LCD Soundsystem: A Beginner's Guide
For many overstimulated and underwhelmed New York hipsters, LCD Soundsystem provided the soundtrack for making sense of the late 2000s. Fusing art-rock, electronic experimentalism and seedy proto-punk flourishes with basic rock & roll fundamentals, LCD was to 2000s New York what the Velvet Underground and the Talking Heads were in their own eras. And their legacy is no less hefty nor contentious.
Formed in Brooklyn in 2002 by DFA Records co-founder James Murphy, the dance-punk heroes released three perfect albums of intelligent, alternative dance music (using real instruments!) in their initial run. It was a concise but intense catalog that provided a dry, witty voice (and a hypnotic beat) to a generation of hipsters, disco nerds and disillusioned shoegazers.
In less than a decade Murphy — along with key collaborators Pat Mahoney (drums), Nancy Whang (vocals), Tyler Pope (bass), Gavin Russom (synthesizer) and Al Doyle (guitar, synthesizer) — steadily built a massive cult following behind their Grammy-nominated full-lengths LCD Soundsystem (2005) and Sound of Silver (2005), not to mention a reputation as an unmatched live band, before reaching a high water mark in 2010 with their third album, This is Happening.
And then, in true punk fashion, just as they were reaching indie elite status, James Murphy announced the band was calling it quits, culminating in a farewell tour and sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden, as chronicled in the documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Five years later, on Christmas Eve of 2015, LCD Soundsystem made an unexpected return with the single “Christmas Will Break Your Heart.” Met with both jubilation and considerable derision, the comeback announcement was cemented with a headlining spot at Coachella 2016, a subsequent worldwide tour and the promise of future studio recordings.
Fast-forward to 2017, LCD have been gearing up for their long-promised fourth album, American Dream, out today on DFA and Columbia Records. To commemorate LCD Soundsystem’s memorable return, we revisit their crucial discography below.
LCD Soundsystem (2005)
It was back in 2002 when James Murphy dropped LCD Soundsystem’s first single, ”Losing My Edge,” a tongue-in-cheek diatribe that name-checks every essential band in his record collection. Despite friends telling Murphy not to release it, the song charted in the UK and became an underground dance favorite, and the next year they released “Give It Up,” followed by “Yeah” and “Movement” in 2004.
By the time LCD released their eponymous debut album in January 2005, the band was already regarded as underground hitmakers. Opening with their biggest hit yet, ”Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” the jam-packed two-disc set showed they could craft a cohesive full-length album while keeping the party going.
Pulling in high marks from critics, the album received Grammy nominations for Best Electronic/Dance Album and Best Dance Recording (for “Daft Punk is Playing at My House”). It’s a rowdy, albeit nerdy, dance party percolating with the band’s boundless influences — from acid house, disco and Krautrock to post-punk, garage rock and psychedelia. In particular, “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” and “Losing My Edge” are keystone texts defining Murphy’s self-conscious brand of cool for the growing culture fostered by LCD Soundsystem.
Essential Cuts: “Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” “Losing My Edge,” “Tribulations,” “Yr City’s A Sucker,” “Yeah (Crass Version)”
Sound of Silver (2007)
Sleeker, more serious and with a focused, streamlined sound that more cleverly masks its influences, Sound of Silver is the aural equivalent to liquid mercury.
This time around, LCD Soundsystem feel like a real band, in part because of the miraculously tight live drumming and keyboards of Pat Mahoney and Nancy Whang, respectively. It sounds as if a first-class band of session musicians is performing Daft Punk’s Discovery (which, funny enough, is exactly what Daft Punk later did with their 2013 album Random Access Memories).
At the heart of the album sit the 14-minute-long one-two punch of “Someone Great” leading into “All My Friends.” The former is a hypnotic minimalist techno meditation that builds incredible drama without giving in to climax, while the latter is LCD’s most triumphant song, a coming of age anthem that Pitchfork named the #1 song of 2007, and later ranked #2 on its Top 500 Tracks of the 2000s.
The album’s closing track, the slow-escalating piano ballad “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” is a complicated love letter to the band’s iconic, complex hometown. It’s the greatest sonic departure of LCD’s career, and an essential tune in their canon.
Sound of Silver earned universal critical acclaim, topped numerous year-end lists for the best album of 2007 and once again earned the band a Grammy nod.
Essential Cuts: “All My Friends,” “Someone Great,” “North American Scum,” “Us V Them,” “Time to Get Away,” “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”
This is Happening (2010)
This is Happening was, without a doubt, the most hyped album of the LCD Soundsystem’s career. The fact that James Murphy promised this album was “definitely better than the other two,” only gained weight when he also stated that it was likely LCD Soundsystem’s final album.
Recorded at Rick Rubin’s Mansion studio in Los Angeles and (where they enforced a white-only dress code to encourage creativity), the album finds the band distancing itself from their hometown and grappling with a level of popularity they never anticipated. As such, the album shares numerous qualities and comparisons with Berlin-era David Bowie, with critics calling it a ’70s art rock album for the present day.
With LCD Soundsystem sounding confident, sharp and cooler than ever, the album’s epic opening track, “Dance Yrself Clean,” begins with a three-minute long intro of self-conscious self-deprecation that explodes into a bombastic disco of wisdom and self-assured affirmation.
More than ever, Murphy is writing on two levels, with his wit and encyclopedic music knowledge remaining one of his strongest assets. ”Drunk Girls” works as both a frat house anthem and a biting criticism of excess culture. ”You Wanted a Hit” is one of the catchiest tunes on the album, while rejecting fame and the shadiness of the record industry.
True to James Murphy’s promise, This is Happening was widely accepted as LCD Soundsystem’s best work. And the whirlwind farewell tour tour that followed, leading up to the final show at Madison Square Garden, felt like the party of the century. Even though it wasn’t truly the end, for a while it felt like the perfect one.
Essential Cuts: “Dance Yrself Clean,” “I Can Change,”"Drunk Girls,” “You Wanted a Hit,” “Home”
American Dream (2017)
Before it was even made, LCD Soundsystem’s fourth album was faced a unique obstacle. Besides having to live up to three superlative albums, it had to overcome the betrayal felt by many fans miffed by the band’s reformation. With American Dream, they managed to extend their impeccable run.
Just like previous LCD Soundsystem records, American Dream is a hyper-contemporary recording that’s inseparable from the dark times it was created under, illustrating the inherent irony of its title and sunny artwork. Solemn and serious opener “oh baby” coos and comforts listeners (“You’re having a bad dream”), while title track “american dream” is a nostalgic, half-speed doo-wop that wouldn’t sound out of place on an episode of Twin Peaks.
The album’s most anthemic moments are “call the police” and “tonite,” which bring back warm memories of “All My Friends.” Murphy has never sounded less self-absorbed, and LCD has never sounding more like their spiritual predecessors New Order and Talking Heads.
Then there’s the austere 12-minute closer, “black screen,” which some have speculated is about James Murphy’s late friend and hero, David Bowie, who Murphy credits with encouraging him to reunite the band. It shares some haunting sonic similarities to Bowie’s final album, Blackstar (which Murphy worked on), and a lot of lyrical allusions to the regrets and complicated feelings tied up in saying goodbye to someone who is already gone.
As a whole, American Dream is an earnest, sincere set of songs that feel, as James Murphy explained in an apologetic letter to fans, like a band of friends who decided it just felt right to make more music together. For the fans who felt gypped or lied to when LCD Soundsystem went away for good and then reappeared five years later, American Dream is penance. For everyone else, it’s proof why we should all be grateful LCD Soundsystem is still making sense of things in 2017.
Essential Cuts: “oh baby,” “tonite,” “call the police,” “american dream,” “black screen”