The Animals Albums Ranked
The Animals have for as long as I can remember swirled around as one of those band names that I vaguely placed in time and space. I knew they were a ’60s band that sprang up around the same time as or after The Beatles, and were to some extent associated with the counterculture of the decade. Recently, I decided to dive deeper into the band’s work, and I found a British group (shockingly) inspired by Black American music, especially blues. Fronted by Eric Burdon, with his deep distinctive voice, The Animals in their original incarnation were really faithful to a blues sound, especially since they mostly worked with covers. Their version of “House of the Rising Sun,” for example, is certainly their biggest hit. But “The Animals” as they were originally known were really just part of one of a few distinct eras for the flagship name. The Animals formed in 1963 before mostly disbanding in 1967, when their frontman appended his name to the almost entirely different personnel lineup to make “Eric Burdon & The Animals.” They continued in this capacity until 1969, when the whole Animals name sat by the wayside until the original group came back in 1975, fittingly, billed under the name “The Original Animals.” They made a couple of records then, and for some time now, Burdon has toured with the “New Animals,” or some variation on that name. It’s a bit confusing, and it’s only more difficult to define “The Animals canon” because of the then-common practice of releasing either totally or partly different albums under the same or similar names in England and America. The Animals were just one of many British bands to do this at the time, but as far as I’ve experienced, this went on across more albums than most. This is all to say that I’ve pulled together a list here of 13 albums, ranging from 1964 to 1983 across the three recording eras of the changing lineup, to make what I see as the main Animals releases. Only a couple American-only or England-only records are left out of the mix because of their almost indistinguishable track lists from earlier releases. But enough of these qualifications: below is my evaluation of the discography of a great, pioneering British group that practiced that “plastic soul” of their peers in a different, perhaps more authentic way.
#13 — ARK (1983)
Favorite track: “The Night”
Well, The Animals practiced that authentic blues sound until the ’80s (we’ll talk about the psychedelic days of the late ’60s in a bit). As with many groups from the ’60s, the ’80s weren’t very kind to The Animals. I mean, ARK is the only record they released in the decade, prior to the disbandment (once again) of “The Original Animals.” But the more I listened to their 13th, final, and “worst” album, the more favorable I became towards ARK. The guys tried to capture some of the pop, reggae, and drum machine-y sounds of the decade, and a lot of that falls flat and brings The Animals’ sound into a cheesy “bar blues” arena that they were always able to remarkably avoid. That being said, I can also at times dig the cheese, and that’s especially noticeable on “The Night,” a belt-it-out pop tune that still showcases Burdon’s great, powerful voice. ARK is not without its catchy songwriting hooks and shadows of the blues intensity The Animals once played, but it’s certainly watered down and a disappointing way to go out.
#12 — EVERY ONE OF US (1968)
Favorite track: “White Houses”
I feel I always have to clarify in these lists where I start to think the albums of an act become “good,” or indeed that I don’t think any of their work is outright bad. The latter is probably applicable to The Animals, but even this early in the list, I enter territory where it becomes difficult to distinguish a number of albums from each other, not because of their similarity in sound, but because of the good experiences they offer in different ways. EVERY ONE OF US is part of the Eric Burdon & The Animals era, which was defined by a more experimental, psychedelic, and rambling style. It’s also their last release that was relegated to just America, hence my point that The Animals worked with that dynamic later than most; by 1968, most of their peers were putting out just the one version of a record in both England and the States. But out of this time, EVERY ONE OF US is the blues-iest release, and you can hear that on “White Houses,” one of my favorite Animals songs period. As you’ll see, I think the Eric Burdon & The Animals run of records is inferior to the original group’s aggression and clear love for the black artists they and others were emulating with the “plastic soul” coming out of England. In any event, EVERY ONE OF US ends up at the lowest end of even this later period because of its lengthy detours and almost prog rock inclinations; for example, the final track on the record runs 19 minutes long. It’s just not the vibes I prefer from The Animals.
#11 — WINDS OF CHANGE (1967)
Favorite track: “San Franciscan Nights”
Once again, we’re talking the Eric Burdon-psychedelic time period, which was also distinguished from earlier albums by the greater amount of original songwriting on the outputs from the late ’60s. There was some amount of hard rocking popping up at this time, such as in WINDS OF CHANGE’s cover of “Paint It Black,” but this album also demonstrates the band’s embrace of a more “atmospheric,” ruminative sound. It’s exemplified by the great track “San Franciscan Nights,” and I want to make clear that I think there were great artistic accomplishments made on WINDS OF CHANGE and the albums that surrounded it. I think The Animals, like many other England bands that moved on from their straight-ahead blues style in the transition from the early to late ’60s, should be respected and appreciated for how quickly they worked and how they developed so much in so few years. It just so happens that The Animals, unlike say The Beatles or The Kinks, didn’t enter their best period with that change. Nevertheless, WINDS OF CHANGE is decent psychedelia, at times relaxing, as with the aforementioned “San Franciscan Nights,” and at times unsettling, as with the encroaching sound of “The Black Plague.”
#10 — THE TWAIN SHALL MEET (1968)
Favorite track: “Sky Pilot”
I mentioned that Eric Burdon & The Animals could be kind of prog rock-y, in regards to their song length and extended structural asides. That can be heard on the best track of THE TWAIN SHALL MEET, “Sky Pilot,” which mostly operates in a really good, catchy rock mode with some peripheral warping. But then it transitions into this interlude that just bores, although to some extent I suppose it can represent the wide scope of the sky. Thankfully, it returns to the hooks that were present earlier on the song, and as a whole, it doesn’t do anything to ruin the track. I think that dynamic could be extrapolated to the whole album of THE TWAIN SHALL MEET, which has some indulgent psychedelic sequences in the midst of good, drug-tinged rock. There are a lot of sounds and influences on THE TWAIN SHALL MEET that don’t always cohere, but when they do, it echoes through time like some of the best albums of the ’60s, albeit in reduced form.
#9 — ANIMAL TRACKS (1965) [US]
Favorite track: “Bury My Body”
Some context: the lower-case “o” original Animals, in their initial, pure blues incarnation, released two records called ANIMAL TRACKS in 1965. One, which came out in May in England, has a track list that overlaps with records that came out either just before or after it. Meanwhile, the September release of the US version of ANIMAL TRACKS, in spite of a few songs that came from the band’s UK debut, is mostly an original work. Hence, why it’s included here, while the UK version of ANIMAL TRACKS won’t appear on the list. OK, so that out of the way, I want to call attention to that “original work” statement: the album does indeed rely on a number of covers, but it also carries a few songs penned by Burdon and/or other members of the band. “Bury My Body,” ANIMAL TRACKS’ best song, is not one of those original songs, although the traditional folk/blues track was rearranged by Alan Price, The Animals’ keyboardist. Their version just has a great rollicking beat and moves with a purpose that showcases why The Animals were known for their raucous live performances. The rest of ANIMAL TRACKS, as indicated by its placement on this list, doesn’t live up to the quality of the rest of the band’s first few albums, but it still offers perfectly enjoyable blues interpretations that drive forward with purpose rather than cheap, white boy imitation.
#8 — LOVE IS (1968)
Favorite track: “Gemini”
In spite of my mostly dismissive comments about the prog rock inclinations of some of the Eric Burdon & The Animals work, double album (and the last record from that incarnation of the group) LOVE IS works in that vein to great effect. Songs just stretch out with great energy and continue to offer dynamic experiences, as opposed to lapsing into malaise. That can be heard especially on “Gemini,” which took up the entirety of side four at 17 minutes long. The song rocks, and much of its source album does as well. LOVE IS is still in that psychedelic vein, but after EVERY ONE OF US, it’s clear that Burdon was intent on reviving some of the blues aggression he came from.
#7 — BEFORE WE WERE SO RUDELY INTERRUPTED (1977)
Favorite track: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”
It must have been something Burdon had been ruminating on for some time, for when The Animals came back after their biggest gap in albums (it had been nine years since LOVE IS and the end of the Eric Burdon & The Animals era), the original lineup doubled down on the straight ahead blues sound that made them famous. BEFORE WE WERE SO RUDELY INTERRUPTED veers a bit into the cheesier barroom sound and it’s missing some vital quality of the early and mid ’60s work, but on the whole, it was a worthy return for “The Original Animals.” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is downtempo and maybe not the best example of the rocking sound The Animals were able to bring back, but Burdon’s voice sounds great on it. And indeed, they’re playing the blues! So it wasn’t all about hard edges with the band; they could produce some soulful, sad, and evocative songs among their good-time renditions. BEFORE WE WERE SO RUDELY INTERRUPTED is maybe the perfect “middle of the pack” album on this Animals list, not because it’s of middling quality, but because it indicates what was lost from the albums to come in this piece and what it regained after the records that preceded it.
#6 — ANIMALISM (1966)
Favorite track: “Smokestack Lightning”
In a naming convention move that would come to a pair of sci fi movies years later, The Animals released albums called ANIMALISMS and ANIMALISM. In this case, though, the singular came later, and in fact, it was the last record from the original incarnation of the band. You can hear the styles that Burdon would take his version of The Animals into, with ANIMALISM’s lengthier jams and contributions from the likes of Frank Zappa. But even still, The Animals were at their best when doing great covers of great artists, as with Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.” It just grooves and grooves, and while Burdon’s vocalizations can’t match Wolf’s, the white guy does alright. Even still, ANIMALISM is kind of offbeat for this era of the band, but that’s what makes it stand out in a way; the album just isn’t able to capture quite the rhythm and blues tightness that can be found on The Animal’s best.
#5 — ERIC IS HERE (1967)
Favorite track: “The Biggest Bundle of Them All”
In spite of my general assessments of the various eras of The Animals, the first record from Eric Burdon & The Animals is one of the ever-changing group’s best. ERIC IS HERE actually didn’t showcase the group that put out WINDS OF CHANGE, THE TWAIN SHALL MEET, etc. Burdon fronted some session musician orchestras on this ’60s pop rock album, an out-of-step surprise to come out of anything Animals-named. “The Biggest Bundle of Them All” is just an absolute joy, in a way that’s different from the “harder” rock of Burdon’s previous blues years. But his voice still commands the sound, and true to its name and concept, ERIC IS HERE’s mix probably accentuates its singer’s voice more than any other Animals album. It’s totally different from any of them too. I’ve indicated that deviations from the band’s original sound, while appreciated and enjoyable in their own ways, don’t measure up. And while ERIC IS HERE obviously isn’t at the top of this list, this totally unique record from anything released under The Animals name is a really fun and moving time.
#4 — ANIMALISMS (1966)
Favorite track: “Outcast”
ANIMALISMS, as opposed to its US singular counterpart, operated in a briefer, more conventional form. But that benefits it, as The Animals play R&B-tinged rock with a drive and aggression that keep things moving. Burdon’s voice can turn from sweet to rumbling to belt-y, as can be heard especially on “Outcast,” which weaves from swinging to pounding. With one exception, ANIMALISMS is entirely made up of covers, but the fact that The Animals’ identity can be heard on it is a testament to the group’s unique approach to their source material. It’s not that the band drastically reinterpreted their heroes, it’s that they layered an emerging production style and counterculture theatrics on top of their great songs. Sure, The Animals didn’t do Screamin’ Jay Hawkins better than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, but they didn’t just imitate him. ANIMALISMS is a bit more straight forward, perhaps, than the covers to be found on the albums to come on this list, but it’s riotous rock music all the same.
#3 — THE ANIMALS ON TOUR (1965)
Favorite track: “Boom Boom”
In spite of its name, THE ANIMALS ON TOUR is not a live album. And in spite of its inclusion on this album as a separate original work, some of its tracks come from the UK debut, although it distinguishes itself with mostly unique songs. That being said, this is a big bunch of covers once again; I feel like a broken record, but that doesn’t cheapen The Animals’ greatness. Indeed, this is the best period of the band’s circuitous life. On THE ANIMALS ON TOUR, Burdon is singing with wild abandon and the band behind him is rocking on an incredible beat. It could be noted that an overlooked aspect of a covers album is an act’s curation. And in the case of THE ANIMALS ON TOUR, and The Animals’ best albums, they selected songs that were already great in their own right, and brought to them a bit of a more unhinged approach.
#2 — THE ANIMALS (1964) [US]
Favorite track: “House of the Rising Sun”
Although they were a British band, The Animals’ debut album only came out in America. This THE ANIMALS, not to be confused with the other self-titled UK debut that came out just a couple of months later in 1964, opens with the band’s biggest hit: “House of the Rising Sun.” They were already working with a tremendous tradition, a song that carries with it a darkness, a mysticism, an energy and emotion that countless interpreters have found compelling over the decades. And The Animals are one of the best acts to provide a rendition. The whole track washes over you, in a way that actually foreshadows the psychedelic work that the band and its peers would do in just a few years. Otherwise, though, the American THE ANIMALS showcases the rockier, and here’s a word that I saw applied to the band that I love, drawling sound that marks The Animals’ best. There isn’t much fat on THE ANIMALS [US], which dives right into the nitty gritty of African American music and blues with the proficiency that belies The Animals’ nationality, age, and race.
#1 — THE ANIMALS (1964) [UK]
Favorite track: “The Story of Bo Diddley”
For some reason, THE ANIMALS [UK] didn’t carry “House of the Rising Sun,” which is in fact my favorite Animals song. But that ended up not hurting it in my eyes, as right from the get go, the band created a whole ‘nother swath of testaments to the power of the blues and rock ’n’ roll. “The Story of Bo Diddley,” a kind of takeoff of the song of the same name by The Animals’ hero, is essentially a medley narrative. Burdon narrates with a remarkable swagger before bursting into song fragments by his peers, and this combined with the constant drumbeat behind him make “The Story of Bo Diddley” the perfect complement to the US THE ANIMALS’ opener. From there, the rest of the UK THE ANIMALS continues The Animals’ celebration of the music that made them. As mentioned, the band, for the most part, didn’t improve the music they covered. But they did, in their own way, repudiate the darkest aspects of “plastic soul,” that co-opting of black music for cheap barroom blues and the twisting of the foundations of rock and pop music into generic products that could be sold to white people. The Animals’ UK debut, only their second album of their unique 13, got at the heart of that better than anything else the group put out.