The Decemberists Picaresque

The Decemberists Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best

The Decemberists rode the wave of early 21st century Indie to success, attracting attention with their predilection for historic epics and olde English folk music. They hail from Portland, Oregon, but the band was named for the Decembrist Revolution in 19th century Imperial Russia. The band’s invented back story describes how they met in a Turkish bathhouse and how they only travel by dirigible balloon.

Front-man Colin Meloy is the band’s leader, writing their material, often in a storytelling mode that recalls historical events and uses long words. Meloy is an anglophile, whose favourite music includes The Smiths, Shirley Collins, and The Waterboys. The band’s folk-rock often features acoustic instruments like bouzouki and accordion, and they’ve dabbled in genres like progressive rock and Americana.

The Decemberists have attracted ridicule for their grandiose concepts, but I’ve always enjoyed them – although as a bearded, thirty-something history graduate, I’m essentially their target demographic. Here are their eight studio albums to date, ranked from worst to best.

The Decemberists What A Terrible World What A Beautiful World

#8 What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World repeats the stripped-down sound of The King is Dead. The band’s grand concepts are tucked away, replaced by more personal songs from Meloy. But at 57 minutes of unambitious material, What a Terrible World… outstays its welcome, despite highlights like ‘Calvary Captain’ and ‘Philomena’.

What a terrible world, what a beautiful world


#7 I’ll Be Your Girl

Most bands’ output diminishes in productivity and focus as its members grow older and start families. This is particularly evident for The Decemberists. As well as family responsibilities, Meloy’s enjoying a parallel career as a children’s writer. I’ll Be Your Girl is The Decemberists least coherent album, trying different styles with little focus. The band add 1980s synths to their sonic palette, but the best song is the folk epic ‘Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes’.

Come down, my little darling, oh farther come in
For deeper the water, the sweeter the sin

Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes

The Decemberists Her Majesty The Decemberists

#6 Her Majesty The Decemberists

The Decemberists’ second album captures them at their most theatrical, with songs like ‘I Was Meant For The Stage’. But Her Majesty The Decemberists often feels too light on musical ideas, overwhelmed by the group’s mid 19th-century whimsy.

All a-drifting, he’s a nogood boyo
Sent a-fishing for a whalebone corset frame
(His only catch all day)

Billy Liar

The Decemberists The Hazards of Love

#5 The Hazards of Love

The Decemberists had previously flirted with multi-part suites and progressive rock, but the entirety of The Hazards of Love is given over to an hour-long rock opera. Guest vocalists like My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Shara Nova of My Brightest Diamond sing the roles of characters along with Meloy, including the Forest Queen and a shape-shifter. I enjoy the folk and progressive rock palette of this record – it’s sometimes reminiscent of Jethro Tull – but it suffers from the standard weaknesses of rock operas, like repeated melodic ideas.

And painting rings around your eyes these peppered holes so filled with crying
A whisper weighed upon the tattered down where you and I were lying

The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)

The Decemberists Picaresque

#4 Picaresque

The exaggerated Victorian theatricality of Her Majesty the Decemberists was an evolutionary dead end, and the group reinvigorated themselves with the poppier Picaresque. There are great pop tunes like the brassy ’16 Military Wives’ and the acoustic ‘The Engine Driver’, although Meloy’s lyrics are too grandiloquent for mainstream radio. But the album suffers from the long and salty narrative of ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’; a fun story that doesn’t offer enough musically to hold up for multiple listens.

Fifteen celebrity minds
Leading their fifteen sordid, wretched, checkered lives
Will they find the solution in time
Using their fifteen crispy moderate liberal minds

16 Military Wives

The Decemberists Castaways and Cutouts

#3 Castaways and Cutouts

Meloy had already made an album with Tarkio, and the group had already released the EP 5 Songs, so it’s not surprising that The Decemberists started strongly. Their debut album is assured, with their historical shtick and prominent acoustic instrumentation already in place. Opener ‘Leslie Anne Levine’ stakes out their career territory beautifully – a dark tale with a pretty acoustic arrangement.

My name is Leslie Anne Levine
My mother birthed me down a dry ravine
My mother birthed me far too soon
Born at nine and dead at noon

Leslie Anne Levine

The Decemberists The Crane Wife

#2 The Crane Wife

The Crane Wife marks the end of The Decemberists’ initial burst of creativity, their fourth album in just over four years. It’s divided between long, prog-rock flavoured songs like ‘The Island’, and succinct, accessible pieces like ‘Summersong’ and ‘Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)’. With this balance, it’s probably the most representative of the group’s oeuvre; it’s a great place to start with their music.

Its contents watched by Sycorax
And Patagon in parallax

The Island

The Decemberists The King is Dead

#1 The King is Dead

The Decemberists streamlined for the new decade, stripping back their material to short, succinct songs, and showcasing a sound that leaned more heavily on Americana than on British influences. The group, aided by collaborators like Peter Buck, Gillian Welch, and Dave Rawlings, serve up a terrific set of songs like the rollicking ‘Rox in the Box’ and the pastoral prettiness of ‘January Hymn’.

Hail the winter days after dark
Wandering the gray memorial park
A fleeting beating of hearts

January Hymn

Are you a fan of The Decemberists? What’s your favourite album?

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  1. I like this band- agree on your rankings for the most part. Need to go through their albums again. Great write-up!

  2. I love the band and I love the list. It was an interesting read.
    While roaming through the net, I have seen quite a few people bash The King is Dead for how it is simpler than the rest of their works and “too country”, but I love its uniqueness and straightforward approach. Plus, I don’t think there is a single dud in there; all songs are very strong. So I am glad to see another admirer of that facet of the band.
    Still I would give the top spot for Picaresque, leaving The King is Dead with the second place, but I fully agree with the albums that were ranked in the top four positions.
    I think our major disagreement here is The Hazards of Love. Until I’ll Be Your Girl came out, it was by a landslide my least favorite release by them. I just could never get into neither the concept nor the tunes of that album, but I see a lot of praise being thrown at it, so there is certainly something there I haven’t captured yet.

    • The King is Dead is quite different, but I really like it – it makes sense that Peter Buck and Gillian Welch guest, as it basically sounds like a combo of the two. I kind of wish they’d do another more ambitious album again sometime.
      Hazards of Love is their most polarising, judging by the comments – most people have given an opinion about moving it up or down…

      • Given R.E.M. is my favorite band, anything featuring Peter Buck has me totally interested, so maybe that helps the status of The King is Dead as far as I am concerned.
        Yeah, Hazards is pretty polarizing.

  3. really love this band live they are so much fun . not many bands of this stature talk to the audience these days but Colin Meloy engages with great repartee

  4. This was a good one for me as a Decemberists fan who owns several of these albums and has heard the rest at least a couple of times each. I agree with the top two choices and most of the rest, but would probably put “Hazards of Love” up a spot or two. I saw them do the album front to back in concert, BTW, great stuff.

  5. I am not agree. The correct order of the album from the best should be:
    1. Castaways and cutouts
    2. The crane wife
    3. Picaresque
    4. What a terrible world…
    5. The king is dead
    6. Her majesty
    Special mentioned for 5 songs ep that is an excellent mini album.
    The hazard of love is their worst work.

    • Thanks for writing in. I like 5 Songs too – my favourite is the one that was added in for the reissue about Meloy having his friend’s bike stolen. Seems like Hazards of Love is very polarising.

      • 5 songs ep contains one of the most beautiful Meloy’s song “oceanside”, when I heard it for the first time many years ago was incredible, just only fot it it is an album to get. What a terrible word…is very underrated, for me it is a superior pop album wich several great songs like “calvary captain”, “make you better”, “easy come…” but the entire work is focused and greatly arranged.

  6. On the subject of EPs, as an old proggie (as you could tell as I would have “Hazards of Love at #3) the one-song EP that is the 18-minute epic “The Tain” is also of interest. Likewise, the EP “Long Live the King” had some decent outtakes from The King is Dead, including a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Row Jimmy”

  7. You know very well that I love this band but I’m not sure I could easily rank them. And I definitely wouldn’t be able to dub any of their albums the “worst”. It would more like from best to bestest. I’d say “Picaresque” would have to be my bestest but would need way more time to figure out the rest.

  8. I’ve often engaged in chat with JP about The Decemberists as they’re a band I’ve just never quite got. My brother liked them and I heard them often enough, but nothing stuck.
    I’ve been trying to get into them following the chats with JP, but I’m still kinda lost. I’ll keep trying (not too hard), but I think it’s that sense of pretentiousness that puts me off.

    • I think the pretentiousness is part of the appeal for the fans….. If you don’t like the over-the-top theatricality, you’re mostly likely to enjoy The King is Dead.

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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person. It features album reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

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Graham Fyfe has been writing this website since his late teens. Now in his forties, he's been obsessively listening to albums for years. He works as a web editor and plays the piano.

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