The Barenaked Ladies Albums Ranked

Canadian nerd-rockers Barenaked Ladies are sometimes cited as one-hit wonders on the strength of “One Week,” their 1998 single that has taken the meme world by storm in more recent years. But of course, they had a few other hits beside that one, and a longer lead up and tail to that success than may be thought at first glance (or listen). Indeed, the Barenaked Ladies, at one time, ranked among my favorite bands. While there is still a lot to love about the band, in the years since the departure of co-founder Steven Page in 2009, BNL has floundered a bit. It’s hard to say whether that’s because of the absence of Page, in which case his primary songwriting partner Ed Robertson has had to take on full frontman duties, or simply due to the advancing age of the band. I guess we’ll never know. I do know that the Barenaked Ladies, formed in 1988 as a duo (Robertson and Page), have released 17 albums in the 29 years since 1992. Their latest DETOUR DE FORCE, released on July 16, 2021, is the impetus for this piece. “Only” 15 of those 17 releases are ranked here, as BARENAKED FOR THE HOLIDAYS (2004) and SNACKTIME! (2008) fit into the categories of records I skip for these pieces: Christmas and children’s albums. The former are usually annoying and the latter are fine I guess (they’re obviously not for me), but in both cases, it’s difficult to even count them among the “canonical” work. Also omitted here are the various live albums and EPs from the Barenaked Ladies, which includes the likes of “The Yellow Tape” (BARENAKED LADIES, 1991) and the other demos that circulated across Canada in the early ’90s and gave the band their jumpstart. Oh yeah, and they did the BIG BANG THEORY (2007–2019) theme song.

#15 — SILVERBALL (2015)

I remember listening to SILVERBALL and thinking, “Oh. Are the Barenaked Ladies bad now?” Listening to it again six years later, I can safely say the album is indeed the band’s nadir. While other albums before and since could have clued me in and confirmed the suspicion, SILVERBALL is the worst example of the bland pop rock BNL now trades in. Part of the band’s appeal has always been their upbeat hooks, sure, but they also succeeded with somber tracks. In both cases, Robertson and Page were able to inject great sarcasm and wordplay into their lyrical delivery as well. But since Page’s departure, the Barenaked Ladies have overwhelmingly leaned into cliches and a production style that appears to emulate the worst of pop music today. SILVERBALL is full of songs that embody this downward trend, and even its “best” track, “Matter of Time,” is a marginal success among its peers.

#14 — FAKE NUDES (2017)

If I was questioning the quality of Barenaked Ladies at the time of SILVERBALL, FAKE NUDES is when I knew they were no longer good…which isn’t to say they can’t improve or still have a whisper of what made them great. For example, “Invisible Fence,” a jam written and sung by Kevin Hearn, the band’s keyboardist, feels like something from a BNL album that came out a decade or more earlier. It’s far and away the best song on FAKE NUDES, which is otherwise the extreme example of the band’s attempt to curry favor with the mainstream pop sound of today (or four years ago, I guess). In spite of the “cringe” radiating off of that attempt, there are at least stronger indications that the band is able to inject something of what made them great, as described in the case of “Invisible Fence.” Perhaps there is a certain angst missing; a lot of that came from Page, I think, but again, the dudes are in their fifties now. And so what remains now for the Barenaked Ladies to plumb are the more spirited tones of what I can only assume are Robertson’s inclinations.

#13 — DETOUR DE FORCE (2021)

When I first listened to DETOUR DE FORCE a couple of weeks ago (at the time of this writing), I thought it was undeniably the Barenaked Ladies’ worst album so far. That was an uncomfortable thought, since, as described, I had already disliked their past few releases, and this was coming after the biggest gap between albums for the band (at just shy of four years). Obviously, I corrected that thought, aided by the reintroduction of SILVERBALL and FAKE NUDES. But a couple more listens to DETOUR DE FORCE also revealed some good hooks and clever lyrics on songs, like “Flat Earth,” among the terrible, tired malaise of saccharine instrumentals and lines on songs like “Good Life.” The back half of the album, too, segues from jarring sweetness to a mellower tone that I respect a bit more, although it leaves a faint impression relative to the offensiveness of the record’s worst songs. DETOUR DE FORCE has driven home the Barenaked Ladies’ state in the years since Page left, anchored as the band is by Robertson. I think Robertson is and was a good songwriter and singer, but something about the tradeoff between him and Page, even just vocally, gave a richness to the band’s work that is now missing. Credit can and should be given to Hearn and Jim Creeggan, BNL’s bassist, who both contribute their own songs and provide lead vocals. But ultimately, much of what the Barenaked Ladies do now can only be described as staid pop rock.

#12 — LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: BARENAKED LADIES & THE PERSUASIONS (2017)

In the midst of this fallow period, the Barenaked Ladies returned to some of the songs from their earlier days in collaboration with a capella group The Persuasions, who have performed in some form or another since the mid-60s. Together, the two groups reinterpreted/covered BNL songs from both the Page-Robertson and post-Page days, as well as The Persuasions’ own “Good Times.” The result is something that often happens with these kinds of releases: LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: BARENAKED LADIES & THE PERSUASIONS is fine, because it’s built on prior, great work, but it mostly just makes me want to listen to the work it’s built on. The Persuasions are great singers, but even with Clifford Dawson on “The Old Apartment,” I just wanted to hear Page’s voice and the original, heavier instrumentals behind it. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN is an interesting alignment of two groups I never thought would intersect, but otherwise, it doesn’t improve its source material nor sink it low. It’s just…floating around within the Barenaked Ladies discography.

#11 — GRINNING STREAK (2013)

I wasn’t fully versed in the Barenaked Ladies’ back catalog, nor as critical as I am today, but I think I had an inkling of “cringe” when listening to GRINNING STREAK in high school. I knew it wasn’t great then and now, but the catchy choruses of songs like “Off His Head” and “Odds Are” were satisfying, sure. But with the music video of the latter, produced by Rooster Teeth and starring a bunch of the online media group’s “stars,” I could tell we were dealing with a diminished form of the band. That’s not a total diss of Rooster Teeth itself, but what I think I’m trying to communicate is that it felt like the Barenaked Ladies were reaching. Reaching, I suppose, for some pop success, which of course, the band was always kind of reaching for. The difference is that they didn’t really get it with GRINNING STREAK. It still carries the upbeat cliches of the aforementioned albums with none of the sarcastic bite, but it is a greater success than them because, as mentioned, there are some strong tracks on the record. “Off His Head” is in fact a great song, and yeah, “Odds Are” is an earworm. But evaluated as a whole, it becomes clear that GRINNING STREAK was a harbinger of what was to come.

#10 — ALL IN GOOD TIME (2010)

I guess ALL IN GOOD TIME, the first BNL album post-Page, was the true harbinger. The thing is, though, it’s not a terrible record. My favorite track, “Summertime,” is a great jam, and indeed, there is a sense of urgency behind songs like “Four Seconds” and “Every Subway Car” that belies the blandness to come. Even the sappy “Another Heartbreak” is charmingly effective, and yeah, cheesy, but hey, the Barenaked Ladies have always been cheesy to some extent, even if that wasn’t always intentional. Yes, ALL IN GOOD TIME is not painful like all of the albums that followed it were, to some varying extent. But there’s a bit too much filler on the record, filler that doesn’t so much gloss over as rankle a bit and then gloss over, the one-two punch for not-so-good music. It would definitely get worse, but some of the songs on ALL IN GOOD TIME flit away as soon as they end, even though they were a bit annoying or boring in the moment.

#9 — AS YOU LIKE IT (2005)

Towards the end of Page’s time with the band, the Barenaked Ladies engaged in a number of projects that he would later say weren’t his ideas, like BARENAKED FOR THE HOLIDAYS and SNACKTIME! (the latter actually being his last record with the group). Along with those albums and LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: BARENAKED LADIES & THE PERSUASIONS, AS YOU LIKE IT resides in a kind of strange pocket within BNL’s discography, but as perhaps more of a passion project for Page. Recorded for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of 2005 and sold on CD at the event, AS YOU LIKE IT is a now-out-of-print, mostly instrumental interpretation of Billy Shakes’ titular play. You can find it on YouTube. And you should, because it’s a really interesting piece of work. I insinuated that its genesis sprang from Page because he produced the record and arranged much of the music himself, although of course the album is credited to the Barenaked Ladies. Regardless of how AS YOU LIKE IT came to be, however, it is a pleasant, brief listen that does call to mind the atmosphere of a Shakespeare play through the ear of the Barenaked Ladies, albeit in a toned down form. “Rosalind and Orlando” is a calming, winding track that best displays what I mean. While much of AS YOU LIKE IT is quite impressive, its placement at #9 does indicate, 1) that the record isn’t amazing amazing and, 2) its place as an atypical Barenaked Ladies album (as in, not a pop rock record) makes it hard to compare. However, I do find AS YOU LIKE IT a full-fledged (non-Christmas-or-children’s-themed) BNL release, and a good one at that.

#8 — BARENAKED LADIES ARE ME (2006)

BARENAKED LADIES ARE ME is the first of two BNL albums with material that was recorded at the same time. That is, BARENAKED LADIES ARE MEN, its follow up, is sourced from the same writing and recording sessions. Their combined 29 tracks were nearly bundled as a double album, but they weren’t, but then some deluxe editions of ARE ME carried 16 more tracks, beyond the original 13. Those 16 would make up ARE MEN, and now that that’s cleared up, I can say that the weaker collection of songs was put out first. ARE ME isn’t totally worse than ARE MEN, but I would say ARE MEN is significantly better. Together, they would make a mega-size record with an array of good tracks, but evaluating ARE ME on its own, it is easy to say that it’s the “worst” BNL album from the Robertson-Page era. That’s because it settles into its own malaise, of a kind, although one much different from that found on the records after Page left. No, it’s more of a pleasant, twee malaise than a bad pop malaise, marking ARE ME as a decent listen rather than an electrifying one. “Peterborough and the Kawarthas” isn’t electrifying, but it is a beautiful little track, Creeggan’s best contribution to the BNL canon.

#7 — BARENAKED LADIES ARE MEN (2007)

I’ve mentioned BARENAKED LADIES ARE ME was the worst album Page made with the Barenaked Ladies, and that SNACKTIME! was the actual last BNL album he worked on, even though it isn’t on this list, but BARENAKED LADIES ARE MEN was the last one he worked on that does appear on this list. From here, I hope I can drop the repeated distinctions of what albums Page did or did not work on. But it’s significant because, of course, I think there was a clear quality shift when he left. Even at the end of his stint with the Barenaked Ladies, I think there is a deeper, theatrical quality to his voice that is really thrilling, as can be heard on “Running Out of Ink.” “Running Out of Ink” also indicates the slightly different energy of ARE MEN over ARE ME. The former is a bit livelier than the latter, although it also carries the whimsical thesis that defines both albums. ARE MEN’s wistfulness and successes may have increased significance in hindsight, however, due to its status as Page’s last “real” album with the Barenaked Ladies.

#6 — MAYBE YOU SHOULD DRIVE (1994)

MAYBE YOU SHOULD DRIVE was the Barenaked Ladies’ second record, which saw great success in Canada and even a charting position in the United States. However, its impression seems to have been smaller than the band’s debut, GORDON. In that case, or in my case of evaluating the albums by relative quality, MAYBE YOU SHOULD DRIVE is kind of a sophomore slump. Perhaps it was the reported distance between Robertson and Page or the hesitance of original keyboardist Andy Creeggan (brother of Jim) to stay with the band, but in any event, the step back from GORDON was still a ’90s alternative rock success. Case in point: “Alternative Girlfriend,” a great little ditty that continues to carry its double entendre into the era of “alt girls.” From there, MAYBE YOU SHOULD DRIVE has fewer stand out tracks; maybe “Am I the Only One?” and “The Wrong Man Was Convicted” should get special attention. But in the end, the whole of the record coheres, albeit in a lesser form, to the mold set by GORDON: MAYBE YOU SHOULD DRIVE is fun, poppy rock with a not insignificant sense of sadness.

#5 — BORN ON A PIRATE SHIP (1996)

“The Old Apartment” is one of the Barenaked Ladies’ best songs, full stop. It might be their best. Its driving drums (played by the only unmentioned member of the band so far, Tyler Stewart) augment Page’s emotional, concerning diatribe about his old abode and, by extension, relationship. Located precisely in the middle of BORN ON A PIRATE SHIP’s run time, “The Old Apartment” anchors the band’s third record, which is made up of a few other great tunes as well. Robertson and Page had co-writing credits once again, rather than trading off songs as was the case on MAYBE YOU SHOULD DRIVE. Andy Creeggan had left the band at this point and replacement Hearn had not yet joined. In the midst of these inter-personnel changes, though, the Barenaked Ladies made a great album in the form of BORN ON A PIRATE SHIP. It carried the spirit of the band’s first two albums and, in the case of MAYBE YOU SHOULD DRIVE, showcased stronger hooks and vocals from both Page and Robertson.

#4 — EVERYTHING TO EVERYONE (2003)

EVERYTHING TO EVERYONE simply has a great run of good or better songs in a row, a quality to be shared by the following albums on this list as well. Five years out from STUNT and “One Week,” the Barenaked Ladies were not coasting on their late ’90s success. “Maybe Katie” packs a beat and chorus that are nearly as powerful as those of “The Old Apartment.” It follows “Celebrity,” catchy in a sly way, and is followed by “Another Postcard,” catchy in a cheesy way. EVERYTHING TO EVERYONE maybe doesn’t get as morose as early releases, and stays sillier, but it succeeds on those terms anyways. Later tracks like “Take It Outside” and “Have You Seen My Love?” still indicate a wider range from the band that was, at this point, known the world over for “One Week.”

#3 — GORDON (1992)

Man, I had forgotten how good GORDON is. The Barenaked Ladies’ debut was as strong as you could hope from any band, and its clever lyrics, pop hooks, and emotional atmosphere still awe me after years of BNL mediocrity. Perhaps they awe me more. The depth of GORDON is best typified by “Brian Wilson,” an incredible ode to the man behind the Beach Boys and its own meditation on creativity and darkness; Page sounds great and more mature than a 22-year-old should on it. Besides the moody, jazzy influence to be heard on “Hello City,” “Be My Yoko Ono,” and “Blame It On Me,” the playful banter and pop inclinations of “If I Had $1000000” cement GORDON as a great success of its day. The Barenaked Ladies were launched from the frozen wastelands of Canada into the more well-known frozen wastelands of Canada (and beyond) on the strength of this album, and they deserved it. At this point, any of the top three could be swapped for greatest album from the band.

#2 — STUNT (1998)

Look, “One Week” is fucking fun. It’s a great song, and it’s funny. It’s fun, OK? Stop making fun of it!…Sorry, got a bit defensive. But if I did, it’s because of my own perceived difference between the mood of GORDON and the hit single from STUNT. GORDON feels so much more different and deep and layered than “One Week,” but…”One Week” is just a great listen. Oh, and yeah, I guess a whole album follows it. And that’s the thing: STUNT is not just “One Week.” It proceeds into territory that was obscured by the radio play of the big track, although STUNT’s other great songs were also hits in their own way. “It’s All Been Done” and “Alcohol” especially indicate a depth the Barenaked Ladies could still plumb, and the other fun, upbeat songs off of STUNT are just that: fun and upbeat. The whole of the album is a great listen, even as, or especially because, you’re treated to palette cleansers like “I’ll Be That Girl” and “Some Fantastic.” Besides the presence of “One Week,” STUNT is the nearly perfect indication of why the Barenaked Ladies are (or were) great. Sure, it leaned closer to the fun and silly aspects of previous records, rather than play more in the darkness, but the darkness can still be found. It all makes for an exciting experience.

#1 — MAROON (2000)

Ultimately, though, MAROON is the perfect Barenaked Ladies experience. The follow up to STUNT, BNL’s fifth album is unmatched by the rest of the records in the band’s discography. Somehow, though, there are a number of BNL songs that are better than anything you can find on MAROON. That’s because, besides having many stellar songs itself, MAROON is all killer, no filler. Not one of its 12 tracks should have been taken off the record, and their collective impact is palpable. MAROON, like STUNT, is quite fun, but it equalizes things a bit more in favor of the angst and aforementioned darkness. “Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel” carries both energies. My favorite track, “Baby Seat,” is a driving, pounding track with a soaring chorus, but it too has something deeper to it. I think I can just chalk it up to Page’s voice, which I’m finding is often the common denominator in my favorite Barenaked Ladies songs. I think there’s something to Paul McCartney’s praise of the band and Page and Robertson’s harmonies. In any event, there is a heft to MAROON, a clear devotion to making pop rock fun and intelligible at the same time, that makes it Barenaked Ladies’ best album. That quality is not entirely unique to MAROON, as it can be found across the rest of the band’s best. But for whatever reason, after emerging from the fires of success that “One Week” brought, the Barenaked Ladies did their best work to date. And perhaps ever.

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