Sometime in late 2004 or early 2005, a girl whom I barely knew (Annabelle Feeney anyone?) made a mix for me that included a song called “Who Could Win a Rabbit” from a band called Animal Collective. There have been few times in my life when I’ve been as startled, baffled, intrigued, and delighted by a song as I was upon listening to this collage of idiosyncratically rhythmic acoustic guitars, punctuated by driving tribal percussion and entwined with whimsical vocals and found audio samples. I knew straightaway that I had discovered one of the greatest and most indelible indie bands of the 21st century.
Of the 8 Animal Collective albums that I have, at least 3 of them would rank on my top 100 albums of all time. Though the band has moved into a more electronic mode on their last few albums, their experimental songcraft, eclectic instrumentation, earnest, impressionistic lyrics, and the alternately child-like and ecstatic vocals have rarely faltered to produce incredible albums. That is, until now.
On September 4, 2012, Animal Collective’s latest album, Centipede Hz, was released. Earlier in the year, the band had issued a double A-side single “Honeycomb/Gotham” that did not bode well for the album with its weak vocal lines and repetitive lyrics. So as it came closer to the album’s release, my expectations were lowered from the height of anticipation built upon their last album from three years ago, the melodically rich and propulsive Merriweather Post Pavilion.
As I listened to Centipede Hz, the first few songs gave me some hope—there were new sounds (thick, metal guitar chording; layers of bleeps and bloops) combined with some familiar ingredients (Avey Tare’s distinctive vocal tics; hypnotic synth lines reminiscent of Philip Glass scores), but as the album wore on, it became clear that this was going to be a miss. After I listened to the album 10 or so times, I then ranked the songs: the first 4 songs were three stars each, then 1 star for the fifth, and two stars for the rest. My favorites would probably be “Today’s Supernatural” and “Applesauce,” followed by the opener, “Moonjock.”
It breaks my heart to say this, but there were times that I thought I was listening to a more indie version of the rap/alternative rock band 311 (“Amber is the color of your energy”…[shudder]), especially on the song “Rosie Oh.” It truly is quite sad for me to give this album a negative review, considering how much I’ve loved the work of Animal Collective, but I honestly have to say that it’s not worth adding to your record collection.
After making my assessment of Centipede Hz, I looked up some online reviews and found that the album is actually faring rather well with a variety of critics—I think Pitchfork even gave it an 8 out of 10! However, I can only credit this to an “emperor’s new clothes” phenomenon: when a band as talented and with as much indie cred as Animal Collective puts something out, it’s hard to believe that it could be this bad, so you praise it so that you don’t find yourself the only naysayer among the sycophants. I think that Panda Bear, one of the founders of Animal Collective, also had this phenomenon occur with his last two solo works—they were highly praised, but seemed pretty minor works to my ears (his album Young Prayer, however, is one of the most earnest and poignant albums I’ve heard).
In any case, here is my nearly comprehensive ranking of Animal Collectives albums:
- Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009): Just because this was their most popular album doesn’t mean that it isn’t their best. It has its share of flaws (“Guys Eyes”) but the first four songs are beautiful bliss and the rest are consistently strong. “In the Flowers” has practically become my life motto; even after being tragically overplayed, “My Girls” remains the apotheosis of AC songs. Cloud Rank = MUST OWN WHOLE ALBUM
- Strawberry Jam (2007): This album has actually grown on me quite a lot over the years (at first listen, I put it beneath Sung Tongs). Seeing them perform songs from this release at a show was one of the most transcendent experiences I’ve ever had (if you ever have the chance to see them live, you really must go), so that may have added to its lustre. The first five songs are genius (a trend that’s become obvious to me is their tendency to frontload their albums with the strongest material), but overall, it is aging terrifically. Cloud Rank: MUST OWN WHOLE ALBUM
- Sung Tongs (2004): This album represents the heights of joyful creativity and experimentation, not only for this band but in the history of humankind. Again, first five songs are absolute delight, but the sonic flops here are worse, making for a lesser album altogether. “We Tigers” and “Leaf House” never fail to make me smile with crazy delight. Cloud Rank: MUST OWN WHOLE ALBUM
- Feels (2005): My favorite AC song (and among my favorites ever) “Banshee Beat” is found here; other classics include “Did You See the Words” and “Grass” but there’s some real unpalatable music on here as well. Cloud Rank: MUST OWN CERTAIN SONGS
- Centipede Hz (2012): See above. Cloud Rank: SHOULD LISTEN TO, PERHAPS DOWNLOAD CERTAIN SONGS
- Campfire Songs (2003): A lo-fi recording from a front porch, this captures some beautiful moments of creativity, youthful exuberance, and natural talent. Cloud Rank: MUST OWN FOR FANS ONLY
- Hollinndagain (2002): Pretty experimental and frequently minimalist with some crazy loud crescendos (one of which startled awake my friend Jess on a plane ride to Honduras!). “Forest Gospel” may give you a heart attack. Cloud Rank: SHOULD LISTEN TO, FOR FANS ONLY
- Here Comes the Indian (2003): I don’t like this album. Cloud Rank: SHOULD AVOID UNLESS A COMPLETIST
Albums I’ve Never Heard/Questionable Whether They are Truly Animal Collective Albums or Just Attempts to Cash In on Later Popularity:
- Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished (2000)
- Danse Manatee (2001)
- Fall Be Kind (2009): Two strong songs, “Graze” and “What Would I Want? Sky” with some ok b-side worthy material
- Water Curses (2008): Mostly screwing around, but occasionally of interest
- Prospect Hummer (w/ Vashti Bunyan) (2005): I like “I Remember Learning How To Drive,” but otherwise, her voice was grating on my cochlea
- People (2006): The title song had me for a bit, then lost me. The rest is painful.
- Honeycomb/Gotham (2012): Avoid.
Thank you Annabelle Feeney, wherever you are. Thank you Josh, Jess, and Erin for the shared experience of a live show (remember Wizard Prison? Josh: Oh, what a prison it was.). Thank you Elijah, because I always must thank you.