14 Under-The-Radar Synth-Pop Acts We Loved In 2014

Carl Williott | December 9, 2014 5:30 am
Pop's Class Of 2014
We're taking a look back at the 21 artists who broke out big this year.

Synth-pop has never really gone away since breaking into the mainstream with a little help from Gary Numan and MTV in the ‘80s, but the genre has certainly fallen in and out of favor since then.

As luck would have it, we’ve been riding high on a synth spike for about 10 years now, with things really exploding in the late aughts as Passion Pit, La Roux, chillwave, and Lady Gaga helped spark a renewed interest the sounds of noodly keyboards and syrupy hooks.

Modern triumphs for the genre continued to pile up, and soon enough M83’s “Midnight City” accompanied a Victoria’s Secret commercial just as Drive’s ‘80s-mimicking space disco soundtrack amassed rave reviews. At the moment, Chvrches carries the torch for the durable category, but just this year dozens of new acts wielding Moogs, Korgs, Casios, and maybe even keytars entered the fray. So we’ve compiled some of our favorites from this new crop to see what could be on the horizon for the genre. Check out these 14 under-the-radar synth-pop acts we fell in love with in 2014.

1. Soft As Snow

While we lost The Knife this year, let’s be honest, those two Swedes abandoned the “pop” half of the deal a few years ago. In comes Soft As Snow to fill the void, a Norwegian pair recalling The Knife’s early ability to balance the arty, the eerie, and the poppy. Their debut EP, Glass Body, contains a stunning array of swirling analog electronica and ghostly female vocals.

2. Salt Ashes

British singer Veiga Sanchez, who records under the Salt Ashes moniker, only has a handful of songs on Soundcloud, but that’s not a problem when the music is as replayable as her latest single “If You Let Me Go.” Sanchez displays an impressive vocal range, at points reminiscent of a young Madonna, and at other moments approaching Kate Bush’s forest-nymph falsetto. Her pipes are matched with pure pop arrangements that are as dramatic as they are anthemic.

3. Empathy Test

On their Throwing Stones EP, London duo Empathy Test deliver tear-streaked New Wave featuring twinkling synth pads and drum machine hits so wet (from the crying, presumably) that they’d throw Phil Collins into a jealous rage. “Holding On” exemplifies their New Order-like ability to make breaking up sound so danceable.

4. Ballet School

Ballet School makes the type of music that confirms the most New Romanticized image of the ‘80s as an emotion- and synth-drenched John Hughes film. While this Berlin threesome employs synths or drum machines, their exuberant sound is actually built on guitars made so impossibly aqueous that they sound like synthesizers. Like any good ‘80s homage, the melodies are maximal and the vocals unabashedly reach for the rafters. It’s what those who were too young to experience that decade imagine it sounded like.

5. Ramona Lisa

In a matter of months, Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek went from writing for Beyoncé to crafting an electro opera in miniature while hunkered down in hotel rooms and airport lounges. Under the Ramona Lisa name, Polachek recorded Arcadia entirely on her laptop while on tour — without even an external microphone. Considering the circumstances, you’d expect it to sound lo-fi and brittle, but it’s textured and dreamlike, and completely different from anything else on this list.

6. Kinky Love

On Kinky Love’s debut Promise EP, the Chicago act perfected a glamorously relaxed style of synth-pop, with Xoe Wise’s graceful coo floating alongside Dan Zima’s breezy keyboard lines, for the sonic equivalent of the effortlessly stylish beauty going, “What, this old thing? I just threw it on before I left!”

7. Sleep Thieves

With the name Sleep Thieves and an album called You Want The Night, you can guess this is music for the wee hours. The Irish trio’s sound comprises John Carpenter-style noir synths, Chromatics-level precision, and a dash of The Knife’s pulled-taffy vocals. The result would be perfect for a horror movie if it weren’t so celestial and hypnotic.

8. X priest X

X priest X (the x’s are silent) may hail from Florida, but their understated synth-pop is right at home on Swedish label Emotion. Imagine if you stretched “A Real Hero” into an entire EP, and that’s similar to what you have on Samurai, with Madeline Priest’s ballet-inspired approach to singing letting her voice traipse across Dave Kazyk’s still and sparkly foundations.

9. Crater

Seattle is known for spawning groups that take raw, moody music and make it palatable to the masses, and female duo Crater continues that tradition. The pair uses some of industrial music’s essentials — harsh percussion, chainsaw synths — but redirects their energy into a melodic spiral of goth-pop.

10. Operators

Indie journeyman Dan Boeckner has proved himself to be one of the leaders of nu-wave with his bands Wolf Parade and Divine Fits. He goes even further down that road with Operators, fully giving into the synthesizer’s pure dance power. Using crappy ‘80s equipment as the backbone of EP1, Boeckner and his bandmates approached the music with a garage rock mentality, and ended up with lean and wiry dance music for people who don’t like dance music.

11. Allie X

Allie X’s debut single “Catch” was one of the most instantly satisfying pop songs of the year, like a Chvrches b-side reinterpreted by the post-Gaga diva class. The cagey Canadian singer followed that gem up with “Prime” then “Bitch,” both demonstrating that she’s not afraid to utilize off-kilter synth flourishes that may steal attention away from her off-kilter vocals.

12. Thomas Azier

As a Dutch musician based out of Berlin, Thomas Azier is as enamored with the brutality of early European techno as he is with the over-earnest wailing of, say, The Outfield’s “Your Love.” He brings those contradictory sensibilities together on his debut album Hylas, improbably fusing synthetic orchestrations, visceral clangs, and emotive choruses.

13. Little Daylight

From opening for Charli XCX to remixing Sky Ferreira, Little Daylight has been entrenched in the emerging pop scene for a couple years now. So, unsurprisingly, the Brooklyn band’s debut LP Hello Memory is a bright and thoroughly modern collection of full-bodied love songs littered with “oohs” and synth melodies that’ll burrow into your head.

14. Kid Moxie

L.A.-based singer Kid Moxie exists in an eclectic world of haunted ballads and driving Moroder-style sequences on new album 1888. It’s like chamber pop for the synth set, and that cinematic grandeur is no surprise since she enlisted help from Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti, as well as Darren Aronofsky’s film score guru Clint Mansell.