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Every The Lawrence Arms Album Ranked Worst to Best

Today is the day we officially announce The Lawrence Arms as “The Hard Times’ favorite band of all time” (this could change tomorrow). In honor of this great achievement, we’ve decided to rank all their studio albums. The Lawrence Arms (occasionally referred to as Larry Limbs) has become a beloved cult band in the Chicago scene, and over their more than two decades of existence, have managed to constantly evolve their sound in a way that always sounds fresh.

7. Ghost Stories (2000)

“Ghost Stories” is The Lawrence Arms’ second album and the first to feature guitarist Chris McCaughan’s songwriting. While there’s no such thing as a bad TLA record, this one doesn’t always stack up against the rest very well. It has its moments where it shines, like on the only TLA song to be written and sung by drummer Neil Hennessy “106 South” and fan-favorite “Light Breathing (Me And Martha Plimpton In A Fancy Elevator).” Which is funny because I have a recurring nightmare of being stuck on a fancy elevator with Martha Plimpton, but it’s like a mutant Martha and the elevator is actually my middle school. Anyway, the blueprint is here for what the band will become, but it just feels a bit underdeveloped.

Play it again: “106 South”
Skip it: “Here Comes The Neighborhood”

6. A Guided Tour of Chicago (1999)

The Lawrence Arms’ first album shared many of the same issues as “Ghost Stories.” Which isn’t too surprising, considering they were both written and recorded within a few months of each other. This is the only Larry Limbs album where all the songwriting is done by bassist (and multi-time Hard Times contributor) Brendan Kelly, and while, once again, it lays the blueprint for the band’s sound, it’s not quite there yet. However, this album manages to live up to its name, assuming you want your Chicago experience to be about bumming cigarettes from strange people while drinking more booze than one would think is humanly possible.

Play it again: “An Evening of Extraordinary Circumstance”
Skip it: “Uptown Free Radio”

5. Apathy and Exhaustion (2002)

This is where the band really starts to find their footing. Kelly’s songwriting is far more developed, McCaughan begins to lean into his introspective style of songwriting that has since become essential to the band’s sound, and Hennessy’s drumming really begins to shine. While the songwriting feels much more diverse on this album than the previous ones, there still is an occasional feel of “sameness” while listening to the album in its entirety. But hey, maybe that just adds to the “Exhaustion” part of the album name. None of the songs are bad, but few stand out when put in the context of the album. This isn’t helped by the fact that “Your Gravest Words” and “Brick Wall Views,” while both good songs, share a very similar vocal melody for a good portion of their choruses, and only have one song between them in the tracklist.

Play it again: “Porno and Snuff Films”
Skip it: “I’ll Take What’s in the Box Monty”

4. Metropole (2014)

This album has what psychologists should start referring to as “The Menzingers Effect.” That is to say, despite being 19 when I first heard it, it was already making me regret not having more fun in my 20s. While TLA lyrics aren’t exactly known for their uplifting and optimistic themes, this album takes an especially dark turn, dealing a lot with regret and pessimism for the future. That’s not to say it’s without its fair share of their typical humor. The song “Drunk Tweets” is everything you’d hope from a song with that title. Despite the 8 year gap from their last album to this one, the band proved that they not only hadn’t lost their footing, but still had plenty of room to evolve their sound while still remaining true to what makes The Lawrence Arms sound like The Lawrence Arms.

Play it again: “Beautiful Things”
Skip it: None, unless you’re going through a midlife crisis, then maybe “Paradise Shitty”. Not because it’s bad, just because you don’t need to make things worse for yourself. But if you insist, maybe remembering that the second verse was written from the perspective of Mitt Romney’s dog will help.

Honorable Mention: Cocktails & Dreams (2005)

While compilation albums can’t be included in the main list, I’d be remiss not to mention the beloved “Cocktails & Dreams.” Despite being a B-sides and rarities album, the songs work so well together that it sounds like a studio album, so much so that new fans often think it is on first listen. While the length of the album does cause it to drag a bit at the end, it’s mostly solid all the way through and boasts many fan favorites, including but certainly not limited to “100 Resolutions” and “Quincentuple Your Money” which is not a song that helped me financially in any way. While there are a few songs that don’t offer anything that can’t be found elsewhere in TLA’s discography, the majority of them are must-listens for anyone who’s getting into this band for the first time, or for anyone who thinks they’re cool because they think “Oh! Calcutta!” is the only good TLA album. You’re not, and maybe hearing some of these songs will shut you up.

Play it again: “Nebraska” (This is not a Bruce Springsteen cover, I promise)
Skip it: “Joyce Carol Oates Is a Boring Old Biddy” (Though it is worth looking up the origin story of this name)

3. The Greatest Story Ever Told (2003)

This album is the reason Fat Mike made a rule that he had to personally approve all album covers that were being released on Fat Wreck Chords, and that alone makes it pretty awesome. The other thing that makes it awesome is that this record finally gives you the dynamic that the band had been working on for a bit now. Kelly’s songs stay driving and punky, while McCaughan leans into his introspective side even more and delivers thoughtful melodies and lyrics that make you regret ending your last relationship. The back and forth between these styles keeps this album, which is loosely made a concept album through an overarching circus theme, chaotic and surprising in the best way possible.

Play it again: All of them, in order, that’s the best way to enjoy this album
Skip it: “Introduction” and “Outro”, but only if you’re some elitist who thinks that punk rock is above concept albums. If you’re cool you’ll listen to the whole thing.

Honorable Mention: Buttsweat and Tears (2009)

Just like Cocktails & Dreams, I’d be remiss to not include “Buttsweat and Tears.” All five songs on this EP can be considered fan favorites, and “The Slowest Drink at the Saddest Bar on the Snowiest Day in the Greatest City” is one of their most popular songs, and for good reason.

Play it again: All of them, it takes less than 14 minutes, it’s worth it, trust me.
Skip it: Really? You don’t have 14 minutes? Get yourself together.



2. Oh! Calcutta! (2006)

If you’re not in the 49% of fans that are pissed at me for not putting “Greatest Story” at number one, then you’re probably in the 49% of fans that are pissed off at me for not putting this one at number one. If you’re in the other 2%, then you were probably pissed off at me long before either of those anyway. “Oh! Calcutta!” is a near-perfect album from start to finish. It shows off TLA’s high-energy side in a way they never had before and never have since. Rather than have Kelly and McCaughan take lead vocals on their own songs like in their other albums, most of the album is sung as a duet, which helps to further the energy they’re pouring into each song. Its biggest downfall is the production that lets Kelly’s bass lines and McCaughan’s vocals get a bit buried in the mix at points. Not the worst issue in the world, but when getting to the top 3 of one of the most consistently great bands in punk, you have to get a bit nit-picky.

Play it again: “Are You There Margaret? It’s Me, God”
Skip it: None

1. Skeleton Coast (2020)

Yeah, that’s right. “Skeleton Coast.” I mean, have you heard “Pigeons and Spies”? This album takes the dynamic that was fully realized in “Greatest Story” and perfects it in a way that makes the album incredibly cohesive while maintaining the dynamic between McCaughan and Kelly’s songs. The instrumentation is their best work yet, the lyrics are the perfect mix of introspective, witty, sarcastic, and the production serves to elevate the album’s well-executed overarching concept of isolation, which made for an unintentionally well-timed release right at the height of quarantine in 2020. This album packs so much imagery in its just-under-35-minute runtime that it feels like it’s just begging to be the soundtrack of a film adaptation to a Cormac McCarthy novel about the end of the world. They may have even been thinking of that while recording it.

Play it again: “Pigeons and Spies”
Skip it: None, especially not “Pigeons and Spies”