The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008

28th Oct 2009 | 08:00

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
The Orb - Little Fluffy Clouds
July 1990

Our synth-based soundtrack to the past 35 years continues and concludes right here, as we select the essential songs from 1990 to 2008 (If you haven't already, check out part 1). This was the period in which synth pop gave way to dance music (though not completely), but we kick off in an ambient vein with The Orb.

Featuring Rickie Lee Jones in conversation over some insistent beats and synth melodies, Little Fluffy Clouds is probably the best track to have emerged from the madness that is The Orb's studio. We thought it was something to do with nuclear testing in Arizona, but it’s not. It’s about little fluffy clouds.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Aphex Twin - Analogue Bubblebath
March 1991

Analogue Bubblebath shows the best of the tuneful side of Richard James with a stand-out synth riff and enough incidental touches to get over the fact that the beats are bit early 90s. And he probably wrote it while asleep. In a tank. Bloody genius.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Orbital - Lush 3.1
May 1993

Choosing one Orbital track was a tough call, as each of their albums contains at least one absolute gem. But whereas some 90s tracks haven’t worn well, being too based around the ubiquitous TR-808 drum machine and TB-303 bassline synth, Lush 3.1 has fared better and is sounding as good as ever when the reformed Orbital play it live.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
William Orbit - Water From A Vine Leaf
June 1993

What is it about the ‘90s and artists featuring the word ‘orb’? Anyway, the beats are a bit dated, but Water From A Vine Leaf has a rolling bass and synth strings to die for - and Beth Orton’s vocal isn’t bad either. It also features a majestic breakdown that a million trance acts couldn’t subsequently better.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Pentatonik - Movements Part 2
October 1994

If you want lush (Orbital notwithstanding), this is it. If it were a lawn, you’d be able to play crown-green bowls on it. Movements Part 2 is from Pentatonik’s Anthology album, which is well worth tracking down for more of the same: synth strings and arpeggios have never combined quite so well.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Leftfield - Open Up
January 1995

Leftism is one of the best electronic albums ever made, simple as that, and this was one of its many highlights. With screaming leads from both John Lydon and the synths, its sheer power just rolls over you. It’s the kind of music that should have dated but still sounds as good as ever a decade on.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Josh Wink - Higher State Of Consciousness
June 1995

Any list of the top synth tracks has to include a nod to acid house, and this is probably the finest example with the best filtered synth you could ask for.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Underworld - Pearl's Girl
March 1996

Born Slippy is the Underworld tune that very much summed up a moment in time, so it’s left to another of the band’s tracks to walk away with the timeless prize. Pearl’s Girl has just about everything: driving beats, breakdowns and a massive filtered synth line. If it doesn’t move you, you are officially dead.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
LFO - Loch Ness
June 1996

LFO produced some real classics in the 90s, but time hasn’t been too kind to some of them. This, on the other hand, is a beautiful slice of rolling synth loveliness - all gooey and swishy like walking through long grass on a summer morning. Mmm.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Prodigy - Narayan
June 1997

Liam Howlett and chums have consistently proved that it’s not the amount of stuff you throw at a song that counts - rather, it’s all about one or two massive sounds (and huge beats, of course). This track, however, does have a bit more in it than most Prodigy tunes. On top of the fat sounds and beats, there are insistent leads, a massive clap and even a chanty bit for your spiritual side.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Air - Kelly Watch The Stars
January 1998

Loads of people suggested that we include an Air track and, with its fat bass, this is probably the band’s standout synth moment. Air made synths cool again in the late ‘90s and heralded the arrival of chillout, so we can hold them personally responsible for all those ruddy compilations on which this track doubtless appeared.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
The Chemical Brothers - Hey Boy Hey Girl
June 1999

A Chemical Brothers track that really does show how a couple of simple synth riffs can be so effective. Of course, the beats and arrangement help, but underpinning it all are some incredible basslines and filtering madness to keep you fixated with it all even if there’s not much else (apparently) going on.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Ulrich Schnauss - Nobody's Home
June 2001

In which Schnauss announced to the world that melodic, dreamy synth music was alive and well and living in Berlin. Yep, great electronic music doesn’t have to be all about massive beats and filters. Layer it up, layer it some more and once you’re done, pad it out. Simple and sublime.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Boards Of Canada - Music Is Math Like Kraftwerk
February 2002

BoC rarely speak, resulting in a fervour around them that means whatever track we include here will be the wrong one. Music Is Math is one of the band’s most approachable numbers, though, and it demonstrates some of the incidental production techniques - or happy accidents - that have brought them so much acclaim.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Goldfrapp - Strict Machine
July 2003

Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory knows more about synths - and has used them better - than most, and its balls-out, in-your-face beats and unashamed synths made this track easily fight its way into the top 40. It’s so brash that it even knocks some of Gregory’s own more ethereal synth moments aside.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Jon Hopkins - Second Sense
August 2004

One of the UK’s leading electronic composers is a secret to most people, but many of those in the know have asked to work with him and so far he counts Eno, Imogen Heap and Coldplay as collaborators. This is the highlight of his superb Contact Note album, a wafting and gracefully melodic catch if ever there was one.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Ladytron - Destroy Everything You Touch
October 2004

Ladytron were one of the first of the new wave of synth bands and have lots of great tracks to choose from, but for the sheer energy and driving synth action behind a great song, this track wins by a nose.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
Junior Boys - In The Morning
July 2006

With piercing leads, melodic arpeggios and dreamy sequences, this track lurches around like a pissed-up Romero zombie but somehow manages to pull it all off with aplomb. The album from which it comes, So This Is Goodbye, is a bit of a find too.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
LCD Soundsystem - Someone Great
March 2007

On occasion, Someone Great sounds like a long-lost Human League or A Certain Ratio recording (which is a good thing, by the way). James Murphy weaves together a great arrangement that sounds contemporary, futuristic and totally retro at the same time. That’s great synth music for you.

The 40 greatest synth tracks ever: pt 2, 1990-2008
The Killers – Human
September 2008

It’s difficult to predict a classic track, especially in synth land. Some of the great acid house tunes, for example, really are the sound of their time. Of the current crop of synth-using artists, including Crystal Castles, deadmau5 and Ladyhawke, the Killers have probably done the most to bring the machine back to the fore. A classic? Only time will tell.

Disagree with our choices? Got a nomination for the best synth track of 2009? Let us know in the Comments section below.

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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