Once an explicit throwback to video games, film scores, and music of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the synthwave genre has fully evolved into its second generation and attracted a wave of new artists and new listeners in the process. The current generation of creators are making synthwave’s retro roots relevant in the modern day with stronger production chops and a host of contemporary ideas, shifting the music from a niche underground style into one that regularly bubbles up into mainstream consciousness. The days of simple, sunny ‘80s nostalgia from genre pioneers like Mitch Murder and Miami Nights 1984 are nearly a decade behind us, and a list of the whos-who in synthwave music looks very different now than it did just a few years ago.
Whether you’re new to synthwave or you’re an existing fan who hasn’t had time to keep up with the big shifts in the genre, these are the Top 10 Synthwave Artists to Know Right Now.
#10 - Wayfloe
Modern EDM owns more heritage in synthwave’s identity than ever before, and Wayfloe represents this stylistic shift as well as nearly anyone. One listen to tracks like “Scarlet Speedster” and “Neon West” reveal the duo’s EDM roots and their ability to integrate their bass-heavy style into a retro ‘80s atmosphere. Although Wayfloe is a newer act and the pair just released their first album this year, a lush production style and gorgeous vocal collabs practically guarantee them a place among synthwave’s most visible creators going forward.
#9 - The Bad Dreamers
Backed by the songwriting and production chops of a music industry pro who’s worked with artists such as Pink and John Legend, The Bad Dreamers project is a love letter to the past wrapped-up in contemporary pop music. In late 2018 The Bad Dreamers released his debut album, Songs About People Including Myself, and the warm, hook-heavy charm of tracks like “California Winter” and “Who You Run To” have already begun redefining synthwave’s softer side. Few creators in any part of synthwave can match the songwriting skill on display with The Bad Dreamers, and fans of more established acts like The Midnight and FM-84 owe it to themselves to include this up-and-coming artist in their regular listening rotation.
#8 - Mega Drive
Long-time synthwave fans will be quick to tell you of the music’s dark side, which embraces horror movies and science fiction as enthusiastically as the main genre embraces video arcades and sunset drives. Commonly known as “dark synthwave” or simply, “darksynth,” this alter ego of the main genre emerged in 2012 and has become a legitimately vast world of music in its own right. While other notable darksynth pioneers Perturbator and Carpenter Brut have slowed their output and generally disengaged from synthwave, Mega Drive has refined his focus on a brooding, cybernetic sound with an immersive sci-fi atmosphere. The artist’s newest tracks from the upcoming 199XAD album pull from early ‘90s video games, action films, and cyberpunk culture for one of the most remarkable sounds anywhere in the retro synth world. As both a pioneer of and torchbearer for synthwave’s dark side, Mega Drive remains a must-hear artist.
#7 - FM-84
FM-84 helped revolutionize the genre and push it further toward mainstream appeal by being one of the first to prominently feature high-quality singing performances on synthwave tracks. Together with regular collaborator and vocalist Ollie Wride, FM-84 is responsible for some of the most memorable and beloved songs in synthwave, including “Running in the Night” and “Bend and Break.” The artists' Atlas album went from an under-the-radar gem to a genre staple that appears in nearly every playlist and Top 10 selection, and with good reason. For velvety smooth pop tunes with a nostalgic glow, it doesn’t get any better than FM-84.
#6 - PYLOT
Beginning as an EDM project released through Monstercat, PYLOT quickly evolved into a fully retro-futuristic synthwave act wrapped in a story-driven sci-fi concept. Newer releases like the Solai EP balance the light and dark aspects of synthwave with careful finesse, offering low-key cinematic pieces alongside stirring, uptempo tracks driven by bright melodies and electric guitar. As synthwave culture increasingly leans into cyberpunk themes and explores ideas of retro-futurism, PYLOT’s story-backed creations stand at the cutting edge of the genre’s future.
Synthwave / Retro Electro - Spotify Playlist
Enjoy the Top 10 Synthwave Artists and many more in the popular Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist on Spotify.
#5 - Scandroid
Considering Klayton’s ambitious and genre-agnostic creations under the Celldweller name, it’s little surprise that the artist’s newest project, Scandroid, took synthwave’s paint-by-numbers rulebook and threw it out the window. Embracing an utterly unique amalgam of ‘80s pop, electronic rock, and synthwave, Scandroid’s music appeals equally to fans inside and out of synthwave culture and has become one of the key gateways for new listeners to the genre. Ranging from darker, futuristic pieces to euphoric covers of ‘80s pop hits from Michael Jackson and Tears for Fears, Scandroid delivers a variety of tracks through a multi-layered, highly polished production style. The result is one of the most exciting and forward-thinking sounds anywhere in the retro ‘80s world.
#4 - Gunship
Synthwave, as with many established genres, is occasionally high on imitators and low on innovators, which makes Gunship’s combination of contemporary alt-rock and electronic with ‘80s influences particularly noteworthy. More than almost any other act, Gunship members pursue ambitious artistry that continually leads synthwave forward with new ideas. Their 2015 self-titled debut was a landmark album that set a new precedent for polished, vocal-driven synthwave with modern appeal, and the group’s 2018 follow-up, Dark All Day delved further into a shadowy, sci-fi world with a blend of styles that is unmistakable from the thousands of synthwave creations around it. The fact that Gunship has become one of the most popular retro synth acts to date is no coincidence.
#3 - Dance with the Dead
Despite its frequent warmth and fondness for bright melodies, synthwave counts an unusually high number of metalheads among its devoted fanbase, and no single artist represents the deep bond between those two genres more than Dance with the Dead. Borrowing from vintage horror flicks, pulp science fiction, and heavy metal music, Dance with the Dead found the perfect combination of influences for their guitar-driven darksynth project, one they’ve continually tweaked and pushed into heavier territory over time. The group has not only produced a wealth of content since their Out of Body debut in 2013, but each album is equally worthy of listeners’ attention. Based on consistency, uniqueness, and their role in pioneering synthwave’s dark side, Dance with the Dead remain one of the top synthwave acts year in and year out.
#2 - Waveshaper
If there’s a single active artist whose music embodies the essence of synthwave, it’s Waveshaper. Fans of early video game soundtracks will spot the influence of iconic composers like Chris Huelsbeck in the chunky textures and 16-bit sonics of Waveshaper’s music, which takes traditional synthwave and enlivens it with quirky songwriting and brilliant sound design. The result is an unmistakable style that can be recognized within a few notes of any given song. While most synthwave artists working in a more heavily retro-style have either disappeared or struggled to keep up with newer acts and higher production standards, Waveshaper remains a flag-bearer for synthwave’s original identity and continues to make it exciting to long-time fans and new listeners alike.
#1 - The Midnight
Ask current synthwave fans who their favorite artist is and it’s a good bet their answer will be "The Midnight." By combining nostalgic synth tones with lush EDM effects and sealing it with a polished vocal delivery, The Midnight combines past and present in an accessible pop package with mass appeal. The pair has continually explored new approaches to their music, from a more traditional synthwave sound on Endless Summer to a darker, more meditative EDM state on Nocturnal and a radio-friendly pop format on Kids, though the duo’s signature style remains intact throughout. The Midnight has struck a chord with synthwave fans of all ages and their popularity continues to build with each new release, making it unlikely they’ll be knocked from their perch as the top synthwave artist any time soon.
Written by Preston Cram / Iron Skullet
Iron Skullet is a synthwave journalist who has followed and studied the genre for nearly a decade. He is the creator of the popular Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist on Spotify and the writer of 'What is Synthwave? 2018 Edition' on ironskullet.com.