TV on the Radio’s Finest Hour

If you’re a fan of TV on the Radio, you probably know by now that bassist Gerard Smith passed away Wednesday morning (April 2oth, 2011, if you’re reading this far in the future) at the age of 36. The band announced his lung cancer diagnosis just last month and seemed to be pretty upbeat about his prognosis.

I don’t know what to say about Gerard Smith because I didn’t know the guy; any attempt at eulogy here would come off as forced and possibly even insensitive. But I do know that Smith was part of one of the best bands making music right now and I think it’s fitting to celebrate his life by celebrating the music that he helped to create. Below, you’ll find my current favorite hour of TV on the Radio music – I say “current” because it changes all the time.

“Lover’s Day” – There are not a lot of great modern songs about awesome sex (if you think “Your Body is a Wonderland” is one, I have nothing but the sincerest compassion for whomever you’re having sex with). TV on the Radio took a great step toward remedying that by ending Dear Science with “Lover’s Day,” a song that rides a bouncing melody over suggestions that the dirty deed be done in such a way that the neighbors call the cops.

“Method” – I’m kind of a sucker for whistling in songs, when it’s done well (it’s about 50% of why I like Andrew Bird so much). “Method” has whistling, hand claps, and this badass little drum and cymbal thing in the middle of it. The song doesn’t get too specific, but I feel like it reflects the time in which it was record (2006) when it says, “There is hardly a method you know.”

“Dry Drunk Emperor”  – Speaking of reflecting 2006 accurately, “Dry Drunk Emperor” was a free gift from TV on the Radio to the world, written in the wake of the Bush administration’s “Heckuva job, Brownie,” response to Hurricane Katrina. It’s got a heavy low end and plenty of harmonies spitting lines about the titular emperor and his “mocking smile.” You can still download the song for free if you click the link – it’s still awesome, even if it is a bit dated.

“Ambulance” – TV on the Radio is full of dudes who can sing (Gerard Smith was one) and most of their best tracks feature layered vocal parts. But “Ambulance,” from Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, is all vocals and nothing else. It’s a sweet song, in a saddish way: “I will be your accident/ if you will be my ambulance.” One of TV on the Radio’s all-time most beautiful songs.

“Poppy” – “Ambulance” is followed on Desperate Youth by another stunner – this one with 1990s guitars and late 80s hip-hop horn samples. It also has an a cappella part toward the end, making it a song that kind of builds backwards from its most explosive parts to its least. I think the sequence of “Poppy” right after “Ambulance” is perhaps the finest pairing of songs in the TV on the Radio oeuvre.

“Staring at the Sun” – This is actually the first TV on the Radio song I ever heard (the version from the Young Liars EP) and one of the first things you hear on it is a bass line that can only be described as throbbing (not played by Smith though; he joined the band in 2005). “Staring at the Sun” made it really hard for me to categorize TV on the Radio, which means they deserve some credit for my seething hatred of genre.

“You” – Though the competition is incredibly steep, the two most recent TV on the Radio albums are currently tied for being my favorite TV on the Radio albums. “You” is from the brand-new Nine Types of Light and not only is the melody super badass, I like the idea of being “constantly wrong” but trying to make it right in your dreams. I can identify with that feeling.

“Killer Crane” – Another Nine Types of Light tune and maybe the prettiest slow song TV on the Radio has ever done (that’s saying a lot). “Killer Crane” is also, by a wide margin, the most beautiful thing that’s ever been done with a banjo. I like the line “I can leave/ suddenly/ unafraid” and I hope with all my heart that it applies to Gerard Smith’s final hours.

“Wolf Like Me” – It might be easy – and pretty accurate – to classify TV on the Radio as purveyors of slow-burning, beautiful songs, but Return to Cookie Mountain‘s “Wolf Like Me” would stick a wrench in the works of your taxonomy. It’s a fan favorite of their live shows, probably because of the relentlessly charging rhythm and obvious-but-earnest werewolf transformation as sexual metaphor (unless you know what else to make of a song that talks about being down on all fours and offering to “show you what all the howl is for”).

“Golden Age” – Dear Science is known on the internet as TV on the Radio’s “dance” album, which makes an odd kind of sense. It’s got funkier rhythms than their other albums, and it sounds like they were channeling early Prince (read: “good Prince”) on songs like “Golden Age,” which urges you to “move your body/ you’ve got all you need.” The horn part toward the end of this song is icing on a cake made of awesomeness and crushed rainbows.

“Shout Me Out” – See what I said earlier about the last two TV on the Radio albums being my favorite? I guess that’s why Dear Science is dominating this list. “Shout Me Out” starts with a riff that I believe is a nod (perhaps unintentional) to Tommy James’ “Draggin’ the Line” and builds to one of my favorite TV on the Radio hooks, “Lord, if you got loss/ come on, shout me out” (later in the song, I believe it’s sung “Lord, if you’ve got lungs/ come on, shout me out”). It ends with just a bunch of fuzzy guitar noise and I should like to state for the record that fuzzy guitar noise is some of my very favorite noise.

“Halfway Home.” This is probably TV on the Radio’s best opening track ever, and it starts off Dear Science with a flurry of “bah-bah-bah” vocals and pounding drums. Like all the songs on this list, “Halfway Home” has a melody that is the literal definition of indelible and it builds to an explosion around four and a half minutes, ending the tune in squalling guitars and those catchy-as-fuck background vocals.

Sadly, it doesn’t take very many TV on the Radio songs to fill up sixty minutes, but that’s how I’d do it. If I’ve learned anything from doing this, it’s that Dear Science is my current favorite TV on the Radio album, but that might be because (a little ashamed to admit this) I haven’t logged nearly as many hours with Nine Types of Light as I probably should. I have all weekend to remedy that. If you want to send TV on the Radio some love regarding Gerard Smith, there’s an email link on this page.

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