Best Violent Femmes Songs - Ranked
Violent Femmes are one of those bands most of us have heard - a lot - and not even known it. They got their big break by being discovered by James Honeyman-Scott (of The Pretenders) in 1981, playing outside the Oriental Theatre. The Pretenders had a gig at the venue later that day - impressed, Chrissie Hynde invited the band to play a set after the opening act.
Since that career-changing moment, the Violent Femmes have gone on to release 10 studio albums. They've taken a few breaks, dealt with in-fighting, and even made it through one of their members suing another.
In all that time, their sound has evolved - so much so, that much of their material isn't necessarily easy to recognize as the same band. They began as an American folk-punk band, a style that clearly defined their first album.
Hallowed Ground, the band's second album, was essentially the material that didn't make it out the first time. Gano had more than enough songs written for their self-titled debut album. Some of them had a country style, which didn't fit the musical stylings of the first album well. Many of the leftovers were songs with a religious bent - not surprising, as Gano is the son of a Baptist preacher.
However, the other band members consider themselves atheists. They balked, at first, at Gano's more religious songs. By the second album, they were less resistant, and agreed.
This was more or less disastrous for them at the time - fans expected the folk punk style of the first album. Critics generally thought Gano was being mocking or ironic with his inclusion of religion, leading to many considering the album offensive. Gano, who refers to himself as a devout Baptist on their Permanent Record album, seemed suprised by the backlash.
After this, the band didn't seem particularly concerned with how they were labeled. If they could survive somehow being a punk and country band at the same time, depending on which fan you asked, then why not just make whatever music they felt like making? And that's exactly what they did. As a result, when you look over their comprehensive music history, it tends to be eclectic at best.
That's why I compiled this list of some of their all-time best songs. Some you'll know, some you'll remember only after listening along - and some you'll say, "That's the same band, seriously?" Yup, seriously.
Blister In The Sun
Hands down, this is the song that everyone thinks of first. If you know anything by the Violent Femmes, it's "Blister In The Sun." I debated where to place it for a long time, as I don't actually think it's their best song.
But in the end, I gave it the top spot. It certainly gave them the most mainstream success. And, I don't want everyone distracted for the rest of the list trying to figure out when I'm getting to it. Ta-da, jog your memory, and let's pitter-patter on with the list, shall we?
Add It Up
Add It Up is a caustic, raucous anthem. Like most Violent Femmes songs, it speaks to a left-behind youth that never quite fit in. Gano wavers between anger and defeat, as told from the point of view of a teenage boy being rejected by a potential lover.
At times in the song, he seems to be near violence, tying his own urges to a "city (that) is restless, ready to pounce." He's conflicted, angry but also "reaching for a leg of hope." Ultimately, the song ultimately rejects the aggression expressed by the end. Still, he may not be done keeping score on the ways he feels wronged, as the band screams "add it up" behind him.
Gone Daddy Gone
Like "Add It Up," the song "Gone Daddy Gone" is from the Violent Femme's self-titled debut album. The xylophone solos are a melodic and quirky touch. Not to mention, a subtle reflection of the band's roots as busker musicians on the streets of Milwaukee.
So much of their best songs reflect a high school sensibility, and this is no different. There's no particularly deep or profound meaning. It's a bitter ode to a "beautiful girl, lovely dress" who has left for one reason or another. "Where she is now, I can only guess, cause it's gone, Daddy, gone, love is gone," he bemoans.
It isn't, perhaps, a profound subject, but it's relatable. Much of their music is, which is why it never seems to age. Even as middle-aged men, Violent Femmes still have a strong fan base with younger, high school fans. They don't get too emotional or maudlin, keeping a fun and fast rhythm that lets anyone commiserate without having to get sentimental.
In "Kiss Off," lead singer Gordan Gano depicts a complicated mixture of emotions - alienation, frustration, rejection, anger can all be clearly read. He feels abused by those around him, declaring that they can all "kiss off!"
There's at least some amount of suicidal ideation, made clear as he counts off taking a series of pills. Listing off some of his problems, he chants that he's taking, "one cause you left me...two for my family...three for my heartache...".
He starts off with fairly specific complaints. But, as anyone who remembers coming of age in a less than positive light, it's not all just broken hearts and mean dads. By the end, he switches to the existential problems that plague many depressed youths. "...9 for the lost gods, 10, 10, 10 for everything, everything, everything!" he wails.
The instruments are understated - it rocks hard, for being a set of drums and two guitars. But again, since Violent Femmes got their start playing on the streets, these simple songs without much flash and bang are where they truly shine.
As a music reviewer, I try to look through a more critical lens and avoid simply recommending my own likes. This is one of my personal favorites, however.
"Confessions" is a bit rough around the edges - it could have stood a bit more focus. The lyrics scan a bit stilted and uneven in places. It's chaotic, to be frank.
But that's also kind of the point. The song reads almost as though an improv, as though Gano just grabbed a guitar and let the words come out. He goes from a pleading, sorrowful near-whisper to a scream, literally.
It's controlled chaos, brought about from anger, barely restrained violence, and loneliness. Finally, it explodes in a cacophony of horns and rage, as Gano threatens, "We'll teach you to act like a man...we'll do it tonight."
This particular recording adds some jazz instrumentals, making it unusual compared to most of the band's tracks. It adds a layer of maturity and depth, making the song a bit more profound than just an angry teen holed up in his room.
Prove My Love
"Prove My Love" is a strange, almost voyeuristic look into what feels like a deranged mind. You're fascinated, a bit disgusted, and you can't quite tell if you're rooting for the song's main character or not.
"Just last night, I was reminded, of just how bad things had gotten, and just how sick I had become," Gano kicks off immediately, setting the tone for the next 3 minutes. As he wails, "What do I have to do, to prove my love to you?" one can't help but think the girl he's speaking to is further ahead ignoring his fiery, slightly psychotic, pleading.
True to their folk-punk roots, Violent Femmes lets you know what "America Is" on their compilation album Add It Up. And it ain't pretty.
"Look at the Indians, look at the blacks, look at the figures, look at the facts...America is the home of the hypocrite," they declare. (Note that the album was released in 1993 and features songs recorded between 1981-1993.) Strange how it's nearly 30 years later, and many people would say little seems to have changed.
I Held Her In My Arms
From their third album, The Blind Leading The Naked, this is a surprisingly tender little ditty when you look under the surface. Gano tells the emotional plight of a flawed character coming of age. He's not over a former lover - but when he meets a new girl, he's motivated to make it work.
He can't, however, since he can't get over the first girl. His feelings for the new girl never grow more than platonic. He isn't even sure if they ever slept together, looking back. He speaks of the confusion, shame, and guilt he's left with. That he perhaps didn't do right by the new girl, and he's struggling with missing the old girl. Perhaps worst of all, he's fearfully uncertain of how to go from a boy to a man - and anxious that he's getting it all wrong.
Please Do Not Go
Leading off with a catchy bass solo, "Please Do Not Go" is a Violent Femmes gem that doesn't get enough recognition. Honestly, the entire first album is so full of bangers, that a few get lost in the shuffle. "Please Do Not Go" is a perfect example.
On any other album, this would have been a stand-out. But, forced to compete with songs like "Add It Up" and "Blister In The Sun," the song gets unfairly relegated to a mere footnote.
The harmony in the chorus is beautifully done, and the song is simplistic but addicting. Plus, something about Gano's whining voice really rounds the piece out. It's almost like a tongue-in-cheek nod to the song's spirited clinginess.
Classic unrequited love story, polished with punk bravado. "Could you ever want me to love you, could you ever want me to care?" he wonders, almost to himself. He asks for a hint - something to tell him he's not wasting his time.
Like many of their songs, it's hard to tell if the subject has any interest in being his romantic target. It's borderline creepy, but it's heartfelt. "Disregard my vacant stare," he requests. We're left not really sure, like Gano, if they'll ever want his affections. Or if he even deserves it.
But again, songs like this are exactly why they continue to resonate with a young audience. Who isn't awkward and uncertain at that age, wondering if anyone could ever love you back?
But he remains hopeful that there might be a space open for him. "You're unhappy," he declares, then wavers, admitting, "This is only a guess."
Originally from the band's 1994 album New Times, this version was recorded in 2019. It's simple, fun, and catchy. The lyrics refute the need for labels, questioning various identities such as Republican, Democrat, liberal, fascist, gay, straight, and more. All, in the end, are rejected, as Gano declares, "I'm nothing."
He ponders whether any of the labels mean anything, ultimately. "What's your reality, it's not real to me," he states matter-of-factly. At another point, he explains, "there's being, and nothingness is our flow."
Gano also concludes that the labels are a waste as he's "got no time, I'm chasing chicks." In the end, he's resolute that "being nothing, is just being me."
A staple of the band, this song was first released on Why Do Birds Sing, the band's 5th studio album. Released in April 1991, it was the last album with drummer Vincent DeLorenzo (who later pivoted into an acting career).
"American Music" went to number 2 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart that May. It's classically Violent Femmes - instrumentally simplistic and folksy, with a touch of whimsy and good-natured self-deprecation. Confidently eccentric, this is the Femmes finally returning to the roots they planted with their debut album.
Waiting For The Bus
Exactly what it sounds like, this is a sarcastic little ditty about - yup - waiting for the bus. Gano complains at length about how slow the bus is, even threatening to call the mayor at one point.
When the bus finally does show up, he still gets hassled for an expired transfer ticket. It's safe to guess the Violent Femmes might not be huge fans of Milwaukee's public transit system.
But, at least their struggles gave us this fun little earworm.
From their 10th studio album, it's a fairly recent addition (2019). Like much of their later stuff, it's a bit relaxed compared to their early angst. Clearly, maturity has mellowed them out (doesn't it everyone?) No one screams, no one yells, and it never sounds like someone's just breaking a bunch of dishes.
But it's still somehow fun, especially if you like that laid-back appeal. It sounds like the sort of song you'd do as a group in karaoke after a few drinks. Nice, simple medley, amusing lyrics, and an all-around good time.
Out the Window
This is a later song, released in 1991 after the Femmes had played around with a variety of sounds. Here, they return to their more classic "awkward teen misfit" sound. It's really an auditory celebration of what makes a Femmes song, a Femmes song.
As a matter of fact, it's such a jolly song, it's easy to miss that it's actually an incredibly dark tune about suicide.
I Hate The TV
Gano's adenoid tone might come across a bit whiny in this one, but it's set off by the chorus chanting behind him. It brings it down just enough to avoid being irritating.
It comes across as both extremely personal, and political, which is interesting for a song. He doesn't go into much depth about why the world is a mess, just that it is. Instead, he focuses more on how he feels about that. No answers, no opinions, just sort of a commiserating that we can probably all relate to.
It's pared-down, though the guitar solo is a nice touch to round it all out. Otherwise, I think it might be lacking that extra punch needed to stand on its own, as it's quite short.
This is about as close as Violent Femmes gets to a romantic ballad. It's slow, tender, and surprisingly heartfelt, coming from a singer who's smirked through every other song.
The earnest delicacy is underlined by a sweet piano melody. He sounds genuine and weary, as a violin swells and he pleads for her to stay. Gano sounds tired and worn, desperate to maintain a fairy tale romance, but thoroughly beaten by fears that he will "see all my worlds disappear."
Old Mother Reagan
Violent Femmes weren't particularly political, but boy, when they were, they got it right. "Old Mother Reagan" is one of many Reagan protest songs the '80s gave birth to. Young people today may not fully appreciate Reagan, the outrageously conservative politician, and the distrust that followed him.
Even in his heyday, his insane policies drew a lot of ire (though other ultra-conservatives considered him a hero.) Considering we're still trying to undo much of the societal and political damage that can be traced back to Reagan's original work, this song stands as true today as it did back then.
This is a relatable little story that most couples can probably understand. Gano sings from the POV of a man tired of his girlfriend, sick of hearing all her "issues." The two of them, seemingly, have next to nothing in common. It seems like she only comes around to have someone to gripe to, and he's tired of being expected to unpack her emotional baggage.
But, there's obviously something more between them, even if he can't explain it. By the end of the song, he agrees that he doesn't really mind listening to her. In fact, it's another way for him to show his affection.
Plus, the video is hilariously on-point.
Gimme The Car
The bizarre juxtaposition of ideas in this song is what makes it appealing. It starts with him simply wanting the car so he can impress/make it with a girl. (And the hilarious censorship of him trying to say what he wants to do with the girl, just to have a guitar string bleep him out, will always amuse me.)
But then, like much of the early Femmes work, he wanders off that topic into an existential fugue. Is it wrong to take advantage of the girl - and how can he care about right or wrong, when he hates his life anyway? He worries about how he's growing cold with age.
He's in pain, and he's trying to get somewhere else, he recognizes. Which suddenly reminds him, again, of his date tonight. It might not be exactly the life solution he needs, but maybe it'll do for tonight, right?
In a weird way, it's such a classic high-school mentality that it's hard to not appreciate the honesty.
Even for the Femmes, this is a bizarre and macabre song that tends to be polarizing - you love it or you hate it. With force.
There are layers of meaning and nuance here, and the band themselves admit that it can be interpreted multiple ways. That's always been something of their schtick - rather than get too bogged into specifics, they leave it open-ended to appeal to multiple listeners with varying lines of thought.
No matter how you choose to read into the lyrics, there's clearly an ominous and threatening vibe here. It starts as a sort of reluctant agreement - I won't rat you out, and in fact, I'd rather just pretend to not know about this transgression at all. Worn by guilt, he seems to abandon his morality later (I've had so much on my mind, I was so glad when I died.) By the end, he's aggressively threatening others to join him in keeping what is now a growing secret. Do you wanna see what it's like to sink...down to the bottom of the river? he jeers.
Carefully placed instrumental silences add to the eerie vibe. Other times, the sounds crash angrily together in a cacophony. A bass guitar plugs along, taking over at one point with a manic solo. It feels like exactly the sort of soundtrack that would accompany a modern-day Blanche DuBois in her descent into madness.
Love Love Love Love Love
After a lengthy 15-year gap, this was their first release (save a rather random cover of a Gnarls Barkley song that I'm not sure anyone truly understands). It's whimsical and folksy but still has that dark undercurrent in the lyrics that keeps you from celebrating too fully. The horn is a fun touch and becomes a recurring feature in much of their more modern music.
Good For/At Nothing
"I can't do nothing for anybody anymore - Thank God!" Gano declares. It's definitely a song that speaks to the adult fanbase who has grown and aged with the Femmes. The high school group that much of their music appeals to may not be able to see the charm of this one.
But if you're a 40-something who's...well, tired, you can understand why being good for nothing is sometimes a surprise victory.
I Know It's True But I'm Sorry To Say
Another song featuring xylophone, this one leans heavily more toward "folk" than "punk". It has a fun, light vibe that reminds me of older rock (think the Hollies). Very Americana, which led to a bizarre division among their fans. If you enjoyed them as a folksy Appalachian band, you despise their debut album. If you prefer the debut, the changeover was almost universally panned.
While this song wasn't released until 2015, frontman Gordan Gano had written it a while before that. In fact, it was even recorded as a demo, before the band chose not to use it.
Rediscovered when looking through their archives, the band decided to re-record and release it on We Can Do Anything, their 9th studio album. It has the same infectious fun beats and folksy sound as the majority of the Femmes work.
It has a distinctly middle-aged vibe, though, as Gano complains that he just "can't remember." If it had been released earlier in their career, it might not have quite the same resonance as a 50-something-year-old Gano complaining, "Come back so that I could tell you how I'm annoyed, by the fact that I can't remember your smile or your frown."
Hotel Last Resort
The title song from the 10th (and most current) studio album, this one returns the closest to that same "front porch guitar" vibe of Hallowed Ground. It breaks up just enough profound thought with utter nonsense to create the perfect blend. Too heavy, and it might feel preachy or self-important. Too much silliness and it would seem ignorable.
Instead, they put both the real and the absurd right beside each other, with clever wordplay that floats through almost as a stream of consciousness rambling.
And that's the end of our deep dive into the Violent Femmes! With a music catalog spanning approximately 40 years, you're bound to have missed a few on this list. Enjoy!
Jamie Dixon is a contributing writer here at The Pyrrhic. She's a content writer by profession, but this is more fun. She's also working on her first novel in her spare time.
Find her on Twitter @onegirloneblog
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