Here’s my ranking of every album from one of my favorite hard rock bands!
5. System of a Down (1998)
This is most likely not a very controversial opinion as System’s debut record is largely considered their least impressive outing. It’s certainly not without it’s bright points, including some of the group’s most daring cuts to date, but many of the risks don’t pan out in the slightest and we’re left with a record that varies wildly in quality from track to track.
The most recognizable track on this album is, of course, “Spiders,” which is one of SOAD’s earliest hits and still a favorite for longtime fans. The album’s other lead single, “Sugar,” is one of the band’s heaviest works to date and contains some fascinating Eastern influences. The record’s best quality is the heavier, more chaotic style on tracks like “Soil,” and “Suite-Pee,” which make this a necessary listen for any true System fan.
4. Hypnotize (2005)
The last official studio release from SOAD, Hypnotize will always suffer from comparisons to it’s sister album, Mezmerize. In fairness, it’s quite enjoyable. Much of the guitar work is fantastic and Serj’s vocal is as manic and unpredictable as ever. Much of the songwriting is quite strong, but unfortunately, the album just lacks the replay value of other records on the list.
That being said, there’s quite a few fantastic cuts to be found. The title track is incredible and captures Serj’s appreciation for cinematic music well. “Lonely Day,” is one of the group’s best known songs and a surprisingly accessible track for a band with such a bizarre catalog. The folksy guitars on “Dreaming,” are a nice touch and the track as a whole is a nice call back earlier, heavier sound. Overall, it’s an enjoyable listen, but lacks the hits and deep cuts to stand up to earlier releases.
3. Steal This Album! (2002)
Coming quickly on the heals of their 2001 smash hit, Toxicity, System went, in many ways, back to their roots. Steal This Album is equal parts heavy and bizarre and is fairly reminiscent of the debut. However, the experience gained and additional voices allow the bands to make the most of risks which they just couldn’t pull off on the debut. There is a lack of true hits on this record, and it’s not for everyone, but if you want to hear SOAD at their most insane, this is the place.
There are a few tracks that I definitely find myself coming back to regularly. “Mr. Jack,” is a brutal refutation of the police which features some of the best guitar riffs of the entire catalog. The spoken word sections of “Boom!” Are extremely enjoyable, as is the eerie harmony on the chorus. Perhaps my favorite is the pure insanity of “F**k the System,” which is purely bizarre and a testament to the strangest edges of SOAD’s sound.
2. Mezmerize (2005)
One of the more chaotic entries to this list, Mezmerize has quite a bit to love. The riffs and general songwriting are absolutely fantastic and the variety of vocalists, while a bit of a mixed bag here, allows SOAD to reach entirely new places, particularly when it came to rhythmic and style changes, which happen constantly on this album. Unfortunately, Mezmerize suffers from a problem that plagues much of the band’s catalog, that being inconsistency.
That being said, there are more than a few bright spots on this tracklist. “B.Y.O.B.” is yet another incredible piece of protest music with a remarkably dynamic performance from Serj. “Radio/Video,” and “Sad Statue,” are some of the most melodic tracks SOAD has ever recorded. Perhaps the most consistent highlight is the almost comical tone on cuts like “This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m On This Song,” and “Violent Pornography.” It may not be their strongest effort, but it has some of the brightest points of their career.
1. Toxicity (2001)
The cherry at the very top of a fantastic catalog, Toxicity is one of the best metal/hard rock albums of all time. Rick Rubin’s influence is felt much more on this album, and though I have generally mixed opinions on Rubin’s work, he’s able to strike the perfect balance between brutal chaos and melodic breakdowns. The additional vocals make a big difference and the larger instrumental pallet makes the album feel entirely unpredictable at every moment.
Of course, this album contains “Chop Suey,” which is the band’s biggest hit to date, but “Aerials,” is nearly as well known and, for my money, a much better cut. The heavier pieces on this album include the fantastic, “X,” and the brutal but hilarious “Bounce.” The band also dives headlong into outspoken leftist politics on songs like “Prison Song,” and “Deer Dance.” It’s an absolutely iconic record and one of the few memorable and respectable efforts from the early 2000’s nu-metal boom.
This one took me awhile, but it’s finally done! Here’s my ranking of every album in the discography of one of my favorite artists of all time!
10. Sling Shot To Heaven – Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2014)
A longtime favorite of many Margot fans and of Richard himself, I generally find myself far less impressed. To be clear, it is quite an accomplishment. The songwriting is the best it’s been since their debut, the instrumentation is simple and spacey, and the harmonies are air tight. Unfortunately, the follow up, Tell Me More About Evil is comprised of nearly all the same tracks and, for my money, matches all the highlights of Sling Shot while surpassing it in several areas.
That being said, the album has no shortage of bright spots. “Long Legged Blonde Memphis,” channels the group’s blues influences well while “Wedding Song,” is a gorgeously vulnerable and well written. The instrumental on “Los Angeles,” actually adds quite a bit to the track and the overall spacious aesthetic makes the album feel fairly cohesive. I certainly see the appeal of this record, but in terms of the larger catalog, it has very little to offer.
9. Buzzard – Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2010)
Margot’s first foray into the heavier, garage rock styles which would characterize the latter half of their catalog, Buzzard is an interesting piece of music. Lyrically, Richard’s mix of quirky and thoughtful is as balanced as ever, though much of his writing takes him to a darker place than previous efforts. The big changes come in the instrumentals which are often heavily distorted, though still just as well performed.
The album’s opener, “Birds,” is a favorite among Margot fans for its unique lyrics and manic energy, but I find myself equally impressed by tracks like the gloomy, distorted “Will You Love Me Forever?” There are still moments like “Tiny Vampire Robot,” and “Lunatic, Lunatic, Lunatic,” which call back to the earlier, more intimate sound, and the record seems to struggle with committing to the new style, somewhat to its detriment.
8. Animal! – Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2008)
This record is very often ignored by casual listeners and that’s a shame considering what the band went through just to put it out. Long story short, Epic Records had chosen a tracklist, which would become Not Animal, for Margot’s second studio release. The band themselves, however, insisted on the tracklist which would become Animal! Arguments ensued and finally a drunk Richard Edwards threatened to leak the album online if the studio didn’t let them release both. And so, we have Animal! And Not Animal.
While, philosophically, I side with the artist on such an issue, the critical side of me is well aware that this is the inferior release. There are bright moments. “Hello, Vagina,” shines much more here thanks to its earlier appearance. Additionally, there are more bizarre cuts like “Mariel’s Brazen Overture,” which are a treat for long time listeners. Ultimately, Not Animal is the superior project, but Animal! Is exactly the kind of deep cut that’s worth a listen for true fans.
7. Rot Gut, Domestic – Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2012)
From the opening moments, if the title and cover didn’t give it away, it’s clear that this is heaviest entry to Margot’s catalog, and for the most part, that works in its favor. While I much prefer the more folksy sound on earlier projects, I can appreciated the skillful guitar work and explosive nature of Rot Gut. Additionally, Richard’s voice makes the transition to garage rock quite well, with several powerful moments.
There are a few call backs to the earlier sound like the carefree comedy of “A Journalist Falls in Love with Death Row Inmate #16,” but the best moments come in the pure chaos of cuts like “The Devil,” and “Disease Tobacco Free.” “Frank Left,” is a lyrical highlight to be sure, though the album is somewhat lacking in the respect, and the psychedelic, piano driven closer “Christ,” is one of the record’s best tracks. It’s not my favorite, but if you enjoy Margot’s heavier side, Rot Gut is the best it gets.
6. Pity Party! – Richard Edwards (2017)
The second acoustic only album in Richard’s catalog, I struggled with whether to include this album as there’s very little original music and it only received a very limited vinyl release with nothing available over digital platforms. That being said, it’s absolutely fantastic and another fan favorite which earned it a slot on the list. The tracklist is made up of acoustic, one-take versions of tracks from both LCCS and the then unreleased Verdugo.
The updates on older cuts like “When You’re Gone,” are welcome surprises with Richard’s very different voice acting as something of an unintentional commentary on the many years since their release. The relaxed, unproduced style also adds quite a bit to tracks like “Postcard,” and “Git Paid,” that didn’t quite shine through and get the attention they deserved on their more official releases. Overall, this is a record for the fans without a doubt, but I’m one of those fans and as such, I love it.
5. Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset – Richard Edwards (2017)
While a three year hiatus is not all that long in the music world, Richard’s was certainly felt by his fans, particularly because we didn’t know that we’d get any more music. Finally, a long post was made on Instagram explaining the long silence and the struggles he’d been facing which ended with the hope that the forthcoming project would sound like “being lost at sea.” That it does.
Richard runs the gamut of emotions on this LP, from the hope that bleeds from every chord on “Little Dead Eye-d,” to the unfocused anger on “Disappeared Planets.” His catchy melodies are back in spades on tracks like “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’,” and the best track, “Pornographic Teens.” Perhaps most importantly, he differentiates his new sound from that of his previous group’s with tracks like “Sister Wives,” and “Moonwrapped,” which lay the groundwork for the kind of orchestral folk style which would be fleshed out more on LCCS’ sister album. It was a beautiful return for a beloved artist.
4. Tell Me More About Evil – Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2014)
Often wholly ignored by more casual fans, this is one my absolute favorite Richard Edwards efforts. Created as a final release before Margot disbanded, TMMAE is a collection of roughly recorded acoustic versions of earlier tracks, most of which come from the previous release, Slingshot to Heaven. It was recorded as a soundtrack for an 8mm film shot by Richard himself which is nearly as beautiful as the record itself.
Virtually every track on this album is wonderful, but I could choose a few favorites. The harmonies on “Hello, San Franciso,” are tight and warm, the guitar work on “Flying Saucer Blues,” is melodic and catchy, and the lyrics to tracks like “Lazy,” and “Gettin’ Fat,” are some of Richard’s funniest. The best cut on the record is “Bleary-Eyed Blue,” which may easily be my favorite track of his entire career. The album can seem a bit slowly and dreary to some, but to fans of the group, the intimacy of a record that makes you feel like you’re sitting right there with the band is invaluable.
3. Verdugo – Richard Edwards (2018)
The tenth and most recent addition to the discography thus far, Verdugo is the much stronger sequel to Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset. The tight, ten track playlist is perfectly paced with a new and enjoyable surprise waiting around every corner. The orchestral elements which were lightly experimented with on LCCS decorate virtually every second of Verdugo, aided by fantastic production and a uniquely vintage aesthetic.
The quiet simplicity of “Something Wicked,” is starkly gorgeous, while the lush chaos of “Minefield,” is almost overwhelming. His ear for melody is as strong as ever on a cut like “Olive Oyl,” and “Gene,” is one of the best lyrical moments in his career. Possibly the best track is the closer, “Pornographic Teens,” appearing for the third time on a Richard Edwards album, this time in its best form. With nine albums under his belt, Richard went out of his way to craft something completely knew and creative that has me absolutely ecstatic for whatever is coming next.
2. The Dust of Retreat – Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2006)
Margot’s mid-2000’s debut is quite the start for the indie-rock collective. The record is fantastically paced and presents a unique, developed sound from the start. The lyricism is excellent, the instrumentation is quirky, and the production is surprisingly well done for a debut album. This early period of Margot’s career has a strong folk-rock tilt which limits their potential to some extent, but nevertheless, Dust has some of the group’s best tracks.
The melodies on tracks like “On a Freezing Chicago Street,” and “Talking in Code,” are absolutely fantastic. Lyrically, tracks like “Skeleton Key,” and “Dress Me Like a Clown,” are extremely impressive. The album’s highlight, for me, is “Jen is Bringing the Drugs,” which serves as an early precursor to the intimate, heartfelt works that would come to characterize Margot’s later efforts. The Dust of Retreat is far from perfect, but it stands as a very impressive debut.
1. Not Animal – Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s (2008)
The other half of the aforementioned battle with studio executives, Not Animal is the version of this album that Margot would rather not have put out. As I said before, however, the studio’s list is much superior. The last Margot project to lean heavier on the folk side of folk-rock, Not Animal keeps everything that worked on Dust of Retreat and improves upon it for a finished product that’s simply gorgeous and one of my favorite records of all time.
There’s so much to love here. The anthemic choruses of “German Motor Car,” will have listeners singing along instantly, while the wider pallet and intimate recording of “As Tall As Cliffs,” radiates the fun the band is clearly having working as a collective. “Holy Cow!” Is a sweet but emotional cut and “Children’s Crusade on Acid,” is bold and experimental. Easily the highlight, however, is the band’s biggest hit to date by a mile, “Broadripple is Burning.” Not Animal is gorgeously written and performed and an absolute blast to listen to. A few of their later efforts may be more technically impressive, but for me, this the best iteration of Margot and the best album in Richard’s long career.
This one took me quite awhile, but here it is! Every Maynard James Keenan album (post Opiate) ranked!!
12. Emotive (2004)- A Perfect Circle
The most critically maligned effort in Maynard’s post-Tool career, and admittedly the most underwhelming, I will still be the first and loudest defender of this album. All too often, Emotive is subject to overly brutal criticism because it is viewed through the same lens as the band’s previous work. Instead, the album toes the line between full blown third release and something of a side project. I think, had this been followed quickly by a true end to the band’s trilogy with Virgin Records, much of the distaste would’ve subsided. However, Emotive is what it is, that being, by all accounts, a mixed bag.
Maynard’s lyricism can hardly be discussed here, as the album is made up of political covers, but the song selection does provide an interesting peak into his inspirations. Track’s like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” come off admittedly awkward, but “Passive,” is one of the band’s best efforts, and incidentally the only original on the album, enlisting the help of fellow industrial rock legend, Trent Reznor in the writing process. Additionally, Maynard’s choral rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “The Fiddle and the Drum,” is one of my favorite songs of all time. In short, while the album does land at the bottom of the list, it is by no means a bad album.
11. Money Shot (2015) – Puscifer
While this is, admittedly, the weakest of the three Puscifer LP’s, that certainly doesn’t make it unenjoyable by any means. Money Shot’s biggest sin is its inability to differentiate from the band’s previous two entries. While this is decidedly not a meaningful failure in the eyes of many fans, it does seem to run counter to Puscifers appealing quality. While Tool and APC have solidified styles, Puscifer is meant to be an outlet for Maynard to use his complete control to radically experiment with a multitude of new ideas. In this vein, I’m much quicker to forgive the outfit’s few misses on earlier projects than to excuse the safe tracklist of Money Shot.
That being said, there’s plenty to enjoy here. “The Arsonist,” may be Puscifer’s best song, and “The Remedy,” brings back a bit of the cynicism and comedy of the band’s debut, a quality which is completely absent on the rest of this album. The instrumentation is more organic on this album, and performed quite well by all involved. All in all, Money Shot is an enjoyable effort, but Maynard seems to be in a bit of a creative rut throughout, unsurprising as this would be his 11th LP in just over 20 years. Fitting then, that this would be the last puscifer LP for awhile as MJK began to undertake the writing process of APC’s return in 2018.
10. Opiate (1992) – Tool
There are very few bands with a stronger debut than Tool. The majority of the record is recorded live, but it still lands on this list because the tracks don’t appear anywhere else in the group’s discography. The live raw energy of a Tool show really comes through on this album as well, and it’s hard not to laugh when Maynard says “get that Bob Marley wannabe motherf***ker out of here.”
There is plenty not to love here, on the other hand. The recordings, being live and probably cheap, lack the excellent production we would hear on later Tool releases. The tracklist itself is a bit of a weakness as well, mostly coming in around four to five minutes and missing much of the lyrical thoughtfulness we’ve come to expect from MJK. The closer and title track, however, remains one of my favorite Tool songs of all time and stands as the first chapter in the very long, open dialogue between Maynard and organized Christianity. This kind of bold, angry writing from such a young band, coupled with the jarring and mildly offensive cover, set a tone for a band and an artist that would speak their minds loudly in the years to come.
9. Conditions of My Parole (2011) – Puscifer
The second Puscifer release certainly doesn’t exceed its predecessor the way Thirteenth Step did, but it is nevertheless an enjoyable entry on this list. The tone is much closer to the larger body of MJK’s work, sacrificing some of the debut’s uniqueness for a more palatable, anthemic style. It did, however, retain much of what makes Puscifer such a unique side project.
The changes are most notable on tracks like “Tiny Monsters,” and “Green Valley,” where the industrial instrumentation and drum heavy mix is still very present, but the lyricism and, even more so the vocal melodies, are much more in line with what longtime fans have come to expect. “Telling Ghosts,” could very easily have landed on an APC album. A few of the tracks can come off as somewhat forgettable, but the bulk of Conditions of My Parole is an absolute blast.
8. “V” Is For Vagina (2007) – Puscifer
With APC on hiatus and Tool stuck in a perpetual creative vortex, Maynard found himself sat idle for this first time in many years. This seemed to last all of a few days as V Is For Vagina was released just a year after the Tool record and Puscifer was born. While the band wouldn’t receive a lot of mainstream attention until their ’09 single, “Cuntry Boner,” longtime Maynard fans were greeted in ’07 by a total 180 degree turn with surprisingly enjoyable results.
Puscifer’s sound embraces a form of industrial rock which was only slightly present in MJK’s previous work, and combines it with the kind of sardonic humor which Maynard is known for. Tracks like “Queen B,” and “Vagina Mine” may be somewhat jarring for Tool and APC fans, but they are very well crafted and infinitely listenable pieces of industrial rock, some of the best of the era. V Is For Vagina is a must listen for any and all MJK fans, especially considering his near total creative control over the project.
7. Eat the Elephant (2018) – A Perfect Circle
Perhaps the most divisive of Maynard’s albums among fans, Eat the Elephant marked the return of A Perfect Circle to prominence after a nearly 15 year hiatus which had been filled with three MJK releases under the Puscifer moniker. As a result, this album does often seem to capture more of Puscifer’s experimental nature than APC’s anthemic tendencies. It’s one of stranger albums on this list, but it’s one that I enjoyed quite a bit.
Tracks like “Disillusioned” and the title track featured surprisingly soft piano passages while “The Doomed,” and my personal favorite, “TalkTalk,” fall much more in the vein of APC’s arena rock style. The latter half loses quite a bit of steam, but overall, Eat the Elephant is a respectable return to form for a group which seems to have matured quite a bit during its hiatus.
6. Meir De Noms (2000) – A Perfect Circle
Following the massive success of Tool, and during a very odd time for rock music in general, A Perfect Circle was formed by MJK and Billy Howerdel and released their debut album, Meir De Noms to massive critical and commercial success. The group’s sound was much more oriented toward arena and alternative rock, as apposed to the progressive and industrial styles that filled Tool projects.
Meir De Noms contains the band’s best and most popular song by a mile in “Judith,” but also features classics like “The Hollow,” and “3 Libras.” Throughout, Howerdel’s guitar is anthemic and Josh Freese’s drumming is explosive. Maynard’s vocals are, in many ways, given more focus here than on previous Tool projects and his lyrics take a turn for the platitudinous in the best possible way. If the album has one strike against it, it’s a general lack of cohesion and clear vision. However, Meir De Noms is an excellent debut LP and did a great job of setting APC apart from Maynard’s other projects.
5. Undertow (1993) – Tool
Oh, how we all miss the days of two Tool releases in back to back years! Following the breakout success of the Opiate EP, Tool followed up with their first full length project, which improved on their previous work in virtually every way. This album features classics like “Prison Sex,” and “Swamp Song,” as well as Tool’s first major hit, “Sober.”
Undertow is also where we hear Maynard beginning to come into his own as a writer and performer. His screams are powerful and his running vocal lines are nearly ethereal. The record is far better mixed and recorded, though still not as tight as later projects, and there’s a certain air of professionalism about Undertow that begins to make Tool feel like as special a band as they are. Overall, it’s an excellent studio debut and features some of the band’s best instrumentation and MJK’s best lyrics.
4. Thirteenth Step (2003) – A Perfect Circle
The highlight of APC’s catalog, Thirteenth Step is the Terminator 2 of alt-rock albums. Everything we loved from the debut is back, but better focused and turned up to 11. The non-cohesive but impressive tracklist of the debut is replaced with a moody, melodic piece of alt/arena rock with a clear and decisive aesthetic.
Nearly every song on this album is fantastic, but a few of my favorites include, “Blue,” “The Outsider,” and “Pet, although my personal favorite from the album has to be the orchestral reimagining of Failure’s “The Nurse Who Loved Me.” The entire album is a testament to what can be accomplished by two especially creative artists when they mesh well and benefit from excellent work ethics. Thirteenth Step was APC’s second consecutive platinum album and it left the band with hits that are still popular today, 15 years later.
3. 10,000 Days (2006) – Tool
For many Tool fans, this is the end all be all of Tool albums. In fact, I’d even call it my personal favorite, if I wasn’t speaking critically. Released in 2006 after a five year hiatus, 10,000 Days is the most recent Tool album to date, and it is, in some ways, the completion of an arc which began with ’96’s Aenima, that being the gradually increasing psychedelic and progressive influences into the band’s alt-metal roots. This album gives itself fully over to the prog side and it is from this that both its strengths and weaknesses are born.
There isn’t a single track that clocks in under six minutes, save the “Blame Hoffman,” interlude which is nearly four minutes of purely atmospheric build up. “Rosetta Stoned,” is nearly 11 minutes of blistering rock music with some of the best drum work of Danny Carey’s career. The highlight of not only the album, but possibly Tool’s entire catalog, is the two part epic of “Wings for Marie,” and “10,000 Days,” which chronicles the passing of Maynard’s mother, and her ascension to heaven. It’s a piece of pure art which will leave goosebumps on the arms of anyone with a pulse. My only hangup with this album, however, comes in the long and sometimes aimless interludes. Where earlier intros like “Parabol,” felt like a lingering shot of runners on their blocks before a race, a track like “Lipan Conjuring,” seems to spin its wheels and never get anywhere. Regardless, 10,000 Days is Tool’s most personal effort, and one of my all time favorite albums.
2. Ǽnima (1996) – Tool
When it came to deciding my top two for this list, I found the decision virtually impossible, and my opinion may even change day to day, but in the end, and through no fault of its own, Aenima lands at number two. Following the breakout success of Undertow, Aenima takes Tool’s hard rock sound and adds a multitude of brand new layers.
“46 & 2,” and “Pushit,” deal in complex issues with a kind of reverence which was somewhat new to the band at this time. On the other hand, “Stinkfist,” “H.” and “Eulogy,” touch on serious moral issues with a cynical humor that only Maynard can execute this well. Beyond that, even, tracks like “Hooker With a Penis,” and the title track feature the kind of dark humor which would be largely absent from either of Tool’s post Aenima efforts. But it’s the closer, “Third Eye,” that sets a precedent for what we could expect in the future. Clocking in over 13 minutes and making the most of a couple hilarious Bill Hicks samples, the track is a sprawling, expansive end to an incredible album. Aenima is so very close to being perfect, but for me, it’s beat out ever so slightly by our number one.
1. Lateralus (2001) – Tool
It’s virtually impossible to name the best Tool album, let alone the best album from all of MJK’s catalog, but if it must be done, I simply can’t place anything above Lateralus. I tend to view Tool’s last three albums as a trilogy, following an especially gifted alt-metal four piece as they grow to an infamous, prog-metal juggernaut, and in that sense, the fast majority of the leg-work is done by Lateralus. With a tracklist featuring much longer tracks, including “Reflection,” which clears 11 minutes, lofty concepts, and a heavy influence on math and sequences, Tool challenged themselves in nearly ever conceivable way and they succeeded.
Tracks like “Schism,” and “Ticks and Leaches,” showcase Tool’s remarkable ability to bend time signatures and tempos, “The Grudge,” and the title track feature Adam Jones’ gritty, powerful guitar work, and “Parabol,” and “Parabola,” is one of the best two part tracks of all time, slowly developing into explosive payoffs. Throughout Maynard’s voice is dynamic, ranging from guttural screams to droning, contained melodies with equal intensity and brilliance. His melodies are every single bit as well written as any riff or beat on the project, and his lyrics are meticulous, yet thematic. All of this is tied together by the legendary David Bottrill, who’s work in the producer’s chair elevates this record to all new heights. Put simply, Lateralus is a remarkable accomplishment for one the greatest bands of all time, and the crown jewel in MJK’s legendary catalog.
This is the first time I’ve ranked songs, and I enjoyed it quite a bit! If this is something you guys enjoy, let me know who I should do next!!
10. Live Oak – Jason Isbell– Southeastern
Catching the tail end of our list is one of the final tracks on Isbell’s iconic solo album, Southeastern. I wouldn’t call this a concept album, but more of a contemplation album on the subjects of sobriety and maturity, a trend from which “Live Oak,” doesn’t break. In it, Jason shows his narrative skill, crafting something of a Western which follows an ex-criminal and cowboy who has now settled down in a small town with the love of his life.
Where the obvious choice is to speak to the ways love has helped him to overcome his old ways and grow up, Jason chooses, instead to write what is ultimately a story of fear. Our subject fears that his settling into domestic life has left him less interesting and impressive to his love, and he wonders if she loves him as he once was more than she loves him as he is now. The whole story, in addition to serving as a unique metaphor for the alcoholism which Isbell had so recently overcome, is riveting and told beautifully, the bare instrumental allowing his lyrics to strike hard.
9. Outfit – Drive-By Truckers – Decoration Day
One of Jason’s many excellent contributions to the Truckers’ discography over his three album stint, “Outfit,” highlights a simpler period is his writing. The bulk of his Truckers songs deal in Southern culture and family dynamic, this song being no exception. The track also functions as a fantastic example of Isbell’s ability to, in one breath, glorify and criticize the same idea.
This song is written from the perspective of Isbell’s father, repeating many of the sayings and bits of advice which he had often given over the years. In the verses he tells the unique story of meeting Isbell’s mother, a teen pregnancy, the struggle to build a life for his family, and ultimately, the rock solid work ethic which allowed him to pull Jason’s family up above the poverty line. While the song explicitly praises the wise words of Jason’s father and his rather ridged code of conduct for oneself, there is an implicit criticism hidden in the rather difficult story his father tells. It seems, almost, to suggest that this masculine rigidity may lead to a few weak points in life which may be avoidable.
8. Goddamn Lonely Love – Drive-By Truckers – The Dirty South
The Dirty South is easily the Truckers’ strongest effort to date, thanks in no small part to the contributions of Jason Isbell. “Goddamn Lonely Love,” is unique in that it doesn’t carry a powerful life lesson, or even a surprising concept or execution. Instead, Isbell plays the part of a drunkard in a bar, rattling off couplets with stark beauty and striking truth, one after another for about five minutes.
Particularly thoughtful on this track is the bridge, which reads as follows: “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, a man walks into the bar and leaves before his ashes hit the floor.” On the one hand, the turn of phrase reference to the kinds of one liner jokes a drunk at the bar may tell not only establishes his setting, but mimics the simplicity of the couplet structure he’s used across the plot. On the other, the “Stop me,” is sung with such passion because it is a request in of itself. Jason wants to be stopped in story so he can hear the tale of someone who has survived what he’s going through. He also wants the bartender to stop him from spiraling downward so strongly. This song is just an excellent reminder that when an unbelievable songwriter takes on a simple structure, almost invariably, magic happens.
7. In a Razor Town – Jason Isbell– Sirens of the Ditch
Slightly more recent than our previous few entries, “In a Razor Town,” is a highlight to the rather jumbled solo debut that is Sirens of the Ditch. Written in the thick of his struggles with substance abuse, Jason’s lyrical voice is much colder on this and other earlier tracks. He writes about painful topics here from a vantage point of his future self and seems unimpressed by his own emotional tendencies.
The song tells the story of a young relationship in a small, dying town. He tells his subjects that they’ll have to move on, that small town romances don’t last, and that life moves on without regard to their feelings. The topic is unique and Jason seems to realize that this isn’t fair. He writes about what will happen without caring how it feels, and it’s that coldness that makes “In a Razor Town,” such a unique entry to the Isbell catalog.
6. Decoration Day – Drive-By Truckers – Decoration Day
Doubtless Jason’s best contribution to the Truckers, the title tracks from their 2003 LP follows the Hill-Lawson feud, a bloody battle between two families in Alabama in the early 1980’s. The story telling ability Isbell shows throughout this track is unparalleled, even by his contemporaries in the Truckers, and the passion in his performance shows how much he cares about the stories he writes.
As with most of Jason’s writing, his unique and well spoken opinion makes this song what it is. He writes from the point of view of a young son of the Lawson family. The writing takes place many years after the feud, as the subject deals with the fact that his children have never seen his fathers grave, nor visited his hometown. He finally decides that this is for the better, that he’s glad his father was killed, and that these battles do nothing but destroy families. Throughout, Jason contemplates the value of tradition, loyalty, and blood. As with “Outfit,” he settles by questioning the culture with which he was raised, while fully appreciating his upbringing.
5. Dress Blues – Jason Isbell – Sirens of the Ditch
The highlight of his first solo effort, “Dress Blues,” was written in honor of Jason’s high school friend, Matthew Connolley who left for war at a young age to be killed overseas, leaving his wife and baby daughter behind. This is one of his most emotional songs, able to tug tears from even the driest of eyes, and it stands as a touching tribute to a very brave young man.
The tribute to a fallen soldier is far from uncommon in country music, but it’s Jason’s style which sets him apart. He tells Connolley’s story by shifting from broad metaphors to touching detail again and again. In one line he’ll speak ask about the angels coming to meet his friend and he follows by describing crowds drinking “sweet tea in styrofoam cups.” From his writing, it becomes abundantly clear just how incapable he is of processing the emotions of the event, and the anger in the final line which questions why his friend was shipped off to “fight somebody’s Hollywood war,” is gut-wrenching.
4. Speed Trap Town – Jason Isbell – Something More than Free
The only entry on this list from Jason’s most recent solo effort, “Speed Trap Town,” town is an excellent example of his more mature, post-Southeastern phase. The story is unique and personal, and Isbell’s commentary on small-town life is quite moving, yet again. Where his earlier work tended to talk about what was wrong, mature Jason writes about how things are instead. The track is full of large losses and small victories, and the feeling of peace which comes with the conclusion is palpable.
“Speed Trap Town,” follows a man coming home to the small town in which he was raised to visit his father who is dying of a terminal illness. Again, a common country trope is here, this time in the form of the man who comes home to find that his simple hometown isn’t the way he left it, but this time, Jason realizes that it is actually he who has changed. Slowly, our protagonists wrestles with his father’s illness, contemplating his past and what future may be left for him. In the end, Isbell decides to pull the plug on his father and leave the small town behind. As listeners, we’re left with an aching heart, soothed by the vague since of closure in the final few lines.
3. Elephant – Jason Isbell – Southeastern
The second track in a row which is based on terminal illness, “Elephant,” tends to be an introduction to Jason for many new listeners, and what an introduction it is! Again, his narrative skills are simply second to none, and this song in particular is written fearlessly. Themes of love, loss, and pain abound across this tear-jerker and in the end, listeners are left to contemplate how they themselves would handle such a brutally hopeless situation.
The story of a man in love with a woman dying of cancer provides a dark launching point for Jason to muse on the nature of death and finite futures. As the characters grow closer despite the impending doom, he’s able to find beauty, not in spite of the fear and doom of death, but by pushing against it directly. It’s the beauty of positioning love as two doomed drinkers shouting, in harmony, into the void which makes this track so moving. The final line, “no one dies with dignity, we just try to ignore the elephant somehow,” perfectly sums up the powerful story we’ve just been told in a way that only Jason can.
2. If We Were Vampires – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Nashville Sound
The only track on our list which features The 400 Unit, “If We Were Vampires,” is easily Jason’s most commercially successful track to date, and for good reason. This song perfectly incapsulates what makes his current, mature period so excellent, and why he is so worth listening to, still today. Once again, this is a track which benefits from Isbell’s unique view of the world, and more specifically of love.
Trading in the narrative form he frequents for a direct, thoughtful effort, “If We Were Vampires” examines love and death in the same breath with the goal of finding new meaning for both. Jason makes the case that the inescapability of death should not rattle the foundations of true love but, to the contrary, it is precisely the limited time frame of one’s life which endows love with such meaning. He sums this up beautifully with the line, “Maybe time running out is a gift. I work hard till the end of my shift and give you every second I can find. I hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.” Wow.
Could there ever have been a doubt the “Cover Me Up,” would top this list? The opening track to Isbell’s legendary magnum opus, this track did more than set the tone for what would be one of the greatest country albums of all time. With Southeastern’s release set for 2013, one year after he’d chosen to enter rehab for alcohol and drug abuse and just two days after marrying fellow singer/songwriter Amanda Shires, “Cover Me Up,” was tasked with introducing us all to the brand new version of Jason Isbell, and setting the tone for the future of his career. It succeeded in every single way.
The song functions as a love letter to Amanda Shires, presumably written from within the thick of rehab and great change. Jason tells of his adventures, his life on the road, his addictions, and the woman who finally gave him a home, with the skill and passion of one of the greatest songwriters in history. He speaks on the difficulties of sobering up, and that of changing in general, but in the end he simply asks her to cover him up, a reference to the chills which often accompany alcohol withdrawal, and know that she’s enough to use him for good.
In the second verse, Jason speaks to the ways in which he may have treated Amanda unfairly thanks to his addiction. He follows with this line: “But I sobered up and swore off that stuff forever this time.” When this is sung live, every member of the audience raises their glass and cheers, a touching tribute to a man who has cracked open his heart for us for more than fifteen years now, to let him know that we’ve all been listening, and we don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
Weird Al is one of the best musical comedians that ever lived, and with thirteen albums spanning 30 years, its worth taking a look at his hits, his misses, and what makes him so great!
13. Off the Deep End – 1992
With the grunge revolution in full swing, Al set to work on his first major reinvention, a skill which would be necessary if he was to continue mocking popular music for an extended period of time. This album is fun and well performed, though its a bit light in the hits department.
Of course, “Smells Like Nirvana,” is iconic, as Yankovic showed the ability to make light of even the most dark and serious base material, but aside from that, there’s little of note. “Polka Your Eyes,” out is certainly worth a listen if you’re a fan of Al’s Polka work, and “I Can’t Watch This,” may be his most underrated track of all time, but overall, its a goofy listen with few memorable tracks.
12. Alapalooza – 1993
Weird Al’s best selling album of all time, Alapalooza is his only release to be certified double platinum. The album itself is fun, if a bit light on hits. At this time, the radio was mostly dominated by the height of the grunge movement, which had filled his last project, and the new wave of gangster rap, which Al wouldn’t get a grasp on for a few more years. As such, the album is a bit of a transitional piece.
By way of important tracks, the opener, “Jurassic Park,” is definitely worth a listen, and was the most successful pre-album single. “Bedrock Anthem,” is promising, though it doesn’t quite deliver on its goals. “Achy Breaky Song,” is probably the highlight of the album, though the verses are a bit repetitive. The album is certainly worth a listen for hardcore fans, but for his best selling album of all time, its less that impressive.
11. Alpocalypse – 2011
After a six year absence, the longest of his career, Weird Al returned with his take on a popular music landscape which had changed quite a bit since his last release. Keeping that in mind, he did quite a job. His song choices are excellent, aside from the Doors parody, and hold up well now almost a decade later. My only complaint is the source of the comedy, where his early work finds genuine laughs, the records in the twilight of of his career finds its comedy through the novelty of what he does.
“Perform This Way,” is an excellent opener and “TMZ” is one of his best modern tracks. “Polka Face,” isn’t one of his best polka tracks, but simply must be admired for the effectiveness of the pun. “Party in the C.I.A,” is quite enjoyable, as is “Another Tattoo.” Even “Whatever You Like,” is worth a listen, though Rucka Rucka Ali’s parody of the same song is quite a bit better. Overall, its an album with a few fun tracks, but nothing living up to his early work.
10. “Weird Al” Yankovic – 1983
Like many revolutionary artists, Weird Al’s self-titled debut was a massive success. He had taken what was essentially a goofy party tricks and turned it into a gold certified album. Al’s vocal performance on this record is characteristically manic, and the song selection plays to his strengths well.
Tracks like “I Love Rocky Road,” and “My Bologna,” were instant hits, and should surely secure the kind of childish giggle which Al is going for, while the sheer thought and work that goes into “Another One Rides the Bus,” makes that track a sleeper hit. The album surely isn’t his best, many of the tracks being somewhat forgettable, but it was such a revolution in musical comedy that it finds itself kicking off the top ten of our list.
9. In 3-D – 1984
After the success of his debut, Al stepped everything up for this mid-80’s classic, securing his first platinum certification, as well as his first top twenty chart position. All of those accolades were well deserved as In 3-D improves upon its predecessor in almost every way.
Of course, the record begins with his seminole classic, “Eat it,” also touching on another classic, “The Brady Bunch,” within the opening moments. “I Lost On Jeopardy,” falls on this record as well, and we are introduced to his accordion skills on tracks like “Polkas on 45.” Al’s iconic voice is perfectly balanced between the grating and geeky, and the manic and hilarious. He’s so clearly having so much fun on this album, and its hard for listeners not to do the same.
8. Polka Party! – 1986
Opinions are divided among fans when it comes to this album, but I tend to fall on the side of a favorable assessment. This is the first glimpse we were given of just what a talented accordion player Yankovic is, and his pure parodies which still fill the bulk of the album are quite memorable as well, leaning hard into the absurdist elements inherent in his brand of humor.
The opener, “Living With a Hernia,” is absolute classic Weird Al, as he even whips out his best James Brown impression on the ad libs. “Addicted to Spuds,” is probably one of the more ridiculous tracks in his long career, and, of course, the title track established Weird Al immediately as by far the most successful and well known Polka musician in the country.
7. Mandatory Fun – 2014
With Mandatory Fun, particularly in its marketing, the nostalgia was cranked up to deafening levels. Because of this, the record debuted at number one, the first comedy album ever to do this. Song selection ran the gamut from Lorde and Pharrell Williams to mocking the styles of artists like The Pixies and Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Overall, there’s no shortage of tracks to hit the spot for fans. “Tacky,” and “Handy,” are a couple of my favorites, and “Foil,” is certainly the highlight of the project. “Inactive,” and “Word Crimes,” are enjoyable, though not quite up to the quality we’ve come to expect from Yankovic. While MandatoryFun doesn’t quite live up to the man’s earlier work, he sounds quite a bit better than most on the tail end of a 30+ year career.
6. Poodle Hat – 2003
Yet another classic album, though one of his less popular releases, Poodle Hat sees Al following popular culture deeper into the rabbit hole of rap music. While he would do this better on later projects, this album gives us a hint of what he was beginning to work with. If there’s any complaint to be had here, its that the album is so engrossed in pop culture of the day that its quite dated today.
Tracks like “Couch Potato,” and “Trash Day,” are fantastic examples of what Yankovic can do with rap music, while “Angry White Boy Polka” may be my favorite of his Polka work. “A Complicated Song,” is one my favorite Weird Al tracks of all time, and “Why Does This Always Happen to Me,” is one of his best originals. The best of this style was still to come, but this is quite the record all the same.
5. Running with Scissors – 1999
One of Al’s most underrated projects, Running with Scissors is packed to the brim with deep cuts for hardcore fans. His lyricism is at a career high during this period, and this album definitely benefits from that. His vocal performance is a bit more relaxed than previous efforts, and if the lack of famous hits can be ignored, Running with Scissors is a fun listen.
Doubtless, the highlight of the album is “The Saga Begins,” which may be the most impressive lyrical effort of Al’s career. “Jerry Springer,” is a fun track as well, and “Albuquerque,” is classic Weird Absurdism and geek humor. “Grapefruit Diet,” is likely the best deep cut on the record, and “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi,” is irresistibly goofy. This may not be the casual fan’s cup of tea, but for truer fans, Running with Scissors is a favorite.
4. Dare to Be Stupid – 1985
For many die-hard Weird Al fans, this is the one. This album, the third in his discography, set a standard that few comedy albums ever would match. His second platinum effort, Dare to Be Stupid contains several of the hits which Al is known for to this day. The infamous accordion makes precious few appearances here, but his performance more than makes up for this.
“Like a Surgeon,” was the only charting single from this project, but plenty of others became fan favorites. Tracks like “Yoda,” and “George of the Jungle,” are still remembered fondly to this day, and the title track, one of Al’s first and most successful original tracks, is one of the best tracks on the whole record. Of course, one can’t discuss Dare to Be Stupid without remembering “I Want a New Duck,” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Lunch.”
3. Bad Hair Day – 1996
Following the massive success of Alapalooza, Yankovic released one of his best records to date, including one of his most infamous album covers. This is his first foray into the rap world, and while it’s not quite as impressive as some of his later work would be, it does work quite well.The polka track on this album is quite fun as well.
Tracks like “Gump,” and “Phony Calls,” are somewhat under appreciated entries into the Weird Al cannon, and “The Night Santa Went Crazy,” has always been a personal favorite of mine. “Alternative Polka,” is one of his better polka tracks, and, of course, “Amish Paradise,” is one of the best and most iconic Weird Al tracks of all time.
2. Straight Outta Lynwood – 2006
If you’re a younger fan, like myself, this was likely your introduction to Weird Al as this was the last of his albums not to be billed as a “comeback.” Twenty-three years after his debut, Weird Al is perfectly capable of mocking popular culture with the same geeky fire that brought him success in the first place. Straight Outta Lynwood finds Al taking on brand new styles, including rap and heavy metal, but somehow pulling them off with ease.
Nearly every song here is a hit. “Canadian Idiot,” and “I’ll Sue Ya,” are good examples of Al’s ability to parody heavier bands while he finds himself rapping on tracks like “Confessions Pt. III,” “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” and his biggest hit and only platinum single to date, “White and Nerdy.” Still more, “Pancreas,” and “Don’t Download This Song,” find Al in much more familiar territory, and he even busts out the accordion on “Polkarama!” Straight Outta Lynwood is certainly a comedy record for the ages, and has a perfectly valid case for being considered Yankovic’s best album.
1. Even Worse – 1988
There are so many respectable choices when deciding the best Weird Al album of all time, and nearly all of them are valid answers, but for me, this one takes the cake. Everything, from the album cover to the song choices, is able to celebrate Al’s monumental success while mocking the absurdity of such a goofy gimmick being so popular. Al turns in what I consider his best full album performance and though Even Worse does lack the Polka work which is synonymous with Yankovic, it more than makes up for it with an array of hits, parodies and originals included.
The opener, “Fat,” may be Al’s best track, and “I Think I’m a Clone Now,” isn’t far behind. “Lasagna,” is an absolute classic, especially considering the difficulty of parodying a song in a foreign language, and “Melanie,” is Al’s best original without a doubt. The album goes out with a bang as well with “Alimony,” and “Velvet Elvis,” landing in the latter half. There are plenty of fantastic records in Yankovic’s legendary discography, but for my money, none of them can replace Even Worse.
The band’s first release as a three piece, there is something so clearly missing here that many Doors fans find this album and its successor almost unlistenable, and that’s a shame. The instrumentation on this project is nothing if not enjoyable. Tracks like “Ships w/Sails,” and “Wandering Musicians,” remind fans that Jim Morrison wasn’t the only member of The Doors, and that the trio of Manzarek, Densmore, and Krieger can be quite impressive.
As one would expect, however, the lead vocals are a sore spot throughout. Kreiger turns in a few respectable performances, though few are memorable. Manzarek, on the other hand, is woefully out of his element, and while his vocal is heartfelt, he tends to drag down any track he leads. It’s a chaotic, jazz-influenced jam, but it severely lacks direction, and feels like a strong downgrade from one of the best blues-rock bands to ever live to an average jazz fusion trio.
8. Full Circle – 1972
The second post-Morrison release in The Doors’ discography is certainly more competent, and the trio is finally able to find their own unique sound. They take a strong turn toward the spacier, jazz-fusion hints that were riddled throughout the previous release, and while there are far less stand out instrumental passages for each member, the sum of the parts is much more impressive.
Tracks like “The Mosquito,” and “The Peking King and The New York Queen,” are extremely enjoyable, with the former being, by far, the best known non-Morrison single. The vocal work is far less distracting, and the decision to shift the focus toward instrumental work was certainly a good one. Overall, it’s an interesting jam, but feels the furthest from the true Doors sound of any of their releases.
7. Strange Days – 1967
Released just eight months after their self-titled debut, Strange Days hits many of the same highlights, while also falling for many of the same pitfalls. As a whole, the record is a bit more cohesive, branching out into more progressive material in “Horse Latitudes,” and of course in one of the best long form songs in the group’s collection, “When the Music’s Over.”
The album is noticeably lacking, however, in hits. “People are Strange,” is likely the only recognizable name in the track listing, aside from “You’re Lost Little Girl,” which may ring a bell for a slightly more avid Doors listener. Later releases would master the full album format while still producing several hits, but Strange Days seems to fall short on both of those goals.
6. An American Prayer – 1978
One of the least known, and certainly most underrated albums in The Doors’ strong discography, An American Prayer is unique in that Morrison’s vocals are composed of poems which he had written and recorded on his own, before his death in ‘71. The instrumentation was recorded by the other, surviving members of the group in order to accompany the poems for a release seven years after Morrison’s passing. While this posthumous approach to reimagining his work divides fans and critics, I find it fascinating and endlessly compelling.
The record itself is one of my favorites. Jim gives one hypnotic performance after another, adding another layer to his wonderfully visual writing. The rest of the band turns in inspired work, considering the circumstances, and the live performance of “Roadhouse Blues,” is simply electrifying. This album is many things: a touching goodbye from one of history’s greatest writers, a trippy late-night jam, and a truly unique piece of art. It is not, however, a true Doors album, and this is precisely why it doesn’t land higher on the list.
5. Waiting for the Sun – 1968
Coming on the heals of a tremendously successful 1967, the group kicked off the summer of ’68 with their third installation, Waiting for the Sun. In many ways, this is something of a transitional record, as much of the more progressive elements that come to fruition Soft Parade can be heard in their infancy here, but the project is far from half baked.
The most recognizable hit, “Hello, I Love You,” kicks off the track list, but it almost feels out of place among the languid sweetness that fills the bulk of the runtime. Tracks like “Spanish Caravan,” and “Yes, The River Knows,” are unique and experimental, while the closer, “Five to One,” is a rocking blues number that sees Morrison truly come into his own as a frontman. There are very few hits to be found here, but its quite good when taken in as a whole.
4. The Soft Parade – 1969
While this album doesn’t exactly have a stelar reputation with fans, I actually consider it criminally underrated. While many of the charges brought against it may stand, most notably that it is a bit soulless, lacks the dark tone associated with the band, and that Morrison’s songwriting input is drastically scaled back, some part of me just can’t seem to dislike it.
For starters, the addition of the horn section on tracks like “Touch Me,” is fantastic, and the turn toward a more orchestral arrangement on “Tell All The People,” is extremely unique and interesting. Morrison was notably different and often drunk during the recording sessions, and as such he is virtually absent from the writing credits. The closing title track, however, bares his stamp tremendously, and is, without a doubt, my favorite Doors track of all time.
3. Morrison Hotel – 1970
Following the lukewarm reception of The Soft Parade, The Doors chose to take things back to basics. They added a bass player, and set to work to create their bluesiest record since their debut just three years prior. For the most part, they succeeded. Morrison Hotel flows well and feels like a complete thought, and yet nearly every track is infinitely listenable on its own.
“Roadhouse Blues,” was, of course, a highlight, not only for this record, but for the band’s career as a whole, setting a perfect tone for the return to form that was to follow. Tracks like “Peace Frog,” and “You Make Me Real,” are upbeat and fun throughout. If there is a complaint to be had, however, it would be the lack of The Doors’ signature long-form closing track, a gap that is far from filled by “Maggie McGill.”
2. The Doors – 1967
One of the best debuts in music history, it’s hard to overstate the importance of this record. Many of the groups best known tracks, most notably “Break On Through,” “Back Door Man,” and “Light My Fire,” can be found on this self-titled first effort. Certainly the highlight of the project comes in the closing track, the eleven minute opus that is “The End.” For the first time, the world was introduced to the creative mind of Jim Morrison, unbridled and powerful.
The band, as a whole, is in classic form throughout. Ray Manzarek’s organ work is not only excellent, but virtually unprecedented in the mainstream music world thus far. Robby Krieger’s guitar carries its signature tone from the first note. Densmore’s drums show their heavy jazz influence, and Morrison delivers every vocal melody with power and soul. While it can suffer a bit from lack of direction, it is, overall, a fantastic first outings for one of rock music’s greatest outfits.
1. L.A. Woman – 1971
Vulgarly American, fearlessly experimental, and constantly unpredictable, it’s just impossible to deny the energy and dark atmosphere surrounding this album, which was the group’s final release before Morrison’s untimely passing later that year. Tracks like “L.A. Woman,” “The Changeling,” and “Love Her Madly,” made the record the most hit stacked release since the debut, while “The WASP,” and “Riders on the Storm,” are instant classics of progressive rock.
Manzarek turns in the best performance of his career, particularly on the closing track, and places himself firmly on the Mount Rushmore of rock keyboardists. The guitar and drum work is similarly inspired throughout. It’s Jim Morrison, however who steals the spotlight at every single opportunity. His performance is at once creative and belligerent, expressive yet etherial. Hearing one of the greatest artists of our time being completely consumed by his art is tragically beautiful.
This record marks the end of Jason’s tenure with the Truckers, and his contributions are fairly limited. The album itself is mostly tame, featuring a bit stronger tinge of country music, likely of the Mike Cooley-heavy track listing. Its the last time we’ll ever hear the three guitars of Cooley, Hood, and Isbell roaring together, and deserves notoriety for this. Aside from timeline significance, though, A Blessing and a Curse, offers little in the way of highlights.
Jason takes a turn at the microphone with “Daylight,” showcasing a pretty incredible range and control. “Gravities Gone,” while not featuring Jason at vocals, is notable for its status in the Trucker’s catalog, and certainly features each of the three on guitar. After this project, Jason would be forced to move on, and after hearing this record, the divide between the two visions is clear.
8. Sirens of the Ditch – Jason Isbell
This record comes at an odd time in Jason’s career. Immediately following his departure from The Drive-By Truckers and landing squarely in the thick of his battle with addiction and divorce, this, his first solo effort, bares much of the rebel attitude and hectic style of his life at the time. The guitar work is impressive as usual, and the tracklist is certainly not devoid of the occasionally impressive verse or catchy hook, but the absence of Amanda Shires as well as his former bandmates, meant that Jason is forced to carry an entire album alone, and his inability to do so shines through.
Tracks like “Brand New Kind of Actress,” and “Grown” will certainly excite long time DBT fans, and serve as Jason’s goodbye to Southern rock sound and rebel attitude, a goodbye which would last quite awhile.
7. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Jason’s first outing with his newly formed band is a memorable one to say the least. Much of the stylings held over from his time with the Truckers are gone, but he seems unsure on a direction to forge his own path. Instead, we jump around from more organic, bluegrass tunes, to a jarring foray into a kind of country/jazz fusion which works surprisingly well, despite the odd addition of a horn section.
The somber, piano driven “Blue,” is one of the most interesting tracks in the band’s catalog to date, and “Streetlights” provides a fairly clear picture of the direction which would eventually materialize into Jason’s “wheelhouse.” That being said, tracks like “The Last Song I Will Write,” showcase the fact that Isbell is not quite living up to his full potential. That would change soon.
6. Here We Rest – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
This is what I would call the hidden gem of Isbell’s discography. While the second half falls a bit flat, the first is littered with fantastic tracks. The group embraces its most bluegrass influenced sound to date and comes through with a very unique and enjoyable project. The instrument pallet benefits from the new focus as well, bringing out the more organic feel of the acoustic guitar and violin work more so than ever before.
Tracks like “Codeine” and “Alabama Pines,” come early in the track listing and epitomize the concept of the record as a whole. While the lyricism has a tendency to be a bit too literal, especially in tracks like “Stopping by,” Here We Rest, still manages to be a major departure from Jason’s background with the truckers and really serves as a starting point for the style he would go on to refine in later projects
5. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell
Isbell’s third and latest solo effort see’s the singer/songwriter steering hard into his country music tendencies. From topics of blue collar life to the bluegrass-esque instrumentation pallet, Jason sacrifices his earlier focus on lyrical themes for a tracklist which is linked more by it’s sound than anything else.
Tracks like “If It Takes A Lifetime,” “ 24 Frames,” and “Children of Children” jump out on each listen for their powerful lyrics and anthemic choruses, and Amanda Shire’s violin is consistently wonderful. There are, admittedly, a few valleys along with the peaks, and tracks like “To a Band That I Loved” feel like waisted opportunities, but nothing on this record compares to “Speed Trap Town,” which is easily, one of his best tracks to date.
4. Decoration Day – The Drive-By Truckers
Jason’s first effort with the Truckers sees a new life breathed into their sound. Fantastic guitar work, interesting lyrics, and an awesome dynamic between the three voices highlight one of the best records to date for the Southern Rock outfit. Fans were introduced, for the first time, to Jason’s unbelievable lyrical ability, as well as his common topic of critiquing the culture of the Southern, white, working class.
Isbell’s additions are some of the best tracks in his entire catalog. “Outfit,” an anthemic analysis of what it means to be a young, blue collar man from the South. “Decoration Day,” on the other hand, tells the story of a family feud, a la Hatfields and McCoys, in Alabama, from the point of view of a young man, deciding how to tell his family about his past. The record also holds the distinct honor of being the very first project in Isbell’s long career.
3. The Dirty South – The Drive-By Truckers
Boasting one of the deepest discographies and some of the best live shows in the Outlaw Country movement, The Truckers serve as the royal blood from which Jason was born. His three album stint with the group is widely considered some of their best work, and this record is generally known as their best project. With the combined efforts of Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, and a young, rebellious Jason Isbell, the Truckers paint a vivid picture of the American South, focusing on the lives of moonshiners and outlaws battling with the law.
While Jason’s involvement in the writing of this project is unknown, Tracks like “Danko/Manuel” and “Goddamn Lonely Love” feature him as a lead singer and obvious lyricist. In addition, “Where The Devil Don’t Stay,” and “The Boys From Alabama” feature fantastic guitar work from the entire trio. Falling in the middle of Jason’s tenure with the Truckers, The Dirty South, is a must hear for hardcore Isbell fans.
2. The Nashville sound – Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit
On his third release with The 400 Unit, and most recent work to date, Jason writes with a more powerful voice than we have heard from him thus far. Gone are the contemplations on addiction and loneliness, and their replaced with commentary on race, fear, and death. The instrumentation is incredible, as usual, and the band as a whole seems to have really hit their stride with this effort.
Tracks like “White Man’s World” and “Molotov” showcase the musical talent of the group, as well as the impressive vocal abilities of Jason. The lyricism of tracks like “If We Were Vampires” and “Tupelo,” on the other hand, highlight the skill of one of the world’s great songwriters, still in his prime.
1. Southeastern – Jason Isbell
Music is often studied in movements and benchmarks. Progressive Rock has Dark Side of the Moon, Punk Rock has London Calling, and today’s modern, Outlaw Country style absolutely holds Southeastern as its best work. The lyricism is impeccable, the guitar work is expressive and beautiful, and the vocal performances are simply perfect. On top of all that, the instrumentation and vocal performance from Amanda Shires adds something irreplaceable to the project, which was Jason’s first solo effort in six years.
While literally every song is fantastic, some are notable, even among stiff competition. “Elephant” tells the story of a young woman dying of cancer, featuring some of the best lyricism and vocal work in his catalog. “Live Oak” and “Different Days” deal explicitly with Isbell’s struggle to overcome his addiction and shameful past. For a true fan, though, nothing is as sweet as “Cover Me Up.” Opening the record with the story of his transition from hopeless alcoholic to married father and successful musician, Jason lets his fans deep into his heart and his past, and confesses the truth of his inability to save himself, and the way love changed his life.
When played live, the entire crowd cheers when Jason sings “I sobered up and swore off that stuff forever this time,” and it brought tears to my eyes the first time I witnessed it personally. That moment represents, perfectly, the feeling of this fifteen year journey we’ve undertaken along with Jason, and the best part is, it is so far from over.