So as I’ve been doing work, “Collapse” by Sparta came on my shuffle and as I always do when this song comes on, I stop everything to listen to it. There are certain songs that are just so good and so appealing to a body that they require you to stop whatever you’re doing to listen to them. Hearing it led me to compiling a top 5 list of my favorite songs, then favorite artists, then favorite albums–and it was on this last point that I made my mistake. I can get away with only 5 top songs and artists, but paring down my favorite albums to only 5 is impossible for me. My standards are vastly higher for longer creative works of this type and it’s exceptionally rare that I find an album even by an artist that I love that is consistent enough to keep me coming back. So it became a top 10 list…and an excuse to write.
To be one of my favorites, an album must meet the following criteria:
- No filler–not every song needs to be single-worthy, but they all do have to meet a certain base level of competence such that I could pull out any individual track and still want to listen to it.
- The album must take me on an emotional ride–there are plenty of albums that are full of killer songs, but an album that twists and turns and leaves me with an emotional impression long after it’s ended is the goal here.
- Closely linked to #2: the songs must support each other. Again, many albums have a lot of strong songs on them, but when those songs lead into and out of each other in such a way as to reinforce each other’s emotional lessons, we’re really cooking.
So with that said, here is my subjective-as-hell list of top 10 favorite albums. I will fully cop to the fact that it is dominated by white men with guitars–remember, I said this is a subjective list! 😉
1. “Who’s Next” – The Who
My favorite album of all time. As a small child I figured out how to use my parents’ stereo by pushing buttons until I could make this wonderful album come out of the speakers. It’s kind of ironic that this album is as coherent as it is–it was a failed attempt at a concept album that fell apart after primary songwriter Pete Townshend had a nervous breakdown during its production. If this is what Townshend sounds like on a bad day, it should make every other living songwriter deeply ashamed of themselves. The album opens with what might be the greatest teen anthem of all time (sorry, Kurt…”Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an amazing song, but Townshend nailed it with “Baba O’Riley” by simultaneously glorifying and being disappointed in “teenage wasteland” in a way that was equally sincere on both sides) and closing with what might be the most self-aware piece of art the Boomers ever produced, wondering if “the new boss” was the same as “the old boss” after tipping his hat to the “new revolution.” I think Townshend saw the 80s coming before anybody else.
2. “Siamese Dream” – The Smashing Pumpkins
I remember being in high school and having a friend trade me “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” for an album I strongly disliked and really enjoying it–then another friend told me he’d discovered the Pumpkins had put out an album before it and handed me “Siamese Dream” to borrow. I can’t ever remember being rocked so hard so quickly by an album. Even halfway through the opening track, “Cherub Rock,” I remember wondering how this band could have been so much better on its previous album. From the suicidal pop of “Today” to the fan-favorite “Mayonnaise,” this album fits the emotional roller-coaster portion of my requirements possibly better than any album on the list. The only dud for me is the tediously overwrought “Disarm,” but stacked up with gems like “Quiet,” “Silverfuck,” and “Hummer” it’s easily forgiven.
3. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – The Beatles
I really truly believe that the Beatles are a band remembered more for a body of work than for any one song. I know there are a lot of fans of “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday,” but when it comes down to it, The Beatles were special for their diversity. They jumped easily between proto-metal (“Come Together”), R&B (“Twist and Shout”), and children’s songs (“Octopus’s Garden”). Summing them up in a single song would be nearly impossible. Therefore, I tend to enjoy them for their albums more than their singles and this in my mind is the best they ever pulled off. A quasi-concept album that benefits greatly from three of the greatest songs The Beatles ever recorded (“With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and “A Day in the Life”), each song is a new and fascinating journey and a pleasure to experience.
4. “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank” – Modest Mouse
Modest Mouse has been around forever and put out some incredibly music. I know many people prefer their previous album, “Good News for People Who Like Bad News” because it had their most popular singles on it, but in my mind this is their most consistent album. Frankly, it’s difficult for me to listen to this as an album and not nearly be driven to tears by it. “Fire it Up” and “Florida” may be enjoyable upbeat pop tunes, but the album really hits its stride with the emotional three song sprint “Little Motel”, “Steam Ingenious”, and the devastating 8-minute long “Spitting Venom”. By the end of this emotional tornado, the joyous “People as Places as People” feels like a necessary catharsis. Love, love, love this album.
5. “Kerplunk!” – Green Day
Most people associate Green Day with 2-minute long snotty pop punk songs and granted, they built a successful mainstream career out of doing just that. But then when they went more experimental with “American Idiot” it took a lot of people by surprise, not realizing that almost since their inception Green Day has had a talent for experimenting with tonality and song structures. Though the production on this album is at times painfully amateurish (most of the time it sounds like they were recorded through a tin can), to my mind it is their single finest piece of work, showcasing a surprising awareness of the band’s mortality when all its members were still barely in their 20s. Some highlights include “Christie Road”, a churning proto-ballad that in some ways anticipates “When I Come Around” before shifting abruptly into an up-tempo rocker, “No One Knows”, a slow meditation on aging and drifting away from old friends that features one of Mike Dirnt’s finest basslines, and “Who Wrote Holden Caulfield?”, a tribute to Billie Joe’s literary idol and for my money the most energetic punk song the band has ever produced. Give this one a listen and you might be surprised at how mature this band was before they ever hit the pop charts.
6. “White Pony” – Deftones
This can be a confusing album because the label released a couple different versions of the record that all had different track listings. The version I prefer is the one that begins with “Feiticeira” and ends with “Pink Maggit.” Don’t get me wrong, I love “The Boy’s Republic”, but “Pink Maggit” accomplishes the same thing and is already 7+ minutes long. And as for “Back to School,” the less said the better. Easily Deftones’ finest album, “White Pony” combines the chugging mid-tempo metal the band was already famous for and introduced New Wave and Space Rock to their sonic textures, creating an album that jumps from electronica-tinged dirges (“Digital Bath”) to some of the most aggressive metal ever recorded (“Korea”) to a stunning scenester indictment (“Elite”, which features the line: “You like depression/because it matches your eyes” ouch). Even if you don’t like metal, singer Chino Moreno’s crooning recalls singers from so many other genres you may find him drifting into space that sounds familiar even beneath the wall of distorted guitars.
7. “The Joshua Tree” – U2
Yes…it’s a cliche. No, I don’t care, because it’s also a fucking amazing album. A concept album centered around the promise, excesses, and disappointments of America, no band has ever done so much to create such a giant soundscape while finding the humanity still buried in the emptiness. The only song that feels out of place in this record is the abrasive “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and quite frankly that’s the whole point behind it, creating a jagged hole in the middle of an otherwise blissful album to remind the listener of the unpleasant realities on our doorstep. Every song on this amazing album could be a single–there isn’t a single weak moment in its entire length.
8. “Clarity” – Jimmy Eat World
The second studio album from the band that would eventually become synonymous with the term “emo” tried for the mainstream with this record and thankfully missed the mark and created something vastly more interesting. Not that there aren’t catchy songs–“Lucky Denver Mint” is an up-beat pop song as good as any the band ever produced and “Blister” features a hook just as powerful as “The Middle”. This is one of those records that is so utterly earnest it feels at times voyeuristic to be listening to it. “Just Watch the Fireworks” should have been the slow dance song to end all slow dance songs and “Goodbye Sky Harbor” is so achingly vulnerable it hurts just listening to it. A hauntingly beautiful and criminally under-appreciated record.
9. “The Colour and the Shape” – Foo Fighters
The second album by Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana project is also its most consistent and confident. We all know the singles: “Monkey Wrench”, “My Hero”, and the inescapable “Everlong”, but the great thing about these songs is that unlike most albums, they aren’t just promotional material–they’re actually predictive of the quality of the rest of the album. “Hey, Johnny Park”, “February Stars”, and “Walking After You” are among the best material the band has ever produced–equal parts pop, longing, and hard-edged rock. The standout may just be the last track, however. “New Way Home” transforms from a vulnerable and slow track that seems distantly related to Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” to a defiant, abrasive hard rock anthem.
10. “Americano” – Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers
Some may dimly recollect Roger Clyne’s first band, the Refreshments as a southern-rock tinged alternative group that came out of the same part of Arizona as their jangle-pop siblings Gin Blossoms. They had one hit: the snarky “Banditos”, an aggressive rock tune laden with more pop culture references than hooks, though apparently if your band’s name is Barenaked Ladies people can’t tell the difference. After the band lost its record deal, Clyne went back to basics and reformed a band equal parts rock, latin, country, and Americana. On their third album, they decided to toy with the idea of going mainstream and created their most professionally produced material to date–and then immediately dove back into the underground and Clyne decided to try and be the second coming of Jimmy Buffet. Damn. At least before the about-face, Clyne gave us this fantastic collection of fables about the American southwest and its relationship to Mexico and its own history. Alternating between aggressive roots-rockers (“Americano”, “God Gave Me a Gun”) and regret-tinged dirges (“Switchblade”, “Your Name on a Grain of Rice”). It also features what may be my favorite ballad of all time, “Leave an Open Door”. If you like Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen’s early work, pretty please give this album a listen.
Well, that’s it. I’m sure lots of people are going to disagree with me on these assessments–please share your own picks in the comments and pick one of these up to give it a spin at some point 🙂