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Elliott Smith at the 70th Academy Awards ceremony: When it’s mentioned, it’s as one of those cautionary anecdotes, an example of the fundamental incompatibility of the underground with commercial artistry. But it’s all there, or if it isn’t, we can pretend it is. Trisha Yearwood has finished her performance, and the onstage columns drift apart like glaciers. The camera looks away to the assembled guests. Vangelis-like synthbeds cue Smith, hustling to hit his mark at center stage. (The original plan called for him to perform sitting on the stairs leading to the stage.) His hand accidentally brushes the strings. The synths recede with the curtains, and he begins. He begins softly — too softly, so the vocals are brought up midway through the first line. That white suit is oversized, or perhaps it was just ill-fitting, and perhaps no suit would have been fitting — not here, certainly, but nowhere else. either. As usual, his hair is long and unwashed, but his ears still poke through. He told Under The Radar that, lest he end up looking at Jack Nicholson, he decided to fix his gaze on the balcony, but every close-up catches him looking at the footlights, or his microphone. Wider shots see him kicking his right foot out: a timekeeping tic, the Liverpool leg. None of it mattered. He had a song, a song nothing could fuck with, a 3/4 pop song with a melody that rose and fell like lungs. The orchestra offered respectful yet redundant accompaniment — musical director Bill Conti, of “Gonna Fly Now” fame, would win an Emmy for his work tonight — and Smith is joined in the second verse by a pan whistle, a reference to Danny Elfman’s theme for Good Will Hunting theme, from which “Miss Misery” was nominated. Regardless, it likely reminded the audience of Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the love theme from another madman’s folly.

Restricted to two verses and the second bridge, he bows in a Beatlesque fashion and exits stage right to warm applause. (Warm but not hot — people forget that Aaliyah also performed that night, the youngest singer ever at the Oscars; she performed an anodyne song from Disney’s Anastasia, but she owned the stage, which was recognized by perhaps the ideal audience for such a feat.) Afterward, Smith walked back to center stage with Trisha Yearwood; Céline Dion (who told him, shortly before his performance, that his jitters were rocket fuel; also, that she loved his song) met them there and they all clasped hands and bowed. Madonna presented the Best Song nominees; Elliott was treated to the loudest applause, and that’s almost surely because of the figure he cut, an underground misfit dropped down to display a heart he’d painstakingly carved.

He was onstage for less than three minutes, and all of it — the showing, the contrast — was such a wonderful moment. Art and commerce, big gestures and small gestures and studied gestures, unease and acceptance. Smith’s Oscar nomination fished his label out of the debtors’ pool. Though his big-label debut was well underway when “Miss Misery” pricked Gus Van Sant’s ears, the performance was a demarcation between his old home (Portland) and his new (Los Angeles), between a cult and a fanbase, between his roots and the sky. He was Mychel Thompson, shedding his Trail Blazers jersey to grab a couple rings with the Lakers. He was Harry Nilsson, too talented and restless to avoid an audience forever. He was George Harrison and Emmit Rhodes and Hank Williams Jr. and Judee Sill. He was a drug addict and a depressive, a man who seemingly believed in little more than his musical abilities, who would follow them like a red balloon through every alley and tunnel until they led him to a song that nothing could fuck with.

Born 16 months after Céline Dion, Steven Paul Smith was a child of divorce, a typically mobile American who called Nebraska, Texas, Massachusetts, Oregon and California home in his 34 years. His musical sparks weren’t the Dicks or Black Flag: they were ’80s country and classic rock and his grandmother’s glee club. He joined bands, bursting with arrangements and ideas, kicking out the jams with abandon. The last such band was Heatmiser, a Portland concern though it was co-founded with Hampshire College classmate Neil Gust. The shows could be raucous, and the band’s tendency toward hooks tested the patience of their city’s proudly parochial scene. Never good at goodbyes, Smith recorded two solo albums while Heatmiser slowly whiffed on the brass ring.

Many artists make their big statements early, then spend their careers offering clarification. From one album to the next, Smith just got louder. His first record had four untitled songs; the last one released while he was living featured two medleys and a parenthetical title. And yet, while his sound was always impeccable, it was never polished. He didn’t improve appreciably as a vocalist. The suit just learned to fit him. With every record, he chased some idea of perfection, rarely straying past his (admittedly scant) limits as a musician, continually digging out some new variation on isolation or dependence or bemusement. Though, like Cobain, he might’ve identified with headstrong John Lennon, his facility with instruments and love of melodic filigrees puts him, as a composer, firmly in Paul McCartney’s lineage. Like the Beatles, he rapidly outgrew his provincial surroundings. Unlike the Beatles, his peers tended to view his move with suspicion. The typical indie scene is a petri dish of varying ambitions, with the fullest praise reserved for the folks living their art, whatever that means. The immediacy and intimacy of Smith’s first records created an aura that many found difficult to reconcile with his increasingly realized ambitions.

Still, in a solo career that packed five albums into fewer than six years, he managed the startling feat of twinning consistency with evolution. Shifting modes, pulling listeners away from all manner of tonal centers, deploying dozens of arresting figures that lesser lights would’ve lashed a whole song around: Smith was an untutored wizard. With the exception of the fractured, posthumous From A Basement On The Hill, he cast his spells within compact runtimes. While living, he released just one song over five minutes. So disposed toward excess in his personal life, on record he was a paragon of concision, the king of killing with quick cuts. Lyrically, he moved from the expected confessional mode (though few could match his ability to mine the personal without striking cheese) to obtuse imagery that still refracted lived experience. His songs were rarely muscular; Smith tended toward the interior throughout his career, building striking structures to house the slights and wounds and fears he held so close. The care that he lavished on form and timbre was nearly equaled with that given to metaphor, directness and rhyme.

To the credit of his audience, Smith’s suicide did not spawn a cult of demon worship. Perhaps it was his fundamental fragility — a condition that attracted and cast out friends in equal measure — that’s fended off our typical and perverse awe of illness channeled through artistry. Perhaps his death just seemed inevitable. It’d be a mistake to say that music was his solace. He was his own worst critic, striving for perfection while second-guessing any steps made in that direction. Rather, music was something that he was really fucking good at. He had a head full of figures and bridges, devastating lines and comforting assurances. His body of work stands with that of any songwriter from of his era, even if a whole, living Elliott Smith would be a gift worth erasing the whole collection. He was a man of furious talent, and he wrung as much out of it as his body allowed. What follows is an examination of Smith’s six studio sets, as well as the mandatory collection New Moon. So much was, and is, that what could have been barely deserves a thought.

Start the Countdown here.

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Comments (65)
  1. Elliott Smith didn’t have a worst album.

  2. i know conspiracy theories are almost always the worst. BUT look online for the police reports of Elliott’s death

    1. the only person inside the apartment was his girlfriend
    2. he had cuts in between his thumb and index finger on the edge of his hands as if he was trying to stop a knife from going in, rather than putting it in himself.
    3. her story seems farfetched to me.

  3. The only other one of these I’ve cared as much about since you’ve started doing them is Fugazi’s and I have to say, I like what you did with this one.

    1) Figure 8
    2) Either/Or
    3) XO
    4) Elliott Smith
    5) From a Basement on the Hill
    6) Roman Candle
    7) New Moon

  4. Fine by me. And it’s worth repeating that Needle in the Hay is one of the most beautiful song. Ever.

  5. ACB  |   Posted on Feb 11th +6

    I think X/O needs to me at #1.

  6. I would have placed Figure 8 at # 3. Looks like it’s time to revisit it. Thanks for the article.

  7. I’m not a huge fan of this list, but honestly, his albums are all so good that it really doesn’t matter. XO would be my number 1, for the record.

    Unrelated, but has the color hand vs. the rest of Elliott Smith being black and white on the cover of Figure 8 ever bothered anyone else?

  8. Figure 8?? You must be kidding me.

  9. From a Basement on the Hill is uneven, but I think its high points are just incredible. King’s Crossing is probably my favorite song, and tracks 1-9 (minus the chirping business) are unassailable. After that is when it falls off.

  10. Just my opinion, but having Figure 8 above Either/Or, New Moon, and the self-titled is madness.

  11. Funny, I would have thought that From the Basement on The Hill is his best.

  12. DON’T DO IT, STEREOGUM.

    Oh, it’s already done? Well you’re wrong – THEY’RE ALL #1.

    Seriously though, Figure 8 has always been my least favorite of his albums, but I can see why people like it so much.

  13. The only ES album I could never fully get into was ‘Roman Candle’. I enjoyed a handful of songs, but the self-titled was such a massive improvement in my mind and everything just took off from there. I personally think XO was his masterpiece, but fully agree that ‘Amity’ and ‘A Question Mark’ hindered that from being a perfect album. I do think Figure 8 is an amazing album, but they’re all pretty close in my mind and I personally feel fortunate to have not gotten into him until everything had already been released (including New Moon), so I could have a more objective opinion and not have my thoughts/opinions marred by previous experiences or expectations. I just took it all in at once and distinctly remember how excited about it I was at the time and how overwhelmed I was by how much amazing stuff he’d done and what variety of songs he’d accomplished in such a short time span. He’s easily my favorite singer/songwriter of all time, and aside from the Beatles, he probably has the most songs of any artist that I would genuinely say I love and am pretty sure I always will. “Tomorrow Tomorrow” will always be my favorite though. It never fails.

  14. you guys know Anastasia is not a Disney movie right?

  15. duga  |   Posted on Feb 11th +6

    Either/Or has to be #1 for me. I think the other albums can fall where they may depending on how and when they were approached (they are all good), but I always felt Either/Or was his ultimate statement as an artist. There is a reason the next album was so extravagant. Elliott Smith was done with the introspective stripped down sound because he perfected it and was ready to explore more. His introspective stripped down sound was also his best work…people get into Elliott Smith because his music is so personal and nothing was as personal and accomplished as Either/Or.

  16. Pretty good order, but I have to say for me there’s no way From a Basement on the Hill should be last, or that Figure 8 should be first.

  17. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  18. Scant musical ability? Guy was a killer guitar player.

  19. Figure 8 at #1? It’s like you’re telling me Smurfs aren’t blue.

    1. Either/Or
    2. XO
    3. Elliott Smith

    Then the rest…

  20. Something about his early stuff has always really resonated with me. Might not have as much musical depth as Figure 8 or XO, but I’ve never felt more like someone was standing right in front of me with a microphone.

    Also, including New Moon on the list is a bit confusing. I feel like every one of his albums was a single, concentrated effort from start to finish. New Moon is something he didn’t arrange himself, so I feel like it’s just a bootleg.

    In any case, it’s all unfuckwithable.

    1. Elliott Smith
    2. Roman Candle
    3. Either/Or
    4. XO
    5. From a Basement on the Hill
    6. Figure 8

    • Glad somebody else appreciates Roman Candle as much as I do. I had a difficult time getting into Smith through Basement and XO but there was something about Candle (which you describe perfectly) that hooked me. My ranking is pretty much the same.

  21. Either/Or will always be my absolute favorite, but each album means different things to different people, so I can’t really question the order of this list.

    Time for a revisit to Elliott’s catalog.

  22. It looks like I’m not the only one who adored “From A Basement On The Hill.” Fragmented occasionally, yes. But calling it his worst effort would be completely crazy.

    I personally believe “Twilight” was his most beautiful and affecting song. I still get chills listening to it.

  23. “Backed by his sexist guitar figures…”

    …what does that even mean?

  24. I’m not an Elliott Smith superfan but two weeks ago I was trying to procrastinate from doing schoolwork and for some strange reason decided to learn how to play Needle in the Hay. So I spent more time than I should have learning that instead of writing a paper. Then Philip Seymour Hoffman died and I thought it was a weird coincidence. Now this list comes up. Anyway, nice list.

  25. I just want to say that Elliot’s cover of “Thirteen” kicks the shit out of Wilco’s.

  26. I love Figure 8, I really do. But no, it shouldn’t be number 1. That should be “Either/Or”

    And Full Moon shouldn’t be in this list. As great as it it’s, it’s a compilation curated after he died which he probably wouldn’t have wanted to be released if he was alive.

    Apart from that though, good work.

  27. Can I echo the disappointment from the peanut gallery at Figure 8 getting the top spot? Either/Or, S/T and XO are all superior to that great, worthy, fantastic, but slightly less amazing record.

  28. Peche  |   Posted on Feb 12th +1

    Didn’t expect to see Figure 8 at #1 – but I agree; it’s my favorite. I’m still going back and listening to his early stuff, but I love From a Basement too.

  29. Elliott Smith’s music pulled me through some of the darkest times of my teenage years, so it’s impossible for me to be totally objective about this. But I would say that the songs of his that affected me the most during those years were the more raw, lo-fi ones. I love XO because it managed to balance big-budget production and orchestration with Elliott’s vocal and lyrical vulnerability, but Figure 8 seems to sacrifice that vulnerability for the sake of pristine production. Roman Candle is definitely more raw and vulnerable, but I would place it lower on my list because Elliott Smith’s songwriting sense doesn’t seem to have fully blossomed yet. It sounds more like a series of promising sketches rather than fully developed ideas. New Moon, on the other hand, despite being packaged as a series of early sketches, sounds surprisingly complete and cohesive in comparison.

    That said, my list would probably look something like this:

    1) Either/Or
    2) XO
    3) New Moon
    4) Elliott Smith
    5) From a Basement on a Hill
    6) Figure 8
    7) Roman Candle

  30. no such thing. or nosaj thing?

  31. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • Please elaborate on why those words is retarded

      • In that situation, where the verb applies to both a singular noun and a plural noun on either side of a “/”, she is correct to make the verb agree with the word closest to the verb.

    • Oh lets take advice on writing from the person who couldn’t find a better word to use than “retarded”.

    • Though I would have said it differently, I agree with MLL’s sentiment. Calling this series “Worst to Best” is inaccurate, since it really is “The Author’s Least Favorite to Most Favorite”, and all of the comments in these threads respond in the same way. Elliott obviously put everything he had into every song he ever recorded. I’m sure he had his most favorite as well.

      And I can also understand MLL’s reaction as a musician (and friend of Elliott’s) to some random writer feeling they have the credibility to describe anyone’s work as “worst.” It’s insulting and disrespectful to the artist.

    • Not sure why this was downgraded. Major props on the Mary Lou Lord pic. Another brilliant artist not appreciated in her time.

      • I just saw the [f] in the corner of your picture. You are truly an under appreciated songwriter :) “Got no Shadow” and your 7″ of Elliott’s “I figured you out.” still get a healthy rotation in my music collection.

        Sending you my best!

    • It’s so nice to have a respected musician echo the very sentiment I have repeatedly expressed to various writers on here. *SIGH*, they’re still better than Pitchfork, though.

  32. This is ridiculous. Stereogum, you are ridiculous.

  33. Um, sorry, even though all his albums were great there is still going to be a worst one. Know what words mean.

  34. Last thought: It’s possible the writer didn’t get into Elliott UNTIL he was on Dreamworks. If that’s true, you should leave the Elliott Smith list writing to people who grew up with him.

    Better yet, start at Roman Candle and then experience each album every other month, so you can watch the growth of one of the best songwriters of his generation.

  35. Anastasia is not a Disney movie.

  36. Don’t be a dick. It’s a poor choice of words. ‘Least’ or ‘weakest’ would’ve been better.

  37. elliott smith is the best musician of all time all his albums are good even his heatmiser stuff but i dont like heatmisers other singer tht much so i persoanlly i like to play mp3s of all his albums in one file and randomize it so i could get a song from any album it just feels right ad i listen to every song

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