Over the course of putting this list together, I realized I really tend to like concept/theme albums. Year Zero and, by proxy of being a musical, Little Shop were concept albums, while Good News (life, death, existentialism) and Jar of Flies (addiction, depression) were really theme heavy.
5. Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995)
Then there are albums that are great just because they’re a fine collection of songs. What makes (WtS)MG great, to me, is that it’s such a great rock album; no big ideas, no pretensions, just 12 (ok, technically 10) stellar, well-crafted songs. It’s the sound of a band being a band. Despite cultural overplay, “Wonderwall” is still a great song, and the same earnestness captured there is in the mournful “Cast No Shadow”, and the hopeful “Don’t Look Back in Anger”.
But what every band that makes a career out of Wonderwall knocks-offs forgets is that Oasis were successful because they had more than one mood. Noel Gallagher was a consummate songwriter, jumping from sweet or silly (“She’s Electric”, which funnily enough, was playing in a restaurant while I had dinner with my girlfriend’s family for the first time) to biting and nasty. Liam’s voice could manage that kind of jump, too, he goes from being The Guy That Sang Wonderwall to snarling on “Morning Glory”. And of course, there’s the epic closing track “Champagne Supernova”. More bands need to make’em like this.
4. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)
For an album recorded amidst so much death, Funeral is full of life. In 2004, when most indie rock was too cool for even itself, Arcade Fire created one of the most emotionally freewheeling, cathartic albums of the decade. Funeral succeeds because it commits 100%: there’s no instrument the band won’t use, singer Win Butler delivers every lyric like his life depends on it, and several songs go past energetic and become chaotic.
One thing that makes Funeral so unique is the communal aspect of it. The frequent gang vocals, the expanded band line-up, and “Neighborhood” songs include this, but on another level, this might be the last great singular Album. In a culture riddled with scenes, subscenes, blogs, filesharing, and splintered opinions, a single cultural consensus like the one on Funeral is hard to find. It may even be impossible. But dammit, music like this invites us to try, anyway.
3. Weezer – Pinkerton (1996)
Boy, Rivers Cuomo. These days, he’s seen as a quirky older uncle who’s good for a crossover hit every now and then, but his finest
hour half hour saw him more unhinged. In fact, he was totally unhinged; Pinkerton begins pulling away layers of “I’m ok”s or “Don’t worry”s with “Tired of Sex” (featuring Rivers doing some absolutely throat-destroying vocals), and ends with the stripped-away, no-frills “Butterfly”.
And between those two bookends is probably the best mix of grunge and pop rock we’ll ever see. Depressed trappings aside, “The Good Life” is quirky exuberance, and even though it crosses into “creeper” territory, “El Scorcho”‘s chorus is insanely cute. The hooks are present all over, and even though the public might hate you for it, Pinkerton is one of the most oddly singalongable works out there. It’s weird, ugly, loud, jarring, and awkward, but so damn likeable at the same time.
2. Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
It would be impossible for me to have made this list without a Nirvana recording. Nirvana was my gateway band; they were the first non-shitty band that I gave the “favorite band” moniker to, and they set me on the way to my core tastes today.
So why MTV Unplugged in New York and not In Utero or Nevermind? That’s a total personal choice. The first Nirvana record I bought was the self-titled greatest hits. Unplugged came next, and this was the big “Whoa” record for me. The lush instrumentation, Cobain’s understated showmanship, and the outright funeral atmosphere all did it for me. The chosen material, too, was perfect. “Come As You Are” was the only hit that night, allowing for deeper cuts like “Pennyroyal Tea”, “On a Plain”, or the better-than-the-album version of “Something In the Way”. And, of course, the once in a lifetime performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” If In Utero was Cobain’s nihilistic suicide note, Unplugged is his oddly sublime funeral.
1. The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)
This is not a perfect album. Lyrically, it errs on the “woe is me” side, Billy Corgan’s voice is…well, his voice, it’s overwrought, it could be shorter, and it nearly broke up the band. Why is it my favorite album?
Because in spite of all that, it’s really good. Siamese Dream sounds desperate, but not without lots of ambition. It’s a very meticulously put together album, and nothing shows that more than Billy Corgan’s army of fuzzed out guitars. The music really carries this album; the guitar work is stellar, Jimmy Chamberlin’s drumming is fierce, and any extra instruments add great touches. The album covers a lot of ground (pop, metal, ballads, etc), but the trifecta of “Soma”, “Geek U.S.A.”, and “Mayonaise” (in my opinion, the Pumpkins’ best song) is the best part.
I can put this album on any time and instantly enjoy it, and it’s oddly…mine. I mean, out of all my friends, I think I’m the only one who’s really familiar with it. And that’s not the usual “Oh, it’s obscure, therefore I like it” bull, that’s the “This feels personal” aspect that you get with a favorite.
Well, thanks for reading, and here’s to another 100 and beyond!