Kings of Leon’s Albums Ranked First to Worst

It has been almost three years since the Oklahoma-Tennessee-Mississippi-born and bred three-brothers-and-a-cousin who make up Kings of Leon have released a studio album. Given the pace to-date of their album releases, one can assume (and hope) that a new offering is not far off.

With that fact in mind, I will hereby pre-empt the release of new KOL music with a comprehensive and authoritative (in my mind) ranking of all seven of the Kings’ full-length LPs. Consider this a primer if you are too young to have caught KOL over the past 16 years, or if you are not-so-young and somehow missed out on all of their music, save the commercial hits from 2008’s Only By the Night.

1 – Youth and Young Manhood (2003)

Kings of Leon’s debut album is also their best. That judgment is probably questionable given the success of 2008’s Only by the Night, but I stick by it. This was the Kings at their rawest, most visceral, and least-polished. The band came stomping out of Tennessee with a southern-fried modern rock sound that was like Waffle House scrapple compared to contemporaries The Strokes’ polished New York Eggs Benedict.

From the opening riff and vocals of “Red Morning Light,” through the gritty hellscape of “Trani,” and on past the chugging tempo of “Molly’s Chambers,” the band delivers a pitch-perfect opening salvo of an album-length musical attack. From start to finish, the album is nearly flawless and it forecast great things to come.

Key tracks: “Molly’s Chambers,” “California Waiting,” “Trani”
Key deep cuts: “Happy Alone,” “Wasted Time,” “Spiral Staircase”

2 – Because of the Times (2007)

The band’s third album marked a significant departure from its first two offerings. It was more complex, richer-textured, and the LP presented an altogether different sound from the first two albums’ raw and undeveloped sonic vibe. It is the second half of the album, in particular, that does the heavy lifting here. The last half of the collection carries the whole project across the finish line, from great to classic. Songs like “Ragoo,” “True Love Way,” and “The Runner” seemingly never age, and on repeated listenings they reveal again and again new layers and fresh sounds.

From subdued, atmospherically-lurking backing vocals led by drummer Nathan Followill to breezier tempos and more clearly-sung lead vocals, the Kings clearly took more time crafting their songs, layering them, and putting a polish on them. That polish is not overdone, however, and gives the album a sound that is at-once both well-produced and raw. This was the real launch of Kings of Leon as a commercially successful arena rock band.

Key tracks: “Black Thumbnail,” “Fans,” “On Call”
Key deep cuts: “My Party,” “Arizona,” “Ragoo”

3 – Only by the Night (2008)

KOL’s fourth album was their commercial breakthrough, making the band famous in the United States for the first time, where it was certified Platinum (that’s when physical albums used to sell over a million copies, kids). The album also went Platinum in the UK and nine times Platinum in Australia. It continues to sell today, likely given the colossal success of the song “Use Somebody,” which won Grammy Awards in 2009 for Record of the Year and Best Rock Song.

Only by the Night was the logical culmination of the Kings’ efforts on its first three albums, but of course, many bands never make that leap and go from relative obscurity to giant commercial success. Kings of Leon did it and achieved rock and pop radio airplay, Grammy awards, critical success, and all the other things that only some bands are lucky enough to achieve maybe once in a career.

As far as the songs on the album, some are among the Kings’ absolute best, including the hits “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody,” as well as “Manhattan,” “Revelry,” and “Be Somebody.” Others are not quite up to par, from this amateur music critic’s perspective. In fact, this is the first Kings album — and not the last — to include songs that should’ve been left for a rarities or B-side collection (“17” and “I Want You”). If the latter had been left off in favor of two even marginally-better tracks, this could easily have been the best of the Kings’ albums.

Key tracks: “Sex on Fire,” “Use Somebody,” “Notion,” “Manhattan”
Key deep cuts: “Cold Desert,” “Be Somebody”

4 – Aha Shake Heartbreak (2005)

The Kings’ second album is likely many hardcore fans’ choice for their best, and with good reason. The opening track alone — “Slow Night, So Long” — is peak KOL and is as good a song as any they have recorded. The singles “The Bucket,” “Taper Jean Girl,” and “King of the Rodeo” round out the best four tracks on the album, which is tightly clustered with the three above as the Kings’ best work.

This was the band still in their rough-cut and raw phase, growling out lyrics, using scuzzy guitars, and when they did slow the tempo, settling not for standard mid-tempo love songs, but rather, innovative, gritty, on-the-road dirges (“Rememo”) and frankly lyrically-opaque acoustic numbers (“Milk”).

The album is great, and again, could easily be considered their best. It’s as good a place as any to start an exploration of the band’s music.

Key tracks: “The Bucket,” “Slow Night, So Long,” “Taper Jean Girl”
Key deep cuts: “Velvet Snow,” “Soft,” “Milk”

5 – Mechanical Bull (2013)

The best of KOL’s three most-recent, post-Only by the Night albums, Mechanical Bull is solid all the way through, if not great enough to crack the top 4 studio albums. The singles “Supersoaker,” “Beautiful War,” and “Temple” are all slick, catchy, and radio-friendly. Gone are the raw sounds and fuzzy guitars of earlier Kings of Leon albums, replaced by a more polished and produced sound.

The album’s weakest song, “Family Tree,” is still a funky bass and drum-driven jam, and not at all bad. “Rock City,” “Tonight,” and “Comeback Story” are great, and help put the album above the next two entries on the list. “Tonight,” in fact, would have been a sonically-perfect fit for Only By the Night, as it compliments the atmosphere of that album’s “Manhattan” and “Revelry.” This was the Kings in great form, enjoying their success, and putting out rock songs as good as any out there in the teens.

Key tracks: “Supersoaker,” “Wait for Me,” “Temple,” “Beautiful War”
key deep cuts: “Rock City,” “Tonight,” “Comeback Story”

6 – WALLS (2016)

Short for “We are Like Love Songs,” WALLS technically continues the KOL tradition of naming their albums in five syllables. The band’s most recent release, WALLS has some outstanding moments (“Waste a Moment,” “WALLS,” and “Wild”), as well as some solid tracks to fill out most of the album (“Reverend” and “Conversation Piece”). It also unfortunately has another of the weak tracks that should’ve stayed on the cutting room floor (“Muchacho”). This reviewer will be intrigued to see if the band takes a new direction in its next studio offering.

Key tracks: “Waste a Moment,” “WALLS”
Key deep cuts: “Wild,” “Conversation Piece”

7 – Come Around Sundown (2010)

Following the huge success of Only by the Night was bound to be difficult and the Kings did not make their best album in that classic’s wake. While there are some great songs (“The Immortals,” “The Face,” “Pick Up Truck,” and “Radioactive”), there are also a couple of pretty bad songs (“Mary” and “Mi Amigo”), as well as some weak ones (“Birthday” and “Pony Up”). Filling out the space between those extremes are some songs that, while good, are missing some elusive elements that would have made them great (“Back Down South” and “The End”).

Still, all things are relative, and this is an enjoyable album with enough horsepower to make it worth repeated listening.

Key tracks: “Radioactive,” “The Immortals,” “Pickup Truck
Key deep cuts: “No Money,” “The Face,” “Pyro”

So, now you are all set. Go forth and binge on some Kings of Leon before a new album drops.

Images from Wikimedia Commons

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1 year ago

I’m getting a kick out of how SEAL + CIA + firefighter = music critic I will actually read, about music from a group I’ve never even heard of, haha. Well done. Theo Dyssean and I were just talking about this concept of entire albums as a work of art that must be experienced as a whole. I don’t know that he’s convinced me, but you lend additional credibility to his arguments. N=2. I like that I can ignore most music as background noise until a particularly intriguing rhythm or phrase breaks through my concentration, and I end up buying… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  Miche

The days of an album existing as an entire work of art that should be listened to in its entirety are sadly gone. Most bands put out an album of singles with some filler tracks because that’s what record companies want to sell to the masses.

1 year ago
Reply to  JoyB

That was always the sense I got… that the bands really poured their heart and soul in to some songs, but the rest were just fillers so the record company could charge full price for the one or two songs you really wanted.

But then… I’ve also been surprised to discover a band member’s favorite song was never popular with everyone else, so maybe there’s just no accounting for what the masses want versus what the artist creates.

Joni Smith
Joni Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Miche

For the longest time, purely out of principal and appreciation of the artists creating music, I refused to buy singles. It still bothers me. Many think musicians get paid lots of money, so but most of it goes to record company and the publishing company. Songs with a million plays on YouTube generate very little cash. So to support my artist, I buy the whole album. Most of the time. Sometimes I’m disappointed, but most often I find hidden gems that never get airplay. I often find I listen to those songs more than ones with major airplay. I have… Read more »

Joni Smith
Joni Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Frumentarius

Fully agree. Lots of great singer songwriters out there still making great music. Everyone has heard of him now, but great example is Chris Stapleton. Great songwriter and I love that bluesy, raspy voice. And has been writing songs for others for long time. I’m glad he decided to go out on his own.

1 year ago

Still can’t stand the tone of the lead singers voice (he hits my cochlear nerve like nails on a chalk board), but this is a cool breakdown of their albums.

1 year ago

Fru – I tried man, I love how you break this down, but these fella’s never took hold with me. I was more of a Toadies, Local H, RATM, Offspring fella. With a bit of Heavy metal, AC/DC and Hum thrown in. I do appreciate your take on them and how you went into depth with each release.

Joni Smith
Joni Smith
1 year ago

Thanks for the review on KoL. I confess my favorite song is Use Somebody. I have wanted to dive into this band because I’ve heard other songs I like but couldn’t tell you the name. This gives me a tutorial to explore and I’m quite looking forward to it. Thanks Fru.

9 months ago

Definitely not a good ranking. Youth young and mans hood is great but absolutely the worst album from the band and although comearound sundown is always out on the back burner. It’s an amazing album! Mary has a genius melody and song structure like no other song I’ve ever heard before. While it was groundbreaking and a new eat of Kong’s of Leon it is simply a southern rock album with great lyrics. Go read the lyrics to immortals. You’ll cry. Clearly an article from someone who has not taken a deeeep dive into Kings of Leon. Or is one… Read more »

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