Kraftwerk - Autobahn
It’s Synth Week here on MusicRadar, but don’t think that it’s only Moogs, Prophets and DX7s that we’re concerned with. As well as classic instruments, we’re also celebrating their influence on music, hence this list of the greatest synth tracks ever recorded. Running from 1974 through to the present day (come back tomorrow for part 2), we’ve selected 40 songs you must hear, starting with an all-time classic from Kraftwerk.
Autobahn is an extraordinary piece of music in so many ways. It introduced countless people to electronic music, and its 22 minutes of chugging, melodic tones brought it incredible success. It’s surely still one of the most unusual US hit singles of all time.
Tangerine Dream - Ricochet
We said Rubicon, they said Ricochet, so we said Phaedra and they said Love On A Real Train. To be honest, pick any of those and you will get the Tangerine Dream message - and to think that they produced this all those years ago is just extraordinary. Dive in deep and prepare to get stoned without drugs...
Vangelis - Pulstar
Chariots Of Fire? The end theme to Blade Runner? Maybe, but this came first, and well before Vangelis’ high-profile film score period. Pulstar was, perhaps, the pinnacle of Vangelis’ spaced-out electronic opera era, and while the stabs are a bit ‘70s, the main melody is pure genius.
Jean Michel Jarre - Oxygène (Part IV)
“Ding, da ding da ding.” You know you want to. Oxygène is a tune and a half that treads just on the right side of the line between classic electronic music and synth cheese. It’s a tune that, alongside Hot Butter’s cover of Popcorn and Space’s Magic Fly, threw the ‘70s into the kind of complete musical confusion that only punk rock could sort out.
David Bowie - Art Decade
The second side of Bowie’s Low album represents the peak of his “ooh, look at me, I’m so moody” Berlin period. This is just one of the gems you’ll find on the dark side of Low, a listening experience that is up there with anything that he has ever produced (including The Laughing Gnome).
Donna Summer - I Feel Love
A track that supposedly launched disco, techno and a thousand other genres. Eno allegedly said it would change music forever, and he was kind of right. Of course, you should never believe the hype, but when that synth line comes in and combines with the most hypnotic vocal of all time, you can’t help but be moved.
Ultravox (Mk 1) - Hiroshima Mon Amour
This sees John Foxx’s Ultravox at their peak. They were always the cooler version because they wore plastic and quite clearly wanted to avoid hit records. Hiroshima Mon Amour ain’t no Dancing With Tears In My Eyes - no, it’s even more pretentious and all the better for it!
Tubeway Army - Are 'Friends' Electric?
The tune that truly welcomed the synthesizer to the world of pop at the end of the ‘70s and kick-started synth pop as a genre. It was apparently all an accident, however, as it only featured that big Moog synth because Numan stumbled across one in the studio.
Gary Numan - Cars
The soaring strings on Cars propelled this even more electronic side of Numan to the top of the charts yet again. It’s a true classic and is still doing the rounds 30 years later, while its po-faced creator continues to tread darker paths...
John Foxx - Underpass
That Underpass was a hit single back in 1980 now seems extraordinary. It is cold, bleak, sci-fi synth music and utterly brilliant for it, but hardly Radio 1 material. So the fact that Tony Blackburn actually played it is also extraordinary. Afterwards he commented that the track was “weird but wonderful”, leading to a third extraordinary event: him being right!
Ultravox (Mk 2) - Vienna
The Midge Ure version of Ultravox bothered the charts a lot in the ‘80s but will be remembered most for this track. It’s a little pompous but you can’t argue with the atmosphere and tension, or that weird violin solo. And like just about everyone else on this list, the band will probably be performing at a venue near you soon.
The Human League (Mk 1) - Being Boiled
The first incarnation of the Human League was a bit more ‘future’ than the latter, poppier version, and produced two completely electronic and ground-breaking LPs. Being Boiled has nonsensical lyrics, big hooks and massive beats - all the ingredients for an instant synth classic, then…
OMD - Enola Gay
Like many others here, OMD arguably deserve more than one entry, and it was a very close call between this and Joan Of Arc. Enola Gay steals the title, though, because of its almost naive arrangement, which includes some of the biggest synth hooks of all time. And what other tune could cause so much embarrassing dancing at weddings?
Visage - Fade To Grey
If synth pop was all about pretentious lyrics and make-up - and, let’s face it, it was - then this has to be the pinnacle of the genre. Underpinned by one of the greatest synth riffs ever, the song even has a bit of French thrown in there to make it sound a bit more, you know, sophisticated.
Soft Cell - Say Hello Wave Goodbye
Forget Tainted Love - Say Hello Wave Goodbye was all about melodrama and massive emotion, helped on its way by one of the most moving synth arrangements of all time. We’re not ashamed to admit that it still brings tears to our eyes just thinking about those strings…
Japan - Ghosts
Weren’t the ‘80s brilliant? The fact that a stunning song like Ghosts was ever made was an event in itself - that it got to number five in the pop charts was amazing! While much of the music of the time can sound a little dated - even some of the supposedly ‘futuristic’ tracks here - Ghosts really could have been released at any point in our future.
Brian Eno - An Ending (Ascent)
Why people don’t go on forums daily and cite this as ONE OF TEH BEST PEACES UF MUSIC OF ALL TIME is beyond us. Pure, dreamy ambience with searing melodies that will have you in tears. What? Don’t know it? You do - it’s backed countless BBC clips of space and probably episodes of Horizon as well.
New Order - Blue Monday
There are so many reasons to include this: the beats, the synths, the fact that it was the best-selling 12-inch of all time, and that the artwork (which didn’t feature the band name or song) cost the record company for every copy sold. Oh, and the fact that it is still one of the best crossover synth/club tracks ever made.
Pet Shop Boys - West End Girls
We can say this with some confidence: never will a softly spoken rap combine so well with the sound of the synth. As soon as that bassline comes in you just know you’re gonna be “kicking in chairs and knocking down tables” at any moment. “From Lake Geneva to the Finland station.” Eh? Brilliant!
Depeche Mode - Stripped
If certain members of the team had got their way - and they nearly did - we’d have put 15 Depeche Mode tracks in here. Everything Counts, New Life, Policy Of Truth… all great choices. But fortunately, saner voices prevailed and Stripped was the one that made the cut, for that soaring synth thunder at the end that still sends a tingle down your spine nearly a quarter of a century after the song was written.
Disagree with our choices? Let us know in the Comments section below. Come back tomorrow for 20 more defining synth tracks dating from 1990 to 2008.
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.