The 15 Best Car Seat Headrest Songs

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The 15 Best Car Seat Headrest Songs

The new publicity photos of beloved indie band Car Seat Headrest feature Will Toledo in a space-age gas mask and a high-visibility jacket. It’s a long way away from the scruffy lo-fi rock aesthetics he built his career upon. Surely Toledo knew nothing of the impending pandemic when he decided to don this apocalyptic gear for his new album Making a Door Less Open, out this Friday (May 1) on Matador Records, but it adds a sort of ominous wisdom. Does Toledo know more than us? Did he know just how good he was when he started uploading music to Bandcamp a decade ago? As a matter of fact, his first Bandcamp release, 1 was also released on May 1, exactly 10 years ago. Since his days in the DIY scene at Virginia’s William & Mary College, he signed a record deal, toured the world, released widely-adored albums and has been informally crowned as a 2010s indie staple.

Though perhaps an unlikely rock star and emblematic millennial figure, his songs vividly and cleverly capture why his entire generation feels like they’re drowning. While singing about self-doubt, death and anxiety over rousing indie rock songs almost certainly worthy of stadium-rock status, he’s also a master of cultural references—folding in nods to classic literature and religious texts, plus everyone from Frank Ocean to Daniel Johnston. To celebrate the release of Car Seat Headrest’s new album—a sharp left-turn into synth-pop and his first new material since 2016—we’re sharing a Will Toledo primer to get you in the zone. Here are our 15 favorite Car Seat Headrest songs.

15. “Something Soon”

Will Toledo has a habit of reworking, re-recording and referencing his previous songs. Toledo’s original version of “Something Soon” appeared on his 2011 self-released album My Back is Killing Me Baby. It was a fuzzed-out, heavily compressed track with plenty of cuts and bruises, but it had a lot of heart. Toledo sings about feeling so bored, anxious, impatient and useless that he wants to kick his dad in the shins and close his head in the car door—a true summation of suburban monotony. When he re-recorded the song for 2015’s Teens of Style, he gave it more room to breathe without completely sanding down the vocals or derailing its tension. —Lizzie Manno

14. “Cosmic Hero”

Toledo doesn’t frequently wheel out a horn section, but 2016’s “Cosmic Hero” is a welcome use of brass. He’s not always one for minimalism either, which is why the minute-long intro of nothing but horns is a standout in his discography. It’s also one of his most wistful and mature moments, though to be fair, it’s actually Jon Maus (not to be confused with experimental pop artist John Maus) playing, not Toledo. The song grapples with some of life’s biggest questions, though they’re presented in blasé, conversational terms. Toledo writes from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator, perhaps a wise divine one, a mortal asshole or vice versa: “If you really wanna know yourself / It will come at the price of knowing no one else,” he sings. —Lizzie Manno

13. “Maud Gone”

Originally recorded for his 2012 album Monomania, “Maud Gone” has the best synth motif in the Car Seat canon—or at least the most immediately recognizable. The keys in the Monomania version are harsh and jagged, while the plunks in the 2015 Teens of Style version are much perkier, evoking 2000s electro-pop. It’s unusually slow for a Will Toledo song, and perhaps more lyrically direct than normal too. The title is a reference to a lover of William Butler Yeats, and it’s the perfect swaying tune about the one that got away. —Lizzie Manno

12. “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)”

Toledo is no stranger to insane song titles. Some of his old Bandcamp releases contained tracks like “i am afraid of literally everything,” “I scream social” and “this one time I went to a coffee house because some guy I knew was playing and I just sat there for an hour and didn’t talk to anyone and then I came home and wrote this song.” While this one doesn’t break his own record for incredibly wordy titles, it’s definitely one that’s only flawlessly regurgitated by diehard fans. In “Drugs With Friends,” Toledo is clearly not in the same boat as the eponymous character, commenting that drugs make him feel like “a walking piece of shit” and “just another shitbag civilian.” Toledo’s trip results in a conversation with Jesus and an anxious realization that he’s still “afraid of the cops when [he] was outside” and “afraid of my friends when [he] was inside.” —Lizzie Manno

11. “America (Never Been)”

Toledo is one of indie rock’s most ambitious lyricists. On “America (Never Been),” his abstract road trip turns into an examination of love and a parsing of the symbolic giant of America. Both the United States and romance are presented as beacons of hope and freedom and vehicles for complete fulfillment. Toledo threads these similarities with wonderfully washed-out vocals and lyrics that range from charming and heartbreaking to impressionistic and surreal. Toledo really outdoes himself with this line in particular: “I said ‘excuse me’ to the ocean / Because I thought I had got in its way / At first I didn’t think it heard me / But then I saw it wave.” —Lizzie Manno

10. “Sleeping With Strangers”

“It’s such a drag” sums up suburban young adulthood pretty well, so it wouldn’t seem right if it wasn’t a Car Seat Headrest chorus. On “Sleeping With Strangers,” Toledo ponders death (specifically his own suicide) and how a life of nothing but casual sex would ultimately make his funeral all the more depressing, with attendees potentially queuing up music he wouldn’t have liked. Toledo ponders the end of “oxygen” and “senseless rubbing” over glorious keys and driving guitars, and like many of his pre-Teen of Style songs, the foggy vocals heighten his lyrical turmoil. —Lizzie Manno

9. “Fill in the Blank”

This song is one of the most associable with Car Seat Headrest—if I were to make an Intro To CSHR playlist, I’d probably throw “Fill in the Blank” near the top. Will Toledo’s ambiguous delivery of the line “You have no right to be depressed / you haven’t tried hard enough to like it” will ring in your head for hours after listening: Is he only mocking some older adult/doctor/whoever who made light of the very serious issue that is depression, or is he frankly asking himself whether he has any grounds for sadness? It would seem, in the end, that the former is more the case, as Toledo confidently bookends the song with “I’ve got a right to be depressed / I’ve given every inch I had to fight it / I have seen too much of this world, yes / And it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.” Depression is real, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation to prove it. While those lyrics may appear straight out of a self-pitying emo song, they’re far from it. “Fill in the Blank” is forthright and smart, and, musically, it’s an energetic journey that kills live every. single. time. —Ellen Johnson

8. “Destroyed by Hippie Powers”

Toledo probably wouldn’t have ascended to indie fame without DIY house shows or a platform like Bandcamp. He recalls these hazy experiences from his local scene on “Destroyed by Hippie Powers,” mainly through his brushes with various substances. Toledo doesn’t find much value in them (as he also explains in several other Car Seat songs), but he still feels the tugging need for escapism in the midst of anxiety. Besides declaring the death of his current self via “hippie powers” like DMT, he also proclaims the death of his former self—“a chubby little kid who smiled so much and loved The Beach Boys”—and Toledo is more than willing to claim responsibility: “What happened is I killed that fucker and I took his name and I got new glasses.” The minute-long guitar outro is a fiery groundswell, but if that doesn’t get you riled up, there’s some cowbell too. —Lizzie Manno

7. “Happy News for Sadness”

“Happy News for Sadness” may very well be Will Toledo’s most criminally underrated song. Taken from 2011’s My Back is Killing Me Baby, the song’s pretty melodies will become second nature to you in no time. It has some of the blistering feedback that characterizes much of his early work, but for the most part, it’s actually a roomy track with just Toledo, his acoustic guitar and dark, meaningful humor. “You can never tell the truth / But you can tell something that sounds like it,” Toledo sings in a bittersweet tone. He’s searching for genuine authenticity and a sense of belonging, but he’s convinced these things don’t exist—or at least not for him. After hearing this, you’ll want an entire Car Seat album of folky slowcore. —Lizzie Manno

6. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”

In case you haven’t noticed, Will Toledo has a knack for metaphors. On “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” from 2016’s Teens of Denial, Toledo compares two unfortunate phenomena—animal captivity and reckless drivers under the influence—both driven by selfishness of a few at the expense of many. Toledo describes a night out after having a few too many, and comes away feeling numb—and not from the alcohol. Essentially, he questions whether our motivations are strong enough to make progress, all while the world is betting against us—a place that’s designed for conformity where we’re stuck in a way of life that depends on us looking the other way. “It doesn’t have to be like this,” Toledo ultimately decides, but cruelly, this is a choice we have to make everyday. —Lizzie Manno

5. “1937 State Park”

For someone who “steers clear of graveyards” because “they are cliche” and emblematic of his “death-obsessed generation,” Will Toledo sings a lot about death—though, to be fair, that assumes the song’s “I” is himself. With “1937 State Park,” Toledo paints a picture (once again armed with wide-ranging references) of someone who is simultaneously torn between life and death, satisfied with neither. While there’s so much uncertainty in these characters’ lives, the song couldn’t be more self-assured. It has some of Toledo’s strongest hooks and satisfying vocal subtleties (the way his voice shifts on the word “own” in the line “my pain is my own” is sublime), and the organ solo is so nimble and colorful, cleverly placed after a similarly whimsical line, “Something is ringing / Death is playing his / Xylophone ribs for me.” —Lizzie Manno

4. “Cute Thing”

If you were first introduced to “Cute Thing” via the 2018 re-working of Twin Fantasy and not the 2011 original, you’re in for a rude awakening. The first version is rough and, at times, a pretty grating listen—especially the first 20 or so seconds. One Redditor amusingly commented on the clear improvement of the 2018 version, “In my opinion not being recorded using two cups tied together with a string has improved every song he’s released so far.” The revamped “Cute Thing” is much more dynamic, yet the chorus still has the impassioned rawness that made the Mirror to Mirror version so enticing. Plus, the subtle pulsing background synth is a perfect added garnish, and the “do do do’s” before the meaty guitar breakdown are infinitely more singable and satisfying when they’re less clouded—allowing for maximum headbangs. —Lizzie Manno

3. “Bodys”

All the makings of a great song were present on the first version of “Bodys,” but the 2018 facelift explodes in the way its predecessor doesn’t. Its unusual song structure doesn’t detract from its endlessly cascading energy either—and in fact, Toledo hints at this: “Is it the chorus yet? / No. It’s just a building of the verse / So when the chorus does come, it’ll be more rewarding.” While its propulsive guitars bleed throughout the track, it’s Toledo’s lyrics and vocal delivery that steals the show. Through multiple choruses and pre-choruses, Toledo shifts between the untethered nature of young adulthood and the painfully inescapable nature of death. At one moment, there are visceral flashes of dancing and stealing booze, and another moment, we’re all just piles of dust. Unusually smart, life-affirming lines about young love and existential crises—what’s not to love? —Lizzie Manno

2. “Vincent”

There are few moments in Car Seat Headrest’s catalogue as exhilarating as the pulsing opening riff on “Vincent.” It’s urgent and intense, giving way to one of Will Toledo’s hardest-hitting vocal performances. Things are all-business on the lyrics side, too, as Toledo shouts the phrase “Pure sadism” a few times for good measure. The whole song is a tear into the blight that is “clinical depression,” describing the often paralytic effects the illness can bring. “I don’t have the strength,” Toledo sings in the frantic outro, “I poured myself a drink.” But, as with all the best CSHR songs, “Vincent” isn’t simply a portrait of darkness—humor, bite and energy make it much more than that. —Ellen Johnson

1. “Beach Life-In-Death”

Depending on who you ask, this song is either verbose indulgence or a stroke of ambitious brilliance. For now, we’re going with the latter. This Twin Fantasy track fleshes out Toledo’s interpersonal struggles with a flashing sense of urgency. It’s hard to know where abstract description begins and autobiographical storytelling ends, but Toledo takes us through the various curves and quirks of lovesickness, entrapment, depression and fears of death, loneliness and insanity. Like many of the all-time great tunes, it’s a song of contradictions. In its 13 minutes, Toledo hates humans and wants to be human. He’s ready to join a cult, but he’s also scared to do shit. He’s incapable of being human and incapable of being inhuman. It’s the most ballsy song he’s ever written—a collection of short stories about the human condition, all set to the tune of quicksilver indie rock that’s bursting at the seams. By the time the final of many refrains arrives (“The ocean washed over your grave / The ocean washed open your grave”), you’ll have been through such a wide range of emotions, you’ll reach an oddly zen balance. Maybe it has too many sections and tempos, but because each is more moving than the next, you’ll gladly ride its wave until you’ve arrived at that teary-eyed final scene on the shore. —Lizzie Manno

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