10. The National- Boxer (2007)
I guess I’ll start this off with a somewhat scattered list of the different cliches and one liners I have to describe the power of this band. The cover of Boxer depicts The National playing at a wedding, which somehow makes perfect sense. The National are the kind of band whose music is lingering in the corners of any big social event, stuck in your head while walking around by yourself in a big, lonely city, or in this case, sitting around bored and awkward at a wedding. They are distinctly American in a somewhat ironic way. Their songs tell stories of the mundane, floating through the ears of everyone pretending to hold themselves together, a fitting inner soundtrack to a boring party that’s supposed to be fun. They represent the dissolution of the American dream, which is also an American thing in itself.
I never expected to fall in love with this band but somehow it happened. At the end of junior year, in May of 2007, I took a trip with some friends to Asheville to go see Arcade Fire. I got free tickets from Merge, which happened a lot in those days since I worked for the college radio station. I knew some band called The National was opening but knew nothing about them. We took our seats right as the house lights went down and they came onstage. For the next thirty minutes I sank into the sound of songs off this record, at the time still forthcoming. There was nothing the Arcade Fire, one of the decades more overrated bands, could do to compare to the melodic, introvertive fury The National had just unleashed.
I suppose this is the album that made me believe that indie rock could be awesome. That it could go beyond hype. That even if the songs don’t have the classic feel of greats like Springsteen and Neil Young, that they could still be just as good if not better. At the time of this album’s release, I had been in a bit of a musical rut for quite a while. I had felt “over” punk and hardcore but found very little other music that moved me in a similar way. The people around me were all heavily immersed in folk and country but I didn’t “get it” just yet. So isn’t it perfect that it was this record that changed my life at that point? Lying somewhere perfectly in the middle of punk rock and country, The National’s “Boxer” is a quiet bruiser. Shunning genres in favor of an input and output of decades of American music, they are simply a logical amalgamation of their diverse array of influences, from Bruce Springsteen to Joy Division. Hell, some of these songs sound like Ian Curtis doing his best “Born To Run” karaoke. In a way, these aforementioned wandering poets play the perfect poles for this moody band. Playing all the different sides of life, this record works great for any mood you’re in. It’s calming and reflective when you’re feeling good, and empathizing and relateable when you’re feeling shitty.
I owe this record a lot, not only as a perfect soundtrack to a very up and down year for me, but also because vocalist Matt Berninger is semi responsible for making me begin to focus on a band’s lyrics as much as any other aspect of a group. I had never been one to put much thought into comprehending a band’s lyrical content, as I figured that, if the instrumentation doesn’t catch my ear, then I was done with it. Somehow, this album seemed to be telling me a story about my life I hadn’t been told yet. Since then, I’ve been told over and over again, and I’m starting to have a better idea of it.
09. Twilight Singers- Powder Burns (2007)
Greg Dulli is kind of, as I read once, the man your mother warned you about. He smokes, he drinks, engages in careless loving and does who knows what else. He opens doors into the dark truths of the human soul, specifically the male id. He’s been writing dark tales of addiction and its consequences for more than twenty years, and Powder Burns may be his finest work, if not his most thoroughly listenable.
The Twilight Singers have found him exploring dynamics of alternative rock, sounding far poppier than his work in the Afghan Whigs. It’s the appropriate next step following the unabashed soul-worshipping sex romp of the final Whigs record, 1965. The songs have more quiet/loud, verse/chorus dynamics at play, and it works tremendously well. The choruses are bright and soaring, sounding hugely uplifting for stemming from such dark content. But that’s how Dulli, and all the great soul singers that he bows down to on this album, do their mission work. They tell the truth through gorgeous song, and before you know it you’ve swallowed the hard truth, like a large pill you have to take with a hot meal.
On “Forty Dollars,” one of the album’s greatest songs, he says “love don’t mean a thing but two a.m. and a telephone ring,” tracing the root of love back to a need for a way out of desperate isolation, cause no one wants to be alone that late at night. Through the carnal grinding of “My Time Has Come” and “I’m Ready,” to the grinning fuck-off of “Dead To Rights,” to the desperate pleas of a lonely addict on the title track, Powder Burns is a journey through the socialized male instinct. Even as a gender studies minor, his storytelling strikes me to my core, making this album a totally thrilling experience for me when I first heard it. It’s the soundtrack to self loathing, psychosexual addiction. It doesn’t so much romanticize the ego of the male musician, but instead explores the emptiness that lies behind it.
It was partially recorded in New Orleans in the time following Hurricane Katrina, in a studio powered by a generator. While the album doesn’t thematically concern itself too much with the hurricane specifically, it’s pretty clear that there is some pretty heavy shit serving as inspiration to Dulli in the writing and recording process. That much does come out in the final product.
08. 1905- Voice (2002)
1905 were probably the first hardcore punk band that I fell in love with. Their songs were incredibly powerful, moving in emotional and political ways. Getting into them was a bit of a revelation, a huge eye opener. One of the most special aspects of their music was the feeling of arriving at school day to day, and thinking that I and a few other of my close friends seemed to be the only ones even aware that such a powerful, passionate thing existed. While everyone around me concerned themselves with schoolwork, the college process, extracurricular activities, and the gossip and drama of any dc prep school, I was sitting in class daydreaming about how it felt to see this band. Their lyrics would run through my head over and over. I framed my life around when the next time I was going to get to see them. I just loved this band through and through.
This band, along with local groups like The Max Levine Ensemble and Majority Rule, gave me a sense of agency and selfhood that few people are lucky to find in their adolescent years. This album is a snapshot of a specific time and place, with a specific group of people that come to mind. My friends at the time all seemed to organize around going to their shows. It was a place where we could come together, scream together, and hug and sweat together, forming bonds that could be weakened by time but never truly broken.
Now that I am listening to it again as a 23 year old, it might have less of an impact, but in a way the lyrics are more applicable to my life than ever, particularly the album centerpiece “Go.” “Wasted time is a crime/And I’m guilty.” The album is an attempt to find a voice, to find a place in a world often void of meaning. How lucky I was to find this meaning in my own city. I even ended up quoting 1905 on my yearbook senior page when I graduated. “It is our voice that gives us hope/Listen to your voice.”
07. Black Eyes- Black Eyes (2003)
The very first time I ever saw 1905 was at St. Al’s church at Gonzaga, some long blocks away from where I now live. Also playing that show were Black Eyes, a band I had seen a couple times before but felt awfully confused by. They had two full drumsets with mostly broken cymbals, a guitarist who didn’t seem to play any real notes and screamed like a young banshee, and all around played music that my 15 year old ears had never heard anything close to. But at this show, they caught my attention in a big way.
No other band I’ve seen since could put on a live show or create such unbridled energy a room. Their music was often described as “disco-core.” The base of their music was percussive, what with two drumsets and unbelievable bass riffs that could rattle the Washington Monument off its foundations. Their music, as I later understood it, was majorly influenced by dub, but it seemed that each member had their own vision of what they wanted the band to be. You could hear equal parts D.C. punk, dub and reggae, free jazz, and dance punk in their music, part of what made it so exciting and unpredictable.
The show with 1905 may have lured me in, but it was their show at The Galaxy Hut a couple of months later that truly ripped me apart. I was 16, on one of the coldest nights of the winter in 2003, crammed into a corner of an absolutely packed room, craning my head for a sight of the show. The five members of this band could barely fit in the room with all their equipment, but that was what made it more exciting. The sprawl of their gear broke down even more walls between performer and audience, making interaction with them even more possible. That is essentially what this band represents to me; the breaking down of those boundaries. What I remember most about Black Eyes shows was that the audience reaction was almost as exciting as the music they were playing. How everyone danced their asses off, sweaty and packed together. It was a sight to see, and no Black Eyes show had me leaving with anything less than a shitgrinning smile on my face, sweat dripping down my face and a t-shirt soaked through, even in the dead of winter.
Thus the band were a fairly natural pick to be on Dischord Records, the legendary D.C. scene label. I am not sure what an experience with the album would have been like if I didn’t have a chance to see them live pretty consistently. To me, this record was a great way to hear the songs in between their shows, but since I was spoiled by living in their hometown, I was just waiting for the next time I could see them live again. When friends and I listened to it, it was almost a worship ritual, trying to figure out how we could possibly re-create that kind of energy in our own bands. The album is an amazing artifact, but I’m sure I may have loved it even more as an album if I lived somewhere like California.
In a way, their follow up album, Cough, was a stronger recording and a more fully realized artistic vision, but they broke up just as the album came out, and we never got to see what might have become of them. It’s alright though, because they quit while they were ahead, as the most beloved and best bands almost always do, leaving us to mourn and love them forever.
To me, seeing Black Eyes still marks some of my favorite high school memories. This band changed my life in a pretty huge way, and no other band seems to have been able to take their place since. But as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.”
06. Majority Rule- Emergency Numbers(2003)
Their final album had D.C. based Majority Rule at the height of their creative output. The band had only another year to grow following this release before they broke up in the summer of 2004. Though this EP never quite reached the “classic” status of Interviews With David Frost, in many ways it is the stronger of the two.
This album and Interviews are perfect, yet very different, reflections of their time and place, which is funny, considering they came out only two years apart. But what happened in between their releases? Oh right. September 11th and the invasion of Iraq. While Interviews seemed to be the last warning to a society that was headed down the wrong road, perhaps too far gone, Emergency Numbers was their rallying cry for resistance, an urgent encouragement for any and all agency the listener can draw upon themselves. Yet even Majority Rule wondered if, as the second track suggested, “It’s Too Late.” Depending on your mood, the album could be motivational, or it could sound withdrawn, a fitting accompaniment to life in a bomb shelter, powerless against the violent inertia of the world we live in. But it never ceases to be reflective.
The title itself is clearly evocative of the mindset of the times. Following the attacks of 9/11, Washingtonians were living in a collective state of paranoia and anxiety, yet, as Michel points out in “American Feature,” never asking why. Instead of deeply probing the questions of why the attacks of September 11th happened, widespread fear took over and easily hijacked everyone into supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which happened just two months before the release of this album. It was the heyday of the Bush regime, in many ways the perfect setting for such a powerful piece of abrasive political hardcore to come out.
05. Ryan Adams- Cold Roses (2005)
You know Ryan Adams, that dick-ish alt country singer songwriter that everyone loves to hate, the guy who makes country music for yuppies who don’t like country music? Though the words “hot” and “cold,” or “hit” or “miss” seem like they were invented to describe his artistic output, we are fortunate to have this gem of an album, a totally “hot” “hit” in every stretch of the imagination.
Sounding like it was meant to be listened to in the springtime alone, I was lucky to get turned onto this record when the flowers started blooming. Sounding like pure tribute to the Grateful Dead and Neil Young, the album is a bright and sunny trip down memory lane to 1960’s California, through Topanga Valley to Haight Street. From the lilting, perfect opener “Magnolia Mountain” to the sad and reflective closer “Friends,” the album sounds like a best of collection, in that every single track seems perfectly placed and arranged.
The album is a beautiful collection of infectious tracks that can easily become a part of you after a few listens. With the rockers “Beautiful Sorta” and “Let It Ride” to the Jerry Garcia worship of “Easy Plateau” and “Cold Roses,” Ryan Adams proves that he knows how to write a god damn song better than most of his peers. It takes one of the most self-pitying Eeyore’s(like from Winnie The Pooh) not to crack a smile and enjoy this album for what it’s worth. It might not be one you dig super deep into, but it will keep you happy and occupied all 70 minutes long.
04. The National- Alligator (2005)
This album is a barn burner of bedroom songs, perhaps the best indie rock album of the decade. Starting off by asking the listener “didn’t anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?”, we know The National aren’t seeking to sugar coat anything.
The National sound like they’ve been stuck in a city for way too long, and they may never get out. Whether it’s singing about the emotional impact of the 9-5 work life on “Baby, We’ll Be Fine,” big city alienation and loneliness in “Friend Of Mine,” or throwing a big middle finger to the spineless democrats in “Mr. November,” vocalist Matt Berninger’s lyrics are a diary of first world problems, but as big influence Neil Young said, “though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.” One of these problems, which is also a persistent theme through the record, is the search for place, not shocking when you find out where they’re from.
Though this is a Brooklyn release, The National are one of the few borough bands who don’t automatically sound like they’re from Brooklyn. Perhaps it’s the fact that all the members originally hail from Ohio yet somehow ended up in NYC together, separately. They don’t sound like a bunch of east coast pricks taking up their little slice of land in an over-saturized city of twentysomethings. They literally sound just like they are; like five guys from the midwest struggling to find their place in an enormous city, along with several million others.
There’s not a whole lot of restraint on here, which is what makes it an all around more powerful record than the follow-up, Boxer. That restraint seems like a necessary, tasteful reaction to the all around epic-ness of Alligator, but I still like The National better when they don’t hold themselves back, when they give us the throaty yells, the sweeping choruses, the beautiful ballads that seem to go on perhaps a bit too long. If Boxer leaves you satisfied but coming back for more, then Alligator will leave you absolutely spent.
03. Explosions In The Sky- The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (2003)
The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place feels like a repressed childhood memory, a feeling that comes rushing back to you when you finally hear it. Few other albums of the decade packed as much emotional power as this one, and it did it without any lyrics.
This is the third Explosions In The Sky album on this list, so I don’t feel like I have to say much about it. Their third album is a ballad of sorts, an hour long instrumental love song. The songs do alternate between light and dark, but the overall mood is bright and redemptive. This is so high on the list, and above the others likely, because it was the first EITS album I heard, and the first time I heard this kind of music. It opened me up to a brand new interpretation of music, a way of speaking words through instrument. As a guitar player, I can think of few other albums that had a greater impact on my approach to the instrument.
02. Thursday- Full Collapse (2001)
Music like this had been made in basements for years before this album came out, but somehow fate decided that Thursday would be the band that delivered screamo to the masses. They were certainly one of the first bands of their kind to have a video on MTV, to have a major label release. Hell, one of their songs wound up in car commercial! I don’t know why they were the ones that would carry the torch, but all I know is I was one of many in the joyful mass that would scream and cry along to every word when they tore through town.
This was the album I had been waiting for for years, ever since the onset of adolescence suddenly made life start sucking a lot. And the over the top, heart on the sleeve-ness of hte music makes for a perfect soundtrack, as Thursday kind of embodies the hypersensitivity of a youth spent as a weepy emo kid.
The key word here is empathy. For as much as it sucked being a teenager, Thursday really seemed to understand. They understood better than anyone in my life seemed to at the time, although now I understand that teen angst is an experience you have to go through and come out of in your own way. As a teen everything seems like the end of the world, and their music sort of sounds just like that.
Just as being a weepy emo kid doesn’t age very well, neither did this album unfortunately. Yet it ranks so high on this list because I can still recognize the good it did for me. With most albums, you can listen to it and be instantly transported back to that time and place. But now I feel so far removed from being a teenager, that listening to this transports me back to a place that I’d just rather not return to. It’s not that it brings back painful memories. The times I saw this band live and drove around with friends listening to them are some of my fondest high school moments. Indeed, it was a vital and validating part of my life then. It’s just that now that I have more of a sense of perspective on life and what the whole deal is with it, I don’t need this band or this album anymore. However, I will always be thankful for it, and smile when I see a new generation of youth getting turned on to it.
01. Majority Rule- Interviews With David Frost (2001)
Sheer and utterly brutal punk rock fury, Majority Rule are in large part responsible for making me who I am today. Having been an average punk rock band for five years at this point, the band put out this instant classic in pre-9/11 2001, as if it were a predictor of everything that was to come over the next decade.
The first time I saw them was at GWU with Darkest Hour in February of 2003. It was one of the coldest days of the year. They lit up Mitchell Hall at a benefit show to pay back one of the guys from DH’s mom for bailing them all out of jail. I picked this record up there and took it home, and over the next few months it was all I could listen to. Just a couple months after this show, I went over to a new friend named Joey’s house to jam with our friend Paul, all of us having this record on our mind when we did. We did our best to try and re-create this brutal, passionate hardcore, in a way that 16 year old kids try to do when they’ve fallen in love with a punk rock album. The band we formed and played as for the next two years, Bear And The Butterfly, tried to carry forth this influence, wearing it on our sleeves unabashedly.
To hear this album without exploring the lyrical content is to miss a huge part of it. Of course this means you would have to pop open the lyric book, since Matt Michel’s screams are a bit hard to decipher. Whether they are focusing on state violence in the amazing “Progress Of Elimination” (which features one of my favorite breakdowns of all time) or describing a late night spent with a loved one in “At 3 A.M.,” Interviews With David Frost is a scathing attack on modern day society, an attempt to reset what we all seem to have gotten backwards.
It is also an album that seems to focus mostly on the concept of re-energizing, of taking back your life. The narrator of the stories, whether it is from Michel’s own stories or not, has been living in the doldrums for a while it seems, without any driving force to give meaning to his or her life. From the first grinding drums of opener “The Sin In Grey,” the narrator promises to change things for the better, and if the urgency of the music wasn’t proof enough, he is absolutely fucking serious about it. From there the record is chock full of promises, of declarations to live life more urgently. On “At 3 AM” he yells “From now on it will be different.” On “Burial Suit,” the two minute barn burner third track, he states “I would trade it in for late nights and impossible dreams.” He doesn’t say exactly what he would trade it in, but I am sure we all have plenty of heavy things in our life we would trade in for late nights and impossible dreams. I’ve always found it interesting that he wishes for “impossible dreams” rather than something more Springsteen-ian like “chasing your dreams.” The narrator simply wants to have those impossible dreams, and realize they may never come true, but it’s having them in the first place that counts.
There is the album center, “Xoxo,” the lyrics of which are merely a couple sentences long. “Wouldn’t it be nice if life felt more alive?” asks Michel. That’s something most everyone can relate to. And then there is the second to last track “Endings,” which for me is the track that elicits the greatest emotional reaction from me. The song is an assault on the promises society made to him that weren’t kept. “Where are you now? Promises of forever. The Talk of future fable is all I’ve ever known.” It’s the angry rage of someone who’s followed the “right” path, made all the “right” choices. Someone who has followed the rules, done things as they were supposed to do…and they suddenly find themselves with nothing worthwhile, an empty existence. Now he’s doing his best to take back what he lost, or maybe what he never had. “Never lost hope, I found you, I found you now. My forever today, to stop the counting,” he yells as the song comes to a close. He’s sick of wasting his life waiting for a day that will never come. He wants to live in the here and now, before time runs out.
You can understand why, as a teen, this album had a huge impact on me. It still represents to me a great shift in my way of thinking. It was the record that encouraged me to think for myself, to develop a strong inner world of thoughts and emotions.