Released five months apart during the extraordinarily great 2013, Haim’s debut LP Days Are Gone and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires in the City shared the same airspace throughout the latter half of the year. As if inextricably tied at the hip, the albums shared the same producer, similar genre-blending pop sensibilities, keen deployment of a virile hook, and the uncanny ability to churn out a succession of layered but accessible college radio hits.
Their shared, in-demand producer, Ariel Rechtshaid, cut his teeth on emo and indie-rock before branching out into R&B with Blood Orange and Solange and pop music with Charlie XCX and Sky Ferreira. His ability to blur genre lines helps to corral Haim and Vampire Weekend’s disparate influences into unified, singular sounds.
Each record landed on all the major year-end lists from The A.V. Club, Rolling Stone, Consequence of Sound, Pitchfork, etc. While those immediate accolades provide a contemporaneous benchmark, the greatest records not only hold up but improve as the grooves deepen from constant rotation.
Six years have passed since the release of these records and our initial impressions and pre-existing expectations have dulled, bringing the music itself to the foreground. These records are no longer Vampire Weekend’s third record or Haim’s debut. They are just Modern Vampires in the City and Days Are Gone, singular albums from still popular and engaging young artists. We reference them now by specific album name, but which of these releases is most worthy of Album of the Decade discussion?
The Argument for Haim’s Days Are Gone
Days Are Gone catapulted Haim from an unknown trio of sisters into an overnight success, a type, a recognizable brand built on familiar pop inspirations of the 1970s and 80s. The sass of Steve Nicks, the Doobie Brothers’ hooks, a dash of Madonna’s dark side, and the approachable smolder of Pat Benatar times three.
Danielle’s breathy summoning of Michael Jackson’s onomatopoeic vocals and Esme’s popping Hall & Oates bassline open “Falling.” It’s clear that the band not only has a grasp on the individual elements that made these songs infectious and the artists timeless, but also a sense of how to turn all these influences into something buzzworthy for 2013 (and beyond). The momentum carries on into “Forever” when the girls release a Kraken of a catchy chorus.
“Hey you! Hey you! / Can’t you make this thing / I know, I know, I know you ain’t the one to play the game / Now I know I’m never gonna go your way / Here we go, now I know, I know know know.”
If there’s one element where Haim can plant a flag of their own without asterisk, it’s their ability to create a melodic, infinitely replayable hook. Sort through the eleven tracks on Days Are Gone and there isn’t one among them that overstays its welcome. They don’t waste time. They dispense with the “getting to know you” in favor of the “I think we’ve already met.”
Even the relatively discordant “My Song 5,” which replaces poppy rhythms with heavy percussion and synth effects, can’t resist the Haim sisters’ tendency to make every song earworm-worthy. This time they’re channeling an R&B groove and through a garage guitar riff that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Prince record circa Controversy. Less funky, of course, but Haim’s not aiming to be the next Prince, Fleetwood Mac, or Hall & Oates. The sisters want to take what these legends of pop have taught them and make it uniquely, perfectly Haim.
The Argument for Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires in the City
Modern Vampires represents a seismic leap forward from a band we’d already thought to be at the height of its powers after two remarkable albums, 2008’s self-titled debut and 2010’s Contra. For many, Vampire Weekend made heady tracks about Horchata and not giving a fuck about the Oxford Comma. There’s still tribal rhythms and apparent spontaneity, but there’s also a greater maturity and a willingness to embrace the tricky mid-tempo. If you squint, you can hear whispery echoes of Talking Heads’ 1979 masterpiece Fear of Music.
Indeed, frontman Ezra Koenig’s brain operates on a different frequency than the rest of us. He’s a cultural sponge with thirst to express his unique worldview. That can break two ways: glib or lovably eccentric. Consider the third song on Modern Vampires, “Step.” It’s a downtempo homage to 90’s hip-hop group Souls of Mischief’s “Step to My Girl,” which itself features samples from Grover Washington, Jr.’s cover of a Bread’s “Aubrey.” It’s a Russian nesting doll of reference and sonic allusion that musical mad genius Rostam Batmanglij drapes in harpsichords and lilting ambiance.
To understand why “Step” works or why Modern Vampires in the City is a modern masterpiece, you’d have to dissect musical theory and/or David Byrne’s gray matter. The album flows between the eccentric pop art of “Step” to indie bangers like “Diane Young” to the melancholy dirge for dying love on the fragile breakup ballad “Hannah Hunt.”
On “Hunt” Koenig baits us along with a steady narrative of new love and twinkling piano until it all falls apart and the Melancholy sets in. Once again the piano surges to a climax and Koenig belts out the refrain one last time: “If I can’t trust you then dammit, Hannah / there’s no future, there’s no answer.” It’s a salient moment on the record; the first time on Modern Vampires (and maybe in the band’s history) that Koenig the vocalist breaks free from heady verse and sincerely embraces raw human emotion.
Though the joyful hooks of “A-Punk,” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” remain in fits and spurts (I challenge you to hear “Diane Young” without humming that chorus at some point during the subsequent day), Vampire Weekend’s third effort documents a fleeting moment in time when forces united to perfect an iconic sound. This would be the final record before Rostam’s departure, and 2019’s Father of the Bride subsequently strays toward eccentric heady without the eccentric heart that kept Modern Vampires blissfully, serenely in balance.
There are certain days that just won’t do without the Haim sisters’ nostalgic gaze. They’re unpretentious and entertaining indie-pop celebrities that have begun influencing indie music of the 2020’s toward a more grounded accessibility. Much like Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut, Days Are Gone left an immediate stamp, but there’s no shaking the suspicion that we’re still waiting on Haim’s Modern Vampires in the City. The record that pulls together the many complementary influences into perfect harmony with their individual musicianship, a unification of their pure-pop tendencies with that still unfulfilled promise to push the emotional envelope just a little further.
Vampire Weekend, of course, already has their Modern Vampires in the City. The union of Ezra and Rostam evolved together and drifted apart at precisely the right moment to create their masterpiece. It’s okay to lament the end of that relationship, but it’s more important to celebrate that they recorded that moment for our listening pleasure.