I turn twenty-nine in tomorrow.
In honor of the beginning of the end of my twenties, here are twenty-nine albums (one from each year of my life so far) that have really spoken to me in some way. Although these are not necessarily my favorite albums of all time (though many of them would make that list), these are my favorite albums from each year of my life.
1986: Paul Simon: Graceland. Paul Simon collaborates with African musicians and creates a one of a king masterpiece. My dad had this one on cassette tape when I was a kid. I rediscovered when somebody played it a party when I lived in Johnson City. Still one of my favorites.
1987: Tom Waits: Frank’s Wild Years. The final part of Waits’ Rain Dogs trilogy, and his strangest record up to this point. It has the sound of Coney Island sometime in the 1920s. I first discovered Waits in high school, and he’s been my favorite solo artists ever since. There’ll be a lot of him on this list.
1988: R.E.M.: Green. Not my favorite R.E.M. album, but this is as good a place to start as any if you’ve never listened to them. It’s the perfect transition between their earlier Athens-based indie rock-period and the major label super-stardom that would follow in the 1990s. The album also features the first time Peter Buck would use the mandolin extensively in the band’s arrangements, a distinctly southern influence that would appear again in their 90s work.
1989: Bob Dylan: Oh Mercy. Legendary songwriter Bob Dylan teams with legendary producer Daniel Lanois and once again reinvents himself after floundering throughout most of the 1980s. “The Man in the Long Black Coat” is the stand-out track on this one, a ballad with religious and Western overtones. Other notable tracks include “Ring Them Bells” and “Shooting Star.”
1990: Depeche Mode: Violator. I have a confession. I didn’t discover Depeche Mode until two years ago. I found this album in the bargain bin at Walmart and didn’t stop listening to it for a solid month. “Personal Jesus” has been covered by everyone from Marilyn Manson to Johnny Cash, and this album arguably laid the groundwork for the electronic industrial of bands like Nine Inch Nails.
1991: Nirvana: Nevermind. The album that launched Kurt Cobain to into the reluctant role of “voice of a generation.” A true rock and roll classic. Enough said.
1992: Tom Waits: Bone Machine. Waits completely reinvented himself in the 1980s from the role of drunken crooner into the role of a true avant garde artist, with his wife and songwriting partner/co-producer Kathleen Brennan helping facilitate the change. Here, Brennan’s role becomes even more important in Waits’ work as we really hear the influence of Captain Beefheart and see why Waits is regarded as hero in the primitive and punk movements. This album also has a distinctly rural flavor that I love. I’ve read that most of it was recorded in a barn, and it definitely shows, most notably in the upright bass and dobro based Gospel blues of “Jesus Gonna Be Here.” The songwriting on this is album is some of the best of Waits’ career in a songwriting career that is right up there with Dylan’s. Arguably Waits’ greatest artistic achievement.
Honorable mention also has to go R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, possibly the best album of their career.
1993: Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream. 1993 was a year full of great music, so this was a really tough one. With songs like “Disarm,” “Mayonaise,” and “Today,” I have to give Billy Corgan and company the edge. Honorable mentions include Counting Crows: August and Everything After, Pearl Jam: Vs., Radiohead: Pablo Honey, and of course, Nirvana: In Utero.
1994: Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Sleeps With Angels. Partially inspired by the death of Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain, Sleeps with Angels is Neil Young’s most haunting and under-rated album. A bittersweet lament with spiritual overtones, I remember thinking, even as a kid when my dad bought it for me as a seven-year-old (I’ve always been a Neil Young fan) that this album sounded very different from the Neil Young material I’d heard before. This is probably the best that Young’s backing band Crazy Horse has ever sounded, and it also marks Young’s final collaboration with longtime producer David Briggs, who would die shortly after the album’s completion. The end of an era from the godfather of grunge.
Honorable mention for me personally has to go to the final real Pink Floyd album (I don’t include The Endless River), “The Division Bell.” This was the band’s second album without longtime bassist/chief songwriter Roger Waters. It’s also the first album that I ever owned on CD. Though the lyrics aren’t what they were with Waters at the helm, musically, the band hadn’t sounded this on top of their game since Wish You Were Here.
1995: Smashing Pumpkins: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Speaking of Pink Floyd, this is the greatest double album since the Wall. Corgan and company spread their wings artistically, and give us some of the finest songs of the 1990s. The radio-friendly pop of “1979,” and the symphonic-driven “Tonight, Tonight” show us the band’s softer side while “Zero” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” are some of the finest hard-rock anthems of the time. The best thing about Mellon Collie is its diversity. With twenty-eight songs total, there’s literally something for everyone here.
1996: R.E.M.: New Adventures in Hi-Fi. The band’s final album with drummer Bill Berry, and what a way to send him off. Recorded during their North American tour, the album is a showcase of why R.E.M. was considered one of the best bands of the time with everything from rockers like “Leave” to the understated acoustic folk of “E-Bow the Letter” having a place among these fourteen tracks. Though not their best album of the decade, this is my favorite album released in 1996.
1997: Radiohead: OK Computer. This was such a tough choice as Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind was also released in 1997. At the end of the day, I have to give a slight edge to OK Computer. This album introduced me to Radiohead, and all these years later, it’s still one of my favorite albums of all time. A masterpiece in every way and foreshadowing of the band’s more experimental work in the new millennium, there’s really nothing I can say about it other than if you have not listened to this album, stop what you’re doing and go find it.
1998: Dave Matthews Band: Before These Crowded Streets. The peak of DMB’s career, everything about this album is perfect. Boyd Tinsley’s violin, LeRoi Moore’s saxophone and various wind instruments, and Tim Reynold’s electric guitar interplay beautifully with each given a chance to shine, while Matthews crafts the best songs of his career, using his odd vocal techniques to even greater effect than on their first two major label albums. Rounding out the rhythm section is Stefan Lessard’s bass and Carter Beauford’s drums, with a host of guest players including Alanis Morisette, Bela Fleck, and the Kronos Quartet making appearances throughout the album. Never again would the band make an album this beautiful or this dark.
1999: Tom Waits: Mule Variations. Waits returns to the boneyard once again and crafts one of the most personal albums of his career. More polished than Bone Machine and less experimental than his eighties work, Waits shows why he’s considered one of the greatest songwriters working with the album including ballads like “Hold On” and “Georgia Lee” to bluesy numbers like “Cold Water” and “Get Behind the Mule.” Also, when I die, you all better damn well play “Come On Up to the House” at my funeral. This wasn’t my first encounter with Waits’ music (that would be Alice), but this was the album that got me hooked, I discovered this album as a sophomore in high school. If only I could discover it again.
2000: Radiohead: Kid A. OK Computer saw Radiohead beginning to experiment with electronic music. This album sealed their reputation as musical geniuses. “Idioteque” was the first thing I ever heard from Radiohead, as I saw the music video on MTV 2 late one night. Simply put, I had never heard music like this before, and it blew me away. To this day, this is my favorite Radiohead album.
2001: Bob Dylan: Love and Theft. This was the first Dylan album I ever really listened to, and it’s still one of my favorite albums of all time. After the musings over mortality that marked much of Time Out of Mind, Dylan comes out swinging with some of the best lyrics of his career with his best backing band since, well, the Band. These are songs that only an older man, full of world weary wisdom yet too much of a son-of-a-bitch to die, could write. I hope to one day be half this cool.
2002: Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. What can I say about this album? A combination of experimentation and folk-rock that never fails to disappoint, every track on this album is a finely crafted masterpiece. Jeff Tweedy and company deliver. Big time.
2003: The White Stripes: Elephant. This album was my junior year of high school. “Seven Nation Army” and “Ball and Biscuit” saw the mainstream embrace Jack White as a guitar god. I just really dug the color scheme.
2004: Tie: Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose and Tom Waits: Real Gone.
Van Lear Rose: Speakin’ of Jack White, how about we team him up with Appalachia’s own country music legend, Loretta Lynn? Lynn shows that she’s still got it as both a singer and a songwriter while White tries his hand at producing. The result is a modern day country music classic that was largely ignored by the mainstream country establishment. The album still managed to win a Grammy for Best Country Album. Not bad, Jack. Not bad at all.
Real Gone: Waits incorporates elements of hip-hop into his music for the first time, with samples and beat boxing being used to great effect on many of this album’s sixteen tracks. This is also the first Waits album to feature none of his signature piano playing, with electric guitars, found percussion, and kick ass take-no-prisoners band making this the loudest, most distorted, heaviest album of Waits’ career, like Bone Machine on acid and steroids. The spoken word “Circus” and “Don’t Go Into that Barn” are downright creepy while even the quieter moments like “Dead and Lovely” and “How’s it Gonna End” are full of murder, mystery, twisted tales, and broken promises. Waits would also write his first protest song on this album, “Day After Tomorrow” an acoustic ballad about a soldier longing to be home from the battlefield. Though reportedly written with the Iraq invasion, the song could be about any soldier in any war.
2005: The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan. Let’s face it. During this time, Jack White was unstoppable. Get Behind Me Satan is the White Stripes’ most experimental work, and in my opinion, though I know it’s an unpopular one, it is the band’s best album. White seems to be fighting back against the mainstream success of Elephant here with electric guitar largely taking a backseat to acoustic and piano based arrangements. The vibraphone even manages to make an appearance.
2006: Bob Dylan: Modern Times. Dylan continues his latter day resurgence with songs like “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Nettie Moore,” and “Ain’t Talkin’” showing that he is still rock’s finest poet and one of its best bluesmen while “Working Man’s Blues # 2” sees Dylan channeling the ghost of Woody Guthrie once again in a song about the trials of the working poor.
2007: PJ Harvey: White Chalk. Harvey, before known as one of the biggest badasses in women’s rock, hangs up her electric guitar and sits down at the piano. The result is one of the most haunting and heart wrenching albums I’ve ever heard. The album opens with the foreboding line, “As soon as I am left alone, the devil wonders into my soul,” in “The Devil” and closes Harvey’s banshee wail in “The Mountain.” In between are nine of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. If ghosts could make music, they’d make White Chalk.
2008: Coldplay: Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends. I lost my baby cousin the year this album came out, and I have to say that this album helped get me through it. Coldplay creates their masterpiece, and the result is breathtaking. Full of gorgeous production and breathtaking arrangements, this is pop-rock at its finest: uplifting, soulful, intelligent, and beautiful.
2009: Vic Chesnutt: At the Cut. Sadly, Chesnutt would commit suicide shortly after this album’s release, and there are definite hints, if not outright signs, of the tragedy to come in the album’s lyrics in songs like “I Flirted With You All My Life” and stormy musical arrangements like the brooding opener “Coward.” Other stand out tracks include “Granny” and “Chinaberry Tree.” A tragic farewell to one of the most under-rated songwriting geniuses of our time.
2010: Bonobo: Black Sands. This mostly instrumental album from British DJ Bonobo is one of the most relaxing albums I’ve ever heard. Lavish arrangements and groovy beats meet with Eastern and jazz-influences. If you just need to chill for awhile, you’d be hard pressed to do better than this.
2011: PJ Harvey: Let England Shake. An album about the ravages of war, Let England Shake is Harvey’s most political work to date. It’s also her most beautiful. Most of the songs were written on autoharp with the instrument being featured prominently on most of its twelve tracks. Like a female version of an Old Testament prophet, Harvey calls out the hypocrisy and violence of our time. A modern masterpiece in every sense of the word.
2012: Bob Dylan: Tempest. The body count on Tempest is high. In nearly every song, someone’s drying a violent death whether its John Lennon being shot in the back in “Roll On John”or the sinking Titanic carrying its passengers to an icy and watery grave in the title track. When people aren’t actually dying, Dylan is threatening to have his dogs “tear you limb from limb” in “Pay in Blood” and demanding the bar keep plays for his “flat chested junkie whore” in “Scarlet Town.” Dylan’s voice fits the lyrics as it has now deteriorated to the point that it sounds as if he’s been gargling lava while shooting straight moonshine. Despite the ravages of age, Dylan assures us he “ain’t dead yet” and “his bell still rings” in “Early Roman Kings.” Even though time has left him ragged, Dylan has rarely sounded more on top of game.
2013: Phosphorescent: Muchado. “Song For Zula” is one of the most beautiful indie rock ballads in recent memory. The rest of the album is tinged by heartbreak and hopeful melancholy. Recorded in singer/songwriter Matthew Houck’s makeshift studio, the album’s production has an unfinished quality to it that some may find challenging. That doesn’t diminish the album’s overall power.
2014: Sun Kil Moon: Benji. Singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek, aka Sun Kil Moons, presents stream-of-conscious lyrics about family, mortality, and the meaning (and possible meaninglessness) of life over mostly acoustic arrangements. A deeply personal album that, in my opinion, was the best album of 2014.
2015: This year ain’t over, so I’m not going to cast my hat on this year just yet. I definitely have to list Modest Mouse’s return, Strangers to Ourselves, as a rock frontrunner, although the infectious hip hop of Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta” featured on “To Pimp a Butterfly” has also got my attention. We’ll see where the year goes.