Bandcamp’s Top 100 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Synth
I listened to 89 bands that I’ve never even heard of, then tried to figure out what 2016 was all about.
I am often intrigued, but usually not overly entertained by, other genres of music. Every once in awhile, there is that album that has nothing in common with metal or darkness that blows me away, but there’s so much good metal that I rarely feel the need to branch out. I decided to take a step out of my bubble and check out what Bandcamp, a platform that hosts all kinds of music, thought was “the tops” this year.
For this analysis, I wasn’t really interested in what genres the Bandcamp writers trended towards, but rather the overall feel of the music across the genres. Just for some additional data points to see a correlation, I pigeonholed these very complex and experimental albums into the genre I thought made the most sense. Here’s a little explanation of each genre:
- Metal/Punk – Because of scarcity, I grouped everything that was a little harsh or overtly dark into this genre. There are a few familiar faces in this category.
- Indie/Alt Rock – I expected this one to easily take the cake in regards to quantity since I was particularly ham-fisted when applying this label. I did split out some bands that were more obviously singer/songwriter-ish, but there’s a lot of variety there.
- Hip Hop – This one was pretty easy, except the few R&B crossovers. Anything with fast talking and sick beats.
- World Music – I tried not to use this one too much. I find the term slightly problematic, so if the music fit literally anywhere else, I avoided it. A few were unavoidable.
- Jazz/Fusion – Again I should mention that Bandcamp is a hotbed for experimentation, so there’s very little classical jazz, but some synthy weird stuff fit the bill pretty well.
- R&B – I probably should have lumped this with Hip Hop.
- Country/Blues – I know these things are not the same. Leave me alone.
- Singer/Songwriter – As far as I can tell, these are basically Indie/Alt but more focused on one person and a little chiller.
- Uncategorized – There were a few things that stood mostly alone that I didn’t genre-classify. For the most part, these are electronic-as-a-genre, and I should have made a column for that, but I would have been tempted to put too many albums there where it wouldn’t really prove anything. Of course, electronic music uses electronics heavily. Also, one is a pretty decent classical composition.
While my genre classifications might not be 100% in agreement with what actual fans would choose, what I really wanted to do was to see if there were any trends that spanned all genres. After an initial skimming of the 100, it was tough to really come up with as many “feel” categories as I would have liked. The selection was too broad and I would have ended up with 50 categories with just a handful of albums in each, which would tell me nothing. There was, however, one thing that I became interested in.
As indicated by the title, there is a TON of synth happening on this list. I know music has been trending this way for awhile now, but I think in 2016 we approached peak synth. With the rise of vaporwave, indie rock that wants to throw-back to the 80’s for some reason, and dungeon synth, it’s almost impossible to get away from. I noticed that for the most part, the addition of the synth can do a few things. It can make a song sound futuristic, like living in a chromed-out echo world, or retro, sounding like the Miami Vice theme song. So including the genre, I also marked if each album seemed to rely heavily on synths, if it was trying hard to be futuristic/avant-garde, or if it was a recreation of an older style of music.
What made this super confusing was that the 80’s synth-wave phenomenon was a little bit futuristic in itself, so can something be so retro that it becomes futuristic? After much mental anguish with a few of these bands, I decided that most of them were a throwback. I also included some lo-fi sounding albums in the throwback category, since production is a large part of overall album “feel”, and the relative ease of modern production makes lo-fi an intentionally old-school choice.
Here is my spreadsheet if you want to take a look at the list of 100 artists and my classifications. I also made a filter to organize by genre, if it is easier to look at that way.
My original thesis was that we are doing far too much looking forward and backward, and not enough at the now. With over 50 of the 100 albums using a synth/electronics in a prominent way, and over 60 of the 100 being either futuristic or throwback, it seemed like we were doing anything to avoid our current state. But then again, what is the now? We may not feel like we are in the future, and in fact we may be right about that, but our music may be moving in that direction whether we are ready for it or not.
According to Bandcamp’s metal picks, we are behind the times in this regard. Sure, there are plenty of atmospheric bands and keyboardists that use electronics (and have been for a long time), but not in the same regard. Is it possible that most metal is rebelling against this movement, or is it just something that would be a novelty in our genre? Bands like Sumerlands (#64 on the list) constitute our version of the throwback trend, but what are the future looking subgenres? I can think of a few possibilities, but none of them seem to be a perfect fit. Kayo Dot’s current form fits the overall trend perfectly, but I would be hard pressed to call it metal anymore.
Is the resurgence of synthwave and whacky electronics in other genres just the promise of the 80’s coming true? Back when so many things were still analog, the synth was a fun new toy to mimic a future, but maybe we have approached that future. However, now that we are doing this “future thing” for real, are we just repeating what the past thought the future would be like, instead of forging a natural path?
Interestingly, according to this top 100 list at least, it seems like the dubstep electronic age has mostly disappeared. The one “dance” album that stood out was very chrome-futuristic and not like the EDM scene of 2012. Instead, it looks like we took those electronics, toned them down a bit, and added them to every other genre of music.
I have a lot of questions and very few answers, so I’ll let The Mars Volta speak for me: “Past present and future tense. Clipside of the pinkeye fountain. Now I’m lost. Now I’m lost.”
Did I find anything particularly interesting that I would actually revisit at some point? Probably not. Some of their metal picks were decent, the composition I linked to earlier is pretty good, and Aesop Rock is always a treat, but very little of it really captivated me. Maybe I’m not ready for this glitch-filled weird-for-the-sake-of-weird music the kids are putting out these days. I think the three Bon Iver songs they let me listen to are kinda neat, but also a tad pretentious. Also, the chorus in this 70’s folksy song from Weyes Blood is amazingly catchy. And the song featuring Sam Herring of Future Islands by jazzboys BADBADNOTGOOD is decent. There were a handful that I thought were just awful, but most were tolerable.
I know we have a few fans of some of the weird synth movements here, so what are your thoughts? Is this just another phase, or are we purposefully going to keep making music that sounds like it comes from yesterday’s tomorrow?