By Josh Adams (@jxshadams)
When James Murphy co-founded DFA Records, he unwittingly put himself in the eye of the storm of a new dawn for indie rock in the inarguable epicentre for cool: New York City. After toiling in obscurity for decades, he was rubbing shoulders with fellow Gotham residents and breakthrough acts such as The Strokes, Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs but his simultaneously stunningly unique and boldly derivative modus operandi was far more fascinating than anything else his contemporaries had to offer, despite his advanced age. His creativity manifested itself in several ways: in the aforementioned record label, in his wildly eclectic DJ sets, in his dancefloor-ready remixes and, of course, in LCD Soundsystem. What first started off as an outlet for anxiety has since grown into one of the most formidable musical projects of the twenty first century. Murphy, thanks to his own handiwork, now stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Radiohead and Arcade Fire in the leagues of rock bands who can headline festivals whilst not sacrificing their daring artistry.
In case you can’t tell by now, LCD Soundsystem are my favourite group of all time; this, coupled with the above, has meant that devising a list for their top songs has been no small feat – even more so when you take into account the fact that, well, Murphy hasn’t put out a bad album yet. This year’s brilliant American Dream – released several years after their supposed last ever concert – is another jewel in the adorned crown, and only made a prized spot on the list frustratingly more contentious. Somehow, I managed to whittle down LCD Soundsystem’s discography to ten songs that I believe not only show the depth of the project’s ambition and innovation, but also are just simply their best. You wanted a hit? Here’s a handful.
10. Oh Baby
The first song of their comeback record is arguably the prettiest song Murphy has ever concocted in his mad scientist’s laboratory of vintage recording equipment. He takes a step back from his trademark yelp to croon seductively – well, as seductive as a bearlike hipster who’s pushing fifty can be – over an instrumental that cannibalises the best bits of Dream Baby Dream by Suicide and Rise by Public Image Limited. Synthesisers twinkle, snares reverberate and basses rumble ribcages in which hearts are made tender by lyrics such as “Please wake me, for my love lies patiently” and “You’re having a bad dream, here in my arms“. This is Murphy, meditative more than ever.
And now for something completely different. For all of music journalism’s categorisation of LCD Soundsystem as a “rock band” – something myself I fall into the habit of doing – the project rarely ever flexes it muscles in stereotypically “rock” fashion; they usually take notes from the likes of David Bowie, Can and The Velvet Underground instead of, say, The Sex Pistols or Nirvana. Movement is the lone exception to this ideology – and it does so in hilarious fashion. Everything about the song screams punk – no, scratch that, everything about this song just screams, with its crashing cymbals, distorted guitars and buzzing keyboards. And in the middle of it is Murphy, lambasting the narcissistic state of modern rock: “It’s like a movement without the bother of another meaning, it’s like a discipline without the discipline of all of the discipline.” The early LCD singles proved Murphy was just as effective at writing hysterically acidic lines as he was at making you move over the course of several minutes or more. Movement, in just over one hundred and eighty seconds, showed he was a master at condensing that volatility too.
In a career full of dauntingly long songs, 45:33 doesn’t take the cake; it ransacks the whole fucking bakery. Originally commissioned by Nike as a piece for running (including warm ups and a cool down section), Murphy took the chance to make an incredibly long, continuous piece of music inspired by E2-E4 by Manuel Göttsching, and ended up with a six part disco masterpiece that’s probably going to be the only song he’ll write for a digital format over an analogue one, due to the spacing limitations of vinyl. The extent of the track’s ambition becomes even more breathtaking when you consider that Murphy writes all and plays the vast majority of instruments on all his own work – it is this that proves his dedication to his artistry. The song itself starts off with cascading layers of synthesisers trailing off into the nether before a steady, melancholy groove kicks in – one that was enhanced in the band’s initial last shows by a raging, rapping Reggie Watts. The real surprise is the use of an instrumental, demo version of fan favourite Someone Great from their masterpiece Sound of Silver; however, the tranquility is shattered by some of the grooviest beats in LCD’s discography, with crazed brass, slippery bass guitar and the always-present arbitrary percussion complimenting the unrelenting energy. The final part takes the form of an ambient epilogue, clearly influenced by Brian Eno, with cosmic vocal harmonies calming everyone down and sending them off into the night after the madness of the previous three quarters of an hour. Indulgent? Potentially. Brilliant? Absolutely.
7. How Do You Sleep?
The death of David Bowie rocked every music fan’s world in some way or another and for Murphy – himself a collaborator and close friend with The Thin White Duke in his final years – it seemed to send him back to the music of his childhood, where he once idolised Bowie. The legend’s influence is all over American Dream – but so are the post-punk and new wave favourites of the 1970s and 1980s that have to come define a certain strain of indie rock that a young Murphy also came to fetishise. Specifically, of course, the likes of Joy Division and The Cure, the haunting and sometimes downright terrifying atmospherics of which have been a direct influence of the mid-LP highlight How Do You Sleep?. Named after the barbed John Lennon song, which took aim at fellow ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, Murphy’s take on crumbling friendships set its sights firmly on DFA Records co-founder Tim Goldsworthy, who allegedly stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the label before escaping to England. LCD Soundystem have never sounded this intimidating – Murphy wails in the distance, barely making himself heard over the sea of pounding drums and bubbling synthesisers. Dissonant strings ramp up the tension until it kicks off into a stunning dance section, complete with cowbell. Leisurely taking up nine minutes, the song refuses to let go of you until the final few seconds, constantly ascending to higher plains with increasingly eclectic instrumentation joining the fray as Murphy bastardises the lyrics to the song that originally brought him and Goldsworthy together – Gang of Four’s At Home He’s A Tourist, for the curious – to create a chorus: “One step forward, and six steps back.” Almost certainly a shoo-in for the most danceable ‘fuck you’ of the twenty-first century.
6. Yeah (Crass Version)
If you ever had to play one LCD Soundsystem song on a night out, Yeah would absolutely have to be your only choice. There’s two versions of the track that at different points in the night would equally be at home in any club; the ‘Pretentious’ version is an early-night, chill out jam that finds its groove and sticks with it, remaining so for as long as it can. The far superior ‘Crass’ version almost acts as a sort of history of dance music, from its funk based origins to a heart-pounding, jaw-swinging, ear-drum bursting techno finale that itself last six glorious minutes. It’s the highlight of every LCD Soundsystem show, with an amazing light show to back the transformation of any venue they’re playing in into an Ibizan ecstasy haven, with the track being extended even longer live, courtesy of a few timbale and cowbell solos from Murphy. Considering the sheer power of the instrumental behind the man himself, the lyrics he’s spouting over the course of it are almost questionable. I mean, the word “yeah” is repeated incessantly hundreds of times (I lost count around the four hundredth and eighth “yeah”) for Christ’s sake. But what Movement is to rock, Yeah is to dance music – Murphy’s always-sarcastic tongue is chiselling away at the repetitive nature of contemporary electronica, which what he sees is a desperate attempt at remaining relevant in the face of the changing trends of pop music. But to be honest, nobody’s really thinking of that when everything drops out save for a sole, echoing cowbell and a four-to-the-floor beat that propels the listener into the most exhilarating, physical moment of LCD Soundsystem’s career.
LCD Soundsystem are often a band of unique parallels – rock music and dance music, originality and good-natured thievery and, with the advent of Sound of Silver, biting wit and searing emotional honesty. The group’s third effort took the third of these to new lyrical heights, especially on cuts such as All I Want and I Can Change, but nowhere else is it more evident than on album closer Home. Themes of home and being in a band are Murphy’s bread and butter, but here he confronts them head on, with a musical backing that winks at the detractors who claim he is nothing but a pop music pilferer by referencing himself: the percussion from Yr City’s A Sucker, the bassline from Losing My Edge, and the chord progression and vocal harmonies from Dance Yrself Clean all feature to form a majestic, tear-inducing whole. It’s remained a staple of their live sets since its release in 2010 and for good reason: whilst its lyrical content could make even the most steely-nerved and hardy of people well up with existential sorrow (“If you’re afraid of what you need, look around you, you’re surrounded, it won’t get any better“), its beat is stubbornly bouncy and its synthesisers remain bubbly throughout, making it perfect for entry into the pantheon of LCD’s unmissable live tracks. As the song coasts out on a lone guitar riff into a final cymbal crash, you can’t help but feel that if Murphy called it quits there, they would have ended on one hell of a bang.
4. Dance Yrself Clean
That drop. THAT DROP. There’s a reason that, despite its near nine minute long run time, Dance Yrself Clean is almost everybody’s first taste of the world that is LCD Soundsystem, and it arrives at roughly three minutes and six seconds in. It is one of the most euphoric musical experiences ever put to wax, the stark minimalism of its components only serving to enhance the joyous nature of its outstanding whole. There’s two keyboard lines – one distant and whistling, the other deafening and all-consuming – a stereotypical LCD drum pattern, and arguably Murphy’s greatest vocal performance to date, yet it still manages to completely overwhelm you and make you do exactly as the title demands. However, that’s not to discount what comes before it. In order to reach the lofty heights it eventually peaks at, the previous three minutes do a damn fine job of setting the scene and subverting expectations, with its whispered lyrics and ominous synth chords. Several Murphys sing in harmony numerous times, often setting up something that you eventually think will never come, until it tears your face off and blows your speakers up (the latter of which is apparently intentional, if its creator is to be believed). The song shifts back and forth between these extreme dynamics regularly, keeping the listener on their toes, whilst Murphy pulls some of his best lyrics out of the bag: “Talking like a jerk, except you are an actual jerk, and living proof that sometimes friends are mean“, “Break me into bigger pieces, so some of me is home with you, or wait until the weekend, so we can make all of our dreams come true”, “Every night’s a different story, it’s a thirty car pile up with you, everybody’s getting younger, it’s the end of an era, it’s true“… the list goes on and on, until Murphy eventually loses his voice and is forced back into a meek mutter, sleigh bells closing us out. If you aren’t left breathless, then you haven’t danced hard enough.
3. New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down
For all the stunning attributes and adjectives that you can list about LCD Soundsystem, “gorgeous” would not be one that instantly comes to mind. Sure, as they mature, their more tender side blossoms, but the original idea listeners have of Murphy and co. is one of danceable beats, clever lyrics and an obsessive attention to production detail. New York, I Love You… flips that preconceived notion on its head, to a startlingly successful degree. The Sound of Silver closer lyrically takes the form of a surprisingly direct ode to the titular city, criticising the thing it has become but still loving it for it was, as it musically goes through several transformations: from ambient ballad, to singer-songwriter waltz, and finally a blazing rock outro. There are still strands of Murphy’s heroes embedded in the track – Eno and Reed, in particular – but it’s on New York, I Love You… that it’s confirmed to us that Sound of Silver represents a man stopping making music about music, and starting to make music simply to express himself. It’s one of the most emotional songs in the LCD canon, and its rumination on home and nostalgia can strike a chord with almost everyone – just ask the eighteen thousand odd people who witnessed the song as the last number at the group’s then-last gig at Madison Square Garden back in 2011. Despite their reunion, its power to bring tears and triumph to any venue in equal measure remains.
2. Losing My Edge
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where it all started. Who knew that a plodding drum machine, an infectious bassline, a steady beat and some snarky vocals would kickstart a career as unequivocally consistent as Murphy’s? Released at the right time of the early Internet era, Losing My Edge heralded the coming – or a revival, depending on who you asked – of a sound that previously looked to trip up over its own hype. It’s easy to forget now, but its combination of post-punk sneer and turnarounds with bouncing electronics was a revolution to a generation of hipsters, and by an extent a wider mass audience, who weren’t alive to bear witness to the critical musical events that Murphy describes in the song. At numerous points in your life, you could potentially find the inception for this track horrifically relatable: ageing music nerd finds that the bands he once championed being adopted by a younger, seemingly cooler generation; anxiety, but also inner conflict, ensues. How can you be protective of records that aren’t actually yours? Murphy attempts to justify this conflicted stance by using a rather extensive list of moments and bands in twentieth century culture – from Can to The Sonics, with Suicide, Daft Punk, Joy Division and, of course, Gil Scott-Heron in between – as a suit of armour to protect himself against the youth revolt of hipsterdom that he once ruled over. Themes of age, of music, of cool, of us-versus-them that appear time and time again in Murphy’s music all come from this one place, this one song, married to arguably his most successful musical marriage of pure dance sonics and rock aesthetics. I use no hyperbole when I state that this is my favourite song of all time and that it, in fact. took residency on the number one spot of this list, until…
1. All My Friends
What else was it going to be? LCD Soundsystem are one of those rare breeds that have a subjectively “best” track, one that is unanimously adored by the masses. It’s the closest song they have to one of those confounded hits that keep eluding them and it works pretty much anywhere: on your headphones, at a party, or in a field full of tens of thousands of people, it can be guaranteed you’ll be moved, physically and/or emotionally, in some capacity. But what makes it so special? Its iconic, steady piano riff, its motorik beat, its bassline cribbed from the best of New Order – so far, it sounds pretty archetypal for LCD Soundsystem. Yet it seems to be Murphy’s most carefully constructed song, so much so that by the time it reaches its glorious, heart-pounding peak from its humble beginnings the listener find themselves suddenly blindsided by euphoria – its transcendent finale really does feel like it comes out of nowhere, sort of like that old age Murphy keeps going on about. The lyrics and melody straddle that potentially fatal line between mawkish and contemplative, those now stereotypical LCD themes filtered through the lens of friendship, in all its splintered, ephemeral forms. Like the best of the groups’ songs, there’s a melancholy air to proceedings, only made definitively clear by the final yells of Murphy: “Where are you friends tonight? If I could see all my friends tonight…” Simply typing those lines gave me chills; witnessing them live brought me to unanticipated tears. If you haven’t heard it yet, do yourself a favour and stick it on. You won’t regret it. All together now: “That’s how it starts…“