Thanks to the flourishing influence of blogs and social media, there was significant buzz surrounding the LP, and it became a success on both of the Atlantic, with the band being particularly popular with the hipster demographic. The album was criticized for sounding similar to Paul Simon’s Graceland, although the latter praised the band in an interview with Vanity Fair, stating that he had no problem with the similarities. The album was even ranked as one of the five hundred greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone, cementing the band’s influence and legacy.
Vampire Weekend’s second album Contra was released in 2010 and saw the band expand their diverse influences even further, incorporating elements of ska, rap, rave, and synth pop. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, making the band the 12th act from an independent label to ever do so.
Modern Vampires of the City, the band’s third album, described as “the last of a trilogy” was released in 2013. The record was a step away from the extensive influences of the group’s previous work and was slightly more of a straight indie album. Perhaps this was due to it being the first album produced by an outside producer rather than internally by Batmanglij.
At the start of 2016, Batmanglij took to Twitter to announce he would be leaving the band, however Koenig, confirming that the band were working on their fourth album, stated that his ex-bandmate would still have some involvement with the record. Since Modern Vampires of the City marked the end of the band’s trilogy of albums, their next record will no doubt be the start of a new era for the band. Still, you can be certain it will be just as polished and eclectic as the rest of the band’s impressive discography.
# 10 – Run
Run was released in 2010 as the sixth and final single from Contra, and, in many ways, it is Vampire Weekend’s unique take on Springsteen’s Born To Run. While the latter is an epic and triumphant affair, concerning two teenager’s quest to start a new and exciting life together, this track focuses more on the idea of running away from, and ignoring, your problems.
In contrast to the band’s usual organic, world sound, Run is altogether more digital. The track features some sunny, tropical synth chords and an almost Game Boy-like 8-bit glitch riff. A hi-hat beat plagues the song throughout, cleverly sounding almost like the kind of default drum effect often found on consumer-level keyboards. This digital, almost automated sound ties into the fact that there’s something almost militaristic about the track, with an incessant march of drums and some triumphant trumpet.
This unusual soundscape helps create a joyous and aspirational atmosphere, reminiscent of its Springsteen inspiration, though it is somewhat jarring because of the digital elements. This echoes the way that the song’s lyrics aren’t actually particularly positive, despite the assumptions one might have on first listen. This is typically clever of the band; their genre experimentation has not only allowed them to create a great song but also one which subverts expectations about musical style.
# 9 – Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
This oddity of a track is a great example of Vampire Weekend’s genre bending, and is one of their most world music-inspired tracks to date, blending an African beat with the band’s usual Calypso/surf-like indie guitars.
The kwassa kwassa is a dance, originating from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which became very popular throughout Africa. The band are big fans of African music and utilize it on this track to make a point about class privilege. Famously, the band are quite preppy, after all, they met at an Ivy League university, and – despite the group actually having quite diverse backgrounds – were often mislabeled as WASPs.
The band mix a beat that originated from one of the poorest countries in the world with lyrics about Louis Vuitton and collegiate American life. This harsh contrast not only acts as a sort of ironic acknowledgment that the band are aware of this potentially problematic situation but also allows them to make a point that music is a universal pleasure, which should be without borders. Of course, this is just one of many conflicting interpretations of the song’s intent, but there can be no doubt that the mix of African drums, chilled guitar and Koenig’s nonchalant falsetto is truly remarkable. Kwassa Kwassa is thought to have come from the French “qui ça?” meaning “what is that?”, and you can be sure that many will have asked this exact question upon first hearing this genuinely unique track.
# 8 – Diplomat’s Son
This Contra album track is one of the band’s most interesting productions. Diplomat’s Son is a dancehall inspired number which tells the story of a relationship between two men and features an inspired sample of M.I.A.’s track Hussel. M.I.A. was surely the perfect choice for the band to sample, since, as well as being an XL labelmate at the time, she is undoubtedly the most famous “nu world” musician out there, with Koenig even stating that Contra was inspired by her seminal Kala album.
M.I.A. is not the only musician referenced on the track, though. Indeed, the chorus, as well as being part of the narrative, surely doubles as a reference to The Clash’s Joe Strummer, who famously pretended to be working class despite his posh upbringing. What makes this reference so interesting is how the band’s album title Contra directly combats The Clash album title Sandinista, both being opposing forces in the Nicaraguan revolution. It’s not particularly clear what point the band were trying to make here, but it’s another eccentric Vampire Weekend quirk to add to the collection.
Musically, the song is a joy to listen to, featuring symphonic backing and a danceable bop of a beat. The track features an oddly jarring bridge which sounds like it comes from an entirely different track. This completely halts the song’s momentum, replacing it with a slower tempo, piano-led instrumental, which gives the openly gay Batmanaglij the chance to take lead vocals, the first time he had done so at the time, allowing him to imbue the track with some personal insight.
This varied song allowed the band to further embrace their disparate influences, with the M.I.A. sample and the LGBT narrative enabling it to stand out on an already exceptional album.
# 7 –Oxford Comma
Only a band as wonderfully peculiar as Vampire Weekend could possibly get away with releasing a song about a grammatical phenomenon, so, of course, the ballsy four piece did just that. This second single from their self-titled debut discusses the controversial and much debated Oxford comma, which is often used before “and” in a list in order to resolve any ambiguity. It’s obvious from the lyrics that Koenig not only opposes its use but finds it downright annoying, seeing it as overly pompous and an inconsequential thing to spend one’s time worrying about.
The song features a pretty harsh drumbeat, though this is tempered by its relaxed synth organ chords, which only add to the song’s dreamy atmosphere and surreal ridiculousness. This vibe is echoed by the bouncy surf rock-inspired guitar solo, which gives the song a really sunny feeling. This is usually the type of thing you might expect to find on a light and inconsequential summer track, so seeing it in the context of a discussion about a contentious piece of punctuation is delightfully strange. As if to add insult to injury, Koenig references rapper Lil Jon, implying that he thinks that the views of the artist responsible for records like Get Crunk, Who U Wit: Da Album is more reliable and valid than someone who frets over the Oxford comma.
This perky and idiosyncratic track from the band’s debut made it obvious that Vampire Weekend were not afraid to think outside the box, making it an important part of their canon.
# 6 – Horchata
This merry track was the first single from Contra and was initially offered as a free download. Horchata is a Latin American drink made from various pulses and spices, and it is repeatedly referenced throughout the song, often being paired in a rap-like way with a number of half-rhymed words.
The songs instrumental is one of the band’s most lush productions to date, featuring a foot-tapping world beat and an irresistibly cheerful marimba riff. But that’s not all, these organic instruments are complemented by danceable electronic chords and some subtle, but essential, drum loops. As if that wasn’t enough, the song’s hook introduces some heavenly orchestral strings, which, along with some soaring backing vocals, elevate the song to something almost transcendent.
Lyrically, the song contains some odd allusions to shoes, as well as a silly and humorous narrative which, in less capable hands, would seem to exist only the sake of rhyming, yet here seems to make perfect sense. Reading between the lines, it appears that there lurks a kind of melancholy hidden behind the jolly instrumental and odd lyrics, almost as if the song’s protagonist is suffering internally despite seeming fine on the outside.
Horchata was a great choice to begin the band’s second album campaign; it took what made their debut so good – the funky world influences and obtuse, weird lyrics – and turns it up to 11. You may not understand it (does anyone, really?) but you certainly can’t afford to ignore it.
# 5 – Giving Up the Gun
As you should have noticed by now, Koenig has never been afraid to make grandiose references in his music. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Giving Up the Gun is a reference to Sakoku, a Japanese foreign policy which was in place between 1633 and 1866 wherein the country effectively closed its borders. Koenig uses this as a metaphor for the difference between youth and old age, pontificating on whether or not it’s possible to go back to a simpler time. Some fans believe the metaphor is also intended to be applied to Koenig’s skills as a musician, with the weapons mentioned in the song representing his guitar.
This was the second single from Contra and is actually a rework of Giving Up Da Gun, a track from Koenig’s comedy rap group L’Homme Run. The song begins with some frantic, yet jubilant, high-pitched guitar licks, before an inconspicuous bass line and the drum beat kicks in. The chorus contains a cheerful glockenspiel tune while the bridge is formed of a droning synth chord, perhaps to respectively represent the endless effervescence of youth and the decay of old age.
Giving Up the Gun is a typically classy track from the band, full of interesting ideas and instrumentals. Although it was written in time to be included on their debut album, Vampire Weekend made the right choice by instead making it part of their more electronic sounding sophomore release, where it fits in perfectly.
# 4 – A-Punk
In many ways, this jovial song is perhaps the quintessential Vampire Weekend track. As well as featuring catching and upbeat guitar riffs the song, taken from the band’s debut, has a strange and obtuse narrative which is complimented by an nontraditional instrument (in this case the chamberlin).
The track’s story is typically hard to follow and seems to be about a woman called Johanna and a man known as “His Honor,” with many references to a silver ring. While the song features some delightful rhyming couplets, and Koenig spectacularly slurs his way through the piece, the lyrics are the least notable thing about A-Punk. Instead, what really stands out here is the music.
A jaunty, light-hearted guitar riff repeats throughout the track, almost impossible to resist, but it’s the luscious chamberlin-infused chorus which you’ll really get excited about. Feeling like a syrupy, dream-like intermission, there’s something genuinely euphoric about this bubbly and optimistic atmosphere. You truly won’t want it to end, making it all the more tragic that A-Punk is just 138 seconds long. Even the most cynical indie naysayer would surely struggle to deny the pure talent the band display on this strange and sparkly roller coaster ride of a song.
# 3 – Holiday
This track was the third single from Contra and – like A-Punk – it’s a short but sweet number, clocking in at just over 2 minutes long. The band described the track as “third wave ska-punk, ” and this seems an appropriate label since the song perfectly captures a nostalgic surf-rock West Coast sound. Quite simply, the song feels like summer, featuring a captivating guitar riff and Koenig’s voice at it’s joyful best. At least, this seems to be the case on first listen…
In fact, rather than aiming to soundtrack summertime beach trips, the track has a far darker meaning; it is about the Iraq War. Of course, there have been many songs written about this conflict, but to hide this content beneath a seemingly idyllic surf rock romp is a particularly bold way of discussing the subject.
While much of the war allusions are oblique and open to interpretation, the bridge does feature a direct reference, mentioning a relative of Koenig who found she was so upset about the events that she became unable to properly digest meat. Of course, this being a Vampire Weekend song, this line is followed by a meta-joke about the band’s favorite font. Despite the song’s political subject matter, the track has been used in a lot of advertising campaigns, perhaps because it’s infectious instrumental is so genuinely uplifting.
It certainly was brave for the band to include content like this in their music but there can be no doubt that many prefer to ignore the hidden political elements and just enjoy the charming beach-inspired guitar riffs, so feel no guilt if you decide to do just that.
# 2 – Diane Young
This peppy track was the lead single from the band’s third album and is one of the band’s most upbeat party songs, featuring some great sax elements, rousing drum rolls and a ridiculously infectious hook. The pitch-modulated “Baby” hook is easily one of the band’s most catchy (which is saying something) and, tongue in cheek though it may be, there’s something truly fun about singing along to it. It’s nice to see the band embracing this more approachable and accessible type of fun rather than putting off new listeners with ironic and multi-layered cult references.
The Diane Young of the title doesn’t refer to a specific person but is instead a pun on the phrase “dying young,” something which makes the music video’s Last Supper imagery particularly audacious. The video sees the band accompanied by a balaclava-wearing Jesus-figure (perhaps a reference to Horchata) and surrounded by various other hipster music icons, such as Sky Ferreira and Despot, whilst a raucous party goes on around them.
Throughout their career, the band have made repeated reference to growing older, and Diane Young carries on this trend. Perhaps this predisposition with aging is because the band are all too aware that their status as hipster rock icons means they could very easily be usurped by a younger, more trendy band. Still, as long as they keep making such vibrant and catchy songs such as this, there’s no danger of that happening anytime soon.
# 1 – Step
The fourth single from the band’s third album, Step marked somewhat of a different direction for the band, being much slower than their usual style – almost balladic-esque – with lyrics that are noticeably more frank, lacking the layers of hipster-irony which the band are famous for. It might seem odd to put a song so different to the band’s usual sound at the top of this list, but Step is just that good.
The track samples the 90’s rap song Step to My Girl by Souls of Mischief, and the band paid tribute to its origins with a superlative remix featuring Danny Brown, Despot and Heems. Step begins with an inspired Baroque harpsichord intro, which beautifully sets the scene for this downtempo and thoughtful track, full of light piano chords, a passive bass line and some rather dry drums. This thoughtfulness is also present in the song’s lyrics, which – on the chorus in particular – discuss Koenig’s move into adulthood. Clearly, he feels he is no longer the youthful, buzzed about young man he was when the band began, and this an appropriate topic for a song which seems to suggest a move towards a more mature sound.
The song ends on a pitch-shifted version of the song’s hook. One might expect this to be the end of a bridge before the song changes key for a more hopeful finale, but the band swerve this predictability and end the track on this somewhat somber note. Step was released in 2013 and remains the band’s most recent single, making the song a gorgeous but bittersweet cliffhanger which they’ll have to try hard to top.
Since their debut in 2008, the band have forged an impressive and varied discography, becoming the poster boys for New York indie. Although they are divisive, to say the least, the experimentation and genre exploration the band have done throughout their career has allowed them to stand out as a genuinely bold and daring band, always willing to try something different and certainly never afraid to be who they want to be. Indie fans across the world should be forever grateful for the weird pop/world/rock-inspired excellence that Vampire Weekend have so consistently delivered.