in 1990 – not bad for a record quickly knocked up before a trip to the pub!
Originally recorded in their home studio, which was under the staircase of all places, Chime was mastered onto the Hartnoll family cassette tape player, which ran a little too quickly, making the final record slower than intended – an anomaly that wasn’t fixed until the Orbital boys re-recorded the track in a professional studio for the re-released version a year later.
As with many rave records made at the time, Chime combines a selection of samples taken from an old instrumental record with synths, alongside a drum machine track. We’re focusing on the chunky bass taken from a Yamaha DX100 (opens in new tab).
19: Europe - The Final Countdown
Inspired by Bowie’s Space Oddity, Joey Tempest of the Swedish band Europe wrote the main riff for The Final Countdown on a borrowed Korg Polysix (opens in new tab) way back in ‘81, eventually demoing it for his bandmates in ‘85.
They weren’t impressed, with guitarist John Norum singling out the now-iconic synth intro as a sticking point. Luckily, Tempest stood his ground and the band cut the song, on which the keyboardist employed a Roland JX-8P (opens in new tab) and a preset from a Yamaha TX816 (opens in new tab) to create the opening fanfare.
The band never intended Countdown to become the lead single from the album of the same name. Their label had other ideas, and it was released to a rapturous record-buying public, eventually scaling to an impressive number 8 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
18: Talk Talk - It's My Life
Released in 1984, the title cut from Talk Talk’s second LP wasn’t a big hit… initially. Though it reached the Top 40 in the US, it stalled at number 46 in the UK.
A subsequent re-release fared even worse, barely entering the Top 100. However, after being re-reissued alongside an anthology LP in 1990, it reached number 13, the best the band ever managed at home.
A sublime slab of new wave, It’s My Life features a series of unusual sonic effects over chiming guitars, and shimmering pads over a throbbing bassline, all in service to Mark Hollis’ Roy Orbison-meets-Bryan Ferry vocals.
Buoyed by the success of their new wave and synthpop records, Talk Talk would eventually shift toward a more experimental, arty sound, exemplified by their critically-lauded and influential fourth LP, Spirit of Eden.
It’s My Life would once again enter the charts (and win a Grammy) when covered by American group No Doubt, as sung by Gwen Stefani.
17: Kraftwerk - Computer World
Computer World was the third single from the Kraftwerk album of the same name, a lively, jaunty concoction of bleeps, whirs, hisses and pops. ‘Pop’ all around, really; unlikely given the lyrics’ concern with business, authority, and a suggestion that we are all dominated by the omniscient computer.
But delicious pop! Percolating sequences, tinkling leads, and that ever-present, snappy backbeat, from the mighty Minimoog (opens in new tab).
Eventually used to death by industrial musicians, this resonant percussion would become all-too familiar. Here, however, Kraftwerk use it to inject their song with a relentless purpose.
16: Ultravox - Vienna
Ultravox spent the latter part of the 1970s pumping out expertly-crafted - and commercially unsuccessful - post-punk records, emphasising the coming ‘new wave’ of electronic pop.
Guitarist Robin Simon and singer John Foxx left the band after their third album, the latter replaced by Midge Ure. The new lineup recorded their next LP, Vienna, in 1980, although it, too, received a lukewarm reception, only achieving momentum when the title track struck big as a single in 1981.
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 (opens in new tab) drum machine is a constant, as is the bass - the sound we're recreating here - from the band’s custom Minimoog (opens in new tab). String machines are used for syrupy strings, throughout.
15: Human League - Don't You Want Me?
The Human League’s success was hard won - there were two cutting-edge LPs and a handful of quirky singles before their breakthrough, 1981’s Dare.
The band had split just as they were set to embark upon a lengthy tour, so singer Phil Oakey promoted Adrian Wright from lights to keyboards and hurriedly put together a new version of The League, recruiting Ian Burden and a pair of teen girls he saw dancing at a club – Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley – to provide backing vocals.
After the tour, the group hurried out a single, Boys and Girls, before joining forces with producer Martin Rushent for their first hit, The Sound of the Crowd. The lineup was then completed with the addition of Jo Callis.
Don’t You Want Me is built around a massive synth riff created primarily with Roland’s Jupiter-4, a skittering sequence (painstakingly programmed on a Roland MC-4), and the newly acquired LinnDrum.
Initially, Phil Oakey was unhappy with Rushent and Callis’ mix, but was thankfully convinced to give it a go. Bet he's glad he did.
14: Visage - Fade to Grey
Visage was formed by Midge Ure and Rusty Egan in 1978. Egan gigged as a DJ, spinning Bowie and Roxy Music discs, and wanted something original to play that would fit in with his sets.
The pair recruited vocalist Steve Strange, as well as ex-Magazine members Barry Adamson, John McGeoch, and Dave Formula. Billy Currie (Ultravox, Gary Numan), was brought in as well, who remembered an unfinished tune from Numan bandmate Chris Payne.
They’d decided to record their unfinished jam with fellow Numanite Cedric Sharpley as a sort of keepsake after a tour. Chris Payne had jammed out the song’s signature riff with a Minimoog (opens in new tab) supplying the bass sound, and the infamous Polymoog ‘Vox Humana’ preset for the pad.
As luck would have it, the Minimoog failed to turn up for the recording, so Payne recreated the bass pattern using a Polymoog brass patch. Check out our recreation, using the BazilleCM plugin, below.
Once it was turned over to Visage, Midge Ure composed the lyrics for Strange. The French passages were delivered by Egan’s girlfriend, Brigitte Arens.
13: Gary Numan - Are 'Friends' Electric?
We fully expected you lot to vote the infamous Vox Humana Polymoog patch from Cars in the upper echelons of our list, so were pleasantly surprised to find it bested by the powerful Minimoog riff from Are ‘Friends’ Electric?. It just to goes show how perceptive you are.
Sure, the Polymoog sound is identified with Numan, but it was his breakthrough 1979 single that set the trajectory of modern music for the years that followed.
In point of fact, Numan never intended to get involved with synths, only discovering what they could do for him when a Minimoog was left in a studio where he’d intended to make a punk album.
When it came time to record Are ‘Friends’ Electric?, he rented both a Minimoog and a Polymoog. Needless to say, once the single was released, he’d be able to afford his own...
12: Yazoo - Don't Go
Vince Clarke knows a thing or two about crafting an electronic pop song, a fact made clear by the number of cracking tunes he composed for Depeche Mode’s 1981 debut LP, Speak & Spell.
After the success of that LP, he quit the band. After all, who wants worldwide success?
Fearing their label (Mute) would drop him, he penned Only You in order to keep them interested. He brought in an old acquaintance, Alison Moyet, to sing.
Mute hit ‘em up for a single, the b-side of which was to be Don’t Go. Clarke knew it was too strong a song to relegate to the flip side, and Situation was hurriedly slotted in.
Don’t Go would be the second (smash) single from the pair’s debut LP, Upstairs at Eric’s.
An earworm of an intro from an ARP 2600 sets the stage, carried along by an incessant bass courtesy of Clarke’s ever-present Sequential Circuits Pro-One. A thick Roland Juno-60 bass complements Moyet’s soulful voice.
Despite the low track count, the entire concoction is big, bold, and unforgettable.
11: Vangelis - Titles, aka Chariots of Fire
It seemed an improbable pairing: Hugh Hudson’s historical film set in 1924 scored by a synthesist? Absurd, yet this collaboration earned three BAFTAs and four Academy Awards.
Greek musician Vangelis’ particular penchant for evocative and emotional performance would provide the synth-heavy soundtrack with a romantic flair. More so, it would introduce a new form of electronic filmic music, still popular today.
The Titles theme for Chariots of Fire combines acoustic piano with Vangelis’ beloved Yamaha CS-80 to create a dramatic, optimistic anthem. A steady electronic pulse, echoing percussion, resonant fanfares and that simple, unforgettable piano are arranged perfectly.
Released as a chart-topping single, it became an obligatory feature of athletics events for decades to come.
10: Pet Shop Boys - West End Girls
The formation of Pet Shop Boys was a largely unremarkable tale - Smash Hits journalist meets architecture student while purchasing a synth (Korg MS-10) at a hi-fi shop. The story of how their smash hit single, West End Girls, came to be, on the other hand, is a bit more... convoluted.
The single was recorded and released not once, but twice, and both versions were successful, one as an underground club 12”, the other as a worldwide smash.
At the start, Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe worked with famed American Hi-NRG producer Bobby O (Bobby Orlando), with whom they recorded a dozen tunes, West End Girls among them. On the initial version of the tune you can hear Orlando playing nearly every part, with the exception of the bassline and a single chord, both of which were provided by Lowe.
Released in 1984, this comparatively stripped-down, minimal version of the tune was a hit with DJs in San Francisco and LA and charted in Europe.
Eventually, the duo extracted themselves from their contract with Orlando and signed with EMI, for whom they re-recorded the song with Stephen Hague in the role of producer.
This time around, they tracked their synthpop/hip-hop mashup at London’s Advision Studios, making use of the facility’s 24-track deck and SSL console while there.
Kicking off (no pun intended) 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, the seemingly simple bass sound was created with a Roland Jupiter-6, layered via MIDI to a Yamaha DX7 percussive patch played in the lower registers. An Emulator bass drum is also there, played chromatically along with the rest.
This layered bass propels the tune along, from start to finish, the perfect underpinning for the laidback spoken word lyric.
This time, the song was a worldwide smash, rising to the top of both US and UK charts.
9: Kraftwerk - The Model
We’ve no doubt that there are few MusicRadar users who are unfamiliar with the name Kraftwerk.
Moreover, it’d be a fairly safe assumption that most of you already have an idea of what they sounded like.
Yet it may come as something of a surprise to learn that the smartly-dressed synthpop pioneers only achieved their signature sound after years of evolution.
Indeed, when mainmen Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider formed the band in 1970, there was nary a synthesiser in sight!
As a matter of fact, Kraftwerk’s first two (eponymous) LPs were rooted firmly in the experimental ‘Krautrock’ style that was popular at the time of their formation. Synths would come into play on the third album, Ralf und Florian, on which both the Minimoog and EMS Synthi AKS would appear.
Still rooted in Germanic psychedelia, Ralf und Florian nevertheless saw the Düsseldorf duo’s first tentative steps into electronic ambience and minimalism.
Even the band’s breakthrough, 1974’s Autobahn, retained such conventional instrumentation as guitar, flute, and violin and, though now seen as a seminal electronic album, Autobahn also contains elements of ambience and kosmische musik.
Still, the repetitious rhythms of the title track were a taste of things to come. By the time The Man-Machine was released in 1978, the transformation was complete - Kraftwerk were dedicated to creating their signature brand of electronic pop music.
This seminal synth-pop sound was best exemplified by The Model. Overlooked at the time of its release, The Model would belatedly find favour in 1981, when it was re-issued as the b-side to the band’s then-current single, Computer Love. Re-re-issued as an A-side, The Model topped the UK singles chart in 1982.
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.
8: a-ha - Take On Me
Remember the children’s book about the little train engine that just couldn’t seem to get up that hill? a-ha must have taken its tale of perseverance to heart, as their signature hit went through multiple bands, titles, revisions, and releases before finally becoming one of the most memorable tunes of the 1980s.
Pre-a-ha, guitarist Päl Waaktaar and keyboardist Magne Furuholmen had a band called Bridges, with whom they wrote a song called Panorama which became Miss Eerie, and it contained a certain familiar synth riff.
After Bridges disbanded, they joined forces with singer Morten Harket as a-ha and together they did a version of Miss Eerie - now renamed Lesson One. This new version would be retitled yet again as Take On Me.
The new group recorded a demo of the tune, re-recorded it with producer John Ratcliffe, and eventually inked a deal with Warner Bros UK. After an unsatisfactory mix from producer Tony Mansfield, the song was remixed yet again and finally released to an uninterested public, reaching 137 on the UK singles chart.
At this point, Warner Brothers America offered to finance yet another version. This latest attempt was built around a LinnDrum beat, a DX7 bass, and PPG Wave (opens in new tab). The main riff was played on a Roland Juno-60, and doubled with another synth - possibly a DX7.
WB America released this latest version along with a music video of the band performing… only to meet the same indifference.
At this point, any sane persons involved should have cut their losses. However, producer Alan Tarney gave the song a once-over and an innovative new video was commissioned from director Steve Barron. The rest, as they say...
7: Eurythmics - Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)
Eurythmics hit single seemed to come out of nowhere, yet the road to success was long and arduous for the duo of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart.
Having met in 1975, the pair initially played together as members of The Catch, a punk outfit that would eventually morph into five-piece pop/new wave band The Tourists, with whom they’d cut three LPs.
Despite some success, tensions within the group and the artistic constraints of a band left Stewart and Lennox dissatisfied and determined to carry on as a duo, bringing in various collaborators as and when needed.
Calling themselves Eurythmics, they debuted with In the Garden, recorded with Conny Plank in 1981. Contributors to the LP include Can’s Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebzeit, D.A.F.’s Robert Görl, and Blondie’s Clem Burke.
A hybrid of electronic, post punk, and Krautrock, this rather fine debut was all but overlooked, leaving Lennox and Stewart to rethink their approach. They decided to retain the name, but to go it alone.
As such, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) is by necessity an exercise in restraint. After the commercial disappointment of their previous album, the duo sequestered themselves away in a small project studio they’d outfitted with the help of a bank loan. There they toiled away with the merest handful of second-hand synths, an 8-track recorder, and a single microphone.
Built around a rhythm bed created with their recently acquired Movement Systems Drum Computer, purchased with yet another loan, Sweet Dreams... is built on a simple bass sequence from a Roland SH-101, over which Lennox was inspired to play another part on a borrowed Oberheim OB-X.
The latter began as a stock strings patch, tweaked for a faster attack. These sounds are panned in the final mix. It’s the combination of these two sounds that form the memorable riff heard throughout the tune.
6: Pink Floyd - Shine On You Crazy Diamond
Classic rockers Pink Floyd made it their mission to employ the latest technology of their day. From elaborate surround sound PA rigs to experimental onstage lighting, the band were hell-bent on providing their audiences with new experiences.
This obsession with bleeding-edge tech all but ensured that they’d be among the vanguard of electronic rockers. Their initial experimentation with EMS Synthis on their landmark LP The Dark Side of the Moon, with its electronic showcase On the Run, only hinted at what was to come.
When they returned to Abbey Road for the follow up in ’75, the group’s keyboardist brought along a Minimoog and ARP String Ensemble to supplement the band’s beloved EMS Synthis.
By about this time, the band - and keyboardist Rick Wright in particular - had evolved the role of the synthesizer far beyond the overtly futuristic, even goofy, sounds favoured by many artists of the day. Instead, the electronics had become fully integrated and interwoven into the Floyd’s sonic tapestries. The lines between acoustic, electric, and synthetic sounds were less distinct.
Indeed, this new album - Wish You Were Here - demonstrated a singular maturity in the use of the synthesizer. Here, notes - not sound effects - came first.
And yet the sounds were utterly remarkable - tones and textures that would eventually become indelibly etched into the lexicon of rock music.
Every track on Wish You Were Here is a classic, but none more so than Shine On You Crazy Diamond, the ambitious nine-part epic dedicated to and inspired by the band’s tragic former frontman, Syd Barrett.
A multi-segmented, multi-layered masterwork, Shine On You Crazy Diamond features the band performing at its peak, not least Mr Wright, whose keyboard playing on this track is widely regarded as some of his best work. His yearning, slightly wistful brass-like Minimoog passage in the song’s third section is nothing short of perfection. Tasteful and beautifully crafted.
5: Jean-Michel Jarre - Oxygene IV
As is the case with other entries on our list, we can only understand the impact of Oxygene IV by examining the era into which it was released. By 1976, the synthesiser had infiltrated 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.
And yet, the all-electronic album was a rarity. Kosmische groups like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze had tapped the charts with influential synthetic masterpieces, as had Moog classicalist Isao Tomita, but their work could hardly have been considered mainstream. Their records were beloved by ‘the heads’ to be sure, but no one was whistling “Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares” on their way to the corner shop!
Jean-Michel Jarre changed all that with Oxygene IV. Like the rest of the Oxygene LP, Oxygene IV was recorded at home, in Jarre’s kitchen. A handful of instruments were used, among them an EMS VCS3, and Eminent 310 organ/string machine, an RMI Harmonic Synthesizer, and an ARP 2600.
These instruments were painstakingly overdubbed and layered onto an eight-track recorder. Most of the processing came in the form of tape echo and guitar pedals.
While ambient at times – even psychedelic – Oxygene’s signature quality is its tunefulness. Jarre is a master of melody and arrangement. Oxygene IV is ever so slightly mysterious, but entirely optimistic.
An unlikely hit, Oxygene IV climbed to number 4 in the UK single chart, and is arguably Jarre’s most recognisable composition. Both the single and the LP from which it was drawn made an indelible impression on generations of would-be electronic musicians.
Today, Jarre’s once unusual approach – a lone artist composing and recording at home with a handful of electronic instruments – has become commonplace, as easy for us as it was difficult for Jarre.
4: Van Halen - Jump
It seems quite hard to imagine today, but there was once a time when synthesisers were anathema to the rock ‘n’ roll cognoscenti. Yet that was precisely the case when hard rock legends Van Halen issued Jump at the tail-end of 1983.
To understand its impact, one must consider the era into which it was released. This was a time when hard rock and heavy metal acts hid their synth players from audience view. Synths were seen as ‘pop’ instruments – preferred by purveyors of pop or ‘New Wave’, and hardly suitable for the macho posturings of the typical hirsute metalhead.
Bands like Rush and Asia were garnering airplay with synth-laden tracks, but they were intellectual outliers who took their cues from the long-dormant progressive rock movement.
Van Halen, on the other hand, were rough ‘n’ ready rockers, more stomp than pomp. Given the band’s image-conscious attitudes, it’s no surprise that Eddie Van Halen’s now-classic synth riff was rejected by his bandmates when he first demoed it in 1981.
It would be re-presented to frontman David Lee Roth by producer Ted Templeman some two years later. This time, Roth responded positively, initially inspired by a news report of a would-be suicidal jumper and the encouragement of less-than-compassionate onlookers egging the poor subject on.
Roth wisely reconsidered, and the lyrics became a joyous, jubilant invitation to embrace life’s opportunities. This was much more in keeping with Van Halen’s optimistic approach and in line with the buoyant backing tracks.
Jump might have been one of the band’s poppiest moments up to that point, but they were still rockers through and through, and a Van Halen synth riff needed to be big, brash, and bold. Fortunately, Eddie had one of the boldest in his studio – Oberheim’s OB-Xa, a beast of an analogue polysynth that could hold its own with the band’s barrage.
Their risk was rewarded. Jump topped the Billboard charts and was accompanied by an award-winning video.
3: 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.”
He wasn’t wrong, but he was guessing a bit short of the mark, as echoes of I Feel Love have never faded, with musicians today still trying to recapture the magic of the original.
Ironically, the song’s longevity was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. 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, with the final cut being an attempt to create something futuristic. They couldn’t have known how right they were!
In order to create their prognostic platter, they chose to eschew the typical instrumentation of disco music – telegraph guitars, thick strings, electric bass, and horns – and bring in a massive Moog IIIP system belonging to classical musician Eberhard Schoener. Luckily, Schoener’s assistant Robby Wedel accompanied the Moog to lend a hand with the immense technical requirements of the system. Most significantly, he showed the producers how it could be synchronised to tape in order to record multiple tracks in perfect rhythmic lock-step.
Wedel’s demonstration was a revelation, allowing Moroder and Bellotte to create a complete arrangement using little else but the Moog. The bass sequence, the snares, hi-hats – 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.
2: New Order - Blue Monday
As most of you will surely know, New Order were created by the surviving members of Joy Division after that band’s frontman, Ian Curtis, took his own life in 1980.
Bassist Peter Hook, guitarist Bernard Sumner, and drummer Stephen Morris had – along with Curtis – vowed not to use the name Joy Division should any member of that band depart, so the remaining trio assumed a new moniker and added a new member, Morris’ girlfriend Gillian Gilbert, on keys and second guitar. Sumner was assigned vocal duties on the basis that he could comfortably alternate between singing and playing his guitar.
The band’s first single, Ceremony, was composed during the final days of Joy Division and carries on that band’s post-punk style, as did the band’s first album of newly-penned songs. However, a trip to New York introduced the band to new dance music, including Italian disco. Electronics and dance elements began to play increasingly prominent roles with each successive release.
Blue Monday itself quite literally originated in the club scene. The band’s label opened the now-legendary Haçienda in 1982. The opening night saw New Order play a lengthy number that included elements that would later be recycled in their biggest hit.
Recorded in 1982, Blue Monday was propelled by a stomping kick drum from an Oberheim DMX drum machine, an out-of-sync sequencer line, and choirs (allegedly) sampled from a Kraftwerk album. A distinctive Moog Source bass snakes through the disparate elements. Sumner’s purposely pallid croon drapes it all in a sepulchral shroud.
Not that the listeners were paying attention to the lyrics – they were too busy dancing. It sold like mad, going on to become the biggest-selling 12” single of all time.
In something of an ironic twist, the expense of producing Peter Saville’s artful packaging meant that it actually lost money each time a copy was sold. Needless to say, Blue Monday was eventually re-issued with a slightly more conservative sleeve...
1: Vangelis - Blade Runner Main Titles
To say that Yamaha’s CS80 synthesiser was vital to the success of Blade Runner may seem like an overstatement. Yet, it’s hard to imagine an instrument that has become more identified with a soundtrack on which it was used. Indeed, there can be few dramatic films in which the soundtrack was as thoroughly embedded and as important to the mood as the lighting, set design, or even the dialogue.
By the time he’d been tapped to score Blade Runner, Greek musician Vangelis had led a storied career. As keyboardist for rock band Aphrodite’s Child, he’d recorded a classic of psychedelic art rock in the form of their LP, 666. As a solo artist, he’d created some of the most memorable film scores of the 1970s and kicked off the 1980s by winning an Oscar for his work on Chariots of Fire.
With his haunting score for Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece Blade Runner, Vangelis crafted a sonic soundscape that perfectly described the loneliness and alienation of the futuristic cityscape and its denizens.
For his expansive and deeply emotional score, Vangelis (literally) leaned pretty heavily on the CS80, an expansive and deeply expressive instrument.
Despite being nominated for a BAFTA and Golden Globe award, Vangelis’ original soundtrack was inaccessible for years, thanks to a dispute that resulted in Vangelis withholding its release. Fans settled for a recreation by recorded session musicians, named “New American Orchestra”. When the real deal finally emerged in 1994, it was incomplete, missing several cues that had appeared in the film.
Not that it really mattered much. By that point, the longing, wailing tones of Vangelis’ CS80 had become indelibly etched into the (sub)cultural consciousness, and the CS80 was inextricably linked to the film. So much so, in fact, that a popular hardware recreation was released as “Deckard’s Dream”, named for a scene in the film.