As a kid in the mid-’90s with a nascent interest in music, I started to explore my parents’ CD collection. Money was tight and so all entries held symbolic weight. There was The Beatles’ Abbey Road, The B-52’s self-titled LP and a curious amount of k.d. lang. There was also an album bearing a collaged image of a red car with what looked like a croissant draped across the top of it: Crowded House’s Together Alone.
I gave it a spin, but was initially disappointed. Where were the songs I knew from the radio like ‘Weather With You’ and ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’? A friend of mine would soon trump this discovery with a cassette tape version of the band’s 1996 greatest hits compilation, Recurring Dream. We played that tape to death and it’s had a lasting impact on the things I look for in pop music. Namely, that it be familiar and melodic, but also somewhat opaque, introducing a sense of emotional ambiguity that lingers on.
It’s a lot to ask, but this quality was present in the majority of Recurring Dream’s 19 tracks and buttresses the argument that Neil Finn is responsible for some of the finest pop songs of the last 40 years. But what about the albums these hits were drawn from? Have they stood the test of time or are they more or less defined by their singles?
When you’ve written songs with such gargantuan resonance as ‘Mean to Me’, ‘Better Be Home Soon’, ‘Private Universe’ and ‘It’s Only Natural’, you kind of get a pass where deep cuts are concerned. But Neil Finn – who also worked in collaboration with his brother Tim for a short period – is an incredibly consistent writer and each of the band’s six albums is an absorbing listen.
Here is every Crowded House album ranked, from excellent to sublime.
6. Intriguer (2010)
After 2007’s Time On Earth – Crowded House’s first LP in 14 years – there was no certainty about whether the band would continue on. Intriguer arrived three years later, however, and suggested the band was entering a second heyday.
Wilco producer Jim Scott captures a band not inclined to simulate their earlier selves but still in possession of the spark and sly melodic complexity that brought them to such heights in the first place. While none of its tracks rank among their best, it’s hard to find a bad song on Intriguer.
The pleasingly direct ten song, 40 minute suite begins with ‘Saturday Sun’, which is driven by Nick Seymour’s murmuring distorted bass playing. The penultimate number, ‘Even If’, can be filed in the category “Neil Finn songs that sound like lost Beatles gems.”
5. Woodface (1991)
What? The album that contains ‘Chocolate Cake’, ‘It’s Only Natural’, ‘Fall At Your Feet’, ‘Weather With You’ and ‘Four Seasons In One Day’ only makes it to fifth? It’s an ecstatic opening sequence, but the low ranking is a testament to the strength of the competition.
Tim Finn joined the band for this record after some incredibly fruitful songwriting sessions for a planned Finn Brothers album gave rise to many of the aforementioned FM radio staples. The brothers sing in harmony through much of Woodface, including on the George Harrison-indebted ‘It’s Only Natural’, which quickly became a live favourite. Neil carries the bulk of the load on the album’s preeminent slow burner, ‘Fall At Your Feet’, which demonstrates his knack for rendering nuanced sophistication as infectious pop music.
The album’s a bit long, however – it could do without Tim’s ‘All I Ask’ and drummer Paul Hester’s ‘Italian Plastic’ – and Mitchell Froom’s production wants for warmth. That said, arriving in 1991, it’s not weighed down by any of the era’s affectations, choosing instead to zoom in on the brothers’ idiosyncratic songcraft.
4. Temple of Low Men (1988)
Following their impeccable 1986 debut can’t have been an easy task, but Temple of Low Men showed that international success hadn’t interfered with Finn’s clarity of purpose. Crowded House became pop famous in 1986 with a kind of singer-songwriter focused rock music that was anomalous to the period. Doubling down on this artistic independence, rather than playing to the crowd, was the logical next move.
Temple of Low Men is a darker and more varied record than its predecessor and while the rockabilly influenced ‘Sister Madly’ gets a bit tiring and the mid-tempo ‘Mansion in the Slums’ fails to excite, it’s loaded with canonical Finn compositions.
The first half includes the funk subtleties and power pop blasts of ‘I Feel Possessed’ and the lush meditation on infidelity, ‘Into Temptation’. The album’s final song, ‘Better Be Home Soon’, rivals ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ for the band’s most unconquerable sing-along. It took on extra significance when Finn performed it at the 2005 ARIA awards in the wake of Hester’s death.
3. Together Alone (1993)
The final record of the band’s original run was also the only real stylistic departure of the bunch. Albums one to three were exercises in crisp studio sophistication made with LA producer Mitchell Froom, but Together Alone saw the band working in New Zealand for the first time and flying in Killing Joke member and Paul McCartney collaborator, Youth, to produce.
Together Alone sounds like the 90s, especially the distorted power chords that kick off ‘Black and White Boy’ – an effect in scant usage across the band’s entire catalogue – but the arrangements are warmer and the textures more inviting. Opener ‘Kare Kare’, for example, reveals a psychedelic inquisitiveness infiltrating Finn’s singer-songwriter classicism.
A whopping seven singles were lifted from Together Alone including ‘Distant Sun’, ‘Private Universe’ and ‘Pineapple Head’ all of which were immediately frolicking with the haut monde of Finn’s oeuvre. Maori singers Te Waka Huia Cultural Group Choir make a prominent appearance on the title track, which should tilt the debate about whether Crowded House are an Australian or Kiwi band in favour of the latter.
2. Time On Earth (2007)
The announcement of Time On Earth stirred controversy in 2007. Two years prior drummer Paul Hester had taken his life, which inspired Finn and Seymour to get back into the studio together. Finn initially asked Seymour to play on his next solo album, but it would soon metamorphose into the fifth Crowded House album.
The controversy was related to Hester’s absence, but Time On Earth bears the distinct imprint of a Crowded House record, carrying some of Finn’s sharpest songwriting since Woodface. Johnny Marr adds guitar to two songs: first single ‘Don’t Stop Now’, which could suitably described as a ‘Fall At Your Feet’ follow-up, and the album’s peppy highlight, ‘Even A Child’.
Producers Ethan Johns (Laura Marling, Kings of Leon) and Steve Lillywhite (U2, The Pogues) were on hand to give Time On Earth the most organic sonic character of the band’s catalogue. There’s an autumnal shade to the record, nothing is overdone and Finn proves he’s a committed craftsman still capable of summoning lines like, “And I wake up blind, like my dreams were too bright.”
1. Crowded House (1986)
Neil Finn joined Split Enz in 1977. He made seven albums with the band before they split up in 1984. For the final two – Conflicting Emotions and See Ya ‘Round – Neil took over from Tim as the main songwriter. Songs like ‘I Got You’, ‘Message to My Girl’ and ‘History Never Repeats’ were early indications of what Neil was capable of, but still couldn’t prepare you for the start-to-finish brilliance of Crowded House’s 1986 debut.
Bringing Hester with him from Split Enz and recruiting visual artist Seymour, Crowded House is built on the confluence of hearty comradeship and blazing creativity. They’ll be playing its opening four tracks – ‘Mean to Me’, ‘World Where You Live’, ‘Now We’re Getting Somewhere’ and ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ – on Smooth FM until the end of days, but their ubiquity shouldn’t veil the quality of Finn’s writing.
The record’s other major hit, ‘Something So Strong’, is undeniable. No matter your mood, it’ll draw you into a place of optimism, dangling in front of you the notion that anything indeed might be possible.
It’s not that the other records pale in comparison to their 11-song debut, but it’s the only one where every song could’ve been a single – and the sort of single you don’t tire of hearing.
Crowded House play Byron Bay Bluesfest this April.