After years of playing live, 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 unassuming musicianship, and songs that seemed to spring from an America of a hundred years earlier; these qualities created a richness and homespun authenticity that has rarely been touched in popular music. The Band’s 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: Ranked from Worst to Best
Although it’s packaged as a studio album, Islands is essentially a collection of leftovers, some dating all the way back to 1972, released to fulfil the group’s contractual obligations. There are highlights – ‘Christmas Must Be Tonight’ is a sincere Christmas tune and opener ‘Right As Rain’ is pretty. Much of Islands is second-tier compared to the rest of The Band’s stellar catalogue.
#5 Stage Fright
The Band’s first two albums were a tough act to follow, and their third album feels flat and unambitious. Robertson’s introspective lyrics about life on the road on songs like ‘Time To Kill’ and the title track are the most interesting feature of Stage Fright. A young Todd Rundgren is credited as engineer.
Song for song Cahoots isn’t especially impressive, but it’s interesting to hear The Band experimenting. 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.
#3 Northern Lights – Southern Cross
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 with Hudson playing synths. The material includes the fun R&B of ‘Ophelia’, the soulful country ballad ‘It Makes No Difference’, and the historical epic ‘Acadian Driftwood’.
#2 Music From Big Pink
The Band’s first album was named after the house in upstate New York where it was recorded. It’s their most democratic effort; Robbie Robertson wrote their signature song ‘The Weight’, but there are also songs from Richard Manuel, Bob Dylan, and the traditional ‘Long Black Veil’. Music From Big Pink is a confident debut, and a big step forward from the group’s contributions to The Basement Tapes, but The Band would surpass it with their second album.
#1 The Band
On The Band’s second album, their music encapsulates mythic Americana and feels Biblical in its weight. ‘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)’. The latter is significant for its showcasing of Robertson’s guitar; after two albums of restrained playing, he unleashes a dazzling solo at the song’s conclusion.
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?
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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.)
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.
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.
Read it, enjoyed it, linked to it from my main Band page.
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!)
Do you like any of the songs from Northern Lights – Southern Cross? Acadian Driftwood? It Makes No Difference?
I’ll need to revisit it, as it’s not one I’m too familiar with. As an album, I’ve listened to it a few times, but there wasn’t anything that leapt out at me… I’ll need to revisit it and perhaps listen for specific songs.
I concur. Both Acadian Driftwood and especially It Makes No Difference are terrific songs. I like the latter live version quite a bit from The Last Waltz.
I’m unfamiliar with their music other than the first two albums. They’re pretty good. Thanks for the guide
We’re agreed on #1!
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?
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.”
Traveling booger matte would be a great name for a band.
Ah, what a touching story. Thank you.
Love Robertsons line about it being the most expensive cocaine he ever bought. No doubt coke plays a staring role in The Last Waltz. However, what is more disturbing to me is why Neil Diamond chose to steal Jim Jones’ look for his appearance in the film.
Neil Diamond had a drug bust for pot around that time too.
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.
Yeah, I only heard it relatively recently too – although I did know the first couple of songs already. It’s not a major work, but it’s well worth hearing. Should check out Northern Lights – Southern Cross if you get the chance.
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.
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’.
One of the reasons I dig the Band is the different voices. All three a strike a chord. To CB’s ears anyways. I wore out Danko’s solo album. Couldn’t get enough.
I guess Zep will have to wait. I’ll pop over and have a look at what you had to say.
I like all the Band singers but space is limited only Levon is my 2nd 25 list to be published someday. FWIW. Love his voice.
I outed myself. But hey it’s no secret how much I like those guys. And like you said Doc it’s an individual thing. ‘The Weight’ kinda show cases the boys. One American and two good Canadian kids.
Hey this is great! Would you consider doing your fav Dylan records?
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.
Ooh great! Yep if you don’t mind may I direct you to my 5 underrated Dylan records I did a while back, I think they’re all great albums to get in to. Glad I found your blog by the way 🙂
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.
Oh yeah Dylan has about 35 records now, I’m a huge fan but even I haven’t gotten through them all. I’m only 20 so I’ve not actually gotten to experience an original Dylan album release.
I knew the top two without even looking! Great job.