Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about My Morning Jacket.
There are at least three reasons for this. The first is the 20th anniversary of their second album, At Dawn, which is this week. While it was preceded by their 1999 debut, The Tennessee Fire, At Dawn in many ways feels like the actual first MMJ record. Just the title alone evokes something essential about the MMJ ethos — it suggests the start of a journey, bathed in gorgeous yellow light, toward an uncertain but exciting destination. This is conveyed musically on At Dawn by a heart-busting, reverb-drenched sprawl that would come to define them, as well as numerous classics that remain fixtures of their setlists.
Oh yes, setlists. This leads me to the second reason why MMJ is on my brain lately: This is one of the most talented live rock bands of the last 25 years, and I desperately yearn to see extremely gifted rock bands in concert right now. This is true, of course, because of the pandemic. But also because we’re in the midst of early spring, and My Morning Jacket is always a band I put on once the snow melts away and I’m able to hang outside again. (Spring is the third reason I’m fixated on MMJ right now.)
Here are the 30 songs I consider to be My Morning Jacket’s best. Oh shit run … toward these great jams!
30. “Xmas Curtain”
The early years of My Morning Jacket’s career coincide with the “return of rock!” hubbub of the early aughts, when NYC bands like The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs commanded much of the music media’s attention. MMJ existed in a parallel narrative — like the big-city acts, they drew on the traditions of 1970s rock, only they were a genuine Southern rock band rather than proponents of vintage post-punk cosplay. MMJ was also progressive, in that they took the blueprint of beard-y, high-lonesome, twangy guitar music and dared to reimagine it for a new age. A song like “Xmas Curtain,” from their second album At Dawn — released about four months before Is This It — has the grit of prime era Skynyrd and Allman Brothers, but it places them in a new technological and philosophical context. It’s not so much a revival of those bands as it is a continuation, logically extending their music into previously uncharted territory. The equal weight put on tradition and innovation immediately set MMJ apart — no matter how brainy or experimental they get on their best albums, the music never loses its gut-level power or down-home sensibility. At a time when critics were tripping over themselves to credit The Strokes with “saving” rock ‘n’ roll, My Morning Jacket felt like a classic rock band that was somehow magically transported to a strange and futuristic era.
29. “Phone Went West”
Important disclaimer: Every My Morning Jacket song sounds better live. By “better” I mean louder, clearer, more aggressive, more emotional, tighter (but also looser), heavier, drunker, sweeter, and “more invincible” sounding, if that makes sense. However, instead of going through the very tedious (but potentially fun!) process of isolating specific best live versions for each track, I am going to refer to the studio versions almost all of the time. (There will be exceptions in special cases.) But just for the record: When I listen to MMJ, I typically play their excellent 2006 live LP, Okonokos, or I reach for bootleg recordings of their justly legendary Bonnaroo appearances in 2004, 2006, and 2008. I wish I had a bootleg of the first time I saw MMJ, which was at Gabe’s Oasis in Iowa City back in 2002. At Dawn had already been out for a year, but MMJ weren’t stars yet. (They were opening for Guided By Voices at the time.) The most memorable part of MMJ’s set was when they played an extremely sludgy cover of Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” that made my head feel like it was hit by a baseball bat. (It was a very small room and MMJ was crushingly, thrillingly loud.) They also played “One Big Holiday” before It Still Moves came out. Unfortunately, I can’t confirm if they also played “Phone Went West” because I consumed about 18 whiskeys during the set.
28. “I Will Sing You Songs”
My Morning Jacket is sometimes labeled a jam band, which isn’t really accurate, aside from the argument I just made about their live recordings outclassing their studio work. But it’s also not inaccurate. It reminds me of something Jim James said to me in 2008: “I’m not a hippie, and I’m not not a hippie.” The point, I think, is that James and his bandmates specialize in making beautiful head music like “I Will Sing You Songs” that can make you feel as if you are hallucinating if you play them loud enough on headphones. But MMJ also doesn’t belong to a specific scene — they have that very southern skepticism about being a joiner and sublimating your own will and personality in order to conform to some group. “I Will Sing You Songs” is an indie rock song. But it’s also a country song. And a jammy song. It also has a Marvin Gaye circa Here My Dear vibe. It is, in other words, thoroughly My Morning Jacket.
27. “Lay Low”
At Dawn and It Still Moves are the first two studio albums I would hand to someone who had never heard My Morning Jacket. But the record where it all comes together is 2005’s Z, which codified the aesthetic — i.e. “Radiohead Except American And With Long, Blustery Guitar Solos” — that eventually made them headliners at Madison Square Garden. This song nails that idea more squarely than any other track on Z. The back half might as well have been beamed in from side two of (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd).
26. “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream, Part 1”
If Z is the peak, 2008’s Evil Urges is the crash, a bad vibes record in which James strained against the “Southern rock” label that had been forced upon him. The result is an album that both tries too hard to be “different” (like the awkward Prince homage “Highly Suspicious”) while also attempting to pander to the adult alternative radio format (the bland MMJ by numbers of “I’m Amazed”). Looking back on Evil Urges in 2015, James confessed to me, “That was probably the least fun record we made.” And yet, I know that if you were to ask 10 My Morning Jacket fans about this record, at least three of them would rave about it. And I kind of know what they mean. Evil Urges is MMJ at their darkest and least coherent, and generally I’m a fan of those kinds of records. It’s their Goats Head Soup, their Pop, their Congratulations. The best example of MMJ working in this vein is this minor-key synth-pop jam, which sounds like a deeply hungover wake for the triumphant long hairs who made the previous four records.
The title track from their “we’re back on track after Evil Urges” record from 2011. (Circuital is their All That You Can’t Leave Behind.) The problem with the album overall is that James’ heart doesn’t always seem fully into the idea of making guitar anthems that will go down great at Red Rocks. But the song “Circuital” is a real call to arms that earns the soaring solo at the climax.
24. “Compound Fracture”
My thoughts on My Morning Jacket’s post-Z career are colored by that interview I did with James upon the release of The Waterfall in 2015. Like Circuital, the album was promoted as yet another comeback for the band, though it ultimately led to an even longer wait between albums than there was between The Waterfall and its predecessor. At the time that we spoke, James seemed sad and a little worn out with MMJ. “I feel like I’ve paid a really heavy cost, a really heavy physical health cost, for the years of touring and how physical I’ve been onstage,” he said. “We’ve worked really hard, and maybe it hasn’t been a fair deal. I actually feel a little bit [ripped off].” That sense of weariness comes through on the album, though the bouncy “Compound Fracture” is an exception to that, cutting through the gloom with one of James’ most effervescent melodies.
23. “Run It”
When promoting The Waterfall, James mentioned a second album that the band recorded at the same time. In that 2015 interview, he said he intended to put it out eventually, but “I don’t want to put it out as, like, The Waterfall II or anything like that.” Flash forward five years and My Morning Jacket finally put it out as … The Waterfall II. I actually like the sequel a bit more, especially the Bill Withers-like folk-soul number “Run It,” which features some great playing by keyboardist Bo Koster.
22. “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”
Jim James originally wrote this for a Muppets-related project and it was rejected, so it ended up instead on Circuital. (My Morning Jacket did appear on a Muppets album that year with a recording of this 1977 song.) The worst that can be said of “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” is that it’s not quite as good as “The Rainbow Connection.” However, I’m pretty sure that I would still get similarly choked up if I heard Kermit The Frog sing, “I’m going where there ain’t no police.”
21. “What A Wonderful Man”
With Z, My Morning Jacket essentially became a new band, turning over its early lineup and re-emerging as a slicker, more arena-friendly outfit. You can hear that focus and muscle come through loud and clear on MMJ’s first “Wonderful” song, one of several rafter-shaking bangers from Z. According to the lyric, the man in question is also “sensible” and “sensuous,” both of which fall comfortably under the “wonderful” umbrella. This track also includes a great description of discovering an album as good as Z for the first time: “From the driver’s seat in the dark / He popped a tape in the dash of his car / And when the singer started to scream / I knew exactly what he meant.”
Yet another rafter-shaker from Z. For a band less contrarian than My Morning Jacket, this song would have been a model to replicate on several subsequent, Z-biting records. If you squint your eyes — or, I guess, your ears? — you could almost mistake this for Coldplay. (I mean this as a compliment!) It’s just an incredibly well-crafted and exciting contemporary radio rock song that is expressly designed to make the listener feel uplifted. (You can understand why Cameron Crowe decided to put MMJ in a movie playing “Free Bird” around this time.) But, right or wrong, James seemed to lose interest in writing songs like this on future My Morning Jacket albums.
19. “Off The Record”
A song that absolutely should not work based on how it looks on paper — white Louisville rock band plays a song about communication breakdowns with a reggae shuffle. And yet in the actual execution, “Off The Record” is MMJ at their most infectious and light-hearted, even as the frisky spy-movie guitar riff melts away into an ambient jam in the song’s back half. It sounds like “D’Yer Mak’er” if it had been performed by the French electronic duo Air.
Reverb was the essential discovery of Jim James’ early career. Imagining My Morning Jacket without reverb is hearing Jimi Hendrix without feedback. It’s what makes a song like “Lowdown” sound like a spiritual invocation emanating from a transistor radio, or a Pink Floyd space jam with the authentic emotional chaos of a Motown ballad.
17. “Heartbreakin’ Man”
James came across reverb accidentally. According to legend, it resulted from him recording in a grain silo. But he told me a different story. “We were recording on a four-track and practicing in the garage, and it was always dry. It just sounded horrible and I didn’t really enjoy it,” James said. “Then one day someone left the reverb on the amp turned all the way up, and when I sang it came out coated in this magic. I was like, Whoa! Oh my god! From that point on, I loved singing.” The first MMJ record, The Tennessee Fire, is the one most “coated in this magic,” though James was also writing affecting songs like “Heartbreakin’ Man” that justified the effect.
16. “War Begun”
This song guts me precisely because it doesn’t apply the “voice of god” treatment to James’ voice. It just sounds like a young, wounded, and confused kid pouring his heart out over a quiet guitar and a booming drum kit. The unadorned starkness of James’ voice on “War Begun” is so powerful that for years I didn’t realize that the lyrics are a dystopian sci-fi novel: “I belong to a race of robots / Drownin’ out my one / Anytime your war gets out of hand / I’ll take it on / Stolen as the war.”
15. “Evelyn Is Not Real”
This, weirdly, is the first MMJ song I remember hearing. I don’t often see it pop up in conversations about their best songs, but I’ve long had a soft spot for it. The first time I heard “Evelyn Is Not Real” it made me imagine Built To Spill covering “Wicked Game,” and that sexy/guitar solo-y vibe still holds true for me. Also, special shoutout to original guitarist Johnny Quaid, who “takes it” upon James’ command with incredible, boozy panache.
Z is the best MMJ studio album, but It Still Moves is probably my personal favorite. The culmination of their murky, mysterious “backwoods” era, It Still Moves benefits from an atmosphere that teeters between the shadowy malevolence of At Dawn and the brawnier and more party-friendly verve of Z. Like the grizzly bear on its cover, this album is both majestic and frightening, often beautiful at a distance but you better keep your distance or else you might not make it out alive. “Masterplan” is the album’s most bear-like song, massive and lumbering and quite gorgeous but also on the verge of baring its claws by the time that surly guitar solo slowly creeps up.
This song, on the other hand, is pure party material. If “Masterplan” is MMJ’s floating through the Dark Side Of The Moon dimension of their personality, “Dancefloors” is full-on Exile On Main St.-style rock ‘n’ roll. “Dancefloors, headlights, in my blood there’s gasoline / For an urban boy on a dirty tour I never felt so clean.”
12. “Bermuda Highway”
Part of the mystery of early MMJ comes from the sonic smearing effect of reverb; the other part comes from James’ inscrutable lyrics. Take “Bermuda Highway,” which features one of his loveliest and most soul-searching melodies, as well as this lyric: “Your ass it draws me in / Like a Bermuda highway.” However, when you listen to it, it sounds more like, “Yer ahh draw me-ah, like a bermahhiwaaaa.” It’s a beautiful, profound warble designed to communicate deep, ineffable emotions that can’t be articulated with conventional language. What I’m saying is don’t Google the lyrics to “Bermuda Highway,” literally make up any other series of sounds that you believe could make dolphins weep.
Sometimes when Jim James tries to be obscure he does it in a really obvious way, like writing a love song for his Flying V called “Mahgeetah” when everyone really knows he means “My Guitar.” As it stands, his is the second weepiest guitar after George Harrison’s.
10. “Steam Engine” (Live At Red Rocks 2019 version)
I’m breaking my self-imposed rule about not including live versions because I must single out this epic 27-minute (!) rendition of one of MMJ’s most reliable jam vehicles. One of my big regrets of recent years is that I didn’t follow through on an impulse to drive 12 hours in the summer of 2019 to see My Morning Jacket at Red Rocks. You know what the definition of “epic” is? Driving 12 hours to see My Morning Jacket at Red Rocks. And I blew it. So I play this version of “Steam Engine” to remind myself not to squander future opportunities for epic musical experiences in the post-pandemic world.
9. “It Beats 4 U” (Okonokos version)
I just broke my own rule again. I realize this is a slippery slope. I understand that at the very start of this list I conceded that every song I’m writing about here sounds superior live. Which means singling out live versions of specific tracks should require me to do that for every track. However, in the case of “It Beats 4 U,” I simply must say, “This is a crucial exception.” And it’s an exception because of the final 70 seconds, where James starts yodeling into the night sky like a damn banshee while Two-Tone Tommy and Patrick Hallahan pound out an ancient tribal rhythm. I simply can’t go back to the (perfectly great and powerful!) studio cut on Z after hearing that.
8. “Wordless Chorus”
There was an annoying ongoing critical conceit in the aughts in which music writers kept on describing excellent bands from the United States as “the American Radiohead.” This happened first with Wilco after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — hey look, I’m guilty as hell! — and then with My Morning Jacket during the Z era. I suspect that the first track on Z, “Wordless Chorus,” is responsible for about 90 percent of that talk. It represents the peak of the electro-Americana hybrid that James would spend the rest of his career trying to refine. (The experimentation of Evil Urges, for one, starts here.) In that sense, “Wordless Chorus” could be viewed as the end of MMJ’s more overt rock period, and the beginning of a less consistent era for MMJ and James’ subsequent solo career. But I prefer to think of “Wordless Chorus” as him nailing an idea right at the jump, no matter the less successful attempts that followed.
The popularity of Z inevitably caused MMJ’s original hardcore fans to bristle a bit. And some of that grumbling, to be honest, was justified. (Not long after this album cycle for Z, Spin magazine described the members of MMJ as “looking like … the metrosexuals in Maroon 5.”) But Z didn’t fully abandon the enigmatic and mighty yawp of At Dawn and It Still Moves. After running through a series of engaging and zippy rock songs, the album ends with one of MMJ’s greatest slow burners, spinning a long-winded jam that runs nearly eight minutes on record and many more minutes on stage. The lyrics pay tribute to a former bandmate of James’ who passed away in the early aughts, but the anguish is best expressed (as it always is in MMJ songs) via his reverb-y howl and the slow-motion guitar solo that lurks like a wave of feedback from Neil Young’s “ditch” era.
6. “At Dawn”
Yes, I also like staring at the sunrise after being up all night and still feeling extremely stoned.
5. “Run Thru”
In their review of Okonokos, Pitchfork describes “Run Thru” as a “silly” song and singles out this specific lyric for derision: “Oh shit run.” Actually, I believe it is pronounced, “Ohhhh shiiiiiiiiit ruuuuuuuuuuun!!!!!” And it’s also the single greatest line in MMJ history. Oh, and one more thing: If you hear that guitar riff and in that moment don’t fully relate to “Ohhhh shiiiiiiiiit ruuuuuuuuuuun!!!!!” you are probably a cop.
4. “The Way That He Sings”
The unique ability to make things that look silly on paper feel extremely important when they are bounding through your ears and brain is the key to all enterally great rock ‘n’ roll. What makes My Morning Jacket special in their generation is that they are the rare 21st century band who can make a rock song feel like a larger-than-life journey that will leave you feeling transformed. There is no ironic distance. There is no self-defeating acknowledgement that “bands simply don’t matter anymore.” There is just guileless belief in the journey. This, perhaps, is an illusion, and like any illusion, it will fall apart if you attempt to dissect it. The whole must be greater than its parts. In “The Way That He Sings,” you can hear all of the spare elements that make up this band – reverb, the mantra-like vocal hook, country guitar licks, heavy snare, icy synths, James Jamerson bass — but the whole sounds like a sacred prayer.
Here’s how you can tell if you are a My Morning Jacket fan: At the 2:02 mark of this song, Jim James starts screaming over guitar and keyboard arpeggios. And then he screams even louder. And then he screams even louder. If this makes you feel exhilarated, you are my people and I vow to help you out the next time you have to move. If this makes you feel nothing, why in the hell are you still reading?
I don’t know if Jim James is a genius, but he did once write a song that sounds like how the first warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in spring feels. And for that he will always have my loyalty.
1. “One Big Holiday”
I love a lot of the NYC bands that I mentioned earlier who came out around the same time as My Morning Jacket. But those groups are drawing on archetypes that will never feel relatable to me. Those myths about cool-as-hell musicians inventing arty punk while looking like supermodels in a decadent metropolis. I enjoy the music produced from those myths in the same way I’m fascinated by science fiction. I’m dazzled but when the ride is over I know I’m being dumped back in a much different reality. “One Big Holiday,” on the other hand, sounds like drunk and eager Middle Americans who know they will never be cool so instead they decide to merge The Joshua Tree with Bachman-Turner Overdrive. That is my reality.