- By Kevin Hogan (@radiator9987)
As we approach the 30th anniversary of Phish’s second LP Lawn Boy, it is a good time to take a look back over their 16 studio albums and rank the top 75 songs they laid down in a studio. Phish fans often overlook the band's studio efforts. The band’s music is seen by both those who love them and the outside world at large as a live experience. That is the default when you want someone to listen to Phish, you take them to see them, not put on Joy. Still, even from their earliest efforts, they have created some outstanding studio cuts.
Methodology I first pulled 135 songs off their 16 Studio LPs as follows:
Junta - 7
Lawn Boy - 8
Picture of Nectar - 11
Rift - 14
Hoist - 9
Billy Breathes - 13
Story of the Ghost - 12
Sikket - 4
Farmhouse - 12
Round Room - 7
Undermine - 6
Joy - 9
Party Time - 2
Fuego - 5
Big Boat - 8
Sigma - 8
The question here is easy:
If you heard this song on the radio without knowing who Phish was, would you A) Change the channel B) Listen to the song
C) Find the song after to listen again All these songs would be in the C category. My concern here is how well did they use the medium of the studio, not wanting to see a song live. It is how the music and instrumentation work together in that space, so you may find songs that don’t work as well live as constructed in the studio on this list.
One last Caveat to the reader, this is a list written through the eyes of one fan and is colored by when each LP was released in relation to my life.
75) Sing Monica - Fuego
One of the few songs on 2016’s Fuego that seems fully realized both musically and lyrically. Tom Marshall has written an incredibly punny lyric.
74) Everything’s Right - Sigma Oasis
3.0 Trey is a different songwriter then the 1.0 version. Everything’s Right epitomizes this Eherct Tolle mindset that many of the lyrics are drawn from. The lyric, “everything’s right just sit tight,” works, as it is less grandiose than a Soul Planet. The biggest issue being the song is 7 minutes too long. At 5 minutes this is #1 with a bullet, at 12+ minutes it gets lost and self-absorbed as if they are trying to recreate a live experience.
73) The Name Is Slick - Siket Disc
One of 2 Siket Disc entries on our list, this may be the most satisfying track from the experimental album of Ghost session outtakes. It starts as an afterthought, nearly formless, before finding a loose slow groove. Gordon takes the lead and drives the song as McConnell provides washes of sound on this peek into Phish’s creative process.
72) Guelah Papyrus - Picture Of Nectar
A great glimpse into Phish as they began to move from the extended compositions of Junta and Lawn Boy to the more compact studio songs of Rift and beyond. An off-kilter drum beat anchors the intricate playing of Mike and Page while Anastasio imagines being a fly. The lyric is still cryptic, and the song is listed as being in 3 parts, but it was definitely a turning point for the band.
71) Frankie Says - Story Of The Ghost
One of Story Of The Ghost’s greatest strengths is that Phish doesn’t extend every song beyond a basic verse-chorus-solo structure. They let them stand on their own. They embrace the studio with acoustic guitars and overdubs. And here, adding to the song's depth, the slow tempo allows the vocals to almost float just above the music, helping Frankie make the list.
70) Time Turns Elastic - Joy
Steve Lillywhite returns to produce 2009’s Joy and captures the album's centerpiece brilliantly. Like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer or early King Crimson this multi-part suite benefits from the studio, highlighting McConnell’s piano runs and the interweaving vocals.
69) Bug - Farmhouse
A great study in the light/dark Phish dichotomy. A gentle song through the first 2 minutes becomes awash in dissonance as Anastasio leans into his guitar, then returns to the softer accompaniment of the beginning as the vocals resume. Gordon’s bass is the standout, full and round in the mix.
68) Chalk Dust Torture - Picture Of Nectar
Often panned for the vocal effect Kevin Hamlin used, Chalkdust still makes our list for the concise punch it packs and stellar production. As for the vocal effect, it gets points here as the studio is a place to experiment. This is the song of a band that is barreling headlong into greatness.
67) The Squirming Coil - Lawn Boy
This may have ranked higher had its placement on the album been different, but as an opening track, it falls flat. Also, this is not Trey’s strongest vocal performance with some weird effect, not helping matters. What it does have is Page shining laying down a brilliant solo in the outro portion of the song.
66) Fee - Junta
Like Phish themselves Junta is a paradox and Fee exemplifies this. Fishman’s kick drum opens an album that is unpolished, yet refined, revealing a Caribbean beat propelling the story of a weasel. This is clearly a band that has put in some time honing their craft and are willing to use the studio as another instrument. The sound effects, the added percussion, and Trey singing the vocal through a pair of headphones taped to another microphone are why Fee makes the list.
65) Fuego - Fuego
Fuego makes the list for its sheer gall. The song seems to be a series of disjointed pieces that are intent on getting back to the extended compositions on Junta and Lawn Boy. Surprisingly it works, partly because it is a whole band composition and partly due to Bob Ezrin’s production.
64) Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan - Joy
Another meditation invoking the feeling of Anastasio’s excesses pitted against the redemption he found. The warm production accentuates the backbeat and its lockstep strut with Anastasio funky guitar lick.
63) Prince Caspian - Billy Breathes
With a different intro then live versions gently easing us from Steep into the song, this is a great example of Phish exploring alternate arrangements in the studio. Using C S Lewis’s character from The Chronicles of Narnia the band creates a swirling soundscape that mirrors the rough water the singer imagines Prince Caspian on.
62) Undermind - Undermind
The title track to 2004s Undermind finds the band laying down a slick groove. Always pushing boundaries both musically and lyrically we find a song here that works by suggestion. The production highlights Anastasio’s airy guitar vs Page’s heavy organ as the rhythm section softly works the pocket.
61) Character Zero - Billy Breathes
Phish started writing big rock and roll songs on Billy Breathes, perhaps an influence of covering Quadrophenia. Here we find the band attempting to tighten the song, eliminating the extraneous and getting down to the nitty-gritty. Also, it’s placement as the second song gets points, kicking the energy from Free up another notch.