The Seth MacFarlane Albums Ranked
Hey, did you know that Seth MacFarlane, the guy that created FAMILY GUY (1999-present), AMERICAN DAD! (2005-present), THE ORVILLE (2017-present), TED (2012), and a whole lot more, has been recording full-throated, earnest evocations of 1950s swing-jazz-pop in the style of his obvious idol Frank Sinatra? Well, he has, in the 11 years since 2011 and across eight albums. Although those aforementioned creations and MacFarlane himself have appealed to me in a mixed capacity, I acknowledge the skill with which the singer (slash everything else) and his collaborators have put together faithful, if not innovative, records time after time. So I thought I’d write about those records, minus MacFarlane’s sophomore release HOLIDAY FOR SWING (2014); in keeping with my policy from previous pieces on different artists, I simply cannot include Christmas albums in anyone’s “canon,” even the FAMILY GUY guy.
#7 — MUSIC IS BETTER THAN WORDS (2011)
Favorite track: “It’s Easy to Remember”
When I first learned that MacFarlane had recorded a few albums, I thought they would be comedic like the rest of his multimedia body of work. But as with THE ORVILLE most recently, I think the guy’s gotten a bit older and is just going more “serious” for a segment of his career. MUSIC IS BETTER THAN WORDS started that trend. I suppose I should have intuited that MacFarlane loved music in the style of Ol’ Blue Eyes because his shows are rife with old-fashioned renditions of songs and original music that evokes the hits and showtunes of the 1950s. In a way, much of what distinguishes the singer’s albums from each other are the track lists rather than any overtly different approach to the music. However, like Sinatra, MacFarlane has kind of swung back and forth from melancholic to upbeat “concept-lite” albums, but his first is definitely more of a mix of emotions. Maybe that’s why MUSIC IS BETTER THAN WORDS doesn’t leave as much of an impression as any of its successors, but I also think the sound that MacFarlane, who is no vocal slouch by the way, and arranger Joel McNeely, constant collaborator going back to the TV shows and forward on the albums, got a lot fuller on subsequent releases. Fun fact: MacFarlane’s “longest” gap between releases so far came in the three years between this and HOLIDAY FOR SWING.
#6 — ONCE IN A WHILE (2019)
Favorite track: “I’ll Be Around”
ONCE IN A WHILE is definitely one of the moody albums in MacFarlane’s repertoire, in the style of Sinatra’s IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS (1955). And indeed, ONCE IN A WHILE’s best track is one that MacFarlane’s constant inspiration had himself recorded on that landmark album. This was the singer’s fifth album, and by this point, it represented a kind of staidness that brings it low compared to MacFarlane’s other musical work. Its curation of songs is stronger than MUSIC IS BETTER THAN WORDS and its sound more enveloping, but with those traits ONCE IN A WHILE just barely takes the edge over the more novel first album.
#5 — SONGS FROM HOME (2021)
Favorite track: “This Could Be the Start of Something Big”
Since ONCE IN A WHILE, MacFarlane has taken some steps to diversify his output while still operating in the old swing-jazz-pop standards and style. One such example is SONGS FROM HOME, a collaborative record with Liz Gillies, made famous as a star of the Nickelodeon show VICTORIOUS (2011–2013). But MacFarlane and Gillies are great vocal partners, trading lilting verses back and forth and harmonizing pleasingly on the choruses for this upbeat album. SONGS FROM HOME clearly isn’t the most fulfilling of MacFarlane’s musical projects, but its duet angle, fulfilled satisfyingly by Gillies, is an enriching one.
#4 — GREAT SONGS FROM STAGE & SCREEN (2020)
Favorite track: “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?”
SONGS FROM HOME’s predecessor also provided a concept beyond the happy album-sad album dichotomy MacFarlane mostly works with. GREAT SONGS FROM STAGE & SCREEN, as you might guess, features the singer interpreting some of the, well, great songs from stage and screen. And as with the bulk of MacFarlane’s other albums, a clear appreciation for the deeper cuts comes through in his curation of the tracks. A few songs are instantly recognizable, like “Once Upon a Dream” from SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959), but there are other selections of lesser known songs from huge productions, like “All Er Nuthin’” from OKLAHOMA! (1943). But this album’s greatest surprise comes in MacFarlane’s version of “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” from the Barbra Streisand starrer ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (1970). GREAT SONGS is indeed made up of great songs, and although they aren’t the greatest examples of MacFarlane and his collaborators’ meticulous attention to detail, faithfulness, and plain ol’ satisfying execution, the album stands as a worthy listen.
#3 — IN FULL SWING (2017)
Favorite track: “For You, For Me, For Evermore”
MacFarlane almost exactly mirrored Sinatra’s discography progression in putting together the upbeat IN FULL SWING after the melancholic NO ONE EVER TELLS YOU (more on that in a minute). The changeover looks and sounds like the ONLY THE LONELY (1958) — COME DANCE WITH ME! (1959) two-step Ol’ Blue Eyes pulled off nearly 60 years earlier. As with Sinatra, however, MacFarlane’s cheerful follow up is less successful than its predecessor. IN FULL SWING is still full of enjoyable tunes that provide a cohesively pleasant experience, but its emotional heft isn’t quite as strong as MacFarlane’s best.
#2 — NO ONE EVER TELLS YOU (2015)
Favorite track: “Only the Lonely”
I didn’t throw out Sinatra’s ONLY THE LONELY in comparison to NO ONE EVER TELLS YOU for nothing: the first’s title track is in fact this album’s best. And as mentioned, this album follows a totally downbeat, balladic concept. MacFarlane’s voice is able to ring out with convincing and compelling emotion, and by the time of this third record, he sounds a little less impression-y and the instrumentals backing him warmer and fuller. The epic 17-track, 65-minute runtime could detract from the initial power of NO ONE EVER TELLS YOU’s approach, but the whole thing plays out into a cathartic bit of extreme emotion.
#1 — BLUE SKIES (2022)
Favorite track: “No Moon at All”
There’s no accounting for recency bias, in either the positive or negative direction, but MacFarlane’s latest album at the time of this writing, his eighth, is impressive and sees the singer sound more refreshed than he has in years. That’s an even more impressive feat considering he’s been on a tear of annual releases for the past four years and was indeed already finding more nuanced avenues to take the same sound he’s been practicing for 11 years. In spite of its name and cover, BLUE SKIES doesn’t neatly fall into the “happy album” paradigm that MacFarlane has done a couple of times. Nor does it directly play with songs in a different cohesive direction, like soundtracks on GREAT SONGS FROM STAGE & SCREEN or classic duets on SONGS FROM HOME. No, BLUE SKIES just offers up the best batch of happy and wistful-to-sad renditions that MacFarlane has yet tackled. While there hasn’t been extreme variance in the musical approach the singer has brought to his eight albums, each one is a simple joy to listen to. The constant comparison to Sinatra, from me and other critics, is a prerequisite because MacFarlane and his collaborators strive to echo the legend. That’s of course something that can never be truly achieved, but they’ve come impressively close. The weirdness of the fact that MacFarlane, an edgelord comedy guy, has been plying “serious” old-school tunes to great effect on the side of his “main” career for more than a decade now is not lost on me. But then, people contain multitudes. And MacFarlane best brings his obvious love for a certain era and style of music (that of 1950s swing, jazz, and pop) and his corresponding chops in recreating them to BLUE SKIES.