Music nerds love ranked lists. Music nerds love thoughtful commentary. Music nerds love carefully curated playlists. Catalog Crawl provides all of these things and more. In these features, Strange Currencies takes an exhaustive look at the discographies of our favorite artists – the ones who reside at the core of our music obsession.
Though he embarked on a solo career with the release of 2014’s Black Hours, Hamilton Leithauser is best-known as the strain-limited voice behind The Walkmen. Throughout his long career as a frontman and solo artist, Leithauser has earned a reputation as an excellent songwriter, drawing admirable comparisons to Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman – as much for his compositional talents as for the sounds of his oft-raspy howl. Leithauser has also leaned heavily into a rock star reputation – having once penned a critical review of the Travis County Jail after an evening out drinking during SXSW – and a tendency towards independence that has, perhaps, limited his commercial reach.
Leithauser’s career has now spanned two-plus decades, with ten albums between The Walkmen and his ongoing solo efforts. Throughout, he has been able to maintain an impressive consistency, while greatly improving his abilities as a composer and arranger. His charisma as the leader of The Walkmen was undeniable, transforming the remnants of a marginally-successful regional college band (Jonathan Fire*Eater) into a headlining global act. Along the way, he helped to change the conversation around how independent artists are able to benefit financially from their efforts, with The Walkmen being among the first recognizable bands to lend their music to car commercials, TV shows, and other once-frowned-upon outlets.
On a personal level, Leithauser has managed to become one of the primary background noises to the many days I’ve spent on the road as a traveling salesperson. His music has charted a good portion of my working life, with the first Walkmen releases coming late in my college career. His work has followed me for most of the past twenty years, and has been the soundtrack to many of my adventures, and a few of my tragedies. We all have an artist that is our safe place, where we retreat when we need to buckle down or hide. I’ve certainly had a few over the years – The Tragically Hip and, oddly, The Clash come to mind – but few have filled the role as consistently for me as Leithauser.
When I was asked to do this Catalog Crawl, I made a joke that this shouldn’t be any different than any other day in the office. That may be true in places, and I’ve tried to recognize it where I can, but the effort has also shown me some of my critical blind-spots. I’ve tried to remove my fan’s perspective as much as possible, but in reviewing my own personal history, I can think of few artist that I’ve seen perform more (perhaps Frank Black), or listened to more (perhaps The Beatles).
I’ve managed to see Hamilton on tour for every single one of the releases reviewed, and admittedly, I have absolutely let these concerts influence my rankings. When I close my eyes and think of live music, The Walkmen performing “The Rat” is the image that comes to my mind first. Likewise, the most cathartic experience I’ve ever had at a show was seeing Hamilton perform “Sick as a Dog,” circa 2017, shortly after enduring a personal tragedy. I cannot deny the power of these memories, nor should I, for they are the reason that we listen to music in the first place.
To ensure a proper ten albums, I will be combining the seven full-length LPs from The Walkmen with Leithauser’s three solo releases – including his collaboration with ex-Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist, Rostam Batmanglij. As much as I would like to – given the fuss that I made about live shows before – I will not be including 2020’s Live! At Carlyle Café. While excellent, those tracks are either covers, or found on other releases. I also won’t include Leithauser’s recent collaborations with Kevin Morby. While great (“Virginia Beach” was my 2021 ‘Hot Vax Summer’ jam), they do not yet amount to a full record.
I have done my best to critically rank these ten albums, and have included a short review and score for each. I’ve also picked one essential track from each to create a curated introductory playlist. Please leave your comments below, and enjoy!
“Pussy Cats” Starring The Walkmen
The Walkmen are an acquired taste, or so I’ve been told by a long list of friends who’ve refused to get into them, despite my consistent prodding. Their pushback is always polite, but the message is firm: “This isn’t my thing.” Nothing epitomizes this more than “Pussy Cats” Starring The Walkmen. Done out of love for Harry Nilsson – this being a loving recreation of his 1974 collaboration with John Lennon – it suffers from that same love. This collection is only for those looking for deep cuts from both Nilsson and Leithauser (perhaps anyone reading this site?). On paper it sounds like a fun endeavor. On paper.
One for the playlist: I’m a sucker for the cinéma vérité seventies. I’ve built small corners of my life around this minor passion (I used to own those Empire speakers that our site’s founder once wrote about). For all of The Walkmen’s effort in trying to capture the aesthetic, Pussycats is only able to succeed in a few places. “Mucho Mongo / Mt. Elga” is the standout that could easily find a home on Lisbon or Heaven. Bonus point for the fact that it doesn’t get stuck in your head the way that “Loop de Loop” does.
Black Hours is Hamilton Leithauser’s first solo effort and an unabashed reflection of his frequently-cited influences – the aforementioned Nilsson and Newman – but also the mid-century crooners. Nowhere is this more evident than on the opener, “5 AM”: a track simultaneously announcing a continuation of The Walkmen’s sound, and a new direction, based partially on Sinatra’s swagger and Paul Simon imagery. It’s a release that feels more akin to an artist copying from his heroes, but there are still enough moments to realize that it’s never done without love or purpose. This is the sound of an artist honing his voice.
One for the playlist: With due deference to “Self Pity,” “Alexandra” is the standout track. This is both for the album, and as one of Leithauser’s career peaks. It’s a breath of fresh air that has aged well in the almost-decade since its release, and is a nice change of pace from this at times brooding album.
The Loves of Your Life
This is perhaps my most controversial pick. It’s a newer release, and I’m not sure we can properly judge new music based solely on its age, given the time soup we’ve all been living through. I’ve had The Loves of Your Life on a pretty regular rotation since seeing Leithauser and Kevin Morby this past fall. It’s not an album that impresses early; rather, it’s one that takes some extended time and circumstances with (such as a live show), to really love. Such “grower” records are often a hard sell, especially if you’re already familiar with the artist. The tendency to stick to known paths – both for the listener and the artist – can create a barrier to entry that keeps fans away. I was guilty of this with my first listens here, but the payoff from the effort has been genuine, as is this ranking. Leithauser has learned to play to his strength: that his voice is as much an instrument as any horn or electric organ ever will be. He shows this more here than on previous records, and it’s an excellent listen as a result.
One for the playlist: Go to a Leithauser show and you will realize that, first and foremost, he views himself as a storyteller. I’ve seen him four times now as a solo artist, and I bet I could tell you the story behind “The Bride’s Dad” word-for-word. That’s not a knock against the guy; they’re generally good stories. I had not heard the one behind “Here They Come” until I listened to Live! At Carlyle Café earlier this month. It’s the story of a friend unable to face his troubles, who instead retreats each day to the comfort of a dark movie theatre. The movie always ends, just like we all have to eventually face reality. After two years at home, hiding our emotions behind masks, I wouldn’t mind the usher keeping the lights down a little longer.
A Hundred Miles Off
This is about as mainstream as The Walkmen ever got. While a solid record throughout, the band appears to struggle to find their own unique voice at times. Released as their third studio album – and shortly before the Pussy Cats cover LP – A Hundred Miles Off loses the streetwise sarcasm and end-of-the-rope energy of their earlier records, replacing them with a sort of New Orleans-meets-Kerouac cynicism. That’s not to say it’s a bad record; to the contrary, there are enough moments of inspired cohesion to draw the listener in. Where it does suffer is from a lack of sustained momentum, keeping all but the most dedicated fans from skipping tracks. The record succeeds in creating a differentiation from earlier Walkmen efforts, but there are one too many meandering “Tenley Towns” for this to be a proper classic.
One for the playlist: I would like to pick “Another One Goes By,” but since this is a Hamilton Leithauser-centric effort and we’ve already picked a cover song, I simply can’t. Containing appropriate songwriting credits, the horns on “Louisiana” alone make it worth the price of admission.
Heaven is The Walkmen sticking the landing. Each member has matured, but not quite moved on. This is the magic coming through one last time, arriving at a place where everyone is at peace and free to fulfill their endlessly-referenced potential. Heaven is also the inevitable conclusion to the tone shift that began on You & Me and was finally embraced on Lisbon. It’s the end of the road. Time to move on to new things. There isn’t a lot of room left to explore with your mates, and it’s best to leave on good terms.
One for the playlist: By the time of Heaven’s release, The Walkmen had been a band for over a decade, growing away from their roots and into family life. “Song for Leigh” reflects this, having been written about the birth of a child. Parenthood serves a divider in life: demarcating a “time before” and a “time after.” The Walkmen writing a song for family would have been impossible in 2002. Ten years later, it’s the standout track. If you are seeking to define growing up, that is it. Leithauser’s voice is in a rare harmony with the rest of The Walkmen behind him. They have achieved patience, if not peace – a rare feat for a band built around manufactured conflict with the world.
Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone
I’ve written before about love at first listen. Of the handful of records that changed the course of my personal history, The Walkmen’s first release was the least expected. If Heaven was the band’s graduation into real adulthood, then Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone was their freshman orientation. Full of resigned angst and recorded with a meticulous detail that would become The Walkmen’s trademark, I would rank it higher if not for the four solid releases ahead.
Everything was released into an indie market saturated with New York bands. The threat of becoming just another “band in suits” was real, and likely drove some away. Licensing the best track on the record to the car company Saturn probably didn’t help at the time either, but is a move that was downright prescient by today’s streaming and royalty standards. Twenty years on, comparing The Walkmen to contemporaries like Interpol, Spoon, or The National feels apt. The difference being that, while those bands all continue, there was a stressed-out tightness to The Walkmen that gave them a compelling edge, while also seeding them an expiration date.
One for the playlist: That piano fade-in on ”We’ve Been Had.” The fade-in that launched a hundred imitators, from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to The French Kicks. That piano is endlessly cool, and everyone wanted to sound like it for about nine months in 2003. Everything has so many great moments, so much promise, but nothing more so than that fade-in; and nothing that leaves you wanting more than that fade out.
Lisbon is the record that A Hundred Miles Off should have been. The early glimmers were there, especially the aforementioned horns on “Louisiana.” Lisbon has taken those tantalizing crumbs and fashioned them into a gourmet creole meal. The best parts of Lisbon harken to the Bull Lee, Gulf Coast chapters of On the Road. The Walkmen have a tendency to wander the same roads, disappointed by the world around them, but enjoying the view. Each record grows off of the one before, the band maturing on each release. This being their penultimate album, the disillusionment expressed in others is replaced by an internal self-confidence, in spite of the world and oneself (see “Woe is Me” or “Stranded”). Lisbon would be The Walkmen’s best record, if not for their other records. I was surprised this past week, both by how much I had forgotten about it, and by how much I still love it for its mariachi-infused closeness.
One for the playlist: “Angela Surf City” is the destination at the end of “Louisiana.” It is the promise of a much-needed vacation at the beach. While Walkmen recordings always sound technically perfect, they rarely sound like they were fun to lay down. “Angela,” and the underrated “Follow the Leader” behind it, are exceptions that help change the mood from the angsty A Hundred Miles Off towards a brighter outlook. Placed early in the record to good effect, “Angela” sets an optimistic tone, without which might knock Lisbon down several spots on this list.
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
As I’ve listened to and attempted to review each of these records, I’ve struggled to find the right place for I Had a Dream That You Were Mine. It’s a record that I have a difficult time removing personal ties from, almost too close to objectively review – which is what we should strive for in music. A review should focus on the material at hand, and under those criteria, my opinion is that I Had a Dream is Leithauser’s best solo work. The maturity expressed on Heaven and confidence of Black Hours combine to deliver a message that worth is self-assigned. Rostam’s musicality adds to the template, avoiding some of the poppier intellectual tendencies of Vampire Weekend, in favor of a more subdued symphonic character. I Had a Dream is a satisfying, layered experience that grows with continued listening.
One for the playlist: I think I may have listened to Dream more than any other record these past two pandemic-fueled years. I could likely pick any track as the standout, as I’ve grown personal stories around each, aside from live performances. As I think back to my first listens, “In a Blackout” and “The Morning Stars” stood out. “1959” makes a beautiful case for its range and arrangement. But “Sick as a Dog” is the winner. The power behind Leithauser, of all people, howling that he uses the “same voice” as he always has will never lose its cathartic strength.
Bows + Arrows
#1 and #2. #2 and #1. They feel interchangeable, though many will probably think I am on the wrong side of this argument. After over a decade listening to each, the excellent Bows + Arrows is second, but only by the slimmest of margins; and only because the “everyone/everything disappoints me” weariness of Bows + Arrows has worn a little thinner than the “we disappoint each other” weariness of You & Me upon repeated listens. A million words have already been written about “The Rat” – including a few more below – to the point that other standouts like “Little House of Savages,” “No Christmas While I’m Talking,” and “138th Street” get overlooked. If I were building a longer playlist, there are at least three or four other tracks to include. Instead, I’ll leave them for new listeners to discover and become obsessed with.
One for the playlist: Bows + Arrows solidified The Walkmen’s legend, led by “The Rat.” If you’ve spent any time at all reading Walkmen or Leithauser reviews, you know that at least three out of every five will mention “The Rat” in comparison to whatever standout scorched-earth screamer was on their latest release. There is a reason for that. “The Rat” is the mold from which all others were cast, and therefore must be measured. Not only is it The Walkmen’s best song, it is by a solid margin. The Walkmen aren’t angry, they’re just disappointed.
You & Me
You & Me is number one because of its depth. With deference to the earlier records on this list, the consistency, clarity, and purpose are more honest here. This is closest The Walkmen ever got to their theoretical peak. It is the culmination of their twenties, from promising futures, through booze-fueled realizations, and into the cautionary tales of middle age. Only a few artists have ever achieved this level of realization within the span of a few records (The Wrens’ The Meadowlands and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot both come to mind). Future Walkmen records would return to the motifs and delusions of late youth, but without this same level of earnestness, and lacking the perspective of a first-timer. The seeds planted on Bows + Arrows have started to bear fruit, with Leithauser, and The Walkmen behind him, taking steps forward as a collaborative unit. The few faults, if they exist, are only within the group’s abilities themselves.
One for the playlist: Few Leithauser moments are more achingly beautiful than the half-beat pause about three minutes into “Red Moon,” shortly after a brief horn chorus. A proper dirge seems to be exceptionally hard to achieve. The politics of sentiment too often get in the way. Perspectives are too often mixed. “Red Moon” relieves all that with a simple message: “I miss you.” I’ve heard it at least a thousand times, but it never loses its strength.