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Ranking: Every Death from Above 1979 Song From Worst to Best

on September 10, 2014, 3:30pm
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After meeting at a Sonic Youth concert in the late ’90s, Canadians Sebastien Grainger and Jesse Keeler shanked their way onto the music scene in the early 2000s as Death from Above 1979 with the force of an unrestrained prison riot. Grainger and Keeler often joked that they had met in prison or on a pirate ship, and most news outlets believed them, which just added to their grungy and bedraggled aesthetic. Death from Above 1979’s first EPs and full-length were a combination of noisecore, punk, and metal — the drums punished, the synths drilled, and the bass, soaked in fuck-off distortion, screeched and wailed.

After only five years of musical assault, DFA 1979 decided to call it quits, citing major creative differences between Grainger and Keeler. Since then, fans have been champing at the bit for new music or a tour, with rumors always abound about a reunion. Both members had various side projects to fill the downtime. Keeler helmed MSTRKRFT with Al-P while Grainger recorded a few solo folk albums and split time between Bad Tits/Desert, multiple dance remix monikers, and Sebastien Grainger and The Mountains. Now, after eight years, the duo has gone back into the studio and recorded a new album, The Physical World.

To celebrate the new release, we have gone into the Death from Above 1979 catalog and put together a ranking (from worst to best) of all songs from both EPs, the 2004 full-length You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, as well as the brand-new The Physical World. How did we stack up against your own list? Let us know in the comments. We know you will.

–Nick Freed
Senior Staff Writer

29. “Nothin’ Left”

From The Physical World (2014)

After a long hiatus, it’s understandable for a band to still be shaking off the cobwebs a bit, and with “Nothin’ Left” there are still a few spiders lurking around. Sounding like an early ’00s alternative rock song, the track falls quickly into a chugging rhythm that wants to be Muse but doesn’t quite have the creativity or instrumental acumen to pull it off. Instead, it sort of sits flat in a murky, overproduced atmosphere that seems out of place in their usually quasi-lo-fi world. Grainger’s vocals have the tinny reverb similar to Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase, and his drumming seems a bit phoned in. There isn’t the intensity of other tracks. The best part about it is that it’s over in a quick 2:15, so you can move on to everything that’s better in their catalog. –Nick Freed

28. “Too Much Love”

From Heads Up EP (2002)

One of the best things about DFA1979 is their massive sound, and Sebastien Grangier’s drums sound as big as skyscrapers in this tune. Clocking in at a little under two minutes, “Too Much Love” is only a nice teaser of what DFA1979 are truly capable of. The tune’s riff is a little too catchy, almost pop punk-esque, but the vocal melody isn’t very memorable. While the band doesn’t normally deviate too far away from their core sound, “Too Much Love” proves that even a good idea can create sub-par results. –Stevie Dunbar

27. “Do It!”

From Heads Up EP (2002)

I gotta admit, this song kind of reminds me of a Flight of the Conchords tune: “The Human’s Are Dead”. Without a doubt, it’s because of the very out of place but still pretty awesome vocoder bit that randomly happens around a minute in and disappears for the rest of the song. You can tell that Grangier and JFK are still finding their groove on this EP; there is a great sense of fun and experimentation that the songs don’t necessarily benefit from. And yeah, the riff isn’t as good as a binary solo, but it’s pretty damn rockin’. And dig those drums that come in right after the vocoder bit. Around 10 seconds of thrashing bliss. –Stevie Dunbar

26. “Sexy Results”

From You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004)

“Sexy Results” gives exactly what the title implies, sounding more like the duo set out to write a slow jam for Pornosonic than a full-on song. Though not the name-brand song everyone comes to know, it’s by no means an uninspired performance, as Grainger’s voice throttles and wiggles over a choppy bassline before a cowbell solo that I dare anyone to not call sexy. Combined with the synth that smells like a line from Dr. Dre’s g-funk era, “Sexy Results” is a groove anyone can enjoy. –Dan Bogosian

25. “My Love Is Shared”

From Heads Up EP (2002)

A clear standout riff on the EP, JFK is gliding across the fret board like he’s shredding a gnarly wave. The mutant surf rock riff is immediately fun, and all I can think about while listening to this tune is either booking it down a highway with the roof down or sitting on my couch playing Tony Hawk. This song is a massive burst of energy and a whole lot of dumb fun that ends way too early. Also, dig those last five seconds of an acoustic guitar chord and reverb. Yeah, I don’t get it either, but it’s pretty funny. –Stevie Dunbar

24. “If We Don’t Make It We’ll Fake It”

From Heads Up EP (2002)

Now THIS is a fat intro riff. I could listen to those first 10 seconds over and over again. A lot of DFA1979 sounds like JFK’s heavy bass/synth combo battling with Grangier’s drumming and vocals, and well, JFK is clearly winning the battle in this tune. There are certain key moments throughout this EP, fleeting grooves and volume bursts that really stand out after multiple listens. Get on that slightly heavier bass riff at 1:25. And how about that sleek riff that drops at 1:35? If that doesn’t make you get up and groove, then there’s something wrong. –Stevie Dunbar

23. “Crystal Ball”

From The Physical World (2014)

If you have ever wondered what DFA1979 would sound like if they were asked to soundtrack Michael Mann’s Thief, then “Crystal Ball” may be your answer — or at least as close as they could manage. The synths float just under the surface like a laser, and the bass and drums hold a steady bouncing rock beat that, if digitized just a little, could easily pass as a Tangerine Dream soundtrack offshoot. As it stands, however, the song does hit a little flat — a little unsure if it wants to be a grunge rocker or a polished alternative hit. Because of that indecisiveness, it rushes by like flashing lights in a high-speed chase onward toward the horizon. –Nick Freed

22. “Virgins”

From The Physical World (2014)

The first time I heard “Virgins”, I hated it. It felt like the duo were just going through the motions, writing a return song to sound like what they’ve done 20-something times before. By the fifth time I heard it, I knew I was wrong; the bends, slides, and brief moments of bass shredding over what is otherwise more comparable to a mixture of Black Keys simplicity and Funkadelic riffage are enough to make it shine. The production remains strong when Grainger’s drums sound more electronic than organic, and Keeler’s bass subtly changes fills, tones, and distortions throughout the song while some Nine Inch Nails-like feedback howls in the background, drawing me in, keeping me listening again and again. –Dan Bogosian

21. “Gemini”

From The Physical World (2014)

Keeler and Grainger are both very creative musicians, which is great when they are writing songs based around only two instruments. “Gemini” shows Keeler maybe pulling some inspiration from Tom Morello by adding some creative sound effects to break up the usually pounding monotony of the bass. Keeler’s high screeches add some great levels to what could otherwise be a fairly even-keeled song musically. The change-up of style also helps add a bit more edge to the drums and Grainger’s vocals as well. Grainger isn’t just screaming or depending on distortion. He adds feeling and a bit more push behind it. It’s a solid penultimate track for their “comeback” album. –Nick Freed

20. “Government Trash”

From The Physical World (2014)

I’ll be honest: This song sounds a bit dated. The riff just screams mid-’00s skate and/or snowboarding music video to me, and the vaguely political lyrics could easily apply to that same time period (despite Grangier claiming to write the second verse while watching the news last year). However, the song still has enough energy to get by and features some of Grangier’s most aggressive drumming. As a bonus to fans, the song has a quick (potentially unintentional?) throwback to “Turn It Out” in the form of air raid siren feedback courtesy of JFK. –Stevie Dunbar

19. “Cold War”

From You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004)

A short and straightforward jam, “Cold War” pounds nonstop, the drums thrashing under Grainger’s layered vocals. While it hasn’t held up as well as some other songs off their first full-length, the cut still follows a strong formula Death from Above 1979 mastered: short, catchy, fast. Start with heavy drums, cut them out halfway through the build, and peak with a tricky ending. It’s too predictable to be anyone’s favorite, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. Grainger almost sounds like a nasally Robert Plant before the bass goes off the rails in this banger. –Dan Bogosian

18. “Always On”

From The Physical World (2014)

I can’t really say this about most DFA1979 riffs, but “Always On” has some sexy riffage. There are always anger and aggression in their riffs, but this one exudes an odd elegance to it — like JFK was trying to write a Chic guitar lick but couldn’t help but smash his bass in. This definitely sounds like a poppier frontier for DFA1979. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as “Always On” still has enough raw power to fuel a mosh pit. –Stevie Dunbar

17. “Little Girl”

From You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004)

“Little Girl” is a hidden gem in DFA1979’s pinnacle release You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, more subdued than any other track on the album almost entirely because of the simplistic riff that Keeler maintains throughout and the relatively restrained mid-song breakdown. Because of its remarkable consistency, it’s a great song to workout or skate to and conveniently has landed in both a sports video game (Major League Baseball 2K7) and a skating game (Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland). This song is reminiscent of an old X-Files episode that was made on a low budget to offset the high budget of the rest of the season, or a bottle episode in “the biz.” Despite its clear intentions as a low-key version of what’s happening on the rest of the album, it maintains the spirit of the overall message and sometimes outshines some of the bigger, more bombastic tracks. –Pat Levy

16. “We Don’t Sleep at Night”

From Romantic Rights EP (2004)

This little gem is buried away on the Romantic Rights EP and, like most early DFA1979 songs, is a quick blast of a tune that relies on brute force and energy. At first, it kind of sounds like a throwaway track, but if you turn up the volume to 11, then everything is just blasting. The lo-fi production lacks some of the heavy low end that a lot of their catalog has, but this works in their favor as the bass actually sounds like a weird guitar/bass hybrid that reaches some octave right below the average guitar but above the average bass — a precursor to JFK’s bass/synth combo that is prominently featured on their debut album. –Stevie Dunbar

15. “Cheap Talk”

From The Physical World (2014)

The opening track of your grand return has to be strong, and “Cheap Talk” doesn’t disappoint. The lightning-quick hi-hat hits, the wiggling synth that dances in the background as Grainger’s voice sounds like Spoon’s Britt Daniel doused in gasoline and set on fire – the song stops the light from flickering and just turns it on. Keeler gives Grainger a strong canvas to paint over, and his bandmate delivers a signature gut punch off the bat. The longtime logo of the band is the two with elephant trunks; “Cheap Talk” sounds like a mammoth plays drums and sings and a dinosaur mastered bass. Doubters be damned, Death from Above 1979 is back. –Dan Bogosian

14. “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine”

From You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004)

Keeler’s bass on this title track is at its most chaotic. He bounces all over the place at breakneck speed and even adds in some bends and slides to spice up the mix. It is the sound of a speeding engine, the gears shifting, while Grainger struggles to scream over the noise. The track overall runs at such an unrelenting pace that it feels like Grainger and Keeler may completely lose tempo all together and collapse into a heap of leather, denim, and cymbals. After the final chorus of “Now that it’s over/ I love you more and more,” they finally let up and give the listener a bit of a breather to finish their beer and fix their bangs. –Nick Freed

13. “Go Home, Get Down”

From You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004)

“Go Home, Get Down” is the post-dance party walk home when the drugs still have their hold on your brains and balls, and your bones are still rattling from the bass and bodies in that dark room you just slid out of in hopes of fresh air. One the other hand, it could be fully contained in that moment just before you cross the threshold and the clean air hits. There are many of DFA1979’s songs where I just wish Keeler and Grainger would fully embrace their weirdness. “Go Home, Get Down” is so close to being full-weirdo freak-out chaos with Keeler’s swarm-of-bees bass lines and Grainger’s strained-to-the-extreme vocals that you want to just push them over that line and let loose. Let Keeler’s bass keep that hive buzzing throughout and Grainger screaming until his vocal chords are white-knuckled trying to hold on. Like “Blood on Our Hands”, which we’ll talk about later, their noisecore is showing, and it’s when they hit the best of themselves. — Nick Freed

12. “White Is Red”

From The Physical World (2014)

Perhaps I was on to something when I spoke earlier about DFA 1979 soundtracking Thief. “Crystal Ball” is the car chases, the danger, whereas “White Is Red” is the song that can play under the scene with James Caan and Tuesday Weld in the diner near the end. By far their most calm track, “White Is Red” is also one of the few that attempts to tell a full story. Grainger sings about Frankie — a former lover of his narrator — who gets pregnant with his child and then, from what I can tell, drives away from him when he stops at a gas station and dies in a car wreck. Essentially. Of all the songs to be slow and meditative, a song about a girlfriend dead in a car wreck would not necessarily be the one I would pick, but the boys do a great job with it, and I’m just writing about it, so what do I know? –Nick Freed

11. “Pull Out”

From You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004)

I have a friend who knows Death from Above 1979 only as one of the first bands I became obsessed with when I worked at a record store. Any time we talked about the Canadian duo, he would yell only two phrases, over and over: “Push in, push in, push in; pull out, pull out, pull out.” The primal urges the band display and the rage they shout to their wrongdoers are the stars of this ditty, as the yells of “pull out” sound more like a revenge cry than the catchy chorus it turned out to be a decade later. –Dan Bogosian

10. “Right On, Frankenstein!”

From The Physical World (2014)

Death from Above 1979 stick their toe in the water of other bands’ successes, playing melodies that sound more like Muse or The Strokes over a riff that sounds more like straightforward punk than the band that made You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. One of The Physical World’s finer songs, “Right On, Frankenstein!” features an outright irresistible chorus before diving into one of the coolest bass riffs Keeler’s ever played. The tremolo picking and harmony vocals to the end sound like a national anthem to a country with no military or a pilot’s first takeoff on an abandoned strip – and I don’t mean that anything is missing. It’s a reckless dive into what Spinal Tap would call lead bass, making no apologies for writing a torn-down, badass riff that still feels upbeat. –Dan Bogosian

9. “Trainwreck 1979”

From The Physical World (2014)

“Trainwreck 1979” was the first new Death from Above 1979 song we heard upon their return, and while the title is a cheesy nod to their past and their self-awareness, the song is a fresh take on rock and roll’s clichés. “I want it all, I can’t get enough.” “The story never ends as long as we have blood and guts.” If you stripped the lead vocals and bassline and left this song as just the backing vocals, synth, and drums, it would be a club hit that even an arrhythmic junkie could dance to. With the bass’s endless downstrokes and the strobe light pulse working together, “Trainwreck” will be a staple of the band’s show for as long as they’re still alive and kicking. –Dan Bogosian

8. “Losing Friends”

From Heads Up EP (2002)

The longest song on the EP by a mere 30 seconds, “Losing Friends” is definitely the most developed-sounding song out of the bunch. The duo quickly blast out of the trash compacter intro into a high-velocity groove that sees JFK burn through some Entwistle-esque bass riffs while Grangier’s melody finds the perfect mix between sweet and angry. When the duo finally reach that gnarled, descending bassline, Grangier’s yelps of “If I lose my friends, I hope I’m told/ I hope that someone tells me” continue to gain urgency before they both explode into that opening riff one last time. –Stevie Dunbar

7. “Dead Womb”

From Heads Up EP (2002)

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of calm by the automated warning that cocaine is bad for you at the beginning of “Dead Womb”, the opening track of DFA1979’s debut EP, Heads Up. The song is a straight-up Roman candle set aflame. Once it erupts into the traditional thrash the band is known for, people hearing it for the first time must have known that what they were experiencing was the first grasp at greatness by a band soon to achieve it. Putting myself in the mindset of someone hearing this track in 2002 with no knowledge of the group before that, it’s a perspective-altering track, like the first time I heard Das Racist or Death Grips. It’s proof that a band can come out of the gates so fucking strong that you know they’re meant to be remembered, to be championed at every opportunity, to be celebrated before their flame burns out. –Pat Levy

6. “Going Steady”

From You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004)

“Going Steady” is as straightforward rock ‘n roll as DFA1979 got on You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. There are a handful of lyrics, a repetitive groove, and an infectious melody. It’s like The Ramones on a few more party drugs. This song is tailor-made for a live show freak-out circle pit. There’s just something about Keeler’s bass in this song that courses through your body head to toe and front to back and triggers a visceral reaction. You can feel every sonic vibration in every cell in your body, and it rattles you across the floor. By the last 20-30 seconds, you feel like you’ve been tied up and tossed in the back of a speeding muscle car that’s powering around dark city alleys with Grainger screaming the final words at you from the driver’s seat. –Nick Freed

5. “Turn It Out”

From You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004)

The opening seconds of “Turn It Out” sound like a ghost tinkering away at piano in a haunted house, only to be silenced by the deafening scream of Keeler rubbing his pick against the grain of his bass strings. This is the signature bassline of the band’s career: though not the most impressive nor the most enjoyable, nothing can make a room know what band’s about to hit them as well as those blurred notes that sound like death cries, which are really just a bass being played like no one before this band. It’s the perfect song to start You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, as the second that thunderous low E is plucked, you know you’re in for a trip. –Dan Bogosian

4. “The Physical World”

From The Physical World (2014)

Beeping its way with an opening fit, the title track from the band’s return blasts away any notion that their time apart prevents them from doing what they do best: rocking the fuck out. The verse breathes punk like it’s air, grinding a freneticism that would leave a hardcore fan proud. The extended, slow pounding on the drums and Keeler’s distinct taste for unusual chord progressions shine strongly throughout as Grainger pushes his voice as hard and as high as he can handle. The eery vocals of the chorus are golden, burning like shrill cries while still feeling like a sing-along.

The band save the peak of their return for this song’s closing moments; the outro dives into deep, heavy basslines that straddle funk, Black Sabbath, and classical music. Play it at a party, and it’ll be a punk song your friends can dance to. Put on headphones with the lights off, and you’ll hear it for what it really is: a fearless drive through all of the band’s influences and the sound of their past skins being shed. “The Physical World” is a perfect blood boiler, a maddeningly fun song that captures the feel of everything before it while pushing into deeper, uncharted waters. If this is the sound the band is heading towards, may they never leave us again. –Dan Bogosian

3. “Black History Month”

From You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004)

Allegedly named after the month the song was first written, “Black History Month” wonderfully blends every trick up Death from Above 1979’s sleeve with their mix of lyrical anger and childishness: “Do you remember a time when this city was a great place for architects and dilettantes? A nice place for midwives and crossing guards?” Starting off with one of Grainger’s more danceable beats, the groove builds for nearly four minutes before leaving you screaming for more, wishing that the song went on and on. –Dan Bogosian

2. “Blood on Our Hands”

From You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004)

DFA 1979 is at their best when their dancey noise rock roots come to the forefront. Their best showing in the noisecore category is You’re a Woman‘s middle track, “Blood on Our Hands”– a track that could quite possibly be an indirect influence on the Rhode Island noisecore scene that birthed bands like Arab on Radar and The Chinese Stars. Grainger’s voice has the anger and spit controls turned up until it’s all distortion and piss and vinegar. He and Keeler are screaming a revenge/love scorn screed over a completely unrelenting assault of their instruments. Just to make sure you get that the narrator is fucking livid, the song starts with a grating string slide into a middle-finger verse of “I’m leaving while you turn away/ In the basement is where I’m gonna stay/ There is blood in all the things I say/ Will you hate me if I stay this way?” In any other hands, this could be an almost touching slow track of love lost, but in the tightly clenched fist of DFA 1979, you know that in the end the walls are going to be filled with holes, and every lamp is going to be broken. It’s exactly how they like to leave a scene. –Nick Freed

1. “Romantic Rights”

From You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine (2004)

DFA 1979’s first single from You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine was “Romantic Rights”, the screeching, howling, ass-kicking second track from the album. For most listeners, this is the song that they first heard, and the one that epitomizes the band’s sound. Keeler’s opening bass line of low hits coupled with harsh scratching while Grainger slams a four-on-the-floor beat underneath instantly makes your fists clench and foot pound. Once the song gets moving, Grainger sings with a cool yet guttural groan, “C’mon girls I know you know what you want/ C’mon, c’mon now give ’em all shhh” as things warm into the chorus screams of “I don’t need you/ I want you.” The song then fully solidifies in the bridge breakdown as Keeler’s bass once again takes center stage as Grainger sings in a sex-fueled whisper, “Come here baby I love your company/ We could do it and start a family.” He then launches back into his full-throated scream for a final extended chorus.

It’s sex and sweat and nonstop pummeling. It’s a primal rock song. It has just enough grime to make it tantalizing but is still coated with hooks and melody enough for it to not be pure sleaze. There are no other songs in their catalog that combine all the great traits of both members into one amazing three-plus-minute track. You come in clean and get shot out a sweaty wreck at the end, and you’re all the happier for it. –Nick Freed

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