Friday, November 14, 2008

The List Won't Live Forever: 10-5

Programming notes: Today’s installment covers six albums, not the usual five, to set up a slightly different approach to the landing strip. Number four will get its own post soon, since I’ve been meaning to write about the band anyway. Then, the top three will be tackled together. Also, an important mistake: Somehow, in my haste to present the world with this incredibly important list, I left off one of my favorite 25 records -- It’s a Shame About Ray by the Lemonheads. Just flat forgot it. So, if you’re sending this list to the Library of Congress (its rightful home), or maybe just putting together a bound, embossed edition for a Time-Life collection, please add that album -- #22, 23, or 24 sounds reasonable -- and move everything else accordingly. Thanks.


10. 10,000 Maniacs - Our Time in Eden (1992)

It’s true that I love Natalie Merchant’s voice, so much that at various points in my life I would have signed away everything I owned or would ever own (which, granted, hasn’t added up to much) if, in return, she would sing me to sleep every night. I almost had contracts drawn up, just in case I ever ran into her and needed to make an offer on the spot. But this album, this high, is still an anomaly. I tend to love her voice a lot more than her material.

The maniacs sound better than they ever did. This was the band’s swan song (with Merchant and her defining vocals, anyway; another singer came on board after she left). Earlier albums had been, if marred is too strong a word, at least lessened by tinnier, ‘80s-redolent production values. The sound on Eden is more lush ("lusher" is a word, but doesn't it sound weird?), more confident, and Merchant the writer finds a sweet spot between the overly earnest lyrics of her early days and the occasionally generic material from her later solo years.

9. Richard Buckner -- Since (1998)

At first, the songs here sound more like sketches for future songs -- the 16 tracks pass in less than 37 minutes. But closer listening proves them to be concise little gems. This album marked Buckner’s full shift to a more obscure, impressionistic sound, which he’s followed ever since. His next record would contain songs of similar length, with titles like “Grace-I'd-said-I'd-Known:” and “A Year Ahead)...& A Light.”

For Buckner, though, obscure doesn’t mean ineffective. Just the way he sings and holds the word “faith” in one chorus is enough to emotionally carry the song. The beautiful, finger-picked “Raze” and “Ariel Ramirez” are favorites of mine, and the latter undoubtedly brought him a lot of new listeners when it was used in a Volkswagen commercial a few years ago. Songs like “Jewelbomb” and “Goner w/ Souvenir” and “Hand @ the Hem” are on the more propulsive side of things, and ensure an alternating pace that makes the album pass even faster. Buckner’s a strange, terrific lyricist, but it’s difficult to divorce his frequently off-kilter word choice from his dusky baritone without diminishing their impact.

8. The Hold Steady -- Boys and Girls in America (2006)

An object lesson in overcoming one’s preconceptions. When I first heard The Hold Steady described -- as a hipster-pleasing band with a lead singer who talked more than he sang -- I was certain I would hate them. More than that, I wanted to hate them. More than that, I wanted to hate them without ever having to listen to them.

By chance one day, I listened. What I hadn’t been told was that the band didn’t follow any of the indie-rock musical templates that have reigned for my entire adulthood. In the midst of a manufactured, somewhat dreary parade of Strokes, Hives, Killers, and the rest, the hipsters had (I was sure unwittingly) let slip through the gates a band that borrowed from the E Street Band, Led Zeppelin, and Thin Lizzy -- guitar-happy, piano-fueled, riff-stuffed music that wasn’t going to take no for an answer. And I hadn’t been told that Craig Finn might not be a gifted singer (to say the least), but he’s infectiously energetic, and on a very short list of the all-time best rock lyricists. Given the nature of rock music, it’s hard to think of a more ambitious album title than Boys and Girls in America, but these lovingly detailed songs (sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking) deliver a portrait of just that.

7. U2 -- The Joshua Tree (1987)

The record that topped my friend Dez’s list. From Bono’s opening cries of “I wanna run / I want to hide / I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside / I wanna reach out and touch the flame / where the streets have no name,” we’re in Earnest Rock territory, and it’s never sounded better or less ashamed. There’s an incredible energy -- both intimate and soaring -- that’s maintained over the album’s first three songs, which I think are untouchable as a consecutive trio. Despite what the next entry might suggest, it’s hard to argue that this represents anything but the band’s peak. They’ve made an admirable go of it since, of course, but this set the bar for an encore performance impossibly high. It’s why they didn’t even try, ranging out into more experimental, more cynical territory over the ensuing decade. In this century, they’ve been dutifully maintaining their superstar status by churning out pale copies of the Joshua Tree sound, but rock is a young man’s game, and the elder Bono’s seemingly heartfelt (however pompous) desire to reach out and heal the world is somehow no match, spiritually, for the young Bono’s scaling of city walls and running through fields, his beautifully captured inability to find what he was looking for.

6. U2 -- Achtung Baby (1991)

I decided to put these albums back to back because it’s nearly impossible for me to disentangle them. Given my criteria for this list, they are essentially, complexly tied. I think The Joshua Tree is almost perfectly produced, and that the pleasures of its best songs will last longer than the best songs here. At the same time, The Joshua Tree initially washed over my 13-year-old self as just a distant series of radio singles -- I was still mired in a phase of my music-listening development that would best be labeled The Horror (more on that very shortly), and I didn’t appreciate the album as a whole until years later -- while Achtung Baby and my 17-year-old self had a prolonged, affecting relationship. The first singles, “The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways,” still sound remarkably fresh, and uber-hit “One” is that rare song that gets played approximately eight trillion times because it’s that good. But it’s the album’s consistency, the way every last song feels carefully attended to, which it has in common with The Joshua Tree, that puts it this high.

5. R.E.M. -- Out of Time (1991)

I’ll be the first to admit, this might not necessarily be about Out of Time, per se. I mean, I’ll defend every song on here, right down to “Shiny Happy People.” (Yes, “Shiny Happy People.”) But this is the album I’m least capable of judging objectively. As a 17-year-old marooned in a suburb of Dallas, who had spent his first 14 years on Long Island with a whole lot of Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe and just general Z100 going on, I was only a rung or so above Hopeless. And losing my grip. Luckily, girls are famous for maturing faster than boys, and my girlfriend introduced me, properly, to R.E.M. I knew of them, but had lacked serious exposure. I listened to Out of Time a lot, and then, in that male/High Fidelity/obsessive collector way, I bought and memorized all of their records. So this was my gateway drug, and thus hard to see (or hear) clearly. From the radio-friendly “Losing My Religion” to the classic mopers “Half a World Away” and “Country Feedback” to the lead vocals of Mike Mills on “Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana,” I do think this is a great record, but it’s even more than that for me.

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Blogger Jeff said...

Achtung Baby is a surprising pick for your top ten. And ahead of Joshua Tree? I don't care for a lot of the lyrics on Achtung Baby.

I still have problems forgiving REM for "Stand" and "Shiny Happy People." Painful songs. Painful music videos. Unfortunately, they were released during my teenage years when I listened to the radio and watched MTV. Given their heavy rotation, those songs will always be closely associated with REM in my mind.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...

This list covers a sufficient range of release dates that I'm mildly comfortable in revealing that I lost my virginity while one of these albums played. Too much information?

10:03 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Kraig, are you trying to sabotage the list? If John now imagines you losing your virginity whenever he plays these albums, he may have to drop them lower on this list.

10:21 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

10K Whatever.

Now the rest I can really appreciate. You introduced me to that Buckner record. I bought it and really like it, although I hardly ever listen to it. I need to pull that one out again.

While I am lukewarm on the REM, I can appreciate those life changing records in peoples' lives. I've got several of those, myself.

The Hokd Steady is my favorite release of the 2000's (I think).

Bold move putting U2 back to back in your Top 10. I'm obviously not going to argue with those two picks.

1:38 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

Yeah, Kraig, too much. I could delete your comment from the blog, but that wouldn't delete it from my mind. To repay the favor, I'm going to convince myself that it was the Hold Steady record. 2006.

Dez, I'll take your appreciation for five out of six. Not bad. And honestly, the 10kmaniacs record should probably be a little lower than this.

Jeff, "Stand" is not as bad as "Shiny," in my opinion. I don't know why I'm capable of listening to both without minding them much. I guess my love is just too strong. I'm like Obama forgiving his grandmother for racism or something...

7:25 PM  

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