Fiercely talented pianist, purveyor of smart-ass wit, humanist and surprisingly moving storyteller, encyclopedic and agreeably nerdy singing-contest judge; Ben Folds has been accumulating his vast fanbase for two decades now, sucking listeners in with his spirited piano-pop jams, and keeping them around for his left-field stylistic excursions and smarmy observational humor. Long gone are the days when Folds was strictly known for the glum 1997 Ben Folds Five abortion ballad “Brick“; these days, with a creatively prosperous solo career under his belt, a high-profile judging stint on NBC’s The Sing-Off, a sprawling three-disc retrospective on shelves, and a reunion with the Five on the horizon, Folds’ heightened pop-culture profile is prolific, and well-earned. We here at Popblerd love us some Ben, as music nerds are wont to do, and invite you to revisit his career with Drew, Big Money, and Mike D., who are all supremely cognizant that we sound like an 80’s rap group when you say our names together like that, but hope you’ll take us seriously anyway.

Ben Folds Five, Ben Folds Five (1995)

Drew: Ben Folds Five’s humble beginnings are often glazed over in favor of their later, wider-reaching material, but a revisit of their self-titled debut unearths one of the ’90s’ lost pop gems. In fact, while the trio’s musical sophistication would eventually dull their pop smarts a bit, this record captures the Five at their most effervescent, poppy best. Folds’ lyrics aren’t center stage here; the melodies and songs are, bursting at the seams with rolling, fleet-fingered piano fills and effervescent singalong choruses. Impeccable, sunny three-part harmonies rise and fall with each chorus-bridge inversion; and there’s Folds, at the center of it all, a smarmy but never the lovably critical wiseass age would reveal him to be. Ben’s records are always interesting for different reasons, but this is the man at his most youthful and exuberant; even when he sifts through the ashes of a doomed relationship, as in “The Last Polka,” his analysis is barbed, energetic, and to the heart. For my money, the definitive Ben Folds Five record. Grade: A

Whatever & Ever Amen, Ben Folds Five (1997)

Blerd: Signed to a major label, Ben Folds Five made their pop breakthrough with this near-perfect album. Of course, you all know “Brick,” which is the only thing Ben has ever had even remotely approximating a pop hit. However, that song is just the tip of the iceberg. Want funny Ben? “Song For The Dumped” is a legitimately humorous song that taps into a genuine human emotion (and Ben has been trying to emulate with diminishing returns ever since.) Want piano virtuoso Ben? “Selfless, Cold & Composed” is a stunning, jazz-inflected tune. Pop craftsman Ben? Go with “Smoke.” A decade and a half later, Whatever & Ever Amen stands tall as not only one of Ben’s best works, but as one of the ’90s’ best pop albums. Grade: A

Naked Baby Photos, Ben Folds Five (1998)

Mike D.: When “Brick” surprised everyone by placing high in Billboard‘s Modern Rock and Hot 100 Airplay charts in 1998, Caroline Records (who distributed the band’s debut album) realized their ability to address the newfound demand for something – anything – BFF-related. Hence, Naked Baby Photos, a hodgepodge of outtakes and live recordings with commentary from Ben himself. The centerpieces of the disc are three tracks cut from Ben Folds Five: the pretty “Eddie Walker,” the rollicking “Tom & Mary” and the excellent power-pop of “Emaline,” which Folds himself admits in the liner notes could have been “the single” that preceded a mainstream crossover. Of course, with improvised goofs like the seven-minute rap “For Those of Ya’ll Who Wear Fannie Packs” or the piano doom metal of “The Ultimate Sacrifice,” NBP makes it clear that the band had always been and would always be a little left of center. Grade: B-

Volume 1, Fear of Pop (1998)

Mike D.: While Rockin’ the Suburbs was still three years away from earning the title of “Ben Folds’ solo debut,” this quirky little gem, released during downtime between Ben Folds Five records, is arguably the first such LP to stake that claim. Folds and BFF producer Caleb Southern assembled this collection of experimental, almost ambient, sounds; lots of drum loops, patchy samples and other studio trickery are at play. (The All Music Guide hilariously compared it to the work of “some manic child who has just gotten a recording studio for Christmas.”) There are moments of relative clarity among the wild expanses of the album: the guest spot from William Shatner on the track “In Love” is a high point, and the first sign of the ironic, improbable comeback the former Captain Kirk would enjoy. (Shatner’s 2004 album Has Been was produced by Folds.) Über Folds fans will also recognize bits of early, unreleased demos in tracks like “I Paid My Money.” While this is definitely the Ben Folds record to get after you’ve already gotten all the other Ben Folds records, it’s a startling look into just how strange pop’s longtime jester can be. Grade: B

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Ben Folds Five (1999) 

Blerd: Two years removed from their pop breakthrough, Ben Folds Five made The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. It took me a long time to properly appreciate this album, and to my ears over a decade later, there’s still nothing that clicks as immediately as most of the songs on Whatever. Were Ben, Darren and Robert deliberately trying to be more obtuse? Possibly, but that’s not to say there aren’t fantastic songs on here. What struck me the first time I listened to this album is how much Ben is trying to indulge his inner Bacharach-particularly on songs like “Don’t Change Your Plans.” What struck me the last time I listened to this album is how relatively dark it is. Even throwing a goof like “Your Redneck Past” (a precursor to “Rockin’ The Suburbs”) in the middle of the track listing doesn’t shake the mood up too much. It’s the worst of the Five’s studio efforts, but there’s still a good amount of quality material to be found here. Grade: B

Rockin’ the Suburbs, Ben Folds (2001)

Drew: No one disputed Ben Folds’ musical knowledge and virtuosity prior to Rockin’ the Suburbs, and the smart-aleck white-guilt pisstake that was the lead single and title track – wherein middle-aged Folds finds himself paranoid at being mean-mugged by black youths when he’s just trying to drive to the pharmacy for some hemorrhoid cream, and screams obscenities in a Rage Against the Machine-mocking breakdown – led us all to believe that we’d get another agreeable collection of pop-rock jams, this time about vaguely grown-up, suburban concerns. (Lest we forget, the turn of the century was all about suburban ennui – American Beauty, anyone? – and thus was ripe for parody.) What we didn’t expect was the same subject matter tackled with surprising tenderness and sobering insight. Folds exercises his legendary wit on workouts like “Suburbs” and the glibly profane “Fired”, but also delivers straightforward ruminations on aging with “Annie Waits”, “Still Fighting It“, and the heartbreaking “Fred Jones Part 2”. It’s a remarkable accomplishment of songcraft, a true songwriters’ album that slots comfortably next to any number of Elton John classics, and spawned the decade’s unlikeliest wedding staple in the plainspoken, dew-eyed ballad “The Luckiest”. Grade: A

Ben Folds Live (2002)

Drew: Live albums are rarely, if ever, essential affairs these days – Live At Leeds and Frampton Comes Alive are distant memories, indeed – but Ben Folds’ document of his legendary solo tour proves a lovely exception. Armed with nothing but a grand piano, a microphone, and a captive audience, Folds inverts his own arrangements time and time again, filling in the cracks in solo staples and Five classics with virtuosic, nimble playing, and audience participation to spare. He sets his fleet piano fingers to a lovely, faithful rendition of “Tiny Dancer”; he enlists his audience as a three-part choir on “Not the Same” and a lively vocal horn section on “Army”; he tags early fan favorite “Philosophy” with a sweaty, stomping interpolation of “Miserlou”. Throughout the way, he proves an engaging, confident live performer, and whets appetites for the next time Ben comes to town. The full band is optional. Grade: A-

Songs For Silverman (2005)

Drew: Ben’s second solo full-length saw the artist scaling back a little; after Suburbs, an album that employed a number of stylistic flourishes, Silverman returns largely to the piano/drums/fuzz-bass/three-part harmony combo that drove a number of Ben Folds Five joints. The approach works: the pensive approach allows Ben’s songwriting to take center stage, instead of his arranging, and the results are often arresting. Silverman‘s songs are among the prettiest he’s ever written, and occasionally, the most biting; doomed relationships take center stage with “Landed” and “Trusted”, while Folds ruminates on age with “Time”, fatherhood with “Gracie”, and death with “Late”. Throughout the record, big, beefy waves of multi-tracked harmonies (many by BFF Al Yankovic!) swoop through like a Greek chorus, providing texture and glorious melodic counterpoint. Silverman might not be an instant, certified classic like Suburbs, but there are endless layers to this thing to peel back and enjoy. Grade: A-

Supersunnyspeedgraphic, the LP (2006)

Drew: Culled from the series of internet EPs Ben released between Rockin’ the Suburbs and Songs For Silverman, Supersunnyspeedgraphic punches up a few arrangements and adds a few bells and whistles to songs that largely required no such adornment. It’s okay, though: by and large, these songs speak for themselves, and they’re among Ben’s strongest solo work in terms of individual song quality. If they never really gel together as a whole, they were never really meant to, but songs like “Learn to Live With What You Are”, “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You”, and a cover of The Divine Comedy’s sterling waltz “Songs Of Love” are instant classics. The EPs on which these tunes originally found their homes are still worth a listen – partially because not everything made it to the compilation, and partly because listened to in individual five-song blasts they hit a bit harder – but Supersunnyspeedgraphic is a perfectly functional Cliff’s Notes for these small projects. And nothing dulls the impact of “Bruised”, a tune recorded with nomenclature-centric supergroup The Bens, here presented in its original form; it’s one of Ben’s best bittersweet love songs to date. Grade: B+

Way to Normal (2008)

Blerd: Way to Normal opens strongly, with “Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head,)” a humorous tip of the hat to Elton John’s “Bennie & The Jets” with piped in crowd noise and everything. Much of the remainder of the album, though, finds Ben working the same tired schtick. The character sketches (“Kylie From Connecticut”) have grown a little stale, the humor (“Effington”) a bit more sophomoric, and the misogyny (“Bitch Went Nuts”) now borders on hateful. Grade: B-

Ben Folds Presents University A Capella! (2009)

Mike D.: For understandable reasons, Ben was largely reticent to do a proper greatest-hits album; outside of “Brick,” there weren’t many hits to speak of. So Folds got a little creative, crossing the country to record various college a capella groups interpreting his catalogue. While the combination of needlessly ironic performers with an effectively ironic musician is borderline dangerous (and, in fact, gave us two weird seasons of Folds judging such groups on NBC’s The Sing-Off), University A Capella is at least an effective reminder of what a damn good songwriter/arranger Ben can be. The groups tackle some of the best solo and Ben Folds Five tracks, both on the beaten path (“Brick,” “Army,” “Landed,” “The Luckiest”) and off (“Not the Same,” “Selfless, Cold and Composed,” a heartbreakingly beautiful “Magic”). Folds even gets into the mix himself, contributing solid versions of “Effington” from Way to Normal and early BFF cut “Boxing.” It’s not essential by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a great shot of adrenaline when you’ve walked away from Ben’s discography for longer than you’ve expected. Grade: B-

Lonely Avenue (2010)

Mike D.: The biggest problem with Ben Folds’ post-Rockin’ the Suburbs output was the increasingly erratic lyrical content. For some reason – particularly on the sputtering Way to Normal – Ben could not conjure up the colorful stories through song that he could nearly a decade before. So collaborating with High Fidelity and About a Boy author Nick Hornby, a master of doing for prose what Folds did with lyrics, seemed like a killer idea – a collaboration that could be the next Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Unfortunately, the results are again somewhat uneven. Sometimes Hornby’s story cycles just don’t work, like on the well-meaning but needlessly meandering “Password”; other times, Folds sounds like he’s branching into self-parody, with tunes like the punky “Your Dogs” and the wistful “Practical Amanda.” There are some moments of strength, mostly tales of breakups (“Claire’s Ninth“) and missed connections (“From Above”). But considering what could have been, Lonely Avenue falls well short of the mark. Grade: C+

The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective (2011)

Mike D.: After a few years of so-so albums, it was time to revitalize the Ben Folds brand – and fast. Fortunately, someone smart came to the rescue: Ben Folds himself. Ben heeded the call for a proper career-spanning collection and then some, releasing both a single-disc best-of disc and a completist’s dream, a three-disc set with dozens of rare and unreleased gems, including live cuts, non-LP tracks, demos and outtakes, including selections from the mythical “lost” Ben Folds Five album recorded in 2000 with R.E.M./Let’s Active producer Mitch Easter. (One song from those sessions, the Darren Jessee-penned “Amelia Bright,” is, in the humble opinion of this writer, the single best track the Five ever committed to tape.) Best of all, Folds reconvened with Darren and Robert to add three brand new Ben Folds Five recordings to the set, including the newly-written “House” and a great cover of “Stumblin’ Home Winter Blues,” written by Jessee for his Hotel Lights project. Whether you’re a new fan or a seasoned veteran, The Best Imitation of Myself will do a fantastic job of highlighting why Ben and company deserve your attention. Grade: A

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