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Are We In The Middle Of A Yacht-Rock Revival?

New releases from Thundercat, Chaz Bundick, Foxygen, and more have raised an important question for 2017

In late January, eccentric rock duo Foxygen took to Conan for a swaggering rendition of their new jam, "Follow the Leader." Notably, there were 14 supporting musicians onstage, including a string quartet, five horn players, and a bongo guy, all necessary to wring out every ounce of the song's gaudiness. It reminded me of seeing Robbie Dupree serenade a New York crowd with his twinkling soft-rock hit "Steal Away" assisted by a well-populated ’70s tribute act (half a dozen shaggy dudes in aviators and bell-bottoms) a few years ago. It was, one could say, A Lot: a single paisley blouse away from Too Much, even, but not there yet. In other words, it was great.

Earlier in the day before Foxygen's late-night peacocking, six-string bass virtuoso Thundercat released the unstoppable groove "Show You the Way" with Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, two artists whose repertoires make up a sizable portion of the aforementioned tribute band's set. The name of that band, by the way, is Yacht Rock Revue, a moniker lifted from a satirical web series that lightly mocked the breezy tunes of the late ’70s and early ’80s. You know a yacht-rock song for its impeccable smoothness and vague suggestion of sleaze. Great yacht rock is also more musically ambitious than it might seem, tying blue-eyed soul and jazz to funk and R&B — see: any Steely Dan tune from Aja or Gaucho. Not coincidentally, McDonald sings on both of those albums, and his partnership with Loggins yielded the pinnacle of the entire yacht-rock subgenre: The Doobie Brothers' 1979 single "What a Fool Believes."

McDonald and Loggins are yacht rock's undisputed heavyweight champs, and having them together on a new song in 2017 is seismic. Thundercat, whose distinctive low-end rhythms helped give Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly its nocturnal sound, is a perfect partner. "Michael McDonald would send me a voice memo and I would break down crying, man," Thundercat recently told Red Bull Music Academy about the song's creation. "Show You the Way" is a smooth R&B cut that's distinct from Foxygen's psychedelic glam, but the two undeniably share some of the same yacht-rock DNA. So here we are, only a month into 2017, already amid what's shaping up to be a full-fledged yacht-rock revival.

Leaving aside Sirius XM's originally seasonal, now permanent "smooth-sailing" channel, 311, the revival balloons out from indie artists: Foxygen's "Follow the Leader" features arrangements by horn extraordinaire Matthew E. White, whose new covers album with Flo Morrissey features plenty of yacht-ready rhythms (especially via their Little Wings cover, "Look at What the Light Did Now," and a funked-up version of Frank Ocean's "Thinkin Bout You"). We might get a new album from sleaze-funk purveyor Ariel Pink, whose "Round and Round" is arguably the top yacht-rock tune of this decade, later this year. And Toro Y Moi's Chaz Bundick — who helped pioneer chillwave, the spiritual stepnephew of yacht rock — is indulging his jazzy impulses with brothers Jared and Jonathan Mattson on a loose, improvisational record that sounds like every Steely Dan album compressed into one. Lead single "Star Stuff" plays like the head-spinning "Aja" drum solo stretched out over an entire song, and later on the album, Jared's undulating guitar lines mingle with Bundick's menacing "don't blame yourself" refrains to stir up a filthy vibe that'd make The Dan proud.

An important note: All yacht rock is soft rock, but not all soft rock is yacht rock. Characteristically sedate indie acts like Real Estate and Mac DeMarco, while musically limber, ultimately owe more to the late-’60s lineage of The Grateful Dead and the Laurel Canyon scene than to the coke-speckled gold medallions of the ’70s. It's easy to picture the Real Estate dudes in captain's jackets in their new video, but they're really decked out in arty robes (though the turtlenecks underneath threw me!). Despite a Hall & Oates–channeling new mustache, Father John Misty's cynicism makes him far too acerbic to ever be truly yacht-y — an adjective that could bring me to Lil Yachty, but I won't even attempt that reach. (There's something to be said, however, for the yacht-friendly burliness of Misty's previous look, which I'll affectionately call "I may have woken up under a bridge, but my jacket still costs more than you make in a month" chic.)

DeMarco remains a slacker sartorial icon, and two projects affiliated with him have chilled-out music due out this year, too. The bedroom R&B music made by Mac's former touring guitarist, Peter Sagar, as Homeshake uses maritime-friendly synths and decidedly unsexy vocals that ultimately end up closer to chillwave than yacht rock. And the unadulterated basement psychedelia of Tonstartssbandht, featuring one-time DeMarco player Andy White and his brother, Edwin, is too bleary-eyed to steer the ship.

But even as his associates take off in other directions, the newest music from DeMarco himself makes his dad-rock influence explicit. "Oh no, looks like I'm seeing more of my old man in me," he repeatedly sings at the end of a new song. Me too, dude. I just wrote a trend piece on yacht rock in 2017.