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What is this Thing Called Lounge?
Where does lounge music come from?
Urban cultures all over the world see hipsters relaxing and drinking in the classy atmosphere of in-vogue bars and cafes. Different places, different faces – however, the background music to the conversations is going to be similar in most cases. Warm electronic downtempo beats help create the laid-back ambience that professionals crave after an exhausting workday.
With this in mind, one might think lounge music is a modern, trendy phenomenon, but it has been around for a long time. Music was played in tea lounges to support relaxation as early as the 19th century. Since the beginning of the 20th century, pianists have played in hotel lobbies to comfort patrons with unobtrusive music.
The lone bar pianist is now a cliche, but modern lounge music derives from these days and is still connected to places such as hotel lobbies, bars, cafes, waiting rooms, club lounges and casinos. Therefore, it has to meet particular requirements. As low-key background noise, it should not disturb conversation, yet it must make patrons feel comfortable and relaxed, and even put them in the right mood. A bar specializing in exotic cocktails can enhance the atmosphere with Latin-influenced lounge music.
Over the years, lounge music has become so popular that many people want to enjoy it within their homes as well. Those who do not want to sift through the manifold compilations and albums make use of the many quality web-radio streams.
There is a multitude of genres related to lounge music and the hierarchy is controversial. Some say that the whole genre should be called chill out or downtempo; others argue that lounge is the better description. Here we will use the latter because this term is open to all forms of music played in lounges, including music that cannot be classified as chill out, such as smooth jazz. It is also important to note that the lines between different genres in lounge are blurred – lounge artists mix different genres not only in the course of one album, but often within a single track. Definitions and listening examples are not to be understood as indisputable, but the following samples should give you a good impression of the key characteristics of the varied genres connected to lounge music.
Generally speaking, lounge itself is already a subgenre of downtempo. As the name suggests, the main peculiarity of downtempo lies in its slow groove. With 50 to 90 beats per minute, it is an umbrella term for many genres of electronic music. Most of these use synthesizers and sampling in some form or another, thus importing various elements from ambient, beautiful music, world music, jazz, hip hop, dub or reggae.
Listening example: Sven van Hees – “Ocean Jive”
This track is rather atmospheric in nature. Its intro uses the sound of the ocean lapping against the beach, suggesting a summer holiday to the listener.
Just as the name lounge music implies where it is to be played, chill out music refers to the desired effects. It should allow people to lay back and relax by providing a calm and un-agitated, musical background. While it is produced electronically by the means of synthesizers and sampling, it draws on a variety of influences such as classical music, reggae, new age and jazz, and employs vocalists of different kinds. It can also include slower forms of trance, ambient or house. Some of chill out’s most notable artists are Kruder & Dorfmeister, Thievery Corporation, Groove Armada and De Phazz.
Listening example: Kruder & Dorfmeister – “Earl Grey The Lick”
Note how the slowly changing melodic motives make the mood of this track relaxed and calm all the way through, in spite of the underlying drum and bass rhythm.
Listening example: Thievery Corporation – “Amerimacka”
This track is a good example of how chill out music draws on other genres. Here, Thievery Corporation presents a fine, groovy take on reggae.
Not only name-wise does trip hop resemble hip hop. Trip hop songs also use sampling, turntable scratching and break beat rhythms, and both sample jazz and international music. However, trip hop is generally slower and does not use rap lyrics, and its samples are more often combined with female vocalists and live instrumentation. The sound of its samples characteristic for trip hop frequently use saxophone, piano, trumpet and flute as instrumental elements. Typically, as in tracks of famous trip hop acts like Massive Attack, Portishead and Nightmares on Wax, the mood is melancholic, dark and dreamlike.
Listening example: Massive Attack – “Teardrop”
This is one of the most famous trip hop tracks yet, by what many call the most influential group in that genre.
Acid Jazz and Nu Jazz
The term acid jazz is one more attempt to denominate a hybrid form of music. While its rhythms are most often variations of beats used in other genres of electronic music, its instrumental parts are often influenced by bebop, jazz, blues, soul and funk. Acid jazz originated in the UK in the 1980s. Its world is versatile: it reaches from the soul and funk-influenced Brand New Heavies and Incognito, through hip hop-jazz acts like US3 and DJ Krush to the likes of Gilles Peterson and Groove Collective who mix beat programming with musical influences from all over the world. There are forms of acid jazz that would not be considered lounge anymore because they are too aggressive and beat-based to be played in a relaxed environment.
In the ever-evolving music of jazz, there have been harsh debates as to whether new developments were still “real jazz“ or not. In response, the term “nu jazz” came into use in the 1990s to describe music combining jazz elements with other musical styles like soul, funk and electronic dance music. Similar to acid jazz in many respects, nu jazz is more consistently electronic and tends to focus more on experimental compositions and homogenous soundscapes. Atonality, improvisation and broken rhythms are part of nu jazz’s musical language. Some of the usual suspects when it comes to nu jazz are St. Germain, Bugge Wesseltoft and Jazzanova.
Listening example: Brand New Heavies – “Sometimes”
This classic energetic feel-good acid jazz track features female vocalist Siedah Garrett.
Listening example: Jazzanova feat. Clara Hill – “No Use”
The electronic elements of beat programming and synthesizers are much more prominent in this nu jazz production than in its close relative acid jazz.
Within a strict classification, smooth jazz would not be identified as lounge music because its electronic elements are not dominant enough. But if you understand lounge music simply as music played in lounges, there is no way around smooth jazz. Evolving since the early 1970s, this calm and relaxed style of jazz uses programmed rhythms. The sound of smooth jazz often employs soprano and tenor saxophone as lead instruments. Guitar is also characteristic for creating the background of smooth jazz recordings. Over the 1980s and 1990s, the genre was made popular by various radio stations specializing in smooth jazz. Nowadays, it has become a common part of lounge DJ sets and compilations. A few of its most prominent artists are Joe Sample, Spyro Gyra, Sadé and Anita Baker.
Listening example: Dave Koz – “You Make Me Smile”
A positive and relaxed track, it employs drum programming and the typical saxophone lead.
As has doubtlessly become clear by now, lounge music is connected to a whole lot of genres, which draw from a multitude of influences. It is easy to get lost in this vast musical landscape and that is the reason why compilations are so important. There are many excellent collections of lounge music that make every effort to present the most outstanding productions of a given year. Some of them have already become legendary. The most sought-after and imitated compilation comes from the legendary Café del Mar, Ibiza, where the global chill out culture has its origins. Put out annually since 1994, the release’s focus is to evoke the mood and spirit of a sunset by the ocean. Another famous compilation is the Buddha Bar series, deriving from a Paris bar and restaurant of the same name. Its reputation for a one-of-a-kind oriental chill out atmosphere reflects in the choice of the compilation’s tracks. Other popular compilations are by the hip Parisian hotel called Hotel Costes, or the various different collections presented by DJ Jondal. So, after all, lounge music can also be a genre inseparable from the places where it is played.
“Sounds From The Verve Hi-Fi” (Verve / Universal)
Thievery Corporation has compiled this excellent jazz and easy-listening release, including some rare records of Verve’s rich treasure.
“Subzero: The Essential Chillout Collection” (Water Music / Universal USA )
This is an amazing compilation bringing together international artists like the Gotan Project, Mo’ Horizons and Moodswings. Many of the tracks are rarities and some are previously unreleased.
“Playground Vol. 4” (EccoChamber / Soul Seduction / Groove Attack)
This compilation by Madrid De Los Austrias is subtitled “Loco grooves from the sunny side”. What more can you say? Artist include Farid, Sneaker Pimps and Nightmares On Wax.
The following three recommendations have been selected from over thousands of different Interent radio Internet radio stations. WorldGuide members are welcome to add their suggestions in “Comments”, or initiate a new thread in the “Forum”.
www.sky.fm/lounge This is a good, varied lounge channel, playing music from every lounge-related genre, past and present.
deluxelounge.radio.de This German channel focuses on chill out, easy listening and jazz tunes.