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  • Will Oldham Albums From Worst To Best

In the 2005 film Junebug, Will Oldham’s character works for a Chicago curator, on the lookout for “outsider artists” in the backwoods of North Carolina for a big city gallery.

It’s not a bad metaphor for Oldham’s musical career. He’s spent much of the past two decades exploring the fringes of Southern musical traditions and giving voice to the raw, primal spirit of Appalachia. His artistic trajectory has been as gnarled and twisted as his mountain-man beard, traveling in and out of one quintessential American genre after another, noisy and raw one moment, bright and polished the next (he’s one of the only singers I’ve ever heard who can actually yelp on key). The man contains multitudes, and with 19 full-length albums, he’s had plenty of opportunities to explore them.

The Kentucky native’s first albums conjure up a dark, dreamy Faulknerian vision of the South, and the shadows of these earliest releases — so fixated on sex and drink and God and guilt — haunt even the sunniest of his later records. But just as his warmest songs have at least a hint of darkness to them, so too do his darkest songs bear a weird, black sense of humor. Oldham is as likely to laugh in the face of death as he is to feel paralyzed with fear by it. After all, this is a guy whose acting credits include Jackass 3D, Wonder Showzen, and a Kanye West video set on a farm.

The breadth of human experience covered by his lyrics, combined with the fact that he’s released almost one album a year for two decades, makes it difficult to parse Oldham’s work. Maybe “Counting Down” is one of the better arenas to try this. By looking at each album individually, we can observe his career in slow motion and at least attempt to trace a line through his massive discography, even if that line looks more than like a bird’s nest tangle of knots. We’ll try our best to unravel it. Keep in mind, the man has gone by a variety of aliases — Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Bonny Billie, Palace Brothers, Palace SOngs, Palace Music, and Will Oldham, among others — so to best clarify our parameters, we considered for inclusion here only his studio albums as they are commonly defined — which leaves out an entire library of alternate material. For another day, perhaps.

For now, start the Countdown here.

Comments (28)
  1. The cover records with Tortoise is actually one of my favorite albums ever. I believe that the Springsteen cover is one of Oldham’s greatest moments.

    • Yeah, Brave and the Bold is a truly great covers record!

      • Besides, that’s a very decent list. ‘Ease Down The Road’ and ‘Lie Down In The Light’ are among my favorite records as well. ‘I See A Darkness’ is a safe choice, but after all, it’s a classic album. ‘The Letting Go’ and ‘Beware’ are a bit overrated, though, and of course, ‘Days in the Wake’ should be higher in the list.

  2. Ouch. I actually enjoy Sings Greatest Palace Music. Oldham always seems like a guy who really enjoys the process and expressing his influences, so getting a bunch of Nashville industry guys together to record new versions of his songs makes sense for him to do. Hearing both versions of “New Partner” or “Gulf Shores” helps you hear the different influences and gives great songs new dimensions. Of course, if you aren’t a fan of country music, then it will no doubt grate on you, but a song like “Gulf Shores” always had a big of southern twang to them either way.

  3. Days in the Wake is really good? I’d put it after I See A Darkness, Viva Last Blues, and Lie Down in the Light. Case in point….

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owvF3Vb0JhA

  4. I have a really mixed relationship with “I See a Darkness”. The title track articulated my own feelings of more than I ever thought could be done in a song, and it’s one of my favorite songs of all time, but the album as a whole just kind of drags too much when I listen to it from start to finish. My personal favorite has always been “Lie Down in the Light”.

  5. My Top 5:

    1. Arise Therefore
    2. Lie Down In The Light
    3. I See Darkness
    4. Ease Down The Road
    5. The Letting Go

    But Lost Blues and Other Songs (Palace 1997 compilation) is, simply, my favorite record EVER.

  6. A nearly impossible list, but a noble effort. For my money, you’ve really overrated Joya and underrated Arise, Therefore (“You Have Cum…” and “The Weaker Soldier” are two of his best songs). The thing about Oldham is that even his weaker efforts are oddly captivating, so it makes the whole ranking thing really subjective – but you’ve got the top two right on. I’d slide Lie Down in the LIght to third, but shit, close enough.

    My favorite non-”New Partner” Oldham song, for what it’s worth, is Gulf Shores.”

  7. Agree with the comment above… ranking Oldham is an impossible task. No one will get it right (other than the fact that, yes, I See A Darkness is the best). However… Master And Everyone is absolutely better than 14. It’s my #2 behind Darkness, actually. I get how it’s not as dark or desperate as his other stuff, but I think song-wise it’s really, really strong. But, yeah, 100 different people will come up with 100 different lists with Oldham.

  8. Putting Master and Everyone that low is possibly your biggest misfire yet, Stereogum.

  9. Good list, it’s nice to see ‘Ease Down the Road’ so high up. I would put The Letting Go in my top 5.

    I think he makes up a word on ‘The Seedling’ but maybe somebody knows what the deal is?

    “The wazimy warmth of the monkey skin”

    WAZIMYYYYY???

  10. As everyone else has noted, this is a good list. It’s going to inspire me to listen to some of the stuff I’ve passed on over the years.

    That said, Superwolf would be in my personal top five. There is so much great material on that album.

  11. at first i was like “master and everyone at #15!!?! this is an outrage!” and then i remembered i’ve only heard five of these records.

  12. My favorite has been THE LETTING GO ever since the first listen. I’ll also go on the record that “Strange Form of Life” is one of his top five songs.

    Don’t you love how all of his albums give us completely different incarnations of the magical bearded man persona? The Icelandic viking man, the soothsayer, the mountain man, the bearded gentleman, and others… All of his albums are of a set, but so very different once you dig into them.

    1. The Letting Go
    2. Ease Down the Road
    3. I See a Darkness
    4. Viva Last Blues
    5. All the Rest

  13. One more thing… the song “West Palm Beach” is just fucking fantastic.

  14. Master and Everyone is my favorite Will Oldham album. Way to phone in the list.

  15. Although I like the later Bonnie Prince stuff, it absolutely has nothing on the earlier Palace material. Beware and Lie Down in the Light are both great albums, but they are way too high on the list, and Arise Therefore and Days in the Wake are insanely low on the list. And if you’re going to include Wai Notes, why not include Hope as well (which is much better)?

    My top ten would look more like this:

    10. Joya
    9. Master and Everyone
    8. The Letting Go
    7. There is No One….
    6. Superwold
    5. Ease Down the Road
    4. Arise Therefore
    3. I See A Darkness
    2. Viva Last Blues
    1. Days in the Wake

  16. I agree with most of this list but come on Master and Everyone is one of his best easy!!!!!!!!!!!!

  17. a pretty decent stab, but putting days in the wake at #15 is way, way off… i’m guessing e.p.’s and singles collections are omitted b/c some of his best early work can surely be found on the two lost blues collections… and both the hope e.p. and the mountain e.p. cannot be ignored. his covers albums (though technically full LP’s) are FAR less essential than those collections.

  18. Anyone see this awkward/awesome performance of Strange Form of Life on Conan O’Brien ft. Jim White and Andrew W.K

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LooyCaBaiQo

  19. i see a darkness is remarkably beautiful

  20. new partner always strikes a certain sensitive spot when it comes on.

  21. To join a choir of others, “Days in the Wake” just seems to be way to low on this, “I Send My Love” is still one of the all-time great Oldham tracks.

  22. I understand the top three, but beyond that this list is just off the mark, especially with Arise Therefore and Days in the Wake. I’d put Arise at #3 right next to Ease, that’s some of his best songwriting (and some of Steve Albini’s best production work, that drum machine is so essential to the character of the record.) And if you’re gonna include Wai Notes, why not throw in Lost Blues and Hope cos they’re better.

  23. Though I do agree with basically everything this guy thinks of Master & Everyone, I feel like it’s his least inspired album, I’d rather listen to any of the cover albums.

  24. Bad idea, worse execution. Seriously.
    -John

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