The Mick’s Picks: 80’s Music for the New Millennium

You want to dance like it’s 1986, but can’t stomach the idea of listening to something created by mullet-sporting, spandex-wearing, shoulder pad-rocking weirdos. What are you to do? Read on, that’s what.

Welcome, boys and girls, to another edition of The Mick’s Picks, where I, "The Mick", take you on a trip through the history of multimedia in order to dig out some totally rad suggestions to rock your world. Today, we’re going on an adventure through time and space to where the sounds of the past meet… uhhh… today’s eardrums.

The '80s, or at least the best parts of them (sorry, that doesn’t include clothes), are seeing a resurgence these days. All sorts of multimedia projects are going retro with their visuals and audio (Kung Fury, Double Dragon Neon, and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon being great examples), and it’s officially cool to talk about neon lights, cyborg ninjas, and synthesized music again. However, what most don't know is that prior to this sudden resurgence of 80s goodness, many brave souls carried the synthesized music torch for years, bringing keyboard-laden melodies to a cult following that never gave up on the stuff. Their electronic subgenre is collectively known as “synthwave”, and it has suddenly exploded in unfathomable ways thanks to the aforementioned 80s nostalgia-fueled films and games.

Of course, you won't find this stuff on Top 20 radio stations. Nope nope nope. If you want to bask in the sultry tones of these fine artists, you'll need to take a ride on the Internet.

Luckily for you, I've got your ticket to ride right here, baby.

So, strap on your fingerless gloves, jump into your DeLorean, and set your flux capacitor to THE SOUNDS OF THE RETROFUTURE!

Now, it's important to note that this list is by no means exhaustive. There are tons, and I mean TONS, of great synth artists out there and I couldn't possibly cover them all (especially since I stick to 5 items per "The Mick's Picks" article). Also, I purposely left some big guns out in order to showcase others that could use the extra exposure. Sorry College and Kavinsky fans. 

Now, without further ado, here are my picks to get you started on your journey into synth heaven.  

Who Ha, a.k.a. Mike Mendoza, is awesome. He's a newcomer to the scene, having only really started a couple of years ago, but his music is already making a big splash. Not only is it a perfect emulation of the classic New Wave sound made famous by bands like Tears for Fears or A-ha (the latter influencing the way he spells his female body part-influenced name), it's also hilarious. With lyrical gems like "When you're running outside, you're not running inside" or "I think your hair is looking pretty stupid tonight," you can't help but smile as his infectious tunes take over your brain. No, seriously; try listening to his stuff and not humming it all day. No, no, go ahead. Let me know how that works out for you.

For an example of his goofy-yet-loveable personality and wordsmithing, take a look at this "in studio" rendition of his song "Khaki" (the final release version has better production values, mind you):  

Now, since Who Ha is so new to the game, he doesn't have much of a catalogue available. This is a shame, because everything he's released so far is positively astounding. Great, great stuff that totally captures the essence of the '80s and makes you pine for the days when airwaves were filled with similar songs. Waiting for his next release is almost unbearable, but luckily, his current catalogue is free! Talk about a perfect way to jump into the neo-80s synth scene! You really have no excuse not to check it out, so do it. Do it now.

This one is probably my favorite Who Ha song (seriously, listen to those lyrics... pure genius I tells ya):

Who Ha's current project is his first full-length album, entitled Pop Goes the Who Ha. Embracing the powers of digital distribution, he's releasing each track individually as it's completed. How cool is that? If only more artists did this. Kind of ironic that a guy so steeped in the '80s is following a 21st century approach to distribution.

If you hurry over to his Bandcamp, you'll find the first release of the album, "Cutiest Petutiest Gluteus". Make sure to sing along with the provided lyrics. You'll laugh yourself silly.

 

Lazerhawk, a.k.a. Garrett Hays, embodies the sounds of 80's car chase sequences, horror films, and sci-fi space operas. In other words, everything you love about the era's cinematic masterpieces and cult classics.

Not only is he a hotshot synth star, he's also co-founder of Rosso Corsa Records, a label dedicated to the distribution and propagation of synthwave music. Many of the genre's biggest stars have signed onto the label, as have many up-and-comers just waiting to bust out onto the scene. Basically, Lazerhawk is not only awesome at making music, he's also awesome at helping others make music. What a guy!

His first release, Redline (which you can hear below), was released in 2010 and was an instant hit. It's easy to understand why once you hear the opening track's OutRun-inspired Ferrari engine revs; the entire journey is relentless and delivers a high-speed dose of excitement that makes for the ultimate night-time driving soundtrack.

Fast forward to 2013, which saw the release of Skull and Shark, a truly unique album that not only kept true to the core of Lazerhawk's sound, but also redefined it. It's a badass ride through the annals of 80's horror film history, and if you close your eyes while listening to it on a dark and stormy night, you'll swear you're listening to something off of the A Nightmare on Elm Street or Blood Rage soundtracks (albeit with a slightly more upbeat kick). It's demonic, it's moody, and it's been praised by fans and critics alike as his best, most accomplished work so far. 

It also makes for one hell of a disc to throw on at Halloween parties!

If you're curious about Garrett's stuff, check out his Bandcamp and SoundCloud pages. His discography is available on both, should you wish to support him. He also offers a few free tracks, just in case you want to dip your toes in prior to taking a plunge. Although why wouldn't you want to dive head first into this stuff? It's pure, unfiltered earsex! 

 

Named after the killer robots in Chopping Mall (if you haven't seen it, do it soon because you're missing out), Protector 101, a.k.a. Jake Freeman, is a master when it comes to dishing out dark synthwave tunes. His work is essentially the audio equivalent of a dystopian future where robots are in control.

So, yeah... the Terminator of music. How cool is that? And this guy is only number three on my list!

Anyway, Jake's pieces are definitely... moodier than the first two artists above. Sure, Lazerhawk does have the horror sound, and he does cover scifi elements here and there, but Protector 101 takes both and mushes them together to make the perfect synthbaby. In other words, his tunes are more suited to nights of quiet reflection than downtown driving or ghost hunting--reflection on the human condition, our ability to develop technical marvels, and our inability to prevent our eventual downfall at the hands of our creations.

Protector 101 has a whole slew of EPs and albums, sure, but he's also composed/been featured on many film soundtracks. Sure, they're mostly for indie flicks, like Paperboy 3: The Hard Way (yep, a grindhouse film adaptation of the 80s arcade game) but they're soundtracks nonetheless! If you're trying to imagine what they sound like, think of a cross between the most mysterious moments from Vangelis' Blade Runner, the darkest themes from De Vorzon's The Warriors, and the most industrial percussions from Fiedel's The Terminator.

Yes, your pants did just get tighter. It's normal.

Protector 101 is definitely a powerhouse on the scene, so keep your ears open. He'll probably be making waves in the mainstream before you know it, at which point you'll be able to flaunt the fact that you "knew him before he was cool" to all your friends. 

I'll expect a fruit basket or thank you card at that point, though.

 

Moving on up from the darker side of synth, we get to Mitch Murder, a.k.a. Johan Bengtsson from Stockholm, Sweden. Probably one of the most senior and well-respected synthwave artists today, he puts the "pop" in synthpop. I mean, just listen to this:

It's hard to describe Johan's style; he does occasionally join Lazerhawk and Protector 101 over in "synth bad boy" territory, but he seems much more at home with smooth, clean, happy sounds that many would label "80's cheese". What that means is that most of his work would fit perfectly in retro "back to school sale" commercials for JC Penny or K-Mart. And you know what? That's ok! It isn't for everyone, but I'll be damned if his music doesn't lift your spirits up.

If his extra upbeat offerings aren't your cup of tea, Mitch Murder also specializes in slow, serene synthesized music. Something you can listen to on an empty beach at sunset as the waves crash against the sand and the gentle breeze caresses your hair.

Oh, can't forget the mojito.

Anyway folks, all you need to know is that Mr. Bengtsson has a large discography that has something for everyone. 

One last thing: don't be surprised if you begin hearing about Mitch Murder in everyday conversations around the water cooler this year. His popularity has skyrocketed these last few months now that it's been announced that he's composing the soundtrack for Kung Fury, one of 2013's most talked about Kickstarter projects. To be honest, that's how I came across his work.

On a related note: HOLY HELL! DOESN'T THAT MOVIE LOOK FANTASTIC?! 

 

Arguably the biggest name in the scene right now, Perturbator single-handedly got me into the synthwave genre. I can't recall the exact situation that led to my discovery of his work, but I do remember being completely, utterly gobsmacked the moment it penetrated my skull. It was like seeing the face of God... only with my ears.

In other words, to experience Perturbator for the first time is to experience temporary synesthesia. Yes, it's that life-changing.

His perfect blend of horror and dystopian sci-fi elements amplify any event, mood or situation, and you truly feel transported to another world when you strap your headphones on.

*chime* Please put your headphones on now. Please increase your volume to 100%. Please fasten your seatbelt. You may now press Play.

Have a nice trip.

Damn. THAT is what dreams are made of, my friends. No wonder there's a petition going around online asking CD Projekt RED to get Perturbator onboard as soundtrack composer for their upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 game. Talk about peanut butter and jelly.

Now, while his jam is undoubtedly noir cyberpunk, he does like to dabble in the more flamboyant sounds of the '80s. Such a song actually got him worldwide recognition after it was featured in the immensely popular Hotline Miami video game:

This modern day cyber-Beethoven's real name is James Kent, but don't be deceived by its English roots; he’s a full-blooded Frenchman! Oh and get this: notre ami is in his early 20’s. Did you ever create something this awesome in your early 20's? I think not. 

James has a side project called L'Enfant de la forêt (Child of the Forest), but it’s much more ambient than his Perturbator stuff, sounding like something you’d expect to hear walking around a haunted house or abandoned asylum. Thought I'd mention it, because the kid is rediculously talented and deserves all the praise he gets.

Anyways, if you're looking for "the hotness" in the synth scene right now, look no further than Perturbator. Heck, his upcoming release, Dangerous Days, is one of the most highly anticipated things on the web right now. He just got signed by two different labels in order to release it in different territories, and they're going full-out with deluxe packages and even limited edition LPs!

I don't think I need to say anything more; buy his stuff on iTunes, or via his Bandcamp and SoundCloud pages.

You're welcome. 

 

If you'd like to learn more about the synthwave scene and the plethora of musicians within, I highly recommend you check out Andy Last's Beyond Synth podcast; he always has great guests on, has excellent questions, and often provides samples and teasers of upcoming releases! It's where I go to get my fix! Otherwise, search for "synthwave" on Bandcamp; you’ll find a whole slew of sweet sounds to satisfy your cravings. Oh and RetroModernTV on YouTube has tons of stuff as well.

Now excuse me, I need to go listen to every one of these tracks again. 

The Mick's Picks is a column where Scottie "The Mick" McFall offers up cool and exciting multimedia recommendations. Music, movies, games, comics... you never know what he'll choose to cover next! Feel free to send him a message on Twitter with recommendations of your own, though! If you help him discover something new, he just might feature it in his next installment (along with a nice acknowledgement message, of course)!

 

Scottie "The Mick" McFall's picture
Scottie is a dreamer, lover, and sometimes a fighter (by sometimes, we mean never). He currently resides in Montreal, Canada, where he tries not to remember that he hates snow. You can follow him on Twitter @Scottie_Mick
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