Indie rock band Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s came out of Indianapolis, Indiana in 2004, bringing from all their “indie/Indie/Indy” influence a whimsical yet somewhat bitter Midwestern vibe. As far as I can tell, the band is effectively disbanded, although exact information on that development isn’t readily available, at least to me. Since the release of Margot’s last album in 2014, frontman Richard Edwards, who led a wide, rotating cast of bandmates, has released three solo albums, which I’ve written about before. But in eight years, from 2006 to 2014, Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s released five (or six, depending on how you consider it; I’ll get to that) great pieces of angst, sadness, romance, and even anger. Whatever twee movement Margot could have been peripherally included in, the band always maintained an edge and hook that gives them staying power even today, even though the band in some part defined the musical exploration of my localized high school years. So ranked here are Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s’ five (or again, six) albums, eschewing rarity and demo compilations and EPs and the like.
#5 — ROT GUT, DOMESTIC (2012)
Favorite track: “Arvydas Sabonis”
Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s are always a rock band regardless of what album you listen to, but on this record and BUZZARD, they went harder and, yeah, a bit more discordant. ROT GUT, DOMESTIC is Margot’s “worst” album not because of its rockier tone, but because of the inherent clash of it. The record’s instrumentation is at times at odds with the instincts of the band’s ethereal origins. A track where they were able to fuse both sounds to great effect is “Arvydas Sabonis,” which pounds and floats in equal measure. And in fact, the rest of ROT GUT, DOMESTIC isn’t some unlistenable cacophony; it just doesn’t gel in the way Margot’s other albums do. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly good rock record, one that still attends to the wit and weirdness Margot is known for.
#4 — BUZZARD (2010)
Favorite track: “Birds”
BUZZARD is the older cousin of ROT GUT, DOMESTIC, as it turned Margot’s sound towards a heavier and at times more unsettling sound. Like its successor, BUZZARD also flirts with (what I think are) intentionally jarring harmonies and riffs. But BUZZARD puts that conflict to better use, providing a number of tracks that, at first listen, can be somewhat off-putting. But BUZZARD’s richness is apparent after a few more experiences, and its opening track, “Birds,” is a great example of why. Its chorus is repetitive and pounding, almost to a fault, but its ultimate effect, supported as it is by calmer and spacey-er verses, is unflinchingly uncomfortable yet…catchy. That defines much of BUZZARD. When its songs don’t work, it’s a bit awkward, but otherwise, the record has a lot to offer, if you put the listening in.
#3 — THE DUST OF RETREAT (2006)
Favorite track: “Paper Kitten Nightmare”
Margot’s debut record immediately made some waves for the group, as (if I remember correctly) a couple of key songs like “Quiet as a Mouse” and maybe “Skeleton Key” got a bit of radio play and perhaps showed up in a movie or TV show or commercial or two. Regardless of its commercial effect, THE DUST OF RETREAT also proclaimed Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s as a Midwestern outfit in the vein of, in perhaps a loose respect, Modest Mouse (forget that they were formed in Washington). What I mean by that is this: Margot played a kind of indie rock that wasn’t without its whimsy and its pop hooks, but also was leveraging some kind of darkness. The comparison is driven home by the use of horns and other instruments and effects beyond a straightforward four-piece rock band, but of course, Margot is quite different from Modest Mouse. On the band’s debut record, Edwards’ softer and sweeter voice is in great form, and the same goes for the instrumentation that surrounds him. “Paper Kitten Nightmare” has a chorus almost reminiscent of a nursery rhyme, but it’s supported by those blaring horns and wavy guitars. THE DUST OF RETREAT is a great rock album, reimagined in the way millennial rock acts were prone to do (perhaps in the vein of Neutral Milk Hotel, as well), driving with quintessential rock sounds while playing with a weirdness and eccentricity that enriches the archetypes.
#2 — SLING SHOT TO HEAVEN (2014)
Favorite track: “Los Angeles”
Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s’ last album is nearly their best, and that’s quite the accomplishment, especially since they never went more than two years between releases. Indeed, SLING SHOT TO HEAVEN was the first Margot record I fell in love with, as the band turned to a sadder, certainly softer sound in the wake of the rock music to be found on BUZZARD and ROT GUT, DOMESTIC. For example, turn on “Los Angeles;” Edwards croons about how he wants to live in LA, and the various things he would do there, as he is supported by the warbling sound effects and the beautiful backing vocals of (maybe) Heidi Gluck. The female voices found on Margot’s records, even if I don’t really know who provided them, also set the albums apart. But here, on SLING SHOT TO HEAVEN, they’re next level, contributing to the fantastical vibe of the thing. SLING SHOT TO HEAVEN feels like a weary meditation on desire, perhaps an understandable position after the energy that must have been expended for Margot’s previous two albums. Whatever the reason, for their last effort, the band nearly produced their best work. Regardless of its second-best placement on this list, SLING SHOT TO HEAVEN is a layered and emotionally affecting listen.
#1 — ANIMAL!/NOT ANIMAL (2008)
Favorite track: “German Motor Car”
This placement requires explanation, as I said I would provide in the intro to this piece. ANIMAL! and NOT ANIMAL do not represent a double album, as might be interpreted, but instead do stand as separate entries in Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s’ discography. Kind of. Not really. Hence the combined entry. It went like this: the band wrote and recorded a bunch of songs, some of which they wanted to end up on their sophomore release, to be titled ANIMAL! After signing to Epic Records in the wake of THE DUST OF RETREAT, however, Margot encountered difficulty in getting their preferred track list. But some kind of compromise was reached, as the band’s version of the album was released as ANIMAL!, and the record label’s was released as NOT ANIMAL. Kind of funny, and while probably not wholly unprecedented, it’s kind of an incredible development. The result, in any event, were two albums that aren’t totally different but also not entirely coherent as one or even a continuation of the other. There is a sizable overlap in songs that both Margot and Epic preferred, making it kind of redundant to evaluate ANIMAL! and NOT ANIMAL as two separate albums. Instead, it’s more valuable to look at the ANIMAL albums as a whole…although I could point out, I actually prefer NOT ANIMAL more. In any event, both ANIMAL! and NOT ANIMAL together form Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s’ crowning achievement, and stand as an ultimate rebuttal of the sophomore slump trope. It’s a bit less rock-y than THE DUST OF RETREAT, but no less overwhelming. The tracks on the ANIMAL albums cemented Margot’s earliest approach to rock music, with a supporting whimsy provided by instruments and sounds typically found outside the genre. Hence, the association with something that could be considered mid-2000s twee, stuff that could end up on the soundtrack of a movie like JUNO (2007). I say this only because I’ve tried to pinpoint what makes Margot so great, and that millennial approach to rock music is part of it. The band was able to infuse a soft yet eccentric personality, weirdness, darkness, and humor into hook-laden rock music. It’s not just lyrical, which I’ve failed to mention so far, but should add at the end here; Edwards’ work as the primary lyricist is clever as much as it is sad. Ultimately, Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s created five/six fun and thoughtful rock albums, records that are impactful intellectually as well as emotionally because of their layered orchestration and fusion of instincts. ANIMAL! and NOT ANIMAL represent the height of that wider accomplishment.