Synthwave underwent a dramatic transformation in 2018: a small army of talented producers shifted over to the softer, vocal-driven sounds of popwave music while the remaining artists increasingly leaned into darker and edgier territory. Many of the best synthwave releases this year could’ve been classified as darksynth just a short year or two ago, but at the end of 2018, they’re practically par for the course.
As a result, this list includes traditional synthwave music along with recordings that push into the more aggressive styles of darksynth and cyberpunk synthwave. However, extreme darksynth creations like Gregorio Franco’s excellent Apocalypse Prime were not considered. Neither were popwave albums like The Midnight’s Kids, which were given their own top 10 list this year.
Looking for artists like The Midnight, Gunship, and Timecop1983? Check out the Top 10 Popwave Albums of 2018.
This top 10 includes full-length albums and EPs and is limited to one release per artist. These are the Top 10 Synthwave Albums of 2018!
10. Sung – Fahrenheit
Sung’s first full-length album offers a diverse selection of music ranging from classic outrun tracks like “Life and Glory” to progressive, EDM-infused creations like “Afterlife Club”. The album also maintains consistent quality across its 11 tracks, making it a solid overall release with something to offer every fan of the genre.
9. Meteor – Voyage Into Fear
Meteor surprised fans this year by shifting away from a signature rock-driven sound into a cinematic spacewave approach with the ambitious movie soundtrack, Voyage into Fear. In many ways, Meteor’s attempts at atmospheric horror were actually more proficient and enjoyable than songs on the follow-up album, White Crows. Voyage into Fear recalls some of the most revered movie scores of the 1980s, such as Tangerine Dream’s Thief, and many of its entries are fully enjoyable as standalone songs. “E-Class System” and “Abduction” are perfectly realized slices of cinematic synthwave that hold up well to repeat listens.
8. Jeremiah Kane – All or Nothing
A candidate for most improved artist of the year, Jeremiah Kane exploded out of the pack of mid-level producers with a third full-length album, All or Nothing. Adopting a grittier, guitar-driven sound, Jeremiah Kane’s newest effort fits well within the scope of the ever-expanding sounds of cyberpunk synthwave. Imagine a Sega Genesis that’s been reincarnated as a cybernetic war machine and you have an idea what tracks like “2500 Racing” and “Vampirevania” sound like. All or Nothing is an invigorating and inspired album that never compromises its self-awareness and enthusiastic commitment to retrofuturism.
Related: What is Synthwave? 2018 Edition: an in-depth look at the past, present, and future of the synthwave genre.
7. Glitch Black – Emergent Behavior
One of dark synthwave’s most prolific artists, Glitch Black arguably turned out his best full-length album to date with Emergent Behavior. The recording maintains some of the melodic appeal of traditional synthwave while experimenting with a remarkable selection of songwriting approaches and conceptual themes. From the sinister narrative of “BK-1” to the brooding terror of “Prototype,” Emergent Behavior paints a picture of a grim dystopian future dominated by sentient machines, and Glitch Black delivers that vision with consistently high execution and production values. Read the full review for Emergent Behavior.
6. Wolf and Raven – Lair of the Dragon
Wolf and Raven have produced many of the best synthwave songs to date (including those on the outstanding Ace of Space album), but rather than fall back on tried-and-true techniques, the act took a risk and jumped into heavier territory on Lair of the Dragon. The crunchy guitar riffs and prominent solos accompany influences from video games and Japanese culture for one of the most unique and magical recordings of the year. Whether it’s the heroic “Spirit Warriors” or the patient, long-form beauty of “Crystal Chamber,” Wolf and Raven’s primary songwriter continues to build a name for himself as one of the most naturally talented and valuable creators within all of synthwave. Read the full review for Lair of the Dragon.
5. Cloud Battalion – Storm City
Storm City may be an EP, but it delivers more quality content than nearly all of the full-length albums released in 2018. “High Octane,” “Vengeance,” and “Heat” are all top-tier tracks that take the spirit of outrun and transfer it into a bigger, darker, and more aggressive beast that perfectly represents synthwave music in 2018. If Storm City is any indication of Cloud Battalion’s full potential, then synthwave fans have plenty to look forward to from this new artist.
Related: The Best Synthwave Songs of 2018: a playlist of the 40 best songs of the year.
4. Caspro – Kardasynth
Few synthwave producers possess the same technical skills and songwriting chops as Caspro. The artist’s progressive, forward-thinking approach to synthwave reflects a growing pattern of classically trained musicians bringing new ideas to a traditionally straightforward music genre, and the results speak for themselves. “Voids and Valleys” and “Sea and Space” are patiently beautiful tracks that deserve close listening, while “Galactic Achievement” draws inspiration from video game soundtracks for a friendlier and more accessible creation. All together, Kardasynth is a balanced and rewarding effort from one of the most exciting new creators in the genre. Read the full review for Kardasynth.
3. Ace Buchannon – Magenta Nights
The most traditional synthwave album on this list, and one of the very few quality creations all year that can be classified as outrun music, Magenta Nights practically puts on a clinic for how to write catchy tunes with a perfect balance of ‘80s influences and future-minded electronic music. “Buns of Steel” is arguably the best synthwave track released all year, while later entries on the tracklist like “Mano a Mano,” “Breakout,” and “Call Me” add depth to the recording for a solid overall release. It’s safe to say that Ace Buchannon’s full-length debut was one of the best surprises of 2018. Read the full review for Magenta Nights.
2. Isidor – Lord of Synth
Lord of Synth matches and even exceeds the high standard set by its titanic predecessor, 3218. From the first adrenaline-pumping notes of “Power Fighter 3000,” it’s clear that Isidor is a creator like none other in the synthwave genre. Massive rhythm sections establish the foundation of each track while Isidor lays down calculated melodies that manage to be simultaneously brutal and beautiful. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself testing the limits of your home speakers with this recording, as each track demands and deserves exceptionally high volume. Lord of Synth is a near-perfect creation that grinds lesser albums into neon dust. Read the full review of Lord of Synth.
There were plenty of significant recordings this year, more than enough to fill a list of 10 albums. Here are some of the most notable releases of the year that were considered for this list but ultimately didn’t make the cut.
Midnight Danger – Malignant Force
Scandroid – The Darkness
Gregorio Franco – Quantum Memories
Morgan Willis – Supernova
Straplocked, Ray Gun Hero – Stalemate
24:7 – Naeon
Also, don’t forget to check out the Top 10 Popwave Albums of 2018 for the best albums of the year in the style of The Midnight and Timecop1983.
And now, the number one synthwave album of 2018!
1. Beckett – Outrun the Skyline
If there was one album in 2018 that represented the spirit of synthwave music, it’s Beckett’s Outrun the Skyline. Every track on this under-the-radar masterpiece has its own distinctive personality thanks to an array of authentically vintage influences. Whether it’s the electro touches of “L.A. Streets” or the Paul Hertzog (Bloodsport and Kickboxer) vibes of “Double the Impact,” Beckett draws music elements from the ‘80s and early ‘90s with an enthusiasm and sincerity that radiates from every note. There are no less than a half dozen exceptional tracks on the album, closing with the immaculately subtle and sweet “Endgame,” which ranks among the best songs released since synthwave began over a decade ago.
In a year when synthwave music became increasingly splintered and distant from its roots, the feel-good, authentic ‘80s nostalgia of Outrun the Skyline makes it a rare and precious contribution to the changing genre. The album is a consistent joy to listen to, and it’s the number one synthwave album of 2018. Read the full review of Outrun the Skyline.
Enjoy the best songs from this Top 10 list and hundreds of other excellent tracks in Iron Skullet’s popular Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist