Ahead of their trio of symphony-backed ‘Birdsongs’ shows with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, we’re sharing our ~hot takes~ on Birds Of Tokyo’s biggest hits.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, there wasn’t a shopping centre in Australia that didn’t play Birds Of Tokyo at least twice a day (if not twice every hour).
A quintet of human men hailing from the sunny suburbs of Boorloo/Perth, the very misleadingly named alt-rock band debuted in October of 2005 with the double A-side release of One Way and Stay, following a swathe of buzzy live shows throughout the preceding 18 months. It was technically a side-project of Karnivool (also fronted by Ian Kenny) and local outfit Tragic Delicate, formed after guitarist Adam Spark asked Kenny to sing on a handful of commercial demos; they never intended to be a “proper” band, but when those songs shaped up way better than anyone involved had anticipated, they knew the potential was too strong to ignore.
So they rallied up longstanding drummer Adam Weston and former members Miki Cee (guitars) and Anthony Jackson (bass), and set their sights on rock radio stardom. They didn’t land immediately – their 2007 debut Day One peaked at #88 on the ARIA Charts and had one single, Wayside, slide into the Triple J Hottest 100 at #61. But just under a year and a half later, in July of 2008, Birds Of Tokyo dropped their second album – the downright iconic Universes – and sporting bonafide classics like Silhouettic, Broken Bones and Wide Eyed Boy, it launched the band right into the centre of the mainstream consensus.
Two years later, their self-titled third album cemented Birds Of Tokyo as one of the biggest bands in the country: it peaked at #2 on the charts (and eventually went Platinum), with the single Plans becoming a major radio hit – itself racking up three Platinum plaques – and Wild At Heart enjoying similar success. Things only got bigger for the band with 2013’s March Fires album, another Platinum-certified disc studded with hits, and their first full-on chart-topper (thanks in no short part to their all-time biggest single, Lanterns).
Still reigning as one of Australian rock and pop’s most beloved acts – 2016’s Brace peaked at #3 on the charts, while 2020’s Human Design topped it once more and gave us the triple-Platinum single Good Lord – Birds Of Tokyo have never rested on their laurels; so far, they’ve delivered two previews of their as-yet-unannounced seventh album, Smith Street and Daylight, both of which show the band in peak form. And across the rest of the year, they’re touring Australia with full symphony orchestras to reinvent their biggest tunes in the most soaring and cinematic ways imaginable.
For those of us down in Naarm/Melbourne, we’ll be treated to three enormous shows at Hamer Hall, where on Thursday September 21, Friday 22 and Saturday 23, the band will perform with the spellbinding backing of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Officially dubbed Birdsongs, the shows are poised to be among Birds Of Tokyo’s best, described as “electrifying” and promised to lean heavily on “soaring melodies and raw energy”. All three shows are extremely close to selling out – head here to find the remaining handfuls of tickets.
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As we count down the seconds until we can witness this once-in-a-lifetime experience for ourselves, we’ve revisited the Birds Of Tokyo discography and mined through all 31 of their singles to decide on our ten favourites. We’ve mostly kept to their biggest hits, except where the underdogs have simply been too good to ignore. And we know that their deep cuts are among some of their best tunes, so we’re putting the call out to you – what are your favourite Birds Of Tokyo songs? Read our ranking below, then let us know what your picks would be on social media!
It tracks that March Fires is Birds Of Tokyo’s most successful album, since it leans heavily on what the band do best: big, triumphant pop songs that resonate emotionally but still feel exciting and driving. When The Night Falls Quiet came out in April of 2013, about four months after Lanterns (which remains their all-time biggest song). Though it doesn’t quite hit as hard as that track, this one is a little more energised and feels more like a full-band effort (compared to the relative minimalism of Lanterns), making it a brilliant follow-up and third preview of the record it appeared on.
It’s hard not to feel like you can take on the world when Kenny sings the second half of that rousing chorus: “Don't spend your last day waiting / Feeling you're the only one / ‘Cause we're all in this riot / We riot as one.”
With these upcoming shows backed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, we’d be remiss to gloss over this string-driven classic from 2015, which appeared on Birds Of Tokyo’s first “greatest hits” album Playlist. I’d Go With You Anywhere was the only “new” song featured on the disc – fitting given it was an instant hit in the band’s catalogue. The tasteful orchestration makes it feel riveting, while the ultra-catchy hook and crisp production make it easy to approach as a nugget of tightly written, easily approachable pop music.
We’ll probably use the word “triumphant” a fair bit in this article, but that’s the exact feeling Birds Of Tokyo channel into their music – as though their songs are masterfully tailored to make you feel like anything is possible – and I’d Go With You Anywhere is certainly one of the tracks that fits that brief.
It’s crazy to think – especially given the band’s friendship with the pop world – that it took Birds Of Tokyo 17 years to have a song feature another band or artist. Following up on their 2020 album Human Nature, the band joined forces with Eora/Sydney pop-punkers Stand Atlantic, putting Kenny’s warm and soulful tenor side-by-side with Bonnie Fraser’s soaring melodies. Their musical chemistry is undeniable, and the vocal duet alone makes Superglue one of the songs in the Birds Of Tokyo catalogue.
The song itself builds on the balladesque pop they honed in on with Human Nature, though Stand Atlantic’s own musical additions add a slick of new colour to the fray. It marks an unexpected detour for both bands, proving for us that even as they near their decade as a band, Birds Of Tokyo still have room to evolve.
You knew it was coming: any listicle on Birds Of Tokyo needs to mention Lanterns, even if it doesn’t make the list itself. The song absolutely slayed the airwaves when it landed in January 2013, which makes sense at face value – it’s an incredibly written and performed, goosebump-inducing ballad with an earwormish hook steered by captivating lyrics – but shocked established fans of the band given they cut their teeth on more edgy, rock-leaning fare. But you can’t deny the impact Lanterns had, nor that it was well-earned. That chorus still shines as one of the band’s very best: “On we march / With a midnight song / We will light our way / With our lanterns on.” It feels… Triumphant. (Sorry).
The back of this list is heavy on triumph, but it’s Birds Of Tokyo’s rockier, more adrenalised cuts that really show their strengths. So it makes sense that Wild At Heart is right here in the middle: the crunchy guitars and gnashing drums make it a killer rock song, but the swelling strings and inspirational lyrics make it another triumphant classic. This one speaks to the hurdles Kenny and co. were faced with on the road to success, and how they overcame their struggles to emerge victorious.
Kenny’s spirit is so strong that it’s infectious when he sings, “I fought with many and I won for some / We stared at ourselves to our breaking point / We wear our bruises like watermarks / The life and the death of the wild at heart.” This is one of the tracks we know for sure will stand out when Birds Of Tokyo perform with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; the song itself already has a strong foundation of strings, so amplified by the full power of the MSO, that stirring energy will soar to a whole new level.
Released as the second single from Universes, Broken Bones was an instant hit with the Triple J crowd – and for good reason: it’s emotionally poignant and offers musical richness with its radiant strings and dynamic bridge, but it also fucking rips as a belting rock song primed for the unhinged energy of a mid-arvo festival crowd. Birds Of Tokyo themselves might not see it as the timeless gem we do – nowadays it only pops up in their live set as an occasional treat – but it will always have a place in their greatest hits. It also remains their highest-placing song in the Hottest 100, coming in at #20 in 2008.
As their timeline elapsed, Birds Of Tokyo veered more and more away from their edgy alt-rock sound they cut their teeth on, in favour of more radio-friendly pop fare. But the Brace album largely took them back to their roots, and the title track is a great example of how that style works perfectly when paired with the tighter songwriting chops they earned from moving into that pop territory (not to mention the upgrade in production quality).
The orchestral flourishes on this track feel akin to that of the score in a climatic scene of a blockbuster epic, while the band’s parts all land with explosive fervour. Kenny crushes the shit of that chorus, too: “Brace for the end / Of everyday disillusion / We’re seconds away / From critical retribution.” Yes, motherfucker, yes!
God, this song must feel incredible to scream in front of a sprawling sea of fans.
As the lead single from their debut album, Birds Of Tokyo had a lot riding on Off Kilter. This was effectively the song they used to pitch themselves to the world – and if you ask us, they chose pretty damn well. It’s a little rough around the edges, punchy and scratched up with the kind of nascent edge and youthful spirit you just can’t fake as an established band. The energy Off Kilter surges with reflects the energy Birds Of Tokyo felt in 2006, and because of that, it’s always a bloody treat to revisit. It also shows how Kenny was a master at busting out those big, rocketing hooks from day one, with that chorus still one of the band’s biggest and most fun to sing along to in 2023.
The vibrant pianos and stomping pace of this banger give it a swagger and cocksure spirit that’s impossible to look away from. Where a lot of other Birds Of Tokyo songs feel triumphant, The Saddest Thing I Know feels almost sinister, like the version of Kenny singing this hook is right on the cusp of his Joker arc. It’s refreshing, and never fails to make us wish we were seeing the band live in concert (speaking of which, I wonder what they’re up to in September). That power and protean intensity translate beautifully here, with the whole band thrashing out to their hearts’ content.
Lanterns may be Birds Of Tokyo’s most successful track, but Plans is undoubtedly their most iconic. This is the song you think of when you think of Birds Of Tokyo: those cantering drums and the cleanly strummed, yet hearty guitars, carried along by reverberant pianos and atmospheric twinges of synth-laced orchestration. If you spent any time listening to pop radio in 2010, there’s a good chance that first verse is burned into your memory, regardless of how long it’s been since you’ve heard the song itself: “We made plans to kiss the sun at night / Hopeless dreamers, hopeless types / Shedding skin, you show your beauty scars / Don’t forget me or who you are.” It’s a classic for a reason, and we can’t wait to hear what it sounds like with a full orchestra behind it.