The AFI Albums Ranked
Punk/hardcore/plain ol’ rock band AFI (not American Film Institute, as my movie-oriented brain thinks, but A Fire Inside) has charted an interesting path over the course of 26 years and 11 albums. AFI started with a rougher sound than they put out now, as is often the case with bands that meet success and inevitably get older. The various side projects of the four-man lineup, which has been in place in its current form since 1998, have also wormed their way into the discography of AFI, for good and bad. Primarily, singer Davey Havok and guitarist Jade Puget’s electronic project Blaqk Audio seems to have made a major influence on AFI projects for at least a decade. Regardless, the band has pretty consistently fused its original, rawer sensibilities with catchy hooks and an increasing attention to polished production. At times, the results feel a bit hollow. Otherwise, though, AFI has been able to refine their appeal while maintaining a significant chunk of what made them interesting in the first place, as demonstrated by the impetus for this piece, BODIES, released on June 11, 2021. It is ranked below along with the ten other AFI albums, eschewing the live albums and EPs that accompany them (although I did revisit ALL HALLOW’S E.P.  while preparing for this piece).
#11 — VERY PROUD OF YA (1996)
Favorite track: “Theory of Revolution”
AFI had something of a sophomore slump with VERY PROUD OF YA, but it’s not like it was some kind of significant departure or decrease in quality from the band’s debut. Following ANSWER THAT AND STAY FASHIONABLE in just under a year’s time, indicative of AFI’s prolific output in its first few years, VERY PROUD OF YA continues the hardcore sound of its predecessor…which is good. However, the quality of individual songs and standout tracks just isn’t quite as impressive. Many of the songs just come and go out of my ears, including the best one on the record, “Theory of Revolution.” VERY PROUD OF YA ultimately doesn’t make a deep impression, although the record is still a good listen for that quick, hardcore sound.
#10 — ANSWER THAT AND STAY FASHIONABLE (1995)
Favorite track: “Two of a Kind”
It’s not really that AFI had “used up” the good songs they had written over the course of the four years since their formation for the 1995 release of ANSWER THAT AND STAY FASHIONABLE, but that could be a convenient reason for why it’s better than VERY PROUD OF YA, which followed just so quickly. For example, “Two of a Kind” is very catchy and driving, as opposed to just the latter, and a few other tracks are the same way. Their lyrics are primarily concerned with teenage angst (frontman Havok was only 20 at the time of the album’s release, for example) and fit perfectly well with the hardcore anger of the music itself. ANSWER THAT AND STAY FASHIONABLE is clearly a minor work in the AFI discography, but it was a solid debut and still a rousing listen.
#9 — SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND OPEN YOUR EYES (1997)
Favorite track: “Let It Be Broke”
It’s tempting to assign “eras” to bands or artists in retrospect, although of course there wasn’t necessarily a concerted effort to create such a period of time. But then, I suppose that’s the case with real-world eras too. Anyways, sure, I’ll say SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND OPEN YOUR EYES was the end of an initial era for AFI. The band’s third album, and their third in as many years, was the apotheosis of its initial hardcore sound. It plows through with wild abandon in just under 30 minutes, the perfect runtime for a hardcore punk record. I’m always about catchy hooks, but while ANSWER THAT AND STAY FASHIONABLE had more of them, SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND OPEN YOUR EYES is simply more overpowering regardless. “Let It Be Broke” is a great example; it’s not exactly an earworm or sing-along like “Two of a Kind,” but it provokes head-bobbing just the same, and with a greater ferocity. SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND OPEN YOUR EYES also brought the “A Fire Inside” meaning to AFI for the first time, marking a new understanding of the band and the end of its simpler origins.
#8 — BURIALS (2013)
Favorite track: “No Resurrection”
But now we skip ahead 16 years in time, to an album that exists in another, only slightly more engaging era. BURIALS was a step back from AFI’s peak period, which had been building steadily through the 2000s. In the new decade of the 2010s, however, the band’s newfound appreciation for polished production and synthetic sounds made BURIALS an underwhelming and almost distracted experience. It’s not a bad record, and clearly I think it’s better than the hardcore albums of AFI’s past. But if those albums are vital, as in very much alive and energetic, BURIALS is wistful and looser; its tracks aren’t tight punk songs. I think the emotion behind the record is palpable, and so it is affecting (especially on “No Resurrection”), but sometimes it also plays a little bit…silly. Overdone. These criticisms notwithstanding, I do respect AFI’s changes for BURIALS; those changes just aren’t exactly what I like to get from an AFI record.
#7 — AFI (THE BLOOD ALBUM) 
Favorite track: “Pink Eyes”
AFI returned to the self-titled game, after putting out a compilation album of the same name in 2004, with what is now termed “THE BLOOD ALBUM” to distinguish it from that release. Following BURIALS in this era where AFI is taking longer and longer to release a record, THE BLOOD ALBUM cut back on the wistfulness of its predecessor while, at times, maintaining its vibe. “Pink Eyes” is emblematic of this renewed focus, as it contains the spacy-er angst of BURIALS while segueing into a driving chorus that speaks to older releases like SING THE SORROW. In fact, “Pink Eyes” is one of my favorite AFI songs, but it is an outlier on the otherwise middling BLOOD ALBUM (as far as AFI albums go). Like BURIALS, THE BLOOD ALBUM didn’t serve up enough power or hooks, nor are its softer predilections particularly engaging in between the times that power or those hooks do surface. If I seem more critical of these middle albums than those from the initial hardcore years, it’s because BURIALS and AFI (THE BLOOD ALBUM) in particular are a bit frustrating. They have many great elements, they just aren’t fused quite as seamlessly as the albums to follow on this list.
#6 — SING THE SORROW (2003)
Favorite track: “Dancing through Sunday”
SING THE SORROW, AFI’s sixth album, is considered the band’s big breakout, and it’s still often listed as their best. Clearly, I don’t agree, but I do understand why. SING THE SORROW came out of a break from AFI’s quick run of five albums, and brought a whole new production style to their previous hardcore/horror punk instincts. The band brought the macabre sensibility of their previous two albums in particular to a broader sound, encompassing a variety of influences and bringing AFI into the realm of emo, electronica, and yes, pop. But then, the band was really only in striking distance of the latter, which would not be fulfilled until their next release. With this album, though, AFI really did make a bold new statement. SING THE SORROW is one of the most important albums in understanding the band’s discography, so I understand why many hold it dear, but listening to it today, it simply doesn’t hit the same. “Dancing through Sunday” is accompanied by a few other standout tracks, but I think the nearly hour-long record has a bit too much space to explore AFI’s new ideas. SING THE SORROW is a good listen, don’t get me wrong. It would be wrong to call it self-indulgent because this was the first time AFI experimented with this “mature sound,” and they executed it relatively well, but I think attempts to emulate it with BURIALS and THE BLOOD ALBUM in particular fall short. That doesn’t retroactively make SING THE SORROW worse, but it does drive home for me that this isn’t entirely what I want from AFI.
#5 — THE ART OF DROWNING (2000)
Favorite track: “A Story at Three”
AFI’s relatively brief foray into horror punk culminated in THE ART OF DROWNING, and that can literally be seen on the record’s sleeve. Besides some lyrical and slight instrumental themes, however, THE ART OF DROWNING continues the hardcore leanings of AFI’s origins, albeit with an ear to the melodic chorus. That’s rendered brilliantly on “A Story at Three,” but indeed, the rest of the album is enlivening, ironic considering its themes. THE ART OF DROWNING is still “raw AFI,” even as it marked the end of that form of the band’s production style, and it’s nearly the best they got in those first five years.
#4 — BLACK SAILS IN THE SUNSET (1999)
Favorite track: “Clove Smoke Catharsis”
BLACK SAILS IN THE SUNSET started a new era for the band, one that briefly encompassed horror punk before SING THE SORROW. But AFI also took on the lineup it still has to this day, and newcomer Puget’s contributions may very well be part of the reason why BLACK SAILS IN THE SUNSET is so good. Hailed as a maturation of the band’s sound (a comment from critics that seems to come up again and again in AFI’s history), BLACK SAILS IN THE SUNSET is certainly a bit more complex than their previous records. But the center of the hardcore satisfaction is to be found on it. “Clove Smoke Catharsis” carries the then-new, brooding darkness that would typify AFI albums in the future while also featuring the slamming, heavy riffs of their first three releases. I think BLACK SAILS IN THE SUNSET delivers what SING THE SORROW, to hear critics and fans tell it, was supposed to: a sweeping, sulking listen, augmented by driving hooks, melodic backing, and plaintive vocals from Havok. It’s just a great punk album.
#3 — BODIES (2021)
Favorite track: “Twisted Tongues”
But then, I don’t really consider AFI’s best albums to be “punk.” At some point, and I think it can be pinpointed upon the release of DECEMBERUNDERGROUND, the group really just became a “rock band,” which has taken on a variety of meanings in the modern era. And that’s OK, because I don’t think AFI has totally lost the edge that made them so appealing initially. And finally, with BODIES, they’ve equalized the spacey brooding that was found on BURIALS and THE BLOOD ALBUM. BODIES, AFI’s latest record at the time of this writing, came after the biggest gap between albums for the band, at nearly four-and-a-half years. Surprisingly, after my lukewarm reception to their last two, I really liked it. Obviously. I think that can be attributed to, again, a reevaluation of the production style of AFI’s previous two albums. BODIES is still, sure, “softer” than the band’s original stuff, and even SING THE SORROW, but they turn the atmosphere to augment catchy choruses and heavier riffs and drumbeats, rather than supplant them. It’s hard to not split hairs here, because I think there’s an overlap in sound for the last three AFI albums. Perhaps the hooks are just stronger on this particular batch of songs, even as BODIES doesn’t suddenly reinvent the band.
#2 — CRASH LOVE (2009)
Favorite track: “Veronica Sawyer Smokes”
CRASH LOVE was the follow up to the massively successful DECEMBERUNDERGROUND, which was AFI’s biggest album to that date. But after steadily building commercial reception with each successive release, this record fell behind the sales of its predecessor. Perhaps for that reason, CRASH LOVE isn’t mentioned in the same company as DECEMBERUNDERGROUND, SING THE SORROW, or maybe even the horror punk records. And that’s too bad. Because I think CRASH LOVE is an incredible offshoot of what AFI was doing on DECEMBERUNDERGROUND. Like that album, CRASH LOVE is really a subversion of some really great pop songwriting cues with Havok’s very punk-ish vocal delivery and, of course, strong rock instrumentals. “Veronica Sawyer Smokes” is my favorite AFI song, and its upbeat angst is the best representation of what I’m talking about here. CRASH LOVE doesn’t exceed DECEMBERUNDERGROUND because, in a fashion I’ve described a couple of times already, AFI didn’t so much refine the sound of the predecessor so much as extend it, as they’d done for albums in the past. CRASH LOVE sounds great, but the individual songs aren’t as strong as those on…
#1 — DECEMBERUNDERGROUND (2006)
Favorite track: “Miss Murder”
…DECEMBERUNDERGROUND. Sometimes, my favorite album from an artist happens to be my first, or maybe it is my favorite because it was my first. I don’t really know which one applies to my love for DECEMBERUNDERGROUND, perhaps it’s a fusion. But led by the album’s big hit, and indeed, AFI’s biggest hit, “Miss Murder,” it’s clear that DECEMBERUNDERGROUND was another shift for the band. It took the polished production of SING THE SORROW, but applied it to a wider array of upbeat songs, often defined in some way by the darkness of the preceding album (see: the bridge in “Miss Murder,” for example). The result is a great punk-ish, emo, “post-hardcore,” whatever-the-fuck rock album that is as angry and hard as it is fun and catchy. That’s the perfect fusion for the genre, in my book. AFI took a while to climb to the artistic (and commercial) peak that DECEMBERUNDERGROUND represents for their career (so far), as opposed to the early, meteoric rises to success sometimes enjoyed by other bands and artists. But as their most recent work suggests, and indeed all 11 of their albums prove, AFI has a lot more to offer than any one of the sounds they’ve developed over the years.