The Velvet Teen1. The Velvet Teen – Cum Laude! (2006, Slowdance)

Everyone knows what it’s like to feel excited, but for years—since I was a kid—I’ve experienced moments of excitement in which I nearly lose control of my body. It’s just for a moment, when I think about something I’m going to do or see or someone I’m going to spend time with, all the usual reasons for excitement. It’s a wave that washes over me, and my whole body trembles. I’ve begun to think it’s a more severe kind of anxious anticipation than is felt by the average person. I was never able to describe it very well, but two of my favorite authors happen to have captured it perfectly.

In Jack Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose: a List of Essentials” (which I discovered—or was given—in college and which I have since come to hold in such high regard that at one point I toyed with the notion of having its 30 items tattooed somewhere on me so I could never forget them), Kerouac describes anticipatory excitement as “visionary tics shivering in the chest.” That’s how the feeling starts: with something exciting on the horizon, some reminder of why it’s great to be alive, it’s an actual, palpable sensation. But the moment when the excitement overtakes me is something even more powerful (weirdly, it often makes my eyes water and sometimes makes me cough uncontrollably), and I found a kindred spirit in Dave Eggers’s You Shall Know Our Velocity! After making a phone call arranging a particular set of travel plans (you should really read the book), Will, the protagonist, describes his excitement as follows:

“I hung up the phone, jubilant, and threw myself into a wall, then pretended to be getting electrocuted. I do this when I’m very happy.”

That’s it! That’s how it feels! When the wave of excitement becomes overwhelming, I want to respond in a physical way, child-like, something ridiculous and spontaneous and free of any motivation besides wanting to do something physical and ridiculous and spontaneous, because I’m just that excited.

All of this is me getting around to saying that here, in Cum Laude!, is an album that evokes that very feeling in me, recreates it, from beginning to end. It’s the soundtrack to my dizzying, uncontrollable excitement.

The album begins with an electronic howl, followed quickly by Casey Dietz’s spastic drumming. But this is just the beginning, and this is something different. Upon my first listen to this album, years ago, I realized I was experiencing something unlike anything I’d ever heard before. And there’s no hyperbole in that phrase. Nothing sounds like this. And it came out of nowhere. The band’s first full-length, Out of the Fierce Parade, was an incredibly mature set of intricate, emo-inspired indie rock, dripping with pretty piano melodies and lush strings. They followed with Elysium, a departure that found them ditching all electric guitars in favor of even more orchestral piano songs, slow and contemplative or adventurously rambunctious and sometimes overtly political. It’s hard to tell exactly what happened between Elysium and Cum Laude!, but something snapped—in the best way possible. Suddenly here was this manic, explosive set of songs with ADD. That’s where things got interesting.

Objectively, these are the ingredients that comprise Cum Laude!: electronic yelps and Nintendo-esque bleeps and bloops, hyperactive drumming, Judah Nagler’s unreal falsetto fed through a megaphone, layers upon layers of electric guitars and clever bass lines, and a sea of crazy synths and effects-treated pianos.

But it’s something bigger even than all of that. Nagler’s vocal melodies are unusual, but oddly catchy, and with the application of the bullhorn effect—that is to say, Nagler singing through an actual bullhorn, an effect he sometimes recreates at live shows—his voice becomes a different animal, powerful and primal, sometimes howling ferociously. His range is incredible, a voice that doesn’t sound like anyone else. And Dietz is phenomenal, operating on a whole other level than your standard mostly-just-keeping-time drummer. I would go so far as to say he borders on virtuosic. At times it’s incredibly technical drumming, going places where others would get lost. But he also knows when to rein it in, where to ease it down to pensive jazz-style drumming, and it’s that intuition that’s his ultimate strength. The two play well together, Nagler’s voice and Dietz’s Animal drums; a good example where the two collide with that “throw-myself-against-a-wall” excitement is found midway through “Rhodekill,” where the band executes a faux-fall-apart, everything dropping to a halt, then exploding back into action, in perfect time, with Nagler’s enthusiastic “Woo!” (Listen below to hear what the hell I’m talking about.)

The Velvet Teen

L-R: Josh Staples, Casey Dietz, Judah Nagler

What’s really incredible about this album, though, beyond the virtuosic musicianship of the band’s members, is Judah Nagler’s lyrics. They’ve always been clever and interesting, but somewhere between Elysium and this album, Nagler became wise beyond his years. I don’t know if he studied with a guru on a mountaintop, or just went through some fucked-up life changes and came out all the better for it, but out of nowhere here’s this young guy—around 26 years old when the album came out—who’s done some serious figuring it out. These are some of my favorite lyrics of all time; literally every song contains at least a line that sounds, to me, ultra-profound. I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve forged some of my own philosophies about life based on these songs. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to take you on a tour through these incredible words, starting from the beginning and ending with the end, because that’s the way it makes sense to me to do it. And a caveat: it’s entirely possible that I’ve misinterpreted some of these lyrics, but this is what I hear.

The album’s determined opener, “333,” seems to be a song about throwing aside the shallowness of the ego and just getting down to business, making things happen (“I took the greed out of my grin, and sunk my teeth into my work instead”) and about being yourself. “You are the person you’ve been always,” Nagler asserts. “You were just too young to know yourself back then.” It’s a way of saying something I’ve been trying to figure out for years: human beings are at their best when they’re young, when they’re children, and it’s a worthy goal in life to try not to forget that feeling, to recapture it in adult life.

“Flicking Clint” is track number two. As a quick foot-note, a second path of possible exploration, there seems to be a thread of subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) and occasionally crude sexual in-jokes running through the length of the album. The album’s title itself, obviously, can be interpreted in a couple of different ways, and if you capitalize all the letters in “Flicking Clint” the words look a bit like “fucking cunt,” if you squint. Then there’s the song “Gyzmkid.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is album is “sexually-charged” or anything ridiculous like that, but the topic probably merits more exploration. I’ll save that for another time. As for this song, it appears to be one about pain and sickness, but getting over both. “I’ve known pain,” he sings, “but never as much as on my first day. I don’t care; I do not remember it, and soon I’ll forget this as well.” To me that sounds a bit like a Buddhist meditation on suffering, or the slogan “This too shall pass.” Nagler also drops these incredibly intimate details about personal relationships into the songs, some more than others; I can’t help but smile at the beginning of this song when he sings, “I was on your side as soon as we met.”

“Rhodekill” is the aforementioned hyperactive beast with this slightly perplexing chorus: “Oh foolish, you’re too late! Foolie-coolie, you’re too late, too late.” It’s a song about growing up, that much is apparent. Among its first lines: “I was a child who never wanted to grow up.” Also: “So when I run, I run until dark, so I can’t see the mess I make.” He’s admitting to mistakes he’s made and how he’s been immature, but also looking to the future with an incredible sense of wisdom. “Our love is a fire. It can’t be controlled. Sometimes you’ve got to go slow.” But the song’s most climactic moment offers these brilliant few lines, fit to be repeated, like a mantra: “It’s where you are, not where you’re going, not where you’re from. You’re what you love, and that is all.” Brilliant! This in-the-moment spirit pops up all over the album. There’s more to come.

“False Profits” is arguably the album’s most straight-forward song, and easily its slowest. An acoustic guitar is prominent in this one, but over the top floats a stretched-out synth lead, following the guitar’s melody. Nagler’s voice is doubled, through the whole song, by breathy female vocals, whose harmonies are hard to ignore. When I sing this song in my head, I hear Nagler’s voice, but singing her higher parts. This one is a love song, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s some definite political commentary in here as well, and that’s hard to do. Ruminate on this:

“I tried to speak up, but I was cornered with a fool’s dunce cap. Yeah, I may be dumb, but I still have ears to listen. And I heard a rumor: you made a killing with the school budget, taxing the people from which you already profit. So where does it end? Go waste your time. It is hollow. My love, you don’t have to wallow in your sorrow. My love, you don’t have to steal or borrow. Go waste your time.”

It seems to be a critique of the unnecessarily political higher education system, and how you don’t have to be educated to be smart or to be happy, but I could be way off on that one. Anyway, it’s a subject I don’t think I’ve ever seen tackled in song before, and in that way the song is humbling.

Then: “Tokyoto.” Seizure-inducing hyperactive madness (and that’s not even taking into account that video)! Try to keep up! This song is one of the album’s more difficult to interpret, but from an imagistic standpoint it’s incredible: the vague, imaginative description of the speaker (“Oh, I was born a spark, and I burned, burned myself a watermark. I left myself a trail, to find my way when I fell astray”) contrasted with his impossible-to-be-misunderstood declarations (“Oh, I know I am going home, but I don’t know when”). I submit that this one is meant to be felt.

And we’ve come now to one of my favorites on the album, and, as it happens, one of my all-time favorite songs: “Noi Boi.” Remember that episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete when the younger Pete hears the band rehearsing in the garage (the band being Polaris, playing “Summerbaby”) and realizes he’s heard his favorite song? When I first heard “Noi Boi,” that’s kind of how I felt. Just floored by it. This one is packed with incredibly wise insights about the nature of relationships, and, magically, it seems to espouse just exactly some of my life philosophies. “If we die tonight I do not care,” goes the incredibly catchy chorus. “There will not be a me to be scared. And if we do not make it, I don’t mind. All I want is to sleep by your side. Too many people live imprisoned, stuck somewhere between the ‘is’ and the ‘isn’t.’ The night will pass and we’ll no longer think on what it was or what it wasn’t.” Again, there’s the living-in-the-moment attitude, the acknowledgment that people get bogged down with trivial matters, worrying about what’s past and what could be, instead of just enjoying life how it is. He goes on to sing my favorite verse: “I may never win this race; I may never have money on me. It all seems a lottery anyway. Got a job that pays my rent, and I can take you out now and then. It’s all about the time we spend together anyway.” So simple! So perfect! That’s how I want to live. There’s an emphasis there on what’s really important. It’s not about making money or climbing the corporate ladder or owning lots of things; it’s about people. It’s all about people. Life is impermanent, the self is impermanent, so people—right here, right now—are all we have. Fuck, man. This song gets me.

“Spin the Wink” is a magical, spritely song, big and soaring and triumphant. “I will make you turn my way,” sings a confident Nagler, “and do it all on purpose. Too many chances have passed me already.” It’s a song about carpe-ing the diem. After a break in the middle that sounds like a futuristic sitar (which I think is actually just a treated piano) and Nagler crying out, “Oh, give me your hand,” the song explodes back into the most triumphant thing you’ve ever heard. “Darling, let your fate come call on you. When you’re not here, you won’t forget what you are to me, and we’ll spend the week not sparing a wink. Say what you want to me.”

Following that is “Bloom,” in which nearly every line, after its cleverly symbolic opening, seems like—and is—good advice. “‘Oh, how I long to get my feet wet!’ cried and yelled the ice as it melted. ‘But will I know it when I see it? Or will I miss the only chance I ever had?'” Then, more of the time-is-fleeting-so-enjoy-each-moment philosophy: “No calendar can keep a secret. Time will tell, yes, time will tell. And this moment, you can keep it only for a while, and it will go, but you’ll be thankful—”

—and then here comes the single best piece of advice on the album, something I think about every day—(how did he get so smart?!)—

“—that you are not only judged by your messes, and not every word you say embarrasses. Not every wound received needs caresses. Some lessons are best learned through having less, and listening. So listen! Listen!”

It goes on with even more brilliant insight, but I should leave some of this for you to discover. Just know: the last two stanzas of the song are equally as enlightened.

Then: “Building a Whale,” another crazy, spastic song, with impossibly quick, tight, turn-on-a-dime drumming. Casey Dietz, you are a madman. There seems to be more wordplay at work here; at one point he definitely sings, “Hear my girlfriend cum loud,” and every time he sings “well” it also sounds like “whale.” It seems to be a song about jealously, about a girlfriend who’s been unfaithful. You can hear the anger in the song. But it’s intelligent anger. “So? Well?” It’s like an interrogation. “Is there a lie that you will not tell? There’s no reversing the spell of ‘If you don’t, who will?'” That last line is constantly caught in my head, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it means.

“In a Steadman Spray” is another song that sounds determined to make something happen. It’s a song about the way life marches on, whether you like it or not. It’s about the music industry (“forefinger blackened in song,” about playing guitar), about Nagler’s and the band’s participation in it, among other things: “They will say what they will say, but I’ve worked as hard as anyone else. Got the same fire in these veins: copper cords, yeah, electric tape.” There’s a certain ennui, a world-weariness in its lyrics (“Chains and tires till you can’t sleep, and all this to someday never wake up. And it never ends. No, it never ends”), and it describes the kind of helpless feeling that often besets modern youth (“It just hits harder every day, and the corporate hands tighten their grasp. How can I say anything? Got no funds, no representation”). There’s even a snarky condemnation of a shallow subculture, a bourgie affectation among his—our—generation (“Oh, the wait this year for the new Sundance independent films: oh, it never ends”). Similar in its political scope to “Chimera Obscurant,” the 12-minute epic from Elysium, “Steadman Spray” finds Nagler at the end of his tether (“Have we all gone to Tourette’s? … Oh, the world’s gone mad. Can you feel it now?”). But ultimately it’s a search for something below the surface, something better, and a reminder of what it is that’s really ours: “They can’t steal your suffering. They can’t steal your memories.”

I’m getting so worked up about all this. Goddamn, I love this album. Two more to go.

Judah Nagler

Judah Nagler and friend

In contrast to the raging-against-the-machine that is “Steadman Spray,” “Around the Roller Rink” is a masterfully-executed love song, the most innocent and wide-eyed and optimistic the album has to offer. I love everything about this song: the buzzy, playful intro, leading into the body of the song with a “ding!” like the sound of an elevator arriving at your floor; the noisy chorus with little glitchy flourishes; the rollicking, adventurous, guitar-heavy passage that dominates the song’s second half; and, of course, the lyrics. “Surely I would pass away if I let you go,” Nagler says plaintively, his voice humming beautifully through the bullhorn. And what follows, through a simple metaphor, is an incredibly charming, disarmingly earnest oath of romantic dedication: “And though the dance is as slow as sleep, and I don’t know whether I follow or lead, it’s the best thing that could ever be just to hold your hand and waltz around the roller rink.”

Speechless. Every time.

And finally, “Gyzmkid.” This is the song I play for people when I want to knock them on their ass. The drums pound furiously at the beginning, a fret slide beckons an eyes-narrowed, “let’s fucking do this” guitar line, and there’s Judah, asking, “Have you made your peace with fate? Have you resolved all those hated mistakes?” The whole first verse is him asking questions, questions that expose doubt and insecurity (“Do the things you desire let you remember what you wanted them for? When you’ve finally laid your claim, do you find that you just search all the more?”). But then it’s all immediately turned on its head: “Well, not me, ’cause I’ve got you, and you’re all I could ever want in this eternal moment!” The chorus is huge, a blast of guitars and synth and light-speed drumming, and this is that feeling, in a nutshell: pure, blissful, out-of-my-fucking-mind excitement. This is music that makes me feel excited to be alive. The album’s last line says everything all at once: “Trust yourself and the one that you love!”

Judah Nagler

Nagler prefers a different kind of microphone

And then it’s just about over. Drums pound under weird sound effects, and when they  drop out, it’s a beautifully human moment: the sound of people (presumably, the members of the band) playing tug-of-war with a dog, laughing.

Things tie themselves together in strange ways. Before I’d necessarily made the overt connection between this album and that indescribable feeling, I wrote a song for Old Radio, a song about that kind of excitement, a song that also ended up referencing The Velvet Teen. Twice in the song (its title, “Naked Girl Part Two,” itself a reference to an older Velvet Teen song), I try to describe the feeling. “You put the birds in my chest,” I sing early in the song, about that fluttering excitement, kind of like butterflies in the stomach, but more intense; later, I sing about “stumbling, coughing hard, excited, nervous shivers down my spine.” I tried to capture that feeling, tried to describe what it feels like in the moment. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now—words aren’t really doing the source material justice. As with all great albums, you just have to listen for yourself. So listen! Listen!

Click below to listen to “Rhodekill,” and make sure you have a wall nearby that you can throw yourself against.

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The National2. The National – Boxer (2007, Beggars Banquet)

There is an inherent flaw in writing personal mini-essays about some of your all-time favorite records, one I hadn’t foreseen until about halfway through this list: some of these records are so tied up with my life, so emotionally resonant, that it’s difficult to even put words down about them. It’s an extremely difficult—and sometimes embarrassing—task, and I’m not doing these records the justice they deserve. But I’m trying to get close, like trying to describe something indescribable. Case in point: The National’s Boxer.

I’m gonna be honest: from the solemn piano chords that open the first song, listening to the album as I write this, I’m already a little misty-eyed. It happens every time. And I know it’s gonna be another rollercoaster through this one.

If, in public, you were to ask me about The National—how I got to like them so much, where I heard about them, what they mean to me—I’d probably say, “Oh, it was that issue of Paste Magazine that named Boxer the best album of 2007,” or, “You know, through a friend.” But I’d be lying. That wasn’t it. I mean, I remember seeing that issue of Paste, and, admittedly, the first song I heard of theirs was their cover of “Pretty in Pink,” which I think I downloaded from Daytrotter or something. I came to The National late.

So how did it really happen? Here’s the answer: it was a girl. A girl I don’t know. If you’ll indulge me, and pardon a little sad-sap storytelling, we can really get to the bottom of this.

In 2008, I moved to Boston to be with the girl I was dating at the time. This was in April. I left on my birthday, the 20th, got in early that morning, the day of the Boston marathon. I’d arranged to sub-let an apartment from a man named Jed who spends every summer in Alaska, and loves it. He left behind a bed, a lamp, and a massive wooden desk in a huge, open room on the third floor of a house on Dana Street in Cambridge. I worked at Whole Foods, delivering groceries, and after she and I broke up, I did nothing but rent movies from the shop down the street from Whole Foods, go home, watch them, go to bed, get up, go to work, repeat. But Boston in general is a whole other, longer, sadder story (one I keep meaning—and hopefully, finally, will, one day—to publish in zine form, the whole fucked-up chronicle). This one little story happens about a week after I’d arrived in Boston. Through amazing luck, I won tickets to see Nerdcore Rising, a film about MC Frontalot and nerdcore hip-hop, during the Boston International Film Festival, with a free, exclusive performance to follow. Things were rocky with her from just about the first day I showed up in Beantown, so I spent a lot of time alone, and decided I wanted to see some other films during the film festival, because it felt like a big deal and because it took my mind off the loneliness. I went to a screening of a Famke Janssen film, Turn the River, where Famke herself answered questions after the film (she’s really tall, and she brings a Boston Terrier with her everywhere she goes. The movie was so-so). A few seats down, in my same row, sat a girl—she happened to be rather attractive—taking what looked like extensive notes during the movie. Following the Q&A, it was time to head across town—I don’t remember where these movies were screened; one was at the Brattle in Harvard Square, and there was a ride on the green line necessary between the two, so the other was in Brookline somewhere, maybe–to see Nerdcore Rising. I took a seat near the aisle, and in walked the same girl from the Famke Janssen movie. I smiled at her and she sat down next to me.

“Didn’t I see you at Turn the River?” she asked me.

“That was me,” I said, trying not to let on that I’d noticed her there too.

Her name was Kasha, it turned out—we were early, the theater was nearly empty, so there was time to chat—and she wrote for a school paper, possibly The Daily Free Press, though I can’t remember for sure, covering the film festival. After a ten- or fifteen-minute conversation, I had already developed a huge crush on this girl. We had a lot of favorite music in common, and conversation came easily, rare for me with strangers. And at one point, she asked, “Have you heard The National?” Instead of explaining, “Well, I’ve heard of them, and I’ve actually just heard one song, and it’s a cover,” I gave the easy answer: “No.”

She lit up a little and told me about them, how great they were, how they were coming to town soon and she couldn’t wait to see them, and at one point uttered the infamous line: “Oh man, I think you’d really like them.” Oftentimes when that’s said to me I don’t put much stock in it, because in most cases that means, “Even though I don’t know anything about your tastes in music, I really like them, so you should probably go listen.” But there was something about this recommendation. It stuck with me, and probably by the next day I’d acquired Boxer.

Like I said, more than anything, that’s the first sad chapter of a longer story, a chapter about how I already had a crush on another girl a week after I’d moved to Boston to be with one. About how I kicked myself later when, after the movie, she quickly departed, off to see another one, and I didn’t ask her for her phone number, barely registering how wrong that feeling was. About how I was a shitty boyfriend from the beginning. About how miserable my life was about to become.

The National's Matt Berninger

Boxer, along with WHY?’s Elephant Eyelash (see #9), became my Boston soundtrack. I listened to it mostly in headphones, mostly at night, mostly wandering around Harvard Square or riding the T aimlessly, overcome at some point each day with a wave of sadness in realizing I’d fucked everything up. But the album lifted me a bit, sad as it is. Lifted me, but more, I identified with it. “Guest Room,” a story about old lovers exploiting all-too-well-known weaknesses in one another, felt incredibly real, and I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to tell her, “They’re gonna send us to prison for jerks,” but told myself I should try to say things in my own words. “We can’t stay here,” I’d think. “We’re starting to stay the same.” “Fake Empire” was my anthem for the relative aimlessness of my life at the time. I was in a city I’d never considered moving to, alone. That song reminds me of Dana Street at night, because it’s the beginning of the album that I listened to countless times while walking away from the house, toward Mass Ave., headed for nowhere in particular. In Harvard Square I was the one “mistaken for strangers by [my] own friends when [I was] passing at night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights,” except it was Bank of America, one on every corner, and it was friends I hadn’t made yet—and, it turned out, would never make. The first time I listened to “Green Gloves” (“Falling out of touch with all my friends / They’re somewhere getting wasted / Hope they’re staying glued together / I have arms for them”), I was on the T, and I thought of Denver, and my friends, and I felt an out-of-body sadness on par with the time I lost my mind listening to WHY?’s “Waterfalls” (again, see #9 above). “Ada” and “Gospel” sound like riding up and down the long, long escalator beneath Porter Square, on my way to or from her house, trying at various points to make amends, for some reason having always reached the end of the album there. “Slow Show” was the difference in how things should be and how they were. “Apartment Story” sounds like the Charles/MGH stop on the red line, near Whole Foods, after work at night or meeting friends (the few I made in Boston) for drinks. This album is that city for me: sad, solemn, beautiful, complex, romantic, and funny in a tragic way.

I’ve written a slew of songs for Old Radio about my Boston experience, and one of them is about the other people I leaned on when I should have been leaning on the person I was there to be with. The first line of the song goes like this:

“A prophet brought me The National / Genius just happened to be a girl / Oh, I don’t need this.”

Unfortunately for me, the quickest way to my heart is through music—listening to it, talking about it, sharing it—and this girl, Kasha—I can’t even be sure that was her name—made very good on that weakness without even knowing it. I shouldn’t have let it happen, but it did, and The National always tugged at a guilty part of my heart that told me I’d found them through being dishonest. But it was never dishonest. I was being incredibly honest in admitting how I felt about that stranger. And that’s the worst part, that the feeling was honest, and natural. It’s still there a little, that feeling, that guilt, and maybe that’s part of why I like them so much. It’s all about conflict, isn’t it? Because of that, they’ll never get boring, and I’ll never get bored. This is music that reminds me how low I can go, how shallow a person I can be—but it’s by contrast, because Boxer is anything but.

Click below to listen to “Guest Room.”

The Walkmen3. The Walkmen – You & Me (2008, Gigantic)

I’m not ashamed to admit that, like many people, I’m sure, I was introduced to The Walkmen by a Volkswagen commercial. I don’t remember what happens in the commercial—probably a lot of shots of a sleek Jetta cruising while hinting at some heartwarming tale of the humans inside of it—but I distinctly remember hearing the underwater piano of “We’ve Been Had” and thinking, “What is this music?” A quick internet search got me my answer, and pretty soon I owned a copy of their first album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone. That was a pretty good time for me to find this music; the album came out in 2002, when I was newly ejected from high school, strolling about a college campus with headphones like I owned the place, and I felt undeniably “cool” listening to the roomy, tense, edgy Walkmen; I especially connected with lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s wiry, strained Dylan-esque yelps, and became enamored with the kind of imaginary New York City I heard in their songs. “Wake Up” made it onto nearly every mixtape I made in my first couple semesters of college. Years later, after spending some time with their more mature, razor-sharp Bows + Arrows, I’d tell someone that whenever I listened to The Walkmen I imagined Holden Caulfield wandering aimlessly, in existential crisis, around Central Park. I’d geek out about them with Nichole when I worked at the bookstore, fostering even more of a band crush when I heard they were working, collectively, on writing a novel while on tour. Nevermind the fact that I met them in a commercial; I was pretty enamored.

But nothing they did before could have hinted at what they’d make in You & Me.

“Well, it’s back to the battle today, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, ’cause tonight we’ll be crazy as kooks.” The declaration at the very top of the record, while it’s just a low rumble of toms and underwater bass guitar, before everything starts happening, is a microcosm of what’s happening with The Walkmen on this, their most recent (and most fully realized) album. They’re very serious, but there’s a playful romanticism in what they’re doing, and in everything Leithauser says. I won’t get into how Kerouackian he can be at times, but needless to say, I like what I hear. Leithauser and The Walkmen obviously revere another of my all-time favorite writers, Harry Nilsson—hell, they covered an entire album of his, song-for-song (“Pussy Cats” Starring The Walkmen, #48 on my list). Like him, they write bent, off-kilter love songs and unique little odes to NYC. But they’ve found a sound all their own, one that’s sort of otherworldly.

The band has always been fond of drenching everything in reverb, and that’s still the case on You & Me, but everything they’ve tried to do on past albums has finally come out, I imagine, just the way they wanted it to. More than probably any album I’ve ever heard, the drums sound like they’re in the same room, right next to you, warm and intimate even when they’re crashing down like they do in “On the Water.” And there’s one of the key words to describe this album: warm. I’m not sure exactly how to go about qualifying that; warm in sound, warm in emotion, warm in spirit. “In the New Year” is one of the best songs the band has ever written, an anthem for disaffected city kids or lonesome travelers to replace even “We’ve Been Had.” Its syncopated, waltzy, neon-lit chorus is the catchiest hook in my recent indie rock memory, and even after only a few listens it felt like a song I’d had with me for years and years.

I could go on and on about all the little nuances in the record, but what concerns me the most is the “you” in You & Me, the little hints at a great romantic relationship, like something from an old movie, but better, because it’s real. Or at least it’s real in the songs. I’m not saying that every “you” is a reference to the same person—on one of the songs, for example, I’m pretty sure the “you” is directed inward, at Leithauser himself—but there’s definitely something significant in the album’s title. Maybe if we go in order and pick out the little details, it’ll come together like some kind of outline for a short story about a personal relationship, a story called You & Me. As often as I’ve thought about this, I’ve never tried it, so let’s see what happens.

During the quiet lull toward the end of “Donde Esta La Playa,” Leithauser describes crashing a party and then drops the album’s first “you” in a line that’s almost embarrassingly personal: “I know that you’re married; the ring’s on your hand. So I didn’t stay ’til the end.” Unrequited love, anyone? This song is itself an entire short story in just under four minutes. But it gets better. “On the Water” hints further at a troubled romantic relationship. He tells her (“you”), “You know I’d never leave you, no matter how hard I try.” What a sentiment. “Everybody sees right through the static,” he goes on. “That is, dear, everyone but you.” Whether that’s a compliment or an insult remains to be seen. The references to “you” in “In the New Year” are a bit more optimistic. “I know you’re with me. It’s a point of pride.” To be with someone you’re proud of—that evokes a little swell of recognition in my chest. It goes on. “I’m just like you,” he shouts, “I never hear the bad news, and I never will.” I’ll spare you any references to my past personal relationships here, but I want to say I can relate. On “Postcards from Tiny Islands,” Leithauser makes a toast: “Here’s to you, and the stars above, the half-moon in your pretty eyes.” Then a (to me) very Salingerian moment: “This letter does it all. It’s too much to enclose. These postcards from tiny islands do more than you know.” It’s vague at this point, but there’s a definite story in all of this. “Red Moon” is the closest The Walkmen have ever come to writing a ballad, but theirs—like so much of this album—sounds timeless and warm, like old soul record. The simple declaration at the end (“I miss you. There’s no one else”) goes a long way.

Hamilton Leithauser

The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser

This brings us to the album’s middle, and, literally, its core, its heart and soul: “Canadian Girl.” This, my friends, is a song I barely have the ability to describe. As much Otis Redding as it is hip, New York indie rock, “Canadian Girl” is probably the best love song I’ve ever heard. “You are the morning,” Leithauser croons, “you are the night.” I was obsessed with this song for a solid year after the record came out—okay, I still am—and when I worked at the coffee shop, I’d sing this song every time I wheeled the trash out through the parking garage. My voice would echo like the reverb on the album. “So take my hand! The players in the band, they can always find some number that we know.” Horns swell and it’s magical, beautiful, majestic. “You will miss me when I am gone, but the happy music will carry on.”

The story goes on. “Four Provinces” is another New York party song, but the parties are from another time, somewhere in the past, elegant-yet-boozy, poetic through all the smoke and laughter. I like to think the “Leah” referenced in the song is the album’s “you,” the Canadian girl, because here’s another charming declaration: “Every bone in my body: broken one time or two. Every hour of the long day: rather spend it with you. Every year that I’m living: try to stick by your side. Sun goes down, moon comes up, the sky is black and blue. Here I stand, honey, with you.”

“Long Time Ahead of Us” is a quiet, starry-eyed love song that swells into something entirely bigger with its crucial, optimistic line: “Long time ahead of us. Good luck ’round every turn, now that I’ve got you.”

“New Country” is a forlorn, everything-has-changed kind of song that I’m not going to dissect. I’m going to post it below and if you’re interested you can see how it ties everything together. This one just hits too close to home.

If “Canadian Girl” and “Four Provinces” paint a picture of an ideal, dream-like existence and romance, the album’s final two tracks, “I Lost You” and “If Only It Were True” serve as a wake-up call, a reminder that nothing is perfect. “I knew you when I was young, the loveliest girl in town. I wish you were still around,” he sings of an idyllic, fantastic relationship long gone. “I was sleeping in the backseat when I got home. I was finally reminded I lost you.” It goes on. “If Only It Were True” is a rejection of that fantasy. “My head is full of dreams. It’s nothing new. But, baby, dreaming is all a man can do.” It’s a lament. “And when I’ve had enough,” he sings in closing, “then I’ll die in dreams of you.”

And then it’s over, a sad ending to a timeless, road-worn, bleary-eyed, beautiful story. No wonder this album’s right up my alley.

Click below to listen to “New Country.” And believe me, it’s better this way. If I had tried to write about it, you’d finally see me for the sappy sucker I am.

It’s coming down to the wire now—my three favorite records of the last decade. This is big. I wanted to make a note concerning a very important aspect of the top three that isn’t present in #s 4 and 5: lyrics. Words. A voice. While I love instrumental music, in which there’s a wider range of possible interpretations, allowing the listener to find his or her own meaning in the meaning, what I ultimately connect to is a voice, and the words it sings—or the way the voice and the words it sings fit into some really amazing music.

I just thought it was interesting that the bottom two of my top five—two in a row—were instrumental albums, but after Do Make Say Think, it’s all about the voice. And in my top three are three of my favorite voices, and some of my all-time favorite lyrics.

Anyway, enough theorizing. On to #3.

Do Make Say Think4. Do Make Say Think – Goodbye Enemy Airship the Landlord is Dead (2000, Constellation)

Although Godspeed You! Black Emperor are widely considered the forefathers of Canada’s dark, epic post-rock family, I’ve always greatly preferred the jazzy, cinematic bent of their musical cousins, Do Make Say Think.

In a lot of ways, this album represents everything this list is supposed to be about: it was released in 2000, so it’s been around for the full ten years in question, and over those ten years, I’ve listened to it countless times and never tire of those seven songs. It still stirs up strong emotion in me even after all these years, each song tied to some memory or some story or some fantasy in my head. And the amazing part is, I keep adding meaning to the music through its association with parts of my life, and all that meaning just stacks together and becomes something bigger. I recently read Cormac McCarthy’s chilling novel of survival, The Road, in three or four sittings, and each time, I allowed myself to listen only to Do Make Say Think. It was the absolute perfect music to go with the book, and now when I listen to their music there’s a bit of that in there as well: the man, the boy, the bullet with one gun left. It fits together perfectly.

The music itself is stark, relatively sparse, and sparingly produced. There are hints of smoky jazz, dusty Americana and even dark surf-rock within the album’s forty-eight minutes, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is timeless, challenging instrumental music, not always pretty, but always compelling. And its overwhelmingly cinematic quality is what keeps me coming back. “When Day Chokes the Night” is tensely repetitive until it spills into strange jazz fight music, horns twisting and wailing like an angrier, more aggressive Mulatu Astatke. “Minmin” moves at a pensive shuffle, breaking into a bright-yet-understated gallop for the song’s latter half. “The Landlord is Dead” is meant to be movie music, jazzy and ominous, the sound of something big about to happen. And happen it does. Twangy distorted guitars give way to a screaming, Godspeed-esque guitar assault that sounds like the zombie apocalypse (this song would have been perfect in 28 Days Later), a full-on violent storm that ends as abruptly as it started. “The Apartment Song” is a western movie send-up, spacious and open like the desert, mostly slow and deliberate, with a few jarring, dirty-guitar breakdowns.

Do Make Say Think

Triumph!

“All of This is True” is one of the album’s standout tracks, a long, slowly-unfolding story told with spacey organs, carefully plucked guitar lines, horns pulsing like blinking lights. Three-quarters into the song, a track of ambient sound reveals itself, the sound of people talking and children playing. The reverb-laden ride cymbal makes it sound like it’s snowing. The song’s last few minutes are composed only of percussion and this ambient crowd noise, the former slowly giving way to the latter. Faintly, before the song ends, you can hear a boy shout, “Merry Christmas, everybody!” and I smile a little every time I hear that. “Bruce E Kinesis” is a mood piece, with bending, droning organs and a chiming guitar loop and drums that sound like they’re coming from far away, maybe underwater. “Goodbye Enemy Airship,” the album’s 12-minute closer, has two distinct sections: a brooding first third with faintly triumphant horns buried deep in the mix and Shaft-like percussion, and then after a near-silent break, the song bursts back into the theme established by the opening, but with layers and layers of ambient noise that makes you feel like you’re floating in a stadium-sized planetarium—or maybe just actually in space.

The album plays like seven separate stories that contribute to a larger piece, some told-long-ago epic of human struggle, or maybe a love story. As is the case with a lot of ambient post-rock, the titles are vague, the story left mostly to the listener to figure out. And that’s most of the fun: figuring out what this music means to you. It’s impossible to adequately describe here what it does for me, but I can tell you this: in the movie in my head, Do Make Say Think compose the score.

Click below to listen to “The Landlord is Dead,” and insert your own zombie movie fantasies accordingly.

Explosions in the Sky5. Explosions in the Sky – The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003, Temporary Residence Limited)

If this doesn’t seem like an obvious choice on my part for inclusion in my list of top five albums of the decade—and, let’s face it, top five albums of all time—then you don’t know me very well. But if you’ve been with me in a car when this is album is playing, seen me turn toward the window and get real quiet, you can start to understand what it does to me.

A few years ago I fell hard for the “post-rock” genre, not dissimilar to way I fell hard for the “shoegaze” genre some years before that. I was suddenly enthralled by all this epic, cinematic music. After years of pop songs, growing up with KBCO and Oasis cassette tapes, the kind of dramatic, celebratory, adventurous music exhibited by Explosions in the Sky and their contemporaries was a revelation. Admittedly, my first deep foray into the genre can arguably be traced back to one of two places: one is the moment when I first heard Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “Storm,” particularly that 6-minute triumphant “Lift Yr. Skinny Fists…” passage. I was astounded, and played that segment of the song on repeat for the better part of an hour. The other moment of discovery took place during my first listen to mono’s 2002 monster One Step More and You Die, which Eric Peterson and I proceeded to rip off for years to come in our various band incarnations. And, granted, the post-rock genre itself is said to have its origins a little further back, in bands like Slint and Tortoise.

But for me, this is the one. The one by which all the others are measured. The one that has me going, “Oh, Caspian! These guys are great! They kinda remind me of Explosions in the Sky.”

In only five songs, this is one of the most intense musical journeys I’ve ever been on—and on and on, over and over, because it’s just that good. If you haven’t heard The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, think of it as a kinda-sorta post-rock concept album; the band has claimed that it was their attempt at writing love songs, and this intention shows through at every turn. It’s romantic, triumphant, heartbreaking, haunting, and beautiful. The only hints at any kind of connecting thread of a story come in the form of the album’s five song titles, but the music speaks for itself. “First Breath After Coma” is obviously a beginning, an awakening. A chiming guitar rings out alone at first, like light coming through closed eyes. Not long after, a kick drum heartbeat keeps time, and it gets to really sounding like a body waking from a coma, blood rushing back to the extremities, the first overwhelming perceptions of the world. The song gets big, but it’ll only get bigger from there.

“The Only Moment We Were Alone,” with its steady, soft metronome kick drum and then its crashing cymbals and bright call-and-response guitar phrases, has the quality of a scene in a film (both in title and in sound). Toward the song’s end, it explodes into one of the album’s heaviest moments, a deluge of distorted guitars and a near-constant wall of cymbal rush, whirling around in 6/8 time like some kind of waltz at the end of the world.

They're just these dudes

“Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean” begins the album’s darker middle period with a pensive, reflective moment that literally feels like an image of refracted light glimpsed from underwater. Here is when the album is most majestic and maybe most threatening. In the middle of the song, a strange, slightly discordant pair of guitars lead into an ominous chase-scene section, which at its biggest moment hurls itself forward at nearly punk rock velocity.

“Memorial” feels like the part in the story when hopes gives way to doubt and conflict, moving from light-and-airy to a darker, spookier, heavier period. But it’s really all just building up to the album’s fifth and final track.

“Your Hand in Mine” wastes no time in presenting itself as a gorgeous, emotive piece. Its opening guitar lines feel like a theme, a main title (and I’m not talking about the watered-down version used for the Friday Night Lights soundtrack; this here’s the real thing). It’s the sound of hope springing up through the cracks, and it’s almost impossible to believe that something this beautiful was composed on six-string guitars by four guys in their 20s. It’s radiant, joyous, and moving. It’s the feeling of something finally working out, of hard work paying off, of a happy ending for once. The drums build from a rattle-roll to rolling thunder to thunder cracks, and there’s undeniably something good on the horizon. The song’s final, loud moments are brief but intensely emotional, and then it’s just a chiming guitar fading into the distance and it’s done.

Something happened when this album was made. Something was just right, the chemistry between the four guys in the band, where they were in their lives, what they wanted to do. They haven’t achieved anything like this before or since, and it’s unlikely there’ll ever be another instrumental album that speaks to me the way this one does. Eric claims it as his favorite album of all time, and while it’s not quite there for me, it’s undeniable one of the most astounding things I’ve ever heard. Such joy and excitement! You can literally hear it!

Click below to listen to “Your Hand in Mine.”

Broken Social Scene6. Broken Social Scene – Feel Good Lost (2001, Noise Factory)

There are a few albums of instrumental music that, to me, exist almost on a different level or reality than music I listen to socially or for pleasure. I discovered a certain vein of ambient instrumental post-rock in high school with The Album Leaf’s One Day I’ll Be On Time (#26 on this list), an album I quickly became obsessed with. During my first couple years of college, when I was living on the fourth floor of a brick building on 6th and Pearl, I’d come home on spring and summer days, after school or a day at work, slide open the screen door to the balcony, sprawl out on the couch, put on the aforementioned Album Leaf, and read (and doze) blissfully. Those days were formative for me in terms of the music I listened to, and the music also informed the books I was reading. During this time I devoured all of Haruki Murakami’s back library, and slowly, carefully, lovingly worked through books like Franny and Zooey and Bonjour Tristesse and Lolita, books which now retain a kind of light, magical, summery quality in my remembrance of them, thanks in large part to the music I was listening to as  I read them. Those were carefree days, and One Day I’ll Be On Time was my go-to choice for a soundtrack.

That is, until I discovered Feel Good Lost. It wasn’t my first exposure to Broken Social Scene; that can be traced back to my days at Barnes & Noble, when Jake, the receiving manager, used to listen to You Forgot It in People at least once a week on the CD player in the stockroom. I’d wander back there, lingering a little longer than I needed to, and listen to the music and chat up Jake. Soon I was converted: I picked up the album and fell in love with it. It’s no exaggeration to say it didn’t quite sound like anything I’d heard before.

Once I’d spent some time with that album, I did what I do best: obsessively hunt down everything else the band has ever done (a tendency, I might add, that directly contributed to the fact that there are several albums each by several artists on my list, rather than only one album from an artist). This exploration led to Feel Good Lost, which quickly became my new flagship ambient album (right up there with Japancakes’ If I Could See Dallas). I’d be surprised if a week has gone by in the last couple of years that I haven’t listened to at least some of this album. According to last.fm, I’ve played Broken Social Scene some 1,800 times, more than any other artist–and that’s just the listens captured by the program that keeps track of what I play in iTunes. A vast majority of that number is repeat plays of Feel Good Lost.

If you’ve never heard it, this album sounds nothing like the noisy Broken Social Scene that would follow; they hadn’t yet developed the chaotic production values and irresistibly catchy songwriting that now defines their music. Back in 2001, before members of Metric and Stars and Do Make Say Think and Godspeed You! Black Emperor were properly folded into the massive Canadian collective, Broken Social Scene was just Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning. More of a recording project than anything they’d intended to play live, the album is instrumentally full, swimming through waves of synths, layers of airy, emotive strings, and clean, clever guitar leads, often backed by crisp live drums or ambient, glitch-inspired programmed beats. Many of the elements of instrumentation that would become familiar in later recordings are present on this album, but mostly in radically different form. The album’s closer, “Cranley’s Gonna Make It,” features what is surely the same banjo heard on “Anthems For a Seventeen Year Old Girl,” one of You Forgot It’s stand-out tracks, and Kevin Drew’s girlfriend, Leslie Feist (who has contributed vocals on each of the band’s albums, and who is a stellar musician in her own right—her album Let It Die is #63 on my list) provided effects-laden vocals on “Passport Radio.” If you pride yourself on being an (extremely) amateur indie music historian, like I do, you understand why it’s exciting to go backward and see all the parts put together so early in the band’s career. Their sound may have radically changed after this album, but it was all the same people involved, all the same minds. It’s cool to watch the creative process happen in reverse.

Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning

Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning

This, like most great music, is a bit difficult to label and describe. It’s definitely appropriate to call it ambient, but unlike a lot of experimental ambient music (μ-Ziq, or Aphex Twin’s electronic work, for example), it’s warm and organic, not repetitive or loop-based. It’s also often referred to as post-rock, but shares neither the epic, rising-and-falling dynamics of Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed You! Black Emperor nor the swirling psychedelia of Tristeza or Japancakes. As it turns out, the music, moody and atmospheric, makes for some excellent movie soundtracks, as evidenced by Half Nelson (which pulled several songs from this album) and Natural Causes (a low-budget student film I saw during the 2008 Starz Film Festival; the film used “I Slept With Bonhomme at the CBC” beautifully and, as it just so happens, illegally, and the inclusion of the song is but one of many reasons I came out of that film thinking it was one of the best I’d ever seen—even this teaser trailer still gives me chills).

Just in writing this, I’ve listened to the album twice through, in a row, and I just never tire of it. That’s one of the signs of a classic. And I still find new intricacies every time I listen. This is lifelong stuff; I like to imagine I’ll still be putting this on in ten years and doing the same thing with it: dozing in the sun or putting it on in headphones and wandering aimlessly, happily, feeling carefree and light. If you hadn’t already considered it, the title of the album is really the perfect way to describe how it feels to listen. Like the Ides of Space album I discussed at the #10 position, this is music that reminds me of easier days, of being a kid with fewer responsibilities, fewer burdens, and more time to enjoy how easy it can be to just exist.

Click below to listen to “I Slept With Bonhomme at the CBC,” and don’t blame me when the song makes you start wishing it was summer again.

Grouper7. Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (2008, Type)

Once or twice, I’ve let slip how much I love this album, and inevitably, no one knows what the hell I’m talking about. “The best way I can think describe it,” I say, “is that it sounds like Christmas and Halloween at the same time.” But odds are, if you press me about it, I’ll drop it, say, “I don’t know, man,” and move on. I’m a little guarded about this one.

The jet-engine rush that opens Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill is the loudest thing Grouper’s ever done, the loudest thing you’ll hear on this album. Aside from that, it’s quiet. There’s no drums, no percussion of any kind. The formula is actually deceptively simple: it’s one woman, Liz Harris, who weaves together, with each song, a pattern of guitar, keyboards, and breathy vocals like some bewitching, arcane spell. Her only musical disguise is a cloud of effects and tape noise. But underneath it all, it’s Harris and a beautiful, haunting voice.

One of the newer members of this prestigious list, Dragging was released in June 2008, and after only a year and a half with this album, I’ve already listened to it literally almost a hundred times in its entirety. It’s become something of a night-time staple in my bedroom, the perfect album to fall asleep to. But there’s nothing boring about it, nothing that should see it relegated to the realm of music that’s easy to listen to and easy to ignore and therefore easy to fall asleep to. This is, at times, dark, slightly unsettling music. But it’s also incredibly warm, and when you listen, especially in headphones, it feels close, like Harris is sitting next to you in a shadowy room, somehow making all these beautiful sounds come from such simple instruments. At times it’s utterly peaceful; “We’ve All Gone To Sleep” sounds like a fresh blanket of snow falling outside a dark window, and “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping” is almost the ideal song for a night-time drive, fuzzy and half-asleep, on a surreal trip from one town to another, a moment of solace during some personal existential crisis. My brain is overly cinematic sometimes, but these are the things I hear.

Grouper

Grouper at Serial Space, Sydney

Descriptions and comparisons are all over the place. On last.fm, Grouper is tagged as ambient, drone, experimental, shoegaze, ethereal, and psychedelic folk, just to name a few, I’ve described her more than once as “lo-fi shoegaze,” and a tour opening for Animal Collective says something about her appeal among “indie” music fans. But, really, nothing on this record sounds anything like Animal Collective, even at their most pensive moments, and none of those tags are a close fit, either. If Cocteau Twins are shoegaze and Grouper is shoegaze then that is an unbelievably broad genre; if this is folk, Bob Dylan must be spinning in his grave. Oh, wait. The only good way to describe it, besides the Christmas/Halloween metaphor used above, is like this: magical. Even on my first few listens, these vocal melodies sounded intimately familiar, though I knew I’d never heard these songs before. Familiar like I’d heard them in a dream.

I actually have kind of a hard time talking about this one, because every listen is so personal. This is never something you’d throw on at a party, or even just sitting around with friends. I’m relatively certain I’ve only ever listened to Dragging on times when I’ve been completely alone, walking at night with headphones or reading in bed or having strange black-and-white dreams (mostly inspired by the photo above, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen). I can’t really justify why I like this album so much, and I’m actually terrified that sharing this with anyone is going to ruin some of the magic for me, that people aren’t going to “get it” or appreciate it the way I do. But if you spend some time with it, you’ll learn to appreciate the ins and outs, the little things, the tape hiss, the siren-call melodies, and, one of my favorites, the sound of an amp clicking off at the album’s very end, a distinctly physical sound to tether the otherwise otherworldly sounds floating around the album, like coming out of a trance.

By the way: although the fact that Harris is beautiful, like a young Sylvia Plath, and dresses like a zombie in photos doesn’t necessarily factor into how much I enjoy her music or how talented she is or how much I revere this album, it definitely doesn’t hurt.

Click below to listen to “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping.” According to last.fm and my iTunes library, this is statistically my second-most-listened-to song ever, and my most-listened-to song of the decade by far. On several occasions, I’ve listened to it on repeat for longer than I care to admit.

The Weakerthans8. The Weakerthans – Reconstruction Site (2003, Epitaph)

In “The Reasons,” singer/guitarist/Canadian John K. Samson makes a lyrical list at the beginning of the song: “How I don’t know how to sing (I can barely play this thing), but you never seem to mind, and you tell me to fuck off when I need somebody to; how you make me laugh so hard; how whole years refuse to stay where we told them to (bad dog, locked up whining in a word or a misplaced souvenir); how the past chews on your shoes, and these memories lick my ear.” He goes on to explain: “I know you might roll your eyes at this, but I’m so glad you exist,” and then we understand, those are the reasons why, a list at first that seems so random, but like everything Samson writes, it all means something. Listening to this song, I’ve felt that way about certain people, about the world, and—cheesy as this may sound (“I know you might roll yours eyes at this”)—about the music of The Weakerthans themselves. I’m so glad that they exist.

Since I squandered my middle-youth listening to shitty electronic music instead of punk rock, which I should have been listening to all along, I didn’t know much about bands like Propagandhi, let alone the fringe-punk that followed, namely The Weakerthans, who began as a Propagandhi side project. Luckily, being that musically-aimless kid, I was open to—nay, thirsty for—new musical experiences to come along. I was also luckily fated (except I don’t believe in fate, so more like I was luckily thrust into the correct sequence of random encounters and experiences) to meet Courtney, who actually did spend her youth listening to punk rock (and more) and knew about most good bands before I did. Like some kind of brief but perfectly idyllic, movie script-worthy friendship, Courtney and I hit it off immediately, wrote letters, exchanged mixtapes, wandered around Denver, and generally did the things that friends do in a perfect world, if only for a little while. So far I’m three for three in hinting at larger-stories-within-stories in these Top Ten write-ups, because I tangle music up with the details of my life more extremely than anyone I know. That is to stay, the me-and-Courtney story deserves space somewhere else. But here’s where it’s relevant: on one of her earliest tapes to me, she lovingly pressed ‘record’ and then played “Plea From a Cat Named Virtute,” from the album I’m so affectionately dissecting now. Here comes the requisite hyperbole: my life has never been the same. Warning: hyperbole will likely continue through my description of this wonderful song.

“Plea” is a sprawling punk rock epic! The stuff of legend! Okay, maybe not. Here’s what it is: a song about a person, from the perspective of a cat. Specifically, it’s a cat speaking to his owner, a cat who can’t figure out why his owner doesn’t do much besides “drink and watch TV” (and “frankly,” Virtute says, “that thing doesn’t really interest me”). But in his innocent musings about the life of a human, Samson (by way of the cat) hits on something profound, namely how beautiful the world can be, and why are we so often obsessed with sitting around and missing it?

Canadians: so like us

There’s a lot to love about The Weakerthans, because they’ve pretty much got it figured out, as far as songwriting goes: mind, body, and spirit (in which “mind” is lyrics, “body” is instrumentation, and “spirit” is the way in which it’s all put together. What, you’ve never thought of music that way? Try it sometime. Like people, some songs are all body and no brain, some are the opposite, and the good ones have both in spades. I think about music way too much). On previous albums, there’s lyrical nods to New Order in punk rock songs and singing about the intention to hang a diploma on a bathroom wall. There’s politics and love songs, sometimes put together. There’s enough clever metaphor to convince even a successful novelist to pack it all in and buy an electric guitar. Samson was always a cut above his contemporaries in terms of sophisticated songwriting. Reconstruction Site, though, is decidedly more mature even than Samson’s precocious work on the first two albums. But despite things like references to Michel Foucault (“Our Retired Explorer”) and reoccurring melodic themes, like a kind of punk rock leitmotif (which serve as intro, interlude, and outro tracks, respectively), there is nothing pretentious or overwhelming concept-y going on. Each song is simply an eloquent description of some nuance of life generally unnoticed or unexplored by your average songwriter. What’s amazing about The Weakerthans—Courtney, have you ever played this game?—is that if you write out lyrics to any given song (or, if you’re feeling lazy, find them online, in places like, oh, I dunno, this one), in most cases they’re composed in complete sentences, and read like a beautiful short story or modern poem. It’s hard to do, but Samson and the band make it look and sound easy.

Unlike some of the albums on this list, though (see #7), from the very beginning my obsession with The Weakerthans has never been one I’ve held in secret, afraid that its exposure to my life at large will ruin some of its magic. Quite the contrary: maybe because I came to them second-hand, from someone I hold in high musical esteem, I wear my love for this band like a badge. I’ve listened to their songs about bus trips while on bus trips and songs about driving while driving, and in most cases those weren’t coincidences. I’m the first in a group to extoll the virtues  and the genius—yep, I’ll even freely use the word genius—of Samson and company, and if you’ve been over to my new house, you’ve probably already experienced the joy—or the discomfort, if you’re not a fan of the band—of me subjecting you to Fallow on vinyl. Stuart’s heard it a few time’s by now, anyway. Hell: the band’s name is in the choruses of one of my songs (“Worst Idea Theatre”), and I named my read-by-almost-nobody-but-me 2006 novel after a song from this very album, which is, as far as I’m concerned, their best, and the jewel in the crown of my appreciation for The Weakerthans. In writing this, I’m even reconsidering this album’s placement on this list; should it have been higher? No time for second-guessing now, but if I haven’t made it clear, this record really was life-changing for me in a lot of little ways, from the music I listen to and the music I play to the conversations I have and the things I write and the trips I take and the connections I make. Courtney, this is probably too much coffee talking, but our entire friendship may owe a debt of gratitude to The Weakerthans! And to think, I’ve never even been to Canada. But as with most music, there’s no way to understand it without listening. So listen!

Click below to listen to “Plea From a Cat Named Virtute.” If I made a “My 100 Favorite Songs of All Time” list, this would be dangerously close to the top.

WHY?9. WHY? – Elephant Eyelash (2005, anticon.)

My journey into and through the fucked-up, hilarious, pretty, and pretty painful world of WHY? is, appropriately, a strange one. I guess I saw them years ago, before I even really knew who they were. I was with Apryl Wheeler, and we listened to them in her car, and then we saw them, somewhere, sometime, at some show. I think it was the Larimer Lounge, but I really can’t be sure. Apparently they didn’t make too much of an impression on me at that point, but somewhere along the line I picked up Elephant Eyelash, and pretty much promptly forgot about that too. Cut to spring 2008, when I’d just moved to Boston. I was living on the top floor of an house in Cambridge, subletting for a guy who spends every summer in Alaska, in a room with nothing but a futon bed and a massive wood desk painted white. Anyway, that story is a long one, but it looks something like the opening to On the Road:

“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.”

Swap in WHY? for Dean Moriarty, girlfriend for wife, rearrange a couple other details, and that about covers it. In Boston I was depressed. Once the “miserably weary split-up” occurred, I had literally zero friends, and no idea why I was there. So I stayed, for a while. I listened to music on the way to work, I worked, I listened to music on the way home from work, I watched movies, I went to bed, repeat. That was my life. And on my days off, I wandered around listening to music.

And that’s when WHY? just sort of came to me. It’s depressed music, no two ways about it. Yoni Wolf, who at one point was WHY?’s only member, the man behind all the songs, writes about suicide and death—whether through cleverly disguised metaphor or right out in the open—in more than a few songs on Elephant Eyelash. “Act Five” is one of the saddest and most brilliant meditations on death I’ve ever heard. The title itself is a metaphor for death—the end of a play—and the chorus (“All the people who taught me card tricks are dying. I’ve been trying to steal my grandfather’s handsome from old photographs”) is fucking heartbreaking.

But the death is not what endeared it to me. I don’t think about dying as much as Yoni clearly does, and I was never going to commit suicide. I think I just wanted to listen as much as possible to the voice of this man who’d seriously considered it, and who also happened to be one of the smartest songwriters I’d ever heard. Suddenly, while I was wandering around in Boston’s rainy summer, I was drawn, happily, into Yoni’s world, a completely life on record, where the love songs mean so much more because of all the sordid details. “Gemini (Birthday Song)” became my early favorite, a writer’s song. From the opening scene of a girl cutting her toenails on a mattress to the staggeringly romantic declaration, “When we’re on different sides of the globe, I thought we’d keep our veins tangled like a pair of mic cables,” the details are almost awkwardly, painfully clear, the images concrete. In a country mostly dominated by stupid, vague pop music, here was something completely opposite.

WHY?: music for reading books about having sex to

Once, late in my Boston misadventure, some time in July or August, maybe, I was listening to Elephant Eyelash while riding the green line through downtown somewhere. I was feeling apathetic that day, sort of numb. Maybe I’d already decided to move back to Denver. Can’t remember for sure. But I was just staring at people on the train without really realizing I was starting. I was even sort of ignoring the music, because by that point, just a few months after I’d re-discovered it, I’d already listened to Eyelash dozens of times. But suddenly I was hearing “Waterfalls,” the sad piano, the shuffling, scraping percussion, and Yoni’s unsteady voice: “The erosions cries cause make whiskers prematurely sprout in men, and in women, homogenize complexion, diluting pigment ’til the whole face is washed with a slight mascara tint”—a song about crying—and then those steady booms just before the chorus kicks in: “Your face never forgets a cry. Your face never forgets a cry, like trace remnants of acid in your spine.” I found myself in maybe the saddest moment I’d ever experienced alone. I was probably close to tears. And I was just staring at people on the train. It was probably terrifying for the other passengers.

But the thing about WHY? is that it’s not all sadness. This is a cliche, but it’s true: without sadness you can’t truly appreciate beautiful. And, man, there are some beautiful lines on this album. On “Sanddollars,” Yoni articulates a feeling I’ve had countless times before, the desire to live life itself more musically: “I wanted to breathe on beat, and go a fifth higher than my physical voice was coined for.” Clearly, Yoni’s background in hip-hop didn’t hurt in preparing him to write pop songs with such eloquent lines. From “Speech Bubbles”:

“The rain is millions of tiny speech bubbles unused, the collected breaths of mutes and all our silent exhalations where we should have put words, or words we had no one to tell, emptied from clouds like clearing horns’ spit valves, coming back to us now to remind us what we meant to say, or that we meant to say something.”

That’s a complete—and beautiful—sentence, one that could only have sprung from the mind of a man who sees value even in writing about things as trivial as “a poster of some Asian mountains that says ‘patience’ in a funky italics.”

My obsession with WHY? spread quickly during that summer in Boston, and didn’t end there. The follow-up to Eyelash, Alopecia (#13 on my list—also pretty close to the top), was another revelation, another rainy-day-spent-in-headphones staple, and I spent hours on buses between Boston and New York and New York and Philly listening to the older stuff, the rough 4-track recordings with an even-more-nasally-voiced Yoni singing about chess players and clowns with knives. I was even supposed to see them, in Boston, had a ticket and everything, and then my life turned upside down again, and I moved home, and then I went to see them in Denver instead, and it was strange, and I wrote an essay about how it was strange, and generally thought about it all far too much. But nothing that’s come before or since has quite punched me square in the gut the way that Eyelash did, the way that it’s just a whole life laid bare for anyone who wants to hear it.

Click below to listen to “Waterfalls.” Try not to have a breakdown like I did.

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Patrick Kelly (pictured, partially, above) is 25 years old, a Bachelor of Writing Good and Bullshitting, and a total mess. See "The story" up top for more information.

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