Cat Power’s new album Sun dropped earlier this week, and the fact that she uses Auto-Tune on the track “3, 6, 9” has generated almost as much interest as the album itself. For an ostensibly innocuous pitch-correction effect, Auto-Tune has generated a heap of controversy over the last decade, ever since Cher introduced it to the world during the chorus of “Believe.” Much of the opprobrium directed at the use of the software is entirely justified (Hi, Eiffel 65! Tinkertool für mavericks. Hi, Chris Cornell!), but that’s not to say that every Auto-Tuned track is a priori awful — so we’ve set ourselves the challenge of finding 10 tracks that use its sound in creative or interesting ways. And for clarity’s sake, we’re discussing Auto-Tune as an audible pseudo-vocoder effect here, not as a production tweak to correct an errant vocal — otherwise every chart song since the turn of the millennium would be eligible. Anyway, let us know if we’ve missed anything. First person to suggest “Believe” or anything by T-Pain gets a lump of coal for Christmas.
Daft Punk — “One More Time”
Two years after “Believe,” Daft Punk proved that Auto-Tune didn’t have to be a novelty effect used to stink up an already dreadful song. The artificial vocal tones the effect produced on this track were a perfect fit for the band’s robotic persona, making this a fine example of using Auto-Tune for a reason, rather than just whacking it on whoever’s singing the hook because that’s what everybody else is doing.
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Chromatics — “These Streets Will Never Look the Same”
And indeed, the problem with Auto-Tune over the last decade hasn’t so much been the effect itself — after all, it’s just a sound. Rather, it’s the fact that it’s been slathered on vocal hooks as a matter of course, most likely because it was seen as some sort of pop-tastic philosopher’s stone after the success of “Believe.” Here, the effect is just the opposite — instead of being used to create pop thrills, it lends Ruth Radelet’s voice an otherworldly quality, enhancing the song’s inherent sense of disconnection and alienation. (As an aside, someone really needs to do a mash-up of this track with “Streets of Philadelphia.”)
Kanye West — “Love Lockdown”
It’s really “pick your favorite moment from 808s and Heartbreak here,” since Auto-Tune was all over that record — “Heartless,” “Amazing,” and various other tracks are largely defined by their use of the sound, but unlike some of his contemporaries, West never uses it without a reason. Its effect here is not unlike that on “These Streets Will Never Look the Same” — it creates a disconnected, late-night ambience that reflects the track’s subdued nature.
Aphex Twin — “Funny Little Man”
Richard D. James has never seen an effect he didn’t like, so it’s no surprise that Auto-Tune would turn up on one of his tracks sooner or later. It’s also no surprise that he makes it sound weird as hell, running a faintly sinister vocal sample through the software to make it sound, well, even more sinister.
Sufjan Stevens — “Impossible Soul”
And similarly, since this 25-minute track contains not just the musical kitchen sink but the entire damn kitchen, it’d feel wrong if Auto-Tune didn’t surface at some point. Sure enough, from about 10 minutes, Stevens’ voice gets Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life, creating a radical alteration of his vocals that’s somehow curiously compelling.
Frank Ocean — “Novacane”
Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra made fascinating use of Auto-Tune, a use that the singer himself sets out on “Novacane,” as follows: “Can’t feel nothing/ Superhuman/ Even when I’m fucking Viagra popping/ Every single record Auto-Tuning/ Zero emotion/ Muted emotion/ Pitch corrected/ Computer emotion.” It’s both clever and self-referential, and makes for another fine use of the effect as a metaphor for drug-fueled digital-era alienation.
Polica — “Dark Star”
Unless you’re trying to achieve a specific sound, subtlety is generally the way to go with any sort of effect, vocal or otherwise (a fact that’s largely lost on the T-Pains of this world, unfortunately). So it goes with this track, which gives Channy Caselle’s voice a light dusting of Auto-Tune on the chorus to rather pleasing effect.
The-Dream — “Right Side of My Brain”
So it goes with this track, too — again, we have Auto-Tune as an evocation of emotional distress and heartbreak. The-Dream, however, is pretty shameless about his use of the software for purely aesthetic reasons, deploying it to sugar-coat a voice that’s pretty sweet to begin with. The result is a world away from Cher and T-Pain, and shows that even the most reviled effects can be just fine if they’re not abused.
Future feat. Drake — “Tony Montana”
But then, compare and contrast with this track — given that Auto-Tune’s original raison d’être was to prettify vocals, its use to distort the hook here is both clever and innovative. The track itself is hideously catchy, too — we dare you to listen to it and not find yourself singing “Tony Montaaaaaana!” for the rest of the day.
Bon Iver — “Woods”
And good grief, has it come to this? We’ve not exactly been big fans of Bon Iver’s work over the years, but we do have to admit that The Bearded One has a fine voice, and that his creative and unconventional use of Auto-Tune here does a pretty fine job of capturing the ambiance of this song’s setting (even if it does occasionally sound a bit like something that might be buzzing around your head as you sit around the campfire).