Glass Animals Are Better Than Your Average Alt-Rock Crossover Success

Pooneh Ghana

Glass Animals Are Better Than Your Average Alt-Rock Crossover Success

Pooneh Ghana

It’s not like Glass Animals were exactly obscure. “Gooey,” a single from the Oxford, UK band’s 2014 debut album Zaba, went Platinum in the United States off the back of alternative radio rotation; it was even more successful in Australia, finishing the year as one of government-funded alternative station Triple J’s most popular tracks. The group’s 2016 sophomore LP How To Be A Human Being spun off a few more radio hits and was shortlisted for Great Britain’s Mercury Prize, tinting their commercial success with a hint of prestige. Maybe they weren’t a household name, exactly, but their name was out there. By the standards of 2010s rock music, you could reasonably describe them as “kind of a big deal.”

Still, “Heat Waves” has been a big success even by Glass Animals standards. Since its release last summer as the fourth advance single off the band’s Dreamland album, the track has been synced into the FIFA ’21 soundtrack, named Triple J’s #1 song of 2020, incorporated into a popular YouTuber’s Minecraft stunt, become Glass Animals’ first song to crack the Billboard Hot 100, been featured on the Song Exploder podcast, and pulled off the leap from alternative rock to pop radio in America. As of last month, the song has entered the “remix featuring Iann Dior” stage of its crossover. It’s a real-deal hit.

This is noteworthy but not necessarily surprising. Glass Animals’ sound owes something to British forebears like fellow Oxford exports Radiohead and the knotty, proggy Leeds combo alt-J in that it plays around with pop-leaning beats and synths in an artfully bleary mainstream rock context. Yet unlike those bands, few would dismiss Glass Animals’ music as difficult or esoteric. They are a band seemingly built for a festival ecosystem that was waning before the pandemic and now seems in danger of extinction, ecumenical and vaguely hip-sounding, given to collaborations with artists that approach that same universe from different starting points, like the Florida rapper Denzel Curry and the London bedroom-pop upstart Arlo Parks. Really, “band” barely feels like the right word considering Dave Bayley writes, produces, and sings everything. His work is intriguing and inventive, but it also feels like an outgrowth of the unpleasant flattening that has befallen any music that comes in contact with money in the streaming era. There’s a sanitized, one-size-fits-all quality about even Bayley’s most inspired tracks. Both Paul Epworth and Mike Dean worked on their new album, and it sounds like a midpoint between them.

Viewed less charitably, Glass Animals are emblematic of alternative radio today. At this point “alternative” rock as heard on the radio has been so thoroughly consumed by the monolithic genre-obliterating sound of modern pop music that it often sounds less like a distinct format than a farm system for the Top 40. It was a consistent phenomenon throughout the 2010s: At the same time that many ballyhooed new indie artists began worshipfully name-checking Beyoncé and embracing pop music whole hog, bands less concerned with critical acclaim and hipster bona fides started using alternative radio as a launchpad for a proper pop breakthrough. A lot of them were freak one-offs, like Portgual. The Man’s lithe and funky “Feel It Still” or lovelytheband’s hokey singalong “Broken” or SHAED’s Billie Eilish cosplay “Trampoline.” A few bands managed to parlay the pipeline into a blockbuster career, most notably Imagine Dragons.

Yet it feels unfair to group Glass Animals in with that bunch. They seem like a band with real vision and distinct taste, not just trend-humpers riding the waves of culture. They bill themselves as a psych-pop band, and similarly to the way fellow glorified one-man show Tame Impala has updated the genre for the era of too much screen time, Dreamland builds elements of hip-hop, ambient synth-pop, vibey beat music, and more into its ostensibly rock foundation. “Tangerine” finds common ground between Drake and Daft Punk. “Your Love (Déjà Vu)” is like one of Timbaland’s pop songs for Justin Timberlake or Nelly Furtado gone off a vape pen. “Hot Sugar” could be mistaken for a Kendrick Lamar deep cut — a difficult thing for a white alt-rock band to attempt without embarrassing themselves. Is it corny when “Space Ghost Coast To Coast” starts rattling off nerdy pop cultural touchstones from Bayley’s youth? Sure, but you’d have to think the target audience for so much of this music grew up “Playin’ too much of that GTA/ Playin’ too much of that Dr. Dre.”

If that song represents Glass Animals betting on nostalgia, “Heat Waves” is the sound of them interacting with right now. Trap drum programming, woozy electronic bass and keyboards, pitched-down vocals, a guitar loop that blurs into the digital morass: Rarely has this band leaned so hard into the pop side of that “psych-pop” descriptor. It’s undoubtedly catchy, yet still tasteful and reserved enough that you wouldn’t mistake it for Maroon 5’s latest metamorphosis — partially because Bayley’s voice does not stand out the way Adam Levine’s does. But if his utilitarian singing is basically just a necessary vehicle for his writing and production, the writing and production definitely draws you in on this one.

“Heat Waves” was well timed, and not just because Glass Animals’ music is in step with the zeitgeist. It’s a moody song about longing for something that is never coming back, released into a summer when many people were wondering whether the life they once knew was gone forever. The video smartly paired it with images of Bayley dragging a wagon full of TVs through empty London streets, setting them up to display his bandmates, and giving a remote rooftop performance with them. They billed it as a tribute to the communal experience of live music. From the hook to the cinematography, the whole package works. You can see why this is the Glass Animals song that caught on, and why the deluxe version of Dreamland includes three alternate versions of the song (including a Diplo remix).

What will be interesting to see going forward is whether this dalliance with mainstream success is an anomaly or if it represents Glass Animals’ more permanent introduction into that world. I can imagine Bayley doing fascinating work with pop stars, same as Kevin Parker or Jack Antonoff or even Dan Auerbach has. I can also imagine Glass Animals compromising what’s cool about their music in order to keep chasing hits. They were doing pretty well for themselves even before “Heat Waves” started to heat up, so hopefully this recent sequence of events has encouraged them to keep developing what’s great about their band rather than bringing them to the brink of humiliation.

CHART WATCH

Young Thug’s Slime Language 2 compilation debuts atop the Billboard 200 this week. A showcase for Thugger’s Young Stoner Life record label highlighting rappers such as Gunna, Yak Gotti, Lil Duke, T-Shyne, and Lil Keed, it tallied 113,000 equivalent album units, 106,000 of them deriving from 142.68 million on-demand track streams. It remains wild that you can have the #1 album in America with only 6,000 in sales, but those are the times we live in! Because Young Thug appears on 13 of 23 tracks, Slime Language 2 is billed as Young Thug & Various Artists. It’s his second #1 album following 2019’s So Much Fun. As Billboard notes, it’s also only the second hip-hop album to hit #1 this year following Rod Wave’s SoulFly.

After Taylor Swift, Morgan Wallen, and Justin Bieber comes a #5 debut for Heart, the first installment of Eric Church’s new three-part album Heart & Soul. Heart totaled 49,000 units, and with 40,000 in actual sales, it’s the bestselling album of the week. Swift, Wallen, and Church is not a lawfirm — it’s the combination of artists who’ve landed three country albums in the top five for the first time since 2015. (Back then the group also included Church alongside Tim McGraw and Chris Stapleton.) Following the aforementioned Rod Wave is a #7 debut for Greta Van Fleet’s The Battle At Garden’s Gate with 44,000 units and 39,000 in sales. The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, and Pop Smoke round out the top 10.

The Hot 100 singles chart remains relatively static. Polo G’s “RAPSTAR” holds on to #1 for a second week, followed by former chart-toppers from Silk Sonic (“Leave The Door Open”), Justin Bieber/Giveon/Daniel Caesar (“Peaches”), and Lil Nas X (“Montero”). Dua Lipa and DaBaby’s “Levitating” is back up to #5. The Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears” is at #6, and with the release of a new remix featuring Ariana Grande, don’t be surprised if it shoots to #1 next week. Masked Wolf’s “Astronaut In The Ocean” jumps to a new peak of #7, and the top 10 is rounded out by Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More,” Cardi B’s “Up,” and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License.”

POP FIVE

H.E.R. – “Come Through” (Feat. Chris Brown)
Newly minted Oscar winner H.E.R. really doesn’t need to be making songs with Chris Brown, but go off I guess. For what it’s worth, “Come Through” is some very strong shadowy radio R&B.

Sasha Sloan – “When Was It Over?” (Feat. Sam Hunt)
I am obviously a mark for Sam Hunt, and yes, I like this billowy breakup ballad he’s on.

Natti Natasha & Becky G – “Ram Pam Pam”
It’s easy to imagine this ruling the summer, assuming summer goes as well as many of us vaccinated folks are hoping it will. It’s one of those Spanish-language reggaeton bangers that seems infectious enough to break through at English-speaking radio, especially if the right brand-name star hops on a remix.

PJ Harding & Noah Cyrus – “The Worst Of You”
It’s interesting to hear more and more Phoebe Bridgers influence creeping into mainstream pop, but can we please stop trying to make Noah Cyrus happen?

Rebecca Black – “Personal”
The girl that gave us “Friday” is out here making perfectly respectable sleek electro-pop tracks. Who’d have thunk it?

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • At the Razzies, Sia won the Worst Director for Music. The film’s Kate Hudson won Worst Actress and Maddie Ziegler won Worst Supporting Actress. [BBC]
  • Billie Eilish shared a clip of new single apparently called “Happier Than Ever.” [Twitter]
  • Taylor Swift’s boyfriend Joe Alwyn has retroactively been recognized as an Album Of The Year Grammy winner for his production work on folklore. He was credited as William Bowery on the album. [Us]
  • BTS’ second English-language single “Butter” is reportedly out 5/21. [Twitter]
  • Lil Dicky’s FX series Dave will return for a second season with guest appearances from Doja Cat, Lil Nas X, Benny Blanco, J Balvin, Rae Sremmurd, Lil Yachty, and more. [Deadline]
  • Speaking of Doja Cat, her next Planet Her single will be “You Right,” featuring the Weeknd. [Billboard]
  • And while we’re still on the subject of Doja Cat, a New York court denied Kesha’s appeal in the Dr. Luke defamation case, arguing that Dr. Luke is not a libel-proof public figure. [THR]
  • Black Pumas, Kings Of Leon, and hometown hero Machine Gun Kelly will perform at this week’s NFL draft in Cleveland. [News 5]
  • In other MGK news, he got a new tattoo to make it like someone sliced his neck. [Instagram]
  • BTS, Billie Eilish, Cardi B, John Mayer, and Rosalía were nominated for Webby Awards. [The Wrap]
  • Here’s the trailer for Amazon Studios’ J Balvin doc THE BOY FROM MEDELLÍN. [YouTube]
  • A remix of the Kid LAROI’s “Without You” featuring Miley Cyrus is coming 4/30… so maybe the Kid will be joining Miley and Elon Musk on SNL in a couple weeks? [TikTok]
  • Bebe Rexha did “Sacrifice” on Colbert. [YouTube]
  • Masked Wolf made his TV debut with “Astronaut In The Ocean” on Fallon. [YouTube]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

    more from The Week In Pop

    Hi. It looks like you're using an ad blocker.

    As an independent website, we rely on our measly advertising income to keep the lights on. Our ads are not too obtrusive, promise. Would you please disable adblock?