Every Hootie & the Blowfish album ranked (seriously)
In the early 1990s, every college town had “that” band. The one that seemed destined to break into the big time. The one that sounded as good playing originals as they did covering Stone Temple Pilots in a crowded bar.
One drunken night, probably your junior year, you handed the bass player a beer soaked $5 in exchange for their new CD thinking in a few years you’d talk about how you knew them back when they were selling CDs for beer soaked fivers.
For me, that college was Florida State University and “that” band was the Groove Merchants. Almost every Thursday night, we would lie to ourselves about waking up for class on Friday and head down to Bullwinkle’s to hear Tony O and the boys rip through the alt-rock songbook from James’ “Laid” to “Good” by Better Than Ezra. They released two CDs which I still listen to from time to time whenever I miss the carefree college nights drowning my academic pursuits in $1 highballs. Had Atlantic Records come to Florida instead of South Carolina back then, the Groove Merchants could have become the bar band that twelve million people fell in love with before breaking up with their music quicker than Rachel dumped Ross. Instead, it was Hootie and the Blowfish who took that wild ride.
As far as post-grunge goes, Hootie & the Blowfish were the most harmless and inoffensive band imaginable. In every interview and video, they came across as fun, genuine guys who you would have been happy to find yourself sharing a dorm room with. That made them perfectly suited for the staggering level of success that greeted their debut Cracked Rear View. Almost anyone could like their songs and almost everyone did. By October of 1995, there was an entire episode of Friends centered on the band’s concert and the future appeared to be bright for both the band and all of us graduating college with boxes full of the CDs we embezzled from the BMG Music Club.
Then, something changed. When Hootie’s follow-up “only” sold 4 million albums, the writing was on the wall. As far as the music industry was concerned, it was last call for the little bar band that could. The backlash felt sudden and, in retrospect, unjustified. The follow-up sounded a lot like their debut. The chord changes were straight-forward, the melodies memorable, and the songwriting was familiar. Even if you didn’t know a Hootie song, you could be singing along by the time the second chorus arrived. Sometimes, that is all we need from a band.
These days, Darius Rucker has forged a successful country career and millions of those Hootie CDs line the racks at every charity shop in America. My curiosity finally got the best of me and I picked up Fairweather Johnson, the much maligned follow-up to Cracked Rear View, a few months ago. And then I found Musical Chairs, an album I didn’t know they released. At that point, I realized there was only one thing to do. Now I own the entire Hootie discography and I’ve been shuffling through them in traffic for the last few weeks. So, hit pause on whatever episode of Friends TBS is showing right this second and let’s rank the Blowfish discography.
Hootie & the Blowfish (2003)
I remain highly suspicious of eponymous albums that aren’t debut albums. Metallica, Smash Mouth (ok, the music not the title was the problem here), The Cure, The Cult, and several others have fallen into this artistic trap. If your brand name already carries some heavy baggage like, say, inexplicable success followed by a tidal wave of backlash, you might steer clear of playing the eponymous card but that didn’t stop Hootie & the Blowfish. Unfortunately, this is the weakest album the band has released. After the pleasant and familiar sounding “Deeper Side”, the album comes off the rails with “Little Brother” and its laughable lecture on chasing “the cars, the clothes, the hos, the ice.” While I might trust the band to lecture me on the best warranty for a new Honda Accord, I seriously can’t think of a 90s band that would know less about those topics. A cover of “The Rain Song” (Continental Drifters) and closer “Woody” redeem an otherwise tired sounding album.
Looking For Lucky (2005)
“Hey Sister Pretty” is everything people either love or hate about Hootie & the Blowfish. The verses sway like a Sublime song and the chorus reaches for the lawn seats of a summer amphitheater with the sterile earnestness of Train. The post-grunge wave of the late 1990s shared a homologous structure that seeped into the various offshoots of pop-rock. Give Hootie & the Blowfish credit, they never tried to be a nu-jamband like Dave Matthews Band or a comedy troupe like Barenaked Ladies. They were a Southern bar band that never shed their roots. For their final album, they straddle the line between their past (“State Your Peace”) and Rucker’s country aspirations (“Waltz Into Me”). If you’re a fan, this album was a pleasant farewell and if you blame them for ruining rock-n-roll, you’ll find enough ammunition here to fight that battle. Either way, Hootie & the Blowfish were never meant to be the philosophical battleground for music taste.
Fairweather Johnson (1996)
Sure, it sold 4 million copies but I’m willing to bet a few million of those were of the one listen and toss aside variety. Perhaps trying to prove the fairweather johnsons of the world wrong, the band returned with a harder, slightly bitter album. Darius Rucker pushes a little too hard and the band adds a little too much instrumentation. Call it overcompensation for the critical disdain heaped upon them by the music elitists of the world. At times (“Sad Caper” and “Old Man and Me”), the band sounds comfortable and relaxed but this follow-up falters in expected ways. Few bands would have done better given the immense pressure of trying to replicate Cracked Rear View.
Musical Chairs (1998)
For those of us who love music to a point that it influences every aspect of our lives, the bands we give our hearts to shape our own identity. A Joy Division t-shirt or Clash pin on an olive military jacket speaks volumes about how we see ourselves in the world. Hootie & the Blowfish were never going to be that sort of band. And we hated them for that. On Musical Chairs, they made it clear that they weren’t going to change to win us over. Lighter and more melodic than Fairweather Johnson, the band moves a little deeper into Americana music until they find the crossroad where rock and country converge. Whiskeytown and Son Volt weren’t going to be threatened by Musical Chairs but the band successfully shed the “frat-rock” tag with some of their best writing. “Las Vegas Nights” sticks to Darius Rucker’s favorite theme: the average man trying to be worthy of a girl he loves and it should have been their biggest hit single. The country tinged “Desert Mountain Showdown” serves as a harbinger of Rucker’s future country career. Rich in melodies and full of folksy charm, this album would fit right into the current wave of Americana revivalism.
Scattered, Smothered, and Covered (2000)
Normally, I wouldn’t consider a compilation of covers and B-sides within a band’s studio discography but this is Hootie & the Blowfish. Any bar band worth their salt can cover a lot of ground without losing their own sound and the Blowfish made it big for that very reason. “I Go Blind” takes a good 54-40 song and makes it great. Rucker does justice to Morrissey on The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” adding some gritty soulfulness where there once was none. Zeppelin’s “Hey Hey What Can I Do” sounds exactly like it should when a local band hits the stage on a Friday night. If you’re not singing along, you’re missing the fun. The highlights of the album are the two that pull from the band’s own neighborhood. Just across the border in Athens, GA, the music scene was exploding in the 1990s and it was inescapable on campuses across the Southeast. The R.E.M. cover (“Driver 8”) shows the distance between the two bands was far less than we choose to admit but its Vic Chesnutt’s haunting “Gravity of the Situation” that captures the band at their best. With Nanci Griffith joining Darius Rucker on vocals, the band tightens up the original without losing the ragged, unsettled beauty that permeates every Chesnutt song.
Cracked Rear View (1994)
You know the songs and even if you threw away the CD in 1996, you’ll remember the words when you revisit it. You don’t sell 16 million albums on accident. For those of us who never connected with the dark, drug heavy Seattle sound, Hootie & the Blowfish offered us an alternative. There is nothing on this album that pushes artistic boundaries. This is middle of the road jangle-pop rock at its best and that’s all it tried to be. Jumping in a car and driving to New Orleans on a whim needs music that sounds good singing along at the top of your lungs with the windows down. While my tastes have grown darker and more complex over the years, there is something innocent and honest in Hootie & the Blowfish’s music that has lost none of its charm with the passing years. Their success wasn’t just about Hootie & the Blowfish, it was a celebration of the love and passion that fuels that local band lugging their equipment into a dirty bar in your town tonight.
So whatever happened to the Groove Merchants? They’re still playing the bar circuit in Florida. Turns out, the band that often played the bar next door (Floyd’s Music Store) hired the same producer (John Kurzweg) and struck gold only to face a critical backlash (just like Hootie). They were called Creed.