Time for another pointless list, this time my favorite Mountain Goats albums of all time. I think I basically own all the major album releases, though I won’t even begin to pretend I own every single tape compilation he ever put out. John Darnielle is, shall we say, prolific? Also, tMG is one of my favorite bands, if not my favorite, so rest assured any criticism I lob their way is clearly nit-picky stuff and should not be taken as slander. One other disclaimer: I am historically bad at critical reading, so my entire argument about why an album is good/bad based on the meaning of the lyrics could, and likely is, completely wrong.
Anyway, here you go. Buy these albums accordingly.
T22. The Hound Chronicles/Hot Garden Stomp
I lump these two together because to me they’re basically indistinguishable, indicative of the older style of Mountain Goats. The fact that these took so long to be released might reveal the reason why: very few songs on here stand out. Had I gotten these albums before I ever heard Tallahassee, my fandom might have ended up differently.
Notable songs: Admittedly I haven’t listened to these albums as much as the rest, but looking at the track titles to refresh my memory, not one song really jumps out at me.
This is one of his early collection albums, grabbing songs from various tapes and EPs. I personally am not too bothered by the boombox recordings (where he literally recorded them into a boombox and you can hear the whirring of the device in each song), and this album features a few tracks of higher quality. Still, there’s nothing too earth-shattering about the album.
Notable songs: Golden Boy, The Anglo-Saxons, Anti-Music Song, Going to Maine
20. The Life of the World to Come
Many recent tMG albums are definitely concept albums – I’d wager nearly each of his studio albums are, to some degree, tied together with some common theme. This one is his album based on passages from the Bible. My general malaise toward this album isn’t that it’s religious. Despite being an atheist, I have a number of religious songs in my catalog that I love. My problem here is that the songs don’t really speak to me (in my crude rating system, there is only one 5-star song and two 4-star songs).
Notable songs: Romans 10:9, Philippians 3:20-21, 1 John 4:16.
19. Protein Source of the Future…Now!
Another compilation of early tMG tracks, this album features a pretty wide swath of songs. I hesitate to say styles because without fuller instrumentation that came with the studio albums earlier songs tend to sound rather similar. Mind you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Seed Song was later redone by Atom and His Package to wonderful effect.
Notable songs: Love Cuts the Strings, Seed Song, The Window Song, Third Snow Song
18. Beat the Champ
Here’s another example of a concept album being hurt by the concept. And believe me, it’s not that I don’t like wrestling; I actually like it quite a bit more than I’d care to admit. My problem with it is that most of the songs are… about wrestling. Hear me out. With LOTWTC, the songs were based on Bible verses but weren’t direct tellings of those verses. Themes were extracted and songs were composed around those themes. Here, the songs are just about wrestling. Every one of them. And not in a roundabout way. There are still some real gems on the album, but it’s one I enjoy a great deal more when I hear a song or two at a time rather than listening to the album straight.
Notable songs: Foreign Object, Choked Out, Heel Turn 2, Werewolf Gimmick
17. Nothing for Juice
This one is a bit of an oddity. There really isn’t a single song I dislike from this album (although the two distortion-hevy songs “Full Flower” and “Going to Kansas” aren’t every-day type songs), but there really isn’t a five-star song on it either. It’s solid, but unremarkable.
Notable songs: Then the Letting Go, Alpha Double Negative, Waving at You, Going to Scotland
16. All Hail West Texas
Okay, this is where I’m going to lose Mountain Goats die-hards, and they will comment saying “any list that puts AHWT this low SUXX0RS!” This album is really a fanboy must-have. But the truth is this album nearly lost me as a tMG fan. My first purchase was Zopilote Machine and I bought most of the boombox recordings as they came out after that. After buying AHWT, an album I was thoroughly disappointed by it. In fact, it wasn’t until I happened to hear No Children on a local indie radio station (and I literally said to myself, ‘this sounds like the Mountain Goats but with better sound quality’), I hadn’t planned on buying any more Mountain Goats albums. My problem with this album, and you’ll see it pop again in a bit, is the length of songs. It’s not that long songs are bad, but it’s just tMG songs always hit you hard in the face then ran. Darnielle’s messages don’t need useless repetition to get their point across. Blues in Dallas is a good example. (Play the entire verse on keyboard, then sing the verse. THEN PLAY THE VERSE AGAIN ON KEYBOARD!) It’s a good song but not at 4:14. That being said, the album’s highs are among the highest in the entire MG canon.
Notable Songs: The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton, Fall of the Star High School Running Back, Fault Lines
15. Nine Black Poppies
This little EP is quite a bit of old-style fun. From the quintessentially MG “Cubs in Five”, which tells of highly unlikely things that will happen before the narrator’s love of the subject is restored, to the multi-media effort of “Lonesome Surprise”, this is a pretty ambitious record. What I like most is that the songs are absolute snapshots. I mean, the events in “Going to Utrecht” probably happen in about 2 seconds of real time, yet the song is two minutes long. I feel like that’s when tMG are at their best. It being an EP hurt its ranking a little bit.
Notable Songs: Cubs in Five, Going to Utrecht, Stars Fell on Alabama
The impatience with which I await each new tMG release has waned a bit over the years, due in part to the reliance of concept albums, but I was excited when this one came out. From the first four measures of the album’s first song “Rain in Soho”, I swore this would be another landmark album. (The song, for the record, is still my favorite opening track of any album.) From there, though, it sorta meanders and takes its sweet time to get the messages out. The average song length is over four minutes and this to me is the biggest drawback to the album. Longer tMG songs can be just fine, but when they don’t actually say much, they lose my interest. “We Do It Different on the West Coast” is the most illustrative of that problem: he repeats that line alone 12 times in the song. I feel like if this song were on Nothing for Juice, it would be half as long and not lose anything. A second issue is the lack of guitar. Why deliberately set out to not include guitar when Darnielle’s often frantic strumming is a hallmark of tMG’s style? Eliminate guitar on a few songs? Sure. (It worked well for If You See The Light after all.) Anyway, this still ranks pretty well because there are some absolute nuggets of awesome on here.
Notable Songs: Rain in Soho, Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds, Shelved, Abandoned Flesh
13. Get Lonely
This album is greatly buoyed by two songs, one of which (“Woke Up New”) which was somewhat-recently voted as my favorite song of all time. Also, watch the video, which was clearly inspired by Michel Gondry’s videos. I don’t believe the album is autobiographical in nature, but it still has an introspective feel to it – it certainly makes me look inward. I can relate at times to the themes of loneliness and loss. It is, however, dragged down a bit because some of the other songs, while flavored with sweet melody and tender arrangement, tend to lack the oomph of some of his earlier work. Then again, I’m a sucker for his frenzied strumming over his more moderato songs. (Am I the only one who thinks If You See The Light and So Desperate were accidentally switched at birth and really belong on the other’s album?)
Notable Songs: Woke Up New, If You See The Light, Half Dead
The next two albums I had trouble ranking, which probably makes sense that they ended up somewhere in the middle. There are times I love this album and there are times I feel it is full of songs I can’t relate to. Here is the clearest indication that I don’t know where to rank this album: I have stopped the write-up for more than a month because I’m not sure how to describe it. This album is there, and it has great tracks, but it’s not a top tier album, even for Darnielle’s earlier work.
Notable Songs: Some Swedish Trees, Whole Wide World, Going to Queens, California Song
11. Transcendental Youth
Much like my They Might Be Giants Albums – Worst to First post I made a while back, there is a section in the middle where a bunch of the albums are more or less interchangeable. This is that section. Which is all the more surprising given how different this album is from Sweden. This might be the least thematic of any new-gen tMG album (this or All Eternals Deck, IMO), which is somewhat refreshing; in fact, I often don’t even remember certain songs are on this album. You could do worse than picking this album up first, as it is a sort of prelude to the albums that came after it, at least stylistically.
Notable Songs: Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1, Cry for Judas, Harlem Roulette, and Night Light.
10. Bitter Melon Farm
This is easily the best of tMG’s compilation albums. One of the possible side effects of compilation albums is that some of the songs could seem jarringly isolated. That actually sounds like a pretty good mindframe to be in to listen to the Mountain Goats. Anyway, this album is uneven, but that’s not particularly a drawback. There are raw moments of power here (Black Molly anyone?) and they’re mixed with moments of introspection, and one of the best covers of all time. Definitely worth a pick up.
Notable Songs: Noche Del Guajolote, Alpha Desperation March, Rain Song, The Sign
9. The Coroner’s Gambit
I always felt like the love that All Hail West Texas got should have been shared with this album. There are some fantastic songs on here, some of which were even recorded on serviceable recording equipment. I feel like there’s a certain pain lying, crouched beneath the still surface on many of these songs. Like as if all the songs were written as tornado warnings were blaring everywhere but the winds were still calm. There aren’t a ton of 5-star songs on here, but so many good ones.
Notable Songs: Elijah, Scotch Grove, Family Happiness, Insurance Fraud #2
8. All Eternals Deck
I feel like this is the first hi-fi album where Darnielle really reached out and tried his hand at varying his style. All songwriters need to grow, and this is very obviously a place where he did so. From the moody drums on The Autopsy Garland to the Middle-Eastern strings on Age of Kings to the harmonies on High Hawk Season, this is flexing of the creative muscles incarnate. Not everything works here, but I don’t know of a single album I own that manages perfection. In all, this one has a very strong batting average.
Notable Songs: Damn These Vampires, Age of Kings, High Hawk Season, Never Quite Free
7. Beautiful Rat Sunset
I’m firmly a believer that the first album you get by an artist you end up loving will always rank highly. As testament to that, this is the 2nd one I bought, and its modest 8 songs rank this highly. For whatever reason this album just makes me feel comfortable, which is not a feeling I admit to experiencing too often when listening to the Mountain Goats. The lyrics don’t quite pop here as they do in later albums, but the songs themselves all feel pretty whole.
Notable Songs: Itzcuintli-Totzli Days, New Star Song, Going to Maryland, Resonant Bell World
6. Full Force Galesburg
Spoiler alert: we’re rapidly running out of older albums. I have a bias towards his newer albums (better recordings), not only because of the audio quality but also because I feel like Darnielle has become a more well-rounded artist as he ages. FFG is, for me, the trailer for the entire 2nd half of his career. This album contains songs with a certain polish to them that even the low-fi recordings that followed it lacked. Wonderful imagery and some of my favorite songs titles in his entire canon (Maize Stalk Drinking Blood being among them). Another early purchase of mine, and still one I go back to regularly, as if rereading letters from a pen pal.
Notable Songs: Snow Owl, Masher, Down Here, Weekend in Western Illinois, Song for the Julian Calendar
5. We Shall All Be Healed
I’ll never quite understand the underwhelming reaction to this album. In other Best-Of blogs I’ve read, this tends to fare very poorly in others’ rankings. I just don’t know why. Maybe it’s the dark subject matter of some of the songs, maybe it’s the unfortunate task it had of following up the landmark Tallahassee album. I don’t know. Either way, it’s a damn fine collection of songs. To me, it embodies the theme he talked about on Colbert’s show (paraphrase: being at the bottom so far that the only possible place to go is up – the hope that forms from lack of other options I guess?) better than any other album. Also quite experimental musically for its time.
Notable Songs: Slow West Vultures, The Young Thousands, Mole, Quito, Against Pollution
4. Zopilote Machine
So there’s a story here. My buddy Will and I were in CD World and I selected this CD. Seeing the words “KID YOU FELL IN THE MILK” on the back cover, I dared Will to buy the album. We would later do this often in the dollar bin, but this was a full-priced CD. He bought it. We listened to it at Aaron’s house. I hated it so thoroughly I made fun of him relentlessly for even owning it. Fast forward a year or two, Will makes me a mix tape. On it he puts four songs from this album. It was less than a week later that I was playing just those four on a loop and asking him to make me a copy of the CD. He wouldn’t purely out of righteous indignation. And this very story began my unquenchable love of the Mountain Goats. This album is wonderful even if you strip away the nostalgia.
Notable Songs: Alpha Incipiens, Alpha Sun Hat, Quetzalcoatl Eats Plums, Going to Lebanon, Grendel’s Mother (which I covered on my album Death By Song), Going to Georgia
3. Heretic Pride
Much like the aforementioned TMBG list, any of these final three albums could be #1. You should immediately buy any of these that you see in a store (or, hell, online, since that’s what the rest of civilization does). This album has such fierce… well, heretic pride. I can’t help but think of Braveheart when listening to some of the songs, not necessarily because that was a clear inspiration, but because I imagine William Wallace would have sung the titular song as he was being tied up to his death contraption. God, this is such a good album. The reason this is not ranked one or two is simply because of So Desperate, which is quite uncontestedly my least favorite studio-recorded tMG song.
Notable Songs: Sax Rohmer #1, San Bernardino, Heretic Pride, Autoclave (best first four songs on any album ever?), Lovecraft in Brooklyn, Michael Myers Resplendent
2. The Sunset Tree
As much as I sorta wish John would stop writing theme albums, I can’t argue that my top two albums of his are most definitely concept albums from start to finish. This one was autobiographical in nature, an extremely rare occurrence considering how many of his songs have the word “I” all over them. The narrator is John on most (all?) of the songs on Sunset Tree, and that raw emotion that he had to have experienced while writing these songs drizzles itself over every one of the tunes. It’s powerful, no doubt, while also having those glimmers of hope that are actually blinding in their intensity. “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me” “Held under these smothering waves by your strong and thick-veined hand, but one of these days I’m going to wriggle up on dry land.” So damn powerful. Also, seeing him perform Tetrapod live shockingly beat out hearing No Children live, something I never would have foreseen.
Notable Songs: You or Your Memory, Broom People, This Year, Dance Music, Up the Wolves, Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod
Before I get to #1, I just realized I quoted a couple of MG lyrics, something I didn’t really do anywhere else. And that’s a shame because Darnielle’s lyrics are unquestioningly his strongest suit. Here’s a blog post I wrote just laying out my favorite Mountain Goats lyrics.
I said it before: this album rejuvenated (possibly saved?) my love of this band. I was listening to a very independent local radio station which played No Children and I was immediately smitten, not even realizing it was Mountain Goats. The DJ came on and apologized, saying “I know that’s not the single from this album, but it’s just too good not to play.” And from that moment on, I knew I would buy every album John released without question. When I originally ranked the albums months ago, my life was in turmoil but nothing too drastic. I am now in the midst of a divorce, and I can’t help but draw strength from the insurmountable despair of the Alpha couple. They seem to be magnetically stuck together, unable to free themselves because their individual power is too feeble compared to the toxic inevitability of their relationship. This album would have been #1 before my own personal drama came by on its 10-speed bike. The harmonies, the arrangements, the freneticism, the pain, the longing, the resignation… this album is art, no doubt about it. Somewhere there exists audio of John performing No Children as laryngitis sets in. He cuts out and what sounds like 10,000 people sing the chorus in his stead. If you only hear one album for the rest of your life, there’s something seriously wrong with you. But this would be a good one to be stuck with.
Notable Songs: The whole damn album, really. But specifically: Tallahassee, First Few Desperate Hours, Southwood Plantation Road, Game Shows Touch Our Lives, No Children, Have to Explode, Oceanographer’s Choice, Alpha Rats Nest