The Mitski Albums Ranked
Mitski’s indie-popular cred has grown steadily in the ten years she’s released her six albums so far. Her fusion of so many influences, from baroque pop to hard rock to symphonic movements to folk, has led many to proclaim her one of the great musical voices of her generation. I myself was introduced to the singer-songwriter by my girlfriend, and was hooked by Mitski’s sad-girl sentiments under-and-over-lying upbeat pop tunes…and yeah, sometimes just plain emotion-stirring, soul-baring tracks. I’ll be ranking with this piece her six albums so far, spurred on by the recent release of LAUREL HELL; what is omitted are the live release AUDIOTREE LIVE (2015) and comic book “soundtrack” EP THIS IS WHERE WE FALL (2021).
#6 — PUBERTY 2 (2016)
Favorite track: “Your Best American Girl”
Some of my sentiments about Mitski’s discography may imply a “I knew her before she was cool” kind of attitude, but as I mentioned, I had no idea who she was until a few years ago. That being said, I think there were some things lost in translation to greater recognition and a bigger record label with PUBERTY 2, Mitski’s fourth album. I think it is clearly her most emotional record; previous and following releases have obviously included the songwriter’s angst, but they have a bit more playfulness. This is not a complaint about the self-expression on PUBERTY 2, but rather that it seems to be represented by songs lacking the kind of hooks I’ve come to expect and enjoy from Mitski. “Your Best American Girl” bucks this trend on the album, while also keeping the looser power that is, I should point out, present on it. PUBERTY 2 is a moving and engaging work, but its lesser number of standout tracks puts it at the bottom of the Mitski list for me.
#5 — RETIRED FROM SAD, NEW CAREER IN BUSINESS (2013)
Favorite track: “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart”
In spite of its name and what I’ve already written about PUBERTY 2, RETIRED FROM SAD, NEW CAREER IN BUSINESS was a darker sophomore effort (a slump, in a way) after Mitski’s debut. This was the second of her two self-released records made during her time in college, and it is so incredible that they have the self-assured sound of someone way beyond Mitski’s age at the time. Even though I said RETIRED FROM SAD is “darker,” it still carries a kind of whimsy; you can hear it in the repetitive “bloops” on “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart,” and of course TikTok sound sensation “Strawberry Blond.” It also has a more expansive sound than its predecessor LUSH, as Mitski is joined by a 60-person orchestra of her peers. RETIRED FROM SAD is impressive stuff, and not just as a “senior project;” it’s an incredible experiment in folk-pop and baroque production, albeit one that veers into indulgence at times.
#4 — BE THE COWBOY (2018)
Favorite track: “Nobody”
Now, I just said Mitski showed some self-indulgence on RETIRED FROM SAD, but the fact is, she is so incredibly skilled at imparting larger scale sounds and emotions into tight pop structures. Her albums always come in around the 30 minutes long, and not for lack of songs. I think this is a not-so-hidden strength of Mitski, and it’s clear she’s interested in so many different approaches to music that she doesn’t, well, indulge herself in anything too long. The piano-focused BE THE COWBOY, which is also supported by synthy-dance beats (see: the “woman behind the piano” angst found on “Nobody,” which gives way to a jangly disco tone), is a great example of this aspect of Mitski. I’ve used the word baroque to describe her work, and I’ll do it again. BE THE COWBOY layers so many sounds and concepts into immaculately crafted pop experimentations, ringing with lightness and darkness in a way that few others are able to capture today.
#3 — LAUREL HELL (2022)
Favorite track: “The Only Heartbreaker”
Ironically, Mitski’s poppiest album is, as I see it, her most challenging. And you can see that in some of the fan reaction to LAUREL HELL, which came after the biggest gap in her releases (it’s been about three-and-a-half years since BE THE COWBOY). Mitski has always operated with pop influences, but it’s clear she’s been more experimental than she’s been here; like many artists of a similar age and kind, Mitski has turned to the excessive production and smoothness of mainstream ’80s fare. And yet, she transforms it into the angst and richness she’s always display, making LAUREL HELL a confusing blend of shallowness and deepness. But then, as a pop defender, I will often not find the genre as shallow as some assert. With LAUREL HELL, Mitski indicates she feels the same way.
#2 — LUSH (2012)
Favorite track: “Liquid Smooth”
It is incredible that Mitski’s debut album, made when she was a junior in college, sounds this good. The intimate pop of this 26-minute record almost never ceases to impress, with track after track satisfying a different emotional urge, starting with the slinky “Liquid Smooth,” a Mitski favorite of mine. LUSH is a work of musical poetry, telling its story and expressing its creator’s feelings (or, maybe, a character offshoot of Mitski) not only through lyrics, but also through the intricately arranged confections that make up the album. Later Mitski albums may become more complex or produced, but with LUSH, she was already staking a claim in a unique sound.
#1 — BURY ME AT MAKEOUT CREEK (2014)
Favorite track: “First Love/Late Spring”
But it’s Mitski’s first “commercial” release, her third album BURY ME AT MAKEOUT CREEK, that stands as the ultimate artistic statement from an artist who has never failed to make compelling artistic statements so far. It brilliantly advances the “stripped down” approach of LUSH with the, ironically, lush and expansive sound of RETIRED FROM SAD. BURY ME AT MAKEOUT CREEK takes me into another musical dimension, a whimsical, sad, and even at times rocking world. A lot is made of Mitski’s deep lyrics, and as I’ve alluded to before, they are indeed well-written and engaging. But as I’ve found with many strong or great artists, Mitski is able to find the deeper truth in her words with the composition of the music that backs her, by the way, great and unique voice. BURY ME AT MAKEOUT CREEK is not only Mitski’s best; it’s probably also one of the best albums of the 2010s. When people say popular music is dead, I’d love to point them to BURY ME AT MAKEOUT CREEK, and Mitski in general, to illustrate how universal appeal and sounds can be brought into a deeper songwriting framework. Oh, and yeah, you can sing along and bob your head and dance to these songs too.