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  • My Morning Jacket Albums From Worst To Best
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In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2008, My Morning Jacket frontman and songwriter Jim James identified four artists he considered to be MMJ’s “big-brother bands”: Wilco, Björk, Radiohead, and Pearl Jam. While that spectrum alone is telling — this was the anything goes era of Evil Urges — that last one is particularly relevant. Like Pearl Jam, MMJ is a band that has, for many years now, held a reputation primarily based on their stunning live performances. Let’s just get this out of the way: the purest, most essential element of MMJ is their live show. It would be nonsense to argue otherwise. This is a band to be experienced live, and almost every time it’ll be transcendental.

But as much of a truism as that might be, it does a great disservice to their studio work to write it off as simply an excuse to keep them on the road promoting a new album. What gets overlooked when people talk about MMJ is not only the sharpness and consistency of James’s songwriting that’s readily evident on their records, but also the way in which they have deftly, and somewhat unexpectedly, used the studio as an instrument for years now. That’s something you’d more readily associate with another of James’s supposed forebears, Radiohead, not from his own initially rustic, seemingly bred for the road, rock troupe.

Nevertheless, there’s a narrative evident in the progression of MMJ’s studio work, inscribed by studio technique and songwriting approach alike. Those early records are as mythologized as the frontier they emerged from, James then favoring sprawling Americana that appeared without borders, with reverb so cavernous you’d swear you could live inside these albums. On Z onwards, the production got slicker and the song lengths reined in-tighter, psychedelic vehicles for shooting off into parts unknown. Evil Urges is only made logical by assuming it’s from another planet. Circuital was a return to Earth bearing the new strange knowledge, its anchors as diverse as the traditionalist rock of its title track and foreboding “Victory Dance” or otherworldly funk of “Holdin’ On to Black Metal,” songs that seem to have no association with a specific place or time.

In a way, the studio work of MMJ is crucial as a way in to a band that is messily hard to define. As much as you can try to pigeonhole them, they seem to slip through it. They are as influenced by What’s Going On as Music From Big Pink, as likely to cover Curtis Mayfield as Elton John. They’ve been called alt-country, Southern rock, then indie; the jam-band world has half a claim to them, itself an oddity considering many of the instrumental passages in MMJ’s music are actually orchestrated, not totally improvised. And with an ever-growing body of live bootlegs wherein you have to wade through a three hour set in which all these split personalities jostle together, James & co. gleefully jumping from robo-funk to Crazyhorse-indebted guitar freakouts, these studio albums become not only worthwhile as strong listening experiences in and of themselves, but a road map into MMJ, the counter-narrative to flesh out the main narrative.

Given that, this list is about studio albums, and doesn’t include official live releases. I also omitted their EPs; while songs from the Split EP with Songs: Ohia or Chocolate & Ice remain relevant, like “Cobra” or the excellent “O Is The One That Is Real,” any setup of this list would have to operate on a subjective metric that would decide those two are canon and yet My Morning Jacket Does Xmas Fiasco Style and a smattering of other EPs are not. So here’s MMJ’s six studio albums, ranked from worst to best. Evil Urges sympathizers can make their case in the comments.

Start the Countdown here.

Comments (76)
  1. I agree with the order, but if I was to recommend a MMJ album to someone, it would be Okonokos. Not only is it the best recorded representation of the band, it’s really one of the best live rock recordings of the past 30 years.

    • Agreed!! I’m normally not a proponent of including live albums in “best albums” lists (determining the “greatness” of an album is as much about songwriting as it is performance and if the songs were written for another album then you can’t really call a live album “great”) but I think this should be an exception. As Ryan said in the write up, their live show is the best thing about this band. Which is an amazing thing because their studio albums are also really, really good. My MMJ faves are Okonokos, Z, It Still Moves, At Dawn, Evil Urges, and Ciruital, in that order.

    • Completely agree! I always give Okonokos to newbies and say listen to it loud 3 times and tell me they’re not the best band on the planet! It usually works! Pretty good article and rankings. Evil Urges isn’t bad except for Highly Suspicious – but in my opinion only has 2 great songs (Smokin’ from Shooting and Scream Pt 2). He’s right about Steam Engine – as this might be the best song by any band ever! It Still Moves is nearly a perfect album though – definitely first in my book. I liked Circuital a lot in that I like every song but one….but I don’t think it has any great songs. I’d say Tennesse Fire is probably 6th, then Circuital, Evil Urges, At Dawn and Z tied at second best and It Still Moves as numero uno. MMJ is so ridiculously good that it makes me sad when others don’t know what they’re missing!

  2. oh boy. i think the only thing i agree about this is evil urges being their worst. but at dawn is the quintessential mmj album. everything you need to know about them is all right there. i have worn that album out in my time with them. z is amazing, and the perfect entry point, but at dawn is one of the best albums of the last 20 years.

    good luck with whatever comments come next. should be interesting.

  3. Are Evil Urges sympathizers a thing?

    • yet again with these lists, we deify early material as if it holds some kind of seminal work. i dare you to listen back to the tennessee fire, or even at dawn, and tell me any of that stuff is anything worth repeating. if evil urges lacks substance, at least it gets by with sounding memorable.

      i wouldn’t call evil urges their best, but i certainly wouldn’t call it the worst. based on the number of spins i’ve given it compared to their other records, maybe third best. it gets slagged by pitchfork and casual mmj fans only because of “highly suspicious,” and unfortunately mmj will never live it down. it’s an awkward song with a ripping guitar solo that sticks out on an otherwise great album.

      • the word ‘seminal’ makes me feel icky

      • The Bear, They Ran, Nashville to Kentucky, Old Sept Blues, If All Else Fails, War Begun, Picture of You, I Will Be There When You Die, By My Car, Butch Cassidy, I Think I’m Going to Hell

        At Dawn, Lowdown, The Way That He Sings, Death Is The Easy Way, Hopefully, Bermuda Highway, Just Because I Do, If It Smashes Down, I Needed It Most, Phone Went West, Strangulation!

        all worth repeating

      • i don’t know what to tell you if you think at dawn is unlistenable.

      • I hated Evil Urges until I saw them on tour for that album. They started playing Highly Suspicious and I rolled my eyes but by the end of it I was rocking out SO HARD. I didn’t “get” that song until that moment.

      • The worst part of Evil Urges is not Highly Suspicious, it’s the terrible soft rock detour in the middle of the record, as the writer of this article states. You are setting up a straw man argument.

      • Your telling me that Evil Urges is better than At Dawn leads me to believe that you prefer rock star MMJ to bedroom MMJ which is totally understandable, especially considering their live shows. But IMO, and based on the premise that this list considers the strength of the recordings and songwriting, At Dawn is a more powerful album and deserves its place on the list.

        • not really, i like both. i’m not even saying because of evil urges, mmj is getting better – i think their recorded material, while still good, is getting kind of getting worse. what i’m saying is that at dawn isn’t really as awesome as everyone claims. i should note that i don’t think that evil urges is as awesome as some people claim either. but i think a lot of people who make that argument are trying to latch onto the “early material is better” argument, and i’m not saying you’re doing that. people need to go back and listen to at dawn just to see how airy and listless a good portion of that record is rather than cling to the “band’s perennial second record” argument. my point is that at least evil urges is rooted, despite its obvious flaws. in my opinion it’s one case where gloss and unevenness trumps a record that’s good but obviously much of it is filler edging on experimental – it’s twenty minutes longer than evil urges, and for what?

          i really don’t think at dawn is the crux of mmj’s career act i. it still moves is still the best of that era.

        • and to top it off, because i’m an asshole who can’t shut up, my own ranking:

          1. z
          2. it still moves
          3. evil urges
          4. at dawn
          5. the tennessee fire
          6. circuital

    • We exist.

      I liked Evil Urges. The title track is a great opener, I’m Amazing is easily one of my favorite MMJ tracks, a couple other good ones (Smokin’ From Shootin’, Touch Me Pt. 2), with a couple throwaways… yea maybe not their best, but definitely not their worst.

      Evil Urges was my introduction to MMJ back in ’08, so maybe that has something to do with my lack of disregard for it.

    • It turns out I’ve severely underestimated how many people like Evil Urges. But in my defense, I don’t know very many people. Probably because my icebreaker in most social situations is “Hey, what’s up? Evil Urges is just the worst, right?” I need some new material.

  4. At first, I thought “Evil Urges….worst….no way!” but then i realized that after having it for 5 years, and I still don’t listen to it, “yeah Okay”. I agree that “Okonokos” is the best entry point to MMJ, and In a more perfect world, it would be the “Frampton Comes Alive” of our generation, because it really is a masterpiece. I really don’t listen to the first 2 albums as much as i should, gonna remedy that now.

  5. I like what I’ve heard from MMJ before but I’ve never delved deeper than a few tracks (Black Metal, It Beats 4 You, Circuital). Any advice on which album I should start with? Z sounds like a good place to start.

  6. Well I’ll be damned. I dig this list although I really do like Evil Urges and would probably bump it up a notch based on the strength of half of its songs alone. Top three is money: The 2 fantastic southern psych rock albums of our time leading into the magnum opus that is Z.

  7. Put At Dawn at #1 and bump everything down behind it by one, and I agree. There’s something unique about At Dawn, and it gets better with every passing year. It’s the sound of a band capable of yelling at you choosing to whisper in your ear…

  8. Possibly my favourite Counting Down so far, and really enjoyed reading your article. MMJ really are the greatest live spectacle I’ve ever witnessed, and Okonokos is just about as good as live recordings get. Pretty much agree with everything you’ve written, though I find the top 3 pretty much inseparable, in terms of which is my favourite. Go Team Highly Suspicious indeed!

  9. I can’t possibly argue with your top two, and probably your top three, but I’d consider myself an Evil Urges sympathizer, so here goes. Evil Urges is My Morning Jacket’s Hail To The Thief. It’s a little bigger, it’s tough to consume all at once, and it contains some brilliant material, but it’s too diverse and the sequencing is off. However, I consider “Evil Urges” to be MMJ’s best opener, and “Sec Walkin” is probably one of the best psych-country songs ever, and that’s in addition to the highlights already mentioned. If nothing else, Evil Urges lends the band some of their most incredible live highlights. I think it deserves to be above The Tennessee Fire at least.

    • Any other Circuital fans here? I love that album and it may actually be my most listened to of the bunch. I’m not quite sure why other people don’t regard it as highly as I do. I don’t think the last few songs are boring – they’re beautiful in a way that sounds distinctively MMJ.

      Anyhow, my list:

      1. It Still Moves
      2. At Dawn
      3. Circuital
      4. Z
      5. Tennessee Fire
      6. Evil Urges

    • really dig your HTTT comparison. your evidence is on point

    • Give this man the $10,000 dollars!

  10. I like Evil Urges. Given the choice right now I’d listen to that over Circuital. *ducks*

  11. I was going to argue that At Dawn ought to be #1, but when I really scrutinize it, there’s a lottttt of filler on there. It has their highest peaks, but also drags. So in stead I’ll go ahead and argue that It Still Moves should be #1. Everything after Z (which is fine) is a mess.

    • Either way, there’s no question that there’s a MMJ phase 1 and phase 2. I can’t empathize with the experience of anyone who jumped on board during the second phase… seems foreign to me. To be honest, you could scrap their whole catalogue, give me a couple hours of “Bermuda Highway” on repeat and I’d be happy.

  12. It’s a little funny that my two least favorite MMJ albums have my favorite ending (Evil Urges) and opening (Circuital). Both live and on record “Victory Dance” into “Circuital” kills, and “Smokin from Shootin” into “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 2″ is how I end every ‘Jacket mix I made for my friends in high school.

    My list:
    1. It Still Moves*
    2. Z
    3. At Dawn
    4. The Tennessee Fire
    5. Evil Urges
    6. Circuital

    *if it weren’t for the rules of the list, Okonokos would be locked in to no. 1 for me, I go back to that recording again and again, and my favorite versions of many songs are on there (Dondante, Run Thru, I Think I’m Going to Hell, etc.

  13. Love MMJ. Fine with the list. But this reminded me of how bad some of their album art is. Endearingly bad, but bad.

  14. 1. At Dawn
    2. It Still Moves
    3. Z
    4. Circuital

    I’ve liked all of the top 3 more than the others at different times, but I think I’d go with At Dawn because of the haunted quality of the songs. Evil Urges revolted me when it came out, although I like the title track and some other moments. I think Jim’s voice and definitely the vocal production changed for the worse on this one.
    Also, if I dare say, I like them better on record than live. For me, the current best live bands are Wilco, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Built To Spill, and Phoenix, and I love Fruit Bats!

  15. Love MMJ. Feel disinclined to put them in any order, but definitely got more interesting for me when they let their “freak flag” fly.

  16. Z was my entry… and now on the wrong side of my mid-30s, I can look back at that album with more fondness than critical thinking, so I find it hard to fault. But….. Circuital is the MMJ album I enjoy the most and the one that affects me the most. I know you’re not supposed to rate the latest one the best, but too late

  17. The good of Evil Urges far outweighs the evil.

  18. Ah, my favorite band of the 2000s.

    Album for album in the order they were listed:

    I remember debating with friends on the merits of Evil Urges when it came out – it was disappointing to varying degrees among us, but some of us softened to and grew to like it while others were hesitant. At this point I like it for its good and can overlook the few I never warmed to. I wouldn’t put it last – I think I’d put one of the first two there. That said, the middle does have saccharine trash, but it’s not the excellent “Sec Walkin” or the Beach Boys nod of “Two Halves” – it’s “Look at You” & “Thank You Too” – those and “Remnants” drag things down some. That said, “Smokin from Shooting” into “Touch Me Pt. 2″ is among their greatest work ever.

    Very nice job nailing the highlights of Tennessee Fire – “Evelyn”, “The Dark”, “Heartbreakin Man”, “Twilight”, “The Bear” – those are all monsters. But some of the other stuff doesn’t do much, though I do like “Butch Cassidy” as well.

    I also agree that Circuital blows it in its dull end – I don’t mind “Slow Tune” but then following it/closing on “Moving Away” is a terrible move, especially with the very middling “You Wanna Freak Out” also right there. But remember, this is the band that chose NOT to end on perfect closer “Steam Engine” in favor of snoozer “One in the Same” so it’s not unheard of for them to botch an ending.

    At Dawn is as schizophrenic as Evil Urges, really – straight-up southern blues rock, dainty pop, rusty folk, psych, reggae and bar rock all show up. It might be my least favorite, though. Looking at the track listing there actually aren’t that many duds, but the eons-superior live version of “Lowdown” ruined the studio version for me, I’m ambivalent towards “Death is the Easy Way”, and “If It Smashes Down” and “I Need it Most” are total momentum killers. Still…”X-Mas Curtain”….damn.

    It Still Moves – easily my #1. I fell in love with this band on my first spin of the opening trio of songs and never looked back, especially after catching their legendary Bonnaroo ’04 set. All their twists and turns later and this is still the foundation of who they are live. All due respect to subsequent developments, but this is their ideal sound, and excluding the closer (and I never fell quite in love with “The Masterplan”, but it’s not bad), a truly amazing set of songs.

    Z was the first new album of theirs I bought as a fan, and man was that an exciting listen that was! They through out all the rules and didn’t drop off in quality at all. For years I was torn between this & its predecessor for which I preferred, and I settled on that, but this is the only album they have that doesn’t need superior editing in some way. A creative tour de force for sure.

    1. It Still Moves
    2. Z
    Tie: Evil Urges/Tennessee Fire
    Circuital
    At Dawn

    Now to listen to them all day.

  19. I remember the dipsh*t from Pitchfork who reviewed “Evil Urges” said that the band was selling out and trying to be more like their label-mates Dave Matthews Band. Apparently a lot of bandwagon fans listened and went on to jizz all over themselves about how brill Fleet Foxes were.
    I’m not sure if “EU” is their best album but I do know it was the most pivotal in their career. It probably is their biggest seller(or close to it) and I would bet more people actually heard it than any other album they put out. “Look At You” & “Aluminum Park” are great songs for completely different reasons. “Librarian” & “Thank You Too” are also big fan favorites. “Highly Suspicious” missed the mark for me, but it’s always a crowd-pleaser.
    “Circuital” was a big disappointment. It got great critical reviews but it was a big disappointment commercially. I think James listened to all the whiners who didn’t get “EU” and tried to change things. That usually dooms artists. Whatever the case, without “Evil Urges” you probably wouldn’t even have written this article.

  20. It is a Herculean task to rank MMJ’s albums. While I am biased–probably my favorite contemporary band–this list is particularly difficult because of the varied catalogue, and often one’s musical pallet will create a very subjective list.

    I think this a certainly a good journalistic chart of MMJ albums chronicling the shape of their careers. However, if I can be subjective I would chart them as such:

    1.) “It Still Moves” (most haunting album that I’ve experienced, their’s some america magic in here, like singing up at the Hoover dam)

    1.5) “At Dawn” (the most monstrous and terrifying album, an eery night in Appalachia)

    3.) “Z” (the most accessible and perfect MMJ album, nearly too perfect but amazing no less)

    4.) “The Tennessee Fire” (young jim james learning to perfect the art, with his most soulful songs)

    5.) “Evil Urges” (so ambitious and fun to a fault, but never going to blame a band for that)

    6.) “Circuital” (a safe attempt by the band w/o a punch to end the album, better as an album than live (exception for first 2 tracks)

  21. Evil Urges defiantly should be ranked as no. 1

  22. Regardless of the order of the albums, I’m just happy this articles exists. I’ve revisited At Dawn after what’s been way too long and it still sounds great. Great work Stereogum.

  23. I listened to MMJ since they first started up but they never really struck me until Z. For me, I can’t understand why someone would like the pre-Z albums more than post-Z. the artistry and eclecticism from that point forward is nearly unmatched in music as a whole, nonetheless in their catalog.

    • Like I said, At Dawn, while well-inferior to Z, is just as eclectic in most ways as Z or Evil Urges.

      And It Still Moves is not, but it is a monolith of perfect sound, vibe, and songs. It’s still the closest studio album to their live show, ten years on. I guess you’re either gonna love it or you’re not, but I just can’t see not loving it.

  24. Yes, I love Evil Urges.

  25. I don’t think Circuital deserves to be that low, it was such a breathe of fresh air after Evil Urges. In fact I would place it right before Z. Also, let us all forget about Monsters of Folk.

  26. The Tennessee Fire not getting enough credit, as usual. It’s difficult to put into words, but that album has more soul than just about any record I’ve listened to. “The Bear” in particular—what a song.

  27. Great list. Totally agree re: “Steam Engine” possibly being their best and most quintessential song. That song gets to me every single time.

  28. This is a great list. I like Evil Urges and I would probably rank it higher than Circuital, but otherwise I like the list. Circuital has some great live songs, but as an album it just doesn’t do it for me.

    I got into MMJ when a co-worker of mine from KY stopped by my desk and dropped off a burned copy of At Dawn. I didn’t even know the guy well but he said he thought I would like it. This was probably late 2002, so the album had been about about a year I guess. Anyway, I just loved it. I went out and bought it (at Melody Records in Dupont Circle) that weekend with The Tennessee Fire and listened to them both many times on a drive down to Georgia. Really made an impact on me. Once It Still Moves was released, I was blown away. Those three mean a lot to me, but Z really kills because it was released the week my daughter was born, so that is what I think about when I listen to it…

    My biggest takeaway from this article is that the author was 15 when Z came out and I was having a baby. …and I consider myself young.

  29. Bonnaroo 2004. That is quintessential MMJ. Find yourself a copy if you don’t have it already. While it is pre-Z and thus doesn’t feature much of the “Phase 2″ MMJ discussed here, it captures what still remains the best of what MMJ does live. Best part is it clocks in at ’bout an hour, and thus is a great intro album to give to folks, or if you just want to blast yourself with peak MMJ live form for an hour.

    • Bonnaroo 2004 Setlist:
      Mahgeetah
      One Big Holiday
      Golden
      It Beats 4 U
      Lowdown
      The Way That He Sings
      O Is the One That Is Real
      Dancefloors
      Phone Went West
      Cobra (Partial)
      At Dawn
      Steam Engine

    • Hell yeah, that is the ultimate representation of MMJ I’ve ever heard. I was there, too, and it was awesome. The first day had been scorchingly hot, I was sunburned as anything (first festival), and Saturday started off the same. Many of us were talking about how nice some shade or rain would be.

      MMJ took the stage and slayed – I mean just SLAYED. Great setlist, tons of heavy hitters, even an early peak at Z with “It Beats 4 U” – and then, as you can hear on the recording, the wind kicks up, the audience goes nuts, and Jim acknowledges it, calling the show Return to Thunderdome. I think that was on “At Dawn”. And then, like absolute magic, they “Steam Engine” cracked the sky and it started pouring cool, soothing rain, to the awe and wonder of everyone there. Perfect music moment.

  30. Good job with, the list, I find myself agreeing with most of the opinions. There is something about At Dawn for me that speaks to me so much, even though I love all the songs on It Still Moves maybe more than At Dawn, its just the overall vibe I guess. Evil Urges is fun, has good energy but doesn’t have the cohesiveness of some other albums. I think you described the TF perfectly: an early sketch. Great stuff, but not quite there yet. Anyways, if anyone has not seen the acoustic version of Steam engine Jim played for Rolling Stone, it is possibly my favorite version of any of their songs ever, and most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, and I’ve seen them live a couple of times.

    Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSHM5FiOChY

  31. Z is perfect every way except for “Into the Woods.” I can’t justify that song to anyone.

  32. I don’t understand the hate for Evil Urges at all. Touch Me and Smokin’ From Shootin’ are a couple of their all-time bests. Aside from Two Halves, I enjoyed every song on the album.

    For me it goes:

    1.) It Still Moves
    2.) Circuital
    3.) At Dawn
    4.) Z
    5.) Evil Urges
    6.) The Tennessee Fire

    Best songs from each:

    1.) Run Thru/ Steam Engine
    2.) Victory Dance/ Circuital
    3.) Hopefully/ Phone Went West
    4.) Dondante (probably #1 all-time)/ Gideon
    5.) Touch Me Part 2, Smokin/ From Shootin’
    6.) By My Car/ Nashville To Kentucky

  33. I have come to MMJ later than most f you. I have tried to find a way to love all the albums as much as I love my favorite. But in the end I continue to long for further spiritual experiences that It still Moves brings to me. JJ’s haunting vocals along with bands free jamming sound in the album surpass many albums I’ve held in high regards for many years.
    The irony that I’m such a huge Radio Head fan but not of King of Limbs and not of Circutal makes me wonder if I’m missing something in their musical evolution?

    • Yeah, me too. I knew of MMJ in the early ’00s, and liked some of their songs, but not until Evil Urges came out, did I come to love them. It may be sacrilege to some, but that’s my favorite album. I don’t get the criticism, as I think it’s fantastic with a wonderful ebb and flow. If one wants to criticize MMJ’s lyrics, then whatever.. I’ve never really thought they were lyrically complex, so when he goes a little saccharine, it works just fine. Circuital is a little oddball to me. It has some killer songs on it, but feels like it could have been constructed differently. The production on it is beautiful, but it feels short and spare. Feels like it needs more to it.

      When I heard their MMJ’s stuff, I largely found the overuse of reverb distracting, and while I love those early songs, I really feel like, as albums, those don’t really hold up. If the production were different, I’d probably feel different. But live, those songs have really taken flight and just sound so much better.. so that’s certainly one reason I never got into their earlier studio work. The other attribute that kept me away was all the reverb in Jim’s voice… I think Jim’s voice is so fucking beautiful, and that reverb takes away from the qualities I think are so great about it. The songs just feel opened up more without it. In retrospect, I don’t find that effect so bad or distracting, but it did keep me away, for no other reason than it seemed to homogenize their sound to a point that I just wasn’t drawn to it.

  34. I hate to be “that dude” but…

    1. Tennessee Fire
    2. At Dawn
    3. It Still Moves
    4. Evil Urges
    5. Z
    6. Circutial (far removed from 1-5)

    How do chills not go down your spine when hearing the opening guitar riff for heartbreaking man? Or being stoned listening to They Ran and looking for your lighter? Or being pissed whiskey drunk at your ex jamming out to By My Car? Or, just when you’ve had enough, turning on Nashville to Kentucky asking for the universe to “take you out of this damn nightmare and put me in a world I can live”? I can go on and on. Tennessee Fire ftw

  35. Love your post. I agree with your list, but I am thinking for myself It Still Moves is the fucking best!

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