Indie music is frequently mocked for its pretentiousness. After all, what other vaguely-defined genre seemingly awards points based on obscurity and is full of songs that sound like they were written with a thesaurus in one hand and an encyclopedia in the other?
The following songs don’t really shatter this stereotype. At least they’ll teach you some new words.
10. Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
“Words not yet intended to identify emotion
Scrawling bold and oblique in my head”
“The title hum of fondness like a spike-wave oscillator”
Scrawling – To hastily write down
Oblique – Indirect or diverging, also means slanted
Spike-wave oscillator – A pattern of brainwaves that occur when someone is having a seizure
Starting us off is the title track from Parquet Court’s Sunbathing Animal, where the verses above are frantically sung to the point that they’re almost incomprehensible. While this track features relatively-high level vocabulary, its instrumentation largely consists of a single power chord played over and over, creating a nice contrast. It may not have the highest concentration of academic words on this list, but terms like “spike wave oscillator” likely provoked a number of Google searches.
9. The Last Shadow Puppets – Aviation
“Where’d you want it?
It’s your decision honey, my planet or yours?
Annalise’s dulcet tone”
“The colourama in your eyes
It takes me on a moonlight drive”
Sectoral heterochromia – When one part of the iris in the eye is a different color than the rest
Dulcet – Sweet, pleasing
Colourama – A spectrum of different colors
“Aviation” is an all-around great song, and its unconventional word choices to describe someone’s eye color and voice only solidify this. Contrary to how it looks above, it doesn’t even sound that awkward when singer Miles Kane mentions “sectoral heterochromia” – though this might be due to his thick English accent. The Last Shadow Puppets are known more for making songs that sound like potential James Bond themes than high-vocabulary lyrics, so “Aviation” is all the more unique.
8. Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian At Best
“I’m resentful, I’m having an existential time crisis”
“Erroneous, harmonious, I’m hardly sanctimonious”
Existential – Something related to your own existence, like contemplating the meaning of life
Erroneous – Incorrect, wrong
Harmonious – In harmony, getting along
Sanctimonious – Self-righteous, thinking you’re better than others
“Pedestrian at Best” has all of the features that make Courtney Barnett a great songwriter – a stream of consciousness style of singing and clever lyrics over rock instrumentation. It also features some pretty crafty word choices, which is impressive considering how the lyrics sound like they were written on the fly. They may not be the most obscure or sophisticated words on this list, but terms like those above regularly appear in Barnett’s lyrics and make her music definitely worth listening to closely.
7. Titus Andronicus – Ecce Homo
“You know a life is laborious, but a minute’s manageable
When all the figures are fungible and all feelings are malleable”
“Bearded and bedecked in army surplus”
Laborious – Labor intensive, needing a lot of work
Fungible – An item that can be easily replaced by a similar item and not lose value
Malleable – Easily changed
Bedecked – Decorated or adorned
First off, the title “Ecce Homo” is Latin for “behold the man” – a phrase Pontius Pilate said when presenting Jesus before his crucifixion. That’s a pretty good start for a song filled with a plethora of cultural references and phrases like those above. And like Courtney Barnett, Titus Andronicus even namedrop “existential angst” in this song, which is essentially the subject of “Ecce Homo” (and many other Titus Andronicus songs). While the band uses high-level vocabulary like the above example somewhat rarely, they do jam-pack their albums with relatively obscure historical, cultural and literary allusions. After all, they are named after a Shakespeare play.
6. Bright Eyes – Firewall
“I do my best to sleep through the caterwaul
The classicist, the posture in avant-garde”
“I’m doing fine, I’m back in the palisades
Life’s a wash, a pastoral school play”
Caterwaul – The moaning sound cats make, or to make a shrill noise like a cat.
Classicist – Someone who studies the classics, that is ancient Greek and Latin texts
Avant-Garde – Unusual or experimental, especially regarding art
Palisades – A vertical stake fence, usually made of wood
Pastoral – Rural and simple, rustic
In case you don’t want to listen to all 7 minutes of this track, “Firewall” starts with a somewhat incomprehensible rant about conspiracy theories and then drops verses with words like those above. It’s the opening track on final Bright Eyes album The People’s Key, which was unexpectedly full of both pop melodies and some pretty highbrow lyrics. Several tracks including “Firewall” allude to Rastafarianism (it later mentions “I and I” and the Lion of Judah), and you have track titles like “Jejune Stars” (jejune means dull or insignificant). Many know Bright Eyes for frontman Conor Oberst’s early angst, but his lyrics got a lot more refined with age.
5. Yeasayer – I Am Chemistry
“I’m digoxin from the foxglove plant
The last remaining VX from Anniston
I’m NaCN and I’m DDT
Tap into your spine
I am a chemistry”
“It’s a gas, a sarin for high tea
A C4H10FO2P puts you on your knees
A sulfur dichloride with ethylene
I say it again: I am a chemistry”
Digoxin – A drug used to treat heart conditions, fatal in large doses
Foxglove – A poisonous plant that contains the drug above
VX from Anniston – VX is a toxic gas used in chemical warfare that was stored at Anniston Army Depot
NaCN – Sodium cyanide, a poison
DDT – Another poison, previously used to kill and repel bugs
Sarin – Another toxic gas used in chemical warfare (recently used in Syria in 2013)
C4H10FO2P – The full chemical formula for sarin
Sulfur Dichloride with Ethylene – This is mustard gas, yet another toxic gas used in chemical warfare
Alright, this entry might not have the highest vocabulary in the traditional sense, since all the terms above are the names of poisonous chemicals, but come on! Unless you’re a chemist, you probably had to look up at least half of these to see what they were – I mean it spells out two chemical formulas. The song even goes on to mention two more poisonous plants later – oleander and Quaker buttons. While listing a bunch of poisons at once may seem forced, it’s a decent psychedelic song overall. It’s also fairly unique, as no other Yeasayer songs are anywhere near this academic.
4. Andrew Bird – Tenuousness
“Tenuous at best was all he had to say
When pressed about the rest of it, the world that is
From proto-Sanskrit Minoans to Porto-centric Lisboans”
“And to their minds a sharpened axe
Is brushed upon the Uralic syntaxes”
“When Copraphagia was writ
Know when to stand know when to sit”
Tenuous – Thin, weak, or flimsy
Proto-Sanskrit – The first form of Sanskrit, an Indian language that’s been around for millennia
Minoans – An ancient Mediterranean civilization whose writing system remains undeciphered
Porto-centric Lisboans – Lisboans are residents of Lisbon, Portugal, which is a port city
Uralic – A family of languages that includes Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian
Copraphagia – Literally eating poop
Despite a reference to eating poop (presumably a reference to dog training), “Tenuousness” alludes to ancient civilizations and far off locations, making it all around pretty scholarly. Even Andrew Bird himself noted that he tried to make this song’s title apt by loosely stringing together the words –a tenuous connection. Bird is fairly well known for high-vocabulary lyrics and wordplay though, which he light-heartedly references on the title track of his newest album Are You Serious?
3. British Sea Power – Be Gone
“Agonic lines, ascendances and amatory tendencies
From here to heart arrhythmias
Oh don’t you know we’re not like this
I love your iridescent sheen
As it reflects you and it reflects me”
Agonic Line – A longitudinal line without magnetic variation (i.e. magnetic north is true north)
Amatory – Expressive of romantic or sexual love
Heart Arrhythmias – Irregular heartbeats
Floreal – Bear with me, but I think this is a reference to the month of Floréal in the French Republican calendar, which was a short lived calendar introduced by French revolutionaries that put time on the decimal system.
Iridescent – A surface that changes color when viewed from different angles, like a soap bubble.
On top of all the a-word alliterations going on here, “Be Gone” might be the only song that references the French Republican Calendar (also known as the Jacobin Calendar). As you could probably guess, a band named “British Sea Power” was going to have some pretty intellectual lyrics, and it’s hard to get more intellectual than this.
Okay fine, they do get more intellectual – this track is on the same album (Open Season) as a song called “Oh Larsen B,” which is literally about the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica.
2. Of Montreal – So Begins Our Alabee
“The aria is bleeding and the boyish voice is leaving.”
“The chrysalis is breaking and the superego’s waking.
I’ve been a gloomy Petrarch, with a quill as weepy as Dido.
You’re my mousy aesthete, you’re my buoyant cherub, it’s true.
And I never want to be your little friend, the abject failure.”
Aria – A vocal solo, usually in opera
Chrysalis – The case that holds an insect in its pupal stage, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly
Superego – A Sigmund Freud term that refers to a person’s conscience, or the critical part of the psyche
Petrarch – An Italian Renaissance poet and scolar
Dido – The founder and first queen of Carthage (ancient Tunisia), described in Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid
Aesthete – One with a special appreciation of the arts and beauty
Abject – Shameful, hopeless, miserable
To be honest, this list could have easily been comprised of nothing but of Montreal songs, since the verses above are actually what a majority of their lyrics are like, but I wanted to give other bands a chance. “So Begins Our Alabee” definitely wins the density award though, for dropping most of the words above in the span of a few sentences. The song is likely about lead singer Kevin Barnes’ daughter, Alabee, yet it might be a while before she gets the references to Italian Renaissance poets and ancient queens. And as of Montreal are known to do, the incredibly high-vocabulary lyrics are buried beneath catchy and pop-tuned melodies. Their track titles alone have been packed with SAT-level words for at least the past decade, and their newest album Innocence Reaches contains at least three tracks that allude to French literature. Reading and looking up of Montreal’s lyrics will definitely expand your vocabulary and cultural knowledge.
They were only upstaged by one other band…
1. The Decemberists – The Infanta
“Here she comes in her palanquin
On the back of an elephant”
“And we’ll all come praise the infant”
“Seething spite for this live largesse”
“A phalanx on camelback
Thirty ranks on a forward tack”
“Ride the wives of the king of Moors
And the veiled young virgin, the prince’s betrothed”
“From all atop the parapets blow a multitude of coronets
Melodies rhapsodical and fair”
“And above all this falderal
On a bed made of chaparral
She is laid, a coronal placed on her brow”
Palanquin – An enclosed seat with poles on its base, usually carried by a group of people
Infanta – The daughter of a king or queen in Spain and Portugal
Largesse – Generously giving away money or gifts
Phalanx – A rectangular military formation
Tack – Anything that goes on a riding animal, like a saddle or reins
Moors – The Muslim inhabitants of North Africa that ruled southern Spain from the 8th to 15th centuries
Betrothed – Engaged to be married
Parapets – A wall along a balcony, roof, or tower
Rhapsodical – Highly enthusiastic
Falderal – Something useless or trivial
Chaparral – A forest of shrubs
Coronal – A crown
If you’ve ever listened to the Decemberists, you probably had a suspicion that one of their songs would be the number one entry on this list. Like most Decemberists songs, “The Infanta” tells a story; in this case, the song is about the grand celebration of a royal daughter, presumably in medieval times. They match this unconventional subject matter with equally unconventional diction, pumping out a seemingly never-ending stream of words that most listeners had likely never encountered before. To this day, I still associate the word “parapet” with singer Colin Meloy’s distinctive voice. This song opens the album Picaresque, which is itself a high-level word (it means a story that revolves around a roguish, commoner hero). The band’s latest releases may have toned down the quantity of dictionary-necessitating words, but they remain one of the most vocabulary-enhancing bands out there.