Having a novelty hit in the ‘90s is a sticky situation. Most one-hit wonders of that era have long since faded into karaoke catalog legend, while many of the more tenacious rock bands continue to tread the state fair circuit on packaged nostalgia tours. New York City power pop trio Nada Surf were just a little hipper than the rest of the pack, though, riding off the momentum of their 1996 teenage navel-gazing anthem “Popular” and reinventing themselves as one of the most beloved indie bands of our generation. Here are all their albums in a very particular order.
8. The Proximity Effect (1998)
Despite being punch drunk from their round in the major label ring, the band’s sophomore outing still delivers a few good swings in the peppy lead single “Hyperspace,” the moody “Bacardi” and the 6/8 time dirge of “Firecracker.” Overall though, “The Proximity Effect” comes off as a bit uneven and overlong. Supposedly Elektra Records was so unhappy with this one that they didn’t even release it in the States, which is some serious schoolyard bully shit. Maybe (absolutely) Ian MacKaye had a point all along.
Play it again: “Hyperspace”, “Bacardi”
Skip it: Dispossession
7. High/Low (1996)
This is the one with the song everybody knows. More than aptly produced by the legendary Ric Ocasek, the band’s debut LP boasts some great performances, particularly from the rock solid rhythm section of bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot. The “low” in “High/Low” comes in the form of vocalist Matthew Caws’ often childish and obtuse lyrics. “I can see, the things she does for me. I’m living in a treehouse.” Huh?
Play it again: “Treehouse” (it’s actually a cool song)
Skip it: You probably don’t need to hear “Popular” again.
Honorable mention: If I Had a HiFi (2010)
This can technically be considered a studio album in that it was indeed recorded in a studio, but the songs are all covers, so we’ll only mention it honorably. The band made it a point here to perform every track in a very Nada Surf style, to varying results. Something gets lost in the sauce with their flat arrangements of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” and the Moody Blues’ “Question,” but they land a bullseye with an excellent take on “Love and Anger” by Kate Bush. Maybe wedding band isn’t in the cards as a retirement plan for these guys, but that’s okay, we have Me First and the Gimme Gimmes for that.
Play it again: “Love and Anger”
Skip it: “Enjoy the Silence”
6. Never Not Together (2020)
Nada Surf is the type of band that you wouldn’t blame for mellowing out with age, but maybe they went a little TOO mellow with their 2020 outing. It’s cool though, because this dropped literally a month before Covid hit, and we needed a little something to take the edge off our “Tiger King” binge. Caws even gives us a fun nod to “Popular” on the bridge of “Something I Should Do” with a stream-of-consciousness spoken word rant about… farms and social media?
Play it again: “So Much Love”
Skip it: “So Much Love – Acoustic”
5. You Know Who You Are (2016)
Around this time, the band decided to level up their street cred and invite Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard into the fold as the fourth wheel, and the results are every bit as awesome as you’d expect. Selections such as the driving title track and “New Bird” feature a nice extra bite in the guitar section, while “Out of the Dark” and “Victory’s Yours” provide all those warm, fuzzy, flannel sheets on the first morning of fall feels that you’ve come to rely on this band for.
Play it again: “Out of the Dark”
Skip it: “Friend Hospital”
4. The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (2013)
The band’s first release with Gillard on second guitar and the fuzz gets cranked up to 11 on selections like the “Clear Eye, Clouded Mind” and “Looking Through,” evoking the youthful energy of “High/Low” while “When I Was Young” and “Teenage Dreams” balance it all out through a wizened middle age gaze. This is the record you might be able to sneak on when you’re with your punk friends and not get beat up for it.
Play it again: “Looking Though”, “Teenage Dreams”
Skip it: No skips on this one. Enjoy the ride.
3. The Weight Is a Gift (2005)
In a perfect world where all is good and just, Nada Surf would be best remembered for “Always Love,” the impossibly perfect lead single that earned the band a much-deserved second wind of popularity in the mid-aughts. But much like those pictures of you in your Marilyn Manson phase, the sins of the ‘90s can never be fully washed clean. Anyway, the rest of this album is damn near perfect too, except for “Blankest Year,” a strange anemic hoe-down in which Caws unconvincingly proclaims “ahh fuck it, I’m gonna have a party.” It’s almost like hearing a priest drop an F-bomb in his sermon. It feels a little uncouth and embarrassing.
Play it again: “Always Love”
Skip it: “Blankest Year”
2. Lucky (2008)
It’s no surprise that the band often leans heavily on this record in their live sets. These 11 tracks were written for the sold-out rooms and festival main stages they rightfully earned. The chords are big and sparkly and the hooks are sharp on standout tracks like “Beautiful Beat” and the post-emo crowd favorite “Weightless.” This album should be issued to every burgeoning indie band as an example of how to be radio-friendly without coming off as totally cringe.
Play it again: “Weightless”
Skip it: “Here Goes Something” (we don’t need to bring country into this)
1. Let Go (2003)
If you can’t relate to the line “I’m just a happy kid, stuck with the heart of a sad punk,” then you probably have no use for this publication. After finally breaking their corporate shackles, the band signed on with Seattle indie Barsuk Records and spread their wings like a sweet little corduroy-clad butterfly on this collection of bittersweet bangers. Upbeat jams like “Hi-Speed Soul” and “The Way You Wear Your Head” sit beside slow-burning anthems like “Inside of Love” and “Killian’s Red.” We’re even treated to a French lesson by Lorca on “Là Pour Ça.” Legend has it that the band paid for this recording session in $1 and $5 bills, which only serves to prove that money can indeed buy happiness.
Play it again: “Inside of Love,” “Killians Red”
Skip it: Skip right over to the record store and buy this thing on vinyl.