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An introduction to the music of Chromatics

A playlist guide to the prolific, mysterious synth-pop band



Chromatics aren’t a household name, though their music’s been heard in millions of households. Their song “Tick of the Clock” was included on the soundtrack to the 2011 neo-noir crime film Drive, and the band's main songwriter Johnny Jewel even wrote a complete score for the film that didn’t end up being used. Six years later, the band made an appearance in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, performing at the fictional Bang Bang Bar. And in between, their music has been featured in a number of other films and TV shows, including Mr. Robot, Riverdale, Taken 2 and Gossip Girl. In other words, even if you don’t remember doing so, you’ve almost certainly heard them.

Then again, Chromatics have a presence that’s hard to forget. Their music is at once pretty and eerie, awash in synthesizers and gloomy post-punk guitars. They’re at times something like a more sinister version of The xx (with whom they’ve toured) or a disco permutation of the music of The Cure. Which, on paper, would make them seem too niche to have such a massive presence in popular music—which includes being personally invited by Karl Lagerfeld to score Chanel’s Spring Summer fashion show in 2013.

Part of their intrigue can be attributed to their image-heavy marketing. The band’s social media, for instance, focuses heavily on mysterious images of their vocalist, Ruth Radelet, treated with psychedelic filters or artful shots of their various product and promotional shots made subtly unsettling with the addition of broken glass or fake blood. Their fascination with horror elements is a stylish one, however, more Argento’s Suspiria than Hellraiser. Chromatics dare the listener to draw in closer.

So: Now you’re intrigued. Where to start? That’s a tricky question to answer, since Chromatics don’t have that many albums. Their 2007 album Night Drive and its follow-up, 2012’s Kill for Love, are both epic and gorgeous volumes of dreamy pop music that veers from the catchy to the avant garde. Their two albums before that are something different entirely—they were almost literally a different band, with guitarist Adam Miller the only constant member, and played a noisy punk style that’s shockingly at odds with the atmospheric elegance they’ve since embraced. And as far back as 2014 they’ve been teasing a new album called Dear Tommy that, as of yet, hasn’t materialized. They have, however, released enough standalone singles since then to compile an entire album, so it’s not like they’ve been holding back.

Keeping track of all of Chromatics’ various one-offs, A-sides, B-sides, compilation tracks, deep cuts and remixes is practically a full-time job, so I did the work for you. Here’s a playlist of some of the band’s best songs ahead of their show in San Diego this weekend. Don’t be surprised if you get a feeling of déjà vu.

May 4
Observatory North Park


Other Recommended Shows This Week:

Cinco de Mayo w/ Cumbia Machin, La Diabla, Maria y José, Sonidero Travesura, Air Nandez, Las Sucias (May 5, The Casbah): Cinco de Mayo is on a Sunday this month, so you’d be forgiven for not wanting to go out on a school night. But those looking for something fun to do would be advised to check out this lineup of bands from San Diego and Tijuana, playing everything from cumbia to ruidosón, a Baja-birthed sound that translates to “noise music”.

Violent Femmes, X (May 5, Humphreys Concerts By the Bay): A confession—I’ve never liked “Blister in the Sun.” It’s one of those earwormy songs that burrows its way into your brain until it’s just looping over and over again, leaving you desperate for some kind of relief. And yet, I still don’t hold it against Violent Femmes, whose debut album is an ‘80s American post-punk classic. They’re joined by punk legends X, who recently celebrated 40 years together as a band.

The Church (May 7, Belly Up Tavern): I could use this space to talk about how Australia’s The Church have a vast and underrated catalog that spans four decades. But they’re specifically touring behind the 30th anniversary of their album Starfish, best known for including their hit single “Under the Milky Way.” It’s a stunning album of dreamy psychedelic pop that doesn’t feel like it’s aged a day.

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