S+H Top Ten: Vampire Weekend

Photo Courtesy Rolling Stone

Photo Courtesy Rolling Stone

S+H Top Ten is a series in which the Scene+Heard staff rank the ten best songs by one of our favorite artists.

In the midst of an eager and nostalgic build up to Vampire Weekend’s long-awaited fourth album, Scene+Heard took a moment to rank our favorites among the band’s discography. From jangly bops to modern spirituals, here are our picks:

10. Campus

“How am I supposed to pretend
I never want to see you again?”

“Campus” is not one of the many Vampire Weekend songs that showcase their versatility as musicians or shrewdness as songwriters; it’s just a confidently good song. Its upbeat, lighthearted melody tells the story of a beloved college romance. Lead singer Ezra Koenig’s voice is the centerpiece, and the drums and guitar provide a playful backing over which Koenig can profess his heartache. This song is perfect to play on a walk to class or in the shower. After all, we’ve been in his shoes before. With enough sincerity, a simple story is worth telling.

Highlights: Chris Tomson’s varied, gleeful drumming; the instrumental break at 1:23 through the outro verse.

~Meredith Fuentes

9. Ya Hey

“You won't even say your name
Only ‘I am that I am’
But who could ever live that way?”

“Ya Hey” is perhaps the strongest indicator of Vampire Weekend’s unique ability to join soft melodies and loaded words in a sort of holy matrimony. Koenig and Rostam have packed the track with religious references and blasphemous claims alike, to the point where you can’t really tell if they’re praising God or denouncing him. Despite keeping a consistent, slow beat, it still feels like Ezra is rushing to get somewhere, or like he is eager to say something that didn’t quite make the track’s cut. This all makes the song feel like an existential crisis. “Ya Hey” could easily be a page torn out of the Book of Psalms: it explores religion’s complexity while also being so damn good you can’t help but join in on the hymn.

Highlights: Rostam having way too much fun popping champagne while Baio looks stoic in the lyric video (4:20-4:39); the Coachella-esque picture that Ezra paints in the interlude (3:37-3:57).

~Montserrat Vazquez-Posada

8. Everlasting Arms

“But I’m never gonna understand, never understand”

“Everlasting Arms” is one of Vampire Weekend’s most criminally underrated tracks. It is a perfect presentation of the band’s aptitude for layering dark, complex messages underneath the skeletons of pop songs. Thematically, this track shares many of the religious images present throughout the entirety of Modern Vampires of the City, with the lyric “Hold me in your everlasting arms” referencing a popular Christian hymn. However, Koenig’s relationship with religion is incredibly ambiguous, as the lyrics could be interpreted to suggest his resignation to faith despite his doubts in God’s existence, but could also be seen as a self-criticism in his failure to live up to God’s intentions and his embrace of God for guidance. This track presents the profound conflict between hope and doubt, trust and apprehension, elevation and disgrace—all the while complemented by refreshing, delicate vocals, a gooey bassline, and pitter-patter drums.

Highlights: the smooth back-and-forth flow between orchestral and rock instrumentals; Ezra Koenig’s raw vocals (1:56-2:10).

~Grace Lemon

7. Giving Up the Gun

“I see you shine in your way
Go on, go on, go on”

Vampire Weekend’s lyrics have always gone after lofty ideas, and “Giving Up the Gun” is no exception. In an interview with NME, Koenig explains that the song refers to Japanese isolationism under the Tokugawa shogunate in the 19th century, during which the country reverted to using swords over guns. On “Giving Up the Gun,” he draws comparison between the historical events and a feeling of going back to an old practice, to an old way of life, to an old version of oneself. The song finds Vampire Weekend caught in the crosshairs of maturation, cross-cultural borrowing and newfound stardom. Although “Giving Up the Gun” is arguably their most single-worthy song, the band still retains its proclivity for wisened lyricism and shameless eccentricity. The music video deftly capitalizes on Vampire Weekend’s idiosyncrasies. Featuring RZA as a tennis official and Lil Jon as a coach, an unrivaled female tennis player successfully defeats Joe Jonas and Jake Gyllenhaal before finally meeting her match: herself. She ends up beating herself (with Lil Jon’s assistance), but paralleled with the song’s lyrics, “Giving Up the Gun” is a commentary on how people can often stall their own progress. And sometimes, reversion is necessary.

Highlights: Chris Tomson’s punchy drumming; Chris Baio’s satisfying basslines; the star-studded music video.

~John Martin

6. Horchata

“Oh you had it but oh no you lost it
Looking back you shouldn’t have fought it”

Ezra Koenig is undoubtedly a lyrical genius. On the early verses of “Horchata,” he details an innocent relationship, adding color to the story with light details like walking on a sidewalk and longing for warmer weather. Rostam’s marimba gives the song an island flavor while also sounding as innocuous as The Rugrats’ theme song. By the time the final verse rushes in over a swirling strings section, the world the couple built comes violently crashing down. The love fades. The garden rots. The simple questions turn to vicious shouts. And although time has passed, Koenig still reflects on the innocence of the early days: loathing winter’s cold, idle conversation, and sipping on horchata. Ultimately, the song embodies Vampire Weekend’s knack for capturing emotions that are ubiquitous enough to be widely relatable while using references that are obscure enough to be deeply personal. Who else would have the audacity to rhyme horchata with balaclava (a ski mask), aranciata (a fizzy orange drink) and Masada (a historic fortress in Israel)? “Horchata” juxtaposes bittersweet lyrics against an upbeat tune, finding the feeling of love continually rushing back though eventually it leaves forever. And in the end, the song is like the beverage: rich, saccharine, and borderline addictive.

Highlights: Rostam’s immaculate production; Koenig going into his upper register when he sings “Here comes a feeling you thought you’d forgotten”; how much I want horchata every time I hear this song.

~John Martin

5. Unbelievers

“If I’m born again
I know that the world will disagree”

Within the first few seconds of “Unbelievers,” there is already magic—the kind of magic played on a dusty organ, trusting that the choir is behind you and that they’ll join in. The song’s lyrics reflect conflicting emotions: isolation and rejection abound, and yet the protagonist and his love interest seem content accepting this fate. It is this contented mindset that transforms an outsider’s lamentation into a euphoric love song. Musically, the strong piano and bass line propel the song forward, filling space with the massive blur of driving fast down a highway, not giving a damn what anyone else thinks. Paired with the subtle religious innuendos throughout the song, it creates a spiritual experience that we can all believe in.

Highlights: The Celtic flute at 2:30; the intense piano-banging at 2:16; the recurring motif of “who’s going to save a little [blank] for me.”

~Chris Donohue

4. Walcott

“Walcott, the bottleneck is a shit-show
Hyannisport is a ghetto
Out of Cape Cod tonight.”

“Walcott” comes cascading in with a high-energy groove that marks it as an alt-rock classic, even over a decade after its initial release. The penultimate track in the band’s iconic debut album, it serves as a jarring yet effective tone shift from the two mellower songs it is sandwiched between. The lyrics weave between light-hearted ideas of absconding the sleepy peninsula (potentially on an adventure?) and urgent calls to flee its “insanity,” ridden with loss and mystery. Sonically, “Walcott” has a singular, twinkling energy. Just take the zany musical moments substituted in for what would normally be transitional drum fills, such as a soft cymbal roll or a filtered guitar motif echoing that of the Munsters theme song. But Vampire Weekend don’t run away from their own aesthetic. “Walcott” still connects back to other points in the album, such as the Baroque borrowings of the cello lines and counterpoint, recalling “M79” five tracks before. After all the fluttering instrumental flourishes and cymbal crashes, all the frustration and freedom, we’re still left with one burning question: who is Walcott?

Highlights: THE OPENING!; The cello entrance at 1:11; the lyrics at 1:35 that lead into a climatic, creative build; the subito piano string section at 2:25.

~Lexi Vollero

3. Step

“The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out
What you on about?”

Personification time: “Step” is a 40-year-old sitting alone on a city rooftop at 2:00 am, reflecting back on the past while watching cars mosey along. It’s nostalgia imbued with melancholy as Ezra Koenig deftly examines primitive truths, all framed by Rostam’s spacious harpsichord-centered music. And perhaps the most notable aspect of the song is that space— in the track’s 4 minutes and 11 seconds, Koenig seems to exist in a mindful eternity that all feels like an infinite inside joke.

Highlights: The name drop of Modest Mouse; the ten places named in the first six lines of the song; some of Koenig’s prettiest vocal flexes.

~Peter Pribyl Pierdinock

2. Oxford Comma

“Why would you lie about how much coal you have?
Why would you lie about something dumb like that?
Why would you lie about anything at all?”

A factorylike drum beat, some soft keys, a kind of twee guitar solo—an extended riff on punctuation? It’s not as if we couldn’t see it coming: Ezra Koenig, the Columbia University English literature major and later teacher of English at a Brooklyn public junior high school finds a symbolic scrap of grammar through which to pick apart high-class pretension and hypocrisy. But the execution is masterful. The song feels breezy, unconcerned even. And then through layered harmonies, smears of guitars, newly insistent drumming, it builds to a point where ok, maybe Koenig is actually a little bit concerned. Concerned that we recognize truth in the everyday—applying chapstick, for one; the lowdown crunk of Lil Jon, for two—and maybe not in the hyper-constructed annals of canonical, capital-T Truth. To get this message across, Koenig delicately toes the line between the obliquely referential and the straightforward. And he’s so unapologetic with this kind of writing that a quirky fuck-the-rules invocation ends up feeling like modest gospel.

Highlights: Koenig’s flips up to falsetto in the chorus; a guitar solo which is as easy to sing along to as the vocals; the assertion that Lil Jon tells no lies.

~Noah Franklin

1. Hannah Hunt

"If I can't trust you then dammit, Hannah
There's no future, there's no answer
Though we live on the U.S. Dollar
You and me, we've got our own sense of time"

In 1968, Paul Simon, one of Vampire Weekend’s most obvious influencers, composed and recorded a treatise on American disillusionment. His song, “America,” which was released on Simon & Garfunkel’s fourth album Bookends, details a young couple’s journey across the United States, their relationship starting to crumble and their youthful optimism fading more and more with each passing city. The song climaxes with a gut-wrenching profession of anxiety and isolation: “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” Nearly half a century later, “Hannah Hunt,” Vampire Weekend’s best song to date, tells an alarmingly similar story. But whereas Simon & Garfunkel’s narrator feels trapped in a neverending cycle of disappointments, with the track’s prominent descending bassline squashing the refrain’s hopeful attitude each time it returns, the protagonist of “Hannah Hunt” somehow finds freedom in disillusionment. In fact, midway through the song, one of the most cathartic musical passages that the band ever composed lifts the narrator out of despair and offers him/her a semblance of hope for the future.

As with much of Modern Vampires of the City, “Hannah Hunt” is riddled with religious and mythological allusions - “hidden eyes” that see what you’re thinking, a journey from “Providence to Phoenix” - that elevate its story above a simple relationship drama. They allow Koenig’s lyrics to embrace all of our most meaningful relationships - those with one another, with our country, with God - and to ponder what happens when our faith in those relationships begins to dissolve. But perhaps what makes the track so remarkable is how its musical arrangement both mirrors and challenges the sentiments of its narrator: just as the whimpering guitar of the second verse seems ready to succumb to existential despair, four snare hits tear open the shades and let the bridge’s bright piano illuminate the track’s sonic landscape, bathing bleak fatalism in an undeniably optimistic light. In this moment, Rostam’s production somehow makes the narrator’s withering sense of trust sound exultant. And maybe that’s the point. In a world where our beliefs, values and relationships are constantly being challenged, sometimes to the point of rejection, it is worth remembering that we are dynamic beings, capable of change and growth. Even when it feels like “there’s no future” and “there’s no answer,” the soaring climax of “Hannah Hunt” reminds us that we can always start anew.

Highlights: The beach field recordings that set the scene; the way every scrap of minutiae is loaded with symbolic significance; the whining guitar of the second verse; THE DROP AT 2:41; the deliberate restraint throughout the verses that makes the aforementioned drop hit so hard.

~Steven Norwalk

MusicSteven Norwalk