Bandcamp’s Top 100 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Synth

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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.

Methodology/Purpose
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.

Findings
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.

bandcamp-100

I had the hardest time classifying these, oddly enough.

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.

Additional Information
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?

Bandcamp Lists: 100-81 | 80-61 | 60-41 | 40-21 | 20-1

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  • Space Monster W.

    A fascinating work. Thanks, Joaquin.

    • Space Monster W.

      Although I do think metal in many ways is guilty of venerating the past a bit too much (RIP Dime, etc.), it seems that nostalgia has largely become the currency of modern pop culture (and maybe it always has been but I didn’t notice it). Older folks are nostalgic for a rose-tinted wholesome America that never really existed. Millennials are nostalgic for the escapism of their childhood. I suspect that currency is largely a driving force for the trends you saw here.

      • GL

        I like the way you articulated your point. I have often pondered the same thing, your words are much more eloquent, though.

        I would like to add that I feel like time tends to idealize the past, making people want to go back to those times, when in reality it was never as good as one remembers. You just tend to forget the worse things and focus on the good. Which, I guess, is a better trait than only remembering the bad things that happened to oneself.

      • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

        Fucking hate nostalgia. It’s for weak-minded people.

        • Óðinn

          Except for nostalgia about long buttz. That’s different.

          • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

            Or hot chicks.

          • Óðinn

            Yes.

      • RJA

        nostalgia is really just “remember when the pressures of adulthood weren’t weighing me down” isn’t it?

        • Space Monster W.

          I think that probably holds true for those in the young adult demographic as a means of escapism.

          It’s kind of tricky. I think most of us are nostalgic for something because we desire comfort. This could be symptomatic of living in a developed country where the majority* of folks don’t have to worry as much about the more basic needs of self.

          • Óðinn

            Yes. It’s often an emotional reaction to personal or anecdotal stories, thoughts and feelings, rather than looking at the facts in aggregate that motivates opinion. For example, many people felt good about Trump recently (and arguably) saving 500 jobs at Carrier, even though it cost the taxpayers if Indiana $7,000,000, and 1,300 jobs are still going to Mexico. Why? Because Trump told them it was great and made it patriotic for the uninformed masses. On the other hand, the Obama administration has seen an unprecedented 85 months of actual job growth, but hardly anybody knows about it because nobody is attaching emotion to the facts.

            Also, the privileged people often view change (or equality) as oppressive.

      • Óðinn
  • I’m a bit over synthwave. Individual songs can be entertaining but entire albums get pretty samey to me.

    HOWEVER, “Dangerous Dreams” by Lebrock (and the EP it came from), with it’s KILLER 80s-dude vocals, rocked my fucking world in 2016!!! <3

    https://youtu.be/lU06Vsw9wgo

    • CyberneticOrganism

      I’m still very much in love with synthwave but I have to be in the right mood for it, i.e., weekend gathering with non-metal friends. Except when that happens, I usually just put this on in the background and everyone becomes too interested to look away.

      https://vimeo.com/167795970

      • We usually put on synthwave when we have boardgame night and shit like that. It’s perfect for it and doesn’t offend the non-metals at the table.

        • CyberneticOrganism

          Try putting that video on sometime ?

    • RustyShackleford

      This is tight. Thanks for sharing homie!

    • Joaquin Stick

      I feel like an old man saying “It all sounds the same to me” but… it kinda does.

    • Owlswald

      You heard Mitch Murder’s The Real Deal? No vocals but it’s super 80’s happy chill. Puts a smile on my face every time.

      EDIT: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwuDpb8ANjQ

    • Óðinn
    • wow bon jovi really got with the times

  • Brutalist_Receptacle

    Good stuff. I follow Metal Bandcamp and Fact Mag does Best of Bandcamp monthly. This is some of the best stuff I got last year: https://apregnantlight.bandcamp.com/album/rocky

    • Space Monster W.

      Despite being so far up his own butt that he’s re-opening fortune cookies from 2015, the dude behind A Pregnant Light writes some tasty jams here and there.

      • Brutalist_Receptacle

        ROCKY IS THE $HIT

        • GL

          Have I ever told you how much I like your name?

          • Brutalist_Receptacle

            Thank you, sir.

  • RustyShackleford

    I agree that it is possible we have reached peak synth in 2016 (or now 2017 whatever). I’m not complaining though. As someone who fell in love with music because of the guitar, I’ve avoided synths for so long and have only just come to love some of the grooviness the toilet has introduced me to (GUNSHIP, Waveshaper…).

    In general, I’m also very interested in the sorta retro-futuristic themes that have gotten more prevalent in the past year. I think the throwback to 80s-ish styles and sounds is something happening in film, tv, and video games as well. These are actually SOME of the things I’m interested in studying when I go back to graduate school lol so I think I’m just sort of fascinated with the trend for some reason. ANYWAY enough of that this is an awesome article. Major props for all the work you put in my man! YEP!

    • CyberneticOrganism

      80s sound/style/synth throwback is definitely a thing in films. I watched The Guest over the weekend and it was packed with an amazing synth score. Same goes for It Follows a couple years ago, fantastic music.

      • RustyShackleford

        I loved It Follows. That soundtrack is super 80s and synthy. I found that particularly interesting because the film itself is not especially an 80s homage (as opposed to a show like Stranger Things, which is a total grab bag of 80s tropes and references). It Follows does something interesting with its setting, as parts of it have a retro feel but then that girl has like a weird clamshell smartphone. I should check out The Guest!

        • CyberneticOrganism

          Definitely do! It’s a very cool watch. And yeah I loved how It Follows had a sort of alternate-retro-timeline thing going on: no years stated but obviously had a clear throwback vibe.

    • Joaquin Stick

      Speaking of games, the Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon game is a hilarious satire of this theme. It was slightly ahead of its time in terms of relevancy I think though (2013).

  • RJA

    Nice work Sir Stick – I like to think I know a lot about music however when I scanned that bandcamp top 100 when it came out I realize I know very little.

    edit: although I’m not a big fan of synth stuff so….

    • Joaquin Stick

      I was really excited to learn some new stuff, only to find that I really don’t like all that much new stuff. It was still fun to do, regardless.

  • Eliza

    I’ve listened to that Bon Iver album in its entirety and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s one of those albums you have to be in a specific mood to enjoy. When I listened to it, I was kinda bored and wasn’t looking for something in particular to listen to, and I think that’s why that album worked for me. Also, I totally agree with you on it being pretentious.

    • Brutalist_Receptacle

      Man I love 22, A Million. His live performance is on npr.org now and he absolutely shreds. For me, that live performance is the best thing from 2016, the best, Jerry.

      • Joaquin Stick

        I’d like to see how it does it live. Checking it out now.

      • RJA

        Just bought 22, A Million a couple weeks ago and am really enjoying it. I missed out on buying a copy of the Forgotten Spell record but then listened later and wasn’t big on it, maybe I should revisit it.

  • KyleJMcBride

    I hope John Carpenter decides to tour again and include Boston.(speaking of synth)

  • Óðinn

    Thanks, Joaquin Stick.

  • The word “futuristic” is problematic inasmuch as the future, by definition, does not exist. So any music made in the present is present or throwback. What am I trying to say? Not sure. Maybe I just want to change the dialogue about synths.

    • Joaquin Stick

      Hm. I see that, but I was saying music that I classified as “futuristic” actually just means that it’s something that sounds…not-ordinary? Like, it’s trying too hard to sound different. I don’t mean it actually sounds like something that will be normal in the future, just that it’s not normal now. Future is not the right word, but I think it works.

      • Óðinn

        It’s similar to the importance to define the modern, Modernism, and modernity.

        Modern relating to recent times or the present, modernity being the the quality and characteristics of being modern, and Modernism, the philosophical movement that, along with cultural trends and changes, arose from wide-scale and far-reaching transformations in Western society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • Wow, Motion Graphics is great. Thanks for that.

  • Celtic Frosty

    I discovered Jenny Besetzt from this Bandcamp list, and that alone made it worth the effort. https://friendsrecords.bandcamp.com/album/tender-madness