Canadian singer Grimes appears on this playlist three times: twice as an artist and once as producer. (Roger Kisby/Getty Images)
Songs like “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark” or “Lose Yourself” are pump-up playlist staples. They are steady, reliable and above all get those legs pumping. But at a certain point, all of those playlists become minute variations of one core.
Sure, “Believer” and “Centuries” are newer members of esteemed pump-up royalty, but the fact of the matter is that pump-up playlists are notorious for having the same songs over and over again. Not a bad thing, but so much of the same leads to complacency. And too much of that is not good for gym time.
Here are 10 songs that might have been skipped over which deserve a couple of listens.
“Humans Become Machines” – Aristophanes. Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes brings a quick-tongued fire to the first song off of her debut LP, “Humans Become Machines.” A teacher by day, Aristophanes was discovered by Canadian independent musician Grimes, who gave her a standout feature on her fourth studio album “Art Angels.” On her own song, Aristophanes delivers a punching song that gets the heart rate jumping. She delivers lines so fast that they can hardly be understood, even by people that speak Mandarin, all over an addictive beat. It is definitely a running song, and it is all the more powerful if one imagines that they are being chased by a terrifying human-turned AI. It is called motivation.
“Heavy Metal and Reflective” – Azealia Banks. This is one of Harlem-based rapper Azealia Bank’s most iconic songs with a beat that could not quit if you begged it to. The standout on this track is the terrific beat, though that is not to say that Banks does not deliver some killer lines. The opening lines set the tone for a rollicking romp about fame, making money and having some good old-fashioned fun: “Fridgy froze kept / it’s that fresh b—- / I be in that prissy stone set / with that wet wrist.” Whether this song makes you want to run or dance, it will make you want to get moving in some way.
“NEW DORP. NEW YORK” – SBTRKT feat. Ezra Koenig. Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig steps out of his soft indie-rock comfort zone to lend his smooth vocals over a pumping beat by SBTRKT. Although musically it is fairly simple, the “thud thud thud” of the beat pairs beautifully with Koenig’s sweet voice. Named for a neighborhood in the borough of Staten Island, “New Dorp” is a tribute to the bustling city as well as a window into the tale of the singer’s go-getting girl. Lyrically, it paints a vivid picture of city life, describing staples such as the “gargoyles gargling oil / peak of the empire, top of the rock.” Just as the girl conquers the city, anyone who listens to this song will be motivated to conquer their workout or game.
“Cinnamon Toast Crunch” – cupcakKe. An underrated jam from an underrated rapper coming to prominence in the field. Witty and playful, Chicago rapper cupcakKe offers up a feisty song about always being regarded as the underdog. Riffing off of a popular brand of cereal, cupcakKe showcases her lyrical wit. Unlike other rappers that rely heavily on the backing beat of their songs, cupcakKe lets her words shine in every single verse. Her songs are often filled with wordplay, and “Cinnamon Toast Crunch” is no exception. She references Siri, Stuart Little and Draya Michelle without batting a lash, quick and strong in her confidence. With its high level of cleverness, “Cinnamon Toast Crunch” is likely to make anyone burst into a few giggles while spurring them on before a game.
“The Great Escape” – We Are Scientists. In contrast to the previous songs on this playlist, “The Great Escape” is a rather straight-forward rock song that powers ahead through its plucky guitar and strong vocals. We Are Scientists is a California-based band that is hugely popular in the United Kingdom for its early rock anthems and more sophisticated later offerings. “The Great Escape” comes off of the band’s debut album, “With Love and Squalor” which was released in 2005. This may be the oldest song on the playlist, but it is also one of the most high-tempo and high-energy ones. Its angry, aggressive energy does well for anyone that wants to run away from their problems (figuratively, of course) or beat something up. All in a day’s fun.
“Go” – Grimes and Blood Diamonds. “Go” signifies a departure from Grimes’ usual modus operandi of foggy, dream electronica to pop music. Intended as both a thank you to fans and a bridge to her fourth album, Grimes originally wrote the song for pop songstress Rihanna. After it was turned down by her team, Grimes crafted a fast-paced pop ballad that serves as a perfect treadmill song. It offers everything anyone could need: soaring vocals by Grimes, an interesting and gripping beat, and catchy lyrics. Beyond that, it could serve as a pretty good backing video for a highlight reel for a team sport. Hint hint.
“John Wayne” – Lady Gaga. This one will be short. “John Wayne” should have been a single off of “Joanne.” Easily the most rocking song on the album, this is one of Lady Gaga’s many underrated bops. If it is not already in a pump-up playlist, it really should be. Its relentless pace could get anyone over any hill.
“Nettles” – Arctic Monkeys. Coming in at just under two minutes, this early rocker by the British band Arctic Monkeys is a perfect angst anthem. Alex Turner’s smooth voice sails over the sometimes-chaotic backing and it makes for a great modern rock song. Coming off of the 2007 “Teddy Picker” single, “Nettles” is often overlooked by any Monkeys fan that does not obsessively swim through all of the singles that the band put out. But once found, “Nettles” never strays far from anyone’s mind with its perfect angry energy.
“Kill V. Maim” – Grimes. It would be remiss to include “Go” but not “Kill V. Maim,” one of Grimes’ most popular songs off of “Art Angels.” “Kill V. Maim” has a weird premise – think the Godfather, but Al Pacino is a gender-fluid vampire that travels through space. As one does. Grimes told Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway that she wrote this relentlessly catchy song as a response to critics who said that the music she wrote was too “cute.” She delivered. The song is aggressive and powerful, commenting on gender roles and the art of violence, with the vampire Corleone stating that “you gave up being good when you declared a state of war.” The NBA was very much woke enough to include the song in its soundtrack for 2017.
“Mine” – Sweet Tempest. Sweet Tempest gives any athlete chasing their crown or championship trophy an anthem to hold onto. Written for the soundtrack of the 2016 feature film “The Neon Demon,” “Mine” stood out as one of the two songs on the soundtrack that did not lay on the synthesizers. “Mine” is a seductive rock song, one that slithers into one’s brain and lingers there. It speaks to anyone that so strongly desires to win. A perfect fit for a movie about the killer ambitions of models in Los Angeles, “Mine” is a great closer for a playlist that is all about getting through that tough workout and reaping every last benefit. Celebrate. It is all yours for the taking.
This playlist is available on Spotify as “Underrated Pump-Ups” by Hannah Manning.