The Strokes were the edgy boy band with hooks for days. Interpol were the dark romantics. Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the new Blondie. Sure, the aforementioned artists and LCD Soundsystem took much of the spotlight, but TV on the Radio deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as an essential group of the era. Their distinguished discography is filled with successful experimentation and growth, whereas many of the longer-running acts from the scene have maintained success by sticking to their playbooks.
As evidenced by their momentary scenes in the documentary film Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom, they may be in danger of being forgotten, which would be egregious. They barely show up in the book, too. Across five full-lengths and a couple of EPs, they remained restless and adventurous, turning overly political for a couple of highlights of their discography before emphasizing the complexities of relationships in their final two full-lengths.
Among the seemingly endless stream of bands from the thriving New York music scene of the early 2000s, TV on the Radio are the one group that shouldn’t be forgotten. Blending doo-wop, hip-hop, and soul into post-punk, their discography is unlike anything released this century. It is a must-listen, a heady mix of genres blended seamlessly into a timeless sound.
Twenty years on, their full-length debut, the Shortlist Prize-winning Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, still sounds singular. It is an angry, claustrophobic song cycle only leavened by the massive, triumphant “Poppy” and the seductive closer “Wear You Out”.
TV on the Radio started when David Andrew Sitek and his brother Jason began working with Tunde Adibimpe on an independently released EP, OK Calculator. David Andrew Sitek produced the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ major label debut Fever to Tell, and Nick Zinner and Brian Chase assisted with Young Liars, TV on the Radio’s first EP for the legendary indie label Touch and Go Records. Around this time, Kyp Malone joined the band, and Jason Sitek bowed out. They would later add Jaleel Bunton and Gerard Smith, who passed away in 2011 at age 34 from lung cancer.
Throughout their discography, TV on the Radio positioned themselves as lovers and fighters, forced into the latter by the events of the times. They effortlessly blended bleakness and carnality. The lovers’ spats and breakups in the songs unfold against a backdrop informed by 9/11 and the War on Terror, giving them a haunted quality. People doing what they’ve been doing since the beginning of time–finding and losing love–in a time of war raises the stakes much more. Adibempe’s lyrics are vivid snippets of life created in a few striking images and cryptic observations.
There was value in revisiting the cultural peaks of New York to aid in collective healing post-9/11, but TV on the Radio were also picking at the scabs on Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. The record begins at a relentless pace and doesn’t let up. Opener “The Wrong Way” wrestles with a host of warring thoughts, from being a Black artist making rock music to blood diamonds to the magical Negro trope, to ultimately land on the final thought, “Hey desperate youth, oh bloodthirsty babes, your guns are pointed the wrong way.” Musically, the song is built on a throbbing, fuzzy bass loop, saxophone, and flute. The band was not interested in being spokespeople, but more of a mirror that shows the personal and the political.
A carryover from Young Liars virtually unchanged, “Staring at the Sun” almost feels out of place despite its brilliance. A relentless beat intensifies the grim images of water at one’s neck alongside explicit sexuality. “Dreams” recounts a dying friendship lost to a relationship, with the haunting line, “I know your heart can’t grieve / What your eyes don’t see.” “King Eternal” is filled with evocative imagery, calling the court system a “blind bitch in hallowed halls” and the memorable warning, “Cover your balls / ‘Cause we swing kung fu.”
The a cappella “Ambulance” begins what could be considered a three-song suite of love found and lost. It is a stunner often performed live with Tunde Adibempe singing over David Sitek’s beatboxing. “Ambulance” hinges on a haunting set of lines: “I will be your accident if you will be my ambulance / And I will be your screech and crash if you will be my crutch and cast.” Its broken but hopeful vibe paves the way for “Poppy”, which celebrates an ideal, mature love where individuation and passion coexist. Riding a triumphant riff and a stuttering beat, the song provides a moment of transcendence after the relentless darkness of the first half of the record.
This is short-lived, as “Don’t Love You Anymore” smashes the contentment of “Poppy” for a hollowed-out dirge about the end of a relationship. Visceral images of phones that remain silent and lovers restless in bed beside each other tell the tale. “Bomb Your Country” examines fear generated by endless news and scare tactics. With all that’s going on in the world, the only solace seems to be found in the arms of another, and “Wear You Out” ends the record on a seductive, transcendent note. The world is on fire, so shall be the bed.
As a lead-up to TV on the Radio’s sophomore album Return to Cookie Mountain, they released “Dry Drunk Emperor”, a scathing critique of George W. Bush and the Iraq war. Cookie Mountain stands as one of the key protest records of the era by continuing to weave battle-weary tales of grand-scale and interpersonal trauma into a righteous howl against all that was wrong at that moment. Next, Dear Science continued the critique of 21st-century American life with brighter sonics, including the infectious, optimistic pre-Obama anthem “Golden Age”. After that, the final two records’ best moments focused more on interpersonal relationships, with the pulsating “Will Do” from Nine Types of Light and the propulsive “Happy Idiot” and the aching “Test Pilot” as highlights from their final record, Seeds.
Then, they disappeared. Adibempe pops up in films as an actor from time to time. Sitek is still an in-demand producer, working with Beyoncé and Jay-Z on their collaboration Everything Is Love, Weezer‘s Black Album, and several records with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, including their excellent return to form Cool it Down. Kyp Malone released one solo record as Rain Machine during the TV on the Radio heyday, and Sitek released the Maximum Balloon project. These times could use a TV on the Radio. Can we put up a bat signal?