St. Vincent very well might be the modern-day David Bowie. A musical chameleon who changes guises, sounds, and styles with every subsequent creation. A new St. Vincent release, tour, or promotional cycle can only promise that it will be a complete reinvention from the previous one. All the while, the actual mind behind the project, Annie Clark, gets to retain a certain detachment from the excess of rock stardom.
We’ve officially reached the point where even her own projects can’t keep up with her. Her most recent album, Daddy’s Home, featured a 1970s soft-rock sound with an appropriately groovy aesthetic, complete with a blonde wig and bell bottoms. However, her most recent film, The Nowhere Inn, which came out four months after Daddy’s Home, was shot during the tour for Clark’s previous record, the heavily electronic Masseduction. Covid-19 certainly had a hand in jumbling them all together, but Clark is also transforming so fast and frequently that, if you blink, you’ll miss a whole new persona.
To celebrate the eclectic artist’s birthday, we’re looking back at all the albums she’s created over her now two-decade-long career. From the art pop and lush layers of harmonies from her initial career to the space alien cult guitar god of her middle period all the way through her excursions in electronica and lounge-pop, no stone is to be unturned. Here are all seven of St. Vincent’s albums, ranked.
St. Vincent albums ranked from worst to best:
7. Daddy’s Home (2021)
To call Daddy’s Home a disappointment is to undermine the fearlessness and bravery that comes with the kind of radical reinvention that St. Vincent searches for during every new artistic endeavour. When you find something that works, the initial reaction is to repeat ad nauseam and minimise the risks that come with throwing out all the successful elements of the past.
Not Annie Clark, though. Her most recent reinvention is as an early ’70s New Yorker, playing into the pastiche sounds of late-period Warhol-era pop art, funk, and early disco. Clark also incorporates more direct references to her real life outside of the various St. Vincent personas than ever before, while simultaneously having a ton of fun doing it.
The problem with Daddy’s Home is that it plays as a lesser work for someone who was always incredibly talented at being a forward thinking innovator. Just by the nature of the concept, Daddy’s Home was always going to play into nostalgia and well-worn musical territory. That makes it fine and enjoyable enough, but it’s hard not to want to see the fearless trailblazer that St. Vincent always was among the reductive imitations of the past.
6. Love This Giant (2012, with David Byrne)
It was a match made in art-pop heaven: the modern master of the form, St. Vincent, teams up with the all-time genius of the idiom, David Byrne. With them, they employed an orchestra’s worth of backing musicians and spared no expense to bring their collective vision to life. Surely, this was to be one of the most sprawling and transgressively catchy works to ever be released.
OK, so maybe the expectations for Love This Giant were destined to be grander than what we eventually got. Clark and Byrne honed in on the horn section as the crux of their compositions, and the frequency of their usage goes from creative innovation to hackneyed novelty pretty quickly. For two people with impeccable ears, the amount of bad jazz on Love This Giant is crazy.
That’s not to say the album isn’t fantastically arranged and incredibly well performed, because it is. It just feels like an art project with a unfocused and somewhat hollow centre to it. Still, to hear St. Vincent and David Byrne bounce ideas off each other remains delightful in a satisfyingly peculiar fashion. There are lots of hooks and hummable melodies to be had on Love This Giant, even if it ultimately amounts to a missed opportunity with two of the greatest pop minds of the modern day.
5. Actor (2009)
St. Vincent never repeats herself. That’s the core of her appeal – if you enjoyed the album she just did, part of the fun is to see what she’s going to subvert from the past in order to move into the future. There’s no time to figure her out because it’s a futile effort. She’s already changed, moved on, and you need to catch up.
Edit: St. Vincent never repeats herself… anymore. The one time she did was on Actor, which doubles down on the baroque-folk pop of her debut Marry Me and simply repeats the same formula. Not entirely, to be fair, as there are more fuzz guitars, loopy orchestrations, and explicitly indie rock influences on Actor, especially on the albums wonderfully scuzzy first half.
Actor isn’t a step back in any sense, with it equaling and occasionally exceeding the go-for-broke quirkiness of Marry Me. But with hindsight comes the realisation that Actor was the least prominent step forward for a musician who made reinvention an art form in the 21st century. Actor is wonderful, but it’s not transcendent, and for an artist who frequently transcends, it’s a slight let down when she doesn’t reach those same lofty (and admittedly impossible) highs.
4. Marry Me (2007)
For her debut LP, Annie Clark introduced the world to the atypical alien known as St. Vincent by making a direct statement of everything she wasn’t going to be: your mother’s favourite dog, the feather at your feet, the pawn to your king. Most importantly, she employs some clever homophones to divorce the meek Texas guitar nerd from the world-conquering trendsetter she would become.
But Marry Me is more than just the statement of intent that comes with its opening track, ‘Now, Now’. It’s also the aggressive chaos of ‘Your Lips Are Red’, the nightmare waltz of ‘Paris is Burning’, the twee dark humour of ‘Human Racing’, and the genius subversion of expectations on the title track. The balance between composure and madness, idealism and reality, and lightness and darkness are all there from the very beginning.
When placed within the scope of Clark’s subsequent work, Marry Me feels very much like a first album from someone who hasn’t fully found their voice yet. There’s a prominent reduction of fuzz guitar, with a greater focus on piano and orchestration, but it feels purposeful and challenging in ways that we would all eventually get used to from St. Vincent.
3. Strange Mercy (2011)
After a number of years in the world of boroque art pop, Annie Clark decided that she wanted to be a guitar hero. Although it had been hinted at before, Clark’s abilities on the guitar weren’t properly highlighted before. Instead, spaces were filled with strings, brass, keyboards, layers of vocals, piano, and even random noises.
There’s no mistaking what the central focus on Strange Mercy is – meet St. Vincent, guitar goddess. From the one-two-three punch of ‘Chloe in the Afternoon’, ‘Cruel’ and ‘Cheerleader’, Clark’s six string now translates in ways it never had in previous records. It’s pulverising, and seductive, and unhinged all at the same time. Electronica was also starting to seep in more prominently on Strange Mercy, with the backing tracks of ‘Hysterical Strength’ and ‘Surgeon’ reflecting a more synthetic sound.
But what makes Strange Mercy so essential is the it represents St. Vincent’s first radical reinvention. The quaint and mawkish styles the past were gone forever, and a brand new confidence is found in an arsenal of guitar effects and distortion. The ferocious intensity of Strange Mercy was extreme at the time, and even today it can feel like an invigorating slap to the face from a musician who would no longer be shy about her ambitions and powers.
2. Masseduction (2017)
Annie Clark had ascended the mountain. With a guitar in hand, she had completed her transformation from humble baroque-influenced singer-songwriter to all-powerful six string deity with her fourth solo album, St. Vincent. The world was now ready for the wild noise rock queen to properly take her throne and rule over the excessively macho indie rock world.
So when Clark decided that her next record would be a futuristic electro-new wave dance party complete with drum machines, loads of synths, and a distinct pop sensibility, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the wrong move. To those who had just gotten ready to crown her as queen of the rock world, it was sacrilege. For someone who had worked so hard and so long to become a modern day guitar hero, Clark consciously put the guitar down to challenge herself with a mainstream pop producer and another complete aesthetic reinvention.
Masseduction, in short, should have been a disaster. Instead, it’s 13 propulsive, invigorating, and heartbreaking tracks that prove Clark could adapt to any style or genre. The greatest trick on Masseduction is how it uses detached and impersonal synthetic music to get more emotionally personal than ever before. ‘Young Lover’, ‘New York’, ‘Smoking Section’, and ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ all provide intimate looks into an artist who never truly wanted to be a God, just to play one for an album or two. Masseduction is the kind of album only a genius could pull off, and it remains Clark’s most impressive artistic evolution.
1. St. Vincent (2014)
It was signaled with the guitar theatrics on Strange Mercy, but little did the rest of the world know just how immense Annie Clark’s scope was. She didn’t just want St. Vincent to be a guitar hero, she wanted St. Vincent to be an all-powerful cult leader with complete control over the masses.
In it’s own way, St. Vincent’s self titled album is the perfect synthesis of everything that Clark had explored in the past. There’s the six string histrionics, the baroque influences, the wonky experimental side, the tender emotions, and the grand ambitions. But even an artist with as much thought and intention over her persona(s) as Clark requires a little bit of luck and fortuitousness to reach the highest of highs.
Everything about St. Vincent signals that one of the most unique artists of her generation, or anyone’s generation, had captured lightning in a bottle. The frantic energy of ‘Birth in Reverse’, the trippy kinetic propulsion of ‘Digital Witness’, the all-encompassing stomp of ‘Del Rio’, the killer directness of ‘Regret’, the trippy hallucinations of ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’, the hazy enteral punch of ‘Prince Johnny’, at’s all there in glorious, sterling detail.
Every artist has their peak, and all of the combined powers of St. Vincent and Annie Clark are at full blast on St. Vincent, one of the most transcendent listening experiences of the past 20 years.