Note: Normally I try not to second-guess myself. I prefer only to first-guess myself and go from there. However, after a few days of thinking about it, I felt the need to make one quick update to these rankings.
During the set break of Phish’s Dinner and a Movie live stream earlier this week, the band announced that they would be releasing a new album the following night in the form of Sigma Oasis.
Were these dudes pulling one over on their fans again? It was a question worth asking given the band’s inherent prankster nature. It turns out they weren’t, as come Wednesday, the band dropped their fifteenth studio album, their first since 2016’s Big Boat.
Phish’s studio albums are tricky to judge mainly because of the band’s amazing live shows. This isn’t a problem exclusive to Phish. It’s something all jam bands are forced to deal with. If you earn your stripes playing concerts and that’s where fans think you sound the best, how do you bring that energy and vibe with you to the studio?
Simple. You can’t. The move is to accept that it’s two different experiences and in turn approach them as just that: two completely different arenas in which to operate.
Phish seems to have understood this fairly early on, and because of that, they’ve been able to create studio albums that are able to stand on their own. Obviously, something like Farmhouse doesn’t rise to the levels of something like the show they live-streamed this week, but that’s not the point. You can’t compare the two.
However, you can compare Farmhouse to the band’s other studio albums, and while it’s still too early to determine where Sigma Oasis fits in the rankings, we can see how the albums stack up.
14. The Siket Disc
Whether or not you want to consider The Siket Disc an official Phish studio album is up to you.
You should consider these two factors, though:
- The album was recorded in a studio, hence making it very much a “studio” album
- The album was initially released via mail-order before Elektra officially released it in November of 2000
So yes, The Siket Disc is a Phish studio album.
It’s also their only instrumental one, as it’s comprised of material recorded during their sessions for The Story of the Ghost.
The “songs” on the album would be more accurately described as segments of jams the band played in the studio, although some of the tunes have continued to live on in concert—most notably “My Left Toe” and “What’s the Use?”
To fully understand Undermind, you need to appreciate the context surrounding the album’s recording and release.
The band’s eleventh album was recorded and released in 2004, and just prior to it coming out, it was announced that they were calling it quits following their summer tour.
In an announcement on their website, Trey Anastasio said that he and the other members of the band had recently spoken and that he had told them he felt the group had run its course.
They did, however, want to go out on a high note and their graceful exit began with the release of Undermind.
It’s also worth noting that the break-up announcement came only a few years after the band went on hiatus. To say that Phish fans might have been feeling uneasy about the band and its future would be an understatement. A good deal of vitriol was starting to build towards Anastasio as well, as he was seen as the one breaking up the group.
Things were, in the words of the great Pete Campbell, “not great, Bob!”
Undermind isn’t a bad album but it does have an air of exhaustion and finality to it—two things no one wants to associate with Phish.
12. Big Boat
Phish’s 2016 album is accessible, easily digestible, mostly enjoyable, and decidedly not bad.
Released over thirty years after they came together, Big Boat is an album that is fairly typical for a band at that stage of their career in that it has its moments, reminds you of why you either do like Phish or don’t, and ultimately pales in comparison to some of their earlier, more adventurous albums.
I feel like when a band’s studio album tally hits double digits, you’re really just looking for a few new songs to grab onto. You already have your favorite albums and (barring a miracle) a band’s eleventh or twelfth or (in this case) fourteenth record isn’t going to make that exclusive shortlist.
Big Boat is no exception. It has a handful of solid songs fans would want to hear live, including”Tide Turns,” “Blaze On,” and “No Men in No Man’s Land” but everything else is fine. Just…fine.
11. Round Room
Again, context is key.
Much like Undermind, knowing what was going on in Phish history is helpful in understanding Round Room, the band’s tenth album.
Round Room was recorded over four days in The Barn, Anastasio’s Vermont studio, and was their first release when they returned from hiatus in 2002. The hiatus had begun two years before, and during that time, each member of the band had been busy with side projects.
One of the most interesting things about Round Room is how loose and free it sounds; how it sounds the closest to a live performance, something that could be attributed to the way in which it was recorded.
There is a feeling of friends hanging out and jamming to the album, a vibe that almost seems cruel in retrospect, as the band would break up just a couple of years later.
However, the album did give fans “46 Days” and that song alone is enough to put this album in the top ten.
10. Lawn Boy
Much like Junta gave fans early drafts of legendary tunes, Lawn Boy has its own fair share of songs that would become Phish staples.
There’s “Bathtub Gin” and “Run Like an Antelope,” “Split Open and Melt” and “Bouncing Around the Room,” and “My Sweet One” and “Reba.”
That’s six songs out of nine that would live on in Phish perpetuity.
Initially released thirty years ago in September, Lawn Boy was also rereleased by Elektra in 1992 and released again in 2012 as a special edition.
If you think another special edition won’t be released in September, you’re kidding yourselves. Phish is cheesy enough to call the 30th-anniversary special release Lawn Man and Phish fans love them enough to not cringe when they do.
It’s a real win/win.
9. A Picture Of Nectar
In 1992, Phish released their third album. It was their major label debut, as Elektra Records had signed them the year before. The album’s title is a tip of the cap to the owner of Nectar’s, the Burlington bar where the band got their start and honed their craft.
A Picture Of Nectar is kind of a mixed bag. Thanks to the album’s high points, though, it’s generally viewed as a fan-favorite among the Phish faithful.
Those high points include “Chalkdust Torture,” “Tweezer,” “Cavern,” “Llama,” and “Stash.” All of those are still included in current Phish setlists today.
At sixteen songs, it was Phish’s longest release to date and was an album that definitely benefited from having some studio money behind it, as it was their first one to have a bigger, fuller sound to it.
Album titles are funny things. Sometimes they are just words and sometimes they have a weird, hidden meaning.
And then sometimes they almost make too much sense.
That was the case with Phish’s twelfth album, which was their first after reuniting in 2009 after having been broken up for a handful of years.
The album literally sounds like joy. Whereas Round Room sounds like the product of friends hanging out and recording, Joy sounds like a family reunion—the good kind of family reunion, not the forced kind. Those are the worst.
On Joy, the band worked with producer Steve Lillywhite, who they had last collaborated with over a decade earlier while recording Billy Breathes. The result was an album that was focused and tight, something you can’t often say about Phish albums.
Hey, it’s (Hoist), an album that studies have shown has drawn more people to Phish than any of their others. Sure, those studies don’t exist, but I think they’d prove I was right if they did.
The reason for this (again, “this” isn’t really a thing) is that (Hoist) might be Phish’s most accessible album for non-Phish fans. The songs are well-produced, sleek, radio-friendly, and not overly jammy.
It’s just an album with a bunch of great songs on it, plain and simple.
Phish albums had benefited from guest musicians before (Hoist) but they had mostly been friends and Burlington-area musicians chipping in. On (Hoist), Bela Fleck plays some banjo, Allison Krauss lends some vocals, and the horns from Tower of Power chip in on “Julius” and “Wolfman’s Brother.”
(Hoist) also includes “Down With Disease,” the band’s breakthrough single in terms of radio airplay and Billboard charting. They even made their first and only music video, which was directed by Mike Gordon.
I’ve never actually seen it but I bet it’s weird. It’s definitely weird. Phish is weird. Studies have shown that too.
I love that Phish decided to write and record a concept album for their second major label release. It might be one of the most Phish things ever. It’s definitely in the top ten.
Rift is the story of a man dreaming about the rift in the relationship between him and his girlfriend. It was Phish’s second crack at a concept album, with the first being the legendary The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, which they recorded in 1987 but never officially released.
Rift is a wild album, and as is the case with most concept albums, it is best digested whole. However, that doesn’t mean that none of the songs are able to stand on their own.
“Maze,” “Fast Enough for You,” “Horn,” and “My Friend, My Friend” are a few of the songs that can easily find a home in someone’s playlist of Phish favorites.
If you got into Phish sometime in the 1990s, (Hoist) was the easy sell and Billy Breathes was for late-night hangs. Rift was where the rubber met the road.
Rankings like this can be unkind to two kinds of albums: super early ones and late-stage ones. It’s the nature of the beast. Rankings are naturally going to highlight a band’s work when it was at its peak, something that is most likely not taking place in the beginning or at the end of their run.
Junta is Phish’s debut album and was originally released on tape in 1988 then released in stores in 1989 before Elektra rereleased it a few years later in 1992 (it wasn’t available for download until 2009).
But wait, there’s more!
A deluxe edition of the album was released on Record Store Day in 2012.
Junta: Can’t stop, won’t stop.
The album now almost feels like a sketchbook where the band drew up songs that would go on to become classics. Junta includes “You Enjoy Myself,” “The Divided Sky,” “Fee,” “Fluffhead,” and “David Bowie,” all of which would become legendary staples of live shows.
Phish was on a hell of a run that started around 1992 and fizzled out around the new millennium, so it would be tough for anything not recorded during that time to make it to the top of the list. Fuego, released in 2014, makes the best showing for an album released outside of that window.
Fuego is mature Phish at their best.
Whereas Joy was no doubt filled with, well, joy, the band also had to shake off some of the rust. You can hear them trying to figure out what Phish sounded like as they started looking at the dawn of their decade together.
That’s not the case with Fuego.
Fuego is quite simply a great rock record. It features some of the band’s songwriting since that boom period of the 1990s, most notably with songs like “555,” “Waiting All Night,” and “The Line.”
The songs are catchy but not desperate to a point where it seems like Phish was suddenly trying to change things up so late in the game. They’re catchy in a way that shows a natural evolution within the band; with them becoming supremely polished musicians and songwriters.
Fuego is also a great name for an album and the album’s cover might be one of my favorites.
Farmhouse is Phish streamlined. It’s a tight album with twelve songs clocking in at under fifty minutes.
Fifty minutes is, like, two songs at a Phish show.
Released in the spring of 2000, it’s an interesting album to bridge two distinct periods for the band: the action-packed nineties and the turbulent first decade of the 2000s. It was also Phish at its most focused, something we wouldn’t really see until something like Fuego.
When it was released, part of the appeal of Farmhouse was hearing songs that had been featured several times at shows over the years, with some like “Piper” dating back over a decade. The Farmhouse versions provided fans with more compact options of songs that had been circulating widely on bootlegs.
Sometimes you want to listen to “Twist” or “Sand” but don’t want to dig through stacks of tapes to find the right version, you know?
Farmhouse also includes “Heavy Things,” which got as far as 29 on Billboard’s Adult Top 40 chart in the summer of 2000. There was also “First Tube,” which netted the band a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
I remember there was a debate as to whether or not the lyrics of the title track was somehow anti-Phish fan, but come on, that sounded crazy then and sounds crazy now…or does it?
2. Billy Breathes
Earlier, I described “Billy Breathes” as the album for late-night hangs yet I could see how that could initially be confusing or misleading based solely on the album’s first two tracks: the soaring “Free” and the anthemic rocker “Character Zero.”
But come on, those are the songs you listened to when the buzz was still fresh.
By the time “Waste” came on, it was chill time, and after that, it was all about coasting gracefully and blissfully into the early hours of the morning.
Billy Breathes came at a time when Phish was really hitting one of their first peaks and it speaks to their confidence in themselves as a band and as musicians to respond to such an apex with a truly beautiful and meditative album.
It is a statement record, a feeling shared by Rolling Stone, which at the time commented on how Billy Breathes proved Phish was more than just a jam band, saying it was “a quiet gem of an album.”
Again, this makes total sense once you get past the first two tracks.
1. The Story of the Ghost
On their previous albums, Phish had displayed their ability to rock, whether it was while doing prog-rock or arena rock or even pop-rock. What they hadn’t really dived into was their funk side.
But it was there, and on The Story of the Ghost, it kicked the door wide open and staked its claim proudly within the band’s ever-expanding sound.
Phish had started incorporating some funk into their live shows in the late nineties, and when it was time to record a follow-up to Billy Breathes, they brought that with them to Bearsville Studios in New York. For the first time, Gordon started taking more of a prominent role, which is especially evident in songs like “Ghost” and “Roggae.”
At the time, Anastasio called this new sound of theirs “cow funk,” saying it was the best way to describe the kind of funk four white dudes from Vermont were playing.
The groove, whether it was Gordon’s bass lines or Jon Fishman’s backbeats, became a fifth member of the band and has never really left. Even today, some of the band’s strongest songs are anchored by one or both of those elements. The groove has allowed them to experiment more with those various rock styles but bring them home in a way that connects them with other songs, both new ones and old ones.
You could make a case for Billy Breathes being a better album but The Story of the Ghost has proven to be the more influential one for the band. It introduced a new sound into their tool kit but also a way of songwriting (more wide open and not so Anastasio-centric) that would be beneficial for the group in the long run.
Plus, the album has “The Moma Dance” on it and that song is always a good time. Always. Studies have shown that as well.