My favorite 100 albums of all time: #26 ("American IV: The Man Comes Around")

Album cover "American IV" by Johnny CashMusic trivia time! What album includes songs written by Trent Reznor, Paul Simon, Tex Ritter, Sting, Hank Williams, and Depeche Mode's Martin Gore? If you guessed American IV: The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash, go to the front of the class.

American IV was released in 2002, and was the last album released in Cash's lifetime. (Though not the last album with new material from Cash.) It's a real collaborative effort, with appearances by Fiona Apple, Nick Cave, Billy Preston, Don Henly, and others.

Looking through my list of albums, I find Cash is a bit of an anomaly. Almost all of the bands/artists here are performing their own material. Sure, there are covers here and there, but for the most part it's the singer/songwriter model. (Jacqueline du Pré is the other obvious exception.)

Continue reading "My favorite 100 albums of all time: #26 ("American IV: The Man Comes Around")"

My favorite 100 albums of all time: #27 ("Exile in Guyville")

Album cover "Exile in Guyville" by Liz PhairI wish I was cool enough to say that I picked up Exile in Guyville the minute it came out, or that I'd been into Liz Phair in the Girly-Sound days before Exile was even finished. Sadly, I am not that cool.

My first memory of Exile was from around 1997, when I had a girlfriend who had a copy and referenced some of the songs. The relationship didn't last long, but it's nearly 20 years later and I'm still a big fan of Phair. Not a bad outcome, really.

Exile is so indie and lo-fi it almost hurts. It's less accessible than Whip-Smart, but more daring and entertaining.

Continue reading "My favorite 100 albums of all time: #27 ("Exile in Guyville")"

My favorite 100 albums of all time: #28 ("The Wind")

"The Wind" album coverBeing a rock critic sounds like a really nice, cushy, and fun job for the most part. Who wouldn't want to review music for a living? But, imagine being the critic who has to review Warren Zevon's swan song, The Wind, knowing that Zevon is terminally ill? What if it sucks? Nobody wants to be the one to write that review. Luckily, Zevon's final studio album is a tour de force that is a fitting last word in an impressive career.

I've already written quite a bit about Zevon, so I won't recap all of that here. Suffice it to say that I'm a fan of his work, if not obsessively so, and when The Wind was released I was eager to hear it but also a bit nervous that it might not live up to expectations. Or that it'd be maudlin.

In fact, Zevon delivers a healthy mix of irreverent tunes and touching songs that could really only be written by a man who knows his time is short.

Continue reading "My favorite 100 albums of all time: #28 ("The Wind")"

My favorite 100 albums of all time: #29 ("Starfish")

Album cover "Starfish" by the ChurchIf it weren't for lucking into a few decent mix tapes and dubs of entire albums, I'm not sure what my musical tastes would be like today. Case in point, Starfish by The Church.

Starfish landed on my radar thanks to a guy named Kent who loaned me a mixtape with "Under the Milky Way," "Reptile," and one or two other songs off the album. (Not the entire thing, though, I had to dig that up myself shortly after.)

Musically, Starfish is unassailable. It's a perfect album, start to finish. The Church are completely dialed in and the whole album works as a cohesive unit. But it also sends me back to 1988/1989 and reminds me of long drives at night, coming home from work or dates with the car window down and enjoying the night air. Starfish is the kind of album that makes you drive around the block a few times if a song isn't quite over when you get home.

Continue reading "My favorite 100 albums of all time: #29 ("Starfish")"

My favorite 100 albums of all time: #30 ("Best O'Boingo")

Album cover for "Best O'Boingo"You can't hide from Danny Elfman. Well, I suppose you could, but you'd have to be a pop culture recluse to do so. He's got 104 composer credits for a slew of films and TV shows, and then there's this band… Oingo Boingo.

Naturally my first exposure to Oingo Boingo came from Weird Science, 1985's John Hughes' film that asks the important question "what if two nerds attempted to create the perfect woman with a home computer?" As a 15-year-old nerd, I loved this movie, and (of course) I also loved the title track. But it would be a number of years before I finally dug further into Oingo Boingo's catalog.

I started with Best O'Boingo, under the theory that as good as "Weird Science" and "Dead Man's Party" were, it seemed unlikely that the rest of Oingo Boingo's work would be as compelling. (This theory often holds true for other bands.) Admittedly, this turned out to be deeply wrong – but this best-of compilation is still my must-have album.

Continue reading "My favorite 100 albums of all time: #30 ("Best O'Boingo")"

My favorite 100 albums of all time: #31 ("Waxworks / Beeswax")

XTC collection "Waxworks / Beeswax" album coversWaxworks and Beeswax are a double dose of angular, jumpy, frenetic pop from Swindon's XTC. This pairing captures the very best of XTC's early period, before they evolved into a more "pastoral" (and Beatlesque) sound on later albums.

Officially Waxworks: Some Singles 1977–1982 and Beeswax: Some B-Sides 1977–1982 are separate albums. However, I'm lumping them together because that's how I first found them, as a long-play cassette from Virgin released in 1982. At 25 songs, it was one hell of a score when I still chose new music based on how much I could scrape together from part-time jobs. "This album has 12 songs, but this one is the same price and it's 25 songs! Score!" I've never really thought of side two as b-sides, probably because XTC's b-sides were usually just as good as their singles – and certainly better than a lot of bands' singles.

You'll note that 1977-1982 corresponds with XTC's touring years, before the band stopped touring and being constrained by playing songs live.

Continue reading "My favorite 100 albums of all time: #31 ("Waxworks / Beeswax")"

My favorite 100 albums of all time: #32 ("Under the Pink")

Album cover "Under the Pink"If there was any doubt whether Tori Amos could live up to her debut, Little Earthquakes, it was shattered by Under The Pink. From the opening track, "Pretty Good Year" to the epic closer "Yes, Anastasia," Amos knocks it out of the park.

Under the Pink is not a radical departure from Little Earthquakes, but it's not just treading the same ground again either. If you loved the first album, you'll almost certainly love this one – without feeling like "oh, it's the same album all over again with a few tweaks." It's also, thankfully, not one of those albums where the artist was afraid of being in a rut and went and changed everything up to sound different. Amos may bust out a full album of death metal or bluegrass standards (or some combination of the two) one of these days, but this is not that.

Continue reading "My favorite 100 albums of all time: #32 ("Under the Pink")"

My favorite 100 albums of all time: #33 ("Be My Thrill")

"Be My Thrill" album coverBe My Thrill is probably the best release from a band that, so far, has had no bad releases.

If you've been following closely, you'll remember that The Weepies' appeared on the list at No. 71 with Sirens. As much as I love that one, I have to give Be My Thrill an even better rating.

Continue reading "My favorite 100 albums of all time: #33 ("Be My Thrill")"

My favorite 100 albums of all time: #34 ("Cloud Nine")

"Cloud Nine" album coverCloud Nine may not be George Harrison's strongest work outside of The Beatles, but for many reasons it's my favorite Harrison solo album. My reasons for loving this album? Let me tell you them…

At 17, when Cloud Nine was released, I was still strongly convinced that no band would ever equal The Beatles musically. I'd started to branch out musically, but the Fab Four still dominated my musical mindset. Harrison had been in a long fallow period – Cloud Nine was five years after the previous studio album, and it was also the last studio album before his death in 2001. But it did come along with a new wave of appreciation for The Beatles and some interesting follow-up projects.

If I recall correctly, K-SHE 95 in St. Louis broadcast the album in its entirety the day (well, night) of its release. (Pretty sure it was K-SHE, but it might have been KSD.) Tape at the ready, I recorded the entire thing and wore that tape into the ground. It was new "Beatles" music, and for a change I was getting to hear it first (along with the rest of the world).

Continue reading "My favorite 100 albums of all time: #34 ("Cloud Nine")"

My favorite 100 albums of all time: #35 ("Smile")

Album cover "Smile" by The JayhawksSmile is The Jayhawks sixth studio album, its second release without Mark Olson. As much as I enjoyed Olson and Gary Louris' work on alt-country classic Hollywood Town Hall the new direction suits them even better.

I suppose I'll never be a "serious" rock critic. Doing a little research on Smile I find a lot of the reviews when the album came out were… tepid, at best. So-called Dean of American Rock Critics Robert Christgau gives little love to The Jayhawks and gives Smile a paltry C. To paraphrase a rather famous saying, I may not know much about music, but I do know what I like. And I do like, nay, love Smile. Unabashedly, emphatically, and joyously.

For the record, I'm referring to the original release of Smile and not the 2014 expanded reissue. Extra material is nice, but non-essential in my opinion. None of the new material on the reissue feels like it adds to the album, and it's probably just as well without it. That may just be my "get off my lawn" reaction, though, to new songs that I'm unfamiliar with.

Continue reading "My favorite 100 albums of all time: #35 ("Smile")"