I use a variety of genre and style terms when talking about synthwave and its subgenres in order to be specific, recognize differences in artists’ creative approaches, and help listeners (including myself) find new creations in styles of music they enjoy. The following list offers more information on what I mean by each synthwave term I use.
It’s important to note that I use the term “synthwave” on a large-scale level, and there are thousands of creators and albums that fit into the genre for me. More specific terms like “cyberpunk synthwave” and “dreamwave” refer to large patterns of creatively similar recordings within synthwave that have dozens of creators and hundreds of songs within them.
There is always overlap between subgenres and the terms are never meant as concrete separations between styles. Instead, I think of them exactly like ice cream flavors. Some people love chocolate ice cream and hate vanilla ice cream, some people love both and like them blended together. It’s all ice cream, but the distinction between flavors can be immensely important for a listener’s enjoyment.
The purpose of labeling ice cream and music genres is precisely the same: to help people find flavors they will enjoy.
The Big Ones
These are the most significant terms I use when talking about synthwave and its subgenres, and they each represent styles of music with hundreds and sometimes thousands of creators working within them.
The main genre. This is the most recognized and most commonly used search term related to the synthwave genre and the one that best represents the complete genre. I use the term “synthwave” to refer to the genre broadly and the many thousands of artists of the past 10-15 years who have created music in the style. Despite the misleading name, synthwave is not a form of new wave or synthpop, nor is it a revival of either of those genres. More information about the full genre is available in What is Synthwave? 2018 Edition.
To gain the best idea of what I consider to be synthwave music, listen to my Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist. The list contains a huge variety of music from hundreds of creators and I consider all of it to be synthwave.
See also retrowave.
A name for the culture around synthwave music. This term includes t-shirts, artwork, posters, and other products and imagery related to the synthwave genre. Although this term is used by many people as a synonym for synthwave, I believe it is redundant, unnecessary, and confusing as a label for the complete genre. It is also far less recognized as a search term than synthwave, and for the sake of clarity, I rarely ever use this term in my reviews and genre articles.
See also synthwave.
The original form of synthwave music, and the original name for the synthwave genre before “synthwave” and “retrowave” were introduced. Outrun music is primarily a form of EDM that emerged in the mid-2000s and borrowed strong influences from ’80s disco, funk, and electro (the original form of electro), as well as video game soundtracks and movie scores. Excellent examples of outrun music include Miami Nights 1984’s Early Summer, Lost Years’ Amplifier, Nightstop’s Fuel, and Mitch Murder’s Burning Chrome. Outrun music began declining in the late 2010s in favor of newer styles like popwave and dreamwave.
To gain the best understanding of what I consider to be outrun music, listen to my Outrun Electro (True Synthwave) playlist.
popwave / dreamwave
Dreamwave music is a soft, downtempo subgenre of synthwave with a meditative, dreamy quality. Dreamwave remained a small subgenre of synthwave alongside outrun for many years but began evolving and expanding rapidly in the late 2010s along with an increased emphasis on vocal tracks and pop song structures. The popwave label reflects that shift into vocal-driven music and pop formats with influences from contemporary pop music, and it recognizes the music’s dramatic differences from synthpop.
Popwave and dreamwave are two closely related halves of the same subgenre of synthwave, and they’re represented well by albums like The Midnight’s Kids, Timecop1983’s Night Drive, and Kalax’s III. (An example of popwave music that is not dreamwave is Prizm’s “All Night.” Although it’s missing the downtempo, dreamy quality of dreamwave, its production and songwriting style perfectly fit within the same style of music as newer dreamwave albums like Kalax’s III, hence the interrelated nature of these terms for me.)
To gain the best understanding of what I consider to be popwave and dreamwave music, listen to my Popwave / Dreamwave playlist.
A large evolution of synthwave music that has aggressively distanced itself from outrun and most other forms of synthwave. Many fans of early synthwave are not fans of new darksynth, and vice versa, and darksynth is the largest outgrowth of synthwave that could be reasonably considered a different genre of music. That said, because of the close relationship between the two, I often include darksynth peripherally when I’m talking about synthwave as an entire genre.
Modern darksynth is often more rhythmic than melodic and features gritty textures and effects with strong influences from contemporary EDM. The result is a violent, aggressive form of modern electronic music. Examples of darksynth music include Alex and Tokyo Rose’s Akuma II, Gregorio Franco’s Apocalypse Prime, and Perturbator’s New Model. I only use this term to refer to highly evolved forms of darksynth, which means that early dark recordings like Perturbator’s I Am the Night and Cluster Buster’s Total Terror fit more accurately within synthwave at this point.
To gain the best understanding of what I consider to be darksynth, listen to my Darksynth playlist.
Cyberpunk synthwave is a newer form of synthwave that primarily grew out of early darksynth. It is more aggressive and has stronger hard EDM influences than traditional synthwave like outrun, though it is much clearer and more melodic than darksynth, making it a more direct evolution of the original genre. Of course, it also has strong cyberpunk and sci-fi themes, which come through in the music’s futuristic atmosphere. Examples of cyberpunk synthwave albums include Mangadrive’s Botrun, Ray Gun Hero’s Forbidden Sectors, and Chris Keya’s Apocalypse. Mega Drive’s 198XAD is an example of an early cyberpunk synthwave album made before the style caught on and became large enough to constitute its own subgenre.
To gain the best understanding of what I consider to be cyberpunk synthwave music, listen to my Cyberpunk Synthwave (Cybersynth) playlist.
The Other Stuff
There are a few other terms I use when talking about different types of synthwave. Again these terms all refer to synthwave music, just specific flavors of it.
Like “outrun” and “outrun electro,” retro electro was one of the original names for the synthwave genre. This term reflects influences in synthwave from the original form of electro music, such as Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” and Afrikaa Bombaataa and Soul Sonic Force’s “Looking for the Perfect Beat.” In this case, electro refers to a very specific form of music, and is not simply a shortened, generic term for electronic music. Damokles has created numerous songs in the retro electro style, including “Gettin’ Me Some Attention” and “It’s All Electro.”
Many synthwave creators have been influenced by ’80s film scores, and songs in the cinematic synthwave style reflect this. Influences on this form of synthwave include ’80s soundtracks for Blade Runner, Thief, The Terminator, and numerous others. Cinematic synthwave is not exactly a subgenre in the way dreamwave or cyberpunk synthwave is, as creators often make only one or two songs on an album in the style. Although there are very few complete albums made in the cinematic synthwave style, hundreds of artists have made a handful of songs paying tribute to the genre’s cinematic roots.
To gain the best understanding of what I consider cinematic synthwave, listen to my Cinematic Synthwave / Spacewave playlist.
See also spacewave.
A general descriptor for synthwave music with outer space themes. For me, this is a very loosely defined form of synthwave, and the songs that have the most space-y sound for me are often closely connected to cinematic synthwave. The more aggressive and uptempo synthwave tracks with space themes fit within the larger and more clearly perceptible pattern of cyberpunk synthwave.
See also cinematic synthwave.