I’ve tried to include every album and EP Conor Oberst has made, but there are some omissions to avoid repetition.
32. Water – 1993 (Conor Oberst)
Here’s the thing: Conor Oberst was thirteen when he made this. Thirteen. The guitarwork is sometimes a bit off, but the songs are remarkably well-structured given his age. In fact, if they were shortened slightly they would maybe be re-listenable.
31. Here’s to Special Treatment – 1994 (Conor Oberst)
His second album is basically more of the same. While the songs are slightly stronger, his voice is a bit more annoying. The lyrics to ‘Space Invaders’ are pretty good though.
30. The Soundtrack to My Movie – 1995 (Conor Oberst)
On his third album, the arrangements start to go beyond just Conor and his guitar, but apart from ‘In My Sights’ the songs themselves are still very much lacking.
29. A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 – 1998 (Bright Eyes)
The first Bright Eyes album. While the songs are more developed than Oberst’s juvenilia, they’re still a long way from Letting Off the Happiness, released later the same year. Some of the material is difficult to listen to – ‘Supriya’ and ‘Solid Jackson’ in particular. But others definitely show Oberst’s potential. ‘The “Feel Good” Revolution’ is beautifully laidback, and ‘Falling Out of Love at This Volume’ has a great driving rhythm to it.
28. Do You Feel at Home? – 1994 (Commander Venus)
A band featuring a fourteen-year-old Conor Oberst and Tim Kasher (who would go on to front The Good Life and Cursive). Honestly, it’s heaps better than the solo work Oberst was doing at around the same time. Like, no joke, ‘Showcase Song’ is seriously good. The musicianship is fairly solid throughout, especially the drumming.
27. The Uneventful Vacation – 1997 (Commander Venus)
For all the times Conor Oberst’s music has been described as ‘emo’ over his career, this album is perhaps the only one that actually fits that description. It’s a moody collection of songs, and they’re kind of lacking hooks. Reminder – they were still in high school at this point. ‘We’ll Always Have Paris’ is pretty good.
26. Outer South – 2009 (The Mystic Valley Band)
Outer South sees Oberst ceding singing and songwriting duties to his bandmates. Their songs are fine, if forgettable. The real disappointment is Oberst’s own songs, which are frequently over-long and dull (‘White Shoes’ might be the most boring song he’s ever written). Even more problematic, the album is seventy minutes long. It really is a drag.
25. Monsters of Folk – 2009 (Monsters of Folk)
The only album from the supergroup consisting of Conor Oberst, M. Ward, Jim James, and Mike Mogis. I’ve never listened to M. Ward or Jim James, and their contributions on this album don’t exactly encourage me to explore their work any further. That isn’t to say that Oberst’s own songs here are that good either. With the exception of the opening track, ‘Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)’, the whole album is middle-of-the-road country-rock song after middle-of-the-road country-rock song. Mogis’s arrangements are nice at times, but unfortunately the songs they’re built around are uninspired and tedious.
24. Payola – 2015 (Desaparecidos)
Oberst’s politically-charged, punk-inflected side-project returned thirteen years after their first album to make Payola, but I’m not sure it was worth it. While I agree with the ethos of the lyrics, there are several elements of the production that genuinely annoy me: the autotuned chipmunk backing vocals that appear for one line in the middle of ‘Backsell’; the ingratiating glitches that make up the main riff in ‘City on the Hill’…
23. Salutations – 2017 (Conor Oberst)
Oberst’s 2016 album, Ruminations, was a raw, stripped-down record – only guitar, piano, vocals, and harmonica. On Salutations he rerecorded it with a full band and the result is exceedingly lifeless. The arrangements are uninteresting and unimaginative – somehow, they sound more like demos than the original versions, which literally were demos. He also decides to add seven extra songs, dragging the runtime and messing up the sequencing which was so perfect on Ruminations. Of these new tracks, only ‘Anytime Soon’ is a worthwhile listen. There’re some nice chorus guitar tones in it.
22. A Christmas Album – 2002 (Bright Eyes)
Because I’d never listened to this all the way through, I had to sit through it on a sweltering day in mid-June, so take that it into account. ‘Blue Christmas’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ are the best because Conor’s voice actually works with them. The others, not so much. Overall, it’s okay, but in terms of alternative Christmas albums it doesn’t come close to either of Sufjan Stevens’ monumental additions to the seasonal music canon.
21. There’s No Beginning to the Story – 2002 (Bright Eyes)
Released between Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted, this EP finds Bright Eyes in a transitional period. Apart from the title track, which would go on to feature on Lifted, there’s not anything of much interest here. The other songs are fine but unremarkable.
20. Noise Floor: Rarities 1998-2005 – 2006 (Bright Eyes)
Obviously something like this is never going to be as cohesive as a fully-formed album, but there’s plenty of enjoyable songs on Noise Floor, chief of which are ‘Drunk Kid Catholic’ and the cover of ‘Devil Town’ by Daniel Johnston.
19. One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels – 2004 (Bright Eyes/Neva Dinova)
A split EP with fellow Omaha band Neva Dinova. I was kind of surprised how much I liked the Neva Dinova songs. Their lead singer, Jake Bellows, has a nice warm voice. The Bright Eyes songs are fine. Not the best stuff they ever did, but not the worst either. ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’ is probably the highlight.
18. Four Winds – 2007 (Bright Eyes)
The title track, which would go on to feature on Cassadaga, is one of Bright Eyes’ greatest songs. Against the background of an apocalypse, Oberst spits out critiques of religion and intellectualism, and Anton Patzner delivers scorching passages of double-stopped violin. As for the other songs: they’re alright. ‘Stray Dog Freedom’ is reminiscent of Being There-era Wilco, but ‘Cartoon Blues’ employs those chipmunk backing vocals which annoy me so much on Payola.
17. Better Oblivion Community Centre – 2019 (Better Oblivion Community Centre)
This really should be a lot better than it is. Phoebe Bridgers’ debut Stranger in the Alps is great, and her duet with Oberst on ‘Would You Rather’ is pretty sweet. But on Better Oblivion Community Centre there’s just nothing that grabs my attention. It’s not bad by any stretch. The songwriting is perfectly competent. But honestly the only song here I ever go back to is ‘Dylan Thomas’. It’s the song in which Phoebe and Conor’s voices work together best, and Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows up, which is cool, I guess.
16. Letting Off the Happiness – 1998 (Bright Eyes)
The opener, ‘If Winter Ends’, might be the first classic in the Bright Eyes catalogue. Oberst sings about wanting to escape both his hometown and his own mind. During a winter of ‘dead and eternal snow’, he drinks ‘to stay warm and to kill selected memories’. It’s also on this song that we encounter a songwriting formula which would prove particularly fruitful over the next few Bright Eyes releases. That is, when the chorus comes round a second time, scream it an octave higher. It’s a technique which allows Oberst to showcase the two most distinctive aspects of his voice – the low-register quiver, and the high, manic yelp. ‘If Winter Ends’ isn’t the only highlight on the album though. ‘The City Has Sex’ is shambling and fast-paced, and we see the first signs of Oberst’s self-referentiality – ‘there’s a boy in a basement with a four-track machine/he’s been strumming and screaming all night down there’. Elsewhere, ‘The Difference in Shades’ is by turns gorgeous and painful, and ‘June on the West Coast’ points towards the country influences which would characterise Bright Eyes by the mid-2000s.
15. One of My Kind – 2012 (The Mystic Valley Band)
Far better than Mystic Valley Band’s first outing. The first five tracks are great. Opener, ‘One of My Kind’, takes the energy of Desaparecidos and melds it with the ‘I-hate-my-hometown’ lyrics from early Bright Eyes. ‘Corina, Corina’ is a 12-bar blues presumably about Oberst’s wife. ‘Breezy’ is by far the standout track though. A haunting song tackling harpist Sabrina Lane Duim’s death, the warmth with which Oberst recalls their time together only makes her tragedy more devastating – ‘Kissing me full of beer, tequila, weed, and candy/walking down the boardwalk/act like we were married/you always made it easy’. It’s unfortunate that everything after this song is disappointing. The other members of the band take up vocals and return the album to the middle-of-the-road country-rock sound that plagued the first Mystic Valley record.
14. Read Music/Speak Spanish – 2002 (Desaparecidos)
Much, much better than their second outing. I love a good pre-chorus, and ‘Man and Wife, the Former (Financial Planning)’ features one of the best in the business. ‘What’s New for Fall’ – the opener on the international release – deals with fast fashion and body image issues. And ‘Mañana’ has a great thumping drum part. I could maybe have done with a gentler track for a bit of contrast, but it’s still a good album in general.
13. Motion Sickness: Live Recordings – 2005 (Bright Eyes)
A perfectly adequate live album. Most of the material is taken from I’m Wide Awake and its B-sides, with none of the arrangements deviating all that much from the studio versions. Probably the most notable tracks are the covers of Feist’s ‘Mushaboom’ and Elliott Smith’s ‘The Biggest Lie’.
12. Every Day and Every Night – 1999 (Bright Eyes)
Though the final two tracks are maybe a little lacklustre, the first three are easily Oberst’s best at this point in his career. ‘A Line Allows Progress, A Circle Does Not’ is a feverish tale of addiction, made all the more eerie by the addition of sinister-sounding organ. ‘On My Way to Work’ evokes the mood of the EP’s cover art, as the narrator describes the graveyard he passes on his daily commute: ‘today I saw two dozen white roses on a fresh mound of dirt and I wondered about the occupant’. From a series of beguiling chord changes, the song somehow transforms into a singalong chorus, with Oberst screaming, ‘why can’t I let what happens happen and just enjoy the time I spend?’. ‘A Perfect Sonnet’ is the best song here. Musing on the lost lover with whom he ‘danced [..] in kitchens through the greenest summer’, Oberst rollercoasters from agony to nostalgia, from bitterness to a kind of resigned depression.
11. When Jamie Went to London…We Broke Up – 1999 (Park Ave.)
Park Ave.’s only album is twenty minutes of loose, K Records-style indie pop, and it’s utterly charming. Whereas much of the Bright Eyes discography might give the impression of a torturous creative process, When Jamie Went to London sounds like a group of teenagers who are simply having fun in a practice room. Jamie Kennedy – who would go on to tap dance in Tilly and the Wall – delivers the two standout songs on the album – ‘All Boy Band’ and ‘Lachrymose Obsequious Vehement Elated’.
10. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn – 2005 (Bright Eyes)
Digital Ash is perhaps the most difficult album on this list to place. For the first five songs it is largely unremarkable. Sure, the more electronic direction gives it a sense of novelty, but the songwriting is subpar. But then on ‘Hit the Switch’ the album magically transforms into classic Bright Eyes. The lyrics and vocal melodies sit together much better, and the electronics take more of a backseat. Oberst’s tackling the fear of death leads to two of the album’s most transcendent moments. First, the outro of ‘I Believe in Symmetry’ where, backed by strings and fiery guitarwork courtesy of Nick Zinner, Oberst implores that despite ‘the arc of time’ and ‘the stench of sex’ and ‘the innocence you can’t protect’, there is ‘happiness in death’ because you can ‘give to the next on down the line’. And then there is ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’. While the verses seemingly describe a world-ending war, the choruses find Oberst instructing us not to fear death. ‘There is nothing as lucky, as easy, or free,’ he says. On the last chorus, however, he becomes more ambiguous. As the music gradually degrades to static, he screams ‘there is nothing, there is nothing, there is nothing’.
9. Don’t Be Frightened of Turning the Page – 2002 (Bright Eyes)
The best Bright Eyes EP. Pretty much every song here is great. The opening track ‘Going for the Gold’ is one of my favourite Bright Eyes songs. Its final lines capture the catharsis of performing music, as Oberst sings, ‘I know a girl who cries when she practises violin/cause each note sounds so pure, it just cuts into her/and then the melody comes pouring out her eyes’. ‘Oh, You Are the Roots That Sleep Beneath My Feet and Hold the Earth in Place’ has a great, anthemic chorus, and ‘I Won’t Ever Be Happy Again’ perfectly describes the oppressive sensation which comes with depression (‘it seems you too see a painful blue when you stare into the sky). ‘No Lies, Just Love’ is a piano-led song in which Oberst is dissuaded from committing suicide by the imminent birth of his brother’s baby. He wants to protect the baby from the ‘cold’ and the ‘loss’ of life outside the womb; he wants the baby to look into his eyes and ‘see no lies, just love’.
8. The People’s Key – 2011 (Bright Eyes)
The most recent Bright Eyes album, The People’s Key received a mixed reception on release, which I find kind of baffling. It feels like a sonic successor to Digital Ash and, while its best songs don’t quite hit the highs of ‘I Believe in Symmetry’ or ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’, the album is much more consistent overall. ‘Jejune Stars’ is propelled by the rhythmic interlacing of muted guitars and synths, and the guy at the end raving about pomegranates has to be my favourite spoken word passage on any Bright Eyes record. The last four tracks finish off the album nicely. ‘Triple Spiral’ has more interesting synth parts and sees Oberst referencing all manner of religious symbols. In ‘Beginner’s Mind’, he seems to be trying to recapture a lost innocence, pleading, ‘stay a while my inner child/I’d like to learn your trick’. ‘Ladder Song’ is a bare but beautiful piano ballad, which foreshadows his work on Ruminations. The album closes with ‘One for You, One for Me’, a song built around a shuffling drumbeat which culminates in Oberst repeating the Rastafari term, ‘I and I’.
7. Conor Oberst – 2007 (Conor Oberst)
While it’s true that Oberst penned a handful of straight-up kind-hearted songs in Bright Eyes, ‘Cape Canaveral’, the opening track from his 2008 self-titled effort, might be the sweetest he’s ever written. He examines childhood and growing up, and there are so many lyrical gems as he remembers ‘buried shoebox grief’ and ‘the flying saucer terror’ that made him ‘lazy drinking lemonade’. The intimacy of the song is increased by Oberst’s whispery, double-tracked vocals. There are a few other gentle songs on the album as well, such as the fingerpicked ‘Lenders in the Temple’ and ‘Milk Thistle’. Despite his being frequently compared to Dylan, ‘Get-Well-Cards’ is really the only time it’s sounded like Oberst is purposefully trying to imitate him. It’s still a good song though. I like the way he pronounces ‘postman’. The standout track is ‘Danny Callahan’, which sees Oberst once again fruitlessly searching for meaning, whether that be in ‘weather charts’, ‘playing cards’, ‘science’ or ‘astral planes’. The album isn’t without its weak points though. ‘I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital)’ is a honky-tonk country song which veers a little too close to cliché. And ‘NYC-Gone, Gone’ is stomp-rock 101, but mercifully it’s only a little over a minute long. Then there’s ‘Valle Mistico’ – fifty seconds of someone blowing into a conch.
6. Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground – 2002 (Bright Eyes)
Lifted saw Oberst’s lyrics more political and his music more folk-oriented. Mike Mogis also expanded the Bright Eyes sonic canvas to include choirs, brass, and strings. At the album’s centre is the one-two punch of ‘Lover I Don’t Have to Love’ and ‘Bowl of Oranges’. The former features Oberst bitterly admitting that he wants ‘a girl who’s too sad to give a fuck’, while the latter is, conversely, full of compassion, with Conor promising that ‘every time you feel like crying I’m gonna try and make you laugh’. The real strength of Lifted, though, is in its conclusion. ‘Laura Laurent’, led by the twang of a pedal steel, is an empathetic, yet guilt-ridden, portrayal of a depressed young woman Oberst was once involved with. The song ends with fake applause, before segueing into the album’s crowning glory, ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (to Love and to Be Loved). Bookended by a framing narrative in which Oberst drink-drives and ends up in the hospital, ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves’ is a lyrical tirade condemning music critics, the education system, Bush, the Iraq War, news networks, and corporate America, each couplet more furious than the last. If any line verges on seeming ham-fisted, it is saved by Oberst’s vocal delivery, which is sometimes a gritted-teeth snarl, sometimes an enraged shout, but always unmistakably earnest. Despite all of this the song ends on a hopeful note. ‘To love and to be loved,’ he says. ‘Let’s just hope that is enough’. It’s a philosophy Oberst returns to time and again throughout his music, but this is it in its first and perhaps most vital form.
5. Upside Down Mountain – 2014 (Conor Oberst)
After his largely stale efforts with the Mystic Valley Band, Upside Down Mountain was a huge return to form, thanks in part to producer Jonathan Wilson, who adds saxophones, wah-wah guitars, and even the odd swirl of ambient electronics. Oberst’s songwriting is top tier as well. ‘Zigzagging Toward the Light’ and ‘Hundreds of Ways’ are surprisingly feel-good. ‘You Are Your Mother’s Son’, with its nostalgic focus on childhood, feels like a sequel to ‘Cape Canaveral’. ‘Desert Island Questionnaire’ sees Oberst again examining death, and the upbeat ‘Governor’s Ball’ and ‘Enola Gay’ might have been, at this point, the best songs he’d written since 2007’s Cassadaga. There’s some really great guitarwork on the album too. The lead on ‘Kick’ is obviously indebted to George Harrison, but is brilliant nonetheless. And on ‘Artifact #1’, a reverbed slide solo is doubled with a tremolo-picked guitar, sounding like something Alex Scally might pull off on a Beach House record.
4. Cassadaga – 2007 (Bright Eyes)
Though not the longest Bright Eyes album, Cassadaga is perhaps their most expansive, touching on themes of war, spirituality, and divinity. While the aforementioned ‘Four Winds’ is obviously a standout, there are many others. Oberst seems to be examining different facets of the music industry on ‘Soul Singer in a Session Band’, ‘Middleman’, and ‘Classic Cars’, the latter’s chorus featuring a fantastic chromatic ascension at its climax. ‘Hot Knives’ notably features Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney on drums, and the first verse of ‘If the Brakeman Turns My Way’ is one of the most accurate descriptions of a panic attack I’ve ever heard. ‘I Must Belong Somewhere’, which catalogues the failings of society, could have easily fitted in on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.
3. Ruminations – 2016 (Conor Oberst)
Thus far, I’ve managed to discuss these albums without really mentioning how they’ve affected me personally. But with Ruminations I can’t avoid it. The first track on this album is ‘Tachycardia’ and, as it happens, a few weeks after the album came out I went through a period of time plagued by tachycardia. Music was really the only thing that would relax me and slow my heartrate down, and this album was one of the ones I listened to most frequently. I remember coming home from the hospital and listening to this album and crying so much that my nose bled. To say this album is important to me is an understatement. But it’s not just because it helped me through a rough time, it’s also amazingly well written. In terms of pure songwriting, it’s Oberst at his best. Recorded completely solo, and with zero overdubs, he has nothing to hide behind. It is a truly bleak record. He often eschews metaphors and flowery lyricism to describe his deteriorated state with alarming bluntness. ‘Counting Sheep’ matter-of-factly details his medical troubles (‘catheter piss, fed through a tube/cyst in the brain, blood on the bamboo), and juxtaposes them with startling suicidal imagery (‘gun in my mouth, trying to sleep’, ‘tomorrow is shining like a razor blade’). However, the most uncomfortable line in the song arises when Oberst describes two children who have died, and says ‘hope it was slow, hope it was painful’.
2. Fevers and Mirrors – 2000 (Bright Eyes)
Conor Oberst’s first masterpiece is one which seems to exist in a fever dream, a sonic world all of its own, constructed through gothic-folk blends of organs, dulcimers, accordions, flutes, and toy pianos. Despite Oberst complaining that language is ‘inadequate to describe where I am’, he does a remarkably good job. Using recurring images and motifs (mirrors, scales, calendars, clocks), he paints a perfect picture of hopelessness, desperation, fear, and sadness. In terms of vocals, this album is his peak. He has never sounded quite as angry as he does on the Latin-tinged ‘The Calendar Hung Itself…’, and on the opener, ‘A Spindle, a Darkness, a Fever, and a Necklace’, you feel like he might burst into tears at any moment. In ‘The Movement of a Hand’, Oberst’s voice almost completely cracks as he reaches for the high notes. ‘Something Vague’ is one of my favourites on the album. An instrumental after the first chorus almost turns it into an upbeat folk song until it falls onto a discord. Mike Mogis’s production is great throughout. ‘Arienette’ is a masterclass in how to build menace, while ‘When the Curious Girl Realises She is Under Glass’ is recorded from a distance so it feels as if we are in Conor’s living room listening to him sing at the piano. ‘Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh’ is a fantastic break-up song which draws parallels between the end of a relationship and a funeral, and ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ sets the inevitability of death to a nightmarish waltz. It’s weird that such a dark and personal album is rounded off with a fake interview, in which Todd Fink of the Faint plays Oberst. My head tells me Fevers and Mirrors would be better off without it. There’s no need for this joke to be in there. But in the end, it actually works to make the album even stranger.
1. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning – 2005 (Bright Eyes)
This is it. And it’s a completely unoriginal opinion. But it’s my favourite. This was the first Bright Eyes album I listened to and believe it or not I was so so disappointed by it at the time. I’d been recommended it on account of my love for Elliott Smith, so I went into it with completely the wrong expectations. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is nothing like Elliott Smith. It’s ten songs of perfect alt-country with lyrics which seamlessly blend the personal and the political. For some reason though, it’s difficult to describe why it’s so good. The arrangements, while accomplished, are fairly standard. They have none of the oddness of Fevers and Mirrors, nor the grandness of Lifted. And Conor’s lyrics aren’t quite as idiosyncratic as they can be – ‘First Day of My Life’ is as straightforward a love song as he has ever written. But there’s just something about this album which ticks all the boxes for me, and more than any other Bright Eyes release, it works as an album. IWAIM doesn’t feel like merely a collection of songs, but a single creative vision. From the first song to the last there is zero filler, and no lyric seems to detract from the overall theme – rebirth. Through constant references to morning, spring, and waking up, Oberst seems to imply that things can always get better, that there can always be a new beginning. It’s a strangely upbeat message for a Bright Eyes album. That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its sad points. ‘Lua’ is a masterly depiction of loneliness, addiction, and eating disorders, and ‘Poison Oak’ seems to be an ode to a dead childhood friend. ‘Road to Joy’, the last song on the album, is surely one of the best closing tracks of all time. It takes the fury of Lifted’s ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves’ and condenses it down to four minutes. Built around the melody from ‘Ode to Joy’, it slowly builds to a rapturous conclusion in which Oberst screams the album’s title as the song degenerates into a cacophony of trumpets and cymbals and madly strummed guitars. It’s as if the restraint of the rest of the album is finally let off in these final few bars and – there’s no other word for it – it really is perfection.