Psychedelic music emerged in the mid-’60s as a mutant offspring of the British Invasion and American garage rock, but has since morphed into so many different forms that it is more accurate to describe it as a feeling than a sound. Be it the the brain-melting feedback of Jimi Hendrix or Ty Segall, the dreamy reveries of Spiritualized and Tame Impala, or the heady, head-nodding beats of Flying Lotus and J Dilla, psychedelica is hard to pin down—but you’ll know you’re hearing it when you feel your mind altering. Here’s our curated guide to the best head music to help you chase the rush, including our genre-spanning psych playlist (at right) and links to past Dowsers mixes for even deeper trips.
When rock first got psychedelic in the ’60s, the most obvious proponents were self-professed freaks like Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa. But nearly everywhere you looked, you could find someone trying to access their inner mind via some radical noise, from cult acts like Love and The Fugs to icons like The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Since then, every generation since has found their own way to look inside, from the Dream Syndicate in the ’80s, to Slowdive in the ’90s, to My Morning Jacket in the 21st century.
In the beginning, psychedelic music was associated with guitar gods like Jimi Hendrix and waves of feedback. But that big bang was soon followed by generations of artists—from ’60s Greenwich Village folkie Karen Dalton to Bert Jansch and his ’70s British folk group Pentangle to modern dreamweavers like Devendra Banhart— who used acoustic guitars, pared-down arrangements, and dexterously plucked melodies to pull the listener into their headspace without the need for amplification.
Psychedelic music has traditionally been used as a way to explore the inner workings of your mind. But if you take off the headphones, it’s also a great way to explore your body on the dance floor. Soul, funk and R&B have a long tradition of making music that rocks the hips and the third eye at the same time, from Eddie Hazel’s righteous riffing on Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop to Dâm-Funk’s alien synth-funk bangers.
At its mid-’60s moment of origin, psychedelia immediately found a natural host in jazz. After all, both are concerned with evoking a feeling and a mood, and following inspiration wherever it leads—from the spiritually searching compositions of Alice Coltrane to Mulatu Astatke’ slippery Latin-flavored explorations to Flying Lotus’ dedication to feeding brains with jazz-damaged trance whispers.
The common myth about punk is that it formed in opposition to bloated ’70s rock, and rejected Pink Floyd and anything associated with psychedelia. But the truth is that plenty of punks, such as restless hardcore purveyors Black Flag and volatile noiseniks the Butthole Surfers, not to mention punk-adjacent acts like the Jesus & Mary Chain and Dinosaur Jr., looked back to the ‘60s when deciding how to expand their sound and beguile their fans.
Psychedelic music has drifted into every form of music, and since any worthwhile hip-hop producer keeps their ears open, it’s only natural that it’s became part of the mix. Revered producers J Dilla and Madlib have made hip-hop tracks that oozed with so much mood and shimmer that they didn’t even need MCs to rewire the listener’s brain, while the genre’s heady offshoot, trip-hop, has been obliterating genre lines and listeners’ minds for more than two decades.
Why settle for rocking minds and rocking bodies when you can do both at once? From the Chemical Brothers to Neon Indian to Boards of Canada, many of the most cutting-edge electronic-music producers spend equal amounts of time focussing on booming beats as well as keyboard lines, sine moans, and digital gurgles designed to tickle the mind. And if you need to rest after a night out, there’s plenty of trippy ambient chillout tracks for that as well.
Psychedelia never dies, it just keeps getting weirder. Animal Collective threw down the gauntlet with 2004’s Sung Tongs, their childlike, free-spirited update of psych rock, and a generation of indie artists have taken up the challenge. From Deerhunter’s fearsome ambient punk to Zomby’s scrambled dubstep to Ariel Pink’s wounded daydreams, the youngest generation continues to push music inward.