“I prefer you 1) Write less blogs on politics, and 2) Write more blogs on girls, sports cars, and Bruce Springsteen’s classic 1975 album ‘Born To Run.'”
There’s been a lot that has made me angry lately. And it’s not a cynical anger, like an “Oh man, ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is quite possibly the least funny show that’s ever been made” type of cynicism; which, let’s be honest, I still do that. The Big Bang Theory is objectively just not funny. But I’ve made a conscious effort to tone that down a little bit. After trying cynicism with my attempts at humor for a little while, I’ve realized that it’s a bit too much. But again, this is not the type of anger I’ve been feeling lately.
Politics suck. They really do. For every uplifting episode of “The West Wing” I watched, there were enough real life situations to make me sick. The election cycle always creates this type of anger, and maybe I’m having the exact same realizations that every mid-to-late 20s person has; the world sucks, and so does growing up, as Ben Folds once said. So I guess you can say what I’ve been feeling is a frustrated anger. The point of this rambling can be boiled down to one word: moderation.
This is a word I’ve always felt very few Americans understand. McDonald’s, Doritos and gummy worms aren’t very good for you, but that doesn’t mean you have to torture yourself in the name of losing a few pounds. Same thing with television, cologne and social media. Too much of it, and you do more harm than good. But just the right amount, properly applied, can be beneficial.
So, when my tall and ticklish (and recently engaged) friend gave me the constructive criticism that graces the header of this post, I knew I had broken my own rules. I had gone from moderation to saturation, and during the course of that I had become boring. I still stand by and believe in every word I’ve written in those “political” posts, but when you’re repetitive, people will start to tune you out. So with all of that in mind, I’d like to write something fun for a change.
The album is dead. What for decades was the barometer for musical success has now become but a mere footnote on an artist’s tagline. Music has become much more focused on the single or YouTube view, perhaps in part due to listener’s shrinking attention spans. When people find out I still buy albums (no, not download. Buy the physical album. I like the liner notes) they give me a look that says, “Oh that’s adorable” and insinuate I was perhaps born in the wrong decade.
But some of my finest memories of musical discovery come from hearing an artist’s single on the radio, and wanting to find out what else they were about. So I would go out and buy the album. I’d always find the time to listen to it from front to back without interruption, so that I could get the full context of what whomever I was listening to was trying to say. Sometimes, I would be less than impressed. Other times, my mouth would be left hanging agape and I would play the album ad naseum until I had every drum beat and lyric memorized. Those were the albums that put a hold on me and, no matter how long I went without listening to them, never really let go.
A couple of my own rules for this ranking: Duh live albums count. As I said, no one actually buys albums anymore so the artist has to bring something to the stage lest they be forgotten. And when the power of a band’s live show is conveyed through speakers, that’s when they’ve got something really special. Also, I tried to ignore nostalgia as much as possible. It’s a powerful emotion, but I tried to recollect how I felt immediately after my first listen of the album. You’ll see that quite often, one song tips the scales from good to great in five minutes or less. So, almost 700 words in, and here it finally is, the 10 albums that straight up blew my mind.
10. Stunt – Barenaked Ladies
“One Week” had been getting mountains of air time, and I remember spending literal hours one day trying to memorize every word of that song. I succeeded, and I’ve still got it down. But when I played this album, I had immediately forgotten about the tongue twister, “ticket to China, the Chinese chicken, you have a drumstick and your brain stops tickin’.”
“Alcohol” is a song that became increasingly relevant as I got older, and the same goes for “Who Needs Sleep?” I absolutely adore “It’s All Been Done,” but when I heard “Some Fantastic” I knew I had a great album on my hands. The song combines daydreaming (“I can’t stand to wait in line long, so I built a new machine. It just measures up the distance, and then eliminates the folks between”) and genuine heartbreak (“Bye bye self respect, I haven’t had much of it since you left. I missed out on the best, of you.”) seamlessly. And those are two things we’ve all experienced at one point or another.
9. Third Eye Blind
The self-titled debut album of the most quintessential late 90s rock band was one that enthralled me from the start. “Semi-Charmed Life” and “Jumper” are probably the 4th and 5th best songs on this album, respectively. The opener “Losing a Whole Year” is the perfect introduction to an album full of angry heartache. “Narcolepsy” completes a fantastic one-two combo to open, but the song that makes this album for me is “Motorcycle Drive By.”
I remember I would listen to that song like I imagine most pre-teen middle-class white boys pretending to be punk did: I’d keep the volume at a normal level for the first part, and then when the beat picks up, right after he says, “I’ve never been so alive,” I’d crank up that jam and belt it out like it was the last song I’d ever sing. I don’t know what it was about that song at the time, but it just got the most energy out of me every time I’d listen to it. Also, just a little side note, my mother hated this album cover with every fiber of her being.
8. The ’59 Sound – The Gaslight Anthem
I had first heard of these guys by watching highlights of the Hard Rock Calling festival back in ’09. And any band loved by Bruce Springsteen is a band that I’m willing to lend a listen. I’m so thankful I did, because what I discovered was a testament to the continuing existence of bands who truly know how to rock. So many people lament how there are no bands left that play genuine rock and roll, but the truth is that they’re there. You just have to get past the mainstream.
“Great Expectations” showcases the sense of urgency that would be a continuing theme throughout the album right off the bat. But the final three songs really bring it home, particularly “The Backseat,” the album’s finale. This song brings me back to the warm summer nights in Kansas, when reprieve from the sweltering daytime heat would envelop us in comfort. My friends and I would sit on a porch drinking cold beer, just passing the time without a care in the world. And when you’re in high school or living in a house with six other people in college, it can sometimes be tough to get a little privacy. “You know the summer always brought it, those wild and reckless breezes. And in the backseat, we just tried to find some room for our knees.”
7. Whatever & Ever Amen – Ben Folds Five
This was the album that got the most spins by my brothers and I when we would play Tiger Woods PGA Tour after school. The funky piano rhythms of Ben Folds are irresistible, and his incredible talent is apparent on the opening track, “One Angry Dwarf & 200 Solemn Faces.” It’s a wonder to watch this man play that song live, and Jerry Lee Lewis would absolutely be proud watching Folds throw his bench at the piano at the end of the song.
The rest of the album, including “Kate” and “Steven’s Last Night in Town” are made for singing along. “Brick” showcases his straightforward lyrical prowess in addressing such a tough situation, and “Song for the Dumped” adds that relatable relationship angst for which Folds is now quite popularly known.
6. AC/DC Live – AC/DC
This album is from their run of shows on The Razor’s Edge tour in 1991. This is when the band was at their peak; the album from which the tour got its name had just been released, and many believed it to be their best work in the studio since Back in Black. This is because that album had two songs that would become staples in their live shows, one of which a mainstay in the decades to come.
We all love “Back in Black,” “Hell’s Bells,” and “Highway to Hell.” Hearing these songs for the first time mainly blew my mind because I found it literally unbelievable the kind of unique sound that can be created from just four chords. But “Thunderstruck;” that song is what really separated AC/DC from everyone else, and it came about 15 years into their existence. The intro guitar riff just builds and builds like a volcano about to erupt, and once it does, the sheer force of power is enough to knock you over. Angus apparently came up with it by taping over the other five strings on his guitar, so that only the second was visible. I’ve never seen them live, so my most fond memories of this song come from when it was played during crucial moments in big games at Allen Fieldhouse. One in particular comes to mind.
5. Blood Sugar Sex Magik – Red Hot Chili Peppers
The funky punk rock that the four people who comprise the Red Hot Chili Peppers are able to churn out of their instruments is truly a melody worth hearing. I had a greatest hits album of theirs, so I already knew four songs from this album, including “Breaking the Girl” and “Suck My Kiss,” which by the way, is just a fantastic song to hear them play live. But it wasn’t until I heard Blood Sugar Sex Magik front to back that I realized how insanely good this album is.
“The Power of Equality” makes apparent, given historical hindsight, the racial tensions that ran rampant at the time of this album’s release (“death to the message of the Ku Klux Klan”). I struggle to find a better back-to-back-to-back three song run on any album than “Give It Away,” “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” and “Under the Bridge,” which chronicles lead singer Anthony Kiedis’ struggle with drug addiction.
There it is though, the eponymous title track. Any RHCP fan would tell you that this song is probably not even in their top 20 best of all time, but for some reason it has a hypnotic hold on me. I guess you can call it a guilty pleasure, but that’s not entirely accurate because that would insinuate that I don’t want other people to know that this is my favorite track on the album, which is obviously far from true. “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” is what took this album from great to mind-blowing for me.
4. The White Album – The Beatles
I had heard the singles, thanks to the oldies radio station that played in my mom’s car. I took the Beatles at face value; the beginning of pop as we know it, all of their song’s about loving girls eight days a week while wanting to hold their hand. “Hey Jude” changed this perspective, but it wasn’t until I discovered The White Album that I really found out what the Beatles had hiding beneath their soft exteriors.
This album is a monolith, a gargantuan collection of some of the best songs that have ever been written. The catchy and kitschy “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” has been my mantra every time one of my favorite teams loses a crucial game. Obviously “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” with Eric Clapton sitting in on guitar, is one of the best songs not just on this album, but in the Beatles entire catalogue. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” has always been a favorite of mine, and “Blackbird” is beloved by all. But where we get to the mindblowingness of this album is when “Helter Skelter” kicks into gear.
This song is forever linked to Charles Manson, killer and professional psychopath. But I remind myself this song was an influence on him, not the other way around. A quick perusal of the song’s Wiki page tells me that McCartney wrote it in response to Pete Townshend calling “I Can See For Miles” the loudest record the Who had written to that point. Which is a ridiculous premise when you hear it, and McCartney thought similar. So he wanted to write a song that was louder and dirtier, and he succeeded. This song is the escape for short-haired headbangers everywhere, and absolutely floored me when I first heard it. I got blisters on my fingers!
3. Talking is Hard – Walk the Moon
By now you all know this band. “Shut Up and Dance” is impossible to ignore, and people harbor strong feelings about it, some are not so positive. Like most of you, “Anna Sun” is what introduced me to this band, and I happen to like “Shut Up and Dance,” so I gave Talking Is Hard a listen. Believe me when I say that, like so many other albums on this list, the single is maybe the 5th best song on there.
The opening track “Different Colors” lays out the welcome mat for anyone who may be within earshot. “Come on lovers, come on haters, tonight we raise the fire. Cause if the people get to dancin’, they’ll forget about picking sides.” I wish it were that simple. “Sidekick,” “Work This Body” and “Aquaman” are the backbone of this album, but the song that shines brightest, perhaps to the surprise of even those who wrote it, is “Portugal.”
“I know everyone you know, you know everyone I know, our Venn Diagram’s are one circle.” When have you ever heard “Venn Diagram” worked into a song before? The answer is never. I believe that close to every song out there is written about relatable human experiences and emotions, but what makes those songs special is the presentation. “One summer turns into ten summers, one lover turns into ten others, but this memory is still with me.” I don’t care who you are, there is something you can relate to in that one line alone. “Portugal” was enough to put this album over the top, but the rest of the body of work in Walk the Moon’s sophomore release carried it into another stratosphere.
2. Weekend on the Rocks – Dave Matthews Band
Those who know me may be surprised by this; they may very well have expected The Central Park Concert, as it was the first album from this band that I heard. But this live album, showcasing highlights from their four-night stand at the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater, better encapsulates the wide range of sound of which DMB is capable. I challenge you to find a rhythm more complex than “The Stone,” or better drumming than what comes out of Carter Beauford on “You Never Know.” The pure deliciously evil guitar riff of “Halloween” absolutely scared the shit out of me the first time I heard it. But what really got me, what really set off my eternal love for this band, was “Pig.”
Never before had I heard such a powerful testament to love. This song is its own life force; it has a unique blend of sage advice (“don’t burn the day away”), sad reality (“all good things must come to an end sometimes”) and uplifting hymns (“all we need is the good light of love in here.”) The chorus induces chills to this day, and even though I’ve seen them 16 times I’ve only heard them play it once. Its lyrics encompass all human emotion, and takes us on a wonderful journey from the cloudiness of misery to the sunlight of letting love in. This song always picks me up if I’m having a bad day.
1. Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Front to back, there is no better album that has ever been made. Devoid of any fat due to every note having been excruciatingly agonized over by the Boss, it takes the listener down a path of hopes and dreams, which happens to run parallel to a road of agony and heartbreak. There is no better summation of life, no more powerful poetry that exists in the musical realm than on this album. Every song is an introduction, an encouragement to sit down and take that ride through the trials and tribulations that no one except Bruce is more able to encapsulate.
We begin with “Thunder Road,” where Bruce implores upon the young Mary to join him as he pulls out of the town full of losers. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” is about him trying to find his own way (“It seems like the whole world’s walkin’ pretty, and you can’t find the room to move”). “Night” is undoubtedly the happiest song on the album, with the faith in his machine to win that drag race. “Backstreets” takes us down memory lane, perhaps of a time before the character had really grown up, when a tale of unrequited love between him and Terry never advanced further than the beach at Stockton’s Wing. On the LP, this is where side one ends and the vinyl is flipped over to side two.
“Born to Run” is a behemoth. On the studio recording, there were something like four guitars and an entire damn string section played simultaneously to achieve the “wall of sound” inspired by Phil Spector. The hope and optimism of a brighter tomorrow is evident in the urgency of his voice. Wendy needs to decide, and she needs to decide right f****n’ now, if she’s going to go with him. He certainly makes a strong case. And even though he doesn’t know when they’re gonna get to that place they really wanna go, he knows it’ll be someday.
The love song on the album, “She’s the One,” may not be a love song at all, depending on how you interpret the lyrics. “The angel in her eyes that tells such desperate lies” can be simultaneously irresistible and conspicuous. “Meeting Across the River” is a fantastic mafia tale, fraught with danger and carelessness. It truly seems like the character doesn’t much worry about what might happen to him. Then we come to “Jungleland.”
This song is Bruce’s magnum opus. It is the finest work he’s ever done, and it should be; it took six months for him to get this one song just right. It feels like a combination of West Side Story and Mad Max is playing out as the Rat and the Barefoot Girl attempt to escape the Maximum Lawman. It’s unclear whether it was the Lawman or just his dreams that gunned the Rat down, but one thing is for sure: the Barefoot Girl seems to feel relief now that he is gone. A more powerful saxophone solo has never been played, and it’s enough to make a grown man cry. A better album wasn’t heard before, and hasn’t been heard since.
So there you have it. The 10 albums that my mind just could not handle the first time I heard them. I hope to make this a continuing series, maybe songs or live shows will be next. In the mean time, what were the albums that blew your mind? What collection of songs on a singular disc from a musician just left you stunned? Tell me in the comments section. And remember everyone, a single on the radio is usually not the best song on the album. Happy listening!