11 years ago, two friends in a crowded London music scene kicked about some ideas on acoustic guitars and started a new project – lifting their name from a story in Angela Carter’s collection The Bloody Chamber. Neither Ellie Rowsell nor Joff Oddie, however, could ever have anticipated exactly what a juggernaut they had launched forth in their humble beginnings.
Expanding out to a quartet – and now, in their long-awaited return to the live arena, a quintet – Wolf Alice went on to become one of the defining indie-rock acts of the ensuing decade and change. Their widescreen, luminous take on the genre has seen them accumulate a Grammy nomination, a number-one album, a Gold Record and a Mercury Prize win over the years. That’s not counting the endless main-stage festival appearances, millions of streams, world tours and charting in a dozen countries.
Let the record show, however, that Wolf Alice’s bite is just as menacing as its bark – every ounce of their success has been backed up by a consistent and evolving sound that’s home to some of the warmest and most inspired cuts from the genre in recent memory. Though this list won’t give the entire picture, hopefully, it will allow you to focus on some of the finer touches in this sprawling mosaic. Let’s howl.
1. ‘Fluffy’, Fluffy (2013) / My Love is Cool (2015)
It’s been said a great song can be measured by still working just as well with all its bells and whistles removed. Going all the way back to Wolf Alice’s debut single, ‘Fluffy’ is a testament to this very notion. From its scratchy original version to its faster, heavier re-record for their debut album, the song has grown both teeth and muscle – antithetical to its cutesy title, named for Rowsell’s late pet cat. Even when the band have reworked it acoustically, however, that underlying tension still simmers through it, slower, more methodical and skeletal. Abrasive textures and brimming potential awaits.
2. ‘Bros’, Bros (2013) / My Love is Cool (2015)
Much like ‘Fluffy,’ ‘Bros’ began in the earliest known iteration of Wolf Alice. Its original version was released as a Chess Club single, rushing forth with earnest urgency amidst the shimmer of its dream-pop guitars and the endearing lyric sheet detailing lifelong bonds through platonic friendships. The pace was pulled back slightly for its re-recording on My Love is Cool, but the heart of the song is still conveyed in this more inward-focused album version. Really, that’s what ‘Bros’ boils down to – Its spirit and its meaning. A true testament to both Wolf Alice’s passion and their compassion, inextricably intertwined.
3. ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’, Creature Songs EP (2014)
Sing-alongs aren’t cool. You know what’s cool? Scream-alongs. The kind of wordless refrain you have to unlock your jaw like a python in order to properly let loose. Enter ‘Moaning Lisa Smile,’ which takes this concept to the nth degree with the kind of elongated “ahhhhs” that are normally reserved for horror flicks. That’s not even touching its loud-quiet-loud Pixies dynamic and its drop-B riff, which apes Gorillaz’ ‘5/4’ with alt-rock aplomb. Throw in an inspired lyrics set, stemming from an early Simpsons episode centred on the titular Lisa Simpson, and it’s clear to see why ‘Moaning’ remains career-best material.
4. ‘Giant Peach’, My Love is Cool (2015)
Ellie Rowsell has noted ‘Giant Peach’s creation as an ode to her native London – which, in case you hadn’t noticed, isn’t exactly an untapped well of inspiration for songwriting. It’s impressive, then, when she subverts the usual whimsy of city prose to create more abstract, compelling imagery therein. Not to mention the whole band is on point – drummer Joel Amey, in particular, swerves and propels the song with his work behind the kit. No doubt Roald Dahl would be proud as punch to have his beloved novel as a key motif for one of Wolf Alice’s best-known singles.
5. ‘Heavenward’, Visions of a Life (2017)
It’s only fitting: an award-winning album has an award-deserving opener. One of the band’s most lucid, crystalised realisations of their shoegazier elements, “Heavenward” is pushed to the nth degree of lush resplendence. This is thanks, in part, to producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who recently worked the same magic on the new Deafheaven record, but it’s also in accordance with Oddie’s cavernous guitar ether and the sun-kissed wash of Rowsell’s echo-chamber vocals. It’s the kind of song you can effectively bathe in, and it’s such a picture-perfect recreation of its titular environment that only Gabriel’s trumpet itself would bring Wolf Alice closer.
6. ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’, Visions of a Life (2017)
Wolf Alice don’t have “hits,” per se. They’re very successful, don’t get it twisted, but they’re also not a band that have any proper radio staples or anything like that. This all being said: ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’ is a hit. Far and away the band’s most popular song, its bouncing synth line and shouty hook bubble and ricochet off the song’s slow-motion twirl. Its use of sprechgesang speak-sung vocals play into this swooning romance too, not to mention its endearing music video. The complete package, then, concocts something that feels like falling in love over and over again.
7. ‘St. Purple and Green’, Visions of a Life (2017)
A deep-cut from Visions of a Life, ‘St. Purple and Green’s choral ring-in serves as a red herring in the spirit of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’ What makes it an essential track? Twofold: It offers yet another side to Wolf Alice’s ever-evolving sonic spectrum, for one; it subverts expectations throughout to knowingly defy Wolf Alice having any sort of quote-unquote typical sound attached to them. From its tumbling intro, recalling Spiritualized at their space-floatingest, to its glistening crescendo that sees it out, ‘St. Purple and Green’ changes the questions when you think you have all the answers.
8. ‘How Can I Make It OK?’, Blue Weekend (2021)
It’s a universal question, and one we find ourselves asking all too often. On this subdued moment from Blue Weekend, Wolf Alice enter a deep state of contemplation amidst the hue of watery synth bleeps and the kind of syncopated hook that any ‘80s hitmaker would have killed to have stumbled upon. Its low-end guitar lick cuts through the atmosphere, offering a contrast that builds upon the idiosyncratic nature of the song. “I just want you to be happy,” Rowsell sighs in response to the eponymous hook. The pursuit continues, but there are not many better soundtracks to accompany it.
9. ‘Smile’, Blue Weekend (2021)
Lisa is nowhere to be seen this time, but the barbed energy and gnashing teeth of this song’s smiling predecessor is certainly translated into these new surroundings. How to describe ‘Smile’ sonically? Consider Nirvana’s ‘Scentless Apprentice’ reinterpreted into 21st-century pop and you’re past the halfway mark. Bassist Theo Ellis rumbles and reels against the thrash of the fuzzed-out guitar wall, while the seething verses add some sourness in amidst the sugar-rush sweet of the blissed-out chorus. Forget a demon on one shoulder and an angel on the other – Wolf Alice just porque no los dos’d that whole arrangement.
10. ‘The Last Man on Earth’, Blue Weekend (2021)
Leading off Blue Weekend with one of the band’s quietest and most introspective songs to date was an ambitious move. In hindsight, it may have also been among their most clever. Rather than returning to the public eye with bombast and grandstanding, ‘The Last Man on Earth’ offered sparse piano and nearly-whispered vocals – meaning that we, the listeners, had to lean in and pay special attention. ‘Earth’ is a striking, emotive ballad, certainly, but it’s more than that too. It encompasses Wolf Alice’s knack for making something ethereal and expansive within a comparatively limited range. Your attention is undivided. Indulge.
Has all this inspired you to seek out even more Wolf Alice content? We’ve got you covered. Head here to watch them play a special one-off performance at London’s Union Chapel, as part of the epic new content series, Jim Beam’s ‘Welcome Sessions’.