Listen UP!: Toro Y Moi Jump Starts the Album of the Year Race

The artistic evolution of one Chaz Bundick, better known as Toro Y Moi, has been one of the more interesting to watch in recent memory. I say “interesting” because Bundick has managed, in just a handful of releases, to move out of a crowded bullpen of musicians into his own brand of moving and accessible pop music. In an ever-fragmented landscape of internet-created subgenres like PBR&B and artists seeking indie cred by becoming more insular, it is refreshing to see an artist strive for the brass ring of pop notoriety while creating something artistically compelling.

Context is probably important here. A relative newcomer hailing from Columbia, South Carolina, Bundick’s first album, Causers of This, dropped in 2010. Released shortly after his graduation from University of South Carolina (with a degree in graphic design), Causers was one in a slew of releases in the burgeoning chillwave genre. Characterized by synth-driven, warm melodies, chillwave delivered on the promise of its name, providing a soundtrack for rooftop summer bbqs and beaches everywhere. At the time, the genre was an interesting new direction in music, but one in which any artist could be easily crowded out or marginalized by the myriad DIY laptop musicians that were flooding the market with music, at the time. Despite this saturation, Bundick was able to carve out his own aesthetic on Causers with deliberate nods to Flying Lotus and J Dilla in his production techniques. Causers was received warmly by critics, but it was unremarkable compared to what was to come.

Bundick wasted no time releasing his sophomore LP Underneath The Pine to wide critical praise in early 2011. Out went the Dilla-esque sampling techniques and woozy aquatic sonic filtering, in came a more analog approach with live drums and snappier rhythms. The shift in approach on his sophomore album was sudden, but welcome; a signal of sorts, really. The warm and spacey synths and catchy melodies on UTP immediately brought to mind Stereolab lounge music at its most jazzy. The influence was evident on songs like “Still Sound” and “Go With You” where Bundick took the British band’s lounge aesthetic and punched it up to have more of a disco feel. That same year, he released Freaking Out, an EP of nu-disco jams that dove further into the territory he explored (and mastered) on Underneath The Pine. The highlight of this EP, a bold and creative cover of the Cherelle and Alexander O’Neal duet “Saturday Love” sharply illustrated Bundick’s next move. There was no time to chill anymore – he was looking to move crowds – bigger crowds – and he’s finally done it on Anything In Return.

The accessibility of Anything In Return is evident from the onset. “Harm In Charge” starts out mysteriously enough, but once the rimshots and four-on-the-floor beat start revving up, you can immediately tell that something’s about to go down, and it’s gonna be funky. The song builds, adding a loping bassline and the necessary polyrhythms to make this a dancefloor go-to. The album’s second single “Say That” is next keeping pace with its predecessor, Bundick lightly musing “she’s alright, I’m alright, we’re alright, we can’t go back,” while the song rides an incessant groove. The chorus, with an affecting vocal sample, makes you want to pop and lock, or at least try. The downtempo “So Many Details” pumps the brakes a bit, but Toro goes right back after dancefloor-jugulars with the infectious “Rose Quartz”.

Thus is the theme of the album get ‘em to the club. These ebullient moments, however, are spelled with charming and poignant turns of complete sublimity and nuance. The aforementioned “So Many Details,” the album’s lead single, is a livelier and more immediate ballad than Underneath the Pine’s “Before I’m Done” but retains some of the wistful feel. Bundick has eschewed the folky guitar strums and lazy tempos found on UTP for a more swinging electro approach to seduction. The song oozes yearning, longing, and emotion in a way that has never been expressed on any Toro Y Moi album. Bundick has found his voice on Anything, whether up or down tempo, and is able to show remarkable levels of dimension and complexity in his songwriting. There’s the musicianship for sure, but there is also his vocal approach which can feature a straining, but functional falsetto (“Studies”) or subtly connect with feeling on songs like “Touch” or the absolutely stunning album closer “How’s It Wrong?”

This man is no longer a chillwave artist. Unlike the peers that he started out with just a few short years ago, he’s shaken the stigma of a bedroom artist who’ll never really matter outside of Williamsburg or Fishtown. He’s not a caricature of himself, which many sub-genre artists tend to be in their everlasting quest for new media love or feigned artistic exploration. Bundick’s made something here that can be consumed by the masses. And while there probably won’t be a 2013 music story bigger than Justin Timberlake’s reunion with Timbaland for a much-awaited victory lap for Futuresex/Lovesounds that has everyone salivating, Toro Y Moi has created something that will be a close competitor.

In a recent Pitchfork interview Bundick said that he wanted to “make a pop album…and see if it gets big.” He doubled down on that goal by stating that he made songs on this album for his girlfriend to dance to – music like Justin Beiber, Beyonce, and The-Dream. Well, it’s evident that he’s learned the formula to pop success, however I think he’s done a bit more on this album. Getting girls to the dance floor is fine, but there are few artists who can make a striking and well-executed artistic statement in the process – Anything In Return is that statement.

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