This past Friday, Jimmy Eat World aired the third and final “Phoenix Session” — a series of exquisitely shot and recorded live performances of their most recent LP (2019’s Surviving), their second best-selling album (2004’s Futures) and Clarity, their 1999 masterpiece whose original commercial performance got them dropped by Capitol. I admit I’m a little biased since Clarity is my favorite album of all time, but I’d submit the Phoenix Sessions as damning evidence against the claim of my Indiecast co-host that livestreams are inherently dull. Most are, because they’re attempts to recreate the sounds and sights of a club gig without the social camaraderie; which negates pretty much the entire point.
Conversely, the Phoenix Sessions recast entire albums as a new audio-visual experience, one that was exponentially enhanced by the quality of your television or computer. Having seen the 10-year anniversary performance of Futures in 2014, I can say that there was no added value in watching Jimmy Eat World run through “Drugs Or Me” packed shoulder-to-sweaty shoulder with someone who might be waiting an hour just to hear “The Middle” during the encore. The Phoenix Sessions provided hardcore Jimmy Eat World fans an enhanced version of the way they’ve likely experienced Futures and Clarity for years — headphones on, in isolation, to paraphrase “A Praise Chorus,” feeling like a part of it was yours and yours alone.
This quality has remained in Jimmy Eat World’s music as they’ve held nearly every conceivable status in the 25 years since 1996’s Static Prevails became arguably the first major-label emo album ever released — they’ve been wildly underappreciated and utterly inescapable, critically scorned and later canonized (often with the same album), beset by a slow, steady drift into mid-life crises, lumped onto tours with alt-rock has-beens and then rejuvenated as elder statesmen of an entire genre. Try to think of how many major-label bands have been as consistent and consistently rewarding as Jimmy Eat World over the past three decades — Radiohead and Deftones come to mind and that’s really about it, but I don’t think their public reputation will ever be reduced to a single song, like, “Creep” or “Change (In the House of Flies)” (don’t worry, “The Middle” is on this list). But whether you’re a hardcore fan looking to quibble with the rankings, a “Clarity-through-Futures only” essentialist or someone who really hasn’t heard a Jimmy Eat World song besides “The Middle,” trust that it was hard to limit this list to only 30 songs. You can’t not still feel the butterflies.
30. “Closer” (Stay On My Side Tonight, 2005)
There’s no real shadow history of Jimmy Eat World’s non-album tracks – most of them end up as B-sides or bonus cuts on deluxe reissues. But Stay On My Side Tonight stands as their only official collection of non-album originals (along with a Heatmiser cover and an inessential “Drugs Or Me” remix), a way of honoring the choicest cuts from the Futures writing sessions that couldn’t find a proper place on their first album subject to legitimate commercial expectations. Despite Jimmy Eat World’s intention to present Stay On My Side Tonight as a discrete entity, it can’t help but be seen as kind of a patch to Futures — all but the most diehard listeners can instantly think of at least two tracks they’d swap out to find room for SOMST’s originals. It’s not even that “Closer” is simply better than, say, the monumentally hokey PSA “Drugs Or Me” or misguided horniness on main (“Night Drive”), it challenges the assumption that these wouldn’t have fit on Futures. “Closer” is virtually the exact midpoint between the bittersweet “The World You Love” and the sourball skate-punk of “Pain,” a rare instance of Jimmy Eat World stretching out for groove and texture rather than a preconceived notion of “epic.” You can believe Apple Music — Clarity and Bleed American are their truly essential works for casual listeners, but attach “Closer” to Futures and… well, it’s a lot closer.
28. “Invented” (Invented, 2010)
Critic Andrew Unterberger recently asked whether The Human League’s Dare was the only example of a classic album that backloaded its three best songs at the very end. There were a couple of common responses — Celebration Rock, Purple Rain, several for Automatic For the People. I’d nominate Invented, even if it has only reached the status of “aged surprisingly well” as opposed to “classic.” As they typically do after their streamlined pop-rock albums, Jimmy Eat World tried a little bit of everything on Invented — a reunion with Mark Trombino, the first Tom Linton lead vocal since Clarity, acoustic strummers with strings, songs written from the perspective of Cindy Sherman photos — and the results were predictably scattered. The one throughline was Adkins’ focus on storytelling and he hits a peak on Invented’s penultimate title track. He’s occupied this kind of space before on “Ten,” “If You Don’t, Don’t,” “Disintegration,” and “Kill,” just to name a few — a drunk who can keep things together just enough to clearly see everything around him fall apart. They’ve also made compelling use of female vocals from the likes of Rachel Haden and Liz Phair, but whereas they mostly provided harmony, the presence of future alt-country darling Courtney Marie Andrews makes “Invented” feel like a conversation — establishing an intimacy that holds even as “Invented” explodes at its Aqua Net-glossed bridge (I mean “explodes” quite literally, to the point where it sounds like a mastering error). It’s the kind of song that would typically require a comedown immediately after and instead, it’s followed by the equally massive “Mixtape,” which fortified Adkins’ heartsick solo version with strings and cranked drums. “Where went all the takers baby/do you still have what they want?” Adkins asks, a poignant question for a band whom critics were judging mostly on commercial performance rather than artistic growth. Ten years later, “Mixtape” and “Invented” can be seen for what they really are, the backbone of Jimmy Eat World’s most underappreciated album.
27. “555” (Surviving, 2019)
Jimmy Eat World have made dozens of pop songs, but all of them would be primarily classified as “rock.” That’s their thing — even if their biggest hits put them in the company of Taylor Swift and Nickelback and the cast of Saturday Night Live, none of it cuts against a humble image of the same four guys from Mesa, Arizona hanging tight for over 25 years. That’s probably why they’ve never been put in a situation where Greg Kurstin or Ryan Tedder is brought in to punch up their hooks or modernize the production — you know, dial up some synth presents, swap out Zach Lind for some trap beats, put some glassy harmonies in the chorus. Funny thing is, that all happened on “555,” the outlier and standout track on 2019’s Surviving, a strong album that nonetheless played things a bit too safe after the reinvigorated Integrity Blues. The sound of “555” itself was as jarring as the sight of Adkins playing an extraterrestrial despot buried in pancake makeup and a white wig in the video, and both worked fantastically — even if Adkins admits he had to stifle laughter throughout the whole shoot. We’re probably fortunate that Jimmy Eat World were never expected to play the same game as Fall Out Boy or Panic! At The Disco, but even if they did, “555” proves they’d survive that, too.
26. “Integrity Blues” (Integrity Blues, 2016)
Spoiler alert: 2013’s Damage was completely shut out on this list, and I don’t foresee this being a controversial outcome. After their weakest-selling and most artistically inert album, Jimmy Eat World took their first extended break in two decades, with Adkins asking himself a question that never seemed to faze peers like Dave Grohl or Rivers Cuomo or Billy Corgan — does the world really need a new Jimmy Eat World album? The crowds who showed up to watch Adkins play solo gigs at bars and small theaters in places like Maquoketa, Iowa and Billings, Montana bore witness to an unusually candid song he wrote about that very thing. “It’s all what you do when no one’s there / it’s all what you do when no one cares,” Adkins sang plaintively over his acoustic guitar, an elaboration on its title: “Integrity Blues.” By the time it became the title track on their best album in over a decade, they couldn’t help layering on the strings and reverb until it could pass for something Justin Meldal-Johnsen smuggled out of his Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming sessions. But Adkins’ voice is unadorned, as if he’s singing “I’ve got work to do” alone in the bathroom mirror. It might not scan as emo, but Adkins has never been more raw and vulnerable than he is on “Integrity Blues.”
25. “Roller Queen” (Jimmy Eat World EP, 1998)
Both of Jimmy Eat World’s releases that were intentionally self-titled are nowhere to be found on streaming and pretty hard to find in general — in the case of 1994’s Jimmy Eat World, likely because they’re sorta embarrassed by it. I imagine 1998’s Jimmy Eat World EP is caught up some legal or publishing rigamarole — released on an imprint then best known for being run by a guy from Less Than Jake, Jimmy Eat World mostly existed to give “Lucky Denver Mint” a trial run and once it got some spins on KROQ, the release did enough numbers to allow Fueled By Ramen a bigger office space in Jacksonville. Nowadays, Jimmy Eat World is worth seeking out solely for “Roller Queen,” a slow-motion space race with no real equivalent in Jimmy Eat World’s catalog. They’d dabbled in lengthier songs on Static Prevails, with “Anderson Mesa” playing the role of “epic closer” and “Digits” more of a prog-like suite. But with “Roller Queen,” there’s no real hook, no real structure aside from a slow, steady crescendo interrupted by bit-crushing production tricks — imagine if they made their Low Level Owl instead of Clarity, or veered off into becoming a digital post-rock act on Morr Music. Nothing in Jimmy Eat World’s catalog conjures as much fascinating alternate history as the least-heard song on this list.
24. “Blister” (Clarity, 1999)
This one could have easily been a B-side. Clarity is already over an hour long without it, the apocalyptic doomsaying isn’t an obvious fit anywhere on the album, let alone immediately after “Just Watch The Fireworks” and “For Me This Is Heaven.” And to top it off, this is a Tom song, which were already having trouble finding their place in Jimmy Eat World’s studio releases. Maybe they felt compelled to have one true Tom song on Clarity, or maybe when you have a song as infectious as “Blister,” you find a place for it. It might not have the most radio-ready chorus they’ve ever done, but it features their most compelling imagery — “the West Coast has been traumatized,” Tom Linton sings as a Cormac McCarthy character, the last man alive walking across the United States all alone. I think we can admit that Clarity is an album that takes its every fleeting emotion very, very seriously and can allow itself some comic relief — after so many times of feeling like your world is caving in, imagine how funny it would be if Earth actually collapsed on itself.
23. “Cautioners” (Bleed American, 2001)
While it lacks the “experimental” reputation of its predecessor, in many ways, Bleed American refined the advancements of Clarity for use in form-fitting pop structure. Isn’t the palm-muted riff of “The Middle” really just a major-thirds take on the palm-muted riff of “Your New Aesthetic,” which itself was a tighter version of the one on “Rockstar”? There was still room for their spacier, more sentimental ideas, which were now shaped into show-stopping ballads, every bit as purposeful as the singles. And I’ve often wondered whether Jimmy Eat World were so enamored with the infinity loops of “Ten” that they just imported them verbatim onto “Cautioners.” This is the “weird one” on Bleed American, sandwiched between their overt homages to Cheap Trick and John Cougar Mellencamp, at once immaculate and 8-bit — regal cymbal washes misting over Lind’s mechanical drums, guitars nicked from The Joshua Tree and a bassline on loan from the underground of Super Mario Bros 2. All the more fitting for a song about trying to stay firm and resolute as your insides turn to mush: “I’m making my peace, I’m making it with distance / Maybe that’s a big mistake, you know I’m thinking of you,” Adkins admits. As the curtain falls on the final chorus, the guitar loop just keeps ringing — it could go on for twice as long as “Goodbye Sky Harbor” and I’d allow it, after all, what is “Cautioners” but endlessly watching the one you love slowly walk away without ever really leaving.
22. “Firefight” (Chase This Light, 2007)
If I had to choose my favorite Jimmy Eat World sequencing trope, I’ll go with the “B-side banger.” See: “nothingwrong,” “Get It Faster,” “Through,” “Clarity,” “Action Needs an Audience,” “Robot Factory,” songs that break up the typically slower, somber second halves and are unafraid to be inessential. Some are absolute keepers anyways, very few would make lists like these, but “Firefight” stands as the one song in this category that fundamentally alters its parent album. On the whole, Chase This Light overcorrected towards genial hooks and cloying sentimentality, an understandable impulse after Futures failed to connect with pop audiences like its predecessor. But did their strengths really lie in “Feeling Lucky” or “Carry You” or a song like “Firefight,” every bit as melodically powerful as the obvious singles and maintaining the jagged edge of Bleed American’s singles that weren’t “The Middle.” While it features some of Adkins’ most impressionistic writing (“they’re spitting spite all through my blood,” “love is quartz and breath the second hand”), “you can be anything, just be anything with me” leaves nothing to interpretation on the bridge — win or lose, he’s going out in a blaze of glory.
21. “Futures” (Futures, 2004)
I spent most of 2004 buried under Criminal Procedure readings, crumbled Arby’s wrappers, and empty cans of Sparks Ultra, so I’m probably not the most reliable historian of that era. Still, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that there wasn’t the same “all hands on deck” call to action from musicians the last time one of the bad guys was up for reelection. Maybe people were resigned to seeing no realistic path towards victory for John Kerry or maybe there was an equal amount of urgency as 2020, just without social media to serve as amplification. But compared to a time where we are intimately aware of nearly every celebrity’s political leanings, I was legitimately startled when Jimmy Eat World kicked off their highly-anticipated follow-up to Bleed American with a call to rock the vote. How many other political rock songs from popular bands do you remember from that time, keeping in mind that even Conor Oberst thinks “When the President Talks To God” is kind of lame and “Mr. November” came out in 2005 (also, The National weren’t popular yet). “I always believed in futures / I hope for better in November,” Adkins shouts, November 2 about two weeks away — by that point, it was pretty clear that better would not happen, but “Futures” was retained enough of Bleed American’s broad uplift to make it retroactively applicable to a promising first date or the Red Sox finally winning the World Series.
20. “You With Me”
19. “Sure And Certain” (Integrity Blues, 2016)
Jimmy Eat World is my favorite band and I also kinda dreaded hitting play on my promo copy of Integrity Blues — your therapist would probably call that a dialectic. Their previous three albums had inspired moments, but mostly sounded like Jimmy Eat World trying too hard to be themselves. Or maybe I was just hitting an age where Jimmy Eat World’s music is supposed to hit different, or not hit at all. And while I’ve come to appreciate it as Integrity Blues’ thesis statement, “Get Right” was a terribly uninspiring lead single, plodding and lacking any real strong hook. It provided no indication of Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s involvement or why Jimmy Eat World wanted to work with the guy in the first place. But the actual introduction of Integrity Blues… the first guitar strums sound like a triple-tracked harp. There is no way any actual human beings could have been involved in the recording of those choral harmonies. Rick Burch’s bass is alchemized into an electrical current. The drums are treated with the same man/machine textures that defined “Lucky Denver Mint” and “Cautioners.” Judging from just the first minute of “You With Me,” Jimmy Eat World heard Meldal-Johnsen’s work with M83 and said, “yeah, give us all of that.” For an album intended as a bold reinvention of Jimmy Eat World’s sound, “You With Me” shows a remarkable amount of patience and stamina throughout its five minutes, surging through its subtly witty chorus and allowing themselves as much time as they need to luxuriate in the production. Jimmy Eat World sounded fantastic on “You With Me,” and on the next song, they were truly back. You just knew when the sweeping chorus of “Sure And Certain” hit for the first time; I remember someone saying that it sounded like it belonged on a bank commercial and I just take that to mean that it’s the first Jimmy Eat World single in ages that sounded like it could be everywhere, its steady tom-drum beat and glistening synths sounding in dialog with avowed fans like Paramore and CHVRCHES without sounding like they’re trying to hop on the bandwagon. I distinctly remember emailing lapsed Jimmy Eat World fans about ten minutes into my first listen of Integrity Blues — “this is real good.” Not the “actual good” that comes as a sigh of relief when your favorite band doesn’t embarrass themselves. But the kind where you can say they’ve now made essential albums in three consecutive decades.
18. “Big Casino” (Chase This Light, 2007)
Britty Drake of the dearly departed Pity Sex recently tweeted that “Futures is the In Reverie of Jimmy Eat World,” and for everyone not versed in “30-something emo Twitter Bat-signals,” I’ll try to explain: there isn’t much superficial similarity between Futures, a logically darker and denser follow-up to a platinum blockbuster and Saves The Day’s sole major label album, a foray into florid, day-glow psych-pop. Likewise, Futures was generally well-received by Jimmy Eat World fans and had a respectable showing on the charts (it sits at about 600k sold), whereas In Reverie was mostly despised by Saves The Day fans. And, unlike Jimmy Eat World, Saves The Day were drummed out of the major label system once DreamWorks was sold to Universal. Nonetheless, Drake’s point sorta stands: both followed two certified scene classics to a relatively muted response and spooked each band into an immediate course correction. Lind admits that Jimmy Eat World intended for 2007’s Chase This Light to have a similar impact to Bleed American and they called on megaproducer Butch Vig to gloss up a batch of songs that tried very, very hard to match “The Middle.” Jimmy Eat World gloriously overshot the mark on “Big Casino,” which drew equally on Bleed American as it did Sam’s Town, proudly ostentatious Boss fanfic that steamrolls over any criticism one might have about Arizona guys playacting as a “New Jersey success story.”
17. “Episode IV” (Static Prevails, 1996)
After taking the lead for most of Jimmy Eat World’s rudimentary skate-punk, Tom Linton gradually, graciously and, by Bleed American, all but entirely ceded the frontman role to Jim Adkins. He never ended up playing the typical “hypeman” role you see in emo bands with alternating vocalists — the scream-y guy, the more nasal guy, the guy allotted one hardcore throwback or two per album. But most of his leads from Static Prevails going forward were bangers, all of which makes “Episode IV” the most emphatic argument against his marginalization — his sole ballad proves how well-suited his lower register was for Jimmy Eat World’s dreamier material. If not in sound, “Episode IV” is Static Prevails most overt lyrically emo song — dancing awkwardly, singing off-key, projecting spiritual salvation onto someone — the sort of things that make introverts feel seen the first time they hear them and would eventually become cliche thanks to bands that soon walked through a door that Bleed American kicked off the hinges. But Linton’s steady, solemn voice sells all of it, largely by not trying to sell it — “and you know I almost lost my will to live” should sound like exhausted relief, not a celebration for having narrowly escaped. Jimmy Eat World could keep going for 30 more years and still not include “Episode IV” in their setlists a single time, but it’s just as well — something this underplayed and restrained deserves to remain one of the band’s best kept secrets.
16. “Kill” (Futures, 2004)
By a quite comfortable margin, Futures stands as Jimmy Eat World’s angriest album — its sharp edges owing as much to Gil Norton’s diamond-cut production as its terse song titles, where both ellipsis (“Just Tonight…”) and compaction (“nothingwrong”) manage to uphold the lurking, unknown menace. “Kill” is where Adkins’ internal seething finally finds a release valve, a hotel bar lament by turns accusatory, embarrassed, emasculated, enraged and, in one perfect line, completely in earnest — he who has not used “SORRY BUT I JUST CAN’T TURN OFF HOW I FEEL” as a LiveJournal status, cast the first stone (cause of death: pelted with stones). “Kill” serves its subject by mirroring the way drunken emails or texts to the one who got away typically go — painstakingly rehearsed before it all comes spilling out, a rare Jimmy Eat World song where there’s still a verse-chorus-bridge structure, but none of the lyrics repeat. Except for one — “I know what I should do but I just can’t walk away,” Adkins sighs as “Kill” fades out, resigned to the inevitability of being in the crosshairs once again.
15. “If You Don’t, Don’t” (Bleed American, 2001)
“Bleed American” immediately blew my shit back when I first heard it at the alt-rock station in Charlottesville and when I finally got a hold of the promo CD, I played it in my car and got pulled over for speeding by “Your House.” And yet, it wasn’t the untouchable side-A run of future singles or even the show-stopping Track Six BalladTM where Bleed American really clicked for me. While it initially appeared that Jimmy Eat World had set aside the attentive soundscaping of Clarity for radio-ready hooks, there’s a point on “If You Don’t, Don’t” where Adkins and Linton seemingly hit six different tremolo pedals in case you somehow missed the point of a prior lyric — “we once walked out on the beach and once I almost touched your hand.” That almost is doing all the work in that sentence, a reminder of every time you got so close to acting on the thing you wanted more than anything else in the world but were left with feeling like your organs were suspended in seafoam. “I’m sorry that I’m such a mess, I drank all my money could get,” Adkins admits towards the end and yeah… we’ve been there. The dominant emotion here isn’t love or even lust, but fear — a fear that this won’t happen or even worse, it will and mean everything to you and nothing to the other person.
14. “Ten” (Clarity, 1999)
Albums as revered as Clarity shouldn’t really have songs that are called “underappreciated” after 22 years — even obvious curveballs like “12.23.95” and “Goodbye Sky Harbor” have factions who will preemptively shoot down any suggestion of skipping through Jimmy Eat World’s IDM curiosities. And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if the general reputation of “Ten” remains “the one before ‘Just Watch the Fireworks’ and ‘For Me This Is Heaven,’” the two-song run that really makes Clarity, y’know, Clarity. And that makes sense, since the latter are some of the most impossibly lucid emo teen dreams ever written while “Ten” is bathed in fake yellow light, rooted in reality and resigned to fleeting and illicit thrills. “Our weakness is the same, we need poison sometimes,” Adkins mutters to his accomplice, while Lind’s pounding, stutter-step beat and the endlessly chiming guitar loops combining to replicate that physically burdened and mentally weightless feeling of a drunk pushing himself to the next bar, a buzz that’s about to spiral out of control. “Nowhere and then nowhere, trapped in the chase,” as Adkins aptly puts it, trying to get that mixture just right until you believe songs like “For Me This Is Heaven” can actually come true.
13. “Polaris” (Futures, 2004)
In a just world, the title track of Def Leppard’s Hysteria exists on the same plane as “I’m On Fire” — a relatively subdued, amorous, and not inescapable single reincarnated as an indie favorite with dozens upon dozens of covers from cred-conscious bands who want to claim the hidden gem in an otherwise overplayed-to-death 1980s rock radio institution. But that is not the world we inhabit, so let’s just appreciate “Polaris” for honoring one of Jimmy Eat World’s latent, formative influences. Adkins once claimed “Photograph” inspired him to pick up a guitar for the first time and while that song’s imprint is all over Bleed American’s pop-rock of ages, the incandescent center of Futures takes after Def Leppard’s most emo power ballad. “You say that love goes anywhere / in your darkest time it’s just enough to know it’s there,” Adkins yelps, and as the bard once said, when you get that feeling, better start believing. In this instance, the magical mysteria is all in the crystalline guitars, trying in vain to sprinkle stardust on a relationship slowly fading to black.
12. “Claire” (Static Prevails, 1996)
Long before Jimmy Eat World defined the sound of major-label emo, they were simply the first emo band on a major label. And “Claire” does indeed sound like a more polished version of what was happening throughout Texas and the Midwest at the time, a sweeter, slighter take on Sunny Day Real Estate — well-thought out twinkles commingling with distorted octave chords, unabashedly plaintive vocals straining to sell lyrics about faith and girls and faith in girls into poetic abstractions. “One way trip can work both ways / loose ends kept untied make better friends,” Adkins sings before the priceless coda — I don’t know exactly what he means by “CAN YOU SAY FULL RIDE,” but it was probably about long-distance relationships in college, at least that’s what I assumed while I was in a long-distance (like, an hour away) relationship in college. Coming after a song literally titled “Rockstar,” “Claire” confirms not just where Jimmy Eat World were at in 1996, but where they’d go soon after — it’s Jimmy Eat World’s first arena-rock moment and the last time they sounded even remotely hesitant about embracing such things.
11. “The World You Love” (Futures, 2004)
For a quintessential band in a genre synonymous with bombastic oversharing, Jimmy Eat World are granted an unusual amount of authorial distance; credit their modest public profile or his tendency to write in broad strokes, but unlike with, say, Bright Eyes or Taking Back Sunday or Say Anything, the enjoyment of Jimmy Eat World’s music is not at all contingent upon believing that Adkins is actually the main character in his songs. “We’re only just as happy as everyone else seems to think we are,” Adkins sings on “The World You Love,” and judging from the Futures cuts that immediately surround it — “Work,” “Kill,” “Pain” — it stands to reason that people don’t know the half. It’s easy enough to hear “The World We Love” as strictly about a relationship trying to survive physical and emotional distance, albeit more satisfying to interpret “I’m just looking for a nice way to say ‘I’m out’ / I WANT OUT” as bringing the subtext of Futures to the surface — that the darker follow-up to their blockbuster breakthrough is darker because of everything that comes with making a blockbuster breakthrough.
10. “You Are Free” (Integrity Blues, 2016)
I don’t know if Jim Adkins ever gets tired of singing “The Middle” at every single show they have played since 2001. But by 2016’s Integrity Blues, he had to ask — who is he to say that everything’s gonna be alright? Everything might not be alright, just look at what happened a few weeks after Integrity Blues’ October 21st release date. Or maybe everything will be alright, maybe not terrible, not great, just… kinda life on life’s terms. This was also the message of “Get Right,” but its attempt at real talk wasn’t anywhere near as convincing as “You Are Free” — those harmonies on the chorus, that’s why you get in the studio with Justin Meldal-Johnsen. The affirmations of Bleed American had evolved into a more resonant tough love on Integrity Blues, which makes “You Are Free” kind of a spiritual sequel to “The Middle” — an anthem for the simultaneously thrilling and frightening realization that if everything is gonna be alright, it’s completely up to you.
9. “The Middle” (Bleed American, 2001)
There are likely people who absolutely despise “The Middle” and never want to hear it again. There are likely people who enjoy “The Middle” but feel like they never need to hear it again — that chorus really does commit itself to memory after five seconds, after all. And then there are Jimmy Eat World diehards who appreciate or at least tolerate its existence; it’s kind of a bummer that one of the greatest American bands of the past 30 years has been reduced to “I used to listen to this in middle school!” but countless people (myself included) wouldn’t have discovered Clarity or Futures without it. It’s also why they’ll be given the freedom to make an album like Integrity Blues on a major label’s dime.
By the time “The Middle” officially dropped as a single in November 2001, Bleed American had already been renamed Jimmy Eat World and there was a seemingly insatiable demand for the reaffirmation of rock music, whether it came from U2 or The Strokes. And here was a song about keeping the faith in yourself, from a band that had been written off and looked down on. And even if they looked a bit square in comparison to the New Rock Revolution, the video brilliantly turned Jimmy Eat World’s modest, everyguy anti-image into an asset (although surely many teens watched it on mute). Sometimes, the magic of pop music is simply an artist being prepared for their moment, but let’s not get it f*cked up — “The Middle” is one of the most brilliantly crafted pieces of pop-rock of the 21st century and any list of Jimmy Eat World’s best songs that doesn’t include “The Middle” is trying way too hard.
8. “Just Watch The Fireworks” (Clarity, 1999)
Jimmy Eat World’s best records can be treated like seasonal flavors — Bleed American, released in July, full of shout-out-loud hooks and bang-on-your-steering wheel drums, definitely a summer record. Justin Medal-Johnsen’s production wrapped Integrity Blues in icicle lights, Futures begins on Election Day and is permeated by a late autumn chill. I’ve had debates about where Clarity fits into this — “12.23.95” makes an obvious case for “winter,” as do the frosty bells and glacial pace of “Table For Glasses” and “Goodbye Sky Harbor.” So… what about “Just Watch The Fireworks”? Ah, but here’s the thing about Jimmy Eat World’s most googly-eyed, unabashedly romantic song — there’s not a single mention of actual fireworks in the lyrics, a rare if not unprecedented example in the deep, deep canon of fireworks songs. And who stays up as late as they can to watch 4th of July fireworks, those begin at like 8 PM. As “Just Watch the Fireworks” hits its final, “I can’t go on… I must go on” surge, its message becomes clear: the most breathtaking, awe-inspiring moments of your life are bound to happen if you can get out of your own way and just let them happen (this might explain why the song actually titled “Let It Happen” doesn’t hit quite as hard). Doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas Eve, prom, graduation, a first date going curiously too well, or just a desire to remember what it felt like to stay up as late as possible because you didn’t want the night to end — “Just Watch the Fireworks” is for all seasons.
7. “Bleed American” (Bleed American, 2001)
Bleed American’s origin story is a classic tale of short-sighted label execs, DIY pluck and redemption by the will of the people. But here’s the thing that often gets overlooked: yes, Jimmy Eat World may have recorded Bleed American on their own dime and Mark Trombino offered his services on spec, but once the album was finished, this was no underdog. Lind claimed that it was the subject of a bidding war that involved just about every major label except for Interscope, who eventually oversaw Futures after DreamWorks was absorbed by Universal. This probably explains why they could hold back on obvious singles like “The Middle” and “Sweetness” and reintroduce themselves with “Bleed American,” the hardest, meanest thing they’ve ever done; listen to the way the rhythm section locks in during the final minute, it’s essentially a Helmet song. I don’t think anyone was questioning Jimmy Eat World’s punk credentials after Clarity — it’s hard to be called a sell-out for making an album that got you dropped and their aggression never felt entirely convincing even on “Your New Aesthetic” — but “Bleed American” is a multilayered statement of intent, a band no longer content to be coal for someone else’s machinery, a celebration and a protest suitable for a picket line or a parade. Bleed American’s swift name change after 9/11 left it as the band’s third self-titled release, and it strangely feels appropriate. Whether you call it “Bleed American” or “Salt Sweat Sugar,” from the first seconds, the point could not be more clear — Jimmy Eat World have truly arrived.
6. “Disintegration” (Stay On My Side Tonight, 2005)
Jimmy Eat World have never felt the need to mask their influences and when it came time for them to make a 7-minute dirge of turbid guitars and synthesized strings, they paid direct homage to the great, grim grandfathers of Gothic grandeur. A holdover from the Futures sessions, I’ll let the Wiki entry for “Disintegration” explain why it didn’t make the cut — “the song features uncharacteristically negative lyrics,” and true enough, “do what you want, but I’m drinking” applies a poison pen to what is otherwise one of Adkins’ most familiar writing tropes. “Disintegration” also uncharacteristically intensified just about everything else about Futures, and the result was so compelling that it alone warranted the release of 2005’s Stay On My Side Tonight. Lind’s drums were freed from basic timekeeping and cranked louder than the guitars, the band’s usually angelic harmonies were lent to a demonic cheerleading cadence and Trombino’s electronic production touches surrounded everything like the crackle of a high-voltage fence — title aside, Jimmy Eat World weren’t drowning in their sorrows on “Disintegration,” they were thrashing for their lives.
5. “A Praise Chorus” (Bleed American, 2001)
Did anyone besides Clear Channel really think “Bleed American” was condoning domestic terrorism? Bleed American was clearly intended as a pledge of cultural allegiance, an album that paid tribute to the life-altering power of heartland rock radio by adding to it. I mean, the cover is a damn jukebox and there’s a John Mellencamp homage that isn’t even the most referential song. That would be “A Praise Chorus,” wherein the power of pop music isn’t framed in spiritual terms, but something closer to a narcotic — something that can create a fleeting, but very real sense of belonging, a piece of the world that truly feels like your own. It’s powerful shit, something that can inspire ordinary people to do extraordinary things, to dedicate their entire lives to chasing that high either as a fan or as a musician themselves. But even as Adkins and Davey Von Bohlen sound irrepressibly joyful in aligning They Might Be Giants, Poison, Tommy James, and The Promise Ring like the bowling trophies on Bleed American’s cover, there’s a warning encoded in “A Praise Chorus” about the insidious downside of your formative years. “Stick around, nostalgia won’t let you down,” Adkins sings, but it won’t lift you up. As much as it tells, “A Praise Chorus” shows — how can you hear Lind’s pounding drum intro and not be on your feet, on the floor, good to go and ready to fall in love tonight. It might not happen, and it probably won’t, but “A Praise Chorus” wants to be that song you hear that makes anything feel possible.
4. “Lucky Denver Mint” (Clarity, 1999)
A lot was riding on the first single from Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity — “Lucky Denver Mint” was given a soft launch on a teaser EP released by an unheralded Florida label called Fueled By Ramen and later, a plum spot on the Never Been Kissed soundtrack. Whereas they were dilettantes in both electronics and pop melody on Static Prevails, their new sound was bold and bionic, outfitted with state-of-the-art drum loops and a hook that was insistent rather than suggestive. Capitol also financed a clip that probably seemed in line with the self-deprecating, loudly ironic Jack Black-ish physical comedy that defined alt-rock videomaking at the time, but I refuse to link out of respect for the band. This song was supposed to accomplish everything “The Middle” did two years later and perhaps its failure to launch was encoded in its downbeat chorus — “you’re not bigger than this, not better, why can’t you learn?” You know, maybe you should write yourself off. Inspired by a terrible night gambling in Vegas, “Lucky Denver Mint” doesn’t explode like the Bleed American singles, it just surges forward like a racing dog after a mechanized rabbit it won’t ever catch or an addict impulsively acting on the belief that it’ll hit different this time. “Lucky Denver Mint” was self-fulfilling prophecy in that way — Jimmy Eat World were a major-label band on borrowed time, at the mercy of disinterested Capitol execs, short-sighted radio DJs and the fickle tastes of music consumers in a time of teen-pop and nu-metal. But contrary to what Adkins claims on “Lucky Denver Mint,” they did learn from the experience and we wouldn’t have gotten Bleed American without it — the next time, they bet on themselves and hit the jackpot.
3. “For Me This Is Heaven” (Clarity, 1999)
Do you really expect me to justify this song’s placement by talking about… I dunno, how that piano part perfectly weaves its way into that dual-guitar lattice that sorta kinda predicted American Football’s “The Summer Ends”? Or that final harmony? Or how the off-kilter drums keep everything from floating too far into the clouds? Come on, y’all — if four grown-ass men can make a song titled “For Me This Is Heaven” with a chorus of “can you still feel the butterflies” without totally embarrassing themselves, that would be enough. That it serves as the lyrical centerpiece of one of the greatest emo albums ever made justifies every bit of success they achieved in perpetuity.
2. “Sweetness” (Bleed American, 2001)
I don’t want to give Capitol too much credit here, but… if they were the ones who decided “Sweetness” wasn’t a good fit for Clarity, they made the right call. At least that’s the case with the version that’s been retroactively appended to its deluxe reissue, a scrappier take more in line with the “Sweetness” that was appearing in their live sets alongside “Lucky Denver Mint” and “Crush.” There’s an argument that it’s thematically aligned with, say, “Believe In What You Want,” “Blister” or anything else on an album rife with unrequited affection, especially given Jimmy Eat World’s relationship with a label that was mostly fixated on reissuing Beatles and Frank Sinatra records at the time (“Capitol didn’t give a shit about us,” Adkins later joked). But the demo version of “Sweetness” sits in a liminal state between the formative pop-punk of their earliest days and the Jimmy Eat World striving to make “disgustingly catchy and straight ahead” radio hits on Bleed American. The first part is certainly true — Adkins’ a cappella “are you listening? WHOA-OH-OH-OH-OH-OH” is one of the greatest opening lines of the 21st century and now that I think about it, the demo version of “Sweetness” is basically a Post-Nothing track. But “straight ahead,” not so much here. Sure, the ubiquity of “The Middle” has likely driven many to ride on the behalf of “Sweetness,” but to these ears, it’s also a better representation of what it meant for emo to go mainstream. The post-hardcore and second-wave influences are plainly obvious, Lind’s churning drums and the stop-start dynamics as vicious as anything Trombino’s old band put to tape, a historical fiction where Yank Crime justifies its existence to Interscope accountants. Even if its lyrics are pretty much the exact opposite of those on “The Middle,” the existence and success of “Sweetness” is just as life-affirming — if you’re gonna ask “are you listening,” say it with your whole chest.
1. “23” (Futures, 2004)
Teenagers are mythical beings in pop music, living, loving, and losing with a raw vulnerability that makes them both invincible and ultimately blameless. It’s much harder to romanticize someone’s early 20’s — Jimmy Eat World’s most famous advocate described being 22 as “miserable and magical” and their second-most famous advocates wrote a song called “What’s My Age Again?” that concluded “nobody likes you when you’re 23.” Because at that age, you’re supposed to discover that “ADD” really meant “being bored in school” now that the world has more to offer than television and prank phone calls, and the obligations of adulthood are now coming into focus: your parents might have been married and actual parents at 23, or at least college graduates or at least no longer living with their parents. It appeared that the culture at large was beginning to soften their expectations towards people in this demographic as the long tail of the Great Recession segued into the 2020 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually any easier to experience being 23.
I firmly believe that Jimmy Eat World is at their best writing about this specific age range — there isn’t exactly a desire to relive one’s teens, but to reassess those formative experiences now that you have the lived experience to fully appreciate them. It’s easy enough to say “I wanna fall in love tonight” in high school when kids fall in love three times a week; it means something different when you’re ready to fall in love for the last time. And so it’s only right that a song called “23” is their magnum opus. It’s obvious that Jimmy Eat World were heavy into The Cure during the making of Futures — another band who has spent decades successfully speaking to listener’s teenage conception of themselves — and when it comes to giving the majestic sprawl of “Pictures Of You” a hi-def, emo-pop reshoot, “23” out-Disintegration’s Jimmy Eat World’s own “Disintegration” (imagine if they switched out “Night Drive” and had those two back-to-back on Futures).
During the second verse, Adkins’ perspective switches to someone who’s about to turn 23 and sees it as a final emotional destination; “I won’t always want what I’ll never have / I won’t always live in my regrets.” It’s the kind of thing a teenager sometimes has to believe to survive high school, and I wouldn’t want that experience to be lost on anyone. But those feelings don’t end when you turn 23; they probably get worse. And this is how the chorus of “23” really generates its power — it’s Adkins in the mode where he works best, an older brother figure, someone who can alternately provide comfort, support, and tough love, who’s been there maybe just a few years earlier. 95% of the time, he’ll tell you to learn from his mistakes — make a move or you’ll miss out; disguised as patience, time gets wasted; you are free, as much as you can stand to be; you’ll sit alone forever if you wait for the right time, what are you hoping for? “23” isn’t really about being 23 years old, or wanting to be 23, or looking back at turning 23 — just the point when people decide they’re here, they’re now, they’re ready to truly live.