The San Francisco Chronicle once described the Avett Brothers’ sound as having the “heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, the raw energy of the Ramones.” A band with an eye on the future but a boot in the past, they almost defy description, combining elements of everything from bluegrass and ragtime to punk and rock and roll. Whether you’re a newcomer to the band or a longtime fan, here are 10 of the best Avett Brothers songs to check out.
10. Pretty Girl at the Airport
The Avett Brothers love pretty girls, and they love singing about them even more. They’ve even gone so far as to create a ‘Pretty Girl’ series, a collection of songs found throughout their albums based on – you guessed it – pretty girls. Of all of them, Pretty Girl at the Airport might well be the best. It’s definitely the most beautifully instrumented, with a gorgeous interplay between the banjo and cello. It’s also the only one to focus on a type of place (i.e. an airport) rather than a city or a country. Bittersweet, tinged with sadness, but undercut with a sense of possibility, it’s one of the highlights of their third album, 2004’s Mignonette.
9. I Would Be Sad
As Paste Magazine says, in lesser hands, I Would Be Sad could come across as whiny. In the capable hands of the Avett Brothers, it’s simply a gradual recognition of what went wrong in a relationship followed by acceptance and the desire to move on when the time is right. Beautifully sung and gorgeously instrumented, it captures the ups and downs of young love in a nutshell.
8. I Wish I Was
In June 2016, the Avett Brothers dropped their ninth studio album, True Sadness. It was a critical and commercial success, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and earning a Grammy Nomination for Best Americana Album. It’s an album that blends sadness and hope effortlessly, and nowhere is that more obvious than on I Wish I Was. The song begins by asking what should you do if you love someone, but are scared to get too close in case you extinguish the flame. The answer, they conclude, is to embrace intimacy with a willing heart and open arms.
7. The Ballad of Love and Hate
Emotionalism was where things changed for the Avett Brothers. Released in 2007, its success catapulted the band into the spotlight, winning critical acclaim, a position at No. 1 on the US Heatseekers Albums chart, and the attention of legendary producer Rick Rubin, who liked what he heard so much, he offered his services to the band for their next album. As All Music says, the album’s paramount emotion is love, a theme that comes to the fore on everything from the bouncy I Would be Sad to the blues-inflected Living of Love and the retro-rock of Will You Return. The star of the show, however, is The Ballad of Love and Hate, a wonderfully romantic tale that keeps you enthralled from the attention-grabbing opening line of “Love writes a letter and sends it to Hate” to the very last note.
6. February Seven
The Avett Brothers’ seventh studio album, The Carpenter, was released in 2007 to favorable reviews. Rolling Stone named it to their list of the top 50 albums of 2012, while Taste of Country called it “as close to perfect as one will find on a country (or country-leaning) album in 2012.” It’s an album soaked in melancholy, not least on the bittersweet February Seven, a song of sweeping arrangements, aching weariness, and a tender intensity that only grows as the song reaches its climax.
5. November Blue
November Blue was recorded for the first full-length Avett Brothers album, Country Was. As deseret.com says, the album’s sound is a very different proposition to the group’s more recent output, but the raw, unproduced quality serves a purpose, lending beautiful tracks like November Blue an edgy, vulnerable quality that only enhances their inherent loveliness.
4. Murder in the City
Murder in the City finds the group reflecting on youthful uncertainty, love, and death… all standard Avett Brothers fare, but rarely done quite so wonderfully as here. After starting with the irreverent “I wonder which brother is better / Which one our parents love the most,” it gets progressively more emotional, culminating in the request “Make sure my sister knows I loved her / Make sure my mother knows the same / Always remember there was nothing worth sharing / Like the love that let us share our name.” A firm fan favorite, the song was later covered by Brandi Carlile for her 2015 album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter.
3. No Hard Feelings
On No Hard Feeling’s the Avett Brothers get serious. They’ve never been a band to shy away from life’s challenges, but here, they face them head-on as they square up to Judgment Day. “When my body won’t hold me anymore/ And it finally lets me free/ Will I be ready?” they ask. After digging deep, they conclude that the best, and only, way to greet death is by finding love and forgiveness for those who’ve wronged us, and hoping for the same from those we’ve wronged in return.
2. Laundry Room
Of all the Avett Brothers’ songs, few resonate quite so strongly with fans as Laundry Room. Searching, yearning lyrics (“Teach me how to use the love that people say you made”), a slow-burning opener, a rowdy, bluegrass breakdown, and a huge, double-bass trip-hop solo… it shouldn’t all come together so well, but it does, resulting in a barn dance with a big punk bite that’s become a mainstay of the group’s live shows.
1. Paranoia In B-Flat Major
Emotionalism is studded with gems, but even in such fine company, Paranoia In B-Flat Major stands out as something special. Everything fans have come to love and expect from the Avett Brothers is here, from the introspective moral struggles of the lyrics to the boisterous guitars, the pretty girls, the banjo solos, and the punk edge. It’s best heard live, but if that’s not an option, the studio version will still spell out exactly why the band, and this song in particular, resonates with so many people across the world.