Chillwave is a music microgenre that emerged in the late 2000s. It is characterized by a faded or dreamy retro pop sound, escapist lyrics about the beach or summer, psychedelic or lo-fi aesthetics, mellow vocals, low-to-moderate tempos, effects processing (especially reverb), and vintage synthesizers. The term was originally synonymous with "glo-fi" or "hypnagogic pop".
Chillwave loosely emulates 1980s electropop and engages with notions of memory and nostalgia. It was one of the first music genres to develop primarily through the Internet. The term was coined in 2009 by the satirical blog Hipster Runoff to describe indie acts whose sounds resembled incidental music from 1980s VHS tapes. Its most prominent artists were the acts Neon Indian, Washed Out, and Toro y Moi, who gained attention during 2009's "Summer of Chillwave". Washed Out's 2009 track "Feel It All Around" remains the best-known chillwave song.
The term was criticized for being nebulous and contrived by various media publications, while the music was often derided for its reliance on nostalgia. Some artists rejected the tag, while many exploited the style's low-budget simplicity, which led to an oversaturation of acts. Another Internet-based microgenre, vaporwave, evolved from chillwave.
Most accounts attribute "chillwave" to a July 2009 post written by "Carles", the anonymous manager of the blog Hipster Runoff. The site, which was active between 2008 and 2013, was known for its ironic posts on "alt" trends. Carles used the term to describe a host of similar rising bands. A July 27 post titled "Is WASHED OUT the next Neon Indian/Memory Cassette?" ruminated on a nascent trend involving the "musicsphere" searching for a "new 'authentic, undergroundish product' that isn't a huge brand like AnCo/GrizzBear/etc. ... It seems easiest to have a chill project, that is somewhat 'conceptual' but also demonstrates that ur band has 'pop sensibilities' or something." He proposed a list of genre names, including "Chill Bro Core", "post-AnCo rock", "Conceptual Blog Core", and "post-electro". The post concludes:
Feel like I might call it 'chill wave' music in the future. Feels like 'chill wave' is dominated by 'thick/chill synths' while conceptual core is still trying to 'use real instruments/sound like it was recorded in nature.' Feel like chillwave is supposed to sound like something that was playing in the background of 'an old VHS cassette that u found in ur attic from the late 80s/early 90s.'
Carles later explained that he was "[throwing] a bunch of pretty silly names on a blog post and saw which one stuck." Neon Indian's Alan Palomo surmised that the name stuck "because it was the most dismissive and sarcastic ... the term chillwave came when the era of blog-mediated music was at its height at that time." The term did not gain mainstream currency until early 2010, when it was the subject of articles by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Chillwave was one of the first genres to acquire an identity online. According to writer Garin Pirnia, it is an example of linking musical trends by Internet outlets rather than geographic location. Pirnia wrote in 2010 (quoting Palomo), "Whereas musical movements were once determined by a city or venue where the bands congregated, 'now it's just a blogger or some journalist that can find three or four random bands around the country and tie together a few commonalities between them and call it a genre.'"
--Nitsuh Abebe, Pitchfork, July 2011
Chillwave has been classified as psychedelia,bedroom pop, or electropop. Before the term was invented, chillwave music was described as shoegaze, dream pop,ambient, or indietronica.Pitchforks Nitsuh Abebe writes that, since at least 1992, the style has existed for the same principal reason: "stoned, happy college kids listening to records while they fall asleep." Abebe cites Slowdive, Darla Records' Blissed Out ambient compilations, and Casino Versus Japan's eponymous 1998 album as examples. One of the earliest manifestations of the genre is the Beach Boys' song "All I Wanna Do" from their 1970 album Sunflower.Boards of Canada, whom Abebe says pre-chillwave music was often compared to, were also influential.
Ariel Pink is frequently described as "the godfather of chillwave". He gained recognition in the mid 2000s through a string of self-produced albums, inventing a sound that critic Simon Reynolds called "'70s radio-rock and '80s new wave as if heard through a defective transistor radio, glimmers of melody flickering in and out of the fog". The Paw Tracks record label, which distributed Pink's albums, was run by Animal Collective, who signed Pink after being impressed by a CD of his home recordings, starting with The Doldrums (2000). In 2010, Uncuts Sam Richard profiled Pink as "a lo-fi legend" whose "ghostly pop sound" proved influential to chillwave acts such as Ducktails and Toro y Moi. Discussing chillwave's bedroom pop precursors, Cellars (Allene Norton) believes that Pink is "definitely not chillwave but that kind of stuff influenced a lot of the artists making it, like Washed Out."Dummy Mags Adam Harper disputed Pink's "godfather of chillwave" status, writing that his influence on lo-fi scenes has been somewhat overstated:, and that his music lacks "the mirror-shades-cool synth groove of chillwave ... Pink's albums are zany, personal, largely rock-based and dressed in awkward glam".
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The genre's flourishing between 2008 and 2009 was prefigured by the 2007 album Person Pitch by Animal Collective's Noah Lennox, which is credited with launching the style. The album influenced a wide range of subsequent indie music, with its sound serving as the major inspiration for chillwave and a number of soundalikes. Animal Collective's music also contributed to the movement. Their album Merriweather Post Pavilion, released in January 2009, was particularly influential for its ambient sounds and repetitive melodies, but was not as tightly associated with the "hazy" psychedelia that chillwave would be identified with. According to Flavorwires Tom Hawking, chillwave acts extrapolated "the sort of ill-defined pastoral nostalgia" from Animal Collective's early work "and spun it into an entire genre." However, "Animal Collective were never really part of that scene, such as it was -- they were more like its spiritual overlords".
The 2009 "Summer of Chillwave" was marked by an inundation of artists with names and song titles referencing summertime, the beach, or surfing. Songs were generally of low-to-moderate tempo and incorporated vintage, analog instrumentation that evoked the popular music of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Initially, the "chillwave" tag was subsumed under the "glo-fi" and "hypnagogic pop" labels. Journalist David Keenan coined "hypnagogic pop" a few weeks after "chillwave" was invented to describe a trend of 2000s lo-fi and post-noise music in which varied artists began to engage with elements of cultural nostalgia, childhood memory, and outdated recording technology. While chillwave and hypnagogic pop both evoke 1980s-90s imagery, chillwave has a more commercial sound that emphasizes "cheesy" hooks and reverb effects.
"Feel It All Around" set the template for chillwave. Created mostly from a slowed-down sample of Gary Low's 1983 song "I Want You",RBMAs Sian Rowe wrote that it "has all the things that chillwave would be defined by: lo-fi synths, laid-back filtered-out vocals and disposable camera-style photography that usually involves the beach or anything watery."
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Neon Indian (Alan Palomo), Washed Out (Ernest Greene), and Toro y Moi (Chaz Bundick) were considered to be the vanguard of the chillwave movement. All three were one-man acts from the Southern U.S, while Greene and Bundick were acquaintances and collaborators. Greene's "Feel It All Around" (July 2009) became the best known song of the genre, later to be employed as a backdrop for the opening sequence of the television series Portlandia (2011-2018). Neon Indian's debut Psychic Chasms (October 2009) was another early album that typified the genre, particularly the tracks "Deadbeat Summer", "Terminally Chill", and "Should've Taken Acid With You". Bundick's debut Causers of This (January 2010) drew similar attention for its style of old-fashioned, lo-fi pop. The album was acclaimed by critics and given an early endorsement by Kanye West, which lent the work significantly more popularity. Rolling Stone additionally dubbed Bundick the "godfather of chillwave".
Although it had no specific geographical sourcepoint, chillwave was concentrated in the south and east coast of the US, with Brooklyn, New York figuring the most prominently. Hawking notes that the "fact this was such beach-centric music makes it interesting ... chillwave also strikes me as hugely middle class music. ... whereas punk reacted with anger and a desire for change, chillwave was the sound of escapism and resignation. ... it's surely no coincidence that chillwave's rise coincided with the aftermath of the 2007 sub-prime economic meltdown." Eric Grandy of The Stranger said that the genre's practitioners shared "a kind of fond nostalgia for some vague, idealized childhood. Its posture is a sonic shoulder shrug, a languorous, musical 'whatevs'." Another attempt at identifying the common threads of the scene was offered by Jon Pareles in The New York Times: "They're solo acts or minimal bands, often with a laptop at their core, and they trade on memories of electropop from the 1980s, with bouncing, blipping dance-music hooks (and often weaker lead voices). It's recession-era music: low-budget and danceable."
In November 2009, Pitchfork ran an editorial feature on the "summer of chillwave". The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, who had been compared to Animal Collective, was mentioned as a "looming figure" throughout that summer's indie music. An unnamed editor argued that the similarities were more abstract than musical, and that Wilson's influence stems from his legend as an "emotionally fragile dude with mental health problems who coped by taking drugs. Summertime now is about disorientation: 'Should Have Taken Acid With You'; 'The Sun Was High (And So Am I)'; You take the fantasy of his music-- the cars, the sand, the surf-- add a dollop of melancholy and a smudge of druggy haze, and you have some good music for being alone in a room with only a computer to keep you company."Vultures Frank Guan writes that the evocation of summer is not "as a season of deprivation and loss of control, but [as] a summer spent in suburban quiet and prosperity, chilling indoors alone with central A/C, watching daytime TV or listening to music."
Vaporwave is a microgenre of electronic music that originated as an ironic variant of chillwave. It was loosely derived from the work of hypnagogic artists such as Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, which was characterized by the invocation of retro popular culture as well as the "analog nostalgia" of the chillwave scene. Amplifying the experimental tendencies of hypnagogic pop, vaporwave is cleanly produced and composed almost entirely from samples. Early incarnations of the genre relied on sources such as smooth jazz, retro elevator music, R&B, and dance music from the 1980s and 1990s, along with the application of slowed-down chopped and screwed techniques, looping, and other effects. One of its many descriptions that were levied by online forums was "chillwave for Marxists", as it is often associated with an ambiguous or satirical take on consumer capitalism and popular culture. Vaporwave found wider appeal over the middle of 2012, building an audience on sites like Last.fm, Reddit, and 4chan. A wealth of its own subgenres and offshoots--some of which deliberately gesture at the genre's non-seriousness--soon followed.
Chillwave reached its peak in mid-2010, the same year it was received with widespread criticism. Some of the common descriptors used for the music in reviews or blog posts became clichés, including "soundscapes", "dreamy", "lush", "glowing", and "sun-kissed". The Village Voices Christopher Weingarten remarked in December 2009 that "90 percent of writing about glo-fi mentions 'the summer' in some fashion. And summer's been over for, like, four months now." One unnamed Pitchfork writer opined: "This music isn't easy to write about. It takes a lot of work to get past 'soundtrack to the summer' and 'makes me want to hit the beach.' So much of this summer-obsessed lo-fi is about atmosphere and feel that it can seem weird to scrutinize it." George McIntire of the San Francisco Bay Guardian described chillwave's origin as in the "throes of the blogosphere" and called the term a "cheap, slap-on label used to describe grainy, dancey, lo-fi, 1980s inspired music" and a "disservice to any band associated with it." In 2011, Carles said it was "ridiculous that any sort of press took it seriously" and that although the bands he spoke to "get annoyed" by the tag, "they understand that it's been a good thing. What about iTunes making it an official genre? It's now theoretically a marketable indie sound."
The chillwave scene ultimately "withered and died". One major reason was a sudden oversaturation of artists, which came as a consequence of its simple production process. Writing in the New Times Broward-Palm Beach, Reed Fischer referred to Pitchforks negative review of Millionyoung's "perfectly fine album" Replicants (2011) as a declaration of the genre's demise.Grantlands Dave Schilling argued that the term was created to reveal "how arbitrary and meaningless" existing labels such as "shoegaze" and "dream pop" were. He explained that chillwave "was a parody of a scene, both a defining moment for the music blogosphere and the last gasp. Sites like Gorilla vs. Bear and Pitchfork bought into it for a while, and sincere think pieces in traditional media publications like The Wall Street Journal asked, 'Is Chillwave the Next Big Music Trend?' It never could have been a proper trend, because it was transparently manufactured."
As of 2015, the majority consensus was that chillwave was a fabricated non-genre. In 2016, Palomo described labels like "chillwave" and "vaporwave" as "arbitrary" and that he "couldn't have been more happy" about the "chillwave" descriptor falling out of favor. Toro y Moi's Chaz Bundick publicly expressed ambivalence toward the genre, saying, "I like the fact that I'm associated with it. It's cool. Not a lot of artists get a chance to be a part of some sort of movement, so I guess in a way I'm super flattered to be considered a part of that." In 2015, Fitzmaurice reflected that the "holy triumvurate" of Washed Out, Toro y Moi, and Neon Indian had maintained their careers in spite of the genre's decline. Tom Hawking predicted that the "chillwave era will most likely be a footnote to musical history, a faint flaring of middle class angst in a frightening time for everyone. But that doesn't mean it's not worth examining regardless, because its simple existence says far more about a generation than the music itself ever did."
KEY ARTISTS: Neon Indian, Washed Out, Toro y Moi
Ambient chillwave maestro Tycho always has his head in the clouds -- something the man also known as Scott Hansen takes as quite the compliment.
Electronic jam band Lotus and chillwave producer Tycho performed at Red Rocks on Saturday, September 17.