Lists, Reviews

List: Ten Essential Chillwave Tracks

The Great Chillwave is dead. Well, perhaps it has morphed to the stage where it no longer resembles its original guise, which dominated almost every indie blog at the beginning of this decade. 

It’s common knowledge to all self-respecting chillwavers that the name is a bit of a joke – one that was coined by the ironic and self-deprecating blog, Hipster Runoff. It was used as a catchall name that embraced a new brand of 80’s obsessed, one-man, bedroom recording artists who embraced the dance sensibilities of New Wave synths and utilised hazy, lo-fi production which was as much a budgetary compromise as well as an aesthetic decision. As the 2011 retrospective by Vulture shows there was much initial backlash to this rootless and homegrown take on outré pop but the acts became more established and it now has a case to be called the Internet age’s first true genre.

These were artists who grew up devouring vast amounts of music and pined for a bygone era that they were too young to remember. At the same, they used a modern-day accessible palette of sounds and samples that made their music seem resoundingly fresh. And because of the blog community that they shared their music with, this was a scene that didn’t need a locale or city to coalesce around but rather just dedicated fans to push and promote it.

The early progenitors of the sound were the oddball takes on pop from the likes of Ariel Pink or the fuzzed out electronica of Panda Bear’s momentous Person Pitch. Mining these influences the scene congealed around the Chillwave Holy Trinity of Neon Indian, Washed Out and Toro y Moi. Toro’s take is funky and soul indebted and the most dance-y; Neon Indian’s is the most psychedelic with his chaotic world of tripped-out and decaying electronics; while Washed Out’s is the most straightforward in its poppy and melodic pleasures. All three of these acts are now mainstream indie acts, signed to mainstream indie labels and backed by fulltime bands. Their most recent work has been big and more expansive in sound and wonderfully produced. This is perhaps the reason why the chillwave we knew in 2010 has gone out and grown up. However, over its course it presented some absolute delights and this is my list of the Ten Essential Chillwave Tracks.

10. Ducktails – Arcade Shift

Matt Mondanile is best known for his work in the glorious Real Estate but he also pays his dues with his more adventurous solo-project Ducktails. ‘Arcade Shift’ is built around a kinetic bassline that fuzzes in and out of perception. It’s a simple track that is warped through effects and production to create a thick and ponderous two-minute instrumental.

9. Toro y Moi – Blessa

The opening notes of his debut album Causers of This set the markers for the genre’s trademarks: goo-ey seemingly underwater-recorded vocals and hazy, glimmering production. Chaz Bundick sings, “I found a job I do it fine/ Not what I want but still I try,” a sort of anthemic statement to a new generation of well-educated yet unemployed and unhappy youths. Although on his second album he would embrace a more Michael Jackson and Prince indebted groovy style of synth-pop, this showcases his early talents as a producer of inventive pop music.  

8. John Maus – Believer

As a member of Ariel Pink’s band, Maus has obvious status as a bit of a forerunner in the genre and with his solo project he showcases his intelligent and philosophical approach to music that makes his work feel like a tireless job of curating styles and genres. With ‘Believer’ he incorporates a krautrock bass wobble and vocals so filtered they sound as if they were recorded in the next room, but since the song aims skywards and lifts continuously, it never loses focus and remains an uplifting track from an eclectic persona. 

7. Neon Indian – Should Have Taken Acid With You

On a list of post-festival regret songs this would surely be number one and, in fact, Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo literally wrote it to his girlfriend, apologising for missing an acid date. Probably the catchiest song of the genre’s history it was built around elements that would be Neon Indian staples: a simple drum track, woozy Atari-like synths and a whole array of buzzing and beeping effects. There is a certain youthfulness and yearning about the song that speaks to both acid trips or just a great day out that you either missed or wished you could relive. For a genre that is predicated on nostalgia it shows the sonic wonders that the feeling can create.

6. Toro y Moi – Thanks Vision

A case for the best song off of his first album the song is the most expansive and mature Bundick gets on the album. The synths and his vocals are stretched out to dramatic effect here and about two minutes into the song after a climatic build up everything comes tumbling down as the production spins downwards. It ends off with a brooding conclusion and is a precursor to the accomplished arrangements that would be displayed on his later albums.  

5. Neon Indian – Local Joke

The best song off of his debut album Psychic Chasms, it was a huge statement of intent on Palomo’s part. It features massive synth-based hooks and perhaps the most badass lyric in indie music history where Palomo proclaims that he has “never been late to fuck with fate”. Its instrumentals hark back to yester-year but the climax of the song, which descends into a flurry of little bombs of Gameboy and Atari squeals, shows a musical talent clearly working on the cutting edge. If chillwave was the local joke, Palomo ensured that we were all in on it now.  

4. Washed Out – Amor Fati

In 2011 Washed Out released his Life of Leisure EP which was all about laid-back and moody pop music. On his debut album Within and Without that played on the common theme of intimacy, he did not forsake this previous sound but chose rather to fully expand it. On the sheer anthem that is ‘Amor Fati’ he did that in leaps and bounds. It features rolling drums and with Washed Out’s Ernest Greene’s voice used more centrally than on other releases, the little micro-genre proved that it could not only make little left-field pop experiments but it could also create epics. ‘Amor Fati’ is that booming and grand statement.  

3. Toro y Moi – Say That

On Toro y Moi’s latest album Anything In Return the early really chillwave sounds of his earlier works were dispensed for the fuller and more populist sound of house and straight-up synth-pop. Despite that, even on a song like ‘Say That’ that uses a looping, clipped house-diva sample to propel it forward he shows he doesn’t stray too far from his roots. Those qualities remain in the midsections where the ghostly haze still floats all over the song but with Bundick pushing his sound to the dancefloor. The song is an absolute treat whether it’s for two-stepping at the club or immersing yourself through headphones and stands out as one of the best singles of this year. Plus, the hilariously awkward video is an added bonus.   

2. Neon Indian – Suns Irrupt

His first album showed Alan Palomo to be an endlessly creative composer of synth-based pop gems but he took a massive creative leap with his second album Era Extraña. With more cohesive, streamlined songwriting and a razor-sharp attention to detail Palomo used a common 80s theme (or fear) of post-apocalyptic nuclear destruction to create a stunning album. Using that theme to incorporate production that was more outward and confident and played with ideas of destruction and disintegration to create a twisted, radiation ravaged world with song titles like ‘Heart: Decay’ and ‘Fallout’.  

Towards the tail end of the album lies the awe-inspiring ‘Suns Irrupt’ which is Palomo’s longest and boldest statement. Layers upon layers of filtered electronics, ravaged synths and pulsating arpeggiators create a song that’s all about witnessing the world with all your senses on overdrive. Lyrically sharper, Palomo muses on an old love and the hope of something new as the titanic chorus arrives with him singing the endless refrain of, ‘Suns irrupt, suns irrupt’ – the misspelling an obvious throwback to his goofier past. For a genre that seemed all about apathy and malaise, Neon Indian proved that a knack for sampling and a deft hand with a hook could be filtered into meaningful and propulsive songwriting.

1.Washed Out – Feel It All Around

If in twenty-years time the genre and its silly name is all forgotten and laid to rest then this song will be the perfect archive to sum up what it all meant. With a tight aural gauze all over it and vocals muttered rather than sang, Ernest Greene’s 2010 single is everything the genre was about. The all-consuming analog production with a distinct hiss and crackle never sparks but the languid beach-tones seek to create pop pleasures by providing for total immersion. Despite the name, the song is all about being lost and comfortable in your own head and despite its short three minutes provides the perfect sort of internal revelry.

The song’s success sent it top the top of the blog heaps and it even landed itself the honour of being the title track to the self-referential comedy Portlandia, which provides a wickedly satirical take on the self-confessed hipster culture that lay behind the song’s (and genre’s) success. And although the dreaded ‘H’ word is hollow and vacuous, it did serve its purpose in documenting a generation of tech-savvy and modern individuals strangely harking back to the past for Lumo-filtered photography, clothing and most importantly, music. ‘Feel It All Around’ is song that is difficult to place in any time period precisely because of that weird contradiction. And whatever you may think of that distinct and perhaps fleeting cultural phenomenon it still stands as an excellent testament to an all-embracing ethos on popular music and its creation. One that will always make you close your eyes and wonder; and if music should do anything, is it not just that? 

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