From preferred musical instrument of the Hawaiian royal family to delivery mechanism for the ‘songs’ of Bruno Mars, the ukulele has had a fascinating up an down history (in that order). And while indie groups have largely stayed away from the nylon-stringed wonder since its creation 135 some odd years ago—leaving it to be routinely abused by fedora-wielding beach buds—there are a few notable exceptions. The following is a list of the 8 best alternative tracks with ukulele and one very special ‘honorable’ mention.
Noah and the Whale – “5 Years Time”The feel good track to end them all. With it’s silly lyrics and refrains of “fun, fun, fun” “5 Years Time” is the rare case of a uke track that’s light and sweet without ever being syrupy.
Chad VanGaalen – “Shave My Pussy”Few songwriters can mine pathos out of the mundanities of everyday existence like Chad Vangaalen (in this case a worn out credit card that leads to embarrassment at the checkout). Over ‘verbed out uke and spacey synth textures, the Calgary native paints a vivid portrait of a protagonist with heartbreaking self-esteem issues.
Vance Joy – “Riptide”Aussie Vance Joy provided us with this summer anthem, voted #1 on Triple J’s Hottest 100 of 2013.
Portishead – “Deep Water”Short and sweet at 90 seconds, “Deep Water” is gorgeous bit of ukelele-harnessed nostalgia-pop that’ll have you looking up uke prices on eBay so you can sing it yourself. The good news: ukuele’s are cheap. The bad: you probably won’t sound like Beth Gibbons.
Beirut – “Elephant Gun”After breaking into public consciousness with 2006’s extraordinary, Balkan-brass inspired debut Gulag Orkestar, Beirut’s Zach Condon has, for all intents and purposes, been the poster child for ukulele’s use in ‘serious’ art. With Elephant Gun, he shows the uke’s versatility as both a solo and ensemble instrument, while showcasing one of his finest melodies to date.
tUnE-yArDs – “Fiya”If it doesn’t sound much like any ukulele you’ve ever heard, credit Merrill Garbus’s snaky, unorthodox playing. The polymath behind one of the contemporary music’s most unique (and annoying to spell) acts, tune-yArDs create afrobeat, R&B influenced left-of-center pop music through loops of various kinds, all played by Garbus on the spot.
The Magnetic Fields – “Book of Love”One of alt rock’s great poets, Stephen Merritt offers his humorous ruminations on the inescapable pull of love with the aid of his trusty uke and nothing else. The voice may startle at first, but once your brain starts processing the lyrics, little else matters. The band’s 1999 triple album 69 Love Songs featured the ukulele extensively, and we should all be grateful for it.
Opus Orange – “Nothing Time”Another song that clocks in at a minute and a half (are we noticing a pattern here?). The Santa Monica sextet may not be a household name yet, but there’s no denying the charm of this ode to eternal youth.
Eddie Vedder – “Can’t Keep”It wasn’t until Eddie Vedder was touring Hawaii with Pearl Jam in the late ‘90s that he fell under the ukulele’s spell, but fall under he did. In 2011, EV released the album Ukulele Songs (which, you guessed it, features 16 covers and originals played on the four stringed instrument). On “Can’t Keep” Vedder cultivates an impressive cinematic intensity by reformatting the ’02 Pearl Jam rocker for uke.
Worst/best thing ever to happen to the ukelele: Tiny Tim’s “Tip-Toe Thru’ the Tulips With Me.” No questions, just watch.