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Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff told me in an interview for an R.E.M. retrospective piece a few years back that when his band was initially conceived, “What was shocking, and quite funny to me, was that when I started Okkervil River and we incorporated some of the same stuff — bringing in mandolins and accordions and stuff like that — people called it ’country’ because we had started the band in Texas. To me it was always an R.E.M. kind of idea, those kind of woody, acoustic textures integrated into rock, choking it up a bit.”And indeed, the band first caught my ear when I read a review by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, describing the band as “a gripping cross of drowsy understatement and lightning bolts of anxiety, like Pavement bursting through the middle of R.E.M’s “Country Feedback,” name-checking two of my favorite bands of the time and inspiring a purchase of Down The River Of Golden Dreams.

The band formed back in 1998 in Austin, TX, and were named after a Tatyana Tolstaya short story. Borrowing their name from an obscure piece of literature has frequently led to them being pigeonholed as a sort of Decemberists-esque, didactic band of academics, which couldn’t be further from the truth. They’ve never shied from a terrific narrative, but their songs and albums are visceral, often daring to assume a dark sexual swagger. This is anything but fey pop.

Their debut album Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See was an auspicious opening volley, but it was on Down The River Of Golden Dreams that they really found their footing, as Sheff’s voice as a lyricist developed significantly. Songs such as “The War Criminal Rises And Speaks” and “Yellow” are downright harrowing in their sheer, bloodcurdling accounts of betrayal, loss, and contrition.

2005′s Black Sheep Boy raised the stakes significantly for the band, introducing a wider palette of instrumentation and an overall confidence in the songwriting process that culminated in a grand achievement. Recorded with Brian Beattie, who also helmed the boards for Don’t Fall in Love, the album’s fulsome without ever becoming overwhelmed with superfluous studio trickery. An addendum, Black Sheep Boy Appendix EP, was released shortly thereafter, nicely tying up some loose ends from the LP.

Around a year prior to the release of 2007′s The Stage Names, I ran into the band’s ex-publicist at a show. Discussing the impending follow-up, she revealed to me that she felt as though Sheff was feeling the pressure to come up with a worthy follow-up to Black Sheep Boy. For the first time in the band’s career, there were expectations. Sheff would deny this when I interviewed him prior to the record’s release, but whatever he was feeling, it translated into a flat-out superb record, one that deconstructed the absurdity of the performer/myth archetype in a manner akin to Martin Scorsese’s film King Of Comedy, while also presenting an oft-ignored facet of life within the indie milieu — that of sexuality. Songs such as “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man”and “Unless It Kicks”have a hip-swinging swagger sorely lacking in modern indie music, realistically depicting adult sexuality.

The Stand Ins, released a year after The Stage Names, is something of a sister piece to its predecessor. While it’s been maligned as a record of half-baked leftovers, in actuality it contains some of Okkervil River’s finest songs, including the Jonathan Melburg duet “Lost Coastlines,”and the quixotic, lovelorn “Calling and Not Calling My Ex.”

Following The Stand Ins, the band backed a personal hero in fellow Austinite Roky Erickson on True Love Cast Out All Evil, which was produced by Sheff. While the album’s indisputably superb, it belongs to Erickson, and therefore is omitted in the countdown.

The next proper Okkervil River album to arrive was 2011′s I Am Very Far, and to some, this looms as a black mark on their discography. Dismissed my many fans, it’s a deeply complex, rewarding work that pays dividends given multiple listens. Revisit it a few times if you haven’t done so in the past few years. It’s certainly a rewarding endeavor that’s well worth the investment.

Perhaps keen to craft a more immediate album, the band enlisted John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Cymbals Eat Guitars, Cyndi Lauper) to produce this year’s The Silver Gymnasium. While it’s overstuffed with sprightly synths and roistering guitars, the songs themselves are nonetheless left with ample room to breathe. It has as much depth as any record Okkervil have released to date, and reveals new layers each time you listen. It’s essentially the only move this band could have made — a quantum sonic leap forward. As Okkervil River continue to follow their own distinctly idiosyncratic muse as one of the finest bands of the ’00s and ’10s, they’ll certainly be worth keeping close tabs on. For now, let’s count down the embarrassment of riches they’ve offered us thus far.

Start the Countdown here.

Comments (32)
  1. i would’ve put the stage names at #1 but it’s admittedly a close one with black sheep boy.

    and what’s with the lack of silver gymnasium coverage lately? you’d think one of the best albums of the year — and a welcome comeback from these guys — would have been met with more fanfare from this site, besides offhand mention it in a best to worst.

  2. I never understood why “I Am Very Far” was such a castaway. The songs might be a bit darker but they’re immediately engaging and I find myself returning to them more than the others.

  3. (A) Silver Gymnasium is phenomenal. “Walking Without Frankie” and “Down Down the Deep River” and “Lido Pier Suicide Car” and I am sure the rest will keep growing.

    (B) I don’t see how “The Stand Ins” is half-baked at all. “Singer Songwriter” is so over the top in its amazing wordplay, and is a masterclass of lyrical play, and “On Tour With Zykos” and “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” are very affecting. I think it is a great sequel to “The Stage Names”.

    (C) I do love “The Stage Names” and “Black Sheep Boy”- these guys are really really good.

  4. Where are “Starts To Small to Use” and “Sleep and Wake Up Songs”?

  5. Stars Too Small to Use isn’t considered to be a “proper” Okkervil LP by most, as it received such a limited release and is only seven songs. It’s been out of print for over a decade, and “The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion” reappeared on Down the River of Golden Dreams. The band have a few EPs, and I really love Sleep and Wake Up Songs, but I chose to omit them with the exception of Black Sheep Boy Appendix, as these lists are generally reserved for full-length releases. Black Sheep Boy Appendix felt like an essential inclusion due obviously to its inextricable link to Black Sheep Boy, and also because it established a template followed with The Stage Names / The Stand Ins.

    • That is fair. I’m such a fan of all their stuff and those were so integral to that ever growing love for the band, that it is hard for me to leave them out. “Overboard and Down” had some real gems on there too…as did the “Sham Wedding/Hoax Funeral” split. Actually, their output is so riddled with moments of absolute brilliance that it is kind of a waste of time for me to keep calling them out.

      I’m still angry at “I Am Very Far” though. It won’t latch on for me. I’ve tried so many times. I actually actively dislike it. I feel like a bad fan.

  6. I’m probably in the minority but I would have put stand ins at 3

  7. It was tough. I felt like it was an uneven album, even though it has some of their best songs. I still love it, and it really has held up. I may have penalized it somewhat for the interlude “Stand Ins” tracks and the reappearance of “Starry Stairs,” which was originally an iTunes bonus track with the purchase of The Stage Names. But the last three proper songs, “On Tour with Zykos,” “Calling and Not Calling My Ex,” and “Bruce Wayne Campbell,” are phenomenal.

  8. The fun part about ranking Okkervil albums is that none of them are bad. After Dont Fall in Love, which would probably just end up last for most people by default, you can pretty much put them in any order. Though I expect most people would end up with Black Sheep Boy or Stage Names at the top just because they’re so thematically strong.

  9. The new one’s very strong as well. I think in time fans will appreciate it more. It’s a good first listen record, but a great 25th listen record.

  10. I could not disagree more. Though Black Sheep Boy is actually my favorite OR record, I think its companion EP comes next. To me it can’t be dissociated from Black Sheep Boy and it has a couple of even stronger songs (No Key, No Plan and Last Love Song For Now). Next is Down The River of Golden Dreams and Don’t Fall in Love With Everyone You See. With The Stage Names, OR moved toward a new direction, mixing arena-rock influences with their folk sensitivity. That may have been a smarter move but to me it’s a different band and I am not sure I like it. I thought the Stand Inns and I Am Very Far were just average. I wasn’t interested. I have read that the new one is a return to the sound of Black Sheep Boy and though it has not been released in Europe yet, I am curious.

  11. To me, Black Sheep Boy Appendix is not really a separate release, because they were packaged together in the vinyl release, and if we’re including that EP then we’d have to consider Sleep and Wake Up Songs, Overboard and Down, Golden Opportunities 1+2, Stairs Too Small To Use etc. Which I’d be okay with doing since I love the EPs (esp. Sleep and Wake Up Songs) but could get confusing.

    However, Okkervil River fan-boy quibbling aside, I differ with my order of the list of full-album releases, but then again, it’s like picking a favorite child. Here is my take on it:

    1. Black Sheep Boy and Appendix – such a great album, it is similar to/up there with the NMH albums and other stylistically-similar great albums as far as I am concerned.
    2. Down The River of Golden Dreams – likely their most emotionally powerful album, and I am a sucker for the organs that pervade these tracks.
    3. Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See – this was the first album I heard by them, and has my favorite song (Kansas City) so I can’t justify putting it any lower.
    4. The Stage Names – an absolute classic, but I have to be in the right mood to appreciate it.
    5. The Silver Gymnasium – it’s a little early to make a definitive judgment, but I’ve been really into it every listen thus far.
    6. The Stand Ins – despite having Lost Coastlines and On Tour With Zykos, there a few tracks I just wasn’t as into, but a good release from Okkervil River is still awesome.
    7. I Am Very Far – I might be holding a bias because this came out right before I first saw them live, but there are some misses for me on this album, but again, still a goodalbum.

  12. I like The Stand Ins more than The Stage Names because I’m crazy like that

  13. This is my favorite band and this is the fucking most retarded list I’ve ever seen on this site. Down the River BEHIND I Am Very Far?! Dude who wrote this isn’t even a fan.

  14. Honestly. Jesus. Stereogum. This guy has no attachment to these albums, and here he is ranking them. This is the fucking worst. He could have written this whole thing by looking them up on Wikipedia. I can write better than this and I’m not even that good at writing. Man. I could never understand why people would get upset over these stupid lists until now. Jesus. God damn. This is awful. Is he an intern? I don’t even care. I don’t care about his dreams or aspirations. He should quit. He should quit and sell insurance or something. God damn. I can write you a think piece about why this is the worst list you’ve published but I’ll need to see a little bit of your Levi’s money.

  15. Dude writes like an 18-year-old with a thesaurus. Maybe he writes better about bands he gives a shit about. But god damn. This is awful.

    • Nathan, I love Okkervil River! Have been a fan since 2003. And if you can do a better job–hey, write one, and send me a link. I’d love to see it.

      • I was a little inebriated when I wrote the above, so I apologize for the ad hominem attacks. That’s usually not my style. I feel very passionately about “Don’t Fall In Love” and “Down the River”, and I could even argue that songs off of those albums have saved my life. I think my outrage had something to do with the fact that those two albums may never be discovered because, as far as “indie rock” tastemakers are concerned, “indie folk” and “alt-country” are passé. Songs like “Okkervil River Song”, “War Criminal”, “Red”, “Yellow”, “Seas Too Far to Reach”, “Listening to Otis Redding”, etc. feel so timeless to me, speak to the human condition in the broadest sense, and made me feel that I was not alone at times that I felt really fucking alone. It pained me to see albums with songs as rich as the best American literature rated below a clumsy-but-I-still-love-it album like “I Am Very Far”.

        I reread this and would like to retract my insults. We just see things really differently, I guess.

        Sounds like we’ve been OR fans for about the same amount of time. It probably took every ounce of you to respond as politely as you did, so I commend you for that. I certainly don’t have that kind of restraint.

        • Nathan–Don’t worry about it! I’m glad you read the list. It’s nice to have Okkervil fans debating this. I honestly love all their albums. It was incredibly hard to place Don’t Fall in Love so low. I have such great memories of “Westfall” being played live with seemingly everyone in the audience singing along. And The Stand Ins is a sensational album as well. Again, there aren’t any bad Okkervil albums. Sadly, I had to rank them “worst to best,” and this is how I see it right now. Could certainly change in a year.

  16. Black Sheep Boy turned me onto Tim Hardin, and for that I am thankful

  17. I’m just wondering if you actually listen to Okkervil River or if you have friends who listen to them..

    BSB Appendix was an add on to the album and it’s not fair to treat it as it’s own album. It fills in the gaps of the storyline in BSB. (Also, it has a handful of beautiful orchestrated instrumentals and a updated version of “For the Captain” off of “Stars too small to use.”. (You didn’t even include that album in the rating…)

    Also, you dismissed “Stand-Ins” all together without mentioning Okkervil’s best song to date, “Blue Tulip”. Not to mention, “Tour with Zykos”, “Lost Coastline”, and “Pop Lie”. Yes, “Stand-ins” doesn’t measure up as a whole to “Stage Names”, but the album has some of Will’s best work. His lyrics and arrangements of the songs set him off in a whole new directions.

    I know these lists are an opinion, but most of the time it seems like you don’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about. Also, putting “I am far” anywhere but near the bottom is a huge mistake. The album is barely tolerable. There are no beautiful love songs, well thought out lyrics, or anything that closely resembles what we love soo much about Okkervil, the intimacy of Will’s craft.

    Maybe do a little research or at the very least read up on their AllMusic or Wiki page?

  18. Anyway, here is my list!

    1. Black Sheep Boy and Appendix – Black Sheep Boy is one of my all-time favorite albums and the appendix made it ever better!
    2. The Stage Names. A classic!! Stand out tracks: A girl in port, John Allyn Smith Sails, Unless it Kicks, Plus Ones. (…I should just name the whole album)
    3. Classic Okkervil! Stand out tracks: Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See – Kansas City, Red, Otis Redding..
    4. The Stand Ins – I actually love half of this album…but I hate the other half. I do think it has their best song, “Blue Tulip” on it. Stand out tracks: Blue Tulip, Tour on Zykos, Lost Coastline, Pop Lie.
    5. Down The River of Golden Dreams – Good album and a classic, but they hadn’t quite caught their stride yet. Stand out tracks: For the Enemy, Down the River of Golden Dreams, Seas too far to Reach
    5. The Silver Gymnasium – Still to early for me to rate this higher, but it’s really growing on me!
    6. Stars too small to use: Debut album. It’s rough, but a nice starting point for the band. Stand out tracks: For the Captain and Oh Precious.
    7. I Am Very Far – Just forget this album came out. I gave this about 4 listens and they were forced. I would recommend skipping this album. There is no reason to listen to it, when you can listen to any of the others mentioned above!

    • Stars Too Small to Use’s release is just to limited to include in the countdown, and they’ve never reissued it. It’s also essentially a mini LP. The band themselves consider Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See to be their proper debut. I did a ton of research, and I’ve interviewed Will four times over the years, so I feel as though I’m qualified to write this. Sorry you don’t like my writing style, but I’m flattered that you actually read the piece all the way through.

      And I think you’ll come around on I Am Very Far and The Silver Gymnasium if you give them more attentive listens. I did so, and end up loving them after initially feeling that they were rather mediocre, which fortunately couldn’t be farther from the truth.

  19. From Worst to Best:
    >Sleep & Wake Up Songs
    >I Am Very Far
    >The Stage Names – Here’s where I lose everyone. It’s good, but the concept of this concept record just wasn’t compelling to me. How life does or doesn’t measure up to a movie is just to so… meh. No one can argue that Unless It’s Kicks is a great rock song, though.
    >Black Sheep Boy Appendix
    >Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See
    >The Silver Gymnasium
    >The Stand Ins
    >Down the River of Golden Dreams
    >Black Sheep Boy

  20. 1. Stand Ins
    2. Stage Names
    3. Black Sheep Boy + Appendix
    4. I am very far
    5. Down the River of Golden Dreams
    6. dont fall in love with everyone you see
    7. The Silver gymnasium

    Also you can find two Schuba’s shows on CD and they are simply amazing, especially the 2004 show.

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