Mike Kinsella’s solo project, Owen, is immaculate. Though more well-known for being the front man of the pioneering emo and math rock band American Football, among his handful of other bands, Kinsella is at his best when he’s composing the soothing, stimulative complexities of Owen.
With the release of Owen’s 10th LP, The Avalanche, on June 19, it felt fitting to definitively rank each. Since Kinsella continues to flawlessly breathe life into his genre-bending indie and emo creations and never misses, this ranking is difficult, but it had to be done.
Key tracks: “That Which Wasn’t Said,” “Declaration Of Incompetence,” “Places To Go”
Imagine this: a vulnerable, acoustic wonderland being your worst album. Kinsella’s vocals aren’t as developed here and can even be considered hoarse at times. It pairs well with the vulnerability the lyrics give off, but sometimes it’s almost too much. That’s why instrumentals like the opener, “That Which Wasn’t Said,” are brilliant. Kinsella has the magical gift of being able to say everything he needs by saying nothing at all. His clean-cut guitar plucking skills alongside exceptional lyrics like, “I know you’ve been getting by all right / All right’s OK for the day-to-days, but for the rest of your life?” from “Places To Go” are too good, and this was only the start of it.
9. Other People’s Songs
Key tracks: “Descender,” “Judas,” “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart”
If it wasn’t evident enough from the title, Other People’s Songs is Kinsella’s takes on tracks from more underground artists who mean a lot to him. The album feels like the anomaly of the group, of course, because there aren’t any tracks that reach the five-minute mark, and there aren’t any classic Owen instrumentals to send listeners into orbit. However, every cover still sounds like the original property of Owen. Lungfish’s “Descender,” which opens the album, becomes a more ethereal universe under Kinsella’s homey guitar and gentle vocals. Depeche Mode’s “Judas” sounds like it was meant to be an Owen song, tackling what it’s like to confront an unfaithful lover with melancholy strings exemplifying it. Kinsella takes every track and makes it his own, so much so that we forget these aren’t even his.
8. No Good For No One Now
Key tracks: “Everyone Feels Like You,” “Good Deeds,” “Take Care of Yourself”
Just one year after Owen’s debut, Kinsella figured out what he wanted to do and did it perfectly: write sad songs for sad people. Owen laid out the groundwork, but No Good For No One Now took it, carved the path and made it a reality. “Everyone Feels Like You,” by reminding listeners they’re not alone and it’s never too late to fix past mistakes with lyrics that pierce the heart, makes for one of the best in Owen’s entire catalogue. The 10-minute closer, “Take Care of Yourself,” will take you to an ethereal universe within seconds, and its 4-minute instrumental is calming, reflective and enough to make anyone see the beauty in the world. Even with only seven tracks, the album creates a sense of relatability that most artists can only dream of achieving.
7. Ghost Town
Key tracks: “O, Evelyn…,” “I Believe,” “No Language”
A decade after Owen’s debut, Kinsella’s vocals are refined, but his mind is a mess. He’s going through the motions, using bits of French to say goodbye to his lover to open the album and exposing how dead he feels to end it. He’s attempting to cope with the death of his father, who he had a rocky relationship with, on “No Language.” He channels the pain he feels with the uncertainty of the future as well as his wish to be allowed to think what he wants without others pounding their beliefs into his head on “I Believe.” The sickeningly good guitars, the subtle yet heavenly drums, the occasional strings, they’re all to die for. Simply, this album is worthy of high praise.
6. New Leaves
Key tracks: “Good Friends, Bad Habits,” “Never Been Born,” “Ugly on the Inside”
The mood is as serene as ever, and Kinsella knows what he wants, but that doesn’t mean he considers himself worthy of anything. He knows he’d be foolish to forgo the girl with the looks of an angel, but her unbecoming personality ruins it all for him on “Ugly on the Inside.” “Never Been Born” sees Kinsella telling his lover he only feels at ease when he’s with her — so happy that it’s like he was never born, never exposed to any of life’s difficulties. Overthinking and losing respect for yourself amid that same overthinking are Kinsella’s specialties. It seems as if that’ll never change either, but at least the catharsis that comes from putting it all to a melody fixes half the problem.
5. The King of Whys
Key tracks: “Lovers Come and Go,” “A Burning Soul,” “An Island”
Considering yourself not good enough and confronting past regrets are the keys to The King of Whys. Though the same can also be said for most of Owen’s discography, those themes are especially impactful here. On “A Burning Soul,” Kinsella finally understands his father after becoming one himself. He knows his alcoholic dad wasn’t perfect, but he tried, and Kinsella will only work to be a better example for his kids. “Lovers Come and Go” is an out-of-body experience. Its instrumentation is like entering heaven, but its lyrics pack a punch that replicates the same feeling as losing the love of your life. Kinsella spends these 39 minutes doing the dirty work, saying what we’re thinking, yet afraid to reveal, and that’s something that can’t be repaid.
4. L’Ami du Peuple
Key tracks: “Blues to Black,” “Love Is Not Enough,” “Who Cares?”
In some ways, this is Owen’s most sonically alluring album — probably because it feels so complete. He worked with Neil Strauch, who has helped produce some of Kinsella’s other work, and everything seems to flow together especially well. No track is longer than the five-minute, 13-second runtime of “Coffin Companions” (which is rare for a Kinsella album, though The King of Whys achieves the same feat), yet there are still plenty of lush instrumentals all throughout. The intro of “Blues to Black” is enough to make you forget the world. “Love Is Not Enough” is one of the most stunning songs ever, hands down. The soothing tug of the guitar strings alongside the subtle violins of “Who Cares?” will help you drift into a peaceful sleep, but the brutally honest, poignant lyricism will wake up right back up, causing you to reflect on your own troubles. There’s something to love within every inch of these 10 tracks.
3. I Do Perceive
Key tracks: “Note To Self:,” “Put Your Hands On Me, My Love,” “She’s A Thief”
Get ready for lengthy instrumentals — some of which are the best this world has ever been given. The inner workings of Kinsella’s brilliant mind come fully alive as he deals with an unfaithful significant other, self-deprecation and the realization that love can’t fix everything. The guitar on “Note To Self:” could bring the dead back to life, and the lyrics are so painstakingly relatable as they discuss decaying self-worth. The brightest spot comes from “Put Your Hands On Me, My Love,” when Kinsella pledges to forget the world with the one he loves and reminds himself to put his own needs first sometimes. It’s good music to listen to when you need to clear your head, but it’s also perfect for when you need to know you’re not alone.
2. The Avalanche
Key tracks: “Dead For Days,” “The Contours,” “Mom And Dead (feat. KC Dalager)”
This album established itself as a classic in a hurry. Despite this being his 10th and latest LP, it’s his most vulnerable yet, even when surrounded by the most desolate of company. Kinsella’s vocal tone has never been better, the album is sonically concise yet just as ethereal as ever and every track has its own way of tugging at your heartstrings. With lyrics that’ll echo in your mind for days, like “How long can we exist in between what we say and what we mean?” from “Mom And Dead,” and strings and a guitar line from “The Contours” that’ll make you ascend, The Avalanche is an absolute showpiece. This album transcends music. This is how art is supposed to make you feel, no question.
1. At Home With Owen
Key tracks: “Bad News,” “A Bird in Hand,” “Windows and Doorways”
If there is such a thing as a wholly perfect album, this is it. Kinsella does tackle a lot of the same topics as the other albums — self-deprecation, the fear of dying alone and the brief moment of realizing he’s actually worth something — but the execution speaks for itself. “Bad News” is possibly the greatest song ever written, divulging to a T what’s it like to have absolutely no self-worth, with lyrics like “You’re a has-been that never was or will be.” The fadeout of “A Bird in Hand” is breathtakingly beautiful. To think Kinsella has an entire album of covers and his cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” on here is better than all of the others combined should tell you something. There isn’t a single moment where Kinsella lacks, and you just have to wonder: how sad must you be to create something so painstakingly raw and real yet still flawless?