Deerhunter

“I want to be the Patti Smith of now, with something like ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger’ blaring out of kids’ speakers. I fantasize about that, but I’m not going to be that. I’m just not that dangerous,” Bradford Cox told me in an interview for The Big Takeover back in 2008. While it’s defeatist to live in a world measuring yourself to your idols, Cox has carved out an idiosyncratic, challenging, and even dangerous milieu for himself making great records, from the rather underwhelming Turn It Up Faggot in 2005, on through his newest, released this week, the absolutely stunning Monomania.

Cox early on favored wearing dresses, drinking heavily, and maintained a heavy Internet presence via the band’s blog, somewhat overshadowing the spectacular triumph of 2007’s Cryptograms, and its sister EP Fluorescent Grey. To his credit he’s pulled the reins back on the band’s social media visibility, now allowing the music to largely speak for itself.

2008’s Microcastle was glorious distillation of Cox’s love of rock music, jettisoning his effects pedal fascination in favor of a crisp rock sound as informed by the Rolling Stones as Pylon. “I tried heavy-handedly to make a populist record,” he told me then. The album featured some of the band’s finest songs to date, and was unified by prototypical Deerhunter motifs: vulnerability, existential dread, and mortality.

The band crafted a lush, more expansive record in 2010’s Halcyon Digest. It wasn’t as cohesive as Microcastle, but the high points easily outstripped the best its predecessor had to offer.

The protracted delay (at least in terms of Deerhunter’s standards) between Halcyon and Monomania was somewhat attributable to Cox entering into a period of heavy drinking, brought on by “some bad personal shit happening,” according to a recent Pitchfork story. He also stated in the interview that he considered scrapping the material, but listening to the fruits of the sessions, it’s clear that he would’ve been throwing away something incredibly unique in the Deerhunter canon.

It’s a skuzzy, sleazy rock ‘n’ roll record, indebted to the disparate likes of the Stooges, Bo Diddley, Hank Williams, and David Bowie, bringing back an element of danger in rock ‘n’ roll, as Cox has gleaned from his idols, and it’s a gas to blast loud. But Cox surely also realizes that the likes of Leonard Cohen, the quiet side of The Velvet Underground, R.E.M., and the Beatles have also created some of the most dangerous music of the past 40 years. Aggression and theatrics aren’t tantamount to danger — well-crafted, intelligent songs that challenge listeners are. Cox and Deerhunter possess those in spades, with or without the amps cranked to 11. Here are my picks for the 10 best Deerhunter songs. Please share yours in the comments.

10. “Monomania” (From Monomania, 2013)

Cox’s singular musical obsession wavered during the lengthy break between Halcyon Digest and Monomania, and ended up turning to alcohol to self-medicate. The album’s title track, “Monomania,” ultimately serves as a reclamation of sorts, a pronouncement that his single-mindedness has returned. He assumes an Iggy Pop-circa “I Wanna Be Your Dog” snarl throughout the incendiary track, spitting out the invective lyrics, “There is a man/ There is a mystery whore/ And in my dying days/ I can never be sure,” with fire-and-brimstone bile. He preened like Curt Wild from Velvet Goldmine during the band’s recent Jimmy Fallon performance, but at the heart of “Monomania” is anything but theater — it’s all fresh blood and spilled guts.

9. “Twilight At Carbon Lake” (From Microcastle, 2008)

Cox indicated to me in our Big Takeover interview circa Microcastle that the notion of twilight terrified him, as it served as a reminder his own mortality. “Twilight At Carbon Lake” addresses this terror head-on, finding Cox, seemingly mystified, crooning, “Go to the ocean on a ship/ Wave goodbye to the waves and the frozen shit that was in your heart,” over an arpeggiated melody redolent of the Everly Brothers. The track explodes into a dissonant cacophony as Cox concedes, “Go away/ Time Slows/ So Long.” It’s a grandiose kiss-off, and he seems as though he can hardly wait to take the waiting ship onward to the great beyond.

8. “Memory Boy” (From Halcyon Digest, 2010)

Something of a Tom Petty via mid-period R.E.M. homage, “Memory Boy” is perhaps the closest thing Deerhunter have to a jangle-pop anthem. It figures into the litany of songs Bradford Cox has written that recall a less-than-idyllic childhood, as he recollects with painstaking detail, “That October he came over every day/ The smell of looseleaf joints and we would play/ It’s not a house anymore.” It again plays into the sun motif so prevalent in Cox’s material, as he regretfully laments, “Is there anyone who wants to see the sun go down, down, down?,” as if something pure has been irrevocably undone.

7. “Never Stops” (From Microcastle, 2008)

“Never Stops” seems as though it was written in the throes of deep clinical depression. Its desperately moribund lyrics of “My escape/ Would never come” and “Winter in my heart/ It never stops” are obviously not garden variety Seasonal Affective Disorder. There’s sheer desperation found in full-throttle anthemic instrumentation, as if the repetitive jackhammer force of a guitar can shake the blues away. They don’t, but like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest attempting to tear the sink out of the wall, Cox and company nonetheless give it hell, and in the process provide us with one of Microcastle’s finest songs.

6. “Spring Hall Convert” (From Cryptograms, 2007)

One of many songs in Deerhunter’s canon exploring high school ennui, Cox finds a lucid dreamlike escape as he fantasizes of existing “In a radio freeze occupied by a couple girls I knew from way back when,” in Michael Stipe-esque free association mode. The track’s insistently melodic, with alchemical tinges of psychedelia, like Spacemen 3 covering Pavement’s “Shady Lane.” It’s rife with spring-coiled tension, threatening to blow its lid at any moment. Thankfully it doesn’t, preserving the cloistered dread that renders it so damn compelling.

5. “Helicopter” (From Halcyon Digest, 2010)

The metronomic beat in “Helicoper” turns what could have easily been an overtly histrionic dirge into an empathetic character sketch. Like the doctor’s steady heartbeat in Raymond Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing” contradicting his expression of grief to the mother that had suddenly lost her child, this steady pulsation tempers the high gravitas of the Dennis Cooper essay the track borrows its theme from. This gorgeous, slow-burning number recounts the last moments of a Ukranian sex slave’s life. As Cox intones, “Now they are through with me,” it’s like a bereft sigh of relief, indicating the degree to which the boy was resigned to his fate, finding a final, graceful repose as he falls from a helicopter to his death.

4. “T.H.M.” (From Monomania, 2013)

A wobbly lullaby with more than a passing resemblance to the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” “T.H.M.” is a woozy, vertiginous half-light rumination, at odds with much of Monomania’s balls-to-the-wall swagger. Cox describes the titular protagonist empathetically, explaining, “He came out a little late/ Maybe that’s where frustration’s born.” The celestial instrumentation belies sinister overtones, with intimations that a 3 a.m. phone call is an indication of something gone horribly wrong. Cox keeps it cryptic, intoning dejectedly, “I always knew that this day would come/ Hey you lose and you win some,” proceeding to seemingly find relief, repeating “T.H.M” at the song’s coda like a reveille.

3.”Fluorescent Grey” (From Fluourescent Grey EP, 2007)

In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, high school was ostensibly a portal to hell. This isn’t far off the truth for most, likely including Bradford Cox, as many of Deerhunter’s early songs obsess on the excruciating minutiae of those days. “Fluorescent Grey” specifically dwells on an all-consuming recognition of mortality. He awakens from a nightmare, calls out the object of his obsession’s name, and intones “patiently” repeatedly like he’s warding off a panic attack, wondering, “Why do I dream so often of his body when his body will decay/ His flesh will be fluorescent grey,” evoking the morose poetic sensibilities of author Dennis Cooper. He comes clean as he incants, “You were my god in high school,” as the track’s subsumed in a volcanic swirl of My Bloody Valentine-esque distortion, with Cox finding cold comfort at the song’s coda as he returns to the “Patiently” mantra, which progressively sounds less and less assuaging and more like a sepulchral presage.

2. “Strange Lights” (From Cryptograms, 2007)

On “Strange Lights,” Cox, extrapolating from a dream had by his longtime friend and bandmate Lockett Pundt, describes a long, slow walk into the sun alongside a companion, presumably Pundt. The journey, unfurling like an inversion of the fatalist Icarus myth, is colored by an explosive fireworks display of Nuggets-esque psych riffs. But while Icarus faced death for his hubris, Cox finds redemption in his fantasy, achieving divine sublimation, “rattled and stunned” as the pair ease their way into salvation.

1. “He Would Have Laughed” (From Halcyon Digest, 2010)

An affecting elegy to Jay Reatard, the schizoid “He Would Have Laughed,” begins with Cox slovenly declaring, “Only bored as I get older,” seemingly in the voice of Reatard. Limber guitar coruscations guide Cox as he drifts into non-sequitur territory, eerily proclaiming, “I’m a gold, gold digging man/ Find my money find my land,” before lamenting, “I can’t breathe with you looking at me,” finally returning the tune’s initial sentiment of ennui: “I get bored as I get older/ Can you help me figure this out.” An abrupt time signature ensues, as the track then veers into hallucinogenic fantasy, with Cox intoning, “I lived on a farm/ Yeah, I never lived on a farm,” perhaps alluding to the Reatard’s dual life as Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. and Jay Reatard, the latter providing little insight into the soul of the man himself. It’s a moving, sentimental tribute that never succumbs to treacle, ending abruptly without a fade out, like a door slamming in your face just as you were beginning to feel welcome.

Listen to this playlist on Spotify.

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Comments (125)
  1. Wow, T.H.M. wasn’t even one of my favorite off Monomania, let alone in my top 10 Deerhunter songs.

  2. Nothing Ever Happened and Desire Lines are curious omissions. THM is good, but #4?

  3. And now a moment of silence for the absence of “Nothing Ever Happened.”

    • And Revival. And Cryptograms. And Hazel Street. And probably about five other songs (Helicopter and Spring Hall Convert can stay).

      Seriously, I won’t say a list of what are essentially someone’s opinions (or the opinions of a group of people) is necessarily “good” or “bad”. But the author(s) apparently likes Deerhunter for far different reasons than I do.

  4. A list of ‘Best Deerhunter Songs’ that does not include ‘Desire Lines’ and ‘Agoraphobia’ is a joke, unless you mean ’10 Best Deerhunter Songs That Are Not Written By Lockett Pundt’.

    • My comment got eaten :( but it was mainly this: The critics need to get off Bradford’s dick, cause Lockett Pundt has written some of the band’s best songs and the lack of “Agoraphobia” and “Desire Lines” is just bizarre. The songs on the list are all good, but…yeah. The huge leap in sound between Turn It Up Faggot and Cryptograms is attributable to Pundt’s joining the band and adding his hazey, reverbed guitar style.

      And yeah, Nothing Ever Happened, smh.

  5. ^^ Absolutely agree, Nothing Ever Happened deserves to be on this list

  6. nothing ever happened to me

  7. Or a moment of silence for “Desire Lines”…

    …or all of their other songs.

  8. When I read “The 10 best Deerhunter songs”, I thought “Here we go again with some odd choices between some greatest hits”. But, hey, very good work. My eternal Deerhunter # 1 song is “Twilight at Carbon Lake”, but I’m still stuck on Microcastle.

  9. I love that you put “He Would Have Laughed” at #1. Halcyon Digest is my favorite Deerhunter album, and every time I listen to it I look forward to that song most of all.

    • Am I the only one who doesn’t love this song? Also nothing from Weird Era? Backspace Century and Operation really open that thing up with a bang.

      • So much diversity on Weird Era, Cont. I love all the interludes and instrumental tracks that piece it together. Not to mention if you listen to it in conjunction with Microcastle, “Calvary Scars II / Aux. Out” gives that whole thing a proper closing track. Carbon Lake is a good track, not a better closing track than “Heatherwood”, which initially left me somewhat disappointed with “Microcastle”. But then with Weird Era bringing in Calvary Scars II… it felt like the album’s proper closer.

        “He Would Have Laughed” is terrific, and the fact it’s a dedication to Jay Reatard makes me love it more. But I can’t help but think it’s just a Bradford solo outro and I prefer closers that sound like the whole band was involved.

  10. On another note, I <3 LOCKETT PUNDT 4EVER.

  11. 10. VHS Dream 9. Hazel St. 8. Sleepwalking 7. Fluorescent Grey 6. Vox Humana 5. Nothing Ever Happened 4. Desire Lines 3. Cryptograms 2. He Would have Laughed 1. Twilight at Carbon Lake

  12. I agree with everyone commiserating about the absence of Desire LInes and Nother Ever Happened. And if I ruled the world, Lake Somerset and Wash Off would have to be on here as well.

  13. Sorry….no Desire Lines and Nothing Ever Happened. NO LIST worth a SH*T in my book. Hell my 5 year old could make a better DH list.

  14. Desire Lines.

  15. I’ll bite on the troll-bait. Nothing Ever Happens dose not only deserve to be on the list, it strip this list of any and all validity and relevancy. You picked 10 songs out of a hat. Congrats. Fuck off.

  16. I would also put “Like New” on my top 10 list.

  17. I feel like a lot of the live versions of songs need to get a look in, some of their stuff changes so drastically in a live setting, Earthquake was a great example of something I hated on record and loved live.

    1. Helicopter (BBC6 Marc Riley version) 2. Vox Humana 3. Octet>Red Ink 4. Fluorescent Grey 5. He Would Have Laughed 6. Hazel St 7. Never Stops 8. Sleepwalking 9. 60 Cycle Hum 10. Activa (Daytrotter session)

    Not to mention the Cryptograms mixtape…

    • The fact you list “Octet” with “Red Ink” proves to me you know what is up.

      I’d even go a step further and just say Side B of Cryptograms, which is: “Providence” “Red Ink”

      I’ve thanked Bradford in person for playing “Octet” on the Microcastle tour and I’ve thanked original bassist Josh for simply making that song. I still remember exactly where I was when I first heard “Octet” and did one of those pull-out-your-mp3-player-to-see-what’s-owning-my-life moments. Pure, unadulterated psychedelia complete with instrumental intro and instrumental comedown outro. Simply the best.

      • Whoops! So I was typing “Providence” > “Octet” > “Red Ink” but then changed the first greater than sign (mean to represent an arrow) and flipped it around just to be a mathematical nerd and highlight how I think “Octet” is greater than everything. In doing so I think I triggered some html code and made it disappear?

        Also: what Cryptograms mixtape?

        • The mixtape is basically an Atlas Sound mix of the first Cryptograms recording sessions…. absolutely essential listening IMO if you love the ambient and sound collage aspects of their canon: http://deerhuntertheband.blogspot.co.uk/2008/01/cryptograms-mixtape.html

          It’s well worth going through the fan forum and DH blog, there is an absolute treasure trove of material… they were so generous with demos and alternate takes around Cryptograms and Microcastle. There are a number of versions of Fluorescent Grey in different stages that are essential listening, kicking back to the Axis I demo on the ‘Axis’ cd Bradford distributed at early AS shows. And then getting in to all the amazing sessions they did, like Platts Eyott, Daytrotter, etc…

          God damn I love this band so so much. Was so hard making a top 10, it changes all the time… stuff like Wash Off, Circulation, Cavalry Scars II, VHS Dream, The Missing, Tech School, NEH, Nosebleed etc etc. Only other time I’ve been a devoted fanboy like this was with the Pumpkins in my teens, and never thought I’d experience it again. Can’t wait for ATP.

      • Octet would be my #1 as well. On the tours for Cryptograms and Flourescent Grey it was the noisy, rhythmic centerpiece of the set and it remains one of the best things I’ve seen live. Watching Josh space out as he locked into the bass groove was otherworldly.

  18. Agree with number one… all I’m going to say

  19. I’m glad Helicopter is on the list. I also agree with everyone else about the absence of Desire Lines. Also, Rainwater Cassette Exchange should be on here.

    • The world’s crying for “Desire Lines” and “Nothing Ever Happened”, and yeah, those are two of the best, but I cry a little for the absense of Rainwater songs. And Weird Era Cont.? “Circulation” is Monomania’s Deerhunter but rawer.

    • Agree. Rainwater is by far their strongest (and my favourite) release. I find this list to be quite odd in its choices.

      • I’d happily cut a lot of their newer stuff in favour of the 2007-2009 years. Oh also, I know TIUF isn’t that popular but it still has some great songs, especially considering the direction that Deerhunter’s sound is now going.

  20. Wash Off deserves a spot, no doubt.

  21. I would of put twilight at carbon lake, just cause the guitar sounds exactly like the guitar from the song that James plays in twin peaks.

  22. It doesn’t so much bother me that “Nothing Ever Happened” isn’t on here at all (a band’s “biggest” or most well-known song has been left off these lists before), but that there’s not even a b.s. reason given as to why it didn’t make the cut.

  23. IN no specific order, and you will see maybe a Lockett vibe in this list:

    Octet
    Hazel Street
    Fluorescent Grey
    Little Kids
    Nothing Ever Happened
    Desire Lines
    Helicopter
    Calvary Scars II/Aux. Out
    Something off Rainwater

    Number One is probably “Little Kids” for me.

    I do think Deerhunter is diverse enough some might like different things from them, but it does seem like this list is a little bit distaff from the main view.

    Haven’t heard the new one yet, and it sounds like the new one goes away from the Deerhunter sound that is most appealing to me so far (as evidenced by the songs above).

    • “Haven’t heard the new one yet, and it sounds like the new one goes away from the Deerhunter sound that is most appealing to me so far”

      EXACTLY how I feel, as evidenced below…

  24. 01. Octet
    02. Calvary Scars II / Aux Out
    03. Nothing Ever Happened
    04. Desire Lines
    05. Spring Hall Convert
    06. Fluorescent Grey
    07. Helicopter
    08. Cryptograms
    09. Never Stops
    10. Slow Swords

    Little bit fact, little bit opinion.

    I definitely did a silent “ooohhh noooo” when I saw this post on Stereogum. Was not disappointed with my disappointment.

    • Wow- I can’t believe how similar we were on this. But yeah. I thought about this last week- “I hope they do Deerhunter- then it will be clear how much everyone loves Little Kids and Desire Lines and all the songs I love”

    • phew. just glad to see I’m not alone.

  25. My ten, not necessarily in order of preference:

    Cryptograms, Spring Hall Convert, Hazel Street, Wash Off, Nothing Ever Happened, Saved By Old Times, Circulation, Revival, Desire Lines, Helicopter.

    I still need to listen to the new album a bunch more before those songs sort themselves out in relation to the rest of the catalogue.

  26. I like the top two, but agree with the general dismay over no “Nothing Ever Happened” and “Desire Lines.” I also really like “Saved By Old Times” and “Hazel St.” I need Monomania to sink in a bit more before I can nominate anything from there, but I’ve generally dug “The Missing” and “Pensacola” the most.

  27. Love this list without the obvious troll omission of “Nothing Ever Happened”.
    My Top 10:
    1. He Would Have Laughed – 2. Agoraphobia – 3. Nothing Ever Happened – 4. Fluorescent Grey – 5. Desire Lines – 6. Hazel St. – 7. Twilight At Carbon Lake – 8. Back To The Middle – 9. Helicopter – 10. Game Of Diamonds

  28. agreed on “nothing ever happened”, obviously. pretty surprised “disappearing ink” wasn’t brought up at all.

  29. Calling bullshit on the exclusion of “Nothing Ever Happened” and do not care how many times its been mentioned already.

  30. The exclusion of Little Kids is a criminal one.

  31. My Top 10 Most Played Deerhunter Tracks:
    1. Helicopter
    2. Neither of Us, Uncertainly
    3. Revival
    4. He Would Have Laughed
    5. Hazel St.
    6. Flourescent Grey
    7. Fountain Stairs
    8. Nothing Ever Happened
    9. Desire Lines
    10. Memory Boy
    Depending on the day, I would rank Calvary Scars II / Aux. Out and Never Stops in there somewhere. So far the only song from Monomania that seems like it might climb into these ranks is Neon Junkyard.

  32. Nosebleed!

  33. Clearly they fucked up by not having NEH on this list. Mine looks like this…

    01.Nothing Ever Happened
    02.Calvary Scars II
    03.Desire Lines
    04.Wash Off
    05.Fluorescent Grey
    06.Little Kids
    07.Hazel St.
    08.VHS Dream
    09.The Missing
    10.Circulation

  34. Circulation as well.

  35. Like everyone has been saying, Nothing Ever Happened and Desire Lines would be obvious choices for a top ten Deerhunter list like this. But, I was very happy to see that He Would Have Laughed came out on top.

    IMO, those last two minutes of that song are one of the best two minutes to end an album with.

  36. He Would Have Laughed was even better live during the Halcyon tour in ’10

    • Completely agree. I saw them at LouFest ’11 and they ended with that and played it for about 20 minutes. After they ended it and walked off stageeveryone started walking away to the next stage and they started playing again and everyone came running back. It was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen

  37. Gotta laugh at crap-tacular T.H.M. making it but Helicopter not.

  38. Where’s “Nothing ever happened”?, Why T. H. M? To augment commenting?

  39. Desire Lines, Nothing Ever Happened, or Dot Gain? The outros qualify them alone.

  40. Mine are constantly changing but top ten for sure are:

    1.- Hazel St.
    2.- Vox Celeste
    3.- Nothing Ever Happened
    4.- VHS Dream
    5.- Strange Lights
    6.- Agoraphobia
    7.- Desire Lines
    8.- Twilight at Carbon Lake
    9.- Neither of Us, Uncertainly
    10. Monomania

  41. I agree with a bunch of what you’ve all pointed out to be missing. I have a question though; is it possible that I’m the only one who thinks it’s criminal that Heatherwood was left out? Also, as far as Monomania is concerned, if I had to pick only one track as it’s best, it would definitely be The Missing.

  42. Deerhunter is my favorite band of the 2000s. There’s a lot of love for songs that deserve love. The omission of NEH is peculiar but at least it shows that (unlike some) the writer can move beyond the song that made Deerhunter so popular. On the contrary, the song is amazing and I can’t imagine a single “best of” list without it.

    Doing a top 10 DH songs list is just as hard as doing a best of Radiohead imo, it’s just too difficult for me.

  43. It’s hard to choose one but He Would Have Laughed is a great song.

  44. nobody likes fountain stairs? thats like one of the best guitar riffs ever writen.

  45. Why has no one mentioned Coronado? In my opinion, it’s the penultimate song of Halcyon Digest. And definitely one of Deerhunter’s best.

    • It’s the penultimate song whether in your opinion or not. It just is the penultimate song on Halcyon Digest…

    • It’s LITERALLY the penultimate song.

    • This should win editor’s choice for comment of the week.

    • Seeing that I had had a few drinks and it was pretty late when I wrote this, Van Cleave, I think my usage of the word penultimate isn’t that important. In my opinion. Wanna do me a favor next time and troll my all of English papers for me too?

      And yeah, Coronado is damn good. What I meant earlier is that I think it is probably the best song on Halcyon Digest, and it’s placing right before He Would Have Laughed is especially important. It also revived a trend of saxophone use in pop music and indie rock i.e. Destroyer’s Kaputt, Lady Gaga’s Edge of Glory, and M83′s Midnight City, just to name a few off the top of my head. And while Coronado may have not directly influenced any of those songs, Bradford was on top of his shit before any of them.

  46. God, these lists are absurd. Deerhunter needs no hierarchy. All of their albums are great; all of their songs are great.

    But if I have to play the game, I’m going to throw in a vote for “Nitebike” from Monomania, which is another stone cold classic album from one of my favorite bands.

  47. 10. “Basement” – Turn it Up, Faggot
    9. “Famous Last Words” – Rainwater Cassette Exchange
    8. “Vox Humana” – Weird Era Cont.
    7. “Desire Lines” – Halcyon Digest
    6. “Heatherwood” – Cryptograms
    5. “Calvary Scars/Green Jacket/Activa” (suite) – Microcastle
    4. “Focus Group” – Weird Era Cont.
    3. “The Missing” – Monomania
    2. “Hazel St.” – Cryptograms
    1. “Little Kids” – Microcastle

    I effing LOVE Pundt’s writing. I feel like he should of at least gotten one more track on Monomania and way more appearances on this list. Lotus Plaza > Atlas Sound

  48. I find that as I try and seek my favorites I realize more and more how much I love so many of their songs just from the opening seconds. Damn Deerhunter is so good.

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