When you think of the word indie, what typically comes to mind? Is it a youthful aesthetic? Is it a culture defined by being ahead of the curve? Or is it maybe just a new sound? Whatever the interpretation is, it’s hard to argue that Animal Collective doesn’t embody it in some way.
Yes, I know. An artist retrospective on Animal Collective? How original. However, when people talk about the band’s absurd run of albums in the 2000s, they tend to leave out some crucial records in their early years as well as smaller side projects. Hopefully, this will help shine some light on some of the more under-appreciated records. Regardless, the level of impact the band has had on both its contemporaries within the indie genre, as well as what the genre would become because of their influence, is undeniable.
By looking back through their discography, we can see the way Animal Collective constantly evolved their sound and forged an uncomparable identity not only within their niche, but the musical landscape as a whole. Of course, this article won’t be covering every project from the group, but it will cover most of it. Let’s begin.
Everything Animal Collective can be traced back to Baltimore, Md., where all four members — Dave Portner (Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), Brian Weitz (Geologist) and Josh Dibb (Deakin) — grew up and met as teenagers. Once off at college, they would congregate every summer to make music. Around this time, Portner was already in the middle of writing a record. He then asked Lennox to participate in the recording process. Thus, Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished was released in August 2000.
In every regard, this album is a miracle. Nothing at the time sounded remotely like it, and to this day, few records can compare. Portner and Lennox tap into a side of the juvenile experience that rarely gets explored. The instrumentation can turn from sporadic folky acoustics to harsh unabashed noise in an instant. At the same time, they managed to craft long complex songs that demonstrate an affinity for experimental compositions far beyond their years. Tracks like “Penny Dreadfuls” and “Alvin Row” are perfect examples of this ability.
What really sets this record apart from anything else at the time is that it never once feels like it’s trying to be experimental. It’s just the music Portner and Lennox wanted to make. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the track “Untitled,” which might be one of the most powerful songs Animal Collective has ever made. It could just have easily been titled “Staring Into the Face of God.” If you ever need to prove to someone that noise can be beautiful, this is all you need.
At this point, the band was hitting a creative flow. They began discovering the experimental branch of music and fell in love. Around this time, they met with and became friends with experimental noise group Black Dice (a band that probably deserves a retrospective in their own right). While having included harsh textures to some degree on their prior project, this introduction opened their eyes to not only the limitless possibilities of noise but the different types of noise that can be implemented. With these interests in mind, Portner and Lennox brought along Weitz to work on their next album, Danse Manatee, released in July 2001.
This album often gets overlooked in comparison to the enormity of the band’s full catalog, mostly because it is seen as more of a transitional work for them. In some ways, this is true. The trio definitely experimented more on this project. There are very few tracks, if any, that contain any sort of familiar song structure, or a structure at all for that matter. And yet, it never feels as though the album loses focus or purpose.
Everything flows in a very organic way, despite the sound being more synthetic than anything they had done up to that point. However, the most impressive part is how the band utilizes noise. Spirit They’re Gone is loud, but Danse Manatee is noisier. The band uses quiet, high-pitch frequency as a background for the music they put in front of it. This creates the sensation of something itching at the back of your brain. It’s infectious in that way.
Not long after Danse Manatee was released, the band started working on material again. They had been enticed for years by the idea of creating something warm and inviting. Naturally, this pushed them toward an acoustic sound, and their next release Campfire Songs certainly embraces it. With five tracks, two over ten minutes long, Campfire Songs captures Animal Collective at their most hypnotic and ambient. The band piles several layers of guitar chords strumming on top of each other to create a full psychotomimetic soundscape, a technique they would use many times in the future.
This is one of those LPs where the music and the title work in harmony. Campfire Songs feels like the apotheosis of all late summer evenings around a fire with friends. There is a comfortable atmosphere established by the repetitiveness of the strumming but also a sense of adventure in the way the music glides smoothly along. Each song transitions perfectly so that the tracks are seamless and indistinguishable without checking to see if the title has changed. The album is one whole experience that really doesn’t get enough praise. It should be noted that — although they weren’t improvised — all five tracks were recorded in one take on a porch. How aesthetically perfect.
Technically, this is the first official Animal Collective LP. Everything before was retroactively included by both the fans and the band themselves. Originally titled Here Comes The Indian, the project released in 2003 was later renamed Ark due to the disrespectful nature of the initial name.
In many ways, this project feels like the evolved form of Danse Manatee. It contains many of the same experiments with noise; this time, everything is mixed so that this experimentation is front and center. The band comes closer to traditional song structure than ever before (which isn’t saying much). They play with a tight intensity that feels in your face but they do not lose complete sight of the psychedelic and hypnotic atmospheres they worked with on Campfire Songs.
The track “Infant Dressing Table” is a delicate sound representation of infancy that builds slowly until all the different textures coalesce into one sound. It balances chaos and beauty in a way that should not work as well as it does. Ark as a whole feels like a summation of what the band has worked on before, but with slightly more refinement.
For fans, Animal Collective has a golden era in their career, and most would agree that this is where it begins. After the dense collages of Ark, the band felt it necessary to strip things back. And if they’ve learned anything, it’s hard to get much more stripped back than acoustic. Thus, Sung Tongs was born. But to expect this to be similar to Campfire Songs would be a mistake. They tighten up their focus even more, emphasizing as much organic instrumentation as possible. The result ends up sounding halfway between alien folk songs and indie Captain Beefheart. Percussion becomes an important element of the record as a way to accentuate the complex rhythms introduced throughout.
The percussive feel of the LP even finds its way into the guitar-playing, with sharp strumming carving out rhythms of their own. It’s the perfect music to try and fail to dance to. Somehow, they manage to sound even more playful than usual while also achieving some of their most meditative works to date.
This is the album where Animal Collective establishes that they are very much accomplished songwriters. Each track has more of a thematic presence. “Kids on Holiday” depicts the conflict of trying to make the most of constant travel despite its depressing monotony. “Visiting Friends,” perhaps the track most similar to Campfire Songs, presents a wordless long-form expression of the beauty of being with new friends as well as the anxiety of hanging out with people you still don’t know too well. “College” is less than a minute long and consists of Lennox and Portner layering vocal harmonies on top of each other in a way that sounds similar to what Robin Pecknold would do years later. The song has only one line: “You don’t have to go to college.”
Sung Tongs truly is a triumphant moment for the band as well as an indicator to everyone of how unrestricted their creativity was then.
After Sung Tongs, Animal Collective had the attention of nearly every music critic under the sun. While they were touring in the United Kingdom, they happened to meet legendary folk artist Vashti Bunyan. This meeting seemed to have been fruitful because the band immediately started reworking some unreleased cuts off Sung Tongs for Bunyan to sing on. The final product would be the Prospect Hummer EP, released in early 2005.
Thinking about the sound Bunyan was known for and the sound Animal Collective was working with at the time, it is absurd how well this EP turned out. The chemistry between the two artists is unbelievable. The band works their sound to fit the singing style Bunyan was experimenting with, and the result speaks for itself. At the same time, they allow themselves to experiment with soundscapes again on the song “Baleen Sample.” The project, for its entirety, exists in a state of gentle liveliness, a raw contentment that feels so inviting. And it does this all in only four tracks.
It does not get pointed out enough, but the time between the releases of all of these records is ridiculously short. The longest span was between Danse Manatee and Campfire Songs at two years, and then they released Ark not even three months after that. Animal Collective would come close to that record, dropping their sixth studio effort Feels only five months after Prospect Hummer in October 2005.
What is most shocking is that Feels sounds like a record that would take a band several years to record and complete. It is easily the most refined project they had made up to then, though the album tries to make you think otherwise, as it still retains much of the same chaotic and improvisational qualities that defined the group.
However, Feels never seems as if it is moving anywhere but forward. As a listener, there is a reassuring sense that, within the labyrinthian maze of intricate weaving textures, the album is never guiding you down a dead end. Part of this can be attributed to the traditional folk-rock instrumentation (though I use the term ‘rock’ as lightly as possible), but tracks like “Bees,” whose slow, meandering structure bears almost no resemblance to folk or rock, also exhibit a sense of direction.
It’s clear that something larger is at work here; this is where the album title seems a bit obvious. All of these tracks are connected by the way in which music and feeling coexist. Melodies seem brighter than usual, percussion has a larger impact, everything coalesces into an ineffable but undoubtedly pure emotion. Some of this could be attributed to the way the band tuned their instruments. As the story goes, they loved the sound of their friend’s piano and wanted to use it on the record.
However, this meant tuning all of their instruments to the piano, which meant working with microtones. Recording with microtonal tuning is quite a finicky process and typically it lends itself to more dissonant and sinister music. And, yet, somehow Animal Collective was miraculously able to create an album that is harmonious, evocative and loving.
At this point, it should be said that many fans would consider Feels a masterpiece and one of their best works. Not to mention, the record became a favorite among critics almost immediately and hailed as an indie classic. I’m inclined to agree with them.
If I’m being totally honest, the inclusion of this EP is really just to talk about the title track, though “Tikwid” is also an extremely fun and uplifting song that would have fit quite nicely among the ones on Feels.
I’m a little less sure about People. Part of me wishes desperately that it was included on Feels, but another part knows it would stick out like a sore thumb. Regardless, the track is an absolute monster to take in. It shows Animal Collective playing with repetition as a means of building. Slowly but surely, the initial bouncing melody and driving rhythm is adjoined with other rhythms and riffs. Vocals are introduced as triumphant shouts, bouncing alongside the melody.
Things get tighter and tighter until the chorus arrives. To this day, it’s hard to say I’ve experienced anything quite like the chorus on this track. There is not a single word in the English language to appropriately express how indescribable it is. If there is one thing that can be said about it, it’s that the word “people” has never had so much power put behind it before. And then things fall right back to where they were at the beginning of the track, only to repeat the loop several times. However, the listener is too taken aback by what they just heard to register that it’s a loop, and so the arrival of the chorus is just as mind-shattering as the first time.
Clearly, the song’s intensity would probably not mesh as well with the rest of the tracklist on Feels, but it perfectly embodies the purpose of the album. “People,” more than any other track Animal Collective has made, encapsulates nearly every kind of feeling: brightness, jubilance, hesitation, confidence, love, disdain, even terror. Whether as a standalone emotion or an emotion you have to parse out of an amalgamation of several emotions, they are all present in some way. The fact that fans even talk about this project despite it being only four tracks (one of them being the live version of People) and under 20 minutes is a testament to how impactful the song is.
Am I cheating with this one? Perhaps, but not without good reason. Even though it’s a solo record by Panda Bear, its importance in the indie scene as well as how it impacted the way people viewed Animal Collective easily makes it an essential part of this retrospective.
Although there is a distinguishable difference between Person Pitch and the band’s typical output, it’s not too surprising that the album is Animal Collective-adjacent. For one, the way it inspired much of the indie scene to come coincided with Animal Collective’s own influence on indie. Secondly, the juvenile gaiety that functions as Animal Collective’s ethos is here in spades.
The biggest alteration Person Pitch makes is how Lennox uses sampling and loops as a foundation for the entire project. Apparently, this was not what the record was going to be initially. When Lennox was moving to Portugal, his guitar got held up in customs and all he had with him was his sampler. Much of the acclaim for Person Pitch can be attributed to the way it floated around so many genres while sounding completely original at the same time. There are hints of dance and house, a little post-rock, some tribal aspects, all soaked in a pop pastiche. Lennox’s voice is given more clarity than ever before, which allows for his Beach Boys-style crooning to have a significant impact. Despite being almost entirely electronic, Person Pitch is tremendously organic in the way the textures flow and combine. Aside from the spare moments where Lennox purposely glitches or stutters the loops, it would not be difficult to convince someone this was recorded live in a studio.
The release of Person Pitch in mid-2007 and its massive critical success acted as a major boost in interest for Animal Collective’s next release and just six months later, Strawberry Jam was delivered to the world.
If Person Pitch was the staggering body shot in terms of stylistic change, Strawberry Jam was the knockout punch. Not only does this album not sound like anything Animal Collective has ever done before, it doesn’t sound like anything anyone has ever done before. The band dives headfirst into full electronic textures, achieving a synthetic intensity that feels completely foreign. As it turns out, Lennox got the inspiration for the sound by looking at the complimentary jam he got on a flight. He wanted the band to create something artificial and sleek while also staying sweet and intense.
It seemed impossible for Animal Collective to sound any better than they already did, and yet Strawberry Jam proves how limitless their ability to one-up themselves is. This is only more impressive considering how many risks they took in the process of creating the album. Looking at things now, it is difficult not to place all of their work under the all-encompassing “Animal Collective sound” category that hindsight allows us to create. However, at the time, this album introduced a completely new sound for the band.
Obviously, the heavy usage of electronic textures is a bit of a left turn, and the overall style remains heavily experimental; however, the way each song sounds like one continuously changing hook makes it feel more accessible than anything they had ever done. Stylistically, it could be described as proto-2010s indie pop and indie rock. This change-up could have easily been isolating for their existing audience while being way too “out there” for the more casual listener. But Animal Collective does what they do best: perform a balancing act.
Songs like “For Reverend Green” have Avey Tare literally screaming at times, though it never feels forced and is accompanied by a driving guitar pulse that one can’t help but bob one’s head to. “Fireworks” is a pleasant centerpiece for the album that has some of the band’s best lyrics to date, recalling a wistful summer love.
Strawberry Jam is just as much a summer record as Feels. With their experiments on synthetic textures, it would have been easy for the album to come across as emotionless, and yet the band’s requisite brightness never leaves. Strawberry Jam doesn’t just have some of Animal Collective’s best songs to date; it is up to this point their greatest achievement.
I’m ashamed to admit this wasn’t originally on the list of projects I would cover in the retrospective. In my defense, with a discography as dense as Animal Collective’s, it is surprisingly easy to accidentally let something like this slip the mind. Regardless, Water Curses is worth the time. Just the inherent nature of being a collection of songs from the Strawberry Jam recording sessions is enough to stir some intrigue. However, the band continues its streak of making an EP that actually can stand apart from its respective album.
The four tracks off of Water Curses definitely contain the same genetic code as Strawberry Jam, but there is something noticeably different about them. For the most part, the pace is toned down and the atmosphere is contemplative. “Street Flash” is a great example of this. Its slow, watery guitars pulse back and forth as the vocals gently settle into the foreground. It takes its time, building outwards until it reaches a full sound, and not in a loud or intense way. It feels brimful like a balloon swelled with air right before it pops. And then we’re brought back to the beginning, a coda leaving you to contemplate. Water Curses only furthers the band’s reputation for excellent b-sides. It’s a beast in its own right and should be a requisite listen.
After Strawberry Jam, fans and critics alike had heavy expectations for what Animal Collective would do next. But nobody expected this. There is no other way to put it: 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion revolutionized indie pop for the coming decade and solidified Animal Collective as one of the most influential indie outfits of the 20th century.
This is one of the first albums for the band in which Lennox takes a majority of the songwriting load, and instantly there is a major difference in sound. The harsh synthetic tones from Strawberry Jam are softened and elongated for something more psychedelic. But this is not the same psychedelia that Animal Collective became gatekeepers of earlier in their career.
Merriweather Post Pavilion is by far the most accessible album the band has ever made. They effortlessly dive into the indie-pop genre without superficially trying to. Hooks are sharper, choruses are more established and the songs actually have structure. The record demonstrates a band firing on all cylinders. Every moment vibrates with intention. Even vocally, the band has outdone themselves by producing some of the most pointed lyricism and layered harmonies that they’ve ever done.
For example, the single “My Girls” is a song that both shattered the music blogosphere as well as dominated the radio. In it, Lennox talks about his avoidance of social status while trying to maintain and provide for his family. This was particularly relevant at the time considering it was right in the middle of the Great Recession. “Summertime Clothes” — whose upbeat rhythm and colorful melody sound like something that Vampire Weekend would do years down the line — waxes poetic about the romanticism of summer in a way that feels like we’re right alongside them playing in the fountain.
However, it would be a mistake to think that Animal Collective sold out with this record. They were not afraid to play around with soundscapes like they normally do, but in this case, the soundscapes are integral aspects of tracks rather than tracks themselves. “My Girls” doesn’t have the chorus show up until three minutes into the song, and yet that track became one of the biggest indie hits of the year.
The critical acclaim of Merriweather Post Pavilion was immediate and unending. Many music journalism sites ranked the album as one of the best of the year and, later, one of the best of the decade. This record perfectly synthesizes the indie music renaissance in the late 2000s and pioneers the sound of indie for the 2010s. It’s wild, it’s unflinching, it’s era-defining.
Fall Be Kind had the monumental task of following up one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the 2000s.
First, I want to talk about how Animal Collective, whether inadvertently or not, pulled off one of the greatest musical misdirects in recent history. There was obviously massive expectation surrounding whatever the band was going to release after Merriweather Post Pavilion, simply because whatever it was would indicate what direction their sound would go. The first track off the EP has all of this anticipation placed on it. It begins unlike anything the band has produced before. The sound glides in waves and has an ethereal beauty to it. It’s almost cinematic. Everything builds until a hi-hat pattern creates the expectation of something huge on the horizon. We wait on the edge of our seats, ready to shower this new evolution of the band with praise, and then … there are pan flutes.
Animal Collective did all this fanfare for pan flutes? Of course, the pan flutes are soon accompanied by the main section of the song, which is an upbeat indie-pop ballad that could have easily been on the last record. However, it cannot be understated how impressive it is to make such a bold and jarring move that at first feels anticlimactic, only to win us over again with how catchy and colorful the rest of the track is. That pretty much sums up this EP. It takes so many left turns that just end up working perfectly. The second track “What Would I Want? Sky” features one of the first examples of a licensed sample of the Grateful Dead. And one cannot go without mentioning the finale “I Think I Can,” easily one of the most towering and impactful songs in the band’s discography.
Fall Be Kind was instantly hailed by critics and fans as not only one of the best EPs of the year, but also one of the best EPs of the decade. It’s a project that could easily stand alone as its own musical experience. Yeah, it’s safe to say 2009 was the year of Animal Collective.
If anyone was wondering, I will not be ignoring the band’s output in the 2010s like many fans tend to. However, I don’t find it necessary to go into each one in-depth; the 2010s saw a drastic drop in prolificacy by the group, only having released two true albums in that span (2018’s Tangerine Reef being more of an instrumental side project than a widely marketed release). In all honesty, it’s not like these records are really even that bad; in fact, 2012’s Centipede Hz has some excellent tracks on it.
Animal Collective’s legacy can’t be characterized in the same way that The Beach Boys’ legacy is. Basically, the group has never reached a level of hot garbage like “Kokomo.” However, it is completely valid to say that these projects suffered from being placed after an era of their music in which they kept managing to top themselves. They haven’t reached that peak since, though works like The Painters suggest that they still have the creative chops to be a relevant band 20 odd years after they started.
But does this really matter in the end? Does having a slightly below-average period in one’s career warrant a tarnished reputation when the average was set so high to begin with? Considering what they managed to do in the 2000s, I would argue no.
Before them, calling indie a genre wasn’t that controversial. It had a pretty defined sound as well as a very situated niche. Animal Collective was always referred to as indie, but the way they took in so many influences and utilized so many different sounds forced a need to redefine what it means to be indie. They demonstrated that indie was so much more than a sound or style; it became its own aesthetic, its own musical biosphere. I agree, it’s as pretentious as it sounds, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting to understand the implications. Animal Collective was, and still is, one of the most uncompromising and influential bands of the 21st century.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.