of Montreal is WEIRD. They are also the best band of our generation. of Montreal is the brainchild of Kevin Barnes, who started the project in 1996, named after a failed romance with a girl from Montreal, Quebec (in actuality, the band hails from Athens, Georgia). They reached the height of their indie popularity with their 2007 release Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, and over the past 25 years they have quietly amassed 16 albums (and quite a few compilations and EPs) worth of amazing, mercurial music.
Sometimes a new listener may be scared off by the prolific output of music in the band’s catalogue. This is known as “archive panic”: with so much diverse music to digest, how do you know where to start? Especially with a band like this one. They have jumped around from low-fi indie pop and folk to psychedelia, funk, electronica, R&B, punk, and somehow managed to create their own distinct style along the way. There have been many articles written about of Montreal, but I’ve never seen one that can help a new listener find the right album to start with to immerse themselves in the band’s music. So I decided to write one myself. Here’s a chronological look at their albums. Hopefully you see something that piques your interest and you can dive in.
Cherry Peel (1997)
Given the mindset of Kevin Barnes in the mid-’90s, of Montreal’s debut album sounds like just what you’d expect: a lovingly homemade recording of a group of tunes written by a young man who spent his youth listening to the Beatles and low-fi pop/rock. Barnes takes the aesthetic of the ’60s and transplants it into his own peculiar and idiosyncratic brand of songwriting. The result is an album that’s not quite pop and not quite rock, with just a tinge of folk and a dollop of whimsy. This is a good album to listen to while you’re cleaning your house or something. By the time it’s over, these quirky pop songs are stuck in your head, and you slowly realize that no other music sounds quite like this. Even from the very beginning, Barnes’ sense of melody and musical adventurousness is impeccable.
The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy (1998)
of Montreal’s second album loosely follows the story of a young love affair. This is the most gentle and subdued the band would ever get. The title doesn’t lie; this is an album to be played in your bedroom late at night while you sift through the emotional ashes of a romantic relationship that has recently fallen apart. The whimsy and the teenage preciousness from the debut album are still there, except this time there’s an air of wistfulness and melancholy hanging over it all. This album is probably most responsible for oM getting the “twee” label that it tried hard to shake off for much of the early part of the band’s career.
The Gay Parade (1999)
This is the album where Kevin Barnes finally picks himself up, leaves his bedroom, and drops acid out in the forest. This is probably the closest thing to a modern-day Sgt. Pepper that the indie community is ever going to get. of Montreal take everything from their first two albums and place it into a world of characters involved in zany situations. The songs manage to be both heartbreaking and fantastical. The instrumentation and sound effects and overall production are taken to another level. It sounds as though Barnes and his band put their all into this album. As always with of Montreal, the melodies are impeccable. This is a good album to put on after a bad day at work. My advice is to get into its singular headspace and let it transport you into its world of sugary escapism.
Coquelicot Asleep In The Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse (2001)
This album is Kevin Barnes saying, “Oh so you thought Gay Parade was pretty out there? You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Coquelicot is 70 magical minutes of the culmination of everything of Montreal had aspired to as a band. It somehow manages to be even more whimsical than its predecessor, sounding at times like a deranged children’s storybook. At other times, the heartbreaking earnestness of the music and lyrics can bring tears to your eyes. There is just so much going on in Coquelicot; this is the sort of music that takes a few listens for it to sink in just how detailed and complex and accomplished it is. As always, the melodies shine through but this time out, everything is filtered through a carnival funhouse mirror. If you’d been listening to of Montreal’s albums sequentially, this is easily their magnum opus, and you’d be hard-pressed to figure out where they could possibly go from here in the future.
Adhils Arboretum (2002)
Apparently Kevin Barnes wasn’t sure where he should go with of Montreal after the heights of their previous album. Adhils is a collection of good-to-great quirky pop/rock songs performed very well by a polished band…but that’s pretty much all it is. It’s not so much a disappointment as it is a comedown after the dizzying heights of the past couple of albums. Gone are the bizarre storybook narratives and spoken word interludes, and in their place we get…guitar solos on every song? It’s almost as if the record company said, “Hey we love you guys but you’re not making us any money. Why don’t you cool it with the songs about mad scientists creating a frozen island and lose all the crazy tempo changes and weird noises? We know you can write catchy melodies, Kevin, so sit down and come up with some songs that the general public might actually enjoy!” The result is an album that is easily the most mainstream rock ‘n’ roll output from the band up to this point. It’s a very enjoyable collection of songs but it also felt like of Montreal was sort of giving up. They’d reached their peak and now were just going to settle into being a fun rock band. Barnes actually considered disbanding of Montreal around the time of this album. The group was barely making enough money to survive and maybe it was time to settle down and get “real” jobs. If your catchy, unique music still isn’t turning heads after five albums, what could possibly change now?
Satanic Panic in the Attic (2004)
Fortunately for the music world, Barnes hunkered down and recorded Satanic Panic almost entirely by himself. This album is a huge creative rejuvenation for Barnes. For the first time, he opens up the music with some electronic beats and synths. Meanwhile the songwriting is as catchy and inviting as ever, resulting in what is probably the best psych pop album ever made. You can still hear shades of the Beatles and the Kinks, but this time the overall sound is modernized. It’s as if vintage of Montreal downed a few energy drinks and did a line of coke before entering the recording studio. This is the album where more than just the music critics started paying real attention to the band.
The Sunlandic Twins (2005)
of Montreal’s seventh album is even more synthy and dancey and propulsive than their last. Barnes starts working in more intimate lyrics about his personal life, even referring to wife Nina by name in “Oslo in the Summertime.” Totally gone were the fictional characters and story-songs that lifted the band to their previous heights. Somehow, of Montreal had become music you could put on at a house party…and it worked! And it sounds fantastic! My first of Montreal concert was in 2006 as they toured behind this album. The show was a hot and sweaty psychedelic dance party in the middle of summer, and afterwards I proudly proclaimed of Montreal to be my favorite band (a distinction that exists to this day).
Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? (2007)
Kevin Barnes changes up the sound again on this album. Suddenly the Prince and Bowie influences come to the forefront; Hissing Fauna is the first of Montreal album to leave the ’60s influences behind and embrace glam rock and electronic music. Lyrically, Barnes works out his recent marital problems in the most grandiose fashion ever: Art pop for schizophrenics. This is the album where of Montreal truly broke into the higher level of the indie scene. The bearded neo-hippie fans of the band’s earlier work clashed with new, younger, teenage fans at the concerts. To many, Hissing Fauna still stands as the band’s apex. It’s idiosyncratic and emotional, and it cuts right through your soul while still somehow making you wanna dance your ass off. It’s a celebration of depression and probably one of the most perfect records ever made. If you’re trying to get into of Montreal, start here. If you don’t like this album at all, it’s unlikely that you’ll enjoy anything they released after this.
Skeletal Lamping (2008)
This is the fourth consecutive album that Barnes performed almost entirely by himself. If Hissing Fauna was of Montreal at their most accessible, Skeletal Lamping was a left field turn into total musical schizophrenia. The album is a bunch of different music and lyric segments that are reconfigured into one long piece. It’s a loose concept album, sort of like the glam rock version of Coquelicot…with lots of sex. Barnes explores the inner workings of his psyche and ventures even further into electronica and funk music. It’s really difficult to describe Skeletal Lamping in words. You have to hear it to believe it. The first few times I listened to this album, I was severely disappointed. “Where are the songs? There’s nothing really here at all. It’s just a bunch of random stuff!” Then on maybe the third or fourth listen, everything clicked. To this day, I believe it’s of Montreal’s best album.
False Priest (2010)
Barnes works with an outside producer (Jon Brion) for the first time, resulting in an increased fullness of the band’s sound. After the somewhat inscrutability of the previous album, False Priest goes for the Big Brass Ring and sometimes grabs it. This album has a little bit of everything oM has been doing in recent years: psych pop, electronica, glam, funk, and a little R&B thrown in for good measure. This is a great album to get a good taste of all the different genres the band has worked in over the previous few years. And there’s some live instrumentation again! Barnes lets the falsetto fly in a lot of these songs. of Montreal is at their funkiest and possibly their most “commercial,” even though it’s still worlds away from what was being played on popular radio at the time.
Paralytic Stalks (2012)
This is such a weird and wonderful album. Barnes accesses his crazy side and unleashes his inner turmoil in possibly the most frenetic and ambitious of Montreal release yet. Not since Hissing Fauna has Barnes been so emotionally naked and direct. Paralytic Stalks experiments with avant-garde classical music, sound collage, and musique concrete. Coming after the relatively “normal” False Priest, this of Montreal album feels like a revelation. I remember when this was released and it really divided the fan base. A lot of the band’s younger fans faded away around this period. However, the album remains a favorite with many of the hardcore devotees of the group.
Lousy With Sylvianbriar (2013)
Where could Barnes possibly take the band after their most polarizing album? Oh that’s easy, he holes up with a bunch of new musicians (including Rebecca Cash contributing on lead vocals) and records a good, old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll album in the tradition of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. This version of the band is almost unrecognizable as the one from the previous few albums, and the change is both startling and refreshing. If you’ve ever tried to picture of Montreal as a guitar-driven riff rock band from the late 1960s, this is the album for you. As always, Barnes’ lyrics and unique ear for melody make this effort stand apart from any other band who plays this type of music. Now where could of Montreal possibly go after this?
Aureate Gloom (2015)
This is easily of Montreal’s most cynical and vitriolic album. Coming in the wake of the end of his marriage of 10 years, Aureate Gloom channels the NYC art punk scene of the late 1970s. There is a freshness and an immediacy to this music, as Barnes spews out his emotional venom over a vibrant and jarring swirl of guitars. This is a great album to listen to while you’re trying to recover from an ugly romantic breakup. This isn’t the scorned lover of Bedside Drama, crying in his bedroom. This is the insolent ex-boyfriend who doesn’t even care if you keep all his physical possessions after the breakup, he just wants you to know how much you fucked him up.
Innocence Reaches (2016)
Coming off the previous two rock-oriented albums, Innocence Reaches is a bipolar blend of everything the band has been for the previous 10 years, alongside a glance into the future. Here is where glammy, punky rock songs sit next to forward-thinking electronica in a vein that the band has never quite done before. It’s one-half glitter dance party and one-half after the party, driving down the city streets at night. Personally, I think this is one of their most accomplished albums, although it’s not the most popular among longtime fans due to its lack of a distinct musical center. I think that its capricious nature is its main strength, and it’s good evidence of the versatility of the band.
White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood (2018)
Inspired by the extended club remixes of the 1980s, Barnes unleashes a six-song, 40-minute journey into the world of spacey synth rock. This is of Montreal’s biggest foray into dance music and as always, they hit the nail right on the head. It’s not exactly “happy” music but it’s worlds away from the bitterness that permeated the previous two albums. Kevin Barnes is in love again and it shows. But he’s also thinking about virtual reality and Donald Trump, even hinting a little at the political in “Plateau Phase/No Careerism No Corruption.” This album easily has the least electric guitar of any of the band’s output but it’s not missed in the slightest. This album is a grower, and boy, does it grow on you.
UR FUN (2020)
The latest and poppiest of all the band’s albums, UR FUN was just released this past January. This time out, Barnes takes his inspiration from the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Janet Jackson. While the album sounds nothing like either of those two artists, it’s definitely the happiest Barnes has been in a long time. So if this music is so damn catchy, why aren’t some of these songs being played on Top 40 radio? Oh yeah, that’s right…it’s because of Montreal is WEIRD. But this is some of their most accessible weirdness in many years, and it would be a great album to start with if someone wanted to get an idea of what of Montreal is all about.
4 CommentsLeave a Reply
I appreciate this article. I’ve seen of Montreal several times in the early 2000’s when I worked at a Tower Records in Long Beach, CA. They are a fun band and had a moment when they were about to hit it big but it just never panned out. Anyway, I just feel like this article is, like, 25 years too late.
This is the best description of each OM album that I’ve ever read and I think that it will be really helpful for those with archive panic. There is no point in ranking an archive like this, just enjoy it and explore it. If there is one piece of advice I’ve give anyone approaching this- it is to pick one album and spend a lot of time with it before you move on. Barnes is very unpredictable in melodies, chord changes, and general structure (purposefully)- so much of it will be uncomfortable until about the 5th listen through. If you skip around too much initially, you may never break through.
I was introduced to oM by a college dj friend with “Wraith Pinned to the Mist” and went nuts. My entre into Kevin’s complexities: finding hooks throughout the archive as it stood at the time and then going back to listen to an album many times.
Barnes is an old soul, a poetic Romantic. He operates via aesthetics and his own way-out sensibility to arrive at what works for himself, the band, and the audience who eventually witness the elaborate presentation of the music. A concert with oM is as much ritual as party.
I think Kevin Barnes is pure genius. oM more than any other group or musician has driven me to work on teasing out the meanings from his lyrics and music. My DH gets a lot out of just listening and not getting the rest (he’s really into blues, anyway). You can take in as much of the oM experience as you want and still enjoy tremendously.
Wish I’d read this piece hot off the press! It’s a great resource.
time is made of plastic it used to be glass (oM, I Feel Safe With You, Trash)
Fantastic article! I hope you update it soon given that oM has released 2 more albums. Look forward to hearing your analysis!