Bright Eyes originally began as a solo project by singer/songwriter Conor Oberst. As a musician and songwriter, Conor has been prolific in releasing music under Bright Eyes and multiple side projects with monikers such as Monster of Folk, Desaparecidos, Better Oblivion Community Centre, and so many others. Shortly after the first Bright Eyes release, multi-instrumentalist and producer Mike Mogis would join the band as a permanent member. They would release four projects before bringing Nate Walcott on board as the band’s third and last permanent member. Since then, they have been rotating a line-up of collaborators, primarily from Omaha’s indie music scene with every album they release. Now, almost twenty years since the start of Bright Eyes’ career in 1999, I’m ranking all eight studio albums released starting with their debut “A Collection Of Songs Written And Recorded 1995-1997” up to the most recent release prior to this writing titled “Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was.”
10. The People’s Key (2011)
Not so bad of an album, but not great either. I know this record has its fans, and if you consider yourself one of them, I’m sorry for putting it at the bottom of the list. But to me, this album doesn’t have a character, a personality. It’s lost in space somewhere between emo and indie rock. It seems like an attempt to modernize what Bright Eyes used to be known for, but it lacks the depth of previous efforts. The lyrics are good, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t help wanting something more out of Bright Eyes than just “good” lyrics. I guess if you’re looking for those old folk-rock roots that made critics compare Conor to Bob Dylan, then you might not like this album as much as the rest.
9. A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 (1998)
“A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997” was the birth of the Bright Eyes and the only one of their releases with just Oberst. Oberst said that he was still in high school when he penned this 20-track debut album. His songwriting skills were raw and underdeveloped at this stage, but you can hear the potential in every note. Suffice it to say that it is more of a time capsule than an album, good for die-hard fans interested in the early years.
8. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (2005)
“Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” is an underrated album, in my opinion. Released simultaneously with “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning”, this album is a lot more experimental and electronic than its counterpart. It does have some filler, but I think it’s an excellent display of what Bright Eyes were capable of musically. There’s a great balance between the upbeat and somber tracks, and the lyrics are as good as ever. The album makes a good choice for those who want to explore more of Bright Eyes’ material but don’t feel like going back to their older records.
7. Letting off the Happiness (1998)
Bright Eye’s sophomore release marked the first time they’ve created an album where every track belongs. The album also introduced Mike Mogis, a permanent Bright Eye member. Oberst had just turned 18 when the album was released, but he sounds very wise and mature for his age. The songs are still folky like their debut, but at times it almost feels like you’re listening to electronic music (not a bad thing, to clarify).
6. Cassadaga (2007)
Cassadaga is the first Bright Eyes album where I listen to every single track without skipping anything. Although it does have some filler, the number of great tracks here is impressive. It’s also more of a band effort, with Oberst finally sharing the spotlight with his bandmates. The lyrics are very inspired and deep; this is an ideal record if you’re into introspection and self-reflection. Johnny Depp even mentioned it as one of the best things to happen in 2007.
5. A Christmas Album (2002)
“A Christmas Album” is the band’s fifth studio album, but it’s really just a collection of B-sides and unreleased material. It is not the kind of release you’d expect from an indie rock band like Bright Eyes, but I think it fits their style very well. Some people might consider this a cash grab by Oberst since Christmas records are in high demand around the holidays, but that’s not the case. It’s a very enjoyable album with lots of Christmas classics.
4. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was (2020)
“Down in the Weeds…” is the band’s 10th studio album and the latest release in the discography. It is their first album since 2011 and their only album not released by Saddle Creek records. Although it’s not as “Bright Eyes-y” as people might expect, it’s still a solid folk-rock record with brilliant lyricism and musicality.
3. Fevers and Mirrors (2000)
Before “Blowing up with “Lifted…” in 2002, “Fevers and Mirrors” was what put Bright Eyes on the map. This album has a lot of charm, like listening to an old friend you haven’t met in years. Oberst’s songwriting reaches new heights here, with some of his best lyrics ever written. The arrangements are very raw and straightforward, which makes the intimate feeling of the album something to treasure. No Bright Eyes collection is complete without this one.
2. Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2002)
“Lifted or The Story…” marked the band’s commercial breakthrough, with “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” becoming their most recognizable song. The album has a bright, confident tone, which is refreshing in the current indie rock scene. Bright Eyes’ folk-influence is powerful here, but it’s also the introduction of their electronic side which would manifest itself fully on subsequent releases. It was an important landmark in the band’s career and one of the most influential indie-rock albums to come out during its time.
1. I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning (2002)
When “Lifted…” hit the airwaves, Bright Eyes were suddenly the talk of the indie rock scene. Many people wondered if Oberst and Co. could deliver something of equal quality so soon after their breakthrough, and boy did they answer those questions. “I’m Wide Awake…” is a powerful folk-rock album with only a few flaws (if any) and absolutely no filler tracks. Oberst’s lyrics are some of his best ever, and the music is just as good. What makes the album special is that it touches you on an emotional level, drawing you into the songs with vivid imagery and deep meaning. It’s one of those albums that you’ll come back to again and again, putting it at #1 in my list.