Friday, 21 December 2018

Best in Retrowave 2018!

Even a year later I did not expect all the positive reactions my posts in Retrowave garnered. Unfortunately, it's not much of a subject I can post about without repeating that it is the best genre currently in the music world and you would be remiss in ignoring it. It takes the best aspects of the last era of pure pop music (the 80s) and the lessons learned in the decades since while ignoring all the bad turns the industry has taken. It's really that simple. The genre is just exactly what we need.

However, there is another way I can share more of this genre with you, dear readers.. The year is nearly at an end, so how about I share what I consider some of the best albums and songs released over 2018? Because there were some great ones, many of which you might not have heard.

It's been a good year for Retrowave as a whole, however there were some stumbles.

I'll be upfront about some of my disappointments with 2018. Still no new Miami Nights 1984 album is at the top of the list. He's been teasing a new album for years now, but it's still nowhere to be seen. Considering his other two are still top of the genre so many years later listeners are frothing at the mouth for a new one. 2012 was a long time ago.

After enjoying The Midnight's Nocturnal album to pieces last year their newest, Kids, was an unequivocal step down and my biggest disappointment of 2018. It is not just because they refused to use their secret weapon, the almighty saxophone, on this release but because of two things about Retrowave which I feel are the genre's Achilles' Heel and should be actively avoided to prevent it from falling into parody and obscurity. Unfortunately, it is still very possible for that to happen. The genre isn't perfect, and these two points are proof as to why.

The first issue is the over-reliance on nostalgia. I'm not going to deny that longing for the good old days isn't part of the appeal of the genre, but it mustn't wallow in it. Kids was obsessed with childhood from arcade motifs to wistful longing lyrics of dead days to unneeded '80s references to a soppy and weepy level of energy throughout. It's not using the '80s to create something new. It's using the '80s as a makeshift pillow to cry under.

This ties in to my other complaint about the lack of variety. Every track has the same tempo and follows the same formula over and over. The entire album blurs together because the focus is too overemotional and invested in reveling in a forgotten time at the expense of varied songwriting. This is the opposite of their last album, Nocturnal. Retrowave is at its best when it is acknowledging the past and using it to move into the future with exciting new ideas and sounds along the way. It links two things and makes the one. There is no attempt to connect to the future on this album. Kids sounds like a millennial from 2006 suddenly realized their childhood was over and never coming back so they made this album during that depressing realization. I say this because the genre is about more than pointless nostalgia, but this album has nothing else to it.

Those disappointment aside, there is far more worth talking about from this year. There is much to mention here.

The best album in the genre to be released this year is Syndicate Shadow by Neon Nox. This is a work that spans the gauntlet from downbeat groovers to epic action assaults. This is the sound of a Cyberpunk riot and a man who decides to become a hero when he is needed to. It is fantastic for every second of the journey. Syndicate Shadow manages to combine ideas from '80s and '90s soundtracks to meld with a modern positive futuristic outlook (that isn't easy with Cyberpunk) to deliver the strongest album in the genre this year. You won't find one better.

Nightrider scratches that Miami Nights 1984 itch I've been waiting to scratch, Risky Fulfillment is a slow burner with a hook that won't let go, and Street Hawk is a racing tune that wouldn't sound too out of joint coming from Tokyo Rose. The album builds to a dramatic finish where the protagonist becomes the hero he is needed to be, and the sounds escalate to reflect it. Every track on this one is a winner.

Neon Nox might have hit it out of the park, but they weren't alone in fantastic releases this year. There were a few great albums worth checking out. Some of which I didn't expect at all.

Irving Force's Godmode is a grinding trek through a DOOM meets Robocop world of explosive violence and carnage and an endless sprawl of city like Judge Dredd. I've said in the past that Darksynth isn't my favorite subgenre in any capacity, but this album is one of the few to break that impression and become a must listen. There is a reason for that.

I like my music to have shifting moods and tones, and Godmode delivers that in a way only Retrowave music can. Starting with a slowly speeding climb through a chaotic world, going through action set pieces and fantastic discoveries along the way, and ending with a jaunt through a dying wasteland, this album is a delight. And I haven't even mentioned the best tracks yet. But then I would have to choose between them.

Suffice to say, this is one every fan of Retrowave should listen to. Godmode is a classic of the genre.

Overlord is quite a rocking track. But let us move on. The next release is a very different experience.

DELOS' self-titled EP came out of nowhere for me. It's only four tracks and much shorter than the rest listed on here, but the soundscapes it explores are magical. This EP feels like a trip through an insane science fantasy world from the 1970s. Jack Vance isn't what you usually think when you think of Retrowave. But it works so, so well.

This one is all about scope and wonder, and it's delivered in such a condensed space that it is shocking how well it works together to form a cohesive piece.

The Brood starts off like a journey through a mystical far off land. Trace Decay is the exploration of long abandoned ruins of an ancient civilization by a lone warrior with a past of his own. Night View is what it states, a trek through a long dead land that overlooks the final destination. The EP ends with Magic City, where anything is possible and secrets and truths lie just around the next bend at journey's end. Every song takes you on a trip you don't see coming.

Four tracks, all top notch. DELOS knocks it out of the park. Give this one a go.

Robert Parker's End of the Night is the least surprising of these listed. He's been well known in the genre for years, and Crystal City is still regarded as one of the best albums in Retrowave. However, End of the Night is a step up from it.

Where Crystal City could feel a bit fragile at times with how light a touch the songs had, End of the Night is rock solid full of brimming confidence. Every track has muscle behind it and a thunderous groove to keep your toes tapping with a cornucopia of sounds not always heard in the genre. All the guest stars on the album also work and compliment the songs which is not too common for projects like this.

I guess that's the best thing I can say about this one. Every track is dynamite and there is no weak point to be found on it. This is the type of music that got you into the genre to begin with, and these are some of the best songs to be found in it.

If you've been waiting for the next poppy hit record for the genre then this is it. Nothing else hit that mark harder than this one did in 2018.

Last but not least and the first on this list released this year is LeveL-1's Mother Brain, a Cyberpunk groove machine that sounds somewhere between Streets of Rage and a robot invasion from an underground factory. It's a bit of a different sound from usual Retrowave in its focus on beats and feel over layered soundscape. But that doesn't mean it has no character or has no depth.

Each track gives plenty of imaginative sounds. Start the Engine is a deep trek through an underground factory. The Wirehead is a cyborg attack on a skyscraper with matching scale. Hit It! is like the missing theme from the Undercover Cops arcade game. Corrupted A.I. is a quirky pop tune that wouldn't have been out of place on an old school compilation album from 1986. Finally, Homecoming surmises the quiet moments after the escape and hope for what tomorrow will bring. It's a tight album where every second counts.

In just 10 tracks, Mother Brain spans across the map, sound-wise. And yet it is incredibly sharp and to the point. There's no flab to be found here.

Unlike the other albums on the list this one is available for free, though I would recommend chipping in some coin when buying because it really is that good and these guys deserve the support. It's an album that should be better known than it is. I would easily call it one of the best of 2018, and that's why I'm putting it here.

Those are the top five albums released in the genre this year. I highly recommend all of them. You won't hear anything like these anywhere else.

But we're not done yet. Next I want to post a bunch of standalone tracks from 2018 that really stuck with me. Some are part of bigger albums I simply didn't list here for space reasons or are stray singles not tied to any album in particular. Either way, they are just as good as what I listed above.

It is strange at how the age of the single has returned in the digital landscape. In the 90s they were all but dead after a slow death in the '80s. The format was thought left for dead little more than a decade ago, but here we are.

Anyway, here is a list of singles to listen to when you get the chance. I decided to put in 20 that I enjoyed throughout the year, so jump around and check out what looks good to you. There's enough to go around in this genre. Hopefully you will be left with the same impression that I had when listening to them over the year.

Retrowave is here to stay.

LeBrock - "Runaway"

AM 1984 - "Miami Beach"

Dimi Kaye - "The Streets Are Mine"

Morch Kovalski - "DX 7000"

Korine - "Heaven's Servant"

Dreamers Avenue - "Fire in the Night"

Metropolis - "Midnight Plaza"

Thought Beings - "Hazy"

Deadlife - "Dreaming in the Garden"

Kalax - "Dream"

Wolf & Raven - "Space Strippers"

Ace Buchannon - "Breakout"

Night Runner - "Hellhound"

Satellite Young - "Moment in Slow Motion"

Madelyn Darling - "Blue Diamond Eyes"

Futurecop! featuring Parallels - "Edge of the Universe [Robert Parker Remix]"

SelloRekt/ LA Dreams - "What It Was"

Ace Buchannon featuring Noki - "Timelines"

Dreamers Avenue - "Lonely Highway"

LeBrock featuring Ultraboss - "Juice"

And that is all. I could go on listing more, but I have to stop at some point and this should be enough to show you exactly how well off the genre is at the end of 2018. It's just as good as ever.

In 2019 it will have been a decade from when the genre first started making an impact and eventually pierced the mainstream. Not bad for a genre considered a niche when it came out. Retrowave has only grown since. It's been a good run for the only creatively healthy musical genre out there these days, and I hope there's still plenty of gas in the tank.

If 2019 is as good as this year then we've got a lot to look forward to.

As always if you want some fun fiction I have a story out this year in Storyhack #3 and one in DimensionBucket Magazine. They were fun stories to write and I hope you enjoy them just as much. There is more to come in 2019, too.

2018 was just a warm-up.


  1. I was initially more positive about Kids, but in hindsight I have to admit being disappointed. There are some nice songs like America 2 or Lost Boy, but the album lacks those truly explosive masterpieces. Endless Summer and Nocturnal were both such fireworks of awesomeness that they set the bar really high. I hope that this album is an intermediate work that shall only be low-key overture for the next.

    In addition to your recommendations, I would like to throw this music video:

    This put such a smile on my face when I saw it for the first time. Not a new song but a nicely edited celebration of 80s movies.

    1. And actually there is a whole trilogy of those videos. Highly recommended.

    2. Excellent video! hanks for sharing.

  2. Trace Decay by Delos hits it home with me. It's also funny that you make those descriptions, since I tend to imagine same kind of stuff while listening synthwave. Can have something to do with the reason that this genre has some knack for fantasy imagery...

    While we are at it, I have to mention spacesynth. It is a sort of sister genre of synthwave and could be seen as a part of it even if it isn't really seen as one. The difference is that spacesynth is an authentic genre from the 80s that died in the 90s and resurfaced during the 00s and forward. Unlike synthwave, it has remained a hobby for circles so small that even hipsters got nothing on it. It could be described as a heavily melody-oriented music with scifi-themes. Very positive and energetic music.

    Here is a music video that started the whole 80s passion for me. So ridicilous that I thought it was a joke. But how come a joke can have such good music?

    Koto - Jabdah

    Here is some more from more current producers:

    Nightcreeper - Shopping cart race I recommend to check out the publishers channel electronmusic. The composer has made music with two names, Nightcreeper and Electron. The latters album "Tides of Darkness" kicks ass.

    Dreamtime - Cylonian Skyline This is a bit more darker sounding with slower tempo.

    Synthesis - Secret Energy Spacesynth artists used to make even christmas albums! Great stuff.

    For some reason quite a many spacesynth-artists come from Finland. Odd for a genre that has its origins in Italy. Nevertheless, I'm proud of my musical countrymen!