Mark Kozelek Albums From Worst To Best
Mark Kozelek is a prolific artist whose many musical identities sort of serve to hide just how goddamned deep his catalog actually runs. He spent more than a decade as the driving force behind Red House Painters before releasing work under his own name, and then, under the moniker Sun Kil Moon — his current (and best-known) incarnation.
Kozelek is also restless musician whose past is littered with abandoned sounds and styles; vocal and instrumental choices are regularly cast aside, frequently to the dismay of his insanely devoted fanbase. It’s been two decades since Red House Painters’ first release, Down Colorful Hill, and over those years, Kozelek has created a handful of beloved masterpieces whose only consistent element is the man at the microphone. Even that man’s voice has morphed; in Red House Painters’ 4AD days, Kozelek’s baritone plumbed murky depths to achieve a haunting otherworldly glow, but at some point, he shifted to a higher register, recalling (almost surely not coincidentally) Neil Young, one of Kozelek’s favorite artists.
Kozelek’s first two LPs under the Sun Kil Moon banner displayed robust instrumentation not unlike the final two Red House Painters albums, but 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises and the brand new Among The Leaves are spartan affairs, built almost exclusively around Kozelek’s voice and his nylon-string guitar. That approach may not be altered anytime soon. “I can’t afford to make Dark Side Of The Moon nor do I have the interest,” said Kozelek in a recent interview. “I’m 45 and I don’t have time to spend two years of my life bringing in producers and dragging the record around the planet. I’m always moving forward creatively and don’t like stalling, trying to find the perfect snare drum sound.”
Of course, for an artist with Kozelek’s track record, it’s hard to imagine any one configuration being employed for long — and where he goes next is, as always, anyone’s guess. So now, 20 years in, we’re lining up the man’s massive catalog end to end and ranking it, starting with his worst release and leading up to his best. (Remember, these are relative terms: Kozelek’s “worst” work is neither bad nor inessential, it’s only the “worst” in the context of his oeuvre.)
This isn’t a comprehensive list — most notably, it’s too early to pass judgment on Among The Leaves, so that’s missing. This also doesn’t take into account the Finally LP (an LP in name only; it would come in at 15 on this list), Kozelek’s MANY live albums (seriously approaching Pearl Jam territory here) or his from-the-sidelines work with the likes of Retribution Gospel Choir and Hannah Marcus, among others. Still, there are 14 albums here: a mighty sampling from one of the finest artists of his generation.
The countdown starts here.
13. Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises (2010): Anyone who's seen Mark Kozelek perform basically since the demise of Red House Painters knows that his stage show really varies very little at this point. Yes, the set lists and banter (more accurately: the berating of audience members) change, but the setup is static: Koz, a guitar, lots of vocal effects, incredibly intricate and accomplished finger-picking. It can be transcendent on the right night, and on other nights, it can feel awfully monotonous. Admiral Fell Promises was the first time Kozelek presented that minimalist approach in the studio and the results are exactly as uneven as a string of Kozelek live dates: Yes, there's unparalleled beauty here, but after a while, it gets kind of dull.
12. Desertshore - Drawing Of Threes (2011): Not a Kozelek project on its face, Desertshore is an (ostensibly) instrumental duo made up of former Red House Painters guitarist (and frequent Kozelek collaborator) Phil Carney and classically trained pianist Chris Connolly. Kozelek was producing the band's sophomore album, Drawing Of Threes (which was also to be released on Kozelek's Caldo Verde label), and one day he just picked up a mic and started singing to the music. Kozelek eventually contributed vocals to six of the album's 10 tracks, and while no one will ever confuse Drawing Of Threes with, say, Songs For A Blue Guitar or Ghosts Of The Great Highway, this album channels those the same way a warm breeze through an open window recalls a long-forgotten summer vacation.
11. Mark Kozelek - Rock 'N' Roll Singer EP (2000): A shorter -- and stronger -- effort than the solo album that followed it, Rock 'N' Roll Singer features three re-workings of Bon Scott-era AC/DC songs, and that (relative) economy works to the EP's advantage; alongside those tracks are a plaintive John Denver cover and three Kozelek originals, including the opener and highlight "Find Me, Ruben Olivares."
10. Red House Painters - Old Ramon (2001): The last Red House Painters album sounds absolutely nothing like the first. Old Ramon famously sat in limbo for three years while Kozelek wrangled out of his deal with Island/Supreme Records; he bought it back and eventually released it on Sub Pop. Old Ramon is a weary-soundng album, and considering the crossroads at which Kozelek found himself, that weariness isn't surprising: He'd been dropped by his longtime home (4AD) after 1995's Ocean Beach, and his major-label debut, 1996's Songs For A Blue Guitar, was a commercial nonentity whose promotion was badly mangled by filmmaker John Hughes' vanity imprint, Supreme Records. Touring with the Painters was unrewarding and stressful -- as he admitted in a recent interview, "I’ll never forget some of those drives in the early days, like Seattle to Minneapolis, bottles of piss rolling around in the van. I’ve never been a hangin' with the pack kind of guy, so I was always a loner out there, even with the band." The Painters do their best to make that weariness sound warm and inviting, but the subsequent split seems inevitable in retrospect.
9. Sun Kil Moon - Tiny Cities (2005): Isaac Brock's lyrics are much more intricate and oblique than most of the musicians Kozelek covers, so Tiny Cities -- an album's worth of Modest Mouse covers -- doesn't really resemble What's Next To The Moon. But it's a superior work for a variety of reasons: Kozelek brings into sharp relief Brock's surrealist non-sequitors, which deserve the second look, and his vocals, guitar work and arrangements here showcase new dexterity and mastery, which he would come to use to great success on Sun Kil Moon's subsequent work.
8. Red House Painters - Shock Me EP (1994): A five-song EP (four tracks plus a "hidden" instrumental) featuring not one but two covers of the Ace Frehley-penned title track, Shock Me should be no more than a curio in Kozelek's catalog, but instead it's an absolute gem. The bookend title tracks (acoustic and electric re-imaginations of Frehley's cock-rock classic) are massive, not just giving new life to the song, but finding in the lyrics a hollowness, pain and yearning that Frehley surely never intended (and that Kozelek would try, with less success, to bring out in Bon Scott's words). The three originals (including the aforementioned instrumental) are each sublime, but the towering "Sundays And Holidays" stands as one of the finest moments of Kozelek's career.
7. Red House Painters - Red House Painters [Bridge] (1993): An inferior companion to the self-titled "Rollercoaster" LP, "Bridge" is not technically an afterthought -- the songs here were recorded at the same time as the songs on "Rollercoaster"-- but it feels like a collection of magnificent B-sides more so than an album of consequence. Some of Kozelek's finest sketches can be found here -- "Uncle Joe," "Helicopter," "Bubble" -- but they seem unfinished and occasionally meandering, as if they could have used more time and editing. Still, by nearly any other artist's standards, "Bridge" would qualify as a masterpiece.
6. Red House Painters - Down Colorful Hill (1992): Red House Painters' 1992 debut sounds dated and immature, the work of a nascent artist who didn't trust his own voice, didn't know his way around a studio, and wasn't entirely confident on the guitar. It contains the two most embarrassing songs of Kozelek's career: "24" and "Lord Kill The Pain." But good lord, what an album. The highlights here -- the heartbreaking "Japanese To English," the baldy confessional "Michael," the massive title track -- have almost no equals in Kozelek's oeuvre. Down Colorful Hill was a sightly remixed version of Red House Painters' demos, and that amateur quality is in evidence here (and would be gone forever by the following year). As a debut album, it's terrific. As the introduction of an artist to the world at large, it's unforgettable.
5. Sun Kil Moon - April (2008): Sun Kil Moon's second proper LP may not hit the same raw, emotionally bare nerves as its predecessor, but it's a stunning work of art, probably Kozelek's most tonally varied collection to date. Opener "Lost Verses" features a soaring chorus (sung with Ben Gibbard) and a guitar fade-out worthy of Crazy Horse. "Heron Blue" is as spare and bleak as a cemetery blanketed in fog. The album's incredible climax, "Tonight In Bilbao," has instrumental intricacy worthy of Kozelek's heroes Yes. But mentioning highlights is futile -- April is flawless.
4. Red House Painters - Songs For A Blue Guitar (1996): Legend has it that when Kozelek presented to 4AD head Ivo Watts-Russell the songs that eventually made up Songs For A Blue Guitar, Watts-Russell insisted he cut down the sprawling, Crazy Horse-inspired guitar leads on "Make Like Paper" and the band's cover of Wings' "Silly Love Songs" (which had been transformed into an especially dire and unforgiving funeral march). Kozelek refused, Watts-Russell wouldn't budge, and Kozelek wound up on Island/Supreme, where his unedited masterpiece would see the light of day only to be buried by ineptitude. Fortunately, history has been kinder to Songs For A Blue Guitar than its handlers were. Warmer and more direct than the 4AD albums (and recorded with an entirely different band), Blue Guitar is loaded with classics and not a single skippable track.
3. Sun Kil Moon - Ghosts Of The Great Highway (2003): Kozelek changed his band's identity to Sun Kil Moon not because of any severe artistic shifts but because he felt the new moniker would inspire revived media interest. It's impossible then to know how the media would have received the band's debut, Ghosts Of The Great Highway, had it been labeled Red House Painters, but anything short of total adulation (which it received) would have been too little. An abstract meditation on death, Ghosts has Kozelek's voice front and center, his by-now-ridiculous guitar work given room to breathe among robust and varied instrumentation. The melodies here are infectious and unforgettable, the vocals are the best Kozelek has ever recorded, the songs are timeless.
2. Red House Painters - Red House Painters [Rollercoaster] (1993): There really is no equal -- given a budget and a studio for the first time in his life, Kozelek delivered something of impossible beauty and sadness. The album is not flawless -- "Mother" is self-indulgent, to be sure -- but it is one of the most emotionally direct works of art ever put to tape. The track list reads like a collection of career highlights ("Grace Cathedral Park" into "Down Through" into "Katy Song" into "Mistress" ... ) because it is. It would (and could) never quite be equalled by any of Kozelek's incarnations, but it certainly set the stage for a brilliant career, which occasionally even managed to top these peaks.
1. Red House Painters - Ocean Beach (1995): Look, "Rollercoaster" is a behemoth. It's an all-time classic. But it's also harrowing enough to bring on depression. That's not a bad thing by any means -- it's a great work of art that inspires emotional commitment -- but the seas into which Kozelek sailed after those storms had passed are even more remarkable. Like "Rollercoaster," Ocean Beach is heartbreaking, yes, but it is also wondrous and warm and vast in ways its predecessor was fearful and cold and monolithic. Ocean Beach is a great leap forward from "Rollercoaster," and from there Kozelek would take more daring leaps, but he never again landed in such a singularly magnificent place -- one of melancholy, awe, nostalgia, loss and hope. It's the breathtaking apex of a master's ongoing exploration.