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My Top 25 Albums: Something of a Journey

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In contrast to making the list for songs, I found albums to be much harder.

This is a product of age, I think. As I said before, I developed my listening sensibilities with significant help from downloading singles during the file sharing era. Before that, I was listening mostly to classic rock on the radio, which itself was preceded by a relatively short period of having a handful of (mostly country) cassette tapes and listening to a local pop radio station’s weekly top ten countdown. Somewhere between two-day-long downloads of songs like “Otherside” by Red Hot Chili Peppers (incidentally, probably the only song of theirs I can even remotely stand) and the dawn of my album buying career, I made mix tapes and CDs like they were going out of style.

As a matter of fact, my current music tastes were set into motion almost entirely by a single mix CD made for me during my junior year of high school. That mix was made by a friend after she recovered from her shock that I’d never heard a Radiohead song. We had briefly debated the merits of commercial radio (I was firmly for it at the time), and she tried to suggest that, Radiohead aside, there was better music to be found amidst the very many albums that received little to no airplay.

That mix was the first time I ever heard Modest Mouse (“Out of Gas”), Bright Eyes (“Waste of Paint”), and a bunch of others. I think there were 22 songs on it. I wish I still had it, as well as the mix Mark handed out to all of the members of a class (I forget which) in college. My dear Remi also once made me a mix of entirely low-profile indie bands, which included Built to Spill, but I really didn’t start listening to them until Sarah recommended the album below.

There were others, too, and it’s a good thing, because you would not believe the horrifying musical choices I made before getting these assists. I had (subjectively) abhorrent taste in music, aside from my appreciation of classic rock, which still has its place. To wit: At one time, I had harnessed the power of Napster to collect every single Creed recording ever made. I had not one, but two MiniDiscs of Nickelback albums. I was still listening to and defending the music of Bush in college, which prompted my professor at the time, Michael, to write out a list of probably 25 bands I should listen to instead. I was a disaster. I needed all the help I could get.

My point in saying this is that I wasn’t naturally or genetically inclined to have any sort of discerning taste in music. Despite being a guitarist, I have such tragically limited knowledge of the components of a song, from either a social or musical standpoint. I always say I have pretty varied tastes in music, but then again, you’ll note the dearth of hip hop/rap, metal, noise, or punk among my absolute favorites. I still really enjoy a bunch of stuff from each of those genres, but nothing quite connects with me on the same level. I definitely have a slightly broader knowledge of my favorite area of music compared to the average person and I’m always open to hearing new things, but anyone who has ever worked for three days at a record store knows more than me by a long shot.

Anyway, that’s the long way of saying that my journey to album appreciation has been somewhat fraught. I had to reverse engineer a lot of them from the one or two songs I might have received from any number of sources. My golden late high school through college years of digging through the crates at the indie record shop helped a lot, but I’ve never possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of music by release date, the lineage of certain bands or even movements, nor really a good sense of where the things I listen to fit in the pantheon of music as a whole. I just like what I like, man.

Okay, here it is. This list will provide a framework for at least some of the posts to come, and inform some of my vinyl buying decisions.

1. Have One on Me by Joanna Newsom
2. Middle Cyclone by Neko Case
3. The Lonesome Crowded West by Modest Mouse
4. The Color and the Shape by Foo Fighters
5. Something to Write Home About by The Get Up Kids
6. Left & Leaving by The Weakerthans
7. Tapestry by Carole King
8. So Many Seas by Almanac Mountain
9. Perfect from Now On by Built to Spill
10. Juliet On Fire Keep Clear by Pilot to Bombardier
11. Either/Or by Elliott Smith
12. There and Gone by Ed Gerhard
13. Algiers by Calexico
14. Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins
15. Misery Is a Butterfly by Blonde Redhead
16. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
17. Challengers by The New Pornographers
18. On Lost Nation Road by Justin Carloni
19. The Magnolia Electric Co. by Songs: Ohia
20. Fever to Tell by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
21. Trouble Will Find Me by The National
22. White Lighter by Typhoon
23. Third Eye Blind by Third Eye Blind
24. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
25. Wiretap Scars by Sparta

As with the songs list, here are some thoughts:

  • Boy, is the gap between The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica mighty slim. I think the latter is a better album, and it has one of my favorite songs of all time on it, but the former just beats it out. I’m not sure if I could explain why, except that Modest Mouse was still ascendant here, whereas The Moon and Antarctica feels like the arrival after which everything gets dicey.
  • Some of these took a really long time for me to finally get, as it were. I straight up did not like Typhoon at first, but once I cracked the code, they really hit me. Same is true of Joanna Newsom on the whole, but compared to Ys and The Milk-Eyed Mender, it took forever for me to wrap my head around the staggering Have One on Me. I also really hated Blonde Redhead the first…million times I heard them. But one day, they just made sense.
  • I don’t even like Foo Fighters. Okay, that’s not quite true. But they are closer to the Weezer side of things than not, which is to say, they should have quit before In Your Honor.
  • I hope Billy Corgan gets hit by a bus before I have to buy Siamese Dream on vinyl as part of this exercise. At least let me luck into a used copy. What a garbage person. I didn’t link to buying it above because I don’t think you should. Stream it somewhere. Don’t give him any money. This album was almost disqualified because of how much I think he sucks, but it stands in as my alternative to a lot of grunge and grunge-adjacent inasmuch as it defined a sound I truly love.
  • Look, I don’t know what to tell you if you don’t like the first Third Eye Blind album. Take in all those melodramatic turns and learn to love yourself.
  • Boy, is the gap between Middle Cyclone and The Worse Things Get… mighty slim. Neko Case is great.
  • “Time” is the deal-breaker between The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, though I think the keyboards do get a little carried away on the latter.
  • Again, it was tough choosing between Ed Gerhard’s There and Gone and Sunnyland. “5 to 99” might be my favorite track of his, but as an album, the nod had to go to the former.

There are a few bands that aren’t represented here despite the fact that I like them quite a bit. Queens of the Stone Age is one, but none of their albums in total are very good as discrete units, and Josh Homme is a piece of shit, anyway. I like Arcade Fire, but have ruined their album experience by too often listening to them in iTunes, sometimes right after one another and sometimes on shuffle. I can’t really tell them apart super well. In my brain, “The Suburbs” is on Neon Bible for that reason. Anything Pixies or Belle and Sebastian is the same way; it’s all a jumble. Crystal Castles was disqualified from my entire library because of this.

Some near-misses: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel, The Wild Hunt by The Tallest Man on Earth, En Garde by Puzzle Muteson, The Photo Album by Death Cab for Cutie. By virtue of lifetime plays, Picaresque by The Decemberists should probably be on here, but they experienced the opposite of the Blonde Redhead phenomenon, in that once I became too aware of the schtick, the spell was broken forever.

Of this list, I have #1, #2, #3, #7, #15, #16, #17, #20, #21, #22 on vinyl so far, mostly bought new as reissues. I know that #12, #18 and #24 never had vinyl releases; #18 exists only in the far reaches of the internet and on several dozen handmade CDRs. I may still talk about those albums by referencing the digital versions I have, because they deserve the mention. According to Discogs, vinyl pressings of the rest of my list exist somewhere out in the world, even if the prices are occasionally exorbitant. I guess time will tell exactly how much I’m willing to splash out to get a few of them. I’m not going to be at all precious about original versus reissues. Either will serve the purpose here and I’m not a purist.

I wonder what a word cloud of Music Genome Project genes would look like based on my list.

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My Top 25 Songs: An Exercise in Futility

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Have you ever tried to come up with your top X of any given thing? If you don’t keep up with it in some small way all along, it can be a brutal experience to generate it from scratch. You’ll start off strong, but eventually trail off. You’ll get derailed by the ranking, waylaid by long-buried sentimentality. Doubt will set in. The reality of your shifting priorities over the years will play a major factor, so you’ll have to make hard decisions (about this trivial and pointless exercise).

Fortunately for me, I do these kinds of dumb, unnecessary rankings from time to time. I also still scrobble to Last.fm, though the largely-unsupported software struggles to perform as it did in the good ol’ days. I had a starting point, if not the entire thing ready to go when I came up with this idea. It still took some work to get this list into shape.

The first thing you have to wrestle with is finding out that your most played songs/albums/artists aren’t necessarily your favorite. One thing Last.fm users find out pretty quickly is that a short but intense obsession can really skew your charts. I believe that a favorite album has to stand the test of time, at least to some degree. It’s highly unlikely that an album released this year, for example, would rank. Some albums take time to break in; an album you hated at first may later make your list because it required careful consideration and wasn’t instant favorite. It goes the other way, more often than not. Albums that enjoyed a hot streak when you first discovered them usually cool down with time, and are sometimes relegated to the parts of your library you don’t revisit very often.

By way of example, I’ll start this blog not with the list of the top 25 albums, but by first talking about my top 25 songs of all time. This is in part because the groundwork vetting for these was done long ago when my good friend Desi and I were bored at work one day. But it also helps illustrate something else: a favorite song may bear no connection to your favorite artists or even albums. It could be something out of the clear blue, your own personal one-hit wonder.

If you compare the list below with my top songs on Last.fm and in iTunes, there’s only some overlap. There are a few reasons for this, key among them the many, many plays lost to digital record keeping because I couldn’t scrobble from CDs or records at the time. Sometimes I just get stuck on a thing, but six months later, I’ve stopped listening to it altogether, while my favorite songs may languish for a chunk of time without getting played at all.

This also gives me a chance to set some ground rules for my albums list. The first and most important being that artists/musical groups can’t have two entries. Individuals can appear more than once, but they must be in different incarnations. This, of course, begets some hard decisions, but limitations and editing breed quality. Another rule, as I touched on, is that they have to still sing to me after years of hearing them and after encountering other material. My feel-good jam of last summer is not going to make the list. (Incidentally, my last feel-good jam of the summer I can remember was “Coo Coo” by Weaves.)

Finally, sentimentality counts. I won’t cut something just because my tastes have moved on from centering that kind of music, or because it might be embarrassing. Loving something isn’t conditional upon it being objectively good. Despite my considerable hours spent analyzing music, I’m neither a musicologist nor talented enough a musician to comment on how objectively good something is. If it sucks but I love it, it’s on here. Same goes for ignoring that it was a ubiquitous MEGA-HIT that everyone else is sick to death of hearing. Thems the breaks.

So then, here are my top 25 favorite songs of all time:

1. Short-Haired Girl by The Water Section (from ...and Then the Hum of the American Diesel Engine)
2. This Tornado Loves You by Neko Case (from Middle Cyclone)
3. Hey, Johnny Park! by Foo Fighters (from The Color and the Shape)
4. Farewell Transmission by Songs: Ohia (from The Magnolia Electric Co.)
5. Maps by Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from Fever to Tell)
6. Baby Birch by Joanna Newsom (from Have One on Me)
7. Oh Mandy by The Spinto Band (from Nice and Nicely Done)
8. Evil Urges by My Morning Jacket (from Evil Urges)
9. The New Year by Death Cab for Cutie (from Transatlanticism)
10. Velvet Waltz by Built to Spill (from Perfect from Now On)
11. Perfect Disguise by Modest Mouse (from The Moon & Antarctica)
12. It Will Follow the Rain by The Tallest Man on Earth (from The Tallest Man on Earth EP)
13. Quiet by This Will Destroy You (from Young Mountain)
14. Scatterheart by Bjork (from Selma Songs)
15. Ashamed by Deer Tick (from War Elephant)
16. Splitter by Calexico (from Algiers)
17. How Even the Sky Thought to Rain by Pilot to Bombardier (from Juliet On Fire Keep Clear)
18. Please Don’t Give Me What I Want by Kat Frankie (from Please Don’t Give Me What I Want and Ramen Music #11)
19. Can’t Make a Sound by Elliott Smith (from Figure 8)
20. Failsafe by The New Pornographers (from Challengers)
21. Reckoner by Radiohead (from In Rainbows)
22. Glasshouse Tarot by Sparta (from Wiretap Scars)
23. Rapunzel by the Sea by Almanac Mountain (from So Many Seas)
24. Say It Ain’t So by Weezer (from The Blue Album)
25. Ex-Hive by Tom Thumb (from The Taxidermist)

(Yep, I listen mostly to, as it was explained to Evan, “sad white people music.”)

This list is more or less in definitive ranked order. That said, this is merely a snapshot of the current status, as must be the case for all such things. A few thoughts:

  • “Short-Haired Girl” and “Failsafe” are the only songs from which I have lyrics tattooed on me. “This Tornado Loves You” and “Failsafe” are the only songs from which Evan has lyrics tattooed on her.
  • “Evil Urges” might be the only MMJ song I know. “Please Don’t Give Me What I Want” by Kat Frankie is definitely the only song of hers I know. That’s sort of an odd facet: You’d think this list might only be comprised of my favorite bands, or at least tracks from my favorite albums, but when making lists like these, you quickly find that what makes each of those great has somewhat limited overlap.
  • “Baby Birch” gets something of an assist from the fact that the guitar tone in it reminds me of “From Here to Ear” by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, which I unabashedly love more than a lot of things. Not that it needs the help.
  • Some of these songs remain on the list long after I’ve fallen out of love with a band as a whole (looking at you, Weezer [!!!!], Death Cab, Foo Fighters, and Modest Mouse [my former undisputed favorite band]). “Say It Ain’t So” was my favorite song for probably ten years before the band tainted my memories of them so badly, I could no longer defend even a top ten ranking for any of their music. I can’t bring myself to cut it completely, though.
  • Speaking of favorites, Joanna Newsom is far and away my favorite artist and would have multiple entries on this ranking if not for the rule to limit it. Same with Neko Case.
  • The Moon & Antarctica just barely missed a spot on my top albums list, but I never, ever get sick of hearing “Perfect Disguise”.
  • “Reckoner” battled its way onto the list against two of its Radiohead stablemates, “Exit Music (For a Film)” and “Airbag”, both of which spent time as my favorite from that band.

Most of these songs seem to occupy two categories: 1. Longish, epic, building songs with multiple movements or 2. Very tightly composed, relatively static tracks with minimal instrumentation. What’s more, there’s virtually zero overlap with the kind of music I like to make. This poses something of a problem when it comes to composing my own music, since my influences have tenuous connections to the types of sounds and textures I want to hear in my own music. Go figure.

Some notable misses that are probably in the top 50: “Wolf Like Me” by TV on the Radio, “Plug-In Baby” by Muse, “Backwards Walk” by Frightened Rabbit, “Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist” (or, like, five others) by The Weakerthans, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon, “Bulletproof” by La Roux, “July Flame” by Laura Veirs, “Hey” by Pixies, “Wildcat” by Ratatat, “Life on Mars” by David Bowie, “Highway Patrolman” (or “Atlantic City”) by Bruce Springsteen, and so on. “Heartbeats” by The Knife (and/or Jose Gonzalez’s excellent cover) was a difficult cut; I prefer the slower live version on which Gonzalez’s cover is based, but I like the original, too. It should probably be in the top 25, but I’m conflicted about it.

If you know me and my tastes, feel free to comment what I might have missed in my considerations. Once you get beyond the top ten, it feels increasingly prone to shorter-lived love affairs. Also comment if you have your own top songs list because I need to know.

Next up: Favorite albums.

Disclaimer: Affiliate links allow me to generate a little pocket change. Read more about that here.
Charmed by the Sound is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.