The Muse Albums Ranked

Muse is one of those bands that I look back on with a mixed reaction. While I was never an uber-fan, I definitely listened to the alt/prog/electronic rock group with a frequency that I wouldn’t want to match today. And it is true that in their heyday, Muse delivered some great music that tapped into this t(w)eenager’s angst. Where that story has gone lately, however, is a trap into which many millennial rock acts have fallen: a U2-ification, or a broad, bland arena rock focus. In any event, after forming in 1994, Muse has released nine albums in the nearly 23 years since 1999. They are ranked here.

Favorite track: “Something Human”

Besides the U2 and arena rock fixation of every band formed between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, groups like Muse have also dipped into the synth-heavy pop sounds of the 1980s. SIMULATION THEORY is their magnum opus in this regard, even if it’s also their worst album in genuine quality. The record is just flaccid and renders its inspirations, already a mixed bag for me, in the worst possible way. “Something Human” is the nominal favorite from the record because of its lower-key sound, which is less grating than its fellow tracks. SIMULATION THEORY is actually a perfect representation of the self-indulgence that takes a formerly scrappy yet largely resonant band like Muse into crass, ineffectual territory.

Favorite track: “We Are Fucking Fucked”

SIMULATION THEORY’s follow up isn’t much better. Muse’s latest album at the time of this writing, WILL OF THE PEOPLE, also comes after the biggest gap between their releases (at just three months shy of four years). The wait wasn’t really worth it. Frontman Matt Bellamy describes the record as a greatest hits album of original songs, by which he means that WILL OF THE PEOPLE traces the different eras and sounds of the band with new compositions. To some extent, Bellamy is right: the album does indeed dip into the hard rock of Muse’s early days, the soft angst that’s come up throughout their career, the electronic sound of SIMULATION THEORY, and more. But that makes for a divided album, and anyways, these new channels of previous efforts aren’t nearly as good as the stronger, tighter origin points. There seems to be a careful attention to jangling pop choruses on WILL OF THE PEOPLE, executed more painfully than satisfyingly. Muse’s “social commentary” album concepts, which deal with geopolitical situations and the creep of technology into our lives, have never been particularly subtle nor compellingly didactic for me, but the angle on this album makes my eyes especially roll. The nihilistic doomerism on “We Are Fucking Fucked” is “cringe,” but at least the descent into madness the music represents is intriguing. That’s the measure of WILL OF THE PEOPLE as a whole, however: slightly interesting, mostly annoying.

Favorite track: “Psycho”

DRONES is where I remember thinking “Oh…Muse is maybe going off the rails a little bit.” While, as illustrated, it’s not the band’s worst album, it certainly leaves little impact, even if it’s not outright rankling like SIMULATION THEORY and WILL OF THE PEOPLE. The record’s hard rock sound often sounds more straightforward than the band’s guitar-oriented roots. Muse sometimes hits the epic prog scale they’re known for on DRONES, but it mostly operates in a conventional mode that accompanies, once again, faux-intellectual lyrics that follow a robotic soldier’s story.

Favorite track: “Panic Station”

With THE 2ND LAW, Muse tackled climate change and societal deterioration and a jangling electronic sound. Unlike SIMULATION THEORY, however, it’s all presented with a bit more bite, and more importantly, catchy hooks, as on “Panic Station.” A lot of the record sounds like a poppier perversion of the band’s prog instincts, but that’s not always a bad thing. It may be the crux from which Muse more quickly deteriorated, but THE 2ND LAW isn’t without its satisfying tunes.

Favorite track: “New Born”

While ORIGIN OF SYMMETRY, Muse’s sophomore album, wasn’t the mainstream breakout release that would soon come, it certainly broadened the band’s appeal. And indeed, critical reception to the record would lead to it ending up on decade best lists and the like. While I think that evaluation is beyond my appreciation of ORIGIN OF SYMMETRY, I will say that from here on in, the albums I write about are good or beyond rather than passable or worse. I’d say “New Born” was the biggest hit on the record, and while there are definitely great deep cuts here, the tonal shifts in the opening track are just so satisfying. The whole song proceeds with a kind of deranged verve that exhibits and foreshadows the best work that Muse would do. And the rest of the album proceeds from there in a similar, albeit reduced, fashion. ORIGIN OF SYMMETRY’s fascination with universal laws also make for stronger lyrical and thematic concepts, serving the musical approach rather than distracting from or worsening it.

Favorite track: “Uprising”

THE RESISTANCE is where things got even more broad with international hitmaking Muse instead of offbeat, orchestral, and space-y yet still catchy Muse. I remember “Uprising” being everywhere for a minute there, so the opening track to the album still sticks with me and satisfies a part of my middle school brain. That first half or so of THE RESISTANCE scratches a similar itch, while the second becomes less tight in favor of prog-y noodling that never really grounds itself with good hooks. Still, that is a relative deterioration, and while THE RESISTANCE feels somewhat diminished with an ever-poppier rehash of core Muse concepts, it’s an enjoyable listen.

Favorite track: “Sober”

In revisiting Muse’s discography, the biggest surprise was their debut, SHOWBIZ. I remember not being very taken with it and dismissing it as a formative thing that was ultimately a minor work. But in spite of my initial assessment and contemporary criticism that it was a cheap copy of the sound of a band like Radiohead, SHOWBIZ is a rockin’ fuckin’ record. Bellamy screams and warbles all over this thing and pounding drums, ghostly whines, burbling bass, and jangly riffs define its best songs, like “Sober.” The album hits a maximalism balanced with alt or offbeat instincts that defines Muse’s best work. If SHOWBIZ doesn’t place at the top of the band’s work, it’s because they hadn’t quite nailed down the refined songwriting craft they would exhibit in short order; otherwise, it’s an electrifying debut.

Favorite track: “Starlight”

While THE RESISTANCE would end up being Muse’s best-selling album (so far, at least) and ABSOLUTION was representative of a kind of big mainstream breakthrough, BLACK HOLES AND REVELATIONS will always occur to me as the band’s definite commercial pinnacle. And thankfully, being #2 in sales also translates to, or coincides with, a quality that leads to my placing it at #2 as well. That is because BLACK HOLES AND REVELATIONS artfully integrates a grandiose, actually pretty campy scale and sound with stirring and fun choruses and hooks. “Supermassive Black Hole” has a sinister little groove and “Knights of Cydonia” is Muse’s renowned prog epic, but “Starlight” is simply the greatest blend of all the instincts to be found on its source record. BLACK HOLES AND REVELATIONS’ scattered concept, focusing on alien and other conspiracy theories and existential space-y-ness, doesn’t always hit, but when it does, it matches the extremity of Muse’s sound.

Favorite track: “Thoughts of a Dying Atheist”

ABSOLUTION was not only a significant commercial breakthrough for Muse, it also deserved it, ending up as their greatest work as well (at least so far). It brings the scale developed across SHOWBIZ and ORIGIN OF SYMMETRY into stark and clear relief, marking the band as practitioners of an eclectic, epic, and enveloping sound. Muse, even this early on, was making music that could have fit right into a huge arena experience, but in contrast to what I term “arena rock,” it felt vital and grounded by a rawness. The band’s reckoning with highfalutin concepts is also at its most salient here, with a song like “Thoughts of a Dying Atheist” weaving in and out of fun and angsty tones and also scaring the hell out of me (as an atheist). There are very few skips to be found on ABSOLUTION as well; I hesitate to say it’s all killer, no filler, but it comes close. This, and indeed the top four or five on this list, represents the Muse that I like. While it is indeed their best record, it doesn’t hit quite the same as it did 14 or 15 years ago, when I probably first listened to it. Still, I can find in ABSOLUTION’s scope an emotional resonance through its lyrics and alternative maximalist sound.

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