The 10 Best TV On The Radio Songs
Earlier today, TV On The Radio announced the fall 2014 release of their fifth album, Seeds. It will be the band’s first LP since 2011’s Nine Types Of Light, a strong collection that somehow never quite got its due. Why, though? Have we taken the band for granted? It certainly seems that way. After spending a few albums as reigning indie darlings and as one of the bands deemed suitable for the title of “the American Radiohead,” Nine Types Of Light seemed to go rather quietly. People liked it, but it didn’t dominate the conversation necessarily. This could perhaps be partially traced to the fact that, after three preceding albums over which the band continued to fake us all out and leap into different dimensions each time, Nine Types Of Light was the first TV On The Radio release made up of a bunch of songs that, conceivably, wouldn’t have been too far out of place on the preceding album. It was also much, much mellower. Maybe it’s not that we took the band themselves for granted — they’re clearly extremely talented artists. But maybe we took the experimentation for granted — perhaps not inconsequently, a similar narrative could be ascribed to Radiohead’s arc in recent years — and people just didn’t know how to react when TV On The Radio didn’t, well, shock them. Or that when they did surprise them, it was because they had decided to write more conventional songs.
Any way you look at it, there’s also the inescapable fact that these things move fast. It’s 2014, and reigns are shorter than ever. But consider that up until Nine Types Of Light, each TV On The Radio LP had been one of the major, most discussed releases of their respective years. Return To Cookie Mountain was well regarded in a lot of end-of-year lists in 2006, and come 2008, Dear Science topped many of the same lists. There was some serious universality to this in the media, too: Even Rolling Stone named it the #1 album of the year. (For comparison points, #2 was an entry in Bob Dylan’s bootleg series, and #5 was John Mellencamp.) That is some serious top-of-the-heap status when it comes to a band as idiosyncratic and art-rock as TV On The Radio. Dear Science seemed like it was everywhere, and then in the overnight period of the three years that elapses between albums these days, TV On The Radio suddenly felt like a reliable stalwart, the sort of band that was going to keep cranking out reliably strong material, but that people just weren’t foaming at the mouth for anymore.
Aside from the cruel and rapid passage of time in the 21st century, there are probably two other factors to consider. One is that between Dear Science and Nine Types Of Light, there was a turnover into a new decade. That might seem minute, but TV On The Radio are at the forefront of bands that defined the “Brooklyn indie” thing, and as that became more commodified and ossified, they on one hand seemed more authentic, but also inevitably began to seem of another time and place. Foreign and exotic, yes, but also distant and not entirely legible.
There’s also the fact that the band is just inherently strange, inescapably unique. Both Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone’s vocal styles are, let’s say, unconventional, and both are crucial to the identity of the band. You could almost list whatever genre you want, and it’d make sense: doo-wop, electronica, hip-hop, New Wave, post-rock, post-punk, various strands of art-rock, and so on. There is no way this should work; it should be all over the place. TV On The Radio have touched on or incorporated bits and pieces of all of them, often weaving them together in a way where you’d never call them out immediately. So you call them art-rock in the way you do when a band has all these little recognizable parts making up an overall sound that is, more or less, totally unrecognizable.
That’s why they were so buzzed about for so long, and ironically that seems to be the same reason they somehow very quickly transitioned into a space of maybe not getting the recognition they deserve. That’s the weird flipside of being the sort of band they are: people just get used to you doing your thing, expect it from you, and either you keep experimenting and people trickle away over the years or you go more towards the middle and people think you got boring. (Again: American Radiohead.) In my opinion, all that stuff’s largely nonsense. I thought Nine Types Of Light was great. It was the first moment where one of their albums didn’t obviously, markedly improve on the last (which is insane, when you consider how strong each of their albums are), but it still showed the band maturing in interesting directions. If the new songs I heard in concert earlier this year are any indication, their forthcoming release will continue in this pattern — refining and condensing the TV On The Radio sound, a mix of gorgeous slow numbers and catchy uptempo ones. To that end, here are ten of the best songs TV On The Radio has released thus far. Consider it a little reminder of just how much these guys have accomplished in ten years.
10. “Will Do” (from Nine Types Of Light, 2011)
It was a bit of a toss up for this slot between a few of the choice cuts from Nine Types Of Light. For a while there, it was almost “You” or the proggy-folk of “Killer Crane,” but I went with my favorite from the bunch of songs that all told a similar story: Nine Types Of Light is the mellowest TV On The Radio release yet, and the first where the ballads are the easy highlights. It seems like this is part of what turned some older fans off of the album, but whatever — TV On The Radio doing these exotic, synth-y ballads is a good look as they close in on 40. “Will Do,” like “You,” comes off as a love song on the surface, another new-ish look for the band. It’s lush in a gentler way than the way they used to stack frenetic guitar over frenetic guitar. They’ve hit a point where they’re OK being straight-up beautiful without having to manipulate prettiness into whatever unforeseen shape. And that’s cool, because “Will Do” still sounds like the future anyway.
9. “Province” (from Return To Cookie Mountain, 2006)
Up until this point in their career, TV On The Radio had never allowed themselves to commit something quite as pretty as “Province” to an album — that side of their music, as mentioned above, would be saved up for later. But amidst all the contorted and alien sounds and emotions of Return To Cookie Mountain, they found time for this reverie, which approximates what I’d guess soul music will sound like when humans live on Mars. “Province” isn’t an outlier on the album. It’s rooted in the same arid ground and haunted visions as the rest of Cookie Mountain; its melodies go in the same unexpected directions, and musically it has the same blend of theoretically incompatible elements. But placed amongst other, more bug-eyed standouts like “Hours” or “Blues From Down Here,” it acts as a breather and a salve. In hindsight, it’s a hint at what happens when TV On The Radio’s darker mood begins to wash away a bit. Also, they got David Bowie to sing on this, and you can’t beat that.
8. “Staring At The Sun” (from Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, 2004)
Having moved to New York five years ago, and having moved to Brooklyn just this year, I have no direct personal experience with the version of Williamsburg that TV On The Radio started in; that place is long gone. But, even with the way the neighborhood has changed since the early ’00s, it isn’t hard to walk around and understand the particular, idiosyncratic version of New York music that TV On The Radio was making at the time. The narcotic buzz of the earlier TV On The Radio songs has always struck me as a scuzzier, broken-down cousin of shoegaze, “Staring At The Sun” being the best of them. The song makes a specific kind of apocalyptic sense when walking around abandoned, graffitied warehouses and factories in Brooklyn. It’s the kind of stuff that wants to reverberate around in more shadowy, less trafficked corners than the towers of Manhattan typically allow. “Staring At The Sun” sounds like a transmission from the end of the world, and should no longer make sense as a New York song in a Brooklyn that has Vice and “Brooklyn Girls.” Then again: if you’re walking around those parts of Brooklyn on a Friday night, with a song like “Staring At The Sun” blasting in your ears, and there are people from the Financial District waiting in lines for warehouse clubs, it can feel like just a slightly different vision of the apocalypse.
7. “I Was A Lover” (from Return To Cookie Mountain, 2006)
Fittingly for a song that supposedly samples Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” “I Was A Lover” has the feel of a trip-hop song whose clarity has been corroded away by swaths of fuzzed out guitar. The beat has that trip-hop lope, but it stutters and coughs more, breaking down into a piano break here, intensifying along with mutated horns and synths there. It’s one of the best examples of TV On The Radio giving us a song that is so intrinsically them, so seemingly from way out somewhere that few other bands are able to venture to. “I was a lover/Before this war” may remain their finest opening line, and it set the stage perfectly for the scorched landscape of Return To Cookie Mountain. “I Was A Lover” is one of a few TV On The Radio songs where the band manages to conjure whole, strange worlds in a song so expansive it feels twice as long and encompassing as it is. The result is a frayed epic, perhaps one of the lesser-sung great openers in the last two decades or so.
6. “Golden Age” (from Dear Science, 2008)
Dear Science came out at just the right time — it was 2008, LCD Soundsystem’s Sound Of Silver was still relatively young, and I was in a deep Talking Heads phase. So when “Golden Age” was the first thing I heard from Dear Science, and it started off with that rhythm and that hushed pseudo-falsetto and that Donkey Kong Country guitar part and then giddily tumbled over into those synth horn sounds and such a surprisingly uplifting and earworm-y chorus, I was sold. Based on their track record up until that point, it was no surprise that TV On The Radio would continue spreading further and further out and tasting any genre they stumbled across, but to go from Return To Cookie Mountain to going full-Prince on “Golden Age” was still an (awesome) about-face. Suddenly, TV On The Radio were willing to write pop songs, and as it turns out, they were exceedingly good at them. But aside from the stylistic shift, there’s a tonal one going on here, too — TV On The Radio were also suddenly OK with writing a truly euphoric chorus. “There’s a Golden Age comin’ round” could’ve appeared elsewhere in their catalog, but it would’ve been sardonic and distraught and surrounded by scathing distortion. Here, they began to let a real glimmer of hope into their music. They didn’t need more colors at their disposal, but of course they wanted them. And the results were stunning.
5. “Second Song” (from Nine Types Of Light, 2011)
When I was beginning to write about “Golden Age,” I was going to make the comment that TV On The Radio never otherwise sounded that giddy, that infectious — and then I remembered “Second Song.” I’d still argue that “Golden Age” is probably the band’s purest pop song, but the chorus of “Second Song” is a force to be reckoned with. Three years on from the release of Nine Types Of Light, this thing still gets stuck in my head all the time, unbidden and randomly. But while it’s possibly the band’s single catchiest song, there’s still some counterintuitive qualities to it, starting but not ending with the fact that it’s an opener cheekily titled “Second Song.” When “Second Song” begins, it shows no evidence that it’s building up to its slinky chorus. Rather, it’s all organ and meditative sing-speak. When it peals open into that chorus, it’s akin to regaining a sense, of being reminded: oh, yeah, there’s this way to perceive the world. The composite parts should feel stitched together, but there’s an expertly designed slow-build from each verse to that chorus — a slight uptick in the drum part, carefully placed piano chords, and of course, Adebimpe’s rising “Ooh-oohs,” the signal that the whole thing’s about to blossom outwards and upwards. At this point, TV On The Radio was making this look easy. “Second Song” is, after all, built on stray elements they’d already perfected elsewhere — the synth, the synth-y horn sounds, the funk rhythms. But there’s no problem to refining rather than repeatedly overhauling your sound if it results in songs this indelible.
4. “DLZ” (from Dear Science, 2008)
“DLZ” is one of those TV On The Radio songs that holds a lot not only sonically, but also flits between different moods depending on how you approach it. For a minute there, it can be seductive. That groove, those organ drones, the ability to use bongos well — there’s a surprisingly sensual quality to all those elements. But naturally, at the same time, that first verse can be totally unnerving, and fittingly, it’s only a matter of time until this song tips headlong into an unraveling, manic spiral. The gradual, steady intensifying of “DLZ” is cathartic to a degree, but only if you’re in the sort of headspace where the sort of catharsis you value is watching everything crumble into madness. By the end of the song, those same organ drones and bongos are still there, but they’re swallowed up by all the various strands and textures of the “DLZ” rising up around them. Adebimpe’s vocals have transitioned from a cooed whisper-rap to a frantic braying; the collapse or explosion or whatever has occurred. And it’s all done with stunning economy: “DLZ” is one of the most intense journeys of any TV On The Radio song, and it happens in three minutes and forty-five seconds. Bonus points for the fact that “DLZ” was used in a pivotal scene in the second season of Breaking Bad, one of the more inspired music cues on a show with no shortage of them. This isn’t a great quality video, but you should check it out.
3. “Young Liars” (from the Young Liars EP, 2003)
Back in May, I caught TV On The Radio’s set at BottleRock, a small festival in Napa Valley. It had been a while since I’d thought about or listened to the band, and when they began “Young Liars” mid-set, I didn’t recognize it for a second. Part of that, though, came from the fact that the live rendition of “Young Liars” is a whole other thing. It’s a titan of a live song: nine minutes, with a majestic slow-burn intro boiling over into repeated, dramatic peaks and valleys, verses giving way to ever-intensified choruses, the abstracted post-rock distortion of the studio upgraded to full-on, fire-breathing crescendos punctuated by a dramatic trombone line. If TV On The Radio ever did a studio version of this iteration of “Young Liars,” it would likely be the greatest thing they ever recorded. As is stands, the song is a crucial entry into their canon for multiple reasons. If you go back to the EP for which it served as a title track, it’s the song that tells you just how much this band already had themselves figured out, even before the lineup had grown into what we know it as today. In “Young Liars,” you can already hear the specific genre and emotional touchstones that would dominate TV On The Radio’s music for some time, and you can already hear them turning it into something totally their own. Part of what makes seeing them play the extended version live in 2014 is how it underlines the distance between TV on the Radio then and now. The original is hazy and moody, restrained and stark in the way of the band’s earlier music. And while that version can stand on its own, the live version shows how dynamic the band has become over time. They have learned how to craft monoliths.
2. “Halfway Home” (from Dear Science, 2008)
By the time I got here, I realized that this list has three album openers — to be exact, the openers from the last three major releases the band’s put out. They have a lot of skill in this regard, displaying an understanding of the songs of theirs that are, first of all, great songs, but also ones that exceed at establishing the headspace and sonic framework of the album to follow. “Halfway Home” goes one step beyond that. It’s everything TV On The Radio does well, in one song. The beginning is a more streamlined, direct, and propulsive version of their earlier aesthetic. The way the guitars maintain this constant distorted wave, the sort where you can’t quite tell where one note ends and the other begins, is very reminiscent of how they’d use guitars on Young Liars or Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, as is the way that Adebimpe initially murmurs amongst the noise around him (Another choice opening line for an album: “The lazy way they turned your head into a rest stop for the dead”). But this time there’s a tumbling tom pattern and handclaps pushing it all along, racing towards a chorus equally beautiful and unsettling, all eventually building towards a noisy, climactic ending. It has all the scope and sonic adventurousness we’d come to expect from the band, coupled with a newfound sense of how to frame their weirder predilections into a more conventional bit of songcraft. The mix worked brilliantly, and served them well on both Dear Science and Nine Types Of Light — and, one would assume, will continue to serve them well. If “I Was A Lover” was one of the more underrated openers in recent years, “Halfway Home” has to be in the top ten on any album by anyone in the same amount of time.
1. “Wolf Like Me” (from Return To Cookie Mountain, 2006)
It seems “Wolf Like Me” was many listeners’ entry point into TV On The Radio, and logically so. Before the band would start to soften their sound and produce more danceable songs, “Wolf Like Me” was the most immediate song the band had yet put out. And, to some extent, it’s their most inescapable, too: it’s the closest thing they’ve had to a hit, having been licensed in all manner of video games, TV shows and/or commercials, and movies. In either case, it’s for good reason. TV On The Radio’s music, even when twisty and cerebral and somewhat distant, had its qualities — usually percussive — that hinted that they could be visceral. And they went for that in a big way on “Wolf Like Me.” It has the sort of opening that immediately signals you’re in for something — those weird distant noises, the way the drums thump in before slowly being accompanied by another one of those big blurred slabs of distortion favored by the band. For a song whose strength lies primarily in the way it seems to charge along at a breakneck pace, there’s a surprising amount of dynamic shifts going on here, both subtle and obvious. In the beginning, it really feels like more of a midtempo buzz until the first chorus or so. And then just as it’s really getting crazy it drops down into that slower middle part, one of those moments in a song that exists almost solely to create the power of what comes next. Which is, of course, the final, truly breakneck minute and a half of “Wolf Like Me.” There are plenty of moments in TV On The Radio’s catalog where they get into your skin, but never quite as vitally as they do here — “Wolf Like Me” gets into your blood, the moment where Adebimpe sings “Show you what all the howl is for” right before that final, maddening rush the sort of thing that alters you on a cellular level. Every now and then, there’s something about TV On The Radio that feels very much of a recent-but-now-past era (a friend recently joked about how stereotypically ’00s-indie a name Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes is). But “Wolf Like Me” is as catchily brutal and inevitable as it ever was, remaining a peak in the band’s catalog. It’s a classic of the ’00s.
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