There’s not one bad song on The Weeknd‘s three initial mixtape offerings — House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence — and any list that proclaims to be the definitive voice on the very best songs from his 2011 mixtape era is lying to you. The point I’m trying to make is that the Trilogy, as it has come to be known as, is so outstanding that any list attempting to distill its greatness into a handful of tracks is going to be purely subjective.
The songs you’ll see listed here are no doubt some of his finest work, but the definition of Abel Makkonen Tesfaye’s “finest work” is one that will change according to your mood, and with the ever-evolving nature and quality of this work, it’s likely that within the course of just one sonic billow, your mood, itself, will change.
One of the primary difficulties in making this list is that House of Balloons is so strong that it’s hard to not list every track from that work. That being said, here’s a look at 12 of the Oscar-nominated singer’s best tracks from his mixtape days.
“Echoes of Silence”
Showing that he can do a whole lot more than trippy, drug-infused R&B, this track by Abel is perhaps his most heartbreaking. Pleading with a lover to not leave him alone for the night over soft piano strikes and faint, ethereal strings, the pain in The Weeknd’s voice is palpable enough to infect even the most jocular with a sense of melancholy.
“High for This”
It’s not some of Abel’s best work in terms of complex lexicon, but the vivaciousness of the production, the mood-fluctuating elements of The Weeknd’s voice, and the ripping, electric guitar rift makes this one of the standouts in his early catalog.
Take a Michael Jackson track, dip it in a vat of 2-CB, then feed it half-a-tab of ecstasy and you’ll have yourself something that sounds like “Thursday.” The final stages of this track displays Abel’s ability to use his voice like a woodwind instrument, inflecting upon the harmony with passionate puffs of melodic magic.
Some songs drip with swag — this one drips with sweat and sex. Like a new-age R. Kelly, Abel goes to great lengths, depicting some salacious situations including one with a camera and the insistence of P.O.V. play. If Robert Kelly represents 12 Play, consider Abel your 24-hour play: sex all day.
“What You Need”
“What You Need” is the essence of what Abel does best, and it should be called Ambien(t)&B — a sleep-soaked, swaggeriffic swoon about being the greener grass in a corridor of capable men. The track is so spellbinding hallucinatory that if you’re not seeing naked women with the heads of goats by the end of it, you’re not listening to it right.
Like “Echoes of Silence,” this standout is heart-rending, beautiful, and elegant. McKinney and Illangelo tone down the percussive artifacts of their production and instead allow Abel to croon his contentious heart away. When he sings “I know everything,” it takes all of your being to not break down and weep over the lost love that took your affection and ran.
“House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls”
If Abel’s tracks try capturing the seeping, fleeting memories of parties, drugs, and women, “House of Balloons” is the party, drugs, and women. The rousing chorus screams “This is fun” amid tinges of Michael Jackson-tempo before evaporating into a deep, pulsating synth line for “Glass Table Girls.” Consider the second half of the track the after-party.
“The Birds (Part 1)”
Leave it to Abel to make a drumline beat sexy. Evolving from a thumping ballad to an effervescent ditty, “The Birds (Part 1)” is an exercise in stadium R&B that sees The Weeknd discussing a tug-of-war of affection between two individuals. But, in the end, the power is in the Canadian crooners hands: “Don’t make me make you fall in love.”
The beauty of Abel’s early production — forged by Illangelo, Doc McKinney, and Jeremy Rose — is the way that even the traditional elements sound as if they’re broken and bent; it’s the kind of sound that digital producers wish they could emulate when they flip their Propellerheads Reason modules around and begin f*cking with the circuitry. On “The Morning,” warped guitars and a lush synth pad sync together to weave a gorgeous sonic tapestry, with The Weeknd espousing motivational rhetoric to the female species: “Girl, put in work.”
Probably the most known song off his original trilogy of work, “Wicked Games” is an ode to the sociopolitical “game” played in any relationship. Abel sings, “Tell me you love me, even though you don’t love me,” professing to take his love down another level to get her “dancing with the devil.” Indeed, there’s something devilish about the production of the track — sinister, yet smooth. It remains one of The Weeknd’s best pieces of work.
“The Zone” (feat. Drake)
With a sonic quality that sounds like the master track was ran backwards through a Beta Max player, “The Zone” embodies everything that we loved about Abel’s early work. Haunting, broken keys dot the melody as The Weeknd’s voice bounces around the stereo, often dancing with the plucky strings. Drake’s verse is just the proverbial icing on the ecstasy-laden cake.
If you want a heavy dose of The Weeknd’s propensity towards drugs and sex, look no further than “Loft Music,” a track where he describes f*cking and popping pills in a “two-floor loft in the middle of the city.” Like “House of Balloons,” the track switches into something else halfway through, but instead of morphing, it devolves down into a spectral swirl of voices and filtered melodies. The last two minutes of the song proves that Abel doesn’t really need a beat.