Jack Antonoff has come a long way since his days playing in his New Jersey punk band Outline (yes, really!) and fronting folk-tinged Warped Tour alum Steel Train. As well as making widescreen, ‘80s influenced pop under his moniker Bleachers, and playing in the currently-on-hiatus Fun, the producer and songwriter extraordinaire has helped bring some of the last decade’s greatest pop songs to life, and is a trusted collaborator with the likes of Lorde, Taylor Swift, Kevin Abstract, St Vincent and Lana Del Rey.
Though he’s explored everything from smooth, sun-shot rap (on Abstract’s ‘ARIZONA BABY’) to stadium-baiting indie rock (Fun’s mega-banger ‘We Are Young’), Antonoff has a certain, recognisable Midas touch, with a flair for perfectly-deployed theatrical flourishes, hulking great ‘80s synths and, most importantly, a knack for digging down into the thorny depths of where an emerging song is headed.
It’s exactly why Jack Antonoff will be picking up the Songwriter Award at this year’s BandLab NME Awards 2022, following in the footsteps of Elton John and 2020’s Songwriter of the Decade, Robyn. ”Hits come and go,” he once told The New York Times. “Great songs, great albums, last forever.”
In celebration of his richly deserved gong, here are the songwriter, producer and artist’s 10 best songs: from his work in Bleachers and Fun to some of his greatest collaborations. Team work makes the dream work!
Fun, ‘We Are Young’ ft. Janelle Monáe (2012)
From the moment those marching drums come in, you just know this is going to be a lighters-in-the-air banger – chuck in a rousing, stadium-ready melody and a Janelle Monae feature spot, and it’s a done deal. ‘We Are Young’ first came about when Antonoff’s Fun bandmate sung the lead chorus to Beyoncé and Kanye West collaborator Jeff Bhasker – and the hook alone convinced him to produce their entire album. “Any other projects that we’ve done, I don’t think any of us have ever had that song that was like, ‘This is our band,'” Antonoff told MTV of the track. “We’re proud to say, ‘Listen to this one song, and then come listen to the rest. Here it is.’
Taylor Swift, ‘Out of the Woods’ (2014)
After winning a surprise Grammy for ‘We Are Young’ Jack Antonoff’s journey as a go-to pop songwriter really began with Taylor Swift, as he revealed to New York Times, being invited to collaborate on ‘1989’ changed his entire trajectory. “Before Taylor, everyone said: ‘You’re not a producer,’” he recounted. “It took Taylor Swift to say: ‘I like the way this sounds’.” He and Swift collaborated as a duo on the anthemic ‘Out of the Woods’. As Swift sings of a volatile relationship splintering apart in real-time, Antonoff pulls from bright and punchy ‘80s synth-pop, lends the lyrics a certain hopefulness.
Bleachers, ‘I Wanna Get Better’ (2014)
As he was touring with Fun, Antonoff started working on his own solo material on the road whenever he got a spare moment. Around a year later, ‘I Wanna Get Better’ gave the first glimpse of what he’d been dreaming up as Bleachers – a new project inspired by the pastel hues of John Hughes’ iconic high school movies (the ‘80s director made the likes of The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink) matched with cutting-edge production. Racing through every painful event that Antonoff has ever overcome, in a giddy spin of spliced-up piano, ‘I Wanna Get Better’ feels like Bleachers’ official anthem. Like all of Antonoff’s greatest work, it hunts down a glimmer of hope despite the darkness.
Lorde, ’Green Light’ (2017)
Tay-Tay didn’t just give Antonoff his first production credit – she also introduced him to her good pal Lorde. “We were at a Grammy party, and Jack got me a can of pineapple juice,” Lorde later told New York Times. Intrigued by her new beverage-fetcher, she arranged a handful of writing sessions, and the pair immediately hit it off in the studio. Ultimately they ended up co-writing almost all of Lorde’s second album ‘Melodrama’ together.
“Jack and I know each other so well by this point, we can communicate almost telepathically,” she later said of their songwriting partnership. Hunkering down in the studio, the duo approached the process with Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ in mind, beginning with sparse piano and gradually building up into spiralling pop.
Though it’s incredibly tricky to pick a highlight from this flawless pop record, opening track ‘Green Light’ probably comes closest – NME crowned it our number one song of 2017, and the second best song of the entire decade three years later. “Though lost intimacy lingers like a shadow, there’s a new sound and an open road ahead,” we said of the track. “You bet that once those traffic lights change, Lorde is revving straight out of here.”
Bleachers, ‘Don’t Take The Money’ (2017)
As well as linking up on Lorde’s next record ‘Solar Power’, the pair also made a Bleachers track together around the same time sessions for ‘Melodrama’ were taking place. As well as co-writing the song, Lorde – credited under her real name Ella Yelich-O’Connor – sings backing vocals on the final chorus. A storming banger about the difficult realities of making a relationship work, and resisting the gut instinct to run away from intensity, it also contains a neat little link to ‘Melodrama’. “I cut off my t-shirt sleeves,” Antonoff sings, “and claim a new continent.” This feels like a nod to their other collaboration ‘Supercut’, and Lorde’s lyric: “I fall into continents and cars”.
Red Hearse, ‘Red Hearse’ (2019)
In 2019, Antonoff teamed up with Rihanna and Usher co-writer Sam Dew and Kendrick Lamar’s got-to producer Sounwave for their new collaborative project Red Hearse – and the trio’s self-titled album drew on the distinct sounds of their respective hometowns New Jersey, Chicago and Compton). A meeting of three in-demand collaborators who spend a lot of time behind the mixing desk, the production on the record is as rich and magical as you’d expect – and it just doesn’t get better than the stuttering and infectious title track.
St Vincent, ‘MASSEDUCTION’ (2017)
Red Hearse wasn’t Antonoff’s first meeting with Sounwave, however: the in-demand Compton producer also collaborated on St Vincent’s neon-hued ‘MASSEDUCTION’ as a beat-programmer, while Antonoff co-produced the album with Annie Clark. Pushing into bright, gaudy territory with a biting undercurrent of sleaze, it made for a formidable pairing, and they later won a Grammy for the angular, squalling title track.
“The thesis for the album very well could be a lyric from this song: “‘I can’t turn off what turns me on.’” Clark told Pitchfork. “It was the last track to come together. The words to all the verses and everything just came out in a torrent, and I sent them to Jack. I was like, “Is this too oblique?” Jack, who is the ultimate cheerleader, just said, “No, this is really interesting. Keep going.”
Lana Del Rey, ’Norman Fucking Rockwell’ (2019)
Reflecting on the grand unfurling of ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’, Jack Antonoff told Mix With The Masters: “It sounded like a death march to the end of culture. The title track of Lana Del Rey’s sixth album, which warped and distorted the American Dream, it follows its name from a famous American painter, and satirises the myth of male genius. As well as co-producing the song, Antonoff is also a credited co-writer, and according to Lana Del Rey, his conversational approach shaped the searingly funny lyrics.
“Working with Jack Antonoff, I was in a little bit of a lighter mood because he was so funny,” she told Zane Lowe on Apple Music. “So the title track is called ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ and it’s kind of about this guy who is such a genius artist but he thinks he’s the shit and he knows it and he, like, won’t shut up talking about it.”
Clairo, ‘Amoeba’ (2021)
Another artist from loosely the same orbit (fun fact: Clairo and Taylor Swift became pals at the NME Awards in 2020!), Clairo also enlisted Antonoff as a co-writer on her warm, folksy second album ‘Sling’. On ‘Amoeba’, lush ‘70s melodies – recalling Carole King and Carpenters – meet crisp, contemporary production; a classic, old-timey song pulled forward to the present.
Clairo admitted originally turning the collaboration down. “I can’t believe I said no!” the former NME cover star once said. “I was like, ‘I don’t think I am mentally prepared to do a record with you – sorry. Your albums are so huge that I’m petrified’.” Ultimately, taking the leap of faith paid off – because a spectacular songwriter brings out the best in themselves and those around them.
Bleachers, ‘Chinatown’ feat. Bruce Springsteen (2020)
We could have picked any moment from Bleachers’ stellar 2021 album ‘Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night’, but this absolutely enormous song – originally released as a single in 2020 – marks a real full-circle moment for Jack, as it saw him teamed up with his hero Bruce Springsteen. The tune exudes the epic sense of melancholy that underpins the Boss’ quintessential work, and which Antonoff has channeled into buoyant, unforgettable pop songs throughout his entire career.
In an NME cover story last year, Jack explained the moment he listened back to the track: “I heard myself hearing [Springsteen’s] music and feeling value in the place that I was from, and these emotions that come along with this place. Finding my version of it, but only because of the doors that he kicked down for people like me.”
The words of worthy winner of the Songwriter Award at the Bandlab NME Awards 2022, who has followed their muse to unlock not only their own creativity, but that of many others too.