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The Ten Best Albums, Ever. It’s Final. The End; No Point in Making More Records – they’ll all fail in comparison

May 23, 2014

When I set out to do this exercise, I knew the top ten would be both fun and challenging. I wanted to do every album on this list justice, but I knew I would fall completely short of that. I wasn’t aware of how long it would take or how much work it would be, but it’s been totally worth it.

These records (in no particular order) are the pinnacle of what it means to create a record. They all represent themes bigger than just music. They have all impacted me time and again, and continue to do so – they all continue to surprise me.

The stipulation that divided the top ten from the others, is that each and every one of these records has altered my perception of the world for the better. I hope they can do the same for you – or at least that you have ten records that serve the same purpose. Music is not dead, and it never will be.

Enjoy.

The Times They Are A-Changin’ Bob Dylan

TTTAC - Dylan

My top ten certainly wouldn’t be complete without a Dylan album. His early records are always changing my perception on life. Every time I listen to one of them, I feel like I have a ground-breaking revelation on life, then I realize that as much as I like to tell myself otherwise, I am not the only Dylan fan out there.

The Times They Are A-Changin’ seems to be the record I come back to the most. Every song blows my mind, from the title track, to One Too Many Mornings – one of the most beautiful pieces of folk music ever written; to Only a Pawn in the Game – a narrative where the title says it all but not near enough; to Boots of Spanish Leather – one of the most beautiful pieces of folk music ever written; to When the Ship Comes in – one of the most beautiful pieces of folk music ever written.

Musically, the record the easiest to listen to of his acoustic albums; his guitar picking is precise and in tune. It explores the darkness of the human condition, but finds redemption like any good poetry should do.

For example, the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is darkest narrative on the record, about Hattie Carroll and the injustices of the court system. The final verse sarcastically says:

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel

to show that all’s equal and that the courts are on level

and that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded

and that even the nobles get properly handled

once the cops have chased after and caught ’em

and that the latter of law has no top and no bottom

stared at the person who killed for no reason

who just so happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’

and he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished

and handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance

William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence

Oh, you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears

take the rag away from your face

now ain’t the time for your tears.

What I love about Dylan’s songwriting is his emphasis on taking things in context. This verse would not seem sarcastic without the details in the prior two versus, where he addresses the class difference between Zanzinger and Carroll. He is a master story-teller – condensing this narrative and tying each bit by the last there lines – Oh, you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears / take the rag away from your face / now ain’t the time for your tears. It’s brilliant!

And he wanted/wants his audience to really listen, to really pay attention to the details, because they add meaning. He wants us to listen closely – which is why he didn’t like interviewers. There is a reason why Dylan will be analyzed, studied, and overanalyzed a hundred years from now. He’s a legend in his own time because the had the ability to tie so many events, past and present, together into three to seven minute songs. He taught a generation to listen to the words.

The album finishes with a confessional ballad called Restless Farewell, where he addresses his own songwriting. The perfect bow-out to a the perfect folk record.

Oh, a false clock tries to tick out my time

to disgrace, distract, and bother me,

and the dirt of gossip blows in my face

and dust of rumors covers me

but if the arrow is straight

and the point is slick

it can pierce through dust no matter how thick

So I’ll make my stand 

and remain as I am

and bid farewell and not give a damn.

 

mewithoutYou – Ten Stories

ten stories

It’s difficult to know where to begin with this album. I’ve been a big fan of the band since i discovered Catch for us the Foxes and then Brother, Sister. But, there’s something different in this album.

This record is loosely (and use the term loosely) a concept record. It’s about a circus train crash that takes place in February 1878 (as the first song is titled). Throughout the album, the stories follow the different circus animals around. Some animals, like the Elephant and the Tiger, stay put and submit to capture, while others, like the Bear and the Fox wander off into the wilderness.

Aaron Weiss has always been one of my favorite lyricists, but he seemed to have hit a new level with this intricately crafted record – where he uses these animals and this train crash to make sense of the world at large, as well as the world within. It’s full of allegory; allusions to old religious fairy-tales and saints; and Weiss’s own personal experience, doubts and failures.

However, the album does not just sand out because of the lyrics. The music itself is a feat. The songs are diverse and meet the feel of the concept. Songs like Elephant in the Dock and Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume rock to match Weiss’s screaming vocals, yet tracks like Aubergine quiet down to meet Aaron’s whispers. Weiss would be the first to admit, the lyrical content would not have come together so well if not for the music written beforehand.

To really get a good understanding of the record though, one needs to sit down and read the lyrics, where information is added. You clearly see dialogue – who’s talking to whom, and little unsung side notes. Not to mention the artwork, which is astonishing in and of itself.

The album covers doubt, God, virginity, death, heaven, hell, love, sin, etc., but in a complex yet accessible set of stories. I mean, who else but Aaron Weiss can pull off a song about an eggplant, then follow it later on in the album with an allegorized look at virginity? What other rock record even touches on the topic of virginity?

It’s like sitting through a term of upper-level philosophy class with lines such as:

I often wonder if I’ve already died

or if the ‘I’ is an unintelligible lie.

and,

megalomania’s only mania if you’re wrong,

or,

Stitch up the nets but the patch won’t stay,

as the nail beds rest in the calico hay

The Fiji Mermaid dressed in macrame’s

Wading road in the fork and a bend

in the spoon tern cut short as a shadow at noon

melting like wax as that once full moon’s 

now waning ersatz acts an insufferable bore

‘Sharp Shots’ dull as a harlequin’s sword

when doing what you please doesn’t please you anymore

Every time I listen to this record I come away from it feeling like a better person. It shatters and confirms everything you knew about rock ‘n roll, God, and yourself.

And it all comes back around at the end, cycling through the line, all circles presuppose / they’ll end where they begin / but only in their leaving can they ever come back round / all circles presuppose.

 

Come Now Sleep – As Cities Burn

334-as-cities-burn-come-now-sleep

This record will always mean a great deal to me. It helped me through many of the questions I was asking myself throughout high school and college.

Before this album dropped, As Cities Burn was a post-hardcore/screamo band. Then, they’re screamer quit the band to start a family and Cody Bonnette took over the vocals – the rest is history.

If there is a singer/songwriter who sings with more passion, conviction, humility and authenticity than Cody Bonnette, I have yet to hear him or her.

The album opens with the melancholy, jazzy, inquisitive song called Contact. It questions reality.

God, this can’t be 

God ,this can’t be,

God, could it be that all we see is it?

Is this it? 

Is this it?

Did your clouds stop his voice

And brother have you found the great peace we all seek

you say, ‘Take a look around, if there’s a God then he must be asleep,

God must be asleep…

Then it comes booming into the screaming guitar riffs of Empire. Cody cycles through uncontrollably yelling, to singing lullaby-esque melodies throughout.

Show us we are poor, 

show us we are

Glory, glorious,

aren’t we glory, glorious,

not from the good we have done

but from being the least.

The whole record circles around God, which can turn people off, but if really given a chance for what it is, it’s easy to conclude that this was a record written before its time. Bonnette is not trying to convert anyone, or even preach to anyone. He’s just sharing his own struggles and the peace and love he’s found through doing so. It bleeds through guitar riffs and vocals.

One of my favorite tracks of the album is Clouds – it starts with a minute-long intro that sounds like people found on the street talking about the existence of God. Then it falls into Bonnette’s questions (some of my favorite lyrics of all time) before imploding into chaos for the end of the song:

Is your love really love?

Is my love really love?

I think our love isn’t love

unless it’s love to the end. 

Is your God really God?

Is my God really God?

I think our God isn’t God

if he fits inside our heads.

Before this record, I hadn’t heard song structures like these. The guitar riffs are swirling underneath the vocals throughout. It comes down on your ears like a storm, only to open up like the breaking clouds of a post-storm atmosphere.

If I make it to heaven, I may be as bloody as hell, Bonnette sings as if it took all the energy he had left.

The album ends with a song called Timothy, questioning the fate of Bonnette’s friend who died. Then, the song falls into a six-minute long guitar solo until the final resolution where the lyrics come back in,

Take me back to where I was before I was born

it’s life; sweet and dreamless sleep

it sounds like heaven to me.

It’s the perfect book-end to a near-perfect record, and ties the questions from the first track in for a peaceful ending to a chaotic, brain-teasing force of sound.

 

American Hearts AA Bondy

'Merican Hearts

Even though a current Bondy himself discredits the validity to many of the lyrics of this album, I think he’s an idiot. Just kidding – he knows these songs better than anyone, but I respectfully disagree with mister Bondy. Sure, the lyrics to the title track could be interpreted as naive – a point he made in an interview I read – but isn’t naivety a part of human nature? Aren’t we all naive to a point?

Artists change and evolve and grow onto new ventures and with it, they begin to lose the soul of past projects. Even though Bondy does not play these songs live anymore – I could’ve easily replaced this record with Believers, his newest effort – they still speak to me with the impact of the first couple listens. This record altered my perception in many different ways. It gives me clarity when my brain becomes muddy. It makes me feel at home – whatever it is that that means.

There’s a Reason is on the top of my list of favorite tracks on any record – at least it has been for several months. The images he comes up with for this song are incredibly precise and thought-provoking. Backed by the hopeful guitar chords and calming drum brushes:

There was a man with cinders for eyes, there was a girl with a dress made of flies. 

When the moon follows you where you go, and you cannot hide,

when the voices of doom ring your ears, and horsemen do ride

may tomorrow the land be anew

may every bird sing unto you,

That’s the reason

That the love that’s tearing you down

is the love that will turn you around,

say it is so.

I love his finger picking on songs like Black Rain, Vice Rag, World Without End, and Witness Blues. Love the simplicity of Killed Myself When I Was Young, and Rapture (Sweet Rapture). I love anytime he plays the harp.

The record ends with almost a prelude to his next two albums, a probingly slow-paced song about the sea – a favorite topic for Bondy. Heck, I’ll just let him say it best…

Our love it is true, so there’s not much to do

as the air in our lungs starts to hiss

and the ocean, it rose, and the deaths took their toll

when we get to the bottom we’ll kiss.

 

And the crush of the deep, our secret to keep

and the mermaids they drift in the dark

with the salt all ablaze and the ships where they lay

there must be great fear in the spark

 

So, here we will stay, all the demons at bay

from our arms and our eyes it seems

away from the dirt, beneath the skirt

in the sea, we won’t wake from our dreams

 

Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens

SUFJAN-STEVENS-THE-AGE-OF-ADZ

 

I went back and forth between including Age of Adz and Come on, Feel the Illinoise! The more thought I put into it though, the easier the choice became. This record is on a different level than any other record I’ve heard – including Illinoise. There are sounds, rhythms, and layers to this record that you just don’t hear anywhere else.

Every time I think I have this album figured out, I’ll listen to it and pick up on something I missed before and it adds a whole new meaning to it. I’ve spent many hours listening and studying this record and I can never get enough of it. Listening from beginning to end is like taking your ears on a journey to a futuristic Mordor and back.

The record opens with the haunting guitar picking of Futile Devices. It starts out resembling his past work, but the effect he puts on the vocals cause the listener to stop and wonder what’s going to happen next. There’s a different feel to this – almost as if John Wayne Gacy, Jr. from his Illinoise album went to outer space for a few decades and came back to earth. Even on this simple acoustic track, he layers it with soft piano and plucking guitar strings. And then Too Much comes in like sounding like a swamp monster.

The title track features a different vocal inflection for Sufjan – he sounds like he’s losing it, or maybe that he’s barely keeping it together. Then the chorus comes in with heavy bass notes and beats with swirling orchestration and synths. It often breaks down and opens up behind the lyrics: When it dies, it rots / but when it lives, it gives it all it got / This is the age of adz, eternal living…when I die, I’ll rot / but when I live, I’ll give it all I got. The song goes in and out of acoustic finger-picking, with rattling and breaking noises in the background. It builds up repeatedly and falls down, then ends softly –

though I have known you for just a little while

I feel I must be wearing my welcome

I must be moving on

for my intentions, for good intentions

I could have loved you, I could have changed you

I wouldn’t be so, I wouldn’t feel so consumed by selfish thoughts

I’m sorry if I seem self-effacing, consumed by selfish thoughts

it’s only that I still love you deeply, it’s all the love I got.

The third track on the record has always been my favorite. The drum beat sets the tone as synth chords fade in and out, building into synth melodies. It’s a very atmospheric track, as Sufjan touches on his own narrative of Royal Robertson and his lost love

I walked, cause you walked, but I won’t probably get very far

Sensation – do what you said, but I’m not about to expect something more

I would not ever love, but I couldn’t bare that it’s me, it’s my fault

I should not feel so lost, but I’ve got nothing left to love.

It’s the moment of the record where things start to dip into insanity. The beat drops at the end, and leads into dancing harmonies of Now That I’m Older. The haunting melody mixed with the melancholy of the lyrics and the harp (actual harp, not harmonica) and backing vocals cause the listener to stop and be still. It sounds mythical.

The silent man comes down

all dressed in radiant colors,

you see it for yourself

to demonstrate my love for you

I thought I was so in love, some say it wasn’t true,

now that I’m older…

It’s that point in the journey where you feel like giving upbut when you’re faced with the decision to keep going, you realize you have no other choice but to keep ahead. There’s so much travel left, there’s so much travel left.

The following track, Get Real Get Right, has a poppy feel – at least Sufjan’s over-your-head representation of pop music. It is led by the pulsing electronic drum beats. You know you really gotta get right with the Lord, the chorus chants. Visit the future from the outer space / a ring of fire falling on your face / you dream of the dark age, you dream of the dark age of your youth / consider the danger as it moves. The track imagines Royal Robertson turning point into insanity and self-proclaimed prophesy. Three minutes into the song, there is a drop as the verse takes over – I know I cause you trouble, I know I caused you pain / but I must do the right thing / I must do myself a favor and get real, get right with the Lord. This melody is repeated as the music builds back up into chaos until you find yourself completely surrounded by strange synth arpeggios.

Bad Communication is a slow two minute, twenty-six second song reflecting on the mistakes made in the past that lead to love’s demise. Don’t be so funny with me, I’m not laughing. It sounds like something trying, but failing to break through the clouds – that is, until the next track Vesuvius. Vesuvius, I am here / you are all I have / fire of fire, I’m insecure / for it has all been made to plan / though I know I will fail / I could not be made to laugh / for in life as in death, I’d rather be burned than living in death.

A key change midway through where Sufjan begins singing about himself – not all the common for the story-teller: Sufjan, follow the path, it leads to an article of eminent deathSufjan follow your heart / follow the flame, or fall on the floor / Sufjan, the panic inside – the murdering ghost that you cannot ignore.

It’s an argument with himself – he’s trying to convince himself to “favor the ghost”. The song self-destructs at one point, as the notes dissolve into themselves until the lyrics come back in, repeating Follow me now, or follow your death / why does it have to be hard?

I Want to Be Well begins upbeat, matching the rhythmic lyric melodies. It speaks of the burning from within, the burning of histeria, then transitions, finally, into a command, do yourself a favor, or do yourself a death from ordinary causes…Illness likes to prey upon the lonely, prey upon the lonely / oh, i would rather be dead. Then, the phrase is repeated, circling itself – Well I want to be well I want to be well I want to be well I want to be… it then builds up into the most intense part of the record, where Sufjan let’s you in on how serious he is in all this, wailing over and over, I’m not fucking around! as the music builds on itself, again into complete chaos – then falls into a valley, and builds itself up even higher than before.

The album ends with a twenty-five minute long conclusion called Impossible Soul, that I’ll let you listen to for yourself.  It’s a journey in and of its self.

Age of Adz never fails to blow my mind. It’s like traveling into some of the deepest, darkest, and lightest parts of the soul.

Do you want to be afraid? – (no, I don’t want to feel pain!)

For life in the cage, where courage is made runs deep in the wake

for the scariest things are not half as enslaved,

Don’t be distracted.

Do you want to be alone?

For life isn’t stained of righteousness pain

The seed and hail, all impossible flights for an interesting light

No, I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to breathe at all

No, I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to speak at all

It’s a long life, better pinch yourself, put your face together, better get it right

It’s a long life, better hit yourself, put your face together, better stand up straight!

It’s a long life, only one last chance, could it get much better? 

Do you wanna dance?

In the wrong life, everything is chance.

Does it register? Do you wanna dance?

In the right life, it’s a miracle –

possibility, do you wanna dance?

 

Cotton Teeth The Snake the Cross the Crown

cotton teeth

I bought this record on a whim once when my family was on a road trip. We stopped at Hastings and I used money from a gift card on a CD I had never heard by a band I had never heard of. It’s the only time I’ve ever done that with a record. I don’t know why I grabbed it, it just seemed like the thing to do.

It didn’t turn out to be like anything I expected either, but has by far and away surpassed my expectations, (I only knew the record label they were one because I was into most of the music Equal Visions records was pumping out at the time).

Through the years, it has stayed with me. I liked it at first, then grew to love it with time.

The record opens with Cakewalk – one of my favorite tracks on any record. The track starts with a slow banjo plucking and Kevin Jones’ cracking folk voice singing the only lines in the whole song – I wanna live on a stage / I wanna play the guitar, and I wanna get paid / But no responsibilities, please / I wanna do what I want and I wanna get paid.

The song builds on these words and these words alone, each band member coming in and dropping out. It’s a song driven by dynamics. It has one point to drive home and it drives it home until nothing is left to drive, and it ends right where it begins.

The Great American Smokeout comes next, lead by the acoustic guitar chords and taking off into the jig-like beat and melody. It’s a narrative of, Jim, John, Jackie, and Susie-Q / They mind their manners but so do you / and we breathe all of these words that make no sense – a simple but full song.

One of my favorite aspects of this record is the fact that each song could stand on its own, but they eb and flow together seamlessly like ten brothers and sisters in a family reunion.

Gypsy Melodies has a great around-the-camp-fire feel. The whole band chants, We pass the time in the stormy weather / thinkin’ of sunshine, not clouds and the rain / go on, go on, go on, till we go out / go on till we get out / either way, and we’ll go home.

Like Cakewalk, these are the only lyrics, but the song builds on itself through its dynamics so it doesn’t need to get anywhere else lyrically – the arrangement adds what all is needed.

Cotton Teeth cycles through songs that it is clear the band wrote all together, like Cakewalk and Gypsy Melodies, but multiple band members take turns in writing a song, which is part of why the album flows so well. The lyrics disappear for minutes at a time as the band jams out together. Then flow into each chorus and verse like the changing of the weather.

Good old Jack Mckee, yeah we all think you should go to the hospital and try and get some rest

Good ol’ Sister Sue, what would you do if the only incredible man you loved was gone?

It’s a slow-paced record – suited perfect for forty-eight minutes of reflection and nostalgia, and like all the albums on this list, it is timeless. Dream plant, it may grow / if we choose not to let it go…I don’t wanna go without you / so, I just wanna go with peace of mind / save your sorrow, roll the dice and make the money cry.

Beyond the River – another stand-out of the album, features Kevin Jones and his acoustic on the versus, then breaks for the band to jam out for a few measures – and back and forth, until the jam builds and falls into the piano (replacing the guitar) and ends up in a groove that carries the rest of the song down the raging river rapids.

I absolutely love the imagery in the lyrics:

‘Well, if both of these horses just a lay up and die,’

he thinks to himself as he stares into the sun.

His companion’s been bleedin’ and is weepin’ to himself

thinkin’, ‘Oh, my sweet Sue, I won’t be a comin’ home now.’

The album rounds out with Hey Jim – a pastoral reflection on modernization and the industrial revolution; Floating In & Out  (featuring some stellar use of whistling) – Now I speak, these words do not mean / that I ever really had an understanding / but, I can try, to do what I like / and hope that there is nothing gained from this pretending; then maps, an acoustic ballad about family and friends, I recall my brothers / cause only brothers never wander far / enslaved by the weight of my lover / intuned by the love of my brothers / they’ll still be around.

The guitar and organ then carry the song away like a sky of drifting clouds; and Back to the Helicopter – which almost feels out of place, and a rather strange/abrasive ending to a beautifully crafted album. The song gets rowdy, with pounding drums and yelling until the guitars come in full volume, ending the album in three minutes of chaos – leaving the listener in a state of wonder.

 

Time is Fiction – Edison Glass

time is fiction

This song altered my perception two different times, at two different stages of life. It came out when I was a senior in high school and it blew my mind then with its energy and pace. But, years later after I had moved to Portland, I rediscovered the record while needing something, anything fresh to listen to, I started listening to this record over and over – another reason to not totally discredit my Pop-A-Lock experience as a complete failure.

The opening track starts the record of frantically as the chorus screams and chants, Open your lips, let out a song / open your head, and let sing…Hey! Let go!

The guitars sing and dance throughout the record behind the dueling vocals of Josh Silverburg and Josh Morin.

Sew our hearts together / love will be our thread / we’ll dance again for no reason / and no one will be shunned…in our cold condition, we need you to visit us.

The excitement through this record makes you want to get up in your seat and jump around with a tambourine, even if you’re sitting in a quiet coffee shop.

Without A Sound comes in as the third track, with a warning – “I will make it out without a sound!”

This brings me to a theory I developed surrounding this record – it’s just a theory solely based on nothing but the lyrics themselves and I’m sure have no actual grounding, but I think I can make a strong argument for it.

With the ultimate statement of humility, I think Edison Glass recorded this record knowing they were going to disappear “without a sound” after its release. True or not, this album reminds one that the meaning of music is bigger than music.

Machines are on the rise

they’re closing in, it’s getting dangerous

don’t just sit there, I think you run too slow

I could be your ghost, I can run from you too.

This control will never get the best of me again

I will make it out without a sound.

Then, in the forth track End of You they sing:

We’re more than just numbers

you can’t study what your heart’s singing

now listen to the sound

you can hear it all around

I could run away from you

and never find the end of you

I could see all things unseen and never reach the end of you.

All Our Memories sings:

All your breaths are marked with paranoia

but you still satisfy nothing.

Our regret and all this weight 

if you feel the love than forgive me

and you’ll see what happens next.

 

Oh, to be more than lovely,

I can’t save all our memories

of us, 

we can be lovers.

Then, in Chances,

I’ll be a man, and say whoooaa,

figurin’ out how I’m supposed to be,

Ohhhh, breathin the doubt, 

I’ll take my chances today

See Me Through packs so much into the second verse – one of my favorite verses of all time –

Not unambiguous, components of deceit

the inner workings, motivation’s replete

neither know nor need to know

subterfuge of thoughts so low

lead us to depend on you

for you will see me through

Then, the bridges echoes part of what Cody Bonnette sings in Empire – an unintentional coincidence I’m sure – (or is it even a coincidence?) Glorious my glorious / I feel you breaking down on me / Glorious, am I glorious? / I feel you breaking down on me.

Then, the Jig is Up – think about this song title, literally.

I’ll wait for your words 

I’ll trust you’ll say

SAY

we can handle it all, and 

YOU’LL SAY, YOU’LL SAY!

How can you say the warmth makes you?

How can you say sight leads you?

These songs are all about waiting, and trusting God’s voice – they sing over and over again how they are not enough, and how they are taking a leap of faith. Then they say things like, Our bodies sing in song and melody / heart beat the tempo / love the crescendo as if they are saying, ‘the music will keep going, simply by living – and living not for ourselves, but for God.’

All the music leads to something bigger. They are not relying on being part of the “machine” of the industry, so they disappeared and trusted that the record they made was enough, and if they are called to reunite…well I hope that happens.

Jean Val Jean, the eleventh track on the album, alludes to a character in Les Miserables. Jean Val Jean, the weeping criminal / broken by the weight of compassion as the first two lines sing. Though I haven’t read the actual story of Les Miserables, I have read the wikipedia page – long story short, Jean Val Jean is a criminal, who makes a turn after a offer of compassion and becomes an exemplary figure morally despite being a refugee of the law.

It’s a battle between grace and pride

will you let it go, or draw the knife

will grace overcome what was done?

The record then closes with the title track, singing Time is Fiction! – they can always wait to make more music, because in a reality realer than our own, time does not exist.

The conclusion I’ve reached in all this: It’s not about doing what is expected of you – it’s about doing what your heart is singing – it’s bigger than you, it’s bigger than me. Just LET GO!

 

Mean Everything to Nothing – Manchester Orchestra

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I think the best way to sum up why this record is so brilliant, meaningful, and just plain awesome, is to start with the song 100 Dollars. The track starts softly with the acoustic guitar and Andy Hull’s whispering melody. The song then explodes as Hull screams I AM FINE! I AM FINE! I AM FINE! I JUST NEED ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS!  It’s about those times where you lose your composure over something small and insignificant in and of itself. Hull’s scream is abrasive. The first time I heard it I thought it was too ridiculous, but he’s not screaming because he just needs one hundred dollars, it’s that moment where all his frustrations add up and come out in this one instance.

Hull’s vocals throughout the record are scratchy and rough around the edges. He’s screaming and arguing with God and himself. Oh, God, you gotta shake it out! Shake it Out! The track then quiets and Hull’s vocals drop to a soft and humanized inflection.

I felt the world begin

to peel off all my skin

and I felt the weight within

reveal the bigger mess

that you can’t fix

Then, the guitars come in heavy as ever, as does Hull’s yelling melody:

I felt, I felt good

repeat into my home

don’t fight don’t ever go

I swear you’ll never know

you’ll never know!

Then, I’ve Got Friends comes in with it’s drum sample, guitar picking, and that synth part that gives me the chills every time.

I’ve got friends in all the right places 

I know what they want

and I know they don’t want me to stay

and you and I will find

when I need you, I need it quickly

It’s all about vulnerability and hashing out your greatest doubts and insecurities.

Pride then comes in with it’s heavy, prodding guitar parts after Hull grits out the words  Finally, I felt the calming breeze / stepping out to watch the final scene / after all it’s you, my pride, and me / I can’t speak whatever I can speak, you see. The song raises in intensity throughout. Now I found the way to meet the means / faker fates to make the kingdom clean.

100 Dollars divides the two sides of the record. The second side begins with I Can Feel A Hot One, one of my favorites. When Hull sings manna is a hell of a drug, he is talking about addiction to God’s provisions. The Israelites, while in the desert for forty years received manna, but they kept taking more than they needed despite instructions not to. Hull is relating to that – when you have all you need, all you want is more of it.

My friend Marcus, he sleeps in my basement / his father touched more than spirit / now he can hardly sleep, Hull sings over the swinging guitar chords and rim taps on the drums in My Friend Marcus. Now I can see, you mean everything to nothing! / Now I believe you mean everything!

Mean Everything to Nothing is one of my all-time favorite album titles and lyrics. It can be interpreted various different ways – for example, it can be interpreted as meaning nothing, because if something means everything to nothing, then it there’s nothing to assign it meaning –

or, you can look at it this way, how I choose to interpret it: it’s about God meaning everything to the down and out, like Hull’s friend Marcus. The nothings of society, the nothings of ourselves when we are at our lowest points – that is when God reveals himself.

Musically, Tony the Tiger is my favorite track on the album. It’s a simple, consistent guitar groove that lasts throughout most of the song, but it drives the vocals along the whole way. I remember the first time I this song really spoke to me, on the way to a Manchester concert in Denver – listening to that song in the car is one of my fondest memories of that summer (and by far the best of that night I might add, but that’s a whole different story).

What is the price of being a bargain beggar? / so lonely but always free…I know you think you know / but you probably don’t know / and to think that you would actually do it.

Lyrically, The River is one of those songs that is cleansing to listen to. I saw these guys play a few weeks ago, and this song stood out to me the most in that particular show.

Oh, God I need it, so let me sing again!

Take me to the River

and let me see again!

Oh, my God,

Let me see again!

The song celebrates the redemption found in Christ. It’s about rebirth.When you feel like nothing, you can go down to the metaphorical river and become whole again. I’m gunna leave you the first chance I get, Hull confesses in a prayer as the song quiets down with a calming violin backing.

The album is completely authentic. It’s an album you can scream along with, or sit in silence and let the music scream itself – but most importantly, it’s an album about redemption.

 

Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

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My sister bought me this record for my birthday the summer after my sophomore year in college. The impact it had on me at that particular point is the kind of thing that makes it a part of myself.

Those harmonies that Fleet Foxes is known for cuts me to the core. It’s as if Simon and Garfunkle, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and Wilco had a baby.

It’s a very nostalgic record, as Robin Pecknold wrote many of the lyrics based on driving through the country and imagining how the landscapes would’ve looked a hundred, to two hundred years ago.

You don’t have to know what he’s singing about for it to retain its full meaning. Sometimes lyrics don’t need to be overanalyzed, they just need to be enjoyed for how they sound and the images they portray. This is the prototype for that kind of songwriting.

When I saw Fleet Foxes in Denver a few years ago, I was absolutely taken aback. I was stunned by the precision of the sound, the harmonies, and the psychedelia, which I had not mentally prepared for after listening to their records.

As far as clarity of sound goes, I’ve never seen a live band on the same level as the Fleet Foxes.

The album cycles through acoustic melancholy, to near jam band-like breakdowns. Organ pops up perfectly in tracks such as Ragged Wood, after a time-signature change so Pecknold can sings:

Lie to me if you will

at the top of Barringer hill

tell me anything you want

any old lie will do,

call me back to you

Tiger Mountain Peasant Song follows Ragged Wood with one of the most timelessly beautiful tracks I have ever heard. The guitar picking sounds like a taking a rest at the top of a mountain after a day of hiking. You can almost see the the breeze, the grass, and the trees, with every note of the guitar. I don’t know what I have done, Pecknold wails, I’m turning myself into a demon.

Quiet Houses then comes in with the upbeat and open bass and snare, then tambourine as the melody repeats in full harmonies. It’s a similar song format as Cakewalk from The Snake The Cross The Crown’s Cotton Teeth. The words slowly change and evolve throughout, but the melody for the most part remains the same, with a couple breaks to give room for the band to jam out. You feel the presence and see the warm lights of quiet houses on the hillside.

Songs like Heard Them Stirring fill out the record. Though they may not ever be a single – there are no words, just a bunch of harmonized ooooo’s – but they cary the story along and add a feel to the record that makes you want to stop, go outside, and take a hike in the woods – but of course, not until the record is finished spinning.

Your Protector then comes in softly, slowly building on the intensity.

She left to me to roam

your protector’s comin’ home

keep your secrets with you, girl

safe from the outside world

You run with the Devil!

I love the intimacy of the vocals on this track. If you listen carefully, you can hear the saliva quietly smack underneath the reverb as Pecknold takes a breath between lines.

The record then rounds out, with the acoustic-driven melodies of Meadowlark; then Blue Ridge Mountains, which rises and falls like a mountain range – the mandolin solo in the middle of the song is one of my favorite moments – it carries the melody on and adds new meaning to it; then album finishes with Oliver James, carried by Pecknold’s incredible vocal chords. It puts the record to bed like the sun falling past the horizon.

On the way to your brother’s house in the valley deep

by the river bridge, a cradle floating beside me

in the whitest water on the bank against the stone

you will lift his body from the shore and bring him home

Oliver James, lost in the rain no longer!

 

In the Mountain, In the Cloud – Portugal. the Man

in-the-mountain-in-the-cloud

I could have talked myself into any of Portugal’s record for this list, but I knew it had to be In the Mountain, In the Cloud. I have never been as blown away by a record from beginning to end – from first listen to latest listen.

The album opens with steel drums – yes, steel drums. John Baldwin Gourley then shows more confidence in his lyric writing as he chants in the chorus –

Who broke the rules, who broke the rules, who broke the rules?

they sing, everyone of you will never try to lend a hand when the policemen don’t understand.

Boys, oh boys, you think it’s so American.

Girls, oh you girls, yeah you’re so American.

There’s two eyes for everyone of us,

but somebody got there first and took them all

Every moment of this record carries a hook that leaves you wanting more – whether it’s the steel drum melody on So American; the vocal melodies on, well, every song; the heavy synths of All Your Light [Times Like These], the guitar riffs throughout – man, those guitar riffs!

In The Mountain, In The Cloud is constantly moving. It’s got pop, it’s got rock, it’s got hip hop, it’s got everything.

We can live on for all time, time, time / time is a workin’ my side!

The record bleeds hope and passion with choruses such as,

We got it all, till the revolution comes (Got it All)

 

Well we all get strange, and we know it

but we’re cool with it,

and we all get a little bit older in this day, age,

but we deal with it. (Head Is A Flame)

 

You carried us all

down from the stars

and up from the sea

where everybody knew

all you see and all you hear is all you need

and all you think’s all you create,

and it’s in your mind. (You Carried us all)

Everything You See [Kids Count Hallelujahs], features swirling synths, chanting trumpets, and so many more layers. Like with Age of Adz, the layers throughout in this record are astounding. There’s always something left for you to pick up that you missed before – and each and every part is catchy as the next. All the castles they command / they just sink their teeth in / when the waves are crashing down, we’ll just sink our toes in.

Many of the tracks like Everything You See features distorted outros to tie to the next track. The synths self implode until the booming wave of synth drives in All Your Light [Times Like These]. Then, with a minute left in the track, it falls into a breakdown of screaming jam, but comes right back into the chorus without missing a beat. The chorus repeats over and over as the music crescendos around it, then fades off into the distance and right into the peaceful beginning of Once Was One.

The album ends in one of the most tranquil tracks you’ll ever hear. It’s like Gourley’s Hey Jude. He sings,

I just wanna sleep forever

never see tomorrow

or lead or follow.

I don’t wanna work forever 

know what I know,

or beg or borrow

just like our mothers who gave us our homes,

we’ll be just like our fathers, and go out on our own

cause we are the colors in all you see

we’ll be just like our brothers,

we’ll take to the streets.

It speaks to that need for rest, that feeling you get when you just want to lay in bed, or on the couch in front of the TV, but Gourley pays tribute to those who have blazed the trail before us. We’ll take to the streets, he sings. He holds his hope that we can reach our potential. We may not grow money, but man, we grow old. The record ends as the music falls into screeching violin and cello, only to be cut off before the note of resolution. It’s as if the band is saying, just wait, we’re not done – and they certainly weren’t (see Evil Friends).

Throughout the record, he’s calling out our generation to step up and take to the streets, to follow your beliefs, to make the world a better place – and this record most certainly has done all of that.

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