A few years back, music writer Steven Hyden ran a feature for the now defunct Grantland called “The Winner’s History of Rock & Roll”, where he profiled bands from Led Zeppelin onward who, well, “won” rock in the mainstream culture. The piece aimed to seek out who defined what a mainstream rock band looked like, sounded like, acted like, how their videos looked, who they worked with, and what they did for a given era. And these were winners in the biggest sense possible; the winners list wasn’t one of Talking Heads, Nirvana, and The Strokes, but of Bon Jovi, 90’s Metallica, and Linkin Park. While Hyden’s Winner’s History ends in 2013 with The Black Keys, I’d wager that a new winner was about to announce their comeback later that year: pop-punkers turned emo arena rockers Fall Out Boy, 2015’s winning rock band.
The year-end Billboard charts always feature a handful of token rock singles. Last year, Fall Out Boy took two of those spots with “Centuries” and “Uma Thurman” from their sixth studio album American Beauty/American Psycho which sold half a million copies. Doing those kinds of album numbers, plus notching hit singles as a rock band on back to back albums when you’re neither a young group coming up with a rabid fanbase or a warmed over corporate act who can’t keep at for more than an album cycle is practically unheard of in the 2010s (Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, and Mumford & Sons all stiffed the charts in one regard or another, although Coldplay is still early in their album cycle).
And so, to celebrate, I thought I’d rank Fall Out Boy’s discography. This band of misfit Chicagoans went from scene pariahs to world conquerors; there has to be something in their albums that explains it. This ranking’s also going to be interesting for me because, despite this band being arguably the defining group for my teenage years and onward, I’ve gone on record here as not a fan. Let’s call it a growing opportunity. Anyway, as FOB’s lead singer Patrick Stump once said (ish), this ain’t a scene, it’s a GOD. DAMN. RANK. ING. Ahem, sorry.
6. Save Rock & Roll (2013)
Fall Out Boy took a hiatus in late 2009, and announced their return with Save Rock & Roll in 2013. I didn’t like the album when it came out, and it hasn’t gotten any better with time. Fall Out Boy were always a vain and kind of callous band, but they never felt as shallow as they do on SR&R, where the songs lack adventure, and the garish production reduces everything to a bland gruel. To this day, the album remains one great song (the comeback heralding “The Phoenix”), one near great one with hit single “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark”, and nine songs that are more loud than they are spirited.
I’ll say this in my bottom pick’s defense: rather than retread the band’s past, it kept them on the charts by keeping them current like true rock and roll winners. To that end, it almost doesn’t matter that the Big Sean featuring “The Mighty Fall” is terrible, at least it sounds like something made in 2013 that would feature Big Sean. Still, though, if there was one FOB album I’d watch 2 Chainz toss in a fire, this is it.
5. American Beauty/American Psycho (2015)
To prove the reunion wasn’t a cash-in, FOB recorded the follow-up to Save Rock & Roll less than two years later (aside: so long as they’re active, Fall Out Boy have never gone over two years without putting out an album. No matter what you or I think of them, you gotta respect the hustle). AB/AP is just as big, rushed, shrill as its predecessor, but feels more comfortable with itself and a lot zanier. The hip-hop stomp of “Irresistible”, zippy energy of the title track, or that Munsters sample on “Uma Thurman” are AB/AP‘s all on its own, and stay truer to FOB’s roots as a band who’ll try anything it see what works. In concept, I can appreciate an album like this that wants to run away with every idea and be as big as possible. In actuality, too many of the songs seem listless, and the brittle production makes even good tunes like “The Kids Aren’t Alright” a bit of a headache. There’s nothing that would imply FOB would scale back from here, but AB/AP is a competent album, if nothing else.
4. Take This To Your Grave (2003)
Here’s one for you: at their inception, Fall Out Boy was a band made two Chicago hardcore castoffs who switched between guitar and bass, a straight-edge vegan drummer who was originally filling in as a favor, and a shy dude who joined as a drummer and had to be press-ganged into singing instead.
I say all this because it helps contextualize their debut album Take This To Your Grave as more a proof-of-concept than anything else. Fall Out Boy’s first album is tight and likeable, but weakest in their pre-hiatus discography for a few reasons. While it’s energetic, the hooks aren’t as sharp as they are later; it’s hard to differentiate even decent songs like “Sending Postcards From A Plane Crash (Wish You Were Here)” and “The Pros and Cons of Breathing” once they end. Stump’s pretty green as a singer here, too, not doing much to separate himself from the glut of early 00s pop-punk dudes singing about girls. The album’s full-throttle tempo’s good for jamming along, but it’s missing that Fall Out Boy bounce.
Take This To Your Grave is the only FOB album I didn’t experience contemporarily. I don’t know how much that’s colored my view of it, but looking at the album compared to what comes next, it feels slight. Ultimately, TTTYG comes up short because FOB aren’t especially realized as “get in the van” types playing day slots at Warped Tour, and if you want to argue that they are, then this album’s nothing but a practice swing for From Under the Cork Tree.
3. Folie a Deux (2008)
Albums release right before a band goes on hiatus or split end up being interesting the same way those last few doomed dates are before a break-up: all of a sudden, you’re looking at details like a “date night” consisting Olive Garden and a Gerard Butler movie, or bringing labelmates and scene buddies in to sing your old hits on an outro like those details were warning signs all along.
Folie a Deux isn’t Fall Out Boy’s best album, but it’s handily their most fascinating. The band hadn’t taken an honest break in fours years that included extensive touring to a highly devoted fan base, prolonged media attention on Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump, and recording three increasingly large and involved albums, and you can hear the fatigue catching up to them all over Folie a Deux. It has that blown out, battered sound of an artist trying to grit their teeth, pull through their exhaustion, and just will an album into existence (see also: The Beatles’ Let It Be, Arctic Monkeys’ Humbug, Yeezus). FOB’s songs have always had a level of emotional detachment despite the “emo” tag, but Stump sings Wentz’s lyrics like “I must confess, I’m in love with my own sins”, “I’ve got troubled thoughts, and the self-esteem to match/What a catch”, and album opener “I’m coming apart at the seams/Pitching myself for leads in other people’s dreams” with an earnestness previously missing. The music looks at pop, rock, soul, and tinges of punk and metal through a funhouse mirror, resulting in synth-tinged stompers like “I Don’t Care”, chamber poppy “What a Catch, Donnie”, hair metal-with-horns and piano rocker “Headfirst Slide Into Cooperstown On a Bad Bet”, and Pharrell produced “w.a.m.s.”
But Folie a Deux doesnt’ rank high just for being weird, but for having some of the band’s best songs. Fans didn’t know what to make of “I Don’t Care” in 2008, but years later, it’s a killer diva cut for Stump. “She’s My Winona” is near melodically unmatched in FOB’s discography, and downright joyous, too–try not to singalong to the chorus or that “Whoa-oh-oh-oh whoooaa” hook. And “America’s Suitehearts” and “What a Catch, Donnie” are both top 5 contenders, period. With a few stronger songs (there’s a bit of a mid-album stumble) and better production, it’d be Fall Out Boy’s best album. As such, it doesn’t quite pass muster, but it’s probably my favorite of theirs, nonetheless.
2. From Under the Cork Tree (2005)
Yes, Fall Out Boy, you were more than we bargained for.
But, they proved they were here to win. Second record From Under the Cork Tree takes everything that worked on Take This To Your Grave and jumps over it. The ridiculously tight rhythms do more than standard pop-punk beats, the overcaffienated riffs develop into actual, lethal hooks, Patrick Stump discovers his range, and the band’s identity snaps into focus. Like, you’re not gonna hear “Dance, Dance” and think of someone other than Fall Out Boy, and the record’s first half is the band’s best run of unleaded pop-punk. It’s also their bitchiest album by a country mile; not until you hear “Why don’t you show me a little bit of spine you’ve been saving for his mattress”, “I’m just a notch in your bedpost, you’re just a line in a song”, and the entirety of “I Slept With Someone In Fall Out Boy And All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me” all within the same hour that you realize just how big the chip was on Pete Wentz’s shoulder.
Of all Fall Out Boys albums, this was the one where nostalgia hit. In retrospect it’s basically an accomplished pop-punk album, but between Cork Tree and My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge picking up steam with the “Helena” video, you could watch the emo pop phenomenon take on in real time. Tons of kids bought this record, and “Sugar, We’re Going Down” is a legitimate rock radio staple people still know (a few of) the words to–it kills at college bars around 1:30 AM, if you ever have the chance/right jukebox. Without Cork Tree doing so well, it’s hard to say that people would have given The Academy Is…, Say Anything, Paramore, Gym Class Heroes, and especially Panic! at the Disco (*please click here for Ranting About Music’s in-depth look at PatD’s albums) the time of day. And while it’s good, it’s still not Fall Out Boy’s best album.
1. Infinity On High (2007)
The longest standing criticism of Fall Out Boy that’s gone from (depending on who you talk to) 2005 or 2007 to now is that they sold out or they’re no longer a “true” pop-punk band. Setting aside that the “not a real band/sell out” argument is one the least productive things you can say about an artist, it also misses the point to Fall Out Boy. Don’t let Take This To Your Grave fool you: playing fast and loose with form and genre while keeping big riffs, clever (slash “clever”) lyrics, and pop choruses is wired into this band’s DNA far more than Vans slip ons and long sideburns ever were.
Infinity On High is the album that proves it. The material was written while touring, and as a result, the guitars, bass, and drums have a loose, natural chemistry that makes for standout rockers like “Hum Hallelujah”, “Fame < Infamy”, or “You’re Crashing, But You’re No Wave”, and that confidence helps the band ease into new elements like strings, bouncing soul (“This Ain’t a Scene…”), dalliances in Weezery power-pop (“I’m Like a Lawyer…”) and even a piano ballad with “Golden”. Wentz drops some of the lyrical pettiness, but it’s Stump who steals the show on this one. If Cork Tree was about him developing confidence and presence, Infinity On High is where he truly lets loose, pulling off shit like this and layering tracks with his own harmonies. He sounds fully realized here, and so does the band behind him; “The Carpal Tunnel of Love” is a heavyweight emo jam on its own, but it’s arguably the band’s best song all because Stump sings the fuck out of it.
And Infinity On High doesn’t lack for strong material elsewhere. “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs” is the band’s most enduring non-Cork Tree single, and the mid-album run from “I’m Like a Lawyer…” to “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am?” is solidly bulletproof with a few great songs littering the back half. FOB cranked out Infinity less than two years after its predecessor; partially because they wanted to keep their profile and momentum going forward, but they were also on a creative hot streak. Even now, this album is the one they’re chasing: Folie is the comedown from the High, and post-reunion records Save Rock and Roll and American Beauty/American Psycho are lobotomized and lobotomized-but-somehow-zanier takes on Infinity respectively.
Maybe if they were never destined to save it, this album is the one that proves Fall Out Boy was meant to win rock and roll. They were able to harness their sound and tweak it to trends, while still keeping a lead in their own scene and up-size without difficulty. I still wouldn’t call myself a fan of theirs, per se, but they’re better than I gave them credit for. Thanks for the memories, dudes. And some of the songs, I guess.
Ranting Research Notes
1. I always thought that the bassline to “Dance, Dance” was Pete Wentz’s lone quality bass riff, and it turns out Patrick Stump wrote it. Go figure.
2. The Alluded to Fall Out Boy Top Five Songs List (in loose order): “The Carpal Tunnel of Love”, “Dance, Dance”, “She’s My Winona”, “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs”, “Saturday”.
3. Fall Out Boy dress like fairly normal dudes in the “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” video, only to go for the slack formal wear and eyeliner with “Dance, Dance”. “Helena” was released between the two.
4. Speaking of video, Fall Out Boy exist in that fun span from 2006-2008 where even TV performances and music videos uploaded to YouTube look like they were shot with a Razr.
5. The band’s 2002 demo Fall Out Boy’s Evening Out With Your Girlfriend wasn’t counted because they’ve essentially disowned it, and a label only did a reissue without their consent. 2013’s hardcore EP Pax AM Days and last year’s Make America Psycho Again remix project were similarly nixed, although here’s how I’d rank the three: I’d rather take my chances with Panic! at the Disco’s new album.