Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart
Fountains Of Wayne Albums Ranked Worst To Best
Fountains Of Wayne’s back catalog really isn’t big or broad enough for a rankings list—or at least, that’s the premise that kept me away until now. But when a group is so talented they can literally write a Top Ten-worthy single about nothing at all—the melodic earworm “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart” is 3:54 of random, novelistic non sequiturs clustered around a fragmentary chorus (“Someone’s gonna break your heart / One cold grey morning”)—it’s hard to resist any opportunity to talk about them.
From the strip malls of New Jersey FOW emerged in 1996 as wise-cracking suburban songwriting savants. Chris Collingwood (lead vocals, rhythm guitar) and Adam Schlesinger (bass, keys, background vocals, production) are the Lennon-McCartney of literate power-pop, capable of composing a catchy, memorable, often startlingly insightful three-minute tune about almost anything under the sun, and bandmates Jody Porter (lead guitar) and Brian Young (drums) have proven time and again to be the perfect musical chameleons to help realize Collingwood and Schlesinger’s vivid visions.
Given their past quadrennial pattern of releases, we’re about due to be graced with the next album-length episode of songwriting brilliance from New Jersey’s finest. We can only hope.
6. Out-Of-State Plates (2005)
Even on the least consequential collection of studio work they’ve ever issued, the two-disc B-sides-rarities-and-leftovers (“Plus two new tracks!”) collection Out-Of-State Plates, Collingwood, Schlesinger and company still manage to deliver a two-disc master class in songwriting and performance, topped off with a lead single (the ringing, hilarious “Maureen”) that stands up with their very best.
5. Fountains Of Wayne (1996)
Chock full of keen observational humor, lovable-loser characters, and fat guitar hooks, the group’s debut takes its cues from Cheap Trick, Weezer, and other geek-rock idols while carving out its own distinctly literate and Jersey-specific brand of snarky guitar pop. This one has more underdeveloped songs than any of their subsequent albums, but that’s kind of like saying Meet The Beatles isn’t as creatively accomplished as Sgt. Pepper’s; as in, what of it? Any album with tunes as giddily clever as “Leave The Biker” and “Please Don’t Rock Me Tonight” is more than all right in my book.
4. Utopia Parkway (1999)
Utopia Parkway is in many ways Fountains Of Wayne on steroids; the same basic idea, but bigger and stronger in just about every respect, as the boys add more vintage synths, more handclaps, and more hilariously delusional mallrat losers. “Red Dragon Tattoo” alone is worth the price of admission, as our lovesick, freshly-inked, Howard Wolowitz-like narrator declares “Now will you stop pretending I've never been born / Now I look a little more like that guy from KorN” over a surging riff. C’mon, venture down “Utopia Parkway” to “The Valley Of Malls,” where “It Must Be Summer.” You won’t be sorry.
3. Sky Full Of Holes (2011)
The group’s most recent, and indisputably underrated, release Sky Full Of Holes finds Collingwood and Schlesinger at the top of their game but feeling a little older, a little more reflective and a little less snarky than in the past. “That Summer Place” has all the drive and artfully sketched characters you could ask for, but the undercurrent is one of ennui and dysfunction. “Richie And Ruben” are every bit as delusional as past FOW protagonists, but a tad less sympathetic, and for every sunny number like “A Dip In The Ocean,” there’s a more serious counterpart such as “Hate To See You Like This.” Still, the two most memorable tunes here are a poignant ballad about a military funeral (“Cemetery Guns”) and the aforementioned song about nothing, the impossibly catchy bundle of nonsense “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart.”
2. Traffic And Weather (2007)
How do you follow up a career-making album that exceeded the expectations of pretty much everyone, including the artists? If you think about it too hard, it’s a pretty terrifying prospect, and let’s face it, songwriters who rely as much as Collingwood and Schlesinger do on observational and situational humor probably think about most things too hard. And in fact, Collingwood has confirmed that he developed a major case of writer’s block after Welcome Interstate Managers, with the result that Schlesinger was the primary writer of 11 of Traffic And Weather’s 14 tracks. The amazing part is, you can’t tell. At all. Every track and every character still feels like the product of the typical Collingwood-Schlesinger mind-meld, from the low-budget auto-hipster behind turbo-charged lead single “92 Subaru” to the leering anchorman on the title track to the lovesick long-distance driver on “I-95.” Even familiar characters like the slippery con man of “Strapped For Cash” and the cranky geriatric buddies whose conversation bookends “New Routine” become fully-realized individuals with hopes, dreams and quirks that would do any fiction writer proud. Traffic And Weather might not have generated as much mass media hoopla as Welcome Interstate Managers, but it’s the latter’s equal in every way that counts.
1. Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)
Speaking of thinking too hard, one of the many things I think too hard about is the perpetually-shifting monster that is the list of my top 50 favorite albums of all time. An impossible task, inasmuch as nothing stays in place for long as my tastes and perspectives on the music continue to evolve—with certain exceptions. I could write up said list 100 times, and this album would be on it every single time, more than likely in the top 20 every time. I mean, the biggest criticism I could come up with in my original review is that, at 16 tracks, it might actually be too much of a good thing. Never mind Stacy and her hot mama; this album is filled to overflowing with stellar tracks like the driving “Bright Future In Sales,” the poignant “Valley Winter Song,” and the ringing, brilliant “No Better Place,” not to mention the best song ever written about a sporting event (“All Kinds Of Time”). And the second tier is filled out by a B-roll list of tracks that likewise feature some of the sharpest, funniest, catchiest, finest songwriting of the century. At the risk of triggering another round of writer’s block, I’m gonna call this one like I hear it: Welcome Interstate Managers is a bona fide rock and roll masterpiece.