At a show in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2018, near the end of a second encore, John Darnielle approached the center-stage microphone and stared villainously into the crowd. “I have come with vengeance for Art Modell,” he deadpanned, before tiptoeing into a transgressively slower rendition of “Spent Gladiator 2.” Darnielle has always fully embodied the bloody-knuckled gunmen populating his songs. He hijacks fans’ phones and records himself howling during performances of “No Children.” And no matter the venue and no matter the city hosting him, Darnielle speaks gently and empathetically with whatever crowd he is performing for—as if those beloveds screaming his lyrics back at him have always been family.
For nearly 30 years, Darnielle, Peter Hughes, Jon Wurster and Matt Douglas, and the countless other voices and instrumentalists who’ve come in and out of the Mountain Goats fold since, have evaded the music industry’s tendency to inflict tectonic, murderous violence on acts of creative longevity. But with Dark in Here (coming Friday, June 25), their triumphant 20th studio album in 27 years, The Mountain Goats are well on their way to yet another victory lap—riding the urgent and necessary highs of their sharpest LP in nearly five years.
What started as a lo-fi solo project Darnielle recorded alone on a Panasonic boombox is now a blossoming, full-band orchestra, and a Mountain Goats record has become a genre within itself. Along the way, The Goats have cultivated a passionate fanbase as dedicated as Deadheads. At shows, front-row listeners carry recorders in their pockets and post the audio on internet archive sites. In lines outside venues, fans waiting for entry interrogate other fans about their favorite songs from the 2003 performance at the Mercury in Austin. When Darnielle pulls out a deep cut hidden in the tracklist of a now-forgotten, five-tracks-too-long compilation onstage, the crowd still sings every lyric with him as if it’s the band’s top-streamed song.
All Hail West Texas, the band’s last boombox record until 2020, gave Darnielle the space and notoriety to take The Mountain Goats to any height of his choosing. Three books, numerous sold-out tours and one everlasting Late Show performance of “This Year” with Stephen Colbert later, The Goats have written and toured the whole world over, still finding themselves as one of indie rock’s most distinctive outfits releasing music—each new record is somehow overshadowed by their fans’ dedication to the older stuff, while also expanding into the territories of younger, more diverse audiences. As long as there is still hope to be found in 20-year-old, static-swollen songs, or as long as there are kids still loitering in record stores, slowly discovering how to stay alive, The Goats will remain eternal.
Here are all of The Mountain Goats’ official studio LPs (sorry, no Ghana, Nine Black Poppies or Bitter Melon Farm) ranked, from a mess inside to an alpha rat’s nest.
[Note: We’ve updated this list, originally published June 23, 2021, to include Bleed Out.]
Fine but forgettable, Full Force Galesburg could easily pass as a compilation hastily thrown together. There are solid offerings populating the record, like “Twin Human Highway Flares” and “Weekend in Western Illinois,” but it’s one of the only times where a Goats project felt directionless. “New Britain” is a good opening track, but the record’s standout is “Snow Owl,” which could’ve been thrown onto any mid-aughts release and felt right at home. It’s the first time Peter Hughes is featured on a Goats project, so the band does earn bonus points for that.
If Nothing for Juice had come out before Sweden, when Darnielle was still finding his footing, the result would have registered as an uptick in his musical evolution. Instead, it’s merely a good record with few songs that have stood the test of time, or at least stood the test of 17 follow-ups. It’s messy, but “Alabama Nova” is a solid Alpha Couple early draft and “Going to Scotland” gives us one last glimpse of Rachel Ware’s radiance—part of what would be her final appearance on a Mountain Goats album.
Songs for Pierre Chuvin was more of an early-pandemic writing exercise than anything meant to be taken too seriously. Yet Darnielle used a time of great uncertainty and global turmoil to take us back to where he left us in 2002—just him, a guitar and his old Panasonic boombox—and that does count for something. Songs for Pierre Chuvin is a fun album that satisfies the nostalgia of longtime Goat Heads while also introducing newer fans to the relics that made Darnielle a household name in indie music. Closing track “Exegetic Chains” is a blast, with a timely lyrical nod to “This Year”—helping listeners make whatever sense of the world during COVID-19 they possibly can.
The Goats’ third installment in a very niche set of records, in which Darnielle backtracks through the landscape of his youth, is also the worst of the three. However, the uneventful instrumentals on In League With Dragons are saved by effortless lyricism. It’s a semi-rock opera named after Dungeons & Dragons and dedicated to washed-up heroes—with small pleasures like “Younger” and “Passaic 1975” keeping the record afloat. And “Doc Gooden,” sung from the perspective of the former Cy Young-winning Mets pitcher about the loneliness of popularity, is a classic example of Darniellian escapism. There’s something new to discover on this LP with every listen—and though the songs initially come off as too far of a dive into Darnielle’s own self-interests, they’re all much easier to digest once you return for another listen.
The last album in the Goats’ first era, The Coroner’s Gambit is a bright spot rising out of the four-year artistic lull the band had found itself in. Those years between Sweden and All Hail West Texas often feel like a blur, which makes more sense in the context that even the majority of the songs off this record are unremarkable. But like most Mountain Goats projects, the good always outweighs the bad. The title track and “Jaipur” are notable but underappreciated standouts. And though we were still two years away from a full-fledged album about the Alpha Couple, “There Will Be No Divorce” carries The Coroner’s Gambit along, whetting our appetites with a sneak peak of the lengths to which Darnielle would eventually go to tap into the psyches of our beloved and doomed spousal anti-heroes.
It’s easy to forget that The Mountain Goats put out an LP in-between Tallahassee and The Sunset Tree, but they did. And We Shall All Be Healed is a devastating catalog entry about the methamphetamine addicts Darnielle used to know growing up, as well as the drug addiction Darnielle struggled with in his own youth. It’s an unbalanced, imperfect record, but the great songs heavily outweigh the bad ones. “Palmcorder Yajna” and “Linda Blair Was Born Innocent” are now classics, but the standout track is still “Cotton”—one of the simplest, yet most breathtaking moments in the band’s catalog. Darnielle dedicates the song to the people who escaped addiction before disaster struck, as well as the people who tell their families they’ll quit using but knowingly won’t. It was his first attempt at explicitly personal lyricism, and is the perfect prologue to The Sunset Tree and Get Lonely.
The band’s last 4AD label release, and their highest-charting record until 2017’s Goths, The Life of the World to Come is an explicit, yet empathetic full-turn into the blips of biblical songwriting Darnielle had previously spent two decades working towards. And only John Darnielle could take verses from the Tanakh and New Testament and turn them into a 12-track album about the modern human condition through the lens of age-old morality. But the songs aren’t directly about the verses they’re titled after. Instead, they each cater to Darnielle’s strengths—allowing him to measure his vocal prowess up against his lyrical curiosities. “Genesis 3:23” is the story of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden, but told through the story of an anonymous tenant getting kicked out of their apartment. “Matthew 25:21” is a story of tragedy, catastrophe and profound loss—themes Darnielle had circled countless times when this LP hit the shelves.
The average pop song template of the last 50 years is centered around making the specific feel as general and widely accessible as possible, and Darnielle understands all too well how to write an inviting tune—because The Life of the World to Come is, at its core, a pop concept album, in that it collectively takes centuries-old stories, turns them modern and makes each listener believe they’ve lived through them a thousand times over.
The band left their niche era and returned to straight-to-the-point, personal storytelling on Getting Into Knives. It’s the most approachable Goats album since Get Lonely, and finds Darnielle ditching specific eccentricities in favor of broader stories of love, revenge and poetry. What elevates Getting Into Knives is that it couples the band’s most-ambitious instrumental output to date with the lyrical prowess of their pre-Tallahassee entries. “Picture of My Dress,” inspired by a tweet from Ohio poet Maggie Smith about a bride coasting down a sprawling highway, and the title track, an odyssey that is either a revenge fantasy against a stranger who burnt down the narrator’s house or a biblical man-versus-god folktale, are the highest points on a back-to-basics record—showcasing Darnielle’s ability to spin any story into a song that stays with us.
The first Goats release via Merge Records has one of their best opening tracks followed by a mixed bag of layered instrumental experiments and recurring Goat-lore motifs. That isn’t a bad thing, necessarily—because All Eternals Deck was the band’s first step towards string-heavy tunes, and it’s an LP with greater sonic rewards than punishments. “Damn These Vampires” has benefited in its old age, and cuts like “Age of Kings” and “Liza Forever Minelli” still hold up. The men’s choir featured as background singers on “High Hawk Season” remains one of the band’s most daring artistic choices. One of the few post-Sunset Tree projects with more filler than gems, All Eternals Deck appears underwhelming in retrospect, especially when stacked up against other 2011 indie records—but even the throwaway tracks on this LP could headline other less daring Mountain Goats releases.
What started it all: Darnielle in a room with nothing but his acoustic guitar and a boombox. There are points on Zopilote Machine where the LP sounds more like a Guided By Voices exercise than a Mountain Goats record, but, even then, few bands in the lo-fi universe have kicked off a career in more promising fashion. It’s the only Goats album to feature the entire Bright Mountain Choir (Rachel Ware, Amy Piatt, Sarah Arslanian and Roseanne Lindley) and “Sinaloan Milk Snake Song” is memorable for how their collective harmonies work so well with Darnielle’s lead. “Going to Georgia” is still a beloved song among the fanbase, even though Darnielle has since disowned the song amidst the violent, misogynistic views it echoes. If you take “Going to Georgia” out of the equation, the record still transcends the common laws of passing time, finding itself among a list of favorites of fans from all generations. Zopilote Machine is a fun 41 minutes of listening, and it’s the first look we get at the trajectory Darnielle’s songwriting was already on: his sharp ability to combine comedy, ordinary and tragedy—which all accumulate at the end of “Alpha Incipiens,” where we’re left with Darnielle singing, “The only thing I know is that I love you and I’m holding on.”
Released on the heels of Darnielle’s National Book Award-nominated Wolf in White Van, Beat the Champ is half-concept album, half-memoir. Inspired by growing up in front of a Spanish-dubbed TV watching luchadores rumble, the album is the first installment in Darnielle’s childhood nostalgia trilogy. It’s also the first “flashy” Mountain Goats record, yet still dabbling in character studies similar to All Hail West Texas. “Southwestern Territory” remains one of Darnielle’s quietest triumphs. “Foreign Object” is a blunt, attacking portrait of dirty wrestling and remains a crowd favorite at live shows due to Darnielle’s buoyant, dynamite renditions. Side-two ballad “Luna” touches on the angelicy of flamboyant showmanship, backed by one of the band’s prettiest instrumentals since the Get Lonely-era. It’s The Goats’ most divisive record—in that it’s everything to some fans, but unremarkable to the rest.
After making Getting Into Knives and Dark in Here back to back, Darnielle and company return to the conceptual worlds of In League With Dragons, Goths and Beat the Champ—tracking stories inspired by the mid-20th-century action films that were a means of comfort for Darnielle during the first leg of the pandemic. On Bleed Out, there are two resounding truths: Darnielle’s vocals are the best they’ve ever been, and the band’s apex has been 10 years long. “Training Montage” is one of the most memorable album openers the band has ever unleashed; “Guys on Every Corner” finds Matt Douglas’ saxophone dabbling beautifully in disco; the electric guitars on “Mark on You” simmer and scream like a chase sequence. Bleed Out is charming, memorable and foot-on-the-gas quick. It does what a Mountain Goats album is wont to do—the turns are telegraphed but, sometimes, there are jump cuts that surprise us, chord progressions that make us rewind. The Mountain Goats are 30 years into this game and the endings do feel familiar—but every time, they leave us wholly satisfied and thirsty for more. And that is the power of Darnielle’s always-evolving artistry.
In The Goats’ universe, there are infinite ways to inspire survival. What might seem like an overwrought theme to some is a cherished showcase of hope to others. After nearly a decade spent building a catalog primed to combat loneliness, trauma and heartbreak, Darnielle delivered an album bluntly opening and ending under the guise of just staying alive—all bent to the will of catchy choruses. “Cry for Judas” and the title track each tackle personal joy in the presence of being fallible. “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” and “The Diaz Brothers” are upticks in instrumental splendor, while “Harlem Roulette” is a memorable manifesto of freedom. The album’s overarching concept is inconsistent, but, as the title accurately suggests, Transcendental Youth, more often than not, earnestly points its compass towards the fires burning in our younger selves, encouraging us to “do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive.”
It’s hard to follow an album like The Sunset Tree, and Get Lonely is an unbalanced follow-up at best. But after the emotional upheaval of its predecessor, Get Lonely turns the volume down. Nine records into a discography resting on the shoulders of rushed deliveries, Darnielle inverts his own style and paces himself when telling the slow-burn story of a breakup—because all the protagonist has is time. Where The Sunset Tree gave us closure on the story it told, Get Lonely overdoses on loose ends. Sometimes diving into underused falsettos swimming against a singular guitar and crying piano, acidic lullabies like “Wild Sage” and “Songs for Lonely Giants” riff on how, in times of loss, even our surroundings become burdens. “Woke Up New” urges us all to move on from our grief, though some of us still aren’t sure what that looks like.
The best Goats albums have consistently been a melting pot of everything that works: sharp lyrics, climactic narratives, rich instrumentals and ordinary characters doing ordinary things. This LP checks every box. Written and recorded at the same time as Getting Into Knives, Dark in Here is the former’s lonely, brooding younger brother—a carbon corpse lurking around the edges of the nearest gas station, or visiting the ruins of a Russian drilling excavation site, alone. Yes, the record’s touch of loneliness feels heavier in the context of quarantine, despite it being recorded just a few weeks before lockdown in 2020, but its timely vibe—which could become dated once we move even farther into COVID damage control—leaves Dark in Here as the Goats’ clearest picture of a lifetime we all have shared together, not just a story of a despair we’re convinced we relate to. Darnielle dedicated “Arguing With the Ghost of Peter Laughner About His Coney Island Baby Review” to the late David Berman, and “The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower” will soon enough be essential to The Goats’ catalog and their concert setlists. This record is what we expected Get Lonely to be—always, fittingly, circling the drain on the promise of a looming disaster. The product is the band’s first, albeit unintentionally, urgent record—devastating and timely in its release, poignant and patient in its execution. “In a new universe, trying to find the mask that fits me,” Darnielle proclaims on “The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums,” soundtracking our worried reassimilation back into a world that has turned so forbidden in only a year.
Upon release, Tallahassee wasn’t the greatest collection of character-driven songs, but it has since become the record that hoisted The Goats into the upper echelons of indie rock. Darnielle tucked away the boombox and went into a studio to make a stellar alternative record about codependency and the balance of hatred, love and commitment in a marriage. Above it all, Tallahassee is uncomfortable, nonlinear and heart-wrenching. Of course there is “No Children,” a terrifying lambasting of spousal vitriol ending in togetherness. “Old College Try” is a harrowing but beautiful declaration of a love life surviving beyond the ache of two friends destroying each other. “Game Shows Touch Our Lives” is the record’s best moment, where we find the Alpha husband carrying his drunk Alpha wife up the stairs—followed by the ethos of the entire project, in which Darnielle sings, “Maybe everything that falls down eventually rises.”
Maybe the prettiest thing about The Sunset Tree is how it is now both an album and a beacon of inspiration. The record unfortunately succumbed to the Tumblr era sometime in the late-aughts, falling into the clutches of an entire generation pasting those quintessential lyrics from “This Year” over night sky stock photos. But eons beyond that, The Sunset Tree holds up better than 16 other albums have—because from top to bottom, it’s a ritualistic yet damning portrait of hope, love and domestic violence. Titled after a scene in Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, where a character beats his son for having a speech impediment, The Sunset Tree continues to inspire universes of new fans, caught up in abusive environments, just looking for a reason to hold on a while longer. “Love, Love, Love” and “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” take Darnielle’s childhood abuse in different directions, pivoting between ruminations on powerlessness, escape and revenge. But it’s the closing track, “Pale Green Things,” that’s the album’s triumph—where Darnielle learns of his abusive step-father’s passing and reminisces on when they spent a good day together at the race track, ending the record in a place where we relearn how love and family are still complicated, even in death. The Sunset Tree is a reflection on whether we can forgive those who hurt us in the name of love, and it still reminds us that we are not responsible for the violence inflicted on us by the people we live with. May we all find our own sunset trees to run to.
Nine Goat Heads out of 10 will tell you their favorite record is All Hail West Texas because, until 2020, it was the last album Darnielle recorded on his Panasonic boombox. It’s also a masterclass in character study. But even more so, All Hail West Texas is the first conceptual record Darnielle put to tape—tales of drug dependency, long-distance relationships, high school football and, collectively, total failure, all written during a period of intense personal loneliness. The product is one of the greatest three-track opening runs (“The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” “Fall of the Star High School Running Back” and “Color in Your Cheeks”) in indie history. At the time, it was only the sixth full-length nestled under Darnielle’s belt, but now, 14 records later, these tracks feel as fresh as they did two decades ago. Beneath all of them is the sentiment of finding someone to get forgotten with. And near the end of “Jenny,” when Darnielle sings out, “We were the one thing in the galaxy God didn’t have his eyes on,” just beyond that fleeting moment of joy, there is a disaster still swelling. You’ll never feel more on edge than when listening to All Hail West Texas.
It’s easy to forget about Heretic Pride. It doesn’t have the quotable pizzazz of The Sunset Tree, nor does it have the cult lovability of Tallahassee, but its neglect is exactly what makes it extraordinary within the band’s canon. After Get Lonely was swallowed by the still-lingering acclaim of The Sunset Tree, The Goats took two years to finish Heretic Pride—allowing the LP to get its own flowers, and rightfully so. Darnielle substituted self-criticism with fictional stories about depressing heroes. The product is a record full of every Goat lore relic imaginable: new parents, chemical containers, mouths pooling with blood, death metal band T-shirts and song titles that have nothing to do with their lyrics. Measuring side one up against side two is what we can imagine a pick-up game between Jordan and LeBron would look like. “Sax Rohmer #1” cuts its teeth on getting the piss beaten out of you but still making it home to your heart. When the thin plucks of Erik Friedlander’s cellos ring out on “San Bernardino,” Darnielle’s baritone proclaims, “You are splendid and we will never be alone in this world / No matter what they say, we’re gonna be okay.” Each track is meticulously written and arranged, filling a forgotten album with stories of forgotten people. So when Darnielle closes the final chorus of “Michael Myers Resplendent” with “try to get it right, while we’ve still got light,” he knows that, despite being trapped in flames that go on and on, they are never meant to burn forever.
The usual consensus is that a band’s 16th album in 23 years is probably not one of their greatest. But Goths, a transcendent, jazz homage to the new wave and gothic bands Darnielle grew up listening to, would be number one if not for “For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands.” The tracklist is heavily populated with songs of a romantic return to youth, forging a landscape any 1980s teen will fall in love with all over again. The only Mountain Goats album to not feature any guitars, Goths is a sonic outlier in the group’s discography—which makes the record all the more powerful and striking, given that Darnielle, Hughes and company are often quick to lean on the shoulders of familiarity, following their typical soft song-then-loud song formula. It’s true: If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. But after ditching a decades-old foundation on Goths, the reward is a daring indie revitalization—released during a time when guitar rock was beginning to find its footing in popular music again. “Stench of the Unburied” and “Wear Black” are among the best vocal moments in the band’s three decades of work. And the closing track, “Abandoned Flesh,” marvelously ends an hour-long marination on the ordinary that gives life to all we have left in remembrance: Wikipedia page educations and death.
Despite the album’s namesake and Swedish alternative song titles, Sweden is not a record about the country, but one about love. With stops in Korea, New York, Bolivia, California and elsewhere, Darnielle takes his signature destructive romance global. In each love song there is a lingering worry of everything falling apart just as fast as it came together. From the simplicity of a hot New York summer transposed into two people becoming vulnerable with one another in “Going to Queens” to a protagonist briefly falling in love with a stranger on a Korean street in “Downtown Seoul,” Sweden is a power plant of remembrance dedicated to the simplest acts of affection. And it’s in the first chorus of “Snow Crush Killing Son,” where Darnielle sings, “I know you’re changing / Goddamn you for that,” that we get our first glimpse into a universe that is still expanding 21 records in—one full of doorways and destructive people we can’t help but offer our sympathies to, because within their humanity is also growth. Sweden gives us, in full, what every other Mountain Goats record only subtly gets at: how beneath the complexities and fallacies of every person, there is a widening gap ready to be filled with forgiveness. How even the mundanity of our average, nobody stories deserves to be eternal.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.
Watch a 2009 Mountain Goats show from the Paste archives below.