I remember growing up and being like, ?I listen to everything except country and rap!? Yeah, I was that kid. Well now, I can happily say I listen to both and catching up as thoroughly as possible over the course of, oh, the better part of a decade. And even still?a true, full appreciation of country music still evades me. Look, the fact is that a lot of country music is truly annoying. I guess the same can be said of most any genre, but I can?t dial into the Garth Brookses or Keith Urbans of the world. However, I?ve found solace in the old guard (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline) and newer, what-they-call ?alternative country? that actually hearkens back to that sound and the sound of the folk crossover (Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, and more). In that vein lie The Avett Brothers, perhaps my single favorite country(-ish?) act. Well, as the years have gone on from the 2000 release of their self-titled EP, they?ve perhaps challenged that label with that aforementioned folk influence; they?ve often been categorized as ?Americana? for the sake of awards and charts. But The Avett Brothers (Seth and Scott, plus Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon, all multi-instrumentalists in their own right) have also embraced the sounds of, presumably, their adolescent heroes, such as Nirvana and the Ramones. Seth and Scott, trading lead vocal duties, croon, yell, howl, and whisper across their 20-year career as their production has streamlined and their music has entered new territory. And I?m fully on board for the ride, even as some missteps have been made within the past decade. The Avett Brothers, however, have time and again proven their universal songwriting talent, full of hooks and poppy sensibilities wrapped in a tradition older than the templates set by the 1950s and ?60s. Nevertheless, they synthesize all these elements beautifully, and after somehow missing the release of their tenth album, CLOSER THAN TOGETHER, in October 2019, I had to bring them all together now to explore The Avett Brothers? discography. That aforementioned self-titled EP, as well as THE GLEAM (2006) and THE SECOND GLEAM (2008) EPs, won?t be considered for this ranking, but certainly deserve special mention as moody, acoustic pieces.
#10 ? CLOSER THAN TOGETHER (2019)
Favorite track: ?Bleeding White?
And so I?m a little saddened to start out by putting that new album, The Avett Brothers? tenth, at the bottom of the list. CLOSER THAN TOGETHER is a foray into more socially conscious lyrics rather than those of personal reflection, optimistic romance, and bluesy strife. It?s an exploration with mixed results, while musically the record stays, generally, in a low-key malaise that never showcases the band?s ability to create solid bops and emotionally affecting, atmospheric ballads. ?Bleeding White,? CLOSER THAN TOGETHER?s opening track, is a rollicking rock song, a sound never really revisited on the rest of the album. It?s just hard to recommend the record as any kind of entrance to The Avett Brothers when so many better, diverse ones came before it. It?s worth mentioning here, however, that even at this ?low point,? The Avett Brothers produce a mildly entertaining, worthwhile listening. And that?s clearly the case for the rest of the albums on this list, at least.
#9 ? THE CARPENTER (2012)
Favorite track: ?Live and Die?
I may use the word ?malaise? too much when describing music, and that may be because I?m not very good at describing music. But when I deploy the term, it?s because I feel that an album never feels quite so cohesive and affecting, nor does it produce even a select few standout songs. That?s the effect of THE CARPENTER, the start of some troubles for The Avett Brothers, at least from my perspective. If it wasn?t for one album of the group?s four from the 2010s, I?d be much more concerned about their direction. The reason is that the band?s poppy awareness, couched in a convincing blend of polish and rawness, has become a resident of mainstream production. That?s not always a bad thing, as I?ve expressed many times as a big ol? pop lover, but The Avett Brothers? appeal was never entirely that. The majority of THE CARPENTER just doesn?t ?hit different,? almost entirely really except for ?Live and Die,? a sweet and sprightly tune with a catchy chorus.
#8 ? MAGPIE AND THE DANDELION (2013)
Favorite track: ?Vanity?
The follow-up to THE CARPENTER, recorded during the same sessions, rises just slightly above the malaise to provide both a more cohesive sound and also just one or two more standout songs. MAGPIE AND THE DANDELION is brighter than THE CARPENTER, and its best song, ?Vanity,? sweeps around with wistful piano and crooning before shifting into a totally different tone and a pounding, operatic rock beat. It?s somewhat indicative of the record?s improved and engaging progression, supported by ?Never Been Alive? and ?You Are Mine? especially.
#7 ? COUNTRY WAS (2002)
Favorite track: ?Jenny and the Summer Day?
The Avett Brothers? debut was a grounded yet fun exploration of country, folk, and ragtime with a refreshing simplicity and brevity. Across the eight tracks of COUNTRY WAS, the then-trio conjure a feeling of breezy nostalgia. It?s not unchallenging, however; and by challenging, I mean it doesn?t settle into complacency. ?Jenny and the Summer Day? is a light song, but its pop hooks don?t let the track fall into a mire of ?easy listening? country. The same could be said for the entirety of COUNTRY WAS. The record is ?raw,? not in a sort of angry or grating way, but in a down-home, earnest ode to a sort of music not exactly produced in Nashville.
#6 ? FOUR THIEVES GONE: THE ROBBINSVILLE SESSIONS (2006)
Favorite track: ?Colorshow?
FOUR THIEVES GONE: THE ROBBINSVILLE SESSIONS is probably The Avett Brothers? most experimental album. I say that because it?s probably their most eclectic too, showing off some of that rock and punk influence often ascribed to an undercurrent below the good ol? Carolina boys? honky tonk. They accomplish this with general success, but also a middling overall product. First of all, FOUR THIEVES GONE is comprised of 17 songs and runs over 70 minutes. Anyone who knows me knows I like a nice lil short album or movie or video game or what have you. I guess I have a short attention span. However, the record?s epic scope is also to be respected, and as you?ll soon see, a long runtime does not disqualify something from my appreciation. But in spite of, or perhaps because of, its relatively radical nature, FOUR THIEVES GONE doesn?t yield a ton of songs to just, you know, really get down to. However, ?Colorshow? is the obvious exception, a driving, constantly accelerating, swelling?anthem, I guess? In any event, it?s one of The Avett Brothers? best songs.
#5 ? A CAROLINA JUBILEE (2003)
Favorite track: ?Love Like the Movies?
The Avett Brothers certainly did not experience a sophomore slump with A CAROLINA JUBILEE. Although it doesn?t thematically or musically step too far away from COUNTRY WAS, the record nevertheless sounds fuller, and the songwriting present is stronger and catchier. I don?t have a ton to say about it because it?s just a satisfying full listen, drifting into bluegrass and providing the heartbreak and love songs with wit, restraint, and skill.
#4 ? TRUE SADNESS (2016)
Favorite track: ?You Are Mine?
TRUE SADNESS is The Avett Brothers? best album of the ?10s, a reaffirmation that the quartet still has the ability to really engage its listeners, or at least me. It opens with the incredibly upbeat and poppy ?Ain?t No Man,? an apparent contradiction to the record?s title and titular track. But the band really succeeded in creating an overall feeling of morose resignation and sensitivity while blending electronic sounds and modern production with country twang and Seth and Scott?s crowing. ?You Are Mine? is technically a light song, perhaps, but it?s the best at communicating TRUE SADNESS? tone. The title track is on-the-nose sad (although good) and ?Divorce Separation Blues? is wryly fun, but I can?t get over the synths of ?You Are Mine.?
#3 ? EMOTIONALISM (2007)
Favorite track: ?Die Die Die?
Here is where we get to the albums I just might be able to swap in and out from any position in the top three. And yet, here we also are with EMOTIONALISM at #3. Considered the band?s breakout album that led to their ?major label? debut and the production influence of Rick Rubin, nearly every song of EMOTIONALISM is sing-along-worthy, a trait shared with The Avett Brothers? two other best records. But they hit just a little less hard, although opener ?Die Die Die? is a tremendous example of the band?s superior genre-blending, as well as their ability to fuse sadness and an upbeat tone.
#2 ? MIGNONETTE (2004)
Favorite track: ?The New Love Song?
As my introduction to The Avett Brothers, I?ll always hold MIGNONETTE pretty close to my heart. I was just floored by how thoroughly the group tapped into an American sensibility and tradition that popular country has totally co-opted for overwrought branding and insensitive identification. And I was doubly impressed by the band?s ability to shine through with songwriting littered with clever pop hooks and simple emotion. As mentioned in reference to FOUR THIEVES GONE, I?m not unable to appreciate a lengthy experience. With 20 tracks and a runtime of 73 minutes, MIGNONETTE is certainly that. But it?s an incredible, thoroughly enjoyable experience that somehow provides a new, resonant outlook, song after song. ?The New Love Song? was a hard choice for favorite, but if you listen, I hope you?ll hear what I?m talking about.
#1 ? I AND LOVE AND YOU (2009)
Favorite track: ?Ten Thousand Words?
It was incredibly difficult to decide whether MIGNONETTE or I AND LOVE AND YOU deserved the top spot. I was inclined to give it to MIGNONETTE, my first Avett Brothers album but also a precursor to the streamlining of the band?s sound that would commence with I AND LOVE AND YOU (their first collaboration with Rubin). But ultimately, I had to concede that I AND LOVE AND YOU yields hit after hit, 13 times, and that adds up to a superior album. Truly, there is not a song from I AND LOVE AND YOU I would miss more dearly than any other; each track is in its perfect place and shifts expectations in just the right away coming right off the heels of another. ?Ten Thousand Words? had to be chosen just because of my relation to its lyrics, an incisive, honest observation that represents The Avett Brothers? emotional appeal laid over a sort of American primacy.
?Ain?t it like most people, I?m no different. We love to talk on things we don?t know about.?