The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Subgenre of the Week: Chillwave

We live in an age where our postmodern sensibilities have translated into flourishing musical creativity. This, paired with the death of radio, has lead to the creation of nearly every subgenre imaginable. But how do you keep track of them all? Each week, we here at the Quest do our best to help you make sense of all this alternativeness.

It’s August 1989, and you’ve just gotten off a six-hour Sega Genesis binge. The afternoon weather is quite balmy, so you decide to make your way outside and roll a fatass blunt with one of dad’s good cigarillos. The chillness evoked by such a scene is at the very heart of chillwave, a subgenre of electronic that has risen in popularity since the late-aughts.

Chillwave is best described as house on Xanax: you take that danceably disco kick-snare combo, slow it down to about 90 BPM, and distort the shit out of your treble and mid sections. Importantly, chillwave has a distinct lo-fi sound attached to it, one that stays remarkably true to its ‘80s roots. Most chillwave is reminiscent of early synthpop (see “Low Vision”), new wave (see “New Theory”), shoegaze (see “Sunspray”), and even 16/32-bit videogame music (see “Mind Drips”). Sprinkle in some ambient and psychedelia, and you’ve got something profoundly—no, terminally—chill.

The production of chillwave music is remarkably economical. It usually involves no more than one guy, a laptop, and a treasure trove of retro samples. Interestingly though, chillwave producers like Alan Palomo of Neon Indian and Dayve Hawk of Memory Tapes employ full bands to recreate their music live.

Revival of ‘80s alternative is a characteristic chillwave shares with recent indie stuff—though it is markedly more derivative of electronic than indie proper—so listeners keen on hearing some really avant-garde shit may find themselves slightly disappointed, if not apathetic. As one user put it on, “Chillwave: boring but listenable indie shit, occasionally punctuated with moments of something amazing.” Check out some of our recommended tracks below and decide for yourself.

Choi’s Chillwave Faves:

Blackbird Blackbird

Memory Tapes


“Terminally Chill”
Neon Indian

“Mind Drips”
Neon Indian

“Bad Lover”
Small Black

“Thanks Vision”
Toro Y Moi

“New Theory”
Washed Out

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