Tuesday, January 05, 2010

34 Albums to Live By (34-21)

On my 30th birthday I sent a thank you email to 30 people who'd meant a lot to me up to that date. Ever since I've extended the sentiment toward the arts by annually creating a tribute list to the film, fiction, and now music that has shaped my life. This year: 34 albums I've lived by.

Most of the following became important to me for pretty subjective reasons, but that's not to say I don't highly recommend every single one of them. Anyway, here it is:

34. Bob Dylan - Modern Times

This lyrical genius has over 34 albums of his own worthy of mention, but this recent one, as a whole, has just bled itself into the last few years, injecting a kind of easy-going concern. Spirit on the Water, Thunder on the Mountain--it has sort of an epic calm and maturity about it that I only wish I could begin to reflect.

33. Bleach - Again, For the First Time

This band toured the youth group music scene for awhile when I was really into that, and had one concert in particular that was a fun night for me. They broke up without leaving any real great musical masterpiece, until they just kind of got together again to throw this thing together. It made for several summers of just plain fun windows-down rock and roll for me and my wife. The last two songs, Andy's Doin' Time and Knocked Out, are quite special to me, but quite frankly this is just a surprisingly fantastic, short, simple rock album.

32. Phoenix - Its Never Been Like That

Another fun rock album. One our kids really enjoyed with us, which was fun and has given some great memories. Our older two boys heard several of the songs so often they tried to sing them themselves on numerous occasions. Especially Napoleon Says and Consolation Prizes. I was in a melancholy-lament-music-only phase for awhile there, and this album snapped me out of the overdose and made me sing with the windows down again.

31. Collective Soul - Dosage

My interest in this band died off after awhile, but this album was their best, and has stuck for many years. The last song, Crown, is pretty remarkable stuff, and I have played it along with a sermon on several occasions because it helps me say so much of what I think worth saying; and have even more often needed hearing.

30. Counting Crows - Recovering the Satellites

August and Everything After got ridiculous amounts of play time, but this album is the one that lasted for me. Great energy and optimism (which I have needed often enough), without being naive or shallow (which would pretty much ruin it for me). Another pretty quintessential modern rock album, if you ask me.

29. Sigur Ros - Agaetis Bryjin

I'd love to have been at the wedding where the bride walked up the aisle to Staralfur. Geniuses were married that day. What a perfectly beautiful song. A fitting climax to a magical album. I do a lot of reading and writing, and this album has accompanied me in and through "the zone" many times. Don't be freaked away by the odd album cover and the indiscernible lyrics--this band is one of the best things to happen to music these past couple decades.

28. Sufjan Stevens - Come on Feel the Illinoise

A symphonic journey that feels like it could either be a really whimsical joke or a touch of the transcendent, and is probably best described as both. Something about this album just stirs my whole body, mind, and soul. From John Wayne Gacy, Jr. to The Predatory Wasp of the Pallisades is Out to Get Us! there are songs both haunting and joyous scattered all throughout this thing. And in Chicago, when the choir sings "we've made a lot of mistakes" and "you came to take us", I feel like I'm closer to real confession and worship than a great many church songs have ever taken me.

27. Patrick Watson - Close to Paradise

This album has an ethos. Saw them live and it was a really unique, intimate concert experience. At one point Watson was standing on a table in the middle of the crowd singing through cupped hands with nothing but the glow of people's cell-phones lighting him up. I remember one morning a bunch of us were on a road trip and had to get to a conference and were stuck in traffic and were strung out from no sleep and this album brought peace and tranquility back into our lives. Its that kind of music. Canadian too. I love The Great Escape, Luscious Life and The Gift.

26. Coldplay - Parachutes

I absolutely love the song Everything's Not Lost. I can even get worked up about it. Don't Panic is a wonderful opener too. My boys singing along to it is pretty priceless: They call it "sinking like stones" (from the first couple lines). Yellow gets overplayed, but that's because it is a great song; the single that catches your attention for the lilting wonder of the other songs like We Never Change.

25. Tom Petty - Wildflowers

A couple of my friends and I were big Petty fans in high school. I could have chosen a couple of his older albums, but this one has a light, deep, melancholy peace about it, from start to finish. Songs like Time to Move On have seen me through many moves and transitions and times of stress---especially the verse-ending line: "Most things I worry about, never happen anyway." Classic.

24. The Walkmen - You & Me

This is a unique album from a couple years ago that was in my ears a lot around about some of the hardest parts of the PhD application process last year. It kind of has this mood to it like ascending a dark mountain, not sure but suspecting the sun may just be behind the hill. I distinctly remember I had this album on the whole drive home after I was sure I'd failed my GRE exam and all was lost. I also always think he's summoning me by name in Donde Esta La Playa when he sings "Well its back to the battle today / But I wouldn't have it any other way / Cuz tonight, we'll be as crazy as Kooks [Coutts?]."

23. Neil Young- Sleeps with Angels

A friend here in Scotland tells me that Neil Young is one of Canada's greatest exports. I believe him. My friend in high school swore by Harvest Moon but I picked Sleeps With Angels up at a used record store and never let it go. I should say it never let go of me. Just listening to this takes me back to my days bombing around delivering pizza and wondering what life had in store. Change Your Mind is a 15 minute epic, Piece of Crap is a hilarious but true "venting" against commercialism, and Safeway Cart is a song that goes way deeper than the title could ever suggest. In it is one of my favourite lines of all time: "Like a safeway cart rollin' down the street/like a sandal mark on the Saviour's feet." Beautiful.

22. Sigur Ros - Hvarf Heim

Some music accompanies high moments or great memories. Some sees you through tough times and then is there for you afterward as you move on. This is one of the latter. In fact, the video they released along with it, which follows them on a free concert tour in their gorgeous homeland of Iceland, literally stills my anxiety and makes me love humanity again. Hyperbole? Maybe. Wonderful music though.

21. U2 - All That You Can't Leave Behind

This is arguably their best record. It was pretty popular, for good reason. Part of the greatness of this album is its timing and its tone. I am not sure I'll ever forget U2's halftime show at the post-9/11 Superbowl, nor the morning of 9/12 when the normally sleazy morning-DJ of a local pop radio station was nearly in tears introducing the suddenly potent song Peace on Earth as the terror the world knows so well began to hit home. From Beautiful Day to New York to Grace, this album mixes lamentation with hope like I imagine few could.

To be clear, these aren't necessarily the top 34 I'd have in my playlist right now or even my naive idea of a top 34 all time albums (though some would qualify), rather, these are 34 albums which have most pressed themselves into my life and stuck. The order of this list is debatable, but I've really tried to be fair to the music of my past, and even if I never listen to it anymore, I have tried to honor the hold it had on me for a time.

As a result I've had a good time reminiscing the last few months about this. As I've done so, some old music has re-impressed itself upon me and revived itself in my ears. I highly recommend such a reflective exercise. Music is a wonderful thing. I'm sure you can relate.

I've really appreciated these 34 albums, for one reason or another. I'll get to the rest of the list later . . .


Tony Tanti said...

Great list so far, can't wait to see the rest of it.

nathan davies said...

agreed. and i am so happy you have some counting crows on there. i love them. i usually only listen to them when i'm depressed though. 'august and everything after' is such a comfort to me. i've never really been able to explain why.

Jon Coutts said...

yeah, that album deserves mention.

i tried really hard to be true to my past with this list (as the top 20 will show), not put off from admitting to liking something that was either widely popular (and thus not unique to me at all) or narrowly released (as in "Christian" music).

But to be honest, you've hit on one tragic exemption from the list which is entirely effected by overplay. I heard August and Everything After SO MUCH that it can either be in the top 3 of my list or not on it at all.

In this case, familiarity did breed contempt. That happen often enough, and often enough if we go back to it, it emerges with new life. But it may be years before that Counting Crows album becomes anything other than loathesome in my ears.

But I say that as having loved it very very much, and with nothing but respect and admiration for those for whom it has retained a special place.

But as someone once told me, you can actually love a hamster so much that you hug it too hard and it dies.


Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

The Walkmen - You & Me.

That surprised and delighted me.