Giving thanks for a few of our favorite albums
For most of us, Thanksgiving is typically a time of vast reflection, a time when we get all sorts of introspective and express our gratitude for the lovely people and fortuitous moments in our lives -- that is, of course, when we're not preoccupied with our overwhelming sense of materialism or indulging in our ever gluttonous ways. This year, in that same spirit of sentimentality, we've taken some time to offer up thanks for the albums we're most grateful for, the life changers.
By Josiah Hesse
When Belle & Sebastian released If You're Feeling Sinister in the fall of 1996, the only music I was listening to was Christian rock and Weird Al Yankovic. (Naturally, I was the coolest kid in town.) Living in the religiously conservative Midwest, my being exposed to a twee-folk band from Glasgow, Scottland was about as likely as me having a conversation about intersexual art in the post-modern era. But a few years later, the internet began penetrating the hermetic farm-lands of Iowa, and soon Napster was pulling back the curtain on mind-blowing libraries of new music.
I couldn't say for sure what lead me to the name Belle & Sebastian (most likely the Monday-morning-mix-tape scene in High Fidelity), but once I had file-sharing access to their catalogue, the music of B&S began to speak to me in a way that DC Talk and MxPx just weren't incapable of.
Growing up a thin-skinned, effeminate boy in land of square-jawed farmers, I was downright shocked that a band could get away with making music so blatantly precious as this. Where I came from, being caught listening to a song titled "Judy and the Dream of Horses" could end with a trip to the hospital.
Yet, like I said, this music spoke to something fundamental to my personality (or at least the personality I kept hidden in my bedroom). This was domestic music -- blankets and tea music, good-book-by-the-fireplace-during-a-snowstorm music. Unlike the rap-metal or boy-band jams that dominated the radios of the late 1990s, Belle & Sebastian's music was proudly intimate, unabashedly vulnerable, with brave undertones of fluid sexuality.
For teenagers growing up at the end of the 20th Century, there seemed to be a weird social contract that the music you listened to had to represent some kind of rebellion against your parents. And at least sonically, my parents saw nothing offensive about my playing You're Feeling Sinister a thousand times a day.
By Britt Chester
Shortly after being expelled from my first high school, I found myself with an abundant amount of time on my hands, not to mention a car, a part-time job that supported a growing marijuana habit, and, perhaps most importantly, time to drive around in Banner Elk, North Carolina, listening to whatever I wanted.
I was sixteen years old at the time, but I listened to music like I was much more mature. I got Outkast's third album, Aquemini, from a friend I used to skateboard with, and from the moment I laid my virgin eyes on that sexual glowing profile of a goddess on the cover, naturally, I was hooked.
The album opens with a melodic chanting over a harpsichord and subtle guitar strings before dropping straight into "Return of the G," which, regardless of all the lyrics in the song, made me feel like a boss as I was matriculating back to my old stomping grounds of my previous high school. I didn't wear gators, nor did have any kids, and I had never driven my vogues near a sidewalk. Regardless, I was returning to my previous high school, and for that, I felt like a gangster.
By Sam Alviani
Legend has it, when Joni Mitchell played the tracks that would comprise Blue for Kris Kristoffferson, he reacted with an astonished, "Jesus Joni, save some for yourself." He was talking about the famous emotional transparency and honesty that MItchell exhibited and that Blue would come to be defined by -- a trait beloved by generations of sentimentalists like me.
I have a hard time articulating the depths of my love for Joni Mitchell to people, and it's not because of embarrassment, or the fear of it. It comes from the knowledge that beyond those who know and love her story and her music, there is everyone else -- people who only see her at a surface level, as someone who woefully bogs down her listeners with a total abandonment of censorship, putting each and every one of her feelings on the table for us to see, poke at, and judge. And that's exactly what I think I love about her, and Blue itself.
In the early '70s, Joni decided to take a break from performing, as well as from her longtime relationship with Graham Nash. As a result, the material produced in her Blue period perfectly distills a time of life that served as an exploration of the facets of love and relationships, ranging from feelings of overwhelming infatuation to complete insecurity.
By Antonio Valenzuela
In 1995, 2pac released Me Against the World. When the album dropped, it paralleled my life and articulated the conditions of reality many of us experienced. The album has a defiant tone and the music is laced with vintage samples and classic material. Down to earth lyrics identifying social dysfunction vividly and courageously meshed well with surprisingly calm production.
I was only twelve years old when Me Against the World hit, but life around me was full of gang life, death and a family fully immersed into drugs and the prison system. Me Against the World offered an unmatched solace, itself balancing extreme emotion. Songs like the title track, along with "So Many Tears" and "It Ain't Easy," provided an introspective look into deep fears, self-reflection and social analysis. While tracks like "Fuck the World," "If I Die Tonight," and "Death Around the Corner" were rife with the kind of anger and rebelliousness that fed the internal fires of a slighted population.
The crowning achievements of the album are "Old School" and "Dear Mama." The first is a track dedicated to the music 2pac grew up on, the foundation for hip-hop, as the hook indicates ("What more can I say?/I wouldn't be here today/if the old school didn't pave the way"). Pac shouts out everyone who had an influenced him, from Heavy D, LL Cool J and Melle Mel to Cypress Hill, Red Alert and Rakim. The track has a classic boom-bap beat with an infectious lead and sample that perfectly depicts old school hip hop.
By Dave Herrera
Okay, quick disclosure before I get too far down the road here: While this album is not exactly my favorite (that distinction probably belongs to either What's Going On by Marvin Gaye or Astral Weeks by Van Morrison), it's easily among my favorites. At first I was going to write about one of those two, but then I thought about it and realized that volumes have already been written about those other masterpieces by people far more astute than me, unlike this one, which is relatively unheralded by comparison.
So, yes, Sam Phillips, The Indescribable Wow: What an absolutely perfect title -- albeit a bit of a misnomer, as Phillip masterfully deals with the rapturous reverie and relentless regret of love with an exacting eloquence. I absolutely love this album. I've gone through at least three or four copies of it on CD. I'm sort of obsessed, if you want to know the truth (I'm mean, seriously, who buys more than one copy of an album they already have? It's embarrassing, really). I have no doubt I startled a few folks with my uncontainable shrieks of idiotic glee when I happened upon a mint condition copy of record on vinyl this past summer at the record store. I couldn't wait to get home and put it on the turntable, and when I finally did, oh my.
Released in 1988, this record was essentially the coming out party for the former bumper-sticker Christian pop artist previously known as Leslie Phillips. It was her second outing with the now revered producer (and Phillips now ex-husband) T-Bone Burnett, and marked the continued transition toward much more considered songwriting that began with her previous album, The Turning. Add to that arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, and, well, you have an album that lives up to its title.
But those are just the biographical facts. The most stirring part about this record isn't necessarily who contributed to it, but rather the way it makes me feel. Although much has changed about my life since this album first slayed me, invariably, every time I hear it, from just the opening notes of "I Don't Know How to Say Goodbye to You," I experience the exact same sullen, bittersweet, grief-stricken sensation that I had back then.
And bittersweet is exactly right word for this record. The thing that grabbed me then is the same thing that grabs me now: The emotional paradox presented by the pained melancholia of the words set against the a pop-inflected majesty of the songs, which, especially given the time period, it would've been reasonable to assume you were listening to the work of the Bangles.
One thing you should know about me -- assuming this isn't already obvious -- I'm a bit of a sad sack, the type of guy who revels in the romanticism of feeling bad. So there's a part of me that relishes the idea of re-examing the revelations and ruminations that come with unrequited love and then feeling "that old familiar pain," as Dan Folgeberg once put it in "Same Old Lang Syne." And the Indescribable Wow does that for me, like no other album before or since.
Although I ended up eventually getting the girl, this record takes me back to a time when our love was still new, when after parting ways for the dozenth and what I thought was finally the last time. When I listen to "I Don't Want to Fall In Love," "I Can't Stop Crying," "What Do I Do?" and "I Don't Want to Say Goodbye to You," I vividly remember laying in my bed, paralyzed, marinating in my sorrow, to the point that even my friends couldn't save me (think of that sequence in Singles when Campbell Scott hasn't left the house for what seems like weeks), listening to this record on endless repeat. The lines are still as poignant and affecting to me today as they were back then:
I saw black and you saw red
Crawled to separate corners
The line went dead
I closed my heart up
I tore your love for me to shreds
Love can't breathe
Pulling tighter to my ruthless need
Don't look down
I want you inconsolably
Maybe it was timing or circumstance, but whatever the case, it felt like Phillips was singing my life -- only telling my story a million times better than I ever could have. I still marvel at the opening lines of "I Don't Want to Fall in Love."
We're not lovers, you and I
I can't think of reasons why
I should want you like that
I'm stranded by my passion
The whole idea fits us like a suit gone out of fashion
As I said goodbye and drove away,
Words I'd like to hear you say
Rolled across my mind like clouds in unexpected flurry
I stumbled on a minefield where desire was still buried
The Indescribable Wow indeed.
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