If you chose to read this, you probably know who Silkworm were, but I’ll try to briefly go over it for anyone who doesn’t. Silkworm formed in the late 1980s in Missoula, featuring singer/guitarists Andrew Cohen and Joel Phelps and singer/bassist Tim Midyett, and then moved to Seattle and added Michael Dahlquist, the greatest drummer of all time. In the mid-90s Phelps left and started a solo career, the band continued on as a trio, and they ended up in Chicago. Silkworm ceased to exist in 2005 after Dahlquist’s death. Cohen and Midyett played in the band Bottomless Pit together in the aftermath of Silkworm’s demise, but that band is no longer active either. Midyett currently leads the band Mint Mile, while Cohen released a solo record in 2017 and was playing live shows up until the pandemic began. Phelps’ last record with his band, The Downer Trio, came out in 2013.
As the 2013 documentary Couldn’t You Wait: The Story of Silkworm emphasizes, this is a band with a small but fervent cult following. I’m not the first person to be inspired by their music enough to write 7,000-odd words about it, but I wanted to try to be comprehensive with my submission into this world. Silkworm doesn’t sound like anybody else. Spawning from Montana has something to do with that, sure, but it’s more than that. Cohen, Midyett, and Phelps are all extraordinary songwriters—and all three’s styles are fairly different from the others’. Even the “lesser” albums and EPs by them deserve looks. I’ve made a companion playlist to this piece that emphasizes this, pulling from almost every record included in this list (it’s ordered for flow, not to reflect the order of my list). If you aren’t familiar with Silkworm or any of their related groups, I hope you find something in here that speaks to you. If you are familiar with Silkworm—yes, I know Libertine is too low. You don’t have to yell at me about it.
Some notes to other people who also care deeply about Silkworm: This list does not include Silkworm’s early demo cassettes. I never liked the early Silkworm stuff I’ve heard enough to try too hard to track those down. It doesn’t include any of the bands that original drummer Ben Koostra ended up in, but I’m sure they’re perfectly fine. It doesn’t include the other bands by late-era keyboardist Matt Kadane, but I shouldn’t have to tell you that Bedhead and The New Year are quality groups. It doesn’t include any of the Sunn O))) albums that Tim Midyett played on, although there is a record in here with a different Sunn O))) connection. It doesn’t include the Silkworm live bootlegs that have shown up on Bandcamp in recent years, although I’m grateful those exist. It doesn’t include any of the one-off tracks from any of the members, even though there are many good ones.
36. Alison Chesley, Steve Albini, and Tim Midyett – Music from the Film Girl on the Third Floor (2020)
I’m betting a lot of you didn’t know this existed, and it’s probably up some of your alleys, so I’m happy to be including this for that purpose, at least. It’s not really up mine, though. It is notable for the novelty of hearing Tim Midyett make music with two great collaborators: Steve Albini (who engineered almost everything by Silkworm, but to my knowledge never played with them) and indie rock’s greatest cellist, Alison Chesley (aka Helen Money) of Verbow. If you like slow, mostly-instrumental, (literally) cinematic post-rock, then give Music from the Film Girl on the Third Floor a listen.
35. Dama/Libra – Claw (2014)
The most recent full-length record to feature any contributions from Joel Phelps, the Northern Spy-released Claw paired his vocals up with music from former Sunn O))) member, brother of Michael, and noted crow enthusiast G. Stuart Dalhquist. It is, like the previous record on this list, not really my bag—this is definitely the closest thing to a drone album here, sounding something like Sunn O))) songs shortened into “normal” track length and featuring admittedly great Phelps vocals. Plus it has “Been to the Water”, the record’s most tuneful song and a no-brainer entry into any Joel Phelps best-of collection.
34. Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio – Consulate EP (2017)
Consulate was recorded at the same time as 2013’s Gala, but didn’t surface until a little over three years later, making it Joel Phelps’ most recent release. It’s a short one, featuring two alternate version of tracks from Gala and two EP exclusives. The two revisits strip the songs down to parts, turning the ripping “Blinding Light” and the rhythm-section showcase “Goldentown” into a mid-tempo acoustic shuffle and piano ballad, respectively. The two “new” songs are even sparser, Phelps rising barely above a whisper above delicate instrumentation in “On the Side” and “Roll on Columbia”. Hardly a major release, but any new Joel Phelps is welcome at this point.
33. Silkworm – You Are Dignified EP (2003)
My favorite thing about Silkworm’s You Are Dignified covers EP is how great of a selection these songs are. When I was at my peak obsession with this band, this EP helped me either discover or strengthen my admiration for Robbie Fulks, Bedhead, Nina Nastasia, and Shellac. Even the Pavement selection (“And Then…”) is a well-chosen obscurity, an early version of “The Hexx” that was relegated to Brighten the Corners B-side status. As for the acoustic, mandolin-heavy versions themselves, they’re fun (particularly Michael’s version of “Prayer to God” and Tim and Andy’s “Let’s Kill Saturday Night”), if admittedly fairly inessential for most.
32. Ein Heit – The Lightning and the Sun (1997)
Well, something has to be the lowest-ranked “rock” album on this list. Ein Heit was the band that originally united Joel Phelps, Tim Midyett, and Andy Cohen in Missoula before they formed Silkworm and decamped to Seattle. They’ve always seemed fond of the band, and it’s commendable that they got back with Ein Heit members John Kappes and Tom Kipp to make a permanent record of the group, even reuniting with Joel Phelps after he somewhat acrimoniously left Silkworm. The Lightning and the Sun isn’t without its charms—the Phelps-sung “Lonesome Heart” is killer, and when I’m in the right mood, the seven-minute “Without Warning” sounds profound to me—but these are largely songs from a handful of musicians who hadn’t reached their best form yet. It’s an incredibly unique-sounding record, though, I have to give it that.
31. Silkworm – Marco Collins Sessions EP (1995)
Like You Are Dignified, the Marco Collins Sessions EP found Silkworm in stripped-down mode, but they’re playing their own songs here, which helps it rank a little higher. Marco Collins is a longtime Seattle DJ whose Wikipedia page claims he was “instrumental” in breaking Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta”, among other songs, so he should be commended both for that and facilitating this four-song EP. Another feather in the Marco Collin Sessions EP’s cap is that the acoustic version of “Couldn’t You Wait?” is actually better than the album version—credit that to Tim Midyett’s vocal performance, especially at the song’s climax. The whole EP was reissued as a bonus with Comedy Minus One’s 2013 reissue of Libertine.
30. Tim Midgett – It Goes Like This EP (2002)
It Goes Like This was initially part of a CD subscription series from Three Lobed Recordings, and then made more widely available a few years later by Comedy Minus One. Three out of the EP’s six songs would eventually wind up on Silkworm albums, so might be tempting to call this a demo dump, but there’s also a cover of The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” into which Midyett clearly put a good deal of effort. My favorite song here is the windswept “As Long…”, one of the two unreleased-elsewhere originals, and among the eventual Silkworm tracks, it’s a treat to hear “Something Hyper” without the (cool) weird stuff they did with it on It’ll Be Cool, as well as Italian Platinum highlight “Young” sung by Midyett instead of Kelly Hogan as it is on that record.
29. Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio – The Downer Trio EP (1997)
The Downer Trio isn’t the only Joel R.L. Phelps release to hover somewhere between EP and full-length—it nears the 30-minute mark thanks to a couple of covers, an alternate version, and a brief instrumental. None of the three original tracks would be on my shortlist for favorite Phelps tune, but the twitchy, rhythm-section-heavy opener “Razorback” probably merits an honorable mention, and the gliding alt-country of “At El Paso” connects the dots between the first two Phelps LPs nicely. Among the covers, The Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton” becomes a haunting piano ballad, but it’s Phelps’ surprisingly intense take on “Emerald City” by Dramarama that’s the most successful.
28. Mint Mile – In Season & Ripe EP (2015)
Mint Mile, Tim Midyett’s first band without Andy Cohen (without him as a creative partner, at first, and later without him at all) introduced themselves to the world rather quietly, with a trio of four-song EPs. In Season & Ripe feels low-key even among the other two, relying heavily (for Midyett) on acoustic guitar and kind of drifting through its four tracks. The lazy strut of “Mountain Lion” opens the EP with Mint Mile’s first classic song, sounding like vintage Midyett but also distinct from Silkworm and Bottomless Pit. The rest of In Season & Ripe doesn’t quite deliver on “Mountain Lion”’s promise, but if “Modern Day” and “Wound” can feel a little dizzying sometimes, it’s a unique moment in Midyett’s music career.
27. Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio – Gala (2013)
While Gala as a whole doesn’t reach the heights of Joel Phelps’ previous records, I am grateful that it exists at all; after a worsening battle with substance abuse resulted in nearly a decade without any new music from Phelps, the triumph that marks Gala’s strongest songs is completely earned. Phelps vows “I want to grace to put my bottle down” in opener “The Nashville Sound”, one of the greatest songs he’s ever written, and The Downer Trio sound as alive as ever on highlights “Blinding Light” and “Thank You and Goodnight”. While it looks increasingly likely with every passing year that Phelps’ sudden flurry of musical activity in the early 2010s was a blip on the radar rather than the beginning of a new era, the world is better for it to have happened.
26. Silkworm – Even a Blind Chicken Finds a Kernel of Corn Now and Then (1998)
Even a Blind Chicken Finds a Kernel of Corn Now and Then is a two-CD compilation that compiled some of Silkworm’s harder-to-find releases: their 1992 debut record, L’ajre, 1993’s His Absence Is a Blessing EP, and various non-album singles. I decided to include the compilation instead of breaking the LP and the EP out separately to highlight a couple non-album tunes: namely “Slipstream”, the first great song Silkworm made together, but “Violet” and “Around a Light” (originally released together) are strong, too. Of the two major releases here, L’ajre is definitely the weaker of the two (ranking probably ahead of Consulate, if you’re curious)—all of “Homoactivity” is awesome, and parts of several other songs are too, but it’s the sound of a band still yet to figure out how to restrain themselves enough to make great records. In my opinion, His Absence Is a Blessing is a little overrated—it’s not until In the West that they truly ascend, to me—but it does contain “Scruffy Tumor”, the First Great Silkworm Song (which is distinct from the first great song made by Silkworm, it should be noted). Rank it between Inland Empires and Tradition, if you must.
25. The Crust Brothers – Marquee Mark (1998)
The Crust Brothers are likely 90s indie rock’s greatest supergroup, slotting ahead of The Halo Benders and that time Johnny Marr was in Modest Mouse. The Brothers were the three members of Silkworm at the time (Midyett, Cohen, Dahlquist) and Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, and Marquee Mark captures one of the group’s few live performances. The Crust Brothers gleefully make Silkworm’s (and, I guess, Pavement’s) classic rock undertones explicit; almost all of these tracks are covers of songs that could be generally described as “classic rock”. It’s a really fun album, and maybe should be higher—Malkmus leads the band through a ripping version of “Feel a Whole Lot Better”, all of them sing together on “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, and Midyett’s scorching take on “Heard It Through the Grapevine” is the definitive version of the song (not that I’m biased or anything). Oh, and they get Malkmus to sing a Silkworm song—his “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” is charming.
24. Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio – Inland Empires (2000)
There’s only one original song on Inland Empires, but it’s a doozy. “Now You Are Found (1962-1999)” is a beautiful, heartbreaking tribute to Joel Phelps’ sister, who’d died of a drug overdose in what was the very, very recent past at the time. It’s a bit of a tough listen, as incredible as it is—possibly why the song finds itself the centerpiece of a curious, seven-song, mostly-covers record that straddles the line between LP and EP instead of one of many originals on a “normal” album. Not that the other songs on Inland Empires are relief, exactly, but they’re emotional in different ways. Phelps gives Steve Earle’s “Someday” a slow, bittersweet reading that gazes into the past deliberately, and his version of Iris Dement’s “My Life”, coming right after “Now You Are Found” as it does, is silence-inducing. Inland Empires more than earns “Apology Accepted”, a Go-Betweens cover that’s probably the most upbeat the Downer Trio have ever sounded.
23. Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio – Tradition EP (2004)
Tradition was originally a bonus CD that came with 2004’s Custom, and it’s more of a piece with that record than with anything else in Joel Phelps’ discography. Like Inland Empires, it’s mostly covers (three of them, plus two originals), but the Downer Trio announce from the opening notes of “What Are You Doing Here Cowboy?” that they’re not trying to recreate that album’s sparse, pin-drop intimacy. That song, as well as an intense, six-minute version of Joy Division’s “24 Hours” finds Phelps, William Herzog, and Robert Mercer with amps cranked up, and when they slow to a crawl in “Right Now”, it’s a full-band, bass-and-drums-led one. The one exception is a hushed take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Flying Shoes”, which I believe might be an Inland Empire outtake (they went with “Our Mother the Mountain” instead).
22. Bottomless Pit – Lottery 2005-2012 EP (2012)
The physical edition of Lottery 2005-2012 was a Japan-only two-CD compilation of everything Bottomless Pit had released up until that point, plus a couple of exclusive bonus tracks. That’s not the version I’m ranking here; this is for the digital version, which made the three previously-unreleased songs available to everybody else. This is a small release, sure, and maybe shouldn’t even count, but these three tracks are all very good to great and stack up against any of the “proper” Bottomless Pit records. Like the Developer bonus tracks, “State I’m In” and “The Colchis Eagles” show that Midyett and Cohen prune songs off their albums due to how well they “fit in” with the record’s mood, rather than the individual tracks’ quality. The “fast” version of “Winterwind”, the third and final song, is better than the album version, and is maybe Bottomless Pit’s greatest achievement as a single recording, but the “slow” version fits Blood Under the Bridge better, so off to Japan this one went.
21. Joel R.L. Phelps – Warm Springs Night (1995)
After Joel Phelps was either fired from or quit the band he co-led and helped found, he struck out on his own with a fiery, rickety record of shambling country/garage rock that doesn’t sound quite like any of the following albums, even as it set up the path the Downer Trio would follow. Even though it’s not billed as “Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio”, the other two members of the trio—William Herzog and Robert Mercer—play on Warm Springs Night, and the rockers sound like a rough version of what they’d make together. Phelps never tried to recreate the post-hardcore squall of Silkworm with The Downer Trio, and while he probably comes closest on Warm Springs Night—the loose anger of “Counsel”, the noise-punk “God Bless the Little Pigs”—there are plenty of subtle moments to mark the beginning of his second act. The western slowcore of the title track and “OK Reno” as well as more electric lonesome tracks like “The Graze and the Graves” and “All We Want” both ended up being fruitful paths for the singer-songwriter to follow.
20. Mint Mile – The Bliss Point EP (2016)
The Bliss Point saw the return of the electric guitar to prominence in Tim Midyett’s music, and thus Mint Mile sounds a bit more like his previous bands here—at least on the surface. Opener “City of Speed Traps” is maybe the most Silkworm-y Mint Mile song, keeping things surprisingly straightforward with a nice pop song chord progression and a chiming guitar riff. It’s a classic. As is “Park”, a song that doesn’t particularly sound like Silkworm. That song chimes as well; I’m not enough of a gearhead to be sure who or which of the various stringed instruments on The Bliss Point is responsible for it, but it’s a fun touch all over the appropriately-titled EP. The extended, drum-less instrumental intro and oddly groovy choruses of “Park” make it stand out like a sore thumb, but it works. The two other tracks are more slippery, although “Bellflower” in particular is an intriguing combination of the “new” Mint Mile sound and that of In Season & Ripe’s.
19. Mint Mile – Heartroller EP (2018)
The final entry in Mint Mile’s introductory trio of EPs is the most consistent one, and it also has what’s probably the band’s best song so far in “Disappearing Music”. Especially in its first three songs, Heartroller settles on a rolling country-rock sound that it feels like Midyett and crew had been working towards since the beginning of Mint Mile. By this point, Mint Mile had solidified into a set lineup (Midyett, drummer Jeff Panall, guitarist Justin Brown, bassist Matthew Barnhart), and it definitely shows. “Fight It All the Way” stretches to seven minutes, but every second of it is full of drive and determination, and the balladry of “Golden to the Point of Being Common” rises and falls appropriately. The drum machines and keyboards that mark closer “Disappearing Music” make it the EP’s black sheep, but the song’s hypnotic march would be out of place anywhere, I suspect, and it’s too damn good to leave off of anything. Apparently the song took fifteen years for Midyett to finish, and needed Mint Miler collaborator Howard Draper to help complete it. They nailed it.
18. Silkworm – Blueblood (1998)
Other than L’ajre, which doesn’t really count, Blueblood is the lowest proper Silkworm album on here. It’s always had an air of “last by default” to it (the Couldn’t You Wait documentary skips over it entirely, for instance), and I’m not really here to challenge that perception of Blueblood. Maybe it was fatigue from releasing three records in as many years, or maybe it was a necessary transition before Silkworm entered their most fertile period in the early 2000s, but it’s a noticeable step down from the records that came both before and after it. But even a below-average Silkworm album is still a very above average normal album. Blueblood gifts us with “I Must Prepare (Tablecloth Tint)”, a low-key Midyett number that’s the record’s one true short-lister, and several other Silkworm classics—among them, Cohen’s absurd opening track “Eff”, and Midyett’s two-song closing punch of “Pearly Gates” and “Clean’d Me Out”. And my complaints—“Redeye” feels like a lesser version of “The Lure of Beauty” from Firewater, “Empty Elevator Shaft” feels like a dry run for better Michael Dahlquist lead vocal songs, and I can never remember how “Tonight We’re Meat” and “Ritz Dance” go—are relatively minor in the end, and I still like all of those songs. Besides, this way I can be pleasantly surprised by the “Tonight We’re Meat” riff every time I hear it.
17. Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio – 3 (1998)
There are some words that keep coming up when I talk about Joel R.L. Phelps’ music. Stark. Quiet. Intense. Insular. “Difficult”. Listening to “The Way Down” once probably illustrates what I’m getting at better than any of my words could. Phelps sings accompanied only by the plucking of an upright bass, and occasional stabs of horns. Phelps’ voice is a whisper at first, until rising to a strained holler by the song’s end. And this is how he chose to start 1998’s 3. The rest of the record isn’t so difficult—unless you’re a typical Silkworm fan. That is to say, there’s very little alt-rock on 3; if it’s alt- anything, it’s country. And it’s very good at it, too—the steel guitar-driven “Rev. Robert Irving” is one of Phelps’ best songs, and “Always Glide” lilts in the same right ways. And there are plenty more long, lonesome ballads—“Hope’s Hit” and “Fifty” both scratch that itch, Phelps sounding no less passionate over music more subdued than over either Silkworm or most of The Downer Trio’s faire. Phelps’ next two proper records rocked more than 3, and I like them more than 3, but I wouldn’t change 3 from what it is, not at all.
16. Andrew Cohen and Light Coma – Unreality (2017)
Andrew Cohen was the last songwriting member of Silkworm to make a record on his own (although Midyett’s bands had made only EPs at this point). Cohen contemplated retiring from music after Bottomless Pit ended and he found the role of sideman in Mint Mile unfulfilling. Instead, he fell in with Light Coma, a Chicago band that’s released two records on their own and is led by Bottomless Pit bassist Brian Orchard. Unreality answers the question of whether an album made up of just Andy’s songs would work on its own with a resounding “yeah, duh”. It’s a classically-sequenced record, with a surprisingly shiny and inviting side one paired with a thornier, headier second side. “Your Biography” and “Repack” are just about the brightest Cohen has ever sounded, but there is a darkness to Unreality; in addition to the loss of Dahlquist, the death of acquaintance Jason Molina hangs over several songs here too, notably “Midwest DTs” and “Midwest Delirium” (the same song, but done both acoustic and electric).
15. Mint Mile – Ambertron (2020)
Around about here is where the rankings get very difficult. Ambertron has already risen a lot from where I would’ve put it at the time of its release; I suspect that a few years from now, it’ll be even higher on my personal list. Even though Tim Midyett always felt like the most prolific songwriter in Silkworm, it took the longest time for him to make a full-length record of entirely his own songs, but the hour-and-change Ambertron is more than worth the wait. Midyett seizes on the country-rock sound Mint Mile hit on with Heartroller and uses it to expand these songs. And just from a writing perspective, Ambertron feels like a high water mark moment for Midyett—the cores of “Shy”, “Riding On and Off Peak”, and “Giving Love” could’ve come from any point in his music career, but the details and the performances all sound only like Mint Mile. Kelly Hogan, who sang one of Silkworm’s best songs on Italian Platinum, returns to make “Sang” even more intriguing. All of the aforementioned songs (as well as the inviting opener “Tobacco Coffee Wintergreen”) could be the best one, but my favorite track from Ambertron I think has to be “Fallen Rock”. The loping, slow-trotting song unhurriedly unfolds its highway drama over seven minutes; it doesn’t sound like anything else on Ambertron, but it is Ambertron as much as any of the other songs are.
14. Silkworm – Libertine (1994)
Yes, yes. As I alluded to in the intro, I know Libertine is ranked too low. Sorry. I love it dearly; I just love a dozen of these albums more. Like I said, this is where it gets difficult. It’s a lot of people’s number one favorite Silkworm record, and I can see why—it’s still got the noisy post-punk sound of In the West, but it cleans it up and polishes it just enough for the classic rock-indebted sound of their future to slightly peek through. I will also say that Libertine, the last album to feature contributions from Joel Phelps, is also his strongest moment as a member of Silkworm: the central trio of “Yen + Janet Together”, “Oh How We Laughed”, and “The Cigarette Lighters” showcase three different but equally compelling sides to his songwriting, and is the defining aspect of Libertine. Or maybe it’s Midyett’s “Couldn’t You Wait”, which—even though I admitted I prefer the Marco Collins version, is breathtaking and captivating in any context. Or maybe it’s “Grotto of Miracles”—it isn’t as straightforward as, say, “Into the Woods” or “Dust My Broom”, yet it established Andy Cohen as a singular musical force in every way: lyricist, vocalist, guitarist, composer.
13. Bottomless Pit – Hammer of the Gods (2007)
There was no question of whether Silkworm would continue to exist after Michael Dahlquist’s death in 2005 (it wouldn’t), but there was almost as little question as to whether or not Tim Midyett and Andy Cohen would continue to make music together (they would). Thus begat Bottomless Pit, a band that was as strong and powerful as Silkworm in its own way. Joined by Seam’s Chris Manfrin on drums and .22 and Light Coma’s Brian Orchard on bass (Midyett moved to baritone guitar, which he’d been playing more often than not in Silkworm anyway), Hammer of the Gods isn’t the only post-Silkworm album colored by Dahlquist’s death, but it’s probably the one most defined by it. Nearly every song seems either directly or indirectly about it, from Midyett’s fairly straightforward eulogy “Human Out of Me” and swelling opener “The Cardinal Movements” to Cohen’s dark, brooding songs like “Dead Man’s Blues” and “Greenery”. Hammer of the Gods is smooth and refined in a way that Silkworm never were—I wouldn’t have guessed Cohen could ever lead a song as delicate as “Dogtag”, for instance.
12. Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio – Customs (2004)
For a while it seemed like Customs was going to be the final statement of Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio, and while thankfully that didn’t turn out be the case, it would’ve been a strong note on which to go out. In some ways, it’s the most streamlined Downer Trio record—it continues the roaring alt-rock that Blackbird hit upon, but sharpens down that record’s vast expanses to knife-edge power chords in the opening one-two of “From Up Here” and “Be First!”. It’s the best opening to a Phelps record—the former featuring the strongest use of steel drums in indie rock, and the latter “merely” being possibly the fieriest thing the band ever put to tape. Although the big Joel Phelps ballads eventually show up on Customs, particularly in the second half, there’s also a middle ground—songs like “What the Sgt. Said” and “Kelly Grand Forks”, mid-tempo power chord chuggers that strike a balance between Phelps’ hushed subtlety and the unbridled release of the record’s first two songs. My only real complaint with the record is sequencing: too many loud songs in front and quiet songs in the back, causing the four track after “Shame” too blend together a bit too much, even though they’re all strong on their own (especially the hulking “The Lie for the Day”).
11. Bottomless Pit – Congress EP (2008)
Congress is four songs and nineteen minutes of Bottomless Pit coalescing into a fine-tuned band. If they’d held these tracks back and made a full album, they might’ve capitalized on the moderate buzz Hammer of the Gods had gotten and maybe Bottomless Pit could’ve rivaled the popularity of Cohen and Midyett’s previous band. But like Silkworm, they did things their own way, for the better—Congress isn’t a compendium to either Hammer or 2010’s Blood Under the Bridge. It’s its own thing. Midyett’s two songs, “Red Pen” and “Pitch”, are both long, propulsive, rhythm-emphasizing tracks that aren’t as leisurely as “Winterwind”, nor as urgent as “The Cardinal Movements”. The transfixing “Red Pen” sounds like something off of Shade Perennial that’s been unwound and spread out a bit. Cohen’s two songs are shorter and are closer to, if still removed from, the heart of Hammer of the Gods. In particular, the two-minute-thirty “Fish Eyes” (which was once covered by Waxahatchee; it’s worth digging for that) feels a lot more “bittersweet” than “hopelessly despairing”. The way Cohen sings the title (“Fish uh-eyes”) is equal parts brilliant and silly.
10. Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio – Blackbird (1999)
After the quiet alt-country of 3 just one year previously, one might’ve thought Joel Phelps was going to fade (or grow, depending on your perspective) into an acoustic, lonesome folk singer-songwriter. Then he and the Downer Trio made Blackbird, the strongest record Phelps ever released after he left Silkworm. The electricity that marked a good deal of Warm Springs Night was back, as opening rocker “Then Slowly Turn” announced triumphantly, but he, William Herzog, and Robert Mercer sound more focused here, tighter as a trio than ever before. Like Customs, it starts with a hell of a one-two punch, with “I’ve Got a Live One” coming off as “Be First!” if it were too anxious to fully commit to its anger. Unlike the following record, however, the most powerful moments on Blackbird aren’t necessarily its loudest ones: third track “Unless You’re Tired of Living” rocks but in a sprawling, delirious fashion, and the centerpiece of the album, a six-minute cover of the Comsat Angels’ “Lost Continent”, is a masterpiece of restraint. Phelps has always been able to wring out unthinkable emotion from relative simplicity (think “Pilot” and especially “Dremate” from In the West) and Blackbird features his two best songs in this fashion: the cavernous “Invited” and the closing “Landslide”.
9. Bottomless Pit – Blood Under the Bridge (2010)
Blood Under the Bridge, the most underappreciated and misunderstood Bottomless Pit album, doesn’t really rock. Other than the rare instrumental “Dixon” and the steam-blow-off closing track “38 Souls”, it’s a deliberate and slow-paced record that doesn’t go out of its way to grab your attention. It’s an inward turn—if it’s not exactly “acceptance” to Hammer of the Gods’ “grief”, it’s at least more considering of the possibility. Like Congress, Blood Under the Bridge opens with a seven-minute Tim Midyett song, but the steady, gorgeous plod of “Winterwind” feels less like a complete journey than an excerpt of something even larger. And that’s one of Midyett’s louder numbers on the record—we also get the floating, percussionless “Rhinelander” and the last-thoughts-before-falling-asleep “Q.E.D.”. Then again, there’s also the upbeat, new wavey “Late”, which features probably the best usage of “fuckers” anywhere on this list. Blood Under the Bridge is the strongest “Midyett” album of Bottomless Pit’s three, although “Summerwind” feels like a major work in the oeuvre of Andy Cohen (even if it’s more of the “impenetrable obelisk” and less of the “great American novel” variety).
8. Silkworm – It’ll Be Cool (2004)
A Pitchfork writer once claimed that toward the end of their career, Silkworm “made few missteps but brought fewer surprises”. While the first part is accurate, to the second, I would submit that the author must not have really listened to It’ll Be Cool, a deeply weird and surprising album that ended up being an unexpected yet fittingly odd final statement. The opening six-and-a-half minute “Don’t Look Back” is basically krautrock Silkworm, and looked toward Bottomless Pit more than anything else in their discography. And that’s one of the more “normal” ones. “Penalty Box” is almost a typical Andy Cohen rocker, except for the squeaky riff (I believe it’s a sped-up guitar) sprinkled liberally throughout, and even without the slowed-down vocal effect harmonizing with Tim Midyett throughout “Something Hyper”, that song would still be one of the most unique tracks Silkworm ever recorded. And that’s not even getting into “Xian Undertaker”, which turns Midyett’s mandolin flirtations and new-ish member Matt Kadane’s ringing piano into a rousing, barroom singalong that certainly doesn’t sound like anything else on It’ll Be Cool (and, other than maybe “Bourbon Beard”, anything else by Silkworm). The underappreciated “The Operative” is one of Silkworm’s sweetest and most straightforward moments, and (along with instrumental “His Mark Replies”) it’s an incredible note on which to end Silkworm’s final album.
7. Silkworm – In the West (1994)
I’ve made it clear that I like a lot of earlier Silkworm recordings, but in earnest, there wasn’t much among them to suggest that they were just around the corner from making a record like In the West, the peak of the band’s four-piece years. If it were all they’d managed to accomplish together, they’d still be a fascinating case. Silkworm was still a “noise rock” band at this point, but beginning to show why that label could never accurately hold them. First track “Garden City Blues”, their best album opener, sets up several tenets of Silkworm perfectly: delicate and subtle despite its most notable feature being Dahlquist’s pounding drums, unbridled guitars that nevertheless can and do hold back when necessary, and a generally unpredictable but smooth structure. Andy Cohen steals the show on In the West between “Into the Woods” and “Dust My Broom”, which both showcase Silkworm at full might, but all three songwriters take a step forward on the record. Between the album opener and “Punch Drunk Five” (which benefited greatly from Comedy Minus One’s recent remastered reissue of the record), Tim Midyett is more than holding his own, and all three Joel Phelps songs on the album are absolute scorchers (I’ve always been fond of the post-punk closer “Pilot”, which seems to get the least love of the three).
6. Silkworm – Developer (1997)
A lot of what I said about Blood Under the Bridge also applies to the equally-underappreciated Developer, but on a larger scale. 1996’s Firewater was not a breakout, but Silkworm were as popular as they’d ever be, and instead of capitalizing, they made an aggressively un-commercial follow-up to it. Tim Midyett in particular seemed to be chasing something on Developer—between the glacial, Dahlquist-showcase opener “Give Me Some Skin”, the murmuring “The City Glows”, and the watch-glancing “Waiting on a Train”, this is the closest Silkworm ever came to being a slowcore band. But they didn’t even commit to that fully: Andy Cohen’s first three songs—the joyous “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like”, the pummeling title track, and the anxious fever dream of “Ice Station Zebra”—all rock in decidedly different ways, but they all rock. Despite all this, Developer is a deeply rewarding album that all hangs together incredibly—they left some good songs off of this record, namely “Ogilvie”, but I wouldn’t change Developer a bit. The last few tracks in particular took me ages to fully come around to, but “Sheep Wait for Wolf” and “Goodnight Mr. Maugham” contain some of Cohen’s best and most interesting writing, even if it was the stretch from “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” to “Ice Station Zebra” that led me back to Developer enough times to actually see it.
5. Silkworm – Firewater (1996)
Firewater is the big one. The mid-90s double album that fans of their era of indie rock are most likely to remember. The Matador debut. The concept record. The one where Andy Cohen goes absolutely wild on every single one of his songs. Cohen’s lyrics and images are the most immediate memory stickers on Firewater—“the crowd’s a rapacious beast”, “Friday night is sacred, it’s not time to be wasted”, his friend Jean-Luc on the subway, and nearly every word of “Nerves”. It’s a fascinating surface, but there’s so much more going on below just a few one-liners—such is the nature of a 60-minute album where every song is worthwhile, and most are superb. It’s reputation as an “alcohol album” is earned—there’s “Drunk”, for one, and “Severance Pay” and “Slow Hands” are explicit about it as well—but that’s not the entire picture. Several of these songs are about the rough circumstances behind Joel Phelps’ departure from the band; Midyett has said as much about “Swings” (“Now I know that I made a big mistake on you”) and “Caricature of a Joke” (guess to whom the title refers). But Firewater can’t be boiled down to that either; there’s just too much here. There’s the “he’s still going?” endless guitar solo in “Killing My Ass”, the equally-absurd one in the otherwise-acoustic tour tale “Miracle Mile”, Cohen’s most-divorced-man-ever character in “Don’t Make Plans This Friday”. Not only were Silkworm going to be fine after the departure of Phelps, but they were going to get better. And better.
4. Silkworm – Chokes! EP (2006)
Michael Dahlquist, Douglas Meis, and John Glick were killed in Skokie, Illinois, in 2005 while driving from their workplace together to get lunch. One of the least important results of this senseless loss of life was that the greatest band in the world would immediately cease to exist. The instrumentals that would become the four original songs on Chokes! had been recorded weeks before Dahlquist’s death—after an understandable amount of time had passed, Cohen, Midyett, and Kadane finished the tracks and added two previously-recorded covers. Since Touch and Go had dropped Silkworm (presumably to sign fifty more dance-punk bands), 12XU issued it initially. If the band had gotten to finish Chokes!, it could’ve been their best album—the four songs are just that good. The thundering call-and-response of “Internat’l Harbor of Grace” is a massive achievement for Midyett, only slightly overshadowing his triumphant and, in these circumstances, quite moving “Bar Ice”. This time around, Andy Cohen gets to be the subtler one—neither “Low Blow” nor “Lily White & Cherry Red” qualifies as an “anthem”, but both of them are sharp reminders of everything this band did well. I almost don’t need the two extra covers—not that I would get rid of them, no. Especially not “Spanish Harlem Incident”, a live-recorded Crust Brothers version of the Bob Dylan song sung by Dahlquist that closes the record.
3. Bottomless Pit – Shade Perennial (2013)
Bottomless Pit couldn’t have made Firewater, but Silkworm couldn’t have made Shade Perennial. Like the death of Silkworm, the probably permanent “indefinite hiatus” of Bottomless Pit makes me sad, but it’s a different kind of sadness. Silkworm’s end was cruel and random, but Bottomless Pit bowed out after reaching the group’s logical endpoint; that is, Shade Perennial. To try to expound on earlier Pit analysis—Hammer of the Gods was raw grief, Blood Under the Bridge was the uneasy acceptance that the passing of time brings, and Shade Perennial is…ascension? Otherworldliness? Bottomless Pit were already a tight band, but here everything sounds nearly completely as one. It’s a 30 minute out-of-body experience. Opening track “Fleece” is a mountain with thunderclouds surrounding it, every note and moment perfectly arranged in a seemingly-impossible manner. “Incurable Feeling” is much the same way except that, improbably, you can also dance to it. The storm parts to reveal the clung-to happiness of “Bare Feet”, strengthens again in the deluge of “Sacred Trench”. The intentness of “Full of Life” gives way to perhaps the record’s most grounded song, Cohen’s nevertheless towering “Horse Trading”, and the whole thing ends improbably (again!) with a six-minute sprint called “Felt a Little Left” that starts in the most incredible way possible and strongly resists ending.
2. Silkworm – Italian Platinum (2002)
Italian Platinum is Silkworm’s best collection of songs. It’s a lost greatest hits record from a 1970s classic rock band that should’ve treated AOR as its personal playground. Or maybe it’s from an adventurous 1980s post-punk band that would inspire a legion of British music-mag-hyped imitators decades later. Or a 90s alt-rock group that united the underground and the mainstream and provided a respite from Red Hot Chili Peppers on modern rock radio. Every song’s got its own world here: Andy Cohen both opens and closes the record with monster riffs and maximum absurdity (“A Cockfight of Feelings” is probably Silkworm’s best song title, if not best album closer), and lands an emotional bullseye right in the middle of it with “LR72”, a song that wasn’t written about Michael Dahlquist but is now inseparable from his death to me. In between, Tim Midyett weaves in and out of brilliant pop songs, from the cloudy new wave of “The Brain” to the cheery stop-start of “Is She a Sign” to the propulsive post-punk of “The Third”. Midyett and Cohen firing off perfect songs too boring for you? Well, here’s Kelly Hogan singing Midyett’s stunning ballad “Young” (holy shit, wow, Kelly Hogan!). And there’s Midyett and Dalhlquist dueting on “Bourbon Beard”, a stunningly sad singalong that’s the latter’s peak as a vocalist. And did I mention that this album is Matt Kadane’s crowning achievement with Silkworm? Probably not, because there’s just too much else going on in Italian Platinum.
1. Silkworm – Lifestyle (2000)
When people joke about how they only listen to the same five artists, albums, playlists, or what-have-you, I never feel more alienated. Anyone who reads Rosy Overdrive knows that I much, much prefer to (in some way need to) keep finding new-to-me music. This means I don’t look back too much, at least not in the way most people do. I don’t have big, insurmountable Favorites of much of anything. I talk about Guided by Voices more than any other band, but a lot of that is because they always have something new. That being said, Lifestyle is my favorite album from any band, from any year, ever. The story behind it is laughably simple: Silkworm stopped trying to “make it” as a touring band, all its members got permanent day jobs, and they put together an album of music that they wanted to make for themselves. It’s perfect. Lifestyle has half a dozen pop songs that, I think, require no particular fondness for “indie rock” to immediately love—so, of course, the record starts with “Contempt”, the album’s weirdest song. “Slave Wages” and “Treat the New Guy Right” veer to the other end of the spectrum—the third and fourth best songs on Lifestyle, they’d be the two best songs in the discography of nearly any other band. The sub-two-minute “Raging Bull” is a mini-epic that absolutely goes on a journey, and the gleeful “YR Web” happily stays right where it is to no less great an effect. Lifestyle doesn’t run out of steam, either—the frantic “Dead Air” is my favorite song Tim Midyett ever wrote, which means it is one of the greatest songs ever, and the acoustic closing track “The Bones” comes just shy of eclipsing it. Lifestyle deserves more than just a long paragraph (somebody wrote an extremely long piece on it I deliberately avoided rereading before doing this), and I’m sure I will want to come back to it eventually despite all this writing I’ve just done about Silkworm. I could write the length of this post over just on “Plain” and still feel the same way, I’m sure. I can’t say that about any other band or album.