This list is all about the germ that comes before the album: demos. Demos serve as the artist’s way of hearing how the song they’ve been working on actually sounds. These earlier versions of a song can be radically different when they appear on an album. A lot of times they are recorded at the artist’s house, after scribbling down lyrics on a notepad and testing out new chord progression like a scientist experimenting with lab rats. But that doesn’t necessarily mean demos are worse. The simplified versions can be just as powerful and charismatic. Some of these demos are by my favorite bands, as it takes a certain level of fan-hood to dig through all the rare material. Here are my favorites:
“I’ll Try Anything Once” – The Strokes:
This is the outline for “You Only Live Once.” Julian’s lyrics seem more about his reflections of life, as opposed to just being locked up in a relationship in the album version. Like many others on this list, Julian’s voice is fragile—as he ditches the raspy, garage rock voice usually meant to match the fuzzy guitars. Julian’s snapping in his breaks between vocals and the chimes from xylophone, makes the song a bit playful.
“Time for Heroes” – The Libertines:
This is a home demo by the songwriting duo Carl Barat and Pete Doherty. This is the acoustic version of a song about Pete’s romanticized vision of his experiences in the London May Day Riots. The ad lib vocals of “there are fewer distressing sights than Carlos in a Santa Claus hat,” brim with confidence in their new song. Next would be the fame that followed.
“The Bends” – Radiohead:
As might be expected from a Radiohead demo, it’s unconventional. At one point a distorted guitar is giving the song a surge of energy, and then it all just dies. The bass, distorted guitar, and acoustic all drop out and Thom is singing to the drum beat. To top it off, a wind instrument brings the song to a close.
“Big Dreams” – The Likely Lads:
I could see this band being hailed as Britain’s next big band. “Big Dreams” is a song off a collection called the Melrose Yard Demos, meant to let people get a taste of their style.
“Do Re Mi” – Nirvana:
This is one of Kurt’s home demos in 1994. In the chorus, he sings a lot of high notes and without the typical ‘I-just-swallowed-a-bunch-of-nails voice,’ some people might at first believe it’s not even Kurt. It would’ve been interesting to hear this recorded with the full band on a record, and see the development of Kurt’s music as he got older.
“If I Fell” – The Beatles:
Once again, another home demo for you. John seems to be singing this in a higher key than usual and it sound like an old ragtime song. Though the quality of the recording isn’t great, the old-style charm appeals to me.
“Sixteen, Maybe Less” – Iron & Wine:
The guitars in this demo are really what make this one stand out to me. You can hear the acoustic guitar acting as a pulse underneath the elegant slide-guitar and breathy vocals. Demos really show the true talent of musicians. Hearing songs with no effects, editing, or mastering create such a pure sound—as if they’re being played live in your house.
“Alright Caroline” – Third Eye Blind:
I don’t really understand why this song still hasn’t made it onto an album. But the band has at least played it live at shows. The lyrics deal with the sobering effects an unplanned pregnancy. As the track goes, “it’s going to take a long time to grow young again.”
“Girlfriend in a Coma” – The Smiths:
As the description of this video says, the guitar sort of has a Reggae sort of sound because of the quick up-strums. This is track does have a dominant electric guitar, but the sound is not as full as the album version. The bright, dancing acoustic lead guitar and the graceful string instruments are not yet a part of the song. This means that Morrissey’s vocals are basically isolated in this demo.
“Live Forever” – Oasis:
Noel said that after he wrote “Live Forever” he knew that Oasis was going be put on the map. In this version in 1993, the acoustic guitar is at the forefront, instead of the distorted guitar that appears on the album. Liam also does the falsetto, something he usually hands over to his brother to sing. Like Oasis or not, this track is a masterpiece. Maybe they might reunite, but if not songs like this will live forever.