It has been a long time since I did one of these, so at the bottom of the page you can link to the older entries if you want to catch up. Enjoy.
60. Devin Davis, Lonely People Of The World Unite!
Let me put it this way: this album features a truly awesome track that tells the first-person story of a turtle in love with a wounded bird. That either sounds like your cup of tea or it doesn’t, and that reality is Davis in a nutshell – he’s either one of your favorite artists or you never want to hear him again. A cohesive collection of rock numbers enthusiastically expounding on the nature of loneliness, Davis is equal parts Beck*, the Kinks, Ben Kweller, and that 17-year-old kid down the street who won’t stop playing drums, even at three in morning when you pound on the door and beg him to stop. A no-namer** who recorded every one of the dozens of instruments on the record himself, sleeping for days at a time on the couch of the recording studio where he worked to take advantage of unbooked studio time, Lonely People benefits from the looseness that comes from being one person’s uncompromised vision. The end result is the only album I have ever accurately described as a ‘cheerfully sad romp.’
* I was riding in the car with someone over 40 the other day, and Beck came on the radio, and the guy told me to “turn that hip-hop crap off.” What the hell is happening to our planet?
** this reminds me: if you choose to Google Davis to find out more about him, tread carefully. It turns out there is a slightly more famous porn actress by the same name.
Check Out: “Cannons At The Courthouse,” “The Choir Invisible,” “Turtle and The Flightless Bird,” and “Iron Woman”
59. Taylor Sorensen and the Trigger Code, They May Lock Us Up, They May Make Us Bleed
Yet another collection of songs from a unknown indie artist, They May Lock Us Up is the follow-up record from worship artist Taylor Sorensen, whose severely unappreciated Rocketown debut, The Overflow, caused his departure from the label (check out that record’s anthemic closer, “Sing (Or The Rocks Will Get To)”). Unfazed, Sorensen recorded a brand new record in his basement studio, with deeply personal songs that sounded… nothing like anything Matt Redman ever thought about recording. Straining his polished voice over scuzzy guitars and a deliberately garage-band recording, They May Lock Us Up feels more like a mid-sixties rock record than anything else, albeit one that’s suddenly transported, Bill-and-Ted style, to the 21st century (think Black Rebel Motorcycle Club). The reason to tune in, though, is the songwriting – from the longing “On My Own” to the slow-train-coming “Bulletproof,” there’s more than half a dozen songs here that force you to sing along to at top volume, until your voice sounds as delightfully ragged as Sorensen’s.
Check Out: “On My Own,” “Bulletproof,” “Tornado,” and “Come On Let’s Do It OK!”
58. Delirious? King Of Fools
Discussing this album immediately leads me on a tangent, because in CCM’s review of this record in ’98, the reviewer found flaw in the album because it sounded a “too much like a British version of Big Tent Revival.” It’s honestly remarkable how little perspective that magazine had in its short time in the sun. Regardless, Big Tent Revival is now long forgotten, and Delirous? remains, in large part because this groundbreaking release. While it’s easy to look back now and complain that this record sounds like every U2-aping, Christian worship band ever to exist, you have to remember that this is the first U2-aping Christian worship band ever to exist. When the album arrived, Delirious? had already been gathering massive crowds to rock-oriented worship gatherings across Britain for years, an idea that no one had ever had before (or at least, an idea that no one had successfully pulled off). This record was seminal to the Christian music industry – a full-time worship rock band. Who’dathunk it.
It’s also, by the way, very good. Less a pure worship record than a collection of anthemic tunes designed to make the listener sing helplessly along (I already told you they were U2-aping, after all), it swings from fist-pumping choruses to dreamy pop-rock that’ll make you muse ‘wait, are we sure this is pre-Coldplay?” In the field of public opinion, Delirious?’s legacy will always be that they were the songsmiths that gave us “Did You Feel The Mountains Tremble?”, but this record reminds us that they gave us more than that.
Check Out: “All The Way,” “Sanctify,” “August 30th,” “King Of Fools,” and “White Ribbon Day”
57. Coldplay, A Rush Of Blood To The Head
I distinctly remember the first time I heard this record. Already a big fan of their US debut, Parachutes, I’d gotten ahold of the CD a few days before my trek back to college I think it might have been a Christmas present – and I popped it into my Discman (remember those?) on the plane ride to college. About halfway through the record, I pulled off my headphones and said “I can’t wait ‘til we land so I can tell someone about this album.” It was, sonically, a completely different record from anything they’d recorded before. It felt daring, a reminder that not too long ago, pop music was made by people who could really play their instruments.
There’s not much I can tell you about this record you don’t already know – you either already own it or you plan to never do so – so I’ll finish with a short story about the album.
Frustrated with the finished record, Coldplay began re-recording much of the album in the fall of 2001. Traumatized by 9/11, they tried to imbue the recording with a sense of urgency, an attitude that sparked their producer to remind them that they had a piano riff that they’d given up on that would be perfect for the new tone of the record. That riff became the Grammy Record of the Year, “Clocks.”
I don’t know why I bring that up – “Clocks” is nowhere near my favorite track on the album. I just like the story because it explains why even the album's slower tracks are packed with such intensity. Frankly, I prefer the album's moodier pieces: the melancholy “Warning Sign,” the overplayed and nearly ruined but excruciatingly lovely “The Scientist,” and the shimmery “In My Place,” the guitar line of which I maintain is one of the finest pop recordings ever produced.
Check Out: “Warning Sign,” “In My Place,” “The Scientist,” and “Green Eyes.”
56. The Wallflowers, Bringing Down The Horse
The first of three Wallflowers albums you’ll see on this list, I’m a longtime Wallflowers apologist. Why am I an “apologist” instead of just a regular fan? Because in the mid-nineties, the Wallflowers were so huge, and their music so pervasive that a natural anti-Wallflowers backlash occurred. Their biggest single, “One Headlight,” was so ubiquitous that Jakob Dylan would apologize in concerts before playing it.
Oddly, no one really bought any Wallflowers album other than this one, so when talking about their other records, I’m expounding their values to the uninitiated - on Horse, most of the world already knows at least one of the songs by heart.
I can’t tell you that the album sounds any different from its singles, which is the classic argument apologists use for promoting an album everyone already knows the main songs from – Moody Blues fans in particular are guilty of this. Instead, I use the opposite argument – every song continues in that Americana, alterna-songwriter vein (think Jakob’s dad during his electric phase), and that’s a good thing, because it means that Horse is a top-to-bottom rock-solid album. Alternately driving and bluesy, but always with a hard-edged sadness to every tune, Bringing Down The Horse is the musical equivalent of two whiskey sours and half a pack of Marlboros in a dusty bar on a weekday afternoon. In fact, the best tracks on the record are the saddest ones – particularly “Bleeders,” which mourns, “I did the best I could, I guess, but everything just bleeds.” It’s a bout of self-pity worth getting lost in.
Check Out: “Bleeders,” “Josephine,” “I Wish I Felt Nothing,” “3 Marlenas,” and “Invisible City.”
55. Damien Jurado, On My Way To Absence
I have no concept how I originally purchased this record – I don’t know any Jurado fans besides myself, I’m always the guy pushing people listening to this record. I don’t even know what prompted me to buy this album myself. A glowing review in Spin or Paste? A free mp3 download that won me over? I have no recollection, which is rare for me. When I find a new band, I remember who turned me on to them, and I always hope others to do the same with me. Regardless, it turned out to be one of the better gut purchases I ever made.
Maybe I heard the story of how Jurado created the album – he and his producer locked themselves away for months on end to make the record in absolute solitude – and felt intrigued enough to check it out. It’s a good enough reason; Jurado’s separation from the world allowed him to descend wholeheartedly into the bleakness, to wondrous effect. Always an evocative songwriter, Absence’s neo-gothic storytelling feels like a Flannery O’Connor story plucked out on a echoing electric guitar, an emission from another world where small town late-night shootings don’t make the local paper, and the hearts of the all the girls are frozen black as ice. Not for the faint of heart, but also not worth missing out on.
Check Out: “A Jealous Heart Is A Heavy Heart,” “Sucker,” “Lottery,” and “White Center.”
54. Five O’Clock People, The Nothing Venture
The first concert I ever saw in a Boston club – I can’t remember which – was Third Day on their Time tour. The opening act was Five O’Clock People, a five-piece acoustic-folk group promoting their first album. I would’ve been about 15 at the time, which is important to know just because it’s going to give context to this story. The Christian music industry is a very small market, and not only does everyone know everyone, people who know Christian music know every single band that’s out there, even bands that are selling maybe 25,000 units at the most. I followed Christian music as close as any kid in New England could in those days, and when I went to college I spent four years as a Christian music DJ at the college radio station. I met tons of bands and had hundreds of conversations about Christian music, and I met just one person, total, who remembered this band in any context (her name was Dana, and she professed to know every lyric to “Sorry,” the album’s strongest cut). That’s how much of a blip on the radar they were.
Some good bands just never get recognition, and that’s the way of the world, but in a market mostly famed for its lack of originality, Christian music could’ve used this band. The story goes that the band signed to Pamplin records, recorded and released the CD, yet the label decided they couldn’t market it, and they and the band parted ways. It’s a terrible shame, because this is a great, unique record: on the album opener – the simultaneously warm and oddly distant “Lunar,” singer Alex Walker sighs, “I wonder, is doubt the way of faith sometimes? I might put it aside, but never leave it behind.” A concept not often expressed on modern Christian radio.
For a record no one heard of, it has quite a pedigree – it’s produced by six-time Grammy winner Joe Chicarelli (U2, Counting Crows, White Stripes, Elton John, The Shins, Rufus Wainwright), who signed on after hearing an early cut of “Sorry” and proclaiming it “one of the most unique things I’d heard in years.” The album massively benefits from the production – sonically speaking, it’s one of the most spacious acoustic records I’ve ever heard. In a decade that Christian music spent wandering in a desert of half-formed theology with a crew of Jars of Clay knockoffs, it’s a damn shame a band of this quality couldn’t get a good listen.
Check Out: “Sorry,” “Same Old Line,” “Glass,” and “Blame.”
53. Death Cab For Cutie, Plans
The story of what this album means to me can all be boiled down to one night. I was just finishing up an eventful semester abroad at film school in LA, and was perhaps closer to death than I’d ever been in my life. After about a month of barely sleeping to prep our final film, a decidedly overambitious film about boxing, my body had nearly given out on me. But after 24 hours of near-constant sleep, some friends and I had snuck onto the roof of our high-rise apartment building for a round of celebratory cigars. It was probably two in the morning when, as I leaned on the railing, gazing out at the city, my friend Laura said to me, “hey, let’s get in the car and drive across town and play ‘Goodnight, Hollywood Boulevard,’ over and over, before we go.” That’s not a proposal you say no to.
It wasn’t until we were on our way back that we put in Death Cab’s Plans, one more time. I don’t know how many times we’d listened to that record that fall, but this time was different. It was the perfect record for that moment. Plans is an album of uneasy promises, based loosely off the old joke, “how do you make God laugh? You make a plan.” Singer Ben Gibbard takes that line from both angles – the bruising ache of impending death (“I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” an intimate guitar dirge recorded in one take with a single microphone) and the hopefulness of uncertainty (“Someday You Will Be Loved,” an ex-lover’s promise that someday she will find someone better than him). The record feels like a slow, sad sigh, as if Gibbard has seen happiness skitter away from him, like mice across a meadow under a clouded night sky. In fact, the record is so personal that fans objected to the fact that not all of it was true – his ode to a dying friend, “What Sarah Said,” was so piercing that listeners were shocked to discover it wasn’t based in reality.
The best part of the album is saved for last, as the gloominess lifts on “Brothers In A Hotel Bed,” and “Stable Song,” the quiet dawn to close the album. As we pulled back into the parking lot in the morning of our last day there, the sun was just starting to appear on the horizon.
Check Out: “What Sarah Said,” “Marching Bands of Manhattan,” “Brothers In A Hotel Bed,” “Stable Song,” and “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”
52. Jars of Clay, Jars of Clay
This is the first album I ever owned. I don’t mention this when I tell my “first album I ever owned,” since it’s not a great story – instead I tell the “first album I ever bought” story, since it’s much more amusing (I bought Chumbawumba’s Tubthumper, reviewed here). After all, what Christian kid didn’t own a copy of Jars’ self-titled debut? It changed Christian music, it changed (some people’s) perspective of Christian music, it made turned Jars from a bunch of college kids in Greenville into platinum artists, which are quite rare in the CCM world…
But that doesn’t speak to any of the reasons why I love Jars of Clay (this isn’t, after all, the last time you’ll see them on this list). I love Jars because their songs are not just lyrically intelligent, but speak to a faith that radiates intelligence. Too much of Christian music is near-mindless, as if God’s exhortation to praise him required an absence of independent thought. Independent thought has never been a big problem with Jars.
As a freshman in college, I was given the opportunity to have a substantial interview with the band and talk to them about their music.* During the interview, Dan Haseltine referred back to this album, saying “people always ask us why our other records weren’t as simple as our first record. And the truth is that faith grows, and changes, and matures, and our records have reflected that. But our first record was about that simplicity of faith that comes at the beginning of the journey” (It’s been a long while. I may have made a good portion of that up. It sounds like Haseltine, though).
Jars of Clay, the album, is about simplicity. The overarching message of the record is simply “there is a Jesus who loves you, who died for you.” Most of the memorable themes from the record break off of this one point – from the welcoming strum of “Love Song For A Savior” to the exuberant praise of “Faith Like a Child,” this record speaks to the joy of salvation, the joy of being loved. I couldn’t have picked a better record to be my first.
* this remains one of the highlights of my life, despite the fact that a) it’s not difficult to land an interview with any Christian band and b) with every other Christian band I ever interviewed, I always acted incredibly jaded (“well, it’s not like I’m gonna get all excited for you, TobyMac. Christ, take a seat already.”). I often bring this interview up, even to people whom it would in no way impress. I was having dinner with Brandon Heath once and mentioned it to him, and he acted suitably impressed at this huge get, which was awfully nice of him considering he’d toured with the band, written a hit song with them, and was at that moment wearing one of Steve Mason’s old t-shirts.
Check Out: “Worlds Apart,” “Love Song For A Savior,” “Liquid,” and “Faith Like A Child.”
51. Andrew Osenga, Photographs
Andrew Osenga was formerly the lead singer of a band called The Normals, you'll be seeing their name again before this list is done. He's also an incredibly nice and down to earth guy, staying in constant touch with fans of his music and trying his damnedest to produce things that people will connect deeply with. He's produced two "pay-what-you-want" EPs written entirely off song ideas suggested by his fans. This is the sort of musician you want to be a fan of: someone who you could conceivable run into and grab lunch with one day. I don't have the same expectations with Mick Jagger.
Frankly, though, Osenga doesn't need any ideas from fans - his own are more than good enough. On Photographs, his first record after the dissolution of the Normals, his songs are so deeply honest, even when telling stories of towns that never existed and girls that never knew his name. Tracked entirely in his basement studio, it sounds anything but homemade - it's a beautifully recorded album, with horns and harmonicas, dozens of background vocals, and guest appearances by everyone from his parents to Derek Webb, all layered over his steady acoustic strum and plaintive vocal.
The record's solid from top to bottom, but be sure to check out his aching ode to a long, long lost love, "Kara," and his contented acceptance of married life, "We Were So Sure We Would Change The World," where his unwavering vocal holds longingly, echoing over waves of electric guitar. It's gonna stick with you.
Check Out: "Kara," "We Were So Sure We Would Change The World," "Man Of The House," "Kankakee," and "When Will I Run."