Karl is a longtime freelancer who's passionate about music, art, and writing.
I have to admit that trying to choose favourites out of all the synth-based albums that I've reviewed during 2020 was a tall order. The level of quality at which the #synthfam produces music is so high that I found it tough not to include many, many more albums on this list.
All of these albums had some quality that particularly caught my ear and brought me deep enjoyment. My goal is just to share with you some of the music that really touched and affected me strongly.
So, in no particular order, here are my favourites out of the albums I reviewed in 2020.
The way in which The New Vessel evoked a sweeping journey through the stars made it one of my favourite albums of 2020 to have reviewed. I was hooked by the way synths sparkled like starlight, deep bass create a vision of the endless night of space and how the intricate lines of melody and harmony intertwined in the songs.
The evocation of a grand journey through the stars by using sonic textures and sensations such as the deep rumbles of bass suggesting vast gulfs of space and high synths that shimmer like stars in the darkness was a large part of my interest in the album.
Another reason why I was so interested by The New Vessel was the wide variety of unique, synth sounds used on the album. There were pan pipes, metallic bell/chime sounds and even a Theremin sound. There are a lot of unique sounds and interactions between layers of sound on the album. It seems that the more times I listened, the more I got out of the music.
The strong melodies on this album were also a factor in making it a favourite. Some of the melodies are delicate, others are full of triumphant power and there are moments of minor key melancholy as well. The way in which all of those melodies combined made for a strong end result.
There was a clear evolution of sound on The New Vessel from Aeronexus’ previous albums and the polished production and musical intelligence shone through. I enjoyed how he was able to conjure up a quest through deep space using melody, harmony and interesting instrument sound choices.
The way that Skylight Sessions combined a deep sense of floating peace with a diverse variety of sounds and stylistic cues to form a cohesive whole was what made it one of my favourite albums that I reviewed in 2020.
The eclectic nature of Skylight Sessions was a big reason for my enjoyment of the album. Whether it was the jazzy melody of Hot Pack or the almost Japanese roleplaying game feel of Prognosticator, the album roved through engaging sonic territory. The chilled out feeling of all the tracks helped them maintain cohesion.
I was also strongly drawn to the album because of Alpha Chrome Yayo's level of musical ability. His ear for harmonic and melodic moments is matched by his ability to translate them to synths, piano or guitar seamlessly. Everything he does happens at a high level of skill.
Skylight Sessions also struck me as a deeply intimate recording. I had the feeling that I was being allowed a glimpse into Alpha Chrome Yayo’s world and shown a part of his musical soul. There’s a sense that one sees a softer side to him through the smooth flow of the music.
The diverse instrumentation of the album was another attraction with jazz flute, recorders, a keyed fiddle, jazz organ and synths along with xylophone and sax sounds all knitting together to produce a rich sonic experience.
Skylight Sessions is full of flowing ease, well-crafted melodic moments and an interesting palette of sounds that engage the listener which is why I enjoyed it so much.
This album was a favourite of mine in 2020 because of the smooth, funky, groovy and sexy nature of the music from his voice that flows like liquid chocolate to the undeniable feeling of groove that poured from the music and the synths that brought a jazzy sensibility to the album.
One of the strong draws for me was Beckett’s velvet voice. It was smooth, easy and even downright sexy when he wanted to take it in that direction. It blended so well with the overall chilled out but funky atmosphere of the music and gave the album more character.
Another reason that I got so pulled in by Electric Pillow Talk was all of the first-rate guest performances from Luca Ricardo’s mastery of the guitar to Rachael Jones and Esmeralda Vere who brought their own unique vocal styles to the party. I was also happy he used a proper DJ to do some real scratching.
The combo of funky slap bass and drums on the album gave it a locked down feeling when the groove sat in the pocket and carried the other musical elements of the tracks along. Those other musical elements were something I enjoyed with strong, catchy melodies played on tasty synths that shone, glowed and flowed and jazzy synth solos that are full of soul.
The mixture of funk, groove and Beckett’s vocal chops along with great guitar work and guest vocals made Electric Pillow Talk one of my 2020 favourites.
The combination of serious musical quality and a playful sense of fun were the two main factors that made Cat Temper’s More Than A Feline one of my favourite albums to have reviewed in 2020. The way all of the collaborators bring their talent together to back up Cat Temper’s synth chops made it hugely entertaining.
The fact that Cat Temper and his collaborators were clearly having fun while making this album was one major reason that I so enjoyed More Than A Feline. Each of the collaborators creatively and humorously contributed lyrics that fit the feline theme and performed them with equal zeal, also having added their own vocal melodies.
The deep pool of musical talent that Cat Temper drew for the album also added to my choosing it as one of my favourite albums to have reviewed this year. Each of them has impressive musical chops and they all bring their own unique perspectives to the the project.
On top of all of these things, More Than A Feline is full of Cat Temper’s backing music that fits the moods of each song brought by his collaborators through well-crafted synth melodies and harmonies. He found the essence of each song and delivered on the promise of the lyrics and vocal melodies. This was another factor that made it a favourite album of mine for 2020.
All in all, the way that More Than A Feline combined serious musicality with a playful sense of humor made it a joy to hear as well as a smash hit for me out of the albums I have reviewed over the last year.
This was one of my favourite retrowave albums of 2020. It’s the story of the glamorous, shallow city of Holywoöd and what happens when those living in the wasteland around it known as Traumaville decide to rebel against its excesses. It’s one of those albums that takes you on a journey as you listen to it, using washes of dark bass, the aggressive growl of with rough-edged synths and thundering drums to paint shadowed, dangerous soundscapes.
Another reason why Out of Traumaville was one of my favourite albums was the lineup of guest lyricists and vocalists who were invited to be a part of it. The lyrics written by Tom Newman, Matt Sky, Jamie Wiltshire and doctormelodious entertainingly told the story while guest vocalists Jamie Wiltshire, KC Burke, Sam Blanchard, Winona Drive and doctormelodious all added layers of nuance and meaning with their distinctive voices.
The cinematic nature of the album was also compelling for me. There was a narrative arc to the songs that made them interesting and they unfolded the tale well. The overall musical atmosphere also helped to create tension and intensity. There were also melodies that could sing or ache with expression to further the atmospherics.
All of these factors added up to a rich retro tapestry of an album that had a tale to tell and told it well. I enjoy storytelling through music and that happened beautifully on Out Of Traumaville.
This was one of my favourite darksynth albums of 2020 because it combined a sense of dark portent with fun '80s horror movie aesthetics and used a twisted, tense palette of shadowy sounds to generate an entertainingly creepy and threatening atmosphere.
One of the major reasons I found this album so enjoyable was the soundscape that Ectoplague created. The bass exhaled heavily like dark breaths from ancient crypts while high, nervous synth chimes and bells added a feeling of tension and suspense. The end result was a constant sensation of something dangerous waiting in ambush in the shadows.
The melodies that were written for this album also were a strong reason for this album becoming a favourite. They would be quite delicate and tragic if slowed down and played solo on piano. Here their speed and the synths that Ectoplague used mean that there’s a sense of urgency and stress about them.
The way Ectoplague combined well-crafted melodies, a sense of threat and terror and that horror movie vibe made this album one of my 2020 favourites for sure.
The deeply atmospheric listening experience that Hunter Complex created on Dead Calm and Zero Degrees was what made it one of my favourite albums out of my 2020 reviews. The richly intertwining sound and the intimate interactions between musical elements stood out for me in particular.
The beautiful, rich and textured melodies that Hunter Complex wrote for this album were one of the reasons why this album stood out for me as one of my favourites. They explored the full range of emotion from loneliness to melancholy and gentleness to warmth.
Another aspect of Dead Calm and Zero Degrees that made it one of my favourite reviewed albums of 2020 was the wide variety and timbre of the synth sounds that Hunter Complex deployed on the album. The sounds ran the gamut from metallic and more organic sounding xylophone-like sounds to sharply shining chimes.
I also was especially enamoured of the unique beats and percussion on this album. The beats took interesting, unexpected turns and kept my ears quivering while Hunter Complex also effectively used repetition to create a rather trance-like feeling.
Dead Calm and Zero Degrees also had a flowing smoothness that I found especially compelling. I felt that album had a certain “creamy’ feeling to its sound. It had a rich fullness to it that complemented every part of the music.
The multi-faceted richness of this album along with the melodic writing and the diversity of synth sounds all came together to make it one of my favourite synth albums that I reviewed in 2020.
The sheer playfulness and positive energy of Summerzeer is the reason why I chose it as one of my favourite albums out of those that I reviewed in 2020. There are so many energetic vibes emanating from the album and it drove away some of the lingering shadows of the past year.
I deeply enjoyed the way that the bouncing, bright and energetic melodies helped to generate the sense of play that pervaded Summerzeer. I also liked the way in which some of the melodies had a wistful quality to them which added an appealing nostalgic feeling to the music.
The synth choices that Jetfire Prime made on the album were another important factor in creating such listening pleasure for me. The chiming crystalline sounds that filled the tracks helped produce that feeling of clean, fresh sound and almost frolicking energy.
I was also drawn to the way in which the bass, drums and percussion sounds all locked together on Summerzeer. The pure element of groove and pulse that they embodied really helped add to the way that the album took a hold of my ears and wouldn’t let go.
Like many of my favourite albums of 2020, the clarity of the production was another element that attracted me to Summerzeer. It allowed the glow and shimmer of the synths to stand out and helped to emphasize the sense of open space on the album.
As a whole, this was one of my favourite albums of 2020 because of the way it lifted my spirits and carried me away to a more positive place.
The sunny, Mediterranean mood that Miles Matrix created on French Riviera along with the jazzy synth riffs and overall sense of fun that imbued the album helped to make it one of my favourite albums out of my 2020 reviews. It was just a perfect antidote for the kind of year we’ve all had.
The jazzy (but not overtly jazzy) melodies on French Riviera were one of the factors that made it a favourite album. They contribute to the laidback summer vibes of the whole album while still holding some interest for the listener. The relaxation never really breaks but boredom doesn’t ever set in.
Another strong element of the album that made it particularly ear-pleasing for me were the synth sounds that Miles Matrix used including xylophone and the chiming, light synths that tripped airily through the songs. They seemed to reflect the bright sunlight of the South of France or lounging by a deep azure swimming pool as they glided through the track.
French Riviera was also one of my favourite albums of 2020 because of the subtle usage of percussion and bass that gave the tracks a nice movement, but didn’t overwhelm and helped to maintain the smooth flow of the music. They provided a solid basis on which the gentler sounds of the album were able to move.
As a whole, it was the way in which French Riviera made glistening, flowing progress that conveyed the ease and warm sunlight of an idyllic summer that truly made it one of my favourite albums to have reviewed in 2020.
This was a favourite retro synth album of mine for 2020 because it captured a real ‘80s vibe but never becomes a cliché. Nevermann’s cool, funky groove-based approach to retro synth pop was enjoyable as hell and a lot of fun. The way he combined his vocal chops, his songwriting and the backing music resulted in a fantastic sound.
Nevermann’s vocals on Gentlemann were a big draw for me. The smooth, sexy and always passionate feeling he exuded from his voice added to the vibes of the album. I also thought that the earnest nature of his vocal delivery suited the ‘80s feeling that pours from the album.
Another strong attraction for me to the album was Nevermann’s quality melodic writing. The melodies were so full of expression. Sometimes the melodies were warm and bright, bursting with energy and at other times there was a wistful quality to them.
I can't talk about this album without mentioning the instrumental components that I most enjoyed on it. I was especially enamoured of the funky bass, the jazz-inflected and achingly cool guitar solos and the passionate, emotive sax that added depth to the songs.
Despite having a sound that was firmly entrenched in the ‘80s, I enjoyed the fact that on Gentlemann, the production was not attempting to hark back. Each sonic component was sharp and clear while still blending smoothly together into a whole.
This was another favourite of mine this year for a number of reasons. I enjoyed how the strength of Oceanside85’s vocals combined with well-calculated synth melodies, the different timbres of those synths and the sheer variety of the album’s stylistic explorations. I feel that the album takes the basic elements of synth-based music and injects them with new energy.
One of the major reasons why I was drawn to Neon Dreams was Oceanside85’s stunning vocal talent. She packed power, intensity and expressive feeling into every performance and could handle all of the variation of musical style on the album with ease. She was also able to craft great melodies and write songs that pierce the heart, express passion or explore ideas.
The sheer genre-roaming nature of this album was something else to which I was drawn. It brings together straight up synthwave, funky house and ambient synth sounds. This could have potentially been messy but it was well-handled so the transitions didn’t seem jarring or awkward.
Another reason I was enamoured of Neon Dreams was the guest performances from Cody Carpenter, Color Theory and Sellorekt among others. Their contributions added depth and texture to the songs on which they appeared and formed a “dream team” on the album.
Neon Dreams has a rich mixture of strong vocal performances, top notch music that is full of melody and a wide variety of synth, drum and bass elements that intertwine well, making it a favourite of mine.
This is one of my favourite reviewed albums of 2020. It’s a dynamic slice of synthwave which has the excitement and energy usually associated with the scene when it started and the energetic, rich sonic tapestry that it weaves really drew me in.
The overall sonic combinations that Peacecraft used on the album were one reason I was so drawn to the music. There were synth sounds that ranged from deep, hollow resonances to glittering chimes and from robotic feeling moments to much more organic sounds. I also found the way that the all of these sounds twined around one another created an intensity and also a beauty that I enjoyed deeply.
High production values were another element that made this one of my favourite albums of 2020. All of the musical elements were clear and sharply delineated, there was nothing muddy or indistinct and all of the various parts of the music are given their appropriate due in the mix.
One other feature of The Year Was 2120 that stood out was the effective use of vocal samples. They added a real feeling of storytelling to the music. I felt that Peacecraft didn’t over use them but that they became an integral part of the whole package.
In fact, it was the cohesive nature of the album that also helped make it one of my most enjoyable albums to have reviewed in 2020. Each track built upon the previous one to form a layered listening experience that flowed seamlessly together.
All of these factors helped make The Year was 2120 into an album that I have gone back to over and again since I reviewed it.
The musical and emotional power of PAINSYNC made it one of my favourite dark synth albums of the year. Virtual Intelligence really made herself vulnerable and opened her soul on the album. The raw honesty in her lyrics along with Virtual Intelligence’s haunting voice that was simultaneously uncompromising and gentle established my interest and then added to it with charging guitar solos, shadows lurking everywhere and melancholy rife in the music.
I found the uncompromising lyrics to be full of shadowed beauty, but that they still cut to the bone in an unflinching examination of change, loss and pain.. There were also moments where gentle light shone out of the darkness to leaven the weight of it. All of that verbal power is harnessed by Virtual Intelligence’s voice which managed to be both solid and delicate.
There was also something compelling in two particular instrument choices that Virtual Intelligence used on the album. The sound of the pipe organ had a power and depth to it that I found compelling. As for the electric guitar, it had a howling energy and a grit that added to the intense nature of the album’s sound.
I also enjoyed how Virtual Intelligence used her synths to create ghostly flows, bright sparks and the gritty edge of sound that deepened the cyberpunk quality of the music, contributing to a feeling of shadowy fog that crept all around the album.
Virtual Intelligence pulled no punches on this album and she created a work that combined musicality, expressive vocals and a soundscape that drove home the emotion of the lyrics in an unforgettable way.
Fantastic Tales of a Future Lost was one of my favourite albums out of all of those that I reviewed in 2020 because of the shimmering crystalline sounds, strong melodic writing and an atmospheric sense of taking a journey through a fantasy world.
The sheer variety and beauty of the sounds on the album was one reason that it stood out for me out of all the albums I’ve reviewed over the last year. There are luminous moments of synths that sparkle and shimmer, majestic synthscapes and moments that have a strong orchestral feeling to them. All of the sounds worked together to create a harmonious whole.
The intensely atmospheric nature of Fantastic Tales of a Future Lost also drew me in strongly. There was a sense that this album was a canvas on which Victory Roy painted with sound. Each musical element was like a brush stroke that came together to reveal a magical world.
There was also diversity in the tempo and feeling of the various songs on the album that I found compelling. It ranged across territory that encompassed driving speed and energy along with gliding warmth.
The way in which Victor Roy layered sounds on Fantastic Tales of a Future Lost created a balanced sound and a rich, full feeling to the production that helped showcase all of the strong sonic imagery in the tracks.
The sonic adventure that Fantastic Tales of a Future Lost carried me on captivated me and made it one of my favourite albums of 2020.
Z as in Zebra was one of my favourite albums to have reviewed in 2020 because of the way it combined Erica Zalatan’s outstanding guitar playing, well-considered compositions and unique synth sounds into a layered, emotive package.
Erica Zalatan’s seriously impressive guitar chops were one of the major reasons I was so drawn to Z as in Zebra. While she certainly didn’t hold back when it came to shredding, the strongest draw for me was her ability to emote through the instrument and show restraint to create gentler moments throughout the album. The way she could go from intricacy to caress was quite powerful.
The way in which the synths and the other musical elements came together is another strong factor in making Z is for Zebra one of my favourite albums I reviewed in 2020. The synths were sometimes smooth, sometimes edgy and sometimes glowing with thick bass swelling under them and a percussive heartbeat that kept the music moving.
The emotional exploration on the album was another element that made the album stand out for me. The way that Erica Zalatan was able to imbue her music with feeling through her writing and playing drew me in. Sometimes there’s a powerful uplift, other times there’s an ease to the music that soothes as one listens.
The way that Z as in Zebra showcased the musical abilities of its creator was the ultimate reason that the album became a favourite for me. The way that her music writing and performance skills shone through in the layered richness of the tracks was tough to ignore.