When Car Seat Headrest released its breakthrough LP, Teens of Denial, in May, the indie band’s 24-year-old singer-songwriter Will Toledo seemed for many to arrive as an overnight sensation. Signed to Matador Records in 2015, Car Seat Headrest quickly released its label debut, Teens of Style, that fall. What many people didn’t know was that Teens of Style was a kind of greatest hits album, collecting re-recorded versions of songs that Toledo had written years earlier and posted on Bandcamp. With Teens of Denial, Toledo streamlined his music, producing the most accessible and pop-oriented Car Seat Headrest album to date. It’s an inviting though not wholly representative entry point for the band’s voluminous back catalogue, which includes 11 other albums posted online since 2010.
Those albums haven’t been explored or discussed much since Teens of Denial emerged as 2016’s best indie-rock LP. But for those bowled over by Toledo’s prodigious talent, Car Seat Headrest’s Bandcamp records offer fascinating insight into a young artist rapidly developing a signature style. On Teens of Denial, Toledo’s command of rock songwriting is impressive — he’s equally capable of writing punchy, straight-forward grabbers like “Fill in the Blank,” as well as sprawling epics like the anthemic “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” in which long, Dylanesque verses unfold for minutes at a time before a chorus finally arrives to deliver a big emotional payoff.
As a lyricist, Toledo is just as versatile, freely co-mingling bracing confessionals with literary flourishes and trenchant record-geek references. A Car Seat Headrest song often reads like a short story on the page, though on record it comes off more like a series of intimate, conversational asides, due in part to Toledo’s detached, sardonic vocals.
After investigating Toledo’s back catalogue, it’s sort of amazing to discover that Teens of Denial, while undeniably an important record in his career, might not be Toledo’s greatest work. There are at least two albums, 2011’s Twin Fantasy and 2014’s How To Leave Town, that rival it, and several others that aren’t far behind. What’s more incredible is that you can already see distinct periods in Toledo’s career — the relatively conventional tunesmith of Teens of Denial is a far cry from the more volatile diarist of Twin Fantasy or 2012’s Monomania. And this evolution has largely been a conscious calculation for Toledo, whose proclivity for self-analysis suggests an artistic maturity that’s well beyond his actual age.
Fortunately for those who love Teens of Denial and Teens of Style, there are dozens more worthy songs to enjoy. But where to start? And how do those albums fit into the larger story of Car Seat Headrest? This is a guide to Car Seat Headrest’s Bandcamp albums, with commentary from Toledo himself.
1, 2, 3, 4 and Little Pieces of Paper With “No” Written on Them (2010)
Toledo posted the first Car Seat Headrest album, 1, on Bandcamp in May of 2010. Three more Car Seat Headrest albums — titled 2, 3, and 4 — were released at a rate of once per month for the reminder of the summer. Unsurprisingly, Toledo’s songs at this time were raw and unformed; he wasn’t even writing tangible lyrics, preferring an improvisational approach inspired by Michael Stipe of R.E.M.