there are other albums out there that probably warrant more importance for innovation or historical reasons, but this list is based on albums that a) have had a profound influence on me, b) are masterpieces in their entirety (not just a few great songs, but all great as well as cohesive as a whole, and c) ones that i keep going back to over the years simply for the love of them. i guess which means they have a lot of replay value. which is maybe the most important because i remember at least a few of these not striking me as totally great right off the bat. but they are. it just took time to know them.
i've never made a list of my top music because maybe i'm afraid it comes out seeming pretentious or obsessive (well obsessive might be true)- but what's the love of music for if you can't share it with others? and i'm sure that everyone else has a top 20 of their own worth checking out, and i'd love to. well, here's mine. it wasn't easy.
(in no particular order):
Do Make Say Think- Goodbye Enemy Airship the Landlord is Dead (2000)
I walked into a record store in Seattle and jokingly asked a clerk what the best record in the store was, cause i was driving to California that very day and needed some new music to listen to on the way. He handed me this record. I put it on later. And then i was mad at him. Because at first listen, it unimpressed me.
Do Make Say Think's sound, especially back then- was so deceptively minimal that it took many listens to begin to pick up on the subtleties that make up their genius. Two drummers, a horn section, jazz blended with raunchy and atmospheric guitar rock. And tricks with tapes and loops i still don't even understand completely. The result is beautiful. I have this record memorized. Note for note, tone for tone. And i drool when it comes on. One of the best recommendations from a record store guy ever. And one of the best records to let grow on you.
Mogwai- Rock Action (2001)
Probably my favorite record ever. And, ironically, another one that didn't have me from the get go at all. If you know me, you probably know that i think Mogwai is the best living band on the planet. But what they are known for is their face melting live shows- not the stuff that's on this record. What's wonderful about it to me, though, is the production here. This is the record Mogwai spent the most time on and it shows. As far as sonic textures, drums sounds, guitar tones and crispness of quality, i think this is the best record i've ever heard. I constantly go back to it for inspiration while i'm doing any of my own recording projects. Plus, it's just really ungodly beautiful. I'm glad somebody talked Mogwai into foregoing their seemingly punk rock DIY approach to recording for a year because this album captures my favorite band ever so beautifully.
Sigur ros- Ágætis Byrjun (2001)
If you are alive, you've probably heard of Sigur Ros by now. But back in 2000 when i first heard this record, not a lot of people had. Some of the most gorgeous music ever recorded by a "rock" band, that's for sure. This record, along with Mogwai's "Rock Action", were both part of a summer that very much changed my perspective on what music could be. A lot of arty bands make great noise, but very few bands have great artistic taste AND virtuosic musical skill. I suggest you check out Heima, which is the first full lenght movie coming out about this incredible band. I can't wait to see it.
Godspeed is one of the most innovative bands ever and this is their creepiest, awesomest, and most album-like album. It's packed full of ideas and there isn't any "filler music", as some would argue GYBE! is guilty of on longer projects. I'll never forget the night i took this home, put on a pair of headphones, and laid out on my bed for an hour completely entranced in a world that's so chilling and beautiful.
Another album i love for its perfect tones. Perfect drum sounds, perfect guitar tones. It baffles me to know how a band figures this stuff out. David Bazan has had some great moments and some lame ones, but i still think this is one of the most underrated indie rock albums in the last few years. The whole thing tells a story from start to finish about a failing marriage and is tragic. Ridiculously despairing and, at times, also tongue in cheek. Bazan's melodies are simple but faultless and his lyrics are brilliant. It's the saddest album i love to sing along to.
Best indie rock ever. Don't know how they ever got labeled "emo" (???). Creative songwriting, a one of a kind singer, and it just really rocks- in an eclectic sort of way. Sooooo many drives from Seattle down to California and back with this one. Have never tired of it, even after a decade. Up in my top 5.
One of the best examples of Post Rock actually progressing in its form. Grails, it's obvious, has their own reasons and their own rules for making instrumental music. I heard a a couple tracks on a mix tape from a friend and was enamored, only to find out that they were from Portland, which is where i was already living at the time. Grails are like that- mysteriously absent in presence in the U.S. but with a large european following, or ...something. I suspect that's already changing now that they were discovered and signed by Temporary Residence Ltd.. Anyway, they will always be my hometown heroes. Incredibly beautiful rock music by guys who never write the same song twice, which is refreshing for this genre. Their style blends hymn-like and old religious aesthetics with an organic drum kit driven rock.
Take everything you learned from the 80s about what synthesizers are supposed to do, and what analog electronics are supposed to sound like, and throw it out the window.
Okay, now let's pretend we are all really robots with mechanical parts for bodies, but with hearts so full of love and meaning and beauty that all those feelings cannot help but come bursting out of our iron chests with the force of 1,000 Moog synthesizers all piled on the back of a jet propelled semi truck and careening straight up Mt. Everest. We are the most cultured robots the world has ever known, and we are tearing apart all our own clockwork bodies until nothing is left but the blinding radiance of our souls inside.
Mmmm. Or something like that. Listen to M83.
This album isn't perfect, but it makes it into my top 20 because of how many times i've listened to the songs on it that are great. "Vermillion" is one of my favorite electronic songs ever. I saw this band open for Sigur Ros back in 2001-ish, and liked them almost as much for their simplicity and their precision with which they presented such uniquely written "pieces". The Album Leaf is mainly the work of Jimmy LaValle, who is a classically trained rocker. I'm in the same boat and therefore often find myself comparing and aspiring under his accomplishments. I love The Album Leaf not for any mind blowing reason- because they aren't mindblowing- but because they are attainable and yet what Jimmy accomplishes is always great.
I realized what power this music had one morning when i just about burst into tears at work in my headphones because of the tragic beauty of the first track, which is full of samples from media reports or radio shows from the morning of September 11. The music is aggressive and fight-worthy, but in a way that is intelligent. Arrangements by this three piece are incredible. The rhythm section alone is one of the most creative and best out there, in my humble opinion. I had the pleasure of helping book some of these guys' shows a couple years ago, and was impressed by just how humble, honest, and nice they all are for such accomplished activists, artists, and musicians. Props to San Francisco. A hugely underrated band.
Aphex Twin- Drukqs (2001)
A gift for Christmas from a good friend of mine years ago and i've kept this double disc album as a prized possession since. If i need to explain that the man behind Aphex Twin is a genius, then you don't listen to electronic music. He has influenced more electronic artists than anyone, and is just as prolific to match. It was discovered he had something like over 1000 recorded songs made by himself in his bedroom before he even had a career. Aphex Twin will go down in history as being a great composer, regardless.
This album, though, is maybe his most psychotic and intense. It is painfully intricate. And at time just downright insane.
Funny that interspersed throughout are more "classical" style pieces performed on piano or dulcimer, and that the tastefulness of this somehow works, fitting right between some of his most raging and neurotic drum and bass pieces ever. On some days i prefer some of his older, more melodic albums, but this one takes the cake as a masterpiece, i think.
Jeremy Enigk- Return of the Frog Queen (1996)
After Sunny Day Real Estate broke up for one of the first of many times back in 1995, Jeremy Enigk released this album "solo". In the wake of rumors that it was his conversion to Christianity which led to SDRE's demise, one would think he'd do something to solidify his reputation by defending himself- or maybe preach his stance on his newfound religion. Return of the Frog Queen is nothing like what anybody expected. Its lyrics are completely enigmatic, the music gentle and whimsical, and the form completely previously unexplored by a band like Sunny Day. It's a folk gem, with eccentric songs about fantasy worlds accompanied by a full orchestra. In doing this, i think Enigk was doing what anybody with a genuine found faith in a good God should do: using his sphere of influence not to convert or to preach, but to attract lovers of amazing art. (Which comes from God in the first place, doesn't it?)
The Smiths- Best...1 (1982-1987)
The Smiths are one of my favorite bands ever. I don't really know how much needs to be said here. It's the only "best of" album that i'd ever include on a top 20 list, but i include it because it was my introduction to them (which came unfortunately late in my life) and i listened to this like i would any other album- from start to finish- memorizing every word and line. It's my absolute favorite to sing along to in the car. For artistic merit, i probably should have chosen a single studio album by Mr. Morrissey and Mr. Marr, but their output was all so unbelievably good that a best of could be for me the only answer. One of few bands that really deserve "best of" records. There are way too many that don't.
I just can't think of another dreampop band with better vocals, arrangements, and performance out of those around today. I'll admit, this was yet another that grew on me more over time than right away. But the more i've listened, the better their arrangements have sunk in and the more brilliantly plotted i realize they are. I had the priviledge of also booking a tour for these dudes (and dudette). It was a pleasure. They have had no American distribution for years until recently, and deserve a much wider audience. I love this album to death.
I was stuck in traffic on the fremont bridge in seattle. I was flipping through radio channels and heard something that piqued my interest so i stopped. By the end of the song my jaw had dropped and i had tears in my eyes. I waited through 3 more songs in hope that the dj would read back who the artists in his set were. He did. I thought for sure i had stumbled on some unknown, authentic backwoods country singer that had broken my heart for her purity (both of voice and in lyrics). It took me a couple more months to remember the name while in a record store- it was there i realized Gillian Welch was a best selling Grammy Award winner, not the unknown small town gem i thought she had been. That's what happens when you don't listen to music outside of a few usual genres very often. But i was lucky to be turned on to Gillian Welch by myself, not because of a Grammy. I was clueless as to who she was, and she had me convinced that her bluegrass was as real as it got. The best part is that she deserves all the attention she's gotten. The song i listened to that day was "everything is free", and is a very favorite of mine. The rest of the album is just about perfect too.
Brian Eno- Music For Airports (1978)
This is one of those historic albums that might belong on a more official "top 20 important albums" list, but it is included here also because it is one that i just adore listening to, pure and simple. I listen to a lot of ambient music, and it is amazing that this album, released in 1978, has just as much effect and beauty as any other record that has since spawned because of it. I owe a lot to Brian Eno, and so does pretty much every progressive band in the last 3 decades. The music is calming yet mesmerizing, memorable. And each piece achieves its "ambience" using different instrumentation, which i love.
Some people know that i was in this band for awhile and have spent time writing and recording material for the newest full length LP which is due out this year, but i think what people may not realize is how big a fan of Pacific UV's first record i am, and that i believe it deserves attention regardless of my grateful affiliation with them. I can say this humbly because i had nothing to do with the making of the band's first record, which was recorded by an entirely different lineup aside from Clay Jordan, one of its two founders. I got ahold of this record from a friend who encouraged me to check it out. At the time i was so steeped in post rock and neo classical music forms that i had almost but left vocals, verses, and choruses behind. Pacific UV changed that for me. I cannot remember a time i heard a record that was vocals-oriented that married ambient, noise, and experimental sonic textures so well to it. This is the record that turned me on to Shoegaze music and allowed me to begin exploring backwards into the territory of the MBV family- something which i had begun way too late in my musical journey. I still listen to this record all the time and love it, singing along to it as if it were by any other of my favorite groups. Sometimes i even forget that i have been so lucky to have worked with such amazing artists.
Rachels- Systems/Layers (2003)
One of the few great bands that have come from Kentucky, but an incredible one at that. Rachel's has the right idea, and embodies just about everything i think classical music has been headed towards for some time. They may not write symphonies, but get as intelligent as any "rock-marketed" band you will ever hear, in their compositions, performance, and presentation of their music. And they blend found sounds, ambient atmospheres, and a movie-like quality into it all. Though i don't know a ton about Rachel's' personnel, it's plainly obvious that at least some or all of the band have studied music in an academic setting. And usually, people that do take their music elsewhere, writing sonatas on cheesified MIDI software programs, hoping to land a film score or settling to have their pieces performed by local high school orchestras. I adore Rachel's because they are not "above" indie rock, but instead bring a refinement to it that should be a shining example to the rest of us. The music is string and piano oriented, but is not afraid to employ a fat sounding drum kit over the top of what would otherwise be classical chamber music. And it is all so beautiful. I picked this album because it seems so cohesive, like a night of wandering in and out of strange and beautiful dreams.
Mogwai- Mogwai Young Team (1997)
What can i say? This is the one, the record that made my jaw drop and my heart explode one day- and ultimately changed my view of modern music altogether. This album goes from blissful, heartwarming beauty to thunderous stabs that could give a weaker heart some deadly palpitations.
It took seeing Mogwai live to solidify their position as the best band on the planet for me. And a lot of people don't know just how amazing they are just based on their recordings. This record is an example of what they can do, but not indicitave of what they are capable of. People also forget that Mogwai was doing the thing they do in the early 90s, much earlier than the thousands of attention grabbing "post rock" bands today, who have had access to much easier ways to record, and better technology to do it with. Do yourself a favor and listen to this record, then go see Mogwai live. It absolutely changed my life.