My Morning Jacket Albums From Worst To Best
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2008, My Morning Jacket frontman and songwriter Jim James identified four artists he considered to be MMJ’s “big-brother bands”: Wilco, Björk, Radiohead, and Pearl Jam. While that spectrum alone is telling — this was the anything goes era of Evil Urges — that last one is particularly relevant. Like Pearl Jam, MMJ is a band that has, for many years now, held a reputation primarily based on their stunning live performances. Let’s just get this out of the way: the purest, most essential element of MMJ is their live show. It would be nonsense to argue otherwise. This is a band to be experienced live, and almost every time it’ll be transcendental.
But as much of a truism as that might be, it does a great disservice to their studio work to write it off as simply an excuse to keep them on the road promoting a new album. What gets overlooked when people talk about MMJ is not only the sharpness and consistency of James’s songwriting that’s readily evident on their records, but also the way in which they have deftly, and somewhat unexpectedly, used the studio as an instrument for years now. That’s something you’d more readily associate with another of James’s supposed forebears, Radiohead, not from his own initially rustic, seemingly bred for the road, rock troupe.
Nevertheless, there’s a narrative evident in the progression of MMJ’s studio work, inscribed by studio technique and songwriting approach alike. Those early records are as mythologized as the frontier they emerged from, James then favoring sprawling Americana that appeared without borders, with reverb so cavernous you’d swear you could live inside these albums. On Z onwards, the production got slicker and the song lengths reined in-tighter, psychedelic vehicles for shooting off into parts unknown. Evil Urges is only made logical by assuming it’s from another planet. Circuital was a return to Earth bearing the new strange knowledge, its anchors as diverse as the traditionalist rock of its title track and foreboding “Victory Dance” or otherworldly funk of “Holdin’ On to Black Metal,” songs that seem to have no association with a specific place or time.
In a way, the studio work of MMJ is crucial as a way in to a band that is messily hard to define. As much as you can try to pigeonhole them, they seem to slip through it. They are as influenced by What’s Going On as Music From Big Pink, as likely to cover Curtis Mayfield as Elton John. They’ve been called alt-country, Southern rock, then indie; the jam-band world has half a claim to them, itself an oddity considering many of the instrumental passages in MMJ’s music are actually orchestrated, not totally improvised. And with an ever-growing body of live bootlegs wherein you have to wade through a three hour set in which all these split personalities jostle together, James & co. gleefully jumping from robo-funk to Crazyhorse-indebted guitar freakouts, these studio albums become not only worthwhile as strong listening experiences in and of themselves, but a road map into MMJ, the counter-narrative to flesh out the main narrative.
Given that, this list is about studio albums, and doesn’t include official live releases. I also omitted their EPs; while songs from the Split EP with Songs: Ohia or Chocolate & Ice remain relevant, like “Cobra” or the excellent “O Is The One That Is Real,” any setup of this list would have to operate on a subjective metric that would decide those two are canon and yet My Morning Jacket Does Xmas Fiasco Style and a smattering of other EPs are not. So here’s MMJ’s six studio albums, ranked from worst to best. Evil Urges sympathizers can make their case in the comments.
6. Evil Urges (2008)
In their own ways, each My Morning Jacket album has been stylistically diverse. But with Evil Urges that flexibility gave way to aimless genre-hopping that served to undermine the overall coherence and integrity of it as an album. It isn't necessarily a bad album; there is still great material here. The perhaps more contentious parts are actually highlights; the electro-funk experiments are the most interesting, and I'm firmly Team "Highly Suspicious." Likewise, "Touch Me, I'm Going To Scream" Pts. 1 & 2 are both excellent entries into the MMJ canon, "Pt. 2" being a characteristically climactic finale propelled forth on an unrelenting disco beat, auto-harp, and James's powerful wails, which are otherwise criminally underused on this album.
It's the middle stretch of the album where things go awry, where the zany grooves of its opening salvo give way to a horrific detour into soft-rock shmaltz. Songs like "Sec Walkin'" and "Two Halves" feel saccharine and limp on their own, and aimless within the context of the whole album. Likewise, the late album one-two of the admittedly catchy "Aluminum Park" and the more minor "Remnants" feels like an obligatory "rock track" stop-gap to fill the place the total classic "Anytime" occupied on Evil Urges' predecessor Z. Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the grab-bag Evil Urges may have more pop-indie cache than their earlier albums, marking MMJ's highest chart entry on the Billboard 200 at No. 9 (later bested by Circuital at No. 5) and garnering a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album. Nevertheless, the band has worn a lot of hats, but some here don't sit quite right on Jim James's rock god hair, and Evil Urges may live on as a transitional record.
5. The Tennessee Fire (1999)
It's a testament to the consistency of MMJ's output that the album ranked second-to-last on this list is as strong as The Tennessee Fire. It's a pretty lo-fi affair compared to what came later, lush in its own way but less defined than subsequent MMJ releases. Here, you can see the template, oddly, for almost everything that followed. The overarching vibe is the alt-country indie sound they primarily trafficked in originally, but in "The Bear" you can hear James learning the ropes for crafting sweeping catharses, which he will later employ in "Gideon." In the badass redneck groove of "It's About Twilight Now," you can hear their ability to write a rock song that's foreboding or triumphant -- it depends on what you bring to it as a listener. "The Dark" almost prefigures post-Z MMJ entirely: spacey vocals over a synth wash cede to a funky chorus, which in turn yields to Southern rock middle eight before wrapping back around to that chorus again; it's all the genre-hopping of Evil Urges wrapped into a three-minute sketch. And, ultimately, that's why The Tennessee Fire is ranked where it is: it's a strong album that suffers in relation to what came later, made to feel like a sketchbook. It's a beautiful sketchbook, no doubt, featuring some classics in "Heartbreakin' Man," "Evelyn Is Not Real," and "I Think I'm Going To Hell," but things weren't quite refined yet. After all, this was a different band -- James and bassist Tom Blankenship are the only members remaining from these early recordings. Still, this is important listening, marking the beginning of their story and a remaining artifact of a different MMJ, one that was of dark swamps and chilling alt-country-tinged songs that spoke to the particular brand of bleariness that can only come with stumbling out of the bar in the cold moments before dawn.
4. Circuital (2011)
There were two narratives put forth in the lead-up to Circuital: it'd capture their live sound, and it would be a return to form after their recent stylistic detours. The press interpreted the name as a reference to the latter; the band talked about the former. Having recorded Circuital predominantly playing in a circle together in a church gymnasium, MMJ nevertheless released an album as similarly polished as their last two -- not a bad thing, but it's strange that James has talked of seeking a more live sound with Evil Urges and Circuital when the sprawl of It Still Moves seemed to capture it perfectly in 2003.
What Circuital really feels like is the logical successor to Z that never happened, while simultaneously being a bit of a sidestep from Evil Urges. It cops some of the R&B meanderings of the latter, but situates them in shimmery psychedelic soul songs that seem born out of Z opener "Wordless Chorus" more so than the more synthetic "Touch Me, I'm Going To Scream, Pt. 1." "The Day Is Coming," "Outta My System," and "Holdin' On To Black Metal" are all highlights and cut from this cloth. "Victory Dance" is like a seductive, nasty older brother to anything on Z, swimming in similar psychedelic waters, but going deeper, darker. It continues the band's tradition of their opening songs being amongst their best. Unfortunately, Circuital grows uneven in the second half. "First Light" is solid but by-the-numbers rock for them, while "Slow Slow Tune" and "Movin' Away" comprise a quiet, almost boring end to a record from a band that usually goes out on some of their best tunes (See: "Dondante" on Z, "Strangulation!" on At Dawn, "I Think I'm Going To Hell" on The Tennessee Fire). It's unfortunate that it peters out like that, but Circuital brings some very strong material into the MMJ catalogue, and promises a more consistent path after the confidence-shaking Evil Urges.
3. At Dawn (2001)
At Dawn is perhaps the album from which the early MMJ mythos emanates strongest. Each of the first three MMJ albums were recorded partially at the farm of then-guitarist — and James's cousin — Johnny Quaid, but this is the one that is practically defined by the fact that James recorded his vocals in a grain silo, in search of an ethereal echo he couldn't quite attain in a normal studio. And it worked. At Dawn simultaneously feels not of this world and yet so totally American, the details of its inception appropriate footnotes to an album that so perfectly evokes the nation's landscape as so many country or Americana albums have before it. But At Dawn is of that ilk that paints the landscape as haunted. James' hyper-reverbed voice is a ghostly tour guide through a South he figures as eerie and perhaps destructive on tracks like "At Dawn," or "If It Smashes Down," or in the headlong descent of "Strangulation!." There are moments of warmth, too, but perhaps more so than on any other MMJ record, they feel like they could be uplifting or melancholic, and it'd be totally subjective. I've never really been able to decide if I think "X-Mas Curtain" and "The Way That He Sings" are some of the saddest-sounding MMJ songs or some of the most euphoric, and that seems another consequence of the spectral nature of all the reverb — by creating all that expansiveness, there's room around the edges for you to bring your own meanings. At over an hour and littered with some overlong tracks, At Dawn is not the most viable first step into MMJ's body of work, but it is essential listening once the door's been opened.
2. It Still Moves (2003)
If the reverb of At Dawn suggested something haunting echoing out of the farthest reaches of the American frontier, the reverb of It Still Moves is lush, replacing fear with wonder. That's fitting, because It Still Moves is a thing to behold. Just a touch shorter than At Dawn, the album feels twice as immense. It's majestic almost throughout, crammed with one epic song after another. Not to depart too far from the premise of this article, but it must be said: at least half of the songs on It Still Moves remain absolute warhorses in their live shows, speaking to the hallowed place this record occupies amongst MMJ's fanbase. This is totally based on experience and isn't empirically demonstrable in any real way, but I feel It Still Moves may be the collective favorite of the MMJ fan community.
Rightfully so — this is likely the most essentially My Morning Jacket-esque album that My Morning Jacket has produced. As lengthy as this album and most of its songs are, everything feels integral, whether it's the way "Mahgeetah" or "One Big Holiday" perpetually seem to have peaked, only to break into another brilliant guitar-hero moment, or the way the longer songs seem to demand their length. Speaking of those epic ones, there's a lot of that here. Only "Just One Thing" is under four minutes; most hover around six; "I Will Sing You Songs" reaches the nine-minute mark while "Rollin' Back" and "Steam Engine" linger between seven and eight. What's incredible about these particular songs is the way MMJ achieves such a psychedelic sound with them with just guitars, unadorned by effects, and the power of James' voice. In their own way, they create a world as distinct and strange as any of the more directly trippy stuff on Z. This is particularly true of "Steam Engine," which might be the best and most quintessential MMJ song and — not to disparage "One In The Same" — should have closed It Still Moves.
Everything on It Still moves feels like the band is going all in, stitching every idea together to ensure absolute payoff at every turn. Perhaps as a result, this was the end of a certain version of MMJ. After It Still Moves, Johnny Quaid departed the band, and a lineup change resulted in a fundamentally different MMJ. As it stands, It Still Moves is the zenith of that first phase, the point to which everything was building and when it did, it was incredible.
1. Z (2005)
For MMJ fans who had been along for the ride since the late '90s, I can only imagine the wobbling bass synth reverberations that begin "Wordless Chorus" and open Z must've sounded as severe as the grunge squalor of the Edge's "Zoo Station" riff did after U2 spent the late '80s mining — perhaps not coincidentally — the same Americana MMJ had leaned on for the first half of their existence. Blankenship was still on board, just providing dubbier bass lines; James's childhood friend Patrick Hallahan took over drums before It Still Moves and stuck around; Quaid had been replaced by multi-instrumentalist Carl Broemel; and they'd added keyboardist Bo Koster. James, as always, remained at the helm, and now led his band into ever stranger and unexpected places. This is MMJ Part 2.
With a new lineup came other changes. After Quaid's departure, the band no longer recorded on his parents' farm. James stopped producing the records, and the band tapped John Leckie, who made perfect sense. The British producer's resume included engineer work on classic albums like George Harrison's All Things Must Pass and Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, thus resonating with MMJ's roots, but some of his (relatively) more recent producer credits included The Verve's A Storm In Heaven and Radiohead's The Bends. MMJ were chasing sound now. Perhaps realizing that It Still Moves was about as far as they could push that particular template, the band began favoring shorter, tighter songs. "Gideon" is arguably the band's most epic song, and it all happens within three and a half minutes, building from a gentle kick drum and arpeggiated guitar, and then, just two minutes in, boiling over into some of the most emotive wails James has put to tape. Songs like "It Beats 4 U" and "Anytime" were economical and infectious, while still achieving trippy atmospheres of keyboard and guitar textures.
For many, Z was the entry point into MMJ's career. Dabbling more directly in indie rock brought them closer to the mainstream, and made them more accessible for listeners put off by any sort of twang. It set the stage for the commercial success of Evil Urges and Circuital, despite being lesser albums. I'll admit a personal bias: I was 15 when Z came out, and it was with this album and seeing MMJ open for Pearl Jam that summer that my MMJ fandom began. A dozen shows later, and even with gradually coming to prefer It Still Moves and At Dawn, Z looms large in some undeniable way. It Still Moves feels definitive in some specific way to the band. Z is probably the closest they've come to recording a classic album, a near-impeccable LP that, perhaps more importantly than providing a capstone, kicked the door down to the next stage, the one we're currently still in. It's a pleasure to be along for the ride.