After a decade or so as Ought, vocalist/guitarist Tim Darcy, bassist Ben Stidworthy, keyboardist Matt May and drummer/violinist Tim Keen announced their breakup on Nov. 3. “We are no longer active as a band,” their announcement read. “When we started Ought in 2012 we had no greater aspirations than to play and write music together, and the fact that we were able to tour the world to such an extent and share so many rooms with so many of you has meant the world to us.” Ought’s discography, though it comprised only three full-length albums, has meant the world to many, as well—this is a “your favorite band’s favorite band” kind of band we’re talking about.
Part Television and part Talking Heads, the Montreal-based four-piece made rock music that plucked elements from post-punk and art-punk alike, melding the former’s jagged guitars and nervous tension with the latter’s unpredictable rhythms and oblique melodies. There was more than a little Sonic Youth in there, too, with noise-rock atmospherics and motorik grooves factoring into the band’s early material, in particular. From a songwriting standpoint, Ought brought both wry humor and moral clarity to bear on their songs—Darcy (who went by Tim Beeler until assuming his mother’s maiden name in 2015), Stidworthy, May and Keen met while attending Montreal’s McGill University, and bonded during the 2012 Quebec student protests, which lit a fire under the band.
Ought self-released their debut EP New Calm in 2012, eventually catching the attention of Montreal indie label Constellation, who released their debut album More than Any Other Day and Once More With Feeling EP in 2014. The band’s acclaim came both early—their first LP appeared on numerous year-end best-of lists—and often, as the band’s second and third records, 2015’s Sun Coming Down and 2018’s Room Inside the World (their sole Merge Records release), were also critically beloved. Darcy made his solo debut with 2017’s Saturday Night, though we didn’t consider those songs for this list.
Instead, we zeroed in on the highest points of Ought’s output, painstakingly narrowing their discography down to just 10 top tracks. Without any further ado, here are the best Ought songs.
If there’s a sonic outlier among Ought’s catalog, it’s easily their third and final album. Room Inside the World found the band building elaborate superstructures around their boldly upbeat post-punk, allowing the songs to unfold rather than simply grooving through them, and the result is a record that somehow feels both more and less like Ought. Side B highlight “Take Everything” exemplifies this growth, from the rolling drums and organ figure abutting the buzzy guitars in its near-baroque intro to an abrupt upshift into thrumming double-time psych-rock. The song sounds like Ought growing up, staying true to their propulsive tendencies while exhibiting a new appreciation for nuance—keeping a foot in each era, and getting the best of both. Even its lyrics are imbued with a certain wisdom and generosity of spirit: Darcy sings as if offering life advice to someone with the whole world ahead of them, droning at the song’s critical shift, “Sixteen and what have you found out? / Sweetly and a little bit stoned out / Why do you give and not receive?” and urging after the song’s come full circle, “When the feel of a flower / Keeps you home for an hour / Throw it away.” Here, Ought find a new way of looking at an old idea: The world’s too big for us to only ever stay in one place.
What Sun Coming Down’s pseudo-title track lacks in tunefulness, it more than makes up for in dynamism. The song explodes outward with kick drum thump, cymbal crash and gnarled guitars full of feedback, its disorienting time signature keeping your ear at arm’s length as its groove refuses to resolve as you expect. Ought’s guitars gradually grow more forceful, like water—ocean water, if you like—coming to a boil, and Darcy sneers, “My neighbor says she caught the sun / It’s about the size of a beach ball / Did it make the rounds? / Did it make the rounds? / I don’t think so,” accentuating humanity’s limited understanding (and acknowledgment, even) of the natural forces we rely on to live. “Sun’s Coming Down” demonstrates Ought’s deft and purposeful control of their sound—”Just like that it changes,” Darcy repeats, as if to underscore the point—while showcasing their ability to conjure noise-rock nirvana. Guitar harmonics, melodic vocalizations and that groove we’d all been waiting for are there to see the song through the night, even as Darcy bemoans, “These things we do / I can’t look them in the eye.” It’s a prescient notion, destined only to keep improving with age.
Hooky from the jump, “Disgraced in America” draws you in with a chiming jangle-rock riff and Darcy’s drawled vocals, but like a dream that eventually reveals itself to be a nightmare, its cheery brightness belies a dark underbelly. The Room Inside the World track’s political bent is slightly more subtle than its title would suggest, opting instead for contemplative allusions to nature versus material wealth (“Birds fly around while the dividends pay”), art versus commerce (“Something was in concert, some song was played / But nothing was delivered and a franchise was made”) and suffering versus numbness (“I floated around downtown, I floated around Spain / I was like a dentist, rooting for pain”), but culminating in a rejection of these conflicts’ very framework (“Demarcation wears me thin”). At the center of it all is Darcy’s elastic vocal performance—the singer evokes everyone from Mark E. Smith to Roy Orbison, with his voice proving particularly malleable in the choruses. This being an Ought song, “Disgraced in America” takes a dramatic turn in its final third, with mournful strings, flittering synths and waves of guitar distortion carrying the track through its hypnotic crescendo.
Ought save one of their debut album’s best songs for last, closing More than Any Other Day with the gripping “Gemini.” The sprawling post-punk track takes a while to gather momentum, growing from a seed of atmospheric organ hum and skronky guitar harmonics, with Stidworthy’s driving bass line as the burgeoning tree trunk. Once Darcy finally opens his mouth, it’s to put a name to the track’s tightly coiled energy: the infinite power of possibility. “I retain the right to be disgusted by life / I retain the right to be in love with everything in sight,” he gasps, delivering one of Ought’s most indelible lyrics with nervy urgency. The song’s simmering tension boils over in the chorus via Darcy’s punky bellowing, which, though not particularly tuneful, is immensely satisfying in its both-barrels payoff. And just when “Gemini” should start slowing down, it does the opposite: “Are you a Gemini? Are you the stars that aligned? / Are you my friend tonight?” Darcy wonders over sudden double-time drums and increasingly caustic guitars, before repeatedly insisting, “The change, I want it”—a wholehearted embrace of the unknown. A pummeling outro caps off what may remain Ought’s finest full-length statement.
The centerpiece of Room Inside the World and one of Ought’s most beloved songs, “Desire” is unlike anything else in the band’s catalog, a thoughtful breakup ballad that Stidworthy described as “Sade meets Bruce Springsteen” upon the single’s 2018 release. Core to the song are its patient arrangement and sauntering tempo—a false pre-chorus follows the second verse, as if to remind you that Ought are capable of erupting at a moment’s notice, but are deliberately holding back. Just as crucial to “Desire” is Darcy’s melodramatic vocal: “Desire, desire / It was never gonna stay / It was never gonna stay,” he insists when the chorus finally comes, his crooning backed by a 70-piece (!) choir, May’s placid keys and Keen’s restrained drums—a transcendent moment. “Well, fictions are frightening / Like statues in lightning / And I wore my boot sole / And you gave it a new hole,” Darcy sings, musing on his heartbreak from a matter-of-fact remove and finding solace in unsparing honesty, rather than taking the easy way out via self-deception. Unpredictable horns and synths lend a crackling energy to the track’s artfully collapsed outro, as “Desire” falls to pieces and, as predicted, fades away. The bittersweet romantic epic may not play to Ought’s foremost strengths, but there’s no overlooking its special place in the band’s discography.
“Habit” has the unenviable task of following an Ought all-timer (“Today More Than Any Other Day”—more on that one in a bit) on their debut album’s tracklist, yet pulls it off beyond question. Darcy is particularly David Byrne-y as he talk-sings his way through most of the track, a clever consideration of the subconscious mind, the impulses that guide us and the unfulfilling returns we get for acting on them (“And you feel at home with it but you just can’t get relief”)—there’s a surrender to the song, but also an acceptance. Ought keep the tempo consistent throughout, maintaining a danceable, toe-tapping energy via Stidworthy’s steady bass and reverb-drenched guitars, their rough edges smoothed over by May’s humming keys. As the instrumental builds, with groaning strings ratcheting up the tension, Darcy’s vocals grow more erratic and impulsive, as if his subconscious mind is taking over the track (“I feel a habit forming”). Like the deep-seated drives inside our minds, “Habit” connects on a level that won’t be defined, nor denied, and there’s a murky depth to it that keeps us coming back, regardless of the effects.
“Men for Miles” starts Ought’s sophomore album on a show-stopping note, bursting out of the gates at a gallop. Keen’s pummeling drums and Stidworthy’s racing bass get your head nodding, while Darcy’s feverish guitar chug and nasal vocals make it spin. The track is danceable as hell while rocking as hard as anything Ought ever put out, making the absolute most of its rapid tempo and quiet/loud dynamics. That alone is enough to make it a highlight of Ought’s output, but when you contemplate the lyrics alongside all that instrumental firepower, “Men for Miles” reveals itself as an urgent anti-patriarchy rallying cry: “There were men for miles / And doesn’t it just bring a tear to your eye?” Darcy raves in the chorus, later inquiring politely, “Excuse me, would you say there’s a chance / of bringing this whole fucker down? / Get down,” the revolution inextricable from Ought’s rhythms. The track’s motorik noise-rock crescendo feels like all the shit hitting the fan, with Darcy depicting the beautiful oblivion of a pre-ordained pyrrhic victory (“The stars in flames / For a star, it’s the same / And we are”) before one last climactic guitar riff spirals out of control. “Men for Miles” is a live wire one can’t help but grab ahold of.
This song originally appeared on Ought’s New Calm EP as its closer—that version is OK, but the band made “New Calm Pt. 2” something special when they reworked it two years later for their Once More With Feeling EP, which took its title from the track. On their second run at the song, Ought understand its power completely and commit: This thing moves, all-out sprinting where the original merely speed-walked. The story goes that, at Ought’s third-ever gig at a Montreal dive bar, the band had a few to drink and played “New Calm Pt. 2” for 45 minutes straight—the audience and other bands on the bill were miffed, but as Darcy has recalled, it was a eureka moment for Ought’s burgeoning sound. The song parlays four chords into seven minutes of transcendent psych-punk bliss, a hypnotic, hard-charging jam that could hurtle onward for hours. It softens at times, but never slows, rejoicing in its own irrepressible energy: “You gave me your calm / and I gave it away now, now, now,” a triumphant Darcy chants, later observing, “I think we’re all really feeling this together”—his breaking the fourth wall might grate if he weren’t absolutely right. Though some lo-fi guitar effects threaten to break the song’s spell, the groove at its center simply won’t quit, and Ought’s own clear, lighthearted delight at having tapped into that makes “New Calm Pt. 2” all the more captivating. I love this one!
No Ought song covers quite as much ground as this one, the undisputed highlight of More than Any Other Day. The song builds itself up in increments, starting off so slow and spare that every bent note counts—like seeing a smoky haze in the air before you spot the fire itself. “We’re sinking deeper,” Darcy whispers, drawing you in close only for the song to slap its winning hand on the table. Stidworthy and Keen combine on a frenetic low end that clicks perfectly with Darcy’s emphatic guitar strums and tongue-in-cheek vocals: There’s a single-minded joy to the lyrics that leaves you looking for the other shoe, as Darcy sings, “Well, today, more than any other day, I am excited to feel the milk of human kindness / And today, more than any other day, I am excited to go grocery shopping / And today, more than any other day, I am prepared to make a decision between 2% and whole milk.” Here, Ought somehow find profundity in the mundane trivialities of modern life, setting aside cynicism and doubt, and all the while emphasizing the present moment—”Today More Than Any Other Day”—because that’s all we ever have. And they bring the track home in that same life-affirming spirit, turning a hard truth into a thing of beauty: Amid a crashing conclusion, Darcy sings, “Well, today, together, today, together, today, together, today, together / We’re all, all, all the fucking same.”
If you are the least bit familiar with Ought, you saw this coming—the band’s most popular song by a wide margin is also their best. “Beautiful Blue Sky” is the apex of their sound, an expansive, rhythmic and utterly mesmerizing post-punk construction that, like “Today More Than Any Other Day” before it, rescues meaning from life’s exhausting churn. Ought refuse to succumb to the numbing, endless repetition of societal blights (“War plane / Condo / Oil freighter / New development / I feel alright, I feel alright”) and seemingly hollow human connection (“Beautiful weather today, beautiful weather today / Beautiful weather today, beautiful weather today / How’s the church? How’s the job? / How’s the church? How’s the job?”), instead upholding a precious sense of gratitude for getting a seat on this crazy carousel at all. “It’s all that we have, it’s all that we have / Just that and the big, beautiful blue sky,” Darcy insists. Are Ought being sincere, or sarcastic? Does it matter? Even if life is just like that blue sky—beautiful and empty at the same time—shouldn’t we dance before we die?
Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.