Mountain Goats Albums From Worst To Best
19. Protein Source Of The Future... Now! (1999)
Of the three Mountain Goats compilations, this is the best primer for his categorical songs. We have Pure songs, a Snow song, an Alpha song, and a couple tunes Going To places. It's also the compilation with the greatest consistency, which is another way to say the highlights are few. A special shout-out to "Going To Malibu," yet another Casio magic trick. It's as if Automatic for the People-era R.E.M. recorded a divorce anthem.
18. Hot Garden Stomp (1993)
It's not exactly causation, but the Mountain Goats' cassette years fit snugly between the glory years of hardcore punk and the rise of anti-folk, two genres well-versed in making the personal political. And indie rock is lousy with "literate" writers, ironists and stylists like Dan Bejar, Christine Fellows, Bill Callahan, David Berman, Mark Stewart, and Kurt Wagner. And yet, who else could have written "Beach House," which spends two minutes warning about the deadliness of seals? Though Darnielle's sense of humor remains intact despite legions of freelance writers asking him what's the deal with all this metal, the idea of him indulging in these kinds of jokes now is unimaginable. The highlight here is "Sun Song," a dappled rebuke to someone's gardening skills.
17. Get Lonely (2006)
Released less than 18 months after The Sunset Tree, Get Lonely introduces brass to the instrumental palate. In one-sheet terms, it's the breakup record. While still recording at a breakneck pace, the band allows themselves plenty of room to stretch out. The vocals are softer, the songs lengthier. One has time to consider these songs' ancestors; "Half Dead" reprises the untangled-assets narrative of We Shall All Be Healed's "Your Belgian Things," but substitutes door chimes for the slyly oversaturated narrative. The brief "If You See Light" rolls along on a brass theme and Corey Fogel's tomwork, inverting the conquering-hero tale of "Quito" (also on WSABH) into a weirdly jaunty cowering from exposure. By far the moodiest record of the band's career, its string textures would be folded into the red-blooded Heretic Pride.
16. Ghana (1999)
Although it's the equivalent of "Free Bird" within the band's catalog, "Golden Boy" is the best opening track on any Mountain Goats release. Originally released on the Object Lessons: Songs About Products compilation, it's ostensibly a goof on the goodness of Golden Boy Peanuts that bull-headedly progresses into a manic meditation on transactional holiness. The Orange Raja, Blood Royal EP is a long-distance collabo between Darnielle and New Zealand musician Alastair Galbraith (whose Long Wires in Dark Museums series with Matt De Gennaro is well worth seeking out). "Raja Vocative" is the highlight: Galbraith's sobbing violin parts augmenting a chunky descending chord progression and a Stipeian melody. Jokes are abundant, such as the shots fired on the Morrissey-mangling "Anti-Music Song" and the rock'n'roll history lesson "The Anglo-Saxons," with the all-time couplet "a sub-literate bunch of guys/though some sources say otherwise." Towards the middle is "The Last Day of Jimi Hendrix's Life," which forgoes tragedy for a quiet depiction of a man who just wants his drinking water and shower to be the right temperature. The exclamation point in the catchy Casio-backed "Wrong!" is a bit of a misdirection: it's one of the most static situations Darnielle's ever recorded, and a kind of spiritual cousin to Nick Drake's "Know," with its nagging melody and vast space surrounding the text.
15. Zopilote Machine (1994)
If nothing else, as the album with "Going to Georgia," this would be a must-own (although, for the dedicated, leaving any album out is insanity). A deliberately-paced picture of fulfilled obsession, Darnielle alternates spoken passages with an full-throated melodicism. By some reckonings, this is the first studio album; a few songs forgo the familiar whirr of the Panasonic RX-FT500, accidentally configured so that the microphone would pick up the motion of the cassette wheels. There's only one chintzy keyboard to be found (the unbearably bright "Song for Tura Satana") among the tales of Quetzalcoatl and young Caesar and Beowulf's Grendel.
14. Sweden (1995)
The general impression of the pre-4AD years is of a skinny dude strangling his acoustic guitar next to a crappy tape recorder. "Whole Wide World" shows a man confident in his ability to captivate, even at a lowered volume; it's an ability he'd resurrect in earnest in the decade to come. Sweden features bass and vocal contributions from both Rachel Ware and Peter Hughes, giving this a sort of transitional quality. In "Neon Orange Glimmer Song," Ware's giant-stepping bass lopes along a blues-structured declaration of monsterhood. I'd call the major-key arrangement deceptive, but per usual, all the cards are on the table for you to read. There are a whopping two covers on Sweden. Sadly, both land peculiarly. Even a scuzzy, sub-two minute version of Steely Dan's "FM," Darnielle can't hope to match the bile of the acidic original. He lands a low blow by leading Buddy Johnson's Jazz Era standard "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone" with a sampled quote from "The Waste Land." He wanders, ancient Israelite-style, searching for the cool devastation of the original.
13. Taboo VI: The Homecoming (1991)
According to the critic's handbook, first albums are classified either as An Announcement of World-Beating or Embarrassing Misstep to Live Down. Darnielle reckons that his can be enjoyed "on its own meager terms," but it's a worthy stage in the history. A selection of his first recordings, it was made expressly for friends, one of whom was Dennis Callaci, owner of Shrimper Records. (Shrimper re-released the Mountain Goats' first two "proper" records this year, but to me they'll always be the guys who gave the world Soul-Junk's 1951.) "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is a unique document: it's John singing over a karaoke track with his then-girlfriend translating lyrics into Spanish. He translates Hank's keening tenor startlingly well, imbuing the text with joy and triumph. The sound quality is abysmal, the songwriting nearly fully-formed.
12. The Hound Chronicles (1992)
I noted in the intro that the Mountain Goats' songs are thick with a sense of place. It's not that they evoke particular locations per se: it's the geography of yards and rooms and lakes. It's someone's ankles sinking into a garden's "cool, soft dirt" ("The Garden Song") or how the Central Valley sun makes a boat feel like "a hot plate come alive" ("Going to Wisconsin"). The lived-in details make for lasting literature, and it's the sensations of touch and taste that keep so many Mountain Goats tunes out of the realm of exercise. "שקט (Be Quiet)" is Darnielle's best Casio composition, a combination of facility - he speeds a preset drum patch into the realm of motorik -- and fucking around.
11. Bitter Melon Farm (1999)
Let's begin at the end of this compilation. Despite his joyous treatment of the text, his cover of Ace of Base's immortal "The Sign" would still be received as yet another indie affectation had he not declared differently in interviews. (It's likely still thought of as a goof in sure circles, I'm sure.) It's of a piece with his (since suspended) work on his Last Plane to Jakarta site, where for years he was one of the best music writers going. He could devote months to the eldritch pleasures of Radiohead's Amnesiac, but he was just as likely to compose 30 poems about the French black metal group Drastus. Along with an eye for detail and his writerly gift of omission, it's that prospector-like ability to pull humanity from any ground that's given his output such stunning, consistent excellence. There's another closing cover on here, Darnielle's solo take (with added lyrics) on the Commodores' "Sail On" that concluded the early EP Transmissions to Horace. He wails the title, his xylocarpous pipes producing zero vibrato but tons of poignance. "Alpha Desperation March" is probably the Goats' funniest song (marred somewhat by mirthless laughter at the end), as triumphant, palm-muted chords form a pealing picture of someone collecting on an $8,000 debt.
10. Nothing for Juice (1996)
Begins with a catcaller in the South Bronx and concludes with a couple finding release on Scottish moors. Desire is all over this one, desire and lots of heavy petting outdoors. A rare instance of a Mountain Goats remake, "Going to Kansas" is the apotheosis, riddled with feedback and overdriven electric guitar, a portrait of a couple "giggling and moaning" and their sudden break, with barely a hint of regret. In the context of the album, the sunny cover of Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail" makes sense, if only as a marker of how little these characters can be brought down. This is the last release with contributions from Rachel Ware.
9. All Hail West Texas (2002)
Hail and farewell, as an album title once put it. The Panasonic period comes to a close. All Hail West Texas centers on seven characters, but all but the most devoted fans needn't worry. Know that it begins with "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton," a singalong shanty wherein, behind the beat, Darnielle delivers perhaps his most fundamental truism: "When you punish a person for dreaming his dream/Don't expect him to thank or forgive you." Or maybe it's "I am healthy/I am whole/I have poor impulse control," from "Riches and Wonders," a magnificently understated song of co-dependency (read: "love") that asks, ever so softly, for a New Romantic treatment. That and other triumphs like "Pink and Blue" (a gentle depiction of parental uncertainty) and "Blues in Dallas" (a lilting, major-key eschatological blues, backed by a stock Casio backbeat) make this a worthy effort, a 14-round bout with the hold of home. But Darnielle chose, wisely, to pack up and depart his monaural residence.
8. All Eternals Deck (2011)
When news came that the next Mountain Goats record would be partially produced by Morbid Angel/Hate Eternal guitarist Erik Rutan, many of us felt a great glee: could this finally be the record where John puts his money where his metal is? Alas, no, not even with a song titled "Birth of Serpents." "Estate Sale Sign" is the closest the band's come to punk, for what that's worth, and "The Autopsy Garland" makes wonderfully dread use of a backgrounded cello-and-drum figure. The trio is in sync here; Hughes' bass is the MVP of "Prowl Great Cain," and his deep-pitched vocals on "High Hawk Season" add a kind of lonesome-cowboy dimension that derails the song in the best way possible. And for nostalgia's sake, the band leaves in Darnielle's introduction of "For Charles Bronson."
7. Heretic Pride (2008)
As Tallahassee was the first Mountain Goats long-player to lead with the bass, so is this the first to start with the kit. (Baby steps, always baby steps.) After the personal-history trilogy of We Shall All Be Healed, The Sunset Tree, and Get Lonely, we get a new crew (Annie Clark, Erik Friedlander) and new characters. And yet, you will be forgiven if you feel like you've heard this one before: desperate couples facing their dissolution outdoors; restless souls hauling ass for California; standard-issue, character-free backing vocals without the charming cloak of tape-recorder whine. Still, this was a dynamic step up from the shellshocked Get Lonely. We've got two - two! - reggae-tinged songs, the cult vignette "New Zion" and "Sept 15 1983," a grisly imagining of Prince Far I's murder. The killer "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" is jagged indie-rock with an honest-to-God riff. Taken with "Michael Myers Resplendent" and "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident," one sees Darnielle beginning to thematically own his love of metal.
6. The Coroner's Gambit (2000)
A sort of portent for those who checked out when Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster signed up, The Coroner's Gambit approximates a full-band lineup on a few tracks, most notably "Onions" and "Baboon." To make matters worse, sometimes Darnielle uses a four-track. Lo-fi freaks can roll around in "Family Happiness," whose red-line strumming approximates the feeling of a slow lashing from jagged windchimes. On this, his fifth record, one can hear him finding his vocal footing. His lines on "Bluejays and Cardinals" end in friendly melodic waves, and while the harmonica in "The Alphonse Mambo" hasn't aged well, John navigates an ambitious topline, making it to the top of his range without a misstep.
5. The Life of the World to Come (2009)
While Darnielle has made no secret of his complicated relationship with Catholicism, it was here that he finally attempted an album-length discourse that folds our experiments with grace and depravity into their ancient archetypes. The false-healer inhabitation of opener "1 Samuel 15:23" is a bit of a feint; it practically draws you to the speaker to take in the secret evil, but The Life of the World to Come is less interested in the mire than in all the ways one can walk through it. Tautly arranged, with Owen Pallett's occasional violin and string arrangements the only outside contributions, it's perhaps the band's most single-minded work. Several cuts are just John and a piano; when Wurster appears, he provides thoughtful touches to even the quicker numbers, and Hughes keeps a lid on any low-end flourishes. It's best not to see sanctimony in the choice to make all song titles bear Bible verses. The lyrical obsessions are still here, just in focused form. Where U2 saw Psalm 40 as fodder for a praise song, the Mountain Goats seize on the terrors that demand grace. At 5:47 their longest song by far, "Matthew 25:21" contrasts the Parable of Talents with the undeserved gift of other people. Like "Matthew," "Philippians 3:20-21" is built around death, in this case the suicide of David Foster Wallace. Sprightly, vaguely Latin passages chase away heavenly platitudes, as if the band were happily driving the notion of a just God deep into the earth. It's one of the best musical compositions they've recorded as a three-piece, devastating and triumphant at once.
4. The Sunset Tree (2005)
For all the material the Goats produced to this point, death figured into very little of it, at least explicitly. As Will Oldham once sang, there is absence, there is lack, but Darnielle's characters are always kicking against it. The Sunset Tree is a 13-song cycle grappling with the memory of Darnielle's deceased stepfather, to whose memory the record is dedicated. (Any discussion of the background would be ridiculous in a short space; there are interviews, if you wish.) "This Year," while just the third track, is the album's emotional high point. It's become an alt-rock anthem due to its chest-pounding chorus, that marching percussion, a nigh-tangible vignette of rebellion, and the catch in Darnielle's voice as he remembers a bottle of scotch "all bitter and clean." The doomy string-quartet backing of "Dilaudid" is perhaps the most 4AD thing the band's done yet; Darnielle lets loose a couple of crazed chuckles unlike anything he's tried before. "Dance Music" follows, with Franklin Bruno's guaguanco piano figure a fine dressing for a heavily-syncopated lyric about escaping bullshit with... you know.
3. Transcendental Youth (2012)
The first album after Darnielle's first child, and though as a new father he did a bit of one-handed composition, this is the fullest sound the band has yet produced. Darnielle sits happy in his role of indie-statesman, like if Wayne Coyne paid tribute to Baphomet instead of Dionysus. (Here's as good a space as any to note that "The Mountain Goats" is an anagram for "Got Thou, Mine Satan.") If Transcendental Youth finds the Mountain Goats at a crossroads, it's one of the critic's construction. He's done about everything a songwriter can do: he's worked solo and with friends, he's done impersonal exercises and dredged up the awful past, he's cracked jokes and opened veins. It would seem that he's found his métier: lived-in, existential indie-rock tales too big-hearted to ever come off as self-serious. Perhaps, to the delight of some diehards, he'll revisit the monaural past. But he could just as easily craft expansive, triumphant songs like "Cry For Judas" (which references the Catholic Church in a newly-political fashion) for the rest of his days. There's every reason to believe there are many glories to come. As the man himself sings on "Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1": "just stay alive." You never know what's going to happen.
2. Tallahassee (2002)
Darnielle's "Alpha" couple began as subjects in his pre-Goats poems, but their restlessness could not be contained in one form, and in 1992 they made the jump to song with "Alpha Double Negative: Going to Catalina." For the band's 4AD debut - and its debut as a two-man recording concern - Darnielle put his couple up in Northern Florida and waited for ignition. Hughes' propulsive approach to the bass pries the band's sound wide open. Other seldom-used touches include tambourine and piano; soon enough, the band would explore the latter's expressive potential in earnest. While Darnielle once had a tendency to pin punchlines to his stories, the humor here is wry. "I hope that our few remaining friends/Give up on trying to save us," the Alpha husband declares on "No Children," "I hope we come up with a failsafe plot/To piss off the dumb few that forgave us." The song hinges on the savory couplet "And I hope you die/I hope we both die," delivered sincerely, just on the edge of catharsis. (The catharsis came with live performances, where it's become a shoutalong favorite.) The Mountain Goats know that you can run, but never outrun, and so the final track (actually the only Alpha-titled tune in the bunch) sees Darnielle cheerily banging away on his acoustic guitar, his characters preparing to set their new home ablaze. Tallahassee was the Mountain Goats' great leap: melodically rich, masterfully composed, at turns humane and lacerating. And in the dread "Oceanographer's Choice," it has John's best opening lines: "Well/Guy in a skeleton costume/Comes up to the guy in the Superman suit/Runs through him with a broadsword!"
1. We Shall All Be Healed (2004)
This is, of course, the first Mountain Goats release that explicitly drew on Darnielle's adolescence, and there would be no turning back. At some point in the early 2000s, as word-of-mouth and filesharing and Darnielle's extensive online presence pushed the band into something approximating indie-scene prominence, the records became aimed at an implicit community. Themes buried in the ground - coming to grips with yourself, yearning for transcendence - took form as songs, as albums. It's right there in this one's title, and in the dreamily-produced "Against Pollution," which alternates an anecdote of lethal self-defense with a vision of glorification: "When the last days come/We shall see visions...We will recognize each other/And see ourselves for the first time/The way we really are." A cohort of collaborators old (John Vanderslice, Franklin Bruno) and new (Nora Danielson) throw the proceedings into the realm of the ecstatic. Darnielle picked up a few tricks as well. Where previous records deployed recorded dialogue as scene-setters, lead track "Slow West Vultures" incorporates them into the body, mixing incomprehensible arguments and glass breaking with Danielson's crying-infant violin strokes. "The Young Thousands" climaxes with a chorus of Johns, belting out the title. And the stunning "Quito" perfects the sound of his 1995 collaboration with Alastair Galbraith: Danielson garlands a hangover drone with long counter-melodic lines, climaxing in a kind of processional for the narrator's coronation. If Darnielle had been on people's radar as a lyricist, here he staked a claim as a songwriter with few peers.