25 Years of Great Albums

It feels a little weird not to be doing a Short Story Club entry, so here's a different sort of pop culture item: Over at EphBlog, my classmate Derek Catsam has decided to break up the carnival of reactionary politics by commenting on great albums, jumping off from Spin's Top 125 of the Last 25 Years. Which is always a fun game, so let's roll with that.

25 years goes back to 1985, which is right around the time I started buying albums, so this covers most of my pop music lifetime. Which is convenient, because pretty much anything I can remember buying new is eligible...

In making their list, of course, the folks at Spin are constrained by being Serious Music Journalists, and thus need to choose things that are properly Important and Influential. I'm just a guy with a blog, so I feel no such need for maintaining the pretense of importance. The following list of records is, off the top of my head, a selection of the albums that have been the most important to me. If you haven't heard of them, well, the Internet has your back; if you have, and think they're ludicrous, feel free to go back in time and try to convince my younger self otherwise. While you're at it, tell me to buy Apple stock.

Since Derek mentions it specifically, I'll start with Achtung Baby by U2. Like Derek, I don't think I'd call it my top album of the last quarter-century, but it's a damn fine record. Let me put it this way: The year it came out, I was stuck driving across Georgia on a spring break road trip, on the 3am-7am shift. Everybody else in the car was asleep, and this was the only tape I had within reach, and you don't even want to think about what's on the radio at 3am in Georgia. I listened to Achtung Baby four times straight through on a miserable drive, and I still like it. That's a damn fine album.

Sticking with roughly that era, a lot of my sophomore year memories are scored to Full Moon Fever by Tom Petty. That and, somewhat embarrassingly, Pump by Aerosmith. The Petty holds up a lot better, though I still have a soft spot for "What It Takes."

A little later in college-- junior year into senior year-- a friend recommended Copper Blue by Sugar. This is Bob Mould's second band, and essentially Husker Du with less interpersonal drama, but it's a fantastic record. Not a real happy album, naturally, but there isn't a bad song in the lot.

Post-college, I spent a lot of time in grad school listening to the Afghan Whigs, who get two spots in my personal best-of. Gentlemen is one of the creepiest and most coherent theme albums ever, though, weirdly, one of my strongest associations with it is cooking-- I used to keep the CD out in the kitchen of the house I lived in in (Don't Go Back to) Rockville, MD, and play it when I was making dinner.

I justify giving them a second spot, for 1965, because it's such a different record. Greg Dulli described it by saying "guilt takes a back seat to lust," which is fairly apt-- it's kind of a party album for sociopaths. Again, great tunes, start to finish. They split up after this one, basically because if they couldn't sell a billion copies of this, they needed to give up and do something else.

I'll make a token bid for indie cred by throwing in Bee Thousand by Guided By Voices. It's one of approximately four billion records that Robert Pollard has put out in the last two decades, but remains the strongest of the lot as an album. The lyrics are incomprehensible but evocative, and the songs are oddly structured, but not so much as to be annoying.

Since this list originated with EphBlog, I'll throw in one by the best band ever to originate in the Purple Valley (that I know of), Utopia Parkway by Fountains of Wayne (the two main guys were class of '86, I believe). They were more successful with Welcome Interstate Managers a few years later, but I think this is a stronger album as a whole. I associate this one a lot with dating Kate, in DC and in New Haven.

The Best Band in the World the last few years, for me, has been the Hold Steady, so I'd kick myself if I didn't put something by them on here. If I had to pick a whole album of theirs, I'd go with Boys and Girls in America-- the high points of Separation Sunday are better than Boys and Girls..., but there are a couple of songs that kind of bug me. And "Stuck Between Stations" is only a step or two below "How a Resurrection Really Feels" as the best in their catalog.

I'll end with a couple of albums that have, at various times, been basically welded into a CD player. For a few years after I started at Union, I had a boom box in my office with a really balky CD player. One of the few albums it would consistently play was Too Far to Care by the Old 97's, and I didn't mind all that much, because it's a great record. I used to end up playing it over and over when working in my office, or down in the lab (on a CD player that wasn't a whole lot better). It's kind of punk country, and took a little while to grow on me when I first heard it, but "Big Brown Eyes" and "Niteclub" are absolutely brilliant.

The last one is probably the least successful of any of these, which is a pity. Reconstruction Site by the Weakerthans is the one CD I keep in my car these days, as an emergency backup for days when the radio sucks and I forgot my iPod. It's not that hard to see why it wasn't a giant international smash, because the songs are almost comically hyper-literate-- I'm fairly sure it's the only record I own with a shout-out to Michel Foucault in a song title, and three other tracks are in sonnet form-- but they're great songs, with good if unconventional hooks and lyrics that feature brilliant images and turns of phrase. The title track is one of my favorite songs ever, and the Foucault song get away with the overly intellectual title by being a really fun tune.

So there are some of my choices for the Best Albums of the Last 25 Years. Before you say it, I'm well aware that there's no rap or hip-hop on this list, and this puts me hopelessly out of touch with the most vital blah, blah, blah. It's not my thing-- I like some songs and artists, but it's a very hit or miss genre for me, with more misses than hits.

Anyway, there are some of my favorites from the past quarter-century. Argue with them, call me an idiot, or suggest your own records in the comments.

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I know you're a big Whigs fan... funny that you'd choose Gentlemen and 1965, when without a doubt it's "Black Love" that would be in my top 5... the last 3 songs on that album build to a climax that can make me *weep* at times.

This would actually be a good excuse to write in my OWN blog for a change... not sure I can come up w/ a definitive 25, but off the top of my head, the list would surely include...

1. Pearl Jam's "Ten"
2. Afghan Whigs "Black Love"
3. Counting Crows "August and Everything After"
4. Flaming Lips "The Soft Bulletin"
5. PJ Harvey "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea"
6. Sundays "Reading Writing and Arithmetic"
7. Tool "Undertow"
8. White Stripes "Elephant"
9. Kings of Leon "Only By The Night"
10. Indigo Girls "Rites of Passage"

...keeping in mind that my criteria rely strongly on how well the album hangs together start to finish as an ALBUM, and often depends on similar personal idiosyncratic life connections.

1) Green Day "American Idiot" (2004)
2) Green Day "21st Century Breakdown" (2009)
A Distant 3rd) Everything else.

No, you're not an idiot, Chad. Art, which includes Music, is 100% subjective, the whole "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "everyone has a right to their opinion" thing.

By the way, have you ever visited the contemporary art galleries in NYC between 9th and 10th Avenues and 21st to 29th Streets, in Chelsea? Totally cool, very Physics-inspiring.

I share your views on rap except for the song "Stan" by Eminem, and this video by Mathematician Steven Sawin on Grisha Perelman and the proof of Poincare's conjecture, titled "One Geometry".

And they said Mathematicians were nerds! :-)

Celine Dion proved quantum electrodynamics! Geez, what's next? Anne Hathaway proving string theory or Tiger Woods solving the smoothness problem of the Navier-Stokes equations?!

j/k, I know you meant quod erat demonstrandum. So why the Dion issues? She sells a lot of records and has or had a successful Vegas gig, right? Can't say I'm a fan either and I don't know why. She sings like a songbird, but her speaking voice is slightly less pleasant than nails on a blackboard? That she married a man old enough to be her grandfather and won't shut up reminding us how much she loves him? Or maybe it was that my toddlers played the Titanic video hundreds of times and if I hear that theme song one more time I may pop a gasket. I do not know, oh well, life is full of mysteries.

The original SPIN article is a fair attempt, I think, and there is a LOT on there I have never heard. I've listened to Achtung Baby more than probably any other album, and I still hear something new, something I hadn't noticed, every time I listen to it. I'm not sure exactly how they managed to pack that much into a single album. It is by far my favorite guitar album because it is virtuotic in a subtle way. Edge plays with great economy, but he really gets the technology right in this album. (I recently acquired a KorgA3, the effect processor behind Mysterious Ways, and as you cycle through the 200 different effects, U2 songs of the era basically pop out at you.) I was sort of surprised to not see NIN's Pretty Hate Machine in there somewhere. Other great albums that have aged very well, Appetite for Destruction, Eric Clapton's Unplugged (really surprised that was not on the list).

I agree with the Weakerthans pick. Amazing CD, terrific lyrics great music.

None of the albums mentioned above would have made it onto my top 25 list, mostly because I've never listened to them. And except for Tom Petty and Aerosmith, I've never even heard of the bands.

"Stone Roses", Stone Roses is my pick for best album I bought new.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 05 Dec 2010 #permalink

Care to name a few hip hop artists that you do find appealing at times? I'm always curious which artists have appeal to fans of other genres, aside from the obvious top-40 hits. I've noticed that you like Cee-lo for one.

Also, if you'll allow me to show my ignorance, would you consider the artists and albums you named to be from the same or similar genres? I am slightly familiar with some of them, but the best I can do is call it all "rock," which I don't doubt is seriously simplistic and possibly inaccurate.

By Excited state (not verified) on 05 Dec 2010 #permalink

Pop music and I went our separate ways around 1993. I had no desire to get into grunge, hip-hop, or country, which were the trends in ascendance at the time. The last album I bought new because of songs I heard on the radio is probably Peter Gabriel's Us in 1992, though there are a few others I have bought or received as gifts because I heard about them from other sources, most recently Paul Simon's Surprise from 2006. Except for U2 and Tom Petty, most of the artists named in the posts I have heard of only because you have mentioned them before.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 06 Dec 2010 #permalink

@Eric Lund: Speaking of Paul Simon, "Graceland" is surely one of the best albums of the past 25 years.

Props on the Too Far To Care pick. A perfect album, top to bottom.