Indie

The Best Songs By The War On Drugs, Ranked

Last week, The War On Drugs released their fifth album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore. It arrives as the band appears to be at the height of their career — they’re now a Grammy-winning, chart-topping act that will headline Madison Square Garden next year. Which means that they’re also due for an assessment of the catalog.

If I wanted to be efficient, I would simply declare that they have now passed The Five Albums Test and move on. But I feel like they’re worthy of more effort than that. Therefore, I have delved deep into the canon in order to discuss my 30 favorite tracks by one of the most popular and acclaimed rock groups in modern indie, and explore how they have evolved over the course of nearly 15 years.

Are we talking here about a creature void of form? Of course not. It’s just a list. Let’s dive in!

30. “A Pile Of Tires” (2010)

As far as many War On Drugs fans are concerned, the band’s career begins with 2014’s Lost In The Dream, their third album and commercial breakthrough. If they go way back, these fans might know 2011’s Slave Ambient, the capstone of their “early” period and a critical scene-setter for Dream. But as Granduciel himself admitted in a 2017 interview with CBS This Morning, the most inspiring time of his life occurred right before that, when he was collaborating with Kurt Vile in the aughts. It was then that both men hit upon an aesthetic that aspired simultaneously to the grand emotionalism of classic rock and the handmade, lo-fi intimacy of indie.

These guys loved the old bards of FM rock but knew they would never be one of those bards, because by the early 21st century that world was long gone. They came up in a post-apocalyptic era (for rock music anyway), and their approach was informed by this. So they set out to make music that sounded as though it was covered in the ashes of AOR — a faded, scuffed-up, heavily processed, and impenetrable mess of guitars, synthesizers and drum machines that might still, theoretically, coalesce into the kind of music that you hear at the gas station or between innings at a baseball game.

Bassist Dave Hartley was another critical player during this woodshedding period. He once described to me what it was like to hear Granduciel and Vile — who were both equally obsessed with Born In The U.S.A. and the first Suicide album — jamming together at the time.

“I think they both just really were tweaking these little things, taking a fucking drum machine and some delay pedals and a guitar and a couple other elements,” Hartley said, “and just tweaking them endlessly until their hearts felt the same thing that they felt when they listened to fucking ‘My Hometown’ or something.”

This song from 2010’s transitional Future Weather EP hints at the experimental nature of early Drugs – it doesn’t sound like the polished FM rock of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, but it conjures the outsized payoffs their records deliver on a more human, approachable level. The first time you hear “A Pile Of Tires,” it feels like a song you’ve heard a hundred times before, but it’s not slavishly re-creating the past. It occupies its own sonic and emotional terrain. That’s The War On Drugs at their best.

29. “Disappearing” (2014)

After TWOD’s 2008 debut Wagonwheel Blues, Vile decided to focus on his own career, though his solo work and The War On Drugs resided in the same lane for a while. (Just compare the early Vile standout “Freeway” to the early War On Drugs highlight “Arms Like Boulders.” It sounds like two halves of the same coin.) But by the time of Lost In The Dream, there was real daylight between the two Philly indie legends. At the risk of being reductive, Vile opted to veer deeper into eccentric indie rock — even his sharpest and catchiest numbers have a loopy, noisy edge. Granduciel, meanwhile, was edging away from a deconstructionist version of arena rock to a modern update of the form. This was the period when critics started comparing The War On Drugs to Dire Straits, and meaning it as a compliment.

But making this kind of rock music — in which success can only be achieved if the finished product makes you feel like “fucking ‘My Hometown” — is extremely difficult, as Granduciel learned during the torturous sessions for Dream. I remember talking to Granduciel in early 2014, about three months before the album dropped and not long after it was completed. Dream nearly broke him, he said. He would spend months reworking tracks in pursuit of that elusive “My Hometown” feeling, only to return to a demo he made one year prior. Inevitably, this desperation filtered into the songwriting.

“I like to make music that is pretty musically uplifting,” he told me. “I don’t know if I know how to make dark music.”

And yet depression — or the feeling of numbness that chronic mental illness can instill — permeates Dream, especially this song, in which the warm guitar and synth tones that Granduciel normally favors are replaced by icy six-string stabs that spiral deeper and deeper into a bottomless abyss.

28. “Holding On” (2017)

Granduciel’s problem during the Lost In The Dream sessions is that he spent a lot of time working on the record on his own at his house in Philadelphia. As anyone who works from home will tell you, it’s awfully hard to gain any perspective on your work when you live inside your office. You literally can’t escape. On A Deeper Understanding, however, he had the budget and the connections that a record deal with Atlantic affords. For an unrepentant gearhead like Granduciel, that meant access to some of the most famous and prestigious studios in New York and Los Angeles. While promoting the record, he talked excitedly about working at places like Boulevard in L.A., where parts of The Wall and Aja were recorded. As for this song, an early version was laid down at another iconic L.A. studio, EastWest, at the same time that the Foo Fighters were in the studio.

“One of the assistants was like, ‘Oh yeah, Grohl’s outside having a smoke. He said it sounds sweet,’” Granduciel later related. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s why you come here. So that you can turn it up to 200 db and then you hear that some dude you love and respect says it sounds sweet.’”

27. “It’s Your Destiny” (2011)

The War On Drugs were a discernible influence on other rock bands by the time A Deeper Understanding was released. “Holding On” specifically sounds like so many of the groups that have aped TWOD’s sound, whether it’s the incisive indie band Wild Pink, the fresh-faced British rocker Sam Fender, or the rejuvenated comeback albums cranked out in recent years by The Killers. But it took a while for Granduciel to perfect this synth-rock mix. This track from Slave Ambient is an early example of him hitting the mark, with some alluring rough edges left intact.

26. “Your Love Is Calling My Name” (2011)

Lost In The Dream is the start of The War On Drugs 2.0 era — their current lineup solidified during the support tour as the general interest rock audience embraced them. As for 1.0 TWOD, the story of the band’s early days was about finding a live unit that could interpret on stage what Granduciel was mostly making on his own on record. When I first interviewed him in 2011, he expressed worry about whether this song specifically would translate in a concert setting. A galloping rocker that melds the murky aggression of a psychedelic garage band with the arms-outstretched grandeur of ’80s U2, “Your Love Is Calling My Name” could’ve easily fallen flat live if The War On Drugs failed to earn (or fake) the confidence to pull it off. But from the beginning of their hard-touring days this has been one of their most reliable show-stoppers, as this excellent live version from 2019 attests.

25. “Harmonia’s Dream” (2021)

Here’s something I should have pointed out at the start: The War On Drugs is my favorite band of the last 10 years. It goes deeper than just liking their music. And it even goes deeper than the fact that I loved them when they played in clubs for audiences of 20 people, and I still love them as they prepare to headline Madison Square Garden next year. What I have with The War On Drugs is a total mind meld. I don’t think there has ever been a band whose aesthetic preferences have lined up so perfectly with my own. They are special to me because this is the band I would want to be in if I had any musical talent whatsoever. That was true of Wagonwheel Blues, and it’s true of I Don’t Live Here Anymore. This song sounds like Bob Dylan playing with Mark Knopfler and The E Street Band in Robert Pollard’s basement. Nothing could possibly be more my shit.

24. “I Was There” (2011)

This song really sounds like Bob Dylan playing with Mark Knopfler and The E Street Band in Robert Pollard’s basement.

23. “Taking The Farm” (2008)

Since Lost In The Dream, Granduciel has been refining his formula, stripping away the instrumental fragments and atmospheric clutter of the early records in favor of increasingly straight-forward pop-rock hooks. (To be clear: I mean “instrumental fragments and atmospheric clutter” in the best possible sense.) But the evolution that’s occurred during the 2.0 era can’t match the pronounced album-to-album changes that occurred in the midst of 1.0. The most significant development during this time, clearly, is the departure of Vile, who co-wrote this track from Wagonwheel Blues. Like any severed partnership in a rock band, it will always be fascinating for fans to imagine what would’ve happened had Granduciel and Vile remained together. As it is, they never really developed the yin-and-yang dynamic that Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy had in Uncle Tupelo, or Bob Mould and Grant Hart had in Hüsker Dü, at least not publicly. Then again, Granduciel and Vile also didn’t wind up hating each other.

22. “Show Me The Coast” (2008)

Let’s say Vile stays in The War On Drugs. It seems likely that this epic becomes the cornerstone of every set, the “Dark Star”/”Sister Ray”-style jam vehicle that sends every show into outer space, with Adam and Kurt fighting to see who is Jerry/Lou and who is Bob/Sterling in this scenario.

21. “Comin’ Through” (2010)

That timeline seems awfully enticing, but it probably doesn’t lead to Atlantic Records and Madison Square Garden. That timeline, the actual timeline, begins with the Future Weather EP, which includes early versions of two core tracks that later appeared on Slave Ambient, “Baby Missiles” and “Brothers.” This song meanwhile didn’t evolve beyond Future Weather, but it’s the sort of mid-tempo, vibe-y Americana number that Granduciel would eventually perfect by the middle of the decade.

20. “Lost In The Dream” (2014)

If you listen to enough War On Drugs songs, you will notice certain recurring images and phrases. There will be dreams. There will be rain. There will be oceans. The protagonist will be a wanderer whose inner pain is signified by all of those dreams, rain, and oceans. The point of these lyrics is not to stand alone; standing alone is in fact the opposite of the point. In War On Drugs songs, the lyrics are there to nudge the listener toward what really matter: the guitars, the synths, the drums (or drum machine), Adam’s vocals, and the overall sonic landscape that is designed to level you emotionally. This track is a good example. What does it mean when Granduciel sings, “When we were the same / We stroked our arms and we wore them thin / Ah the sadness it was in”? I’ve played “Lost In The Dream” at least 1,000 times and I’m not entirely sure. But I know it makes my heart hurt when Adam sings it while running his guitar through a Leslie speaker.

19. “Best Night” (2011)

More dreams! (The word appears in this song six times.) Also an example of how The War On Drugs always start albums with precisely the right tone-setter. Their side 1, track 1’s selections are always impeccable. Spoiler alert: The No. 1 song on this list is a side 1, track 1!

18. “Come To The City” (2011)

Here’s an excellent track 6 in The War On Drugs’ discography. It shouldn’t be confused with “Come For It” or “City Reprise #12” from the same album, Slave Ambient, though those songs are clearly derivations of “Come To The City.” This aspect of their albums — the demo-like instrumental segues between proper tracks — has been excised from their post-Lost In The Dream work. This is kind of a shame, because it’s like hearing the outtakes simultaneously with the actual album, a fascinating duality the band’s slicker later work has missed.

“I just like to show where songs originated from, or the process of trying a lot of different things out,” Granduciel explained to me in 2011. “Sometimes things would get spliced together, or they would exist on their own. I put a lot of those on because it gives it a flow, it kind of shows you where things originated from. I can show people without necessarily ever really making them into a song of their own.”

17. “Buenos Aires Beach” (2008)

Process is foregrounded on those early War On Drugs records. Before Granduciel came into his own as a craftsman of highly effective “simple” rock songwriting, he was all about the how of making records. He would go through his routine of playing with sounds, and songs would eventually emerge from all of the jockeying between instruments and various forms of recording technology. As he put it to me in 2011, this involved “starting with a lot of experimenting, taking the tape machines home, recording sessions with friends, and then sampling a lot of stuff off the tape machine and then re-sampling it and coming up with a backdrop. I wasn’t really sure where the song would go; then just, over time, you add stuff and write the song as you go, and keep arranging stuff.”

You can hear that process in this song, which sounds like guitars and drum machines taken from various Maxell tapes that have been Scotch-taped together into a surprisingly spritely melody. It’s also helpful to compare the recording from Wagonwheel Blues to the Live Drugs version, in which “Buenos Aires Beach” is reborn in shiny and crystal-clear fidelity.

16. “Arms Like Boulders” (2008)

The first War On Drugs song I ever heard, and their inaugural “hit,” as it were. At the time, I thought it sounded like Wilco, only the singer was aping “Rolling Thunder” era Dylan. In retrospect, the Wilco parallel has held true. Both bands are centered on an obvious figurehead. That figurehead’s strongest collaborator departed relatively early on. The bassist is the other senior member, and a kind of vice president of the band. The rest of the lineup settled in several years later, and has remained intact ever since.

15. “Burning” (2014)

The moment when the clouds part on Lost In The Dream. Outside of the album, this is one of the most purely joyful songs in the band’s catalog. For all of the Springsteen comparisons The War On Drugs’ garner, this is the only tune I can actually imagine The Boss performing: “Like a stranded kid in a doorway / Just burning / Yeah, we turn the light on.”

14. “I Don’t Wanna Wait” (2021)

I’ve heard more than a few people compare this song to Phil Collins, which I can only interpret as a compliment because Phil is a pop gangster. Though I think that comparison is ultimately a reach — it only works if Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois had somehow produced No Jacket Required. It is true however that I Don’t Live Here Anymore is their “hits” album, in that it has the highest number of songs that can stand outside of the proper record as solitary bangers. If “I Don’t Wanna Wait” had appeared on Slave Ambient or Lost In The Dream, it would have been buffeted with a long intro of droned-out synths and a long outro in which the guitar solo was extended another 30 to 45 seconds. (Actually, I wish the guitar solo was longer, though hopefully that will be rectified when they play the song live.) As it is, “I Don’t Wanna Wait” is the first War On Drugs song ever that demands to be played at your local roller rink.

13. “Thinking Of A Place” (2017)

I wish nearly every Adam Granduciel guitar solo was at least 30 to 45 seconds longer. The exception is the solo in this song, which was recorded live with the intention of eventually being overdubbed. But Adam liked it so much that he kept his knotty, warts-and-all take as is. Which was the right decision, because this guitar solo is precisely the right length.

12. “Red Eyes” (2014)

Along with “Holding On,” this is the track that people who rip off The War On Drugs most often rip off. It has all of their most recognizable sonic hallmarks — a big synth hook, a driving guitar that spirals into a squealing guitar solo, a motorik beat, a keening vocal. But the imitators always forget one crucial element, the thing that sends the music into the stratosphere, the secret sauce of The War On Drugs formula: “Woo!” The pretenders always leave out the “Woo!” But the “Woo!” is so important. If you are, in the parlance of a War On Drugs song, feelin’ pain in the rain and runnin’ through a dream by the ocean, it’s the “Woo!” that delivers transcendence. The “Woo!” is the hope of escape from this luminous hell. The “Woo!” is everything.

11. “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” (2021)

The songs from the latest War On Drugs album are going to suffer from some reverse recency bias on this list. If I re-do it in six months, this song might very well end up in the top 10. It feels like an all-timer, but I can’t quite justify placing it ahead of the songs I know are all-timers. But even at this point, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” sounds like a summation track in the catalog, the kind of tune people will regard as a definitive representation of the band’s overall aesthetic.

10. “Brothers” (2011)

Dave Hartley is the underrated secret weapon of The War On Drugs. As a bassist, he comes from the Adam Clayton/John McVie school of deep-in-the-pocket playing, providing each song with mile-wide, underlying grooves that push the music forward. He’s also been a steadying presence for Granduciel, the rock that’s kept him from drifting too far from the shore, the “brother” in The War On Drugs. After Wagonwheel Blues, Granduciel and Hartley formed the core of the live band, and one day they stopped to record a new track that had been worked out on the road. The original take of “‘Brothers” ended up on the Future Weather EP, though the re-worked version on Slave Ambient really took the song to the next level. It’s no wonder the song was embraced by The National — a band with two pairs of brothers — who used “Brothers” as entrance music during the High Violet tour.

9. “Baby Missiles” Future Weather version (2010)

Actually, Granduciel might disagree with that assessment. “For me, the definitive version is the Future Weather one, because I remember the way it was made and how I was feeling,” he told me about the competing “Brothers” in 2011. While I prefer the one on Slave Ambient, I actually think the version of “Baby Missiles” on Future Weather tops the redone track on the follow-up LP. Before “Red Eyes” or “Holding On,” this was the archetypal “big” War On Drugs anthem, though the jaunty electro-choogle rhythm belies a Suburbs-era Arcade Fire influence they would move away from by the time of Lost In The Dream. By then, Arcade Fire was no longer the go-to reference for nü-arena rock; it was The War On Drugs.

8. “Up All Night” (2017)

Another killer side 1, track 1. (The only side 1, track 1 not on this list is “Living Proof,” a good song that is unfortunately overshadowed by a run of about seven bangers that come immediately afterward on I Don’t Live Here Anymore.) Also an instructive example of Granduciel smuggling electronic elements into what’s ostensibly a heartland rock song, and then slicing and dicing the results with a pure noise guitar solo. Probably the most successful realization of one of Granduciel’s nuttiest (and most genius) ideas: “What if I re-imagined Empire Burlesque as if Bob Dylan actually enjoyed and understood technology?”

7. “Old Skin” (2021)

My favorite song from I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Though it really comes down to one moment for me. I’m sure you know which one. It comes once we’re a few minutes in. Adam is singing about feeling like his father over a circular piano lick. A synth part drifts in. Then Adam starts strumming his guitar. It’s all pretty dour but there’s something exciting going on. You feel it building toward something that can only be described as extremely War On Drugs-y. Then it happens — the drums come in. And all of a sudden you’re listening to side one of Damn The Torpedoes or side two of Born In The U.S.A. on a cassette blaring from a boombox in your bedroom on the most momentous night of your teenaged life.

The way the drums enter “Old Skin” is why I listen to music. That sound is what this band is all about. The meaning is not found in the lyrics; the meaning is that sound.

6. “Pain” (2017)

Granduciel’s ability to engineer small moments that feel big and dramatic in rock songs, like the one in “Old Skin,” remains his greatest talent. Much of the time he achieves those moments with his guitar. He does it with that noise-rock solo in “Up All Night.” And he also does it on the track after “Up All Night” on A Deeper Understanding.

“Pain” is among The War On Drugs’ most popular tracks on streaming platforms, which is kind of a miracle given that it’s one-third guitar solo. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but go back and listen: Adam starts ripping on guitar with about 1:45 left, but it’s so musical and dreamy that by the end you wish it would go on for at least another 1:45.

5. “Strangest Thing” (2017)

You want another showstopping moment from A Deeper Understanding? Look no further than the second guitar solo — not to be confused with the first, also excellent guitar solo — that kicks in around 4:28. I don’t know if there is a piece of music in this band’s canon that I have played more often. “Majestic” doesn’t do it justice; “grandiloquent” seems a touch too grandiloquent for the occasion but it will have to do. This is not the same War On Drugs that used to piece together songs from dozens of different cassette tapes loaded with lo-fi jams. This is the 2.0 War On Drugs that makes songs you can imagine hearing after Bruce Willis saves the world in Armageddon.

4. “Eyes To The Wind” (2014)

While Granduciel is rightly celebrated as the rarest of all phenomena in modern indie — a guitar hero — his value as a vocalist is less heralded. But his surprisingly evocative voice, which alternates between a pained whisper and a more urgent, reedy determination, functions as another essential element in this band’s sonic landscapes. It’s not so much what Granduciel says as how he delivers the songs and makes them land as impressionistic emotional statements.

During the making of Lost In The Dream, this song drove home the importance of Granduciel’s vocals. For months, Granduciel couldn’t land on a proper mix. It was until he stripped away some of the instrumentation and elevated his voice that “Eyes To The Wind” came into focus. This was not obvious on paper. For instance, I’m not sure what exactly “eyes to the wind” means as a literal phrase. (I suppose you could read it as an endorsement of wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day.) But when I hear Granduciel sing it, I know, instinctively, what he’s getting at, which is basically, “Life is hard and will beat you down, but sometimes a gorgeous piano riff and heart-rending guitar solo can ease the hurt.”

3. “Black Water Falls” (2011)

The War On Drugs like to end albums with lonely-ass ballads, and this is the best lonely-ass album-ending ballad in the catalog. It sounds like an attempt to re-write “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” — or, more specifically, a stab at evoking the feeling that Donovan had when he heard Dylan play “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” in that London hotel room for the first time. It’s not that the world has ended, just that your world has ended: “You’ll slowly lose faith in gravity / And give up the urge to sweat, and charm, and love, and breathe.”

2. “An Ocean In Between The Waves” (2014)

People who don’t like The War On Drugs tend to classify them dismissively as “chill” music that, at best, sounds pleasant in the background but doesn’t register emotionally. This song is Exhibit A in my counter-argument to that take. It’s a track where everything this band does really comes together: Granduciel’s insinuating whine, the scene-setting synths, Dave Hartley’s Joshua Tree bassline, the metronomic drum machine that subtly subverts the heartland rock elements with a Suicide twist, and the multiple guitar solos. Oh, there’s also the “Woo!” Let us never underestimate or discount the “Woo!” The “Woo!” delivers big time here. “An Ocean In Between The Waves” is more than seven minutes of rising action that starts in an uncertain, murky place — “chill,” if you will — before gradually escalating into an intensely spiritual maelstrom that feels like being launched into the sun.

1. “Under The Pressure” (2014)

The ultimate War On Drugs track. Though I’m not sure at this point if I prefer the studio cut to any number of live versions I’ve heard on bootlegs, on YouTube, or Live Drugs. As much as I love it on Lost In The Dream I think I need to see Charlie Hall go apeshit now during the breakdown section for “Under The Pressure” to really land for me. (Speaking of great “when the drums come in” moments, you can’t beat Hall’s re-entry out of the breakdown and into the climax of “Under The Pressure.”) But the larger point here is that I’ve heard “Under The Pressure” more than any other War On Drugs song, which means I’ve heard it more than practically any other song by anybody in the past decade. And I still find it rousing, and I’m still endlessly curious to hear whatever live version I can put in my ears. That is the core superpower of this band. They make songs that might seem simple the first time you hear them. But then you play them 200 times and you somehow like them more than you did the first time. That’s what Tom Petty did. And it’s what almost every other rock band right now is unable to do. But these guys have done it time and again over five albums, which is why they’re now one of the modern greats.

The War On Drugs is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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