Three Decades of Albums, Part Two

I think about music and how music has changed me over the years and I thought it’d be fun to look back and pick a single album from each year of my life and look at how it influenced or helped me or even was just, a slice of life.This is part two so if you missed part one please go back and check out what this is all about. I feel like I should mention these are just albums that influenced me and not like, a best of ever list or something. Honestly my taste in music is kind of blah I guess and I’m not a professional of any stripe.

Also I think it’s worth noting again that these are just the albums that had the biggest impact on me during any given year and there were likely songs, singles, or artists that may have been better or more important in my music collection but I thought since I always tell people I’m not “an album person” that this would be an interesting way to look at things.

1997 (Age 11)

Ben Folds Five – Whatever and Ever Amen

I am fairly certain that “Song for the Dumped” was in the background of a show on MTV which is what led me to ask people on the internet what the song was. After a few days back and forth on a college Yahoo! group I probably shouldn’t have been in, it was relayed to me that it was Ben Folds Five. That very day (or probably several days later) I went out and bought this CD. The album opens upbeat and exuberant and then by track two starts crushing you in to small pieces. Beyond the tone of the album, the piano indie rock just on the edge of pop that is Ben Folds Five was a refreshing change of pace for me.

Unfortunately, this has all the marks of a freshman album. The album waffles back and forth sort of aimlessly between the deep lows in “Smoke” to almost too excited “Kate” and never really seems to find a space to take a breath. Obviously the song that shall not be named is what shot Ben Folds Five to their ultimate intense fame and it is an exceptionally well put together piece but for me it was always “Selfless, Cold, and Composed” that shined on this album. It makes a chasm between an amusing sounding song and the reality of a soul crushingly distant partner that you don’t love but you love leaving even less. Looking back this album still holds up surprisingly well but I find there’s not much beyond the surface and I rather prefer Ben Folds’ solo material but I do get to thank the internet for originally finding me this album. And that says a lot about my life at age 11.

1998 (Age 12)

Third Eye Blind – Third Eye Blind

Looking at the track list of this album made me remember not just how much I used to listen to this album, but how a surprising number of these songs were big hits for Third Eye Blind and they basically never really re-captured an audience after this album. This album is strangely touching. It includes an ode to narcolepsy, tackles the difficult emotions of suicide, and drug addiction all made up in the form of pop ballad for the masses. It does so unflinchingly and in a way that is genuinely catchy.

I have some personal difficulty listing to “Jumper“, the smash hit that ended up hitting a little too close to my life but I find tracks that I didn’t love as much as a child like “Motorcycle Drive By” got better with age. Two of my favorites are “London” with its frenetic energy paralleling a couple fighting and “I Want You” a love song on the back of an interesting back beat and lyrics of professed want mingled with images of a world crumbling without a worry. Undoubtedly for me, both got better with age. I think it’s easy to write off bands that get really big and never produce more hits but I don’t know, there’s some special charm in them too.

1999 (Age 13)

NIN – The Fragile

Despite my older sister being a fan of NIN since the days of Pretty Hate Machine, 1999 was the year when I discovered Nine Inch Nails through The Fragile and I listened to this album nearly every day for far more than a year. It’s probably hard to heap on any more praise to The Fragile than exists out there and it has some of the most interesting arrangements of any of Reznor’s extensive library of music. While this was NIN’s debut in the pantheon of rock tracks like “La Mer” and “The Frail” make me pause before I try and shove this album in that classification hole. As iconic and life changing as “Somewhat Damaged” and “We’re in This Together” were, the truth is that the lyrics are often simple but the arrangement is what sucked me in to this album. The non-vocal tracks are overall more intense and disturbing to me.

While absolutely NONE of the song on The Fragile are in my Top 10 favorite Nine Inch Nail songs (both because these songs are not his best but also because his body of work is so extensive), the album itself remains one of the most listenable and listening to them in order, the way they’re supposed to be heard, is an experience I’m glad I didn’t miss.

2000 (Age 14)

Garbage – 2.0

This album is a wild ride from start to finish. It actually begins and ends with my two favorite songs on the album which is pretty rare. The album has a wild frenzied energy that I always wanted to embody as a teenager. Just a year later I would cement my love of Garbage when they released the, equally fantastic, Beautiful Garbage but Garbage 2.0 was loud, in your face, and unapologetic about being confused, excited, and in love with the damage in yourself. The songs waffle constantly between wanting, hating, loving, and needing and then confusing all those feelings for each other. I think the pinnacle of this is in “Push It” where even the music flips between soft and hard with little regard to the lyrics, sometimes in opposition to them, in a confusing and dizzying manner.

As I said before I love the first and the last song but “Temptation Waits” is the perfect energetic album opener. The song even opens with a ringing as if someone has entered a store. Manson introduces herself as a wolf who wears sheep’s clothing and then the song explodes in joy and ecstasy and never lets you down. I love the song more because she always sounds so sarcastic and it gives the song just the right extra layer of thoughtfulness. On the opposite end of things, “You Look So Fine” is a great let down song that plays us out. “Just pretend, happy end”. I think music like this helped shape who I wanted to be as an adult and got me through some confusing feelings. Knowing that you could grow up and not quite have it all figured out, that was a gift.

2001 (Age 15)

VAST – Visual Audio Sensory Theater

I found VAST (which stands for Visual Audio Sensory Theater), the same way I assume everyone found else found them. That is to say, I saw one of their songs used in a fanfic and then I downloaded that song and I liked it so much that I bought the album. Basically from the moment I bought it for 8-10 years after I listened to some song from this CD every single day. I gifted this CD to people over a dozen times and it was one of the formative links between myself and so many friends that to say this CD played a big part in my life is kind of a weird statement but also true.

It’s almost impossible to single out songs from this album and it’s one of the few albums I still listen to straight through without skipping a single track. It’s closing track, “You” is one of the most devastating songs I have ever heard and it is so personal to me that I don’t want to talk about it. Like many of the songs on the album it deals with death and plays around with the ideas of god and religion. My favorite on the album, “Three Doors” combines all the things I love about the album. An ethereal sound, lyrics that sound dream-like nonsensical but with a heavy grounding in reality. The most well known is probably “Touched” but for me, I still love “Pretty When You Cry” much more. A devilish, (again) almost dream-like/nightmare-like sounding song that is part driving beat and part whispers. VAST went on to make several more albums I loved and what I loved the most about this album is how complex and layered every single song is, especially it’s non-vocal track which is surpassed only by the non-vocal track on their next CD.

2002 (Age 16)

TOOL – Undertow

The fact that Lateralus is the closest time wise to when I really fell in love with Tool and Undertow is practically meaningless. I assume that children growing up now feel or will feel the same way about Tool that I often feel about Metallica, The Rolling Stone, AC/DC and even Phish. It doesn’t matter because there’s always going to be something big that is a product that fits snugly in its time. Tool played a part in my life and connected me like a bridge to a lot of other people I may have had a hard time understanding otherwise. At the top of the heap, more than any other of Tool’s honestly really great offerings.

Missing some of the large themes, hard edges, and deft orchestral cues from their later albums Undertow is an easier but still complex to the ear hard rock album. It’s widely accessible in its tunes and the vocals remain polished with a light edge of rawness. While “Sober” and “Crawl Away” are probably the songs that most people remember this album for, it’s subtle piece “Flood” is probably one of my favorites though sometimes it feels like it too closely mirrors “Swamp Song” (which I loved because I worked in a place nicknamed ‘The Swamp’). It’s slow and methodical rise echos the water theme and they even use the same chords again on Ænima. In the end, favorite song on the album is actually the title song, “Undertow“.

This album taps in to a large range of states of anger and the music plays off of Maynard’s voice to impressive effects. I think one of the most appealing things in this album is that Maynard uses his “sweet” voice instead of his rock voice during Undertow, which is clearly a song about repeat drug use and a lack of control. Towards the end of the song his voice goes completely raw and rageful and when listening to the song I can’t help you feel it in my skin as all the words get twisted and painful. Despite the fact that many other album embodied bigger ideas, ideals, and thoughts, Undertow is a raw entry in the self-exploration of the damaged bits of ourselves. And I love that.

2003 (Age 17)

Guster – Lost and Gone Forever

I bought this album because of a story that is too ridiculous to be told. A story that had to have been lived. The first time I put this in my CD player was on the way to work right before the end of the school year in 2003 and I was instantly transfixed. Easily Guster’s best album on the whole to this day, it is the perfect take on stripped down pop. The songs play around with your expectations combining light hearts charming music with lyrics that even sound fun on the surface until you drill them down to their actual meaning.

It’s actually hard to single out songs since the album as a whole actually contributes to what I love the most about each song. While other Guster songs from previous albums like “Dissolve” would help me deal with things that were coming up, probably “Fa Fa” and “So Long” helped me where I had been at the time. This is one of the more difficult albums to describe though because its place in time is so shifted for me, so I’d just suggest taking a drive, putting on this album, and letting yourself enjoy the embrace of easy to listen to but hard to digest music.

2004 (Age 18)

Everclear – Slow Motion Daydream

I doubt this is anyone else’s favorite Everclear album. I had actually originally purchased their second album Sparkle and Fade and found it to be mostly, meh. Their next two albums a mix of really intense songs and songs I could barely stand. Everclear’s radio hits usually much less salient than their off-tracks so I bought this album on a whim assuming I’d enjoy at least some of the tracks and I am happy to report: this album saved my life. Aside from track 4, this is probably one the most perfect albums I have ever listened to and every song (except track 4) is the best song. I think one of the reasons I like Everclear so much is that I can see the reflections of myself in his song even though we had somewhat different lives.

Art Alexander obviously has a deep well of emotions and a lot of unresolved feelings about the mistakes that he made in life. He explores these amazingly well and turns them in to ballads that come out the other side as head bangers which is a weird transformation in itself. While he focuses on his drug addiction, his daughter, or his inability to be an available partner in other albums, instead in Slow Motion Daydream, the songs largely revolve around his piss poor interactions with other people, his inability to deal with reality crashing down on him, and his problems with the expectations of the rest of the world that he cannot meet.

In “Science Fiction” it feels like the more mature and personalized contrast to “Amphetamine” (from So Much for the Afterglow) which had depersonalized mental illness portrayed in a second character like many of the track from that album. In contrast, Slow Motion Daydream has primary characters as mentally ill or dealing with those life stresses. “TV Show” is the new echo of “White Men in Black Suits” and “Sunshine (That Acid Summer)” is stripping the veneer off “Strawberry“‘s temptation and throwing it in to the light. I’m not even going to touch the suicide and death-tinged themes on the album lest I make myself really turn on the waterworks.

At the end of the day this album was just in the right place at the right time for me and remains an album that gives me actual comfort and relief to know someone is out there, feeling the same way I do.

2005 (Age 19)

The Dandy Warhols – Welcome to the Monkey House

Sitting in a car, in Ohio, miles away from my house listening to this CD for the first time was not a revelation, but an experience. The Dandy Warhols take themselves about as seriously as their name but this album is fun, energetic, and if you let it, deeply sobering. The music skips gleefully through 80’s and 90’s pop and synth sounds and occasionally gets hypnotically simple in some songs, making you feel like you must be missing something when the sound is so full and complex and the lyrics keep jogging on the same two lines.

The album contains mostly nothing new under the sun and the album is so not-really-hip hipster that “We Used to Be Friends” was used for the TV opener to Veronica Mars. Almost none of The Dandy Warhols’ other albums sound like this one so much so that there was a second completely remixed version of this album that was released shortly after. To this day this is a great album that reminds me of mindless, harmless fun and can always get me dancing especially “Rock Bottom” and “Plan A“. The only thing that is of considerable note is “The Last High” which feels surprisingly off-brand for the band and the album and is honestly probably one of my top 100 songs of all time for reasons I still can’t comprehend.

2006 (Age 20)

Poe – Haunted

After finishing the book, House of Leaves, it was mentioned to me that it had a companion album. Despite the fact that I had only marginally enjoyed the book I decided to pick up the album only to find, I already knew Poe. A friend had sent me “Lemon Meringue” and “Walk the Walk” way back in our first year of high school and they had been living on my iPod ever since. A further listen to Haunted had to me playing this album on repeat, diving in and out of what felt like the private lives of a family splayed open for me.

This is a wholly unique experience of an album with cuts in vocals, singing from her father, notes and readings from her brothers book, and Poe herself somewhere in there giving tribute to the past. The album is very difficult to pick apart and judge because it’s a whole, living work and its themes of loss and family resonated with me so deeply that I still regularly listen to this album and it feels like it heals me a little each time. From the wild unbridled rage in “Control” to the soft, gentle admonishment of humanity that is “Amazed“. Out of all the songs though, the title track “Haunted” still lingers inside of me. There is hope but there is sadness and fear too. That we can move on but we’re all still haunted by the people we love and the things that have happened to us.

Next Time

Cruising on to the finish line as we ride through the marvelous high and lows of moving across the country and starting a new life.


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