Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Daunting Task Force

My good friend Kevin recently published a list of his top five albums. I've always wanted to do this, but most "Top 5" lists in my life are too tentative to document. My attentions are fickle.

I've learned that growing up can change the way you feel about an album, the same way falling in love can change the way you feel about a song. It's the same with all art, I think.

But these are the albums that have always been there, or that have come into my life so boldly and explosively that I can only assume that their effects will be lasting. There are five of them. I think I might be ready.

1. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

There were seventeen tracks on Wilco's previous effort, Summerteeth, but this time, one of the most inventive and versatile American rock bands did it right, releasing a cohesive and groundbreaking 11 track album that would forever change the way they made music. The critical and commercial success of "Yankee" allowed Wilco to grow as a band, and listening to this album made me forget that any other band in the world existed.

The album feels dreamlike. It lets me into a new place, where negative space becomes important, where descending chimes and sleepy fragile vocals play with underwater guitars, and where everything echoes.

I listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot two summers after it was released. I'm actually ashamed of this fact to this day. Though I was familiar with Wilco, I had never listened to much of their music, except for a few tracks off of Summerteeth. Now I can't make it through a week without immersing myself completely in the final dissonant measures of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," or the playfully nostalgic pounded piano chords at the beginning of "Heavy Metal Drummer." Every time I hear "Reservations" I fall hopelessly in love.

2. The Police: Outlandos d'Amour

Even finding out the sad news that my cat had died while I was listening to "Born in the 50s" did not ruin this album for me. It says something that I only own it on vinyl; there's no skipping tracks with this one.

This is the time in the Police's career that I admire most. Nobody knew what they were supposed to sound like, and I think they didn't either. And on this album, it sounds like they didn't care. Part reggae, part punk, all pop genius, "Outlandos" has been one of my favorites since I was thirteen.

It's driving, it's fierce. Sting's vocals wail and gargle and scream. Everything is tight when it needs to be, and cacaphonous when appropriate. It's probably measured and calculated like most things that Sting does, but it doesn't feel that way. It makes me go nuts.

3. Ellis Paul: Live

I've always hated live albums because they never sound like they should, and because there's always an annoying person in the crowd who makes jarring sounds at inappropriate times. But this is a folk concert. And it's one of the most intimate folk concerts I've never been to. When Ellis breaks a string he reads an original poem whilst changing it. His guests include Patty Griffin and Chris Trapper. He jams on "Autobiography of a Pistol" and "Martyr's Lounge," and whispers and coos on "Last Call" and "Conversation With A Ghost."

Ellis is a storyteller, and each one of these songs moves gracefully and keenly, like fiction you want to believe. His soaring vocals are unmatched on any of his other studio efforts. It's two discs of modest, heartfelt pleasure. Every time I hear it I pick a new favorite song. Ellis Paul is simply one of the best living songwriters, and this is him, essentially. It's all you need.

4. Weezer: Pinkerton

Screw The Blue Album! Regardless of how much Rivers Cuomo seems to hate Pinkerton, I think it's one of the strongest rock albums I've ever heard. This was a time when the guys of Weezer weren't afraid to be playful. Their self-deprecating, angsty lyrics are the soundtrack of adolescence. But they aren't pandering to anybody. They're just playing fun, kicky, rocky, pop songs.

I miss the days when the boys would make strange noises in their songs, and sing along with guitar solos. Weezer was too big to play in the garage at this time, but this album feels like it belongs there. I love it. It makes me feel like I fit in somewhere. It always has.

5. Sufjan Stevens: Seven Swans

Sufjan Stevens saved me in a way. His music and Over the Rhine's music finally gave me positive feelings towards Christian artists. This wasn't annoying praise music. This was lyrically dense, intelligent, complex stuff, that just happened to have Christian themes.

One of the most intimate, sensitive, and heartbreaking albums I've ever heard in my life, Seven Swans makes me feel like a human being every time I listen to it. The melodies, the banjo, the haunting starkness, in contrast with Stevens' other efforts, are what makes "Swans" so special. The first time I heard it, I was driving home from the library, and it began to rain. "To Be Alone With You" came on just as I pulled into the driveway, and I remember sitting in the car and listening to it all the way through. That's what Sufjan makes you do, especially here. You have to stop and listen to all of it.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Things left in the pocket of a winter coat

I can shapeshift in the fall. I can slip into things and realize that they feel familiar. I can be more restless, but I can also be more patient.

I was quiet in my mom's car, getting my sense of hearing confused with my sense of feeling, exhausting my memory. The last time I heard this album all the way through without stopping, I had a broken heart. I basked in melancholy on my roommate's futon, under piles of blankets in the middle of the day with the blinds closed tight, trying to create the illusion of night for dramatic effect. The feeling of hurting someone else made my skin feel pinched. I was punishing myself. The time before that, I was reclined in the driver's seat of my Toyota Echo on the night of my high school graduation party. Guests had gone, I was alone with the windows up. This album was a graduation present. It was hard to sleep.

Traditionally, this is the time of the year when I want to say the most, but when I feel the least eloquent. Nothing that I write will match the importance of what is happening around me, or inside me.

I'm unpacking sweaters that I didn't know I had. I'm recalling moments that I'd similarly forgotten.

This is the ticket from the theater in the park. The wrought iron table teeters, my right wrist slips across the page of a notebook, the spine creaks when I press too hard. This is the end of the summer and I'm writing this. And I can smell popcorn that doesn't smell like popcorn, but more like a high school football game, or the floor of a movie theater on Lee that we've just trodded into, wrapped in wool scarves and watching our shoulders moisten as the flakes melt under soft yellow lobby light. Now we are at the corner, and we've said goodbye too early and isn't it strange now that we must continue this way. This is you and me drinking coffee from clear cups, being diplomatic about the last bite of cheesecake, which has fallen over onto its side in surrender, and I'm realizing that you are leaving. Now I understand why you came, and why you stood for so long under the hot lights of the stage. Not because of the cold, but because you weren't sure. And at the time, neither was I. I kept a few things. When I get my phonograph fixed, I'll think of you again, when I play them.

This is me promising that my attentions will not die with a season anymore. I will play the same two-disc set all year long--perhaps more rigorously at times. And I will keep one of my sweaters folded on the top shelf of my closet.