Music by VICE

Chillwave Was the First Great Genre of the Internet Era

A guide to the best songs from the late-aughts movement of hazy pop artists like Toro y Moi, Washed Out, and more.

by Colin Joyce; illustrated by Hunter French
Aug 23 2019, 1:04pm

Illustration by Hunter French

Chillwave, at least as a term, started as a joke. Ten years since the net-pop genre's biggest summer, that part of its history is well remembered. Blog-provocateur-cum-cultural-critic Carles coined the genre in a post of July 2009, weighing the merits of a whispery, electronic producer and songwriter performing under the name Washed Out. But what isn't as well documented are the names he almost chose: "Chill Bro Core," "Pitchforkwavegaze," "forkshit," and "CumWave," among other quasi-contemptuous titles.

The blog was, like many of Carles' pet ideas, was as much a roast as it was a trend piece. He was astute in his observation that in mid-2009, the indie blogosphere was in search of, as he called it, "a new 'authentic, undergroundish product,'" and that this crew of loosely affiliated producers of nostalgist electronic music were poised to capitalize on this desire. But what he probably couldn't have predicted then, even if spiteful irony wasn't the tone of his blog writ large, was just how resonant and enduring this little genre he coined would be.

None of the artists that Carles identified in that article—Washed Out, Neon Indian, and Memory Cassette—especially identified with the winking moniker that he applied to them. The music they made came from a more sincere, heartfelt place than that, but he was right to group them together. Each had their own set of aesthetic touchstones, but there was something that united those artists' earliest works, a knack for warm melodies, colorful synthesizer work, and a muffled production aesthetic that sort of sounded like every track was being played out of the built in speakers on a CRTV.

Those artists, along with peers like Toro y Moi—who would ultimately, arguably, have the most success out of any of the first crew of chillwave artists—also shared similar themes in their work. They sung of disaffection and loss, of distance from the world and the things it requires of you. Neon Indian sung memories of summers gone by, of trips not taken. Washed Out wrote songs about the crushing weight of indecision. On one early song, Toro y Moi sighed a couplet about the existential malaise of underemployment ("I found a job, I do it fine / Not what I want, but still I try"). They tapped into real emotions without ever trying too hard.

Part of the reason these artists resonated so hard was timing. As the critic Larry Fitzmaurice wrote for VICE back in 2015, these artists and their fans were dealing with the hangover of a decade of trauma. People like Washed Out's Ernest Greene—who was 27 in 2009—came of age in a decade that, as Fitzmaurice wrote, began with 9/11, then continued to include "the Iraq war, multiple financial recessions, and the inability to avoid the constant stream of horrific and dispiriting public events that the information age provides." Greene himself started Washed Out when the post-recession job market boxed him out of a gig as a librarian. This was music that was meant to deal with the hangover of a generation with nowhere to go and nothing to do. That's what the fuzzy production and the grainy VHS filters were all about, anyway. It was a way to pretend that they were in any time other than the present, in any place other than here.

Ten years later, chillwave's echoes are still reverberating. Some of the smaller acts have called it quits, or moved onto other projects, and some of the stars may have pushed their projects in new directions. But as we barrel toward another recession and the world becomes ever more overwhelming, the escapist bent of the music is still powerful. It's still nice to hear someone in your ear saying that they don't really understand all this shit, either. Not to mention, the whole idea of chill music as a mode of escapism has exploded in the decade since the chillwave boom. Ambient music is more popular than ever, and the last couple of years have seen the rise of YouTube channels that promise "lo-fi chill beats to study to," all of which essentially copy chillwave's woozy tape-warped aesthetic, minus the singing. With that in mind, it's as good a time as any to look back at the hazed tracks that started it all.

The Best Songs That Inspired Chillwave

As novel as its nostalgic production and sighing energy may have felt at the time, chillwave didn't emerge from the ooze of the internet on its own. Critics and bloggers at the time rightfully pinned some of the seasick sounds of the genre on a wave of woozy experimental pop that came before it in the mid-aughts, led by Animal Collective and their now defunct label Paw Tracks. Like a lot of chillwave, Animal Collective made a version of pop music that felt warped by the weird headspaces of isolation. It was idiosyncratic and woozy—a song could be all choruses or no choruses, it could be clouded over in tape hiss or reverb.

It's easy to hear how the approach of records like Feels and Strawberry Jam—and especially Panda Bear's 2007 album Person Pitch—bore out on the early releases from the likes of Washed Out and Toro y Moi. Before their more mainstream breakthrough on Merriweather Post Pavilion, AnCo's music had a bit of a splatter-painted feel to it, a carefully planned randomness that felt gestural and alive. Chillwave picked up on a lot of that spirit; they just channeled it more clearly through synth sequences and drum machines—their canvases are still Pollock-esque, just with a little more neon.

In retrospect, it's easy to hear a lot more experimentally minded influences in chillwave. Writing for Stereogum earlier this year, Ian Cohen gestured at the phasing ambience of Boards of Canada, Fennesz's warm glitches, and the hand-worn beatwork of J Dilla's Donuts as possible antecedents to the sound. No doubt, the crew of geographically disparate homebodies who got famous because of the internet would have been familiar with critically beloved experimentalists. But if the influence is there, it's more in sound than in spirit. At their core, chillwave acts made pop music, so they were applying those sounds more to dance music, shoegaze tropes, the skeletons of quiet storm, or to brittle funk rhythms. Even at its most cloudy, it was rooted in song-like forms.

Ariel Pink—who released a handful of albums on Paw Tracks—looms large over the scene. He's maybe better known now for prankster jingles and courting controversy in interviews, but his efforts back then were scuzzy, perfect pop songs, AM Radio Gold broadcasted from another dimension where the Doobie Brothers did dirtier drugs. Even if any of the chillwave artists weren't explicitly calling back to minor Pink masterpieces like Worn Copy, his productions primed the ears of listeners to accept pop songs that sounded almost underwater. Chillwave's artists didn't really pick up on his jokier, more surreal inclinations, but they latched onto the sound, the idea that pop music needed to be a little scuffed up and wrong. It needed to be more real.

Playlist: Panda Bear, "Take Pills" / Boards of Canada, "Sherbert Head" / Ariel Pink, "Among Dreams" / J Dilla, "Don't Cry" / Fennesz, "Caecilia" / Ariel Pink, "Every Night I Die at Miyagis" / Flying Lotus, "Auntie's Lock/Infinitum" / Animal Collective, "Banshee Beat" / Ariel Pink, "Immune to Emotion"

The Best Washed Out Songs

A flurry of blog-popular artists across the late aughts laid the groundwork for chillwave's sound, but the scene's first star started his project out of desperation and boredom. A musician from Georgia named Ernest Greene was unable to find a job applying his advanced degree in library sciences, so he moved back in with his parents and started producing low-key, warped pop music. The tone of the music—upbeat, but full of longing—was a way of dealing with the weird feelings that accompanied that shift in his life.

"I don't think it's an exciting thing to move back in with your parents," Greene told Creative Loafing in 2010. "It wasn't exactly depression, but it was some level of failure that I was dealing with. The melodies, those lyrics, they're reminding myself to remain positive. I really didn't have much going for me."

So millennial burnout was part of the project's DNA from the start. Greene has said he never intended to release his music, and then, when he eventually did, that he didn't really plan on touring because he was "trying to get settled into married life." By all accounts, his approach to the music world was sensitive and insular, and his music was, too. Early tapes like High Times and Life of Leisure were full of pop songs sung through ghostly mumbles. It was music that felt regretful and muted, even when he was singing vague self-affirmations, like on "New Theory," on which he assures himself, "your choice was right."

As time went on, Greene's vision got a bit more expansive. His proper debut album, 2011's Within and Without, was more vaporous and lush, a little closer to a Cocteau Twins record than the synth pop his work might have been echoing before. His music has trended in that direction since, but it's never lost that central conflict that drove him to start the project to begin with. From its conception, he was a master of capturing muddled headspaces, which is what makes so much of chillwave so resonant to this day. It's music about feeling bummed out, but not really wanting to burden other people with those feelings. You just sit and stew in them, and dream of better days.

Playlist: "Feel It All Around" / "Phone Call" / "New Theory" / "I've Been Daydreaming My Entire Life" / "Amor Fati" / "You and I" / "It's Kate's Birthday" / Small Black, "Despicable Dogs (Washed Out Remix)" / "Lately"

The Best Toro y Moi Songs

Chaz Bear was home-recording off-kilter songs under the name Toro y Moi from the time he was a teen, but his proper entry into the world of chillwave came in 2010. After some time collaborating with Greene, and a couple of collections of dizzy demos that made their way around music blogs, he released his debut Causers of This, which remains one of the genre's finest full-length statements. Bear has said he'd stopped trying to write music "metaphorically and poetically," and instead poured out his emotion in this diaristic, straightforward way. He sings about the confusion and loneliness of life in the internet age, of desperately searching for connection, and mourning when he fails to. It's low-lit and ambient at points, perfect for late night drives away from the people you love. It's everything chillwave was striving to be, and it was also arguably the last thing Bear did was actually within the boundaries of chillwave.

Around the time he released Causers of This, Bear was already talking about his next album, on which he'd ditch electronics for more worldly sounds. In 2011, that album— Underneath the Pine—finally surfaced, and it lived up to its billing. Bear did more or less ditch the Ableton theatrics of his debut in favor of woodsy folk, limber funk workouts, and the dizzy psychedelia that'd turn him into an underground hero, beloved by Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean, and all sorts of other left-of-center pop stars. His work only got more ambitious from there, but he never abandoned the emotional core that informed Causers of This. His most recent album Outer Peace still deals with the doldrums of existence. "Ordinary Pleasure" is the one you'll want to listen to to understand the wiser-than-his-years disposition he's cultivated from the very beginning. There's an elastic funk groove, but he's emotionally just trying to stay afloat. "Nothing can make it better," he sings. "Maximize all the pleasure."

Playlist: "Blessa" / "So Many Details" / "Thanks VIsion" / "Talamak" / "Ordinary Pleasure" / "You Hid" / "New Beat" / "Freelance" / "Cola" / "Spell It Out"

The Best Neon Indian Songs

Even from the beginning, Alan Palomo, the songwriter and producer behind Neon Indian, had a little bit more of a widescreen approach than his peers. While his subject matter was similar (lazy summers, psychedelic drugs, sitting around in a "lovesick haze"), his music was a little more colorful, a little less muted. Most of the lo-fi productions of early chillwave stuff had an oversaturated, Instagram-filter quality, but Neon Indian's kaleidoscopic synth work felt like real-deal film grain. The synthesizer sounds he used were richer, the sequences a little more complicated.

Psychic Chasms, Neon Indian's 2009 debut, was the first full-length from any of chillwave's big three, and it still stands as one of the best. The songs have this blissed emptiness to them lyrically, but Palomo's productions feel full of life and love—it's rich in a way you wouldn't necessarily expect. As time went on, he only dreamt bigger. Follow-ups, like 2011's Era Extraña and 2015's VEGA INTL. Night School, furthered his dedication to weirdo synth pop, but from an auteurist standpoint. Palomo has since collaborated with the Flaming Lips, which is honestly not a bad frame of reference for understanding the scope of his music. What they did to 90s indie rock, he's done to the sounds that the chillwave artists were inspired by—he made them feel vibrant, larger than life, and anthemic. It's no wonder he ultimately ended up with a credit on a Terrance Malick film; his musical work has embraced grandeur on that scale.

Playlist: "Terminally Chill" / "Deadbeat Summer" / "Annie" / "Polish Girl" / "Should Have Taken Acid With You" / "Slumlord" / "Hex Girlfriend" / "Local Joke" / "Halogen (I Could Be a Shadow)"

The Best of the Rest

The music internet was different ten years ago. A big part of what fueled the rise of chillwave before it got the institutional support of bigger music websites—and then eventually, like, The Wall Street Journal—was a robust ecosystem of blogs run by passionate music fans, who'd dig through the internet for new weird shit that they loved. That whole blogosphere was what Carles started Hipster Runoff to skewer, but its existence felt important then. There were so many places that curious listeners could go to find great new music that nobody else had ever heard, and so many places for new artists to gain a foothold in an ever-confusing industry. It felt like a time of abundance, a fulfillment of the promise of democratizing power of the internet.

The aforementioned "big three" were just a few of the people who were able to leverage blog success into legitimate—and lasting—places within the independent music world. But part of the joy of the internet then was that for every Neon Indian, there were 10 more artists felt just as inspiring and lively. In retrospect, some of that enthusiasm was probably born from the novelty of the whole exercise, of being able to connect with other people yelling about great weird music online, but there was some legitimately incredible music that sprung forth from this world.

In chillwave alone, there were dozens of other artists that were as great as the above. The Philadelphia artist Dayve Hawk—who recorded as Memory Tapes, Memory Cassette, and Weird Tapes—was an early formative act on the scene. As his many monikers suggested, his take on the sound was decidedly analog and gritty, full of unexpected, slipshod melodies that had this first-take-best-take energy to them. His career stalled out at the turn of the decade, but his early works are still otherworldly.

The Brooklyn band Small Black had an early tape of no-fi pop songs that still contains some of the most affecting ballads of the era, chillwave aside. They eventually moved toward their destiny of making cinematic New Order-ish dance pop, suggesting that their involvement with chillwave was more incidental than intentional.

Those are still among the genre's bigger names, though; there's a host of others whose names were moderately popular in the blog world, but now feel like a portal to another time just to read: Blackbird Blackbird, MillionYoung, Sun Glitters, Keep Shelly in Athens, Slow Magic, Big Spider's Back, Chad Valley.

The blog era ultimately faded, as did institutional support for the broader community of hazy music like this. But you can still hear it out there, in music both big and small, if you listen for it. As a new generation of lo-fi indie rock acts trades their guitars for synthesizers—and as some of the biggest pop stars in the world embrace low-key, handworn sounds—it's easy to see chillwave's lasting influence. It was a joke, and then its most famous artists turned their back on it to do something else, but it changed the way music sounded, anyway.

Playlist: Small Black, "Despicable Dogs" / Small Black, "Lady in the Wires" / Memory Tapes, "Bicycle" / Millionyoung, "Hammock" / Blackbird Blackbird, "Pure" / Big Spider's Back, "Black Chow" / Memoryhouse, "Lately" / Keep Shelly in Athens, "Campus Martius" / Gold Panda, "You" / Teen Daze, "Shine On, You Crazy White Cap"

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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Toro Y Moi
Chillwave
Washed Out
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