Of Montreal, the psych-jam band not actually from Montreal, makes music like a freak show house band. The only question is what kind of freak bandleader Kevin Barnes chooses to be at the exact moment of questioning. Since as far back as of Montreal’s 1997 debut, Cherry Peel, the Athens, Ga. band has been taking powerful swings at every adjacent rock prefix, from ‘60s skiffle to glam alter egos. Throughout the band’s 20-year career, a string of constants remains—the funky, rubber band bass lines, Barnes’ nasally, boyish vocals, the cluttered lyrics that paint portraits of unsteady people and more.
The finest balance of this personal anxiety and flamboyant pageantry can be found on Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, which celebrates its 10 year anniversary with a reissue due out tomorrow. Written in a state of isolation as of Montreal’s public recognition began to grow and Barnes’s relationship with his wife began to falter, it is the catchiest depiction of a man flipping every switch he can and praying that the plane doesn’t crash.
In honor of this reissue, we combed through of Montreal’s 14 studio albums to pick the 20 best tracks most emblematic of their bombastic freakiness.
20. “It’s Different For Girls”
The intentions of “It’s Different for Girls” make it an admirable entry in of Montreal’s extensive catalog. Barnes’ idiosyncratic way of approaching sexism (presumably inspired by his then-wife and 11-year old daughter) approaches something fundamental, while dodging a Matt McGorry-esque level of posturing. Still, and throughout, “Girls” embodies of Montreal’s sonic template of being softly danceable to the point of being nearly tongue-in-cheek. —Zane Warman
19. “She’s A Rejector”
“I knew, to some degree, that… the focus of the album would be our break up,” Kevin Barnes’ now ex-wife Nina Grøttland says about Hissing Fauna… in of Montreal’s 2014 documentary The Past is a Grotesque Animal. “I remember him coming out and asking, ‘What did you think?’ and ‘Oh God that hurts. That hurts like hell, but oh my god it’s so good.’” “She’s a Rejecter” represents one of the most direct responses to the unraveling of their contentious relationship; it’s a clear example of Barnes’ honest songwriting, truthful almost to a fault. The track is perhaps the most straightforward rock song on Hissing Fauna with Barnes’ voice wailing like a modern day Tom Verlaine. Rejection and personal crisis are two common lyrical themes throughout of Montreal’s mid-era material and they’re both on full display here. —Steven Edelstone
18. “Sex Karma”
It’s both a rarity and a relief when an of Montreal song can be plainly fun without the quiet urge to run to check a vocabulary book. On paper, Barnes and Solange sound like an odd couple, especially now with A Seat at the Table being rightfully present in people’s minds. The band’s bass-bouncing formula is adorned here with colorful, ringing strings and Solange’s stratospheric range makes their playful chemistry irresistibly energizing. —Zane Warman
17. “She Ain’t Speakin’ Now”
“She Ain’t Speakin’ Now” exemplifies the dynamics on Lousy with Sylvianbriar and also illustrates one of the few times that Barnes has ever fully committed to a song concept. Carried away by the fear of his wife and daughter dying, the tone alternates between softly-strummed acoustic guitars and cracking and wiry electric leads. Meanwhile, Barnes’s last-rites whispers seem to convey strength and paranoia in equal measures. It’s a testament to the band’s reflexiveness that they write precise, straight-ahead rock with the same depth as they can obtuse funk. —Zane Warman
16. “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider”
The intro to this song is a little jarring (unless you like the sound of static and laser beams), but as soon as that groovy bass line cuts through it’s clear this is an of Montreal song. Kevin Barnes plays with the darker side of his psyche on Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, and this track is a great example of how he can meld dark and light into three minutes and 50 seconds of ominous, yet still infectious music. And the message here is great: Don’t we all need a lover with soul power? — Katrina Nattress
15. “Coquet Coquette”
“Coquet Coquette” jumps out of False Priest, the band’s uneven foray into R&B. Of Montreal is at their most alluring here, without an overload of synthetic sounds. The song’s stamping guitars and slinking bass stand up against Barnes’ preening vocals. The frustrated feelings of lipstick-smeared lust are given a satisfyingly melodramatic payoff when the song finally spirals into distressed, overlapping stabs of alien synths and crushing drums. —Zane Warman
14. “Oslo in the Summertime”
The Sunlandic Twins marks of Montreal as more of a solo project for Kevin Barnes, and “Oslo in the Summertime” reflects this more singular viewpoint and his isolation while recording in Norway. “Oslo in the Summertime” makes Barnes a stranger in a strange land, a tourist trying to fit in amongst the gorgeous people who speak a language he hardly knows. This solo journey is one of of Montreal’s most jarring tracks on off The Sunlandic Twins, as Barnes distorts his voice in unusual ways, over a synth that is constantly fighting for attention. The result is a despondent uncertainty that Barnes captures by keeping his audience just slightly uncertain throughout “Oslo in the Summertime.” —Ross Bonaime
13. “Lysergic Bliss”
Though never quite accepted as a fully psychedelic band, Of Montreal took an unexpected turn with “Lysergic Bliss,” a track from their 2009 album Satanic Panic in the Attic. The title alone suggested some sort of hallucinogenic indulgence, and in truth, its extreme giddiness found the title ringing true. The lyrics provide very little enlightenment (“I’m dizzy from her kiss / So vertiginous lost in lysergic bliss”), but no matter. Despite an ominous opening, the melody’s sway and flow puts things in euphoric realms up until the end. An unexpectedly freaky coda brings in Beach Boys-like harmonies, a steady backbeat and a dizzying dissolve into the final fade. —Lee Zimmerman
12. “Requiem for O.M.M.2”
As the opening track to The Sunlandic Twins, “Requiem for O.M.M.2” is a poppy, more upbeat version of many of the themes Barnes would go on to cover in their best album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer. “Requiem for O.M.M.2”’s bleak story of young love that can’t leave your memory is masked by the playfully distracting guitar and the catchiness of the track. “Requiem for O.M.M.2” is of Montreal attempting to hide the pain with sugar, a tactic that they thrive with the further they get in their career. —Ross Bonaime
11. “The Party’s Crashing Us”
“Oh, well, we made love like a pair of black wizards!” Barnes sings midway through “The Party’s Crashing Us.” The line floats over a funky synth intro riff, proving once again that he’s the king of inserting weird inside jokes into a song that’s actually intensely serious. This time, Barnes sings about his relationship with Nina Grøttland as their relationship hits new heights. “And all those ugly days / That made us so sick / They are just fossils now,” wails Barnes; “The Party’s Crashing Us” is an optimistic song, written just after his relationship would be turned upside down with the birth of his daughter Alabee. Confusion and emotional chaos would dominate much of Barnes’ lyrics after The Sunlandic Twins, but for one of the last times, he’s in a happy place filled with partying, sex and dancing. —Steven Edelstone