Welcome back to part three of our list. This month, we’re bringing you numbers 70-61, as we slink ever closer to our top fifty. By now, I’m sure most of you reading along at home have realized how strange this list is. It’s not quite an entirely “personal favorites” list, but also not really a “canon” list. Here’s the thing–Flota and I both love the idea of the pop canon, but we also have a lot of weird, off-canon favorites. This list is the result of the tensions that result between those two poles. And maybe, too, that’s why we’ve been enjoying this list’s creation as much as we have, and why we’ve been enjoying sharing it–this is a weird list, and if nothing else, it’s bringing records that might not otherwise be in the conversation into the canon conversation with some of the albums that are already there. So then, on to the next 10!
Picking a favorite Will Oldham album isn’t easy. One might swing towards the stark minimalism of an early Palace project like Days in the Wake, or towards the later, fuller and grittier Viva Last Blues. Or somebody might come down on the side of Oldham’s more recent, more polished work as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, like the gorgeous The Letting Go. Any of those make sense as candidates for Oldhan’s finest moment, but for my money, I like I See a Darkness. Here, Oldham’s wicked sense of humor combines with stark songwriting and beautiful, sloppily executed arrangements, to somehow capture a little bit of everything that makes Oldham’s work great. These songs are packed with dread and an uncomfortable sexual energy—the two things that any and every album about death absolutely needs. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that the album has a stunner as a title track, one of the great songs about friendship, love, and loss ever recorded. The song is so essential that Johnny Cash himself covered it for volume three of his American Recordings series—somehow, still, Oldham’s version is better, more haunting and elegant. –James Brubaker
Also recommended: Palace Music Viva Last Blues (1995), Bonnie “Prince” Billy The Letting Go (2006), Smog Knock Knock (1999), and Silver Jews American Water (1998).
Nirvana’s unintentional swan song, the live, acoustic MTV Unplugged in New York, released six months after frontman Kurt Cobain’s suicide, proved to be a revelation, following the scabrous Steve Albini-recorded In Utero. People tend to forget that MTV’s Unplugged series was started in the wake of the Milli Vanilli lip-synching “scandal.” Nirvana mixed things up slightly, particularly on their cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” utilizing a pedal effect that serves the song quite well, but in retrospect was not that big of a deal. The most notable thing about the set was Nirvana’s bluesy turn, as stripped down and fleshed out versions of some of their most notable songs are rendered even more raw and direct (especially “About a Girl,” “Come as You Are,” “Dumb,” and “All Apologies”). A guest spot by the Meat Puppets on three tracks highlights Cobain’s emotional resonance as a vocalist, particularly on “Lake of Fire.” The real highlight is the harrowing rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” where Cobain unleashes the hounds of hell through his raspy voice. Few recorded moments are as powerful. –Brian Flota
Also recommended: Beck Mutations (1998), Oasis (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995), R.E.M. Out of Time (1991), and Thurston Moore Psychic Hearts (1995).
Fifteen years later, I still don’t know what exactly the fuck Andrew W.K. was doing on I Get Wet. I know that it soundtracked many late night drives to and from shows in Michigan. I know that once, while listening to “She is Beautiful” and dancing around on the landing outside of my college apartment, my glasses flew off of my face and cracked on the wood below. There are elements of punk, sure, and elements of metal, but I Get Wet is first and foremost a pop album—a big, blaring, weird, wonderful pop album that showed up at the perfect moment. I Get Wet couldn’t possibly have had anything to say about 9/11, but somehow, when the album was released just two months after—these songs were everything. Maybe we saw something of ourselves in W.K.’s bloodied face, staring out defiant at anyone who dared spot the album on a shelf. Or maybe, and the more likely scenario, after the twin towers fell and America was plunged into a dark period of anger, fear, and war, we were drawn to W.K.’s euphoric vision of, not a better past or a darker tomorrow, but a beautiful today. In 2001, I Get Wet was the sloppy, heartfelt, puke-stained hug Americans needed. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: Ministry The Land of Rape and Honey (1988) and Psalm 69 (1992).
While Metallica’s third album, Master of Puppets, is certainly their most important, …And Justice for All is far more compelling to this listener. Recorded in the wake of bassist Cliff Burton’s untimely death, the group returns with a brand of metal just as intense as the one found on Puppets. This time, however, Metallica takes a math-y turn. The compositions still possess the breakneck speed of their early efforts, but now the emphasis is on unexpected changes in tempo. They perfect the soft/hard dynamic found on Ride the Lightning’s “Fade to Black” and yield their first radio hit, the anti-war epic “One.” The title track and the opener, “Blackened,” take their sweet time to develop into metal masterworks. Even a relative throwaway like “Dyer’s Eve” foreshadows everything Pantera recorded. Often criticized for its antiseptic production, …And Justice for All nevertheless manages to be Metallica’s first album to not sound like it was recorded on a boom box. Since Metallica would never be this vital or inspired again, we are lucky to have an album like …And Justice for All that catches them at the peak of their metal powers. –Brian Flota
Also Recommended: Anthrax Persistence of Time (1990), Celtic Frost Monotheist (2006), Judas Priest Painkiller (1990)
[Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2001]
After two albums of gritty, bluesy garage rock, The White Stripes landed big with 2001’s White Blood Cells. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the Stripes made such a big splash. The cynic inside of me wants to attribute Jack and Meg White’s success to showing up on the scene at the precise moment that young music fans, raised on the Baby Boomer Nostalgia Canon, went looking for their own rock music that felt “authentic,” meanwhile, Boomers, themselves, were making one last grasp at relevance by latching onto something “new” that reminded them of their rapidly fading youth. But even if White Blood Cells had sold only a few thousand copies and the duo never played together after, it would still be an exceptional—a cash-in on classic rock, but a celebration of it. Even still, were it not for Jack White’s exceptional songwriting—which peaks on this album—and the duo’s lose, organic performances, we wouldn’t be talking about this album right now. On White Blood Cells, The White Stripes rebirthed rock and roll and made it feel new again. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: The White Stripes De Stilj (2000) and Elephant (2003), The Strokes Is This It (2001), The Libertines Up the Bracket (2002), Interpol Turn on the Bright Lights (2002), The Black Keys El Camino (2011) and Brothers (2010).
While Modest Mouse didn’t begin their ascent to “the big time” until 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News or, arguably, 2000’s The Moon and Antarctica, they’re finest, most ambitious album remains 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West. Here, Isaac Brock and co. crafted a collection of bleak, beautiful songs about alienation and being ill-at-ease in an increasingly gentrified, dull-grey world. Whether Brock’s voice is scraping along over acoustic guitars or wailing over distortion, his songs consistently convey a sense of aching vulnerability, as if their characters have just recently realized how fucked their lives are and how little the world around them cares. When Brock sings lines like, “Everytime you think you’re walking you’re just moving the ground” on “Cowboy Dan” or “If you could compact your conscience/And sell it, save it for another time/You know you might have to use it,” there’s a sense that his world is bleary-eyed, exhausted, ready to collapse. The Lonesome Crowded West isn’t just Modest Mouse’s finest hour (or seventy-four minutes, technically), it’s one of indie rock’s towering achievements. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: Modest Mouse This is a Long Drive For Someone with Nothing to Think About (1996) and The Moon and Antarctica (2000), Built to Spill Keep it Like a Secret (1999) and There’s Nothing Wrong With Love (1994), Daniel Johnston Songs of Pain (1981), and Sleater-Kinney The Woods (2005).
[Rise Above, 2000]
There is no album as simultaneously explicit and inventive in its repurposing of early Black Sabbath than Electric Wizard’s “stoner metal” masterpiece Dopethrone. This sweetleafy slab of hypnotic and devious riffage settles down in the bones, thanks in part to the behind-the-beat groove of drummer Mark Greening and distinctively growly vocals of frontman Jus Osborn. After the thesis statement of “Vinum Sabbathi,” they deliver their throatpunch with “Funeralopolis,” as slow and effective a head-banger as you’re likely to hear. Though the record is unusually consistent across its hour-long playing time, nothing compares to the closing title track and its monumental chugachug riff that rivals anything their spirit-parent band ever created. No kidding. It’s that good. Electric Wizard doesn’t re-invent the wheel here at all. They lack the innovative spirit of the Melvins or Kyuss, but their execution on Dopethrone is unparalleled. Fans of hard rock will find this release essential to their very existence. –Brian Flota
Also Recommended: Kyuss Kyuss (1994), Melvins Gluey Porch Treatments (1986), Bullhead (1992) and Houdini (1993), and Sleep Dopesmoker (2003).
In the two years between their 1992 lo-fi masterpiece breakthrough Slanted and Enchanted and 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement gave themselves a bit of a makeover, cleaning out the dusty crevices of the their sound and brightening the dark, gritty corners of that first album. The result was a second masterpiece. But this time, instead of leaning on sloppy, ragged, lo-fi production, Pavement put forth a set of killer songs that, at times, sound downright polished. On gems like “Cut Your Hair” and “Gold Soundz,” the band sounded radio ready, and even managed to rack up a little bit of airplay. But just because their songs were a bit more polished didn’t mean that the band lost their lackadaisical charm—Malkmus’s voice still sounds half-drunk and exhausted on almost every track, and his lyrics still swim in non-sequitors and sad sack vulnerability (“Dad they broke me” on “Stop Breathin’ remains one of Malkmus’s most poignant moments) and, despite the improved production, the band always sounds delightfully off the beat from one another. All that, coupled with the collision of polished song craft with rough-around-the-edges production, is what makes Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain so special. –James Brubaker
Also Recommended: Pavement Brighten the Corners (1997), Guided by Voices Mag Earwhig! (1997) and Under the Bushes Under the Stars (1996), Sebadoh III (1991), Weezer Pinkerton (1996), and Dinosaur jr. Green Mind (1991).
Though her previous albums, The Virginian (1997) and Furnace Room Lullaby (2000) weren’t by any means slouches, it was with her third album, 2002’s immaculate Blacklisted that Neko Case announced herself as one of America’s great contemporary songwriters, blending country, folk, and indie pop to impressive ends. The song opens with urgent guitars and haunted lyrics, “Fluorescent lights engage/Blackbirds frying on a wire,” and ends with an assertion of faith: “I’m a dying breed who still believes/Haunted by American dreams.” In a single song, Case pulls together her previous themes of faith, America’s failed promises, and alienated people adrift in the margins of their culture, into a single crystalline rendering. These same themes play out across the album’s remaining tracks, all explored with Case’s usual eye for detail and graceful arrangements. Even when Case steps back to sing about an ache for love on “I Wish I Was the Moon,” the end result is harrowing but gorgeous: “No pills for what I fear,” she sings on one verse, before singing, “This is crazy/I wish I was the moon tonight.” While Case has never made a bad album, Blacklisted marks the moment when Case went from good to great, nicely prefacing the exceptional string of albums that followed. –James Brubaker
Also recommended: Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006) and The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You (2013), Ryan Adams Heartbreaker (2000), My Morning Jacket It Still Moves (2003), Songs: Ohia The Magnolia Electric Co. (2003), Lucinda Williams Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) Bill Callahan Apocalypse (2011) and Loretty Lynn Van Lear Rose (2004).
Dinosaur Jr. put out a compilation in 2001 called Ear Bleeding Country. That could very well be the name of Times New Viking’s third album, Rip it Off. Using a cassette as their master tape, TNV’s “in the red” approach to lo-fi recording earned them a place in the short lived mini-genre known as “shitgaze.” Don’t let this description intimidate you. Keyboardist Beth Murphy and drummer Adam Elliott create absolutely catchy, nearly twee indie pop songs obscured by Murphy and guitarist Jared Phillips’ din of tinnitus. In the end, TNV’s singing duo comes off like the kind of cute indie rock couple that charms your pants off before stealing all your drugs and trashing your best albums. Songs like “(My Head)” and “Come Together” (not to be confused with that other one) are so damned infectious you should be quarantined after listening to them. Ultimately, Rip it Off feels like a sixteen-song, thirty-one-minute version of The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” and that’s something every band should aspire to. –Brian Flota