Chillwave At 10: The Essential Tracks
I honestly thought “glo-fi” was gonna stick, y’all.
This was the first name I recall being given to a weed-scented wave of music that emerged out of nowhere before it was seemingly everywhere during the Deadbeat Summer of 2009. Washed Out, Ducktails, Memory Cassette, and Neon Indian — seemingly every one of them had names that could pass for iPhone camera filters and it was truth in advertising. They all worked in a new yet very dated-sounding style of electronic music bearing the audio quality of a thrice-overdubbed Guided By Voices cassette, yet oddly luminous and glittery rather than ugly or abrasive. It often sounded like it was recorded in a lit water bong, and nearly everyone who encountered “glo-fi” called on the specs of moldy VHS recordings as a comparative point (after all, glo-fi artists frequently used them as source material): hyper-saturated color, the wobbly, disorienting effect of screwing with the vertical hold, and most importantly, being of an age when VHS tapes were a primary form of A/V delivery. If all those descriptions seem cliché now, it’s only because no one ever improved on it.
And yet, because “glo-fi” so flawlessly encapsulated the sound and feel of the music therein, it never seemed destined to be anything beyond the name of a microgenre that would come and go as swiftly and politely through the public consciousness as shitgaze, witch house, you name it.
But once “chillwave” was coined to replace “glo-fi,” well, that was a name befitting a phenomenon, positioning the music not as the sole focus, but at the center of a cluster of indie culture trends bubbling up toward the end of the decade — Hipstamatic and the revival of Polaroid, a proliferation of vinyl and cassette labels, Urban Outfitters’ incessant need for store-mix fodder, tastemaking music blogs, Tumblr, a curious wave of guitar bands reveling in beach iconography and surf music, and above all, the so-ironic-it-might-actually-be-sincere pose of Carles, the Hipster Runoff founder often credited with inventing the term.
As the journalistic cliché goes, three is a trend, and chillwave did it one better by boasting at least four leading figures in 2009. (1) Ernest Greene, a University Of Georgia grad in his mid-20s who moved back home with his parents after failing to find work as librarian and made bedroom recordings as Washed Out. (2) Chaz Bundick, one of Greene’s earliest collaborators: a half-Filipino, half-black graphic-design major at the University Of South Carolina who played in a few indie-rock bands in high school before starting Toro Y Moi. (3) Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo, who was born into a musical family (his father was a Mexican pop star in the late ’70s whose work was occasionally sampled in Neon Indian songs) and he later attended the University Of North Texas in Denton, a giant public institution and also one of the most renowned places to study music in the country. (4) Dayve Hawk, a Philadelphian who made quintessential chillwave documents under a host of confusingly similar names (Memory Tapes, Memory Cassette, Weird Tapes) after his Polyvinyl-signed indie rock band Hail Social sputtered at the end of the blog-rock era.
Due to their collaborations and stylistic commonalities — shifting from guitar to solo synth projects, filters upon filters upon filters and androgynous vocals drowned in reverb, “glo-fi” was easy to define and relatively narrow. It was indoor music about going to the beach, or at least the concept of the beach, the most accessible fantasy vacation most Americans can pack into a single afternoon. After taking the photo that graced the cover of Toro Y Moi’s Leave Everywhere EP, a woman named Christy wrote on her blog, “Chillwave is when you’re at a South Carolina beach with friends and while wading in the ocean far, far from the shore someone asks ‘we need to head back soon?’ And you have work in the morning, an 8 a.m. meeting maybe, but you emulate the quiet ripple of the tide and you say ‘naw, we’ll make it back,’ and you’re right. You do make it back.”
While chillwave was perhaps the last indie phenomenon to predate Twitter’s reign as the predominant form of social media, it was the first I remember to be endlessly volleyed about through thinkpieces the way things are today — the first “in defense of chillwave” piece ran as early as March 2010, in response to a vicious New York Times review from SXSW that spanned the Big Four as well as quasi-wavey acts like jj and Tobacco. But on either side, most chillwave analyses could agree that it was an inherently political artform on some level.
The scene’s leading figures were conflated into a composite sketch of a boomerang kid living in the New South during the Great Recession, crushed under mounting student debt and the realization that they’re part of the first generation that won’t be economically better off than their parents. It’s really not all that different than what frequently gets referred to as “millennial malaise” today, and if chillwave’s defeatist demeanor feels irresponsibly naive or disengaged now, remember that the Obama era frequently lacked the galvanizing figures that could mobilize outrage against “the banks,” “the economy,” or whatever other late-capitalist boogeyman you could name. Bundick is rarely given credit as a lyricist — which makes sense, as lyrics are often assigned a secondary role (at best) in the music of Toro Y Moi. And yet neither Ezra Koenig, Matty Healy, Lorde, Billie Eilish, Blueface nor anyone else credited as The Voice Of The Millennial ever wrote a truer, more devastating critique of post-grad workingman’s blues than the one from “Blessa” — “I got a job, I do it fine/ not what I want, but still I try.”
Both fans and critics alike knew that chillwave was intentionally meant as background music to elicit nothing stronger than a sigh of resignation, so it’s sometimes hard to remember how this was all considered to be an exciting development. I’ve asked that question of myself as well — the sonic properties of chillwave are almost diametrically opposed to that death-or-glory emo shit I mostly write about here (in 2009, either Merriweather Post Pavilion or Post-Nothing was my #1 album, I honestly can’t remember). Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the summer of 2009 just so happened to be a time when I started making new friends who all seemed to have pools and liked to bike to the beach at night. But while the bigger indie-rock trends of the decade up to that point were largely revivalist, chillwave felt like a truly contemporary form of music, similar to pop, hip-hop, and electronic in that its main figures were in conversation with each other and drew from influences no more than a few years old.
For example, to properly understand the Strokes and the rest of the New Rock Revolution, you needed a refresher on CBGB and the Velvet Underground. Dance-punk necessitated a relitigation of Public Image Ltd. and This Heat. Interpol and the parallel wave of “angular” British post-punk exhumed Joy Division and Gang Of Four. The untouchable first half of Hot Fuss was really just the new untouchable first half of Rio. Freak-folk gave Linda Perhacs and Vashti Bunyan a second shot at indie sainthood … and then indie-folk was just CSNY for Jettas … and then for a couple of years, it became cool to like Bruce Springsteen again … you get the drift.
But anyone could become an expert on chillwave if they’d kept up with year-end lists over the past several years. It’s easy to draw a line from the sun-warped samples of Boards Of Canada’s Music Has The Right To Children and the oceans of noise on Fennesz’s Endless Summer to chillwave’s compositional tactics, but they’re more spiritual guides, priming indie audiences for innovative electronic music that still intended to swaddle the listener in the soft-focus reverie of kindergarten naptime or a wasteful teenage August afternoon. The same could be said of J. Dilla’s Donuts, a poignant collection of dusty soul samples that became a living will to his fans and was reportedly an enormous influence on early Toro Y Moi. Meanwhile, the genre’s aquaphilia could also be heard as a logical extension of Balearic and the genre-agnostic escapism of Studio, Air France, and the Tough Alliance coming from Sweden’s Sincerely Yours label.
But a fundamental irony of chillwave is that it owes a tremendous debt to one of the least chill indie-rock stars of the past decade. “2009 was the year Ariel Pink became the most influential figure in indie pop,” Pitchfork’s Mike Powell wrote in a year-end blurb for Neon Indian’s Psychic Chasms, “which is too bad because it’s the first year since 2003 that he didn’t reissue anything.” Early Ariel Pink collections The Doldrums and Worn Copy were the first releases on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks Records that weren’t their own, and were immediately identified as formative documents of chillwave — Pink absorbed decades of cheesed-out source material (hold music, commercial jingles, muzak), studied its songwriting mechanics and perverted it with unctuous reverb, lo-fi glam affectations, and druggy bad vibes. It’s possible that the Animal Collective connection alone would’ve been enough to justify Pink getting signed to 4AD and releasing “Round And Round” anyways, but it’s likewise hard to imagine Before Today being seen as a culmination of two of the previous decade’s most prominent threads.
And yet, those weren’t even the most impactful proto-chillwave albums to be released on Paw Tracks. In 2007, Panda Bear followed up his sparse, mournful solo debut Young Prayer with Person Pitch, a sample-delic masterpiece that sent countless budding musicians to find SP-404s; his own shift from acoustic guitars and drums to tinkering paralleled and irrevocably changed the trajectory of indie rock. Paw Tracks is also under the umbrella of Carpark Records, the DC-based label that has released every Toro Y Moi album, as well as works from Memory Tapes, chillwave adjacent acts like Dog Bite and Young Magic, and the first two Beach House albums — not chillwave, per se, but a band whose opaque, gossamer music wouldn’t headline festivals for anyone preceding the Vibe Generation.
While chillwave was something of a progressive form, it still arose at the tail end of the blog-rock era, where anyone who experienced a blip of online hype was expected to level up the old-fashioned way, i.e., signing to a bigger label, making an album (as opposed to singles or EPs), and “proving it” on the road. Most chillwave artists were quite literally a dude making music in his bedroom on samplers and synthesizers — either they had to replicate that setup on stage or hastily assemble a band. Unsurprisingly, some of these early gigs were among the worst I’ve ever seen. This applies to many of the solo dream-pop or garage acts that were lumped into the “chillwave era” as well — straight-up indie-rock buzz bands with names like Wavves, Best Coast, Sun Airway, Surfer Blood, Beach Fossils, and by extension, the Drums, whose first blog hit was titled “Let’s Go Surfin’.” Lest we forget Real Estate’s first album had two songs with the word “beach” in it and they were launched by a label called Underwater Peoples.
“Chillwave” soon meant everything and also nothing specifically, having run its course by 2011 — a year which paradoxically found its biggest names proving their staying power. About 13 months after Causers Of This, Toro Y Moi quickly turned out Underneath The Pine, which retained its predecessor’s humidity and laid-back charm, while expanding Bundick’s (now Bear) range to florid folk, dance-pop, and paisley psychedelia. His earliest champions included Kanye West and Tyler, The Creator, which is why future 2010s lists will probably be determined by writers who grew up thinking that Toro Y Moi were one of the greatest bands of the decade. Washed Out signed to Sub Pop and worked with “it” producer Ben H. Allen, the guy behinds the boards for Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest and Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. The resulting Within And Without deftly defied the backlash with a high thread-count make-out record situated somewhere between Moby’s Play and Air’s Moon Safari. Later that year, Neon Indian transcended his lo-fi roots with Era Extrana, a dazzling array of Dave Fridmann-produced electronic pop that remains of the most underappreciated records of the decade (think of it as Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’s oddball cousin). In the time since, each has continued to foster a sizable audience with consistently rewarding music and Toro Y Moi and Neon Indian in particular are reliably entertaining festival acts. While Memory Tapes couldn’t capitalize in a similar way, I’ll grant this to Player Piano and Grace/Confusion — they have their moments.
Beyond the fortunes of its biggest names, it’s clear now that chillwave was the start of the 2010s rather than the end of the 2000s. Most chillwave was created as beatmaking or sampling and it sounds really good when you’re high, so its eventual leaching into hip-hop was inevitable — the brief “cloud rap” surge of 2011 spanned from Lil B to Main Attrakionz to A$AP Rocky via the beats of Clams Casino (whose Instrumental Mixtape I is an arguable chillwave classic), and this was around the time rappers were starting to sample Beach House as well. Chillwave also eventually led to vaporwave, another widely mocked and vastly influential form of electronic music. And while chillwave was largely a rebuke to rock music (Bundick, Hawk, and Palomo were previously in guitar-fronted bands), some of the most successful rock acts of the 2010s have aligned these two seemingly incompatible modes — Mac DeMarco first gained notice in a band named Makeout Videotape and became an icon by conflating the look and musical taste of every sixth-year senior in every frat house in the past 20 years. Even the arena-ready likes of Tame Impala and the War On Drugs are more likely to vibe than rock, not to mention they’re anti-rock stars, essentially solo artists who lock themselves in the studio for about three years just to tweak EQ and phaser pedals. Most of all, chillwave predicted the way most young people would interact with music — not for nothing is “Chill Lofi Study Beats” one of the most popular playlists on Spotify and nu-chillwavey acts you’ve never heard of seem to rack up millions of digital spins.
At this point, the boundaries of chillwave are so distended that I’ve seen “best of” lists that include stuff like Bombay Bicycle Club’s A Different Kind Of Fix — I mean, it was produced by Ben H. Allen, but it also sounds like a glitzier version of Snow Patrol. And most songs that people might consider chillwave are more accurately described as dance-pop or Balearic or vaporwave or straight-up indie rock. To put it in the most reductive way possible, if you can play it on solo guitar, it’s not chillwave — Real Estate’s “Suburban Beverage” is the outer boundary, a song whose production values and lyric(s) are otherwise extremely “chillwave,” but as their future records proved, it’s just an extremely chill indie-rock song from an extremely chill indie-rock band that recorded in better studios once they could afford it.
This pervasive, ambient existence of chillwave makes an Ultimate Playlist nearly impossible to contain without bringing it back to the original definition, i.e., “glo-fi.” Unlike most other Ultimate Playlists, this one isn’t in chronological order or ranked; I can’t definitively say these are the greatest chillwave songs either, as many of the genre’s most iconic tracks have been swapped out for a lesser-known one from the same artist. Rather, my intention was to create a proper mix that focused on sonic coherence and sequencing and this is meant to be played in order — most of the individual artists herein worked best in the single or EP format, but hopefully this can recreate the original, cumulative sensation of hearing all of these similarly-minded artists cropping up around the same time: drowning out daily drudgery by turning its mundane rhythms and low-buzz anxieties into a cocoon of blissed-out white noise. Here’s an hour’s worth of vibes whenever you want to raise the Deadbeat Summer.
Javelin – “Vibrationz”
The story of chillwave is largely one of internet ephemera in late-stage indie capitalism, so give me a moment to salute MTV Hive and give a shout to anyone else who made a buck publishing for what Wikipedia accurately describes as MTV’s “online music video portal and its editorial mouthpiece for coverage of indie music genres.” One of MTV Hive’s flagship programs in 2011 was Weird Vibes, a rebrand of Shirley Braha’s beloved New York Noise, an hourlong program that juggled indie rock videos, man-on-the-street skits and interviews. For example, Episode 30: “Animal Collective is interviewed at a cupcake shop, with videos from Ariel Pink, Suburban Kids With Biblical Names, Devendra Banhart, Matisyahu.” According to a New York Times preview of Weird Vibes, “the first episode will feature interviews with several musicians on “the hardships of being in a buzz band,” while, “the second episode had been shot at the Pitchfork festival in Chicago, where she interviewed members of several blog-celebrated bands, among them Best Coast, Beach Fossils, Odd Future and Toro Y Moi.” 2011, y’all! Alas, in 2013, MTV Hive downsized to become a Twitter account (@MTVArtists) that hasn’t posted since 2015. Shirley went on to shepherd the career of Instagram sensation Marnie The Dog. Point being that “Vibrationz” was the theme song for Weird Vibes, so it’s probably got more early-2010s hipster cred than “Feel It All Around” earned from Portlandia.
Neon Indian – “Terminally Chill”
Most chillwave artists bristled at being tagged with the term, but Alan Palomo’s got no plausible deniability — behind “Should’ve Taken Acid With You” and “Deadbeat Summer,” “Terminally Chill” is actually the third most 2009 zeitgeist-y song title on Psychic Chasms.
Washed Out – “Hold Out”
What kind of contrarian chillwave list leaves out “Feel It All Around”? I can’t think of too many songs that are more definitive of a popular subgenre. And yet, who the fuck is reading a chillwave list in 2019 if they haven’t heard “Feel It All Around”? So let’s reserve at least some shine for “Hold Out,” sandwiched right between the best-known tracks on Life Of Leisure and the closest Greene ever got to a “Blessa”-like chillwave dictum: “It’s all right but sometimes you hold out for more.”
Toro Y Moi – “Talamak”
Not to take anything away from “Blessa,” whose aforementioned lyrics are nothing short of the chillwave Pledge Of Allegiance. But Causers Of This was never intended as the voice of a generation so much as a classic breakup album — boy gets dumped, retreats to a sampler full of waterlogged synths, with choice cuts like “Talamak” somewhere between For Emma, Forever Ago and One Word Extinguisher.
Memory Cassette – “Surfin/Body in the Water”
Lest you think I’m trying to play up Dayve Hawk as the Darko Milicic of chillwave, Seek Magic is probably the best album of the bunch that dropped in 2009 — and, by definition, probably the greatest chillwave album of all time. But while Seek Magic toyed with electro-pop as defined by New Order, Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, and Hot Chip, his Memory Cassette EP Call & Response was chillwave in its purest form.
Small Black – “Despicable Dogs”
Though often framed as a phenomenon emanating from the South and suburbia, chillwave ended up infiltrating New York City and creating all kinds of hazy memories of Tito’s Vodka-endorsed parties and the buzz bands that played them. None were more NYC buzz band-y than Small Black, whose live set up featured Juan Pieczanski, the guy behind the Pitchfork.tv staple “Juan’s Basement.” Bonus points for the Washed Out remix.
Brothertiger – “Vision Tunnels”
Chillwavers are often stereotyped as non-musicians, guys who lack the vocal chops or instrumental proficiency to play anything else and also the conviction to be punk. But then you’ve got guys like John Jagos, the Brooklyn-via-Toledo artist known as Brothertiger who recently did a full-album cover of Tears For Fears’ eminently grandiose and unchill Songs From The Big Chair — and he kinda pulled it off! But the title track of his 2010 debut EP leaves no doubt where his heart truly lies: his Twitter bio reads “swimming through the ether” and recently featured a post of him replicating a synth tone from Music Has The Right To Children.
Baths – “Maximalist”
Tough call with this one, just as it was in 2010. I remember a lot of litigation over whether this would be considered chillwave in the slightest if dude wasn’t called Baths and the cover of his awesome debut, Cerulean, didn’t look like a disintegrating 2000 Flushes tab. After all, this album dropped on Anticon, and Will Wiesenfeld was clearly indebted to the LA beat scene that produced guys like Daedelus and Flying Lotus. And yet, in the same way non-shoegaze bands can clearly make shoegaze songs, “Maximalist” is chillwave — non-quantized beats, low-pass filtering, aquatic, squishy synths — just a version of it with exquisitely high production values.
Blackbird Blackbird – “Pure”
If you’ve actively sought out purist chillwave acts past 2012, this name should be familiar — they basically pop up in every possible “Fans Also Like” search. Though Mikey Maramag’s later work took things in an icier, more obviously H&M-core direction, he was never more committed to a bit than on 2010’s Summer Heart — song titles include “Hawaii,” “Sunspray,” “Happy High,” “Aura,” and “I’m Feeling Hazy,” and if those aren’t transparent enough, there’s the unstepped-on chillwave highlight called “Pure.”
Millionyoung – “Cynthia”
Millionyoung wasn’t one of the greatest chillwave acts, but it was certainly a definitive one. Guy from Florida making mumbly, vaguely dancey, vaguely poppy songs like “Cynthia” that reveled in being flat-out vague and sounded pretty darn good if you’re four beers deep in a swimming pool. But check out what happened when dude tried to make real pop on 2011’s Replicants and you’ll never take Washed Out for granted ever again.
Blue Hawaii – “Lilac”
I don’t recall the gender dynamics of chillwave really being discussed all that much at the time or really ever — unless you count Bethany Cosentino, the most prominent female figure of chillwave was probably Ernest Greene’s wife, if only for her appearance on the genre-defining cover of Life Of Leisure. Maybe people just assumed that this was dude music — warbly lonely dudes retreating to their childhood bedroom after striking out on the job search and the search for love. Or maybe female-fronted acts making chillwave were just called something else. That case could be made for Blue Hawaii, the electro-pop project fronted by Raphaelle Standell-Preston of Braids. Blue Hawaii’s debut EP, Blooming Summer (yup, that’s a chillwave title), actually predates Braids’ Native Speaker and most of it is the kind of piercing electronic pop that both her projects would shift towards in later years. It’s a shame because Blooming Summer peaks with its first track, a crushed-out trust fall through puffy cloud after puffy cloud that feels like a missed opportunity for both Blue Hawaii and chillwave in general.
Teen Daze – “Waves”
Here’s an incomplete list of the EPs and singles Jamison Isaak released before his debut album as Teen Daze: “The New Balearic,” My Bedroom Floor, “Brooklyn Sunburn,” Beach Dreams, “Cold Sand.” And then he went and described All Of Us, Together as “chillwave” and “glo-fi” (not to mention “summer vibes” and “reverb-drenched). Having just spent like 3000 words reliving 2009, I appreciate a guy who might corner you at a party and tell you with the utmost sincerity that Washed Out changed his life. “Waves” was a highlight of his Teen Daze’s days of chillwave mania, but if you’ve checked out on dude, I’d highly recommend 2017’s Themes For A Dying Earth, which is definitely the best M83 album of the past five years.
Work Drugs – “Rad Racer”
Pulled from Work Drugs’ Wikipedia entry and presented without context: “In August 2011, the song ‘Rad Racer’ was featured in the Urban Outfitters commercial for Favorite Fall Jeans of 2011.”
Rangers – “Zombies (Night)”
Again, let’s pause to pour out some Sparks and/or real Four Loko for Altered Zones, a prescient constellation of blogs hosted by Pitchfork from 2010-2011 that covered the vast array of experimental DIY scenes that was cropping up at the beginning of the decade. Los Angeles’ Not Not Fun was a prominent label of that time, releasing early collections from Ducktails (former Real Estate guitarist Matt Mondanile’s truly chillwave and very canceled instrumental project) and Pocahaunted, Bethany Cosentino’s pre-Best Coast hypno-pop act. Another was Olde English Spelling Bee, which helped launch cracked-pop auteur Autre Ne Veut, the sylvan bleakscapes of Forest Swords, as well as James Ferraro and Macintosh Plus, two of vaporwave’s most important artists. Though not as celebrated as the aforementioned, Rangers (a Texas-based project clearly unconcerned with SEO) released deeply groovy albums on both NNF and OESB, bridging the gap between chillwave and outre psych and drone acts like Sun Araw and Peaking Lights that were essentially the Animal Collective of Altered Zones.
Torn Hawk – “Blindsided”
Look, 2014 is really long-tail as far as chillwave goes, but here’s a guy for whom music seemed to take a backseat to “video mulching,” defined as “combining footage from homemade go-go videos, ’80s action films, and pornos, turning them into fever dreams.” And of course, what’s more chillwave than generating a week’s worth of buzz and never being heard from again? I’d submit “Blindsided” to answer that question.
Check out our Essential Chillwave playlist in true playlist form on Spotify.