by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Yourself or Someone Like You (1996, Atlantic)
It took a while for this debut album to finally catch fire with the public, but once it did, the band became virtually inescapable on Top 40 stations and video outlets like VH1 for the next year or so. Going back and listening to it today, it’s a little head-scratching why it still remains so fondly remembered, if only because Rob Thomas doesn’t sound anywhere nearly as refined and polished of a vocalist here as he would on later albums – in fact, he sounds downright raw here compared to the smooth and soulful Rob Thomas that would emerge on cuts like “Last Beautiful Girl” and “Street Corner Symphony.” But, while he’s yet to fully blossom at this point as a vocalist, his potential as a songwriter is already evident and there are some fine cuts here, highlighted by four major hit singles: “Push” (with its immortal – if somewhat controversial – hook “I want to push you around”), “3 A.M.” (which, in hindsight, really sounds like a Hootie and the Blowfish rip-off – it’d have fit effortlessly onto Cracked Rear View, to be sure – though a very catchy and first-rate one), “Back 2 Good,” and, best of all, the effervescent and deliriously catchy “Real World,” which hints at the poppier direction the band would follow on its future albums. “Girl Like That” and “Damn,” meanwhile, are the most memorable of the non-singles. The album’s awfully front-loaded and takes a noticeable dive halfway through, but that first half remains one of the finest and most well-remembered adult-rock sides in late ‘90s rock, however.
Mad Season (2000, Atlantic)
It’s noticeably much more glossy than their debut album, and it leans a little more towards pop than rock as well, but the material here is fabulous, and Rob Thomas’s growth both as a vocalist and songwriter since the last disc is very noticeable and impressive. The Number One hit “Bent” doesn’t exactly sound like an obvious hit right away upon first listen and looks somewhat disjointed as a piece of sheet music, but the way its individual parts – the jagged intro, the chugging verses, the straightforward rock of the chorus – all blend together into a coherent and commercial whole is extremely impressive and is a fine example of just how sharp the band’s songwriting chops have become. The beautiful Top Ten ballad “If You’re Gone,” on the other hand, shows off a new gentle and sentimental side of the group, but it never comes off as sappy, thanks in large part to the fine arrangement, which brilliantly incorporates an attention-grabbing brass-section break that seems like it came straight off one of Peter Cetera’s ballads with Chicago. The toe-tapping and sunny title cut is every bit as appealing, while “Last Beautiful Girl” (which inexplicably missed the Hot 100 entirely) might very well be the band’s catchiest song up to this point and has an absolutely ingenious chorus. Even the non-singles are much stronger this time out, too, and cuts like “Angry,” “Crutch,” and “Leave” hold their own.
More Than You Think You Are (2002, Atlantic)
A huge letdown when compared to the fine album that preceded it, the band’s third outing falters simply due to two primary factors. First of all, the band has inexplicably largely turned its back on the more pop-oriented stylings of Mad Season and is even more firmly in rock territory here than they were on the debut; unfortunately, the band’s biggest appeal is in its fusion of Thomas’ pop sensibilities to a mature adult-rock sound, and the band seems more interested here in being Foo Fighters than, say, Gin Blossoms, so the guitars are noticeably a lot louder and grittier on this disc than they’ve ever been on the band’s prior outings, which doesn’t always work in the songs’ favor. Secondly, there’s just a lack of great songs. “Disease,” a co-write with Mick Jagger that was originally intended for the Rolling Stone’s solo album Goddess in the Doorway and a vaguely-INXS-like rocker that throws in as many curveballs into its arrangement as “Bent” had while still being fairly catchy, is great fun, and the banjo-laced mid-tempo adult-contemporary pop of “Unwell” is an appealing single as well, but there are too few other cuts here that really stand out, though the sunny jangle-pop of “All I Need,” the piano ballad “Bright Lights,” and the chugging rock of “Cold” are all fairly memorable. (How “All I Need” did not get picked to be the album’s third single, I will never understand; it’s easily one of the three catchiest songs here.) Unfortunately, however, much like the band’s debut album, all the decent tunes arrive early in the tracklist, which means that it’s a real chore to get through the second half.
… Something to Be (2005, Atlantic)
He’d already had a major hit outside of Matchbox Twenty with the 1999 Santana collaboration “Smooth” (which topped the charts for twelve weeks), so it’s somewhat surprising that it wasn’t until 2005 that Thomas released his first full-length solo record. It’s a different kind of beast, to be sure, than your average Matchbox Twenty record, a little less rock and a lot more pop-and-R&B oriented, but it’s still well-crafted material and just as suitable for adult-contemporary-radio as your average Matchbox Twenty fare. The most famous single here is the Top Ten hit “Lonely No More,” and it’s certainly a catchy one, but its programmed beats mean that the track is never as warm as “Smooth” and the track leans just a little too close to Justin Timberlake territory for comfort, and Thomas sounds much more natural and at home when he sticks to more traditional adult-contemporary fare, such as the winning pop balladry of “Ever the Same,” which inexplicably stopped just shy of reaching the Top 40 but boasts arguably the best melody of any track on the album. The soulful R&B of “Streetcorner Symphony” (with John Mayer on guitar) got a lot of criticism, but it’s quite fun and playful and boasts one of the most immediate hooks on the album as well, and, despite only peaking at #63, it still pops up quite a bit on television and adult-contemporary radio both. “This Is How a Heart Breaks” and “When the Heartache Ends” are very appealing as well.
Exile on Mainstream (2007, Atlantic)
Their first disc without longtime rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor (longtime drummer Paul Doucette would give up his seat behind the kit to fill Gaynor’s place), Exile on Mainstream isn’t actually a new studio album per se but a creative two-disc package containing a full-length best-of rounding up the band’s hits to date and a six-song EP of new studio material (produced by Steve Lillywhite). The hits disc is well-assembled, including all of the band’s nine Top 40 hits up to this point, from “Push” to “Bright Lights”, along with the #48-peaking “Mad Season” and the early single “Long Day”; the only real flaw of any note in the track selection is that “Last Beautiful Girl” should really have been included as well, even if it was only an Adult Contemporary hit. As far as the EP of new material goes, the songs range from good to great, with the highlights being the swinging “I’ll Believe You When,” the poppy “All Your Reasons,” and, best of all, the heated, pounding, surprisingly fast rock of “How Far We’ve Come,” which might very well be the band’s best single yet.
Cradlesong (2009, Atlantic)
Thomas’ s second solo outing pales wildly in comparison to … Something to Be, and for one simple reason: it’s just not very fun. Thomas is taking himself just a tad too seriously here, and there are also far fewer immediate hooks to latch onto here than there were on the last album. (There is no knockout single here, sadly.) The lead-off single “Her Diamonds” is unfortunately his least catchy solo single yet, though the other minor radio hits here – especially the more adult-contemporary-oriented ballad “Someday” and the acoustic guitar-driven rock of “Mockingbird” – are thankfully much more memorable. Like … Something to Be, Thomas still sounds best when he stays within his comfort zone, so cuts like “Snowblind” work much better than the electronics-heavy Nellee Hooper co-write/collaboration “Real World ’09.” It’s not a great album, but it’s not terrible, either – it’s simply just very spotty.
North (2012, Atlantic)
Considering that it had been five years since the band had put out any new material at all and ten years since its last full-length, it’s a delightful surprise that the band has even reconvened at all, but it’s even more impressive that the band has returned with its most impressive set of songs since Mad Season. The band (reunited here with producer Matt Serletic, who helmed their first three albums and also co-wrote “Push,” “3 A.M.” and “Last Beautiful Girl” with Thomas) has finally settled back into a comfortable groove and is no longer trying to oversell their rock credentials the way they did on More Than You Think You Are, nor are they trying to pander to modern trends the way that Thomas occasionally tends to on his solo albums; they simply sound content to once again be the tasteful, sophisticated adult-contemporary pop/rock band they were at their creative and commercial peak, and Thomas seems to relish in getting to play with his old bandmates again and turn out some high-quality organic pop/rock. The power-pop of “She’s So Mean” returned the band to the Top 40 – just barely – but deserved to be a much, much bigger hit – it’s every bit as fun a rocker as “Bent” or “Disease” or “How Far We’ve Come” – while “Our Song” strangely missed the Hot 100 entirely but might very well be the single-catchiest song Rob Thomas has ever written, while “Overjoyed” and “Sleeping at the Wheel” are arguably the best ballads Thomas has penned – either for the band or himself – since “If You’re Gone.” It may not have as many chart hits as Mad Season, but this is every bit as good an album, and if this ends up being the last disc the band ever makes – a real possibility, since longtime lead guitarist Kyle Cook just left the band, leaving Thomas, Doucette, and bassist Brian Yale as the only remaining official band members – this would be a fine and graceful epitaph for the band.
The Great Unknown (2015, Atlantic)
It definitely takes some warming up to, but Thomas’ third solo outing has its good moments if you can get past some of the more shameless attempts here to land a radio hit, and as a whole, it’s a lot more fun and enjoyable of an album than Cradlesong is. “I Think We’d Feel Good Together” is a bit jarring on first listen, if only because it sounds more like something Selena Gomez might do – actually, the song’s got a passing resemblance to, of all things, Selena’s theme song from Wizards of Waverly Place – but if you’re patient enough, the song ultimately ends up being an awfully fun listen, especially in its tongue-twisting second verse. (Adding to the fun, Ray Parker Jr. even pops up on guitar on the cut!) The stark album-closing piano ballad “Pieces” is lovely, while the hypnotic title cut, the breezy retro-flavored pop of “Heaven Help Me” (easily the catchiest song here), and the acoustic handclap-filled stomp of “Hold on Forever” are all endearing as well. But the album gets too off-course whenever Thomas gets too carried away with updating his sound, as on the Ryan Tedder-penned-and-produced “Trust You,” the OneRepublic-like “One Shot,” “Lie to Me” and “Wind It Up,” and Thomas still has a problem of venturing too frequently outside his comfort zone. If he could just stay away from programmed beats for a full album and stick purely within the adult-contemporary-rock realm, he’s certainly got the potential to make a solo disc that’s every bit as solid and mature-sounding as the best Matchbox Twenty discs like Mad Season or North.