If you are an average music listener, it’s easy to look at the charts from the last decade and think that the 2010’s was an era entirely dominated by the likes of Drake, Taylor Swift, and 21 Savage. Once, men with unreasonably long hair and tight leather pants reigned havoc on the world of music listeners, and dominated the music scene. These days are behind us now (thankfully), and besides the occasional arena-ready rock duo and Led Zeppelin cover band that manages to break into the mainstream, rock is no longer the cultural zeitgeist that it once was. Hip hop has dominated the culture in rock’s wake (sparking enough memes and viral dances to leave many a grandpa cursing millennial internet culture), but often overlooked is the slew of underground genres that have also flourished. Today’s music is ultimately more diverse than it has ever been, and the wider array of voices available to music listeners makes it stronger than it has ever been.
I will save the Death Grips and Swans article for another day, but one genre that has seen a remarkable explosion of creativity from lesser-known artists over the last decade is Neo-Psychedelia (or Neo-Psych, if you are true indie-trash). It’s origins date back to the psychedelic music of the 1960’s, with bands such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Pink Floyd. Neo-Psych really took off in the 1990’s and 2000’s with artists like the The Flaming Lips, Of Montreal, and Animal Collective, who were able to incorporate musical elements from the 1960’s into their music and create something wholly new. Fast forward to today- Logic has a Mac DeMarco tattoo, and John Mayer has compared Tame Impala’s most recent album to classics by Radiohead. What is Neo-Psych, and why has it become so damn popular?
Neo-Psychedelia is characterized by its dense production, unusual sound palette, and trance-inducing melodies. Artists create emotionally lush soundscapes, using swirling synths and electric guitars to create a wall of sound that is both otherworldly and catchy. Lyrics are often love struck yet melancholic, detached yet free, with artists looking stoned into the oblivion of themselves. Neo-Psych exists for both pleasure and pondering, a late night party with your closest friends while the world is on fire around you. You can’t solve all of the world’s problems, so why not invite your best friend over to vibe out once in a while?
If this sounds like something you (or a friend that you know) might be interested in, below are four of the most influential Neo-Psych artists of the 2010’s. They continue to produce great albums, and have an out sized impact on the world of popular music today:
1) Tame Impala
Hailing from Australia, Tame Impala knows how to dish up dizzying production that makes you lose your connection to reality. Almost all of the music of Tame Impala is written and recorded by Kevin Parker, a talented multi-instrumentalist. Kevin Parker’s vocals at times have an eerie resemblance to John Lennon of The Beatles, but he is perhaps most skilled at producing funky (and phat) bass lines.
Tame Impala’s first two albums, Innerspeaker (2010) and Lonerism (2012), have sounds that harken back to the psychedelic bands of the Sixties and Seventies. Innerspeaker is a bluesy homage to the bands of ole’ that influenced them, but on Lonerism they bring their vintage sound into the 21st century. Deploying a slew of synths, guitars and sound effects, Kevin Parker creates walls of sound that would make Phil Spector cry. Songs like “Elephant” and “Keep On Lying” breakdown into gorgeous, hypnotic jams midway through their run times, while others like “Apocalypse Dreams” and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” are spaced-out pop odysseys. Don’t even get me started on how genius the drum line on “Mind Mischief” or the fuzzed-out guitar outro on “Endors Toi” is either. Lonerism is a phenomenal album about the limits of what is possible when you give yourself the freedom to let go and be weird.
What really solidifies their place as one of the greatest bands of this decade, however, is their follow-up record, Currents (2015), which saw Parker take the style of Tame Impala into a whole new direction. Gone were the guitar-based tracks and Beatles worship—in its place stand heavy, blissful synths that drive the sound of Currents. Tracks like “The Moment” or “Yes I’m Changing” go by with nary a guitar to be heard; on others like “Let It Happen” and “New Person, Same Old Mistakes”, the guitar is enveloped in so many effects and other sounds that the listener is lucky to even recognize it as such. The synth tones on this album are colorful yet powerful, truly standing as some of the best ever produced. There are few people who could pull off the radical shift in sound that Tame Impala did on this album, managing to not alienate fans and also create one of the best songs of the decade. Since the release of this album, everyone from A$AP Rocky to Lady Gaga to Travis Scott have taken notice of Kevin Parker and Tame Impala. With rumors of a new Tame Impala album on the way soon, the most exciting part is that there is no telling where Kevin Parker will take us next. Go see this band live if you get the chance—you won’t regret it one bit.
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2) Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Photo by Kyleigh Pitcher
Have you ever thought about what your dreams would sound like if they were translated by an alien and then played through lo-fi speakers 1000 feet below the surface of the Earth? Me neither, but that’s the sound that Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) brought to the table when they first broke onto the music scene in 2011. Their first two albums, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and II, are lo-fi gems that get by on melodic guitars and heartfelt vocals, with catchy songwriting that helps make cuts like “Ffunny Ffriends”, “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)”, and “So Good at Being in Trouble” stand out. These are often quiet, economical records, but with just enough bells and whistles surrounding singer Ruban Nielson and his guitar to keep the listener engaged.
UMO really came into their own on their outstanding third album, Multi-Love (2015), however, featuring far more layers of instrumentation than their previous two albums. The ‘psychedelic’ factor is turned up to ten, and the bolder instrumentation creates a blissful wall of effects over which Nielson sings his most impassioned and memorable lyrics to date. The instrumentation on the album is bold, featuring fantastic instrumental indulgences that make the songs truly special, like horn sections from Nielson’s father. The album came to fruition during an emotionally tumultuous time in Nielson’s life, when him and his wife were experimenting with a polyamorous relationship. While songs like “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” and “Like Acid Rain” might seem like nothing more than eccentric pop songs, a closer examination reveals a darker dimension that explores the new terms by which ‘normalcy’ exists in modern society. On “Necessary Evil”, Nielson creates a foreboding musical backdrop that perfectly conveys the uncertainty that pervades from the contradictions of modern life. All of this adds up to Multi-Love being one of the most enthralling Neo-Psychedelia albums of the 2010’s, and a true tour-de-force of the genre.
Their fourth album, Sex & Food, seemed to opt for a more minimalist approach, and pulled things back on the instrumental adventurousness. This undoubtedly disappointed some fans of Multi-Love, but in many ways it also brought the band closer to the quieter, simpler sound of their first two albums. The hefty fuzz of “Major League Chemicals” and the blissful pop of “Everybody Acts Crazy Nowadays” are both memorable and worthwhile additions to UMO’s canon. The true standout, however, is the absurdly funky “Hunnybee”, a track Nielson wrote about his daughter. It feels like Nielson let himself go on this track, with the groove reverberating loudly throughout, and the song featuring the only guitar solo on the album (which is amazing). While Sex & Food may not be UMO’s best record, it seems to capture the band in an interesting transition period that will hopefully lead to more breathtaking and well-realized music in the future.
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3) Mac DeMarco
Photo by Jasper Rain
Oh, Mac DeMarco, where to begin? Mac DeMarco is an unapologetic, working class slacker. He is perhaps best known online for his his status as a god-tier meme, which derives from his biting sense of humor that seeps into his interviews and live-performances. On-stage he will often inexplicably strip down to his underwear, or pepper his most emotive ballads with strange animalistic yelps. Mac has charisma that rivals Barack Obama, and the ability to rip the guitar like Stephen Stills. It seems as though he could do both of these all the time in his sleep, but instead he chooses to keep both his music and demeanor simple and inviting, and then color it with exhilarating bursts of eccentricity.
You never quite know what you are going to get with Mac DeMarco, except that he is going to be himself. His first to albums, 2 (2012) and Salad Days (2014), are full of suburban jangle pop, sounding like the soundtrack to you and your favorite band of Stand By Me-esque high school friends in the malaise of a restless Sunday. This is where his awe-inspiring and unique guitar tone first really comes into its own. “Ode to Viceroy” and “Freaking Out the Neighborhood” are impassioned love songs to his favorite brand of cigarettes, and sarcastic apologies to his mother for not being the upstanding citizen she hoped he grow up to be, respectively. “Let Her Go” and “Treat Her Better” implore people to be more responsible lovers, and “My Kind of Woman” and “Chamber of Reflection” cover both the meteoric highs and heartbreaking lows of our most satisfying and personal relationships.
On his most recent album, This Old Dog (2017), Mac allows himself to get more indulgent and moves away from the jangles that made him an indie sensation, and focuses on his relationship with his estranged father who was recently diagnosed with cancer. “Moonlight on the River” is a morbid exploration of his feelings surrounding the prospect of his father’s death, before breaking apart into a lengthy, psychedelic ocean of sounds. “On the Level” is a slow motion terror of a song that deals with the frightening weight of living in the jagged shadow of his father, a theme that is also explored on “My Old Man”. Not all of the songs are about his father though. “This Old Dog”, “For The First Time”, and “Still Beating” all seem connected to each other, beautiful and heart wrenching songs about Mac’s unwillingness to let himself let go and forget about a woman that he clearly cared deeply for, even after she leaves him and breaks his heart. All of these elements add up to an emotionally poignant album that sees Mac bare even more of his soul to the world. Even when he is down, Mac still finds a way to be captivating and wholly his own. There is no one quite like Mac DeMarco.
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4) King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
Apparently, psychedelic music is Oceania’s newest number one export. Seriously, what is in the water, what are people feeding their children in Australia and New Zealand?
King Gizzard is the fourth and final band on this list, and yet another hailing from the Land Down Under. King Gizz has been at it since 2012, and are wildly prolific. In 2017, they released five albums (yep, you read that right, too), yet somehow managed to make them all unique and high quality releases. Their sound is generally much more punk and rock influenced than the other artists on this list, but the band is hard to quantify due to outliers in their discography like Paper Mache Dream Balloon (2015), which is a bright, folk pop album. Confused? I am too. All I know is the music, which is damn good.
Since their formation in 2010, they have released thirteen albums. Their discography cannot be called anything less than eclectic: on their first album, 12 Bar Bruise (2012), King Gizz takes on a relatively simple, high-speed garage punk vibe (see “Muckracker”). By their third album, Float Along – Fill Your Lungs (2013), they were writing fifteen minute, sitar-driven psych jams. Quite the progression. In 2014 they were back to adrenaline pumping punk on In Your Mind Fuzz, followed by the aforementioned Paper Mache Dream Balloon, which kicks off with the jaw-droppingly beautiful and catchy “Sense”. Then in 2016 came Nonagon Infinity, which is by far their most heart-pounding and frantic album. The 41 minute album sounds like one giant, never ending acid trip from hell. Literally though, because the band made the beginning and end of the album segue perfectly into one another so that it traps the listener in an eternal ‘nonagon of infinity’. Yikes.
Then, in 2017, because eight albums in four years apparently wasn’t good enough for King Gizzard, they went and dropped five albums onto the music world. They began the onslaught with the excellent Flying Microtonal Banana in February, which includes the riveting “Rattlesnake” and features a whole slew of bagpipes on the album. Who doesn’t like the occasional bagpipes thrown into their weirdo psych music? Then after that they made a sci-fi spoken word punk album (no drugs were taken during the making of this album), a chillwave-jazz record in collaboration with Mild High Club, and finished the year off by exploring progressive rock and doing their best Yes impression. It was a wild year for fans of King Gizzard.
No matter how long you listen to King Gizzard for, the far-reaching bounds to which they take their sound is truly impressive. Their ability to change their sound in so many eclectic directions is what makes them one of the most exciting psychedelic artists out there today. Not every song they release is great, but the sheer scale of what they have pulled off so far is noteworthy. 2018 was a much-needed, quiet year for King Gizzard after 2017. Here’s to hoping that they’re rejuvenating their creative juices so that they can come back with their best album yet. Oh, and did I mention that they have two drummers?
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Over the last decade, it seems that the term ‘psychedelic’ can be used to describe more and more music that is being released. From recent albums from To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar, Cosmogramma by Flying Lotus, and 7 by Beach House, noisy and colorful production that overwhelms the auditory senses is on the rise. Why there seems to be such a re-emergence of this style right now, particularly in rap, is a larger question that is hard to answer. Maybe it’s because of the growing acceptance of psychoactive substances in our society, or the proliferation of new music production technology and the internet. Maybe it’s because people are looking more deeply inward for meaning and answers as everything outward seems to be falling apart. I’m not sure, but that is a question for another time. For now, I’m going to go get lost in some music.
…If you want to join me in the world of Neo-Psych, here is a Spotify playlist that I made of all the songs mentioned in this article, as well as others from Ariel Pink, MGMT, Melody’s Echo Chamber, Foxygen, and more. Enjoy the vibes, stay groovy.