My Top Five Albums – A Reflection

I have often thought about — and even attempted to draft — some sort of lengthy countdown of my favorite albums, but I keep talking myself out of it. For one, that would imply that my opinion is something worth examining closely by someone who may stumble on this site. This ain’t the Sight and Sound poll. It also delineates my opinion as something set in stone, when this list changes once a month, probably.

My taste in music, in fact, is rather simplistic, I think. I like engaging melodies with dynamic vocals, songs with sonic depth and structure that reward repeated listening, and lyrics worth considering closely. I like music that goes down easy, music with energy and heart and character, music with substance. At its best, music helps bridge the think-feel chasm; it can be mind-expanding art and enjoyable entertainment at the same time.

I like what I like, and to elevate my opinion as anything authoritative just feels wrong. That’s one thing that has put me off writing this post for so long. But it was last Sunday, I think, that I was catching up with my friend Jane’s Tumblr (check out her webcomic), and I read her Top 5 Albums list, sandwiched between two friendly reposted pictures.

Although her list does not converge with mine at all, its format and personal perspective got me thinking. It reminded me that, sometimes, less is more. Pitchfork or Rolling Stone or some other “experts” can provide the consensus for what music is the “greatest,” but only I can tell you what music Dan likes the most. If this post encourages you to seek out or reconsider any of these albums or artists, then I’ve given back in some way, but I’d be satisfied just to tell you a little bit about myself. Maybe our tastes overlap; maybe they don’t. Care about the ranking and placement of these albums, or nod and smile and move on. Either way, this is more a journal entry than an article, and I’m glad I’ve finished putting it together more than three years after we launched the site.

1. The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle – Bruce Springsteen (1973)

Walk with me through the streets, beaches, parking lots, bedrooms, circuses, and bus stops of New York. There’s romance and lust in the air. Many of the people around you look and talk and think different from you. It’s a chaotic zoo that might bring you a zen-like understanding of man’s interconnected relationships with one another; or it might drive you mad with the noise and commotion.

Bruce tells seven stories on this album, each capturing the spirit of growing up in and around the city. Among its primary themes are: finding little joys in the stifling cacophony of urban life; the fleeting and often contradictory nature of wisdom; and prostitution. I’ve found more to think about in this one short album than most artists’ discographies. That’s no hyperbole. These songs explore themes sexual, racial, socioeconomic, and operatic. “Incident on  57th Street” is downright Shakespearean. It’s rare to see an album thrive in such a literary way.

But before I give the Boss Man all the credit, I should note that the E-Street Band deserves equal praise. Improvisational, romantic, and virtuosic, the album’s score is a stunner. It’s hard to single out a particular instrument, but David L. Sancious’s keyboards are especially prominent. Every component seems in sync; that rare synergy of a perfectly calibrated band sparkles on every track.

All of the songs are great, but a few are spectacular. There’s “The E-Street Shuffle,” the opener which lays out all of the important themes of the album. There’s “Sandy,” which is far more romantic and moving than a song about proposing a hookup has any right to be. There’s “Incident,” a tragic love story about Johnny and his “late Juliet” who try to “find it out on the street tonight,” whatever “it” may be.

And then there’s “Rosalita,” perhaps my favorite song ever. This rollicking tribute to a Spanish young lover is as high-energy as any seven minutes of music you’ll hear. Bruce cracks out some of his greatest lines (“The only lover I’m ever gonna need’s your soft, sweet, little-girl’s tongue”). The E-Street Band creates a sound kinetic and towering. The song runs way longer than it should, and is somehow even better for it. In short, it’s a masterpiece.

Though not quite as accessible as its more famous follow-up Born to Run, Springsteen’s sophomore effort The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle shows why — in his words — “the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance.”

2. Everything Goes Numb – Streetlight Manifesto (2003)

I mean, it’s all right there in the first song, right?

The ebbs and flows, the life-and-death contemplation, the virtuosic performances, Tomas Kalnoky’s verbosity, the melodies ripped straight from the classics — Streetlight Manifesto packs it all into every song. They go for broke every time. It’s enough that you can almost forgive the unbelievable waits between each album. (Almost.) From the trappings of ska comes an auteur’s voice matched with the perfect backing band.

I rank Everything Goes Numb top among Kalnoky’s trifecta of great LP’s. Its sound and thoughts are deeper and more developed than they were in Keasbey Nights, while Somewhere in the Between lacks the interconnection between songs and the terrifying feeling that Kalnoky means every word he says. Sometimes, he wants to be more profound than he actually is, but few musicians have considered the philosophical and practical implications of mortality more deeply than Kalnoky. His best observations are biting, vivid, and militaristic.

Even if I count out the band’s unmatched live shows, Streetlight ranks near the top of my favorite artists list with only two real albums. It’s because the band makes every track burst with ideas and sounds. I’m practically foaming at the mouth at the prospect of a new album. Kalnoky says it will be out this year, which means we may get to hear it by the end of 2015.

3. The Stranger – Billy Joel (1977) [my review]

My love of Billy Joel has been thoroughly documented since 2003 when I updated my AIM profile with the “Billy Joel Song of the Week.” One of the first studio albums I ever loved, The Stranger remains immensely important to me. I know its nine songs better than I know the back of my hand: I’ve never looked so closely at the hairs and freckles and wrinkles on my knuckles as I have, say, Joel’s instrumental ode to “sweet, romantic teenage nights” at 2:24 in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.”

Each track is more or less perfect pop. Every song showcases inspired melodies and subtle ideas that get stuck in your brain. Every track is great, though if I’m being honest with myself, “Get It Right the First Time” is the first song kicked off the island.

My go-to “favorite song ever” since 2007 or so has been “Vienna” (though the aforementioned “Rosalita” is putting up a fight). It’s an inspired bit of longing in which Joel reminds himself that a better, peaceful world waits for him beyond today’s trials. It also proved that Joel could write a song as beautiful as “In My Life,” and just as emotionally evocative. The more I listen to The Stranger, the more scarred Joel seems: He’s a man scared and a little bit proud of his inner beast and his nagging demons.

The Stranger’s heavy radio airplay and pop sheen mask some heavy undercurrents that make every track worth replaying again and again. Which I have, and I will.

4. Definitely Maybe – Oasis (1994)

I’ve noticed a handful of bands that seem caught in a paradox of producing timeless music yet being perfect for their era.

These bands are rooted in the tradition of great rock and roll; their melodies and attitude would have thrived in 1963, 2003, or 2043. Yet they’re inseparable from their era and current trends; they capture some important essence of their time and place, and also transcend them.

Among these bands are Arctic Monkeys, Weezer, and (most of all) Oasis. On their historic debut, Oasis sounds like they could have toured with the Stones and held their own, but something about the bored, vaguely longing, indulging adolescence is distinctly early 1990s.

Noel Gallagher crafts these brilliant pop songs, and Liam Gallagher makes them snarl. The songs alternate between abstracts on love and fame, and setting-specific portraits (“Mr. Sifter” of “Shakermaker” came from the name of a record store, I believe). The band’s classic, guitar-driven sound is spiked with Britpop grooves.

The songs range from great to legendary. Why “Live Forever” isn’t mentioned in the first breath of “greatest rock song” discussions (unless I’m participating) is beyond me. To quote one British DJ:

“This ain’t a song, Mr Gallagher, It’s a meditation, a moan, a mantra – with a grinding, tarmac-digging, mind-cutter of a melody. Know/grows/play/pain/rain/bone all hit the 9th note over changing chords, then I/play/live/die/I/breathe/I/believe/you’re/me/see all hammer the 6th above, also over shifting guitar harmonies. Every vowel sound is crushed into a nasal drone. Finally, ‘ever’ hits a 3rd and a 6th over a flattened seventh chord – this could wake the Pharaohs.” – Dominic King

5. Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right… But Three Do – Relient K (2003) [my review]

Matt Thiessen has spent the past decade crossing over from snotty Christian pop that thrived on cheap laughs to textured pop with brains and spiritual strength. I somewhat resent their usual classification as “Christian rock” because, aside from a couple of tracks, they haven’t mentioned God or Jesus by name since their second album. I’m convinced that a lot of potential fans are turned off by that label.

It was around the time of Two Lefts, their third album, when Thiessen got serious with his writing. The transition from silly to contemplative was a smooth one: Each successive album has dug a little bit deeper than their last.

But this album is the one that best captures the band’s spirit. It’s playful and accessible but backed by some fantastic, thoughtful songs. The best of these consider the nature of love in some context; “Chap Stick, Chapped Lips, and Things Like Chemistry” uses clipped images to remember a relationship. “Getting Into You” is a soulful ballad that can be read as romantic or religious.

And so Two Lefts is a rare album, light and fun but with plenty to consider during repeated listens. The melodies and harmonies are fantastic. There’s hardly a weak song, even including the novelties. And there’s a marvelous feeling that Relient K is just starting to figure out that they don’t have to play by anybody’s rules but their own.

Dan S.

Dan is the editor of Earn This. He co-founded the site in 2009.

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