I remember driving down Pacific Coast Highway with my dad, listening to Merriweather Post Pavilion, when he suddenly asked why Animal Collective repeat themselves so much. I was driving and looking straight ahead at the road, so we didn’t make eye contact. My dad is intelligent and constantly takes in a lot of information, but he chooses very particular things to inquire about, especially within spheres of knowledge we don’t share.
So I gave him the response you give people who ask about Minimalism: The repetition allows you to, in a sense, slow down. Stop time. Really visit with the piece of music, hear a phrase change and mutate and, when you get down to it, not repeat itself. Every time and place you hear something, it’s slightly different, and as better brains on music have put it, repetition lets you rotate a piece of music in front of you as if it were a three-dimensional object. You see more of its sides.
But his silence was loud. Since then I’ve begun to think I may have been a bit off: Animal Collective use repetition in spite of themselves, for fear of themselves. It’s the repetition of mania, joy, childhood, even a willed primitivism. It sounds stuck, anxious, or distracted — not cognizant, distant, or critically disinterested. And whatever’s going on there, the repetition musically (the looping of samples, the pounding of the same drum, the harping on one drone, the mantra-making of one yelp) is one of the only pervading elements of their entire catalogue. Repetition happens in direct opposition to the shapeshifting between albums, and it becomes a brief respite from a kind of bloodlust for newness in their music.
Animal Collective named an album for packets of strawberry jam found on airplanes. They coordinated Transverse Temporal Gyrus in the atrium of the Guggenheim Museum in 2010. When a reviewer partially leaked an album in 2007, Panda Bear responded not with disdain, but with, “Put up those other three songs, man, pronto.” No stake is too small or too large for the band to tackle with their work, and they seem genuinely fascinated by everything. The excellent trajectory of their albums reflects that appreciation of all music, all sound, and all progress as doers in a world of artists often unwilling to break with themselves, much less tradition.
A good friend of mine laments that Animal Collective doesn’t have an album that’s near-perfect, and though I’d disagree, I understand where he’s coming from. They’ve offered nothing that aggregates the particular leaps of each record thus far — even Merriweather doesn’t quite fit that mold. But for me, it’s absolutely monumental that after 12 years under layers of synthesizer forestry and blood-boiling screaming, the band at the very least never, ever repeats themselves.
10. “Chores” (from Strawberry Jam, 2007)
“Chores” bails in with a hearty wail, transitioning to a blazing, exuberant stomp centered around work that needs to be done. Its style evidences Animal Collective’s hefty debt to Appalachian music, spirituals, and other relics of a wilder American South, not coincidentally during a song about labor. Avey Tare sings about the basic, but somehow immensely satisfying, notion of having things to get done: having something to busy yourself with, and the satisfaction that you’re thoroughly attacking a to-do list before you relax. But “Chores” digs deeper; where a predictably off-kilter pop group might offer the fun romp and a cooperative chorus, Animal Collective gets psychotically looped into the words “If I” between each verse, leaving us lost like the protagonist. He’s not really looking for the simple joys of work, it seems; the song slows down about halfway through, after the revelation that the singer, “only want[s] the time / to do one thing that I like / I want to get so stoned / And take a walk out in the light drizzle.” Afterward, “Chores” becomes a brooding plodder (especially after all that fun), and its profundity comes from our not knowing whether the end is a literalization of that happy walk in the rain, or a warning to remain on task.
9. “Alvin Row” (from Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, 2000)
This strange behemoth belongs to young Avey Tare and Panda Bear alone, but distinctly speaks to the ability of the group as a whole and in parts. “Alvin Row” closes Animal Collective’s first release, Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished (even though only two of them participated, the group always credits their various collaborations to the Collective), but it seems to open a whole spectrum of worlds. Panda Bear revels in the freedom and brushstrokes of avant-garde jazz, and Avey Tare coaxes as much Chopin as “Piano Man” from his instrument, with a full three minutes devoted to a dreamy dance-anthem ending and no rationale in sight. It’s absolutely delightful throughout, and introduces us to two members of a group that are prepared to lead us through challenging experiments in aural capacity, occasionally disguised as pop music.
8. “Leaf House” (from Sung Tongs, 2004)
The nature of collectivity within Animal Collective extends to every facet of their presence: Not only are they comfortable recombining personnel on each album, but they carve out a kind of gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), in which everything from album art to stage design to performance style resonate together. Their sometimes cryptic, sometimes generous online presence does not escape the totality; the band members have been known to release mixes stuffed with songs that influence their music or intelligently situate themselves in a broader musical context during interviews with blogs. “Leaf House” moves with Southeast Asian and Polynesian sway, notable on Panda Bear’s mixes from up to several years ago, and apparent even on a Geologist mix meant to elucidate Centipede Hz’s recording style. Its pantheistic, revelatory pentatonics seem to begin breathing and slowly awaken us to Sung Tongs, in which Animal Collective find themselves outside, wandering through nature, in a dark but ultimately thrilling jungle of impossible fauna (rabbits, tigers, eagles, etc.). The lyrics are few — which makes the vocal exercises of the song deeply animalistic and visceral — and it doesn’t hurt that they read like a William Carlos Williams poem.
7. “Prospect Hummer” (from Prospect Hummer, 2005)
Prospect Hummer is gorgeous: a little EP with the near-forgotten folk underdog Vashti Bunyan, whom the group befriended while on tour. For a tiny record, it absolutely brims with goodness, including harmonies, tones, and sentiments borrowed from the ’60s, and a lot of ambience and freedom. The title track doesn’t sound much like Animal Collective, to the extent anything sounds like Animal Collective; I’d sooner attribute it to Pentangle. But so much joy inhabits the collaboration: The beat whispers in and out like a prayer, and the group-plus-Bunyan seems to reach out of the record and gather us into its warmth.
6. “College” (from Sung Tongs, 2004)
Unless you’re a pretty serious Animal Collective fan, you probably don’t remember this one. It’s a 53-second gem on 2004’s Sung Tongs, with deep Beach Boys harmonies and a single lyric, labored through at the end: “You don’t have to go to college.” The song always had a beautiful simplicity for me. A friend put it on during a particularly distraught moment during my own time at college and said, “This always helped.” Rather unbelievably, it worked, and I never forgot why I was there. To this day, I consider it a little gift to everyone around the age of 19, collegiate or otherwise.
5. “Guys Eyes” (from Merriweather Post Pavilion, 2009)
“Guys Eyes” seems so simple at first, but the surf-like paean to monogamous restraint twists in on itself so many times during its four and a half minutes that it can feel like one continuous sound in retrospect. At certain points, three discreet vocal arrangements operate over one another, and a clicking, mechanized drum phrase turns the crank of the song’s machinery. The automation of the sampling and rephrasing of repeated bars (prevalent on Merriweather) are some of the only reminders of the band’s previous stylistic tinkerings, though the repetition on Sung Tongs and Strawberry Jam were (or at least felt like) much more of the manic, analog variety. And unlike the past, the group isn’t employing narrative here: It’s perspective. Where Animal Collective was for years incredibly gifted at releasing you in an exotic sonic locale and letting you play around in fantastic natural wonderlands, “Guys Eyes” signals an added focus, at least for Merriweather, to the human mind and its illusory obsessions. The monumentality of the song — and the album, really — comes from the realism of a conscious ebb and flow: like a wave churning at a shore, we hear both fluid, hollow insecurity and rocky crashes of determination.
4. “Fickle Cycle” (from Grass EP, 2004)
Released with the Feels single “Grass” and the Steve Reich-y “Must Be A Treeman,” “Fickle Cycle” is what a boxing announcer would call a good, clean fight: That is, a song that appears accessible and fun, offered by an (at the time of Feels) otherwise quite difficult band as a sportsmanlike concession. “Here. Take this.” But like a fighter, the band has a way of elusively denying pleasure and applying pain. Enjoy the tropical guitar harmonies, four-on-the-floor jauntiness, and immediately singable hook: They are gifts, withdrawn halfway through and interrupted by what sounds a hell of a lot like the theme song for an unfortunate candy from the 1990s. “Fickle Cycle” ends in a repeated slamming of drums, qualified with a loud group chant of the song’s title. Animal Collective loves this trick: giving us a taste of something warm and comprehensible, and then throwing in a stew of aesthetic or structural affronts that upset the taste we’ve cultivated. But having both the fun and the difficult makes the band a pleasure, and we eventually equalize, like the buzzing string reverberation at the end of the song.
3. “In The Flowers” (from Merriweather Post Pavilion, 2009)
“If I could just leave my body for a night.” The pause between “body” and “for” is frightening, delicious, even extravagant. The daydream drops us from an ethereal two-and-half-minute introduction into an earthquake of drums and cymbals, and in a sense, into a new Animal Collective. Though the group is not one to cater to expectations, they have proven intelligent listeners, extremely sensitive to what opens and what closes a record, as good bands have always been. As it passes from a synthesizer-frying tribal frenzy to a four-on-the-floor electronic bass beat, the band lets us know that while Deakin is absent, they’re going to try something else. It’s the perfect opener, introducing themes as dutifully as if it preceded Bach variations, and sonically ushering you “In The Flowers,” as it were. Into the lush, beat-heavy Animal Collective of Merriweather Post Pavilion.
2. “Brother Sport” (from Merriweather Post Pavilion, 2009)
So much has already been made of the lyrical content of Merriweather’s closer. The yogic repetition of the song’s title unravels the clever inversion of “support your brother” — the song was written by Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) in encouragement of his brother, after their father’s death — and Panda Bear weaves light admonishment with nearly religious inspiration in the tangled words. The conspiracies on Collected Animals, long the AnCo superfan forum, go on for pages, and with the exception of key lines, it is very hard to hear what Panda Bear is saying. But with “Brother Sport,” Animal Collective leaves us a gargantuan assemblage. The bowels of American mountain music spew a geyser of 1990s house polyrhythms, with the added bump and positivity of dance-pop of the era, particularly Chumbawamba and anything else you heard at the roller rink. In an era of gang-like record labels and oversized music personalities, this song is still one of the most refreshing and invigorating pieces of music you can listen to. It grooves so hard, incontrovertibly, and more than that, offers the elemental love of brotherhood — to Panda Bear’s brother Matt, whose name the band exclaims in unison throughout the song, and to us. It’s pretty much impossible not to “open up your throat,” and lose your mind on the dance floor to this one.
1. “The Purple Bottle (Stevie Wonder Version)” (single, 2005)
Originally intended to be the version on Feels, the “Stevie Wonder Version” (sometimes “Stevie Wonder Mix”) of “The Purple Bottle” was instead released later as a single due to copyright complications. Instead of a floating choral section occupying a significant midsection of the piece, the group employs a slightly distorted chorus from Stevie’s famous “I Just Called to Say I Love You”: “I just called to say I like you / I just called to wonder if you care.” The song encompasses the true giddiness of love: unbridled ecstasy and the delicate fear of whether you’ve found the right person. Avey Tare’s brilliant conflation of that high with an actual dosed high (from a purple bottle) generates throughout the song an exuberantly overfueled heartbeat, palpable in the repeated interruption of the song’s glee by new sections and the manic coda’s insistence that, “you get that WOOOO! / get that WOOOO!” Though they change the lyrics slightly, the band’s inclusion of the phone call from Stevie’s hit still borrows the terror of distance from the person you love, checked only by recognitions of deep spiritual proximity: “Sometimes you’re quiet, and sometimes I’m quiet / Hallelujah!”