40 Essential Albums: A List

I first published this in 2009, and decided it was time for an update!  The top ten are the same, but I’ve discovered some great new music since, and thought I would share!

I believe Elvis Costello said it best when he said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  It’s true that it’s impossible to capture the delicacy of music on paper, but I have many times been moved to explore new music based on what I read, and have been many times rewarded for my exploration.  It is only my hope that I might return the favor.  I’ve tried to abide by the general list rules, i.e. no greatest hits albums, etc.  I also accept that the best part about my list, and yours, is that they will be completely different.  So here they are, in loosely-ranked order.

40.  Yeasayer – Odd Blood

Difficult to categorize, Yeasayer occupies a unique place in the sonic landscape of my iPod.  Pulsing, psychedelic electronics drive the beat, with sometimes poppy, sometimes obtuse arrangements driving off-kilter lyrical musings, all showcasing nuanced, binary tenor vocalists.  A few tracks are impenetrable, but most are transcendent.  High points are the soaring “I Remember,” “ONE,” and the impossibly catchy “Ambling Alp.”  Watch the somewhat disturbing video accompanying “Madder Red” if you have a moment; it will stick with you.

39.  The The – Mind Bomb

The criticisms that might be levied at most of Matt Johnson’s offerings are present here: reliance on synths (despite some great guitar work from Johnny Marr) give it a slightly dated sound and it’s a bit uneven.  But few artists capture such naked emotion in both voice and lyric, and Mind Bomb stands atop his impressive body of work.  Whether he’s pointing the gun at religion, politics, failed love, or himself, his aim is unfaltering, and in this album’s finest moments the result is a tour-de-force of the human soul laid bare.

38.  Counting Crows – August and Everything After

Perhaps the last remnants of folk in pop music found life in this album, which in 1993 sounded unlike anything else I’d heard.  Though it is melancholy throughout, it’s never truly dark and even its most equivocal lyrics retain a sweet humanity very little pop music manages.  The best moments of the record never saw the radio, notably “Sullivan Street” and “Anna Begins” (the latter of which I count among the most touching songs I’ve ever heard), and there isn’t an ounce of filler here.  I think that had August remained obscure it would have been critically regarded as a masterpiece.

37.  The Shins – Wincing the Night Away

James Mercer is a genius with his pen; I place him in the same category with Roger Waters, John Lennon, and Paul Simon in his ability to turn a phrase.  In Wincing his pen finds its deepest well, to say nothing of the intricate song construction.  The opening track, “Sleeping Lessons” wafts in on a pillow of lazily trembling organ, building languidly into a punchy rock tune, with the lines: Eviscerate your fragile frame/And spill it out on ragged floor/A thousand different versions of yourself.  “Australia” is possibly their catchiest number to date with the lyrics: Never dreamt of such sterile hands/You keep them folded in your lap /Or raise them up to beg for scraps/You know he’s holding you down with the tips of his fingers just the same.  And perhaps my favorite from the dreamy “A Comet Appears”: Every post you can hitch your faith on, Is a pie in the sky/Chock full of lies/A tool we devise to make sinking stones fly.  With musical arrangements that equal the grace of its poetry, Wincing is an absolutely brilliant achievement.

36.  Tegan and Sara – The Con

You can’t hold it against Tegan and Sara that Taylor Swift likes them; these twins were rocking ten years before.  Rollicking, tense, pretty, harsh, uplifting, crushing…this record has it all, in 14 tracks tightly executed and delivered without a wasted beat.  Seldom does music this glossy have such an emotional core, with each track both dressed to the nines and nakedly honest.  It’s not surprising they crossed from Lilith Fair into the mainstream a few albums later, but this is their swan song, easily one of the best pop records in a decade.  “The Con” and “Are You Ten Years Ago” are among the best, though it’s hard to pick a favorite.

35.  Barenaked Ladies – Rock Spectacle

This is the first of a few live albums on my list, and while it’s a bit of a cheat given that such albums tend to be greatest hits compilations, in this case I feel it’s warranted.  BNL own the stage in live performance, and the emotion and potency captured in every track of Rock leave the studio versions sounding lackluster.  It’s not that their studio albums are weak or inferior; it’s that they are just that good live.  They cut loose and leave it all on stage, and as a result it’s hard to listen to original recordings of “What a Good Boy” or “Break Your Heart” after hearing these versions.  This goes for most of the tracks; it’s the next best thing to being there.

34.  XTC – Nonsuch

Due to a breakdown by lead singer Andy Partridge resulting in permanent stage fright, XTC never toured past 1982, ten years before this album was released, which is a shame as it is their most accessible work.  At times too smart for its own good, Nonsuch explores typically weighty fare (the assassination of JFK, war, evolution, the dark side of human nature, etc.) often with a wink and a smile and ties these to lilting and often catchy pop-infused melodies.  The result is a highly-listenable collection of very intelligent songs full of clever metaphor and musical styling that offer hidden treasure, listen after listen.  Highlights include “My Bird Performs” and “World Wrapped in Grey.”

33.  Deep Sea Diver – History Speaks

This is one slick record.  Laden with pretty piano chops and mixed to perfection, this freshman offering from Jessica Dobson, who’s worked with The Shins, Connor Oberst, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah, is at times wistful, but mostly shot full of adrenaline.   In between the occasional longing piece displaying the full power of Dobson’s sultry crooning, most of this album is anthemic, with danceable rhythms, infectious hooks, and groovy melodies.  This album is cool as hell.  If there’s a complaint, it’s that it always seems over too soon.  Check out “Ships” and “You Go Running.”

32. Def Leppard – Hysteria

While it’s possible that no other genre of music was as bloated and full of itself as hair-metal, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of fun to be had in that Aqua-Netted mess.  Def Leppard wins the place-holder spot for their peers: Bon Jovi, Poison, Warrant, etc. all get a slice of #32, but Hysteria narrowly edges out Slippery When Wet for the crown. This isn’t to say Lep was superior to Bon Jovi, but Hysteria may have been the quintessential album of the era, and that era has a special, if funny-looking, place in my heart.  It’s mega-overproduced, juvenile, damn-near reprehensible arena rock aimed at the basest hormones of its audience…and I love it.

31. The Chameleons – Strange Times

While the U.S. was doing lines of coke off Culture Club records in Regan-era prosperity, the UK was singing a more somber tune in the early to mid ’80s as unemployment shook the economy, and from the blue-collar town of Manchester The Chameleons emerged among the best post-punk acts of the time.  While groups such as Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen choose a more sparse and jagged approach, The Chameleons wove intricate drum work and simple but potent guitar riffs into their more melodic, if still occasionally bleak sound.  Though a feeling of isolation and emotional turmoil permeates much of Strange Times, there is a thinly veiled optimism peeking through the cracks, both lyrically and musically, that give the album a depth that’s worth exploring.  More mature than their previous offerings, and less vitriolic, this remains their best effort.  “Swamp Thing,” “Time” and “Caution” are high points.

30.  Weezer – Weezer

Given their later offerings I often wonder if this album was half an accident, but if so it was a perfect one.  Weezer brought cool to the quasi-intellectual outsider in a record full of no-frills, straightforward rock songs which adroitly explored many of the seldom-avoided social pratfalls of being young.  In the musical landscape of contrived, grungy teen angst, songs such as “The World has Turned and Left Me Here” and “Only in Dreams” were refreshingly honest and authentic.  There really isn’t a weak track on the record: even the ostensibly silly “Buddy Holly” is a rollicking shove-back at being bullied.  Fifteen years after its release, Weezer remains timelessly original and real from beginning to end.

29.  For Against – Coalesced

I can’t remember how I came across this band, but I’ve never met another soul who’s heard of them.  Regardless, this is one of the most elegantly written and crafted albums I’ve ever heard.  Simple, atmospheric guitar arpeggios provide a dream-like backdrop for Jeffrey Running’s earnestly passionate vocals and lyrics in song after song, each reveling in its own beauty, building and deepening into shimmering bliss.  This is the kind of album you can sink into and let take you away.  There just isn’t enough music like this, and I find this album a good friend every time I return.

28.  Death Cab for Cutie – Plans

I’d never heard of this (oddly named) band until “Soul Meets Body” hit the radio a few years ago, to a cacophony of “sellout!” cries from heartbroken hipsters.  Since, I’ve listened to much of their catalog, and I think this is their finest hour, though I cannot see any notable difference between this and their other work.  I still vividly remember driving in Clearwater for work years ago, spinning this over and over; I think sometimes an album hits you at the right time.  I have weird memories, like picturing the opening to “Different Names” as, rather than played near a crackling fire, as played instead upon a slowly burning piano.  “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” is one of the prettiest sad songs ever written.

27.  Kenna – Make Sure They See My Face

It’s hard to fathom how the Ethiopian-born Kenna isn’t a staple of nearly every radio station in the country.  Apparently critics can’t seem to properly categorize him, which may be one of the most tragic results of our compulsive human need to place everything in a box.  A sort of hip-hop/rock hybrid with influences from Stevie Wonder to Depeche Mode, his rhythms are challenging, his lyrics thoughtful, and his voice sublime.  If you can’t enjoy “Baptized in Blacklight,” you’re listening with the wrong ears.

26. Shiny Toy Guns – We Are Pilots

Thinking this was a Shins album (mis-filed and I clearly wasn’t paying much attention), We Are Pilots became my best accidental/random purchase ever.  Falling sonically somewhere between The Thompson Twins and The Knife, Shiny Toy Guns merge catchy techno beats with throwback synths to a borderline transcendent result.  “Le Disko” grabbed some attention as the album’s single and stands as it’s most modern work.  Tracks such as “Rainy Monday” and “You are the One,” however, party like it’s 1989.  While some of the album is semi-vapid lyrically, the title track and “When they Came for Us” round out the record as its most sincere material.  I have yet to tire of any song on this album, after a ridiculous number of listens.

25. Ra Ra Riot – The Rhumb Line

Ra Ra Riot isn’t the only rock band that relies on strings rather than guitars to drive its sound, but they may be the best.  Before cellist Alexandra Lawn departed as they moved to a more synthesized sound, they produced two matchless records, the strength of which will likely keep them selling out small venues for years to come.  The Rhumb Line was the debut, and it overflows with an unrestrained energy and earnestness that most modern music cannot touch.  “Ghost Under Rocks” perhaps showcases everything the band is capable of; “Winter ’05” is the Beatles had George and Paul swapped their axes for strings, and “Suspended in Gaffa” has to be the best ever Kate Bush cover with a male lead singer.

24.  Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Toward Ecstasy

Though she broke out with her next album Surfacing, which was aimed closer to the pop-sensibilities of the day, Fumbling Toward Ecstasy finds Sarah unrestrained and fearless.  Her angel voice is complimented with the addition of more musically and rhythmically bold arrangements, sometimes sparse, sometimes exultant, with a songwriting depth that all but evaporated in her later work.  From the smoldering longing of “Elsewhere” to the obsessive pulse of “Possession,” she reaches her most intimate and stripped moments here.

23.  Mark Lenover – The Wreckage

Still relatively unknown, I recently discovered Mark’s work in an independent film and became instantly enthralled.  Sonically falling somewhere between Neil Young and Pink Floyd, with modern synths and electronic rhythms, and lyrically comparable to Leonard Cohen, this is compelling and unique art.  On his site, Mark indicates that he wrote this, his eighth album, in coping with a recent diagnosis of schizophrenia, and knowing that, its moments of pain and sadness become that much more poignant.  But unlike other similarly burdened artists like Syd Barrett and Daniel Johnston, whose work clearly reveals the fracturing psyche below, Mark’s grip remains stronger than his demons; we only know of his struggle because he lets us in.  And it’s not an easy place to visit: “Always Take Your Medicine” is a harrowing treatise on the fallout from chemical treatment; “Malice” is frighteningly beautiful and dark, a view of its victim through the eyes of mental illness.  But despite its oppressive source material, Mark lines the atmosphere with silver; the emotional residue of listening to his music is always positive, even when I’m mired mentally in its hopelessly weighty themes.

22.  The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

If Bruce Springsteen had been born in 1980, I’m pretty certain he’d sound a lot like the Gaslight Anthem.  Hailing from New Jersey, the Boss’ influence on lead singer Brian Fallon is hard to miss, but this material is anything but derivative.  The Gaslight Anthem is one of the last vestiges of pure rock’n’roll left in modern music, and though my wife and I continue our gridlock over their best album (she insists The ’59 Sound is superior), I have to give the nod to Slang.  I agree that ’59 has a grit that Slang’s polish misses, but with a string of highlights in “Diamond Church Street Choir,” “Stay Lucky,” “Queen of Lower Chelsea,” and the title track, Slang stands a hairsbreadth above.  This is old cars, broken hearts, battered guitars, cracked leather jackets, and empty whisky bottles.  This is rock.

21.  Kate Bush – The Hounds of Love

Some of this record is experimental to the point of difficulty, but its peaks: the title track, “Running Up That Hill,” and “Cloudbusting” encapsulate the best the British siren has to offer.  Discovered at the age of 16 by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Kate, with her achingly beautiful and haunted voice, remains the touchstone for all female vocalists I encounter.  While some of her later work is more straightforward, Hounds plays whimsically in the maelstrom, showcasing her rapturous disregard for convention at the time of her creative apex.

20.  Better than Ezra – Closer

Better than Ezra achieves that most elusive of musical elements, that in my opinion is the hallmark of a master of the craft: mood.  To me, mood is the place the music takes you every time you hear it, its own unique square of real estate in the mind, or the heart, or the soul.  It can be as simple as a sun drenched meadow or as convoluted as the topography of a broken heart, but a great band has the ability to take you exactly where they want you to go, and Better than Ezra has always been one of my favorite magic carpet rides.  Closer is an upbeat album, and while there are heavy moments, fun is never far from most of these tracks.  While it’s true that happy songs tend to fade long before their sad and darker counterparts, BTE genuinely captures that life-is-good moment better than anyone, and there’s always room in my playlist for that feeling when it’s as real as it is here.  My favorite track on this record is “Rolling.”  Like so much of what BTE can do, “Rolling” isn’t about driving nowhere on a Sunday afternoon – it is driving nowhere on a Sunday afternoon.

19.  Imogen Heap – Speak for Yourself

This album ambushed me.  My wife had it on repeat for a few nights while we were gaming, and while this isn’t my usual fare, after it sank in, it never let go.  While Imogen did interesting work before and after (Frou Frou was great), this album is simply her best.  There’s hardly a weak moment on the record, a synth-pop masterpiece from an exceptionally talented songwriter and producer.  “Goodnight and Go” is the best stalker song yet (sorry Sting), and despite its unfortunate treatment by remixers, her original “Hide and Seek, a beautifully layered a cappella elegy to a crumbling relationship, is one of the few pieces of real genius in modern music.  Oily marks appear on walls/where pleasure moments hung before./The takeover, the sweeping insensitivity of this still life.

18.  Toad the Wet Sprocket – Bread and Circus

I think that Toad is among the most misunderstood, or at least overlooked bands in recent history.  Lead singer/songwriter Glen Phillips was 14 when he joined the older members of the group, and was 17 when this first album was completed in 1989.  Done for the cost of $600 and as a result mostly laid down live in the studio, when this underground tape caught the attention of the large labels the band insisted it be cut “as is” with no re-recording, and so it remained in its original format: rough edged and alive with the raw energy that so often gets washed out in heavy production.  The maturity of Glen’s songwriting for such a young balladeer is shocking, often reflecting the insight and self-awareness of a man twice or three times his age.  Nevertheless there’s a youthful angst that drives some of the writing that had all but vanished by the time they reached commercial audiences two albums later.  The combination of these elements make for an album without peer.

17.  White Lies – To Lose My Life…

The consequences of digital music sometimes create problems with differentiating albums; I bought Ritual and To Lose My Life… at the same time, and they sort of run together for me: I can’t tell you what’s on which without looking at the track listings.  But the point is, these British lads, with their throwback 80’s post-punk sound, are one of the best new acts touring.  Led by Harry McVeigh, whose baritone is a velvet-wrapped claymore, their synthy, brooding anthems are stadium-ready, but thoughtful enough to reveal nuance after repeated listens.  Life gets the nod for tracks such as “From the Stars” and “The Price of Love,” which tell vivid stories in sharp detail, as well as the incomparable “Death,” which is one of their most essential tracks.

16.  Mark Lenover – The Girl in the Window

Having heard the title track as the credits ran on an indie film, I purchased this album in full and haven’t stopped spinning it since.  Where The Wreckage is more inward-facing, this album is populated with otherworldly denizens and edifices, wrapped in metaphor and cloaked in twilight, begging to be explored.  We see the world through the hazy vision of Mark’s constructs…a tortured mother, a boy with his music box, a hypochondriac…or are they?  We see only a glimpse of each through a keyhole, and unlocking their mysteries isn’t likely in the first few listens.  Even more veiled are tracks like “The Girl in the Window,” which is equal parts eerie and rapturous; in fact most of the album could be described that way.  It is both the darkness, and the candle that pushes it back.

15.  Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials

How did she get popular in the mire of vapid modern music?  I don’t know and I don’t care; her rise restored my faith in humanity.  This album is so lyrically dense and layered, that I am guessing that its secrets are arcane to all but few; those that truly listen are rewarded with so much more than just incredible vocals and sweeping arrangements.  With twelve tracks and not an ounce of fluff, from the soulful (“Lover to Lover”) to the enchanted (“Only If for a Night”) and the bombastic (“Heartlines”), this is a journey worth taking over and over.  The only sad thing about this record is that it’s so damn good that I can’t imagine them reaching these heights again.

14.  Fleetwood Mac – The Dance

Few bands are as talented as Fleetwood Mac and I’d been a fan for years, but the live The Dance brought them closer to me than ever before.  There’s more new material here than on the usual live album, and “Bleed to Love Her” is a favorite, but it’s the older stand-bys that shine.  “Everywhere” sparkles live in a way the studio could never match, and “Dreams” is so rich and full it dazzles.  Stevie Nicks brings such a sadness with her in “Landslide” it’s hard not to feel her loneliness.  “Silver Springs,” a song which didn’t make Rumors during a time when Stevie and Lindsay Buckingham were splitting up, is delicate and mournful as it begins but ultimately crescendos into a crashing wave; the live performance sees Lindsay and Stevie’s gazes locked as it crests and rolls back, that old ember between them glowing red for a brief moment.

13.  Better than Ezra – Deluxe

There’s a good deal of nostalgia attached to this selection, as I think it was the first time I felt like I had “discovered” something no one else had.  BTE had reached some commercial success with “Good,” a simple but catchy rock tune that was heavy on hook and light on substance.  But I was floored the first time I listened to Deluxe all the way through; expecting standard alt-rock fluff I instead found a spectrum of musical stylings, from the country lilt of “Coyote,” the gentle cadence of the gorgeous “Porcelain,” to the folky twang of “This Time of Year.”  Along with an impressive bag of musical variety, the songwriting is mature and self-aware, clearly personal but very accessible at the same time.  Everyone knew “Good,” but I knew what they were really about.  Better than Ezra is still one of my favorite groups, and this album still sounds incredible.

12.  The Mary Onettes – Islands

Scandinavia seems to be divided sharply between musical poles of the delicately gossamer and the violently assaultive.  Sweden’s The Mary Onettes (like, Marionettes) falls in the first camp; this is an enveloping cloud of ethereal pop, with just enough emotional heft to keep it tethered to the earth.  I am completely smitten with this band and like every single one of their songs; for me, they simply can do no wrong, and I have to force myself not to over-listen.  Islands gets the nod as their best for the inclusion of “Puzzles” and “Disappearance of My Youth,” the latter of which is probably my favorite song of the last decade.  For gauzy, atmospheric guitar/synth pop, it doesn’t get better than this.

11.  Toad the Wet Sprocket – Dulcinea

Toad hit their peak here, their fourth and most dynamic album.  Glen’s songwriting and the band’s chemistry had reached a level that each song became its own entity, a complete act musically and lyrically.  Navigating thematically deep waters, the empathy of the songs is perhaps what stands out the most.  “Crowing” is in intimate glimpse into a woman’s loneliness, and Glen can bring you close enough to feel the silent tears.  “Fly From Heaven” brings you into the struggle of a man challenging faith and its consequences, while “Windmills” breezily floats after the elusive peace that comes from letting go.  There’s a place that only Glen and company can find, and Dulcinea is the best version of that place.

10.  New Order – Substance

This selection is just short of flat out cheating, because this is essentially a collection of singles…BUT…many of the tracks are re-recordings and remixes which represent some of my favorite versions, especially “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “True Faith,” which means I can kind of break the rules here.  New Order remains in a category by themselves in terms of electronica; there’s an organic feel to the music, especially in the simple but powerful guitar leads, that so much techno loses in digital space.  Here New Order offers dance-ready, extended mixes of many of their classics, yet even given this treatment the songs maintain their flesh-and-blood gravitas.  Substance has plenty of it.

9.  Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here

In the pantheon of great bands and albums in the genre of what we call “rock” or “pop” in the last 50 years, Pink Floyd has no superior.  Whatever “druggy” stigma that clung to them based on founder Syd Barrett’s weird, psychedelic whimsy is largely unwarranted, though it kept me away from them for years.  It’s not that this music can’t take you somewhere if you listen to it in a darkened room, because it can; but by the time they evolved to the sound that defined them in their 6th LP Meddle, their command of the craft was inimitable.  Roger Water’s vision and razor-blade pen balanced with David Gilmour’s unmistakable, crystalline guitar work and Rick Wright’s jazz-influenced keys, arranged with the aplomb of a classical composer, culminated in albums that were astounding in scope, both thematically and sonically.  Wish You Were Here, a missive to erstwhile front-man Barrett, is among their finest work, the title track being a favorite acoustic Floyd number, a multifaceted musing on losing touch. The two-part, bookending “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is the soul of the record, this the 26-minute epic dedicated to Syd’s gradual loss of self.  Hauntingly gentle and melancholy in prelude then erupting to the exultant, this is one of the best Floyd experiences, including a roaring sax interlude by Dick Parry, who’s touch adds great dimension to their soundscape.  A truly sublime piece of music.

8.  Depeche Mode – 101

The masters of dark electronica recorded their 101st concert as a double-live album, and as I recall the second disk, marooned from its partner, was the first used CD I ever bought.  This was my first real step into Mode’s shrouded universe.  The collection of songs reads like a greatest hits list of their early work, but the reason this appears here is the energy and lifeforce the live performance infused into the music.  The heartbeat of the masses brings this to a rapturous pitch and adds that living pulse that studio-generated techno often lacks.  Some favorite versions of songs exist here as well, especially the layered building of “People are People,” and “Everything Counts,” which finds it’s lushest arrangement here, the crowd ultimately pushing this concert-closer into Mode-ecstasy.  In fact, the crowd is a tangible force on this album more than any other that comes to mind.

7.  Simon & Garfunkel – The Concert In Central Park

One of the world’s most golden voices performing with one of America’s finest songwriters for their hometown, this is a magical album.  The experience of listening to them is transcendent: no other group has the power of mood that Simon and Garfunkel manifest to take you to exactly where they want you to be.  The beauty of their harmony is unmatched in anything else I’ve heard, and the melodic verse in pieces like “Scarborough Fair” “Sound of Silence” and “The Boxer” are so gorgeous they’d to lift you to the heavens if the words weren’t so earthy and so very human.  There is something ethereal about their music that is beyond words.

6.  Morphine – Cure for Pain

Dirty sax, swervy bass, and Mark Sandman’s syrupy baritone vocals – this ride is swanky and sexy as hell.  One of the few acts to eschew guitar as a lead instrument, Morphine pirates rather uncharted waters.  Sax player Dana Colley has the chops to play both a Tenor and Baritone at the same time, and his scorching growl is the dusky soul of their sound.  Cure finds them at their pain-killing finest; from the opening slide-bass riff of “Buena” Mark beckons you into his cloudy night…take that step and you’re spellbound as his thrall.  In their smoky haze there’s much to explore, from the sleepy sway of “Candy,” to the snarling, jazzy “Head with Wings,” and my favorite, the title track – a laid back groove with a ripping sax solo.  This stuff feels so good, everyone should try it once.

5.  Depeche Mode – Violator

“Enjoy the Silence” was the first Depeche Mode song I ever heard, and I remember it being the first time I acknowledged techno as a legitimate musical format.  Violator is beyond legitimate…it’s mesmerizing.  Previous records were amazing, but a gutsy swagger bloomed in Mode with that red album-cover rose that thrust them to the next strata.  With songs like “Personal Jesus” and “World in My Eyes” the lusty undercurrents that had ever run deep tore through the surface and Mode was reborn.  With this metamorphosis none of their mystique was lost; the understated “Waiting for the Night” is chillingly pretty and dark, while “Halo” revels in it’s own sweet destruction.  Very seldom does an outfit hit its mark so perfectly as Depeche Mode did here.  In its sphere, Violator has no rival.

4.  The National – Boxer

It’s hard to find the words to explain the secrets this album has to offer if you’re willing to surrender to it.  Musically, there’s nothing extraordinary about any single facet of The National, and yet they achieve a sound that is absolutely their own and like nothing else.  Matt Berninger’s deep baritone is the weighty centerpiece of the arrangements, which are simple and mellow and gorgeously pristine.  The creative use of rhythm gives a heartbeat to these preponderant hymns, reaching such an endearingly personal and intimate place that most musicians can only dream of.  “Fake Empire” was the first to captivate me, its modest piano lead softly backdrops the golden vocals, then gradually builds into a explosion of horns as the song peaks.  “Slow Show”‘ is another personal favorite; as close and charming as the first movement is, it’s the quietly passionate closing that melts: You know I dreamed about you/for twenty-nine years/before I saw you/and I missed you for twenty nine years.

3.  Billy Joel – The Stranger

If it’s matter of the heart, no one tells it better than the streetlife serenader.  Billy’s nakedly honest, blue-collar-rugged songwriting set to his virtuoso touch on the ivories is all the magic New York can weave.  Whether the storyteller, with the three-part masterpiece “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” the Romeo in his leave-it-all-behind anthem “Only the Good Die Young,” or the sage, in the sweet, piercing deconstruction of “She’s Always a Woman,” there’s only one Piano Man.  The Stranger is all the yearning, joy, bitterness, and vitality Billy has to give captured in one absolutely incomparable record.

2.  Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

What Pink Floyd achieved with Dark Side will likely never be matched.  The album breaks only once, as the record had to be turned over; the rest is a seamless, staggeringly intuitive tour of the darker aspects of the human experience.  Roger Water’s vision of a concept work covering the weight of time, the lure of insanity, the sorrow of war, the perils of wealth, and the final journey of death was realized in such grand fashion that it became a cultural icon almost immediately.  Beyond the peerless songwriting, the album was years ahead of its time musically and technically, every sound, every phrase envisioned and executed flawlessly in a time long before automation or digital recording.  And for all the precision and unrivaled musical crafting, it is rather the unclothed humanity flowing through its veins that makes the album so irresistibly potent and vital.  “Time,” with its ticking, inevitable introduction, rapier poetry, and slow-scorching guitar lead remains my favorite individual piece yet, while Claire Torre’s primal, wordless vocals over Rick’s subtle keyboard work in “Great Gig in the Sky” stands as one of the most powerful pieces of music ever recorded.  One of the most consummately perfect albums of all time, Dark Side of the Moon is pure genius.

1.  The Cure – Disintegration

My love affair with this album dates back almost half my life, and the years have done nothing but deepen my devotion.  From the opening, shimmering moments of “Plainsong” its lush, hypnotic whisper carries you into it’s delicate embrace and doesn’t let go until the final, wistful moments of the album slip away.  Though the songs themselves are unconnected, the spirit of Disintegration flows, creeps, dances, and shines throughout each, as they revel in extended prelude, swirl in reams of entrancing sound and lyric, and fade like vanishing fog.  Darkly alluring, these vast sonic landscapes blend the simple elements of echoing guitars, pulsing keyboards, and slithering bass into a kaleidoscope-tapestry interlaced with the precious, restrained tremble of Robert Smith’s voice weaving bittersweet melancholy into each thread.  Timeless and achingly beautiful, Disintegration is like nothing else on this earth.  Its heart beats somewhere beyond the boundaries of any other music.


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