The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986

27th Oct 2009 | 08:00

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Kraftwerk - Autobahn
November 1974

It’s Synth Week here on MusicRadar, but don’t think that it’s only Moogs, Prophets and DX7s that we’re concerned with. As well as classic instruments, we’re also celebrating their influence on music, hence this list of the greatest synth tracks ever recorded. Running from 1974 through to the present day (come back tomorrow for part 2), we’ve selected 40 songs you must hear, starting with an all-time classic from Kraftwerk.


Autobahn is an extraordinary piece of music in so many ways. It introduced countless people to electronic music, and its 22 minutes of chugging, melodic tones brought it incredible success. It’s surely still one of the most unusual US hit singles of all time.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Tangerine Dream - Ricochet
December 1975

We said Rubicon, they said Ricochet, so we said Phaedra and they said Love On A Real Train. To be honest, pick any of those and you will get the Tangerine Dream message - and to think that they produced this all those years ago is just extraordinary. Dive in deep and prepare to get stoned without drugs...

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Vangelis - Pulstar
October 1976

Chariots Of Fire? The end theme to Blade Runner? Maybe, but this came first, and well before Vangelis’ high-profile film score period. Pulstar was, perhaps, the pinnacle of Vangelis’ spaced-out electronic opera era, and while the stabs are a bit ‘70s, the main melody is pure genius.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Jean Michel Jarre - Oxygène (Part IV)
December 1976

“Ding, da ding da ding.” You know you want to. Oxygène is a tune and a half that treads just on the right side of the line between classic electronic music and synth cheese. It’s a tune that, alongside Hot Butter’s cover of Popcorn and Space’s Magic Fly, threw the ‘70s into the kind of complete musical confusion that only punk rock could sort out.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
David Bowie - Art Decade
January 1977

The second side of Bowie’s Low album represents the peak of his “ooh, look at me, I’m so moody” Berlin period. This is just one of the gems you’ll find on the dark side of Low, a listening experience that is up there with anything that he has ever produced (including The Laughing Gnome).

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Donna Summer - I Feel Love
July 1977

A track that supposedly launched disco, techno and a thousand other genres. Eno allegedly said it would change music forever, and he was kind of right. Of course, you should never believe the hype, but when that synth line comes in and combines with the most hypnotic vocal of all time, you can’t help but be moved.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Ultravox (Mk 1) - Hiroshima Mon Amour
October 1977

This sees John Foxx’s Ultravox at their peak. They were always the cooler version because they wore plastic and quite clearly wanted to avoid hit records. Hiroshima Mon Amour ain’t no Dancing With Tears In My Eyes - no, it’s even more pretentious and all the better for it!

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Tubeway Army - Are 'Friends' Electric?
May 1979

The tune that truly welcomed the synthesizer to the world of pop at the end of the ‘70s and kick-started synth pop as a genre. It was apparently all an accident, however, as it only featured that big Moog synth because Numan stumbled across one in the studio.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Gary Numan - Cars
September 1979

The soaring strings on Cars propelled this even more electronic side of Numan to the top of the charts yet again. It’s a true classic and is still doing the rounds 30 years later, while its po-faced creator continues to tread darker paths...

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
John Foxx - Underpass
January 1980

That Underpass was a hit single back in 1980 now seems extraordinary. It is cold, bleak, sci-fi synth music and utterly brilliant for it, but hardly Radio 1 material. So the fact that Tony Blackburn actually played it is also extraordinary. Afterwards he commented that the track was “weird but wonderful”, leading to a third extraordinary event: him being right!

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Ultravox (Mk 2) - Vienna
February 1980

The Midge Ure version of Ultravox bothered the charts a lot in the ‘80s but will be remembered most for this track. It’s a little pompous but you can’t argue with the atmosphere and tension, or that weird violin solo. And like just about everyone else on this list, the band will probably be performing at a venue near you soon.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
The Human League (Mk 1) - Being Boiled
May 1980

The first incarnation of the Human League was a bit more ‘future’ than the latter, poppier version, and produced two completely electronic and ground-breaking LPs. Being Boiled has nonsensical lyrics, big hooks and massive beats - all the ingredients for an instant synth classic, then…

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
OMD - Enola Gay
September 1980

Like many others here, OMD arguably deserve more than one entry, and it was a very close call between this and Joan Of Arc. Enola Gay steals the title, though, because of its almost naive arrangement, which includes some of the biggest synth hooks of all time. And what other tune could cause so much embarrassing dancing at weddings?

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Visage - Fade To Grey
November 1980

If synth pop was all about pretentious lyrics and make-up - and, let’s face it, it was - then this has to be the pinnacle of the genre. Underpinned by one of the greatest synth riffs ever, the song even has a bit of French thrown in there to make it sound a bit more, you know, sophisticated.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Soft Cell - Say Hello Wave Goodbye
January 1982

Forget Tainted Love - Say Hello Wave Goodbye was all about melodrama and massive emotion, helped on its way by one of the most moving synth arrangements of all time. We’re not ashamed to admit that it still brings tears to our eyes just thinking about those strings…

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Japan - Ghosts
March 1982

Weren’t the ‘80s brilliant? The fact that a stunning song like Ghosts was ever made was an event in itself - that it got to number five in the pop charts was amazing! While much of the music of the time can sound a little dated - even some of the supposedly ‘futuristic’ tracks here - Ghosts really could have been released at any point in our future.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Brian Eno - An Ending (Ascent)
January 1983

Why people don’t go on forums daily and cite this as ONE OF TEH BEST PEACES UF MUSIC OF ALL TIME is beyond us. Pure, dreamy ambience with searing melodies that will have you in tears. What? Don’t know it? You do - it’s backed countless BBC clips of space and probably episodes of Horizon as well.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
New Order - Blue Monday
March 1983

There are so many reasons to include this: the beats, the synths, the fact that it was the best-selling 12-inch of all time, and that the artwork (which didn’t feature the band name or song) cost the record company for every copy sold. Oh, and the fact that it is still one of the best crossover synth/club tracks ever made.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Pet Shop Boys - West End Girls
April 1984

We can say this with some confidence: never will a softly spoken rap combine so well with the sound of the synth. As soon as that bassline comes in you just know you’re gonna be “kicking in chairs and knocking down tables” at any moment. “From Lake Geneva to the Finland station.” Eh? Brilliant!

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 1, 1974-1986
Depeche Mode - Stripped
February 1986

If certain members of the team had got their way - and they nearly did - we’d have put 15 Depeche Mode tracks in here. Everything Counts, New Life, Policy Of Truth… all great choices. But fortunately, saner voices prevailed and Stripped was the one that made the cut, for that soaring synth thunder at the end that still sends a tingle down your spine nearly a quarter of a century after the song was written.

Disagree with our choices? Let us know in the Comments section below. Come back tomorrow for 20 more defining synth tracks dating from 1990 to 2008.

For a complete guide to making synth music on your computer, check out Computer Music Special 38, Make Synth Music, which is on sale now.

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