Over the course of seven albums, a handful of EPs, and some standalone singles, it’s become apparent that Toro y Moi just can’t be pinned down. The Oakland-based recording project of Chaz Bear (formerly Chaz Bundick) has touched on everything from left-field psychedelia to guitar-driven dream pop and ’80s-tinged house music. However, while each of Bear’s releases tend to embrace their own eclectic flavor, they’re all united by an exuberant energy that transcends genre. Whether he’s laying down gridlocked dance tracks as Les Sins or playing trebly guitar riffs through a vintage tube amp, Bear’s palpably radiant spirit makes his work some of the most captivating alternative pop to emerge in the 12 years since the project launched.
Toro y Moi came up at the forefront of the chillwave movement. Bear’s hazy sound fit nicely alongside those of artists like Washed Out, Neon Indian and Small Black. But there was always something about his output that felt less disposable and fad-like than the work of some of his peers. His 2010 debut, Causers of This, landed in the gray area between Animal Collective and J Dilla. The buzz that record generated was enough to get Toro y Moi touring, allowing Bear to quickly make a name for himself as a contemporary indie-rock mainstay.
Bear’s sophomore album, Underneath the Pine, presented somewhat of a sonic pivot for the project. Playing into the tropes of ’70s AM radio pop and disco, it was tied together by analog warmth and cinematic kitsch—a big departure from the bleary beat-making that Bear pioneered on his earliest work. This essence seems to define each of Toro y Moi’s releases, which all inhabit their own distinct universes. 2019’s Outer Peace dabbled in neon-drenched dance music, while 2015’s What For? explored groovy rock a la Mac Demarco or Craft Spells. Meanwhile, 2015’s online-exclusive Samantha took the form of a DatPiff-era hip-hop mixtape. However, no matter the aesthetic world one of his records calls home, a commanding and singular sense of nostalgia surely seeps from it.
Although Bear started out as an underground darling, he’s gone on to transcend his initial cult status. When he’s not busy on the road and in the recording studio, he also runs the art and graphic design company Company Studio. Bear’s multidisciplinary visual work has appeared in galleries around the globe. He’s left such a major footprint on the contemporary creative world that the city of Berkeley, California, officially declared June 27 Chaz Bundick Day. So ahead of his forthcoming album Mahal, out this Friday (April 29), we’re looking back at the 10 best Toro y Moi songs so far, from funky deep cuts to beloved singles.
The follow up to Underneath the Pine, 2011’s Freaking Out EP didn’t shy away from a spirited, corny ’80s aesthetic. From the blocky, colorful rectangles on the cover to the metallic electronic music within, there’s a cohesive kitschiness to the five-track release that makes it one of the most fun outings Bear has ever put out. “I’ve got to keep this straight now / Never seen myself this way / The man she needs in her life / I’ve got to keep this right,” Bear sings over spunky key flourishes and pounding toms, which sound like they could have been ripped straight from Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science.” If you were tasked with the challenge of soundtracking a Miami Vice tribute montage with a Toro y Moi song, you’d probably end up choosing this one.
Anything in Return is among the more brooding and nocturnal albums in the Toro y Moi canon, but it’s not without its more celebratory tracks. “Cake” is hands down the most boisterous song on the album, centered on propulsive chords, blown-out synth leads and a taut drum machine beat. “She knows, I’mma be her boy forever / And she knows, I’m gonna have it all or better,” Bear sings. Where Causers of This and Underneath the Pine had a quiet anxiety about them, even the more stoic tracks on Anything in Return were markedly more confident. “Cake” finds Bear in full-on party mode, and it’s all the better for it.
Although it never hit streaming services, Toro y Moi’s 2015 surprise mixtape Samantha is among the more interesting projects he’s dropped. With guest features from artists including Nosaj Thing and Rome Fortune, it presented a collection of rap-leaning tracks that Bear recorded between 2012 and 2015. “Ambient Rainbow” is one of the dreamiest songs on the tape. It starts off with lush chords before it morphs into glitchy hip-hop. The latter portion feels subtly indebted to lo-fi rap legends like Tommy Wright III and Gangsta Pat. And although the track might not be as ethereal as its title suggests, if you’re looking for some real ambient from Bear, check out his work under the moniker Plum.
At the time of its release, 2015’s What For? seemed like a bit of a flop. Swapping the cutting-edge production of its predecessors for scrappy guitar tones and analog grit, the record felt more akin to the work of Pavement than that of The Avalanches. However, more than seven years later, it actually holds up as one of Bear’s most intriguing records. The single “Empty Nesters” is an upbeat slice of fuzz rock, which even includes a jokey Weezer reference (“There are no zeros after this one / There is no one to destroy your sweater”). With lyrics about high school dreams, academic advising and notebook doodles, Bear’s songwriting is especially goofy and peppy on this cut.
Causers of This opens sparsely, with nothing but an eerie female vocal sample, a guitar whammy and a crunchy crackle. Simultaneously heavenly and pensive, “Blessa” sets the tone for a record that embodies the essence of an aimless teenage summer. “I found a job / I do it fine / Not what I want / But still I try,” Bear sings, his voice shrouded in dense clouds of reverb. It’s tethered to a feeling of resignation and unease. Reading this track’s lyrics, it’s not hard to draw a throughline between the ennui that arose as a byproduct of the Great Recession and the timing of chillwave’s heyday.
In the best way possible, Bear’s music sometimes calls to mind the cleanliness of the millennial aesthetic. “Freelance” is a humorous ode to the modern worker. Bear’s digitally manipulated lyrics shift between themes of cryptic esoterica and neurotic musings about the tech bro lifestyle. “No more shoes and socks, I only rock sandals / I can’t tell if I’m hip or getting old / I can’t hear you, maybe you could change your tone / People tend to listen when they see your soul,” Bear talk-sings over a four-on-the-floor beat and intricate slap bass, which give way to a memorable synth lead. You can sense the impact of life in the Bay Area on a lot of Bear’s latter-day work, in how it calls to mind Northern California’s chilly, but serene nature and bohemian attitude. However, “Freelance” is the rare Toro y Moi track that lightheartedly explores the negative impact of technocracy and capitalism on the rapidly changing region.
With its vaguely erotic cover and midcentury stylings, 2011’s Underneath the Pine is among the wonkier records in the Toro y Moi catalog. Centered on floaty analog synth chords, propulsive drums and a hard-to-place melody, “How I Know” is challenging, yet gripping. At first, Bear’s voice wafts in and out of billowing echoes in a way that feels semi-lucid. However, around the minute-and-a-half mark, the band bursts into one of the best choruses they’ve written to date. “Can’t tell you how I know / This is where I want you to / Take me when I die and I’m full of sleep / Underneath the pine on a bed of leaves,” Bear sings in a commanding voice. Although it initially comes across as somewhat woozy, “How I Know” is the most alluring track on Bear’s second full-length.
There’s an unspoken headiness that courses through most of Toro y Moi’s music, but it’s rarely as overt as it is on the Anything in Return track “High Living.” Bear’s instrumental arrangements often flirt with alternative R&B and left-field hip-hop, and you can easily sense the impact of his peers like Shabazz Palaces, Open Mike Eagle and even early Chance the Rapper here. “We’ll be living high / We’ll be living low / I can’t give it either way / I don’t think I know,” Bear sings over lethargic half-time drums, queasy synth leads and a creamy bassline. Whether or not you like to light up, this one is sure to leave you pretty zen’d out. Plus, if you get bored of the studio recording of “High Living,” the jammier version on 2016’s Live in Trona whips, too.
Released as the a-side of a tour-exclusive 7” in 2013, “Campo” consistently flies under the radar as one of the strongest tracks in the Toro y Moi discography. There’s something outdoorsy and earthy about a lot of Toro y Moi’s pre-Boo Boo work, which feels like it could soundtrack a cinematic camping trip or a drive up some serene slice of coastline. This song captures that energy extremely well, carried by a skittery, shuffling beat. “It’s just like Georgia to Maine / Five months alone, lookin, down at your feet,” Bear sings atop bluesy guitar licks and a pristine analog synth lead in the first verse. There’s something brooding about this track, but it’s also lackadaisical—closing your eyes and listening to it, you can almost smell the scent of pine needles wafting on a crisp breeze. Plus, if you’re trying to find another stellar Toro y Moi deep cut, the b-side “Outside With You” gives “Campo” a run for its money.
Billed as a heartbreak album, Causers of This is simultaneously lovesick and forlorn. The single “Talamak” perfectly exemplifies this mood. “How can I tell if I love you anymore? / Nevermind, I know I do,” Bear sings early in the track, over a lurching drum machine groove, fluid electric piano chords and trebly synthesizer stabs. Clocking in at under three minutes, it shifts between wistful, rambling verses and a soaring hook. It’s the rare moment of tangible songwriting on an album whose merit largely lay in Bear’s commanding production chops. It’s hard to fully grasp what makes “Talamak” special without watching the video—a relic of laid-back, Urban Outfitters-core 2010s hipster culture. In it, Bear and some stylish friends skip rocks and shoot off fireworks around an autumnal lake. When it first came out, there was already a sentimentality to the track. Now, more than a decade later, revisiting it is almost tearjerking. Even though its lyricism is melancholic, the song calls to mind simpler, more playful times.
Ted Davis is a culture writer, editor and musician from Northern Virginia, currently based in Los Angeles. He is the Music Editor for Merry-Go-Round Magazine. On top of Paste, his work has appeared in Pitchfork, FLOOD Magazine, Aquarium Drunkard, The Alternative, Post-Trash, and a slew of other podcasts, local blogs and zines. You can find Ted on Twitter at @tddvsss.
Listen to Toro y Moi’s 2010 Daytrotter session below