Greatest Hits: The best St. Vincent songs

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best st. vincent songs

St. Vincent’s never operated on a small scale. Back in 2007, when she made her debut with Marry Me (named for Maeby Funke’s catchphrase on Arrested Development), Annie Clark created an elaborate sonic world built on a diverse array of influences and elaborate arrangements. And, of course, her virtuosic guitar playing. She’s one of the best guitar players in rock music today, which is impressive enough on its own, though she’s also a lot more than that: An outstanding songwriter, conceptual visionary and, like her influences in Bowie and Prince, constantly evolving.

At the beginning of the year, Sleater-Kinney shared a picture on social media announcing their new album, along with the next phase of St. Vincent’s career: Producer. Couple that with the 10th anniversary of her 2009 album Actor and the time seemed perfect to take an overview of her career and highlight her best songs. With six albums and various other singles, she has more than enough material for a best-of collection right now, though that list will only grow longer. For now, here’s a list of the 19 best St. Vincent songs (chosen by my own personal preference rather than an arbitrary number system or consensus tally), arranged in playlist form. This would also make a great live set—just throwing that out there.

best St. Vincent songs Marry Me“Now, Now”
from Marry Me (2007; 4AD)

Released within a year of a similarly strong debut from the UK’s Bat for Lashes, St. Vincent’s debut album suggested in part that a young generation of songwriters with a heavy Kate Bush influence had arrived. That proved short-lived, both because most of St. Vincent’s songs sound nothing like Kate Bush and because Bush’s influence began to become more apparent in unlikely places (see: Big Boi, Das Racist). But “Now, Now” is as grand and glorious a statement as Bush in her prime, its ethereal atmosphere, big drums and haunting backing vocals like something out of Hounds of Love. Listen a little closer, however, and it’s Annie Clark’s fretwork that underscores this grand art-pop production. So maybe more like Kate Bush with an assist from Sonic Youth.

best St. Vincent songs Actor“Marrow”
from Actor (2009; 4AD)
Actor is a weird record. It’s at once noisy, fantastical, whimsical and grim. “Marrow” leans more toward the dirty and menacing side of things, with Clark showing the slightest bit of restraint before the song erupts into a nasty noise-funk groove beneath her refrain, “H-E-L-P, help me, help me.” Saxophone and guitar are intertwined in a distorted mess of sound that it’s hard to tell the two apart. There’s something kind of genius in how disorienting all of this is.

best St. Vincent songs self-titled“Birth in Reverse”
from St. Vincent (2014; Loma Vista)

Annie Clark’s willingness to play with fucked-up sounds, dark concepts and odd arrangements could lead one to believe that she doesn’t write perfect pop songs. But even under all those layers, she still pulls it off time and time again. “Birth in Reverse,” the first single released from her self-titled fourth album, begins with a portrait of mundanity: “Oh what an ordinary day/Take out the garbage, masturbate.” But surrounding her portrait of suburban malaise is a noisy, punk-pop approach that punctuates every measure with an exclamation point. The music is fun, even when the central message is one of ennui.

best st vincent songs strange mercy“Cruel”
from Strange Mercy (2011; 4AD)

The video for Strange Mercy‘s first single “Cruel” is a short horror movie of sorts, with Clark playing the part of a wife and mother subjected to some horrific punishments depicted in as banal a manner as possible. It’s an extension of the central theme of the song, the expectations, commodification, objectification of and projections placed on women in society and the, well, cruel nature of it (“They could take or leave you/So they took you and they left you“). Naturally, Clark finds the most upbeat, buoyant melody possible to deliver such a social critique. It’s such a fun, playful song—but there’s so much more to it than that.

best st vincent songs strange mercy“Cheerleader”
from Strange Mercy (2011; 4AD)

“Cheerleader” arrives immediately after “Cruel” on Strange Mercy, and in many ways it’s the yin to that song’s yang. It has a darker, druggier sound to it, punctuated by a heavy, thunderous chorus. And where “Cruel” is a social critique in the form of a second-person address, “Cheerleader” is a first person shrugging off of similar outside pressures and expectations. “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more” goes its central refrain, which could be interpreted any number of ways. But the badass persona she adopts as she sheds another is one that suits her well.

St. Vincent - self titled review“Digital Witness”
from St. Vincent (2014; Loma Vista)

Surveillance, technology and a general slide into dystopia has been a recurring theme of St. Vincent’s music for a while, and was a pretty major thematic element on 2017’s MASSEDUCTION. Clark perfectly captured the malaise of the present moment on 2014’s “Digital Witness,” however, bolstering a funky strut with a horn section and a rhetorical question aimed toward the Instagram generation: “If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/What’s the point of doing anything?

St. Vincent - self titled review“Prince Johnny”
from St. Vincent (2014; Loma Vista)

The characters in St. Vincent’s songs are almost always harboring a darkness that isn’t seen so obviously from the outside, whether it’s the crippling loneliness and failure of the protagonist of “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” or the incarcerated narrator of “Strange Mercy.” The fictional subject of Clark’s gorgeous ballad “Prince Johnny” is similarly afflicted in a way that’s kept from others: “Prince Johnny, you’re kind but you’re not simple/By now, I think I know the difference/You wanna be a son of someone.” The character is treated with an endearing affection, even when the ache and excess threatens to topple his invisible empire. It’s one of her prettiest songs, as well as one of her most affecting.

best St. Vincent songs Marry Me“Paris Is Burning”
from Marry Me (2007; 4AD)

Annie Clark’s albums have evolved over time into bigger and bigger spectacles—as well as her tours for that matter. So listening back to her debut Marry Me, one might get the mistaken impression that it’s a more straightforward indie rock album. It isn’t. In fact, St. Vincent has never done anything straightforward in her career, though there are fewer shades of neon. But “Paris Is Burning” is one of the only songs of its kind in her catalog, a song inspired by the tragic handling of Hurricane Katrina through the historic gaze of war, complete with ominous Shakespearean imagery (“Come sit right here and sleep, while I slip poison in your ear”) and an explosive coda in the form of a burlesque klezmer waltz. This song is wild. Unfortunately, Clark hasn’t played it live in close to a decade, which means its likelihood of making a return is low, but it’s understandable—something this ambitious isn’t easy to pull off night after night.

best St. Vincent songs Actor“Laughing With a Mouth of Blood”
from Actor (2009; 4AD)

Actor stands out in Annie Clark’s discography as being one of the darkest albums she’s written, but presented in a way that it’s clouded by prettier, more delicate sounds (and then undercut by some pretty nasty ones). “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” isn’t the gentlest song on the album, nor the most abrasive, but the title—a reference to a comedic term referencing taking an insulting joke—is a perfect example of the interesting juxtaposition on the album. It’s about a person in a desperate situation who takes great strides to gloss over that desperation to outsiders. “All my old friends aren’t so friendly,” Clark sings during the transcendent chorus. “All my old haunts are now haunting me.”

St. Vincent - self titled review“Every Tear Disappears”
from St. Vincent (2014; Loma Vista)

A deep cut from her expansive 2014 self-titled album, “Every Tear Disappears” tends to get overlooked in the shadow of big-statement songs like “Prince Johnny,” “Birth in Reverse” or “Digital Witness,” but it’s every bit as strong as those. (It’s my personal favorite.) Yes, it carries similar themes of disconnection in an increasingly digital age, but really what makes it great is how much it grooves—which is to say, a lot.

essential indie rock guitar solos St. Vincent“Strange Mercy”
from Strange Mercy (2011; 4AD)

Annie Clark has said that her 2011 album, and in particular the title track, was largely written in response to her father going to prison for financial fraud. That personal trauma casts a heavy shadow over “Strange Mercy,” one of her prettiest and most heartbreaking songs. The perspective continuously changes throughout the song, from one member of the family (“Oh little one, I know I ain’t been around for a little while/But when you see me, wave“) to another (“our father in exile/For God only knows how many years“). The song is among her most personal and unguarded, a glimpse at Annie Clark rather than the increasingly more abstract St. Vincent persona she’s built up.

St. Vincent new album MASSEDUCTION“Hang On Me”
from MASSEDUCTION (2017; Loma Vista)

St. Vincent’s 2017 MASSEDUCTION was a good album, though held against previous years, a bigger statement in sound rather than the songwriting itself. That had a lot to do with concept taking precedence a little too often over the kinds of songwriting that made albums such as Strange Mercy and Actor so revelatory. But its highs still soared, like leadoff track “Hang on Me,” a more introspective and vulnerable track that finds Clark pleading, “please don’t hang up yet” against a restrained arrangement that recalls Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” It’s gorgeous.

essential indie rock guitar solos St. Vincent“Surgeon”
from Strange Mercy (2011; 4AD)

Annie Clark has occasionally expressed just how influential David Bowie was on her work, and there were a few moments on last year’s MASSEDUCTION that seemed to suggest his loss was a heavy one for her. Though it’s easy to hear shades of Prince in her music as well. Take “Surgeon,” maybe the best song she’s ever written, and one that juxtaposes a druggy sexuality, curiously suggestive turns of phrase (“best finest surgeon, come cut me open“—apparently an actual line from one of Marilyn Monroe’s journals) and a coda that not only sounds like something Prince could have written, but with the eye-popping guitar heroism to boot. See Clark play this song live and it’s hard not to come away convinced she’s one of the greatest guitar players of our time.

St. Vincent - self titled review“Huey Newton”
from St. Vincent (2014; Loma Vista)

Inspired apparently by a sedative-fueled dream Annie Clark had about Black Panther Huey Netwon, itself a strange vision not unlike Elvis Presley seeing Stalin in the clouds, “Huey Netwon” is an extension of St. Vincent’s ongoing anxieties about a slow creep into a mediocre dystopia. It’s a stream-of-consciousness address of “cardboard cutthroats” and “cowboys of information,” set to an arrangement more hip-hop than art-pop. By the song’s coda, however, Clark steps on the overdrive and lets the riffs fly. The payoff is well worth waiting for.

best st. vincent songs fast slow disco“Fast Slow Disco”
(2018; Loma Vista)

One of the most interesting things about Clark’s most recent album MASSEDUCTION was that none of the songs were settled, finished pieces, as it turned out. A year later she released a companion album called Masseducation in which Clark stripped away all the electronics and pop production in favor of something more intimate and stark. But yet another version of the more restrained ballad “Slow Disco” was released separately as its own single, titled “Fast Slow Disco,” taking the original and transforming it into an ecstatic disco jam. Though certain songs on the album its counterpart came from suggested that Clark might have gone overboard, the hedonistic maximalism here works beautifully.

best St. Vincent songs Marry Me“Human Racing”
from Marry Me (2007; 4AD)

The first time I saw St. Vincent live was at a matinee show, possibly the result of a double-booked venue, on tour behind her 2009 album Actor. Though choosing a highlight of the set proves challenging, for while all the bigger full-band songs kicked ass, it was her solo performance of Marry Me’s “Human Racing” that ultimately proved to be the biggest stunner, if only because Clark’s finger-picking gave an up-close and unobstructed view of just how incredible a guitar player she is. On record the song grows in arrangement, eventually escalating into a subtle pulse. But all it really needs is Clark’s nimble fingers and vocal abilities.

best St. Vincent songs Actor“Actor Out of Work”
from Actor (2009; 4AD)

A good indicator of a songwriter’s strengths is not always how elaborate they can make a song, but rather how they do with something much simpler. “Actor Out of Work,” the quasi-title track from 2009’s Actor, does a lot with just two chords. And in just over two minutes overall. Perhaps Annie Clark’s most punk track (other than the one directly below this), “Actor Out of Work” is a manic love song to someone that’s pretty much no good (“You’re a supplement, you’re a salve, you’re a band-aid, pull it off/I can quit you, cut it out…”), but the heart wants what it wants. Kind of. Maybe? That internal and external conflict drives the song just as much as the buzzing power chords and riffs that could be guitar or saxophone or something else entirely, but there’s so much distortion piled on over everything who even knows. Does it matter? Nah. Turn it up.

best St. Vincent songs Krokodil“Krokodil”
(2012; 4AD)

It’s rare that a Record Store Day exclusive yields one of an artist’s best songs. But here we are. Issued in 2012 following the previous year’s Strange Mercy, “Krokodil” (probably not about the drug that burns holes in people’s skin) is a noisy punk track that finds St. Vincent with all pistons firing, her guitar on hyperdrive and her vocals tense and manic. Clark always suggested she had this kind of song in her, but this was the first one that actually lived up to the promise of its potential for destruction.

best St. Vincent songs Marry Me“Your Lips Are Red”
from Marry Me (2007; 4AD)
One of the handful of Marry Me tracks that Clark kept in live setlists pretty consistently for years, “Your Lips Are Red” is ominous and intense, nasty and lascivious. Clark was apparently inspired by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds while writing this song (though in hindsight it probably most closely resembles Grinderman’s “No Pussy Blues”), which only grows gnarlier over time, thanks to Clark’s raucous guitar riffs. It reaches a breaking point at the end, however, as Clark repeats the phrase “Your skin’s so fair it’s not fair,” which is apparently her favorite line on what she says is her favorite song on the album. And yeah, it’s all pretty spectacular.

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