A few weeks ago, I got to see indie rock musician Jon Foreman, the front man for the band Switchfoot, in concert. This led me to contemplate the many marvelous albums from my favorite band, and, like I did with U2 earlier this year, I decided to listen to them all and rank them. Switchfoot’s music is the kind that could literally save your life; words can’t adequately describe the impact their music has had on me since I was a kid. It’s the kind of music that makes me want to be a better person, that reminds me of my obligation to God and to others, and that love is the highest law of the land. Not to mention that their music flat-out rocks (and their music video’s are great goofy fun). Jon’s soulful vocals and guitar playing are backed by his brother Tim on bass, Chad Butler on drums and Jerome Fontamillas on keyboard as well as background guitar and vocals. Throughout their nearly 20-year existence, the band has amassed a formidable catalogue of seriously great music. All of it is worth listening to. Without further ado, here is every Switchfoot album, ranked.
- Oh! Gravity.
There is no such thing as a bad Switchfoot album, but there is such a thing as a disappointing one. This is it. Made toward the middle of the band’s career, Oh! Gravity finds the band trying to maintain their identity while simultaneously reinventing themselves. The result is a bit of a jumble; the songwriting is murkier than the band’s usual efforts and the themes are less clear and more inconsistent.
The excellent title song asks, “Why can’t we seem to keep it together?” lamenting the difficulty of keeping sane in a chaotic culture. The band’s penchant for scathing cultural critique is in full force with “American Dream,” where “excess is equated with excess.” “I want out of this machine,” Foreman sings. “It doesn’t feel like freedom to me.” The chaos tone of the album continues with “Dirty Second Hands,” which recalls the grungier sound of the band’s earlier work. “Awakening” is one of my favorite Switchfoot songs, a cry out for meaning and purpose. “I wanna wake up kicking and screaming/I wanna know that my heart’s still beating.” “Circles” is a deeper expression of inner chaos that still desires to hold on to truth. “Don’t believe that nothing is true. Don’t believe in this modern machine.”
“Amateur Lovers” describes the disease of “insufficiency of love.” “Faust, Midas and Myself” finds the band at its most metaphorical, which the band normally trades in brilliantly. This feels a bit too artsty though, and the result is unclear and unsatisfying. The same can be said for “In This Life.” I do like “Yesterday,” a softer song that feels like a goodbye song. “Burn out Bright” is another cry to restore passion. “Before I die I wanna burn out bright.” “4:12” is another interesting experiment, a song that is literally 4 minutes and 12 seconds. These kinds of gimmicks don’t make good songs on their own, however. “Let your Love be Strong” is a typical exhortation from Foreman to put love first. “Maybe I’m optimistic…that love could be a verb.”
Oh! Gravity has its share of excellence, but it’s balanced by some more forgettable tracks, and the album as a whole doesn’t come together in the way the band’s best work does.
- The Legend of Chin
The band’s debut album only suffers in comparison to their later work. On its own merits, The Legend of Chin is a remarkable debut. Switchfoot’s early sound was much grungier, Foreman’s voice a bit rougher around the edges. Their mastery of creative instrumentation and sonic variety was also more pronounced here than on later records. Even the lyrics were more playful, closer in style to contemporaries like Reliant K, as in the song “Chem 6A.” “I don’t wanna read the book/I’ll watch the movie.” “Underwater” is an emotional song about a girl adrift, perhaps in alcohol, or just apathy. The serious subject matter still makes way for a jazzy piano interlude. “Edge of My Seat” continues the album’s creative sound with trumpet accompaniment. “Home” is an album highlight about finding rest in the hope of heaven while praising the grandness of creation. “Someday I’ll see home.” “Ben Hur” shows off Foreman’s lyrical trickery and pop cultural savviness, but “Concrete Girl” is likely the album’s most affecting song. Foreman’s voice shows its vulnerability as he encourages a girl to find the purpose behind the artifice she sees all around her. “Concrete Girl, don’t fall down/In this broken world around you.”
“3/4 Chant,” perhaps obviously, plays creatively with ¾ time. “You” is about resting in God rather than ourselves and our own abilities. “I find peace when I’m confused/I find hope when I’m let down.” “Ode to Chin” encourages the listener to “doubt your doubts/And believe your beliefs.”
The Legend of Chin is a fun and creative debut album, a signifier of greater things to come from an immensely talented group of musicians.
- New Way to Be Human
The theme of New Way to Be Human seems to be transformation, and the album does a remarkable job of echoing that theme through the songs themselves, which display a pretty incredible variety. The great-sounding title track features immensely catchy whistling as Foreman sings about “a new way to be human,” which he later reveals is God. “You’re the only way to be human.” “Incomplete” encourages us to accept our weaknesses and allow God to make us whole. “Sooner or Later” reminds us that “sooner or later you find out there’s a hole in the wall.” We’re perfectly happy with life until something goes wrong, then we wonder what has happened. “Have I lost who I am? I threw it all away.” “Company Car” is one of my favorite Switchfoot song; a great sound featuring trumpet accompaniment is bolstered by a cautionary tale reminding us that man can’t serve two masters. The subject has everything he wants, including money, but he ultimately asks, “Have I won monopoly but forfeit my soul?” “Only Hope” is another of my favorite songs, a beautiful ode to searching, longing, reaching out and ultimately finding rest in God. Foreman’s voice rises along with his journey of discovery. “So I lay my head back down/And I lift my hands and pray to be only yours/I know now you’re my only hope.” “I Turn Everything Over” is similarly about giving things over to God. “Under the Floor” is a haunting closer about listening for God as he whispers in the quiet, intimate spaces of our lives.
New Way to Be Human proved that The Legend of Chin was no fluke. This is a confident, assured follow-up, with emotional, stirring tracks. You can sense a lot of grand, epic themes that would be perfected in later albums, but that doesn’t make what’s here any less great.
- Fading West
Fading West is an excellent album, but it suffers in comparison to some of its stellar contemporaries. Still, the album that functioned as a soundtrack to Switchfoot’s must-see surfing documentary of the same title is filled with soulful tracks. “Love Alone is Worth the Fight” establishes the album’s epic tone, and is a perfect encapsulation of the band’s recurring theme that love is the most powerful motivator we have. “Who We Are” is a generational chant featuring a children’s choir, a unique sound for the band. “There’s still time enough to choose who we are.” “When We Come Alive” is another one of my personal favorites, an extremely haunting track about living a life of passion and the way that comes to life in community. “We light the sky when we ignite/When we come alive.” “Say it Like You Mean It” seeks honest words in a politically correct culture. “The World You Want” is another haunting track, featuring tribal drums and Foreman reminding us that the world will be what we make of it. This leads to one of my favorite lyrical refrains that we all have something we worship. “What you say is your religion/How you say it’s your religion/Who you love is your religion/How you love is your religion.”
“Slipping Away” repeats an album theme of reflecting on the past and feeling the past leaving us. “BA55” jolts the album back into harder rock territory with a dark, arresting sound, searching again for that passion, that “fire that can burn me clean.” “Let It Out” is another powerful anthem song about letting things go and not fearing others’ opinions. “All or Nothing At All” encourages us to embrace the whole person—either ourselves or someone else—rather than simply the parts we don’t like, the same way God embraces us. “Salwater Heart” uses the ocean as a metaphor for God’s vastness. “Back to the Beginning Again” ends what is arguably the band’s most hopeful album by seeking a revival and going back to the foundation. “My hope is anchored on the other side/with the colors that live outside of the lines.”
- Nothing Is Sound
To call an album like Nothing is Sound ambitious is an understatement. This is Switchfoot embracing their true status as a rock band and claiming that they could tackle grand themes like the vastness of the universe, the afterlife, sex and politics. The most impressive thing about the album is that they were right.
“Lonely Nation” establishes a darker, more epic sound for the band. The song decries the isolation we often feel in an individualistic society. “Stars” may be the band’s single most epic song, contemplating the majesty of God while looking up at the heavens. The singer feels emptiness and loneliness, until he looks at the stars and sees “someone else.” But this someone else deeply affects the singer. “When I look at the stars, I feel like myself.” The song was immensely popular, and it’s easy to see why. A radio-friendly rock song that feels both epic and intimate at once is a very rare thing. “The Shadow Proves the Sunshine” is another one of my favorites, showing how we can often shine when things are darkest. Forman evokes the Psalms when he sings “Oh Lord, why did you forsake me? Or Lord, don’t be far away.” But he doesn’t stay in despair; he asks God to “let my shadows prove the sunshine.” “Easier Than Love” calls out our sex-obsessed culture. Sex is “easier than love,” and we often focus on it to the detriment of love. “The Blues” shows again how vulnerable Foreman’s voice can be; he’s willing to let his voice break. The song is about feeling down, but it cleverly has a bluesy sound as well (Fontamillias’ piano playing is particularly noteworthy here).
“Setting Sun” is a beautiful reflection on the hope of heaven. “Politicians” is another rock out song, not only a scathing critique of the fakery often inherent in politics but also how we all have become politicians, putting on our best face but unwilling to show our true colors to the world. “Fatal Wound” shows off some creative instrumentation with a killer harmonica part. “We Are One Tonight” is a great anthem song about casting aside conflict and coming together. The album ends on an unexpectedly soft note with “Daisy,” a song encouraging a girl to “let it go.” “This fallen world doesn’t hold your interest; it doesn’t hold your soul.”
Nothing is Sound executes that tricky balance of intimate and epic perfectly. It showed that the band could tackle almost any subject and spin gold out of it. The total effect is actually a bit exhausting, which is perhaps the reason why this album doesn’t rank higher. Still, it’s exhilarating stuff.
- Learning to Breathe
Switchfoot’s third album was the first I ever heard, at age 10. It holds a special place in my heart, because it had a profound effect on me. It was also the first album to show the band was more than ready for the mainstream.
It’s pretty safe to say that “I Dare You to Move” is the band’s most popular song ever. I doubt few people who turned on a radio station in the early 2000s didn’t hear it at some point (it was also one of several Switchfoot songs featured in the popular film A Walk to Remember). It more than earned its status as a classic song. The lyrics encourage perseverance through hardship and rejecting apathy, and Foreman’s vocals feel particularly haunting here. “Learning to Breathe” is an arresting song about trying to live a life of authenticity, and that such authenticity comes through our day-to-day decisions. “Love is the Movement” is a strong candidate for my favorite Switchfoot song ever. It’s an epic treatise on the transformative power of love, with a gospel chorus accompaniment. Here, love is much more than a feeling, it is something that necessitates action. “Love is the movement/Love is the revolution/This is redemption/We don’t have to slow back down…Get up/Love is moving you now.” “Poparazzi” is a catchy song about the shallowness of celebrity pop culture. The cult of celebrity is driven home through lyrics that conjure religious imagery like “This is a tune for the graven images of Marilyn Monroe.” The ending ends in cacophony, echoing the way our culture often sounds when everyone is trying to speak at once.
“Innocence Again” highlights some great acoustic work, and the brilliant way Foreman matches his voice to the lyrics. When singing the lyrics “Grace is high and low,” his vocals rise and fall accordingly. In “Losers,” Foreman sings about how, in God’s eyes, the losers are the winners. “Economy of Mercy” similarly turns things on its head; in God’s economy, the low are brought high through “the currency of grace.” “Erosion” expresses a desire for revival. “Spirit fall like rain on my thirsty soul.” “Living is Simple” sets up a contrast between living in the body and living in the spirit. “Is this fiction or divine comedy/Where the last of the last is first?”
Learning to Breathe is an important album, an encouragement to live boldly and reject apathy as we seek God and navigate the waters of this world. It’s also just plain fun, with several radio-friendly hits that have some real substance to back up their popularity.
- The Beautiful Letdown
Now we’re talking. If Learning to Breathe proved that Switchfoot could play in the big leagues, The Beautiful Letdown showed the world that they were one of the best bands around. It’s an absolute stunner, one that took many of the band’s previous themes and codified them into a near-perfect album. The boys come out of the gate swinging with “Meant to Live,” an anthem song about living a greater purpose. “We want more than this world’s got to offer,” Foreman sings with a new found power he hadn’t shown before. “This is Your Life” asks listeners to examine their own lives. Are we living our greatest purpose now? “This is your life, and today is all you’ve got now/And today is all you’ll ever have.” “More Than Just Okay” continues the theme, emphasizing challenge and growth over stagnation. Chad Butler’s drumming really kicks on “Ammunition,” which calls out our culture of blaming. “Look What a Mess We’ve Made of Love” as a result of the verbal bullets we sling at each other. In “Alive,” Forman sings, “My fears have worn me out.” He seeks life, and finds it in Christ. “His scars are bigger than these doubts of mine.”
“The Beautiful Letdown” features a killer bassline from Tim Foreman, which gives the song a unique, laid back groove. The lyrics discuss embracing failure, for God can use us even at our weakest. I love the line, “The church of the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures and the fools.” “Gone” is another one of my favorites, encouraging the listener to let go of the things of this world. “Where’s your treasure, where’s your hope/If you get the world and lose your soul?” We only have so many days to make an impact, so let’s use them wisely, because “life is a day that doesn’t last for long.” “Fire” is a beautiful song about the passion God can spark in us. “You’re on fire when he’s near you/You’re on fire when he speaks/You’re on fire burning up in these mysteries.” “Adding to the Noise” seeks silence in a noisy world, aka “the symphony of modern man.” “Twenty-Four” is a brilliant closing track about how quickly life can change, capped by the powerful refrain “I am the second man now/When you’re raising the dead in me.” This lyric works on multiple levels. The second man may be referring to putting ourselves second to God, but it could also mean a new man, a born again man. Risen to life in Christ, a new man has taken the old man’s place.
Masterful lyrics like that are all over this album, which doesn’t really miss a beat. One could be forgiven for thinking Switchfoot would never make a better album, which is one of the reasons why what comes next is so extraordinary.
- Hello Hurricane
Hello Hurricane is an album that leaves me speechless every time I hear it. It’s a beautiful, soulful meditation on hope in the midst of pain, and a reminder that God can use us even in our weakness. “Needle and Haystack Life” introduces an epic, sophisticated tone that is unlike anything we’ve heard from the band previously. The searching lyrics complement the arresting sound perfectly. The album quickly veers into hard rock territory with the propulsive “Mess of Me,” a song that reminds us that we can’t fix ourselves on our own. “There ain’t no drug that they could sell/There ain’t no drug to make me well…The sickness is myself.” “Love is a Song” is a highlight on an album of highlights. In poetic language, it describes the all-encompassing nature of God’s love as a work of art. “Your love is a symphony/All around me, running through me/Your love is a melody, underneath me, running to me.” “The Sound” is, simply, a kick ass song, one that gives the band plenty of chances to show off. Foreman’s voice has never shown more raw power, and his guitar solo reminds us of his serious axe skills. The lyrics are a generational call, reminding us that “there is no sound louder than love.” We hear the other side of Foreman’s vocal range on “Enough to Let Me Go,” a vulnerable song about, well, knowing when to let someone go. “Free” is a more aggressive song about yearning for freedom from “the prisons of my mind.”
“Hello Hurricane” uses a metaphor of a storm for hardship, and is all about not letting these storms knock us down. “Hello Hurricane, you’re not enough…you can’t silence my love.” “Always” is a passionate song about clinging to hope when everything is falling apart. The epic string accompaniment really drives this one home. “Bullet Soul” is another rock-out song, one I remember being featured in movie trailers after the song came out. It’s all about injecting passion into life. “Love is the one true innovation/Love is the only art.” “Yet” is a moving song about holding onto faith through hardship. “I’m so confused what’s true what’s false/What’s fact or fiction after all…but you haven’t lost me yet.” The song also features one of my favorite lyric lines: “If it doesn’t break your heart it isn’t love.” “Sing it Out” is one of the band’s most haunting songs, asking God to allow our weakness to speak when nothing else can. “Take what is left of me…make it a melody…I need your breath in my lungs tonight.” “Red Eyes” conveys the desperation of looking, exhausted, for something greater. That exhaustion comes from searching for things that don’t ultimately satisfy. The album leaves us with a question: “What are you looking for?”
This is the kind of album that could save lives. I know it has certainly gotten me through tough times. We all need an occasional reminder that our lives are not meaningless, that there’s a higher purpose to our lives and to the universe as a whole. We shouldn’t fear weakness, for it is in our moments of vulnerability or desperation that our true colors can shine, if we allow them to. That’s an important message, and this is an important album, not to mention impeccably crafted and just plain impressive. It’s one of my all-time favorites.
- Vice Verses
You would be forgiven for thinking that Switchfoot could never make an album that could surpass Hello Hurricane, but you would be wrong. I know I was. In this case, I’m glad I was. If the band’s previous revolutionary effort was about how to be strong in the middle of our weakness, Vice Verses is a reminder that we don’t have to stay in that space. Life is a truly joyful thing to be celebrated.
That embrace of living a full, purposeful life is driven home on the opening track, “Afterlife.” “I wonder why would I wait ‘til I die to come alive?/I’m ready now, I’m not waiting for the afterlife.” The song really kicks, and reveals the band at their peak maturity and sophistication. “Original” features a different lyrical style for Foreman, closer to a rap or a shout. It would get old if overused, but it works here, especially when the song’s theme is about embracing your uniqueness in a world that wants to homogenize you. “War Inside” is a grungy, electric tune about dealing with inner conflict. “Every fight comes from the fight within.” “Restless” is a moving ode to the singer’s tireless pursuit of God. “I run like the ocean to find your shore, looking for you.” There’s a distinct U2/”Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” vibe here, undoubtedly one of Switchfoot’s major influence. The song earns that comparison; it’s that good. The lyrics of “Blinding Light” encourage an unnamed boy and girl to avoid giving into peer pressure or the temptation to fit into society’s standards of beauty or coolness. “We’re the nation that eats our youth.” The kids are asked to hold onto the hope that transcends those standards. “Still looking for the blinding light/Still looking for the reason why.” “Selling the News” brings back the band’s scathing cultural criticism, this time tackling not only the news media but a culture all too willing to exchange the truth for lies. It sort of like a modern version of Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry,” but this song is more layered and nuanced. “Opinions are easier to swallow the facts…The fact is fiction/Suspicion is a new religion.”
“Thrive” may actually be my favorite Switchfoot song. A subtle, soothing bassline plays over Foreman’s agonized vocals. Here is a broken man, airing out his demons and desiring to live life to the fullest. There’s a distinct biblical Psalm vibe here, where criticisms directed toward God are leveraged with prayers. “Am I a man when I feel like a ghost?…I know that I’m not right…I wanna thrive, not just survive.” It’s an incredibly powerful encouragement to anyone experiencing a dark valley of the soul. “Dark Horses” is perhaps the band’s most successful anthem song, with a bit of an epic Bon Jovi vibe. The lyrics see the dark horses as those who won’t give up even when society has given up on them. “Hey, you can’t count us out/We’ve been running up against the crowd/Yeah, we are the dark horses.” “Souvenirs” is a song about looking back upon a life and seeing all the little moments that brought the singer to where he is now. It’s an inspiring celebration of life, both the good and the bad. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“Rise Above It” shows off Foreman’s penchant for creative rhyming, with lyrics that talk about lifting ourselves above our circumstances. “Vice Verses” is a self-reflective, acoustic track, featuring only Foreman’s vocals and guitar. This feels closer to his actual solo work, as the singer looks out at the ocean while thinking about perspective. The singer is not an optimist or pessimist, but simply a realist. “You’ve got your babies, I’ve got my hearses/Every blessing comes with a set of curses/I’ve got my vices, got my vice verses.” The singer also asks some very Job-esque questions of God. “Where is God in the city life? Where is God in the earthquake? Where is God in the genocide?…Everything feels rusted over/Tell me that you’re there.” “Where I Belong” closes the album by expressing loss and displacement in a world which is not truly home. “I’m not sentimental/This skin and bones is a rental/And no one makes it out alive.” The singer sees a greater home, “Where the weak are finally strong/Where the righteous right the wrongs.” It’s a moving end to a moving record.
Vice Verses is literally breathtaking. As in, I find myself short of breath after I listen to it through. The songs here run the gamut of human emotions, and always leave me with a desire to live my true purpose. It’s a dark album that tackles heavy issues head-on, but the overall tone is one of hope. With God on the throne, what do we truly have to fear? It’s one of my favorite albums, period.