"Reality is a lovely place, but I wouldn't want to live there." - Adam Young
When The Postal Service released Give Up in 2003, it inspired a whole wave of emo and indie influenced electronic music. In the new fusion genre of "indietronica", several musicians such as Hellogoodbye, Miike Snow and Cut Copy emerged from the early 2000s to well into the 2010s to push the limits of synthpop. Arguably the most successful of these acts was Owl City, a project from multi-instrumentalist Adam Young best known for the hits Fireflies and Good Time featuring Carly Rae Jepsen.
In an era where most mainstream music was either EDM or hip-hop, with manufactured songs focused more on the artist's image then it was on the music or lyrics, Adam Young wrote, sang and played everything on his albums. Visually, he isn't as instantly recognizable as a star like Rihanna or Pitbull - he's just a normal person like you or me, and I think that's part of why he's been able to connect with so many people worldwide.
I've listened to everything from his All Star cover to the song When Can I See You Again from the Wreck-It Ralph soundtrack, and I've loved all of it. Even his side projects like Sky Sailing, Insect Airport, Port Blue and the Adam Young scores are all amazing, so he's one of my favorite musicians altogether.
Furthermore, yesterday was the release of his seventh album, Coco Moon, which he describes as "a wildly imaginative body of work revealing his deepened devotion to the strange magic of creativity" and counting down to it I've been listening to his entire discography, so I figured it would be fun to rank all his albums from best to worst in ascending order.
7 - Maybe I'm Dreaming (2008)
Released as a follow up to the Of June EP, Owl City's first and self-produced album definitely isn't his best. Something I've always found inspiring about Owl City's story is that Adam Young was just another guy recording music out of his parent's basement and uploading it onto the internet, but through this he found unexpected success and it launched a massive career. Of June and Maybe I'm Dreaming represent very humble beginnings in Young's discography, but I feel like he became a better musician/songwriter as he went along so this album kinda lands on the bottom.
However, there is one amazing song on this record that was so good it was re-recorded for his label-debut Ocean Eyes. The Saltwater Room might be Adam's most underrated song ever. It's a slow, melancholy, beautiful love song that captures all the dreamlike surreality that makes Owl City so unique. Same goes for the opening track On the Wing, which was also re-recorded for his next album. In my eyes, this album laid down all the basic bones to what Owl City ended up doing later in his career, it's just everything that's come since is way better, and I'm sure Adam Young would agree with me it isn't his best album.
6 - All Things Bright and Beautiful (2011)
Definitely a really good album. If you like Ocean Eyes, then All Things Bright and Beautiful is pretty much Ocean Eyes continued. This is where he started to use that electric, brassy synth lead that has made so much of his later work so uplifting and catchy, and it's present here on the song Deer In the Headlights. For that reason combined with it's funny, confused almost pop punk-like lyrics, it's my favorite song on the album alongside Alligator Sky.
This album also sees Adam singing about his Christian faith for the first time in his song Galaxies, which becomes a very prominent theme on his later albums. The emotional epic Hospital Flowers that he wrote about his friend surviving a car crash is absolutely life changing, and was really the first time Adam went into the perspective of another person or character to use the medium of music for storytelling.
Though there aren't any songs on All Things Bright and Beautiful I'd put in the top ten Owl City tracks, there were a lot of ideas set up here that played out to be major influences on his catalog later on. It also brought us the amazing lyric "reality is an amazing place, but I wouldn't want to live there" so it's nonetheless a great album.
5 - Mobile Orchestra (2015)
In terms of pure production and stereo perfection, Mobile Orchestra is arguably Owl City's pop phase at its maximum magnitude. The use of symphonic strings and electric guitars were used in Adam's music on this album more than his previous stuff, and if you look at the two albums he's done since, Cinematic and Coco Moon, they both remain relevant in his style. Pretty much every other song on this album is a collaboration with someone like Sarah Russell, Aloe Blacc, Hanson, Jake Owen or Britt Nicole. It's a great record nonetheless, yet I still don't think stadium-size pop anthems are a good fit for Owl City's indietronica/alt-pop routes.
The sentimental pieces about his beliefs and the important people in his life that make Owl City Owl City are still present here with songs like Unbelievable and My Everything, but I think the rest of the songs are a bit impersonal compared to Adam's other albums. A lot of it's more themed on human emotion with non-specific love songs, and while that screams "top forty" it just isn't as distinctive as a lot of his other stuff.
Nonetheless, these songs are all still great. I get the biggest one is probably Verge featuring Aloe Blacc, but my favorite song on here is probably Thunderstruck, a duet with Sarah Russell. I honestly don't know why that song wasn't a hit, it's so easy to dance to with a lot of breaks that kind of sound like wattered-down dubstep and in a lot of ways the song kind of reminds me of the song Every Time We Touch by Cascada. Judging Mobile Orchestra as an album, it's really good, but in the context of Owl City albums it definitely isn't his best.
4 - Cinematic (2018)
At this point in the ranking, I think all these albums are perfect to some degree so this was where I had the hardest time taking one over the other. But coming in at number four we have the second most recent Owl City album, Cinematic, which in a lot of ways is the closest Adam gets to a concept album. The message of the titular track is "life is like a movie", and a lot of the songs on here are about moments and people in Adam Young's life. Fiji Water tells the story of how his career started, The 5th of July tells the story of his parents on the day he was born and Not All Heroes Wear Capes is about how he looks up to his dad more than anyone. However, my favorite song on the album has to be Firebird.
A month or two ago, before I heard the song for the first time, I remember I went back to my old school and one of my teachers pulled up a picture of me and all my friends playing D&D in fifth grade. It blew me away how much younger we all looked and a lot of guys in that picture had either moved away or I had drifted apart from. Yet there were some people in that group I'm still close with so it made me really appreciative. The next day, I heard Firebird, a song that tells the story of Young's friend from his teenage years and how they would drive around in his awesome car. The song is mainly about how as you grow up, everything changes though some things stay the same. It captured what I was feeling and I related to the song so much it made me cry.
Adam Young is such a genius and it's the songs off this album that make me think he has to be one of the nicest guys ever. The use of epic orchestras and electric guitars introduced on Mobile Orchestra remain present on Cinematic, but its definitely very authentic to the out of control creativity of Adam's earlier albums. Some songs here, specifically Firebird, aren't electronic at all,they're just straight up pop rock songs. This record is fantastic start-to-finish and it's definitely some of Owl City's best work.
3 - The Midsummer Station (2012)
I sort of see this album as Owl City's departure from indie/alternative and his first real pop record. Sure, Fireflies came earlier and was a hit in 26 countries, but there were songs off of Midsummer Station that wouldn't sound out of place back-to-back with Imagine Dragons or Bruno Mars. Keep in mind that the same year he was collaborating with Carly Rae Jepsen and blink-182 frontman Mark Hoppus, he did When Can I See You Again for the soundtrack of Wreck-It Ralph, a freaking Disney movie! It's safe to argue that 2012 was the peak of Owl City's commercial success.
My favorite song on this album is Good Time, featuring Carly Rae Jepsen. It's probably one of the top three Owl City songs and it was huge for Carly Rae as well. She had just broke into mainstream that year with her song Call Me Maybe selling over 18 million copies. By doing this huge song with Owl City in addition to that you could argue 2012 was the peak of Carly Rae Jepsen's commercial success as well. When I was four years old in 2012, Wreck-It Ralph was my favorite movie and Call Me Maybe was my favorite song. Therefore, seeing both those worlds meet in one of the catchiest party hits ever recorded is like a time capsule for me.
Between inspiring motivational songs like Shooting Star and Gold, poppy love songs like I'm Coming After You and Speed Of Love along with emotional epics like Silhouette and Embers, this is altogether a fantastic album. As a synth guy, I love a lot of the epic sounding leads he uses here along with the heavy pads. The beats here are so much more raw than his previous albums and the kicks cut right through the mix. The song Dementia featuring Mark Hoppus actually uses real drums and very cool rock elements, which is awesome because blink-182 is a great rock band and it's so wicked that their bassist/singer teamed up with Owl City.
2 - Coco Moon (2023)
I get it just came out yesterday and this is only a first impression, but I'm so excited about this new release I'd put it as Owl City's second best album. Adam Young says it might be "[his] favorite album that [he's] written thus far" and based on the weight of the lyrics and production of the songs, I can see why.
Something I've talked about a lot in this ranking is the differences between Adam's early work and his later work. His early work (albums like Maybe I'm Dreaming, Ocean Eyes and All Things Bright and Beautiful) is a bit more in the creative randomness, acquired-taste indie direction while his later stuff (Midsummer Station, Mobile Orchestra and Cinematic) are more general appeal pop albums with a highly produced synth sound and lyrics more focused on human emotions. Coco Moon however, is the perfect in between.
The songs Kelly Time and Adam, Check Please are obviously about real life experiences like something off of Cinematic, but they also have rather peculiar lyrics like a song from Ocean Eyes. Lots of this album is the perfect balance between whistly synth leads and electric guitars. Pretty much every song carries some kind of emotional baggage. Vitamin Sea, Dinosaur Park and The Meadow Lark are all great songs, but my two favorites are Sons of Thunder and Learn How to Surf. The epic and uplifting chorus and ear-candy leads in those songs are amazing, so definitely check this album out if you haven't already.
1 - Ocean Eyes (2009)
Owl City's label debut cannot be beat. It's a perfect fusion of absent-minded vividness and every day awkwardness generating a positive, peaceful and imaginative atmosphere that makes it one of the most re-listenable works in music history. Start to finish, back to back, this album is flawless. I don't even know where to start.
Three of Adam's best songs, Hello Seattle, Vanilla Twilight and Fireflies are all on this album. Hello Seattle is such a weird song I have no idea what inspired Adam Young to write it, but I'm so glad he did because that bridge hits like a truck. Vanilla Twilight, a song about missing someone who's far away, is absolutely breathtaking and gives me the chills when the beat kicks in for the final verse and chorus. Fireflies is arguably the best Owl City song, not only because it's what put him on the map but it embodies pretty much everything his music stands for in a single song. He really caught lightning in a bottle there.
A lot of songs on this album use what Kurt Cobain liked to call the Pixies formula: soft and slow on the verses, then it gets epic and loud on the choruses, and in the form of electronic music that arrangement works very well. The layers of production behind every song is something to appreciate, even if you're not into that type of music. Adam's musical style has grown and evolved since Ocean Eyes for sure, but I find it inspiring that from his label debut he already had the formula for the perfect Owl City album.
In conclusion, that's my ranking of all the Owl City albums. Comparing different eras of his career, I love his early indietronica stuff equally as the later electropop, but the fact Adam Young's found a halfway point and continues to make awesome music 16 years into his career is terrific and I can't wait to see what he does next.
Are you an Owl City fan? If so, what's your favorite Owl City song? What did you think of Coco Moon? Let me know in the comments below! Thank you so much for reading and have a good rest of your day. As always,