Catalog Crawl: The Mountain Goats

Catalog Crawl

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.

Standing alongside Guided by Voices as a decidedly homespun project turned beloved indie rock institution, the Mountain Goats began in the early nineties as a creative outlet for the California-based singer-songwriter, John Darnielle. For most of the first decade of his career, Darnielle hastily captured his oddly life-affirming songs on a Panasonic boombox, with frantically-strummed guitars and an impassioned vocal delivery that would eventually become his calling card. But while they were constructed of humble means, from the outset, Darnielle’s greatest works were capable of speaking to universal feelings of pathos and empathy.

In time, Darnielle’s music would catch the attention of a larger audience, and inevitably, record labels with a wider distribution reach. In 2002, the Mountain Goats signed with the influential British imprint 4AD, who would release several of the project’s most beloved albums. By this point, Darnielle had expanded the Mountain Goats beyond a mere solo project, working with increasingly ambitious arrangements, and eventually incorporating new full-time members: Peter Hughes (bass — joined 2002), Jon Wurster (drums — joined 2007), and Matt Douglas (keys, woodwinds, guitar — joined 2015).

As tends to happen, each move toward a more ‘conventional’ approach would alienate some long-time fans, while attracting an increasing number of new ones. By the time of 2005’s The Sunset Tree, the Mountain Goats had become one of the most talked-about indie acts in America, and a subsequent deal with Merge Records would only grow the project’s profile. In time, and through various channels — largely TikTok, and spots in several television programs — the band would even score a pair of legitimate, long-overdue hits (“No Children” and “This Year”) in the form of songs that, by that point, were long-time crowd favorites. Today, the Mountain Goats have settled into a second life as a collaborative quartet: one that releases a solid record every year or two, and that consistently plays shows to dedicated, sold out audiences. They stand as a genuinely heartwarming success story in an industry that rarely rewards such unassuming acts.

I first discovered the Mountain Goats via a friend, around the time of The Sunset Tree‘s release, and quickly became a convert. Between that album and the release of its 2006 follow-up, Get Lonely, I had acquired all of the project’s earlier efforts, and could fairly be categorized as something of a John Darnielle acolyte. And while I’ve remained a loyal fan, I’ve greeted almost every new album release from 2015’s Beat the Champ on with slightly less enthusiasm than the one that came before. Part of my motivation in tackling the Mountain Goats for this latest Catalog Crawl was out of a genuine desire to forge a stronger connection to the band’s last decade of work. And while this effort hasn’t added any recent albums to the uppermost echelon of Mountain Goats releases, I’ve been pleasantly surprised in revisiting most of those records. What follows here is merely one fan’s attempt to quantify a catalog that is vast, diverse, and deeply informed by where and how one first encountered it.

Counting the project’s first three tape-only releases, there are now twenty-five proper Mountain Goats albums (I do not consider companion ‘demo albums,’ like Come, Come to the Sunset Tree as such). I was adamant that the three compilations of early Mountain Goats recordings should be included, because — as you will see — I consider these to represent some of John Darnielle’s finest work. While I pondered counting the two albums that Darnielle made with Franklin Bruno as part of the side project The Extra Lens, I decided against it. I also considered including some of the Mountain Goats’ more substantive EPs, but ultimately decided to create an entirely different companion piece covering those releases. It can be found here.

Since there is no career-spanning Mountain Goats compilation, the playlist rules were pretty straightforward: one pick from each release on the list. In several cases, I went with the ‘obvious’ song choices, partially to give a sense of familiarity to those still on the early stages of the Mountain Goats’ learning curve. You’ll only find twenty-five tracks on the playlist however, as the tape-only releases are not presently available on streaming services. Enjoy!

Taboo VI: The Homecoming




Sure, pretty much the entire first decade of Mountain Goats recordings could be described as “lo-fi,” but even the likes of Transmissions to Horace or Sweden have nothing on the project’s first release. Arriving in 1991 on the tiny Upland, California label Shrimper, Taboo VI: The Homecoming is easily the grittiest recording in the Goats’ catalog. But while its songs often struggle to cut through the noise — a liberal dose of tape hiss, samples, and background chatter — several hallmarks of John Darnielle’s songwriting can be found across these ten tracks. It’s certainly not a recommended entry point for newcomers — not that it’s widely available outside of YouTube anyway — but Taboo is an intermittently intriguing peek into the project’s formative years.

One for the playlist: It’s kind of a moot point, as Darnielle hasn’t reissued Taboo since its original limited run, let alone put it on streaming services. But if it were there, I suppose I’d pick “Going to Alaska,” as it’s the first track released in one of Darnielle’s great, loosely-connected song series.

In League With Dragons




Arguably the least immediately-appealing latter-day Mountain Goats album, 2019’s In League With Dragons largely abandons the anthemic choruses that define many of John Darnielle’s best-known songs. These are subtle pieces, focused more on storytelling than hooks — despite the fact that many of them stand alongside Darnielle’s most melodically-rich work.

But, as if to compensate for the lack of immediacy in these tracks, Dragons features some of the lushest arrangements and production on a Mountain Goats record to date — courtesy of Owen Pallett. While these flourishes add interesting depth and dimension, they ultimately don’t make up for the fact that these are some of Darnielle’s most ‘difficult’ songs yet. To appreciate this one, it’s likely that you’ll have to spend some time with it, and if you’re new at all to the Mountain Goats, it’s best to start elsewhere. Still, circle back at some point, because there’s real value here.

One for the playlist: I’ll defer to the defenders of “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” for this one. While I don’t view it as the classic that some Mountain Goats fans claim it to be, it’s a solid track that balances the lush nature of In League With Dragons with some much-needed late album pep.

Getting Into Knives




Recorded in Memphis just days before the COVID-19 lockdowns began, there’s a generally laid-back and low-key vibe to 2020’s Getting Into Knives: a demeanor that stands at odds with the decidedly tense times in which the album would arrive. And while Knives hasn’t exactly endeared itself as one of the more celebrated Mountain Goats records, there are some minor gems scattered throughout.

Like In League With Dragons, Getting Into Knives (mostly) avoids the memorable choruses that had pushed the band to wider recognition. Instead, these are songs that find the core quartet in their most musically intuitive environment yet. And when augmented by a cast of guest musicians, these tracks achieve a sonic atmosphere that has rarely been associated with the Mountain Goats.

One for the playlist: The subtleties that define the best moments on Getting Into Knives are best displayed with the centerpiece, “Bell Swamp Connection.” Like the also-strong earlier track “Tidal Wave,” it finds the solidified four-piece band setting into a satisfying groove, while also featuring John Darnielle’s strongest vocal performance on the album.

Hot Garden Stomp




While I would argue that the songwriting on 1993’s Hot Garden Stomp isn’t quite as consistently strong as that of its immediate predecessor, The Hound Chronicles, John Darnielle’s third Mountain Goats album does represent growth in some regards. Particularly, these sixteen tracks wrest a surprising amount of atmosphere out of their meager arrangements. Much of this comes in the form of Darnielle’s improvement as a guitarist — or at least his embrace of a wider range of chord constructions.

And while the first side of Stomp puts it in a position to be the best of the three Mountain Goats cassette releases for Shrimper, the material lags a bit during the second half. Still, the impassioned performances and compelling lyricism that continues to define Darnielle’s work is plenty evident throughout.

One for the playlist: There’s an insistence to the strumming of “Feed This End” that makes it borderline hypnotic, which also threatens to distract from just how good a piece of songwriting it is. Nevertheless, Hot Garden Stomp is not presently on Spotify, so it won’t actually be on the playlist.





A deep dive into a subculture that John Darnielle had first-hand experience with, 2017’s Goths is a unique record in the Mountain Goats’ catalog. Fully integrating the multi-instrumental talents of now-full-time member Matt Douglas, Goths represented the band’s most baroque production to date — a move only further cemented by Darnielle’s eschewing of the guitar, and subsequent focus on keyboards.

And at times, these relatively-bold risks pay off, though as a whole, the album generally sounds more like a soft rock or sophisti-pop record than a genuine goth one. Still, Goths stands as a singular work for the band: one that undoubtedly has its fair share of ardent supporters. And while I certainly don’t share the same level of enthusiasm for it, I always enjoy Goths while it’s playing, and wouldn’t begrudge anybody who considers it a favorite.

One for the playlist: The dark affectations of Goths are best summed up by the opening “Rain in Soho.” It’s an almost comically-dark track — with no real companion in the Mountain Goats’ entire discography — and it leaves the most lasting impression of anything here.

Bleed Out




Not gonna lie: given that it’s frequently-cited as one of the better latter-day Mountain Goats albums, I’m a little disappointed with Bleed Out. While it’s based on a solid concept — songs written to accompany imaginary horror/action films — these tracks are yet to click for me in the way that they apparently have for many other Goats fans. The good news though: John Darnielle remains incapable of writing a bad song, and thus Bleed Out is still a plenty-solid record.

Aside from the adrenaline rush of the opening “Training Montage,” Bleed Out‘s highlights arguably come with a pair of lengthier songs: “Hostages” and the closing title track. While the former accentuates the amped-up interplay between the core band — who are augmented by some nice guitar work from producer Alicia Bognanno — the latter uses its extended run-time to craft a relaxing groove, while Darnielle surveys the carnage of the previous eleven tracks.

One for the playlist: As mentioned above, “Bleed Out” provides a fitting denouement to a record that is generally defined by its nervier moments. It’s a reflective and contemplative ending that matches the cinematic grandeur laid out in the album’s mission statement.

The Hound Chronicles




Though the Mountain Goats technically debuted with 1991’s Taboo IV: The Homecoming, 1992’s The Hound Chronicles is the earliest album that John Darnielle has actually acknowledged with release in a digital format — most widely as a two-fer CD with its follow-up, Hot Garden Stomp. But while Taboo is a decidedly harsh listen, The Hound Chronicles finds the classic Mountain Goats boombox aesthetic fully intact on a set that vastly outpaces its predecessor.

Of the fourteen proper songs here, several are genuinely excellent. Darnielle’s uniquely poignant lyricism is showcased throughout, along with the out-of-nowhere non-sequiturs that — against all odds — only add more depth to the proceedings. Also present and accounted for are Darnielle’s signature performances: the heavy strumming and pleading vocals that he’d build a career upon. And sure, he’d do all of this with better material in short time, but this is a pretty damned great starting point.

One for the playlist: Annoyingly, The Hound Chronicles is not presently available on Spotify; but while it’s not on the playlist, Goats fans are advised to check out “The Water Song.” It’s a classic example of the defiant Darnielle, as its repeated chorus of “Let them kill me” — backed with The Bright Mountain Choir — is surprisingly anthemic.

Jenny From Thebes




Is making an record that fleshes out the story of a character from a beloved twenty-year-old album fan service? Sure. But that just makes Jenny from Thebes a legitimately rewarding exercise in fan service. The world was first introduced to the titular Jenny in a song from 2002’s All Hail West Texas, but one needn’t have intimate familiarity with that record to appreciate the Mountain Goats’ latest release.

And while the full-band approach of Jenny from Thebes is light years removed from the harsh tape hiss in which the character first appeared, Thebes proves that John Darnielle’s ability to craft a compelling narrative is still fully intact, thirty years into the Mountain Goats’ existence. In the end, Jenny may be one of the more subtly appealing records in his catalog, but its charms are apparent on first listen, and only deepen with more exposure.

One for the playlist: Opener “Clean Slate” is a gorgeous display of the current quartet’s prowess, augmented by a wholly-complementary string arrangement. Other tracks from Jenny have great growth potential, but this one is a clear standout from first listen.

Nothing for Juice




Partially recorded in a proper studio, and partially recorded straight to John Darnielle’s trusty boombox, 1996’s Nothing for Juice feels like a transitional album, despite the fact that the Mountain Goats’ big metamorphosis was still several records away. Given that, it was still a transition of sorts, as Juice would be the last Goats album to feature the contributions of bassist/backing vocalist Rachel Ware.

But coming on the heels of the impressive one-two punch that was Zopilote Machine and Sweden, Nothing for Juice could be seen as a bit of a letdown. On one hand, Darnielle seems to be trying to flesh out his songs a bit more, but these tracks often lack the idiosyncratic character that defines his best work. Still, between “It Froze Me,” “Then the Letting Go,” “Waving at You,” and several more “Going to…” songs, there’s plenty to make this another solid entry in Darnielle’s catalog.

One for the playlist: It’s unlikely that a song that begins “listen, you can tell your lawyer, that he can go to hell” would be anything less than awesome. “Waving at You” is another angry divorce song — among many in the Goats’ discography — but the boastful beginning fades to a resigned second verse that adds a layer of sad vulnerability to its narrator.

Songs for Pierre Chuvin




Recorded and released in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Songs for Pierre Chuvin was the first lo-fi Mountain Goats album since 2002’s beloved All Hail West Texas. While the mere reappearance of John Darnielle’s “trusty Panasonic” — and even his Casio keyboard — would’ve been enough to excite long-time fans, the quickly-written Chuvin is a genuinely rewarding set of songs.

Of course, some of those long-timers were quick to point out that Darnielle’s songwriting here was often more reminiscent of his 2010s albums than his early work (no shit); and even more cynical ones either dismissed it as blatant “fan service” (yawn), or referred to it as the project’s “first album since 2002” (eye roll). As for myself, it was just genuinely heartwarming to have something that sounded so familiar appear at a moment in time that felt so unfamiliar.

One for the playlist: John Darnielle referencing Pavement (“the South takes what the North delivers”) in “Going to Lebanon 2” felt pretty much custom-made for me. And the opening “Aulon Raid” is widely cited as the highlight here. However, there was something particularly poignant about Darnielle revisiting and revising his most famous chorus — in the midst of a global pandemic — during the closing “Exegetic Chains.”

Heretic Pride




My latest listen to Heretic Pride was interrupted by making, eating, and cleaning up after dinner. And as it happens, I halted said listen after the first four songs, and returned to the album after an hour-and-a-half away. In that context, it only reaffirmed just how good Heretic Pride begins, only to trail off during its last two-thirds. And really, those first four tracks are fantastic. They set up Heretic Pride as one of the better hi-fi era Mountain Goats LPs, and present a project fully reenergized by the addition of new full-time drummer, Jon Wurster.

But after that opening run, Pride only reaches the same level on a couple of tracks, including the mid-record highlight, “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”: perhaps the heaviest song in the Mountain Goats’ catalog, and one that features one of John Darnielle’s most convincingly unsettling vocal performances. The remaining pieces are far from duds, but they ultimately fail to match that stellar opening run.

Then again, this entire exercise is just one fan’s opinion. I’m fully aware that Heretic Pride is a dark horse favorite of many Mountain Goat disciples. And who am I to argue? But for me, it’s merely another solid record with several stellar standouts. In a catalog this rich, there’s nothing wrong with that.

One for the playlist: Opening track and lead single, “Sax Rohmer #1” aptly displays the effectiveness of the newly-minted permanent trio of John Darnielle, Peter Hughes, and Jon Wurster. It’s a dynamic piece that sets an engaging scene with dense imagery and an explosive chorus.

Dark in Here




Recorded immediately after the sessions that produced 2020’s Getting Into Knives, Dark in Here represents the point in which the Mountain Goats truly start to feel like a genuine four-piece band — and not merely a shinier vehicle for John Darnielle’s songwriting. There is a real ebb and flow within these tracks, which stand as the most musically-exploratory in the group’s catalog. And it’s here that Darnielle, at long last, appears fully willing to let his bandmates do an equal share of the emotional heavy lifting.

When compared to its counterpart in Knives, Dark in Here ultimately boasts a stronger set of songs, though none of them stand out in the same way that the highlights typically do on a Mountain Goats album. These are pieces with more atmosphere than hooks; and as indicated by the title, they frequently conjure darker settings. As always though, there is heart and warmth at the core of these tracks. It’s not the most immediate Mountain Goats record, but it may be the one best suited for background listening; and while that might not sound like the biggest compliment, it makes for a welcome outlier in their discography.

One for the playlist: While early highlight “Mobile” is a fan favorite, for my money it’s the striking “Lizard Suit” which best exemplifies the unique charms of Dark in Here. The first two-thirds of the track forge a sinister, jazz-rock sound that one never would’ve predicted from the Mountain Goats a couple of decades earlier. But even more unexpected is the crashing crescendo that brings the song to a riveting close.

All Eternals Deck




A somewhat-forgotten entry in the Mountain Goats’ catalog — possibly because it doesn’t have a ‘thing,’ as opposed to the majority of the band’s hi-fi era albums — 2011’s All Eternals Deck is nevertheless a consistently excellent listen. Then again, perhaps it’s that consistency that has led Deck to its status as an overlooked release. After all, there isn’t a true headliner here; thus, there really aren’t many spots that stand out as weak in comparison either.

But no headliners doesn’t mean that All Eternals Deck lacks highlights. The thrashing “Estate Sale Sign” is one of the most visceral tracks that the band has ever recorded. “Age of Kings” is an excellent song, adorned with a fantastic string arrangement. The twisted ‘dark barbershop’ centerpiece “High Hawk Season” is a gem, and one of John Darnielle’s most sonically adventurous tracks.

One for the playlist: While the opening “Damn These Vampires” is the standout track, I’m gonna go with “Birth of Serpents.” Why? Mostly because I remember it being such a big deal to watch the band play it on The Late Show with David Letterman back in 2011. While they had played on The Colbert Report around the time of The Life of the World to Come‘s release, the Letterman performance truly felt like a long overdue arrival in the mainstream.

Get Lonely




Get Lonely was the first new Mountain Goats album that I anticipated as a fan, and — in all honesty — I viewed it as something of a disappointment upon its 2006 release. While John Darnielle had tackled intensely heavy subject matter on his previous few records, Get Lonely sounded defeated — displaying little of the defiant Darnielle that I had come to know and love over the previous year or so.

But now, nearly two decades later, I can appreciate Get Lonely as the unique record in Darnielle’s catalog that it is. There’s a decidedly different kind of weight to these twelve tracks — one that resonates far more with additional lived experience. And while I haven’t experienced the kind of breakup that seems to permeate Get Lonely, I’ve been on the periphery of genuine loss, and have weathered the unavoidable blows that come with getting older.

Ultimately, Get Lonely is one of the Mountain Goats albums that I’m least likely to reach for on any given day. However, I suspect that, for many listeners, there are plenty of times where it’s the one that feels the most necessary, relevant, and vital. Naturally, I never want it to be a record that I need, but I know that, at some point, it might be the Mountain Goats album that I’m most thankful for.

One for the playlist: It’s the obvious pick, but “Woke Up New” is a real beauty. It distills the themes of Get Lonely in its most approachable melody and arrangement. I’ve had listens to this song that were almost unbearably sad in context, but it still stands as a favorite regardless.

Beat the Champ




On the surface, 2015’s Beat the Champ is a concept album about pro wrestling, but leave it to John Darnielle to fashion it into something much deeper and more universal. A sequel of sorts to 2005’s fantastic The Sunset Tree, Champ is ultimately a record about complicated familial relationships, flawed stand-in role models, and the often-beautiful/often-harrowing process of growing up as an outsider.

While I recognized all of this at the time of the album’s release, Beat the Champ is a record that has grown in my estimation in the near-decade since its arrival. Many of these tracks stand among Darnielle’s most subtle and nuanced. They take time and patience to reveal themselves, in contrast to Darnielle’s more visceral work. And though Champ — like several of the albums in the middle region of this list — tails off a bit during its second half, this is a consistently compelling record.

One for the playlist: I’m having a tough time with this one, largely because there are two Mountain Goats classics here. The triumphant “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” is the most immediately-appealing track from Beat the Champ. However, I’ll go with the album centerpiece, “Heel Turn 2.” Not only is the instrumental second half one of the most genuinely ‘pretty’ moments in the group’s discography, but the first half features one of my absolute favorite John Darnielle line deliveries in “you found my breaking point, congratulations.”

Transcendental Youth




Perhaps the defining feature of the Mountain Goats’ seventeenth proper LP are the lush horn arrangements that elevate even the (comparatively) average material to something far more intriguing. Fortunately, at least half of the tracks on Transcendental Youth are stellar — particularly the five-song stretch that opens the album — and, as is par for the course with John Darnielle, there are no outright clunkers to be found.

While there’s no overt concept to Transcendental Youth — at least in the same way that there is with the group’s subsequent string of records — these twelve tracks are held together by their emphasis on tragic and troubled souls: the tributes to Amy Winehouse (“Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”) and Frankie Lymon (“Harlem Roulette”) are particularly touching vignettes. Elsewhere, the aforementioned horns help to add both a sense of grandeur and pathos to one of Darnielle’s strongest sets of songs.

One for the playlist: Even without the exuberant horn arrangement, “Cry for Judas” would be an easy highlight. But with that arrangement, the peppy first single stands as a genuine Mountain Goats classic.





When I began stocking up on 90s-era Mountain Goats albums, Sweden was my immediate favorite of the non-compilation releases. But while it has since been surpassed by some of its competitors, there’s an intimacy to the best of these songs that make them little short of arresting. Sure, there are a few belters here — “The Recognition Scene,” “Some Swedish Trees,” and the cover of Steely Dan’s “FM” are oft-cited as favorites — but the fragile vulnerability of tracks like “Whole Wide World,” “Going to Queens,” and “Snow Crush Killing Song” are where Sweden shines brightest.

One for the playlist: Rachel Ware essentially sings lead on “Going to Queens,” as John Darnielle’s low voice fades into the background. Lyrically, it paints a masterful scene of a hot summer day in Queens, and a relationship that — at that point — is far more meaningful on a physical level than an emotional one. It’s a damn-near-perfect song.

The Life of the World to Come




Despite no lack of competition, 2009’s The Life of the World to Come may be the heaviest album in the Mountain Goats’ discography. Tackling themes of violence, death, and the very nature of human existence, Life frames these topics in twelve songs — a number of which are piano-driven — each with titles named after Bible verses. And unlike most Goats records, there are few moments of levity scattered throughout these dozen tracks. Occasionally the tempos tick up a notch, and the chords move to a major key, but these are weighty songs through and through.

And taken on its own — or as the new/current release by the band — Life might have turned off some listeners pulled in by John Darnielle’s earlier work. However, with fifteen years of hindsight, this has proven to be one of those albums — like Get Lonely — that is more than capable of meeting a specific kind of moment. We hope against hope that those moments won’t ever come, but when they do, Life offers its own brand of comfort and solace.

One for the playlist: The true standout here is “Matthew 25:21,” but it’s an unbearably sad song that is tough to hear out of the context of the Mountain Goats’ darkest album. Tackling similar subject matter, but with a (slight) silver lining and cheerier tone, “Isaiah 45:23” is a better fit for the playlist. Careful though: it’s still pretty damned devastating.

Bitter Melon Farm




One of two compilations of early Mountain Goats recordings released by Ajax in 1999 — and reissued with a third set in 2002 by the Chicago-based 3 Beads of Sweat label — Bitter Melon Farm collects twenty-seven tracks from some of the rarest singles and EPs in the group’s discography. As was par for the course with John Darnielle’s early work, these songs are teeming with nefarious characters, bitter relationships, and copious amounts of tape hiss.

And, as is almost always the case with early Mountain Goats, these tracks are glorious. While attention to the project’s formative years tends to focus on albums like Zopilote Machine, Sweden, and Full Force Galesburg, these three compilations are utterly essential pieces of the puzzle, and — song for song — are every bit as good as the proper LPs.

One for the playlist: In the liner notes for Bitter Melon Farm, John Darnielle refers to “Against Agamemnon” as “one of two or three favorites out of my innumerable songs.” It’s not a major statement in the vein of some of his best-known work, but there’s a bittersweet nature to the track that makes it possible to see where Darnielle’s affection for the song comes from.

Zopilote Machine




While it’s not the Mountain Goats’ debut — it arrived on the heels of the three cassettes released on Shrimper — Zopilote Machine certainly feels like the project’s true arrival. Tellingly, it’s the earliest Goats album presently available on streaming services, and the first to ever receive release on vinyl or a stand-alone CD. Likewise, while it’s still a decidedly lo-fi affair, Zopilote is of a much more palatable lo-fi variety than the rough edges of John Darnielle’s earliest work.

But aside from those purely technical elements, Zopilote featured what were easily Darnielle’s most fully-formed songs to date. In fact, some of the most beloved tracks of his career are scattered throughout: namely the “Orange Ball” duo; a handful that cryptically reference the Aztec/Mayan serpent god Quetzalcoatl; a trio of “Alpha Couple” numbers; as well as three more entries in the “Going to…” series.

There’s a non-insignificant number of Mountain Goats fans who consider Zopilote Machine to be Darnielle’s finest ever album; but while its ranking here indicates that I don’t agree with that assessment, there are definitely times where it feels like the purest distillation of his artistry.

One for the playlist: How could it be anything other than “Going to Georgia”? Easily one of the most iconic songs in John Darnielle’s body of work, “Georgia” is a miniature masterpiece of ominously-omitted details, delivered in one of the most goosebump-inducing performances of his career.

We Shall All Be Healed




A preview of things to come, 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed was John Darnielle’s first foray into making conceptual song cycles that were largely based on his own lived experiences. Focusing on a particularly rough stretch of his teenage years — specifically his time spent living among methamphetamine addicts in Portland, Oregon — Healed stands as one of Darnielle’s most affecting records.

Of course, the lines between biography and fictional narrative are fuzzy. As too are some of the details: which are intentionally obscured at times, and starkly laid bare at others. Darnielle had yet to venture into publishing novels at this point, but his abilities to both set a scene and flesh out characters were already well established. Here, those skills coalesce into thirteen tracks that volley wildly between polarized emotions, but with an eye constantly set on survival.

One for the playlist: More vivid than sunsets, “Against Pollution” is the climatic penultimate track, which seems to bring the healing promised by the album’s title. It’s a song built upon shockingly violent imagery — and a narrator with little remorse — but it’s also one of elegance, acceptance, and beauty. There are precious few songwriters who could pull off such a trick as John Darnielle does here.

The Coroner’s Gambit




There are a handful of songs — namely the opening “Jaipur” and centerpiece “Family Happiness” — that give 2000’s The Coroner’s Gambit a reputation as the harshest sounding of the Mountain Goats’ lo-fi albums. These tracks seethe with an undeniable tension: one underscored by the intentionally-discomforting “record in red” philosophy that they employ.

However — at the other end of the spectrum — there are just as many tracks that stand among the loveliest, most intimate, and most affecting in John Darnielle’s discography. For instance, witness the back-to-back weepers “Shadow Song” and “There Will Be No Divorce.” As such, Gambit may just stand as the most bipolar Mountain Goats LP, as it veers — often wildly — between love and hate, anger and sorrow, impulse and calculation, and defiance and resignation.

One for the playlist: All of the aforementioned descriptors can be found in the stunning “There Will Be No Divorce.” It’s another classic example of the “omitted details that should be central to the story” variety, and while it comes off as minor at first glance, it’s one of John Darnielle’s most powerful compositions.

Full Force Galesburg




When I fell into real Mountain Goats obsession in early 2006, I bought up every album and compilation that I could find — even if it meant through mail order from tiny labels with weird names. The Shrimper cassette-only releases were off my radar, as they weren’t — and apparently still aren’t — accounted for on AllMusic. I tracked down all of the others though, with the exception of two that proved elusive: Full Force Galesburg and The Coroner’s Gambit. When I eventually downloaded both from eMusic, I had already become well-versed in every other pre-Get Lonely Goats release, and thus, those two that I still didn’t possess a physical copy of felt somewhat like afterthoughts.

But what a mistake that was. Full Force Galesburg‘s exterior may be slightly tougher to penetrate, but there is nary a wasted second to be found among these sixteen tracks. Though it may be tough to notice at first — given that most of Galesburg remains defiantly lo-fi — the attention to detail that would characterize future classics like All Hail West Texas and The Sunset Tree truly begins to come into focus here.

One for the playlist: There are plenty of contenders among these tracks, but the road trip narrative “Twin Human Highway Flares” gets the call. John Darnielle’s imagery here is little short of stunning, and the emotional complexity that he conveys is even more impressive.





The third compilation of boombox-era stray tracks, Ghana is an absolute treasure trove. Boasting thirty-one songs, Ghana features several of John Darnielle’s best compositions: with “Golden Boy,” “Raja Vocative,” “The Last Day of Jimi Hendrix’s Life,” “Going to Maine,” “Creature Song,” and “Going to Port Washington” all standing as certified Mountain Goats classics. If you are already familiar with them, the very names of those songs are likely to incite goosebumps. If you’re not yet familiar with them, fix that ASAP.

One for the playlist: Only John Darnielle could write a song like “Golden Boy”: interpreted by some as a scathing attack on religious dogma, by others as a mere joke, and by others still as a completely life-affirming little ditty about an obscure brand of peanuts from Singapore.

Protein Source of the Future…Now!




Why — despite having the same score — does Protein Source of the Future edge out Ghana? After all, Ghana has more tracks, and perhaps more that I’d place among John Darnielle’s best work. However, I’ve always viewed Protein Source as ‘disc one’ of a remarkably rich three-CD arc. As such, it got the most spins of the trio, and its songs were ultimately more deeply embedded in my brain than those from Ghana or Bitter Melon Farm.

And yeah, there are a few albums still to come on this list, but it was in hearing these three compilations that I became a Mountain Goats devotee. Darnielle would refine his approach to cohesive album-making in the early-to-mid-2000s, but for me, these early singles and EP tracks represent the platonic ideal of his artistry.

One for the playlist: No single song can sum up the off-kilter charm of Darnielle’s boombox era on its own, but “The Window Song” comes pretty damn close. In a pair of scant verses, and a repeated chorus featuring The Bright Mountain Choir, the minimalist track is a shining example of early Mountain Goats at their best.





Clearly representing the biggest turning point the Mountain Goats discography, 2002’s Tallahassee was the project’s first release on a widely-known label (4AD), and the first to feature genuinely fleshed out instrumental arrangements. And while not quite an act of perceived “artistic blasphemy” on the same level as Bob Dylan ‘going electric’ in 1965, these decidedly non-DIY moves caused more than their share of consternation among long-time fans.

But — almost as if to throw a bone to those loyal followers — John Darnielle used the expanded sonic palette (and increased budget) to bring to life a widescreen production that focused on his notorious “Alpha Couple.” Tallahassee tells the (presumed) story of the Alphas’ demise, in details that are often harrowing and thoroughly compelling. There are countless ways that such an endeavor could have failed, but Darnielle approaches his subject, setting, and characters with a master’s touch and impressive attention to detail.

One for the playlist: The whole thing is great, but there’s a reason why “No Children” has become one of the few Mountain Goats tracks to cross over to mainstream consciousness. Aside from its unforgettable chorus, the song is simply exquisite musically, as Franklin Bruno’s piano melody creates the atmosphere of an Irish wake for a relationship beyond repair.

The Sunset Tree




While We Shall All Be Healed introduced a new level of personal resonance into John Darnielle’s songwriting, its follow-up took it to an entirely different level. Based largely around Darnielle’s experiences growing up in an abusive household — and particularly, his relationship with his stepfather — The Sunset Tree is an often heartbreaking piece of work.

Front-to-back, the songs on The Sunset Tree are uniformly outstanding. Darnielle’s grasp of melody is arguably at its strongest here, and the relative-newness of working within a fuller musical backing is still paying serious dividends throughout. There are subtleties and nuance to these songs, both lyrically and instrumentally, but there’s still necessary space for interpretation as well.

And that, perhaps, is what makes The Sunset Tree such an impactful listen. It’s an intensely personal work, but Darnielle’s ability to weave an everyman tale helps to make his specificities feels universal. And while these are songs borne of tragedy, they are also songs of perseverance, strength, and triumph.

One for the playlist: As much as I’d like to go off board — since pretty much every track on The Sunset Tree is worthy of consideration — I have to go with “This Year.” There may be a few songs here that pack a stronger emotional punch, but despite its ultra-specific biographical references, The Mountain Goats’ crossover anthem is both universal and triumphant.

All Hail West Texas




An absolutely phenomenal clinic in songwriting, All Hail West Texas was the last of John Darnielle’s boombox albums — at least until the 2020 throwback Songs for Pierre Chuvin — and it stands as the pinnacle of his extensive catalog. Every one of these fourteen tracks are positively dripping with intriguing lyrical details, memorable melodies, and the powerful emotionalism that defines the best of Darnielle’s work. And while the closest contenders in his discography gain additional impact from their well-deployed instrumental flourishes, All Hail West Texas needs no such accoutrements. These are unflaggingly wonderful works: every single one of them.

While the tagline on the otherwise plain white cover of Texas seems to promise another Mountain Goats concept album, there’s little that clearly links these tracks together. Rather, they each function as vivid vignettes (“old songs from nowhere”) that are primarily united by their capacity to devastate. Witness the despondent “Distant Stations,” the shattered “Source Decay,” and gut-wrenching “The Mess Inside.” Any of these tracks should provide ample evidence of Darnielle’s mastery. But you also get the exuberant “Jenny,” the tragicomic cautionary tale of “The Fall of the High School Running Back,” and the wistful “Jeff Davis County Blues.” Each of these songs are masterpieces in miniature, and they all contribute to a whole that is miraculously more than the considerable sum of its parts.

In a sense, it’s fitting that Darnielle’s apex arrived at such a crucial turning point in his career. Just nine months after Texas arrived, the Mountain Goats would release Tallahasse on the venerable 4AD imprint. The two-plus decades that have followed have found the project transitioning from a beloved cult act to an indie rock institution. And to his eternal credit, Darnielle has enthusiastically welcomed converts with open arms, no matter when they hopped on board. Still, there’s something undeniably special about the humble beginnings of his boombox-era recordings. And it was here, on the last of them, that Darnielle’s unrivaled grasp of empathy for the underdog reached perfection.

One for the playlist: Look, John Darnielle has written no shortage of beautiful, brilliant, life-affirming songs during his career, but even the best of them pale in comparison to “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.” In a scant few verses, Darnielle sums up the sorrow and frustration of every artistic weirdo who never gained support for their endeavors — no matter how grounded or ridiculous. It’s an absolute all-timer, and the crown jewel of a truly wonderful body of work.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out the Mountain Goats EPs feature as well!


  • Matt Ryan

    Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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