For a guy that crafts such patient, focused music, it’s hard to keep up with Will Johnson. Since the early ’90s, the Dentonian-turned-Austinite has released dozens of albums through half-a-dozen projects, ranging from his bread-and-butter outfit Centro-matic to indie-folk supergroups Monsters of Folk and New Multitudes. Almost every year sees something new from Johnson, and on September 25 we get Swan City Vampires, his fourth (and quite good) solo effort.
I’ve been a fan of Johnson’s since high school, first catching Centro-matic when they opened for Ben Kweller. Johnson’s music has always been left-of-center yet approachable, but the sheer volume of material can be daunting. Here are my ten favorite Johnson songs from across his career. Hopefully, these act as ten different jumping-off points if you’ve yet to make the plunge. Listen to the songs in the player at the bottom of the page.
10. Will Johnson: “Bus Stop” (2014)
Johnson’s cover of the Hollies’ classic does what a good cover should: it nods back to the original but charts new territory. Here, ’60s pop gets a swaggering, full-throttle update.
9. Centro-matic: “All The Talkers” (2011)
Nearly twenty years into their career, Centro-matic delivered their most succinct and pop-friendly record in Candidate Waltz. “All The Talkers” takes obnoxious concert-goers to task with an epic power-pop suite.
8. Will Johnson: “Just To Know What You’ve Been Dreaming” (2004)
Johnson’s second solo album includes this stunner, a simple ballad that splits the difference between John Lennon and Willie Nelson in tone and style.
7. Centro-matic: “Fidgeting Wildly” (1996)
Johnson may be known as a singer and songwriter, but his drumming is incredible. Somehow, he marries John Bonham’s hammer-of-the-gods style to piano balladry on this standout from Centro’s DIY debut Redo The Stacks.
6. Overseas: “Down Below” (2013)
Speaking of drumming, Johnson got behind the kit again for Overseas, something of an indie rock supergroup made up of David Bazan and Bedhead’s Matt and Bubba Kadane. Johnson anchors “Down Below” with a formidable beat, turning this one-off into something unforgettable.
5. Centro-matic: “Ordinary Days” (1999)
Centro’s first full-band effort showed off Johnson’s more nuanced songwriting, focusing on slow-moving epics that can be quiet one moment and explosive the next. “Ordinary Days” sounds like Johnson’s origin story: “He’s trapped within his ways / his records and his tapes / Appropriate escape from ordinary days.”
4. South San Gabriel: “I Feel Too Young To Die” (2005)
Centro-matic’s alt-country alter ego South San Gabriel took Johnson’s songs and made them cinematic. The Carlton Chronicles: Not Until The Operation’s Through is about a runaway cat (yes, really), but it’s a beautiful and universal record. It doesn’t get any more plainspoken than “I Feel Too Young To Die.”
3. Centro-matic: “Fountains Of Fire” (2001)
Distance + Clime will probably always be my favorite Centro record because it was my first, but also because the band honed their style into catchy three-minute bursts of scrappy indie rock. If you like Guided By Voices and/or getting hooks stuck in your head for days on end, this is the one for you.
2. Centro-matic: “Huge In Every City” (1999)
The Centro-matic shout-along to end all Centro-matic shout alongs. This one packs the hooks in, from the background “oohs” to that epic coda.
1. Centro-matic: “Love You Just The Same” (2004)
I still remember Centro kicking off their Ben Kweller opening slot with this barn-burner, and it blew my mind (it still does every time I hear it). The band flirts with Explosions In The Sky territory here, crafting something more impressionistic than your typical rock band. It’s almost a deconstructed country song, taking a fiddle and some twang and scattering the ashes across the landscape. This song is best served barreling down a Texas highway with nothing but the endless sky as company.