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. Heres 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.
INDIE PSYCHPsychedelia 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 Deerhunters fearsome ambient punk to Zombys scrambled dubstep to Ariel Pinks wounded daydreams, the youngest generation continues to push music inward.Recommended Listening:Animal Collective’s Outer LimitsDreamy Noise Sounds: The Best of Kranky RecordsNew Tropics: The Modern Los Angeles Underground
PSYCH PUNKThe 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.Recommended Listening:When Punk Got WeirdPsychedelia in the ‘80sThe 50 Best Shoegaze Albums of All Time
PSYCH FOLKIn 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.Recommended Listening:Way Past Pleasant: A Guide to Psychedelic FolkReligion, Rock, and LSD: A Brief History of Jesus Freaks
PSYCH ROCKWhen 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.Recommended Listening:Bad Trips: The Dark Side of the ‘60sSpace Rock: A Cosmic JourneyHow Psychedelia Reclaimed Modern Rock
PSYCH JAZZAt 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.Recommended Listening:The Black Experimental Music MixtapeChampions of Ethiopian GrooveThe Best of Brainfeeder
PSYCH FUNKPsychedelic music has traditionally been used as a way to explore the inner workings of your mind. But if you take off the headphones, its 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 Hazels righteous riffing on Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop to Dâm-Funks alien synth-funk bangers.Recommended Listening:A Deeper Shade of Psych SoulThe Afrofuturist Impulse in MusicInto the Nite: Synth-Funk Fantasias
PSYCH RAPPsychedelic music has drifted into every form of music, and since any worthwhile hip-hop producer keeps their ears open, its 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 didnt even need MCs to rewire the listeners brain, while the genre’s heady offshoot, trip-hop, has been obliterating genre lines and listeners’ minds for more than two decades.Recommended Listening:Great (Post-Donuts) Instrumental Hip-Hop TracksBehind the Beats: Madlib and DillaBest Trip-Hop Tracks
PSYCH-TRONICAWhy 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, theres plenty of trippy ambient chillout tracks for that as well.Recommended Listening:Essential Acid House TraxThe Art of Psychedelic Disco-RockThe Best Electronic Shoegaze
It’s difficult to overstate how much DFA meant to modern indie music. When the label first appeared in the early aughts, many in the Pitchfork crowd were afraid of dance music, but bands like LCD Soundsystem and Rapture made electronic music hip again for a certain audience. It was post-internet music, meaning that there was a premium put on pastiche and obscurity; and the music referenced everything from Krautrock to disco. But the music wasn’t stale or overly cerebral; it rocked, thumped and sometimes bumped. Elliot Sharp, from RBMA, places the tracks in chronological order, and it’s interesting to hear the collective sound develop and mature over the years. There seems to be an over-reliance on remixes, and some of the labels biggest names are not on here, but every track is great, and it’s a decent enough place to start.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.