20. Polar Bear Club- The Redder, The Better (2006)
I played a few sets of Bruce Springsteen songs in the summer of 2006, just me and my guitar. I wanted to play music where I was singing and playing guitar, but was too afraid to write my own music, so it made sense to live vicariously through someone who could do it better than I could.
Anyway, I got put on a show opening for Polar Bear Club at the Death Star house in Silver Spring, but I ended up just playing a few songs on the front lawn in between bands. For some reason I left as soon as my set was over, but I bought this CD right before I left. I listened to it through a few times, but it didn’t strike me too much at first. Over the next couple years, it grew on me more and more, until it became one of the first go to records on my list that I could play through from beginning to end and sing every word.
Of course, the fact that it was an EP of five songs helped. These were extremely catchy and heartfelt melodic punk songs in the vein of Small Brown Bike, Hot Water Music, and even the Getup Kids. Everything about it is tasteful, and before attempting to write more to fill out a full length, they quit while they’re ahead and give you a near perfect punk masterpiece. Perhaps they should have stuck with that concept, as their two attempts at writing follow up full lengths yielded a few decent songs but were otherwise rife with filler and forgettable tracks.
Nonetheless, this EP is a serious classic, full of relateable and heartfelt anthems of what most punk songs are about: losing friends, growing up, moving on, being alive. These guys were all lawyers and professors and had full time jobs but quit them to take Polar Bear Club fulltime, and that is inspiring in itself. In a way that is similar to greats like Bruce Springsteen, pursuing this band seems like it was a great risk for these guys, banking on a dream coming true, but their only choice was to follow it.
19. Gillian Welch- Soul Journey (2003)
In February of 2007, my friend Carra introduced me to the world of Gillian Welch when she invited me to a show of her performing with her musical partner, Dave Rawlings, as the Dave Rawlings Machine. It’s a world from where I have not since returned, and might never.
Most known for her contributions to the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack, Gillian Welch and her unspoken other half, Dave Rawlings have been at the top of the modern pack of singer/songwriters for over ten years now. This is her most recent release, which is quite unfortunate considering it is six years old. One of these days they better put out a new album. Though it is her third best out of her four records, there is no such thing as a bad Gillian Welch album, so it is still high on my list.
Taking from the classics, she doesn’t so much channel the greats here as much as she includes herself among them. Employing the subtle use of drums, electric organ, and even the electric rhythm guitar, she offers her own sort of “Highway 61 Revisited,” with the epic final track “Wrecking Ball” serving as a female version of “Like A Rolling Stone.” It’s her most rocking album, most fitting for a road trip through the deep south in the middle of summer.
A modern minor masterpiece of roots americana, this album is a central fixture in the folk revival movement of the last decade. No one around right now can do it quite live Gill and Dave can. Look for a new album sometime this year? Or get the recent Dave Rawlings Machine debut album, “Friend Of A Friend” (album of the year!) to tide you over!
18. Modern Life Is War- Witness (2005)
You’re from a small town in Iowa and life sucks. You’re from the suburbs of a large city on the east coast and life also sucks. You’re a young adult trying to make it alive in the city and life sucks too. And you don’t even feel like you have room to complain, cause somewhere someone’s life sucks way more. But still, no matter who you are, life sucks. Fortunately for you there’s Modern Life Is War’s stunning second album, Witness.
This record is a hardcore punk classic, a vindictive declaration of anger, of resistance against the overpowering forces in everyone’s lives. The band might not be able to stop or tear dawn the walls of depression, existentialism, poverty and powerlessness that they are faced with, but they can scream at them as loud they can so that others might hear. They do it in a original and tasteful way, too. Though they are tagged as a straightforward hardcore band, akin to the likes of Comeback Kid, they don’t play to the predictable tendencies of the genre. They almost completely forego breakdowns, never giving into the cheap and played out temptations of the the “jud jud jud WEE” world. They keep it simple musically, and leave plenty of room for the vocals, the centerpiece of the band, to take the lead.
Singer Jeffrey Eaton crafts some of the most personal, perceptive, intelligent and relateable lyrics of any hardcore singer around. “In this modern life, cheap and disconnected. Where there’s a siege going on, the besieged will be the last to know.” As with many song lyrics, it doesn’t sound like much without the chugging guitars and drums behind it, but his lyrics do cut deep into my soul. Through the dark times of the latter half of this decade, this album was a guiding light for me, telling me to keep my head up and keep moving down the narrowing path.
17. Interpol- Turn Off The Bright Lights (2002)
Interpol are the “coolest” band of the decade that was actually really good. Though most people just compare them to Joy Division, Interpol are a band on their own, channeling many of the gothic indie greats, from early Afghan Whigs to Echo And The Bunnymen. But they did it really damn well. Few other records recieved as much deserved hype, getting street acclaim as much as critical acclaim.
Through “Obstacle 1” and “Obstacle 2,” to the classics “PDA” and “Stella Was a Diver and she Was Always Down,” Singer Paul Banks does his best Ian Curtis impression, if Ian Curtis were a a sly and sexy hip new yorker living without a severe mental illness. The classic centerpiece “NYC” brings up instant nostalgia when the first chords hit. This record was big for me my senior year, after a lot of my closest friends had left for college. “It’s up to me now, turn on the bright lights” seemed quite relevant to me at the time. I’m not even sure those are the right lyrics, but that’s what I thought he was saying at least. I felt on my own, with the sudden responsibility to find a new niche, a new life. It was the first time I had ever had to “start over again,” and though I’ve done that a few more times since and it gets easier, it was brutally tough, and this album helped me through that.
16. Twilight Singers- Blackberry Belle (2003)
Though some may view this statement as an utter travesty, I’ll go out and say it. Greg Dulli’s project The Twilight Singers far surpass his previous project, The Afghan Whigs, in nearly every way. Of course I’m saying this as someone who came of age this decade, and if I had been a young man when an album like Gentlemen came out I would decry such a statement.
I wouldn’t call the Afghan Whigs a totally accessible band, but I would certainly use the “a” word describe this work. A tribute album of sorts, this record was inspired by the death of Dulli’s director friend Ted Demme. Each track is a beautiful mixture of sound that takes as much from Marvin Gaye as it does from 90’s indie/alternative. Through each track, Dulli crafts a perfect sequence of songs that can be listened to easily from beginning to end before realizing what hit you. From classic “Teenage Wristband” to “Papillon,” this is one of those great albums where your favorite song on it will change according to whatever mood you’re in. And there are so many to choose from.
My dear friend Jacob Mazer was pretty obsessed with Greg Dulli in high school, which I couldn’t relate to at the time since I was in Saves The Day/Taking Back Sunday emo world. A few years down the road, when his next project, Powder Burns, came out and bowled me over, I gave this one a well deserved listen and it achieved the same affect. If you hear it and it doesn’t strike you at first, keep it around. It’s one of those albums that will hit you hard when you are ready to hear it.
15. Sun Kil Moon- April (2008)
Sun Kil Moon’s third album comes into your life much like the month it’s named after does. With a total welcome, revealing for you life as it is, was, and will be underneath the melting snow. This soundtrack to the thaw isn’t perfect, but few other records have hit me as hard as this one when it came out. Perhaps that’s because I first heard it a month before college graduation, a time in your life that just has that cinematic kind of quality to it, as everyone is getting ready to leave behind their friends and venture off into the world unknown. If that month or two of my life had been a movie, though a fairly boring movie, this would have certainly been the soundtrack.
Starting off with the long, drawn out open tuned crooning of “Lost Verses,” Kozelek starts off with the theme that will carry him through the record. Looking back and contemplating at things, people, places, events in his life he has forgotten to write down. He enacts the power of memory to recall these things, but of course ends up twisting the truths and re-creating the past as a result. This record, like Ghosts Of The Great Highway, is a late night lonely walk through memories, ghosts of lives past, things that could have been or should have been, and things that should have been kept but weren’t. And in the process of trying to get them back, these lost verses “steal our time.” He loses the present in trying to recall the past, forever leaving him in the cycle of longing and regret that make his albums so captivating.
The rest of the album follows through on the promises of “Lost Verses.” He employs a slow Neil Young four chord chug on the 7 minute “The Light” and the 10 minute “Tonight The Sky.” On “Moorestown” and “Unlit Hallway” he mourns the loss of lovers who seem like they could have really been the one, though how many songs has Kozelek had like this, and therefore how many muses? Guest vocals from Will Oldham on “Unlit Hallway” and “Like The River” prepare us for album centerpiece “Tonight In Bilbao,” a simple tale of traveling alone through Spain, but used as a metaphor for the greater journey of walking alone through life, not remembering where he had laid his head the night before. Kozelek is not necessarily a gifted lyricist. Sometimes it works, and sometimes his lyrics sound rather forced, like an english literature 101 class. Nevertheless, his lyrics work as a delivery for his deep croons, and convey the somber messages that his layers of guitar work already get across.
The album is a long, repetitive dirge of folk rock, that explores the positives and negatives, the ups and downs of his 70’s folk pantheon. It may dip into gloomy weather but it always brings you back to the middle at the end. It’s a transformative piece of art that, as I read in a review that put it perfectly, “paints where you are in a new light.” This record kept me coasting through 2008 and on. In a year that was full of transitions it was one of my only constants.
14. Godspeed You Black Emperor- Lift Your Skinny Fists (2000)
Of all the great “post rock” albums that came out this decade, Godspeed were one of the originators, the groundbreakers, the ones who created the paths that countless imitators would soon walk down. This album, a long symphony composed in four parts, encompasses all of the triumph and misery one encounters in life. The album is a transformative journey from these Canucks. Words can’t really express much more, just get this album if you don’t have it.
13. Gillian Welch- Time The Revelator (2001)
This, Gillian’s first album as producer is also her best. the album sounds like a dark and uplifting journey through the past, present and future of the great American south. While her first two albums, Revival and Hell Among The Yearlings, are modern folk classics, this is the album where the two start following the path that crossover visionaries like Bob Dylan had laid out before them at the Newport Folk Festival in 63. Though these songs live in the acoustic realm, they have the structure and feel of rock songs.
Welch and Rawlings turn out heartfelt, soothing folk ballads that work as well in a New York City living room in 1966 as they do on an empty dirt road in Tennessee in 2009. A major theme is, as the title suggests, time and how it changes you. Opening track “Revelator” and “Everything Is Free” concern the changing nature of a life of playing music. “Elvis Presley Blues” is the story of the king; he had it all and then he lost it. Then there’s the closing track “I Dream A Highway,” a 15 minute, four chord slowcore doozie that seems to take up half of any long road trip you might find yourself on. The refrain of “I dream a highway back to you” says it all. It’s for anyone who wishes there was some possible way to make it back to easier times, to that person who made you feel complete but went away for whatever reason. But there just isn’t, and all you’ve got left is this song and this album.
12. City Of Caterpillar- City Of Caterpillar (2002)
If there was one album for a depressing wintertime spent in D.C. as a teenager, trudging back and forth to stupid high school, it’s this one. Except it’s not a record for taking you out of your dismal state, it’s one for when all you wanna do is stay there. Members of other seminal Virginia punk bands like Pg.99, Darkest Hour and Majority Rule all took part in this band over time, crafting a depressing as hell punk album of hopeless dirges through darkness. Most of the songs on here exceed six minutes, and though they travel through many different lands on this journey, they all seems to be shrouded in permanent night.
Whether they are coming at you full throttle in a spastic hardcore part, or bashing empty 40oz bottles to keep the beat on a long and drawn out buildup, City Of Caterpillar crafted an intense piece of art that transcends the sum of its parts, like all good music must do. If Godspeed You! Black Emperor got together with a band like Orchid, it might have come off something like this. I got into them just in time for a rather sour period of my teenage years, picking the album up at the last Pg.99 show in May of 2003. That was a tough one for me, with major teen angst drama, but I had City Of Caterpillar to guide me through it. The music has worn out its welcome for me at this point, as it is hard to listen to without associating it with feelings that I’ve left behind, but I’ll always have the upmost respect for this DIY hardcore masterpiece.
11. At The Drive In- Relationship Of Command (2000)
Following the release of Relationship Of Command, Guitar World Magazine, better known for covering the latest news on Dream Theater and Jimmy Page, called At The Drive In the “future of punk rock.” As a young freshman in high school, the unwarranted and silly comparisons to Rage Against The Machine that friends had claimed for it caught my attention. Of course this disappointed since it was nothing like Rage, and left the CD to gather dust in my room for the next few years. Yet sometime in 2002, when I had grown a little more and my taste and awareness of music had as well, I got it out again, due to the advice of a dear friend to give it another listen. And well, it fucking ripped and is still one of the greatest punk albums of all time.
Relationship Of Command turned out to be the greatest album that Fugazi and Thursday never made together, a classic of punk and emocore. Supposedly one of the greatest live acts in history, my friend Jacob knew someone who followed this El Paso, TX group around for a whole summer because they just couldn’t get enough of the passion and chaotic fury of their live shows. The band followed in the footsteps of those D.C. forefathers and maintained strict punk ethics, calling down crowdsurfers and touring the house show circuit for many years before their breakout fame in 2000. This sudden surge in fame very likely led to their unraveling.
Most people know the story; In February of 2001, after achieving international acclaim, at the height of their popularity, At The Drive In unexpectedely broke up. At a big festival in Australia a month earlier, they left the stage in the middle of their set, in true Fugazi style, because fans would not heed their pleas to stop their violent slamdancing and moshing. Most people would probably frown upon such a high horse, pretentious move, but it turns out they were right; later that day at the festival, a teenage girl died from asphyxiation in a crowd surge during a Limp Bizkit set. I guess they realized that suddenly they had been lumped in with a terrible mainstream. Suddenly they had been lumped in with all the Korns, Limp Bizkits and Kid Rocks, with whom they shared the radio waves. Their music had become out of their control, as so often happens with bands that experience mega success (see, Nirvana) and I suppose they got out while they still had their dignity. Fortunately they left while they were on top. Every song on here is fantastic, from the burning opener “Arcarsenal” to MTV single “One Armed Scissor,” to the slow, melodic, quiet/loud dynamics of “Invalid Litter Dept.,” which was about the rampant murders and rapes that happen in the border town of Juarez.
I just read that there are rumors of a reunion in the next couple years. This is one of those bands that I definitely wouldn’t mind if they hopped on the reunion train. Here’s hoping!