The Wonder Years Albums Ranked

I think I could say The Wonder Years is one of my favorite bands. The Pennsylvania pop punk outfit, which formed in 2005, has released seven albums in the 15 years since 2007. And I like all of them, although of course to different degrees. Over these years, the band has evolved from “easycore” antics to a more ambitious sound; I’ve written about that evolution before, specifically from frontman Dan “Soupy” Campbell’s direction. The Wonder Years have almost never failed to move me, whether in a upbeat humorous way or with depressing angst, so let me get into their work now.

Favorite track: “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be”

When I started to re-listen to The Wonder Years’ discography for this piece, there was almost no doubt in my mind that SISTER CITIES would rank last. That’s not to say that it’s bad album; as I said in the introduction, I’ve enjoyed all of the band’s releases. But there’s no denying that SISTER CITIES is the least pop and punk record from The Wonder Years, a diversion into a broader alternative sound. It at times effectively pulls at compelling sadness, as on “Flowers Where Your Face Should Be,” but most of the album lacks the really investing downbeat sounds and energetic, screaming angst that define The Wonder Years’ best. SISTER CITIES isn’t some kind of really compromised deviation from the band’s roots (not some arena rock “U2-ification,” as I like to call it), but it’s certainly less specific in its approach and so stands as The Wonder Years’ most ineffectual release.

Favorite track: “Everything I Own Fits in This Backpack”

THE UPSIDES, The Wonder Years’ sophomore album, was a pretty significant departure from their disavowed debut. As Campbell has put it, it started a trilogy focused on the frontman’s personal struggles. It also, while fitting more specifically into the pop punk perceptions (including Campbell’s whinier vocals, which have gotten deeper as time has gone on), played less comically than predecessor GET STOKED ON IT! In spite of all of this, though, THE UPSIDES just doesn’t do as much for me, perhaps a blasphemous statement for some fans of the band. Once again, the record is by no means bad. But as one of the “poppier” releases in The Wonder Years’ catalog, THE UPSIDES is concerningly lacking some of the catchy choruses and riffs that can be found on most of the band’s other albums.

Favorite track: “Wyatt’s Song (Your Name)”

THE HUM GOES ON FOREVER is The Wonder Years’ latest album at the time of this writing and the impetus for this piece. It also comes after the biggest gap between records for the band; it’s been just about four and a half years since SISTER CITIES. But that time seems to have been well-spent, as THE HUM GOES ON FOREVER is a welcome corrective to its predecessor. While it still plays with a bigger, almost orchestral sound, the record certainly drives some good hooks home, especially on a song like “Wyatt’s Song (Your Name).” But it’s not alone as a track with a catchy chorus as well as pounding rock appeal, and indeed supplements the quieter songs clearly informed by Campbell’s solo work under his own name and as Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, such as “Songs About Death.” THE HUM GOES ON FOREVER proves The Wonder Years’ capacity to go beyond pop punk preconceptions while retaining the appeal of the genre.

Favorite track: “Keystone State Dude-Core”

A lot of music critics (and I’m guilty of this too) write about and praise pop punk groups like The Wonder Years in terms of their “maturation,” how they eventually tackle more serious topics and layer new sounds and influences onto the “simplicity” of pop punk. But hell, I like big dumb pop punk too. The Wonder Years’ debut album has been disowned by Campbell, but I think it’s an incredibly fun and raw bit of the genre. The lyrics are goofy and the songs are fast and short (my favorite, opener “Keystone State Dude-Core,” runs just 1:30), but the whole experience of GET STOKED ON IT! is almost entirely all killer, no filler. The album is certainly the purest in terms of the punk part of the pop punk equation, with some dissonant backup screaming, nasally vocal delivery from Campbell, and thrashing riffs. But GET STOKED ON IT!, for all of the singer’s problems with it, was actually already demonstrating The Wonder Years’ capacity for a deeper sound, with great soaring choruses and keening keys that supplement the band’s initial pop punk purity.

Favorite track: “You in January”

NO CLOSER TO HEAVEN is the first album in a new Wonder Years trilogy that I would describe as the “expansion” of their sound past pop punk rawness. Although it’s never been totally missing, the band’s initial stylistic bent was especially being shifted here. Still, it’s more present on NO CLOSER TO HEAVEN than on SISTER CITIES or THE HUM GOES ON FOREVER, and while that’s appreciated, this album also does the sweeter sounds better as well. “You in January” is the best synthesis of these instincts, but the whole of the record congeals into a moving symphony of ethereal angst and pounding drive. NO CLOSER TO HEAVEN is one of those albums where it’s really hard to pick a favorite song because they’re all so great, and perhaps that’s the greatest praise I can give it.

Favorite track: “Don’t Let Me Cave In”

Coming in as the pop punkiest pop punk album title in The Wonder Years’ discography, SUBURBIA I’VE GIVEN YOU ALL AND NOW I’M NOTHING shares the same quality as NO CLOSER TO HEAVEN: it’s a difficult task to pick a favorite track from its ranks. SUBURBIA is a phenomenal evolution of the shades of greatness on THE UPSIDES, deepening the band’s sound while still hitting hard with rocking energy and plaintive soul-baring. Its lyrical themes, which you may be able to intuit from the album title, are especially compelling, and speak to the loneliness to be found in a supposedly placid realm of American society. In hindsight, SUBURBIA is the mark of band on the precipice of its greatest success; what keeps it from matching that is perhaps a slight lack of cohesion, or a developing struggle for clarity.

Favorite track: “There, There”

THE GREATEST GENERATION is perhaps The Wonder Years’ most known and celebrated album and for good reason. This culmination of Campbell’s self-described trilogy of Wonder Years albums hits every aspect of what makes the band great, before and since its release, with startling sharpness, delivered by emotional specificity and broad musical appeal. Campbell has always been gifted in finding specific little touches in his lyrics, anecdotal moments that make up the milieu of our happiest and saddest moments: standing in someone’s light while they’re trying to read or not laughing at the right time, as it’s put in “There, There.” But THE GREATEST GENERATION goes epic as well, as on “The Devil in My Bloodstream,” dealing with aspects of family and pulling in foreboding images of two blackbirds on a highway sign. For all of Campbell’s lyrical successes on the album, its greatest strength is of course in the music. The words bring some specificity of image-making to the proceedings, but THE GREATEST GENERATION’s cohesive tone, which is never one-note but always faithful to Campbell’s tales of struggle, is defined by a winding, ethereal sound that builds into explosive angst and emotion with pounding riffs and drums. The album simply means a lot to me as a companion in difficult times through my life, and now, as a portal of brilliant music to retrospection. There isn’t a bit of doubt in my mind that THE GREATEST GENERATION is The Wonder Years’ best album so far, and it’s so rich a record that I find more to appreciate in it with every listen.

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