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  • Low Albums From Worst To Best
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Odd to think that at one point, much to their chagrin, Low were considered the progenitors of the “slowcore” movement. Emerging from Duluth, MN in the early ’90s, contemporaneous with the halcyon days of grunge, the band were a more than welcome respite from that genre’s bombastic, angst-fueled fervor. They crafted languid ballads that were the focal point instead of a diversion from frenetic rockers.

Low debuted in 1994 with I Could Live In Hope, produced in NYC by Kramer (Galaxie 500, Jad Fair), the sessions of which frontman Alan Sparhawk recalled fondly in a 2005 Big Takeover interview, poking fun at the band’s Midwest roots while laughing that, “Kramer called us farmers as he was yelling at us.” But the fruits of those sessions, along with its 1995 follow-up Long Division, provided a template for the band — smoldering numbers equally beholden to the hushed balladry of the Velvet Underground as the elegiac drone of Joy Division. Sparhawk’s wife Mimi Parker added resplendent vocals and Mo Tucker-esque drums (her threadbare kit consisted of a snare and high hat) alongside gently plucked high register bass lines. But what most differentiated Low was their sheer dedication to songcraft, and an uncanny use of space. What was left out of the tracks was as equally integral to the arrangements as what was included.

The band moved on to producer Steve Fisk for the release of 1996’s The Curtain Hits The Cast. It was something of a transitional album for the act, their last for quasi-major Vernon Yard before departing to the venerable indie Kranky Records.

On their full-length debut for the Chicago-based label, 1999’s Secret Name, they worked with producer Steve Albini. As Sparhawk said of Albini in our Big Takeover interview, “If it’s crap with Steve, you only have yourself to blame, because that crap was recorded as well and as great-sounding as it’s ever going to be.” Albini’s hand-off approach paid dividends on both that album’s spartan ethos, and even more so on the ornate chamber balladry of Things We Lost In The Fire, the band’s masterpiece to date.

2002’s Trust found the band again switching gears, enlisting Tchad Blake as producer to decidedly mixed results, but serving as something as a testing ground for a more roughshod sound they’d explore in the very near future. The band again switched producers, and labels, for their Sub Pop debut The Great Destroyer, helmed by Dave Fridmann in 2005. This was a turning point for Low, and the first time they’d emphasized choruses and hooks so adroitly. Fridmann also produced 2007’s Drums And Guns, which is easily the most bizarre and esoteric record the band have created.

2011’s C’mon found the band toying with a more classicist, conventional sound, a trend that continued on their most recent LP, the Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way. The Invisible Way is perhaps Low’s most accessible album to date, and exhibits just what fine songwriters Sparhawk and Parker have become, comfortable veering between protean genres, with flux and evolution having become the name of the game for them stylistically, a far cry from the potent slowcore tag that they were unfairly dogged by for more than a decade.

Having long been a favorite of musicians, including Radiohead and Wilco, both of whom Low have opened for, and Robert Plant, who covered a few of their tracks on 2010’s Band Of Joy, commercial success has still largely eluded Low. Nevertheless, they’ve provided us with one of the most impressive and rewarding discographies of the past 20 years. Let’s look it over.

Start the Countdown here.

Comments (33)
  1. Trust, the WORST ALBUM? Really?

    • Yeah, what? And “Point of Disgust” doesn’t even get a shout out? That song singlehandedly elevates the whole album at LEAST past “The Great Destroyer”. At least.

      • I really like Trust. I just found it to be uneven. The most uneven album in their catalog. Worst album is very relative when it comes to Low. They’ve never made a bad LP. And yeah, “Point of Disgust” is a great song.

    • Absolutely INCORRECT. Trust is just phenomenal. If it’s uneven, it’s planned. Like so many great works, it’s a journey. Not always comfortable, but we’re better from the trip.

    • I love Trust! I think this list is wrong! To put it in Low’s words… C’mon!!! I agree that they don’t have bad albums…

  2. How is THE GREAT DESTROYER not top three at least?

  3. It really testifies to Low’s greatness that their worst album according to Stereogum might be some other people’s all-time favorite. At least, that’s my case.

  4. I Could Live in Hope 9th???????????

    Am I the only person who loves that album??????????????????

    • Not at all. That was the first Low album I heard last year when I was searching up slowcore bands. It floors me to this day. I do think Long Division is a better album though. Truthfully, I’m not really big on Low past The Curtain Hits the Cast. They just lose some of that melancholic somberness that really “did” it for me. I still love the band and it’s new efforts, I’m just not as big of a fan.

      I Could Live In Hope at #9 is just horrible to me though.

      • It was my first Low album too. Such a great album. Over The Ocean blew me away and I have been a huge fan ever since. The Invisible Way still hasn’t won me over yet. It is the only album they have put out that hasn’t amazed me right out of the gate. I’m sure I will get there.

        Such a hard list to make. They truly have not put out a bad record.

  5. If you read my review, you’ll probably realize that I love I Could Live in Hope as well. It was an incredibly difficult list to make.

    • I figured you liked it but just in naming the first 3 tracks I also figured you might think it was frontloaded/uneven etc. I can see that though, I feel like everyone reads their discography differently and such so no hard feelings

  6. I am yearning for a Red House Painters “Best to Worst” list after this.

  7. “I Could Live In Hope” is a great album and deserves to be at least 1 or 2 . I’m somewhat biased because I saw them opening for a band I can’t recall at the Cat’s Cradle when that album came out. We knew the group had to be pretty good since they were on Vernon Yard(The Verve-Storm In Heaven era, Acetone, etc…). I remember most of the crowd was ignoring them and talking amongst themselves when Alan Sparhawk said “Here’s a song for all you talkers out there.” , and went into an incredible version of “Lullaby”. Needless to say, the 90′s hipsters stopped yammering and drinking their PBR’s for at least 10 minutes.

  8. Surprised that Christmas hasn’t been mentioned– it might not be a full-length album, but it’s not an EP either. It’s probably the Low record I’ve listened to most over the years apart from Things We Lost…, Secret Name and A Lifetime of Temporary Relief. Take the Long Way Around the Sea kills me, as does If You Were Born Today.

    I’d agree Trust deserves to be higher, it’s at least half a great album. Drums & Guns always left me really cold though, and the Invisible Way might have its moments, but I’d struggle to make the case that it’s better overall than C’mon.

  9. Their first record is waaaaay too Low.

  10. “The Great Destroyer” should be in the first three spots.

  11. I like this series a lot. Would love to see some of the biggest alt/indie/rock acts covered that haven’t already as I feel that would invoke interesting discussion: Depeche Mode, U2, Coldplay, The National, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Green Day, Queens Of The Stone Age, etc.

  12. >Trust last
    >ICLIH 8th
    >drums and guns near the front
    >C’mon not 10th


  13. Not sure about that interpretation of the title of The Curtain Hits the Cast. Pretty sure it is more along the lines of “theater curtain closes prematurely and hits members of the cast still on stage.”

    • My interpretation. I don’t things are ever “right or wrong” when it comes to interpretation, but it’s how I’ve always taken it for some reason.

  14. “Low have something of a punk history, including a fabled 1998 Halloween gig covering the songs of the Misfits.”

    Not sure fabled is the right word (as it actually happened): Although they didn’t cover the Misfits, but played a few of their own songs in the style of the Misfits.

    That was my first Low show oddly enough: Spaceland, Halloween night. They opened with Starfire. Secret Name hadn’t been released yet (or I hadn’t picked it up yet), and I was caught off guard by the relative intensity of the new song. They played a few more songs, then Alan and Zak turned their backs to the small crowd, pulled on black t-shirts, applied some black makeup to their faces, turned back around and Alan said, “We’re the Misfits” at which point they dove into a few more songs with lightning speed. The only song I recall of the 3 or 4 they played was “Over the Ocean.” It was great. Totally caught off guard by the band’s playfulness that night, as I’d been expecting a somewhat somber event. A strange first show indeed. They played at The Mint two nights later, which was a straight forward event.

    Thanks for the article on one of my favorite bands, although perhaps it should have simply been titled the top 10 Low albums?

    • Thanks for the clarification, nxrm! When I interviewed Alan in 2005 he made it sound as though they’d played Misfits songs. He also mentioned that in the bathroom later, as he was washing off his makeup, someone said, “Nice bars.” He looked up and it was Dez Cadena!

      • Dez was there? Very cool. Serendipity indeed.

        A little wikipedia search also revealed the three songs they played Misfits style were: Words, Turn, and Over the Ocean. Even better, they’re on the box set “A Lifetime of Temporary Relief: 10 Years of B-Sides and Rarities.” I own that, but obviously haven’t checked it out in a while.

        Finally, pardon me for not realizing “Worst to Best” is an ongoing series. Definitely a good way to get fans to chime in.

        Thanks again for the article.

  15. If it wasn’t for Thing We Lost being #1, I’d swear this list is exactly backwards.

  16. Been waiting for you guys to do Low, thank you. Having said that, my own list would look very different. The Curtain Hits the Cast was my first Low album and is still my favourite. I think it’s the one where they perfected their early sound. Their follow-up EP Songs for a Dead Pilot is also really beautiful but was almost shocking at the time, it sounded so different to what came before. Things We Lost in The Fire sags in the middle. I think Great Destroyer is my least favourite, they cranked up the guitar but it doesn’t sound as heavy as their quiet stuff.

  17. The writer seems to have done a very deep and thoughtful assessment.

    That being said – opinions are like thumbs and tongues – most people have at least one.

    There is a reason that many Low shows are still closed with ‘When I Go Deaf’
    There is a reason they recently reworked ‘Drugs’ at the Fitzgerald.
    There is a reason that ‘Will the Night’ still gets me misty whenever I listen to it.
    There is a reason I have yet to be compelled to listen to Drums & Guns start to finish.

    Low just is.

  18. Starting with the worst.

    10.The Great Destroyer
    09.The Invisible way
    08.The Curtain Hits the Cast
    07.Secret Name
    04.I Could Live in Hope
    03.Drums and Guns
    02.Long Division
    01.Things We Lost In The Fire

  19. 10. Drums and Guns
    9. The Invisible Way
    8. The Curtain Hits the Cast
    7. The Great Destroyer
    6. Long Division
    5. C’mon
    4. Trust
    3. Things We Lost In The Fire
    2. Secret Name
    1. I Could Live in Hope

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