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The beginner's guide to: chillwave

Toro y Moi
(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

In a previous genre retrospective we explored the retro world of synthwave, a visual aesthetic and lifestyle wrapped in an ’80s-inspired musical genre.

In a very millennial, internet-driven process that embodies the formation of music trends in today’s always-online world, synthwave spawned a craze for further ‘wave’ genres. Here, we investigate one of the most popular.

Regular readers know we like genres whose genesis can be pinned down to an exact moment. The term chillwave was coined by a writer known simply as ‘Carles’, aka Texas native Carlos Perez, founder of music blog Hipster Runoff.

Launched in 2007, it was part of a broader blog scene at the time, when new music could be broken by bloggers and the influential aggregator site Hype Machine. With one of the most distinctive voices of the scene, HRO was tongue-in-cheek, and obsessed by the ‘relevance’ of hip music acts.

In a July 2009 post on then-new act Washed Out, Carles asked: “Is WASHED OUT the next Neon Indian/Memory Cassette?” Searching for a suitable term for this new style of dreamy retro-pop, he surmised: “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.”

As genre names go, chillwave is actually fairly tame compared to some of Carles’ other suggestions in a stream-of-consciousness list of borderline gibberish ideas. Alternative options included Chill Bro Core, Kewl Boring Music, Music 2 smoke weed 2, Synth Computer Pop Atmospheric Wave, WaveWave, Pitchforkwavegaze, Forkshit and ZanyCore and more.

Chillwave stuck as a term to describe this more indie-focused synthwave cousin, a retro sound with roots in similar ’80s electro-pop to synthwave, but with a more psychedelic aesthetic than the polished neon sheen of synthwave.

Drawing on similarly retro ’80s synth influences, chillwave also took in the lo-fi indie pop of songwriters like Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, the smudged, blurred sonics of shoegaze and the abstract, nostalgic psychedelia of Animal Collective.

In a flurry of activity that seems remarkably organic considering the overtly artificial way the genre was defined and created by Carles, 2009 and early 2010 saw the release of definitive chillwave albums including Memory Tapes’ Seek Magic, Toro y Moi’s Causers Of This and Neon Indian’s Psychic Chasms.

By mid 2010, and following broader coverage from publications like Pitchfork and The Wall Street Journal, chillwave had become a genuine trend.

Fittingly, the chillwave trend declined almost as quickly as it had been dreamed up by Carles, driven in no small part by the very same online media that drove its initial success.

Within months, music blogs and websites were voicing predictably contrary opinions that chillwave was over and the style had reached saturation point.

Just eight months after that original Hipster Runoff post, The New York Times’ ArtBeat blog ran a review of Austin, Texas’s South By Southwest festival, writing chillwave off as “annoyingly noncommittal music, backing droopy vocals with impersonal sounds – a hedged, hipster imitation of the pop [the artists are] not brash enough to make”.

The Village Voice replied with an article entitled In Defense of Chillwave, a war of words that highlighted just how quickly trends can change in the 21st century. Perhaps inevitably, a genre invented as a tongue-in-cheek parody of new genres burned itself out within years.

Three chillwave essentials

Washed Out – Feel It All Around, 2009

Arguably the definitive chillwave track. Released on the Life Of Leisure EP, this dreamy chugger found a broader audience as the opening theme for Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s hit TV show Portlandia, a comedy series which, fittingly for chillwave and its Hipster Runoff origins, spoofs millennial hipster life.

Retro synthpop credentials are further solidified by the fact that Feel It All Around samples the 1983 single I Want You by Italo-disco singer Gary Low.

Neon Indian – Should Have Taken Acid With You, 2009

None more lo-fi, Alan Palomo’s kitschy psychedelic pop chops are at the forefront on this simple love letter-cum-apology to an ex. In less than two and a half minutes, all the key features of chillwave are ticked off: simple, catchy pop melodies, stoned psychedelia, swirling synths and dreamy lyrics: “Should have taken acid with you/ Touch the stars and the planets too… Melt our tongues and become unglued… Take our clothes off in the swimming pool…”

The Beach Boys – All I Wanna Do, 1970

Long considered an influence on shoegaze and dream-pop of the early ’90s, this deep cut from the Beach Boys’ 1970 album Sunflower was cited as an inspiration by Toro y Moi.

Described by Brian Wilson as “a boring song”, the haunting tune has an endearingly psychedelic arrangement including 12-string guitar, Moog modular synth and the rare Rocky Mountain Instruments Rock-Si-Chord, a quirky electric harpsichord which offered strings, cembalo, lute and guitar. 

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