Pop stans like to throw around the phrase “cultural reset.” As in, when x artist released y album, it was a cultural reset — it changed everything. It could rightly refer to game-changing albums like Beyoncé’s self-titled surprise drop or Frank Ocean’s fearlessly minimal Blonde, and certainly to BC/AD moments like the mainstream breakthroughs of the Beatles or Nirvana. But the phrase is often deployed recklessly, on some “Charlie Brown had hoes” shit. A BTS song that debuted at #1 and then plummeted down the chart without ever grazing the zeitgeist? Cultural reset. Some Charlie Puth single that inspired some positive blog chatter but barely made it on the radio? Cultural reset. Any music ever released by Chloe or Halle Bailey, together or separately, into a vacuum of global indifference? Cultural reset.
Every genre has actual, real-deal cultural resets from time to time, “indie” music included. Slanted And Enchanted inspired a wave of quirky, laconic guitar-pop bands. “House Of Jealous Lovers” fomented a dance-punk movement. Sometimes it’s a wave of similarly minded artists emerging at the same time, like when Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Sufjan Stevens kicked off the freak folk thing or when Neon Indian, Washed Out, and Toro y Moi laid the foundation of chillwave. Such was the case in the fall of 2013, when the line between indie rock and mainstream pop was growing blurrier than ever.
Ten years ago today, both Haim and Lorde released their debut albums — just a week after Chvrches dropped theirs, about a month before Sky Ferreira unveiled hers. These records stand as key documents of an “indie rock” zeitgeist that felt increasingly untethered from traditional concepts of both “indie” and “rock,” in which many of the buzziest artists were either independent acts trying to be pop stars or major-label signees marketed to an indie audience. Maybe that sounds like a strange or even insidious phenomenon — it definitely had some dark ripple effects — but at the time I found it exciting, mainly because all of those albums are fantastic. They wouldn’t have reset the culture if they didn’t have some actual juice.
Haim were the walking embodiment of this trend (emphasis on walking). Their debut Days Are Gone offered a perfect synthesis of traditional “rockist” virtues (writing your own songs, playing your own instruments, a propensity to rock out) and the pop tendencies that were anathema to those same people (sleek production, tight vocal harmonies, unabashed choreography). Yet they were also outliers of a sort — a real-deal band playing guitar-forward music at a time when synth-driven singer-producer outfits had become the norm. And at a time when shrouding yourself in mystery was the surest path to indie-world clout, Haim arrived with a backstory too good to keep secret.
The Haim sisters were born and raised in the San Fernando Valley. Este arrived first in 1986, then Danielle in 1989, and finally Alana in 1991. Their father Moti, a Bulgarian immigrant, bought his daughters instruments at a young age, and eventually the girls joined their parents in the family band Rockinhaim. Rockinhaim played their first gig at Canter’s, the longstanding LA Jewish deli later seen on the cover of Women In Music Pt. III. Rockinhaim spent a few years playing classic rock covers at family-friendly events around town, but as the sisters grew up, they found their way into the music industry proper. In 2004 and 2005, Danielle and Este played in the Valli Girls, a teeny-bopping all-girl rock act signed to Columbia. The Valli Girls landed one song on the soundtrack for The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants and performed another on the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. Somehow, neither of those tracks was the prophetic “It’s A Hair Thing,” a pre-fame artifact any Haim fan simply must experience at least once.
After leaving the Valli Girls, Danielle and Este formed a band with their sister Alana in 2007. After considering adopting the name “the Bagel Bitches,” they opted to call themselves Haim instead. The band spent several years in obscurity, playing local shows around Southern California and attending school, but things picked up after Danielle stumbled into a pair of high-profile gigs playing guitar in the backing bands for Jenny Lewis and Julian Casablancas in the late aughts. She also played exactly one (1) show backing up CeeLo Green — on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show — but turned down a long-term commitment with the then-ubiquitous CeeLo to focus on her own band. That’s right: It was Haim time.
With drummer Dash Hutton backing them up, the Haim sisters opened for ascendant artists from the worlds of pop (Kesha) and alt-rock (Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeroes). But on the advice of Casablancas, Haim focused their efforts on recording rather than performing. The idea was to build a catalog and, eventually, buzz — a strategy that paid off in 2012 when their Forever EP, released for free on their website, caught fire online. A record deal with Polydor soon followed, as did blog hype from sources like — oh, hey, look at that, Stereogum dot com. The machine was churning: tour dates with superstars like Mumford & Sons and Florence And The Machine, euphoric praise from the UK press, a SXSW star turn. The stage was set for a breakout debut album, and Days Are Gone delivered.
Haim were born stars. Profiles of the sisters inevitably highlighted their long, flowing hair and casual California style, and their charisma was such that future celebrity achievements — touring and recording with Taylor Swift, starring in an Oscar-nominated movie — now feel inevitable in hindsight. Nothing about them besides their marketing plan was particularly “indie,” so it was easy for cynics to write them off as well-connected fashion plates backed by major-label money. But Days Are Gone is a hell of a record — one that was ideally suited to its moment but still holds up a decade later. The songs are brisk and fizzy, blurring genres fluidly, zooming around corners with an aerodynamic ease. The hooks are memorable, the riffs abundant, the rhythms frenetic. It’s an ideal version of rock as sleek pop product.
Haim were already toying with a hip-hop and R&B influence when their team of ascendant producers nudged them toward a fuller embrace of synths and programmed beats. That personnel included James Ford (the Simian Mobile Disco member known for producing some of the biggest mainstream rock albums in the UK), Ludwig Göransson (the Childish Gambino associate who’d go on to become an Oscar-winning composer), and, most famously, Ariel Rechtshaid. Rechtshaid had arisen from the not-particularly-hip world of pop-punk and ska (his first claim to fame was producing “Hey There Delilah”) to fashion himself as a visionary at the intersection of the blogs and the radio. His work with Vampire Weekend, Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX, Blood Orange, Solange, and others made him one of the key architects of that early 2010s indie-goes-pop moment. He was closely aligned with Haim’s story too, and not just because he dated Danielle Haim for years.
The resulting sound was familiar but entirely unique. Days Are Gone pulled from a range of late 20th century sounds — core Haim influences like Laurel Canyon legends Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell, but also ’70s hard rock, ’80s synth-pop, ’90s R&B, and beyond. Most tracks were rhythmically busy to an almost overwhelming extent, full of hiccuping drum machines, palm-muted guitar, and quick, staccato vocal melodies. Danielle’s understated alto usually led the way, laced with harmonies from her sisters that split the difference between old-school girl groups and schoolyard chants. Sometimes the band leaned into their classic rock childhood, particularly in the droning organ and fuzzed-out riffs of “Let Me Go.” Other times they popped and fizzed like that late ’80s moment when early hip-hop and new wave had the drum machines cracking, as on the catchy, blustery “Days Are Gone.” Their aesthetic was flexible enough to make room for the tender acoustic balladry of “Honey & I” and the squelching jock-jam antics of “My Song 5,” which wore its Kanye West influence in both a big “Black Skinhead” beat and a refrain that smacks of the “21st Century Schizoid Man” sample from “Power.”
The back half of Days Are Gone is solid, but the album can’t help but feel front-loaded due to the assortment of singles lined up on Side 1. From the moment that depth-charge drum sound echoes across your headphones and “Falling” commences, it’s hit after hit — never look back and never give up. “Forever” rides a similarly urgent percussive undercurrent, with guitars that bridge the divide between Survivor and the Strokes and the kind of harmonized vocals that sparked countless comparisons to Wilson Phillips. Reagan-era pop music had been a prominent influence in indie and alt-rock for a good solid decade before Haim came along, but few artists did it with the contagious propulsion that powers tracks like “If I Could Change Your Mind” and “Don’t Save Me.” The collective effervescence of these songs is such that Days Are Gone would be an immaculate collection even without “The Wire.” But friends, it does have “The Wire.” And any album that has “The Wire” belongs in some higher pantheon of pop-rock perfection.
The main knock on “The Wire,” among those so inclined to knock it, is that Haim took its galloping backbone from “Heartache Tonight” by their soft-rockin’ SoCal forebears the Eagles — as if a billion brilliant songs haven’t been written on the back of the Bo Diddley beat or the Diwali Riddim. “The Wire” transcends its source material by way of sheer joyous musicality, from snapping fingers to shredding guitars to shouted backing vocals that dissolve into mist. The melodies go nuts, subtly spiraling upward and back down, ingeniously intertwining with the groove. The chord progression in the chorus maintains the song’s playful spirit while injecting it with just the right amount of self-loathing regret. On an album where words often take a backseat to vibes, the lyrics are piercing and relatable, detailing the narrator’s guilt over backing out of a romance that seemed like it was clicking: “I just couldn’t take it, I tried hard not to fake it/ But I fumbled and when it came down to the wire.” It’s a paradox — a song about personal failings that feels utterly triumphant.
For many people, Days Are Gone is the Haim album, but really it’s just the beginning of an accomplished career. Go to a Haim show and you’ll be surprised how many gems on the setlist are pulled from 2017’s underrated Something To Tell You. In 2020 they released a full-blown masterpiece with Women In Music Pt. III, an album that pushes their style to exciting new places and boasts their most vivid, vulnerable songwriting to date. Danielle’s contributions to Vampire Weekend’s Father Of The Bride remain a personal favorite. Alana’s star turn in Licorice Pizza was impressively charming. Still, Days Are Gone remains their most impactful contribution to pop culture — a record that heralded major changes in the music world and helped to define an era.