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.
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