Thursday, September 19, 2019

Top Ten Things: KoRn Albums, Ranked

Welcome to another Top Ten Things, here at!  This edition has bonus entries because today we're ranking the albums of nu metal innovators KoRn!

With the release of their 13th album The Nothing, I figured it would be a good time to finally follow up the Top Ten KoRn Songs list with an album ranking.  As I said before, my journey to get to KoRn was an unusual one; I hated their music with a palpable passion for years before finally coming around, and then they immediately became one of my favorite groups.  Their unconventional focus on groove and grit over flash and precision was a very acquired taste, but once acquired I was insatiable.

So let's cut to the chase and count down the studio albums of KoRn!

For our Top Ten KoRn Songs list, click HERE...

14. See You On the Other Side

KoRn's seventh album for me is their weakest.  For a long time I considered Take a Look in the Mirror, their unnecessary "return to our roots" album, as the band's nadir, but the years have been pretty kind to that album, less so for this one.  While See You On the Other Side was a pretty logical next step from Untouchables, the band experimenting with gothic, industrial and electronica elements, the songs just didn't come together, and this album in hindsight feels like a dry run for Untitled.  Guitarist Brian "Head" Welch had left the band and the remaining four members decided to reinvent themselves on this album, with very mixed results.  I appreciated SYOTOS more than its predecessor at the time for the risks being taken, but they hadn't quite found the new formula yet.  

Key Tracks: Throw Me Away, Coming Undone, Souvenir

13. The Path of Totality

Here's an unusual one - KoRn's tenth album was both their most experimental and most polarizing.  TPOT featured signature KoRn songs, but remixed as dubstep tunes, produced by a host of different stars of the genre (most prominently Skrillex).  The songwriting here is mostly solid if formulaic, however the dubstep elements, fresh though they were at first, got old pretty fast.  TPOT garnered mostly either rave reviews (It won Revolver Magazine's Album of the Year) or scathing burials by music critics, and I'm sure most of their diehard fans loathed it.  My take was somewhere in the middle.  I respected the band's adventurousness and hooky songwriting, but for me this album kinda came and went quickly and I'm rarely moved to revisit it.  Nonetheless it's something different and unique in their catalog.

Key Tracks: Get Up!, Chaos Lives in Everything, Sanctuary

12. The Serenity of Suffering

Over the last fifteen years KoRn's mainstream popularity has dwindled, the nu metal sound they pioneered having become unfashionable (I bet we'll see a resurgence when late-90s/early-aughts trends come back), so in 2016 it made sense for them to release a reliable, aggressive-sounding album to please their core fans, almost a career reset.  Like Megadeth's United Abominations album, TSOS to me sounded like an approximation of a classic KoRn record, something a copycat band might've put out.  This quote from Rolling Stone sums up my feelings perfectly: "Suffering is heavy enough to stand proudly in the KoRn kanon, but not daring enough to be much else."  Despite some good songs, solid all-around performances and slick production values, I found this record disappointing coming from a band who has pretty consistently taken risks.  This one has grown on me some since 2016 but it's still near the bottom of the catalogue for me.

Check out our full review HERE.

Key Tracks: Rotting in Vain, Take Me, Everything Falls Apart

11. Take a Look in the Mirror

At the time of its release I pretty much hated KoRn's sixth album and for the longest time it was absolutely my least favorite.  But two-plus decades on I've come to appreciate the directness of TALITM, even if it came off as kind of a desperate attempt to please diehard fans.  After their artistically adventurous but obscenely expensive opus Untouchables failed to perform to expectations, the band rushed back to the studio one year later to record a straight-up, heavy KoRn album, the goal apparently being Life Is Peachy part 2 (right down to the cover's color scheme and mirror motif).  It did feel premature only a decade into their career to get back to the safe, aggressive style they were originally known for, and their subsequent two albums showed they weren't yet done exploring other sounds.  But there's some solid stuff on here, even if some of it needed another six months of honing.  In retrospect what this album is guiltiest of is breaking KoRn's streak of great albums by only being an okay one.  This was the first time as a KoRn fan that I was truly disappointed with their output.

Key Tracks: I'm Done, Counting on Me, Break Some Off

10. The Nothing

KoRn's 2019 effort, a heavy but angst-ridden, emotive record largely dealing with the death of Jonathan Davis's ex-wife, hits a lot of familiar beats but takes a few refreshing risks as well.  There's enough nu metal heft to please the hardcore fans but enough experimentation and atmospheric dread to make this one not just another safe album like SerenityThe Nothing has a few songs that would've been at home on Untitled, some nice Nine Inch Nails-y electronics, and the bridge of "This Loss" features some of Davis's most soulful vocals to date (This section might be my favorite thing on the album and I wish the whole song were like this).  I'm not hearing any all-time classic tunes, but The Nothing is a big step back in the right direction.

Full review HERE.

Key Tracks: Can You Hear Me, The Darkness is Revealing, The Ringmaster

9. Remember Who You Are

Alright, here's the proper "return to our roots" album.  2010's Remember Who You Are, produced by Ross Robinson (of KoRn and Life Is Peachy fame) reunited with the band after a seven-album lag, to deliver a true throwback to their early days, but with more dynamic vocals from Davis and a huge upgrade behind the drum kit.  The results were still very mixed; several songs needed major retooling and the album would've benefited from Head's presence to fill out the guitar sound.  But the standouts on this record are among the band's career highlights.  Davis's vocal range gets a nice workout on songs like "Oildale" and "Pop a Pill," while new drummer Ray Luzier announces himself with brutal, ass-shaking grooves unlike anything Korn had presented before.  Luzier as a drummer is light years stronger than Dave Silveria was (Sorry but it's the truth), his superior chops lending the songs a bouncy punch that wasn't there with Dave.  Unfortunately while the highs on this record are very high, the lows are among KoRn's weakest songs.  As a whole though, RWYA is a solid mix of KoRn's early rawness with their later ripe musicianship, uneven but accomplished.

Key Tracks: Pop a Pill, Oildale, Trapped Underneath the Stairs

8. Requiem

The band's 2022 album is in my estimation their best since The Paradigm Shift, and my biggest complaint with it is there just isn't enough of it.  At a scant 32 minutes and only nine tracks (plus a bonus if you have the Japanese edition), Requiem is pretty rock solid all the way through and a good mix of signature KoRn heaviness and almost poppy hooks, with lots of vocal layering.  The production is quite slick, par for the course over the last decade-plus, but where TSOS felt obligatory at times, this album feels like they really mean it.  I wish they'd added a couple more tracks, but at least there's no filler on here.

Key Tracks: Let the Dark Do the Rest, Start the Healing, Hopeless and Beaten 

7. The Paradigm Shift

Brian Welch returned to the fold in 2013, and KoRn quickly recorded their first album with him in a decade.  The result was The Paradigm Shift, a welcome blend of KoRn's aggressive early sound and electronic, dread-laced tinges reminiscent of Untouchables.  Late album track "Lullaby for a Sadist" is also notable for being the band's first (and thus far only) song to feature acoustic guitars.  This album is pretty rock-solid all the way through and bonus tracks like "Hater" and "The Game is Over" are icing on this nu-metal cake.  The Paradigm Shift was just the right kind of album for Head's return - a classic-sounding KoRn record conveying the maturity of their 40s, with a few boundaries gleefully pushed.  This was the most confident KoRn had sounded in several years, and the overall vibe of the record is that of a band feeling whole for the first time in ages. 

Key Tracks: Spike in My Veins, Prey for Me, What We Do

6. KoRn

In 1994 a ragtag group of social misfits got together to release a debut album that turned the hard rock/metal genre upside down.  In place of tight, technical guitar riffs and solos were detuned, sludgy, atonal 7-string jolts.  Where metal bass playing could previously be felt more than heard, the thundering low A and D strings here consisted of an ugly, percussive buzz.  Where spandex-and-jeans-clad rock frontmen traditionally belted soaring, vibrato-soaked, show-stopping high notes now resided the damaged primal screams of an abused outcast, who turned heavy music into a literal kind of childhood trauma therapy.  KoRn's debut album was unlike anything ever heard in 1994.  Their music was so unconventional to me that I hated this band for five years before finally coming around.  And I mean HATED.  I literally didn't know what to do with this new kind of metal, it was so ugly and so crude-sounding I dismissed it as pure noise.  But this debut album created an entire new subgenre of hard music and served as the prototype for KoRn's signature sound, much as Metallica's Kill 'Em All had done for speed metal a decade earlier.  And like Kill 'Em All, its impact holds up for me more than some of the actual material.  There are some all-time great KoRn songs on this album, but overall they were still finding their voice and would improve on this formula exponentially over the succeeding three records.  KoRn the album is one of the greatest-ever debut albums, but KoRn the band was just getting warmed up. 

Key Tracks: Need To, Clown, Shoots & Ladders

5. Untitled

With only three remaining full-time members after the 2006 departure of Dave Silveria, KoRn recruited avant-garde drummer Terry Bozzio and veteran metal drummer Brooks Wackerman to fill the void, plus the returning Atticus Ross (who worked on See You On the Other Side and multiple NIN albums) as co-producer.  The band took the adventurous, atmospheric approach from SYOTOS even further with this record, perfecting the mix of gritty guitar riffing and mood-enhancing keyboard pads (courtesy of virtuoso studio Moog-man Zac Baird).  The result was a thrilling, outside-the-box set of psychologically explorative songs with a ton of new sounds and instrumentation, some of Davis's best-ever vocals, Bozzio's unconventional, stuttering drumming, and some of the band's most innovative composition.  Untitled was met with mixed reviews, but for me it restored my faith in KoRn after two disappointing efforts.

Key Tracks: Sing Sorrow, Starting Over, Evolution

4. Untouchables

By the year 2000 KoRn had arguably taken up Metallica's mantle of Biggest Heavy Band in the World.  While the latter struggled with interpersonal strife, KoRn was enjoying a creative and commercial peak.  They wanted their next album to be epic, to reflect their position at the forefront of early 2000s metal music.  To that end they spent a fortune and roughly two years recording with Marilyn Manson producer Michael Beinhorn, and emerged from the studio with what was intended to be their iconic record - heavy as hell, electronically atmospheric, and chock full of big production value.  Artistically and critically it was a success, making great use of their widening musical palette and garnering their most favorable reviews to date.  But after the first week the album's sales were disappointing (partly due to online leaks two weeks ahead of the release date), and they quickly rushed ahead with a back-to-basics followup to try and right the ship.  But regardless of its commercial performance, Untouchables is a major accomplishment, loaded with big, colorful songs that took the band's sound in bold new directions and demonstrated their penchant for epic, theatrical hard rock.

Key Tracks: No One's There, Thoughtless, One More Time

3. Life is Peachy

The most violently heavy KoRn record is this demented, percussive, 48-minute attack on the senses.  The band's sophomore effort took what they had established on KoRn, stripped the songwriting down to its essentials, added some hip hop flavor, and dialed up the aggression, placing greater emphasis on Fieldy's jangly slap-bass tone and Jonathan's death metal- and agony-infused vocals.  Aside from two fun little cover songs (Ice Cube's "Wicked" and WAR's "Low Rider"), Life is Peachy is oppressively dark and muddy, with more lyrics focusing on Davis's traumatic adolescence.  When I think of "the KoRn sound," Life is Peachy is the first album that springs to mind.  This album sounds like the inside of a serial killer's brain - disheveled, brutal, ugly, relentless.

Key Tracks: Good God, ADIDAS, Twist

2. Follow the Leader

KoRn's most commercially successful album was their 1998 release Follow the Leader, which incorporated even more hip hop elements while suping up the audio production.  From a purely aural standpoint this album to me is the definitive KoRn record - it's polished enough to be a mainstream release but still has that nasty KoRn rawness.  The band were just becoming mainstream stars by this point, their easy access to drugs, alcohol and women frequently sidetracking and/or influencing the recording process, and as a result the album feels erratic and decadent.  But it fits the theme of the record, which often explores the band's struggles with newfound notoriety, plus really demented shit like stuff Jonathan saw while working at a funeral home ("Pretty"), and a really fucked up love song his wife asked him to write for her ("My Gift to You").  Follow the Leader has been aptly described as "an urban nightmare" - it's a tortured, depraved mix of metal and rap that made both genres feel dangerous again.  This is music to get arrested to.

Key Tracks: Freak on a Leash, B.B.K., Seed

1. Issues

For me KoRn's apex, the album that turned the KoRner, was their fourth LP Issues, astonishingly released only 15 months after Follow the Leader.  The band credits the efficient recording process largely to steady-handed producer Brendan O'Brien, who got them to drop their party lifestyle in the studio and just focus on the music.  Issues has a very organic, effortless feel to it, with streamlined composition, beautifully atmospheric guitar textures, and the strongest vocals of Jonathan Davis's career up to that point.  Until Issues came out I couldn't get into KoRn's music, but its no-nonsense emphasis on melody and songwriting allowed me to drop my preconceptions and just listen; twenty years later I'm still listening.  For that reason alone Issues ranks high, but above all it's an incredible record full of classic KoRn songs that plays like a cohesive concept album, a further exploration of the upheaval of fame.  Issues is greater than the sum of its parts.

Key Tracks: Make Me Bad, Wake Up, Counting

And that's the official ranking of KoRn albums - hope you enjoyed this retrospective.  Comment below with your rankings!

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