These Crimes Between Us
Dave Matthews Band Albums Ranked Worst To Best
by Benjamin Ray
Like every great “jam band” in history, the Dave Matthews Band tends to elicit all-or-nothing responses. There are few bands that could get away with releasing more double-disc live shows than they have studio albums and still be loved by their core audience. But classifying DMB as alternative, or a jam band, or any other label is disingenuous because it dilutes their appeal and reduces the complexity and power of their music. The elements of folk, pop, jazz, and funk blend with the acoustic guitar to make a unique stew; little else in popular music sounds like the DMB. Moreover, the band brings an energy and interplay to its live shows that make each one an experience; you really can’t go wrong with any of the myriad live releases if you can’t get to a show. The band hit a skid in the early part of the 2000s, but the death of saxophonist Leroi Moore reinvigorated the guys in 2008 and their last two albums have been quite good.
As we look ahead to a new disc in 2016, if Matthews’ comments are any indication, let us reflect back on the band’s first eight albums, ranked from worst to best. Note that this only covers studio albums, so the band’s 12 official live albums, including 1993’s Remember Two Things, are not discussed here.
8. Stand Up (2005)
Widely considered the nadir of the band’s output, this shows a directionless, pristine band that sounds kind of like the DMB without the soul. A combination of uninspired songwriting and the sidelining of the violin and sax – essential parts of the band’s sound – makes this a sort-of follow-up to Matthews’ 2003 solo disc Some Devil. For a while, the guys could bring the warmth and intricacy of their stage performances to their studio records, but after Before These Crowded Streets they seemed to have lost that ability; at few moments does Stand Up hint at what this band is capable of as songwriters and as a cohesive unit. That said, there are a few underrated gems like “Louisiana Bayou,” “Hunger For The Great Light,” the sorta-hit “American Baby,” and a handful of love ballads that continue the current started with 1994’s “Lover Lay Down.”
7. Busted Stuff (2002)
Essentially, these are the re-recorded versions of the songs started in 2000 with producer Steve Lillywhite, which the band scrapped to work on Everyday. Jason Warburg’s review of the album on our DMB page goes into some more detail about this, but his central point holds that the band – Matthews in particular – seems somewhat disengaged, revisiting these songs more out of obligation than a personal artistic connection. Certainly, “Grey Street,” “Bartender,” and “Raven” are career-standout tracks and in any fan’s Top 10 list of post ’90s DMB songs, but the bulk of the album is little more than solid, and given what these guys were capable of, there’s just something missing here.
6. Away From The World (2012)
A casual, understated, comfortable album is not exactly something DMB fans salivate over, but Away From The World manages to be deceptively simple and naggingly good. It’s not an album that scales heights, but it’s also not an album that needs to in order to work. The songs are mellow but richly detailed, mixing solo Matthews with those spine-tingling moments where the full band (including studio musicians taking over for Leroi Moore) can still work their way into your soul. It’s one of the least-sounding DMB albums ever – something haters can’t find anything to hate on, and one that newcomers may enjoy before digging deeper – but longtime fans will see their reflections in “The Riff,” “Broken Things,” “Gaucho,” and the lovely “If Only.”
5. Everyday (2001)
Essentially, this is where the DMB reinvented itself on record to start their next decade of performing, and it’s more or less the template every album has followed since. But the original remains fresh and entertaining, if different from what fans were used to at that point. As said earlier, the band stepped away from their songs recorded with Steve Lillywhite to find a new producer and pursue a new direction. The result was shorter, tighter songs with almost none of the improvisation and extended instrumental sections from those first three albums. Many of the songs are electric – “I Did It” is the hardest the group has rocked since “Too Much” – and the first half of the album zips by in a blur of creativity and energy. From the unsettling “What You Are” to the pop sheen of “The Space Between” to the Latin infusion of “Mother Father,” featuring a guest spot from Carlos Santana, the change of scenery and songwriting approach revitalized a band that wasn’t quite sure where to go after Before These Crowded Streets. It turned out to be an anomaly, and it’s an individual album in the DMB discography worth seeking out.
4. Before These Crowded Streets (1998)
The trend toward established alt-rock bands in the late ’90s was toward louder, longer, and looser songs. Oasis did it, the Verve did it, Live did it, Radiohead did it and the DMB did it as well… only, in their case, it wasn’t wholly unexpected, as Before These Crowded Streets is more indicative of the band’s sprawling live show than any other album. Seven of the 11 songs are seven minutes or more, with the others above five minutes, all with extended introductions, outros and/or instrumental breaks. Given the band’s propensity to jam on stage and allow all the members to shine as a collective, it’s the one that most captures this spirit of adventure, but it is expectedly messy and meandering, an album that clearly represents an end of sorts to this particular sound (at least, on record). The downside is that there aren’t a lot of hooks; it’s the kind of album that pleases fans but may be a head-scratcher to others who aren’t swept up in the moment, especially on songs like “Rapunzel,” “The Stone,” and “Halloween.” Still, “Stay (Wasting Time),” “Crush,” and “Don’t Drink The Water” are mellow and lovely, and “The Last Stop” is a dramatic Middle Eastern-influenced song about religious fundamentalism, with some great emoting from Matthews (particularly the line “Nailing good to a tree / Then saying forgive me,” followed by an anguished howl). It, along with “The Dreaming Tree,” may be two of the most underrated tracks in the DMB canon. Still, by the end, the album is just a little too much of a good thing.
3. Big Whiskey And The Groo Grux King (2009)
Not only the best DMB album since 2001’s Everyday but their best outside of the first two classics, Big Whiskey is a tribute to Leroi Moore in sound and spirit, and the band rises to the occasion, shaking off the doldrums to turn out an energetic, compact, adventurous set of songs. A revitalized DMB on record is a welcome sound indeed, and the band weaves through the horn-laden rave-up “Shake Me Like A Monkey,” the pensive “Funny The Way It Is,” the thoughtful pop of “Why I Am,” and the unsettling menace of “Squirm” like they have something to prove. The new-look DMB also moves away from the long jams (only one song drifts over five minutes), retaining the spirit of Everyday but infusing with a maturity and melancholy not available eight years prior. Starting a family and losing a best friend will do that to you. And if the album loses focus and hooks in the last few songs, it all comes together on the effortlessly lovely acoustic ballad “You And Me,” which is nominally a love song but could be read as a tribute or elegy to a friend. Great stuff.
2. Crash (1996)
Although Under The Table And Dreaming is the better album, the opening four songs of Crash are the best opening sequence on any DMB album… hell, maybe on pretty much any album from 1996. This is the disc that broke the band through to a larger audience, especially on college campuses, based mostly on the strength of those opening four songs. The tricky acoustic guitars, sax fills, and upfront rhythmic drumming of “So Much To Say” aptly sums up the band’s mission statement, while “Crash” is a sly and fairly dirty ballad (the first of many Matthews would write, that horny bastard), and “Too Much” is flat out rock and roll, with both the guitars and the horns attempting to be the lead instrument. The real accomplishment is “Two Step,” with the most dramatic and hypnotic introduction of any DMB song ever and the inspired choice to actually record a serious two-step; seriously, I don’t know how Carter Beauford keeps that beat so well, but the song is utterly fantastic, especially in the transition from the chorus back to the verse and Matthews’ plaintive “Things we cannot change,” which gets more urgent on each go-round. The band’s jam sensibilities then kick on longer songs that are no less arresting, especially “#41,” the slight worldbeat of “Say Goodbye,” the energetic “Drive In, Drive Out,” the hopeful “Cry Freedom,” and “Tripping Billies,” which is slightly reworked from its original appearance on 1993’s live Remember Two Things. The only real dud is “Proudest Monkey,” which meanders along for 10 minutes with no real point; live it would probably be cool, but on record it’s kind of an annoying end to an otherwise great album.
1. Under The Table And Dreaming (1994)
One of the best albums of the decade. Nobody else sounded like the Dave Matthews Band when they arrived on the scene; they had elements of jam bands but brought equal measures of jazz, world music, pop, and a touch of funk… plus, they were a multicultural band that added sax and violin to the standard acoustic guitar/drum/bass format. All these years later, this album retains a signature sound, one that is alluring and inviting and hypnotic, and there is not one bad song on the entire disc (although “Pay For What You Get” is remarkably dull, considering). Some went on to become radio hits, others live favorites, others fan favorites; the album track “Lover Lay Down” was even used as the couple’s song at a wedding I attended in 2008. Given how the band would play on stage, they showed an impressive self-control here, infusing the songs with what they need to work but not overdoing it, the way they would only a few years later on Before These Crowded Streets, but with less economy than Everyday. From “What Would You Say” to “Ants Marching” to “Warehouse” to “Typical Situation,” the songs are catchy, dramatic and deep, lush without being overbearing and wholly original. This album just gets better with age.