80. John Mayer – Heavier Things (2003).
I can’t top Rolling Stone’s summing up of Mayer’s career up to this point, so I’ll quote it instead:
“In 2001, John Mayer released Room for Squares, which has since sold more than 3 million copies. Then based in Atlanta, Mayer had recently left Boston's Berklee College of Music. His songs didn't have the fussiness that many of us associate with trained musicians, but there was something correct about them. The fast, epiphanic "No Such Thing," the afternoon valentine "Your Body Is a Wonderland" and the steering-wheel singalong "Why Georgia" all had a very precise mood and their own notion of cool. Neither punk nor prom king, Mayer was a tall kid from Connecticut, driving on the freeways, chasing slippery techno women, inhabiting a world of parents and slipcovers and holidays and gracious Southeastern metropolises; he was smart, inquisitive, articulate, a touch off in places. In post-9/11 America, he could have come straight out of a 1950s J.D. Salinger novel.”
Isn’t that great? My favorite part is that he lives in a world of slipcovers.
As you can imagine, a lot was riding on Mayer’s sophomore effort. Despite expectations from fans to make not only the exact same sort of record, but a record that would, perhaps, change the world – emerging artists love that sort of pressure when entering a studio – he made a record that went out of its way to avoid the hype in its entirety. The record was catchy and melodic, but nothing on the record felt anything like a single – even the songs that became singles felt out of place on the radio, as if pulling them from the record had robbed them of all context. Mayer chose not to abandon his rootsy approach, but rather to expand it, adding colors and tones around songs that sounded like they were written for a solo acoustic sets, and touching them up with his rediscovered blues roots. Each one of the songs is a fragment in a broader patchwork of what feels like a quiet, lonely season in Mayer’s life, time spent reflecting on porch swings and in empty apartments filled with crushed cigarettes (see? I can do it too). The album is much better for the melancholy.
Check out: Unrecognized album highlight “Split Screen Sadness” and the bluesy, horn-accented “Clarity.”
79. Ben Folds – Rockin’ The Suburbs (2001).
The first album from Folds following the break up of Ben Folds Five was, surprisingly, even more accessible than a BF5 recording (it is a general rule that side projects must be much less accessible than the main band’s work, the Raconteurs being the only acceptable exception). Accenting his pounding piano style with wads of electric guitar, the record ended far more driving and slightly less esoteric than anything he’d recorded before. Suburbs is a bright, shiny pop record full of both tongue-in-cheek humor (the ironic title track) and eager sentiment (“Still Fighting It”). Folds tends to write stories rather than songs, but his stories are all so far left of center it’s like entering another world, from a husband dealing with his wife’s psychological breakdown (“Zak and Sara”). to a faded businessman forced into retirement (“Fred Jones, Pt. 2”), to, most bizarrely, the true story of a partygoer who gets high, climbs into a tree, and climbs down the next morning a born-again Christian (“Not The Same”). What makes it work is that Folds never treats any of these stories as anything strange, playing all of them purely for their pathos and sense of loss, which oddly makes them instantly connectable to the listener. By the time Folds closes the album on the most off-kilter of wedding songs (“The Luckiest”), you’ve developed a deep bond with the epically lost subjects of Fold’s songs, and a new appreciation for the guy who wrote them.
A note to people who play “The Luckiest” at their wedding, though: you are not cool. You are not hip. People do not see you dance your first dance to this song and think you are artistic and deep. They just sit and listen to the lyrics and say to themselves “why are they dancing to a song where the guy’s singing about how the girl’s riding by on a bike fifty years into an imaginary future?” It is unwise to confuse your wedding guests this early into a reception. Wait until after they’ve had a couple of drinks, then make it the last dance. Then they’ll think you’re deep. But do not think you are the first to do this. You are not.
Stop playing Michael Bublé seventeen different times during your wedding, too.
Check Out: “Fred Jones, Pt. 2” “Not The Same,” and “The Luckiest.”
78. Jennifer Knapp – The Way I Am (2001).
Knapp has since disappeared off the scene is a wildly dramatic manner – an abrupt career break after this record for “reasons that were personal and would remain that way” ultimately became a permanent condition, and Knapp never returned to the studio or the tour bus. It’s a sad reality since The Way I Am could have been a career-catapulting record, combining Knapp’s ego-less approachability and honesty with some fairly crunchy pop hooks. Slick production on “Breathe On Me” and “The Way I Am” gave Knapp’s vocal a chance to shine among the noise, but Knapp never sounded better than when the trappings were stripped away. “Have mercy on me,” she sighs with sad frustration on “In Two (A Lament).” Only her voice and a few delicate strings are left to carry the sonic weight, and it’s more than enough. Chuck Klosterman wrote once about how he met a female professor once who was complaining that, musically speaking, people considered the male persepective to be general but the female perspective to be personal. Klosterman felt (as do I), that the latter seems preferable to the former. I also feel that this may be because females are much better about getting deeply personal – and I offer this album as exhibit A.
Check out: the two most personal tunes on the record, “The Way I Am” and “In Two (A Lament)” plus rocker “Fall Down,” which opens with the lyric ‘judge me not, ye saints! I’m sober enough to know blood when I see it.’ Who writes songs like that?
77. Barenaked Ladies – Gordon (1992).
One way or another, you gotta admire an album where, when one of the band members decided a song wasn’t working, the band chose playing the whole song naked as the solution. Bam! Double platinum.
Gordon is BNL’s first full-length record, and like most bands, their debut defined the pattern they would follow for their career: loose, fun, inventive, and all over the map. Gordon clocks in at 15 tracks, so they gave themselves room to wander a bit: the album sweeps from a first-person look at Brian Wilson’s depression to an ode to 9th grade foibles to a love song of near-Meatloaf-level epic-ness to a bouncy crowd-pleaser about what a million dollars might feel like (assumably, they later found out). Critics tend to later laud the first album by major bands as important or ground-breaking or the most true to the band’s essence, but Gordon lacks even a hint of self-importance, thrilling instead to merely be gleeful in its own inanity. From the tongue-in-cheek of “Be My Yoko Ono” to the full-on madness of “King of Bedside Manor” (that one’s the naked track), Gordon sought and succeeded at being, above all, good fun.
Check out: Traditional album highlights “If I Had A Million Dollars” and “Brian Wilson,” plus the epic “What A Good Boy.”
Not much from this period made the list, and this album charts higher than most because it’s simply better. Emo bands were hesitant to embrace their emo-ness, trying to reclassify themselves as some other type of music – ironic that in a genre of music made by shy people for shy people, the bands should also shy away from being classified in the genre those people listen to. Okay, maybe it’s not that ironic. But really, throughout the period a really unbreathable amount of shyness occurred. It was like lifting a rock and watching them scurry sometimes.
Taking Back Sunday never seemed to follow the trend. They embraced the overabundance of emotion in their music with head-on enthusiasm. Emo lyrics were usually pretty plain-spoken and emotionally overwrought, but singer Adam Larazza brought it to a whole new level. In one particularly quoted lyric, he yells, “you could slit my throat, and with my one last gasping breath I'd apologize for bleeding on your shirt!” No poetry here folks. Move along.
Ultimately, that was the appeal – their songs are arguments and pleas set to music, with most of the songs coming from a time when the band was threatening to break up. Each song on the album was from the viewpoint of a different band member, and each band member took part in the songwriting process. I was slightly surprised to hear that – what band actually has all its members write? Not even the Eagles have that. But looking at the album’s song titles: “Cute Without The E (Getting Cut From The Team),” and “You’re So Last Summer,” there’s not a lot of leverage for doubt that this is an album about feeling more than a little marginalized. What better choice for an anthem for high schoolers? I miss the misanthrope passion of those days a little, where every experience was either the highlight of your life a direct punch to the gonads. This album is like that, too.
Check out: Single and album highlight “Cut Without The E.”
75. Sixpence None The Richer – Sixpence None The Richer (1997).
This is one of those records a lot of people assume they won’t like, and the argument against it goes “oh, you only think you won’t like it because of what you’ve heard on the radio.” Which is the classic argument people defend bad albums with. But it’s the truth with this one because the two singles from it are the clear exceptions to the album – the sweet lead single (“Kiss Me”) and the tacked-on cover song that should never have been a single (a decidedly unexciting version of The La’s “There She Goes”). The rest of the record is filled with much darker, more delicate tunes, inspired by a long bleak period in the band’s history following a messy break with their label. Complemented by very organic orchestration, Matt Slocum’s consistently solid songwriting seems sharper here, as if Slocum feels he has something to prove. Generally, that’s a good sign – artists make better albums when they feel like they have something to prove, ideally when they’re full-on pissed off at someone (weirdly, this is equally true in the Christian market). Still, all rough edges are smoothed away by Leigh Nash’s subtle vocal takes, even when she sings “they’re looking for money as they clean my artistic womb,” sounding so delicate that she might break. And you thought you knew this album without ever listening to it.
Check out: The opening trilogy is moody and haunting, particularly the album opener, “We Have Forgotten.”
I don’t remember how, exactly, I came across this album, but I do know that I owned it without case or liner notes, which probably means that I purchased it from the basement of a small record store near where I went to school, a record store that I would then have classified as “ghetto” and only now appreciate (in these pre-Ebay days, if you couldn't find something unusual, they would take a couple days to use their connections to find it for you). This is early emo, piano and drum loops, vaguely techno influenced, pounding away at minor notes. With a bizarre pop exception (“We’re At The Top Of The World,” a song so relentlessly cheerful that it was played on the the Disney Channel back when they didn’t have endless Hannah Montana reruns to play), the album is aggressively dark, full of open-ended questions no one seems to have any interest in answering. The first album that convinced me that the divide between Christian music and mainstream music might be a lot hazier than I imagined.
Check out: “You Always Say Goodnight, Goodnight,” the sprawling lament near the end of the album.
73. Damien Rice – O (2003).
There are some albums that come out of literally nowhere, and this is one of them. Damien borrowed some recording equipment from a vague connection he had, wrote and recorded the album in the apartments and bedrooms of his friends for a year, and sent it off to record labels. A year later, the album had gone platinum and been crowned by Rolling Stone as one of the year’s best. Now that’s a turnaround.
Rice has his own special brand of songwriting that sounds like he’s permanent singing tunes he’s composed after the third night of heavy drinking after you discover your wife’s been sleeping with everyone you know. Also, you have cancer and you’re having your arms amputated tomorrow. It’s that kind of sad. And that kind of good.
Check out: “Delicate,” the most tragically unhopeful album opener of all time.
72. 2nd Chapter of Acts – Roar Of Love (1978)
This is the wild card on this list, because it’s a concept album about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe recorded by an incredibly uncool Christian pop band (check this out) in a garage with piles of synthesizer five years before I was born. But I read an interview with Jon Foreman once where he pointed to this album as a touchstone in his own musical history, so I think it’s okay. For reasons I cannot come close to intellectually defining, this album remains remarkably accessible today, and is still one of my most played records (I only have so many actual records, actually, so it’s competing with a lot of Beethoven and Smothers Brothers, but still).
Fun fact: this album was produced by a not-famous-yet 80’s superproducer Michael Omartian (Christopher Cross, Whitney Houston, Steely Dan, Rod Stewart), who just produced my friend Matt’s latest record. All its guitar parts were recorded by the also not-famous-yet Phil Keaggy.
Check out: The album only works as one long, continuous play, but its strongest track is Lucy’s plea to Edmund, “Tell The Truth.”
71. Matchbox Twenty – More Than You Think You Are (2002).
There was one night my freshman year of college where something particularly frustrating had happened in one of my classes – it was something typically college angst-inducing, like not getting credit for an assignment or having a professor rip apart an overly-earnest paper I’d turned in. I was cleaning the room that night and griping to my roommate Keith about it when he pointed out that he figured I couldn’t really be that mad about it because in between my complaints, I was still singing along to my CD player. I hadn’t even noticed. It was, of course, this album.
Matchbox was so huge in their heyday that they’ve now become considered vacuous and overrated, but this album was fairly raw and full of crunchy guitars and neo-soul and just generally felt looser than anything they’d ever recorded before. From bouncy gospel choirs (“Downfall”) to swelling orchestras (“The Difference”) to cock-rock stylings (the Mick Jagger co-write, “Disease”) the album felt fresh and, dare I say, somewhat diverse. Ultimately, though, the album was strongest when it focused on Matchbox’s signature arena rock sound (“Soul,” “Could I Be You”), where Rob Thomas could finally unleash his full energies into calling out a bitter message over a cacophony of wailing guitars. Thomas was always at his best at full volume anyway.
Check Out: “Could I Be You,” “Soul,” and “Disease”