When I first sat down to start pulling together my list of the top 10 Vampire Weekend songs, I consulted a few of my friends to ask for their lists to make sure I wasn’t missing anything egregious on my final draft. The end result was a handful of people arguing for about 25 different tracks, which is quite amazing seeing as the indie pop band from New York City have only released a total of 33 album songs and a handful of B-sides.
But Vampire Weekend are one of those groups that have a nearly flawless back catalogue and a cadre of hardcore fans endlessly arguing over their individual album and song rankings to no avail. Impeccably consistent across their three releases spanning 2008-2013, there are no right answers, not even a consensus best album for fans to rally behind, showing how strong of songwriters and producers the former quartet truly are. For a special subset of the millennial generation, myself included, they were the band that defined the peak of the indie rock era, soundtracking our first relationships, college parties, road trips, and everything in between. Hell, their most recent album, Modern Vampires of the City, a more mature and slightly darker departure from their peppy afro-pop influenced sound with lyrics about finally growing up and finding your place in the world, came out the day I graduated college.
It’s felt like an eternity since Modern Vampires of the City dropped in May 2013. Marked by endless delays of their fourth album, Father of the Bride, multi-instrumentalist and production genius Rostam Batmanglij’s departure from the band, forays into solo work, pop songwriting, political advocacy, radio DJing, and TV production, the band finally reemerged last week to announce their long-awaited new record. With two new songs released yesterday, we thought it was time to come up with our own list of our favorite Vampire Weekend songs in celebration of their return.
A B-side to their debut single, “Mansard Roof,” from all the way back in 2007, “Ladies in Cambridge” showcases the youthful energy that’d go on to propel eventual album tracks like “A-Punk” and “Walcott.” Missing the cut for their debut album in favor of the string-led “M79,” “Ladies of Cambridge” relies on an upbeat guitar riff that likely tore the roof down when they were playing college house parties at Columbia University. This is Ezra & co. at their most fun, mixing in a meandering violin line that’d later go on to be Rostam’s signature trademark, even slowing things down in a somewhat similar way to what The Isley Brothers did on “Shout.”
Bizarrely their highest charting single on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, hitting #7 close to a year following the release of Modern Vampires of the City, “Unbelievers” may be the catchiest song from their third album. Hitting hard directly following the slow piano-led opener “Obvious Bicycle,” the track’s mid-tempo rhythm never lets up, eventually giving way to a horn section blowout before the final chorus. A pop song chock full of religious imagery, “Unbelievers” also features some of Ezra’s most clever lyrics: “I know I love you and you love the sea / But what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?”
Perhaps Rostam’s defining moment as a musical arranger and producer, “Diplomat’s Son” is a shape-shifting track with different musical ideas flowing together at a dizzying pace. At one moment an “M.I.A.” sample, another a Jamaican-influenced bouncy piano breakdown, and later on a flittering violin on top of a glitchy electronic synth before transitioning into a bongo-led outro, “Diplomat’s Son” is not only noteworthy for its beautiful story of a gay romance, but for its sheer amount of diverse musical styles all packed in together in inventive ways. Ambitious and brilliant, this is likely the song that separates Vampire Weekend from its contemporaries, putting Rostam in incredible demand for his production work for the better part of the next decade.
Though Vampire Weekend successor Contra was much more understated than the band’s debut, we had no idea on November 17th, 2009 when lead single “Cousins” was unleashed. Launching out of the gate with Ezra’s frantic guitar before Chris Tomson’s frenzied drums take over, “Cousins” felt like a turbocharged take on “A-Punk,” complete with the same “ay ay ays.” With perhaps their best music video to complement the track, “Cousins” was an explosive way to rocket into the second chapter of Vampire Weekend, even if Contra proved to be much more toned down from the joyful chaos of its lead single.
At its core, “Oxford Comma” is an indie pop song about grammar. Sounds boring right? Precisely the opposite—“Oxford Comma,” a track that builds upon its predecessor, “Mansard Roof’s” bouncy summer-y keyboards, is a pleasant stroll through the best elements of Vampire Weekend’s debut album—clever lyrics with wide-reaching references, spritely guitar solos, and sing-along-able choruses. That sound you heard when you first listened to the song in 2008 was the thousands of kids rushing to their computers to find the guitar tabs for that solo.
It wasn’t their first single, but “A-Punk” is what started it all for Vampire Weekend. With a now-iconic opening guitar riff and Ezra’s joyful yelps throughout, there’s a reason “A-Punk” is the band’s most well known song even now, 11 years after its initial release. Whether it was used in the intro to Step Brothers or throughout The Inbetweeners, “A-Punk” was everywhere, instantly recognizable, and just plain fun. Few songs, if any, immediately transport you back to 2008 quite like this.
On March 13th, 2013, Vampire Weekend made their long-awaited comeback ahead of their third album, releasing their first new music since 2010 in the form of two singles—“Diane Young” and “Step.” The former was obviously the one that got more of the share of press as it was the more undeniable one—peppy and upbeat, chugging along at an unsustainable pace.
But it was its companion that won out in the long-term; “Step,” a beautiful song with grand production, slowly became a fan favorite over time. Sampling Souls Of Mischief’s “Step to My Girl,” Ezra’s lyrics take us on a world tour, from Angkor Wat to New York to the Bay Area, referencing four different Northern California cities in one go. While the first two verses are chock full of pompous intellectual gibberish, it all leads up to Koenig’s best ever lyric: “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth / Age is an honor, but it’s still not the truth.”
There’s a reason Vampire Weekend still close almost every set with “Walcott.” Tomson’s steady drumming and Rostam’s frenzied piano make this the band’s most danceable song, the easiest to sing along with alongside tens of thousands of festival-goers in every direction. “Walcott” is also Vampire Weekend’s finest crescendo, slowing things down before going up an octave and screaming the track’s closing vocal lines. Once Ezra’s last verse kicks in, it’s impossible not to shout alongside him, booking it to get on the final train out of Cape Cod tonight.
Like the aforementioned “Diplomat’s Son,” “I Think Ur a Contra” is full of Rostam’s production magic. Bursting with dazzling strings and unique guitar sounds throughout, Contra’s closing track is a masterclass of how to end an album on an extremely high note. Above swelling violins, Ezra offers up the best lyric of career up to this point, summing up Contra as a whole to a tee: “You wanted rock ‘n’ roll, complete control / Well, I don’t know.” After years of critiques against their afro-pop sound, this is their statement song, albeit a relatively muted one, showing that they’re much more than the elitist “Oxford Comma” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” band. “I Think Ur a Contra” is a goosebumps-inducing song all the way through, one that ends a pitch perfect album in the most pitch perfect way possible.
In an ideal world, “IF I CAN’T TRUST YOU THAN DAMNIT HANNAH!” would be the defining moment of Vampire Weekend’s career. The way Ezra surprises you with the octave-raised pleading cry towards the end of “Hannah Hunt,” just after Tomson’s drums unexpectedly enter the fray is unparalleled, not only throughout the band’s back catalogue but the entire indie rock genre of the 2010s as a whole. It’s one of those moments, like when Frank Ocean hits that note at the end of “Bad Religion” or Julien Baker comes in with that first “BUT WHEN I TURN OUT THE LIGHTS.” It’s indescribable, one of those hair-raising moments in music that hits you like a ton of bricks no matter how many times you’ve heard it, knocking you on your ass the same way on your 100th listen as it did on your first.
The song itself, a story about a figurative road trip from the East to West Coast named after a very real classmate of Ezra’s at Columbia, is magnificent from its seaside start to its wiry closing note. Koenig is front and center with little instrumentation behind him throughout most of the track, takes us on the trip from Providence to Phoenix by way of Waverly to Lincoln until we reach Santa Barbara, where his companion cries on the beach, an ugly end to a beautiful journey. It all leads up to the song’s final crescendo, that moment, before dropping off towards its initial tempo once again. It’s a meandering journey, but one that’s unforgettable.