As I’m writing this introduction there are barely two weeks standing between myself and my attending a reunion tour by Anberlin down here in Australia. As the excitement and anticipation continue to grow I’ve been taking a trip down memory lane and recalling the time I heard an entire Anberlin record for the first time. Like most fans can attest to, my introduction to Anberlin was with the Cities record. When I first heard the blistering riff that opens up the iconic “Godspeed” I knew the acclamation given to this band, and this album, in particular, wasn’t hyperbolic. This was great music, plain and simple. Over the past couple of days, I’ve been binging and revisiting their discography in preparation for the show and after a great deal of thought and soul-searching, I have decided upon my definitive ranking of Anberlin’s studio records.
As a reminder, this is my list and my own personal opinion so if you disagree feel free to provide your own ranking in the comments below. Let’s begin.
7. Dark is the Way, Light is a Place (2010)
Believe it or not, there was a time during the early days of my fandom where I thought Dark is the Way…. was the best Anberlin record. Fast forward a couple of years and I obviously don’t agree with that statement today, in fact, I’d go as far as to call it Anberlin’s weakest project. The album’s major problem is its simplicity, as songs often repeat nothing but the refrain of their own titles and are all too satisfied to call it a chorus. “Closer” and “To the Wolves” are the worst offenders of this and are far too bland to be the staple rockers the album wants them to be. Even in its gentler moments, the problem remains. “Take Me (As You Found Me)” and “You Belong Here” are certainly pretty songs but their simple, repetitive execution leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, lead single “Impossible” is an infectious alt-pop song that rings a similar bell to Jimmy Eat World. Deep cuts like “Pray Tell,” the brilliant power ballad “Art of War,” and the achingly gorgeous “Down” are also top-tier Anberlin songs. It’s a solid album bogged down by some structural issues and an overall underwhelming execution so, unfortunately, it lands in the bottom slot.
6. Lowborn (2014)
Lowborn is one of Anberlin’s best records. Why, then, would I place it as low as slot six? We’ll get to that in a moment, but let’s first note what makes this album great. It’s Anberlin’s most experimental and daring project, it brings a satisfying sense of closure to their career, and the songwriting is strong across the board. Even when it flies off the deep end with the abrasive “Dissenter” the songwriting keeps it from becoming a complete disaster. The electronic flourishes are tasteful, the ballads are genuinely captivating, and the hooks are plentiful. If I were to take a more objective bent with this ranking this would place a lot higher. However, this is a strictly personal ranking and, to me, Lowborn just doesn’t feel like an Anberlin record. It can be heavy at moments, for certain, but it’s missing that driving alt-rock sound that made me fall in love with them. It’s loud but there’s not a lot of energy. There are no songs like “Godspeed,” “Paperthin Hymn,” “Breaking,” or even “Self-starter.” If I want to hear an Anberlin record I don’t turn to this one unless I’m in the mood for it so it sits comfortably in the sixth slot for this ranking.
5. New Surrender (2008)
Now we start talking about the Anberlin I love. New Surrender, along with my number four pick, are probably two of the most misunderstood albums in the band’s discography. Aside from a couple of unfortunate stains (“Blame Me!….” is almost a blueprint of what would follow on Dark is the Way…. and “Younglife” is overbearingly cheesy), this record is essentially killer song after killer song. A lot of it harkens back to the sound of Blueprints for the Black Market so it bleeds a youthful, punk attitude and thrives in the prospect of throwing hands in the air and having the time of your life. Songs like “Breaking,” “Burn Out Brighter” and especially “Soft Skeletons” are career bests in my eyes, boasting incredible hooks and inspiring energy. The same could also be applied to “Haight St.” and “The Resistance.” “Retrace” is the kind of ballad that makes you recall the time you first walked along the beach with your crush, your voice stuttering from the nerves while your heart soars. The lyrics can be overly cheesy and sentimental and a lack of cohesion keeps this from being one of Anberlin’s best projects, but from a strictly musical standpoint, this is almost as good as it gets.
4. Blueprints For the Black Market (2003)
Blueprints For the Black Market is the debut studio record from Anberlin so the production is a little rough around the edges and the songwriting is admittedly juvenile. For many fans, this frequently lands on the bottom slot because of its problems as a debut and I wouldn’t be the least tempted to debate them on that. But I love this album for the same reason I love New Surrender. It’s a record with a slightly emo aesthetic that’s brimming with youthful energy and emotion. It’s also a more consistent venture than New Surrender as it isn’t held back by any truly weak moments. Most everything on here sticks the landing and its lack of polish is something I admire. I overlooked this album for the longest time because “debut” and I regret that decision because I missed out on something truly great. Spend some time with this and I’m certain it’ll prove itself worthy to be mentioned in the same conversation as Never Take Friendship Personal or even Cities. And did I mention that “Naive Orleans” is one of their best closers? Go listen to it, now!
3. Vital/Devotion (2012-2013)
On Vital, Anberlin made their statement album: a tour-de-force of hard, electronic-tinged rock. It marked the biggest change in sound from the band until Lowborn hit shelves two years later. Vital is loud, aggressive, beautifully lush, and mature from beginning to end. It managed to greatly shake things up without sacrificing the qualities that made Anberlin as good as they were. The only thing holding this back from being a modern classic is the production and mixing. The record sounds muddy and busy and it rarely gives the songs a chance to breathe and reveal themselves. Even when it slows things right down, you never hear that moment you missed during the first couple of listens. It’s not enough to break the album, of course, but it makes me wonder just what this record could have been had the songs been given better production and mixing. From a songwriting perspective, however, this is quite possibly Anberlin’s best record and the double release in the form of Devotion elevates it even further. It’s the band at the top of their game and if this tour gives me a chance to see some of these songs performed live I may just have to rethink my ranking.
2. Never Take Friendship Personal (2005)
Over the past couple of weeks, I have been going back and forward between these last two records deciding what should ultimately land in the number one slot. In the end, the only right conclusion I could make is that both of these albums represent the pinnacle of Anberlin’s sound so it all depends on what aspect of their sound you prefer most. Never Take Friendship Personal, their sophomore record, is the pinnacle of their punk/emo style and perfects what was established on Blueprints… The riffs are punchy, Stephen Christian belts out a couple of screams, the melodies soar; as an album, it’s simply a great time. It showcases everything I love about the band and contains the monumental “Dance, Dance, Christa Paffgen,” which features one of my favourite choruses of all-time (“Don’t need no drugs (you’re my chemical), now I’m dependent (swear I’m clinical), addicted to these glances, taking chances tonight, I need a fix of those heroin eyes“). I have a lot of memories associated with this record and I remember being obsessed with it for months when I first heard it. It fires the listener with hit after hit and it never lets up.
1. Cities (2007)
Cities is THE Anberlin record. It’s the one that has been heralded as an alt-rock classic and one of the best albums of the prior decade period. I have always loved it but I’ve also hesitated to call it a masterpiece over the years, despite it being the album that got me hooked on the band in the beginning. This recent revisit of their discography has finally settled it for me. I can say with confidence that Cities is Anberlin’s best album. It builds upon the driving alt-rock of past records while simultaneously injecting it with a generous dose of synths and stunning acoustic elements. Urgent yet sorrowful darkness permeates this record from beginning to end and like many fans have passionately stated it provides one of the most memorable and emotionally gripping journeys in alt-rock of the past twenty years. It all culminates in the utter masterpiece that is “(*Fin).” If you haven’t yet heard Cities I seriously implore you to hear it as soon as you can.
Anberlin has been one of my all-time favourite bands ever since I bought Cities from a Christian bookstore five years ago. I never got to see the band perform live at that time so when I recently received the news that they were going to tour down here in Australia once again it was almost a dream come true. I’m ecstatic, I really am.