When Ben Folds Five called it quits in 2000 following the release of their career-best album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, fans were left wondering if the group had left the party too soon. One thing was certain, no one had heard the last from Ben Folds. In fact, his musical evolution was just beginning.
Folds’ solo debut Rockin’ the Suburbs, which had the misfortune of being released on September 11, 2001, is full of songs about fractured innocence and damaged souls. If there’s an underlying theme that unites the 12 disparate songs on the LP, it can be found in “Still Fighting It,” in which a father tells his son that, yes, life sucks, and getting through it with your soul intact is a struggle that is both universal and constant.
The material featured in Rockin’ The Suburbs (congruent title track aside) was the logical next step for Folds given how previous efforts like “Brick” and “Don’t Change Your Plans” had shown how effective Ben Folds Five could be when they, in the parlance of the 1990s, stopped being polite and started getting real. Each of the tracks on Rockin’ the Suburbs is about something difficult, whether it be the lingering ghost of a failed relationship (“Gone”) or a graceful waltz about the death of a long-married couple that doubles as the most poignant romance song of the 21st century to date (“The Luckiest.”)
While Folds has gone on to release several more solo efforts, become a judge on The Sing-Off, endured an a cappella phase, and reformed/disbanded Ben Folds Five once more, nothing he has done has yet matched the artistry of Rockin’ the Suburbs. In honor of the album’s 15th anniversary, we decided to look back at a milestone moment in his career by ranking the songs from least to most affecting.
12. “Rockin’ the Suburbs”
Every bro’s favorite Ben Folds song, “Rockin’ the Suburbs” is a sly satire that pokes fun at white privilege. Unfortunately, it lacks the bite of subsequent cultural studies from Folds such as “Jesusland,” and as such, its potshots at Limp Bizkit-type acts immediately carbon date the song as a relic from the year 2001. It’s not horrible per se, but when the rest of the album is so timeless this song sticks out like “Nookie” on a Steely Dan playlist.
Echoing Greta Garbo’s famous sentiment “I want to be alone,” “Fired” sounds like a mid-period Billy Joel leftover, only one that is about desperately craving solitude instead of, say, leaving a tender moment alone. This is not a knock mind you, but rather a reminder that, like the Piano Man himself, Folds is an ivory-tickling master whose ending declaration of “Motherf*cker” is every bit as cathartic as the f-bomb Joel drops when he performs “Pressure” in concert. After all, at their core, both songs are about an innate desire to get away from the rat race to have some personal time.