Records Ranked: Barenaked Ladies

I believe there’s only one band or artist every person can say they grew up with. For me, that’s Barenaked Ladies. They were my first concert when I was 4 years old and I’ve gone on to see them live a grand total of 8 times. Most of the albums listed here soundtracked parts of my life. In honor of their induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame the timing was right to look back at their catalogue at large and celebrate its many ups and downs. This list only includes the Ladies’ proper studio albums – so at the top there needs to be honorable mentions given to Rock Spectacle (one of the best live albums EVER), Snacktime!, and Barenaked For The Holidays.

 

#11. Silverball – As a long time fan of the Ladies the most bizarre parts of Silverball are the extremely poppy attempts at singles. No one would accuse this band of ever having rough edges but songs like “Piece Of Cake,” “Hold My Hand” and “Duct Tape Heart” are devoid of their usual twists or clever wordplay. Without it these songs sound like teeny bopper rejects. The tracks released pre-album were encouraging at least, “Say What You Want” is a strong mid tempo jam with lots of great harmony and “Silverball,” is a well executed, albeit cheesy, metaphor song. But aside from the strong opener “Get Back Up”  the rest of Silverball tends to blend in as a mesh of forgettable adult contemporary.

 

#10. Fake Nudes – Just like Silverball the pre-album releases of “Bringing It Home” and “Looking Up” were relatively encouraging. Another positive is that Fake Nudes is the first of the three Gavin Brown produced BNL albums where his thick production generally stays out of the way – as evident on the strong “Canada Dry,” “Sunshine” and “We Took The Night.” Perhaps the most unique element of this album is that features the heaviest percentage of Kevin Hearn led songs. For those of us who find his voice and style an acquired taste, it was a bit too strong of a dose. There’s enough good on Fake Nudes to shake the feeling I had after Silverball like the guys had lost it all together but this is now two largely discardable efforts in a row and has me wondering if their days of turning in great albums are over.

#9. Grinning Streak While All In Good Time did its best to remain relatively democractic song-to-song, Grinning Streak became the Ed Robertson show many projected the band would become after Steven Page left. The album definitely hurts for this lack of variety as several Robertson songs seemed half baked at best. Side B limps to the finish line with such forgettable cuts as “Best Damn Friend” and “Give It Back To You.” With that said “Boomerang” and “Odds Are” remain two of the bands best songs in this incarnation and I really like the song “Gonna Walk” which has turned into a nice live moment for them. This album is the band’s first effort with producer Gavin Brown who has now helmed the last three Ladies albums. Brown’s electronically tinged sonic influence comes with mixed results on Grinning Streak – it really works on “Keeping It Real” and “Limits” but overshadows the songs in other spots. This is certainly not a weak record but it’s great moments are far and far between.

 

#8. Everything To Everyone – Over produced, too polished, and way too loud, BNL is at times completely sanitized on Everything To Everyone. Even songs that are firmly in the Ladies’ songwriting style like “Maybe Katie,” “Testing 1,2,3” and “Upside Down” are sabotaged and hardly recognizable because of the bloated, piercing nature of the production. Choosing another pseudo hip hop song as a lead single again was uninspiring to say the least and combined with oddball lyrics, “Another Postcard” was doomed as a potential hit song. Not that there was a ton to choose from considering this album has some of the band’s most forgettable outputs including “Aluminum,” “Shopping,” and “Second Best.” There are some great moments but as a whole Everything to Everyone is frustratingly inconsistent. It’s easily the weakest Steven Page-era album.

 

#7. Maroon There are a lot of bands that crumble in the following-up-the-breakthrough-album spot in their career so props to the Ladies for turning in a mature and compact collection (produced by music legend Don Was) that kept their momentum rolling. In what has since been admitted as a calculated move, Steven Page’s voices dominates Maroon, taking lead on 10 of 13 songs. His contributions are noticeably more literary and expansive. When pulled off, like on “Conventioneers,” “Sell, Sell, Sell,” and “Helicopters,” they make for some of his all time best contributions. And yet lead single “Pinch Me” with a Robertson lead vocal is the song that is remembered most. While it can be seen as “One Week” part 2 it is a better encapsulation of what made the Page/Robertson writing team great – all at once funny, poignant, and melancholy. Aside from the “just made you say underwear” lyric any humor on Maroon is found through the cracks in the form of cynicism and wit. At times, like the Pet Sounds– y finale “Tonight Is The Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheel,” it gets a little too pretentious for the band’s good. 

 

#6. All In Good Time – Even the most ardent of supporters had to be skeptical about what a Steven Pages-less Barenaked Ladies would sound like. But in the midst of what must have been a great deal of uncertainty and pressure the new 4 piece turned in one of BNL’s strongest efforts start to finish. The band sounds like remarkably cohesive unit, so much so that it makes E2E and BLAM appear scattered and compartmentalized in retrospect. It was a nice change of pace to see the “backline” members of the band have larger roles on All in Good Time in lieu of Page’s absence. Tyler Stewart shines as a formidable backing vocalist and Jim Creeggan’s two songs “On The Lookout” and “I Saw It” ranking among the album’s best. But the most noticeable change is in Robertson, who’s writing is startlingly and uncharacteristically raw. Though I maybe could’ve done without some of the lyrics on blatant Page pot shot songs like “You Run Away,” “I Have Learned” and “Golden Boy,” it’s hard to not respect the intimacy and emotion behind them.

#5. Barenaked Ladies Are Me/Are Men – Technically two separate albums but recorded at the same time and released at once…sort of. Considering the quantity of material it’s a surprisingly balanced set with Robertson in particular having an equal amount of strong songs on Are Me and Are Men. Typically a double album is a way of kicking the proverbial door down and exploring all sorts of artistic avenues (think The White Album or Songs In The Key Of Life) but BNL doesn’t really do that here. There aren’t many risk taking songs aside from “Fun and Games.” Anyone expecting an eclectic use of such an elongated canvas will be disappointed. But, personally, after being disappointed with some of Maroon and large parts of E2E, I saw this album as a welcome return to form. “Adrift,” “Bull In a China Shop,” “Maybe You’re Right,” “Wind It Up,” “Another Spin,” and “Beautiful” are some of the strongest highlights.

#4. Born On A Pirate Ship – Following the disappointing reception to their second album and the departure of original keyboardist Andy Creeggan, the first four piece edition of BNL rallied for Born On A Pirate Ship. It’s in some ways a return to the aesthetic of Gordon but the quirky energy here is derived much more from the music itself rather than pop culture references or the personality of the band members. A song like “Spider In My Room” is a straight ahead performance from the band’s perspective, but the addition of a Native American tribal chorus singing backups makes it idiosyncratic. Ironically the only song that doesn’t really fit into this tableau at all is the album’s lone biggest hit, “The Old Apartment.” But overall there’s a noticeable growth in the craftsmanship of the songwriting on this album – “Straw Hat And Old Dirty Hank,” “When I Fall,” and “Just a Toy” are all brilliantly executed storytelling songs. Steven Page’s dark turns on “This Is Where It Ends” and “Break Your Heart” are stand out moments that irreversibly established him as this band’s tragic hero.

 

#3. Stunt – Stunt is the album that broke the band in the United States and it remains their biggest seller. #1 single “One Week” comes from this album, as does other modest hits “It’s All Been Done” and “Call And Answer.” But this is hardly a record buoyed by it’s hits. Unlike a lot of their other work the depth and variance songwriting wise here is dictated by genuine human emotion and experience rather than the absurd and ironic. Page sings wistfully about early love/loss, (“In the Car”) booze (“Alcohol”), and settling down (“She’s On Time”) while Robertson sings about crappy jobs (“Never Is Enough”), sleep deprivation (“Who Needs Sleep?”) and the struggles of getting pregnant (“Long Way Back Home”).  Stunt is the first album with Kevin Hearn as a full fledged member of the band and he has some impressive instrumental highlights, namely his guitar solo on “In The Car.” Sonically there is a loose current of an Americana vibe on many of the tracks which is fitting considering it was recorded in Austin, Texas.

 

#2 Maybe You Should Drive – The most bizarre thing about Maybe You Should Drive is that it’s probably the least Barenaked Ladies sounding Barenaked Ladies record and yet it’s the first one I’d recommend to most people as a front door to the band because it goes completely against all of their stereotypes. In hindsight I can definitely see why it wasn’t successful at the time- the fun loving, folk-y goofballs from Gordon are replaced by powering electric guitars and a joint melancholy persona. Unlike any other Ladies album, dark colors are supplemented by lighter ones as opposed to vice versa. Some songs are pointedly somber like “Am I The Only One?” and “You Will Be Waiting,” others like “Jane,” “Intermittently” and “Great Provider” more subversively so.  The sophomore slump and “difficult second album” are musical cliches for a reason. Perhaps this is not the album they should have made at the time. But it holds up as an incredibly important chapter in their canon.

 

#1. Gordon – As much as I didn’t want to be that guy, Gordon at #1 is the only choice. Every song on this album is a classic in one way or another, either in commercial popularity or as a fan favorite. The manic drive of “Grade 9,” “King of Bedside Manor” and “Crazy.” The charming jazz undertones of “Hello, City” and “I Love You.” The pop culture hilarity of “Brian Wilson,” “Be My Yoko Ono” and “New Kid On The Block.” The poignant reflection of “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” “Box Set” and “The Flag.” And oh yeah, that little song about money and kraft dinner. Gordon is almost eclectic to a fault. It’s quite the ride as an album experience. But it’s undeniably tied together by this band’s naiveté and passion for celebrating everything they love about music, while inadvertently creating greatness of their own.

 

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