2019 marks the 20th anniversary for Taking Back Sunday – a two-decade career that has spanned seven albums, huge successes, dramas, multiple line-up changes, and some incredible music. With a greatest hits compilation released earlier in 2019, packed with hot new single ‘All Ready To Go,’ and with the band touring the world of late, performing their first three records across different countries, I saw it fit to rank my personal list of their seven albums. From 2002’s ‘Tell All Your Friends’ up to 2016’s ‘Tidal Wave’ (and before they inevitably announce a new album).
#7. ‘Tidal Wave’ (2016):
I honestly don’t believe that Taking Back Sunday have a bad record in their creative bones. However, some of their albums are leagues better than others. So starting out this listicle is their most recent release, 2016’s ‘Tidal Wave,’ their most mediocre release. For the most part, other than ‘In The Middle Of It All‘, it’s not really a Taking Back Sunday record in sound and style, but I can respect that. As I’m all for the idea that one cannot stay the same forever. I rally against the idea that an alternative rock/emo band who began life out just before the turn of the century must, for some reason, remain angsty and sad forever. That’s incredibly restrictive and also quite boring too. As change has to happen eventually, and their latest record sees that change starting to happen, with singer Adam Lazzara sounding the happiest he ever has as a frontman.
Ergo, we get some country and Tom Petty vibes with ‘You Can’t Come Back‘, as well as some American heartland rock and poppier parts too, such as ‘Homecoming‘. With polished production, a larger atmospheric rock-feel, and the band willing to evolve and adapt, ‘Tidal Wave‘ sure does have its moments. At the very least, there’s some ambition present. There’s even some solid 1970s, Ramones-esque punk revival with the upbeat title track, sounding like one of the best Against Me! songs that Against Me! never got around to writing; easily the album’s highlight.
In saying all of that, new does not always equal best, and outside of a few decent tunes, ‘Tidal Wave‘ is oceans away from the bands finest work. There’s nothing really essential about the record, nor anything outright memorable in the songwriting – bar a few songs – that’ll stand out in their live shows years on from this release. Unlike their older records. If anything, it’s like a weaker ‘Happiness Is‘ (see: ‘All Excess.’) And to be blunt, I feel that the only way someone could think that this was TBS’s strongest release was only if they’d never heard any of their previous six records. While not at all a flop, this was anything but ‘quintessential.’
#6. ‘Happiness Is’ (2014):
Whilst not perfect, and while tacked with a couple of duds (‘We Were Younger Then‘, ‘It Takes More‘), 2014’s ‘Happiness Is‘ was a warm and fuzzy rock record for the band at the time, with many bright and catchy choruses to boot. It took the good vibes of their 2011 self-titled record and took it further down that route. There’s a little bit of everything that TBS had done before present here, and it’s got some heart and soul. There’s also a really autobiographical quality to the lyrics that Adam and guitarist/co-singer John Nolan belt out, adding to the relatability factor, and producers Marc Jacob Hudson and Mike Sapone ensured it sounded smooth and clean but real and dynamic: a good happy-medium. Yet their sixth LP often gets a bad rep from folks despite being a decent record in its own right. Given Taking Back Sunday’s robust catalog, that still means a great deal.
Notably, there’s the mighty ‘Flicker, Fade‘; a massive, crashing, earth-shaking rock opener that truly speaks for itself and the sheer heights that TBS could (and so often do) reach as songwriters and musicians. Not just that, but the album overall really was 2000’s emo and alt-rock growing up and maturing; becoming much more grounded and less over-dramatic. Just look at the deceptively simple yet immensely hooky number of ‘Stood A Chance‘ – basically a Gaslight Anthem song in all but name – to see how well TBS pulled off that approach with grace. Then there are solid deep cuts like ‘Beat Up Car,’ ‘Like You Do,’ and ‘They Don’t Have Any Friends‘ that deserve an honorable mention.
Most importantly, it contains the most emotionally devastating songs of the band’s career: ‘Better Homes And Gardens‘, a sequel of sorts to the heart-wrenching ‘Everything Must Go‘ from 2009’s ‘New Again‘. (More on that one soon.) This track strikes right at Adam’s divorce, how he understands it wasn’t easy for his ex-wife to leave, how he divulges that the relationship was rocky and that the split was shocking but not surprising. It’s a brutally honest and forthcoming take about what can be one of the lowest points of someone’s adult life, embodied in a dynamic, explosive tune. Sure, this ain’t their tightest or most consistent LP, but I guarantee you there are more gems living loud and proud on this thing than you remember.
#5. ‘Where You Want To Be’ (2004):
Remember before when I said that ‘Tidal Wave‘ wasn’t anything close to the essential era of Taking Back Sunday? Well, now we’re really hitting into that realm with ‘Where You Want To Be.’ Much like ‘Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge‘, ‘In Love & Death,’ ‘War All The Time‘, and ‘From Under The Cork Tree‘, Taking Back Sunday’s sophomore was an important release for the early 2000’s alternative scene. Its success was a huge part of the rising validation of what these types of emerging alt-rock artists could achieve beyond the walls of the underground; what happens when they started peaking into the mainstream. (Hell, TBS even got one of the singles here into the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack.) And ‘Where You Want To Be‘ has its go-to bangers, absolutely! The equally urgent and catchy hits of the exceptional ‘A Decade Under The Influence‘, ‘Set Phases To Stun‘, and ‘This Photograph Is Proof‘ are bonafide huge TBS numbers, sticking around in the band’s live sets for years, even up to 2019. And for good reason: they’re bolstered by incredibly well-made pop-vocal hooks, awesome riffs, and solid structures that have sound pay-offs. Then there are stand-alone killers like the brilliant ‘Little Devotional‘ which showed that TBS was a cut above many of their peers at the time.
However, it’s lower down on my list as even though this second album is frequently ranked high among fans and critics, I feel parts of that come from personal nostalgia for when people heard it first, rather than the actual full-quality of the record. As a lot of these tracks just morph into alternate versions of one another, growing interchangeable in terms of structure and sound pretty quickly. Other than the fast, punky, and scream-heavy ‘The Union‘ (where’s even a short breakdown), and the solid acoustic-driven ender of ‘…Slowdance on the Inside‘, some of these songs are quite one-note; ‘Number Five With A Bullet‘, ‘I Am Fred Astaire,’ ‘Bonus Mosh 2‘, and ‘One-Eighty By Summer‘. Consistent, yes, but that heavy similarity meant that the bigger and better singles over-took much of the other track-listing soon enough. Then there’s also an incredibly sappy track in the form of the string-laden ballad, ‘New American Classic,’ that is just all kinds of cheesy, to the point of a potential heart attack.
The big personnel change-up on this record is also where I feel it receives that much added rose-tinted value, though not at all for bad reasons. For ‘Where You Want To Be‘ was the first record to showcase guitarist/co-vocalist Fred Mascherino (plus new bassist Matt Fazzi) and was the first Taking Back Sunday release without John Nolan, who’d return later in 2011 for the band’s self-titled 5th LP. At the time, this was a better realization of the bands famed dual-singing dynamic that 2002’s ‘Tell All Your Friends‘ started, something that saw this record refine. Even though said vocal set-up was something that their following two albums would practically master, ‘Where You Want To Be‘ is a milestone record simply for what it did for TBS and the attention and help that it gave their scene. It’s not hard to see why ‘Where You Want To Be‘ has become so beloved over the years, and it earns its status.
#4. ‘Tell All Your Friends’ (2002):
Next to their sophomore album and previous entry on this list, ‘Tell All Your Friends‘ is also a super important record for Taking Back Sunday – it’s where it all fucking started! This was a youthful, racey and hook-laden debut that really helped these (then) five barely-adult men in the eyes of the legal system establish the career that they’d later cultivate. It was one hell of a solid foundation, that’s for sure. The album comes storming out the gate with ‘You Know How I Do,’ setting up the pace, mood, and arrangement of the remaining record to come. And there is plenty of great throwback numbers like ‘There’s No “I” In Team,’ ‘Ghost Man On Third,’ and ‘Timberwolves At New Jersey,’ which see the record at its best – some of my favourite TBS songs too.
Of course, no one can talk about ‘Tell All Your Friends‘ without mentioning THE song of the album: ‘Cute Without The “E” (Cut From The Team)‘. This seminal early-2000s banger is a cornerstone track for not just their career and their fans, but for this scene as well. Because when you think about this band, ‘Cute Without The E‘ is most likely one of the first songs that springs to mind, if not the very first example. This was the bands ‘Understanding In A Car Crash‘; their ‘Saturday‘; their ‘I’m Not Okay (I Promise)‘; their ‘The Kill‘ – you get the point. It was a goddamn huge song at the time and still is today. Alt-rock/emo club nights need this song in their playlists, and people who never moved beyond the 2000s alternative music scene cling to it like a life-raft. Shit, I’d even go so far as to say that if not for this song TBS may not have become as big as they did. Because yes, it’s just that good.
However, one seminal song does not a seminal record make. And just because something came first does not always mean it’s top dog either. As this debut really sounds like a band’s first album together. It has this amateur-hour quality to it at times, and the lyrics are peak early 2000s poetic angst that’s hard to be as personally emblazoned with now. While that rough-around-the-edges quality does have some personality and charm, there’s definitely not the professional songwriting and better polish that would come soon afterward – something that ages this record significantly. ‘Head Club‘ is also a severely anti-climactic closer and there’s also some filler present with the forgettable ‘Bike Scene.’
Don’t get me wrong, ‘Tell All Your Friends‘ is still a bloody good record, and it was wonderful to see it performed live in-full this year at Unify. Yet it was merely just the foundational slab from which the band’s sturdy frame would later be built upon with the next three records I’m about to heavily wax lyrical about.
#3. ‘Taking Back Sunday’ (2011):
If there is one sorely misunderstood and under-rated record of Taking Back Sunday’s, it’s their 2011 self-titled LP. Their fifth album is far better than most people ever gave it credit for. There’s honestly so much to love about this record, with this titular work standing proud at this great crossroads for the band’s sound. It’s got those ear-worming and cleverly-written hooks; the trademarked giant choruses, the grittiness and energy in the vocals and the riffs; and that maturity the band were heading in with lyricism and tone. I just cannot stress how good of a happy-medium this record was for TBS at the time and since. Of the later-day TBS albums this decade, this is easily the best one, and it also fairs beautifully well against their most-acclaimed earlier releases.
Whether it’s the brooding, sharp-toothed rock-rager of ‘El Paso‘ that begins the record; the yearning and beautiful acoustic closer of ‘Call Me In The Morning‘ where hearts are left on sleeves for all to see; the massive drum mix and air-tight playing from Mark O’Connell that dominates the album; or the fittingly glitzy production, this was TBS firing on nearly all cylinders. What it might lack in a varied dynamic it more than makes up for in sheer consistency over both sides of the LP. Like how it’s jam-packed with some incredibly catchy and satisfying songs – ‘Faith‘, ‘Best Places To Be A Mom‘, ‘This Is All Now,’ and ‘It Doesn’t Feel A Thing‘. Banger after banger after banger! Even the non-singles of ‘Since You’re Gone,’ the telling ‘Sad Saviour‘ and the enjoyable little rock number of ‘Money (Let It Go)‘ are gems. At it’s simplest, purest form, this record is just a lot of damn fun too. There’s never been a time when I’ve started listening to their self-titled effort and not wanted to finish it all the way through. It’s honestly like a fuller, better-realized version of ‘Where You Want To Be,’ just with a more modern glow up, and you can see that all over the guitar work and the vocal interplay.
Contextually, the return of John Nolan (along with former bassist Shaun Cooper) was an enormous deal for long-time die-hards, and I refuse to believe that this eponymous album’s green-tinted cover wasn’t a reference toward the green-bathed cover of their debut album. Even with the line-up re-shifting as original members came back on-board, it never once sounds disjointed in composition, execution or flow. If anything, it sounds better because of it! Excluding the next entry, this is still – somehow – a sadly often-forgotten record for TBS’s accomplished career; a black sheep. And that’s a crime of the highest order. If you know, you know.
#2. ‘New Again’ (2009):
So you know how I literally just said that the self-titled LP was the black sheep of their career? Well, that was a half-truth. For ‘New Again‘ truly is the unsung hero of their esteemed discography. The bold, fuzzy, earnest and scarily good ‘New Again‘ exists at such an interesting point between the band’s biggest successes, a big line-up change heralded on the self-titled record and their transitional stage into a full-blown legacy band. As such, it’s often overlooked, even oddly loathed by the band themselves, which is a terrible shame. Yet it’s the complete package for TBS, as ‘New Again‘ was primarily focused on full songs rather than just a slick hook to carry everything. This is one of their most fleshed-out records, and it’s horribly upsetting that it never got the love that it deserved from fans and even its own creators.
The thudding bass lines of the opening title track announce a band so sure of themselves, with a laundry list of proceeding songs that can not only walk the walk but talk the talk too, as Matt Fazzi’s influence rides over the entire record. Driven by Adam’s versatile and charismatic vocal performances that range from chillingly serious to playfully fun, and some excellent guitar tones and stellar refrains, ‘New Again‘ is a super-charged, determined and upbeat rock record. I mean, just look to the irresistible pair of ‘Sink Into Me‘ and ‘Capital M-E‘ will put a smile on your face no matter what. Even when shit gets sadder, it’s not melodramatic or phoned-in, as ‘Summer, Man‘ and ‘Where My Mouth Is‘ so heartfully, movingly, prove.
For how melodically captivating this album is, it’s quite a depressing listen when you peel back the covers as it barrels towards its end. Obviously, bands like Taking Back Sunday made enormous careers through poetically bitter lyricism about relationships falling apart, but I don’t think it gets any more gripping than this line from ‘Carpathian‘: “I was a tower and you were an airplane / we happened before we knew what was happening“. Fuck, man. And then there’s ‘Everything Must Go‘ – one of the most spell-binding TBS tracks ever tracked – with this savagely telling lyric: “You quote the good book when it’s convenient, but you don’t have the sense / no you don’t have the sense, to tie your tangled tongue / instead you slash it through the mud.” Despite the on-brand songwriting and deceptively simple exterior, ‘New Again‘ is so much deeper, so much more powerful, than it ever lets on. Putting this fantastic record at number two was so hard, yet it must come at a close second to what is the best Taking Back Sunday album.
#1. ‘Louder Now’ (2006):
Two words: ‘Louder Now.’ 2006’s ‘Louder Now‘ is one of the most commercially successful records in Taking Back Sunday’s whole discography; their one release that went the furthest next to ‘Where You Want To Be.’ Yet it wasn’t just because of dumb luck or because of a time-and-place situation. No, it sold like hotcakes because of the top-tier songwriting, exceptional hooks, ear-worming riffs, and the character that it so confidently exuded. This record just oozes charm and confidence; it’s got charisma woven deep in all of its sonic pores. I’ll go on record right now and say that there is not a bad or even remotely sub-par or average song to be found here. Moreover, personally, there’s not a single song that I ever feel like skipping when I put on ‘Louder Now‘. It’s basically near-perfect for Taking Back Sunday. The “difficult third album” was conquered and crushed with Taking Back Sunday releasing ‘Louder Now‘ and not even sounding like they broke even the tiniest sweat in the entire process too. It’s a timeless record for them; shit, even the two B-sides are sick! This was the key album, that after first hearing it, I knew that I loved this band.
The lyrics, whilst containing that classic TBS vibe, felt a little older, a bit more mature and grown-up, and it’s compelling the whole way through. Likewise, by now, I’ve mentioned how Adam as a vocalist shares so much personality in their records behind the mic. Well, this was where that fact first became crystal clear for everyone to see. Not to inflate his potentially already huge ego anymore, but the guy really is the star of the show here, and the record just wouldn’t be as brilliant without his vocals leading the charge. And outside of those stirring vocals that twist over and around Fred’s own backing lines, we get piano and strings coming in via suitable but effective measures, and there are even some haunting xylophones on ‘Divine Intervention‘ too. ‘Louder Now‘ just crams so much in, superbly taking on subtle shades of other genres at just the right moment.
Sonically, the production is unlike anything else the band has done before or since. The guitar tones and drum mix sound like their own record, their own band, and that’s no small part to TBS knowing full well what they wanted and didn’t want from one another, as well as Eric Valentine’s damn-fine work as a producer. And that places ‘Louder Now‘ on a different, and in my opinion, better shelf to its sibling releases. It’s got their best, most memorable riffs by a country mile (‘What It Feels Like To Be A Ghost‘, ‘I’ll Let You Live‘); their most delicate, dynamic and thoughtful songwriting without ever feeling sappy or melodramatic (‘Divine Intervention‘, ‘My Blue Heaven‘); their fastest and noisiest rock flourishes (‘Error: Operator‘, ‘Liar,’ ‘Spin‘); the strongest vocal chemistry between Adam and Fred of any of their records; as well as incredible, unforgettable refrains that are on some next level shit (‘Up Against‘, ‘MakeDamnSure‘, ‘Twenty-Twenty Surgery‘).
For this piece, I went back and read reviews of it from 2006 and my god, it was like peering into a weird Twilight Zone – this thing was so mixed in terms of reception. Especially with Stylus Magazine writer, Ian Cohen, weirdly calling the album “pop-metal.” (I don’t even know what to say to that other than “LOL”.) In doing this list, though, I also realized just how much of Taking Back Sunday’s music has stuck with me over the years and how deeply I’ve loved a HUGE portion of it. But it’s this specific record where that romance blossoms the strongest for me. Pretty much, in as matter-of-fact terms as I can put it, the whole album just fuckin’ slaps from start to finish. This was and still is Taking Back Sunday at their very best. Put it on, turn it up and play it fuckin’ LOUD.