It was a pretty one-note alternative music scene in 2002. Garage rock had taken off and mop hairdos were all over the magazines and MTV. It was all the The bands with the rocking and the rollicking riffs and the coarse snarls. Nu metal was in its twilight phase, with just over two years before it was abruptly extinguished. Emo, indie rock, and post-punk revivalist acts were popping up sporadically but hadn’t established a firm footing in the spotlight yet. Pop-punk came and went in waves but the two biggest Blink albums were in the rearview mirror.
This unnecessarily long-winded introduction is all to say: in 2012 there was but one remnant from all those scenes combined, and that was The Black Keys – although by that point they’d morphed into the blues garage act tailor-made for Ford commercials.
It is now 2022 and I must once again point out that my fatalism rings true for the hundredth time, because we are a decade out from 2012 and mainstream alternative bands have barely budged since then. We are still in the era of indie pop. Yes, there have been minor tweaks. The Eilishification of music means that artists can get away with nothing but a minimalist bass and the occasional synth for most of their tracks. See: “Someone New” by Rezz & Grabbitz, or “Chapstick” by COIN.
And the Black Keys are still popular.
Some bands have upped their game a little with the James Blake style of emoting, which has led to a lot of acts that sound like the latest efforts of Mansionair, Cold War Kids, Bastille, or TRACES.
And then there’s brand new bands like Neon Dreams, whose new song “Little Dance” was the catalyst for this whole write-up. A song so insipid, so banal, that you at once know exactly where it leads to and yet forget it the second it is over. It reminds me of Saint Motel’s “My Type” or Capital Cities’ “Safe & Sound” or Passion Pit’s “Take a Walk” (which ironically enough was the worst song off what was otherwise a stellar record).
It has a lazy hook. It’s generic in a way that should not be possible in 2022. It sounds like a computer was instructed to make an “indie pop” song. We are at the precipice of an AI-generated culture and we should not be making music that an AI algorithm would construct in three minutes of processing time.
We need a new sound immediately, and at the moment there is no artist spearheading that initiative. Especially not Machine Gun Kelly.
How and why Machine Gun Kelly became one of the most talked about celebrities of the past year is beyond me. I am perplexed, I am flummoxed, I am positively without one clue as to why this rapper-turned-pop punk acolyte pops up every other news cycle.
Outside of two (2) songs from his crossover record that performed just slightly above average on rock format radio, the guy has yet to have a legitimate hit song in any genre. He is engaged to Megan Fox, who hasn’t been in the public eye since the heady days of the Ninja Turtles reboot and the Ninja Turtles reboot sequel. There is absolutely no reason for the entertainment media to be reporting on each and every contrived “wEiRd” aspect of their relationship, yet they get more coverage than the Kardashians.
“I am weed”, drinking each other’s blood, the engagement ring that causes pain – it’s all nonsense the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the overly “twiSted” antics Marilyn Manson used to deal in. You know what the closest analogue would be to these two? Britney Spears and Kevin Federline in 2006.
It’s funny because Machine Gun Kelly has become what everyone thought Post Malone would become. Hipsters were salivating at the thought of dunking on Post in perpetuity, only to weep and gnash their teeth when he actually gained a modicum of credibility and they had to sheath their sharpened knives.
Well now a new tattooed rap-rock guy has appeared to sate their appetites, and if you’ve heard his cover of System of a Down’s “Aerials”, you know the dunking is deserved. Even at my most contrarian I cannot sanction this buffoonery.
He recently was the victim of another pile-up when he said he was “the saviour of rock and roll”. Critics immediately lunged at his throat, scoffing incredulously at both:
- his claim of being the heir to the throne
- the notion that he was the only culturally valuable contemporary rock act
I agree with them on the first point.
There is very little merit to MGK’s work; I would have to strain myself to defend music that sounded like unreleased Blink-182 b-sides. If you want a former hip-hop based artist that turned to rock you’ll be much better off listening to Oliver Tree’s pretty decent 2022 album Cowboy Tears.
It’s also unlikely that MGK’s fellow Travis Barker orbiters and their collective scene will somehow evolve into a popular new sound. I can’t see a world where blackbear, YUNGBLUD, Grandson, KennyHoopla, Goody Grace et al become the new pop punk vanguard.
But I will not stand for this idea that there is some sort of fantastically new hidden rock scene thriving in the subculture. It pains me to say that but it’s the truth. I’d love for there to be one – alternative rock is essentially my life – but as I’ve been saying for years and years: rock’s last gasp was in 2012. The music industry itself has been dead for over half a decade now. New music is no longer a valuable cultural commodity. Just look at the Grammys. Nobody else did.
So that second part is a point of contention.
However I was intrigued. I wondered which artists the hipster overlords could have been referring to. Upon reading the many social media comments I realized they were overwhelmingly recommending bands in the Smooth Vibes genre.
I hastily mentioned this genre in one of my write-ups about the state of alternative music in 2021, sloppily lumping a bunch of disparate bands together without properly expanding on the scene. To be fair, the songs I named aren’t even in the “smooth vibes” camp. They are just laid back and chill, attempting to catch that wave but not necessarily riding it all the way. They’re in that mindset, but didn’t fully commit to the bit.
Those songs were:
U&ME – Alt-J
Survivor- Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats
Colors- Black Pumas
Hell n Back- Bakar
Just recently I also discovered “In The Clouds” by former adult contemporary bore rockers O.A.R, and whoo-wee if it doesn’t fit right in with that above playlist. Suddenly after plaguing grocery stores for 16 years they’re attempting to be relevant. More than that, they’re attempting to be hip.
Because Smooth Vibes isn’t full blown mainstream yet. It’s getting there, but it’s still in that “mainstream hipster” category. It’s passe for true music snobs, but it’s just right for sarcastic zoomers. How funny would it be if zoomers suddenly began unironically enjoying O.A.R? If the band was some sort of Smooth-Vibes-to-Post-Grunge pipeline?
“So WHAT IS SMOOTH VIBES??” you ask, shaking me angrily because I have taken far too long to get to the point.
Smooth Vibes is an interpolation of yacht rock made palatable for the city dwelling zoomer. It’s a cross between “lo-fi hip hop beats for studying” and early 80s new wave – yes, the 80s are now influencing another generation.
James Blake is one progenitor of the scene; his dour crooning and parody-worthy minimalism are a touchstone for this crowd. There are other key players though, one of which has already been a hipster icon for years: Tame Impala. He entranced drug-addled millennials with his psychedelic noodling and hypnotic live visuals, and now he’s become a deity for zoomers. Just listen to No Choice.
Mac DeMarco is another artist who should be given credit; this has been his sound for about a decade as well. In fact he and the now-shunned Ariel Pink were both ultra hip on Toronto’s Queen Street West circa 2015; that same crowd’s vibes gave birth to the enigmatic Billie Eilishes of the world. But Billie Eilish is for the sad times. Zoomers are slowly growing out of their depressive teen phases and need a new scene, and that’s where Smooth Vibes comes in.
Smooth Vibes is yellowed photographs, late 70s attire, coloured sunglasses, and lowercase captions. It’s nonchalance and blissed-out nihilism in the big city. It’s analog record hiss, low BPM and most importantly, flange guitar.
It’s also hard to pin down sonically, as there’s a lot of cross-pollination going on.
For example, the Post Malone sad boy rap scene overlaps with Smooth Vibes.
See: Bloodline – Sam Tompkins.
The previously mentioned and uncool MGK “emo rap” universe also wants to get in on this in the form of Fallen Star – The Neighbourhood.
If you want to hear what Smooth Vibes sounds like crossed with new wave revivalism, look no further than Strangers – Cannons.
It can also acoustic, as heard in Angostura – Keshi or Tick Tock – Aldous Harding.
Rarely – very rarely – it’s uptempo, as in the case of Take Up All My Time – Young Guv, which takes the Smooth Vibes guitar and adds some much needed urgency to the proceedings.
If you want to hear hints of gentrification, this is what Smooth Vibes sounds like once it gets turned into more mainstream offerings:
The closest we’ve gotten to a BIG mainstream artist going full Smooth Vibes is what HAIM did on their 2020 album. As it’s always been with HAIM, style prevailed over substance and it didn’t get them any big hits, but it did give several perfect examples of Smooth Vibes music in the forms of “FUBT” and “Gasoline“.
Other notable examples of it are:
Invincible – Omar Apollo
B-Side – Khruangbin
Until I Come Home – Two Feet
Rotten Sweet – Talvi
K Hole – Alex Cameron
Sugar – Men I Trust
And if you want the absolute perfect example, the platonic ideal of this sound, you can find it in:
Watch it All Fall Apart – Cam Kahin
The mealy-mouthed zoomer drawl, the smooth groove, the bass prominent but weak, the barely tangible and cheap sounding drums, and of course the dry flange guitar – this right here is posturing to the max.
And this here is supposed to be the future of alternative music. This is intended to be the sound of the 2020s.
As you might have inferred by now, I am not a huge fan of Smooth Vibes, or whatever the official name for the genre will end up being. That’s not to say that I’ve totally written it off. I found Allan Rayman’s “Rider” to be a tolerable example of it, even if it was far too short to be a real song. The new Warpaint album also leans heavily into this sound and there are at least two listenable songs on it (“Champion” and “Proof”).
The biggest issue I have with Smooth Vibes is the overarching sameness of it all. Why is it that all those aforementioned artists and hundreds of others have latched onto the exact same guitar tone? The same beats? If there’s one thing in the world that irritates me like no other it’s groupthink. Either all these artists are bland automatons just copying their peers, or there’s some massive limitations on where this genre can go.
The second biggest issue I have with Smooth Vibes is that we are once again entering into a minimalist, reductive style of music after already dealing with the repercussions of the 2010s funk craze. As I mentioned before, we need to push ourselves to new places in media. We are living in 2022. We should be making towering symphonies of synthesizers, hundreds of tracks simultaneously melting into each other, bending and warping the human voice with auto-tune so it transforms into an alien opera.
A kid with cheap mixing software can turn a meme into a dance track – why are the highest paid producers not experimenting similarly? Why are we constantly looking backwards? The new up and coming artist should sound like Hans Zimmer and Skrillex and Muse and M83 and Daft Punk [pre-2013] and Grimes all at once. Instead they sound like Christopher Cross on a zero dollar budget and hopped up on Valium.
Also, I find it hugely unfair that chillwave – the superior mellow genre – lasted for all of two years before evaporating.
Before us lie two options: MGK and Smooth Vibes. The future is bleak indeed.