Stars has been one of the more consistent and interesting bands of the last decade. The Toronto-based group, led by dual vocalists Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan, seems to work in narratives. Campbell and Millan create characters, trading side parts and center stage to sing about love, loss, life and death. It’s complex pop, and every album manages to be unique and developed. There are piano ballads and nightclub jams on the same LPs as indie classics and experimental digressions. Stars is hard to pin down because the band does so much, and does all of it well.
The band has recorded eight albums and six EPs and earned four major prize nominations (two for Juno, two for the Polaris). Throughout, Stars manages to make the specific universal and the narrative parable-like, ripping you to emotional shreds along the way. It’s not light listening, but it is beautiful, and important. Here are the 10 best songs to begin a deep, dark dive into Stars.
All songs by Stars are filled with an urgent sense of purpose, a beat that pulses ever closer to your heart. That feeling is most evident in “Take Me To The Riot,” off of In Our Bedroom After The War. Starting with just drums and bass, the instruments multiply as Millan’s voice joins Campbell’s and yields a chorus (“Take me / Take me to the riot”) that is less a suggestion and more a strict order. “Take Me To The Riot” is heavy-hitting, upbeat, and mixes signature Stars synth-pop with darker rock influences. It’s personal, political, angry, and contemplative. This song is the perfect starting point for anyone new to Stars, because, frankly, “Take Me To The Riot” is Stars.
Is there any moment more brutal, more indicative of how feelings and memories fade over time then being re-introduced to an ex-lover and not being able to remember his/her name? That’s the premise for “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead.” Musically, it’s a waltz as the two narrators dance around having to deal with their shared tragic past whilst stuck in a cab together, each contemplating what was and what it meant. The sounds of an orchestra keep time around them, marking the passing of minutes, and years, as each try to parse emotion and memories. At the end, as the orchestra fades and then swells, the couple embraces the present, singing, “I’m sorry there’s nothing to say.” It’s a tearjerker, musical evidence of the emotional power and sway Stars has been so prolific and gifted at over the years. It introduces every ill-fated love to the front of your mind only to leave you with the depressing sentiment it’s “just time and a face that you lose.”
This 2003 release, off of Heart highlights Millan’s magnificent vocal talent. While Stars often utilizes both Campbell and Millan for singing duties, “Elevator Love Letter” proves that Millan can stand tall on her own. Although it’s one of the most straightforward tracks from the early stages of the band, it’s also one of the catchier. “Elevator Love Letter” matters for more reasons other than Millan’s vocal chords. In a technique the band will later employ countless times, the song mixes major chords and uplifting notes to describe a dark situation The song serves as a love letter to the mode of transportation taking the narrator home after a particularly rough day and subsequent night. Sometimes it’s the small things that matter most.
“When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” Campbell’s dad actually says these words at the beginning of “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead,” which gives the album its title, too. This song is chaotic and overwhelming, however. It’s loud and crass and wholly consuming. The entirety of this album is focused on thought, on obsession and nowhere is it better exemplified than the title track. It’s the music you hear when you finally set yourself on fire.
In the podcast Song Exploder, Campbell explains how No One Is Lost was inspired by a friend of the band’s who was diagnosed with cancer just as the group headed to the studio. The whole album, and particularly this song, embraces that sense of fighting, pushing against something—and more often than not death. But the band transforms that into a dance anthem on “No One Is Lost.” Synths pound repeatedly as Campbell shouts, “put your hands up ‘cause everybody dies.” Stars consistently excels at turning highly specific feelings and emotions into a universally related song, and “No One Is Lost” is no exception. In the face of death, in the face of pain and mourning and mortality, the only thing to do is dance, live and remember that no one is lost.
On “Calendar Girl,” however, Stars tackles death in a quietly devastating way. Blending quiet drums, sparse piano, and Millan’s voice, this song offers a glimmer of hope in the crushing defeat of a life that turning from months into years. The band captures how fickle and fragile the human psyche can be: There are moments in which we want to embrace every little beautiful aspect of life, and others in which the loss is so overwhelming that nothing could make us feel alright. It’s a fine line between joy and despair, one Stars threads with beauty and precision here.
“We Don’t Want Your Body” deals once again with loss, this time the visceral, if somewhat shallow loss of sexual attraction. It’s a cheeky track, the kind that brings a smile as Campbell half-jokingly sings “ You sold me some cheap ecstasy / So you could have some sex with me / I don’t want your body.” Musically the song borders on noise that you want to escape from, not unlike the feeling of getting suddenly turned on or turned off. Sometimes Stars isn’t all death and love and the meaning of life. Sometimes the band just sings about getting some (or not).
If “Calendar Girl” is one of the most devastating Stars songs, “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It” counteracts it as one of the band’s most positive. It repeats that title line too many times too count, and features the bridge refrain of “Take the weakest thing in you / And then beat the bastards with it.” This is the closest Stars will ever get to a pump up jam, a motivational melody for the soul. While the song lacks the elegant wording of other Stars tracks, the band seems to recognize that sometimes it’s important just need to get straight to the point, especially when that point is love.
“Dead Hearts” is a ghost story—dark, but not without beauty. Campbell and Millan’s characters seem to dialogue as past loves haunt Millan as she whispers, “They were kids that I once knew” again and again. It sounds like someone recounting a traumatic event, a recalling of small obscure details, amounting to nothing but the admission that, “dead hearts are everywhere.” The song builds throughout its four minutes, as the Coldplay-esque piano melody turns into the full complex sound that defines Stars. “Dead Hearts” serves as the opener to one of the band’s most reflective (if slightly overlooked) albums, one that treats lost love as death, which, in a way, it is.
“Forget your name / Forget your fear,” urge Millan and Campbell on the opener to the all-around fantastic In Our Bedroom After The War. It’s a rallying call for a night out and a reminder that fear can only conquer if you let it. In an album that deals with conflict, both political and personal, “The Night Starts Here” represents a declaration that these wars will be met with strength, not fear. “Name your child after your fear / Tell them I have brought you here,” Campbell sings. The song is a perfect call to bravery in a world that too often thrives on fear.