Sam Ray, who fronts the boundary-testing band Teen Suicide, remains as exciting a figure as ever. Initially, his band Teen Suicide traveled the post-Myspace internet via Bandcamp and Tumblr as a solo project for Ray, who started writing songs under the name when he was barely an adult. The first demo compilation, Bad Vibes Forever, felt instantly relatable. At some times noisy and impenetrable, and at others intimate and warm, the compilation represented Ray’s own growing malaise, with which listeners could map the sounds of their own turmoil. Since those anti-halcyon days, Ray has expanded Teen Suicide into a full band, taken the project on tour, and rechristened (if but briefly) the band as American Pleasure Club. For as many projects as Ray juggled (Ricky Eat Acid, Julia Brown), Teen Suicide/American Pleasure Club remained prolific, dropping numerous b-side compilations independently while releasing seven studio albums and a host of EPs. Consistently, Teen Suicide releases inspire outpourings of emotion from largely youthful fanbases, many of whom have now grown up with the band and watched as Ray grappled with incredible personal turmoil, particularly with opioid use and, more recently, with a mysterious acute respiratory illness. Along the way, Ray has pushed the project’s contours into increasingly expansive sonic territory, incorporating emo, noise rock, ambient, shoegaze and more.
The openness that Ray has, both as a musician and a figurehead, has drawn admiration and consternation across the spectrum of observers, and has proven how listeners crave vulnerability from the musicians they fawn over. Ray has undoubtedly pissed a few people off—his Twitter presence is particularly notorious—but that openness has become endemic to the Teen Suicide experience. His sizable presence has come to define an era in indie rock and bedroom pop history, where the Baltimore-originating band came to collaborate with and influence micro-scenes across the mid-Atlantic, from the Carolinas up to Philadelphia and New York City. Today’s Teen Suicide is still the indie-rock vehicle through which Ray shares his penned songs. It is also very much a collaboration between Sam and his wife, Kitty, whose own musical adventures range from the early days of internet virality as Kitty Pryde to today’s forward-thinking pop via The Pom-Poms and her label, Pretty Wavvy.
Yesterday (Aug. 26), Teen Suicide released honeybee table at the butterfly feast, the band’s first LP since reverting back from the American Pleasure Club name, via the band’s longtime label home, Run For Cover Records. honeybee table at the butterfly feast is as restless as any other Teen Suicide album, but Ray’s questions and insecurities differ as he grapples with near-death experiences and existential dread as a sober individual. honeybee table at the butterfly feast is an exciting accomplishment for the legendary musical project that promises to keep on giving. Its release feels like the ideal occasion to reflect on and rank Teen Suicide’s 10 best songs over the years.
10. “all the lonely nights in your life”
While there is undeniable appeal to Teen Suicide’s fuzziest, most inscrutable works, there is also something disarming and refreshing about the stark vulnerability on “all the lonely nights in your life.” The romantic guitar ballad, found on 2018’s a whole fucking lifetime of this during the band’s American Pleasure Club era, narrates the unrequited love the song’s narrator maintains for its subject. The crystalline clarity with which Ray sings and plucks a sonorous, romantic guitar canon tugs at the heartstrings gently, but with enough force to ultimately find oneself enamored. Much of Ray’s songs about love prior to this are downright depressing, speaking often to love that sours or love that cannot be made a priority due to addiction, so “all the lonely nights in your life” proved a heartfelt standout for fans upon release. Ray focuses less on the fact that the love is unrequited and more on the fact that it is enduring, lending to that warm, romantic glow. The song has also been heavily popularized by Zoomer YouTube phenoms Cavetown and Chloe Moriondo for their sweet, sincere cover.
9. “haunt me (x 3)”
Originally a Bandcamp rarity on Teen Suicide’s 2013 compilation rarities, unreleased stuff, and cool things, “haunt me (x 3)” has grown to be Teen Suicide’s most popular song since gaining a new life on the Run For Cover-released 2015 compilation dc snuff film / waste yrself. With its throbbing beat, eerie synthesizers and hushed vocals, the track is one of Teen Suicide’s strongest ventures into experimental pop, drawing influence from a variety of genres and hooking in listeners of mumble rap, avant-garde ambient and sadcore indie rock along the way. Ghosts and haunting come up as motifs in Ray’s music quite often, and in this iteration, he externalizes his desire for a partner who feels so omnipresent that it seems as though she’s haunting him. The track is less a love track and more a loneliness track. The song closes with a sample Ray found in a random YouTube video of a life coach speaking to how we are liable to hold grudges, especially against ourselves. While Ray’s bummer vocals and ghastly synths make “haunt me (x 3)” memorable, the closing sample renders it downright unforgettable.
Track two of four on the EP Hymns, “xxxxxxx” is minimalist in composition and recording, but intense in imagery. Initially backed solely by piano and recorded to tape, Ray croons in vocals that oscillate between whispers and gentle yelps as he sings to a subject he loves under the anticipation that he will soon be dead, likely by his own hand. While the song does not have a proper chorus, the piano and vocals come together mid-verse to arpeggiate in unison, granting a creepy urgency. Halfway through, Ray and the piano are supported through minimalist drums and the hum of a synthesizer maintaining one tone, adding to the track’s ethereality. The lo-fi recording further reinforces the song’s homemade charm. The song itself is one of Ray’s most gruesome and hypnotic. The EP from which it comes is largely trafficked digitally; however, there are 30 lathe-cut vinyl discs with hand-painted sleeves out there. The EP’s third track, “Hymn 2,” features former bandmate Caroline White, best known for her solo folk project Infinity Crush.
7. “If I Don’t See You Before You Leave”
The album closer on 2016’s monster double LP it’s the big joyous celebration, let’s stir the honeypot, “If I Don’t See You Before You Leave,” is a sleeper hit off the critically acclaimed collection. The cacophony of guitars and vocal tracks give the touching track a Jesus and Mary Chain-like patina that emphasizes the message Ray wants to get across. First, he lists materials his friend has stolen from him and his mother—books, DVDs, $400—but wraps up with a message of love for his friend, who only stole them to fund his addiction. They wish Ray’s friend well and hope to see a better future for that friend. Delivered with rockstar energy, the message reverberates with abundant visibility and a resonating sweetness.
6. “Beneath the Cross (demo)”
This glitchy, bellowing song found its official release on the Run For Cover-supported Bonus EP in 2016 as a companion release to it’s the big joyous celebration, let’s stir the honeypot after existing solely as a Dropbox link on the band’s Facebook page. Between the choice samples and simmering guitars, “Beneath the Cross (demo)” brings together all the best of Teen Suicide. The slow, sadcore foundation on which guitars, synths and a beat unfold represent the band’s commitment to experimenting with pop aesthetics in ways that awe and also depress. The cryptic chorus, “The way it’s been raining, you’d think it’d never stop,” suggests a weighty emotional desolation that forces one to wonder if any end is in sight. The fuzzy, echoing recording factors into the warmth that early Teen Suicide demos offer, making the track especially appealing.
One of the more beautiful songs in the Teen Suicide canon and a standout on the latest release, 2022’s honeybee table at the butterfly feast, “groceries” is romantic and wistful. The track enters with a Swirlies-like chorus of guitars, whose warm resonance and midtempo pacing are ideal for introducing the husband-wife duo of Sam and Kitty Ray as they gently reflect on the banal pleasures of performing quotidian tasks together. Together, their vocals possess a dreamy balance as they evoke the beauty of drinking coffee and cleaning laundry as a married couple. Their spacey vocals keep the cheesy factor in check while betraying just enough romance to make any listener gush. Ephemeral flecks of string sounds and piano add to the dream-pop ethereality that makes this track work so well. It is hard to believe that music this dedicated to beauty would have made the cut on previous Teen Suicide records, but as bandleader Sam Ray’s perspective has changed over the decade-and-change that the project has existed, he has found room for simple pleasures.
4. “doing all the things i used to do with people, part 2”
Another track that made the leap from the self-released 2013 b-sides compilation onto the 2015 Run For Cover-supported dc snuff film / waste yourself is the soft and solemn “doing all the things i used to do with people, part 2.” On this particular track, Ray narrates his distressing adventures during his period of heroin addiction, concluding on a note of fatalism before the track disintegrates into loud, noisy chaos. Like “haunt me (x 3),” “doing all the things i used to do with people, part 2” has a thumping, fuzzy beat that grounds the focus on Ray’s quiet vocals. While low in fidelity, the track is gently intricate. It translates well on a live recording, as made evident by the released and re-released acoustic Philly rooftop version. Together, the recordings portray the song’s dynamic life for the artist and the audience.
3. “I Wanna Be a Witch”
“I Wanna Be a Witch” is an upbeat track that comes from Teen Suicide’s summer 2012 EP Goblin Problems, a three-track project performed by Sam Ray with drumming assistance from Eric Livingston. The EP was one of the first releases for pioneering tape label Birdtapes, best known for early releases from Elvis Depressedly, Yucky Duster, Pill Friends and more. The track serves as the EP’s closer and is one of Teen Suicide’s foremost sleeper hits, thanks to its upbeat performance and lyrics rife with yearning. As much as the singer’s counterpart is desired, the track also speaks to a desire to hide, to remove oneself from the life they occupy and transition into something easier, more solitary, with only the company of the counterpart. The seemingly diametric opposition between the upbeat, vintage-pop stylings of the instruments and the rather depressing lyrical matter creates a tension that is hard not to admire. Through “I Wanna Be a Witch,” Teen Suicide lays bare the simplest emotional quandaries that are universal, but challenging to explain. That vulnerability and intelligibility contributes greatly to the band’s enduring appeal, particularly with younger audiences. The song itself shows up again in a cleaner, higher-fidelity version under Ray’s indie-pop project, Julia Brown, on the 2013 Birdtapes-released single “Library” B/W “I Wanna Be a Witch.”
2. “the same things happening to me all the time, even in my dreams”
One of Teen Suicide’s most noodling tracks, “the same things happening to me all the time, even in my dreams,” remains one of the breakout hits from the 2012 self-released and 2015 Run For Cover re-released full-length i will be my own hell because there is a devil inside my body. Often, Ray points to his dreams of death and a resulting preoccupation with death and mortality that informs his anxieties and challenges coping with the world at large. His fear of disappointing those around him informs a desire to die, and his belief that those around him are silently judging him as he descends into mental instability and drug addiction adds fuel to the fire. The muddy vocals darting up and down Ray’s register are ideal for screaming, as he often does live, and reflect the clear emo influence from which Ray occasionally draws. Of all of Ray’s tracks that appeal to more fiery, chaotic emotions, “the same things happening to me all the time, even in my dreams” is a clear standout that is as complex as it is catchy.
1. “this is heaven and id die for it”
Somewhere in between Melvins and Joyce Manor, Sam Ray decided to jot down a handful of couplets that were stuck in his head and back them up with heavy, pedal-headed rock. “this is heaven and id die for it” comes from 2018’s a whole fucking lifetime of this, one of the records from the American Pleasure Club era. Once he utters “Pretty boys, yeah they’re up to no good / Test it out, it’s well understood / Beneath the palms when the light starts to leave / You started laughing when you looked at me,” it’s over—the stark images, smooth delivery and undulating guitars are immediately entrancing. While the track can be a stumper due to its disconnect from Ray’s own experiences, “this is heaven and id die for it” presents opportunities for listeners to project their own narratives onto the couplets that follow. The individual vignettes knit together into a devastating quilt, displaying whatever “heaven” Ray wants to create from his mind. It is undeniably catchy, deeply memorable and a surprising relief of a song. In a sense, this song is both deliberately Sam Ray’s song and the listeners’ song—Ray may have his own sources of inspiration for the portraits he paints, but the decision not to trace, nor name those sources allows the audience the chance to scavenge their own affective and narrative memories to ascribe meaning. The alt-rock delivery calls forth shoegaze and sludge predecessors with genuine appeal, absolutely rendering this one of the band’s most memorable tracks, if not their absolute best.
Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Slumber Mag, Merry-Go-Round and Post-Trash. He is currently a student in Philadelphia. He lives on Twitter @bigugly