For nearly 15 years now, Hot Chip have been releasing effervescent, wildly infectious synthpop albums like clockwork. Up until recently, you got a Hot Chip album every two years, and you could always rely on them to have at least a few ridiculously catchy bangers, a handful of new songs you couldn’t wait to hear live. But reliability isn’t much of a narrative — just ask Spoon. When artists simply keep plugging away, periodically releasing another album that moves their sound in increments and reassures you that their attention to craft and bulletproof songwriting has not dwindled, it’s easy to take them for granted. You expect, they deliver, end of story.
Now it’s been three years since Hot Chip’s last album, 2015’s Why Make Sense?, plenty of time for the dust to have settled on that chapter of their career, and more time to recontextualize all that preceded it. Yes, this is a band that comes across like they write hooks and big technicolor synth lines in their sleep. But it didn’t start out at that way, and reducing Hot Chip to their consistency has an inherent danger of consigning them to comfort food and of missing the little facets that make their arc interesting.
Their debut, 2004’s Coming On Strong, was in some ways a blueprint and in some ways misleading. Here were five pasty British guys making homemade electronic music that took aesthetic cues from black American music including R&B and hip-hop. The lyrics were littered with sardonic asides riffing off the tropes of those genres. It was a little baffling. Was it genuine tribute? Were they just nerds poking fun at pop music? Were they just some British dudes who really wanted to make pop music but only had the means to produce a sort of pastiche?
This set the stage for an early perception of Hot Chip, that they were ironic pranksters built from and for an era of hipster performativity. But they weren’t messing with us back then; they did love those genres, and it was an earnest tribute. If anything, Coming On Strong lives on as the weaker beginning of this band not because of its disposition, but because they took that blueprint and blew it out into all sorts of vibrant colors as their career progressed. The chintzy toy synths of their debut were nowhere near the tools necessary for this band to communicate the ebullience that’d soon become their calling card.
The raw elements were in place though, just waiting to be refined. There was the interplay of dual vocalists Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard, Taylor’s pleasing and wispy voice the cooing and meditative counterpart to Goddard’s husky, bearish sing-speak croon. And in that collision of reference points already evident on Coming On Strong, you can hear the subtle beginnings, the evidence that Hot Chip were early adopters of the genre agnosticism that’s now the common way of things in the music landscape. It’s easy to forget that what they were doing was strange: Just 15 years ago, the indie sphere still wasn’t exactly there for electronic music. They still looked down their noses at pop. That was already changing, but it wasn’t where we are now, and Hot Chip were an oddity.
Of course, the other thing is that you could just look at Hot Chip as a fun synthpop band that people either took to or didn’t much care about. On the surface, they didn’t seem to have ideas the way James Murphy smuggled cultural critique into lengthy disco workouts for LCD Soundsystem, the project that’s always been the obvious (and more critically adored) Stateside counterpart to Hot Chip. (Hot Chip’s Al Doyle also plays in LCD, and they were labelmates at one time.)
But what they did have was emotion, a lot of it. They had love, as the song went. Within all the squiggly, sugar-overload synths the band built up, there was overflowing earnestness. In the early days, it was moodier, but even now they have a way with crafting those kinds of songs that can seem melancholy and uplifting at once, depending on what you’re looking for. What was clear either way was the band’s increasing openness, their increasing focus on conveying joy and depicting love in realistic but devotional ways.
On the occasion of Hot Chip’s third album Made In The Dark turning 10 today, we decided to take a look back through their hit-filled history. Over only six albums, there are already far too many lovable Hot Chip songs for a list of 10. There are epic, towering dance tracks, bite-size heavy-hitters with far too many good ideas for a single song, and wistful white-boy soul balladry, a place where Taylor can often showcase an entirely different vein of his songwriting. It all manages to coexist.
But the stuff that sticks around is the stuff that’s as catchy and gratifying on the 100th listen as it was on the 10th, and Hot Chip has plenty of those songs. On another day, a few different tracks could’ve been on this list instead. But when I think about how the band’s catalog has come together, and when I think about the songs that have gone to new levels and become staples onstage, these are the ones that are at the front of my mind, the ones I still find randomly stuck in my head on random mornings.
10. “Huarache Lights” (from Why Make Sense?, 2015)
Hot Chip’s most recent album was still good, but felt like a semi-misstep after the highs of 2012’s In Our Heads. The move towards a mellow funk sound was smart, a way to explore a latent aspect of their music, but it also seemed to deny some of the best elements of Hot Chip’s songwriting. Still, there were some jams, including the airy, gorgeous “Need You Now” and the album’s lead single “Huarache Lights.” All the warbling bass sounds have proven unshakeable nearly three years later, especially if you’ve caught this one live, where even right after Why Make Sense? already sounded gigantic and like one of the group’s classics.
It’s an off-kilter track that burrows into your mind a bit more gradually than other Hot Chip singles. And though the refrain of “Replace us with the things/ That do the job better” might be a bit of pop commentary — it isn’t hard to find interviews where Goddard bemoans the clinical perfection of contemporary pop music edging out the messy, human elements that Hot Chip still prefer to include — it’s also resonant, the idea of a band that’s always played with the intersection of the artificial and the organic conveying technological anxiety.
9. “No Fit State” (from The Warning, 2006)
One of the best examples of how Goddard and Taylor can play off each other to abruptly change the tone of a Hot Chip song, “No Fit State” is the moody stunner sitting towards the end of The Warning. Between their first and second albums, Hot Chip really leveled up: The Warning is full of sophisticated and surprising songs, blossoming with a whole array of new sounds both excitably buzzing and icily emotive. “No Fit State” at first falls into the latter category, a diffuse meditation that begins with Goddard, grows more panged as Taylor joins in and they wrap their voices around each other, and then suddenly bursts into a teary-eyed sunrise three minutes in. “I’m in no fit state/To fall in love with you,” Taylor confesses. It remains one of the band’s prettiest songs.
8. “One Life Stand” (from One Life Stand, 2010)
Like any synthpop band worth its salt, Hot Chip are precise when it comes to perfecting each little sound. The title track from one of their best albums is a quintessential display of that, the way they start with one simple earworm of an idea and patiently layer onto it. It’s just that little synthetic chirp, then that steel drum situation comes in out of left field, and then without losing its beat or forward momentum the track peels open into a floating, gorgeous chorus. “I only want to be your one life stand,” Taylor sings, taking a club track and what could be a dancefloor come-on and turning it into a paean for true love.
7. “Over & Over” (from The Warning, 2006)
Hot Chip’s first bona fide banger, “Over & Over” is the kind of a song that happens when a band hones its chops, gets the right gear, and just goes enthusiastically all-out in piling one great idea on top of another. Like “One Life Stand,” it’s one of those Hot Chip songs that begins with one element — the collection of intro synths that sound like insects buzzing amidst windchimes — and then beef it up into a squelching groove underneath a singalong chorus. It’s another live standby, and for good reason: “Over & Over” is one of the most deliriously catchy songs in a catalog loaded with deliriously catchy songs.
6. “Let Me Be Him” (from In Our Heads, 2012)
Hot Chip has made poignant songs their whole career, but there was a different weight to it all by the time they got to In Our Heads. Maybe it was age, experience; maybe they just had a lot to say. But it’s likely still their most ambitious album overall, a collection that veers from tight pop songs overflowing with hooks to sprawling epics. In the latter category, you have “Let Me Be Him,” a composition not quite like anything else the band’s ever recorded.
Years later, I still can’t pinpoint what exactly it reminds me of — huge, futuristic pop from the turn of the millennium, a pre-9/11 surge of hope? Wherever this came from, it’s a stunning piece of writing. It’s one of those songs that, from its celestial opening, feels like it was custom-built for a dramatic finale right before the credits roll. And from that quiet beginning of organ sounds and that skipping beat and Goddard’s meditative vocal, the song lifts you into a gigantic chorus that is completely unlike anything else Hot Chip ever wrote. Sometimes, you’ve gotta earn your way to writing something as unabashed and yearning as that chorus, a cavernous “Oh-oh” backdrop that lodges itself in your head forever the first time you hear it. It’s a song of yearning, but when it gets to that chorus, it erupts into pure euphoria.
5. “And I Was A Boy From School” (from The Warning, 2006)
One of the finest examples of the paradoxical identity Hot Chip can so often inject into a song. “And I Was A Boy From School” glides along on a persistent dance track, but it’s a contemplative look back at being young and a misfit. It is not, in the tradition of such things in great synthpop of the past, nostalgia surrounded by gossamer tones. It sounds more like a reckoning, a purge of your history. It’s a track that also highlights the weirdness of Hot Chip as a unit, the characteristic people always talk about with them — the group of “nerds,” the quirky collection of people who don’t look they belong in the exact same band, performing music you might expect sleek, cool city-dwellers to be performing. Songs like this are their way of building their own world anyway.
4. “Ready For The Floor” (from Made In The Dark, 2008)
Made In The Dark is an album that, in hindsight, feels like a transition as Hot Chip started to get more explicitly poppy. As a result, there are some growing pains, some experiments that didn’t quite land. It’s an uneven album, but one with several songs that still go 10 years on: the frenzied Talking Heads jam of “Hold On,” the bubbling “One Pure Thought,” the clattering and fried dance groove of “Touch Too Much.”
None are as enduring as “Ready For The Floor,” however, which lives on as one of Hot Chip’s signature songs. It’s just such an undeniable, giddily catchy song, one where all the discrete parts line up perfectly. The main beat and synth parts, that keening synth that drops in during the chorus, the fact that they smartly place the first chorus in between the extended intro and the first verse. And, man, that chorus. It’s one of their best, Taylor’s hyper-memorable and gentle melody hanging out in contrast to, but comfortably with, all the energetic instrumentation.
3. “Motion Sickness” (from In Our Heads, 2012)
As their career has gone on, Hot Chip have become increasingly adept at making songs that function so insanely well as openers you can’t imagine them fitting in anywhere else on the record. They introduce you to the album’s world perfectly, they sound like the curtain rising and all that. “Motion Sickness” is one of those songs, from those oscillating synths to the throbbing bass notes that come in, to how the band strategically metes out each new, equally infectious synth part as the song builds itself up until its momentum throws it headlong into the chorus. It set the tone for In Our Heads, an album lined with muscular grooves and the glossiest synth parts the band has ever written. But the drama of this song is powerful on its own, too, becoming more beautiful and intense as each minute passes.
2. “Thieves In The Night” (from One Life Stand, 2010)
“Thieves In The Night” is the proto-“Motion Sickness,” and I often go back and forth on which one is better. It’s another one of Hot Chip’s perfect album openers, and maybe it’s because of its echoes of New Order, but it’s always struck me as their own “Age Of Consent.” A hybrid of synthpop and rock, it’s one of those songs that never lets you go for a second once it picks up, a rush that keeps throwing a new melody your way, a new synth line, a new twist. Hot Chip have an innate understanding of the architecture of these things, how to place things to let one good idea breathe and how to place them to completely overwhelm the listener. In the best way, of course. And “Thieves In The Night” finds them at the height of their powers in that regard.
1. “Flutes” (from In Our Heads, 2012)
Is there any one “best Hot Chip song?” Another flipside of consistency is that, when you have a portfolio of laser-focused pop gems like these guys do, it can be hard to argue any single one of them is “the definitive Hot Chip song.” It could be “Over & Over,” it could be “Ready For The Floor.” It could be whichever one you simply find to have the most alluring synth part, the one that happens to hit you on a visceral level in a way another doesn’t.
All that being said, “Flutes” is certainly one of Hot Chip’s greatest achievements. A seven-minute monolith situated in the third quarter of In Our Heads, it’s another moment that goes back to the idea of a song’s architecture. The steady, intent way the band builds this song up, then break it down and reevaluate it, and then build it back up again is a marvel. It is, of course, very danceable, built on one of the band’s most addicting grooves and the percussive, processed backdrop vocals that continuously punctuate the track. It’s also an emotional journey, a saga of Taylor managing to stay afloat amongst all the competing textures. “Flutes” was the highlight on what might be Hot Chip’s finest album front-to-back, the one that encapsulated that album’s gravity and lushness. But it’s also the best evidence of what this band can pull off, that when they want to go big they go big, writing songs that are as impactful as they are purely lovable.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.