A Beginner’s Guide to Animal Collective

Animal Collective

The web has been inundated with Best of 2009 lists the last few weeks, and before that, we got previews of these lists from the placement of 2009’s music on Best of the Decade lists, which have been coming out steadily since October.  And now finally, over the next few weeks, the print editions of the End of Year issues from Spin, Rolling Stone and other music and entertainment publications will be hitting newsstands and a lot of people will be seeing these lists for the first time.  Undoubtedly, Merriweather Post Pavilion by noise rockers Animal Collective, probably the most critically acclaimed album of the year, will be very near the top, if not #1, on most of these lists.  But with nothing remotely close to a hit single in their repertoire, many will wonder, who this band is or what their music sounds like.  So now, without further ado, I present… the beginner’s guide to the musical stylings of Animal Collective.

Since forming in 2000, Animal Collective have released 8 studio albums and the group members have also released solo projects.  Don’t worry though, their back catalogue is not required listening.  Usually when a group makes a breakthrough album like Merriweather Post Pavilion, all their fans insist their earlier material is better (Kings of Leon for one), but this is not the case here.  It’s pretty much universally accepted that MPP is the group’s masterpiece, and the creative culmination of their previous efforts.  This is not to say that their earlier albums aren’t good, they are just very different.  “So what does Animal Collective sound like?”  Well, press play and find out.

“Summertime Clothes” isn’t my favorite Animal Collective song, it isn’t even my favorite on MPP (that would be “My Girls”), but it’s catchy enough to appeal to the uninitiated, yet still indicative of the Animal Collective sound in general.  Groups are often best described by their influences, and in the liner notes to group member Panda Bear’s 2007 solo album Person Pitch, he includes a list of about 100 of his favorite artists, which come from a variety genres ranging from 60’s and 70’s pop rock and psychedelia to 80’s and 90’s dance and hip hop to modern garage rock and electro.  The list includes many obscure artists, but it also includes several legendary artists that serve well as corollaries:  The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead, Wu-Tang Clan and Daft Punk.

You wouldn’t call their music dance or techno, but like Daft Punk, their sound is very electronic, especially on MPP (earlier efforts included more guitar), and they heavily employ vocal distortions. They also show a clear hip hop influence with their sampling and looping of ambient noises to create their textures, very reminiscent of RZA’s work on the early Wu-Tang releases.  Their music is also unmistakably psychedelic, perhaps its defining characteristic, and like old school psychedelic acts Pink Floyd and the Dead, they demand the listener’s patience and appreciation of the  all important “build.”   But on the other side of the build, they award the listener with joyous crescendos of danceable grooves and transcendent vocals.  The clearest influence on the sound of those vocals is probably The Beach Boys.  I’m not joking.  Given all those comparisons, “eclectic” is obviously an appropriate descriptor.


(You are not tripping on acid, that’s just the cover of Merriweather Post Pavilion.)

So, where to dive in?  The first step is to get yourself a copy of Merriweather Post Pavilion.  I haven’t finished my own Best of the Decade list yet, but some days I swear it’s my favorite album since Radiohead’s OK Computer way back in 1997.  I realize that’s an outlandish claim, but seriously, it’s an amazing achievement.  If “Summertime Clothes” didn’t convince you, check out “Brother Sport,” “Lion In A Coma,” or the aforementioned “My Girls.”


Once you get into MPP, the logical next step would be their previous album, 2007’s Strawberry Jam, which is very good and their next most “accessible” album.   For hip hop fans, I would highly recommend Panda Bear’s Person Pitch. The Wu-Tang and Beach Boys influences are particularly strong on that one, and it was even named the 9th best album of the decade by Pitchfork.  For fans of early Pink Floyd, I would heavily recommend 2004’s Sung Tongs, it seriously sounds like the missing third disc of Ummagumma.  It’s also more organic and guitar driven than their subsequent releases, so if you prefer “freak folk” over “noise rock, ” that might be the ticket.  I’m a big fan of all their albums I’ve heard, and I recently picked up Feels (2005), which sort of bridges the gap from the Sung Tongs sound to MPP, and it’s quite enjoyable.

Panda Bear - Person PitchAnimal Collective - Sung TongsAnimal Collective - Feels

Bottom line:  Animal Collective’s music is called noise rock for a reason.  It can seem inscrutable on the first few listens and many will assume they don’t like it and move on.  But for those that stick with it, you’ll discover some immensely rewarding grooves, melodies and harmonies emerging from all that noise and multi-layered composition.  It’s the sound of light emerging from the dark, which is the true trademark of compelling psychedelic music, and Animal Collective’s mastery of that balance is what makes them one of best artists of this decade.  SPIN was right last year when they proclaimed “the dawning of a new age of psychedelia,” they were just wrong about the band.  It’s not MGMT, it’s Animal Collective.


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