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The name of the game for of Montreal has always been evolution. Their current incarnation, making its debut on their newest album Lousy With Sylvianbriar, favors whip-smart, sinewy rock songs, eschewing the dance pop they’ve embraced in recent years, while baring a faint resemblance to the classicist proclivities they favored early in their career. Yet Sylvianbriar is somehow leaner and more focused, lyrically assuming far darker tropes than their early efforts.

Emerging from Athens, GA in the mid-’90s, of Montreal shared a similar, escapist mentality with their Elephant 6 brethren, in thrall to the likes of the Who, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys. They crafted a few excellent records — Cherry Peel, The Gay Parade, and The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy. While not as essential as seminal albums such as The Apples In Stereo’s Fun Trick Noisemaker, or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, these were nonetheless indispensable artifacts from a magical era of Athens pop music. But early on in particular, frontman Kevin Barnes differentiated himself with his sheer earnestness. There was something magical in the air on Cherry Peel, a voice seemingly devoid of guile providing a panoramic view of a rotoscopic dreamscape. The Gay Parade managed to tap into Barnes’s keen knack for expository character sketches, imbuing the likes of organ grinders and boxers with a certain winsome compassion.

These albums, and subsequent efforts Coquelicot Asleep In The Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse and Aldhis Alboretum, exhibited Barnes’s faculty for crafting playfully eccentric character sketches, all the while cobbling together melodies into irresistible pastiches.

Around the time of 2005′s The Sunlandic Twins, the band, now pared to just Barnes on the recordings, underwent a sea change, experimenting with electronic textures and disco-infused beats undergirding Barnes’ most personal lyrics to date. The live shows too underwent a profound evolution, using props, costume changes, and actors to achieve an altogether more theatrical experience, approximating the surrealism of a Fellini film. His brother David Barnes served as art director on these stage sets, while also crafting the artwork for many of their albums and designing much of their merchandise, an integral ingredient in their ever-shifting ethos. The apotheosis of these sets was perhaps the now-infamous October 2008 Roseland Ballroom show, which featured Barnes riding a white horse on stage while singing “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” from the then-unreleased Skeletal Lamping.

Barnes’s much-publicized bout with depression arose around this time. Triggered by a move to Norway with his wife Nina, and the subsequent birth of his daughter, Alabee, his songs became more inward looking. 2007′s Hissing Fauna, Are you the Destroyer? was the climax of these endeavors, a superb record rife with hyper-charged synth melodies belying plangent melodrama, equally cribbed from Brian Eno as Brian May. The record also found Barnes metaphorically transforming into Georgie Fruit, a Ziggy Stardust-esque alter ego, a disassociation of sorts which demarcated himself from his well-chronicled separation from his wife, with whom he would soon reconcile. Barnes has long maintained that the first half of Hissing Fauna represented his vulnerable side, with the album bifurcated by the epic “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal.”

Georgie Fruit’s id-dominated travails continue and are captured with alacrity on the stunning 2008 album Skeletal Lamping, still the band’s most ambitious album to date. Its schizoid sprawl is daunting at first, but repeated listens reveal an eminently catchy and rewarding record, a Dada-esque series of vignettes that somehow cohere into a deeply moving full-on album experience, in a sense an exorcism of Georgie Fruit and the demons that dogged Barnes post-separation.

Following up Skeletal Lamping was bound to be a daunting task, but Barnes again raised the bar by collaborating with Jon Brion on 2010′s False Priest. The album didn’t scale the lofty heights of its two predecessors, but with guest stars in Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles, it certainly was sonically fascinating, perhaps the finest amalgamation of hip-hop and conventional pop accomplished by Barnes. Yet, there was something lacking here — it at times felt forced, and didn’t have the organic, off-the-cuff sense of danger so many of Montreal albums had engendered.

This changed a bit on 2012′s Paralytic Stalks, which returned to the confessional writing style largely absent since Hissing Fauna, albeit in a darker, more fractious tone. There’s a certain desperation at its heart, and while it isn’t a nervous breakdown record akin to Fauna, it exhibits a certain resigned dignity, and for that reason alone ranks among the act’s finest efforts.

The newly released Lousy With Sylvianbriar is yet another triumph for Barnes, tipping his hat to idols such as Neil Young, Gram Parsons, and The Rolling Stones. It’s a rock and roll record with thrust and swagger, done so without compromising any of the idiosyncrasies or vulnerabilities so endemic to of Montreal’s sound. It also illustrates that Barnes isn’t afraid to take audacious artistic leaps — he’s confident that his audience will grow with him, as they largely have so far. His only constant has been change, and let’s hope that this continues to be the rule for one of the most challenging and finest songwriters of the past twenty years.

Start the Countdown here.

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Comments (41)
  1. I always thought that Skeletal Lamping was underrated so it’s nice to see it so high, though I’d personally give the #2 spot to Satanic Panic.

    Lousy With Sylvianbriar or Gay Parade should definitely be in the top 5 over Paralytic Stalks.

  2. There’s no point in ranking Of Montreal’s albums. It’s such a matter of personal taste. I would have put Satanic Panic 1 and the Gay Parade 2. Every Of Montreal fan probably would have their own list that would look very different than this one, or mine.

  3. pretty decent list execept i think false priest is a bit too low as its good tunes are REALLY good. and man, i thought skeletal lamping was awful (except for I’d Engager)….maybe i should revisit it?

  4. I really love Sylvianbriar. Maybe I’m just a sucker for stylistic shifts, but to see another fresh form of this band is a testament to Barnes’ endless drive for composition.

  5. This list is correct!

    1: Hissing Fauna, are you the destroyer?
    2- whatever # yolo: everything else because nothing will ever come close to Hissing Fauna.

  6. 1. Cherry Peel
    2. The Gay Parade

  7. Glad to see Paralytic Stalks high on the list. I thought that record got panned, but it’s hella good.

    Opossum!

    • I’m a Paralytic Stalks sucker myself and it would be #2 on my list. Shame the list does not include their Eps and B-Side & Rarities compilations: some of their best songs can be found in these.

    • It’s not an easy listen, but if you can treat it almost like some sort of 20th century avant grade classical music work (Kevin Barnes did claim Penderecki as an influence), I think it’s extremely rewarding. I never understood why the reviews weren’t better.

      • i think the latter few tunes of the record give the album as a whole a bad rap, but there’s nothing terribly good in the first part of the record that’s much of a saving grace,

  8. I like this game! My list (which is subject to change on any given day):

    1) Satanic Panic
    2) Hissing Fauna
    3) Cherry Peel
    4) The Gay Parade
    5) Skeletal Lamping
    6) Sunlandic Twins
    7) Petite Tragedy
    8) Lousy with Sylvianbriar
    9) False Priest
    10) Coquelicot
    11) Paralytic Stalks
    12) Aldhils

    • Normally I’m up for differing opinions, but you can’t deny HIssing Fauna is by far their best work.

      • I’ve had those two pretty much tied in first for a while, though I’d probably give the edge to Hissing Fauna now. Hissing Fauna is definitely more emotionally powerful, but, to it’s credit, Satanic Panic has more melodic prettiness than any other record of theirs. Listening to it on one of the first days of spring is such a happy experience.

  9. Interesting list. Hissing Fauna at #1 is a no-brainer for me (The Past Is A Grotesque Animal is a contender for Song of the Century Thus Far). I was a fan of Skeleton Lamping on its release and remain so to this day, so no arguments there either. But The Sunlandic Twins is too high for me, way too inconsistent to be placed above Satanic Panic, possibly their best straight-up pop effort.

    False Priest initially seems low at #11, but having listened to it again recently it’s a pretty weak effort: too many paper-thin songs, whilst Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles are completely out-diva-ed by Barnes, and so add nothing to proceedings. Glad to see Paralytic Stalks so high, as I felt it was criminally underrated on release (and remains so). Having said that, Lousy with Sylvianbriar’s back-to-basics approach felt like a necessary reboot, and with it I feel confident that Barnes can once again conjour up something approaching the brilliance of Hissing Fauna.

    Despite being a fairly big E6 fan I have to admit to being largely unfamiliar with their pre-Satanic Panic material. I have some investigating to do; I’d always assumed The Gay Parade was the place to start with early OM?

    • I love Cherry Peel, personally. It’s maybe the band’s most normal album – just kind of catchy, lo-fi rock.

      The Gay Parade possibly has better, more consistent songwriting, but it’s also a lot stranger. It’s very whimsical and almost Vaudeville-esque.

      Petite Tragedy just sounds like the album in between Cherry Peel and Gay Parade, but it has mostly jazzy, acoustic instrumentation.

      Coquelicot is like the Gay Parade on steroids. It’s all over the place in a Skeletal Lamping sort of way.

      They’re all great, really.

  10. I’ve found something to enjoy in nearly every Of Montreal album and moments of genius in nearly every later album, but I’ve always come back to the Sunlandic Twins. When I listen to something like Skeletal Lamping (also an amazing album, don’t get me wrong) I find that my ears are constantly searching for those moments of sheer pop genius that I know Kevin Barnes is capable of. If I had not started off with Sunlandic Twins, I would not have known those moments were possible. I would have just heard a bunch of schizophrenic snippets not culminating in anything. The Sunlandic Twins has helped me appreciate everything else by this band, so it’s at the top for me. Contextually, I’m sure having that schizophrenic side in many of his later albums helps me to appreciate the brilliant pop moments all the more, but the fact that Sunlandic Twins is proof he is able to make a great pop album top to bottom makes me wish he wrote that way a little more.

    Still, I respect how much he experiments. I’d take that over stagnation any day.

  11. It’s nice to find people who consider Skeletal Lamping was sooooooo underrated when it was released. But anything like Hissing Fauna. That’s a masterpiece. I agree with the list, or at least in the of Montreal albums I’ve listened.

  12. Like many others here, my favorite is Satanic Panic, although when you go through it theyve really had a great run.

  13. I’m surprised to see Sunlandic Twins so high on the list, but of Montreal really is a different band to different people, and that’s one of the things I love about them. There are weaker and stronger albums, but more than anything, their albums are just plain different from each other. I have no idea how to rank something like Sylvianbriar against albums like False Priest and Coquelicot. They’re so radically different and yet all effective in their own ways.

    I am very happy with Sylvianbriar though. I think it’s a great new direction, and one that makes a lot of sense as a counter to their past few albums.

  14. the gay parade is a lo-fi classic and one of my favorite albums of all time.

    it deserves way better than #8.

  15. While Aldhils isn’t a great record, Jennifer Louise is still like my absolute favorite of Montreal song.

  16. I didn’t include this in the piece, but James Huggins told me in an interview back in 2009 that he felt as though of Montreal had in actuality been three or four completely completely bands, depending on the era. I personally dig all the eras, but I sort of favor the Polyvinyl albums, with some exceptions, over the Bar/None and Kindercore releases.

    • that’s cool and makes me think of other bands that you could apply that description to…radiohead comes to mind immediately…i’d say they’ve been 3: everything pre-PH through PH. then bends/OKC, then everything else

  17. Being pretty pleased with this list, and not having a whole lot to add, I’d just like to point out that the author really, REALLY seems to like the words “plangent” and “alacrity”. But hey, it’s of Montreal – if we didn’t appreciate some high-fallutin’ vocab, what would we be doing here?

  18. David, thanks for pointing this out. I write all the reviews separately, at different times, as well as the intro. A quick find and replace scan never hurts though, as once a word gets into your head, it tends to stay there for whatever reason. They’re spaced out fairly far apart at least, but nonetheless, I can certainly come up with better words instead of regurgitating old ones.

  19. Hate to admit it, but I have never liked this band until Lousy. I’ve tried to get into their older stuff but I’m having difficulty. I love Lousy though, it’ll be in my top 5 of the year actually.

    • they’re just one of those bands. either it’s, ‘this is incredible!’ or ‘this makes my ears bleed!’ i have several friends who share similar tastes with me but who think i’m insane for my of montreal love but when i played them ‘coquette coquette’ they were like oh yeah, well that’s the shit!

  20. To me this list is way off. Adhils Arboretum is one of the best albums that exists in this world. I would rank like this:

    1. Adhils Arboretum
    2. Gay Parade
    3. Cherry Peel
    4. The Bedside Drama
    5. Satanic Panic
    6. Hissing Fauna
    7. Coquelicot
    8. Skeletal Lamping
    9.Paralytic Stalks
    10. Lousy with Sylvianbriar.

    I haven’t been able to get into the new stuff as much. I prefer his older style of singing as opposed to his shouting/talking thing he does now.

  21. I like them all, but I prefer their earlier 60-70′s inspired phase; however, beside Coquelicot who is one of the most adventurous album I’ve heard, I have to put Lousy on top even if the lineup seems to have changed completely… It brings back the sound I loved mixed with the production of Barnes previous electro\rock albums… Being an Elephant Six fan since the very beginning, the Hissing Fauna phase is less appealing to me but I totally understand the hype around the album :) Long live Of Montreal!

    1. Coquelicot
    2. Lousy with Sylvianbriar
    3. Gay Parade
    4. Adhils Arboretum
    5. Satanic Panic
    6. Cherry Peel
    7. Sunlandic Twins
    8. False Priest
    9. Bedside Drama
    10. thecontrollersphere EP

  22. DUGA! YES, well said. I feel the exact same way.

  23. Can I just say something? ok, first of all here is my list of best to worst (If I was forced to choose) so it’s more of a ranking of what I personally like more than the other. There really is no bad oM record

    1. Sunlandic Twins
    2. Satanic Panic
    3. Cherry
    4. Bedside
    5. Priest
    6. Icons
    7. Fauna
    8. Poppies
    9. Lamping
    10. Arboretum
    11. Parade
    12. Paralytic
    13. Lousy

    I would love to go into depth as to why but I’m too drunk at the moment. I love Barnes, I know every lyric to every song. I always anticipate his upcoming work

  24. Minor qualms aside, this is a pretty solid list. The only thing I would add is, even though it’s not an album proper, “Icons, Abstract 3.” That EP is one of the finest things the band’s ever done and “No Conclusion” is a flat-out amazing song. Nice to see some respect for ‘Skeletal Lamping,’ a fragmented pop masterpiece.

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