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Rank Your Records: Ben Folds Orders His Solo and Ben Folds Five Releases

In advance of his new record, ‘So There,’ we had the prolific piano-slammer rank his seven studio albums.

In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

Ben Folds’ career has amounted to a patchwork collage of loose ends, odd turns, and unusual paths. A soundtrack for a DreamWorks movie here, a collaboration with Amanda Palmer there, an album of pensive indie rock with William Shatner way over yonder. Weird Al makes an appearance somewhere in there, as does an album of Folds' works performed by college a cappella groups. But at the base of this career stew, which includes various EPs and live records, projects with authors like Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman, and judging gigs on NBC talent shows, Folds has amassed a substantial collection of full-length albums, both under his own name and his piano-driven rock band, Ben Folds Five.

Throughout the 90s, he clanged away on the keys with the Five, releasing three records: Whatever and Ever Amen, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, and the band’s much-beloved self-titled debut. From there, he ventured out on his own, dropping the “Five” on his 2001 record, Rockin’ the Suburbs. After a couple more solo works, he rejoined the band in 2012 for their reunion record, The Sound of the Life of the Mind.

Folds’ most recent effort, So There, sees the North Carolina native continuing to expand the boundaries of his already nebulous body of work. The album is fuller and texturally richer than your typical Ben Folds release, incorporating a huge range of instruments outside the piano, but still maintaining his Foldsian brand of pop sensibilities and musical humor, including a two-minute song where he tinkers around on the F, A, and D notes while muttering the phrase “F’ed in the A with a D... with a D, with a big fat D.” After a half hour, though, the album transforms into something else entirely. For the last 20 minutes, So There slips into a full-on three-movement concerto performed with a small orchestra.

So There is an interesting addition to the Folds canon. To see how it stacks up to the rest, we asked Folds to go back through his previous releases and rate his full-lengths. While iffy on their OFFICIAL rankings, he was more interested in what the albums mean to him personally. So here is his kinda-sorta rankings of his records.

7. Way to Normal (2008)

Noisey: Why’s this one at the bottom?
Ben Folds:
I only have one record I have mixed feelings about. Way to Normal was a tough period for me. Where the record succeeds is that I was in a bad mood. I was crashing. The crash started where I went from waiting tables to being famous. And I never stopped, and I never stopped, and I never stopped. I had all kinds of personal strife like we all do. Where the record succeeds is that you hear that in it. It’s not the easiest listen. I kind of admire the guy for going ahead and being a dick in it. There’s something cool about that. But “You Don’t Know Me” is on the record, and that’s by far the most successful song I’ve written.

I remember hearing that song a lot in a commercial. Was that a tough thing to hand a song you love over for commercial purposes?
Nah, because that’s the way we work now. We’re working off the Japanese model. It’s not my idea, but if you wanna be successful, get your song in a commercial. If I were to make the model up, I wouldn’t make it up that way, but I do live in Rome, so to speak.

6. The Sound of the Life of the Mind (2012)

This was a reunion record of sorts for the band.
Yes, and I just want to point out that Lonely Avenue, the album I did before this with Nick Hornby, that’s a great record. Nick and I could’ve done two or three records together. It’s exactly what I’d been going for for years.

And he contributed to lyrics on Sound of the Life too.
Yes, and he titled the record as well. He’s one of our great and most popular novelists in the English language and that’s not such a bad thing to work with. I think that’s always gonna be an overlooked gem of a record. It didn’t get mentioned or thought about that much. Despite the fact that it was our first record to enter the top ten, I don’t think it was a record of the time somehow.

We were getting things right that we’d never gotten right before. I was writing in a more relaxed way. I was being more harmonically adventurous. To me, lyrically, the metaphors on the record are really sound--songs about Frank Sinatra’s tour manager, a song about a dead father, even though my father’s still alive. The feelings inside the songs are pretty big, but I don’t think it was in step, in that it wasn’t in response to anything. And when you’re making pop music, you’re always on a forum. This album was decidedly not in the stream of anything.

Do you think the time apart helped the songwriting and the collaboration for the band?
I think it helped us collaborate, period. I think that the fact that we spent time apart to grow, that allowed us to actually collaborate for the first time on a record. I think the ones before had been either my dictating or my relinquishing. No one’s idea on that record was too shitty to try. But I think the songs are so damn good. I would have shit to have a song like “Erase Me” on one of our first three records. Jesus.

5. Songs for Silverman (2005)

Songs for Silverman was right after you’d done an album with William Shatner. Did that inspire the writing process for this album at all?
After I finished with the William Shatner record, I wasn’t thinking about production. I was thinking about getting Bill on tape. It was written and recorded in two weeks. I was flying people in and out. All the musicians were getting stoned at the zoo, just waiting for me to come up with ideas. It was a crazy time. When Silverman happened, that was me wanting everything to be live and raw and very quiet. So I don’t sing much above a whisper. That record is loose like the first Ben Folds Five record in some ways. I think the fault of the record is that it’s morbidly mid-tempo. It fails in that department.

It’s not as raucous, for sure.
I feel like it needs to wake up just a little bit. At the same time, it’s got someone of my favorite shit on it.

4. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999)

I think I’ve read that you’ve called this album a failure.
Well, no, it was our first critical failure. Now I think it’s not seen that way. I think it’s not seen like a piece of shit like it was when it came out. It didn’t have a hit on it. It didn’t have anything commerical on it. So if you’re gonna lose commercially, you’d better win critically. And it did neither. Artistically, I think it’s really good. It was the most realized and it makes sense. It was a very expressive record. It was the most spontaneous record. The first record was arranged to the note. It sounds like it’s all over the shop, but it’s actually very tightly arranged. This one, the criticism was that it was too arranged, but actually, everyone played what they wanted. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece or anything. I hear it sometimes from fans and I appreciate it. Like, “Oh that’s the shit, that record.”

Why do you think it wasn’t critically acclaimed?
I think it was the beginning of being over the heads of critics. Before then, there were things that a reviewer or someone could intellectually understand quickly and digest it and turn around and write about it. That’s a hard process. I’m not saying critics are dicks, I’m just saying some pieces require more time to understand. I remember Q Magazine took one of my records and trashed it, and came back a year later and actually wrote a piece about it, saying now they hear it.

Has time proven its worth?
Oh yeah, absolutely. A proper criticism of the record might be that it sounds unfinished. But I’ve never read a Rolling Stone critic or something say something like that. They always say this shit about “revenge of the nerds” and some stupid, fucked up shit. But it just had to do with development. The first record didn’t have development. It was like a punk record, but on piano. It had that old-fashioned approach.

3. Whatever and Ever Amen (1997)

We tried to record that thing in the worst sounding small house I ever heard, and didn’t stop to think that the fact that it sounds so shitty in that house would mean it would sound shitty on the record, too.

Yeah, you can hear the phone ringing at one point.
Yeah, the phone’s ringing, the walls sound boingy and terrible. We still had that naivety from the first record. Whatever and Ever Amen was more of a process and there were more missteps. There were more decisions, and they’re not good decisions all the time. I can hear them now. We ruined my vocals on “Missing the War.” Ruined it. The producer Caleb was so fed up that he left the house and went in his car and drank himself to sleep and started again the next day. Because he knew that I got the first take but we just had to keep going.

The original version had a recording of you arguing with the producer and the band.
Yeah, Robert [Sledge, bassist] wanted that taken out. He thought it was ugly and negative and reminded him of a bad time so he asked on the second pressing if that could be taken out. I was OK with [keeping] it. It happened.

One of the things about that record is that it’s schizophrenic, too. At the time we did that, it would’ve been very unusual for someone to have a song about a high school abortion right next to “Fuck you, gimme my money back, you bitch” T-shirt song. The label didn’t have a problem with it, but everyone else thought it was a terrible idea. But we did it, and I think it’s really cool.

2. Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001)

Why’d you transition away from Ben Folds Five here?
Well, we split up for lots of good reasons. And I was like, “Well, I’m gonna make a solo record.” And I was scared shitless when I made that record. The writing process was so intense and intensive and thorough because I knew the songs had to be bullet-proof. I was 32 years old, that seemed really old to me at the time. I knew I was done for if it wasn’t good.

My idea on this record was to blatantly over-produce it, because that’s what was on the radio. And it wasn’t that I was trying to fit on the radio, I just wanted to feel like I came from the same time period. I wanted somebody to listen to that record in 50 years and tell me when it was recorded. You want to be part of the fabric. Say Britney Spears makes a song and it’s produced that way, and then I make a song that’s produced that way, there’s something great about that. Then my song is heard on the same wavelength and you can judge it for what it is and it’s not dressed up differently. It’s like putting a uniform and going to school. I think the songs are bar for bar more solid than the previous records. I think it’s written like a brick shithouse. It’s good craftsmanship. I stand by it.

You said you wanted to have a record that’s of its time. Isn’t the risk there that you’ll date it?
Oddly enough, it sounds like a record on which I could put a date but it doesn’t sound dated. The production was huge and I wanted to see what that felt like. And to be honest, I fucking hated it when I did it. I was so depressed. I made it in Australia, I landed in the States to start the promotion, and I felt like it was overproduced, massive, sanitized, too loud.

1. Ben Folds Five (1995)

The first Ben Folds Five record, there’s nothing like it. I don’t think there’s any of it that’s wrong within the context of what it is. There’s no over-thinking of anything or what I would call missteps. There are loads of mistakes. There’s all kinds of stuff technically wrong with it, but to me, it’s exactly as it should be.

Did you think that there would be a market at that time for piano-focused rock bands?
No. Well, I guess the word “market” would’ve never come to mind. I think that we knew nobody else was doing it and that added a lot of fuel. And the album is full of fuel. We had made the same record with almost all our budget once before and we canned it because it was too produced. So what was left was three or four thousand dollars and three days left in the studio. So we did it all over again in a cheap studio and that’s the record that you hear.

I think that it was fueled by not having any career at all. We knew the first record had to be good. I was 27, I’d been writing the songs since I was 17. All those things came into play and the record is very special. The thing about it though is that it’s not the most listenable one. I don’t find this one to be one I ever want to hear. It requires attention. I think it’s very bratty sounding. I’m not that interested in it, but I think it’s perfect. [Laughs]

What makes it so special to you?
We didn’t know anything! We were just feeling, doing, reacting. And we were cocky as shit. There’s a feeling of that and I think people identify with that. That’s what makes it a great record. It sounds like shit. I’m out of tune, the piano’s out of tune, we’re rushing, it’s incredibly immature. But it’s just spiritually right. Not sure why, but it is.

Dan Ozzi knows what it’s like, being male, middle class, and white. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi