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Chillwave was never destined for longevity as a genre. In its inception, it was more of a joke than anything else. Music blogger Carles of the popular aughts parody blog Hipster Runoff coined the term as a satirical riff on an influx of laidback releases from new musicians at the time and similarly conceived late 2000s subgenres. But, perhaps because of its catchiness, or maybe its accuracy, the name stuck.
The genre’s popularization was indicative of a time at the tail end of the indie bubble when blogs made their names on discovering startup acts—and vice versa—and larger music publications had a wealth of extra goodwill to spend on opportunistic artists. As a result, with its affinity for warped tape effects and ’80s pop navel-gazing, the genre’s nostalgia comes through twofold: for the brightly colored childhoods of the artists for which it pines and for the more recent historical moment surrounding a since-past musical wave.
By 2013, critics, audiences and even chillwave acts themselves had moved on. Now, the general consensus is that the movement’s pioneering identities Washed Out, Neon Indian and Toro y Moi, who have since pivoted to other musical interests, have succeeded despite their connection to chillwave. Nevertheless, as Washed Out, Toro y Moi and other once-chillwave artists such as Com Truise continue to put out new music, the subgenre has disseminated into a much wider range of music than considered, from ’80s indebted albums by Carly Rae Jepsen and Tame Impala, to more acute sonic elements found in tracks from Jay Som to Jessy Lanza. As such, there were plenty of landmark records conceived under the haze of chillwave worth further consideration. Here are the 10 best to own on vinyl.
This is the album that started it all. Despite tenants of chillwave being found in earlier works from groups like Boards of Canada, Ariel Pink and even shoegaze acts, none until Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, or after it for that matter, captured the full potential of what chillwave was or could be. Every cribbed element of the genre, from the reverb slathered production to the indecipherable vocals and indistinguishable layers of unidentifiable samples, from the choir boy vocals and West Coast harmonies to the tropical imagery and fascination with adolescence, can be found somewhere in Person Pitch. And while the album may be most recognized for its pair of lengthy centerpieces, two of its more compact tracks, the climbing “Take Pills” and the ambling “I’m Not,” truly acted as the genesis of the sonic and aesthetic qualities the genre took on and for which it’s now known.
If Person Pitch was the template for chillwave, a proverbial palette of swatches that each successive chillwave album used as a base coat, then Life of Leisure was its mission statement, a slight, vague axiom written atop the primer. The project’s biggest track “Feel It All Around”—perfectly summarizing Life of Leisure’s and Washed Out creative Ernest Greene’s trademark atmospheric choral backing tracks, upfront bass lines and drawn out vocals—became the de facto soundtrack of the genre and was the early pinnacle of the aesthetic. So much so, actors and musicians Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein chose it as the theme song for their sketch comedy show “Portlandia,” which both acknowledged and satirized the much maligned hipster social scene, a sizable division and inseparable component of the chillwave audience.
The second album from Chaz Bundick under his Toro y Moi moniker, and his first fully realized effort Underneath the Pine serves as a sample platter of the genre, a sort of amuse-bouche course of chillwave. Inspired by the likes of J Dilla and Flying Lotus, Bundick expanded on ideas found in his first album Causers of This, filling in a bunch of shades and textures, each built out in its own contained space. None of Bundick’s subsequent albums have captured quite the same feeling as found here—as much an indication of his growth as an artist as a reflection of the changing of the musical tides. So, Underneath the Pine remains a touchstone in his discography, and in the pantheon of the genre.
Whereas many of the albums characterised as chillwave were a music nerd’s approximation of cool, the product of lifelong fans and artists finding the space to try their hand at the form, Alan Palomo’s, who goes by the very chillwave name Neon Indian, Psychic Chasms is actually, sans conditional, just straight-up cool. Heavily informed by the psychedelia of its title and its album artwork, Psychic Chasms stood out, and still does, for its playfulness and immediacy in a medium that begot obfuscation. Its brisk synthpop and aloofness captured the national moment enough, in fact, for Donald Glover to choose “Deadbeat Summer” as one of the songs he rapped over on his I AM JUST A RAPPER mixtape series, which serves as one of the best capsule compilations representing music in chillwave’s era.
The defining work of multifaceted artist Scott Hansen, Dive was created as much out of the mind of a visual designer as a musician. Across its meandering 50 minutes, each of the 10 tracks develops its own landscape or environment within which to get lost. Despite being completely instrumental, what it lacks in vocal comparisons to other chillwave releases, it makes up for in its downtempo pace and indescribably calming characteristics. By far the most serene and zen release featured here, its signature slow-building structure explores the vast intersection between vivid musical sketch and song.
When he recorded The Year of Hibernation, Youth Lagoon’s Trevor Powers was just 21 years old. This distinguished Youth Lagoon from most of the other artists featured here, as he wrote from a closer proximity to the adolescence he channeled for the album. Still, The Year of Hibernation remains one of the more mature, lyrically and structurally, albums associated with chillwave. Riding a consistent mid-range register across its entire runtime, distant and obscured vocals leave an air of cautious bewilderment doubtlessly informed by Powers’ age and poetically referenced experience with anxiety. Songs like “17” showcased Powers’ early prowess for conveying the sudden transition to adulthood, a theme that informs his entire catalog as Youth Lagoon, which, after a trilogy of records that started with The Year of Hibernation, he has since retired, cryptically citing new musical interests.
Another debut from an artist just 21 years of age, Bath’s Cerulean embraces the childlike wonder and innocence yearned for during chillwave’s heyday. The album’s shimmering production has Will Wiesenfeld, the musician behind Baths, reveling in the sort of wide-eyed excitement the stage name, a reference to the time he spent reflecting on art in his tub as a child, conjures. Between the “Kids Say The Darndest Things”-esque soundbites sampled on the sunny “Aminals” and the buoyant beats and falsetto vocals featured on the twinklingly named “Rafting Starlit Everglades” and “Rain Smell,” Cerulean is a complete mastery of one of chillwave’s defining facets.
California indie rock duo Best Coast’s Crazy For You is the least traditionally chillwave-sounding album on this list. However, the breezy debut is unmistakably chillwave in spirit. The hazy, left coast harmonies, delightfully sluggish melodies and simplistic “lazy/crazy” and “kiss/miss” monosyllabic rhyme schemes all cultivate a distinct mood parallel to the early Fashion Boutique-core established around the turn of the decade. Tellingly, Crazy For You rolled out with an exclusive pre-release by Urban Outfitters and was paired with a trendy “West Side Story” inspired music video for the brooding single “Our Deal.” Nevertheless, Crazy For You is the outlier in a now endlessly attempted space, honing a very specific sound unreplicated to its complete extent to this day, which even frontwoman Bethany Cosentino moved away from by their next album.
Much more upbeat and overtly electronic than its peers, Gold Panda’s Lucky Shiner was linked to the chillwave movement as much due to the logistics of its release as any other relations it had. As the first full-length from a mysterious artist coming out of Ghostly International—the same label to house Tycho and Com Truise—Lucky Shiner was easily grouped in with the works of its contemporaries. Nonetheless, barring the surface level differences, Gold Panda’s incorporation of analog sound effects along with artificial cracks and pops mimicking a vinyl record lend his debut album the same eye to the past. Combining elements of trance and ambient music with the dancier side of IDM, Lucky Shiner is a diverse cross section of all that chillwave was. Opening track “You” and midpoint “I’m With You But I’m Lonely” run the gamut of emotions associated with the genre, the former a saccharine blast of energy and the latter an introspective burn that flips halfway through, yet retains its original melancholy.
A Different Kind of Fix shows just how far the aspects of chillwave reached in the short amount of time it trended. After a couple of straightforward indie rock releases, English rock band Bombay Bicycle Club tapped pop producer Ben H. Allen for his work on Animal Collective’s seminal Merriweather Post Pavilion. With his influence, Bombay Bicycle Club married their folksier tendencies with Allen’s saturated production style. The result is a guitar-led, organic instrument take on chillwave, with traditionally pop-seeming songs turned extended grooves like “Your Eyes” and standout “Lights Out, Words Gone,” the tones of which still reverberate through indie rock six years later.
Matt McMahon is a freelancer from New Jersey who can be found writing about, in addition to music, television at places like Splitsider and movies at places like CutPrintFilm. He currently splits his time between Dallas, Texas, and online.
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