Minus The Bear albums ranked from worst to best
Minus The Bear were a band who fit in everywhere and nowhere all at once. They emerged in the early 2000s, at a time when so many different alternative/independent/underground rock scenes were taking off, and they had things in common with all of them but seemed to be the square peg in just about every scene's round hole. In our recent podcast interview with guitarist David Knudson, he said (and I'm slightly paraphrasing) that Minus The Bear were too earnest and uncool for the dance-punk stuff taking off in New York and too fun for the indie scene in their Pacific Northwest hometown area. They did end up being embraced by and touring with some of the bands in the then-exploding emo scene, but they also made a conscious effort not to fit in with the pop punk and post-hardcore-leaning stuff that tended to populate that world. With David coming out of the soon-to-break-up, soon-to-be-very-influential mathcore band Botch; vocalist/guitarist Jake Snider coming out of the indie/math rock band Sharks Keep Moving; bassist Cory Murchy and drummer Erin Tate coming out of the post-hardcore band Kill Sadie; and keyboardist/producer Matt Bayles having worked with Botch, Isis, The Blood Brothers, and more; Minus The Bear's members had already had a variety of different backgrounds, and they set out to make this band different than any band any of them had ever been in. They embraced the guitar tapping techniques they learned from listening to influential math rockers Don Caballero, but David especially became known for using pedals and loops and treating his guitar more like an electronic instrument, while he and Erin also bonded over the danceable rhythms of Daft Punk. At the same time, Minus The Bear didn't want to write overly complex math rock or beat-driven dance music; they wanted to write songs, and -- like a lot of Pacific Northwesterners did around that time -- looked to the songwriting of Built To Spill for cues. The result was a band who pulled from and/or collided with indie rock, math rock, electronic music, dance-punk, pop, emo, post-hardcore, and more, and by the mid/late 2000s they'd start heavily embracing prog too. And on top of it all, Jake was often casual and subdued but he could erupt when he needed to. His lyrics were conversational and poetic and funny and serious all at once. He sang about partying and drinking and relationships and the regular mundane parts of life with equal fervor. His vivid lyrics could instantly transport you to whatever scene he was singing about, and his sticky hooks always gave you something to sing along to.
Minus The Bear broke up in 2018, but having put out their farewell live album less than a year ago, it still feels fresh, and with the approaching 20th anniversary of their debut album Highly Refined Pirates, the recent reunion of David Knudson and Jake Snider on David's debut solo album, David's series of guitar playthrough videos of MTB and Botch songs, and the new Botch song and Botch reunion shows, Minus The Bear have just been in the air lately, so I thought it'd be a good time to look back on their rich discography in the form of an album ranking. I included all six of their proper full-length albums, as well as their two core EPs from their early days, but left off the two acoustic albums, their remix album, the live album, and 2014's outtakes collection Lost Loves, because I didn't think those necessarily made sense in a ranking, but they're all cool and very worth checking out. And though a ranking does imply a certain type of hierarchy that might do a disservice to a discography as consistently rewarding as Minus The Bear's, I really just see it as a fun way to dive into their career and hopefully provide a starting point for new listeners, but each Minus The Bear album is worth hearing and just about every one brings something unique to the table.
With all that said, read on for the list...
8. Infinity Overhead (2012)
With each of their first four full-lengths, it felt like Minus The Bear were working towards something new. On each one, they pushed their sound in more than one new direction, all while continuing to solidify the distinct Minus The Bear-ness that connected all of their albums together and separated them from every other band. On their fifth album, 2012's Infinity Overhead, it felt like they were starting to lose that initial steam. The songs all sound distinctly like Minus The Bear songs, but they're missing the hunger that Minus The Bear had throughout the first decade of their career. Infinity Overhead never seems to push Minus The Bear anywhere new, and the songs don't pop in the way that this band's best songs always did. But it's not a total dud or a misstep either; even while kinda seeming like they were on autopilot, Minus The Bear still sounded like no other band on the planet, and they still had plenty of shining moments. "Diamond Lightning" is a gorgeous song on Minus The Bear's ballad-driven side, it became a setlist staple, and it ranks among Minus The Bear's best-ever tracks. Outside of Minus The Bear's acoustic reworkings albums, "Listing" is a rare song in the band's proper catalog fueled by breezy acoustic guitars. And Infinity Overhead saves some of its best songs for last. The dual guitars on "Zeros" and the proggy freakout on "Lonely Gun" find the band really letting it rip, and album closer "Cold Company" is upbeat, catchy Minus The Bear at its finest, with a riffy undertone that reminds you of David Knudson's metal roots. Infinity Overhead may not reach the heights of Minus The Bear's other albums, but when it's at its best, it captures so much of what made Minus The Bear such a uniquely great band.
7. Voids (2017) + Fair Enough EP (2018)
Minus The Bear took five years to put out a new album after Infinity Overhead -- their longest gap between albums ever -- and in that time they put out their second of two acoustic releases and their rarities/outtakes comp Lost Loves. When they finally returned in 2017 with Voids, they sounded totally refreshed; it's an album that's just about as good as their classics, and it's home to a good chunk of songs that rival their most widely-loved fan faves. Though Voids is Minus The Bear's last LP, it's an album of firsts. It was their first album back on their original label of Suicide Squeeze after departing for Dangerbird with 2010's Omni. It was their first album with new drummer Kiefer Matthias, who replaced original drummer Erin Tate. And it was their first album with producer Sam Bell. Matt Bayles, who produced almost every Minus The Bear album and played keyboards in the band from 2001-2006, was instrumental in helping the band establish their iconic sound, but they really ended up clicking with Sam Bell too, and the chemistry they formed with him led to David Knudson continuing to work with Sam in his solo career.
Voids seemed to pick up where Omni highlights like "Into the Mirror" and "My Time" left off, showing off the poppier, dancier side of Minus The Bear and toning down their mathier and proggier sides. Its two singles "Last Kiss" and "Invisible" stand out as some of the catchiest, most immediate songs Minus The Bear ever wrote, and I think if they were able to do more touring behind Voids, those songs would've started to get demanded as much as "Pachuca Sunrise." And at least half of the other Voids tracks are just about as catchy. It's not super common for a band nearing the 20-year mark to drop one of their most concise, most instantly-satisfying records and then break up, but Minus The Bear did it. And it wasn't just that they went for a more streamlined sound, it's also that their songwriting was at the top of its game. Jake's words and melodies on Voids really landed with impact the way they did on Minus The Bear's earliest records, and even when the album does pivot to a song that requires a little more patience, Minus The Bear still keep you at the edge of your seat. The album's party-starting tone may be unusual for a swan song, but in Jake's lyricism it does come off like maybe Voids was the comedown from the high that Minus The Bear had been on from the start. Lines like "You're drinking in solitude/All the lies," "Now I'm faded, useless, unless you come home," "Where did we lose ourselves?," and "I can't believe it ends like this" suggest that maybe Voids' narrator is a little more run-down than the one who was throwing beer cans out of car windows two decades earlier. Voids is a hangover you can still dance to, and its sessions were also fruitful enough to produce three more great songs that ended up on the following year's Fair Enough EP (along with a Sombear remix of "Invisible"). Together, they made a great soundtrack to Minus The Bear's long goodbye, and as we get further and further removed from Minus The Bear's breakup, the Voids songs just keep hitting harder and harder.
6. This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic (2001)
It often takes bands a minute to find a sound they can truly their call own, but that was not the case for Minus The Bear. They put out their first EP This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic the same year they formed, before the members' previous bands had even broken up, and right off the bat they'd brewed up the concoction of tapping math rock guitars, danceable rhythms, electronic manipulation, and sincere storytelling that would uniquely define this band for years. The only reason this EP only comes in at #6 on this list is that Minus The Bear took their music to greater and greater heights as they went on, but they really did start out on such a high level.
Minus The Bear are a band who tend to fall on the upbeat side, but the first song on their first-ever EP, "Hey, Wanna Throw Up? Get Me Naked," opens up practically in slowcore territory. Eventually they bring in David Knudson's bubbly, now-trademark guitar style, Jake Snider's now-trademark lyrical style ("Let's get the fuck out of here, it's like a congregation"), and the song slowly builds before reaching an explosive climax. It's an opening that never fails to hook you right in, and once you're there, Minus The Bear hit you with "Lemurs, Man, Lemurs." If there's one song on their first EP that entirely epitomizes their classic sound, it's this one. All these years and albums later, "Lemurs, Man, Lemurs" remains Minus The Bear at their most signature and their finest. Not far behind it is EP closer "Pantsuit...Uggghhh," a towering, six-minute song that brings the slowcore vibes back before gradually morphing into the band's unmistakable math-pop. Minus The Bear also pad the EP with a few interlude-y tracks, which show off their knack for sound manipulation and also help This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic feel like a grand experience, even though it only has a few proper songs.
5. Planet of Ice (2007)
Minus The Bear spent their first two albums and EPs defining what we now know as the classic Minus The Bear sound, and with their third album, 2007's Planet of Ice, they took that sound to places it had never gone before. The band started adding a steady diet of prog to their usual list of influences, and their love of classic bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson came through loudly and clearly on Planet of Ice. There are a couple times when Minus The Bear really dive into jammed out prog territory, like on "Dr. L'Ling" and "Lotus," lengthy odysseys that near the seven and nine minute marks, respectively, but for the most part, Planet of Ice repurposes those influences in very modern, distinctly Minus The Bear-style ways. It was around the same time that bands ranging from The Mars Volta to Circa Survive to Mew were introducing prog into aughts-era indie rock and post-hardcore, and Planet of Ice didn't sound like those bands, but it had a likemindedness and often appealed to the same niche audience. Like those bands, Minus The Bear never came off as retro or overly indebted to their classic rock-era influences. And they still sounded like themselves. "Knights" may have a heroic guitar solo in there, but it's also fueled by a main guitar riff that's almost entirely played by foot pedals, and that's just about the most Minus The Bear move in the world - treating a guitar and a set of pedals like electronic music rather than treating it like traditional rock guitar.
Alongside their newfound knack for proggy experimentation, Planet of Ice also found Minus The Bear writing some of the best and most iconic songs of their career. Prog's a brainy genre, but Planet of Ice had all the heart that Minus The Bear's earlier records had, with passionate, pop-centric hooks on a handful of songs throughout the record. "Burying Luck," "Throwin' Shapes," and the aforementioned "Knights" quickly emerged as clear standouts, while the more subtle choruses on the deeper cuts all eventually revealed themselves to be just as enduring. Planet of Ice works so well because it saw Minus The Bear using new tools to create a record that no other band could have made. It was as modern, catchy, and uniquely Minus The Bear-like as anything they'd done prior, even though it could often appear like a departure or a more "difficult" record. It's a record that shows the members of a band growing and progressing together, toying with new ideas all while further cementing the chemistry that made this band unlike any other.
4. Omni (2010)
After making the proggiest record of their career, Minus The Bear went in the almost polar opposite direction with Omni, their most overtly pop album. Having made all of their previous music with producer/former member Matt Bayles (who left before Planet of Ice but still produced that one), this time they worked with Joe Chiccarelli, a big-name producer whose resume included other indie rock bands like My Morning Jacket, The Shins, and Manchester Orchestra, as well as major stars like Elton John and U2. (It was also their first album for Dangerbird, after putting out all of their others on Suicide Squeeze.) Matt Bayles was a crucial part of the classic Minus The Bear sound, but a fresh start is always good, and Minus The Bear sounded very refreshed on Omni. They tamed their prog and math rock influences without abandoning them entirely, really honed in on their strong melodies and their vivid lyricism, and came out with a collection of songs that signaled a new era for the band and that fit in perfectly with the direction the indie music landscape was going at the time. The emo boom and dance-punk crazes had both kinda died down by 2010, but this was around the time that bands like MGMT, Passion Pit, Hot Chip, and Phoenix were ushering in a new wave of danceable indie pop, and Omni fit right in with that stuff. "My Time" and "Into the Mirror" are two of the most undeniable pop songs of Minus The Bear's career, and just as worthy of inclusion in the indie pop canon as "1901" and "Kids." "Into the Mirror" especially is one of the most imagery-inducing songs Minus The Bear ever wrote. It drops you right into the middle of a house party with a sense of melancholy and a nearly cinematic level of storytelling, and every time I hear it I feel like I'm right there with the characters in the song.
Elsewhere on Omni, Minus The Bear flex their metal chops with the riffs on "Secret Country," a song that manages to feel sludgy and dancey all at once. And not exactly metal, but the riffs on "Hold Me Down" get pretty beefy too, and they make a nice contrast in what's otherwise a cruising, mid-tempo indie rock song. Their softer, more ballad-driven side is in fine form on "Excuses," and they're at their trippiest on "Animal Backwards," a song that almost could've fit on the previous year's Animal Collective album. Throughout all of it, they sound airtight and churn out one singalong chorus after another. And making this catchy, big-sounding record with a big-name producer never meant sacrificing any of the creativity that made their earlier records so appealing. Just as Planet of Ice is the type of prog record that only Minus The Bear could have made, Omni is the kind of pop album that only could have come from this band.
3. They Make Beer Commercials Like This (2004)
Minus The Bear were really on fire in the first few years of their career, with two full-length albums and two EPs in a four-year span, and just about everything they touched turned to Minus The Bear's unique version of gold. They bridged the gap from their near-perfect 2002 debut album Highly Refined Pirates and their equally classic 2005 sophomore album Menos El Oso with 2004's They Make Beer Commercials Like This EP, and the shorter release was just as monumental as the two full-lengths that surrounded it. (It makes sense that this EP was given an anniversary tour.) It only has seven songs (including the bonus track that was tacked on with the 2008 re-release), but each of those songs are among their most impactful and enduring. And the EP stands tall next to its two surrounding full-lengths as its own project, not just an extension of Highly Refined Pirates or a precursor to Menos El Oso. These songs seemed to take the most widely-appealing moments of Pirates and made them sound bigger, catchier, and more streamlined. Opener "Fine + 2 Pts" is Minus The Bear's beloved brand of indie-dance-math-pop at its most effective, and one of their best-ever songs. "Let's Play Clowns" and "Hey! Is That A Ninja Up There?" are both danceably tech-y Minus The Bear at its finest, and the lyrics of the latter are some of Jake Snider's best, perfectly capturing the deceptively carefree attitude that defined so many of Minus The Bear's best songs. "Dog Park" is the perfect example of how good Minus The Bear can be at building up to an explosive rock chorus when the song calls for it, while "I'm Totally Not Down With Rob's Alien" is one of their best ethereal songs. This EP's got just about everything Minus The Bear were capable of during their much-loved era of their career, and it finds them operating at their absolute best.
2. Menos El Oso
My guess is that if you surveyed a group of Minus The Bear fans and asked them to all name their favorite album by the band, the two most popular answers would be their 2002 debut album Highly Refined Pirates and their 2005 sophomore album Menos El Oso. Those two albums and the EPs that preceded each one really defined the classic Minus The Bear sound, birthed the bulk of the band's most widely loved songs, and all still sound just as fresh and unique today as they did 15-20 years ago. I think either of those two albums could top this list, though Highly Refined Pirates has the edge for me, but Menos El Oso is also a near-perfect album that found Minus The Bear operating at the absolute top of their game. As the story goes, this album was written after the band toured Spain, and that's where it gets its Spanish album title, its artwork, and its iconic single that takes place at midnight on a beach in the Mediterranean. As a result, it's the band's warmest, most relaxed album, covered in the haze of a summer that's too good to be true. Or, as Jake puts it in "Drilling": "It may be a dream, and we come to this place like two convicts that have escaped from the prison of everyday."
As a lyricist, Jake had fully hit his stride on Menos El Oso. The songs are so vivid, so imagery-inducing, and he makes all the tiny parts of life feel huge. He turns everyday moments into poetry ("A swimming pool with no bodies is a problem that we can fix"), he puts care into the carefree ("This is a city for not sleeping, the clocks are set by feel"), and conversations play out like movie dialogs ("'Come on man,' she said, 'We have to leave this town/I can't stand another day without the rain'"). As he lays out his stories, the band crafts one stunning backdrop after the next. Songs go from dancey to mathy to rockin' at the drop of a hat, and Minus The Bear sound totally in the pocket at every turn. Guitars can be shimmering and beautiful, or tech-y and mind-bending. They sound like a band who love punk as much as they love funk, without ever fitting neatly into either one, and you get a small taste of the prog influences that would get fully explored on Planet of Ice too. Some songs feel anxious and jittery, others feel smooth and chill. On Menos El Oso, Minus The Bear's unique blend of influences had come together so seamlessly that it became fully impossible to try to shoehorn them into any individual genre of music. They were just Minus The Bear, and they were very, very good at being that.
1. Highly Refined Pirates (2002)
When a group of musicians with backgrounds in mathcore, post-hardcore, emo, and indie rock came together to form Minus The Bear, they knew they wanted this band to be different than everything else they'd done prior. They made that clear on their 2001 debut EP This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic, and they fully perfected it on the following year's full-length Highly Refined Pirates, which fully cemented Minus The Bear as a band who fit in everywhere and nowhere all at once, and holds up as one of the strongest guitar rock records of the 2000s. David Knudson describes early Minus The Bear as a band who wanted to simultaneously channel the math rock of Don Caballero, the danciness of Daft Punk, and the emotional sincerity of Built To Spill, and that comes through loud and clear on Pirates' opening track "Thanks For The Killer Game of Crisco Twister," on which Minus The Bear knowingly sound like an indie/math rock band trying to write their own "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." Even more so than anything on This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic, this song felt like a mission statement. It perfectly captured their unique musical goals, and it remains one of Jake Snider's finest lyrical moments as well. The very first line on the album sets him up as someone who can be fun, funny, smart, sensitive, conversational, casual, and poetic all at once: "And then we all bought yachts and raced up the islands," the album begins, dropping you right into the middle of a story that began at unknown point in an unknown place. It doesn't really matter exactly where or when you are though; you just feel it.
All of this continues throughout the album, as Minus The Bear trek through blurry city lights on drunken drives, sitting on park benches that are older than countries, icy mountain roads, swims in the bay, and conversations about having to wake up so fucking early. It's one thrilling ride after the next, all set to a soundtrack that ranges from dance beats and math rock riffs to post-rocky ballads to glitchy interludes to explosive post-hardcore choruses. Their unique style of guitar tapping, complex rhythms, and usage of loops and sound effects made them a favorite among music geeks, but all the technical stuff was always balanced out by poppy hooks and sentimental lyrics that you could latch onto even if you don't know or care what a DL4 is. And Minus The Bear's cerebral side and visceral side always came together to create something much greater than the sum of Minus The Bear's many parts. They were as brainy as other math rock bands but catchier than most of them, as dancey as dance-punk bands but more emo than most of them, as catchy as pop music but smarter and weirder, etc etc etc. This album defined who Minus The Bear were and, to some extent, who they'd always be. They went on to do things that this album only hinted at, and they very much evolved and progressed as a band since its release. Putting it at #1 on this list doesn't mean they didn't improve over the years; it's #1 because this is the album that created something entirely new, something that was so special, so strong, and so timeless. It's spawned a few imitators over the years, but the only band to ever write records that could capture and expand upon the spirit of Highly Refined Pirates were Minus The Bear themselves.
The ranked list only includes Minus The Bear's eight core studio releases, but they do have other records that are worth spending time with, including:
Interpretaciones del Oso (2007)
In 2007, Minus The Bear put out an album with remixes of songs from Menos El Oso, including contributions from Tyondai Braxton of Battles, Morgan Henderson of The Blood Brothers (and who also played in Sharks Keep Moving with Jake Snider before Minus The Bear), The Oktopus of Dälek, Fog (aka Andrew Broder), indie-rapper P.O.S., fellow Seattle scenester J. Clark (who was in both Kill Sadie and Sharks Keep Moving, as well as Pretty Girls Make Graves), and more. Listen here.
Acoustics (2008) & Acoustics II (2013)
For a band who relied so heavily on electronic manipulation, it's fascinating to hear Minus The Bear strip their songs down to a primitive, acoustic-based setup, and that's what they did with their two acoustic releases, in 2008 and 2013. It's a much different beast than their proper records, and there are some truly gorgeous moments on these. Listen here and here.
Lost Loves (2014)
In 2014, Minus The Bear put out Lost Loves, an album of outtakes and rarities recorded during the sessions for Planet of Ice, Omni, and Infinity Overhead. Like any outtakes/rarities album, sometimes you can tell why Minus The Bear chose to leave some of these off the albums, but there are some real gems on there. Listen here.
After Minus The Bear broke up, they celebrated their career with a live album, Farewell, which was recorded during Minus The Bear's farewell tour in 2018. It's got an amazing selection of songs from all throughout Minus The Bear's career, from their very first EP to their final album/EP combo Voids and Fair Enough, and it shows off how well Minus The Bear's entire catalog fits together, as well as how tight of a live band they were until the very end. Listen here.
Pick up Minus The Bear vinyl here.