Monday, September 17, 2012

Evan's Albums

The Cure: Disintegration, 1989

I had barely turned 7 when The Cure released their eighth studio album. I wasn't ready. The recent (1988) release of the He is Our Song praise collection made a bigger impact on my musical landscape (no that's not me) at the time. But though it took a while for this album to find me, it had an immediate and profound effect, and remains one of my all-time favorites. 

This is a deeply nostalgic record for me, the music was the soundtrack for a memorable four hour road trip from Newbold College to the city of Blackburn in the northwest of England. Every time I hear "Plainsong" I'm sitting once again in that cramped sedan, staring out at the stunning, harsh beauty of the emerald green hills. Countless "hip young bands" have imitated The Cure's patented guitar sound, with Wild Nothing and DIIV being two of the most recent examples. Though some of these admirers do succeed in capturing evocative aspects of The Cure's sound, none of them match Robert Smith's songwriting. Listen to pop masterpiece "Love Song"... I rest my case.

When I play Disintegration, I remember what it felt like to question everything, and what it felt like to meet my soulmate at the age of 20. 

Dirty Projectors and Bjork: Mount Wittenberg Orca, 2010

This is a strange and brilliant EP that defies the norms of celebrity-charity-collaboration projects. Originally a digital-only, pay-what-you-will release, Mount Wittenberg Orca features the distinctive voices of Bjork and the Dirty Projectors singing as a family of whales. The songs were written by David Longstreth and the proceeds of the project went to support National Geographic Society marine preservation efforts.

I love this collection of songs for many reasons. The sheer ambition and flawless execution of the complex vocal arrangements will be familiar to Dirty Projectors fans, but they move front and center on this project with additional instrumentation kept at minimal levels. Ever since this EP's release, "Beautiful Mother" has been a mainstay of the Dirty Projectors' live set. The song is impressive in its recorded form; it unambiguously rocks live. In the final track of the album, "All We Are", all the elements come together memorably: the unmistakable, indescribable voices of Bjork and Longstreth, the pitch-perfect close harmonies of the background vocalists, and the meticulously structured elements of Longstreth's composition: 

                                          We looked out across the long horizon
                                          We looked in each other's eyes 
                                          And realized that we are only one
                                          Through a moment we could glimpse an infinity
                                          And through an infinity we could see
                                          All in all is all we are

My Bloody Valentine: Loveless, 1991

For better or worse, my introduction to rock music came courtesy of grunge. I remember listening to a fair amount of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Smashing Pumpkins as an 8th grader. Sadly, I would not know until much later that a band from Dublin had produced a better album in the same year that Nevermind, Badmotorfinger, and Gish were releasedI was listening to grunge without realizing that Kevin Shields' brand of shoegaze was what I was really looking for.

Loveless is a perfect album. Its heady mix of heavily processed guitars, obscured vocals, and electronic drum loops results in a sound that is bigger and yet also softer than grunge. It is the first album that I listened to straight through at a very high volume on very good speakers: exactly as Shields would want it. "To Here Knows When" and "Come In Alone" are particular favorites of mine. "Sometimes" may be familiar to some readers due to its inclusion in the soundtrack for Sofia Coppola's lovely film: Lost In Translation

Radiohead: Kid A, 2000

A few months ago I was part of a group discussion in response to this question: "What's your theme song?" In other words, if you were a character in a movie, what musical theme would introduce you? In an ideal world, what song should ideally come on every time you enter a public place? For me, that theme would be the opening bars of "Everything In Its Right Place", the first track of Kid A, an album which I rate as the masterpiece of one of the truly great bands of my lifetime. 

I love the fact that Radiohead, at the height of their powers after the justified success of Ok Computer, chose to keep experimenting, to keep pushing the boundaries of what they could create as a band. Thanks to the current ubiquity of electronic textures in popular music, it's easy to forget how fresh and innovative songs like "Idioteque" sounded in 2000. Kid A has been a frequent part of my life over the last twelve years, on European trains, across North American interstates, in dorm rooms, rented apartments, and little houses. In all these diverse settings it has served as a source of inspiration and catharsis. I enjoy the entire Radiohead back-catalog, but Kid A is the album that, for me, will always stand alone. 

Beach House: Devotion, 2008

Devotion is not Beach House's strongest album. But in many ways it remains my favorite. It contains the band's first great single, "Gila", as well as the haunting and beautiful "Turtle Island" - still one of my favorite Beach House songs. 

I love Devotion because it conjures a sense of that happy time when Beach House were still Baltimore's best-kept secret: maybe we wouldn't get more than two albums, maybe the band would slowly fade away like so many other little Myspace projects. Then Teen Dream arrived and everything changed. And we were so pleased for them.

Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz, 2010
As a radical departure, The Age of Adz mirrors Kid A in some ways, even if the release of All Delighted People a few months earlier provided an indication of Sufjan's new direction. I remember listening to the pre-release stream of "I Walked" with Alban in Boonsboro and thinking: 1) This doesn't sound like the Illinoisemakers, and 2) I need to work on my dance moves! It was an exciting time, and when the album dropped in October, I was able to listen to the final version of several songs that I had first heard months earlier with Ansley, at a tiny, unforgettable show in Portland, ME. 

This is a wild, heart-breaking, synth-infused, intergalactic party of an album, at least loosely inspired by the fascinating and tragic life of Prophet Royal Robertson. It contains essential dance classic "Too Much"and 25 minute mini-masterpiece "Impossible Soul". Throughout the roller coaster ride, Sufjan's gift for memorable melody ensures that a great song lies amidst each jubilant, anarchic composition. 

In addition to the the moments described above, this album takes me back to a perfect concert in Philadelphia with Larry and a memorable evening in Prospect Park with Jenny, Alban, Ansley, and Phil. We took the concert t-shirts very seriously: 

Honorable Mentions:

Joanna Newsom: Have One On Me, 2010 (I'm still conflicted about not including this in the top six. Joanna Newsom possesses an utterly distinctive voice, virtuosic instrumental technique, and enduring craft as a songwriter and lyricist. This triple album is an astonishing achievement.)

Broken Social Scene: You Forgot It in People, 2002 (The album that introduced non-locals like me to an inspired collective of musicians based in Toronto and Montreal that combined to great effect on this album while gaining additional acclaim as members of other bands and side projects: KC Accidental, Metric, Feist, Stars, Apostle of Hustle, the list goes on. This was one of the most frequently played albums of my later college years. An intoxicating blend of world-weariness, aggression, and hope.) 

tUnE-yArDs: whokill, 2011 (Merrill Garbus is a force of nature. I love the attitude, ecstatic energy, and infectious bass grooves on this album. "Bizness" and "You Yes You" are two of the more delightful singles in recent memory. Yes that is a ukelele!)

Purity Ring: Shrines, 2012 (I have to second Alban's nomination of this album. It's somewhat telling that the pitchfork review is preceded by no less than 5 singles. It could just as easily be 8. This is the album I turn to for the last four miles of a long run. Let's go!)


  1. I too spent many hours with "He is our song" working on my F to C to G and back transitions. Also, nice Cure pick. "Love song" is a perfect pop song.

  2. Ahhh . . . "The Coloring Song." Good times. I taught myself to sight read by forcing myself to play through He Is Our Song, cover to cover, without skipping the "hard" songs. Classic.

    Evan, I respect your musical taste so much. And even though you know how I feel about Radiohead, I can definitely agree that they are one of the most important and influential and inspiring bands of our time. So, respect. I love The Cure (why does "Love Song" always make me feel like in another life I was an angst-ridden teenager living on the streets of London experiencing unrequited love?), and "Too Much" is one of my favorite Sufjan songs. Thanks for sharing your selections! And thanks for all of our quality discussions about music.

  3. 1. Just added Shrines to my running playlist.

    2. That sweet little boy on his guitar made me laugh out loud. Unfortunate, as I'm in the library studying with headphones on. Oops. That IS you!

    3. Futile Devices