Will Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest project is an anomaly in modern rock music, and a much-needed one at that; with one eye on the past, and the other on the present, the Bandcamp-bred singer-songwriter has offered listeners an overwhelming plethora of ambitious, consistent, and downright moving albums since the group’s inception at the beginning of the decade.
It has been thoroughly exciting to see Car Seat Headrest grow, not just in members, but from cult Internet darlings to one of the larger festival-crowd gatherings in recent years – and as they plough on through a tour supporting a remake of Twin Fantasy, arguably their best record, we thought it only right to celebrate Toledo’s discography with a classic top 10 songs list! Remember though: we are just teens of style, so don’t take this too seriously.
10. Cute Thing (Face to Face)
It’s important to differentiate between the two existing versions of Twin Fantasy (Toledo’s aforementioned magnum opus), because whilst the similarities may be obvious, the divergences are even more vast. Take “Cute Thing” as an example: what was once a scuzzy, yelp-y, Who-referencing anthem for young, messy love is now cleaned up, dressed in its best leather jacket and taken out on the town for a banger more akin to Cheap Trick than Teen Suicide. The structure is overhauled, the dynamics are tweaked, and the harmonies are layered in such a way that would bring a tear of beauty to Brian Wilson’s eye, whilst still retaining the wild spirit of the original in a balance that is easier in theory than it is on wax. And plus those James Brown and Frank Ocean shoutouts never get any less awesome.
9. Misheard Lyrics (feat. Nora Knight)
And here’s the curveball. “Indie rock bedroom producer abandons guitars for electronic instrumentation” could be the most overused headline in digital media from the past decade, but here on Monomania‘s “Misheard Lyrics,” Toledo shows off his mastery of the laptop in a track that combines crisp handclaps with dreamy piano and a bouncy bassline in a duet with Nora Knight, who adds extra depth to the witty lyrics about a crumbling relationship coming slowly undone due to the writer’s own words being misinterpreted. A seriously underrated cut on from an overlooked Headrest record.
8. I Want You To Know I’m Awake (I Hope That You’re Asleep)
Whilst Car Seat Headrest are appreciated for their unique style of dry, confessional humour, there is an underlying mark of depression that they are commonly associated with. And it doesn’t get any darker than this How To Leave Town track, which is approximately seven minutes of a person beating themselves up synthesised into chords, melody, rhythm and harmony. The chugging acoustic guitars and driving rhythm section contrast nicely with the mumbled lyrics, as Toledo murmurs about being “a stupid, ugly, stuttering asshole,” whose lover “said it was a mistake to every try and help.” Resentment never sounded so bittersweet, especially when the song’s narrator starts to convince not only the listener but himself that he and his partner are nothing like John and Yoko, Sinatra and Gardner, or even their own parents.
Two notes. That’s all the first two minutes of “Vincent” are based on, trilling seemingly endlessly as ambient noise twirls around them. Piece by piece everything enters until a raggedy, distorted guitar threatens to rip the whole thing in two–saved only by a funky backbeat the likes of which Toledo has never experimented with before. Surprisingly groovy, darkly comic and typically epic, this highlight from Teens of Denial proves that even with a wider cast of collaborators, Car Seat Headrest could remain an engaging and interesting project well throughout the decade. The inclusion of brass only adds to the journey of the song, leaving you thoroughly breathless as the final vocal rings out in its own defiance in the face of teen angst.
6. Famous Prophets (Mirror to Mirror)
The only real misstep of this year’s Twin Fantasy remake (subtitled “Face to Face”) was the group’s handling of the truly monstrous “Famous Prophets,” but at least it served to highlight the staggering ambition of the 2011 original. Essentially in two parts, the penultimate song on “Mirror to Mirror” acts as the final chapter to the title track’s epilogue, and boy does it ramp up the pressure. A constant game of cat-and-mouse between tension-and-release, the lyrics find Toledo musing on his favourite topic: a romance on its last legs and the anxiety and sadness that come with it. Only this time it’s even more personal than usual. “Apologies to future mes and yous, but I can’t help feeling like we’re through” he drawls over a numb, descending bassline, before things get biblical, with crashing drums, thrashing guitars and Hebrew screams. It is often argued that Car Seat Headrest’s work is hampered by the lo-fi nature of its production, yet with this track, it only emphasises the intimacy of the performances – so that when Toledo finally yells in a cracked pain, “Why did you tell me?” over and over again, you feel like you’ve been granted an exclusive insight into catharsis in real time. Utterly stunning.
5. Destroyed By Hippie Powers
No song in the Car Seat Headrest catalogue rocks harder with a supplementary “W” than this hilarious and touching Pixies-influenced number about the dangers of taking too many hallucinatory drugs at a party to impress your peers and then having to walk the effects off on your way back home. Whilst the power chords will hit you in the face first, it’s the details that keep you coming back for more: the subtle clock of a cowbell, the lyrical nods to teenage clique culture, the shoebox vocals that shred Toledo’s vocal cords before the big crescendo – it all just adds to such a visceral listening experience, almost as sweeping as the trip that the song’s author found himself on. All together now: “Tell my mother I am going home…”
4. Something Soon
If “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” is the band’s best rock song, “Something Soon” is by far their best pop song. Toledo recognises the extraordinary lengths of some of his tracks, often preferring a formidable collection of minutes to a lean cut, stating that it gives him room to breathe and build up the music, yet something must be said for his ability to fit such a complex set of feelings into four minutes of near-perfection so irresistible that Smash Mouth (yes, that Smash Mouth) even covered it. Opening on a twinkling Rhodes piano and pulsating hi-hats, every melody that comes from Toledo’s mouth is devised to the nth degree to be ironically screamed back at him by adoring fans across the globe, especially when the song roars into life at the chorus: “Heavy boots on my throat, I need/ I need something soon/ […] I can’t talk to my folks, I need something soon.” When another trademark Headrest crescendo bursts open a kaleidoscope of sound, you can’t help but think the thing you need is more songs like this.
3. The Ending of Dramamine
Here is where it gets difficult. Depending on what day of the week it is, any of the top three tracks here could have been number one – they all, in their own way, represent what is best about Car Seat Headrest: the ambitious song structures, the tightrope-balancing-act of humour and sentiment in their lyrics, the arresting ear for melody, the willingness to experiment and prescribe patience to their listeners. But someone has to win bronze, and it’s up to How To Leave Town highlight “The Ending of Dramamine” to take that place. Clocking in at nearly fifteen minutes, with a particularly trying five minute intro, this song is not for the feint of heart. It patiently unfurls through its run time, the tick-tock of that ever present drumbeat backing a lonely drive through America in the night, its dark organs, reverberating synthesisers, and metronomic bass keeping that anxious groove locked in. As more elements keep piling into the mix, the claustrophobia creeps in until the listener is left in solitude, with nothing but echoing guitar feedback for company. Never fails to be breathtaking in its gloominess.
2. Bodys (Face to Face)
Everyone likes “Bodys.” It’s the Car Seat Headrest song to the bleachers, a ’90s indie rock song indebted to The Beach Boys and realised for the modern age with a four-to-the-floor beat stretched out to over six minutes– a tune so heartfelt and witty that it is irresistible in every sense of the word. The newer version of it only highlights the impact that those hooks(!), those guitars(!), that drumbeat(!) can have on a human, as it bounds its way carefree and sexy to the finish line with the kind of exuberance that only the young, thin, and alive can muster. It’s the sound of a really good day, it’s the sound of telling your crush that you love them, it’s the sound of acing an exam, it’s the sound of getting a promotion at work, it’s the sound of the best night of your life with your best friends. It’s really, really good – and that’s saying something considering its competition. Everyone likes Bodys. I really like Bodys.
1. Beach Life-In-Death (Face to Face)
I’ve been staring at this Word document for nearly twenty minutes trying to come up with a good enough reason as to why “Beach Life-In-Death” is the best Car Seat Headrest song, and I simply can’t. It’s not for lack of quality on the track’s part; otherwise, it wouldn’t even be in contention with the rest of these fabulous numbers. But it’s a fault on my part: it was the first song I ever heard from Toledo’s magical brain, and it’s the first song I think of when I wonder what sums up the group best. It’s sort of like trying to describe why a certain parent is your favourite – I could list all these attributes as to why I admire it, but at the end of the day they’re not the exact reason why I love it so much. It’s long, fast, loud, dynamic, funny, sad, heart-on-its-sleeve proud, huddled-up-in-bed anxious, and, above all else, defiantly human.
The “Face to Face” version, in particular, offers a refreshingly adult perspective on the awkward, messy side to late teens and early 20s romance, where you’re old enough to know better but too young to truly commit. It’s a maturity that the “Mirror to Mirror” edition lacks, indulging itself in a slice of self-pity that hasn’t aged as well. And the final scream that glitches and overwhelms the entire recording is pure bliss, a sweet release from all the pent-up angst derived from the confusion of not understanding people who are never meant to be understood in the first place. They’re living beings, and trying to figure them out like a puzzle is weird, but you can’t help it. Enough of my pretentious ramblings – go listen to it, experience it, come back, and then we’ll talk about all those dog metaphors, eh? – josh adams (@jxshadams)