1. “Letter From an Occupant” (2000)
Before “Letter From an Occupant,” Carl Newman was an obscure songwriter who’d fronted two bands that were generally ignored outside of the Canadian indie scene, and Neko Case was a modestly successful alt-country singer. After it, Newman immediately established himself as a genius of power pop, and Case ascended to badass rock-goddess status. They complete each other here — Newman’s song is so energetic and bold that it boasts two different choruses, and Case’s brassy, powerhouse vocals separated the band from the demure amateurism that characterized a lot of indie music at the time.
2. “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” (2000)
The earliest incarnation of The New Pornographers was basically a party band, and their first major tour typically inspired a lot of drunken dancing. “Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” captures the spirit of this era – jaunty and cheerful, but with a slight edge of debauchery.
3. “Mass Romantic” (2000)
“Mass Romantic” is one of those songs that just barrels through your speakers, and you have no choice but to get carried along with its momentum. It’s a showcase for Case’s voice mostly, but Newman takes the lead at the climax, singing “this boy’s life among the electrical lights” as though he’s willing himself into rock stardom.
4. “Jackie” (2000)
The first Dan Bejar song to appear on a New Pornographers record is still among his best, even if you count all the gems he’s written for his main band, Destroyer. Bejar comes off like an eccentric college professor in the verses — he seems to be addressing Jacques Derrida — but the choruses and bridge take full advantage of the band’s skill for harmony.
5. “The Laws Have Changed” (2003)
When Newman got around to writing Electric Version, the second New Pornographers record, he was fully aware of what he had in Neko Case and wrote a handful of songs that essentially used the force of her voice the way an alt-rock band would stomp on a distortion pedal to beef up a chorus. “The Laws Have Changed” uses this trick brilliantly in the service of lyrics that seem to parallel the primogeniture of the pharaohs with the power of political scions like George W. Bush.
6. “It’s Only Divine Right” (2003)
Newman’s fascination with the Bush family also turned up in this hyperactive rocker, which is focused on the unchecked privilege of George W. Bush’s daughters. ‘“It’s Only Divine Right’ was actually mainly inspired by reading about the Bush twins when one of them was in college in Austin, you’d always read about them getting arrested for trying to score beer,” Newman told Pitchfork in 2005. “For some reason that just made me think of the decadent children of the emperor, like that was somehow the beginning of the fall.”
7. “Testament to Youth in Verse” (2003)
Out of all Dan Bejar’s songs for The New Pornographers, this may be the one that comes closest to matching the aesthetic of Newman both tonally and structurally. It’s bright and upbeat, and ends on what may still be the most majestic harmony part they’ve ever recorded. Of course, Bejar’s ironic sense of humor comes through in that the harmony part is mainly just them all singing the word “no” over and over again.
8. “Sing Me Spanish Techno” (2005)
“Sing Me Spanish Techno” is a perfect example of the way Newman’s often oblique and cerebral lyrics can take on an unexpected emotional resonance. It’s hard to say exactly what this song is about, but the lines about refusing one’s calling and “listening too long to one song” hint at a disappointment and frustration with one’s self that anyone can recognize.
9. “Twin Cinema” (2005)
The title track of the band’s most popular album stands as the finest example of Newman’s ability to take a blunt rock riff and add a few layers of sophisticated detail without compromising its simple charm.
10. “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” (2005)
Bejar’s notional sequel to his song from the band’s debut has a dizzying quality, with its very mid-’60s Beatles riff spiraling out into a glorious piano hook punctuating the choruses.
11. “The Bleeding Heart Show” (2005)
Newman’s most famous ballad doesn’t follow the arc of a traditional pop song — it moves from one section to another without retracing much ground — but every part of it is gorgeous, and the big “hey la, hey la” finale is incredibly cathartic.
12. “Myriad Harbour” (2007)
“Myriad Harbour” is a big production that somehow feels very loose and casual. Bejar’s lyrics are about visiting Manhattan and trying to live up to the city’s historical image of coolness but feeling a bit stressed out by that self-imposed pressure when he can’t quite inhabit the vibe of Lou Reed or Bob Dylan.
13. “Adventures in Solitude” (2007)
“Adventures in Solitude” is the first big showcase of the band’s fourth main vocalist, Kathryn Calder, who joined the band when they made Twin Cinema. It’s one of the most delicate songs they’ve ever recorded, and one of their most emotional too, as Newman and Calder sing about trying to support and show love for a very depressed friend. Calder’s lead at the end is lovely, and so pure in its empathy that it can move you to tears.
14. “All the Old Showstoppers” (2007)
“All the Old Showstoppers” is The New Pornographers at their most majestic, but the key to the song’s appeal is in how easily Newman falls into the role of the everyman at the center of this grand epic.
15. “Challengers” (2007)
Newman mainly used Case’s vocals for their raw power in the early days of the band, but as he went along he started writing ballads that could showcase the vulnerability and melancholy she often displays on her solo records. “Challengers” is a song Newman wrote about meeting his eventual wife, and Case nails the complex and contradictory emotions of his lyrics — excited by the possibilities, nervous that it might not work out, and apprehensive because both of them were tied to someone else at the time.
16. “Moves” (2010)
“Moves,” the opening track from Together, effortlessly shifts between Hollywood bombast and this sort of dazed affect. The “slo-o-o-ow do-o-o-own la-a-a-a-die-e-e-es slo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ow do-o-o-o-o-o-o-own” hook is one of Newman’s best and most inventive hooks, not just for its novelty value, but for the way it seems to push the song upward toward the next catchy melody like an escalator moving between floors.
17. “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” (2010)
“Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” is an upbeat number in which Calder’s vocals mirror the infatuated tone of the music, while Newman shadows her parts with a more cynical or ambivalent tone. This suits the lyrics very well, as they balance an awareness of the arbitrary nature of coupling against the joy of really connecting with someone.
18. “We End Up Together” (2010)
There’s a sense of inevitability and fatalism throughout “We End Up Together,” the final track on Together. Newman’s lyrics suggest that our genes, our engagement in culture and society, our every stupid decision leads to some unavoidable point, and then we die. It’s not a romantic or beautiful sentiment, but it feels very powerful and convincing in the context of a huge, sweeping ballad.
19. “Dancehall Domine” (2014)
“Dancehall Domine,” a cut from the band’s new album Brill Bruisers, reconnects with the frantic energy and new wave spirit of the band’s early work while feeling a lot more polished and refined. The lyrics revisit the idea of a person dealing with fame, which has been a recurring theme in the band’s catalog since the very beginning.
20. “Backstairs” (2014)
Brill Bruisers marks a new phase in The New Pornographers’ body of work in which the music has become a bit colder and more electronic, and the approach to vocals has shifted in favor of having multiple singers take the lead over the course of a song. “Backstairs” is a great example of this, as Newman, Case, and Calder take on interlocking parts their play to the specific strengths of their voices.
21. “War on the East Coast” (2014)
Bejar’s “War on the East Coast” is a bit darker than a typical New Pornographers song, but it’s perfectly at home on Brill Bruisers with its up-tempo new wave arrangement. The video for the song plays on this, with Newman lip-synching Bejar’s parts while trying to come off like a badass rock star.
22. “You Tell Me Where” (2014)
The finale of Brill Bruisers starts off fairly minimal, with just a chilly arpeggiated synth part and Newman’s voice over very light percussion, but it gradually builds into one of the most powerful anthems in the band’s discography. The climax is all mixed emotions, as Newman and Case sing active and confident parts while Calder sings the more ambiguous line “If I could change and become what you want me / Do you think we could finally be done?”