The Kings of Leon Albums Ranked

I ran a poll on Twitter last week, asking “Are the Kings of Leon bad?” Honestly, I was surprised by the results: 83 percent “no,” 17 percent “yes.” I was surprised because, like many millennial rock bands, the discourse around the Kings of Leon concerns their evolution from an exciting, raw act to a stadium group that sells pop music barely disguised as rock. At least, that’s what I thought the discourse was, independent of what I really think of the band from Nashville. But then, I do kind of believe that the Kings of Leon, like countless other bands, have been watered down over the 18 years and eight albums since their first record released in 2003. I took the opportunity, on the occasion of the recent release of the Kings of Leon’s latest album, to rank all of those albums.

Favorite track: “Reverend”

WALLS is the perfect example of the “water down” effect I described in the introduction. No one album from KoL can escape the group’s roots in a sort of faux-raw southern-flavored rock because of Caleb Followill’s pipes (by the way, the band is totally populated by Followills; three brothers and their cousin). But since those uber-hits “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire,” the Kings of Leon have, for the most part, gone down the path of soaring instrumentals and production that evoke the vibe of arena rock. This is not an entirely terrible development, and I like pop music. But something is lost in translation, and WALLS is mostly ineffectual. “Reverend” has some good hooks, and its place as a kind of soft rock song is not a detriment. But the record it comes from is mostly forgettable.

Favorite track: “Pony Up”

COME AROUND SUNDOWN was the follow up to ONLY BY THE NIGHT, which carried those aforementioned uber-hits “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire.” Therefore, it kind of traded on the appeal of those songs, but like ONLY BY THE NIGHT, COME AROUND SUNDOWN is not entirely defined by those tracks. There still wasn’t a full commitment to the soundscapes present on WALLS and WHEN YOU SEE YOURSELF, and “Pony Up” is a great, rollicking example of that. Still, the record isn’t so much electrifying as much as just totally palatable.

Favorite track: “The Bandit”

I compared WALLS and WHEN YOU SEE YOURSELF above because the two really leaned into a mellower form of rock than the band came to be known for, mellower even than the more atmospheric hits from 2008. However, this record, which comes after the biggest gap between albums for the band (clocking in at five years), gets even a bit mellower. But that’s kind of a good thing. WHEN YOU SEE YOURSELF is moody and often slips into an enjoyable groove, most notably in the chorus of “The Bandit.” The risk there, though, is that the album sometimes also slips into a malaise. If this is the place the Kings of Leon now reside, a kind of soft yet driving fusion of pop production and rock background, they certainly could have done worse (and they did, obviously, with WALLS).

Favorite track: “Where Nobody Knows”

By virtue of being inferior to its predecessor, the Kings of Leon’s first record, AHA SHAKE HEARTBREAK is technically an example of the sophomore slump. However, it’s not a sharp decline, and indeed, it acts as a part two of sorts for YOUTH & YOUNG MANHOOD. The band was already displaying a smoother production style, but Caleb’s vocal delivery is still doing some funky things, as opposed to the smooth modulation of his current style. “Where Nobody Knows” is a great display of the character to be found in the band’s earlier, mellow stuff, but there’s some good screaming and rocking to be found on AHA SHAKE HEARTBREAK as well.

Favorite track: “17”

In a way, I wonder if the Kings of Leon are a “two-hit wonder,” in that their very identity seems to be tied up in those big two songs I’ve already mentioned a couple of times. And honestly, despite their overplay, I think “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire” are good songs (the former less so, however). I also think they have come to define ONLY BY THE NIGHT in spite of an array of songs that are just as good or better. For example, “17” approaches sentimental ballad territory with its chorus, while its verses bounce up and down with a bit more quirky energy than can be found in the “big two.” And there are a few other tracks like that on ONLY BY THE NIGHT, which served as the nexus for two eras of the Kings of Leon.

Favorite track: “Red Morning Light”

From what I’ve been able to discern, the Kings of Leon have always been received more favorably among the British music press than the American corps. My working theory is that the group represents a streamlined conception of the American south and the rock it produced, analogous to a White Stripes or something and a rockier predecessor to a Mumford & Sons or, and again, something. And for some reason, that appears to Englanders more than Americans. In any event, the Kings of Leon’s debut YOUTH & YOUNG MANHOOD seemed to catch hold in the U.K. right away, and it was deserved. Opening track “Red Morning Light” immediately makes the band’s artistic statement clear, as a great, lively southern-style rock song. The rest of the album is made up of the “rawest” songs that the band has produced, with generous range in energy but, I must admit, fewer catchy hooks than can be found on the band’s best. But the power of YOUTH & YOUNG MANHOOD is palpable, and I can see how the Kings of Leon were an exciting band upon their debut.

Favorite track: “Supersoaker”

In describing two disparate eras for the Kings of Leon, one that was started after ONLY BY THE NIGHT, I kind of ignored MECHANICAL BULL. Because if there is a “return to form” entry in the band’s discography, it’s this record. It still exhibited the pop polish that had defined the band’s past few releases, but MECHANICAL BULL made it fun rather than risking a malaise effect. There are songs that still rock, like “Supersoaker,” but the album is more sonically rich than YOUTH & YOUNG MANHOOD, for example. I had underrated MECHANICAL BULL before revisiting the Kings of Leon’s work for this piece, and that was a mistake.

Favorite track: “Charmer”

However, if I was to have picked a favorite in advance, I would have said BECAUSE OF THE TIMES. After it, the Kings of Leon ceased to wear their southern influences on their sleeves. But for this great record, the band really played with a wide array of rock songs to great effect. I absolutely love Caleb’s screaming on “Charmer,” and the bassline is just…threateningly chunky. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but there is a vibe throughout the record that makes BECAUSE OF THE TIMES the Kings of Leon’s most threatening album, in the sense that really good rock music is threatening. Sometimes, the album verges on overwhelming, but it is worth the trip. Sure, there are negligible tracks on BECAUSE OF THE TIMES, but in general, it makes the case that the Kings of Leon should not be remembered for just their big hits.

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