TV on the Radio’s official debut — back when the band was just Tunde Adebimpe and Dave Sitek in an apartment making sounds together — was OK Calculator, an album they literally stuffed in between cushions at furniture stores in Brooklyn, and which demands a pretty penny on Discogs these days. Kyp Malone joined the band sometime after, and the group as we know them now was born: the roiling atmospherics, the harmonies between Malone and Adebimpe, the songs that seem like they’re about apocalyptic hellfire. The group’s first EP for Touch & Go, Young Liars, is a masterclass of the early ’00s indie rock EP every band was seemingly contracted to create; it’s got their best early single (“Staring at the Sun,” and my sentimental fave version is this one), their best cover (the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves”) and the best song of theirs that never ended up on an LP (“Young Liars”). It was the perfect place-setter for their debut LP; it’s an EP that wets your beak slightly, and leaves you ready for the next step in their discography.
It’s hard to think of a ’00s indie rock debut that was packed with as many ideas as Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes; you get soul saxophone skronk, doo-wop jams, blazing art rock, and howling campfire rippers, and that’s just in the first five songs. The band ultimately refined the sounds here into Cookie Mountain, but this is the shaggier version. “Ambulance” is the single weirdest song in the entire TVOTR songbook, a masterpiece in how you can still do bizarre things with the human voice and a 24-track studio.
The best performing TV on the Radio album chart-wise, Dear Science leans more heavily into the mutant funk end of their sound than any album before or since. Written in the last throes of the Bush administration, the album is built around the idea that for all the promise of scientific advancement in our time, we’re still suffering the same old problems that have plagued humanity forever. This is the grooviest TVOTR album, from the industrial smash and throb of “DLZ,” to the handclap groove of “Crying” and the Prince-meets-Bowie glee of “Golden Age,” this thing bangs, but it also has some of the most tender ballads this band ever produced (“Family Tree” and “Stork & Owl.”)
By some margin, Nine Types of Light is the most subdued TV on the Radio album, released nine days before bassist Gerard Smith — who was with the band since the Desperate Youth tours — died from lung cancer. The songs here are about turning inwards, into yourself, into relationships, into whatever gives you meaning. The songs in this album simmer instead of explode: “New Cannonball Blues” and “Will Do” bubbling like audio hot springs, “You” folding in on itself like a piece of origami, and even the stomping “Caffeinated Consciousness” roils without the flashier payoffs they may have gotten on past TVOTR albums. But that makes this the best TV on the Radio album for 1 a.m., and subsequently the most underrated album in their oeuvre.
After Nine Types of Light, TV on the Radio left Interscope — their label home since Return to Cookie Mountain — for Harvest Records, and released Seeds, their last album to date. Seeds was recorded in Sitek’s home studio, which the band noted in interviews made it more like Desperate Youth than any of their albums, at least in process. It also was most like Desperate Youth in music; this is another TVOTR album that is bursting at the seams with ideas and sounds and styles. The doo-wop is back (“Seeds”) alongside piano ballads (“Ride”) and groovy behemoths (“Careful You”).
It remains to be seen if TV on the Radio are going to make a musical comeback soon, but with a catalog this perfect, there’s more than enough to keep discovering and dissecting.