The alt-J Albums Ranked
Some years ago, my high school Spanish teacher played alt-J’s “Breezeblocks” in class. I instantly fell in love. With the song and the band, not my Spanish teacher, although he was cool too. The English band’s blend of darkness and whimsy, as well as Joe Newman’s reedy, striking voice, cuts through the pop-fueled arena alternative rock acts in high demand right now (I don’t know, though, are they?). But alt-J does so using a lot of the same tools, techniques, and sounds, twisting everything just off-kilter enough to great success with their best songs, and a bit too much for their less accessible work. But then, that work really comprises the three main studio albums, which I’ll be taking a look at on the occasion of the band’s new remix album, REDUXER, which remixes last year’s RELAXER. I’ll be skipping over the live album and EPs the band has also produced to focus on the core “trilogy” of records it has made so far. My order of favorites is pretty straight forward.
EDIT 2/16/22: Added THE DREAM.
#4 — RELAXER (2017)
Favorite song: “In Cold Blood”
As much as I said I appreciate alt-J’s off-kilter-ness, RELAXER got a little too self-indulgent and experimental for my tastes. It’s not like the record is ambient noise or something, but the pop melody songwriting chops that were showcased in unique form on the band’s previous albums were not nearly as prevalent, although “In Cold Blood” is an invigorating track. I also adore the band’s apparent love for the bizarre cult classic, Japan-exclusive PlayStation game LSD: DREAM EMULATOR (1998), a screenshot of which adorns the cover artwork. They even enlisted the developer, artist, and musician behind LSD, Osamu Sato, to create a playable game as a promotion for RELAXER. That’s a pretty awesome nexus of my interests. Unfortunately, the album itself rang a bit hollow, although it’s more interesting than much of alt-J’s contemporaries.
#3 — THE DREAM (2022)
Favorite track: “U&ME”
Alt-J has come back from their biggest gap between albums (just under five years) to deliver a more accessible, chiller, and groovier display of alt-rock-pop than RELAXER…ironically, considering the name of THE DREAM’s predecessor. But the title of this, the band’s fourth record, is apt, as it enters an atmospheric space that calls to mind alt-J’s better works while advancing it into a new space. Newman’s voice is at its least brash, which is a good development; I’m not one who thought that his vocal style was totally annoying, but you gotta admit it was sometimes rankling. I mentioned that this record was groovy, and that’s due in part to the album’s excellent drum beats, especially audible on and represented by “U&ME.” THE DREAM veers a bit into a malaise with its broader, more relaxing vibe, but it ultimately offers a pleasant, engaging listen.
#2 — THIS IS ALL YOURS (2014)
Favorite song: “Left Hand Free”
Can you see where this is going? I think THIS IS ALL YOURS was an admirable evolution of alt-J’s sound, and there are some really cool examples of that: “Nara,” “Every Other Freckle,” and “The Gospel of John Hurt.” “Left Hand Free” is just an incredibly energizing and fun song; besides some notable exceptions, alt-J is actually at its best when doing high-energy songs. Still, its brooding body of work (which seems to be most of it) is effective in establishing a thrumming, menacing tone, lightened by melodic guitar and soaring vocals. THIS IS ALL YOURS bridges the gap between these very well, but to me, leans further into the darkness than the band’s first album.
#1 — AN AWESOME WAVE (2012)
Favorite song: “Breezeblocks”
And that’s why AN AWESOME WAVE is my favorite alt-J record, an opinion that I cannot expect to be controversial. This is an incredible debut album, one with complexity and depth distilled into palatable melodies and rhythms, all the while fostering a sense of unease. Alt-J’s darkness, by the way, is fed by Newman’s, at times, cryptic, violent, wistful, and/or nonsensical lyrics, best exemplified in “Breezeblocks.” The band’s crowning track is endlessly replayable, and its striking music video offers a lot of insight into the artistic mission of the group. And unlike alt-J’s next two albums, AN AWESOME WAVE contains more than just a couple of standout tracks and others that are not greater than the sum of their parts. There are hits after hits here, from “Tessellate” to “Matilda” to “Fitzpleasure.” Nearly every track is playlist worthy (my measure of a good song), and the record as a whole is a breath of fresh air as someone tired with the tone of the alternative rock scene of the 2010s.
The way this list played out may seem like alt-J has fallen out of my favor (like anyone cares), but the truth is that I’m still incredibly impressed by its artistry and increasing weirdness. It just doesn’t necessarily make for music that I want to actively listen to, especially out of the context of the entire, cohesive album. But it’s worth experiencing the whole of an alt-J every once in a while to check into another world; the group, more than a lot of other “weird” bands of its ilk, actually elicits visual and sensory stimulation (other than audio) just by listening to its music.