Here’s a spoiler for our upcoming list of the best songs of the 2000s: The Fiery Furnaces aren’t on it. To be honest, I didn’t include a Fiery Furnaces song on my own ballot of the 50 best songs of the 2000s, and when I realized I could live without my favorite Furnaces tunes on my personal list, it was clear that they had no shot at a broader consensus. I’m not sure if anyone voting on this list even particularly like the Fiery Furnaces, nevermind loves them. Even I, a committed fan who has seen them live multiple times and bought multiple Fiery Furnaces T-shirts, can’t really get through Blueberry Boat.
But among the many things I love about this band is the fact that—to date, with the caveat that reunions have become a seemingly non-negotiable part of a rock band’s life cycle—they are a prolific musical act that nonetheless is confined almost entirely to a single decade. There are certainly other bands that are pretty much of the 2000s, but most of them have some kind of asterisk: Rilo Kiley put out all of their albums in the 2000s, but they put out their first EP in 1999, and their belated swan-song rarities compilation appeared in 2013. The White Stripes did most of their best and biggest work in the 2000s, but their first album did come out in 1999. The entire body of the Fiery Furnaces’ recorded work—six studio albums, one album-sized EP, and the requisite Double Live record, plus assorted odds and ends—came out between 2003 and 2009. They played some shows in 2010 and early 2011, but there was no more new music. The band’s core siblings members, vocalist Eleanor Friedberger and mulit-instrumentalist Matthew Friedberger, went on to make a bunch of solo albums separately. Eleanor put out a great record this very year. No one asks her when the Fiery Furnaces are getting back together.
As much as I love the cleaner, clearer sound Eleanor has pursued on her own, there are brilliant moments throughout the Fiery Furnaces catalog, and they kept me company throughout the back half of the 2000s. As an appetizer to our full 2000s list coming later this week, here’s the rare SportsAlcohol.com music list presided over entirely by one weirdo fan.
The Ten Best Fiery Furnaces Songs of the 2000s, and Also All Time
10. “I’m Gonna Run”
Gallowsbird’s Bark, 2003
With their sibling dynamic and the ramshackle sound of Gallowsbird’s Bark, the Fiery Furnaces were initially pegged as kind of a quirky garage-rock act. This may have been due to a garage-rock saturation that left a lot of critics and fans with garage-tinted shades on their faces. What’s great about “I’m Gonna Run” is that its jaunty, garage-y delivery actually describes what sounds a lot like someone at their wits’ end working at an office: “I slit my wrists with my Swingline; copied myself 500 times. I pierced my ears with a three-hole punch; ate twelve-dozen donuts for life.” I think one reason I respond so well to the Fiery Furnaces and their otherwise-unalike contemporaries the Hold Steady is that I get the distinct impression the people in these bands have worked real jobs. It’s not a requirement; I still like Is This It despite the fact that no Stroke has ever punched a clock in his beautiful stupid life. But maybe I do begrudge it a little. I can’t begrudge the Fiery Furnaces, no matter how difficult they get.
Widow City, 2007
I remember stopping by Sound Fix to buy Widow City on release day—it would have still been a Tuesday then—in 2007. Or did I pick it up at Permanent Records because they put it out a day or two early? Sometimes my neighborhood record stores both did this, and I could never tell if it was tacitly approved by the labels or not, or if they’d even know, or have a choice about whether to care. I’d have to pick first-day records up on the way home from work, because there were so few Manhattan record stores at this point, so if one of the stores put them out a day early, it was a huge bonus because that meant I could listen to the albums on my commute the day of release, instead of spending the day knowing a new album I wanted was out there in the world but not available to me until the evening.
8. “Even in the Rain”
I’m Going Away, 2009
A lot of indie rock in the 2000s wound up surprisingly pop-influenced—surprising, anyway, coming off of the 1990s, when the indie and indie-like rock was always positioned as a rebuke to poppier stuff, causing pop’s own rebuke in the late ’90s, etc. I can’t say that “Even in the Rain” is an especially pop song, but it does use key-changes, those cheap dramatic devices on so many pop songs, to its own weird little ends. Lots of Fiery Furnaces songs do this, presumably to some listeners’ great vexation. But this is probably the most epically committed employment of the technique. They wind up with a song that is both anthemic and off-kilter, two 2000s indie tastes that taste great together.
7. “Benton Harbor Blues”
Bitter Tea, 2006
Sometimes it’s nice to get out of the city. So much of the indie rock of the 2000s came from New York, especially/eventually Brooklyn, and the Fiery Furnaces were no exception. Eleanor Friedberger lived in my neighborhood, my exact neighborhood of less than three square miles, for a large chunk of the time I lived here, and she talks about vividly in Meet Me in the Bathroom, an invaluable and exhausting history of The Scene at That Time (and sings about it even better on her first solo record). Yet the Furnaces don’t particularly sound like Brooklyn, which helps explain why they never really broke big on a national level (or even, sometimes, on a local level; I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a well-known band at so many NYC shows that weren’t sold out). Sometimes this manifests in wildly experimental stripped-down art-student versions of prog rock, but sometimes, as on “Benton Harbor Blues,” the weird little flourishes—a long intro that trails off before the song re-starts, some backwards-run vocals, a seven-minute running time—are just part of the woozy portraiture, here offering glimpses of a small town in Michigan. Divorced from the band’s reputation as difficult, this song is downright wistful.
6. “Here Comes the Summer”
“Remember,” goes a single-world refrain in the verses to this song, and it became weirdly totemic to the band: the name of their live album, part of a T-shirt I bought that says “Remember the Fiery Furnaces” in loping script. “Here Comes the Summer” is the second track on EP, which in true Fiery Furnaces fashion is (a.) by most standards album-length and (b.) easily one of their best, most accessible, and most cohesive releases, slipped out in between their two least listenable records. I wish had the strength of character to include something from Rehearsing My Choir or Blueberry Boat on this list, but I do not. As much as I like to turn up my nose at poptimism—just a little, not so far up that I can’t love “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne—I do need some kind of a hook, at least sometimes. The opening stretch of EP is actually close to my platonic ideal of album-making; the tracks all bleed into each other (and flow well after that point without formal overlap), but they’re distinctive and catchy in their own rights. This decade, the Song of the Summer competition was extracted from hazy sense memories and gut feelings to become more of an acknowledged sport, and while it’s definitely a fun sport, there’s something reassuring about a traditional Song of the Summer that doesn’t rely on Billboard consensus. Something you can put on seasonal mixtapes (mix CDs) (playlists) (Spotify playlists) for years to come. At the end, this song seamlessly transitions into another one called “Evergreen.” Yeah, that sounds about right.
5. “Keep Me in the Dark”
I’m Going Away, 2009
For a sometimes-obtuse band, I’m Going Away is a pretty unambiguous statement, even if it wasn’t necessarily acknowledged at the time as the final proper Fiery Furnaces record. I’m not sure if it was acknowledged as their best, either, but it is. It’s been too long since I’ve listened to it, but it has basically all of their charms—sticky keyboard riffs from Matthew, wonderful vocals from Eleanor, weirdo flourishes—with far less of the sonic gunk and experimental dead-ends. It feels so graceful that this band managed to put out six albums (seven if you count EP), basically one a year for the entire commercial existence, and actually built to something. Did you know that 17 years on, the Strokes still haven’t made six albums? And Rob might make the case for Room on Fire and I might say “Under Cover of Darkness” is one of their best songs, but I’m sure as hell that no one would make a case for any of their albums past their second being the best. I don’t mean to pick on the Strokes, here—if anything, Meet Me in the Bathroom gave me a little more affection for their methods and empathy for their situation. (They sound like they actually care in the book; every time I’ve seen them on TV after 2004 or so, they seem to be working hard to prove the opposite.) The truth is, very few bands of this era have a career that feels as complete as the Fiery Furnaces. The White Stripes managed six records, and there’s a certain simplicity to their decade-or-so arc, and their later stuff is pretty terrific, but Jack White’s (good) work since then does make their dissolution feel like more of a shame. The Hold Steady were having a productive decade until we got deeper into the 2010s and their interests seemingly splintered. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs just don’t make records very quickly; every one seems like it could be their last, which is its own kind of modern romance, but gives their career a real stop-start rhythm. TV on the Radio, who in Bathroom sound like the nicest group of people in any of these bands by far… they seem to make it work. They’re probably better than the Fiery Furnaces on most practical levels. I think they could make a record as good as Return to Cookie Mountain again; part of me thinks Nine Types of Light is that record. But these are all bands that draw much bigger crowds than the Friedberger siblings. I usually want bands I like to keep going pretty much no matter what; I’m not much of a “retire, bitch” guy as far as music goes. But it feels right that I’m Going Away ended things with this band. That on its own is an impressive feat to me.
4. “We Got Back the Plague”
Gallowsbird’s Bark, 2003
Speaking of great closers: This is from the first Furnaces album, but it’s the last track on it, and it has this plodding acoustic strumming that I absolutely love and I can’t quite explain why. My favorite Bright Eyes album is Cassadega, but even I have to admit that the shuffling folky-troubadour vibe seems to come way easier to the Friedbergers than to Conor Oberst, and that’s probably a damning indictment of Oberst (or how much I like Cassadega) on some level (you can ask my best friend Rob for more about me and damning and Cassadega). You know how Oberst was briefly tagged as “the new Dylan,” or probably more like “the new Dylan??” at some point after Beck got the same thing? Swear to god, it’s actually Eleanor Friedberger. Her intonations, lyrical range, and moments of both clarity and inscrutability absolutely bring Dylan to mind every time I listen to her at any length. This is a great fucking song.
3. “Duplexes of the Dead”
Widow City, 2007
OK, sounds nothing like Dylan in its rapid-fire drumming and swaggering guitar BUT check the way, in a song called “Duplexes of the Dead,” Eleanor opens the song by saying “I went on down into the duplexes the dead,” completely dropping “of” in a way that somehow feels both natural and deeply affected, like it was either a recording improvisation they decided to keep because they liked the take, or maybe a flub that they wound up recreating on future takes… who knows. Anyway, it’s very Dylan.
2. “Tropical Ice-Land” (EP version)
A revved-up remake of a song that first appeared on Gallowsbird’s Bark, this version of “Tropical-Iceland” pops up on EP and it’s a major improvement. It hints at a version of the band that could spaz out for up-tempo rock songs rather than spazzing into different keys and keyboard solos, like they were keeping the hits to themselves and the diehards for some reason. Very ’90s, guys. Very Oasis, in a way. And it still has the backward vocals.
1. “Police Sweater Blood Vow”
Bitter Tea, 2006
And again, very Dylan (the number of times Eleanor says “babe” alone!). This is what I almost put on my Best of the 2000s ballot. The chorus of “vibrate buzz buzz ring and beep, tell me babe, what time is it now!” might sound like kind of a nonsense chant at first, but I don’t know, isn’t that also kind of the history of cellular phones in the 2000s in a single jangly chorus? Goddammit. Now I’m listening to it again, wishing I could redo my ballot and throw another vote away.