Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My Favorite Albums of My Lifetime

About a month ago, I celebrated my eighteenth birthday, which means in the eyes of many--myself not included--I am an adult. An adult. Eek. Thankfully I'm developing a Peter Pan complex, and I have parents I still live with and who care about me, so I don't actually feel as though I've made the transition to adulthood quite yet--and, quite frankly, I'm not sure I ever will.

Anyhow, this momentous milestone has caused me to reflect on the life I've lived so far. It's been a good one, and I won't bore you with an autobiography. What I will bore you with, though, seeing as this is a music blog, is a list of the pieces of music that have defined my lifetime, both for me and for many others.

What this means is that below is a list of the twelve albums I love most that have been released during my first eighteen years, plus a little blurb about why I love each of them. Seeing as the albums hail from a span of nearly two decades and cover a (small) myriad of genres and labels and whatnot, there isn't exactly a common musical theme--nor did I hear most of these albums when they actually came out. What is common is that all of these albums were born in the era of Me, June 1992 to June 2010. (It's important to note that albums such released in 1992 but before June of that year, such as Slanted and Enchanted (released in April), are not eligible.) (A list of my twelve favorite songs from the era of Me is included in brief at the bottom.) Read it all after the jump...

Here's to not growing up quite yet... (Album title is followed by my age, in years, at time of release)

1. Neutral Milk Hotel--In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (5)
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea bounces all over the place, creating textures and emotions and ideas that, to be honest, don't make much sense at all--but
nonsense has never been so heart-wrenching. Language wasn't really designed to describe Aeroplane, and that's mainly because NMH frontman Jef Mangum bastardizes language to the best of his abilities, toying with every songwriting and storytelling convention--both physical and emotional--there is. But he's in complete control of his words and expressions, and, in messing with conventions, he creates a whole new language, a whole new brand of folk song. Aeroplane's stories are complex and beautiful, as strange as they are tear-inducing. And the man telling these stories does so in a way as complex and beautiful as the stories themselves. Mangum doesn't have an American-Idol-good-voice, but the conviction with which he molds his characters, his themes makes his voice beautiful, albeit provocatively so. Oh, and the music itself is pretty darn amazing, too. Rustic cultural pastiches, awash with acoustic fuzz, crackly brass, melodicas, tambourines, bagpipes, and whatever the hell else is in there characterize each song--and each song is more important than the last, building upon the themes and stories and musical identities that make this album so spectacular. There are few better ways one can spend forty minutes than listening to Aeroplane, and there is certainly no better album that has been released in the last eighteen years.

2. Modest Mouse--The Lonesome Crowded West (5)
Moon & Antarctica is great and all (if you scroll down a bit, you'll see it on this list), but Modest Mouse has never been more powerful or poetic than on Lonesome Crowded West. It's a paradigm of poor self-editing, with its monolithic runtime (74 minutes) and its endless changes in mood and texture, and yet it's exactly that unhinged-ness that makes the album so amazing. Throughout those seventy-four minutes, there isn't a second that's boring; even when some of the songs are extended a seemingly unnecessary extra thirty, forty, ninety seconds they keep their intrigue. This album is rough, certainly--there is more distortion and screaming and swearing and blaspheming on this album than any other Modest Mouse album and on many indie rock albums in general. But that roughness helps distinguish it, and it helps set the emotional tone for the album. Isaac Brock has things to say here, and many of them are not positive. The roughness of the music echoes the roughness of his messages--his messages which are poetically articulated, precise and powerful. Lonesome Crowded West is certainly a manic album, but it's terribly cohesive and passionately interesting throughout.

3. Animal Collective--Sung Tongs (11)
This album, which topped my end-of-decade list back in January remains stunning to me, as it has for the five or so years I've had it. It isn't necessarily better than other Animal Collective albums or other "freak folk" albums or anything, but I do like it more. Why is that? Well, if you read my blurb in that end-of-decade list, you know that I have trouble articulating exactly why. Sung Tongs just struck a chord in me the first time I heard it, and has continued to strike that same chord (along with several other ones, making a beautiful progression) each subsequent listen. It's a visceral, spiritual feeling I get. It's warm, it's soothing, it's confusing. Obviously the music is good: it explores new, fascinating textures and is frequently beautiful in a way that only campfires are. It has space, room for growth. Sung Tongs, as lame as this sounds, really does transport the listener (or at least me) to somewhere else, somewhere simpler, somewhere better.

4. Guided By Voices--Alien Lanes (2)
Say what you will, Alien Lanes is GBV's finest longplayer and one of the best rock n' roll albums ever. It represents Pollard and the gang's vision more fully realized and more complex. Of course it's still cynical and confusing. Of course it talks about aliens and drinking. But the hooks are heavier, and the compositions more, well, composed. The album has twenty-eight songs spread out over forty-one minutes, which means the average song is just short of a minute and a half; time is not wasted. But each song is necessary, as it holds the piece together as a whole. (That said, each song is memorable on its own, too.) The music prompts dancing, air-guitar, head-nodding, beer-drinking, lighter-waving, and serious pondering--often within a single, minute-long track--examining sounds from the '50s to the present to create a truly unique and influential sound. It's so full of ideas and concepts, it's...I don't even know what to say.

5. DJ Shadow--Endtroducing... (4)
I'll be honest. When I first heard Endtroducing... I didn't really know anything about it, except for that it was supposed to be good. I was thirteen--I think--at the time and listening almost exclusively to hip-hop, mostly of the backpacker variety, and this was supposedly one of the greatest "hip-hop" albums around. Anyhow, I listened to the album. My first thought: this isn't really hip-hop--where's the rapping? My second thought: this is some pretty damn amazing music. That first thought became erroneous once that second thought was fully realized, and I fell in love with the album. (I think I listened to it four or five times that day.) Naturally I started to do some research on Endtroducing..., the album that I had already christened as one of my favorites of all time. I turned to Google. Wait a second. This is all samples? What? How did he...what? How is that possible? Samples? Wow.

6. Outkast--Stankonia (8)
It would take only a quick scan of Il Buono to know that we (I) aren't (am not) super into hip-hop. Sure I like some and acknowledge that some of the best, most vital music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is hip-hop. But, when it comes down to it, I'm rarely in the mood to throw on a hip-hop record. I just don't listen to it too much. Then there's Stankonia, which, is of course a hip-hop album, and, according to this post, is one of my favorite albums of the last eighteen years, and, according to iTunes play count, is one of my most played LPs. Hmm. Interesting. What separates Stankonia from the hoards and hoards of other hip-hop albums, many of them popular like this one, many of them bloated and overlong like this one? Stankonia is just better. Better than other hip-hop albums, better than other music in general. That's all I have to say: it's better.

7. Portishead--Dummy (2)
One of the darkest and, dare I say, sexiest albums released in the era of Joe, Dummy adds thickness, experimentalism and something new to an already dense, weird, and nascent genre: trip-hop. Released three years after their brethren Massive Attack's opus, Blue Lines, but a year before even closer brethren Tricky's masterpiece, Maxinquaye, this album is more exciting than either of those ones not only because it's freer and more diverse, but also--and this is the more important reason--because it just hasn't aged at all. As amazing as Blue Lines and Maxinquaye are, anyone who's been conscious in the last twenty years could tell you that those came out in the '90s; their sounds ooze that decade, almost to a fault. (Almost.) Meanwhile, Dummy still sounds fresh, jolting even, and it still sounds amazing.

8. Modest Mouse--The Moon & Antarctica (7, but I turned 8 the next day)
Much of what was said above about The Lonesome Crowded West could be paraphrased about Modest Mouse's follow-up, The Moon & Antarctica, but, while the two albums share the monolithic scope I so eagerly spoke about in the Lonesome review, they sound completely distinct from one another--and that's the power of Modest Mouse. The lyrics are as bitingly clever and meaningful as ever, but the music, while still unhinged in concept, is more precise in execution. The Moon & Antarctica is still jampacked with shouting and twisted harmonics, but it also has its fair share acoustic guitars and gentle-ish singalongs. It's a defining "indie rock" album because of its breadth and ideas, and it's a defining album for me personally because it showed me that The White Stripes weren't the only cool rock band.

9. The White Stripes--White Blood Cells (9)
Speaking of The Stripes... One of four albums on this list that I actually heard and loved upon initial release--and the highest ranked of those four--White Blood Cells, as pathetic and obvious as this sounds, opened my mind to, well, music. Before hearing this album--"Fell In Love With A Girl" specifically--nothing I listened to really spoke to me; I just didn't care much about music. I liked it, I listened to it--but I didn't learn the names of band members and songs and albums, I didn't read music journalism, I didn't scan the Reader for concert listings. It took the unadulterated energy, rock n' roll revival, and unique and intelligent songwriting that's packed into White Blood Cells to light that fire in me, a fire (or should I say dorky obsession) that resulted in this blog, among other things.

10. LCD Soundsystem--Sound of Silver (14)
I may have fallen in love with White Blood Cells around the time it came out, but that album caught me off guard. Sound of Silver, meanwhile, well let's just say I was counting down the days until that one came out; never before (and probably not since) had I been so excited about an album's release. Fortunately for my eager 14-year old self, Sound of Silver didn't disappoint, and it continues to prove a transcendently awesome listen. Developing on the genius that was LCD's disco-punk-ified, self-titled debut, Sound of Silver shows off some of the finest beats and squiggles produced in my lifetime. What separates it from its predecessor--and most dance albums in general--is its songwriting. The songwriting, as snarky as ever, is also beautiful, mature and all around great.

11. Weezer--Weezer (1)
Weezer (the blue one, that is) makes sense. It just does. There doesn't necessarily seem to be anything that special about it, it doesn't beam with originality or intrigue; however, every time I listen to it--and I've listened to it a lot--I love it more. It's got big guitars and big choruses, nothing separating it from all sorts of terrible rock and pop music from the past fifty years, but those guitars are (somehow) incredibly emotive and those choruses, as poppy as they may be, have as much intelligence as a slick Beatles cut and are as relatable as the grainiest Replacements tune. (This is not to say Weezer is as good as either of those bands, especially considering Weezer's output these past ten years.) Weezer just feels real, realer than most anything else ever recorded.

12. The Avalanches--Since I Left You (8)
Few albums are as happiness-inducing as they are puzzling, and, well, Since I Left You is one of the few. Arguably the only album on this list able to get a party going (Stankonia and Sound of Silver both have some party-friendly cuts but both have non-party-friendly ones as well), Since I Left You is also arguably the most meticulously crafted, diverse album of these twelve. Constructed entirely from samples (like fellow list item Endtroducing...) this album is unsurprisingly chock full of some of the funkiest basslines, sunniest sped up vocals, and most unique and entertaining found sounds and spoken word bits to ever be stuffed into a computer. Since I Left You is amazing; it's a pop album that's challenging, and it serves as a bridge between the '90s and '00s.

Well that's what I think, as far as albums are concerned... And just for good measure here's a list of my twelve favorite songs released from June '92 to June '10 (forgive me if the songs list bears some resemblance to the albums one):

1. Guided By Voices--Game Of Pricks
2. LCD Soundsystem--Losing My Edge
3. Neutral Milk Hotel--In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
4. The White Stripes--Fell In Love With A Girl
5. Palace Music--New Partner
6. Outkast--Hey Ya!
7. LCD Soundsystem--All My Friends
8. New Radicals--You Get What You Give
9. Beck--Where It's At
10. Animal Collective--Fireworks
11. R. Kelly--Ignition (Remix)
12. Modest Mouse--Teeth Like God's Shoeshine

That's what I think. These have been a good eighteen years, right? I've enjoyed them.

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