Every band of note has fans. That’s a given, that’s how art-as-commerce works. But there are some bands that go beyond that. They become ecosystems in and of themselves. There are codes and references shared within the community, there are fans so devoted they spend all their money following an artist to any remotely nearby show — and sometimes quite a bit farther. They collect bootlegs, compare setlist notes, annotate the convoluted trajectories of particular songs. Ecosystems, after all, are differentiated by the unique types of beings they support. Plenty of bands are beloved. A small amount become a way of life.
If my count is correct — and it may be off by one or two — I’ve seen My Morning Jacket 27 times. That’s a relatively small number in this context, but I’ve still managed to catch them in a wide array of situations. I’ve seen them play second-tier festival headliner opposite Drake, I’ve seen them play multi-night runs where they did all their albums the whole way through and multi-night runs where they refused to repeat a single song between the shows, I’ve seen them open for Pearl Jam and go on to fill arenas themselves; I’ve seen them in Miami, and in Tennessee, and in Las Vegas, and at a resort in Mexico. Over time, it doesn’t really matter where or what format it all happens in: There’s a sense of home that develops, a loose connection between you and those other devotees regardless of whether you’ve met before, a familiarity but fresh excitement each time the band gets onstage.
This is, of course, fundamental to My Morning Jacket’s identity. They deservedly bear the reputation of being one of the greatest live acts of their generation, and if you’re the type their music works on, there’s no question they’re one of the most gifted rock bands going today. All of that, and all the aforementioned business about fandom, have sometimes led to MMJ being lumped in with the jam-band crowd.
This has more to do with the fact that their fanbase behaves similarly to that mold, the one established by the Grateful Dead’s acolytes in past decades, than it does with their music exactly. Sure, there are a lot of long MMJ songs, and there are a lot of solos and left-turn passages that unfold over the course of those long songs. But there’s a different kind of intention there, an orchestration and careful control of dramatic release, a sense of craft and weight that keeps them a few degrees removed from the most stereotypically noodling corners of the jam-band scene.
My Morning Jacket are a group that people have often struggled to place. Over the last 20 years, they’ve become an institution outside of any central indie or rock narrative. They were the weirdo wanderers from Kentucky who grew into rock journeymen equally adept at honoring the past traditions they’re obviously indebted to while also reshaping those sounds for the present tense. There were moments when they flirted with a more indie-centric buzz, with 2005’s Z and its followup Evil Urges, 10 years ago this June. But mostly, they’ve felt off to the side of what we consider the dominant trends of each era they’ve existed within.
Think back to the late ’90s, when MMJ released their debut The Tennessee Fire. Where the hell did that even come from? Given, early on, there was the alt-country tag, which always felt like a slight miscategorization, partially due to that label being one of those amorphous and sorta bullshit genre constructs. Otherwise, you’re talking about an era of electronica, post-grunge and nu-metal, and the impending wave of early ’00s retro-rock and the subsequent mainstream penetration of indie. Where could an album of reverb-drenched, nocturnal, and swampy rock fit in amongst any of that?
That time I saw MMJ with Pearl Jam was also my first MMJ show. And perhaps that colored my perception of them from the start, but in hindsight it seems fitting MMJ would’ve opened for Pearl Jam, been grandfathered into their tight-knit ecosystem of a fanbase, and then build their own as an offshoot of that. Though MMJ never had anything approaching Pearl Jam’s early, astronomical, and “voice of a generation” success, they’ve otherwise walked a similar path. They are a band that’s sustained by the deep, deep investment of fans, listeners who will devour (and actually purchase) new albums regardless of whether or not a release engages with or punctures the mainstream music conversation at that given time.
Yet while MMJ might be an enclosed situation in that sense, they are far from an island. Part of the reason MMJ feel outside of any major narrative of their time, or feel out of time in general, is because they are one of the younger installments in the long lineage of classic rock. More so than the alt-country moniker, MMJ are part of the Southern rock tradition, but they’ve also incorporated enough stray elements of funk and soul and indie and alt-rock that it’s usually easiest to just perceive them as a psychedelic rock band in a broad, multi-faceted sense. They are descendants of the Dead for sure, but also of Allman Brothers and Pink Floyd; when Jim James talks about his love of Radiohead, that fits right in, too.
That’s part of why MMJ have resisted easy classification or association during these last two decades: They began by taking Americana and making it feel exotic and enigmatic, and they continued by pushing their sound in all sorts of unexpected directions, warping traditions into something new. They don’t really sound like Pearl Jam, but they did learn something from them: how to be a band that forges its own little path alongside of everything else, how to survive as a band simply on your own trip.
The mastermind guiding them all along has, of course, been James — still the sole songwriter of MMJ material, the frontman, and one of the only members who’s been in MMJ throughout. The earlier iteration of the band also included James’ cousin Johnny Quaid, and together they perfected the template of early MMJ, those booming rock epics coated in reverb and tinged with twang. But it was MMJ 2.0 that eventually wound up feeling like the quintessential version of this group. When guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster joined James and bassist Tom Blankenship and drummer Patrick Hallahan, it also marked the turning point, where MMJ would continue on as adventurous seekers, never content to sound exactly the same from album to album.
With the recent announcement of James’ third solo album, it seems unlikely that this collective will be very active this year. James’ work outside of MMJ is good, too, but this is a look back at the music this group has made together, in their various forms over the years — at the music that came from James’ idiosyncratic taste and skill set, and was brought to life with the musicians surrounding him.
Speaking as one of those bordering-on-sycophantic MMJ fans, this was simultaneously one of the easier lists I’ve compiled and one of the hardest. You could focus only on the MMJ songs that have become their standards, the ones that have proven themselves to be warhorses on endless tours over the years, and you would still not be able to whittle it down to just 10. That’s before you get to deep-cut gems from throughout their career, or the stunning highlights that have popped up on their recent albums and, given just a couple more years, may feel as pivotal as those older favorites we’ve had longer to get to know.
So on that note, there are two albums that aren’t represented here. The first is easily their weakest, Evil Urges. As I wrote in our MMJ album countdown five years ago, the issue with Evil Urges isn’t the groove- and electronics-based experimentation that characterized it — that was actually the best part. It resulted in a fan favorite with “Touch Me, I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2” and its accompanying pt. 1, it blends with Southern rock on the title track, and it underpins the divisive “Highly Suspicious.” The issue is more so that, especially in hindsight, MMJ’s moment of wider success with Z yielded an album where all of their impulses didn’t cohere in the same way, and where the things they used to do best — winsome country ballads, hard-edged rockers — fell a little flat.
The band rebounded from that with 2011’s Circuital. And if it weren’t for the fact that 2015’s The Waterfall gave us some serious instant-classic MMJ tracks, you’d see something from Circuital below. Continuing in their tradition of great openers, it had “Victory Dance” — get past the goofy trumpet noise James makes in the beginning, and it’s one of the band’s most intoxicating, foreboding songs. It’s become a monster live. That album also had shimmering space-soul like “The Day Is Coming” and “Outta My System“; it also had the gorgeous and underrated “You Wanna Freak Out” and the also-sorta-divisive otherworldly funk workout “Holdin’ On To Black Metal.”
On another day, any of those could’ve been in contention. It’s easy to think of six or seven completely different versions of this list that I could’ve put together. But for now, this is what I’m going with for their 10 best: A mixture of the titans everyone knows, some welcoming old favorites, and a few new songs that deserve induction into the canon of great MMJ compositions.
10. “Heartbreakin Man” (from The Tennessee Fire, 1999)
My Morning Jacket arrived almost fully-formed. On The Tennessee Fire, a lot of their core elements were already in place. There were big, keening melodies that sounded like the wind rushing through the trees of a Southern forest, there were chiming guitars, and they were already taking their foundational DNA of folk and classic rock and mutating it. The band covered a lot of ground on their debut, from the shadowy anthem “The Bear,” the swaggering and sinister beer-rock of “It’s About Twilight Now,” to the yearning “Evelyn Is Not Real” and the mournful closer “I Think I’m Going To Hell.” Thanks to the homemade production, all of this comes together in a bleary, nocturnal document that sounds like MMJ telling ghost stories about some dark, mysterious thing they discovered out in the countryside. In its way, it feels like a rough draft for a lot of what came after, even for those of us who love it; these songs, after all, have often reached far greater heights as they’ve developed onstage.
All of that being said, these songs were also great from the beginning — James was basically still a kid when this album came out, and he already had the ability to write songs imbued with the kind of gravity of an older person “who’s seen some things.” And the one that stands above the others is the first perfect opening track in a career full of them, “Heartbreakin Man.” Those ghostly “ooh-wahs” that basically serve as intro and chorus — there’s few better ways to imagine being introduced to MMJ. All these years later, it sounds like a perfect curtain rise on MMJ’s career: A weird, propulsive little pop song hidden in the murk of The Tennessee Fire, “Heartbreakin Man” started the long lonesome wail that’d spill out over MMJ’s early years.
9. “Xmas Curtain” (from At Dawn, 2001)
You can find MMJ fans who still hold their sophomore album above everything else they’ve done. Everything that was happening on The Tennessee Fire is still here, but it feels more refined, more muscular. And of course, this is one with the infamous silo-reverb coating everything, magnifying James’ already expansive voice to feel as if it was calling out from multiple eras at once. And it does remain one of MMJ’s strongest collections front to back, from the way “At Dawn” works as prologue and overture, to the rollicking “Lowdown,” the lurching freakout of “Honest Man,” and the harrowing-then-melancholic-then-harrowing closer “Strangulation!”
MMJ is a band that’s transformed incrementally over the last 20 years, but there are still those that revere this early work above all else. They captured something here, like they caught a lost transmission of classic rock history and rendered their own echo — just familiar enough, just foreign enough. But it would’ve been diminishing returns had they hewed too close to this sound forever, and sometimes I think what fans really miss about early MMJ is the ache and longing pregnant in that sound, the absence they found by looking out across the frontier and feeling the passage of time, feeling the loss.
All these years later, “Xmas Curtain” lives on as a MMJ standard and one of the best representations of that era of their career. All these years later, I also still have no idea what it’s actually about. “The Christmas girl who lives inside your womb”? Ok, Jim. But that’s the thing: It doesn’t really matter what “Xmas Curtain” is about. There are countless MMJ songs that are inscrutable or nonsensical, and they make you feel something anyway. Those “Layla“-drunk-on-the-beach guitar parts, swooning alongside James’ faraway coos? That’s the sound. It’s all enigma, but it communicates so much nonetheless.
8. “Like A River” (from The Waterfall, 2015)
A few years ago, MMJ released their seventh full-length album The Waterfall, a collection that, in the mold of Circuital and Z, subtly collapsed a whole lot of different sounds, a whole lot of different types of MMJ songwriting, together. Its trilogy of darkened, multi-part psychedelic sagas — “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall),” “Spring (Among The Living),” and “Tropics (Erase Traces)” — often felt as if they defined the mood of the album, painting it as one of the more brooding, insular MMJ works.
But the counterpoint was that they and other songs found MMJ capturing wonder in a way they hadn’t quite managed to for years. These were the types of songs that managed to make you see the world anew, for a moment. And with some time removed from The Waterfall, “Like A River” remains one of its most elusive yet effective songs in that regard. In a way, “Like A River” recalls the structure and scope of those early MMJ albums — it’s a strange, dreamy interpretation of folk rock. But it also comes from a more aged James, and so it has this maturity, like a world-weary man going back to this place to combat the weight of the years gone by. And at the end, they do find that wonder again. “Like A River” opens up into a refrain of layered, wordless vocals, underpinned by thunderous drum strikes and distant fuzzed-out guitar. It’s one of the most beautiful passages of music that the band’s ever recorded.
7. “Compound Fracture” (from The Waterfall, 2015)
There’s a special kind of exhilaration when one of your favorite bands returns, and gives you an immediately lovable song that just completely disorients you. I don’t know where the hell “Compound Fracture” came from. That propulsive train drumbeat, the way little flashes of guitar and organ mesh together, and James effortlessly switching from one infectious pop melody to another — if I tried to dream up a new MMJ song, there’s no way I would think to build it up like this. And three years later, I still can’t shake it; I wake up with this song, and that drumbeat, pounding in my head constantly. There isn’t another MMJ song quite like this one, and maybe there shouldn’t ever be another. They got it perfect on the first try.
6. “Anytime” (from Z, 2005)
This is the pivot point. Before Z, MMJ were making their own little mystic take on Southern rock. But they took that about as far as it could go on the sprawling It Still Moves. That and a lineup change necessitated something different, and Z was a sharper, more direct, yet also more experimental outing that redefined the MMJ rule book and paved the way for everything they’ve done since. Partnering with producer John Leckie — who’d also worked with the Stone Roses and Radiohead — MMJ were chasing a sort of celestial rock on this one. And it was a huge enough sound to have room for the trippy underwater dub of “Wordless Chorus,” the Coldplay-as-Southern-rock mini-epic “Gideon,” the autumnal cascade of “It Beats 4 U,” and the album’s volcanic conclusion in “Dondante.”
For a rock band, MMJ doesn’t actually have too many straight-ahead, charging rockers — and when they do, there can be diminishing returns placeholders like “Aluminum Park” on Evil Urges or “First Light” on Circuital. Part of the reason they feel that way is that there was a song on Z called “Anytime” that set an impossibly high standard for what MMJ 2.0’s rockers would sound like, how they would work. “Is this climbing up to the moon?” James asks in the beginning, as much a mission statement for this song but also for what MMJ have often tried to do with their music in the second half of their career. And “Anytime” is the pinnacle of the form for them: It begins in the clouds, already in liftoff, and only goes higher from there.
5. “The Way That He Sings” (from At Dawn, 2001)
Jim James’ voice. It’s, obviously, one of the key facets of MMJ’s identity. He’s one of the more unique rock singers to emerge in the last two decades, a voice that can be goofy and endearing but also deeply wistful, a voice that can overdrive itself into a ragged roar and then offer a sweet salve of a folk lullaby around the next corner. It’s a deeply expressive instrument, and it’s more or less rightfully a thing you’ll see mentioned in every single MMJ review, sometimes noting how a MMJ song can live or die depending on how much James lets himself loose.
Not only one of the major fan favorites and a setlist standard from back in the day, “The Way That He Sings” always felt like a prescient bit of self-mythologizing. When you think of all the things MMJ do well, “The Way That He Sings” feels like one of the quintessential tracks of their early years. All gliding synth backdrops and liquid guitar lines intertwining, it plays out like a sigh — until the band slowly ratchets up towards catharsis by the song’s end. And at the center of it is, well, the way that he sings: Long peals of yearning, one of those unintelligible MMJ refrains, and the comfort of a voice that’s come to feel like an old friend over the years.
4. “Mahgeetah” (from It Still Moves, 2003)
There can be a certain tension with being a MMJ fan who equally appreciates Parts 1 & 2 of their story. There are so many riches later on, but it almost feels like it’s coming from a different band. Because the first one reached their apotheosis of glistening, star-gazing Southern rock on their third album way the hell back in 2003. It Still Moves casts a long shadow on MMJ’s career — not just because it’s a point where they crystallized and expanded what their early sound could do, but also because it’s where many fans first got onboard. And there are many, many MMJ high points here: the Stones-y horn explosion at the conclusion of “Dancefloors,” the highway rumination “Golden,” the mutant hybrid of “Run Thru,” the way James’ voice commands the sky to open up at the beginning of “Rollin Back.”
But one of its absolute highest points is how it begins, with the best opener of any MMJ album, “Mahgeetah.” It’s a subtly twisting composition, overflowing ideas with the band deftly sliding between each one. From the torrents of glistening, bright guitar arpeggios to the chunkier riffs, from James employing almost the full spectrum of his voice before going full-ethereal with that final refrain, from the fact that the song should ends there but lights up one more time with one of those guitar solos you could sing along to — there is a lot going on here. And it’s a perfectly calibrated balance: “Mahgeetah” is six minutes, and yet never feels like it as it glides by, and yet makes you feel like you’ve truly arrived somewhere else by the end of it. It does everything a great opener should, introducing you to the fullness and ambition of It Still Moves, opening the door on its world and yanking you in.
3. “Lay Low” (from Z, 2005)
When it comes to the building blocks of MMJ’s songcraft, you’ll read a lot about James’ singing, and you’ll also read a lot about guitar work. You’ll see MMJ on those lists of the “new guitar heroes.” And there are a few reasons for that beyond the obviously dexterous players they’ve always had in their ranks. There’s the way, earlier on, they were quoting guitarists of the past that others just weren’t really; there was they way they took the old tools and could wring something new out of the instrument while also maintaining a loyalty to the notion that, sometimes, some guitar theatrics were necessary to convey a song’s point.
“Lay Low” arrives in the final stretch of Z, an oddity in the sense that it’s probably closer to an old-school MMJ song than anything else on Z and yet feels completely different. It’s a southern rock epic over a drum machine, all the grandeur of It Still Moves but with the sheen and controlled architecture of Z. But really, it all comes down to the guitar fireworks that happen later on, the destination the song’s always waiting to get to, Broemel and James dueling like the dudes from the old days. And in the process, they not only manage to come up with some of the most beautiful guitar playing in MMJ’s history, they manage to take guitar solos and make them say something in the 21st century. That alone is a feat, one that MMJ is uniquely suited for and one that they’ve rarely pulled off as well as they did on “Lay Low.”
2. “Steam Engine” (from It Still Moves, 2003)
In the chorus of “Steam Engine,” James sings these lines: “So, I do believe/ None of this is physical/ At least not to me/ So, I do believe/ That anywhere it goes/ It’s always with me.” Remember that part about the fact that MMJ can write a song where you don’t have any concrete understanding of its meaning, but it doesn’t matter? “Steam Engine” feels like an unintentional manifesto, the same as “The Way That He Sings.” You can be obsessed with this song for 15 years and still not be able to pin it down. Is it their most deeply melancholic song, with that slide guitar crying out periodically? Is it full of endorphins, a depiction of falling further and further in love? If MMJ has often excelled at mystifying atmospheres that overtake you emotionally without letting you truly discern them, “Steam Engine” was the pinnacle.
That’s their gift. They make the world feel as a big as it did when you were still a child. If not, then what’s it all for? The silo-reverb of the early days and the full-hearted searching of later MMJ, the cavernous voice that gave both versions life — it’s all impressionistic, but also the sort of tools you use when you have a big canvas you’re trying to fill, big answers you’re trying to grasp while knowing you probably never can. But it’s ok if you don’t, because songs like “Steam Engine” remind you of all the possibilities that still remain out there.
1. “One Big Holiday” (from It Still Moves, 2003)
Here it is. The signature song of MMJ’s signature songs. The one they close almost every single show with. The one they named a goddamn destination festival after. The one that’s a crowning achievement, but also one of those moments when an artist shows they’re capable of transcending the specifics of their own story.
“One Big Holiday” is a masterful work of tension and release. Those little guitar flickers at the beginning are the sort of intro that signal, right away, that you’re in for something. They of course give way to the first of many solos. Then as the song kicks in, the chorus is actually a calm amidst the storm, with James belting out the verses more emphatically around it. It’s a weird kind of rock song, the kind that feels as if it’s tumbling forward, never losing momentum, but also locking you into some kind of push-pull current. And consequently, its final outro is something to behold, the whole thing boiling over interlocking guitar solos. That section, that grand finale, is as overwhelming a piece of guitar music as this band ever put together — lyrical, yet ferocious. After it, there’s never anything left but wreckage.
Well, that’s not entirely true. The enduring power of “One Big Holiday” is hard to sum up without accounting for the live component. For a fanbase, and for their codes and shared references, there’s always the promise of “One Big Holiday.” You know that it’s coming, but just not yet. And when it does, there’s a twinge of sadness that you’re at the end of that particular journey, but it’s immediately replaced by an all-encompassing joy, the band giving you one final, uninterrupted shot of adrenaline for five or six minutes. And afterwards, you look around and you’ll still see that joy, you’ll see people leaving happier than they were when they entered.
That’s all specific to MMJ, and to their shows, and to their fans. But “One Big Holiday” goes beyond that. Nobody had any business writing a guitar rock song this good in 2003. But this was the sound of MMJ becoming themselves in full, becoming a band that had its sights set further behind and forward than their immediate surroundings. Sometimes, there’s a subconscious reason a song like “One Big Holiday” careens and careens and refuses to slow down. Looking back, this was the sound of My Morning Jacket shooting for the pantheon. And in order to get there, they wrote a song for the ages.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.