There’s no time like now to be a Mitski stan. From the outside, the Mitski-heads could be described as “intense” or “rabid,” but not without reason. Her fanbase is a bit of an anomaly in the indie rock world where being “super cool and chill” reigns over all. More than a lot of artists, Mitski’s rise has been fan-driven above all else. This certainly isn’t lost on her.
“They're the reason I'm here because the music industry didn't want me, didn't know what to do with me,” she told me when I talked to her last month. “And even to this day, like, I feel like the industry at large doesn't quite know what to do with me, doesn't really understand me. But then I can show them all these other people who do understand me, and be like, ‘This is what they're saying.’”
For many, her songwriting strikes a raw nerve with such vigor, it’s almost impossible not to “fangirl.” When someone’s discography means as much as Mitski’s so apparently does to her fans, it’s the ultimate testament to its power. Of course, this could be a bit intimidating to those new to her work; with all this hype, it’s hard to know where to start. Fear not: Here’s a crash course (Mitski Discography 101) to induct you into the #MitskiHive, from one of its most rabid members. I promise, you’ll be making instant best friends by rocking your Bury Me At Makeout Creek sweatshirt in public in no time.
Mitski recorded her debut album, 2012’s Lush, as a school project while studying at SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music. Lo-fi and sparse, but with a rich chamber pop backbone, Lush is the willful experimentation of an exceptional new songwriter exploring the realms of possibility in her hands. Because of this, tracks range from theatrical and open piano ballads “Bag of Bones” and “Wife” to the moody punk rock “Brand New City.” Regardless, her signature affinity for capturing the sounds, tensions and trials of millennial young adulthood tackling has been a staple since the beginning — “But if I gave up on being pretty, I wouldn't know how to be alive / I should move to a brand new city / Teach myself how to die,” she sings on “Brand New City.”
Her sophomore album was similar in sound to its precursor Lush, with an obvious added layer of confidence on every possible level. Not to say the album is necessarily “better” than her debut — there’s a certain charm and rawness to Mitski’s earliest work — but the growth is palpable nonetheless. Also recorded during her time at SUNY, she made use of session musicians in droves for a peak “orchestral pop” album, featuring thick and layered strings and horns throughout. “Square” — featured in two versions, a multi-part orchestral work and a minimal solo piano version — is the epitome of her early work and a glimpse into her anomalous instinct for unique melody that continues to carry her throughout her career.
The most dramatic change in direction of her career, perhaps rivaled by Be the Cowboy, Bury Me at Makeout Creek marks Mitski’s shift to guitar and into the indie rock sphere. It also marks the formation of her cult-like following and the beginning of Mitski becoming an indie rock household name. Released in the peak-DIY guitar indie rock days of 2014, Bury Me at Makeout Creek remains a classic with songwriting that stands the test of time and self-aware youthful melodrama — “One word from you and I would jump off of this ledge, baby,” she sings on “First Love / Late Spring” — that doesn’t compromise her narrative craft, only adds to it. The title’s a reference to an episode of The Simpsons in which Milhouse is promised a romantic rendezvous at a place called “Makeout Creek,” but gets hit by a truck and in his supposed last breath utters “Bury me at Makeout Creek.” The album’s basically a gorgeous perfect storm of brutal truth, drama and wit that details what it’s like to get hit by a truck in the midst of hopeful romantic ideation.
If Bury Me at Makeout Creek laid the framework for Mitski’s success and acclaim, its 2016 follow-up Puberty 2 filled that framework with concrete and encased it in steel. Scoring “Best New Music” on Pitchfork and frequenting year-end “Best of 2016” lists, Puberty 2 combined Bury Me At Makeout Creek’s indie rock sensibilities, the instrumental risk-taking of her early work, and the stand-out lyricism that’s remained a constant throughout her entire discography. She soundtracked the phenomenon of the “second puberty,” the tumultuous, at-times dangerous, whirlwind of getting your shit together in early adulthood: of cultural clashes in relationships, of crumbling mental health, of putting all your eggs in the same shitty basket over and over again, of unnameable desires, of feeling like a “forest fire” and not being able to do a damn thing about it. “I'm not doing anything / I wanna see the whole world / I wanna see the whole world / I don't know how I'm gonna pay ren t/ I wanna see the whole world,” she scream-sings on “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” capturing the unique frustration of having high expectations for yourself and not even being able to scrape by, the ultimate testament to the millennial coming-of-age.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, the Head of Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.