I got linked over to A Special Way of Being Afraid’s blog the other day, where he’s at the beginning stages of his list of his 100 Favorite Albums of All Time. It sounded like fun, so I decided to do one myself.
It turned out to be a lot of fun. Things don’t always end up exactly where you think they will when you start putting it together – certain things you think will end up on the top end up all the way on the bottom, or drop off the list entirely. ASWOBA came up with a lot of rules for his list, which I thought was silly, but when I did my list I came up with just as many: no classical, jazz, or opera, no limit to how many albums per artist (let natural selection take its course), no soundtracks, movie scores, compilations, or best-of records. Live albums are occasionally permissible but not encouraged (I ended up with two).
Most importantly, the list had to be accurate; I couldn’t just list a bunch of classic records and pretend that they’re my favorites - I spent 15 minutes trying to jam Blood On The Tracks in there, but I finally had to admit that it was record I've never really owned, as such. It couldn't just be an older artist where I knew a lot of the songs, I had to know the whole record as a cohesive listening experience. It had to span the course of my whole life, the albums I listened to and loved the most, even if putting them in was embarrassing. I let myself judge the records as I saw them now, but I had to put them in the list if they were important enough to me at some point in my life to merit a mention. You better believe that Chumbawumba’s Tubthumper wouldn’t be on the list if I hadn’t listened to it 6,000 times in seventh grade, but I did, and I loved it, so there it is.
On to the first batch!
100. Weezer – Weezer (1994).
I usually tell people that my favorite Weezer album is Pinkerton, like a good hipster, and for a long moment I considered putting The Black and Blue Album here instead (an inventive internet mixdown of this record and Jay-Z's Black Album) but there’s something so compelling and accessible about their debut. It’s not just that it’s a head-to-toe solid album, but in an era of heavy metal worship and grunge retreads, there was a brightness and newness to the record that you can sense, even now. Songs like “Buddy Holly” and “Undone (The Sweater Song)” were the buzz-worthy set pieces, but it’s songs like “Only In Dreams” and “Say It Ain’t So” that carry the hefty emotional punch of the album, and are what make the record still sound fresh and important today.
99. Phantom Planet – The Guest (2002).
Every couple years, another California band explodes on the scene with their own slight adaptation of that sunny, Beach Boys power-pop sound, and Phantom Planet did it better than anyone. It succeeds exactly where it wants to, as a perfect, sunny pop record – the hooky chorus for “California” became the theme song for “The OC,” which is as pop a moment as you could hope for - and then the record pulls you one step deeper. And then, beautifully, pulls you one step deeper than that, until the second half of the album becomes a dark, eerie, trancelike version of the first, to reveal the flipside of happy, empty pop, without ever losing its inherent listenability. Few pop albums in the past twenty years have been simultaneously bright and depressive, and none have done it near so well.
98. Bleach – Bleach (1999).
Bleach is a band that never got its heyday, even in the Christian circles it ran in. Their records were always a foot smarter than they got credit for being. Their time in the limelight faded much too quickly, and it’s a shame they’re gone now, because there’ve been too few bands in Christian rock whose albums have had any sort of staying power. It’s a travesty that bands like Pillar have received so much more press and sold three or four times as many albums than these guys – especially this largely ignored self-titled record, which wavered between simple, affectionate praise and sprawling odes of self-introspection. It’s a transition between the more simple-hearted offerings earlier in their careers and their more complicated later work, with the album opening with a couple straight-ahead rockers before the album slowly develops into a praise record, albeit a raucous praise record, hitting it’s peak on “You,” as singer Dave Baysinger croons “I found what it is I’m missing: you,” before sighing, “I don’t think my heart can take it.” A maturity found nowhere on Pillar’s Fireproof, let’s point out.
97. 3 Door Down – The Better Life (2000).
Now, this would be the first instance of an album I’d drop off the list if I could get away with being dishonest. I don’t know if there was ever really a point where it was cool to like 3 Doors Down (I think there was a month or two where it was a legitimate thing), but it’s certainly not cool now. Their albums tailed off pretty abruptly, so past this debut it’s all diminishing returns, but truth be told this was quite an introduction. Straight-ahead rock with a crunchy pop sound, The Better Life never missteps from the iconic opening drum line on “Kryptonite” to its plaintive closer “So I Need You.” The Better Life wasn’t the best album of 2000, but it was its most re-listenable.
96. Rufus Wainwright – Want One (2003).
No one’s weirder than Wainwright, and that’s what we all love about him. He always sounds like he’s never listened to any of the same records that most people have, so his albums sound like a weird cross between his dad (quirky singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III) his mom (folk singer Kate McGarrigle) and Il Trovatore. Sometimes it's charming, sometimes off-putting, sometimes both at the same time, but Wainwright has never been better than he was on this record. His first album to really swing for the fences (and you get the sense his fences are further away then most), Wainwright writes an relationship album jam packed with both full-on operatic stylings and folky asides, ending up with a sound completely unique to him. While his previous albums would ignore his homosexuality, and his later albums head-on address it, Want One was the first and only record where Wainwright seemed comfortable with it, writing the sort of brilliant, unconventional album that makes you understand why he’s heralded as "the Gay Messiah" within the gay community.
95. Bleu – Redhead (2003).
Bleu (the stage name for William James McAulley III) is a Boston singer-songwriter who appeared briefly in the national spotlight for one very short second before disappearing permanently, but he left behind one very good record. Dripping with Southie belligerence, McAulley’s vocals are so sweet that they can’t help but belie his confident swagger, and you can hear his self-loathing that his hardened exterior reads a little too “West Side Story” to be taken seriously. In fact, much of Redhead deals with the stripping away of McAulley’s carefully cultivated image, and he digs into his head and doesn’t seem to like what he finds. The album slides from simple, fondly-remembered moments (“Searching For The Satellites”) to obsession (“Watching You Sleep”) to heartbreak (“Somebody Else”) to aimless depression (“You Know, I Know, You Know”) until finally, on the album’s closer (“3’s A Charm”), McAulley finally picks his head back up. It’s a thrill to hear him stumble his way to transformation.
94. Explosions In The Sky – All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone (2007). Someone’s commented to me that simply playing Explosions while doing anything – cooking eggs, doing laundry, taking the dogs for a run – turns whatever it is into a near-religious experience. I couldn’t agree more, the most mundane event seems powerful when it’s scored this dramatically; check out any episode of “Friday Night Lights” to see it in action. As good as their work is on FNL, though, it’s their follow-up here that really brings the muscle. Instrumental rock bands don’t get a lot of play in general, but these guys are so good that the other video editor at my job and I had to make a pact that we weren’t going to use them to score our videos anymore because we couldn’t help but keep using them for everything.
93. Jimmy Eat World – Bleed American (2001).
Jimmy Eat World has released more than one memorable album, but Bleed American is the one that really sticks. Dropped by Capitol Records a few years earlier, the band had been touring Europe on their own dime and discovered that they were a pretty good band when they didn’t let labels mess with what they were doing. Bleed American (renamed Jimmy Eat World after 9/11) is simultaneously a love letter to their influences (Motley Crue, Tommy James, and The Promise Ring all get a shout-out in “A Praise Chorus”) and a coming-out party. The album was a cobbled-together collection of the best songs they ever wrote, but under hipster superproducer Mark Trombino’s direction, it feels all of one piece – a power-pop emo album that wears its heart on its sleeve, and ultimately a stronger record than many of their influences every managed themselves (I’m looking at you, Sunny Day Real Estate).
92. Modest Mouse – Good News For People Who Love Bad News (2004). There are some bands who understand melody and just choose to ignore it, and Modest Mouse always fell into that category before this. Wildly up and down, they were the sort of band capable of crafting lovely, floating pop nuggets that would make the Flaming Lips salivate, but would rather snarl at the world over dissonant bass lines. It wasn’t until Good News that they decided to do both at the same time, ending up with an album that bounces from anthemic frothy pop numbers (“The World At Large,” “Float On”) to growly tunes wishing misery and perhaps death on former lovers (“Satin In A Coffin”). The tone in singer Isaac Brock’s voice hints at tongue-in-cheek without ever letting you know if he’s really this angry or just pretending, but maybe it’s just he knows the songs are so good you’re not going to care one way or another.
91. Nirvana – Unplugged In New York (1994).
Five months after recording this performance, Kurt Cobain would be dead. Much has been made over this final album, and appropriately so – the band played only one of their hits (“Come As You Are”), played covers of songs by bands most people had never heard of, recorded each of their songs in one take, and after closing with a heart-stopping cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Cobain turned down an invitation to do an encore, saying “I’ll never top that last song.” On a stage decorated with candle and a glass chandelier (Cobain requested both, wanting the staging to feel like a funeral parlor), the band stripped back its trademark buzzy angst into raw, introspective pain. When the album was released on CD, one reviewer noted “The problem with Unplugged albums tends to be that, given that their original identity is as a video, you feel that you are not having the whole experience without something to watch. In Nirvana's case, that is actually an advantage, because this particular whole experience is too intense to have over and over again.” Not so the album, which lends itself to constant repeat listening, particularly Cobain’s chilled-out version of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World,” a version so sad he completely outdoes Bowie at his own game.