I figured that the first article on this blog should be about Vampire Weekend. Vampire Weekend is definitely one of my top-ten bands of all time, and I even named this humble site after one of Ezra Koenig’s lyrics. This January will mark the 7th anniversary of their debut album Vampire Weekend, an album that influenced the lives of countless millennials that listened to Ezra Koenig’s obsession with Peter Gabriel.
Critical opinion on the Vampire Weekend canon has shifted in favor of 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City. That album is fantastic, and it was the album of the year on Pitchfork, but the sparky brilliance of the band’s debut album will be forever overshadowed by the deep yet catchy contemplation of Modern Vampires. In the same way that the greatness of Empire Strikes Back and the crappiness of the prequel movies sometimes overshadow Star Wars: A New Hope, Vampire Weekend’s debut album that set the stage may fade into the background as time goes on.
Vampire Weekend is the quintessential early college album. In fact, all three albums represent different stages of life, with Contra representing late college years and grad school, and Modern Vampires evoking feelings of what it’s like when schooling finally ends and the problems of real life begin. You don’t get lines like “if I can’t trust you, dammit Hannah, there’s no future, there’s no answer” in the lighthearted fun of Vampire Weekend. Those are problems for adulthood.
In VW’s debut album, Ezra Koenig’s lyrical problems seem trivial, especially behind Chris Tomson and Chris Baio’s peppy drum/bass combo and the bright poppy atmosphere generated by Rostam Batmanglij. Instead of the emotional relationship explosion in “Hannah Hunt”, we get wistful lines from “Campus” in which Koenig playfully sings about trying to avoid a girl from a typical fleeting college relationship. After living through three months of my college experience at Northwestern, I would argue that Vampire Weekend perfectly captured what it means to be a college student at a high-level university in the 21st-century. From the light party atmosphere of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, to the stressful balance between schoolwork and social life in “Bryn” (ion displacement won’t work in the basement, after all), Vampire Weekend figured it out. Considering they were all at Columbia at the time, it’s not remotely surprising.
Still, despite the youthfulness of the album, there are surprisingly few “filler” moments on this album. Every song is quick, to the point, and has a purpose. The album is paced excellently, imitating the fast-paced life of a college student. One moment the singer rants about grammar and pretension, then he’s commuting around the city, then he’s at a party, then he’s going to back to class. I’ve lived this life, and many of Vampire Weekend’s listeners have lived it too.
All of the songs represent some aspect of the college experience, and I would argue that there are no weak songs on the record.
So why am I doing a power ranking if all the songs are great? That’s a very good question. Why does ESPN rank college football teams if all top 10 teams are great at football? The sports fan in me needs to discern which things are better than others. Most of sports debate centers around this issue, and quite a bit of music criticism also depends on these entirely subjective points of comparison. Why do you think Rolling Stone has a new “Top 500 Songs of Blank” every few months? We need definitive answers. We need to know what’s better.
That being said, these power rankings are solely my own opinion, and I guarantee they do not correspond with yours. Every song on this album is quite good, it’s just that I think some are better than others. If you hate these power rankings and think a song should be rated higher, feel free to call me an idiot in the comments section. Feel free to post your own list as well. But without further ado, here are the Vampire Weekend Song Power Rankings:
All setlist mentions are from Vampire Weekend’s Setlist.fm page.
Technically, these two songs are not on the album, but you should listen to them anyway. “Arrows” was cut for some reason, but the song is a fantastic companion to the album as a whole. The intro has a typical badass cello part, and the song is solid. “Ottoman” is from the film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.
I’ve never watched the movie, but I think Ottoman is one of the better songs Vampire Weekend has produced.
By the way, Ezra Koenig does reference the Ottoman Empire in another song. There’s a reference to the Young Turks, a political group in the late Ottoman period, in “Don’t Lie” from Modern Vampires.
Unimpressive Song Mention: Ladies of Cambridge
I have to admit, I do not consider this as one of Vampire Weekend’s finest songs. While the song is musically similar to much of Vampire Weekend, I don’t think Ezra is putting his best foot forward on the singing. Lyrically, unless you live in Boston, this song is pretty much a throwaway. The song is two minutes and thirty-eight seconds of topical references to Boston and Ezra shouting “take…it” repeatedly. There’s also some undertones that the persona of the lyrics is secretly a vampire who goes to Harvard, which is hilarious, but also a bit too Twilighty for my taste.
I think Vampire Weekend is more meaningful when they don’t openly acknowledge the existence of vampires (for example, the lack of vampire lyrics in Modern Vampires), but this song is a bit too juvenile for my taste. I know how ridiculous that sounds when put in context of the album itself, but there’s a reason the band cut it from the album. It’s the B-side to the first single they ever released, and it’s clear they had not really perfected their style yet. But yeah, it’s still a halfway-decent song, but I don’t think it matches the level of the songs on the actual album.
Honorable Mention: Everything from l’Homme Run
Wait, you’ve never heard of l’Homme Run? Go listen to everything from Ezra’s rap career right now. Also, if you didn’t think the first Vampire Weekend album was partly inspired by moments of stoner-ness, here’s proof.
Don’t get caught with a whack Calzone.
11. One (Blake’s Got a New Face)
This song is a fan favorite and has been played during many Vampire Weekend concerts. However, I’ve heard some people claim this song is just plain bad. I can see where they’re coming from. The high-pitched shouting of “Blake’s got a new face” is annoying. Lyrically, the song is not much better than “Bryn”, with the song seemingly consisting of a cobbled together batch of sentences that don’t connect whatsoever. The song is amusingly choppy as the polyrhythmic drum beat never really catches up to the beat of the music. The band also hasn’t played the song since 2010, which suggests that even they may be tiring of it.
Musically, Blake’s Got a New Face sounds like an outtake from Paul Simon’s Graceland or Speaking in Tongues by the Talking Heads. Ezra’s voice barely carries the song, as the musicality is somewhat lacking and the song would unpleasant without his voice. The song has a silly tone that inexplicably works. I’m not sure that any other band could pull it off (maybe San Cisco?) and there are very few attempts from anyone to cover this strange track.
It works because of its strangeness though, and it has its defenders. For example, Richard Linklater liked the song enough to include it on the soundtrack to the movie Boyhood. Whenever I hear the song, I have invisible voices shouting “Blake’s got a new face” in my head for several hours. It can get irritating.
Oh Bryn, you’re second-to-last! It’s a sign of how good the album is when the “second-worst” song still has a great melody and complex musicality. However, there are a couple factors hurting this track. The song is only 2:13, leaving little time for any lasting impact. The lyrics are also rather inane (“eyes like a seagull, no Kansas palm beetle, could ever come close to that free”, seriously Ezra?). I think this song represents a brief daydream during chemistry class where the speaker drifts aimlessly through his or her own head before abruptly coming back to reality. The dreamy atmosphere of the guitar and keyboard add to this illusion. However, a short aimless daydream is hard to rank above the (slightly) more serious songs on the album.
Alternatively, you could interpret this as Ezra’s musings while high. Realistically, that could be an explanation for most of the lyrics on this album, so I’m just going to mention it once. If anyone doesn’t think there wasn’t some weed involved in the production of this album, I’d like to point out that a band member uses a saxophone as a bong in the “Diane Young” music video. Also, didn’t you watch P-I-Z-Z-A P-AR-T-Y? I’ll chalk up “stoners” as yet another aspect of the college experience that Vampire Weekend encapsulated. Ezra claims he “wasn’t a huge stoner” though.
9. Mansard Roof
Forget the rankings for a second. “Mansard Roof” is a great album opener. It’s a better opener than “Horchata”, and it’s a close second behind “Obvious Bicycle” for the best opener to a Vampire Weekend album. The opening keyboard chords are instantly recognizable. Ezra’s distinctive voice immediately pierces through the silence, then the string quartet arrives with great aplomb. An English teacher once told me that the opening pages of a novel often explain everything you need to know about the rest of the book. As Vampire Weekend is fronted by an English major, it’s no surprise that the first thirty seconds of “Mansard Roof” have all the elements of the rest of the album in a neat opening statement. Strange syncopated rhythms, loud bass line, sometimes incomprehensible lyrics with odd imagery and references? That sounds like Vampire Weekend to me.
In a testament to just how incomprehensible the lyrics are, I always thought the song’s lyrics were:
“I see a salty message written in the leaves“.
This makes perfect sense, because Ezra ends the previous lyrics with the word “trees”. Isn’t he seeing through leaves in this lyric? Actually no. Every lyrics page has this line:
“I see a salty message written in the eaves“.
According to the dictionary, an eave is “the part of a roof that meets or overhangs the walls of a building”. Actually, that makes more sense because he’s staring at the titular Mansard roof.
But how should I know that he means “eaves” instead of “leaves”. How should anyone know that? Not all of us study roof architecture Ezra Koenig, it’s not fair!
Anyway, this song is brilliant, but it’s also a tad forgettable. It doesn’t have a rousing chorus like “Walcott” and it flickers for two minutes before disappearing into “Oxford Comma”, which is arguably the most memorable song on the whole album. The song also is musically boring. The majority of the song is Ezra singing and Tomson on the drums with occasional interludes that sound cool but leave very quickly. Then, the song is over. Although it’s a fantastic opener, I don’t think it merits much higher than 9th on this list.
It pains me to put “Campus” in eighth place. From this point on, I had serious trouble ordering the amazing songs on this album. Unfortunately, “Campus” and the next song were the odd ones out. “Campus” is a fun track that sweeps through a lively tour of a college campus. The song is punchy and volatile. Guitars, basslines, electric keyboard chords, and the vocals come in and out of the song, almost like the endlessly shifting traffic of any college walkway in America. Like most students, the singer would rather not go to class. Like most students, the singer is more concerned with a failed relationship than what is actually going on. Remember when I said that this album perfectly represents the college experience? This is one of the cornerstones of that argument.
Why do I have “Campus” beneath all the songs? Perhaps the song is a bit too transitory. The track gets lost in the shuffle after the crazy end of “M79”, and it did not make much of an impression on me when I first listened to it. I would argue that “Campus” is an “acquired taste” song. In short, the song sounds better as you become more acquainted to Vampire Weekend’s sound.
At first glance, the rough edges of the song and the punchy soul of the band can seem a bit off-putting. It’s a great song but it doesn’t jump out at you right of the gate. “A-Punk” grabs the listener immediately. “Campus” takes a few tries.
A word of advice: listen to this song while actually walking across a college campus. It feels very meta. Whatever the hell that means.
7. I Stand Corrected
In my opinion, this the most underrated song on the album. Maybe its not as popular in the digital age because its long buildup lends itself to mindless skipping. Sadly, no one ever comes up to me and says they distinctly remember “I Stand Corrected”. It’s a shame though, because this is a fantastic track. This is one of the few Vampire Weekend songs where the lyrics are both completely understandable and relatable on a very simple level. The song is unique because it lacks any pop culture or geographical references. It’s just the band expressing a very sincere sentiment, which makes this song unique within the band’s discography. “Run” from Contra is the only other song I can think of that matches this song’s straightforwardness.
Musically, this song creates an amazing soundscape that is also completely unique on this album. It’s a sign of the atmospheric tones that Batmanglij would later employ on later albums, and the weird echoey organ in the background gives the song a very distinct quality. You somehow really get the sense that the author of the song is alone and contemplating what he should say from the tone of the music. It’s very cleverly done. For some reason, most of this tonal contemplation was missing from Contra (except on the brutally contemplative “I Think Ur a Contra”). But on Modern Vampires, songs like “Everlasting Arms” or “Ya Hey” seem to bring back the contemplative air from “I Stand Corrected”.
So why don’t I have this song ranked higher? Ultimately, I’m not sure this song fits with the rest of the album. It’s a song that deals with maturity and not being “lax”. If this song were after “Young Lion” on Modern Vampires, it would make perfect sense, right down to the quiet intro. If you attach a large finale, it could’ve been easily the closing song to that album.
Because this song is so out of place, it does not compare well to the youthful energy of the other songs on the album. The last lyric of the previous song laments the fashion predicament of wearing sweatshirts. This song thrusts you into a world in which a person wistfully hopes to say something meaningful to save a relationship. How do you go from “collegiate grief” to actual grief without any warning? The album then goes back to typical collegiate activities like partying on Cape Cod and feeling from vampires. As usual, all of this only works in Ezra Koenig’s mind. Also, you could criticize the song for being a bit repetitive, but I love it and will defend it to the hilt. By the way, this still shows up occasionally on the band’s regular setlist.
6. The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance
From a musical perspective, this song is the most challenging on the entire album. The string section, the undulating guitars, and the drums all converge to create a beautiful track that closes the album on a mellow high note. This song hinted at the band’s future trend towards unconventional song structure (see: “Diplomat’s Son”) and their skill at creating well-paced but poignant slow songs (see: “Step”). The song has overtones of Phish guitar solos, waltzes by Strauss, and the baroque pop of the Beatles. I could go on for hours about the lyrical and musical influences in this song.
Ezra’s voice droops over the song, and it never strays into the lively shouting that appears on the rest of the album. For once, I would argue that the vocals are not the main part of the song. The song hinges on its musical interludes, and it’s incredible that a young band would even try a partial reinvention in the midst of their first album.
Normally, bands wait until later to experiment or never bother at all. Vampire Weekend went for it in their first album.
That being said, the only quibbles I have with this song is that it still sounds a bit experimental and unpolished. If the band re-recorded this, the sound mixing and design would probably be very different. I don’t think Vampire Weekend perfected this type of experimentation until some of the songs on Contra, and they did not get the lyrics to match the musical complexity until Modern Vampires. “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” has symbolism, but it’s easy to miss it. The song makes more sense in the context of other songs, as Ezra Koenig clearly studied hard during the intertextuality lessons at Columbia. There are plants, romance, and money involved here, which invoke images of “Hannah Hunt”. But solely in the context of this album, these references seem out of place. There is also a vague anti-corporate message hidden behind the cello solos, but it’s so veiled that you don’t really understand what Koenig is trying to get across. Still, “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” is a great song, but it missed out on the top-five.
5. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
Strangely enough, this is the one song from the debut album that legitimately sounds a bit dated. Somehow, I feel like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” has not aged well. Perhaps the financial crisis that hit shortly after this album was released has quashed all positivity surrounding rich girls who wanted Louis Vuitton accessories. Although reality TV is going strong and the economy is apparently doing better, the idea of rampant materialism is just not a thing amongst young people. Right now, millennials are turning out in droves for a campaign that promises wealth distribution, and I argue that this song does not actively display millennials frustration with the naïveté of the wealthy folks in the suburbs of New York who are rich enough to have houses on Cape Cod.
What’s funny is that this song is a complete but subtle parody of rampant materialism, but the overtones of wealth and this song’s role in establishing Vampire Weekend false persona of aristocracy stealing from ethnic music has really hurt this song’s power. Would it still be considered a work of genius if released today? I can assure there would definitely be a blogger ranting about Vampire Weekend’s cultural misappropriation of Afrobeat.
Then again, Cape Cod beach houses have not disappeared, so the song retains its breezy summer feel, intermingled with demands to have sex. In terms of its quality, “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” remains up there with the best songs on this album. The instrumentation and volume on the track create a unique “Cape Cod” beach house feel that jumps off the recordings. Ezra Koenig’s singing is at its apex on this track. There are some sections of the song that sound experimental and hint at the sonic creations of Contra. Overall, it’s a very good song that rolls along the Atlantic Ocean. Deciding between this song and the rest of the top seven was very difficult, but I just like the four songs above this one more.
This was Vampire Weekend’s best-known song from the first album. With everyone seemingly moving on to Modern Vampires, it’s easy to forget about how great this song was when it first came out. The opening guitar riff is one of the most memorable intros to a song that I can remember.
Because the song tends to get played often, it’s easy to forget just how strikingly energetic the song is. At the time, indie rock was centered around bands like Arcade Fire, The National and Spoon. Boxer is not very uplifting. Ditto with In Rainbows, Neon Bible, etc.
The only contemporary album that matches the joy of “A-Punk” is Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem. Thus, “A-Punk” was a welcome refresher. In many ways, Vampire Weekend harkened back to the poppy 80s alt rock of Elvis Costello or Squeeze, and a song like “A-Punk” helped to reinforce that idea of happiness. In 2008, indie rock needed a goofy They Might be Giants-esque song to discuss, and “A-Punk” provides that splendidly.
“A-Punk” clocks in at just over two minutes of nonstop action. The song is very similar to “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson, a perfect example of the 80s alt rock that clearly inspired this album. Koenig’s unique delivery and the Paul Simon woodwind background make this song unforgettable. We never figure out who Johanna is or where she’s going, but nobody really cares. Maybe Ezra was referencing “Visions of Johanna” by Bob Dylan, but if he was, he does not leave us time to reflect on it. And we don’t need it either.
As a former stringed instrument player, my favorite string section on this entire album is the violin part from about 17 seconds into “M79”. It’s up there with some of the rock music violin sections with “Eleanor Rigby” and “Come On Eileen” for me. The rest of the song is still great, of course, but the violinist shreds in this song. The different parts of the band chime in like dueling parts of a string quartet. The parts don’t ever really converge like a traditional rock song. Instead, the parts provide accompaniment, like chamber music. It’s ingeniously and meticulously designed from beginning to end.
If your name is actually Jackson Crowder, I would imagine you play this every day to feel better about yourself. The end of the song is about singing his praises, in a sense, but the song is really just a bunch of snippets from adapting to urban college life. Koenig mentions walking up stairs, seeing foreign exchange students, living in a multicultural environment for the first time, taking public transportation (the M79 bus, for example), dealing with fleeting relationships, not letting oneself “be so callous” and being forced to be charming instead, and fighting against the perception of “wasted days”. It’s a song about college. It’s a song about “watching your step along the arch of glass” and hoping you get enough weight off your shoulders so you won’t fall through. M79 is about surviving in a new environment filled with things and people you don’t understand.
I can’t criticize this song in good conscience. The song’s lyrics seem nonsensical like in “Bryn”, but they are actually all very understandable metaphors that can be used for a variety of reasons (feel free to apply this song to starting a new job). The song doesn’t have the emotional highs or piercing wit of other songs on the album, but it’s a solid all-around song that should be an indie rock classic for years to come.
2. Oxford Comma
If you still give a fuck about this article, congrats for making it this far. “Oxford Comma” is one of the cleverest songs Vampire Weekend has ever written. The first thing people recognize about “Oxford Comma” are its lyrics, and that’s where the heart of the song resides. The song is Tom Stoppard-level witty, with fantastic lines like “all your diction, dripping with disdain” and “check your handbook, it’s no trick, take the chapstick, put it on your lips” never fail to sound immensely lyrical. The brilliance of the song is that the persona can utilize language in extremely clever ways, but he decides to turn his wit against the conventions of grammar and spelling that prevent genuine human interaction. I find this song similar to “Up the Junction” by Squeeze in terms of its slower tempo and poetic wit. Both songs are almost exactly the same length, and both songs rise with musical and lyrical indignation (about where Ezra says “why would you speak to me that way” and when Squeeze goes “I worked all through the winter”) only to return to jolly themes.
“Oxford Comma” also brilliantly captures the annoyance of college academic work and social problems. Despite Vampire Weekend’s early reputation as an elitist band, the song heavily criticizes the use of complex language to shut out people from the general discourse. Vampire Weekend is in favor of the Dalai Lama’s simple truths rather than the doublespeak of higher education and the rich suburbs of Westchester or New Jersey. The song also turns this against elitist people, who use complicated words and hidden meanings to obscure what they actually feel. He then tells them to “know your butler, unlike other guys”, implying that their use of language prevents them from recognizing the simple truths of actual human relationships. Academia and wealth, is what the writer of “Oxford Comma” dislikes.
Of course, the song’s collegiate atmosphere would not be complete without references to the party life represented by ‘Lil John. Vampire Weekend is the only indie rock band would appropriate a stupid line like “from the windows, to the walls, till the sweat drips down my balls” and turn it into a sharp criticism of contemporary hyper-intellectualism. The song is delightfully weird, well-written, and the music itself is pleasant and instantly recognizable. The guitar solo in the middle is very well-done, and when the band converges at the end of the song the song just totally works. You just can’t help cracking a smile.
This song saved my life. Once, I was forced to drive up from North Carolina to New York after my flight home was cancelled. I was driving between the hours of 1 AM to 3 AM on a deserted highway when I felt my eyes starting to close. I had been awake for about 22 hours, and I could feel myself going to sleep on the road. I started driving poorly and swerving around phantom objects. Then, “Walcott” came up on Spotify and I suddenly woke myself up by singing “Walcott, don’t you know that it’s insane”!
This song contains everything I like about Vampire Weekend. Musically, the song has a fantastic mix of energy and effortlessly pretty string solos. The song is remarkably simple, but it never feels lost or banal. It just works its way through the story of someone running away from Cape Cod as some of the best musical moments in the band’s entire catalog come back-to-back.
The intro and piano chords are amazing. The “lobster’s claws” cello solo is fantastic. When the band comes back, there’s that brief two-second guitar solo that I can’t get enough of.
Lyrically, the song is not that complex or witty as “Oxford Comma”, but Ezra gets the point across fairly quickly. He’s trying to get some girl to leave the sheltered world of Cape Cod (maybe the same girl from “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”) and head towards the safety of New Jersey. The background of the song is running away from vampires on Cape Cod, but you get the sense that Koenig is not actually speaking about vampires in the song. He calls the rich suburb of Hyannisport (home of the Kennedy family) to be a “ghetto”. He blasts the other areas of Cape Cod that are populated America’s political and financial elite. He wants to take her to New Jersey and take her to something real. It’s a reversal of “Common People” by Pulp, in which the girl asks Jarvis Cocker to take her into the underbelly of the English poor.
Ultimately, I find this to be my favorite song on the album. Realistically, any of the top six could have been my favorite, but I selected “Walcott”. This turned out to be one of the longest articles I’ve ever written, but I’m glad that I got all my thoughts on this album down in writing. Thanks for reading and remember, the Holy Roman Empire roots for you.