The Shadow Proves The Sunshine

Switchfoot Albums Ranked Worst To Best

by Jason Warburg

They say it’s better to burn out than fade away. Switchfoot continues to burn brightly after 20 years and 10 studio albums because this band has never stood still; the restless vision of frontman/lyricist Jonathan Foreman won’t allow it, and co-founders Tim Foreman (bass) and Chad Butler (drums) and longtime cohorts Jerome Fontamillas (keyboards/guitar) and Drew Shirley (guitar) are enthusiastic collaborators in the ongoing experiment that is Switchfoot.

A key component of that experiment is that Switchfoot—shades of Schrodinger’s cat—both is and isn’t a Christian band. Foreman’s lyrics dig deeply into questions of philosophy, morality, purpose and faith without ever preaching, threading the needle of talking about God quite a lot while rarely saying his name. They emerged from the CCM scene and continue that association to this day, but have taken a broad enough approach to the music they make to gain sustained attention from a mainstream audience.

The musical side of the band has been equally fearless, if perhaps not as consistently successful. Albums in the Switchfoot catalog range from garage power-trio (the early years), to powerhouse melodic rock (the middle years), to heavily produced commercial pop-rock (recent years). It won’t take long to reveal which my favorites are.

The best thing about Switchfoot, though, is the simplest: they’re real. They make music about things that matter, they never dumb it down, and they always write and sing and play like they mean it. While I haven’t agreed with every musical choice they’ve made, I’ve never ceased to admire the band’s integrity and commitment to making music of substance—heartfelt, genuine music that asks big questions about life and the universe without ever pretending to have all the answers.

switchfoot_chin_150 10. The Legend Of Chin (1997)

Every band has to start somewhere. Switchfoot’s debut is full of raw power-trio bombast and sometimes clumsy feints in the direction of the sort of multi-dimensional songwriting and arrangements that they would get better and better at over time. File this debut under “primitive but engaging.” Highlights: “Chem 6A,” “Concrete Girl”

9. Fading West (2014)switchfoot_fading_150

Such a frustrating album. Moving, often superb lyrics marred by severely overcooked and artificial production that drains the heart and soul out of songs that should be all about heart and soul. As I said in my review, “Maybe one day we’ll be treated to Fading West… Naked, with these songs stripped of all the studio gimmickry and allowed to breathe.” Until then, we’re stuck with an auto-tuned botch-job that could have been so much better. Highlights: “Who We Are,” “The World You Want”

switchfoot_newway_150 8. New Way To Be Human (1999)

A poster child for the “sophomore album” cliché, full of experiments that sometimes work and sometimes blow up in our scientist trio’s faces. Importantly, this is where Jon Foreman begins really honing his craft and sharpening his message, delivering at least one excellent song (“Company Car”) about the soul-sucking emptiness of American materialism.  Highlights: “Company Car,” “New Way To Be Human”

7. Learning To Breathe (2000)switchfoot_learning_150

In which Switchfoot sets their compass for the mainstream and attempts to blaze a trail in that direction. Not everything works here, but the variety and sophistication of the arrangements is light years ahead of The Legend Of Chin, and “Dare You To Move” had the desired effect, landing the boys the major-label deal that led to The Beautiful Letdown. Highlights: “Dare You To Move,” “Love Is The Movement”

switchfoot_wherethelight_150 6. Where The Light Shines Through (2016)

The band’s most recent album offers a touch more variety in terms of sound than the regrettably overproduced Fading West, and at least one terrific number in the loose, confident title track. Lead single “Float” is admirable as well, a finger-snapping detour into electro-soul. If only the rest of this well-written album hadn’t been tarnished once again by gimmicky, overcooked production. Highlights: “Where The Light Shines Through,” “Float,” “I Won’t Let You Go”

5. Oh! Gravity. (2006)switchfoot_oh_150
The only Switchfoot album that could accurately be described as “shambolic,” the headstrong, willfully different Oh! Gravity. is one long adventure, the antithesis of the slicked-down pop they’ve favored more recently. Anchored by a pair of anthems (the galloping “Awakening” and the remarkably aware and pointed “American Dream”), Gravity is more accurately represented by rangier numbers like the dark, intense “Dirty Second Hands,” the bouncy meditation “4:12” and the messy, frenetic title track. Highlights: “American Dream,” “Awakening,” “4:12”

switchfoot_vice_150 4. Vice Verses (2011)

A sort of darker twin to Hello Hurricane, Vice Verses finds the boys harking back to their mid-2000s heyday with propulsive, anthemic numbers like “Afterlife” and “Dark Horses,” while pushing the envelope with the fiery, foot-tapping crunch of “The Original” and the surprising, hip-hop inflected “Selling The News,” an alarmingly prescient critique of ratings-driven news media. Even the secondary tracks shine on this very strong latter-day SF outing. Highlights: “The Original,” “Selling The News,” “Dark Horses,” “Where I Belong”

3. Hello Hurricane (2009)switchfoot_hello_150

The group’s first album after fleeing their major-label deal arrived feeling like a declaration of independence. Once you get past the opening, prototypically stirring anthem “Needle And Haystack Life,” Hello Hurricane brims with edgier material like the fierce, chaotic “Mess Of Me,” the thundering singalong “The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues),” and the thrashy, rather Achtung Baby-ish “Bullet Soul,” interspersed with thoughtful, gorgeous ballads (“Your Love Is A Song,” “Always”) and mid-tempo numbers (“Enough To Let Me Go,” “Yet”). The title track serves as a virtual mission statement for the band, shouting in the face of a hurricane: “You can’t silence my love.” Highlights: “Hello Hurricane,” “The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues),” “Your Love Is A Song,” “Enough To Let Me Go”

switchfoot_letdown_160 2. The Beautiful Letdown (2003)

Switchfoot’s major-label breakthrough remains one of their finest collections of songs, from radio-ready anthems “Meant To Live” and “Dare You To Move” to smart, richly melodic rockers like “This Is Your Life,” “More Than Fine” and “Redemption.” Showcasing the group’s diverse musical approach, Letdown also features playful doo-wop philosophizing (“Gone”), hyperactive new-wave-ish riff-rock (“Ammunition,” “Adding To The Noise”), one of the group’s best ballads (“On Fire”) and the almost proggy title track. Closer “Twenty-Four” remains a favorite, the sort of intelligent, searching, bracingly honest song that’s the antithesis of modern pop music. Highlights: “Meant To Live,” “This Is Your Life,” “Gone,” “Twenty-Four”

1. Nothing Is Sound (2005)switchfoot_nothing_150

All the ingredients of greatness are here: top-notch songwriting, powerful arrangements, crisp, focused production, and intense performances that wring every ounce of power and drama out of some of the band’s very finest tunes. It’s also one of those albums where there simply aren’t any weak tracks, and the strongest—“The Shadow Proves The Sunshine” and “Stars,” for two—are among the best the band has ever released. Not just the strongest album Switchfoot has ever delivered, this is among the best alt-rock albums of the oughts. Highlights: “The Shadow Proves The Sunshine,” “Stars,” “Lonely Nation,” “Politicians,” “We Are One Tonight”

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