Monday, July 28, 2008

My Top 100 Albums Of All Time (#81-90)

I worry that these will get longer as we go, until by the time we’re on #11-20, I’m relating long stories from middle school of crying over lost loves and falling asleep with my headphones on to Ben Folds records. It’s possible that I will end up doing that during this section, actually, so maybe I shouldn’t jinx myself. To business:

90. The New Amsterdams – Never You Mind.
The Get Up Kids were just peaking as a formidable emo force when frontman Matt Pryor launched his second side band, this one a complete departure from both the Get Up Kids electropunk emo sound and Reggie and the Full Effect’s comedic rock take. The New Amsterdams mined a subtle, slow Middle American sound, a weary acoustic profession of heartache accented with the occasional accordian and snare. It was a songwriter’s record, and proved once and for all that Pryor was a songwriter worth noticing. At times uneven, the album was a mission of self-discovery for Pryor, and at it’s highest point – the elegiac “Idaho” or the candid “I Won’t Run Away” – it found him at the top of the emo heap.

89. U2 – The Unforgettable Fire
I’m not sure why this U2 album has always attracted me more than, say, Joshua Tree, or Achtung Baby, but I’ve always felt a stronger connection to it than any other album from the supergroup. Perhaps because it’s the anti-supergroup album, an album about breaking away from being “the next The Who” and picking a different heading. U2 made better albums, but this one is rawer and more honest than any of them. Most of the songs are poetry of uneven meter and sound, the drum sound is looser, the production more atmospheric. Bono would later call the record “a beautifully out-of-focus record, blurred like an impressionist painting, very unlike a billboard or an advertising slogan.” The band’s songs are now so universally revered and eternally overplayed it’s difficult to find a U2 record that feels like anything more than a collection of singles, but The Unforgettable Fire remains cohesive and compelling.

88. Dashboard Confessional – The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most.
The album title alone takes one back to the days of the emo explosion, where unfiltered, overwrought teen angst was a commodity. The bands got louder and bigger as time went on, but Chris Carraba’s acoustic experiment led a charge to the opposite pole. The idea was simple – a little guy with an expressive voice and no range, an acoustic guitar, and lyrics of near-embarrassing honesty and forthrightness. But Carraba’s gift was the universal connection of an open letter to an unfaithful lover over an earnest guitar strum. The name was an appropriate one - the songs weren’t just singable, they were made, designed to be sung with a loud voice and questionable pitch on the long drive home, and I took part in the practice with gusto. It’s rare these days to see emotion displayed truly unironically, and that’s something that emo never really got credit for.

87. Stars – Set Yourself On Fire
The album opens on “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” with a cracked, weathered voice: “when there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” It’s the sort of moment that launches an overdramatic emo album, but instead a low cello drifts in, then a slow horn intro, then Torquil Campbell’s quiet vocal, and finally Amy Millan’s fragile echo. Setting the world on fire is evidently a refined affair. The album follows the tone of the opener – lush, dramatic indie pop, occasionally anthemic but mostly content to let the songs fade to a single, heartsick note. By the time the album’s closed on the melancholy “Calendar Girl,” it’s become clear that Campbell and Millan have decided that insidiously enduring pop songs are the easiest way to torch the world.

86. Bob Dylan – Slow Train Coming
The record is most famous as Dylan’s “Come To Jesus” record, the album he wrote after he became saved. That wildly undersells it, since Slow Train Coming is possibly Dylan’s finest record, save maybe Blood On The Tracks (bring it, Blonde on Blonde fans!). From the slouching insistence of “Gotta Serve Somebody” to the whispering storytelling thump of “Man Gave Name To All The Animals,” much of the album is delivered with a curious dispassion, as if Dylan felt that preaching the Gospel needn’t require raising one’s voice. But when Dylan finally lets the vocal swell into a shout (“Slow Train,” “When You Gonna Wake Up”) it’s thunder on the mountainside. The miraculous thing about this record is not that it’s a “Christian” record by rock music’s greatest songwriter, but rather how sure of himself Dylan sounds. “Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that it passes through,” he scolds on “When He Returns.” “How long can you falsify and deny what is real?” There are people in pulpits the world over who don’t preach with that much passion.

85. Chumbawumba – Tubthumper
There it is! You knew we’d get here eventually. The first album I ever went to a record store and purchased was, in fact, Chumbawumba’s Tubthumper, and over the next six months, I listened to it at least twice a day. It’s an interesting record – no one, naturally remembers anything past the ubiquitous single, which is why the rest of the album comes as a shock. Chumbawumba’s music was overarchingly political, focusing on economic disparity and shady British leadership. What made it memorable was that it crossed its hearfelt desire to preach total rebellion with a belief that music should always be sung with one’s fist in the air. It’s two steps sideways from promoting full-on anarchy, and those were small steps, but you don’t have to care about message to appreciate full-throated passion shouted over the heavy thump of a beguiling dance beat.

84. Newsboys – Take Me To Your Leader
I was in seventh grade and sitting on the steps outside school, just a kid with a dream and a CD collection of two (both Jars of Clay records), when a kid offered to sell me a couple CDs for $5. Ten minutes later, I was the proud owner of dc Talk’s Jesus Freak and Newsboys’ Take Me To Your Leader. How do I remember this? Well, for one, I have a freaky long-term memory that remembers every useless story but not what my credit card number is, and also because I played those two records out. The Newsboys went on to implode, first launching an ill-advised attempt to bring back disco, then later growing boorish and perhaps even a touch arrogant, abandoning the immediacy of the live show for the safety of backing tracks. Not that I am bitter or saddened about this. Still, in 1996, they had found that perfect balance between their love of tongue-in-cheek wit and their enthusiasm for a good fuzz-rock sound. Under Steve Taylor's direction (he also wrote the lyrics to all of the best songs) the album was completely unpretentious, committed to being as boisterously fun as possible, faith-driven but without the piousness that would later pervade their recordings. It was a record to be cranked high and sung along to, a record that made the Gospel and its Great Commission seem kinda, well, exciting.

83. Dave Matthews - Some Devil
DMB fans will be disappointed this is the only Dave record that ends up on the list, but I never warmed to any of the band’s records as much as I did his one solo venture. Leaving the jam band mentality behind, Matthews accents his acoustic strums with delicate electric guitars and heads in a darker, more focused direction. Still, he balances the murkier tunes with floating, ephemeral moments of clarity, before plunging back down into depression and drink. It’s no coincidence that the album was written at around the same time Matthews was becoming a father and quitting a lifetime of alcoholism, the songs are all gin-soaked - and all filled with the self-loathing that comes with a full appreciation of that fact. Amidst the strife, Matthews finds himself becoming fully grounded for the first time. If Busted Stuff was Matthews coming to terms with the decisions of his life, Some Devil is his glorious reincarnation.

82. Ben Kweller – Sha Sha
Albums like this one are the reason I love debut records. Sha Sha sounds exactly like what it is: an incredible raw talent given his first chance to make the most of it. The production is loose and the vocals sound like they were recorded at five in the morning, and Kweller plays like a house afire. His later records would be just as good, poppier and better produced, but here Kweller sounds like Kurt Cobain and Rivers Cuomo gave birth to a pianist love-child, swinging wildly between raucous and occasionally lewd fuzz rock anthems and simple, voice-cracking love songs. There’s not a hint of album continuity except in Kweller himself, approaching each song with piano-thumping enthusiasm and singing with operatic effort, as if the microphone is forty feet away and he’s worried it won’t pick him up. Even when he dials it back down, his voice no more than a mutter, you hear the intensity hiding inside the quieter vocals, waiting to get out, until finally he can’t help himself and explodes back to full intensity. It remains one of my favorite debuts, a thrillingly energetic introduction.

81. Jack’s Mannequin – Everything In Transit
Lead singer and pianist Andrew McMahon’s work with Something Corporate ranged from the small-thinking and mediocre (“Punk Rock Princess,” “If U C Jordan”) to the expressive and epic (“Konstantine,” “The Astronaut”), with each of his albums packed with songs spread across that gap. It wasn’t until McMahon launched Jack’s Mannequin that he put out his strongest, most cohesive album. Transit is a songwriter’s record, sure, and it’s obviously more of a piano record than anything Something Corporate did (it’s no coincidence that most of their weakest work was whenever they abandoned the piano as a foundation for a song). But it’s also a stronger record both in terms of production and musical prowess; and though it lacks the rawness and accessibility of a So Co record, it also doesn’t sound like a bunch of Southern California kids with guitars. More seasoned players showed up to help (Tommy Lee provided the drumwork on most of the album) and the experience is clear. The biggest difference, though, is that it’s clear that Transit is McMahon’s opportunity to let himself shine. The songs are more personal, the piano fits more cleanly into the mix rather than battling for dominance, and McMahon sounds like he means what he sings. It makes a Something Corporate album sound like a demo record for him – and since there’s a Something Corporate record coming up on this list, you better believe that’s tough for me to say.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

I'm glad this isn't my family.

A woman working at the Pizza Patron was stunned when, in the middle of the shift, the restaurant was robbed by three people wearing masks. She was more surprised to discover that the perpetrators were, in fact, her husband and her parents, who had neglected to mention this plan to her beforehand. The best quote came from the police officer:
"Her husband told us she didn't know. He knew they were going to rob someplace but he thought it was going to be a convenience store."
I love the idea of a family where the husband mentions to his wife that he and her parents will probably be knocking over a local business sometime that night, and then later says "y'know, why don't we just rob where my wife works?"

Good news on the horizon, by the way: the geeky-yet-appealing Michael Ian Black has announced, as a result of the loathsome-and-tiresome Tucker Max's throttle hold on the Amazon humor category, that he is willing to engage Max in a round of fisticuffs. Since Max wrote a book chronicling, among other things, his penchant for bar fights, and Black seems more like the sort of guy who spends a weekend watching "Fraggle Rock" on DVD, this seems unwise, but Max has generously agreed to "show up drunk - 20 beers, 30 beers, whatever it takes to get me plastered. If you don't think I'm drunk enough, I'll keep drinking." What's more, if Black wins, Max will give him his next royalty check - about $150K - from I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, the autobiography that makes every mother cringe in horror.

A couple of quick thoughts on this:
1. 30 beers?
2. If Black wins by way of alcohol poisoning, is that still a win?
3. It has clearly been a very terrible idea to give Tucker Max ungodly amounts of money in large chunks. A better plan would be a small stipend, with the remainder of the money going to a trust fund that can be cashed in after both of his kidneys fail at 34.
4. You should read Black's post, if only for the Judy Blume joke.
5. Y'know, what did happen to Judy Blume jokes? They all seemed to disappear when "Chicken Soup For the Soul" jokes came into vogue.
6. A blind-drunk frat boy versus a stone-cold sober VH1 commentator would make for very good television, I think.
7. If someone kills Max, is it automatically considered fratricide? (heeey-oh!)

And finally, make sure to click over to see Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," starring Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion. It's hilarious, and the only downside is that now I think I should have a musical blog, too.

Speaking of Fillion, now that Ryan Reynolds is a big movie star, when is "Two Guys, A Girl, And a Pizza Place" going to come on DVD? What's the holdup?

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Friday, July 18, 2008

I could probably beat most orphans at bowling, myself.

I get frustrated with my church sometimes, feeling that maybe our priorities aren't in the right place on everything. I suppose the logistic problems inherent to running a giant church make everyone wonder if what we're doing is in any way close to what God wants of us. It's tough running a church in an area where a church is not a body of people, but an institution. That viewpoint colors your whole perspective. I was reading Donald Miller's Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance today, and the first chunk of the book concerns the megachurches in the Houston area, where Miller originates from. He and Paul, an easy-going Pacific Northwest native, take a roadtrip and talk about faith and God while chugging across barren deserts. I came up short at this passage:
"Pretty big church, is it?" I ask.
"Yeah, it is. We've got about 200 people there."
A smile comes to my face as Paul's definition of large collides with mine. "Two hundred people would make for a large Sunday School class in Texas. I hate to break it to you, but unless a church has a gym and a bowling alley, they're not fulfilling the work of the Lord. A church has to have a gym and a bowling alley because people play basketball and bowl and if they do it at church they are more likely to accept Christ. Widows and orphans especially, they play basketball a great deal."
We have three separate gyms at our church, for a total of five basketball courts. No bowling alley, though, unfortunately. The orphans will have to go without.

There's a flipside of all this, though. I just spent a week as a small group leader at a youth camp our church runs, and there's just something to be said for doing things right. If you were to say to me "you don't need a full worship band and a professional speaker and a rec team to organize team events, and you certainly don't need horseback riding and paintball and ziplines for the kids to ride, God can do great work no matter how uncool all our stuff is," I would absolutely agree with you. But while you and I can make that case from here to Tuesday, this last week, 350 kids truly met God, and had the time of their lives doing it. They sang songs and jumped around and God cracked the ceiling and came down among us.

I promise you, it was something to see.

The other high point, I don't work at this church, which canceled their Semi-Automatic Assault Rifle Giveaway Youth Event this week. Not because giving semi-automatic weapons to teenagers is a bad idea, of course - in fact, they're gonna hang on to the gun, keep it around the church for a year, then give it away next year. Oh, did I forget to mention that this an annual event?

This is church in America. There's always some church out there making every church look bad, and another doing things that seem impossible to live up to, and we play Keeping Up With The Joneses until we find ourselves building mission-oriented hot tubs behind the sacristy without ever noticing the homeless people sleeping in our doorways. It's the "More Toys, Better Faith" philosophy, and it's often effective and usually disheartening, sometimes simultaneously.

But for this week, at least, I got to see the bright side. I got to see God move, which I think is something he does whether we build him a shiny house or not; but if he chooses to do it in bowling alleys with Trinity-stamped pins, then I'll show up for every frame.

Plus, I really do think I'm a better bowler than your average orphan.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Life on the Mississippi...

This sequence of pictures, right here, made me suddenly believe I've missed my calling and should have been towboat captain. That is pimp.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

My Top 100 Albums Of All Time (#91-100)

I got linked over to A Special Way of Being Afraid’s blog the other day, where he’s at the beginning stages of his list of his 100 Favorite Albums of All Time. It sounded like fun, so I decided to do one myself.

It turned out to be a lot of fun. Things don’t always end up exactly where you think they will when you start putting it together – certain things you think will end up on the top end up all the way on the bottom, or drop off the list entirely. ASWOBA came up with a lot of rules for his list, which I thought was silly, but when I did my list I came up with just as many: no classical, jazz, or opera, no limit to how many albums per artist (let natural selection take its course), no soundtracks, movie scores, compilations, or best-of records. Live albums are occasionally permissible but not encouraged (I ended up with two).

Most importantly, the list had to be accurate; I couldn’t just list a bunch of classic records and pretend that they’re my favorites - I spent 15 minutes trying to jam Blood On The Tracks in there, but I finally had to admit that it was record I've never really owned, as such. It couldn't just be an older artist where I knew a lot of the songs, I had to know the whole record as a cohesive listening experience. It had to span the course of my whole life, the albums I listened to and loved the most, even if putting them in was embarrassing. I let myself judge the records as I saw them now, but I had to put them in the list if they were important enough to me at some point in my life to merit a mention. You better believe that Chumbawumba’s Tubthumper wouldn’t be on the list if I hadn’t listened to it 6,000 times in seventh grade, but I did, and I loved it, so there it is.

On to the first batch!

100. Weezer – Weezer (1994).
I usually tell people that my favorite Weezer album is Pinkerton, like a good hipster, and for a long moment I considered putting The Black and Blue Album here instead (an inventive internet mixdown of this record and Jay-Z's Black Album) but there’s something so compelling and accessible about their debut. It’s not just that it’s a head-to-toe solid album, but in an era of heavy metal worship and grunge retreads, there was a brightness and newness to the record that you can sense, even now. Songs like “Buddy Holly” and “Undone (The Sweater Song)” were the buzz-worthy set pieces, but it’s songs like “Only In Dreams” and “Say It Ain’t So” that carry the hefty emotional punch of the album, and are what make the record still sound fresh and important today.

99. Phantom Planet – The Guest (2002).
Every couple years, another California band explodes on the scene with their own slight adaptation of that sunny, Beach Boys power-pop sound, and Phantom Planet did it better than anyone. It succeeds exactly where it wants to, as a perfect, sunny pop record – the hooky chorus for “California” became the theme song for “The OC,” which is as pop a moment as you could hope for - and then the record pulls you one step deeper. And then, beautifully, pulls you one step deeper than that, until the second half of the album becomes a dark, eerie, trancelike version of the first, to reveal the flipside of happy, empty pop, without ever losing its inherent listenability. Few pop albums in the past twenty years have been simultaneously bright and depressive, and none have done it near so well.

98. Bleach – Bleach (1999).
Bleach is a band that never got its heyday, even in the Christian circles it ran in. Their records were always a foot smarter than they got credit for being. Their time in the limelight faded much too quickly, and it’s a shame they’re gone now, because there’ve been too few bands in Christian rock whose albums have had any sort of staying power. It’s a travesty that bands like Pillar have received so much more press and sold three or four times as many albums than these guys – especially this largely ignored self-titled record, which wavered between simple, affectionate praise and sprawling odes of self-introspection. It’s a transition between the more simple-hearted offerings earlier in their careers and their more complicated later work, with the album opening with a couple straight-ahead rockers before the album slowly develops into a praise record, albeit a raucous praise record, hitting it’s peak on “You,” as singer Dave Baysinger croons “I found what it is I’m missing: you,” before sighing, “I don’t think my heart can take it.” A maturity found nowhere on Pillar’s Fireproof, let’s point out.

97. 3 Door Down – The Better Life (2000).
Now, this would be the first instance of an album I’d drop off the list if I could get away with being dishonest. I don’t know if there was ever really a point where it was cool to like 3 Doors Down (I think there was a month or two where it was a legitimate thing), but it’s certainly not cool now. Their albums tailed off pretty abruptly, so past this debut it’s all diminishing returns, but truth be told this was quite an introduction. Straight-ahead rock with a crunchy pop sound, The Better Life never missteps from the iconic opening drum line on “Kryptonite” to its plaintive closer “So I Need You.” The Better Life wasn’t the best album of 2000, but it was its most re-listenable.

96. Rufus Wainwright – Want One (2003).
No one’s weirder than Wainwright, and that’s what we all love about him. He always sounds like he’s never listened to any of the same records that most people have, so his albums sound like a weird cross between his dad (quirky singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III) his mom (folk singer Kate McGarrigle) and Il Trovatore. Sometimes it's charming, sometimes off-putting, sometimes both at the same time, but Wainwright has never been better than he was on this record. His first album to really swing for the fences (and you get the sense his fences are further away then most), Wainwright writes an relationship album jam packed with both full-on operatic stylings and folky asides, ending up with a sound completely unique to him. While his previous albums would ignore his homosexuality, and his later albums head-on address it, Want One was the first and only record where Wainwright seemed comfortable with it, writing the sort of brilliant, unconventional album that makes you understand why he’s heralded as "the Gay Messiah" within the gay community.

95. Bleu – Redhead (2003).
Bleu (the stage name for William James McAulley III) is a Boston singer-songwriter who appeared briefly in the national spotlight for one very short second before disappearing permanently, but he left behind one very good record. Dripping with Southie belligerence, McAulley’s vocals are so sweet that they can’t help but belie his confident swagger, and you can hear his self-loathing that his hardened exterior reads a little too “West Side Story” to be taken seriously. In fact, much of Redhead deals with the stripping away of McAulley’s carefully cultivated image, and he digs into his head and doesn’t seem to like what he finds. The album slides from simple, fondly-remembered moments (“Searching For The Satellites”) to obsession (“Watching You Sleep”) to heartbreak (“Somebody Else”) to aimless depression (“You Know, I Know, You Know”) until finally, on the album’s closer (“3’s A Charm”), McAulley finally picks his head back up. It’s a thrill to hear him stumble his way to transformation.

94. Explosions In The Sky – All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone (2007). Someone’s commented to me that simply playing Explosions while doing anything – cooking eggs, doing laundry, taking the dogs for a run – turns whatever it is into a near-religious experience. I couldn’t agree more, the most mundane event seems powerful when it’s scored this dramatically; check out any episode of “Friday Night Lights” to see it in action. As good as their work is on FNL, though, it’s their follow-up here that really brings the muscle. Instrumental rock bands don’t get a lot of play in general, but these guys are so good that the other video editor at my job and I had to make a pact that we weren’t going to use them to score our videos anymore because we couldn’t help but keep using them for everything.

93. Jimmy Eat World – Bleed American (2001).
Jimmy Eat World has released more than one memorable album, but Bleed American is the one that really sticks. Dropped by Capitol Records a few years earlier, the band had been touring Europe on their own dime and discovered that they were a pretty good band when they didn’t let labels mess with what they were doing. Bleed American (renamed Jimmy Eat World after 9/11) is simultaneously a love letter to their influences (Motley Crue, Tommy James, and The Promise Ring all get a shout-out in “A Praise Chorus”) and a coming-out party. The album was a cobbled-together collection of the best songs they ever wrote, but under hipster superproducer Mark Trombino’s direction, it feels all of one piece – a power-pop emo album that wears its heart on its sleeve, and ultimately a stronger record than many of their influences every managed themselves (I’m looking at you, Sunny Day Real Estate).

92. Modest Mouse – Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2004). There are some bands who understand melody and just choose to ignore it, and Modest Mouse always fell into that category before this. Wildly up and down, they were the sort of band capable of crafting lovely, floating pop nuggets that would make the Flaming Lips salivate, but would rather snarl at the world over dissonant bass lines. It wasn’t until Good News that they decided to do both at the same time, ending up with an album that bounces from anthemic frothy pop numbers (“The World At Large,” “Float On”) to growly tunes wishing misery and perhaps death on former lovers (“Satin In A Coffin”). The tone in singer Isaac Brock’s voice hints at tongue-in-cheek without ever letting you know if he’s really this angry or just pretending, but maybe it’s just he knows the songs are so good you’re not going to care one way or another.

91. Nirvana – Unplugged In New York (1994).
Five months after recording this performance, Kurt Cobain would be dead. Much has been made over this final album, and appropriately so – the band played only one of their hits (“Come As You Are”), played covers of songs by bands most people had never heard of, recorded each of their songs in one take, and after closing with a heart-stopping cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Cobain turned down an invitation to do an encore, saying “I’ll never top that last song.” On a stage decorated with candle and a glass chandelier (Cobain requested both, wanting the staging to feel like a funeral parlor), the band stripped back its trademark buzzy angst into raw, introspective pain. When the album was released on CD, one reviewer noted “The problem with Unplugged albums tends to be that, given that their original identity is as a video, you feel that you are not having the whole experience without something to watch. In Nirvana's case, that is actually an advantage, because this particular whole experience is too intense to have over and over again.” Not so the album, which lends itself to constant repeat listening, particularly Cobain’s chilled-out version of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World,” a version so sad he completely outdoes Bowie at his own game.

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