The Old 97’s have solidified themselves as Americana staples at this point. Few bands have been so consistent throughout their careers. They have been so consistent in fact that they haven’t had one lineup change in their 10 albums over 20 years. Their albums have been fairly solid as well, all standing the test of time in their own ways. From their twangy early days right up to 2014 where they started cussing like you’d have expected them to 20 years earlier. Their sound hasn’t changed much over that time but their are obviously highlights. Here is a look at what I consider to be their top 5 albums and why:
Here are the nominees:
- Hitchhike to Rhome (1994)
- Wreck Your Life (1995)
- Too Far To Care (1997)
- Fight Songs (1999)
- Satellite Rides (2001)
- Drag It Up (2004)
- Blame It On Gravity (2008)
- The Grand Theatre, Vol 1 (2010)
- The Grand Theatre Vol 2 (2011)
- Most Messed Up (2014)
#1 Album: Fight Songs
Stand-out tracks: “Jagged” “Lonely Holiday” “Murder (or a Heart Attack)” “Valentine”
The Old 97’s used a vaulting point out of “Too Far To Care” and delivered a knockout punch with “Fight Songs.” The record relentlessly delivers, from the grinding opening guitar on the song “Jagged” to bass play Murry Hammond taking the delicate approach to end the record with “Valentine.” It has arguably their biggest crowd pleaser in “Murder (or a Heart Attack)” that deserves it accolades. Even deep cuts like “Busted Afternoon” and “Oppenheimer” deliver with hooky choruses and fresh guitar twang. “Lonely Holiday” delivers some of Rhett Miller’s best lines on record like “Thought so much about suicide / parts of me have already died,” beat that anybody… This record is a nice transition in between the twang of “Too Far To Care” and the more rock direction they would eventually lean toward. As far as “Fight Songs” goes, there are no losers here, it’s solid all the way through.
#2 Album: Satellite Rides
Stand-out tracks: “Buick City Complex” “Designs On You” “Question” “Up The Devil’s Pay”
he Old 97’s don’t think much of this album themselves. I have no idea why. Sure it has one of the “big hits” with “Question” (which is criminally the only song off this record they play many nights) but there is a lot more greatness here. “Buick City Complex” and “Rollerskate Skinny” are pop triumphs and it obvious on songs like “Bird on a Wire” that Rhett Miller was lyrically on top of his game. “Question” is always here to make the ladies swoon with some of Rhett’s most heartthrob moments but it is a crime that this record will always be remembered primarily for that.
#3 Album: Too Far To Care
Stand-out tracks: “Timebomb” “Four Leaf Clover” “Barrier Reef”
This is the big one. It broke the band and most fans will likely say it is their best by far and likely disown this list for having it at #3. It stenches of a record best heard live (in a good way.) The big choruses of “Timebomb” and the sing-along fun of “Barrier Reef” dominate the landscape here. Murry’s signature song (possibly) is here with “W. TX Teardrops” and always assures him time at the mic at Old 97’s shows and this record always gets hit hard at shows (see what I mean about it being best heard live?) “Niteclub” is a personal triumph for Rhett that can be delivered as a rocker but also you can look past the tough musical exterior to see the pain hidden beneath in the lyrics. I think “Fight Songs” is their peak and “Satellite Rides” may hold some sentimental value to me so this is #3 but nobody in their right mind will blame you when you have this one at the top of your list.
#4 Album: Blame It On Gravity
Stand-out tracks: “Dance With Me” “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue” “No Baby I”
We get adventurous here. This isn’t your standard banner Old 97’s album and some might have it near the bottom of their list. The truth is that this is a great team effort of songs. While it may not have a song “Murder” “Timebomb” or “Won’t Be Home” that is a huge instantly likable single; it does have a solid 13 songs that are as “pop” as the band ever got. The band wears the sound well with songs like the stompy “Dance With Me” and the disillusioned sounding chorus of “No Baby I.” Once again Murry closes the album out on a strong note with another delicate number. “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue” may be slow and meander a bit but that’s exactly what it is supposed to do. It is a great closer for a great album made of solid songs instead of some home runs and a few filler tracks.
#5 Album: The Grand Theatre Volume One
Stand-out tracks: “Every Night Is Friday Night” “Please Hold On While The Train Is Moving” “Champaign, Illinois”
The ambitious idea of splitting this group of songs into two parts turned out to be a little one sided. While “Vol 2” is still a solid album it seems that the band may have cherry picked the list a bit for “Vol 1.” First of all the song “Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)” may be their best song of the second half of their career. It is a live staple with a huge sing-along chorus and still maintains some good upbeat stomp. They even tap Bob Dylan’s music to re-write “Desolation Row” in “Champaign, Illinois” with new lyrics that shockingly don’t turn out to be sacrilegious toward the original song. They even up the tempo to make the meandering head trip a trumping rocker. “Please Hold On While The Train Is Moving” is anther great moment with a mid song tempo change that will try to convince you it’s an accident every time. The album has several great moments making it well worthy of clinching the #5 spot.
A special thanks to RiffRaf.net for the idea to do this.