Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fiona Apple: When the Pawn... (1999)

In 1999, Fiona Apple and filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson were a couple. Judging by this album and Anderson's his tour-de-force film Magnolia, both of which came out that year, wow, it was a fertile creative time in that household. 

Emotional, too. Magnolia is pitch black in its depictions of failed fathers and on When the Pawn... Apple seems to find the cloud on every romance's silver lining. Fortunately, like Magnolia, what makes the darkness bearable is the writer's ability to use the artistic process as catharsis while finding some humor and nobility in the struggle (see Limp, Fast as You Can, Get Gone, and A Mistake for more detail).

When the Pawn... has a lot going for it: Jon Brion's Sgt. Peppery production, brevity (it's only 9 songs long), and the fact that all of the songs connect thematically. For me, it's her high water mark. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (1966)

This album is a desert island disc if there ever was one. It generates enough beauty, regret, nostaliga, loss, and hope in 12 songs to sustain a lifetime of musical enjoyment.

If there's anyone in your life who still labors under the delusion that The Beach Boys only sang about cars, surfing and women-as-objects, please do them a favor. Sit them down and play this record for them. Let them hear the sweet horny longing of Wouldn't It Be Nice, or the rueful, misunderstood narrator of I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, or the love-through-the-fear-of-loss anthem God Only Knows.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Beach Boys: Super Hits (1978)

The Beach Boys have approximately six million best-of compilations out there, all with slightly interchangeable song selections. Like my K-Tel Chartaction '83 tape, the 1978 Ronco cash-in product Beach Boys Super Hits manages to transcend its as-seen-on-TV origins.

Whoever put this together decided to (or was forced to) focus on the pre-1966 hits, so that means that 1) it's a perfect companion to Pet Sounds and your other later-period Beach Boys albums, and 2) Kokomo is not to be found. Said compiler also sequenced the songs exceedingly well. And take a close look at that cover; it's endearingly weird.

Since this is only on vinyl (and probably 8-track), here's the tracklist so you can play along on iTunes: 1) Surfin' USA, 2) California Girls, 3) Little Deuce Coupe, 4) Dance, Dance, Dance, 5) Help Me, Rhonda, 6) Don't Worry Baby, 7) Surfin' Safari, 8) When I Grow Up (To Be a Man), 9) I Get Around, 10) Fun, Fun, Fun, 11) Surfer Girl, 12) Barbara Ann, 13) In My Room, 14) Catch A Wave, 15) Do You Wanna Dance, 16) Little Honda, 17) 409, 18) Be True To Your School.

(The most egregious omission is All Summer Long, so you should throw that on the playlist, too.)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Beastie Boys: Paul's Boutique (1989)

This is the Beasties' most consistently enjoyable and listenable record. It's also what every music nerd hopes to see, that is, an intelligent, expectations-subverting follow-up to a massively-successful-but-vacuous record. Add in the fact that it was under-appreciated at its time, and you've got greatness.

We start with a bizarre shout out to all sorts of girls, including "the stewardesses flying around the world" and end with a mind-blowing 15 minute, 9-part pastiche of song bits. In between there are such classics as Hey Ladies, Egg Man, and Shake Your Rump.

It's unlikely that the pure diversity of sound on this record will ever be duplicated. Produced (by the Dust Brothers) in a time before anybody had a legal hold on sampling, you'll hear Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Johnny Cash samples among countless others. It's funny, crazy, weird, and full of odd references (Issac Newton, Chuck Woolery, Fruit Stripe Gum, etc.).

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Beastie Boys: To the 5 Boroughs (2004)

Read a review here.

I'm realizing that there are an inordinate number of artists I'd count among my favorites who don't actually have a great success rate in making albums I love. Take The Beastie Boys. Of their seven albums, there are only two I'd vouch for: Paul's Boutique, of course, and To the 5 Boroughs.

And it's interesting that it'd be those two, because they're musical opposites. Where Paul's Boutique layers the samples to a dizzying level, To the 5 Boroughs is the essence of old-school simplicity. Of course they both feature insanely funny rhymes and a dearth of experimental dub jazz or hardcore punk dabblings.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Beatles: A Hard Day's Night (1964)

Read a review here.

Hard Day's Night is the best of the early Beatles. By this time the band (rightly) felt confident enough in their writing not to rely on covers, making it their first all-original album. This one is John Lennon's show; he writes and sings lead on 9 of the 13 songs (though not, notably, on its most well known hit, Can't Buy Me Love).

The album is full of mostly-uncomplicated pop tunes, albeit ones that are impeccably arranged, produced, and performed. Listening, it's not difficult to see exactly why the world went so crazy for them

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Beatles: Revolver (1966)

Read a review here.

I got a CD player for my 16th birthday. This was the first CD I bought. I still remember the thrill of hearing that "1, 2, 3, 4, cough, 1, 2" countdown that precedes the riff that opens Taxman coming out of the speakers so clearly. 

So, yeah, it's currently in style to call this one the "best album of all time", and though I believe it's a fool's errand to try to declare one album better than all the rest, I have to admit Revolver is a pretty good candidate. It's by turns experimental, straightforward, whimsical, clever, bracing, joyful, and terrifying.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Beatles: Abbey Road (1969)

Read a review here.

The Beatles' final work together (though released before Let It Be, this was chronologically the final album they recorded) is a doozy. The hit singles are there: Something, Come Together, Here Comes The Sun (the fact that two of these are George Harrison compositions show that he had come into his own as a songwriter), but the treat is the side two medley that runs from the gorgeous 3-part harmonies of Because to the very fitting The End. How many artists control their career so well as to ensure that the final words they record are "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make"?

(Actually the real final words are "and one day I'm gonna make her mine, oh yeah, one day I'm gonna make her mine" because of a mistake that tacked Her Majesty to the end of the album and created the hidden bonus track phenomenon as we know it.)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Ben Folds Five: The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999)

On the final album of their first go-round, Ben Folds Five put it all together: Bachrachian formalism (Don't Change Your Plans), Baroque pop (Narcolepsy, Mess, Regrets),  what-if-Billy-Joel-was-funnier songs (Army, Your Redneck Past), and just plain strangeness (Your Most Valuable Possession).

Records that try to do too much often fail from their lack of focus, but this one somehow manages to turn its wild shifts in tone to its favor.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

David Bowie: Never Let Me Down (1987)

Read about it here.

This is the album that proves the idea of music's subjectivity to me. When I was researching Bowie's worst album for my Rock Bottom series, I was shocked to find that Never Let Me Down was considered his nadir. It had, in tandem with the Labyrinth soundtrack (released a year earlier), always been my favorite Bowie record.

I bought the album because of a cover story and full page ad in an old Musician magazine my dad had given me. If I'm telling the truth, it was the superheroish design of the cover that hooked me more than anything. I found a remastered copy of the CD and loved what I heard.

Bowie himself has disavowed almost everything about the album from the songs to the title to the cover. I guess sometimes art can transcend even its creator.

Monday, September 09, 2013

The Broken West: Now or Heaven (2008)

A great indie power pop record about - what else? - heartbreak. The lyrics are concerned with pain while the music bumps along with quick tempos, memorable riffs, and well-placed harmonies. Standouts include Auctioneer, House of Lies, Perfect Games, and Embassy Row.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Carpenters: Love Songs (1997)

As a greatest hits collection, it's imperfect (no A Kind Of Hush or Let Me Be The One?!) but you won't find another Carpenters' album or compilation with this sort of consistency. And though their reputation is that of sappy balladeers, the title of this CD is somewhat subversive since roughly half of these songs are about the negative side of love.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Cars: Heartbeat City (1984)

Read a review here.

Just a monster album. It may have been hell to make, but you can't argue with the impeccable-sounding, hook-laden results: Four Billboard top 20 singles (You Might Think, Magic, Drive, Why Can't I Have You), two of those in the top 10, and six killer album tracks, including standouts I Refuse and the title track (originally called Jacki).


Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Clash: London Calling (1979)

No one will ever be able to convince me that 1977-1983 wasn't the most exciting time in pop music history. The punk/new wave movement was just so damn diverse; the musicians that came to prominence in the time seemed determined to take every bit of pop music history and mash it up into something new. London Calling is a stellar example of this. Over the course of 19 songs The Clash touch on reggae, ska, funk, British Invasion pop, and jazz. There's almost nothing punk about this record except its anything-goes spirit. Personally, I'm most drawn to the pop songs like Lost in the Supermarket, Death or Glory, and Train in Vain, but the whole album is amazingly consistent.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Costello Show: King of America (1986)

Read a review here.

In my opinion, Elvis' best album. Lyrically he was on point (there are about 6 song lyrics that permanently circle my brain and "I was a fine idea at the time / Now I'm a brilliant mistake" is one of them), and his melodies were never before or after as insistent and consistent.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Elvis Costello and the Attractions: The Very Best of (1994)

I've written a lot about how to make a perfect best-of compilation. This one ticks off every box on the checklist. Chronological order? Check. No new songs? Check. No remixes or live versions? Check. It also helps to have had as many amazing singles as Elvis did from 1977 to 1986. There's not a bad song in the bunch, nor a major omission.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Counting Crows: August and Everything After (1994)

In the great pantheon of enjoyably depressive albums, August and Everything After holds an elevated place. While the band works up track after track of amiable country rock, Adam Duritz layers on a melancholy vibe, even on the songs that aren't especially lyrically sad.

As such, this album has been a trusted companion through many a lonely night, especially when I first arrived at college and became instantly nostalgic for the life I'd so eagerly left behind.

And, of course, when you end your album with your best song (A Murder of One), you've definitely done something right.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Marshall Crenshaw: Marshall Crenshaw (1982)

The public radio station in my hometown used to host an annual record sale. It was boxes and boxes full of vinyl for $1 each. I went each year with my dad and step-mom and bought whatever they recommended. It was a great way to get a crash course in pop music history. Their recommendations hit way more than they missed, in fact my first exposure to several albums on this list came from those sales, including this one. As a Beatles-obsessed kid, how could I not love the throwback pop bliss of There She Goes Again, Cynical Girl, and Someday, Someway? It's important to note that these songs and performances stand on their own; they're not simple pastiche. They really take the pop sensibilities of Buddy Holly and The Beatles and put them through a (then) modern lens.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Crowded House: Recurring Dream: The Very Best of... (1996)

Recurring Dream, a 1996 compilation (and then-swan song before the band was reconstituted in 2007), was my first exposure to Crowded House. I've since bought all of their albums, but my opinion hasn't changed: This is their best record. Going non-chronologically, the band share four tracks from each of their first four albums, along with three new songs recorded for an album that was not-to-be.

The new songs fit well, there's no glaring omissions, and the 19 tracks offer an embarrassment of melodic beauty, especially Weather With You, Fall At Your Feet, Don't Dream It's Over, I Feel Possessed, and Better Be Home Soon.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs (2008)

When Narrow Stairs came out, I made a conscious choice not to buy it. I was in the midst of changing my purchasing habits, and that meant new albums by artists I liked didn't automatically get a buy. They had to earn it. After seeing Death Cab live on the tour for this album, Narrow Stairs earned it. Not only did it earn its keep, it slowly became my favorite of their albums. A sense of dread hangs over all of the songs, not only lyrically but musically as well. But it's that kind of dread you enjoy because it's not actually happening to you. Instead, you admire how the artist was able to express themselves so well, whether through once-removed distance (Cath...) or startlingly personal confessions (I Will Possess Your Heart).

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Decemberists: The King is Dead (2011)

Just a beautifully consistent folk country pop album.  Like most of my recent favorites I found myself returning to the album again and again after the initial listening period had passed, until eventually the it felt indispensable. Every single song is a mini-masterpiece, but June Hymn creates an inexplicable welling of emotion in me every time.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together (1979)

By all accounts I was a Muppet-obsessed kid from age 2 on, and so for as long as I can remember A Christmas Together has been my favorite Christmas album. If you think about it, music has always been an integral part of the appeal of the Muppets, from Sesame Street to The Muppet Show to the various Muppet movies. And they're not always silly songs. In fact, it's pretty amazing the way the Muppet performers (Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, and Dave Goelz) can elicit genuine emotion while singing in a weird voices.

A Christmas Together illustrates that perfectly. The fun, witty side of the Muppets is on display in takes on The Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas is Coming, We Wish You A Merry Christmas ("Piggy pudding?!"), and a cover of The Beach Boys' Little Saint Nick by Dr. Teeth and his Electric Mayhem. But there's genuine depth and gravitas on the album as well. Of course Denver, in supreme warm, gentle, sentimental mode, plays a big part in that. For evidence, listen to the melancholy take on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, a piano-driven duet between Rowlf (Henson) and Denver, or the harmony-laden The Peace Carol. Two show-stoppers drive home the majesty of Christmas: Robin (Nelson) and Denver's version of When the River Meets the Sea (a song originally featured in the Henson production Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas) and Silent Night, Holy Night, which begins in the original German, and also features Denver telling the story behind the composition of the song.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Depeche Mode: The Singles 81>85 (1985)

I love Violator as much as the next guy, but to me Depeche Mode were at their best early on. The exquisite moodiness is there (especially on standouts Blasphemous Rumours and Shake the Disease), but the inclusion of songs by Vince Clarke (who left for Yaz, then Erasure) means this collection has a welcome levity that's missing from their later work.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Neil Diamond: The Jazz Singer (1980)

My mom was a huge Neil Diamond freak, and being that this is the album that was out around the time I first gained sentience, it's the one that sticks with me.

The movie is really kinda goofy, but the album? Honestly, I believe everything that makes Diamond great is here: The '60s-style pop of You Baby and Hey Louise, the earnest balladeering of Love on the Rocks and Hello Again, and the bombast of America and Amazed and Confused.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Dire Straits: Making Movies (1980)

Honestly I'm not much of a Dire Straits or Mark Knopfler fan, but this specific album manages to not only transcend my blasé, but turn it temporarily to adoration. Strong lyrical storytelling married with cinematic, slow-burn melodies are an irresistable combination on songs like Tunnel of Love, Romeo and Juliet, and Skateaway.

Other songs (Expresso Love, Solid Rock) bring to mind a more laid-back Springsteen, perhaps because E-Streeter Roy Bittan played keys on the album.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Pete Droge and the Sinners: Find a Door (1996)

I somehow missed out on Pete Droge's 1994 hit (If You Don't Love Me ) I'll Kill Myself, but a glowing review of his second album, Find a Door, sold me. Right after buying it, I left for a summer road trip and Find a Door turned out to be a perfect travelling record. It's full of likeable mid-tempo alternative country that strikes the right balance between gravitas and humor. It's also the rare record where the rockers (Brakeman, That Ain't Right) and the slow songs (Out With You, Sooner Than Later) are equally arresting. I also love how the final song, Lord Is Busy, ends with Droge putting down his guitar, walking out of the room, and saying, "Thanks for buyin' my record!".

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks (1975)

I have a contentious relationship with Robert Zimmerman; it all started when we were riding the rails together and he said the pattern of the stitches on my sealskin saddle shoes were "clearly maleficent".

Actually, I can't shake most of the usual knocks against Dylan, namely that he's often inscrutable, that his voice leaves too much to be desired, and that his songs are usually better performed by others.

But even I can't deny the sad, beautiful brilliance of Blood on the Tracks. I guess Dylan has denied the oft-assumed interpretation that these songs were about his own personal turmoil and has instead purported to have been inspired by Anton Chekhov's short stories. Since I'm fascinated by art that comes from personal pain and tumult, I hope he's lying. Given Dylan's relationship with "truth" I'm probably safe.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Everclear: Songs From An American Movie Vol. One: Learning How To Smile (2000)

Songs From An American Movie Vol. One takes Art Alexakis' confessional writing style (see: Father of Mine) to its logical limit. The album vacillates between rehashing the past (both recent and distant) and trying to reconcile the present, between obsessing over pain and celebrating life's amazing little moments. It's a bit too earnest in places, but when it emotionally connects, as it does often for me, it's pretty powerful.

True story: Some friends and I once walked right past the members of Everclear on a random residential street in Uptown Minneapolis. Why were they there? Where were they going? We might never know.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ben Folds: Songs for Silverman (2005)

Read a review here.

I hold a soft spot for all of Ben Folds' work, but Songs for Silverman has a special place. Maybe it's because I love Folds songs when he's doing the lush jazzy balladry thing, which he does A LOT on this record. Maybe it's because I can identify so well with the handful of songs that document f-ed up relationships (and especially so at the time of this album's release). Or maybe it's because "Weird Al" does background vocals on Time.

But probably it's just that every single song is good. Like, really really good.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Marvin Gaye: What's Going On (1971)

In the early '70s, Motown loosed the reigns on some of their most talented and successful artists and were rewarded with Stevie Wonder's Talking Book, and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Ironically, Gaye's artistic freedom from hit singles produced a cohesive album with three of his greatest singles: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), and the title track. It's striking that the questions Marvin raises about religion, race, war, the economy, and the environment are still so pertinent today.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Get-Up Kids: Red Letter Day EP (1999)

This EP was released as a warm-up to The Get-Up Kids' second album Something to Write Home About, and has the titular song in common with that record. It's not unusual for a band to put out a preview release to build anticipation, usually featuring a song from the upcoming album along with a live version or demo or some tossed-off b-sides. But this isn't that. For one, Red Letter Day isn't even the lead track first song (that'd be the soaring One Year Later). And the three accompanying songs (Forgive and Forget, Anne Arbour, and Mass Pike) are all quite album-worthy. That's probably why I ended up loving this more than the album it was supposed to be psyching me up for.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Sammy Hagar: Marching to Mars (1997)

Read a review here.

Sammy Hagar is not known for his lyrical depth, despite what he might think. Even his best Van Halen ballads were dad cliches dressed up with power chords. But on his first post-Van Halen album he chronicles the stages of his break-up grief and in the process produces something profound.

Little White Lie, Salvation on Sand Hill, and Would You Do It For Free move from denial to anger. There's a bit of bargaining in On the Other Hand, and depression sets in on Leaving the Warmth of the Womb. But finally we come to acceptance with Both Sides Now and Amnesty is Granted. Now whether any of this was fully intended, I don't know, but it still rings true all these years later.

Vince Guaraldi Trio: Oh Good Grief! (1968)

In 1968, Guaraldi re-recorded some of his work for the Peanuts cartoon specials using an electric harpsichord in addition to his usual piano. The result is a slightly funkier version of those familiar tunes. I didn't know anything about the re-recording when I first bought Oh Good Grief!, so these are actually my favorite versions. Plus, how could you not love that cover drawing with Snoopy sporting Guaraldi's trademark glasses and mustache? If you want the originals, seek out A Boy Named Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Christmas, both of which are very worth owning.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Harlem Shakes: Technicolor Health (2009)

Harlem Shakes broke up just a few months after releasing this full-length debut. The album met with poor reviews, especially from Pitchfork, who mostly railed on the band for their optimistic outlook (?!). Ironically, that (and sluggish sales) caused the band to pack it in.

They left us with Technicolor Health, a crackerjack album full of kitchen sink indie power pop sung in a nerdy voice. I bought it back when it came out, and my admiration has steadily grown. Favorites include Strict Game, Sunlight, Unhurried Hearts (Passaic Pastoral), and Nothing But Change, Pt. 2.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Honeydogs: Amygdala (2006)

Read a review here.

I have an admitted bias in favor of bands from the Twin Cities. There's no real logic to it, but I'll give a local act more benefit of the doubt than one from another city. That said, I like to think that Amygdala would mean just as much to me if I had never set foot in Minneapolis or Saint Paul. Melodically rich and lyrically deep, it's the kind of record you can return to endlessly.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Michael Jackson: Thriller (1982)

Anyone who was alive and at least semi-conscious in 1983 has to have been affected by this record. I'd venture to say that there'll never be another album that captivates so many people so absolutely. I was six years old and I vividly remember watching the Thriller video and listening to a Beat It 45 over and over at summer daycare.

Looking at it now, the audaciousness and oddity of the album are striking. Of course that seems perfectly fitting with the knowledge of all the Jackson-related strangeness that came about in its wake (Neverland Ranch, Bubbles the Chimp, hyperbaric chambers, etc.). But when Thriller was first released Michael was just a former child star who was trying to duplicate or better the solo success of Off the Wall. And here he's got guests like Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen, and Vincent Price, bold stylistic shifts, and lyrics like "Still they hate you / You're a vegetable."

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Jayhawks: Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)



My paternal grandfather bought this for me in a Venture department store, along with Blues Traveler's four. Only one is still in my CD collection, let alone a favorite. I didn't know one day I'd move to Minneapolis, and I wasn't especially a fan of country at the time, so I don't even know why I wanted it. But its sweet-sounding wistfulness connected right away, and continues to do so even after all these years. Favorites include Blue, I'd Run Away, and Bad Time (a Grand Funk Railroad cover?!).


Jay-Z: MTV Unplugged (2001)

Jay-Z's greatest hits (up to that point) performed live with The Roots providing back-up? If for some reason the kids one day don't understand just how talented and charismatic Hova really was, this is Exhibit A.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Jimmy Eat World: Clarity (1999)

There was a time when I thought this album brought me luck. It always seemed to be on the stereo when I received good news. Maybe there was some mystical connection, or maybe I just played it all the damn time!

Friday, August 02, 2013

Jimmy Eat World: Bleed American (2001)

My then-roommate Nick and I "discovered" Jimmy Eat World in 1997 via a sampler I found at our college radio station (I was the public relations guy, which meant I had almost unlimited access to our library of promo CDs) and the song Opener. We quickly tracked down their Capitol debut, Static Prevails, and went to see them perform in Champaign, Illinois.

Later, Clarity hit us like a revelation from God himself, but I was in no way prepared for their pop breakthrough, Bleed American (later changed to simply Jimmy Eat World to avoid 9-11 controversy). It wasn't just the fact that they had a hit on the radio and a video on MTV with The Middle; it was that the album was in many ways even better than Clarity. The hard-hitting title track, A Praise Chorus, If You Don't, Don't, Sweetness, Hear You Me, and Authority Song were just so. damn. good.

Usually fans feel a bit jilted when one of their faves becomes massively popular. I just felt proud.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Jimmy Eat World: Chase This Light (2007)

Generally speaking, this is the Jimmy Eat World album that gets derided the most. Some fans decry the shiny production (partially by Garbage man Butch Vig), others the poppy bent of the songwriting. They're not factually wrong; Chase This Light is easily Jimmy's most burnished and catchy album. I suppose that's why they call them opinions, but those are the exact reasons I love it so much.

I don't want Jimmy Eat World to sound like a handclappy power pop band all the time, but for one album? Awesome. My faves include the title track, Let It Happen, Always Be, and Here It Goes.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Jimmy Eat World: Invented (2010)

Frontman Jim Adkins got inspiration from photographs by Cindy Sherman and Hannah Starkey for this album's lyrics, imagining the lives and situations of the subjects. As such, Invented is Jimmy Eat World's most story-driven album. The diversity of subject matter fits well with the musical range of the album.

My Best Theory, Heart is Hard to Find, and Movielike are among the highlights, but nothing tops the eleven-twelve punch of the final two songs, Invented and Mixtape. Invented is a slow-burn swoon that bursts wide open at minute five. The hymnlike Mixtape uses the titular object as a metaphor for a busted romance: "Maybe we could put your tape back on / Rewind until the moment we went wrong."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Billy Joel: Turnstiles (1976)

The hits on this album were the coast-spanning New York State of Mind and Say Goodbye to Hollywood, but it's some of the lesser-known songs that stand out, namely the wistful Summer, Highland Falls, the propulsive (and insightful) Prelude/Angry Young Man, and the apocalyptic Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway). Seeing as we're creeping up on the latter, I hope Billy's predictive powers aren't as sharp as his songwriting skills.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Billy Joel: The Stranger (1977)

You'd be hard-pressed to find an album with a higher percentage of hits than this blockbuster from Mr. Joel. Five of the nine songs (Movin' Out, The Stranger, Just The Way You Are, Only The Good Die Young and She's Always A Woman) were bonafide hits and 3 others (Vienna, Scenes From An Italian Restaurant and Get It Right The First Time) deserved to be (the overlong closer Everybody Has A Dream wouldn't sound good on the radio). This is my first choice for an album to put on and sing along with from beginning to end.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Billy Joel: An Innocent Man (1983)

If we're being honest, An Innocent Man is the final album of Billy's amazing 6-album win streak that started in 1976 with Turnstiles. The fact that it's a pastiche to the musical styles of Billy's youth and adolescence (namely doo-wop and Motown) is probably a clue that his songwriting was on the wane. But when I was a kid I didn't know that and wouldn't have cared. Instead, I thrilled to Uptown Girl, Tell Her About It, and The Longest Time. And I think the title track is one of his top five songs ever.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Elton John: Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1974)

This album, which my mom owned, was always a object of childhood fascination for me, from the complicated cover art, the booklet and comic book that came with it, and the cryptic lyrics, I always puzzled over it when my mom took it off the shelf.

I didn't know at the time that the album is about Elton (the Captain) and lyricist Bernie Taupin (the Cowboy) and their early days trying to make it as songwriters and dreaming of stardom. Songs like Writing, Bitter Fingers, (Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket address this directly. Other songs, such as We All Fall In Love Sometimes, the title track, and Someone Saved My Life Tonight (which is about Elton's near miss marriage) refer to the feelings and events of the time.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Lucy Kaplansky: The Tide (1994)

I saw Lucy Kaplansky in 1995 at Wesleyan University with my dad and step-mom. I was home on a break from my freshman year of college, where I'd been incredibly homesick. Watching her perform with just a guitar, I was charmed by Kaplansky's beauty, humor, poise, and (of course) songs. I took a tape of her debut album, The Tide, back with me to school and its folk-country melancholy vibe suited my own mood, especially in songs like Somebody's Home and You Just Need a Home.

Removed from that specific moment in time, I continue to appreciate the craft behind the album, from immaculate harmonies to the well-chosen covers (Richard Thompson's When I Get To the Border, The Police's Secret Journey) to the haunting atmospherics on the title track.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band (1970)

I suppose listening to singer-songwriters is almost always a bit like paying to hear someone else's therapy, but never has it been as raw and transparent as on John Lennon's first solo album. It's a credit to Lennon's songwriting and his charisma that we're actually interested in what he's going through. The record deals mostly in abandonment (Mother, My Mummy's Dead, Isolation) and bitter disillusionment (I Found Out, Working Class Hero, Remember, God), with some healing and self-help thrown in for balance (Love, Hold On, Look At Me).

Musically, the album is largely lean and sparse, recorded as a trio with Ringo on drums, Beatles friend Klaus Voormann on bass, and John on either piano and guitar. The simplicity further emphasized John's break from The Beatles, especially considering the album was released just as the string-laden Long and Winding Road was charting (ironically both were produced by Phil Spector).

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lincoln: Lincoln (1997)

The lead singer's voice is pretty nasally. The lyrics are smartass and clever. Is it any wonder that half of this band later ended up joining They Might Be Giants? However, unlike that band, there's a strong undercurrent of serious trouble beneath the nerd rock exterior. Songs like Straight, about an addict trying to remain on the right path, or Unhappy, about putting on appearances, are evidence of that.

The band's drummer went on to join Marcy Playground and the lead singer and songwriter, Chris Temple, has all but disappeared, leaving Lincoln as a lost masterpiece.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Madonna: The Immaculate Collection (1990)


From Holiday (song 1) to Vogue (song 15), this album is flawless. Though the chronological ordering offers little in the way of evolution, who needs growth when all the songs are so classic? The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Michael Jackson have had greater numbers of perfect hits, but no compilation thus far has captured an artist so well. Sure, Justify My Love (new song #1) is mostly just heavy breathing and Rescue Me (new song #2) is kind of boring, but they're just the comedown from an amazing high.