I worship at the church of karaoke. The parishoners and I are there to confess and meditate, to feel welcomed by a community, to hear a good sermon or two, to perchance see someone speak in tongues and have the words of the Lord Bon Jovi be channeled through a mere mortal. And, of course, to have some drinks and venture to make complete fools out of ourselves.
Karaoke exists in a vacuum of taste, where anomalies and exceptions always seem to arise and mess with my preconceptions. Maybe, like me, this is the only time you can really tolerate a Billy Joel song. Maybe those two dudes doing Sum 41’s “Fat Lip” actually sound kinda good, or that girl who’s really giving it the old college try on “Since U Been Gone” elicits all this empathy, and dammit you can’t be mad because she’s having fun!
This list — boiled down, mind you, from literally hundreds of runner-ups — is an extension of that feeling that happens when you flip through the entire karaoke book and you don’t see one song you want to sing. After polling the staff and consulting some of my long-time karaoke buddies, these are the songs we all wish would be added to the karaoke canon that we personally have never seen before (we are excluding the deep cuts in Austin’s Karaoke Underground book).
And if it’s one thing most of these songs have in common, they’re totally depressing. Sorry. To make up for that, and in contrast to a lot of karaoke standards, a whole grip of these songs don’t require you to have a good voice. In fact, you could be totally tone-deaf and still do an absolutely kick-ass version of The Fall’s “Totally Wired” because the song isn’t about impressing Cee-Lo and Adam Levine with pitch and tone, it’s about the performance. There’s plenty more like that on the list that I felt would always be fun — songs that don’t focus on notes as much as they do putting on a great show.
Don’t fret, choir nerds, it’s not all post-punk pogo-dance chant standards. There’s plenty of new vocal challenges all over the list, from tUnE-yArDs to Jeff Buckley to Dirty Projectors to Hasil Adkins. There’s a lot more. Who knows, there may even be another list further down the road. What songs would you like to sing at Karaoke that are never in the books? Let us know in the comments.
You can access the entire list on Spotify. Enjoy!
-Jeremy D. Larson
Andrew Bird – “Fake Palindromes”
When to sing: After a couple glasses of wine to keep the voice nice and velvety. It’s a short one.
Make sure to: “Monsters?”
Animal Collective – “For Reverend Green”
When to sing: Get this out of the way early, but don’t lead with it. Avey Tare’s vocals on this are daunting, histrionic, and require full commitment or else you will be laughed off stage for singing Animal Collective at karaoke. No guarantees for that not happening anyway.
Make sure to: Differentiate between the two “Lucky child don’t know how lucky she is” parts.
Arcade Fire – “Keep The Car Running”
When to sing: Great lead-off song — not too difficult to sing, short and sweet, not too obscure, speaks for itself.
Make sure to: Totally go for it on the “Ohhhh ohhh” and punch the air on that final snare hit like a hero.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – “Can’t Hear My Eyes”
When to sing: When you want to sing “Brandi” by Looking Glass, but you can’t quite remember how the bridge goes, or even if there is a bridge to the song.
Make sure to: Not have a catastrophic meltdown, but you should really be laying down on the ground and arching your back over the monitors.
Azealia Banks – “212”
When to sing: After midnight, after your confidence level has peaked, after you contemplate that Azealia Banks isn’t even old enough to do Karaoke and put this song out.
Make sure to: Have this shit well-rehearsed, because the cadence of “Bet you do like to slumber, don’t you?” is not going to come to you when you’re reading it off the teleprompter. Good luck deciding on whether or not to drop the C-bomb. That’s on you.
Beat Happening – “Cast A Shadow”
When to sing: When the eyelids are heavy, and the 500 yard stare can be trained on not just anyone, but definitely someone.
Make sure to: Study/mimic Ted Leo’s performance of it at Underground Karaoke at Matador 21.
Best Coast – “When I’m With You”
When to sing: Right after you get back inside from smoking a joint in the ally and you tell that cute guy that “this next song’s for you.”
Make sure to: Ask the DJ if he can turn up that reverb.
The Black Keys – “10 A.M. Automatic”
When to sing: When you can’t quite put into feelings that guy’s t-shirt with a bald eagle on it.
Make sure to: Put a little extra spit on those vocals like they used to do.
Black Lips – “Bad Kids”
When to sing: After a round of Jager, or Car Bombs, or Liquid Cocaine, and after you tell them you’re absolutely not going to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Make sure to: Get, like, seven people on the stage.
Bon Iver – “Skinny Love”
When to sing: When you roll up to Karaoke solo, after several drinks isolated in a cold corner of the bar, and only when the weight of the world is on your heart.
Make sure to: Sulk back to your chair when it’s all over, back to your “cabin,” as it were.
The Breeders – “One Divine Hammer”
When to sing: Directly before or after someone sings Pixies – “Hey”.
Make sure to: Remember that this song is wicked filthy — direct eye contact with crowd is at your own risk. (Dudes, ask if they have the Clockcleaner version — it’s arguably better.)
Bright Eyes – “The Calendar Hung Itself”
When to sing: There’s no real bad time to sing this, the preeminent emo song of them all, but it’s more about when you have wherewithal to sing Oberst’s lyrics.
Make sure to: Render everyone so awestruck they all want to buy you a drink at the end of it — you’re clearly not in a good place right now.
Built To Spill – “Car”
When to sing: A great opener, before you’re even finished with your first drink.
Make sure to: Close your eyes by the third “I want to see, movies of my dreams,” or you’re not doing it right.
Cibo Matto – “Birthday Cake”
When to sing: In the environment where this song is an option, everyone’s going to be OK with it any time, but it’s definitely one of those songs to play if your equilibrium’s altered to the point where pitch is “optional”.
Make sure to: Get all of Miho Hatori’s eccentricities and dialect, especially the way she says “birthssday cake.”
CYHSY – “The Skin of my Yellow Country Teeth”
When to sing: When you are sure that this song will burrow into the soul of everyone watching – so, late in the night.
Make sure to: Slur each and every word, purposefully or not.
College & Electric Youth – “A Real Hero”
When to sing: After (or during) a big knife fight in the back of a bar. I don’t know if this song will ever escape its role as the soundtrack to Ryan Gosling driving off into the sunset.
Make sure to: Channel Bill Murray singing “More Than This” and you’ll be on the right track.
Das Racist – “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”
When to sing: When you want to comment on consumptive corporate consumerism to a bar full of drunk people.
Make sure to: Replace “Jamaica Ave.” with a local thoroughfare in your city to try to get the message to resonate with your audience.
The Decemberists – “Don’t Carry It All”
When to sing: When you don’t want to sing “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, but you actually kinda do. Here’s something that sounds almost exactly the same.
Make sure to: Partake in the same kind of theatrics that The Decemberists do on stage and pretend that you’re a whale and try to eat the audience. This will go over well.
Dent May – “Eastover Wives”
When to sing: When you want to sing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” but you’re never sure which of the 12 versions they’ll put on.
Make sure to: Dance your white ass off while you’re up there.
Destroyer – “Your Blues”
When to sing: When the idea of singing another Bob Dylan song seems completely “repulsive,” but you’re still not of the inclination to “sing exact notes.”
Make sure to: BYO condenser mic and hold it delicately between your thumb and index finger.
Dirty Projectors – “Stillness Is The Move”
When to sing: Get this one done early in your set – that little run up to that really high note in the pre-chorus can’t be easy after 3+ drinks. Nailing this song will win the affections of the boy in the Owen Pallett tee.
Make sure to: Remember those quiet riffs Angel Deradoorian does at the end. If you bring those out, Owen Pallett guy will definitely buy you another glass of merlot.
Dismemberment Plan – “You Are Invited”
When to sing: When you feel the tenor of the evening has taken a turn for the worse and want to relay a message of acceptance, positivity, and sing one of the greatest damn songs ever.
Make sure to: Work the crowd and tell the story – be the light at the end of all of these barfly’s nights, especially the guy who just sang “Hurt” seemingly without irony.
Elliott Smith – “Waltz #2 (XO)”
When to sing: It’s not as huge of a bummer as, say, “Needle in the Hay” or “Twilight”, but for those who like bumming people out at karaoke, this should be your go-to bummer jam. Bonus points if you bring your mother along.
Make sure to: Nail the “and on and on and on” perfectly or Howard Sims will be there with his shepherd’s crook so fast.
The Fall – “Totally Wired”
When to sing: The obvious time is after you just did some coke in the bathroom but feel free to make it a joke song — change lyric to “tired”!
Make sure to: Respect Mark E. Smith and add a supurflous “uh” after every phrase (“I’m totally weird-uh, to be wired-uh”).
The Flaming Lips – “Do You Realize??”
When to sing: Late enough and drunk enough so that you consider Wayne Coyne’s questions about universe. The precise moment this can happen varies greatly from person to person.
Make sure to: Really ask the question, every time. It’s not a rhetorical question, it’s incredulous! Grapple with reality up there.
Free Energy – “Dream City”
When to sing: When you want to sing “The Boys Are Back In Town” but the last time you did you got kicked off stage for trying to sing all three lines of the guitar solo by yourself.
Make sure to: Wear a leather jacket.
Frightened Rabbit – “The Modern Leper”
When to sing: After an unstable amount of whiskey, and after you overheard someone talk about Mumford.
Make sure to: Think about the Scottish accent, but man, don’t go all Groundskeeper Willie on it. Let it alone if you have doubts.
Fugazi – “Waiting Room”
When to sing: When you have two people who can do both Guy Piccatio’s and Ian McKay’s parts. Then, and only then, should you do “Waiting Room”.
Make sure to: Sing when you feel like the fever of the room is about at this level.
Girls – “Lust for Life”
When to sing: It’s such a short song (only a minute and 30 seconds of singing) that it needs to be early on when people might still be paying a bit of attention. No flare, just a great song.
Make sure to: Figure out how Christopher Owens does the half pouty/half whiney thing before you step up.
Gogol Bordello – “Start Wearing Purple”
When to sing: After your fifth shot of Stolichnaya, and only if you’re wearing suspenders.
Make sure to: Take off your shirt but keep your suspenders on. Also buy a round of vodka for everyone pre-song and toast the audience during the high note and you will be crowned King Gypsy-Punk for the rest of the night.
Grinderman – “No Pussy Blues”
When to sing: When you’ve squeezed the last ounce of pathos out of “Just a Gigolo”, and you’ve just gotta lay down some real talk with the bar.
Make sure to: Never unclench your teeth throughout the whole song — that’s part one of the Nick Cave impression. This is part two.
Guided By Voices – “Tractor Rape Chain”
When to sing: When you think you’re as drunk as Robert Pollard would be.
Make sure to: Elucidate to the DJ (and audience) that the word in questions is (probably) referring to parallel lines made by a tractor in a rapeseed field. Or not — your call.
Hasil Adkins – “She Said”
When to sing: After some rye whiskey, moonshine, or corn liquor.
Make sure to: Not memorize the lyrics, but memorize how Adkins says the words, which will be no where near how they are supposed to sound. The whole thing will work better if you pronounce “head” like “hayee.”
Hunx and His Punx – “U Don’t Like Rock N Roll”
When to sing: Immediately after some group of moms sings “I Love Rock Roll”. That would be great.
Make sure to: Wear a bedazzled leather jacket. Pants optional.
Interpol – “Obstacle #1”
When to sing: When you’re wearing black suit, shirt and tie, and you’re totally ready to make the same note that spans over 50% of the song interesting.
Make sure to: Import Carlos D’s New York Doesn’t Really Care swagger.
Islands – “Rough Gem”
When to sing: After someone sings Whitesnake or Dokken or Aerosmith — when things are decidedly un-twee.
Make sure to: Play air piano on those three timeless piano plunks on the chorus.
Jamie Lidell – “Multiply”
When to sing: When you want to sing Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” but don’t want to hear anyone say “Why didn’t you do the Napolean Dynamite dance?”
Make sure to: Right after you fling your leopard-print suit-jacket on and take one last sip of your dirty martini. Study up on Lidell’s dance moves.
Janelle Monáe feat. Big Boi – “Tightrope”
When to sing: Two or three times a night is totally acceptable.
Make sure to: Put in the version with the rap in it. I’m sure they have it, but you don’t want to get all “Waterfalls (No Rap)” on the mic. Also, put some voodoo on it, yeah?
Jay Reatard – “It Ain’t Gonna Save Me”
When to sing: If you’re feeling like Jay, or if you’re feeling like a tribute to Jay.
Make sure to: Have a lot of fun singing a really, really dismal, depressing song.