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Worst to Best – The Band

After years on the road, The Band recorded the Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan, where they developed their unique melding of rock with traditional folk, country and blues forms. The organic harmonies, the virtuoso but often unassuming musicianship, and songs that seemed to spring from an America of a hundred years earlier, created a richness and homespun authenticity that has rarely been touched in popular music. Their ensemble sound is rich and detailed, with most of the group skilled on several instruments, and the three vocalists each bringing their own personality to the material.

The Band released ten studio albums during their career, but for this blog post I’m only looking at the six albums that meet the following criteria:
– feature The Band’s original lineup of Rick Danko (bass, vocals), Levon Helm (drums, vocals), Richard Manuel (piano, vocals), Robbie Robertson (guitar), and Garth Hudson (multi-instrumentalist). This excludes the three reunion albums that The Band made in the 1990s, without Robbie Robertson, their primary songwriter, and Richard Manuel.
– made up of originals – this excludes 1973’s covers album Moondog Matinee.

As well as the below studio albums, the star studded farewell concert The Last Waltz is essential viewing for any fan of rock and roll, even if it’s just for Neil Young’s nose and Van Morrison’s high kicks.

the-band-islands6. Islands (1977)
Although it looks like a studio album, Islands is essentially a collection of leftovers, some dating all the way back to 1972, released to fulfill the group’s contractual obligations. There’s worthwhile stuff, but much of Islands feels like second tier material from The Band.

The Band Stage Fright review

5. Stage Fright (1970)
The Band’s first two albums were a tough act to follow, and their third album feels flat and unambitious to me, even though I like Robertson’s introspective lyrics about life on the road on songs like ‘Time To Kill’ and the title track.

the-band-cahoots4. Cahoots (1971)
Song for song, Cahoots is perhaps weaker than Stage Fright, but I like that the band are trying new things. Van Morrison duets with Richard Manuel on ‘4% Pantomine’, while Allen Toussaint arranged the horns on the opening ‘Life Is A Carnival’. Songs like ‘Last of the Blacksmiths’ and ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ are forgotten highlights in the group’s catalogue.

the-band-northern-lights-southern-cross3. Northern Lights – Southern Cross (1975)
After four years without an album of originals, The Band released their strongest set since their first two albums. The group’s sound is updated for the mid 1970s, and the fine materials includes the fun R&B of ‘Ophelia’, the soulful country ballad ‘It Makes No Difference’, and the historical epic ‘Acadian Driftwood’.

The Band Music From Big Pink2. Music From Big Pink (1968)
The Band’s first album was their most democratic, named after the house in upstate New York where they recorded it. Robbie Robertson contributed signature song ‘The Weight’, but there are also songs from Manuel, Bob Dylan, and the traditional ‘Long Black Veil’.

The Band 1969 Album1. The Band (1969)
On The Band’s second album, the music encapsulates mythic Americana, and feels Biblical in its significance. ‘Rag Mama Rag’ and ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ are rollicking fun, Manuel’s ‘Whispering Pine’ is fragile and beautiful, while the heavy hitters are the civil war epic ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and the concluding ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’, where Robertson lets rip after almost two entire albums avoiding guitar solos.

What are your thoughts on The Band? Should they have chosen a more Google-friendly name? Are their 1990s albums worth hearing? What’s their best album?

30 thoughts on “Worst to Best – The Band Leave a comment

  1. I have to give you credit. There are very few bands whose name aren’t The Beatles where I know all their albums well enough to even begin ranking them. Typically any given band will have one or two kick-ass albums and then the rest a hodge-podge where I’m sort of familiar but then only know a few songs from each album. As much as I like The Band, they are no exception. So about all I can say is second album first, first album second. (And while I know it doesn’t fit your criteria, I really dig Moondog Matinee.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • The first two are clearly the best, even though I have a lot of time for Northern Lights-Southern Cross.

      I used to have this weird Greatest Hits album (it was before their albums were reissued on CD, and it was hard to find anything by them) – and I really didn’t like the two Moondog Matinee songs on there (The Great Pretender, Ain’t Got No Home).


      • Yeah, you’d probably really have to dig Fifties music to appreciate those two. I have a soft spot for that stuff. But that’s some of the stuff those guys grew up on. BTW, I think they did that album as much because it was contractual and they couldn’t think of anything to write as anything else.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think they also resented Robertson getting all the writing royalties, right? It does seem clear in hindsight that Robertson was the primary song-writer, given his solo career etc, but Levon Helm certainly resented that.


        • Oh, yeah. This was a huge problem for them. The other guys felt that they had contributed to the songs in terms of arrangements, feel, etc. Robbie felt that he brought the songs in, hence he should get the royalties. I think he could have maybe bent over backwards some. Good news is that he and Levon reconciled before Helm’s death. I wrote a whole series on these guys earlier this year. Worth checking out (I hope) if you’re bored someday and looking for something to do.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Hard to really comment on the rest, as I don’t like the albums enough to rate them. I do like Islands enough to know that and the disqualified Moondog Matinee are albums I like to revisit. Top two are spot on, though – the self-titled record is my favourite and first (bought after hearing King Harvest on an Uncut cover CD!)

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  3. Another thoughtful and insightful ‘ranking’. On some days, I might swap #2 and #3 (mainly because “It makes no difference” is one of my favourite songs ever), but generally I reckon you’ve nailed it.

    Noting the exclusions( that are interesting but tend to muddy the waters of exercises like this), I only want to say two things.
    (1) I really enjoy Moondog Matinee, one of the earlier ‘covers’ albums I’m aware of.
    (2) Van’s kicks, natch. But what’s with Neil’s nose?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll let Rolling Stone fill you in about the nose:
      “It’s hard to blame Neil Young for wanting a little pick-me-up on the day of The Last Waltz. Two days before the Band’s farewell concert, he played two long Boston shows with Crazy Horse in a single night. He then flew cross-country and gave up his Thanksgiving in order to give his friends a proper farewell. There was a huge party backstage, and when it came time for Young to take the stage and play “Helpless,” he had done more than a little cocaine. “He performed with a good-size rock of cocaine stuck in his nostril,” the Band drummer Levon Helm wrote in his memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire. “Neil’s manager saw this and said no way is Neil gonna be in a film like this. They had to go to special-effects people, who developed what they called a ‘traveling booger matte’ that sanitized Neil’s nostril and put ‘Helpless’ into the movie.”
      They couldn’t edit out that coked-up look on his face, but he was in good enough mind to start the song over after a few seconds when the rest of the group didn’t quite join in on time. He chuckles and says, “They got it now, Robbie.” Neil was no stranger to playing on coke, and he delivered a spellbinding rendition of the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young classic.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I recently got into Cahoots Sorley because I had never listened to The Band beyond the first two and their work with Dylan. I just appreciated that I had never heard the songs before. Like finding a $10 bill in an old coat pocket.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I popped over to lay a few comments on Zeppelin and saw this so I had to peek. Couldn’t resit. Enjoying the comments. Hard for me to rate because i get something different from each album and they all have a good vibe with me for various reasons. I dropped a few comments on your Band reviews when I first found your station. I see i didn’t do them all. Brain freeze I guess. I have listened to everything they’ve done so many times it’s beyond counting. I will give you this. I love the cover for ‘Northern Lights’. It’s my favorite. The Band takes one of the top spots of my favorite bands. Music Enthusiast did a take on “singers”. I would put Levon, Richard and Rick on my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just added Cahoots, Northern Lights, and Islands recently, which is why I made the post about it.

      I’m always unsure about the singers – they do bring a lot of personality to the group, but they’re not always my favourites. I can’t imagine anyone but Manuel singing ‘Whispering Pines’, and Danko does a great job of ‘It Makes No Difference’.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, Dylan’s a while down the track I think. For a long time I just owned the Masterpieces set, so I’m still getting familiar with some of his albums. I am a big fan of John Wesley Harding, and I have a soft spot for Desire.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Just reading it now. I’ve heard most of his stuff up to the mid 1970s, but haven’t heard much beyond that. It’s going to take me a while to get through Dylan – I went right through Tom Waits recently and it took me a couple of months, and Dylan probably has twice as many albums.

          Liked by 1 person

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