The Best Synth-Rock Soundtracks

All of us have our own personal soundtracks, the streams and playlists that run through our heads, especially in situations that demand a more deluxe treatment. For some, ideas about what that sound had to be was forged by obsessive viewings of the very coolest ‘80s cinema on worn and battered VHS tapes. Driven by sleek machine-made rhythms and slathered in washes of vintage synthesizers, it’s a sound that evokes the sight of neon lights reflected on rain-slicked city streets as you drive through the night in a black Maserati (though a Ford Focus will do if there’s nothing left at Hertz).

That’s certainly the sound favored by Daniel Lopatin, the Brooklyn-based musician and producer better known as Oneohtrix Point Never. The sibling movie-director team of Josh and Benny Safdie tapped him to score their 2017 film Good Time, a grubby, thoroughly New York-y crime story that stars a plausibly messed-up Robert Pattinson as a small-time crook trying to take care of his mentally disabled brother during a long night of bad luck and worse decisions. While the film’s visual style evokes the grittiest ‘70s flicks of John Cassavetes, Lopatin’s music might’ve been perfect for a Michael Mann thriller. Indeed, the soundtrack demonstrates Lopatin’s love for Tangerine Dream, the German synth pioneers who famously scored Mann’s 1981 movie Thief and whose epic “Phaedra” was memorably repurposed for the Safdies’ 2014 drug-addict drama Heaven Knows What.

Good Time is also part of a wider resurgence for the moody, menacing synth-rock sound that was de rigueur for movies of an earlier era. The electronic soundscapes of Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre have become touchstones for a new generation of scorers, along with Vangelis’ sumptuous music for Blade Runner and Giorgio Moroder’s more propulsive accompaniment for Midnight Express, American Gigolo, and Scarface. Of course, the god of the form—partially because he was the rare filmmaker who created his own soundtracks—remains John Carpenter. Such was the worship and influence of his minimalist synth scores in recent years, Carpenter felt compelled to begin a full-fledged music career in his seventh decade, recording two albums for Sacred Bones.

Lopatin’s hardly the only contemporary musician to believe that nothing sets a movie’s mood better than a synthesizer arpeggiator. Other new masters of the aesthetic include Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (Stranger Things), Richard Vreeland a.k.a. Disasterpeace (It Follows), Cliff Martinez (Drive), and Jon Hopkins (Monsters). It’s been further explored by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, whose mesmerizing Drokk comprises their rejected score for the 2012 sci-fi thriller Dredd, and Zombie Zombie, a French electro-garage duo with a penchant for roughing up Carpenter themes in much the same way that Lopatin sandpapers the pristine surfaces of Tangerine Dream for Good Time.

So even though it’ll never be 1985 again, there’s no better time for you to get behind the wheel of the hottest car you can find and drive into the night.