Notes on Listmaking in General
I list favorite, not best. These are albums that had an impact on me, not necessarily the world. You won't find Kid A by Radiohead on this list, for example, even though it's widely regarded as one of the best albums of the decade. I'm not disagreeing with those opinions.
I wanted this list to say more about me and less about the artists. I'm limiting my critical experience to my taste. Many of these will be critical darlings, because critically acclaimed music is something I pursue. Many won't be (some are downright embarrassing). But each one said something very important to me at one point in time, and at some point I fell in love with the album itself.
I've put a lot of thought into the list and the order the albums on it appear. Ultimately, each of these albums are important to me now, more important than anything left off the list. I can make that claim and go to sleep tonight knowing it's true. And really, that helps the sting of what I inevitably had to leave off.
20) Futures - Jimmy Eat World
The lowest spot on a list is an important one. For one, it sets the tone for integrity, but more importantly it's often one of the few entries a person will read; a lot of people will glance at the first entry, ignore the next few albums scanning for recognizable names, then skip to the bottom of the list to see what the best albums were.
The lowest spot deserves the attention it gets. Album #19 just has to be better than #20, worse than #18, and if it fits that role it can slide into that spot nicely. Album #20 has to be better than everything that almost made the list, but didn't.
I’ve seen Jimmy Eat World live. Cat got kicked in the head, and then later that night, cried while listening to "Polaris". When Dave was living on 3rd floor Kelsey with Thom, who had every album he could get his hands on ripped onto his massive, double screened computer, "Pain" had the most plays. By a lot. This album has a lot of history with me.
At its heart though, it's a cynical album about failing relationships and trying to come to terms with a shittier world than you dreamed of. It can be, at times, optimistic despite disappointment, like on the title track. Most of the time, it broods. I listened to it in Sarah’s car a lot, and it may or may not have played a part in why I tried to break up with her in 2004. When she eventually broke up with me, music in general seemed dishonest, as though it were trying to capture something miserable. That the artists were trying to linger in powerful feelings that, while you legitimately feel them, you would give anything to feel anything else. Jimmy Eat World wasn't like that, though; they wanted to feel something else, weren't resigned to feeling like crap, and although things were certainly shitty, it was life and there were things that were good, and things that would get better.
19) The Reminder - Feist
This is happier music. Feist has become synonymous with iPod ads and women with otherwise poor taste, a fate it was all but doomed to since "1234" dominated the world. That's okay. For an album that became so big, it really is something very small, an album made for quiet nights in the dark and intimate moments of intensely personal conversation. It’s a backdrop for closeness.
18) Demolition - Ryan Adams
For a long time, I would have told you that Demolition was my favorite Ryan Adams album. If he would have stopped there, maybe it still would be. But the man is nothing if not prolific; he can’t stop himself, and with such a varied catalogue you end up looking at his body of work much differently.
Demolition starts off very strong. I can remember hearing "Nuclear" waiting for Counting Crows to come on in Denver. "Dear Chicago" would make a top five Ryan Adams' songlist by almost anyone's standards (certainly mine); Sarah actually told me I would probably die alone and sad at one point. And yeah, "Gimme a Sign" playing blasted by Mant in his mom's car made me chuckle happily. But "Hallelujah" is what bumps this album onto this list. Something about references to Mary Magdalene get me.
17) You Forgot It In People - Broken Social Scene
How do you rate an album as a whole when comparing it to emotional touchstones? The answer is to look at the songs. As an album, You Forgot It In People is perfect, but what really stands out that makes it fall onto this list is individual songs. The baseline in "Stars and Sons" is summer to me, walking to work or walking to the townhouse at Edmund Park. And I love Broken Social Scene for their instrumentals; "Pacific Theme" is a pleasure to listen to, every time. And while I may think that Beehives does "Lover's Spit" better, you just can’t argue with the raw power of that song.
That’s what makes it a great album. What makes it number seventeen are two songs I haven’t mentioned so far. One is "Pitter Patter Goes My Heart", which is another instrumental that ends the album in one of the most beautiful ways imaginable. The second is "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl". It’s rare that there’s a perfect moment in music; it happens on the New Pornographer's "Bleeding Heart Show", and the Wrens' "Hopeless". After this list sitting on my computer for the better part of a month, those are the only two songs that I was able to come up that share with this song a few seconds of absolute perfection, where nothing could be better. And when "Anthems..." is reveling in that moment, with three women singing "Park that car, drop that phone", something happens to me that I can't control, and I fall in love.
This album will give you perfect moments.
16) Chutes Too Narrow - The Shins
This one kills me. It started at #19, went all the way up to #8, then got bumped down to it's current spot. It's the album that had the most flex room on this list.
It's funny that it starts and started for me with "Kissing the Lipless", something I now consider one of the least Shins-like songs in their repertoire. I wonder if they'll ever return to that sound, the sound James probably wouldn't describe as typical mellow Kenton listening that he probably would use to describe their later work and most of the other tracks on this album. While I'm sure "Mine's Not a High Horse" stands out to Jon as a reminder of High School and High School attitudes, it's eclipsed for me by every song after it, which is really saying something. "Fighting in a Sack", "So Says I", and "Pink Bullets" dot the astounding landscape with songs I can't even begin to do justice to here, but what really force this album upwards on this list is "A Call to Apathy (tentative title)" and "Turn a Square", my two favorite Shins songs by a very large margin. Their other two albums are both worthy, and I wouldn't hesitate to put them on this list if every spot wasn’t so bitterly fought over.
15) I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning - Bright Eyes
This is an album worn by time. But as much as I might want to put it under Chutes Too Narrow, there's just no way that can happen. I've lost a lot of respect that I once held for Conor Oberst, but part of the reason his albums are so good are because of their immaturity, an immaturity that doesn’t work now that he's closer to 30 than 20.
Despite that, this album is a masterpiece. It captures a youthful perception of war, war afar with terrorists and war up close with loneliness, authority, social climates, hypocrisy, internal conflict. The themes are eloquently carried from song to song; it's a shame that getting a tattoo of a star or a yellow bird always will be feminine. But in the meantime, it also boasts what is easily one of my favorite music videos of all time.
14) A Rush of Blood to the Head - Coldplay
You have to look at the songs. Parachutes was my introduction to Coldplay; as an album whole it functions better for me than this one. But you have to look at the songs.
"Green Eyes" can still bring tears to my eyes. How could anybody deny you? That feeling that you were the one that I wanted to find, that all my life you were the one I always wanted…and I found you. So okay, everyone fell in love to this song. But so did I (I love you more than ever, Cat).
I don't know if everyone knows about "The Scientist" and me, but it was Sarah's and my song. A fucked up song for a couple, I have to say. The first day we were together all I could think about was how I would one day want that first day back, because I couldn't imagine my relationship with her would ever get better than that. In a lot of ways, it didn't.
"Amsterdam" is still my favorite song on the record, my favorite Coldplay song. It was the perfect song at the perfect time for me. It's not about climbing rooftops and crying out your love, it's not about seeing the light; it's about being saved, turning around from a cold and broken existence and starting the long, hard process of moving on. You don't just blink away from rock bottom; walking away from that is a brutal experience. I had someone to hold my hand along the way, and for that I'm grateful.
13) The Meadowlands - The Wrens
This is an album with a story, but maybe not one everybody knows. The Wrens signed with a big label and were unsuccessful. Their label pressured them to change their sound. They refused and were dropped. They had some money saved up, so they built a recording studio in a house and started making music. This album came out seven years after they lost their contract.
A lot happens in seven years. In 2002, the year before The Meadowlands was released, the lead singer made a paltry thirteen grand bagging groceries. This album wasn't a surefire hit. They didn't even have a label, or any assurances it would be pressed at all. They risked everything, and by the end were incredibly cynical about their prospects.
It worked. They’re happy now. But this is a record of every breakup, every bad band meeting, every failure along the way. The album is personal and complicated. It's just a great story. There needs to be more art about being an aging failure.
12) Room For Squares - John Mayer
When making this list, Jon said that he occasionally would run into an album where he would think "Okay, you make my list. Asshole." Which is completely accurate of this album. I crossed my fingers hoping it came out in 1999 when I looked it up, but no, 2001. What an asshole.
Denver and "3x5" alone means this song has to be on the list somewhere. But it's high for so many other reasons apart from that. "Why Georgia" hasn't aged well for me, but "Not Myself" has. It's hard to write a love song about a fight. And nothing captures the confident, bright-eyed hope of youth quite like "No Such Thing". Really, that's why the best music is made by the young; they have a very off-the-beaten-track and hopeful approach to life, a hope that for them things will be different if they can just have the courage to be different. In a lot of ways, I was a better person when I listened to this album more. Over the last month, I’ve sort of realized I've become narrow-minded in my views on the future. I haven't taken many risks lately; there's less that's considered risky when you’re 25 than when you're 17. Hopefully I can shift gears and be able to inspire raised eyebrows well into my 60s. After that I assume people will just think I'm legitimately crazy instead of just weird. Which would be a perfect place to transition into a "My Stupid Mouth" discussion, but I don’t have anything to say about that song that I haven't said to Jon long ago with through rueful smirks.
11) Heartbreaker - Ryan Adams
"My Winding Wheel" could be my favorite Ryan Adams song. It captures the essence of Heartbreaker to me; consuming love that makes you happy and bitter at the same time. I got fairly drunk once by myself while listening to this album and bemoaning my lot in life. Younger times (are to be sad, are to be high).
I have yet to listen to the Morrissey album which is debated in the opening track. I've only recently discovered The Smiths, after all. Still, Ryan Adams becomes the first artist on my list to make multiple appearances. Would you really expect it to be anyone else?
10) A Ghost is Born - Wilco
My Top 10 is fairly iron-clad. I haven't changed anything in it since close to the beginning; I probably would have had an easier time if we were only able to include ten albums. My Top 5, actually, is the same. And I think the strength of them are based on the strength of the albums which hold the lowest spot.
A Ghost is Born is Wilco during my favorite era. Summerteeth started it, and has some great tracks in it's own right; "Via Chicago" is almost good enough to float the album onto this list by itself. Still, it lacks the start to finish perfection that A Ghost is Born has. I even love "Less Than You Think", a song Jeff Tweedy himself called unlikable. I don't think it's unlikable. I think it's beautiful. It's the perfect example of what they do that makes their music great: lay down this white noise with so much stubborn beauty in the background aching to be dredged to the surface, beauty that only breaks through during those perfect moments where every word, every syllable matters.
9) For Emma, Forever Ago - Bon Iver
I don’t know if Bon Iver will be able to keep going. Someone only has so many touchingly personal experiences. But I hope he does. I didn’t know there was still so much potential in hushed vocals and an acoustic guitar, intimate moments that can still be shared with a room full of people with tears and knowing smiles. We smile because love is as endearing as it is difficult, and life goes on. This is a summer CD in "Skinny Love" and a winter one with "Flume". "re: Stacks" seems almost out of place. It closes the album and slows it down to a crawl. The song was Qumran for me; it brought back every moment where everything that happened since was from now on.
8) Gold - Ryan Adams
Gold is my favorite Ryan Adams album. Maybe it’s because it’s my first, but I feel this goes beyond the sentiment of the record CD or appealing cover; it’s the way Gold so ambitiously blends bluegrass, country, soul, and rock into one massive album that clocks in at an epic hour and a half (For Emma, in comparison, is a sparse 37 minutes). Out of the 24 songs, a whopping 15 have at one point in time been my favorite on the album. I love records like that.
7) Challengers - The New Pornographers
The New Pornographers are my favorite band at this moment in time, and have been since I really discovered this album. I bought Challengers and listened to it for the first time on the way to see them play live, and knew right off the bat it was going to sell me on the band in the long run. The New Pornographers' sound has consistently evolved to something I appreciate more with each album they released, and Challengers is by far my favorite.
My parents say "Adventures in Solitude" remind them of my sister. To me, Challengers is about friends, family, and loved ones, and the struggles to keep the whole motley crew together in life despite hang-ups, complications, and tragedy.
6) Our Endless Numbered Days - Iron & Wine
The Big Picture is hard to live around. Science predicts one day it will be nothing but lifeless, disconnected particles spread across empty space. The only way I’ve found to combat the emotions this evokes is to try to bring everything back down to Small Picture.
Sam Beam coaxes the value and significance of that time that’s yours from the places where you forgot. "Passing Afternoon", the final song, is a good overview of the album whole; a memory of the quiet, simple, but powerful love that all of us experience endlessly in our lives, in one form or another. The album reminds you of the hushed grace that surrounds all of us every day.
5) Illinois - Sufjan Stevens
Everything on my top 5 is profoundly important to me; underestimating even one album would be a grievous error. Illinois serves as a warden for the rest of the list, firmly cemented into place ensuring that nothing gets by it. Of course, some albums do; albums that defy the natural laws of the universe to exist in some place beyond measurable worth. To get by Sufjan Stevens, they would have to.
The album convinced me to believe in a loving, omnipresent God again. Consider the weight of that statement, it’s not a hyperbole. The album is far from unfettered acclaim for the Christian God Sufjan subscribes to, but it illustrates ties that bind us all together, themes with existential and personal connotations on a backdrop of a state, imaginary lines on a piece of land.
Special mention has to go to "Casimir Pulaski Day", the saddest song I have ever heard. I’ve seen a video I can’t find now where the person who plays the trumpet starts crying in the middle of it, and then everyone in the band starts crying. After the song is over, Sufjan chuckles and scolds his friend for making them all break down in the middle of a set as he hugs him.
4) Give Up - The Postal Service
I feel like people can’t understand this album unless they’ve lived it. I feel like people can't understand how bad love can be until they've lived through the end of it. How you just want to go back, and failing that, take your love far from the cynics who claim to want what's best for you yet raise an eyebrow at what is now a complicated and disjointed history and urge you to move on. There's only one way to stop that endless aching: be taken back and take back, make a new start, move on together and with each other now and forever. Ignore the critical thinking of the outsiders who know nothing about what it's like to be there, to not be able to sleep or eat, to have the best part of your day be those first few drowsy seconds after waking before you realize that you have been left by the person you loved the most, deliberately and on purpose. That the person who knew everything about you, knew you better than anyone (maybe even yourself), decided that you weren’t worth knowing any more.
When a relationship ends, love doesn’t go away. There’s an undeniable desire to stay, to fix, to make things right. There's still love there, real even if it's brutal, in all of its beauty and grandeur. This album captures it.
3) Broken Social Scene - Broken Social Scene
I'm not sure I can say anything about this album that Jon won't on his list. He helped convince me that "It's All Gonna Break" is a happy song. It started with a long conversation over the phone, and ended while I was on a bus going to California for a girl. It was night in the mountains in BC, and my iPod was on full blast as the trumpets shouted at the end of the song. It's all gonna break, and they revel. Agony doesn't sound like that.
It's more than just an album. It's everything that was good about music at this point in my life. It was as though everything I liked got together and decided to be in an album as one cohesive entity. Broken Social Scene is a force of an undetermined number of talented and wonderful artists who reverberate over and over to create something bigger than themselves, music that's bigger than music itself.
2) Woman King - Iron & Wine
An EP. From big music to small.
I already writ about how Sam Beam can bring things back to the small picture, a porch with red wine in a coffee mug, in the countryside of some landlocked southern state. He uses it to show the beauty of mortality in the vast landscape of infinite time, using love as the rationale. In Woman King, he replaces love with a woman. Cat claims this album is on the list because of one song. The album is so much more than that for me, though.
James claims he considers himself a feminist. There are a lot of people who talk about feminism; as a male I hesitate to involve myself. I hope my actions these days refute any ideas I may have voiced about what it means to be a woman when I was younger. In the meantime, I can appreciate something which praises the strength of women. I had a conversation with a friend about how there are the kind of men who prefer the company of men; they like doing guy stuff, watching sports, et all. Opposed to that, there are men who enjoy the company of women, like mixed gatherings and a voice from the gentler sex in the room. I strongly consider myself one of the latter.
The album is about the worship of women (or, rather, a woman, and everything that makes her), and it achieves this fully with the one song Cat accuses me of basing the high rating of this album on. "Jezebel" is one of my favorite songs. Nathaniel pointed out it was actually a fairly literal retelling of a biblical story, but it's not, not really.
1) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco
When I was seventeen, during what will always be one of the craziest weeks of my life, I made a mix CD. After a while, it became really important to me, and I made the decision to only play it when I was very sad or very happy. For a few years I only played it once every few months, and every time it made me feel good, even if everything was terrible.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot does that to me these days.
Mant once said that he doesn't know how many times he would have killed himself if it wasn't for "Jesus, Etc." Maybe I can say the same. Would Yankee Hotel Foxtrot be the first album on my list without this song?