Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The List Sticks the Landing: 3-1

3. Built to Spill -- Perfect From Now On (1997)

Just eight songs, but an epic nonetheless. The shortest clocks in at 4:52, and the two longest reach toward nine minutes. This allows for two things that are absent from many rock albums: patience and complexity. “Stop the Show” starts with nearly three minutes of gently meandering guitar, and then the same figure gets sped up into a catchy pop song. After four minutes, “I Would Hurt a Fly” transforms into a storm of guitar. Melodies float around the album in an orchestral way, sometimes making brief appearances on multiple songs. Doug Martsch is widely considered a “guitar god,” and that usually doesn’t do much for me, but he manages to make axe wonkery sound thoughtful instead of noodling and endless. His adenoidal voice isn’t for everybody, but I like the way it delivers his off-kilter and often clever lyrics. (A personal favorite: “that net does not make me feel safe / all those holes make me nervous.”)

2. R.E.M. -- Automatic for the People (1992)

The fifth R.E.M. album on my list falls just short of the top spot. Since this is clearly my favorite band, No. 2 seems lower than it should. “Drive” is hypnotic, “Try Not to Breathe” and “Sweetness Follows” are heartbreaking, and “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” are the best one-two closing punch that I’ve ever heard. What’s more, this album had to be initially judged against my immense expectations, the kind that are normally impossible to satisfy. In the year and a half after Out of Time was released, I became an R.E.M. obsessive, and the band’s music had provided the soundtrack to my life -- and I’m plenty sentimental. But even having memorized and loved the band’s seven other (very good to great) records, this one somehow knocked me over. Again.

So Automatic means a lot to me, but being coldly objective, it has faults. “Star Me Kitten” feels like a B-side. “Ignoreland” is fuzzed-out fun, but as an ’80s-inspired political rant, it feels out of place among the stately material that makes up most of the album. These are nitpicks simply to explain why it’s not at the very top.

Upon release, this was widely written about as an album by rockers trying (with success) to age gracefully. The fact that it appeared more than 16 years ago is mind-boggling.

1. Radiohead -- The Bends (1995)

The criteria for judging these albums was fairly simple: Thorough quality (as little filler as possible), personal affection (“in a This Is Your Life kind of way,” to quote myself), and respect for the music qua music. On all three counts, The Bends excels. From start to finish, every song earns its place on a record of this quality. There’s not one I would cut. On a personal level, it was a big part of the background for my mid-20s, a formative time for my late-blooming (always-blooming?) self. And while Radiohead would go on to make strong and more innovative albums, the music here is top-shelf rock. It’s no surprise that an R.E.M. fan would love the jangly “High and Dry” and the elegantly sad “Fake Plastic Trees.” “Just,” the title track, and the underrated “Black Star” are straightforward guitar-driven numbers that sound every bit as vital as they did 13 years ago. Most importantly, for my taste, the band’s concerns and tone, despite a strain of paranoia (especially in the creepy closer, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”), hadn’t yet reached their The Robots Are Coming phase. There’s a generous helping of (forgive me) premillennial tension on The Bends, but the sense of alienation it conveys is as personal as it is cultural.

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Blogger Snath said...

A fantastic pick for number one. Everyone I know seems to prefer OK Computer, but I don't see how anyone could. The Bends is simply a great album.

3:21 PM  
Blogger TK said...

God, I love Built to Spill. Nice work.

5:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm actually shocked that anything beat out Automatic For the People. This is John, right?

Love The Bends. Like Snath mentioned, I waver back and forth between The Bends and OK Computer as my favorites of all time.

-- MattM

6:47 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

I knew "Automatic" had to be in the top three. Honestly, I've never been able to get all the way through it in a single sitting, but it's got some nice moments. You tried to get me into Built to Spill, but they never really hit me. Love "The Bends," of course. My favorite Radiohead as well.

11:57 PM  
Anonymous pf said...

OK, I'll expose myself (um, er ...) as the granny of the bunch: who is this, how you say, "Built to Spill"? Guess they were one of those bands that passed me by back when I was just beginning to be really out of it -- and who since then have been joined by many subsequent generations in my musical blind spot, which is now the size of Canada.... Can we still be friends?

7:12 PM  

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