Animal Collective's 15 Best Songs Ranked

We're counting down the highlights of their catalogue to mark the release of 'Isn't It Now?'
Animal Collective's 15 Best Songs Ranked
Photo: Hisham Akira Bharoocha
From 2004 to 2009, Animal Collective could do no wrong. As indie rock reached the peak of its cultural influence — before it was essentially absorbed into the mainstream as an aesthetic simply meaning "acoustic guitars and flannel" — Animal Collective were its most surprising, universally heralded auteurs.

Baltimore-area school friends Josh Dibb (a.k.a. Deakin), Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear), David Portner (a.k.a. Avey Tare) and Brian Weitz (a.k.a. Geologist) founded the group in 1999, the "Collective" in their band name indicative of a revolving lineup, with various combinations of members appearing on different releases, and all of them releasing their own solo material.

Curiously combining ancient musical traditions with futuristic sounds and techniques, their earliest works sounded like campfire synth jams, full of wordless chants, pounding percussion and amorphous swaths of gurgling noise. As time went on, they honed their songwriting chops, bringing pop-inspired immediacy to their experimental compositions in a way that enhanced their adventurousness without compromising it.

Since that golden era in the aughts, their star has descended somewhat. It's not easy to spot their influence on the current musical zeitgeist — Panda Bear's solo work has arguably had a far greater impact — and they no longer make a notable impact on the charts. Instead, they're settled into a more sustainable place as a beloved cult band, exactly where such a singular project belongs.

As they release their 12th album, Isn't It Now?, on September 29, we're counting down the band's 15 best songs.

15. "Bluish"
Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)

Here are a few words that don't usually apply to Animal Collective songs: seductive, sexy, tender. But that's the only way to describe the lusty "Bluish," with Avey Tare singing about "getting lost in your curls" and pleading, "Let's just stay in, no one's here in our apartment, babe." But even with suggestive lines about wanting to "kiss you there" and requesting that his partner "keep on your stockings," there's a faint sense of wide-eyed naïveté to the randiness.

14. "Prester John" 
Time Skiffs (2022)

The lead single of their previous album, Time Skiffs, brought the band out of what some might consider their flop era. With Panda and Deakin sharing vocals on the opening verse, "Prester John" harkens back to the Feels days, with twinkling synths and an undercurrent of funk-adjacent bass. Avey adds his trademark shout-sing for the chorus, and later, Geo busts out a goddamn hurdy-gurdy for a particularly haunted outro. Sounding much like a reformed quartet (on their first full-length since the middling Painting With), AnCo are again operating inside their comfort zone — experimenting nonetheless, but very much as a unit.

13. "Derek"
Strawberry Jam (2007)

Panda Bear was really on one in 2007. Strawberry Jam came just six months after his revelatory solo album Person Pitch, and "Derek" throws back to the sound of that earlier release with sing-song pop melodies resembling a schoolyard chant. But it distinguishes itself from what Panda would have done on his own halfway through, when a gigantic beat drops, closing out the album with a distorted thunderstorm of juddering percussion.

12. "Man of Oil" 
Meeting of the Waters (2017)

Sleeper EP Meeting of the Waters found Avey and Geologist recording live off the floor of the Amazon Rainforest, where they siphoned animal calls and collected underwater samples — resulting in four tracks dripping with the humidity of their natural surroundings, which would go on to inspire further nature meddling on 2018 visual album Tangerine Reef. All that is evident in "Man of Oil," in which you can practically visualize the Google Dream-generated fantasy animals they were tracking down in the wild. Paired with surprisingly tender lyrics, the song evokes a soldier's love letters, with Avey singing, "I find it so hard to tell you / I'm afraid to forget the smell of you."

11. "Grass"
Feels (2005)

Freak folk was the name of the game for 2005's Feels, and it signalled the beginning of the end for the band's pre-Domino "early" era. Wacky time signatures and discordant shouting backed by woo-woos made up the bones of the album, and "Grass" is arguably the most representative song of that era, with its infectious "Pow! Pow!" and tumbling lyrics that express silly sentimentalities: "What's with all the changes since the time I was aware / It's like the apple eating people that we once were aren't there." Notoriously built around samples played on a completely out-of-tune piano, the songs on Feels often felt just out of orbit, lending to its uniqueness and lasting power. 

10. "Peacebone"
Strawberry Jam (2007)

The opening track to what I'd consider the band's best album, "Peacebone" is powered by while violently eschewing the same nostalgia that their millennial fanbase would one day be known to cull so desperately, with Avey (at a career peak) tossing a mouldy, mushy word salad as an undercurrent of repeated "bonefish" haunts throughout. Scattershot synths and frayed noise coalesce in its opening seconds, joining forces with guitar and vocals that glitter and bounce as they realign and self-replicate. The band's collage-like lyricism serves to push listeners to the precipice of ecstasy, invoking magic realism in lines like, "I'll bet the bubbles exploded to tickle the bath / All the birds are very curious, all the fish are at the surface." But it's not my words that you should follow; it's your insides.

9. "Summertime Clothes"
Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)

It begins with the pregnant gnashing of sewer grates lifting off their frames from the pressure of subterranean piss coming to a boil, and it ends with the brown-out flickering of New York City's incandescent marquees, nearly alight from electrical miswiring. At once horny and romantic, MPP's "Summertime Clothes" is a rollicking tour of trash-strewn sidewalks and sweaty street meat vendors' beleaguered faces — a love letter to the treacherous, feral few weeks of concrete jungle Julys in which everything seems simultaneously possible and pestilent. 

8. "On a Highway"
Fall Be Kind (2009)

Like a dream, between worlds, "On a Highway" is Animal Collective at their most liminal. With Fall Be Kind ushering in the third act of their careers, and "On a Highway" literally detailing the limbo of touring their most commercially successful album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Avey Tare weighs fleeting pleasures (pretty lady passengers, relaxing hash) against the mundanity of the road (workers pissing, cold saliva on the window) while dreaming mainly of going home: "Thinking of the one who / I left alone and hoping / I don't know how I'm coping."

7. "Who Could Win a Rabbit"
Sung Tongs (2004)

I'm not sure what happened between 2003 and 2004, but Animal Collective suddenly levelled way, way up. They had already released four albums in the prior couple of years, but with their fifth, the group — here functioning as a duo of Avey Tare and Panda Bear — suddenly honed their pop instincts without compromising their adventurousness. The giddy "Who Could Win a Rabbit" is a quintessential example of what they were suddenly capable of as songwriters: a feverish campfire freakout, all acoustic strums and tilt-a-whirl harmonies, presented folk music in a way never heard before or since.

6. "Banshee Beat"
Feels (2005)

Feels is Animal Collective's "rock" album, in the sense that it was made with electric guitars and drums. Of course, this is Animal Collective we're talking about, so it sounds nothing like normal rock music (nor anything resembling typical "post-rock"), and the sublime "Banshee Beat" shows what they're able to do with six strings and an amp. Across eight minutes, they gradually lift skyward with echoing guitar textures, click-clacky rimshots and mumbled chants. It feels like it's building to a catharsis that never comes, instead burbling serenely before evaporating back into the ether.

5. "Water Curses"
Water Curses (2008)

Animal Collective have a rich history of giddy pop bangers with hyperactive tempos that practically trip over themselves — and "Water Curses," from their 2008 EP of the same name, is one of the finest examples. For about more than half of its three-and-a-half minutes, it's almost too fidgety, with its chopped-up acoustic strums, twitchy electronic loops and disembodied "woo!" samples. But just when the fast-moving melody seems to have already revealed all it has to offer, a high-pitched synth enters, tying it all together in a sugary confection of bubblegum bliss.

4. "My Girls"
Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)

Panda Bear's 2007 masterpiece Person Pitch is the most accessible, straightforwardly beautiful album from the Animal Collective stable — partly because of its proto-chillwave Beach Boys-isms, but also because of its disarmingly plainspoken lyrics, in which Noah Lennox offers pep talks in the simplest language possible. It's an approach he's rarely brought to Animal Collective, with the extremely notable exception of "My Girls," a simple portrait of domestic satisfaction dedicated to his wife and daughters. Its pledge to prioritize his girls over "material things" was so resonant that it even nabbed the band a co-writing credit on Beyoncé's Lemonade track "6 Inch," which interpolated some of the lyrics. To this day, it remains far and away the band's most successful song.

3. "Leaf House"
Sung Tongs (2004)

A three-minute mescalin trip around the itchiest corners of your subconscious, Sung Tongs opener "Leaf House" finds its strength in the power of repetition. From the hyper-extension of its line-terminating syllables, to "there's no one" and, of course, the meowing, self-identifying kitties, it's remarkably robust for a song propelled only by an acoustic guitar. Part theatre vocal warm-up and part tribute to both Panda Bear's childhood and deceased father, the track is versatile enough to invoke peaceful memories on record while sounding a bit like being attacked by clownish birds live. With both lead vocalists at the helm of their second duo-presenting record, "Leaf House" was faced with the challenge of introducing what would go on to become one of Animal Collective's most highly acclaimed records — and swiftly squashed detractors with a squishy pink paw. 

2. "Fireworks"
Strawberry Jam (2007)

"What's the day? What's you doing? How's your mood? How's that song?" These are the mundane questions Animal Collective cycle through on "Fireworks" while they bide their time until they reach those idyllic family beaches. At their silliest and most vulnerable during the psychedelic pop era of 2007's delectable Strawberry Jam, single "Fireworks" is a shot at release from an existential hangover — both a trudge through life's disappointments and devastating lows, and a daydream of utopia. Between the wordy bridge's imperfect rhymes, Avey Tare's desperate haplessness, and the admission that "I'm only all I see sometimes," we're presented with the band at their most emotionally raw. Jangling keys and wee-ee-ee-ing vocals dance over our pathetic narrator's pleas, before that infectious bridge comes pummelling in like a compulsion — "I've been eating with a good friend / Who said, 'A genie made me out of the earth's skin' / In spite of her she's my birth kin / She spits me out in her surly blood rivers" — growing more and more insistent and intimidating upon each repetition. Lonely, loving, violent and gentle, "Fireworks" is the ideal intersection of time, influence, collaboration and everything else that makes Animal Collective great. 

1. "What Would I Want? Sky"
Fall Be Kind (2009)

In 2009, Animal Collective were at their creative and critical peak. As they went about touring Merriweather Post Pavillion, they debuted a song that, incredibly, tied their most adventurous experimentation together with growing mastery over pure pop. Featuring the first-ever officially licensed Grateful Dead sample — a snippet of "Unbroken Chain" that actually says "sky, whoa, I walk" but sounds a lot like "what would I want, sky" thanks to the way it's chopped — the near-seven-minute epic divides neatly in two. First comes a goopy, abstract intro, harkening back to their avant-garde origins with thunderous drum hits that reverberate through a primordial ooze of wordless chants and squelchy electronic abstractions. Eventually, the song lurches out of the goop, finding its legs in a sweetly pattering groove, with Avey Tare duetting with the Dead's Phil Lesh (and Panda Bear later chiming in with a third distinct vocal line). It's a career pinnacle that combines everything they do best into one glorious epic — something that, even 14 years later, still sounds disorienting, challenging and beautiful.