French indie rockers Phoenix became one of the most influential modern bands when they released their breakthrough album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix in 2009. It was simultaneously catchy and ambitious, as showcased by songs such as “1901” and the instrumental “Love Like a Sunset, Pt. 1.” That record catapulted Phoenix to stages at America’s biggest festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella and Austin City Limits, not to mention those abroad at Reading and Leeds Festivals and more.
Yet, the band technically formed about 10 years prior to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix when Thomas Mars, Deck d’Arcy, Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz began jamming in Mars’s garage on the outskirts of Paris. As a result, Phoenix has retained a sense of garage rock grime in addition to their recent electronica leanings on 2013’s Bankrupt! and Daft Punk-esque funktronica.
Last week, Phoenix released their sixth studio album, Ti Amo, a synth-pop masterpiece with Italian disco influences. So, tracing the band’s history from United to now, here are the nine best songs by Phoenix.
This nearly-10-minute track from Phoenix’s debut album, United, is one of the most eclectic tunes the band has released. The first third of the track combines seemingly disparate elements including auto-tune, country-inspired slide guitar and bluesy keys. But then, the song transitions into its funky section, replete with a vocoder, some slap-bass and even an organ. It concludes with distorted guitar-led stadium rock. It might sound strange on paper, but it’s one of the best songs Phoenix has written.
The way Phoenix plays with dynamics and mood in the titular track from their fifth studio album is astounding. The song introduces the listener with a glockenspiel and acoustic guitar, and then a flute enters, playing an unpredictable melody. The feeling of tranquility suddenly cuts out when an aggressive synthesizer replaces it, making “Bankrupt!” one of the band’s more ambitious works.
The opener for Phoenix’s second full-length, Alphabetical, exemplifies how the band mixes syncopation and texture. In particular, the auxiliary percussion and palm-muted guitars, while subtle, adds a layer to the mix that is essential to the overall groove. Paired with a catchy chorus, the band had itself a strong lead single in the U.K., E.U. and Japan in 2004.
The seventh track from the French group’s latest album, Ti Amo, modernizes the classic sound of Phoenix with layers of synthesizers that are both danceable and complex. While Phoenix have definitely kept up with the times in terms of instrumentation and production, beneath all the shimmery synthesizers is the groove-oriented root that hearkens back to United and Alphabetical. “Fleur de Lys” is a well-balanced combination of the various sounds of Phoenix.
Perhaps the best moment on the freshly released Ti Amo is around the halfway mark, when “Fior di Latte” shyly, yet, invitingly introduces itself with a somewhat hushed vocal melody, reverb-filled guitar and synth bass line. The result of the thick mixture is as rich as the Italian gelato Mars is singing about.
It’s Never Been Like That is a perfect example of mid-2000’s guitar rock, with its inventive song structures with traditional rock band instrumentation. Aligning themselves with other aughts bands like Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs (or maybe the other way around), Phoenix nailed this sound with their catchy 2006 single “Consolation Prizes.” The swinging rhythm and the snare-bass drum fill hooks you right at the start, and all those handclaps just beg you to clap along, too.
Phoenix’s 2009 breakthrough album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix marked a transitional phase from guitars to synthesizers. The band found the perfect balance between two, however, and the album rocketed them to an iconic height. Mars’s vocals shine in “Girlfriend,” as his voice cracks augment the emotional atmosphere of the song.
Without “1901,” Phoenix probably wouldn’t be the band they are today. The single propelled them to immense popularity and recognition (it was so popular as an iTunes free single that they reissued it at cost), and the whole album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, helped usher in an acceptance of electronic elements in alternative music. The song instigated a musical evolution by demonstrating how indie rock can be danceable without losing an image of artistry.
With its propelling percussion, guitar ostinatos and simple synth parts, “Love Like a Sunset, Pt. 1” stands as a summation for Phoenix’s most popular album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Its beauty comes not only from its lushness, but also its dissonance, proving that Phoenix is a band masterful in its contradictions.