Long before Conor Oberst was known for posing nude on Instagram with Phoebe Bridgers’ guitar resting atop his bare dick, he was the leader of a little-known folk-rock outfit called Bright Eyes. You may remember them as the soundtrack to your most excruciatingly painful breakup, or perhaps as the band you endlessly ridiculed your friends for listening to in high school. Either way, it’s time to grab some tissues and double check that your ex’s number is still blocked as we rank their studio output.
9. A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 (1998)
Even a bad Bright Eyes album can top a lot of people’s best work. Not this one, though. It’s essentially garbage. We legitimately thought this record was a haphazard compilation of demo recordings, but Wikipedia assured us that it is indeed considered to be the band’s legitimate debut album. If we were to do a ranking of the most unlistenable albums of all time, “A Collection” would certainly hit the top 5. Imagine someone found all of your journal entries from the eighth grade and paired them with all of the half-written songs you have saved in your voice memos. That should give you a pretty good idea of what this record sounds like.
Play It Again: Absolutely not
Skip It: Burn it (like, with fire, not onto a mix CD)
8. Letting Off The Happiness (1998)
Bright Eyes’ sophomore album was released in the same year as their aforementioned debut. Seemingly someone at their former label Saddle Creek finally got around to listening to “A Collection”, vomited profusely, and demanded a proper release out of Oberst and company. “Letting Off the Happiness” was the first Bright Eyes record to be produced by current member Mike Mogis. Bringing Mogis in was a great move on the band’s part considering his contributions lifted Oberst’s half-baked ideas into the territory of actually listenable music. The seeds that would eventually blossom into the band’s signature sound were firmly planted on this album. It would take a few years, however, for Oberst’s incessant tears to properly saturate the soil.
Play It Again: “Touch”
Skip It: “Tereza and Tomas”
7. The People’s Key (2011)
This album proved to be such a disappointment that the band would go AWOL for nine years after its release. Not a bad record, per say, but also not a great one. At the time that was reason enough to mark it as a nearly irreparable fall from grace. “The People’s Key” attempted to return to the sound and style that informed earlier releases like “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn”, but more often sounded like a cheap imitation. Several tracks uncomfortably appropriated Rastafari and it’s even harder to forgive the QAnon-esque monologues of Denny Brewer that permeated the entire album. No amount of Mogis spin could fix those egregious errors. All things considered, “Triple Spiral” still slaps.
Play It Again: “Triple Spiral”
Skip It: Any part where that creepy dude is talking.
6. LIFTED or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2002)
This album is about as exhausting to listen to as its title is to read. Although the record birthed several fan favorites including “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”, the majority of “Lifted” feels overcooked and desperate to please. Remember that time in college when you really felt like you were pulling off that newsboy cap? Now you only feel regret when you are reminded of that phase. That’s essentially this record’s deal. Much like your dweeby hat, “Lifted” seemed cool at the time, but retrospectively failed to give off the matured look the band was hoping to achieve.
Play It Again: “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)”
Skip It: “The Big Picture”
5. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was (2020)
“Down in the Weeds” marked a surprising and triumphant return to form for the Nebraska outfit. Rumor has it that this comeback record was inspired by Phoebe Bridgers advising Oberst to “write a good song for a change”, a suggestion for which she should have received dozens of humanitarian awards. He understood the assignment well and delivered not just one, but twelve of his most memorable works in years.
Play It Again: “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)”
Skip It: “Pan and Broom”
4. Cassadaga (2007)
Born out of a spiritual and creative awakening for Oberst that produced nearly 30 songs, “Cassadaga” remains one of the group’s strongest albums. Oberst was so relaxed during the sessions that he no longer felt the need to sing like a vibrating goat. This record also gets significant bonus points for featuring original Sleater-Kinney drummer, Janet Weiss, on three of its best tracks. “Cassadaga” only ranks lower here because several of the songs extend well beyond their welcome. We get it, Conor; you love belonging and you hate the government. We don’t need upwards of a thousand verses on nearly every track.
Play It Again: “Soul Singer In A Session Band”
Skip It: “I Must Belong Somewhere”
3. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (2005)
Released in conjunction with “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning”, “Digital Ash” granted Bright Eyes an excuse to explore their more electro and distorted side without making the fatal mistake of releasing a double album. The results of this outing deserved the stand-alone designation. Mogis’ production hits such dizzying heights here that, by the record’s end, you won’t even remember that time your date stood you up at Homecoming.
Play It Again: “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)”
Skip It: “Theme to Piñata”
2. I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning (2005)
Name another massively successful album that starts with a shaky one-minute-long ramble of a monologue. Oh, did we mention that track is one of their most popular singles? Seriously, what the fuck is that about? On “Wide Awake”, if Oberst isn’t serving as the soundtrack to every fledgling romance with tracks like “First Day of My Life”, he’s moonlighting as a weirdly horny political activist on cuts like “Land Locked Blues”. What a ride. We recommend spinning this one in the springtime. That way you can point to allergies as the source of your puffy eyes when “Lua” comes on and crushes the living fuck out of you.
Play It Again: Hey, why not? It’s cheaper than therapy.
Skip It: We won’t judge you if “First Day of My Life” is too painful to revisit right now.
1. Fevers and Mirrors (2000)
“Fevers and Mirrors” is an undisputed classic for a reason. To put it simply, this record has everything that makes a Bright Eyes album a Bright Eyes album. Every idea the band would later expand upon exists within its 55 minute runtime. Need a cathartic breakup anthem to snottily scream in your car? “Fevers and Mirrors” easily has about five or six. Not only that, but Todd Fink of the Faint delivers an incredible impression of Oberst in a fake radio interview toward the end of the album. That section alone deserves to rank higher than most of the band’s output. If anyone ever tells you this album isn’t the best one, politely tell them to eat shit and die. Just be sure to turn around before they see the single tear running down your cheek.
Play It Again: You’ll want to if you have two ears and a broken heart.
Skip It: If you skip anything you’ll miss all the cool transitions Mike Mogis put in between the songs.