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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At July 28, 2008 12:49 PM, Anonymous Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

At last - some CDs I've actually heard.

At July 28, 2008 7:20 PM, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

You mean Seal's "Kissed By a Rose" is going to finish even higher than #80? Or are you not counting that because you didn't own the album?

At July 28, 2008 7:39 PM, Blogger Wyman said...

You're correct, it doesn't count because I didn't own the album.

At July 28, 2008 8:46 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Wait, you don't have that tape anymore? That was THE Ben Wyman song, and the first one Heidi brought up when she saw you were doing this countdown.

Also, bring 89, 86, and 83 home with you so we can listen to them on the road.

Maybe I need to do a list like this. Though I should probably do favorite artists, since I collect the works. Must be the combo of the librarian mother and OCD father - I want to have the whole set, in alphabetical order.

At July 28, 2008 8:58 PM, Blogger Wyman said...

I've lost the tape, it's true, but the reason it's not on the list because it was only the single. I never bought the whole Seal album.

At July 29, 2008 9:41 AM, Anonymous Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

Wait I think I still have that tape somewhere. Shall I dig it up?


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