With the city of Nashville in a constant state of reinvention, calling yourself “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band” is certainly a planted flag that is bound to turn heads among the old guard, as well as those who are new to “Music City, USA.” Over 30 years into their career, the genre-pushing band Lambchop has held true to this mantle. The band was one of the first to sign to Durham, North Carolina independent label Merge—helmed by Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance—in 1993 with the single “Nine,” and has remained there ever since.
Led by the everyman poetry and worn-in denim baritone of songwriter Kurt Wagner, the band has taken an open-door policy approach to its membership over the years, sometimes widening its tent to welcome close to 20 members. The constant state of new collaborations between members and Wagner has resulted in a shapeshifting aesthetic to the band. At certain points in their massive discography, Lambchop has pulled influences from classic country, soul, chamber pop, electronic music and the indie rock of the day to make a soup that is all their own, and puzzling in the best and most exciting ways.
With the band’s new album Showtunes out today (May 21), we decided it was high time to delve into the band’s vast and rewarding output to rank their albums from least essential to their absolute best. With so many high-water marks and rare missteps, it’s no small task choosing favorites. But, goddamn it, somebody’s gotta do it!
Digging into the long-running band’s history, there are no shortages of delightful nuggets to lose yourself in, with numerous singles and EPs along the way. While their 1996 7-song EP Hank ranks amongst some of the band’s best material, along with selections from their two B-sides and rarities collections, and the absolutely essential 2009 live album Live at XX Merge, I’ve decided to stick with Lambchop’s 14 proper full-length releases. With such a strong catalog, the space for wiggle room in ranking these records is slim, to say the least. And upon relistening to these albums, I was struck by how momentous and rewarding they are while listening with critical ears. With another stunning release to add to the pile, it only adds to Wagner and Lambchop’s legacy as one of the most interesting and consistently great bands of the last 30 years.
14. Trip (2020)
Last year’s six-song all-covers release Trip holds the last spot on this list not because it is necessarily worse than anything Lambchop has released over their nearly 30-year career—it’s not a bad record by any means—but it deserves this distinction because it is possibly the least essential release when discussing the band’s vast catalog. With the record only being six songs, you could argue this is technically an EP, rather than a full-length. But at almost 38 minutes, it’s hardly a breezy affair, though you can’t blame the band for having fun with these selections, like the opening 13-minute version of Wilco’s “Reservations” or the robo-funk reimagining of The Supremes’ “Love is Here and Now You’re Gone.” All in all, Trip is worthy of space on your record shelf on the strength of the album’s closer “Weather Blues” alone—an unreleased track co-written by Yo La Tengo’s James McNew—which finds Wagner and the band in full tear-in-your-beer country mode, a gear the band hasn’t driven in since 2012’s Mr. M.
If fans of the band had missed the cinema-sized chamber pop of Lambchop’s opus Nixon after the more mellow Is A Woman, then they got their fill of break-the-bank orchestration when the band released not one, but two records in 2004. Released on the same day both individually and as a packaged release, Aw C’mon and No You C’mon were both recorded with the famed countrypolitan orchestra The Nashville String Machine, who had provided lush string arrangements for hit records dating back to the ‘70s with artists like Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson. While the pairing was an exciting prospect and made sense on paper—the sprawling double-album project has its fair share of highlights—the massive orchestra and the genre-shifting band never fully gel, and wind up sounding laid-back and almost adult contemporary in execution. It should be noted, however, that guitarist and member William Tyler (yup, that one!) stepped up his game on this record and co-wrote two of its best songs, “Being Tyler’’ and “Women Help To Create The Kind of Men They Deserve.” Their most maximalist endeavor yet, this dual release was an ambitious and risky move from the band that didn’t quite land as well as others in their discography. But as is always the case with Lambchop, the next record always gives them the chance to burn down whatever came before.
With their thrilling sophomore album How I Quit Smoking, Lambchop seemed more primed than ever to crack open leader Kurt Wagner’s brain and let his kaleidoscopic view of the world out to a wider audience. But just a year later, the band quickly followed up that early triumph with the brisk eight-song—and hilariously named—Thriller. The album leans away slightly from the sounds the band conjured on Smoking, sounding more aggressive and noisier than they had thus far. In an unexpected left turn, the band hands off the lyrical baton in the middle of the album, choosing to cover three songs by their Merge labelmates East River Pipe. In an interview with Uncut in 2016, Wagner explained that the decision to cover these songs came from his love of Pipe’s reclusive leader Fred Cornog. He explained that by putting them on the record, it might draw attention to his genius and lead to a bigger future for them. “The main thing was that Fred [Cornog, of East River Pipe] never tours, and never played live, and I think we started playing his songs live because it was the only way anyone would hear them,” said Wagner. “I mean, I was trying to get him just to leave the house and come down and play on them with us, but that wasn’t possible.”
With the two hilariously profane, standout opening tracks “My Face Your Ass” and “Your Fucking Sunny Day,” the title track that consists of five minutes of droning noise, and the final two ragged country ballads—“The Old Fat Robbin” and “Superstar in France”—the album really suffers only from a lack of Wagner’s own material and personality. It’s a balance the band would nail on their next album.
For a band that is characterized by rebellion against characterization, it’s a bold statement to say that Lambchop’s newest album, Showtunes, is the most experimental and double take-inducing album in their vast discography. Moving away from the gorgeous and, at times, new age-feeling textures of FLOTUS and This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You), Wagner and the band opt for more cold and abrasive industrial templates with moments of free jazz exploration. Aided by washes of loud synth bass and mariachi horns, Wagner sings in an echo-drenched croon on the seven-minute centerpiece “Fuku,’’ sounding more like late-period Scott Walker than his old signature folksy, tobacco-stained drawl. With highlights like the gorgeous autotuned “Unknown Man” and the stark piano balladry of opener “A Chef’s Kiss,” Showtunes is a bleak, yet never downtrodden release from a band that keeps pushing themselves as they refine with age.
With their 10th album OH (Ohio), Lambchop released their most streamlined and trimmed-fat version of themselves. Looking to shake off even more of the chamber-pop excess of their past, they took it one step further than their previous album Damaged, sounding the most “indie-rock” with a capital “I” the band had in some time. You could even go as far as to say that “Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr.” and the unimpeachable “National Talk Like a Pirate Day” rock. But much like the slightly pornographic painting by Michael Peed for the album’s artwork, OH (Ohio) is also Wagner’s horniest collection of tunes. “And I’m gonna find you, find you like some beautiful poem,” he growls sweetly to a woman he meets at a club in “I’m Thinking of A Number” before adding, “ And you’re gonna like it / Just wait till we get home.” With the album closing on a sweet note with the cover of Don Williams’ “I Believe In You,” OH (Ohio) turns off the lights with no dirty dishes in the sink, resulting in one of Lambchop’s breeziest and most satisfying listens.
While their previous album Mr. M was a more than suitable entry into the Lambchop canon, with 11 albums that pulled from country, soul and chamber pop influences, it seemed as though the band needed a change to their sound to keep things interesting. With its minimalistic instrumentation full of light electronics and Wagner’s heavily affected vocoder vocals, 2016’s FLOTUS broke new and exciting ground for a band that had always made a point to never be tethered by expectations. The album—the title of which stands for “For Love Often Turns Us Still”—is bookended by the 12-minute opening meditation on life’s fragility “In Care of 8675309” and the 18-minute hypnotic closer “The Hustle,” which describes the small beauties in life that you share with loved ones when you tune out the rest of the world. In between, the album is full of inspired moments that deconstruct the band’s typically earthbound feel for something more in line with Wagner’s experimentations in his electronic side project HeCTA. The album would mark a new chapter for the band.
If Kurt Wagner had a kindred spirit in music, it was definitely the eccentric Athens, Georgia, songwriter Vic Chesnutt. In 1998, Lambchop was even recruited by the singer to be his backing band for the fantastic album The Salesman and Bernadette and Chesnutt even lent some drawings to the cover art of Lambchop’s own release from that same year, What Another Man Spills. His untimely passing in 2009 was devastating for Wagner, and led to one of Lambchop’s most heartbreaking and stirring releases, Mr. M. Released in 2012 and dedicated to the fallen artist, the album is full of lush orchestral arrangements that are never overcrowded like on the band’s two 2004 releases Aw C’mon and No You C’mon. Sonically, the record is a perfect amalgamation of both those records and the laid-back country-jazz stylings of Is A Woman. It’s a suitable and respectful backdrop that allows Wagner to grieve for its 68-minute runtime. This emotional urgency leads to numerous dark-night-of-the soul ruminations, such as “Gone Tomorrow,” where Wagner tries to reckon with a world that has been so unexpectedly turned upside-down. “The fire, it almost starts itself / Looks like water comes from somewhere else,” he sings in the song’s chorus, concluding, “And I can use a thing or two today.” But no other song grapples with the fragility of life quite like the album’s centerpiece “Mr. Met,” where Wagner proposes this difficult truth; “Friends make you sensitive / Loss made us idiots / Fear makes us critical / Knowledge is difficult.” Later he concludes, “Sleep made you possible / ‘Dude’ makes this laughable,” one final goodbye to his friend that he will only now see in his dreams. Mr. M is an emotional high-water mark for Wagner as a lyricist and storyteller, and the rest of the band was able to meet this moment to create one of Lambchop’s most moving records to date.
Lifting the name of such a commercially beloved album as Michael Jackson’s Thriller was a relatively low-stakes move for an indie-rock band like Lambchop. After all, The Replacements did a similar trick with their album Let it Be back in the ‘80s. But to steal the name of one of underground music’s most infamous releases—Black Flag’s 1981 album Damaged— was audacious on a whole new level. Association aside, though, there may have not been a better title suited to Wagner’s wellbeing at that time. In a profile in the Washington Post, Wagner detailed a painful surgery he underwent when he discovered that a virulent cyst had eaten away part of his jaw. Surgeons had to remove part of his hip in order to reconstruct his jaw, which led to the lyrics in the album’s chaotic and semi-autobiographical “The Decline of Country and Western Civilization”: “Soon I can do just what I please / But I still hold my hip each time I sneeze.”
You would think that this health scare would find Wagner and the rest of the band in a morose headspace, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Lyrically, Wagner is as much of a wiseass here as he’s ever been. On “I Would Have Waited Here All Day,” Wagner depicts a character who covets his alone time while his wife is out at work (“My favorite hour of any day / Is the one before you get home”). While it’s easy to pick out songs that showcase his deep poetic prowess, you can’t really leave out Wagner’s twisted sense of humor. Perhaps fatigued from the overblown countrypolitan orchestrations on Aw C’mon and No You C’mon, the band sounds muscular and lean in a way they hadn’t since their debut. The guitars provided by Paul Niehaus and William Tyler glide between Steven Cropper’s playing on Stax records and off-center, sometimes-dissonant alt-country. Stripped of any larger ambitions, Lambchop came out swinging and reinvigorated with a collection of songs that melded their typical touchstones of country, soul and indie rock for one of their most satisfying top to bottom albums.
With their first proper full-length, I Hope You’re Sitting Down, Wagner and the core group that would make up Lambchop officially introduced themselves to the world. While the arrangements on the record aren’t exactly meat-and-potatoes rock and roll—there are keys, pedal steel, strings, and occasional horns and woodwinds throughout—they are the closest the band ever sounded to being inline with the offbeat lo-fi folk and indie rock of that time period. The rocking “Because You Are The Very Air He Breathes” lets guitarist Jim Watkins run wild with Crazy Horse levels of pummeling distortion, while the sweet and plaintive “Soaky in the Pooper” tells the story of a finding someone who had committed suicide in a public bathroom. The latter shows Wagner’s offbeat yet devastating lyrical abilities, and is early evidence of him being one of the most gifted storytellers of his generation. Best of all is “I Will Drive Slowly,” with its lightly plucked banjo and lush horns—a song about how love can calm your anxieties that was turned into a truly transcendent live moment on the band’s immortal Live at XX Merge performance some years later. As their first stride off the starting blocks, I Hope You’re Sitting Down is Lambchop as weekend warriors working towards something much greater.
Following 2016’s exciting electronic journey FLOTUS, it seemed as though Kurt Wagner and the rest of the band had more ground to explore as they released the similarly textured This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You) just three years later. But while this may make it seem like This is just more of the same, it is a much more focused and considered listen than its predecessor. Where FLOTUS had a number of movements that could barely be described as “songs” in the traditional sense, This is full of full-fledged pop songs that use Wagner’s newfound love for vocoder and autotune on his vocals to reach soulful heights his range could not reach before. Less minimalist than FLOTUS, this album finds the band—especially Tony Crow’s ever-tasteful piano and Merge label head Mac McCaughan’s brother Matthew’s drumming— able to find the right moments to add human touch and heart to these intergalactic transmissions. Lyrically, Wagner is in a fragmented and panicked mindset through much of the album, which makes total sense for the time that it was written. All but two of the eight songs hover around six minutes, with many themes recurring throughout, like “the new not normal” in which we as a nation found ourselves halfway through the Trump administration (“The New Isn’t So You Anymore” and “The Air is Heavy and I Should Be Listening to You”), and the need for a spiritual reawakening of sorts. The latter feeling gets hammered home as the thick synthetic sound that had coated the band’s sound over the last two records is quickly rinsed away with the brief acoustic ballad “Flower.” With a harmonica line that was initially introduced on the album’s opener “The New Isn’t So You Anymore,” it’s one of those songs that only Wagner can really write—where in the face of rampant stupidity, with evil at every corner, he can still tap into what makes life worth enjoying. “If I could give you three hundred dollars to record just three words,” he sings, with his vocals finally unobstructed and unmasked, “I could make the perfect song.” It’s a promise he and Lambchop have been able to deliver on over and over, and especially with this late-career masterpiece.
With their fourth full-length What Another Man Spills, Lambchop decided to take fans in a fascinating new direction by dialing up their love of Isaac Hayes-era Stax production on a highly enjoyable mix of originals and covers by artists ranging from Curtis Mayfield to their pals Yo La Tengo, and once again East River Pipe. With a lineup now ballooning up to 14 members, Wagner and Lambchop were beginning to blur the lines between Glen Campbell’s rhinestone country schlock and ‘70s orchestra-accompanied soul. Wagner’s originals—like the opening one-two punch of “Interrupted” and “Saturday Option”—are strong enough to stand against their cover selections. But hearing the band have an all-out blast on these covers—with Wagner going full falsetto on Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love (Love Song)” and Frederick Knight’s “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long”—is the real reason why What Another Man Spills is such an essential piece of Lambchop’s discography. Lambchop would go on to release ingenious reimaginings of other artists’ work in the future, but this record would be the first where attempting these experiments would broaden the band’s sound for the better.
On the band’s second album How I Quit Smoking, Lambchop dove deeper into the bagged-cereal budget, Billy Sherrill-influenced countrypolitan and off-kilter soul they hinted at with their debut, landing on the sound that they would continue exploring on and off further into their career. It was a pivotal time for Lambchop, and their first time working in a bigger studio, with Merge giving them an actual budget to record. In a 2017 interview with VICE about one of the album’s standout tracks, “The Man Who Loved Beer”—which was adapted from an ancient Egyptian poem—Wagner explained how working with such a artist-friendly label afforded them the ability to explore the studio. “We were making a record on a record label,” he explained, “the first album we were just in the studio recording. We never had an intention of making a record in full, we just liked the idea of making recordings and trying to use the notion of what Nashville country music had at its disposal and trying to subvert that, I guess for our own purposes.”
At this point in their career, the band was starting to gain wider recognition outside of their little weird corner they’d carved out. David Byrne was such a fan of the album that he even covered “The Man Who Loved Beer” for his 2004 album, Grown Backwards.
Perhaps no other song album encapsulates Wagner’s artistic vision rounding into form than the tender ballad “Theöne.” The song builds with lush strings over delicately strummed electric guitar and catches Wagner at his most direct and sentimental, capturing the ebbs and flow of sharing a life with the one you love and the terrifying laundry-listing that goes into convincing a partner to bring another life into the world. “Have we lost sight of the sacrifice it takes to save a life?” he asks, later conceding, “If it’s ours then so be it / It’s just my wish that our world be that of reproductive bliss,” and assuring, “It’s just a thought, there’s no pressure.”
While their debut album showed the promise of Lambchop, more importantly, it gave them permission to come into their own on How I Quit Smoking. More than 25 years later, it’s the album that drove the flagpole down further for one of indie rock’s most curious and sacred treasures. With such classics as “Smuckers,” “All Smiles and Mariachi” and “Your Life As A Sequel,” it was the group’s first true zenith, and remains one of their greatest achievements.
Following up the critically acclaimed masterpiece Nixon was no small feat for Lambchop when they went back into the studio to record. But for a band that has always prided itself on creating ripples with a stiff middle finger, their grand statement with 2002’s Is A Woman was to turn down the bombast and excess of their previous work for a collection of songs that were much more contemplative and delicate than anything they had ever released before. While the band’s official lineup had turned into a clown car of musicians in the Y2K days, the majority of the tracks on the album focus on Wagner’s voice and guitar, with tasteful accompaniment as always from pianist Tony Crow. The songs take on a fantastic jazz-infused country style that sounds like John Prine attempting foul-mouthed standards, recorded with space and tender care. It would have been a risky move if the material was not some of the best Wagner has ever written. Many reviewers were perplexed by Wagner and the gang’s choices to retreat inward after the celebration that was Nixon. But as time has rewarded the record, songs like the fantastic opener “The Daily Growl,” which explores the weak and fragile male ego, offer soul-wrenching pathos and humanity to match their wildest orchestrations. It’s a record that requires patience, or at least a long drive with no passengers. When the drums finally kick in on the upbeat eighth track “D. Scott Parsley,” or when the closing title track switches a reggae rhythm to close out the record, it becomes clear that Lambchop may have been at the height of their powers on Nixon, but were finally in complete control with Is A Woman.
Could this slot really be reserved for any album other than Lambchop’s 2000 album Nixon? With their follow-up to What Another Man Spills, Lambchop created what will go down as their masterpiece—a sprawling suite of string-laden soulful country mixed with, at times, psych-leaning indie rock that found all of the band’s strengths and influences getting equal time without muscling the others out of the spotlight. While it was initially touted as a concept album about the muttering, disgraced president, there’s no real mention of him or cohesive story that ties the record together lyrically. Instead, Wagner’s skewed poetry depicts the struggles of everyday Americans walking on eggshells around each other (“Nashville Parent’’) and grinning through the pain in order to remain well-liked by their neighbors and friends (“Grumpus’’). Nixon’s crowning achievement is perhaps the band’s most well-known song, “Up With People.’’ With its propulsive rhythm and slow build, the song reaches dizzying heights, with a gospel choir chiming in to help Wagner rile up the downtrodden to organize before leaving these problems to the next generation to deal with—those who are both “doing” and “screwing up” their lives today.
Nixon created a peak for Lambchop that Wagner and his ever-revolving cast would always look to as a homebase. Not only were they able to build upon all of the strengths they had shown on their previous albums, but they were also able to blow away any preconceptions about what the band “should be” or “could be” going forward. The album was unanimously praised and in an appearance on Damien Abraham’s Turned Out a Punk podcast, Merge co-owner and Superchunk member Laura Ballance highlighted its brilliance, even comparing the band to the “Glenn Campbell of today.” It’s an apt comparison as song after song, Lambchop pulls you into their world with ease as the comically large orchestrations never veer towards an audio bellyache. If there was ever an ideal entry point into this constantly shifting and groundbreaking band’s output, Nixon is it.
Pat King is a Brooklyn-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.
Listen to Lambchop’s 2010 Daytrotter session below.