As I prepared for this piece, I kept telling myself I could stop anytime. I didn’t need to put myself through this. I should focus on the positive and artists whose work I really like. And unlike, say, Maroon 5 (who I’ve written about here), I can’t say I was ever a “fan” of Imagine Dragons. But I do need to admit something: some of those first few big hits were catchy. I won’t lie. Of course, they were overplayed, and the whole work of the Las Vegas quartet fits into a mold of dismissible arena pop rock as defined by the likes of U2, Coldplay, and now, The Killers. I’ve written about the disappointing evolutions of the latter two (here and here), and I’ve never really gotten U2. So for Imagine Dragons to represent a fusion of these groups (in fact, the newer group has a connection to the fellow Vegas natives of The Killers, as Imagine Dragons recorded their earliest work at their predecessors’ studios in Sin City) means I…don’t really like them. But somehow, I guess because those early hits were ubiquitous in my high school years, I’ve very peripherally kept up with the five albums Imagine Dragons has released in the nine years from 2012 to 2021, which includes the impetus for this piece, MERCURY — ACT 1. Shortly after forming in 2008, the band was putting out stuff that was quite different than, even if a thread of it continued into, the hyper-commercial sound we’ve come to know. Imagine Dragons’ hyper-commercialism is a factor that distinguishes them from their already pop-centered peers mentioned above. Indeed, pre-LP EPs SPEAK TO ME (2008), IMAGINE DRAGONS (2009), and HELL AND SILENCE (2010) are particularly interesting to consider the evolution of Imagine Dragons (although they are not ranked here)…insofar as you would ever be compelled, like I was for some reason, to dive deeper into their discography.
#5 — ORIGINS (2018)
Favorite track: “Birds”
A big part of the distinction for this ranking of Imagine Dragons’ albums is defining which ones are less annoying than the others. By that criteria, and any other, ORIGINS is the worst. There has always been something cynical in Imagine Dragons’ approach to music, a slipshod incorporation of rock, hip hop, and pop sounds and production to maximize commercial appeal and get good brand deals. But at various points, that’s resulted in some earworms, loathe as I or others are to admit it. And lead singer Dan Reynolds doesn’t have a bad voice, if put to good use (which, let’s admit it, is rarely). But ORIGINS commits the ultimate sin for these kinds of bands: it’s bland and nearly soulless but it also doesn’t deliver any hooks that I can even guiltily enjoy. The whole thing is so tame and boring, and by picking “Birds” as my “favorite” track, I’m mostly indicating what defines ORIGINS: a tacky attempt at sounding “deep” and a cheap pass at profound sentiment.
#4 — EVOLVE (2017)
Favorite track: “Believer”
I think it’s funny that Imagine Dragons named their third album EVOLVE as if it was some kind of big change in pace and sound for them. Nope, it’s just the same kind of lowest common denominator modern rock that made them famous. Although I said the criteria for this ranking was on a scale of least annoying to most annoying, there is a secondary consideration, which is certainly not mutually exclusive: how many stupidly enjoyable hits are on this record? ORIGINS didn’t have any and was most annoying, hence its last place. EVOLVE is quite annoying, but at least it has “Believer,” another overplayed megahit that, while certainly no masterpiece, has a chorus that sticks in my damn head. Otherwise, the rest of the album is forgettable or outright cacophonous.
#3 — SMOKE + MIRRORS (2015)
Favorite track: “Smoke and Mirrors”
I think what annoys me most about Imagine Dragons is that there’s some kind of vibe behind the very shallow facade that indicates a belief or attempt to be really compelling lyrically or artistically. And I don’t think anything Imagine Dragons has released so far would, musically, support that intent. With their sophomore effort, SMOKE + MIRRORS, I think the band was going for something a little softer or more introspective, as exemplified by the title track. Oh, there was still plenty of upbeat pop, as could be heard in “I’m So Sorry” and “I Bet My Life.” The former is a cringey, Imagine Dragons version of “hard” (before it turns to a piano interlude, of course), and the latter is just a song custom built for car and insurance commercials. But, within my own criteria, SMOKE + MIRRORS isn’t the most annoying record from Imagine Dragons; I must admit, there’s a little bit more going on with the non-single tracks.
#2 — NIGHT VISIONS (2012)
Favorite track: “Hear Me”
The writing was on the wall with Imagine Dragons’ debut LP, NIGHT VISIONS. It came after a string of EPs produced by the band themselves, independent releases that steadily built their profile over the course of four years. But when it came time for Imagine Dragons to sell out (not that their original work was some kind of “raw” thing), man did they really sell out. I should note, however, that I think “selling out” is kind of a silly concept. I would do it in a heartbeat if I was offered the kind of money that these guys surely were offered to make NIGHT VISIONS, and the increase in that money that came after the huge success of “Radioactive,” “It’s Time,” and “Demons.” In fact, the whole of NIGHT VISIONS was big, as evidenced by its 7x platinum sales. As of late, as with Maroon 5, I’ve just wondered who regularly listens to these guys (besides me lately, for whatever reason made me want to write this). Imagine Dragons is huge, with more than 40 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone, and yet I know absolutely no one who has ever expressed admiration or even mild enjoyment of the band. Perhaps it’s all just stemmed from those hits I mentioned, because for all their crassness in just how overproduced they are, they are admittedly catchy. “Hear Me,” my favorite song on the record, does actually have a good drive to its chorus. But for all its relative merits, I would still not say NIGHT VISIONS is a good album. It was and is indicative of the sorry state of affairs for (mainstream/really commercially viable) rock music.
#1 — MERCURY — ACT 1 (2021)
Favorite track: “Lonely”
I would be concerned with recency bias regarding the placement of Imagine Dragons’ latest album, MERCURY — ACT 1, if anything the band has done so far would have remotely set me up to blindly enjoy the newest thing from them. Instead, MERCURY — ACT 1 was a relatively pleasant surprise from a band that was just going downhill from their already (critically) compromised position. Coming after the biggest gap between Imagine Dragons albums (at just under three years), MERCURY — ACT 1 has some kind of narrative concept that will presumably continue into an “Act 2” and maybe even an “Act 3.” I don’t really know, I wasn’t paying attention to the “concept” aspect of the album. I did notice, however, that some of the lyrical content, on songs like “Monday,” “No Time for Toxic People,” and “One Day,” just as a few examples, were as painful as they’ve ever been. And in fact, there are some songs on MERCURY — ACT 1 that vie for the worst things Imagine Dragons have ever done. I wish I hadn’t used the word “cacophonous” above, because that would be a great descriptor for some of the tracks on this album. But then, that can be said for any one of the Imagine Dragons records to date. So what makes MERCURY — ACT 1 interesting are the songs that are not that terrible, like “Lonely.” It’s kind of jarring at first, but a couple of listens later, I was actually taken by the little high pitched whines under the belting chorus. The other catchy songs like “My Life” or “Wrecked” still carry the patented Imagine Dragons cheese, but…I don’t know, I wouldn’t go so far as to say the songs on MERCURY — ACT 1 are more complex, but there is an experimentation that yielded sounds beyond the ken of the band’s other work to date. This may be a good time to mention that Imagine Dragons has yet to make even a capital-G Good album, and MERCURY — ACT 1 is no exception.