Chairlift’s place within modern music was never easy to identify, partially because that place always seemed to be evolving. But one thing that was clear was how gorgeously and gracefully they existed wherever their muse happened to lead. The avant-pop band shifted shape frequently throughout its decade-plus together, trying on new approaches and aesthetics like a model rifling through an infinite wardrobe in search of the right look, all the while maintaining a certain smart, emotionally vulnerable ethos. From the computerized bounce of breakout single “Bruises” to the heavy rhythmic pounding of “Met Before” to the melancholy effervescence of final album Moth, they never settled into one sound for long. Every reinvention brought a slew of memorable singles along with it; today, in the wake of the band’s breakup announcement, we celebrate the best of those tracks.
The project began in 2005 as a collaboration between University Of Colorado classmates Caroline Polachek and Aaron Pfenning. Within a year they had transplanted from Boulder to Brooklyn, adding Patrick Wimberly a few months after their move. Chairlift came across a lot of people’s radars when “Bruises,” a standout from 2008 debut album Does You Inspire You, soundtracked a TV ad for the iPod Nano. Despite that song’s bright accessibility, other tracks from the album showed Chairlift had a knack for baroque pop drama as well.
Whereas plenty of bands who land a song in a commercial are never heard from again, Chairlift emphatically proved their staying power. After Pfenning departed in 2010 to pursue his own project, Rewards, Polachek and Wimberly delivered a stronger, more well-rounded sophomore album called Something in 2012. Beyond elevating the quality of Chairlift’s songwriting and production, and generating a handful of memorable music videos, LP2 further solidified the band’s reputation as one of the most adventurous units in the rock and pop underground, a reputation buoyed by their collaborations within the Brooklyn music scene and beyond. Throughout their tenure, the members of Chairlift worked with Das Racist, Solange, Washed Out, Holy Ghost!, Blood Orange, Jorge Elbrecht, and Acrylics among many others, even contributing “No Angel” to Beyoncé’s smash self-titled visual album.
Chairlift truly saved the best for last, though. Moth, released in January of this year, was both the band’s finest collection of songs and its most unified creative statement. The artful impulses that once seemed to temper Polachek’s emotional outpourings now amplified them, and a brisk, airy aesthetic united both joyous declarations of love and moments of somber reflection. Moth marked Chairlift’s boldest embrace of the pop and R&B undercurrents that had always been a part of their music; it sounded like a talented band shedding the scarequotes that often accompany underground musicians toying around with mainstream tropes. They were shooting for the heavens, and the results were dope as hell.
Yet even as they defined their sound with unprecedented sharpness and confidence, it wasn’t exactly obvious where they fit in beyond the indie rock circles from whence they sprang. Despite their music’s ostensibly broad appeal, Chairlift sometimes seemed caught between radio formats, unable to gain a foothold at pop or alternative stations. That was everyone’s loss, as the following songs demonstrate. Polachek and Wimberly may well go on to more widespread notoriety — maybe even by working together, judging from the friendly nature of their farewell note — but what they’ve already accomplished deserves the world’s attention. So listen up!
10. “Amanaemonesia” (from Something, 2012)
The rap against bands like Chairlift is that they’re doing a “look how smart I am” version of pop rather than plunging headfirst into the pleasures of the genuine article. Turning a 50-cent word into your hook does not exactly cut against that notion, but “Amanaemonesia” proves irresistible on a sensory level in spite of its intellectual bent. After the bassline pulls you into the song’s swift current, the chorus sends you hurtling through the mist and straight over a waterfall.
9. “Planet Health” (from Does You Inspire You, 2008)
Chairlift were great at constructing rhythms that move your body, and “Planet Health” does that in deceptively understated fashion, with a slow-crawling groove built from popping bass and moody atmospherics. Despite its heavy physical impact, the resulting track is statuesque in its beauty.
8. “Fashion Party” (from Das Racist’s Sit Down, Man, 2010)
Based on Chairlift’s albums alone, you might get the impression that they’re an ultra-serious bunch. Their playful videos have helped to dispel that perception — particularly the funny choose-your-own-adventure clip for “Met Before” — but so did their appearance on Das Racist’s transcendent mixtape Sit Down, Man. On “Fashion Party,” Polachek sinks her teeth into a knowing parody of globetrotting elites against a funky backdrop that’s both ridiculous and infectious.
7. “Frigid Spring” (from Something, 2012)
There’s nothing else in Chairlift’s catalog like this elegant outer-space Euro-pop chamber-psych ballad, and it’s unlikely they’d have been able to pull off the aesthetic any better than they did here.
6. “Moth To The Flame” (from Moth, 2016)
The neon spandex hip-shaking power in this one is strong, and Polachek’s hook carries you higher and higher right along with her. The recurring spoken-word aside, “He’s that kind of man, mama,” is some top-flight pop punctuation, too.
5. “Bruises” (from Does You Inspire You, 2008)
The carefree sway and bright melodic charm of Chairlift’s breakthrough hit belied the realness and rawness Polachek was spitting. “I tried to do handstands for you/ But every time I fell for you/ I’m permanently black and blue, permanently blue/ For you” — that’s some dark pathos underlying what could otherwise pass for a lighthearted bop.
4. “Met Before” (from Something, 2012)
The hardest-charging song in Chairlift’s arsenal plays like an old U2 track blasted with the scent of winterfresh bubblegum. In other words, it perfectly captures that sense of sweet exhilaration Polachek describes in the lyrics.
3. “Romeo” (from Moth, 2016)
Guitar courses through this song like uncontrolled electricity, the beat brilliantly reimagines Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” as DnB, and Polachek’s breathy chorus arches into the stratosphere, where it finds a secret backdoor into your consciousness forever.
2. “I Belong In Your Arms” (from Something, 2012)
One of Polachek’s specialties is evoking the all-consuming tingle that accompanies a budding romance. An abundance of such songs is one of the reasons this year’s Moth was so winsome. But Chairlift’s finest ode to falling madly in love emerged one album earlier in the form of the soaring, shimmering “I Belong In Your Arms.” Countless revivalists have attempted ’80s pop pastiche in the years since Y2K, but few have succeeded so vibrantly.
1. “Crying In Public” (from Moth, 2016)
Polachek’s secret weapon has always been her extreme vulnerability. Her knack for fearless self-revelation has allowed her to communicate both the breathless thrill of attraction catching fire and the despair of love smoldering in wreckage. And in her band’s best song, she paints an immensely powerful scene about the convergence of so many feelings that she can’t quite compute. “Crying In Public” is about breaking down in view of the whole world, overwhelmed by emotion but emboldened by the presence of someone who makes revealing your weakness feel not just safe but essential to survival. So many other signature Chairlift elements contribute to the song’s triumph — genius bass work, a drizzly haze, an unshakeable chorus melody, the swooning specter of Sade — but ultimately what lifts “Crying In Public” to transcendence is deeply personal storytelling from one of music’s most talented narrators.