All Ten Old 97’s Studio Albums.
When Dallas heroes the Old 97’s released Most Messed Up, we were quite taken with it, calling it maybe the band’s best album.
Yup, that’s something we said.
That’s some lofty praise, considering that the alt-country pioneers have released 10 mostly well-received studio LPs in their 20-plus years together. Now that we’ve had more than a year for that one to really sink in, though, is it a statement we still stand behind? In the grand scheme of things, where does that LP rank? How do the band’s Elektra years stack up to the New West period, for that matter? Does the band deserve more shine for its early 2000s power-pop singles or its groundbreaking “insurgent” country tunes?
All good questions, to be sure. And because we’ve seen an Old 97’s show or two in our day, we feel fairly qualified to tell you the order in which you should care about the band’s catalog.
To that end, here we go, offering up the definitive ranking of Old 97’s albums.
10. Drag it Up (2004, New West).
Key tracks: “The New Kid.”
After tackling classic country, punk and classic Brit-influenced power-pop in its first decade together, the Old 97’s took something of a big step backward with the scattered track listing that made up its New West debut. There are a handful of passable tunes here, sure, but you have to wade through missteps like the schmaltzy “Coahuila” and the cheeseball “Friends Forever” to find them. The album peaked at No. 120 on the Billboard 200, but let’s face it: “New Kid” is the only enduring song of the bunch.
9. Blame it on Gravity (2008, New West).
Key tracks: “Dance With Me,” “The Fool,” “The Easy Way.”
Fifteen years into its life, the Old 97’s seemed to eschew the notion that mainstream superstardom still laid ahead, instead deciding to settle on an existence built around its reputation for putting on raucous live shows. Though the songs themselves on Gravity are mostly pretty solid, the production here is polished, the vocals are heavy and the overall content is supremely inoffensive.
8. The Grand Theatre, Volume Two (2011, New West).
Key tracks: “Perfume.”
While 2010’s Volume One found the 97’s with a renewed vigor and offering up mostly passable attempts at reverting back to the twang-filled roots of its mid-’90s self, its follow-up sounded exactly like what it was — a bunch of castoffs from those sessions.
7. Fight Songs (1999, Elektra).
Key tracks: “Murder (or a Heart Attack),” “Crash on the Barrelhead,” “Jagged.”
The band’s second major-label release may be slightly slicker than its predecessor, but Fight Songs is plenty gritty nevertheless. For all the distancing the band did from its alt-country roots on this album, songs like the Ryan Adams-dissing “Crash on the Barrelhead” still maintain plenty of classic country ballsiness. And Blender called “Murder (or a Heart Attack)” the 176th best song “since you were born,” so there’s that.
6. The Grand Theatre, Volume One (2010, New West).
Key tracks: “Champaign, Illinois,” “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You),” “Let the Whiskey Take the Reins,” “A State of Texas.”
After a decade of so-so releases, this is widely recognized as the moment the Old 97’s finally got its mojo back. It’s raw, but not too raw. It’s upbeat, too, hitting on the best moments of the band’s poppier and janglier sides — and without over-thinking itself, too. Unlike most of the bottom half of this list, The Grand Theatre, Volume One comes off as focused, but without losing any of the charm of the band’s endearingly reckless live shows.
5. Satellite Rides (2001, Elektra).
Key tracks: “Question,” “King of All the World,” “Rollerskate Skinny.”
If there’s one Old 97’s record that sounds like four completely different guys made it, it’s 2001’s Satellite Rides. That’s not a bad thing at all; though a bit scatterbrained, this album somehow manages to combine the band’s British, power pop and twang influences into an album that’s just filled with hooks for days. The album does have a tendency to be overly cute at times, though. The biggest offender here is, of course, “Question,” the song that’s launched a thousand proposals.
4. Hitchhike to Rhome (1994, Idol Records).
Key tracks: “St. Ignatius,” “4 Leaf Clover,” “Stoned,” “Wish the Worst.”
Even two decades later, the pioneering mixture of classic country ideals, surf rock guitar leads and hyper-literate lyrics found on the Old 97’s debut record still stands out as the band’s very best offerings. As we discovered at last year’s 20th anniversary show, these songs mostly all still hold up, too. If the band weren’t quite so inexperienced when they made the thing, this very well might be its very best work.
3. Most Messed Up (2014, ATO).
Key tracks: “Nashville,” “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On,” “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive.”
Last year’s Most Messed Up really might be the best thing the Old 97’s have ever put out. Really. At least, that’s what we said in our initial review of the band’s 10th studio album. The fact that it topped out as No. 30 on the Billboard 200 (read: the highest chart position of the band’s career) seems to bear that out, too. Even a year later, we still find this little ball of filth of a disc as enthralling as we did the first time we heard frontman Rhett Miller ask no one in particular, “Who do I gotta blow to get into this fucking show?”
2. Too Far to Care (1997, Elektra).
Key tracks: “Timebomb,” “Big Brown Eyes,” “Barrier Reef,” “Four Leaf Clover.”
In a word? “Timebomb.” Seriously, though: There’s a reason the opening track from the band’s major label debut is still the song it closes out most every singe live show with all these years later. Guitarist Ken Bethea once called the record “an idealistic album made for big cars and air guitars,” which accurately describes the perfect blend of classic country grit and big rock radio polish that the band’s never quite been able to match since.
1. Wreck Your Life (1996, Bloodshot Records).
Key tracks: “Victoria,” “Doreen,” “The Other Shoe,” “W-I-F-E.”
There’s a real make-or-break spirit that characterizes the Old 97’s’ first professionally-released album, 1996’s Wreck Your Life. Recorded in a matter of days in Chicago, the album exudes a raw punk spirit beneath an intrinsically Western sheen, and proves for the first time that not only can these two genres coexist, but they can also combine to create some degree of mainstream success. At no point in the band’s career has Miller showed a shortage of sharp-witted lyrics, but they come off some how more genuine here, delivered with a gut-wrenching sincerity that still hits us right in the gut about a million spins later.
Old 97’s performs at Main Street Garden Park on Saturday, May 9, as part of the sixth annual HomeGrown Music and Arts Festival. Tickets are available here.