Future Islands have the truly unfair advantage of being both masters in the studio and an authentic live band. If you’ve ever seen the Baltimore synth-pop veterans at a festival or their own show, you likely haven’t forgotten the experience. Frontman Samuel T. Herring is as animated and aggressive on stage as he is on record. He beats his chest, growls into the microphone and races up and down the stage until he’s drenched with sweat. The stakes feel high. If he’s putting this much of an effort into a performance, the music must be important, right?
The Baltimore band’s songs have a similar feeling of significance. For the first time since 2008, the band (made up of Herring, Michael Lowry, Gerrit Welmers and William Cashion) won’t be touring in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. They are, however, releasing their sixth LP, As Long As You Are, tomorrow (Friday, Oct. 9). In a year like this, recorded music bears even more weight. In anticipation of a new FI record, we decided to look back on the band’s previous five albums and scope out our favorite songs. As their career in indie rock stretched on and their fan base grew larger, it seems Future Islands’ songs have only become more and more anthemic by the year. From the most serious of love songs to commentary on American society, the stakes have always been high in Future Islands’ music. Find our top 10 tracks below.
This track from 2011’s On the Water has absolutely no right to be this catchy. A cascade of synths and calypsos rain down over a chorus about not stretching oneself too thin. Herring makes a case for slowing down and finding a better “balance,” singing, “You can change your life / It just takes time.” That message is an important one, but the real star of this song is the arrangement. —Ellen Johnson
Is there any bigger way to profess love than by comparing one’s mate to the sun? Herring captures the brightness of lasting love on this Singles standout, literally comparing his partner to the morning sun, his “star of the evening” and even his “moon, always beaming.” It’s a bit Shakespearean, but if you’re a sucker for ooey-gooey love songs that also feel authentic and well-made, then you just can’t go wrong with “Sun in the Morning.” All we’re really after is a partner who gets us, and Herring sums that longing up perfectly: “She feeds my soul / She feeds my mind.” —Ellen Johnson
Samuel Herring’s deep growl on this track communicates themes of corruption and cruelty. There’s a girl here, and she’s trying to save him. But she’s sadly innocent and a bit stupid (she’s the “scarecrow”—no brains), and the singer offers just the barest hint of regret that he’s treating her salvation attempts with such scorn. Not until the end of the song do we ascertain the reason, which Herring screams with a vicious and wounded pride: “I am the tin man!” The cynicism and hatred pervading our lives have plagued him as they’ve plagued us: We have no heart. —Shane Ryan
Future Islands have always been the first guys to belly-flop into the emotional pool. So it should come as no surprise that The Far Fields synth-rock single, “Cave,” is a frantic paddle through the deep end. Frontman Samuel Herring may spend most of the song rhetorically recapping his own state of brokenness. (“Is this a desperate wish for dying, or a wish that dying cease?”), but over a delicate wash of synths and caffeinated Cure baselines, he delivers the ultimate chorus kicker, “I don’t believe anymore,” over and over again. In his bleeding-heart below, it’s less the isolated cry of one hopeless romantic and more the universal anguish of a generation. —Laura Studarus
“North Star” is as twinkly as its name. Sonically it’s a thunderstorm of glassy synths and LCD Soundsystem-inspired percussion. Thematically, it’s an epic love story. Nothing—not even the elements—can keep this narrator from upholding a promise to his partner. “Blinding snow” nor “falling planes” could stop Herring from reaching her. Even if this relationship is struggling for air, he won’t let anything get in the way of physical closeness: “I’ve broken many promises / But this one I would die to keep / When I said I’d be there tomorrow / Beside you as you sleep.” —Ellen Johnson
Internal conflict drives this intense song forward. Soon enough, though, the unrest inside Herring’s head becomes external. “I wrestled by the sea / A dream of you and me,” he sings. “I let it go from me / It washed up at my feet.” Even if the prize at his feet is only an illusion, the narrator confidently looks ahead, looking for “peace” in the “morning.” And he leaves us with this truth: “People lie, people love, people go / But beauty lies, in every soul.” —Ellen Johnson
“Road rage” has a different meaning in this song. Herring’s frustration with the exhausting touring lifestyle comes to light on this song from The Far Field, as he recounts a relationship that withered due to the strain of separation. Yet, he can’t help but dwell on the past, when they were young and “in love.” It’s a tale as old as popular music itself. —Ellen Johnson
Future Islands frequently sing about journeys—roads, traveling, movement. Here, Herring sings a familiar refrain: “I’ll show you the way / just walk beside the low stream until it fades.” It’s another instance of Future Islands comparing love to a kind of stronghold—only this time, it requires some serious effort to get there. Just like the beloved Disney character based on the Middle Eastern folk tale, the “Aladdin” in this song is determined to keep adventuring and chase life’s true meaning. But you won’t find a blue genie or magic lamp in this song. Herring is concerned with a more realistic kind of treasure. —Ellen Johnson
“Seasons (Waiting on You)” sees a universal experience portrayed with respect for the human condition, and Samuel Herring showcases an even-handed distribution of youthful longing and frustration with mature wisdom and perspective. Herring’s deep, husky and often untamable delivery peppers this spread with personality, sounding like an only son of Dracula raised in an ‘80s disco. —Philip Cosores
As its title might suggest, this track from 2017’s The Far Field (which has emerged as one of the band’s best ever albums) possesses an unrelenting urgency. It lands here—in our number one spot—because it’s a pure example of a perfect Future Islands song. Is Herring confessing his undying love for someone? Yes (” I can’t take it, I can’t take this world without you”). Are the synths throbbing at an ungodly rate? Certainly. Is this chorus anthemic and/or does it make mention of a rugged road or other metaphorical journey? Check and check. Herring writes some of the most all-consuming love songs I’ve ever heard. And this one ticks all the boxes while also providing—what else?—a banger of a dance beat. —Ellen Johnson