Alexisonfire do not have a bad record. At best, iconic; at worst, still decent. A short but fair assessment of their discography. Some releases are better than others, but every fan has their own personal pick. Some people prefer the rawness of their 2002 self-titled debut, whereas others are forever on their 2006 bullshit, humming that “city is haunted” melody endlessly. But which album of the Canadian legends is top dog? Which is the cream of the crop, the best of the best? Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone, just myself. Which is exactly what I’m about to do with this here personal ranking of the group’s four albums. (As we’re talking about albums strictly, their 2010 EP ‘Dog’s Blood‘ will not be included, nor their brilliant 2005 split with Moneen.)
4. ‘Alexisonfire’ (2002)
Coming in last but not least, Alexisonfire’s first album definitely sounds like a band’s first record. It’s young and amateurish, but also hyperactive and energised. While it’s their least replayable album, you can clearly see the skeletal framework of something great really brewing. Their eponymous effort and its sound of “two Catholic high-school girls in mid-knife-fight” isn’t without heart or merit. It’s a bunch of five young dudes (guitarist/singer Dallas Green was the oldest at 22) doing whatever the fuck they wanted, writing angsty and explosive turn-of-the-century post-hardcore, alternative rock, emo, and punk. Screaming their heads off and throwing themselves around with reckless abandon, something that bassist Chris Steele has maintained ever since when on-stage. All for better and for worse in its heartfelt nature, more meandering moments, and short, poetic spoken-word mannerisms, which was the style at the time.
‘Waterwings‘ and ‘Pulmonary Archery‘ are two stellar cuts, staples of the band’s early days and their live sets post-hiatus. The romantic angst of ‘44. Caliver Love Letter‘, and its excellent instrumental build-up, started a running trend of Alexisonfire putting their best foot forward by beginning their albums with downright killer tracks. (‘Accidents, ‘Drunks, Lovers, Sinners & Saints‘ and ‘Old Crows‘ – the pattern tracks.) Yet through the endearing qualities of its on-a-budget recordings, youthful songwriting and voice-breaking screams of George Petitt, the album does have some duds. For every emotionally solemn and piano-backed ‘Adelleda‘ or a jumpy metalcore rager like ‘A Dagger Through the Heart of St. Angeles‘, there’s lesser stuff like ‘The Kennedy Curse‘ or ‘Jubella‘ that are forgettable wallflowers. The record is front-loaded with classic AOF tunes, then it fizzles out, but then returns in a mighty fashion for ‘Pulmonary Archery.’ This was the humble start of a scene-wide legacy taking root. Even at its weakest points, Alexisonfire’s debut is still a decent affair of charming, if moody, nostalgic post-hardcore.
3. ‘Watch out!’ (2004)
Just as equally dynamic and volcanic as its predecessor, ‘Watch out!‘ was also pure refinement. A shift in direction, with better production, tighter performances, and more streamlined songwriting. It was not only more consistent but also better balanced, also seeing guitarist Wade MacNeil starting to have a stronger vocal role in their songs. A more ambient and atmospheric album in how the guitars and vocals operated at times, this album almost uses ‘Pulmonary…’ as a jumping-off point. A sonic trajectory that’s so fun to plot out when you listen to all four of these albums back to back. (A process that makes crystal clear just how little AOF repeated themselves in these records.) While I don’t think anyone in their right mind would classify this as a post-rock album, there are definitely big influences from the genre found across ‘Watch out!‘ – melodic aspects of ‘Sharks and Danger,’ ‘Side Walk When She Walks‘ and ‘Happiness By The Kilowatt‘ all come to mind. But there’s also plenty of hardcore and metal influences, like in the riffs to ‘Side Walk When She Walks‘ and the go-kart anthem of ‘Hey, It’s Your Funeral Mama‘ There’s also no shortage of intensive screaming action to propel the record along, like with ‘No Transitory‘ or ‘Control.’
The first seven songs of Alexisonfire’s second album is an insane seven-song run. From the opening punch of the seminal ‘Accidents‘ up until the chilling, anxiety-choked ‘Sharks and Danger‘, this is some golden early 2000’s post-hardcore. Though the album absolutely takes a big dip with ‘That Girl Possessed,’ ‘White Devil‘ and ‘Get Fighted‘, three songs that in the all the time I’ve been listening to Alexisonfire over the last 13-plus years, I’ve never really enjoyed. But it’s a slight nosedive that’s instantly redeemed by ‘Happiness By The Kilowatt‘ rounding out the LP. If the band started out their records in fine fashion, they ended them just as well: ‘Pulmonary Archery,’ ‘Happiness…‘, the beautiful tale of hard-lives damaged on ‘Rough Hands‘, and the bittersweet ‘Burial.’ While I still can’t quite stomach whatever was done to Dallas Green’s singing on certain parts of this album – something about the EQ treatment his voice has been given in some songs and whatever soft tuning or effects placed on his vocals just don’t completely match my tastes – this is still such a fucking solid album.
2. ‘Crisis’ (2006)
Now we have the biggest statement and perhaps the biggest moment of Alexisonfire’s career. ‘Crisis‘ was the band really starting to grow up and tackle real-world subjects: for instance, the title track and the artwork depicts the aftermath of the once in a century storm that was the Great Lakes Blizzard that struck the Niagara Region and Western New York in 1977, killing 29 people, most of whom died frozen in their cars. The band’s first album with current drummer Jordan Hastings, who has brought so much to the band’s sound on their last two records and singles since his joining, ‘Crisis‘ is in many ways the quintessential AOF record. It contains some of their biggest songs, and these resounding choruses helped place Dallas atop the pile of the best singers in this genre and scene for countless people. (I’d consider him and Gerard Way to be the best two voices for a generation of listeners.)
These first three albums all feature songs that I skip when coming back to them, yet ‘Crisis‘ has the least amount of songs that I skip: ‘We Are The End‘ and ‘You Burn First.’ ‘You Burn First‘ has never grabbed me, and I’ve always felt that ‘We Are The End‘ was a little superfluous, a little unnecessary. (Literally no one picks ‘We Are The End‘ over the superior ‘We Are The Sound.’) Post-hardcore had A LOT to offer in 2006 – ‘A City By The Light Divided,’ ‘The Always Open Mouth,’ Saosin’s self-titled effort, and (ugh) ‘Dying Is Your Latest Fashion‘ – but ‘Crisis‘ was a big deal, too. Everyone knows and loves the soul-searching relativity of ‘This Could Be Anywhere in the World‘ and the urgent, anti-capitalist theme of ‘Boiled Frogs‘, yet it’s also the stellar deep cuts like ‘Mailbox Arson and ‘Keep It On Wax‘ that elevates the record and seals the deal. Then ‘Rough Hands‘ and ‘To A Friend‘ prove that Alexisonfire always had a dynamic to their sound; that they could do red-faced hardcore, arena-filled anthemic tracks but softer, intimate songs as well. So just where the hell do you go from such a phenomenal album like this?
1. ‘Old Crows / Young Cardinals’ (2009)
‘Old Crows / Young Cardinals‘ is exactly where you go from an album like ‘Crisis.’ Putting their final album as number one in this ranking is a controversial move for many, but it all comes down to this: ‘Crisis‘ has a couple of songs I skip and don’t care for, whereas this has zero songs that I skip. I truly care about, love deeply, and respect each of these 11 songs. At the time of release 12 years ago and in the current year, this album has my unwavering devotion and dedication. There is just so much that coalesces here: their widely-lauded blend of aggression and melody (‘Sons Of Privilege‘ and the end-of-the-world house-party that is ‘No Rest‘), their greatest riffs (‘Born and Raised‘) and most sublime choruses (‘Heading For The Sun‘, ‘Young Cardinals‘), some terrific spiritual moments (‘The Northern‘), a fluid and air-tight song flow, the fantastic dual-vocal chemistry between George and Dallas (both sounded their best here), and longtime producer Julius Butty capturing the band at their peak. Handily for me, following the band’s album release history in chronological order creates the ranking itself.
‘Old Crows / Young Cardinals‘ was them but also something a little different. It was the case-ending evidence of what so many people ignorantly didn’t take note of when this originally dropped, as it wasn’t the exact same kind of screamo they’d gotten previously: Alexisonfire were always growing as a band. They didn’t wish to re-do ‘Crisis‘ because they already did it, and they fucking nailed it. Why then create a facsimile of that album? That would’ve just weakened both works. The singles they’ve released since 2019, starting out with the cool stoner-rock doom vibes of ‘Familiar Drugs,’ is only further evidence of this awesome artistic development. Shit, even the three-pronged vocal hook of opener ‘Old Crows‘ literally goes “We are not the kids we used to be. Stop wishing for yesterday.” This wasn’t quite your daddy’s Alexisonfire, it was something better.
Not only a distilled and natural maturation of their rock and hardcore sound, this was also a huge step forward in lyricism and the themes they addressed. How the modern-day empire of America can no longer justify its actions and foreign policies, let alone its pride (‘Sons Of Privilege‘); the use of backdoor politics against the common worker (‘Midnight Regulations‘); doomsday predictions and the hell-in-a-handbasket direction of society (‘Heading For The Sun‘); metaphors for loss or depression (‘Burial‘); existential musings about birth and how our environments shape us (‘Born and Raised‘); and push-back against anti-LGBT religious agendas for a “love is love” declaration that overpowers bigotry (‘Accept Crime‘, a similar pro-LGBT topic would later be expressed on ‘Complicit.’) Alexisonfire had so much to say with this fourth LP and the medium that it was delivered in marked their finest work. A record that, when put alongside the three before it, defines one of the best discographies of the 21st century.