The 20 Best St. Vincent Songs

Music Lists St. Vincent
The 20 Best St. Vincent Songs

St. Vincent is one of the best guitarists around. But Annie Clark, who has been recording under the St. Vincent alias since the mid-2000s, around the time when she released her debut album Marry Me, can’t be put in a box. Even if she is a truly extraordinary guitar player (which, let’s be clear, she is), she’s so much more than that. She’s a whip-smart lyricist, a meticulous creator of pop songs, an artistic visionary and an actual guitar designer. She makes ballads; she makes bangers. She produces for other people (namely: Sleater-Kinney’s sleek 2019 release The Center Won’t Hold). She once made an album with rock legend David Byrne. She’s even debuting a movie with S-K frontwoman Carrie Brownstein at this year’s SXSW. Just last week, she announced a collaborative athletic clothing line with hip athleisure brand Outdoor Voices. Annie Clark doesn’t stand still, and, generally speaking, whatever she touches turns to a slithery, beautiful shade of silver. It’s been almost three years since she released her last album, 2017’s MASSEDUCTION, which means a new one very well could be in our future in 2020. Regardless of when she decides to release new music, we already have a wealth of St. Vincent magic to listen to anytime. So, just because we love her, here is our ranking of the best songs by St. Vincent, this generation’s preeminent rock star.

20. “Pills”

One of the most on-the-nose (or should we say on-the-tongue) songs in St. Vincent’s discography, “Pills” doesn’t try to hide its message: We, as a society, are supremely quick to reach for a bottle when any malady (mild or malicious, mental or physical) hits us out of the blue. In an interview Clark said it’s not explicitly about America’s broken pharmaceutical industry, but it’s kind of hard not to hear it that way. Regardless of Clark’s own personal relationship to this song and the drugs she’s singing about, “Pills” works like a searing takedown of our obsession with cure-alls. Not to mention, the song itself is a five-star banger. —Ellen Johnson

19. “Now, Now”

This song from St. Vincent’s 2007 debut Marry Me is essentially an introduction to Annie Clark’s musical persona. She even goes as far as denouncing herself as Annie, with the repeated verse “I’m not any, any, any, any, any / Anything at all,” which she sings as “I’m not Annie, Annie, Annie…” cementing her metamorphosis into St. Vincent. While the song is both comforting (with the chorus “Now, now,” evoking a sense of quiet) and assertive (“You don’t mean that / I’ll make you sorry”), it is at its core about dispelling who and what St. Vincent is. She is “not your mother’s favorite dog”, but also “not the carpet you walk on.” This balance of semi-self-deprecation along with a heavy dose of self-worth sows the seed of St. Vincent, who in time will embrace her persona with ample confidence and style. We love to see it! —Natalia Keogan

18. “Birth In Reverse”

First, I’d like to thank St. Vincent for penning the line: “Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate.” That alone was a cultural reset. The overarching theme of this song about the death of America (with “birth in reverse” being a euphemism for that death) is just one more thing to love about it. Specifically, she’s referencing the narrative thread throughout the album concerning the demise of society at the behest of social media. While this might paint St. Vincent as a luddite, she’s really just concerned about how these newfound media tools are impacting people’s abilities to engage in mutual understanding, even when it comes to hearing her out about her stance: “You could say that I’m saying / Phenomenal lies,” she sings. More than anything, though, this song understands that people can’t be quelled of their opinions so easily, and trying to change their minds is futile: “The dogs will bark, so let them bark.” —Natalia Keogan

17. “Chloe In the Afternoon”

Strange Mercy as an album sets a new tone for St. Vincent, mainly by way of blaring, sexy electric guitar riffs. “Chloe In The Afternoon,” the first track on the album, is fittingly about St. Vincent getting kinky with a dominatrix: “You’re all legs / I’m all nerves / Black lacquered / Horse hair whip.” Nothing subtle there! While the song is definitely about getting one’s kicks, it’s also a forlorn tale of wanting an emotional connection from someone who is, by definition of their trade, clinically unavailable. St. Vincent croons: “No kisses / No real names.” It might seem a bit irrational to be heartbroken about someone just doing their job, but at the core of “Chloe In The Afternoon” (which takes its name from a 1972 film by Éric Rohmer about the shortfalls of monogamy) is the solemn realization that self-discovery tends to go in tandem with knowing someone else. —Natalia Keogan

16. “Teenage Talk”

In case you wanted tangible proof of this song’s influence, I actually titled my college admissions essay “So Like, That’s Just Teenage Talk?” After hearing it as the end credits rolled on an episode of Girls and later hoping that a music-fan admissions officer might get the reference, it’s still hard to tell whether the song legitimately blew my mind or if I was just eager to identify myself as the kind of suburban teen who looks forward to every new St. Vincent release. Even as “Teenage Talk” dwells in a perfect bittersweet nostalgia, the most important holdover from the lyrics remains “I don’t think the past is better just ‘cause it’s cased in glass protecting us from our now and later.” —Jane Song

15. “Rattlesnake”

After three of the most inventive guitar-based records in recent memory, it was a bit shocking to hear Annie Clark open her self-titled fourth album with an upbeat synth line. Would this be the album where she sets aside her guitar to take on pop music en-masse? Not yet—that came three years later with MASSEDUCTION—but album opener “Rattlesnake” proved to be an incredible middle ground between her guitar-based releases and her pop future, complete with bouncy synth, distorted vocals and a punishing guitar solo (one that’s even more impressive live). Few others can make a guitar sound the way Clark can, but no one else can combine her lawnmower-esque tones with synth-pop. —Steven Edelstone

14. “Marry Me”

One constant of St. Vincent’s aesthetic has been a transposition of beauty and ugliness—it’s difficult to tell where one begins and ends, as they are often so inextricable from one another. “Marry Me” is a sinister inversion of expectations of women’s emotional availability, twisting it into a dark portrait that preys on masculine fear of monstrous women. “But you, you’re a rock with a heart / like a socket I can plug into at will,” she sings, so sweetly it may as well be lead sugar poured in wine, “And will you guess when I come around next? / I hope your open sign is blinking still.” Wait… did you pick up on that? If that one doesn’t quite land, try this wedding vow on for size, paired with a nice glass of champagne and honeymoon-ready violins: “Let’s do what Mary and Joseph did / without the kids.” Here’s a fine litmus test for your significant other—run it back, give them a soft, loving touch, and tell them “Marry Me” always reminds you of them. If they’re slow to the uptake, you know you’ve got a nice, dull keeper. —Austin Jones

13. “Actor Out Of Work”

From her sophomore album Actor, St. Vincent channels the rage and frustration stemming from discovering that a lover has been deceptive on “Actor Out Of Work.” Her metaphor for a partner who has found themselves out on their ass in a relationship is an “actor out of work,” which alludes to the performative aspect of love: “You’re an actor out of work / You’re a liar and that’s the truth / You’re an extra lost in a scene.” But St. Vincent acknowledges how an unexpected betrayal from a partner can leave one reeling from the love they once shared. In fact, the objectively right decision to leave someone might not feel all that right at all: “You’re a boxer in the right / With brass knuckles underneath / I think I love you, I think I’m mad.” While the figurative blows of an unfaithful partner hurt like hell, what might hurt even more is finding the courage to give up on love. —Natalia Keogan

12. “Surgeon”

Just watch Annie Clark play the guitar part on “Surgeon” during the chorus of the below live video. Seriously, just try to follow her fingers rush up and down the neck of her instrument: It’s absolutely mesmerizing. The fact that she can play that insane riff while singing “Best, finest surgeon / Come cut me open” as calmly as she does here is, put simply, the work of a legendary musician on full display. Once the track comes to a screeching halt only for Clark to enter with one of her best guitar solos to date, it’s clear that she’s operating on a different level than nearly any of her contemporaries, filled to the brim with insightful lyrics, jaw-dropping guitar skills and an ability to make “Surgeon” not only highly listenable, but catchy and cool as hell. —Steven Edelstone

11. “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood”

Why is Annie Clark so paranoid? “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” doesn’t necessarily explain what’s got her feeling so nervous, but its placid melodies and breathy lyrics at least pinpoint how these thoughts manifest: “Just like an amnesiac / Trying to get my senses back,” Clark sings, before then, as if beckoned to a call-and-response by a Greek chorus (or a therapist), “Oh, where did they go?” The track follows this format, tugging her closer and closer to the source of her fears until Clark seems to wave a white flag (“Tell my sister that I miss her / Tell my brother that it gets much easier”). It’s an ironic song, poking fun at herself as she weathers the future and contends with the past. —Austin Jones

10. “Strange Mercy”

By the time you get to Strange Mercy’s title track, situated right in the middle of the record, you’ve already travelled through Clark’s throes of pill-addled depression, watched her suffer unspeakable humiliation and experienced her apocalyptic mania. So what is this supposed “mercy” that lies at the center? Well, according to Clark herself, it’s about the things we don’t tell our kids to spare them the pain. It’s backed by an ever-present, minimal line of synth, situated across from her father in a prison visiting booth (told through one of music’s finest double entendres: “But when you see him, wave / Through the double pane”). The album’s sparest moment, in which Clark’s twinkling guitars synthesize with her vulnerable voice, hearkens the frenzied catharsis of one of indie rock’s most futilely passionate bridges: “If I ever meet that dirty policeman who roughed you up / Oh, I don’t know what.” As her civil rage fades, we’re left to wonder if any mercy, or justice, for that matter, exists in Clark’s world. —Austin Jones

9. “Huey Newton”

Has there ever been a more thrilling moment in a St. Vincent song than when Annie Clark interrupts the tranquil first half of “Huey Newton” with that monstrous, loud-as-hell guitar riff? On first listen, “Huey Newton” sounds like an even smoother version of its St. Vincent predecessor “Prince Johnny.” But once that deranged “DOO DOO DOO DOOOOOO” guitar hits like an anvil in a Looney Tunes cartoon, everything changes and Annie Clark turns into a capital-R, capital-S Rock Star. It’s a show-stopping moment both live and on the record, and it’s easily her most punk rock moment to date. —Steven Edelstone

8. “Los Ageless”

The New York versus Los Angeles (or, more simply, just East Coast versus West Coast) debate isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Many artists have chosen a side, but few argue on behalf of both cities within the same singular piece (unless you count Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, but I think NYC ultimately comes out on top there, right?). St. Vincent makes a case both for and against metropolises on MASSEDUCTION, first with the unhinged “Los Ageless” and later with the more subtle, yet, startling, ballad “New York.” Both are two of the best songs Clark has ever written, but they can’t necessarily be compared. “New York” is an entirely different song—more about loneliness and self-doubt than the actual city. And “Los Ageless” is arguably more about vanity and our obsession with young, beautiful things. Wait, maybe these two songs, like the cities they represent, can still be compared? Annie, you clever New Yorker, you. —Ellen Johnson

7. “Cruel”

Before we later found out what a St. Vincent pop song would actually sound like, “Cruel” seemed like the closest to “pop” Annie Clark would ever get. But, obviously, a poppy St. Vincent song still sounds like nothing else you’d ever heard. Complete with alien backing vocals and a guitar solo that seemingly comes out of nowhere, “Cruel” is still the catchiest song Clark has ever written, an excellent power-pop track with an earworm-y “Cru-u-u-u-u-elllllll” refrain sung over a highly danceable beat. In 2011, when we ranked “Cruel” number 13 on our best songs of the year list, we wrote, “It is difficult to be upset when this song gets stuck in your head.” Nine years later, we stand by that statement, perhaps even more so. —Steven Edelstone

6. “Prince Johnny”

St. Vincent is a self-appointed Bowie disciple. It’s practically common knowledge at this point. On “Prince Johnny,” she channels the glammy storytelling of the late icon, but also channels another formative legend: Madonna. The result is one of Clark’s clearest pop offerings and finest vocal performances, complete with seraphic backing chorus and a fine character study, one she would later return to on MASSEDUCTION three years later. The way she details Johnny’s tragedy is much like a biographer, personally involved yet almost retrospectively distant. Eventually, Clark turns Johnny’s oppressive plight into a writ of independence, her voice-raising octaves progressively until it fades, heavenly, into bleak unseen territory. It’s a uniquely queer anthem, a fine example of how Clark treads the line of mainstream auteur and pop outsider. —Austin Jones

5. “The Party”

Actor is my favorite St. Vincent album. Despite some criticisms for its overly lush production, the Hitchcockian mystique of its filmic production, with its idyllic flutes and strings that wouldn’t be out of place on the Bambi soundtrack (one of the finest soundtracks of all time, I might add), Clark manages to hide murky swamps of grim possibilities in nearly every track. The album effectively has its own language, using baroque beauty to signal deep anxieties and twisted relationships, wordlessly crafting an effortless narrative of depression. “The Party” might be the album’s best example of Clark’s hand-wringing dread, describing exhaustively an encounter at a party in a loungy piano ballad. She slides through darkly imagistic moments (“I lick the ice cubes from your empty glass,” or “there aren’t enough hands to point all the fingers”) that eventually blossom into Actor’s most show-stopping vocal moment. As Clark runs from this terrible interaction, she’s plagued with the sound of marching drums and insistent violins. Like Alice, she’s lost in a psychedelic dream. It may look and sound beautiful, but its eeriness verges on horrifying. —Austin Jones

4. “Cheerleader”

“Cheerleader” is distinctly filthy. With cacophonic drums and languorous vocal delivery, Annie Clark feels ignominious in the face of ridicule—is it deserved, she wonders? The track finds Clark and her opposer trading blows back and forth, with Clark realizing how demoralizing her hand in the pettiness can be. Thankfully, she wants to rise above spats—she “[doesn’t] want to be a cheerleader anymore,” (or a dirt-eater, as she says in the final chorus, a vulgar way to allude to willful complicity) a personal call to action to rise above cowardice. As the dust settles and Clark’s squirmy guitars escape back into their hidey-holes, there’s a gesture to a potential future, one in which Clark severs herself from whatever’s got her feeling gross. Or maybe she’ll keep playing dumb. It’s a lot easier that way. —Austin Jones

3. “Masseduction”

It’s no exaggeration to refer to St. Vincent as radical. But this song in particular feels forward-moving in a way a lot of her other songs do not. Just the line “I can’t turn off what turns me on” itself feels profound: Its description of fluid sexuality feels more acutely sensual than anything we’d heard from Annie Clark before the title track from her 2017 album. Production-wise, it’s just as dazzling, featuring Clark’s token rips of guitar as well as the poppier synth elements that rule most of MASSEDUCTION. It’s a sex-positive breakdown of the superego, and it’s one of the smartest, hottest (see: Clark’s performance of the song with Dua Lupa at the 2019 Grammys) pieces St. Vincent has ever made. —Ellen Johnson

2. “Digital Witness”

Here’s where we get the St. Vincent we truly deserve: authoritative, autonomous and pretty angry. The obsession and partial brainwashing of the populace by digital and social media is her target. On “Digital Witness,” she embodies the Orwellian voice of media from the get-go (“Get back to your seats / Get back gnashing teeth / I want all of your mind”) while also making jabs at those who are perpetually online gleefully complicit in their own ennui (“Digital witnesses / What’s the point of even sleeping? / If I can’t show it, you can’t see me / What’s the point of doing anything?”). The recurring verse,“People turn the TV on, it looks just like a window,” argues that even when people use media as a means to try and broaden their horizons, they lose sight of the way the television can manipulate facts. St. Vincent then goes on to grimly depict the ultimate sacrifice for viral attention: “Watch me jump right off the London Bridge.” —Natalia Keogan

1. “New York”

Few lyrics have resonated more this decade than “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who can handle me.” But “New York’s” strength doesn’t necessarily come from its refrain as much as its hyper-specific ode to Manhattan crossed with a breakup song. From callouts to Astor Place (she even spins in the Astor Place Cube in the music video!) to 1st and 8th Aves, Annie Clark bemoans the loss of a lover—presumably her ex, Cara Delevingne—and her friends, who like many in the arts community this decade, packed up their belongings and moved to Los Angeles. The piano ballad is easily the best song about New York released in some time, miles more emotionally affecting than the Google Maps-like, landmark-referencing “Empire State of Mind,” and it’s one that does a lot with a little, stripping away Clark’s manic guitar-playing in such a way that you almost forget she’s still the best guitarist of her generation. —Steven Edelstone

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