I've seen a lot of these lists over the past month, and I wanted to do one. It was really fun looking back at all the music that acted as the soundtrack to my many failures over the past 10 years.
1. My Morning Jacket – Z
Great band. Terrible band name. I definitely can’t take credit for listening to My Morning Jacket first, but I know I can take credit for introducing Farley to MMJ. Maybe the only time I can say that. I had started listening to Z religiously and was in Borders with Farley looking to buy At Dawn. I said, “Have you listened to My Morning Jacket?” And he laughed and mocked me, saying, “Dude, I don’t listen to emo.” The mistake was understandable. My Morning Jacket is dangerously close to My Chemical Romance. Regardless, I straightened him out and now he’s enjoying the fruits of Jim James’ loin.
My entrance into MMJ was very backwards. People who had listened to them through their previous 3 albums probably saw Z as a completely unexpected step forward. For me Z represents the archetypal MMJ sound. I personally was introduced to Z a year after it was released, and the first song I heard was “Wordless Chorus.” It just sounded like demented dance-electro music to me, but after hearing the album entirely, I was amazed by how completely different each song on the album was stylistically. There’s “Gideon”’s slow-building progression into an orchestral epic, “What a Wonderful Man” and its ridiculous falsetto, sing-along melody, the Brit-rock of “Off The Record,” the dark imagery and the slightly frightening Russian vocal ensemble at the end of “Into The Woods,” the keyboard, power-chord thumping “Anytime,” on into dueling Skynyrd guitar on “Lay Low.”
Every song is nearly perfect and unique in the set. And this is where Jim James first revealed his true insanity and brilliance, and as his first attempt as an eclectic musician he kept his unbalanced tendencies in check. So, the result is surprising and strange but very balanced, unlike the sprawling madness of Evil Urges (which I still think is awesome). After wearing Z out in my car, I moved backwards through their catalogue and fell in love with the reverby sound they perfected on It Still Moves and At Dawn. But this will probably remain my favorite, unless they prove me wrong and release something better.
2. The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
I remember riding around in Josh Floyd’s car listening to “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt. 2” on repeat while he drummed incessantly on his steering wheel. And I remember the senior guys singing the “She’s a black belt in karate, HEY HEY!” of “Pt. 1” in the hallway during my freshman year. This is one the first albums I can associate with my coming into the world of big-guy music. It was cool, it was something I could wrap my brain around, it was different than anything I’d ever heard before. Yoshimi also marks the beginning of my nerdy passion for concept albums. Music about little Asian girls fighting gigantic robots is just plain cool. And beyond / underneath the concept and electronic padding is Wayne Coyne’s wonderful song writing. “Fight Test” is still one of the top 3 songs I go to when I need encouragement or inspiration to keep “fighting.” When he sings, “I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life, and it’s all a mystery,” I choke up a little bit, sneeze, and then fart.
3. Kings of Leon – Because Of The Times
I wikipedia’d this—apparently there is a Pentecostal church ministers’ conference in Louisiana held annually called “Because of the Times". Wouldn’t you know it, the Followills have attended it regularly in the past. There is a deep religiousness in Kings of Leon that, placed within the larger context of the debaucherous themes of their music, makes them all the more interesting and enigmatic to me. This dual nature is very apparent in Because Of The Times., and more importantly, the album represents the most important moment for a great band. Sonically, in songwriting, and in sheer weight, the album is exceedingly greater than the two that came before. Youth And Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak are good albums, but hardly unique in their sound. Aha Shake was a response to the dance-oriented European music the band was introduced to while touring their debut. Because Of The Times, on the other hand, is simply a band reaching for something huge. And they succeed completely, exchanging simple guitar rock for arena-sized anthems and pounds and pounds more vulnerability. Every moment of it is strong. “True Love Way” is probably my favorite Kings of Leon song, but it is no better than “On Call,” “McFearless,” or “Arizona.” And finally, Caleb Followill started singing about things other than loose women, even though he still sings about that in good measure. I would compare his songwriting on this album to making love with a beautiful woman, while his previous writing was something like a cold crotch-grab.
4. Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond
What attracted me to buying this album in the first place was the story behind it. J Mascis, supposedly one of the greatest guitarists on the planet, formed the band in the late 80’s with two of his best friends. They released three great albums and then Mascis, feeling his creative control needed to be absolute, kicked the other two out of the band, continuing to release albums under the Dinosaur name. However, the music that followed was forgettable and faded the band’s legacy. In 2007, Mascis approached the old members and convinced them to reform to release another album after nearly 20 years of separation. The result is absolutely amazing. Beyond is anything but rusty, and it may in fact be their greatest album. Dinosaur Jr. takes the credit for restoring the guitar solo in respectable rock music at a time when punk and grunge bands were turning their noses up at it. Dinosaur is also in my opinion the “warmest” band to come out of the grunge movement. The music is heavy, distorted, loud, but sweet to its core. Listening to this album makes me want to put on ripped up, faded jeans and throw a really expensive guitar off the roof of a building onto concrete.
5. Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour of Bewilderbeast
This was one of the first CD’s I ever bought, right after Jesus Freak, Baha Men, and Eifel 65. I have no idea why I liked Badly Drawn Boy even then, but when I heard “Something To Talk About” from the About a Boy soundtrack, I was hooked. And looking back, I can probably thank this album for getting me into The Beatles. Obviously, the influence is there for every band, but something within this album really entranced me, something immediate and catchy and beautiful that is at the heart of most Beatles’ songs. Damon Gough, the ugly face behind BDB, put his best foot forward here, and unfortunately, he hasn’t and most likely will not do this good again.
6. U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind / How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
I’m constantly growing as a U2 fan, but I’m not up to the level of U2 idolization held by the likes of Monger or Matt Graves. Thus, I still combine the best moments of these two albums in my head into one super-album. Those best moments include “Beautiful Day,” “Walk On,” “Miracle Drug,” and “City Of Blinding Lights.” Yes, the two albums are very different, but I appreciate them equally, just as Bono equally appreciates attention and good deeds.
7. Foo Fighters – In Your Honor
Dave Grohl’s scream can heal wounds. I’m certain of this fact. He screams, and there is something in my soul that just responds. It’s impossible to explain, but this is the ultimate goal of music or any art. Foo Fighters were never intended to be a cool rock band. They are not Interpol and they aren’t Spoon. They are ballsy, nerdy Rock giants, fronted by a man who seems to be capable of pretty much anything.
After One By One, it seemed the Foo’s were going nowhere, having not progressed much in their style or found a solid identity. So, they pulled out every trick they could muster.
New studio. Guest musicians. Double album (and the novel concept of an album that divided the band’s sound into heavy and soft). In Your Honor proved to be exactly what the band needed. Not only did they progress, they also landed on a sound and style that went deeper and seemed to finally represent their talents. “Times Like These” proved that the Foo Fighters could write an arena song with political (or at least current) implications, and it was used by both parties during the 2004 campaign. They delved into similar territory again with “Best Of You.”
Foo Fighters are often underappreciated and labeled a conventional rock band, but listen to “Best Of You” again. It’s arrangement, composition, whatever you want to call it, is just confusing. Verse, chorus, and bridge overlap into one song that builds on itself and maintains throat-wrenching power for 4 minutes. When I first heard, I didn’t get it at all. It just sounded like a jumble of screaming and pounding drums. But after time, it starts to impress itself into your consciousness, and then you get it. Its power. Its universality that allows it to mean something different to everyone who hears it. There is no other song quite like it. “Were you born to resist or be abused?”
8. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
I stayed far away from Arcade Fire for three years, but when Neon Bible came out I had to give in. I may never be able to fully enjoy “Wake Up,” but I was able to dig into this album almost immediately. It’s dark, compelling, strange, and heavy without ever hitting the distortion pedal. “No Cars Go” is the track that really grabbed me, and it scrapes the heavenly realms with its orchestral climax. The album art says it all—this album is like 95 theses being tacked onto a church door, protesting the religious hypocrisy of whoever. Wynn Butler really captures pained spirituality in his lyrics, and never better than on “My Body Is A Cage.”
9. Modest Mouse – Good News For People Who Love Bad News
“I know that starting over is not what life is about,” sings Isaac Brock on “The World At Large.” The Moon & Antarctica was a hard album to follow up, and instead of straining to reinvent themselves, Modest Mouse simply moved forward. Expanding and polishing their sound, they recorded their best album to date. “Float On” has lost most of its original luster, but “Ocean Breathes Salty” and “The Good Times Are Killing Me” have aged well over the past five years. “Bury Me With It” and “Black Cadillacs” balance the album with the appropriate amount of angst, and “Blame It On The Tetons” shows Brock’s singularity as a songwriter, able to question the ultimate meaning of the universe while injecting his own twisted sense of humor into the mix. I know Farley can testify to how satisfying it is to shout “WE WERE DONE DONE DONE WITH ALL THE FUCK FUCK FUCKIN’ AROUND!” in the car at full volume.
10. The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan
It was only a matter of time before Jack White got bored with guitar-drum pounding. Even with the occasional slide guitar thrown in, it couldn’t last forever. “Blue Orchid” is at once similar to what they had done before and ultimately unique in their catalogue. It is little more than a riff, an octave pedal, a kick drum, and a falsetto Jack White. However, it’s hypnotizing and bizarre in the best way possible, in my opinion the definitive White Stripes track. “Orchid” passes in just under three minutes, and then things get really strange. It’s as if they recorded “Blue Orchid” in a hurry, getting their single out of the way so that they could spend their time messing around with a whole assortment of new toys—marimbas, bells, mandolins, and an actual bass! It’s not what you would expect from a world renowned band in the 21st century. It sounds like it was recorded in the 1960’s, and Jack combines AM radio (“My Doorbell”), knee-thumping country (“Little Ghost”), and beyond-category rock (“Red Rain”). Get Behind Me is the most eclectic thing the duo has done, it’s the most risky, it’s the strangest, and it’s my favorite. I don’t know what the hell “The Nurse” is about, but I still like it.