Happy 10th Anniversary to Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut album Vampire Weekend, originally released January 29, 2008.
In 2007, a year before the release of Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut album Vampire Weekend, a nascent internet community of music enthusiasts was buzzing about four kids in Brooklyn. They opened for The Shins, performed on late night talk shows, and were reviewed in the New York Times, all before the album’s official release date. Vampire Weekend would be well received critically and launched the careers of the chamber pop quartet of snarky East coasters.
Since the release of their debut, Vampire Weekend have put out two more albums (2010’s Contra, 2010 and 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City), won a Grammy, spun off several solo projects, lost a member, and toured relentlessly. They became successful quickly, like many bands at the time, from internet hype and a peripheral connection to the Brooklyn music scene.
Formed in 2006 by guitarist/singer Ezra Koenig and drummer/percussionist Chris Tomson, Vampire Weekend started humbly in the dorms of Columbia University over a shared love of punk rock and African music. Rostam Batmanglij and Chris Baio rounded out the group, and they began recording and playing all over suburban New Jersey and the Upper West Side.
My personal history with Vampire Weekend certainly biases my opinion. It felt very convenient that a bunch of pompous liberal arts nerds put out a hyper-catchy pop album the same time I was a pompous liberal arts nerd. It was a moment when my peers had a strong hold on the internet and were disseminating free music publicity faster than Warner Music Group could write payola checks. Vampire Weekend rode the wave of the DIY renaissance, producing ten songs quickly, working them out at shows around New York City, all which led up to Vampire Weekend’s release in January 2008.
On Vampire Weekend, one can easily get lost in the footnotes. The amount of esoteric references is unusual for a pop album and seems a bit lost in translation at times. Their frame of reference is covered in Ivy. Lyrical inaccessibility is waved off. But their deep-cut lyrics are so embedded in infectious pop hooks, that it’s hard to call them snobs. Their impish prep aesthetic felt original, in a time before the phrase “normcore” had been coined. But the performative preppiness was at a cost and debatably problematic when coupled with their overt Afro-pop influences. The accusations of “cultural smash and grab” wore on their likability, but never prevented them from having a wide appeal and devoted fan base.
The battle for authenticity is always ripe for discussion in pop music and Vampire Weekend is keen to encourage the discourse. Their debut album is the meeting place of copying a cool riff and cultural appropriation. That element of cherry picking has always been in the atmosphere of Vampire Weekend, something they’ve answered to with a sort of shrugged-off, Postmodern argument.
On Vampire Weekend, the band was collegiate in an optimistic, “eat the rich” kind of way. They come off as English majors with punk attitudes, knowing how to pass while still being in on the joke. In “Walcott,” they drop the line “Fuck the bears out in Provincetown,” assuming the listener is well-versed in Cape Cod gay enclaves; or rather, mocking someone who would make that assumption in the first place. In “Oxford Comma,” the lyrics are colloquial slang (“Why would you lie about how much coal you have?”) and millennial shorthand (“Lil Jon, he always tells the truth”). Ridiculing classism by way of finicky grammar feels satisfying in a tidy, three minute pop song with a flashy guitar rift.
Each track on Vampire Weekend is distinctive, likely a product of the piecemeal production. Songs like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” their first single, stand out for their perky, lilting Afro sway. Just shy of homage to Graceland, Koneig’s breathy, boyish vocals and the African inspiration draw a clear line to Paul Simon. Vampire Weekend are less wistful than Simon; they swap his malaise for wide-eyed cynicism. Their echoing drums and clear strumming define the album as much as the unconventional global sound.
The bounce of “A-Punk” reveals clear punk influences. “Campus” and “Walcott” have the same bounding energy, making for perky rock. “M79” is ambitious and fun, a precursor to the style on later albums. But for all the jaunty pop, Vampire Weekend still provide a deft, yet somber portrait of their peers in “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance.” Koenig’s cynical sketch of “the pinstripe men of morning,” gently moves along sparse instrumentation. The strings and harpsichord at the end close the album with genteel flourish and a wink.
It’s hard to say if Vampire Weekend would be as acclaimed in 2018 as they had been in 2008. Popular opinion of the group has been favorable, but it’s easy to be wary of something that toes the line of a moral dilemma. Their actions outside of music, using their platform for good, creative endeavors, hasn’t done much to deter a cynical take. Despite several cries of “we aren’t WASPs,” their polos are still evocative of something a little unrelatable. But then, they make a punchy, joyful pop album and most of that fades to the background.
Recently, producer and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij left the group (he continues to collaborate with singer Ezra Koenig). The band remains largely unchanged in style and has an album to be released shortly by XL Recordings. Koenig and Chris Tomson campaigned for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid. All members of the group have released music for separate projects.
In the ten years since 2008, despite a different climate with an ear tuned to the offensive, Vampire Weekend’s debut has aged nicely into one of the best DIY pop albums of the past 20 years.