2018 was a breakout year for popwave music, as the style overtook the classic sounds of synthwave in terms of its overall quality and its popularity with fans. Artists like The Midnight, Nina, Timecop1983, Moonrunner83, and numerous others continued incorporating influences from modern mainstream music into synthwave and adding contemporary vocal stylings for a fresh sound.
The decision to put these albums in their own category is rooted in a firm belief in the importance of music genres, and this list recognizes and appreciates the stylistic experimentation these artists embrace as they shift away from synthwave and into a bold new style of music. Read about popwave for more info and follow the Popwave / Dreamwave playlist for a collection of the best songs in this young and exciting style of music.
This list includes EPs and full-length albums, and it attempts to balance an album’s overall quality with its popularity and influence. These are the top 10 popwave albums of 2018.
10. The Midnight – Kids
The Midnight is the face of the second generation of retro synth music. The duo represents the shift away from traditional synthwave into newer, more contemporary styles as well as almost anyone, and dozens of acts took notice and began following The Midnight’s stylistic formula in 2018. In spite of Kids notable shortcomings, the album was well-received with fans, making it the gateway to popwave and modern dreamwave music for many listeners. With tracks like “America 2” and “Kids” ranking among the biggest and best singles of the year, Kids remains an undeniably significant release in the evolution of synthwave music in 2018. Read the full review of Kids.
9. Timecop1983 – Night Drive
Along with The Midnight’s Kids, Timecop1983’s latest full-length album was one of the most prominent releases within the landscape of dreamwave and popwave music in 2018. The album’s relaxed pace and serene melodies combine with quality performances from several guest vocalists for a highly accessible recording. Tracks like “Back to You” featuring The Bad Dreamers and “Static” featuring The Midnight were vocal-driven gems with high levels of replayability. Night Drive is far from perfect, but it holds several worthwhile entries for fans of the style. Read the full review of Night Drive.
8. Wolf Club – Infinity
Wolf Club dropped not one, but two full-length popwave albums on the world in 2018. The group’s second effort of the year, Infinity, brings an enjoyable selection of sweetly straightforward tracks combining retro synth tones with modern mainstream vocals. Songs like “Can’t Stop Falling in Love” and “The Sun Lasts Forever” are radio-friendly creations with deep melodic hooks that reveal the act’s remarkable talent for writing catchy pop tunes. Read the full review of Infinity.
7. Dana Jean Phoenix – PixelDust
Dana Jean Phoenix is one of synthwave’s most dedicated and prolific contributors, and her latest full-length album offers the artist’s strongest selection of music to date. PixelDust‘s diverse array of songwriting styles contain the most genuinely retro vibes of anything on this list, though many of its best tracks are in alignment with the sounds of popwave, including “Far and Away,” “I’ll Rescue You,” and “Written.” The album’s diverse tracklist, solid vocal performances, and frequently memorable melodies make this release worthy of multiple spins.
6. Gunship – Dark All Day
A genre-defying album, Gunship boldly severed all ties with traditional synthwave music on their second full-length album, Dark All Day. The album deserves recognition for its willingness to tackle a variety of songwriting approaches, and as such, no single genre label can identify the many influences and ideas present on the recording. That said, tracks like “When You Grow Up, Your Heart Dies,” “Rise the Midnight Girl,” and “Art3mis & Parzival” deliver a rock-tinged take on popwave music with soft synthscapes and emotive lyrics. Love it or hate it, Dark All Day is a professionally-produced and stylistically creative album whose immense popularity makes it impossible to ignore in the continuing evolution of music beyond synthwave.
Related: What is Synthwave? 2018 Edition: a complete look at the past, present, and future of the synthwave genre.
5. New Arcades – Nothing is Lost
New Arcades may be the most under-appreciated artists on this list, as their ability to craft memorable and engaging tracks rival the best in the business. Nothing is Lost is a concise EP of three vocal tracks bookended by a pair of gorgeous instrumentals. “Wait for Tonight” and “We Can’t Turn Back” feature the duo’s recognizable vocal stylings with influences of contemporary alt rock, while “Inhale” mixes things up with an indie-pop flavored performance from guest vocalist Lula. The result is a perfectly balanced creation that stays strong across numerous plays. Read the full review of Nothing is Lost.
4. Nina – Sleepwalking
Nina’s first full-length album, Sleepwalking, delivered on the potential promised by its preceding singles and EPs, and its strongest entries rate among the best popwave songs of the year. “Sleepwalking” and “Beyond Memory” are pitch-perfect midtempo tracks, while “Purple Sun” offers a radio-friendly ballad that is one of the most superbly subtle recordings in all of synthwave. Read the full review of Sleepwalking.
3. Moonrunner83 – Streets
Moonrunner83 created one of the best hidden gems of the year with this sophomore EP. Bolstered by impeccable vocal performances by Megan McDuffee and Vic Kapur, Streets contains a deep variety of music with memorable melodies and strong emotional content. “Another Life,” “Among the Stars,” and “Deep City” are among the best vocal tracks of the year. Every fan of Timecop1983 and The Midnight should be familiar with this excellent recording. Read the full review of Streets.
2. Wolf Club – Chasing the Storm
As enjoyable as Wolf Club’s Infinity is, Chasing the Storm is even better. The group’s accessible pop song structures hold deceptively nuanced songwriting touches, and even low-key, dreamy tracks like “Waiting” and “Lifelines” contain enough depth and inspired melodies to pull listeners in. The album has no shortage of variety, and the upbeat “Summer Lights” was one of the biggest and best surprises of the year. Read the full review of Chasing the Storm.
This year had plenty of great popwave albums, though one more stood out from the pack and challenged the albums on this list as one of the best releases of the year.
Let Em Riot – The Futurist
Let Em Riot’s songwriting approach marries synthwave with vintage synthpop and modern alternative rock for one of the most identifiable sounds in all of synthwave. Tracks like “Let’s Stay Out,” “Golden Age,” and “The Glass Moon” hold some of the most memorable and bittersweet melodies produced all year.
Before getting to the number one popwave album of 2018, it’s also worth mentioning the many excellent singles that contributed to this style of music this year. In fact, there were nearly enough singles released in the popwave style to represent the shifting musical landscape entirely on their own. Check out the list of the 25 Best Popwave songs of 2018 for a look at just how many talented artists contributed to the style this year.
In addition, follow Iron Skullet’s popular Popwave / Dreamwave playlist for a selection of the best popwave songs and albums to date.
And now, the number one popwave album of the year!
1. The Bad Dreamers – Songs About People Including Myself
If there was one album in 2018 that demonstrated just how much synthwave has severed ties to its roots, its Songs About People Including Myself. Without a single track that’s reminiscent of outrun electro (true synthwave), The Bad Dreamers has boldly declared this debut album to be something new and different, a fact that’s perfectly represented in the minimal design and grayscale imagery of the album cover.
From faultless pop creations like “California Winter,” “How to Disappear,” and “Reach You” to the artful noir of “Hit Me Harder,” Songs About People Including Myself delivers inspired songwriting with top-notch production for one of the deepest and most professional recordings of the year. Fans who are already familiar with this instant classic won’t be surprised to see it holding the top spot as the number one popwave album of the year. Read the full review of Songs About People Including Myself.