The Animal Collective Albums Ranked

I kind of have a complicated relationship with Animal Collective. The Baltimore-born four-piece experimental electronic/pop/freak folk group, the permutation of which varies from release to release, has made some really great music. And then the band has also made not-so-great music, but not in some dismissive way. Animal Collective has just made some weird music, stuff that’s kind of hard to access or emotionally connect to, at least in my experience. Maybe I’m just not doing enough drugs. In any event, in the 22 years since Animal Collective’s “soft” first release (I’ll explain more below), the band has released 11 studio albums. That number is extrapolated out here, however, to include 15 “album-length experiences,” or what I consider a canon of records that represents Animal Collective’s main output. Of course, there are numerous other live releases and EPs, the latter of which tally up to 12, a whole suite in of itself. I imagine there are some hot takes in this ranking of Animal Collective’s discography, coming from this person who often likes my music poppy and accessible, even if I can appreciate the avant-garde to some extent.

EDIT 11/23/22: Added THE INSPECTION.

Favorite track: “Hip Sponge”

The second of two Animal Collective “video albums” that I am including on this list, beyond the typical 11 studio albums, TANGERINE REEF is the band’s worst album, but not for any offensive qualities. Indeed, “better” stuff by the group is actually more dissonant to my ears. Maybe my opinion on the record is influenced by my actually watching the whole ambient piece, made with the duo Coral Morphologic. The filmic part of the album just shows some admittedly beautiful views of coral life…that gets old after a while. Besides some suggestive sexual moments of the coral entering its own butthole-like orifice, it’s pretty but screensaver-like stuff. And the music itself just drifts through my ears without much impact. “Hip Sponge” is probably the closest thing to a definable song on TANGERINE REEF, an album that fails to make an impact.

Favorite track: “Cotton Candy Sky (Dead God Theme)

Like TANGERINE REEF, Animal Collective’s score album to Soundcloud rapper documentary CRESTONE (2021) suffers from an ambient problem. Of course, that suffering is quite relative; I know a number of people who would probably appreciate this aspect of Animal Collective a lot more than me. Again, this is outside the typical bounds of “studio album” canonicity, but I think it should be regarded as in keeping with the main of the group’s work, at least in terms of length and cohesion. It just so happens that the cohesion of CRESTONE settles into a malaise without much engagement for me.

Favorite track: “Wish I Knew You”

Animal Collective’s second release of 2022 is a film score in the mold of CRESTONE. Accompanying the movie of the same name about a gay man in the Marines, THE INSPECTION strikes a somewhat similar ambient tone to the work the group has done for other visual media. However, where it stands out in comparison is a bit more of a verve, an at times aggressive energy, which matches its armed forces conceit. That isn’t to say that THE INSPECTION hits the overwhelming, dissonant level that Animal Collective music can reach. On the whole, its soundscape is supplementary, fitting for a score. “Wish I Knew You” is the standout and concluding track, a more traditional vocal tune in the vein of the “original songs” that can get produced for movies. But this is Animal Collective, after all, so it’s not some belt-y inspirational ballad. Instead, it’s a potent culmination of the diffused energy to be found across THE INSPECTION, an inoffensive yet minor work in the Collective’s discography.

Favorite track: “What Happened?”

Despite my insistence that Animal Collective album-like experiences be included on this list beyond the traditional “studio” ones, almost all of them rank pretty lowly. That’s because for the most part, they do eschew the “traditional” aspects of Animal Collective that I like, if you could ever call this band traditional. ODDSAC was the band’s first video album, and it’s definitely a more interesting watch than TANGERINE REEF, and obviously a better listen. There’s a bit more of a narrative to ODDSAC, although its avant-garde approach to editing and such means it’s not exactly coherent. I think art like this, that is to say, art that is intentionally esoteric or not immediately accessible, immures itself within a wall of sorts, a wall that defies reasonable expectations or connection. And that’s cool, sometimes! It’s just not my cup of tea, and this is a trait shared by my lowest rated Animal Collective work. ODDSAC has the benefit, however, in spite of whatever philosophical problems I may have with it, of some pretty trippy and memorable images. The album itself is mostly made up of what feels like transitional tracks, ambient and/or dissonant things that leave much to be desired. But the songs on ODDSAC are actually pretty strong, all two or three of them; “What Happened?” is a great example, and is as good as the good stuff Animal Collective has produced.

Favorite track: “Native Belle”

In 2020, Animal Collective changed the name of their fourth album, HERE COMES THE INDIAN, to ARK, due to obvious problematic concerns. But I also think it’s important to recognize the intent of the original work of art. I’m not opposed to calling this record ARK, but the title HERE COMES THE INDIAN contributes to one’s interpretation of the music it contains. That being said, I don’t particularly love the music that HERE COMES THE INDIAN contains. Although I said this was the group’s fourth album, this was actually only the first to be issued under the Animal Collective name, with all four members (Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin) playing together. Previous releases with some combination of those musicians have been retroactively classified as part of the band’s official discography. And Animal Collective does indeed kind of operate like a collective, as that lineup is by no means consistent for releases even beyond HERE COMES THE INDIAN. In any event, let me return to the quality of the album itself: it’s a minor Animal Collective work. The new name of the group didn’t establish a sudden departure from the eclectic, at times claustrophobic sound of previous releases. I think HERE COMES THE INDIAN is a more aggressive work than its predecessors, and that works to its advantage on songs like “Native Belle.” But it can also create a dissonance, one that is more jarring than some of the ambient or noodle-y pretensions of other Animal Collective releases.

Favorite track: “In the Singing Box”

Originally credited to Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist, DANSE MANATEE was what would come to be known as Animal Collective’s second album. To those already in the know about this still obscure array of people, it was seen as somewhat of a sophomore slump. And while I do think it isn’t as good as Animal Collective’s debut, DANSE MANATEE is in a similar quality ballpark as SPIRIT THEY’RE GONE, SPIRIT THEY’VE VANISHED. Where its predecessor embodied loose experimentation with a more placid approach, DANSE MANATEE employs high frequencies and distorted sounds to mostly dissonant effect, although it comes into pleasant weirdness on a few songs, such as “In the Singing Box.” Ultimately, this early effort from the group is of interest, but not much more.

Favorite track: “Pride and Fight”

The only live album on this list is so included because, at the time of its release, the songs on HOLLINNDAGAIN were new to any recorded form (minus one), and the group (at this time, still the trio present on DANSE MANATEE) considered it their next full-fledged album. To some extent, they were right; as a live album, HOLLINNDAGAIN doesn’t really succeed, as it sounds like yet another studio experimentation. That being said, there is an energy behind the record’s songs that, with the context of its recording in mind, do reveal the spontaneity of a live show. It’s that energy that elevates HOLLINNDAGAIN above a number of other albums from Animal Collective’s early days, even as its experimentation still puts me off a bit.

Favorite track: “La Rapet”

Animal Collective’s first album was actually created by just Avey Tare and Panda Bear, who are definitely the group’s two most visible frontmen. I’ve always though Avey Tare as the more experimental of the two, and Panda Bear the more pop/songwriting hook-oriented of the two, and that’s mostly based on their solo work. In any event, in working together on SPIRIT THEY’RE GONE, SPIRIT THEY’VE VANISHED, they mostly operate in an esoteric space, with lots of unconventional sounds laid over each other. I’ve used the word dissonant a lot so far, and while SPIRIT THEY’RE GONE has the potential to veer into that territory, the calm-turned-chaos of the record, as represented by “La Rapet,” is impressive. It’s obviously not my go-to Animal Collective record for a satisfying listen, but SPIRIT THEY’RE GONE is challenging in a good way.

Favorite track: “Doggy”

Recorded by Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Deakin under the band name Campfire Songs, this “self-titled” record came to be known as Animal Collective’s third. It was a departure from the work on the previous two in that its acoustic base was a bit more accessible and less dissonant, although its psychedelic/freak folk inclinations don’t exactly make CAMPFIRE SONGS some cousin to Woody Guthrie or something. This is still experimental music, but it swirls into a warm experience, an actually effective sonic approximation of the concept embodied by the title of CAMPFIRE SONGS.

Favorite track: “Who Could Win a Rabbit”

As with “dissonant,” maybe I’m using the word “accessible” a bit too much in this piece, but here goes: SUNG TONGS continued (or rather returned to, since HERE COMES THE INDIAN was in between) CAMPFIRE SONGS’ acoustic accessibility, although this time it was only recorded by the Avey Tare-Panda Bear duo. SUNG TONGS was Animal Collective’s breakout album, as far as I see it, and for good reason. It’s yet another refinement of the band’s “freak folk” aesthetic that shifted into something different by the end of the first decade of their existence. I think much of the album, however, is still hard for me to get into; while being able to sing along with a song isn’t the only measure of greatness, it’s something I like doing every once in a while. Nevertheless, SUNG TONGS is a good bit of experimentation that offers a nearly singular listening experience.

Favorite track: “Turn into Something”

But SUNG TONGS’ follow up, FEELS, was the apotheosis of Animal Collective’s earlier freak folk sound. It also continued and elevated the band’s swiftly growing critical acclaim, carrying the kind of uniqueness that brought the group’s earliest fans into the fold while employing a songwriting and structure approach that defined the songs more effectively. The shape of something like “Turn into Something” is more absolute, which isn’t to say that the album rounds and polishes its songs into pop confections or something. No, FEELS instead channels the chaos that Animal Collective had already proven themselves conduits of into a more recognizable tone.

Favorite track: “Cherokee”

Animal Collective’s latest album, and the impetus for this piece, is really good. It’s so impressive that this band can continue to innovate and push their sound into different directions after 22 years and 15 albums (plus many other releases). TIME SKIFFS moves back from the aggressive chaos of the band’s 2010s to steer into a fluidity that is impressive in its groovy-ness. Animal Collective has always been characterized as chaotic and grating to some, even by me to some extent in this piece, but their legacy also includes a lot of downtempo and/or ambient work. With TIME SKIFFS, the band channels that legacy into some really great, psychedelic soundscapes, again, defined into songs that are easier to ingest and ultimately more moving.

Favorite track: “Chores”

STRAWBERRY JAM was my introduction to Animal Collective, specifically through the song “Chores.” I don’t know how I first heard it, but its poppy jangling crossed with chaotic electronic noodling really struck me. To this day, “Chores” is one of my favorite Animal Collective songs. And of course, its source album is one of my favorite of the band’s records. STRAWBERRY JAM was the group’s most commercially successful release to date, which makes sense considering it was also their most “mainstream” at the time. The album’s songwriting is definitely more hook-oriented, and while the sonic collage of crazy sounds, instruments, and samples is like anything else that came before from the band, STRAWBERRY JAM applies it in the pursuit of a different goal: catchy choruses. I don’t mean to imply that the record is some kind of Top 40 striver, but instead the product of a group of musicians refining their craft. I don’t think it’s a slight to say that Animal Collective was appealing to a wider base, but it’s also worth noting that I don’t think Animal Collective has ever done anything with their music that they “didn’t want to do.” STRAWBERRY JAM is not the band’s “sellout album,” and hell, even if it was, it would still be incredibly enjoyable.

Favorite track: “Today’s Supernatural”

I don’t know that I have a total handle on what the “favorite” for “best” Animal Collective album is, but in the conversation is certainly MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION, which CENTIPEDE HZ followed. After the great success of that album, the band came back with something altogether more diverse and chaotic. CENTIPEDE HZ is kind of like the sonic equivalent of a boiling swamp, which isn’t to say that it gives you a sinking feeling; the album instead roils with some kind of primal energy, emerging out of some darkness. But hey, the album is fun too! “Today’s Supernatural” carries both energies, and the whole of its record, which has been criticized for having a sound too diffused across too many influences and styles, is in fact an invigorating fusion. CENTIPEDE HZ is a more aggressive Animal Collective album, and that pounding impulse and musical assault on the ear is actually quite powerful…and not dissonant!

Favorite track: “My Girls”

As mentioned above, MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION is probably the favorite for best Animal Collective album, at least for us tagalong pop music fans. “My Girls” is indeed a great song, and it’s definitely the band’s best-known, and for good reason. Its kaleidoscopic opening flows so well into the soaring vocals and encroaching beat. This was the evolution of the very electronic sound present on STRAWBERRY JAM, as opposed to the freak folk (which includes electronic sounds) of early Animal Collective. MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION, even as one of the “poppiest” records from the band, doesn’t entirely kowtow to traditional song structure, but instead experiments within the molds we all know. There’s a lot of reverb on MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION, and it serves to enrich and drive a repetition that defines popular music. Of course, everything else around that repetition, produced with immaculate layering, make MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION a great record and one of the defining works of music of its decade, not just of Animal Collective’s discography.

Favorite track: “FloriDada”

And yet, my favorite Animal Collective album is one that received the most mixed reaction. Coming after the biggest gap between records on this list (about three-and-a-half years after CENTIPEDE HZ), PAINTING WITH is without a doubt, and here’s that word again, Animal Collective’s most accessible album. Now, that accessibility applies to us philistines who can’t appreciate the 11-minute acid trips in music form that can be found across many Animal Collective records. Criticism was leveled at PAINTING WITH for its pop inclinations and apparently directionless chaos, a charge that was also brought against CENTIPEDE HZ. But I find that, as with its predecessor, PAINTING WITH’s diversity and ultimate catchiness is the apotheosis of the Animal Collective ethos. I mean, “FloriDada” is one of my favorite songs ever, not just of Animal Collective’s catalog. It is a perfect representation of what I love about PAINTING WITH: the song is repetitive and catchy, but it’s so much richer than what you would find in pop production today. Some have found this album bland, a collection of all the parts of Animal Collective assembled in constructionist fashion. I find it to be a supreme baroque triumph, the ultimate evolution of experimentation and innovation that the band had practiced for a decade-and-a-half by this time. PAINTING WITH will get its due, I think, as an Animal Collective underdog.

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