Song Rankings

Rank The Songs – Contra

Track list, for reference:

  1. Horchata
  2. White Sky
  3. Holiday
  4. California English
  5. Taxi Cab
  6. Run
  7. Cousins
  8. Giving Up the Gun
  9. Diplomat’s Son
  10. I Think Ur a Contra

Until the emergence of one Car Seat Headrest, I considered Vampire Weekend to be the best working guitar-based band since I started following music closely (circa 2010).  Ezra is an insanely talented lyricist, Rostam’s arrangements and harmonies are endlessly interesting and beautiful, and the band as a whole seems to approach their image and aesthetic, as well as the crafting of their songs and albums, with both grounded cool-headedness and an expectation of excellence.

Of the band’s three studio LPs (2008’s Vampire Weekend, 2010’s Contra and 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City), Contra is probably the one that gets the least attention.  Vampire Weekend started it all, identified their erudite, preppy aesthetic, established their signature culturally aware yacht rock sound and contained longtime fan favorites like “Oxford Comma“, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and the ubiquitous “A-Punk“.  Modern Vampires was seen as their ‘mature, adult’ album, won them a Grammy, killed the year-end list bonanza, etc.  Contra served as the confirmation that the band were indeed ‘for real’, but I’d also argue that it’s the most conceptual and aesthetically cohesive record in the band’s discography, and also their best arranged and produced.  An album about cultural opposites and juxtapositions, and how they fit into navigating reflections on a failed relationship, Contra has grown on me steadily over the years, and at this point I’d say its a dead-heat between it and their self-titled as my second favorite album of all time.

10. “Holiday

Easily one of the most well-known Vampire Weekend songs (owing in no small part its appearance in car commercials and perennial existence on winter holiday corporate playlists), its also the least interesting song on Contra, melding solid dueling guitar work with a chorus I unfortunately find slightly insufferable.  The album’s signature arpeggiated synths or woahing harmonies are nowhere toe be found, and the lyrical content is less subtle, clever or referential than just about anywhere else on the album.  The song’s true saving grace, however, is the bridge, which is far more inline with the tone of the rest of the album and features the wonderful typeface-referencing lyric “She’d never seen the word ‘bombs’ blown up to 96-point Futura”.

9.  “Run

Opening the album’s second half, “Run” has been called “Springsteen-esque” for its depiction of a young couple running from their boring domestic lives, chasing love, freedom and hedonism.  But I’ve always found the lyrics uncharacteristically straightforward for Ezra (“Every dollar counts / And every morning hurts / We mostly work to live / Until we live to work”), and although the couple’s description is romantic and even poetic, I feel like Ezra could have done the subject better justice with the more complex nuance he’s known for.  I have never really cared for the Latin-tinged horns or the song’s generally triumphant tone, though I’ll concede that the presence of young wealth and aristocratic ennui plays well into the album’s aesthetic motifs.

8.  “California English

From here on forward, every song on this list is great.  “California English” is one of Vampire Weekend’s most dizzying efforts, including a string section playing complex syncopated melodies in a round and an echoing delay on Ezra’s vocals.  A song composed of one liners about California, there is no shortage of clever references (“Funny how that little college girl called language corrupt / Funny how the other private schools had no Hapa Club”) depicting the state’s inherent culture clashing.  But despite the excellent harmonies on the chorus, the song seeks a relatively streamlined arrangement and doesn’t pack the emotional punch of the album’s standouts.

7.  “Giving Up the Gun

One of the band’s two best music videos is also home to their discography’s most unique and distinctive song.  “Giving Up the Gun” features furious sixteenth note bass lines and the band’s danciest back beat, along with four choruses over nearly five minutes, creating the group’s closest thing to a synthpop crossover.  The production is dense and very rhythm heavy, though still features tasty production notes like Rostam’s “Tokagawa-style” guitar riffs on the second verse, the beautiful harmonies sung a third over the melody on the chorus, the delicate glockenspiel twinkles throughout and the huge angel choir that builds the bridge from the ground up.  The track’s inherent balladry and sincerity (“And though it’s been a long time, you’re right back where you started from / I see it in your eyes, and now you’re giving up the gun”) hearken back to 80s power ballads from Peter Gabirel and Phil Collins (if they were a little less corny and rocked a little harder), capturing a piece of 80s culture the entire album evokes in a way not seen on any other track.

6.  “Taxi Cab

Arguably the album’s most personal song (assuming Ezra is referencing his own past) and certainly its most skeletal, “Taxi Cab” is an unassuming but beautiful lament on a failed relationship with an old money debutante.  The image of a girl who travels “Compound to compound” behind “Uniformed clothes outside the courtyard gates” thoroughly paints the subject without ever explicitly describing her, and the narrator’s recollection of a naive optimism envisioning their adulthood together (“Like the future was supposed to be / In the aisles of the grocery / And the blocks uptown”) makes all the more heartbreaking his inevitable acceptance of their fundamental differences (“I was questioning and looking back / You said ‘Baby we don’t speak of that’ / Like a real aristocrat”).  Ezra’s genius as a lyricist is akin to Hemingway’s iceberg theory; he can give the minimum and most interesting possible description necessary to capture the range of meanings he’s attempting to translate.  The song never wavers from its down-tempo beat, buffered by sawing violins and careful, polite piano and harpsichord arpeggios, and never explodes into a final chorus or coda the way “Hannah Hunt” and “Giving Up the Gun” do.  Instead, like the relationship, it marches toward its end unceremoniously, not with a bang but with a whimper.

5.  “I Think Ur a Contra

The album’s other lowest-energy track and its closing number, “I Think Ur a Contra” uses the album’s titular phrase, previously employed to describe cultures on opposite coasts (“California English”), to capture the internal struggle within an individual.  A successor to “Taxi Cab”, Ezra moves away from objective reflection into subjective bitterness – “I think you’re a contra / I think that you lie”, “You’re gonna watch out for yourself / And so will I”.  The song’s angelic production and meandering guitar lines, creeping in from either channel, make it one of Rostam’s most impressive pieces, and the slow build of instruments and boat-swaying tom drums culminate the album in a similar way to how “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” did Vampire Weekend, but with a more beautiful melody and far fuller, lusher production work.

4.  “Horchata

“Horchata” succeeds as an opener by laying out exactly what Contra intends to do; tinkle with synths and vibraphones, coat choruses with ‘woah’ harmonies, move between empty space and swirling crescendos through roller coaster string arrangements, make mention of pretentious cultural touchstones, and create an undeniably catchy song propped up by excellent melodies composed of equally subtle and interesting lyrics detailing the end of a relationship.  Probably the most conceptually difficult to decipher track on the album, Ezra juxtaposes hot and cold seasons (“Winter’s cold is too much to handle / Pincher crabs that pinch at your sandals”) to capture the feelings before and after the breakup, contrasting pleasant memories where his ex’s “lips and teeth that asked how my day went” are now “shouting up through cracks in the pavement”.  Ultimately, the narrator opines for even the simplest of times, mere “Chairs to sit and sidewalks to walk on”, the representation of the narrator’s “Nosalgia for garbage” on “Taxi Cab”.  But beyond the depth of its lyrics, “Horchata” is a masterpiece of arrangement, kicking the shit out of every piece of production on Vampire Weekend right from the get-go.

3. “Cousins

The album’s true banger, the band’s set-opener, and Ezra’s most poignant dismissal of the band’s haters, “Cousins” is a whirlwind of self-reference and chaotic guitar lines.  The opening lyric (“You found a sweater on the ocean floor”) both references two Vampire Weekend tracks (“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “A-Punk”) and represents Ezra’s aesthetic vision for the band; taking discarded prep school aesthetic and turning it into a unique and kick-ass personal brand.  Every line on the song is ripe with double entendre, and led by Chris Thompson’s machine gun snares and Rostam’s ridiculous vibrato picked descending guitar lines, “Cousins” structure and performances help make it the band’s best rock song.

2.  “White Sky

One of the album’s simplest arrangements, merely an arpeggiated four chord synth progression, a clapping drum beat and bouncing bass line, Ezra’s best description of New York moves from blissful to euphoric with the grace and ease of settling into a wonderful ecstasy high (“It all comes at once”).  Cultural juxtaposition, perhaps the album’s most central theme, abounds, between the “Ancient business” and “Modern piece of glass work” to the “Horses racing taxis”, painting a captivating portrait of New York, as does the visual of “A pair of mirrors that are facing one another” reflecting “A thousand little Julias” and the skyward gaze of the narrator and his girl as they fantasize about living among the wealthy in the city’s high rises – “Looks up at the buildings, imagine who might live there / Imagining your Wolford’s in a ball upon the sink there”.  The song’s structure builds a growing sense of elation to climax, beginning with two verses that catapult into the first chorus, then to an instrumental, another verse into another chorus, and then directly into the last verse before the biggest and most satisfying chorus, evoking the center of a great drug trip or a toe-curling orgasm.

1.  “Diplomat’s Son

Forever standing as the best combination of Ezra and Rostam’s many talents, the album’s overarching climax, sequenced pen-ultimately after the rollicking back side run of “Run”, “Cousins” and “Giving Up the Gun”, tells the story of a homoerotic tryst between an adventurous protagonist and his old money classmate.  Featuring lyrics from both members, sexual tension builds (“With my car keys hidden in the kitchen / I could sleep wherever I lay my head”) before Rostam takes a rare lead vocal turn on the gorgeous half tempo reggae bridge, where he sings as the diplomat’s son (“I know you’ll say ‘I’m not doing it right’ / But this is how I want it”) before we’re shot back into the narrator’s recollection (“That night I smoked a joint with my best friend / We found ourselves in bed / When I woke up he was gone”).  There are so many wonderful components of this song; the M.I.A. vocal sample that serves as a backbeat, the faux-African vocals, the woozy, lilting strings, the half-tempo bridges, the lyrical imagery of the diplomat’s son’s house.  But it stands as one of Vampire Weekend’s all time greatest songs and their creative pinnacle on Contra because of how effortlessly the songwriters blend a meaningful and carefully paced story within the contours of the song’s production backflips.  The outro scene of the narrator contrasting the warm, drugged up night he spent with the diplomat’s son with a cold, windy riverside is a picturesque ending with a lasting and ambiguous final image – “In the dark when the wind comes racing off the river / There’s a car all black with diplomatic plates”.


Rank the Songs – The Lonesome Crowded West

This is the first edition of a new feature on reviewsbybitterblossom, where I rank the songs on an album.

Yes, I know that art and music are subjective.  No, I don’t care if ranking albums or songs in lists attempts to objectify them.  Doing so makes me listen more carefully to the pieces and all their components, and ultimately results in appreciating the music more.  Besides, I love ranking things and making lists.  It’s fun.  My college notebooks are lined with song rankings of various Andrew Bird and Vampire Weekend albums.  It’s a past time of mine and now it’s a part of this wordpress.

First, the album’s sequencing, for reference:

  1. Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine
  2. Heart Cooks Brain
  3. Convenient Parking
  4. Lounge (Closing Time)
  5. Jesus Christ Was an Only Child
  6. Doin’ the Cockroach
  7. Cowboy Dan
  8. Trailer Trash
  9. Out of Gas
  10. Long Distance Drunk
  11. Shit Luck
  12. Truckers Atlas
  13. Polar Opposites
  14. Bankrupt on Selling
  15. Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright

For a period of about three years (my freshman through junior years of college, roughly 2011-2014), I considered The Lonesome Crowded West to be my all-time favorite album.  It’s Modest Mouse’s masterpiece, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Yes, The Moon & Antarctica has more careful, intricate production and arrangements (the production on that album is actually unreal), but the desolate themes, grounded in gritty reality as opposed to existentialism, make The Lonesome Crowded West the more emotional, more frightening, more raw, and ultimately stronger album.  The first time I ever listened to music on LSD, the two albums I listened through were Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam and The Lonesome Crowded West.  The imagery that came most prominently to me were nails driving into a white concrete wall, bleeding the colors blue, red and grey.  The album came across incredibly bleak, stark and sad.  The title is incredibly apt.  Anyway, onto the ranking.

15.  “Long Distance Drunk”

I’m a big fan of interludes, as I think they add to the cohesiveness and narrative of an album, helping transform it from a collection of songs to a singular piece of art.  Modest Mouse has literally never done an interlude well, and their two attempts (?) on Lonesome Crowded West are no exception.  “Long Distance Drunk” is monotonous, boring lyrically (yes I get it, that monotony is a metaphor for being drunkenly repetitive on the phone), and, at nearly four minutes, entirely too long.  It’s not catchy or interesting and I don’t care for it.

14. “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”

Another track that feels like something between a song and an interlude, this was Isaac embracing his inner country western folkster, cobbling together a creepy track that features his trademark religious imagery.  Said imagery doesn’t seem to convey much of a point, especially relative to the metaphysical genius of “Third Planet” or “Never Ending Math Equation“, and I hate the lo-fi witch cackling sample.  The fiddle is the only redeeming part of this song, and it does very little to redeem.  Another track I think the album would have been stronger without, especially since it disrupts the wonderful opening side of the record, but at least it has a little more personality than “Long Distance Drunk”.

13.  “Shit Luck”

The third of what I consider the pseudo-interlude tracks, “Shit Luck” is the loudest, most abrasive moment on the record, and a lot of Modest Mouse fans love it.  Absurd, screamed lyrics like “This plane is definitely crashing!” and “This boat is obviously sinking!” are funny and in theme with the roller coaster guitar and drums, and the song at least has the good sense to stay closer to two minutes (though I’d still say it overstays its welcome).  It’s fine, definitely adds some color to the album (not that it needed it), but is still weaker than all the true songs.

12.  “Lounge (Closing Time)”

I’ll never know why Modest Mouse chose to give two completely unrelated songs on their first two albums identical names.  There’s really nothing wrong with “Lounge (Closing Time)”, which speaks to how absurdly deep this record is, it’s just the least emotional, personal, intimate or face melting song of the bunch.  It moves through three distinct movements, the first being the happiest, even most danceable thing Isaac had put on record at that point, and describes a fun night out at a bar.  I’ve never felt there was anything deeper in the middle section refrain of “I’ve got a girlfriend out of the city / I know I like her I think she is pretty”, which strikes me as a bit banal relative to the rest of the record’s lyricism, but the sad, slow, blood-letting final third, which imitates closing time at a bar, is well done and representative of one aspect of the album’s sound.

11.  “Out of Gas”

One of the more interesting quirks on The Lonesome Crowded West is how similar two of the tracks, “Out of Gas” and “Heart Cooks Brain”, are to each other both melodically and structurally.  They both ride a descending riff / progression front to back at similar tempos.  “Out of Gas”, which is definitely a great song, features something of a refrain (“You might come down soon too”) and touches on alcoholism (“I had a drink the other day / Opinions were like kittens I was giving them away”), but alas, between its length (at 2:31 it’s the second shortest track on the record), its lyrical repetition, and its lack of an interesting production note or guitar solo, it doesn’t stand up with the more intricate and fleshed out ideas found throughout the rest of LCW.  The lumbering, shuffling drum and bass line are highlights, and representative of one of the album’s greatest features – the synchronicity of Eric Judy’s thick bass lines and Jeremiah Green’s ramshackle drumming.

10.  “Truckers Atlas”

A few years ago, Pitchfork did a wonderful documentary on the making of The Lonesome Crowded West as a part of their “Pitchfork Classics” series.  (A quick aside: all of these are awesome, not really sure why they stopped after making only four of them.)  Each video in the series features in depth profiles of six songs from the record in question.  From LCW they chose songs 7, 6, 4, 2 and 1 on this list, as well as “Truckers Atlas”, which always struck me as the only song that didn’t stand up to the other five.  As an eleven minute epic, it’s tempting to call the song the album’s centerpiece.  After all, it is mainly about driving long hours on lonely highways, which is the album’s central motif.  My issue with it has always been (a), lyrically, it’s a fine description of lonely trucker life (“Start at the Northwest Corner, go down through California / Beeline you might drive three days and three nights to the tip of Florida”)  but not much more metaphorical than that, and (b) the extended jam of an outro doesn’t really develop much.  I don’t really think this is a problem, I think the length and vibe of the song fit perfectly well on the album’s backside and help make the album so great for long road trips, I just don’t think it’s a masterstroke of songwriting the way most of the songs above it on this list are.

9.  “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”

The final song on the album, and the one that is defined more by one single moment than anything else in Modest Mouse’s discography.  After a folksy, acoustic opening passage on which Isaac is at his most country, rattling off great lyrics regarding his thoughts on the afterlife (“I’m in heaven trying to figure out which sack they’re gonna stuff us atheists into and Peter and his monkey laugh”), the album builds tension using only a single acoustic guitar, anticipating, anticipating, anticipating – and then when the drums crash in, mixed as high as they possibly can be, it sounds like a hole ripped open in heaven itself and the sky began raining down.  A perfect choice for the record’s closing, as the band rides an extended outro on the peaceful serenity of the titular phrase, ending a frightening and lonely record on the most apathetic of optimistic notes.

8.  “Convenient Parking”

Sequenced in the powerful third position on the record, “Convenient Parking” melds two of the record’s prominent themes; the paving of the west with shitty parking lots and strip malls, and the anxious, fucked-up world of hard drugs.  The opening lyric, “Soon the chain reaction started in the parking lot”, feeds the song’s lyricism, itself a chain reaction that repeats and repeats, as well as serves as a double entendre for the creation of crystal meth.  As the tension boils around Jeremiah’s quarter note shotgun snares and Eric’s creeping, dreadful bass line, the song explodes into some of Isaac’s most aggressive, screaming vocals.  The song’s cyclical structure is unique and thematic, and the lyrics, like a bad addiction, grow dirtier and more psychotic with each repetition.

7.  “Bankrupt on Selling”

“Bankrupt on Selling”, alongside “Trailer Trash”, is what people usually cite as the album’s sweetest, saddest moments.  It comes in the penultimate position, lacks bass and drums altogether, is one of only two tracks on which Isaac doesn’t double track his vocals (making his voice sound more vulnerable and intimate), and features a guitar solo (courtesy of part-time member Dan Galluci) that feels completely devoid of the buzzing, terrified rage found throughout the record’s previous thirteen tracks.  The lines feel more lucid than many that preceed them, touching on self-consciousness (“I’ll go to college and I’ll learn some big words / And I’ll talk real loud, god damn right I’ll be heard”), drugs (“Well it took a long time til I came clean with myself”), and, of course, the hypocrisy of religion (“And all of the angels they’d sell off your soul / for a set of new rings and anything gold”).  The song still stands as perhaps the barest, single prettiest track in the band’s discography.

6.  “Doin’ The Cockroach” 

“Doin’ The Cockroach” is a proud display of Isaac Brock’s lyrical genius on this record.  It has the best opening line of any song here (“I was in heaven, I was in hell / Believe in neither but fear them as well”), alongside one of the record’s best guitar riffs, some great loud/soft dynamics and more road trip imagery (“Back of the metro / ride on the Greyhound / drunk on the Amtrak / PLEASE SHUT UP!”).  The song, like others, falls into an extended outro, but rather than slow and meandering, it’s fast, frantic and constantly on edge.  Isaac’s terrifying guitar work and deranged shouting down the stretch make for the album’s most relentless section, before the dense, tight, multi-part song comes ends in only four and a half minutes.

5.  “Heart Cooks Brain”

Coming in at the number two slot on the album, “Heart Cooks Brain” provides a much needed respite in between the madness and intensity of opener “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” and “Convenient Parking”.  Never budging from its descending groove, the song is LCW at its most surreal.  The constant record scratching, obsessive-compulsive, never-ending background guitar solo, and incredible dreamlike imagery (“On my way to God don’t know or even care / My brain’s the weak heart, my heart’s the long stairs”, “I tried to get my head clear / I push things out through my mouth, I get refilled through my ears”, “Inland from Vancouver shore / the ravens and the seagulls push each other inward and outward”) combine to make for a song that is at once low-key as well as a four-dimensional prison of drug-induced madness, contemplating depression and the overtaking of the natural world by the material one.

4.  “Trailer Trash”

The other song most noted for its lyrical content, “Trailer Trash” caps off an incredible four song run in the album’s center and, true to its name, sticks on a theme that Isaac knew intimately from his upbringing.  The specificity of the lyrics (“Eating snowflakes with plastic forks / And some paper plates of course / You think of everything”) the push and pull of love and desperation (“Short love with a long divorce / and a couple of kids of course / they don’t mean anything”) and the intense self-loathing (“God damn I hope I can pass high school means nothing / God damn I am such a jerk I can’t do anything”) are heartbreaking and visceral, but the song really slays with the uproarious guitar solo that erupts after the second quiet section and seems to somehow channel the song’s lyrical sadness into a grand, cathartic melody.

3.  “Polar Opposites”

“Polar Opposites” has always been my all time favorite Modest Mouse song.  It usually gets overlooked on this album in favor of the heavy hitters like “Trailer Trash”, but I truly think it’s essentially the perfect Modest Mouse song.  Extended outro with noodling guitar solo?  Check.  Sad, drug-fueled lyricism (“I’m trying to drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away”)?  Check.  Loud-soft dynamics?  Check.  Incredible, bouncing base line from Eric Judy?  Check.  I also think it’s the catchiest melodic refrain in the band’s discography, as well as the song which features their most endlessly cryptic verse:

Two one eyed dogs, they’re looking at stereos

Hi-fi gods try so hard to make their cars low to the ground

These vibrations oil its teeth

Primer grey is the color when you’re done dying

I’ve spent many a night attempting to decipher the meaning of this verse, but I’ll keep my interpretation to myself.  “Polar Opposites” may not be the densest or most inventive song on LCW, but for three and a half minutes, it’s pretty much as good as Modest Mouse gets.

2.  “Cowboy Dan”

On my aforementioned LSD trip listen through LCW, no song stuck out to me more than “Cowboy Dan”.  It’s the definition of ominous and unsettling.  Jeremiah’s pounding toms and tambourine, Isaac’s angry, defiling delivery, and the song’s drunken, enraged undertones (“He goes to the desert fires his rifle in the sky / And says “God if I have to die, you will have to die'” / “He didn’t move to the city, the city moved to me / And I want out desperately”) combine perfectly, but it’s Isaac’s surreal, incredible western-tinged guitar bends, with that expansive reverb effect, that elevate the song to the next level.  The center section, with its sweet, redemptive guitar riff and truck stop poetry (“Every time you think you’re talking you’re just moving your mouth”) is the perfect setup for the return of the devastating opening passage, which escalates into a creature more menacing than anything else on the album.  Sequenced seventh, “Cowboy Dan” is the album’s true centerpiece and a masterpiece of songwriting.

 1.  “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” 

The Lonesome Crowded West kicks off with a song can only be summarized as incredible.  “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” is a manifestation of the entire album in one unbelievable seven-minute spectacle, moving between loud, abashed, aggressive verses, harrowing, trickling slow passages and perilous, breakneck crescendos.  The lyrics are all over the place, and half of them are either tragically lonely, unexpectedly prophetic or both – see “Go to the grocery store, buy some new friends / And find out the beginning, the end, and the rest of it”.  The western imagery is all around (“A rattlesnake up in Bozeman, Montana / He bit the leg off the old sheriff”), as is sickening commercialism (“Let’s all have another Orange Julius / Thick syrup, standing in lines / The malls are the soon to be ghost towns / So long, farewell goodbye”).  The song moves between too many sections to count, the guitar is unrelenting, oscillating between bending harmonics, devastating power-chords and thrashing solos, and Isaac’s vocals similarly move between pacified hopelessness (“Well do you need a lot of what you got to survive?”) and unhinged aggression (“Take em all for a sense of happiness that comes from hurting deep down inside!”).  “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” is my pick for Modest Mouse’s most ambitious song, somehow managing to bottle the entire spectrum of emotions spread throughout the album’s 74 minute run time in merely 7.  It’s a masterwork of indie rock, and stands as a testament to their legacy.