The following is all my opinion.
Synthwave is the all-encompassing genre of "music with synthesizer sounds". Synthwave started in the late 70s and has been around ever since to some degree. But there have been two points where the popularity soared: the 80s and...well...right now. The boom period in the 80s is just known as Synthwave, as that is where it became a thing, while what is going on right now is Retrowave.
Retrowave is a sub-genre of Synthwave that is all about mimicking the styles made popular in the original 80s boom period. Retrowave has several sub-sub-genres under its umbrella, each focusing on one of those mimicked styles. The best way that I can separate them is by describing a scene and letting you imagine the soundtrack for it.
A man in a leather jacket runs out into the cold city air, the neon lights lining the street illuminating the puddles from an afternoon rain earlier in the day. He quickly hops into his red sports car, turns the ignition and guns it, the sound of the motor roaring for blocks in any direction.
What music is playing? That's Outrun.
Some artists include Kavinsky, Cosmic Sand, Lazerhawk, Bourgeoisie, Nightstop, Tokyo Rose, Arcade High, Betamaxx, 20SIX Hundred, Meteor, Garth Knight, Jordan F, Botnit, My Faust, Lost Years, Mitch Murder, OGRE Sound, Protector 101, Orax, Power Glove, Scattle, Riddlis, and Vector Hold.
A young woman in roller skates being led by her dog on a leash drifts along the boardwalk, admiring the horizon as the sun begins to set, casting a warm glow across the busy beach below. She notices a guy in a tank top and sunglasses nearby, and he notices her as well. He lowers the sunglasses down the bridge of his nose so she can see his eyes, eliciting a shy smile from her as she passes.
What music is playing? That's Dreamwave.
Some artists include FM-84, Trevor Something, Miami Nights 1984, Gunship, 80s Stallone, Kristine, The Midnight, Fantastisizer, Preqwal, Futurecop, Robert Parker, Silenx, Neon Nox, Fear of Tigers, Le Cassette, Android Automatic, Lucy in Disguise, and VHS Dreams.
A bearded and very dirty man sits in silence, eating directly from a beat-up can of beans. He peers out across the hazy scene before him, seeing nothing but smoldering rubble where a proud city once stood. A frightened little girl holding a torn doll by one arm runs by him in a hurry. Before he can call out and ask what's wrong, the concrete wall behind him bursts apart, throwing him to the ground. Out from the hole steps an 8-foot-tall humanoid robot. It looks down at him and begins to aim its weapon.
What music is playing? That's Darkwave / Darksynth.
Some artists include Dance with the Dead, Perturbator, Gost, Carpenter Brut, Daniel Deluxe, Dan Terminus, Megadrive, and Judge Bitch.
I can't come up with a good scene for this last one, so just contemplate spaceships with neon lights, colorful planetscapes, and alien pirates.
What music is playing? Cyberwave.
Some artists include Dynatron, Dead Astronauts, Tonebox, Waveshaper, Flashworx, Maethelvin, Thomas Barrandon, and Volkor X.
Keep in mind that most of these artists do a little bit of everything. And because of that, I just call all of it Retrowave.
Check out all the artists I listed on Spotify, and NewRetroWave on YouTube for even more.
Credit: Zsokorad, Outrun Subreddit, Reddit.com
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