The Best of the Ought Nots, Part I: 81-100

The beginning of a new year, 2010, and a new third digit in our numbering system for years that indicates I’ll likely never see another year with “0” in that slot for the rest of my lifetime, means that for the first time, this relatively young music fan gets to look back at entire decade (these things being commonly delineated by that third digit even if the technical scientific approach says our decade isn’t over until the beginning of 2011) and try to sum it all up in terms of the music that was meaningful to me over the course of nearly a third of my life. That’s right, I’m just a smidgen over 30, which means that the 2000’s (or the “Ought Nots”, as I’ve decided to call a decade of learning what not to do in retrospect) were my first full decade of being a true music fan. I might have come of age and finished high school and college in the 90’s, and I have my fair share of nostalgic tunes to whisk me back to those days. But this most recent decade was when I truly opened up, with the advent of file sharing and social networking making it remarkably easy to burst the bubble of “Christian music only” that I started out with, to go beyond the basic pop/rock styles largely dominant on the radio, and to really dig deep and find my own musical personality, unburdened by rumors of danger beyond the comfortable fences I had previously built for myself.

Because of this change, comparing favorites from early in the decade to those from late in the decade has been a true challenge, one that caused me to spent the last several months of 2009 carefully reviewing those old favorites to see what still had merit, what was still a blast even if it was totally cheesy, what had fallen by the wayside and only captured my attention due to ephemeral trends at the time, and what I hadn’t really given a fair shake back when it was new. I wrote my first Epinions reviews in 2000, many of them gushing, 5-star reviews of Christian pop and rock albums that may have been well constructed as ear candy or may have had something inspiring to say, but many of which didn’t quite hold up as true entries in a “best of the best” list. Looking back and dropping some of those to a more fair-minded 4 stars (equivalent to a “B” rating) revealed that I hadn’t truly found 100 5-star albums throughout the course of the decade, since it’s rare for me to give out such a rating more than about 5 times a year these days. But there were still a lot of entries – Christian music, mainstream music, and quirky indie stuff alike – that bubbled just under the 5-star list, ranking 4 1/2 stars (or a “B plus”) if only Epinions allowed such a thing. I figured most of those were worth mentioning. So I settled on a nice, round number of 100 albums that I thought were worth revisiting, maybe bringing some to the attention of you, the potential new fan, for the first time. Absolutely nobody in the world would agree on all of the things to be found on this list, so please take “best” to be defined in the most subjective way possible, especially within the lower ranks of the list. That said, once we get to the end, I’m pretty confident that most if not all of the entries hold up well to artistic scrutiny, and will be discs that I will still enjoy in 2020, assuming the data hasn’t degraded to an unreadable level on most compact discs by then. (We’ll still have the mp3, if not something far more awesome and less lossy.)

Since so many of these discs have been covered in my year-end lists from about 2002 on, it seemed redundant to just list the usual track highlights and not give you, the reader, any direct evidence of what I loved about these recordings. So I’ve done something a little different and scoured the Internet (OK, mostly YouTube) for live footage or a music video of an exemplary song from as many of these albums as I could find. Some are professional quality, some are shaky cell phone videos with off-key fans loudly singing along, so be warned that your mileage may vary. It’s just my way of offering a different perspective on the music, even for those who may have heard some of these albums hundreds of times already.

Alright, so with the ground rules established, here are the first twenty entries:

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100. Andrew Peterson – Behold the Lamb of God (2004)
So the first entry on my list is… a Christmas album? Really? Even though I claim to not enjoy most Christmas albums, that’s usually because they involve misguided attempts to jazz up old carols with awkward arrangements that often take out the heart of the original song. Christian folk singer Andrew Peterson largely sidesteps this issue by turning in an album of mostly original songs, only using carols sparingly as a reference point along the way while telling a story which reminds us of a world before Christ came, echoing the longing for a Savior expressed by the Israelites in the Old Testament, and exploring the characters of Mary and Joseph and their role in the humble birth of a baby who would grow up the be the Savior, in a most unexpected way. Behold the Lamb of God is not just a collection of songs – it’s the framework for a play that Andrew and a collection of musical colleagues put on during a few holiday seasons circa 2003/2004, and that mood is reflected in the guest vocals that add color to this album, from Derek Webb embodying the voice of an oppressed nation on the standout “Deliver Us”, to Jill Phillips viewing the world through Mary’s eyes in a way that only a mother could, to Fernando Ortega‘s humble contribution to the almost liturgical title track. There’s even a bit of humor to be found in “Matthew’s Begats”, and the instrumental interpretation of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” brings to mind Nickel Creek in their heyday. This is a Christmas album that I wouldn’t feel guilty listening to at any time of year.

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99. Chris Rice – Run the Earth, Watch the Sky (2003)
While Rice’s sunny, optimistic acoustic pop style might seem a bit insipid to those outside of the CCM crowd, the man’s got a gift for relatable storytelling and stylistic malleability that has gone a bit underrated because it largely shows up on his non-single tracks. You’ve got to get past the giddy cheesiness of a basic pop song like “The Other Side of the Radio” (which is still mildly clever) or “Smile” (which is somehow quite beautiful despite being a rather basic “longing for Heaven”-type song), and dig deeper to find the beautifully-phrased visions of eternity on tracks like “Nonny Nonny” and “Circle Up”, the self-consciousness of a song like “8th Grade” that evokes early John Mayer, or the more pensive, melancholy moments in quieter songs like “Spare an Angel” or “My Cathedral”. Even the hopelessly corny “Me and Becky” turns out to be a cleverly subversive moment, taking the most obvious Christian radio cliches it can find and turning them into a song that makes subtle jabs at the comfort zone of the quintessential soccer mom who listens to Christian radio, yet without being mean-spirited in any way. Rice has a lot more going on upstairs than most of the CCM artists he shares chart space with.

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98. John Reuben – Word of Mouth (2007)
Every first listen to one of John Reuben’s albums strikes me as “wack” – I’m no expert on hip-hop, but I always find myself thinking, “You can’t rap to that, it’s hella awkward!”, only to later fall in love with it. This has never been more true than on Reuben’s leanest and meanest album, which over the course of a scant ten tracks, hides a lot of wisdom amidst the clever wordplay of songs which seem to lament the dilemma of aging on the surface, but which drip with wisdom gleaned from the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes when you listen more carefully – albeit wrapped in the wry sarcasm that Reuben does best. That’s what makes the sing-songy nature of the twangy “Make Money Money” or the ominous “Sing It Like You Mean It” work – Reuben presents every tough truth with a question mark attached, as if to ask, “Do I really still believe this as I grow older and idealism gives way to pragmatism?” The emotional core of the album is the chilling “Focus”, which addresses these fears of growing old and losing the ability to dream head-on, but lighter fare like “Curiosity” and the off-kilter closing track “Good Evening” is there to balance out the mood.

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97. Over the Rhine – The Trumpet Child (2007)
The husband-and-wife duo that make up this sometimes folk/sometimes jazz outfit are best known for “quiet music played loudly”, but I’ve always liked them best when their albums show more diversity in tempo and density, which means that this more playful outing was right up my alley after the somewhat somber Drunkard’s Prayer (which is still a fine album in its own right). This is a disc that celebrates both the duo’s love of music (exemplified in the nods to jazz greats on the breathtaking title track, folk and country heroes on “If a Song Could Be President”, and shoot,Tom Waits gets a whole song dedicated to him!) and their love of each other, in lightly sensual romps like “Trouble”, “Let’s Spend the Day in Bed” and “Entertaining Thoughts”. Elsewhere, tales of love gone wrong bring the melancholy in “Nothing Is Innocent” and “Desperate For Love”. It’s hard to find a bad flavor in this band’s odd musical stew, even if the voice of Karin Bergquist (which I’ve come to regard as oddly angelic) is often going to be a tough sell for newcomers.

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96. Olivia the Band – Olivia the Band (2005)
This would be one of the “for fun” albums on my list – normally straightforward pop/punk albums that blow through forty minutes and change worth of sunny Christian rock sentiments aren’t something I’d give more than a “C” or a low “B”, but I’ll admit that the Hawaii nostalgia got to me here (the band’s from the North Shore of Oahu, and the “hang loose” sentiment of that part of the world is reflected in the band’s general outlook on life). They remind me of early Relient K, though this is honestly a much better effort as debut albums go. And there’s more here than just the simple optimism and occasional bad grammar of fun tracks like “Saturday”, “Stars & Stripes”, “Along the Way”, and well… a good two-thirds of the album. Lead single “Shut It Out” and the collaboration with Dogwood‘s lead singer Josh Kemble on “Kill the Grey” are good examples of Olivia’s deeper thoughts, struggling with the tension between what we are convicted is true and the things we actually say and do. This won’t win any awards for being “high art”, but simple and fun can be perfectly valid at times, so long as the band demonstrates that using their brains is still important, and they pass that test well enough here to make any cliches forgivable.

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95. Plumb – Blink (2007)
This one’s a sentimental entry for the moms out there – and it says a lot about Tiffany Arbuckle Lee‘s skill as a songwriter that I would relate to it at all, given my classically male fears of parenthood and commitment in general. It’s a collection of soft, mostly electronic, lullabies for her young children, with interpretations of a few hymns thrown in that manage to evoke Björk and Sarah McLachlan by being soothing and inventive at the same time. This is far, far removed from the borderline industrial chick-rock that Plumb became known for (which later influenced Evanescence and others), but it turns out to be one of Plumb’s finest works, simply by being true to who she was at the time the album was made. This isn’t just about babies being cute and melting hearts, though there is a fair amount of that – the album honestly addresses fears of children growing older and being hurt by the world, and wanting to fiercely protect them while knowing we will one day have to learn to let them go. It’s that subtle depth that makes a track like “Always” or the surprise hit “In My Arms” so poignant, and exhausted moms will hopefully find solace in songs like “Me” and “Sleep” that acknowledge that the blessing of parenthood can still be an exhausting one. Listening to this disc has helped to reduce my aforementioned fears, which is helpful considering that my wife’s been chomping at the bit to get a family started already!

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94. Jennifer Knapp – Lay It Down (2000)
This was one of the very first albums that I reviewed for Epinions – and I’m almost embarrassed to draw attention to it since my concept of “good music” was based on such different things in those days. But Knapp’s down-to-earth blend of folk and rock is still as good for the soul in these days as it was back in her heyday (and it is so good to know that she’s planning a comeback album for 2010!) Despite more electric guitar than Kanpp’s debut, this is never quite a full-on “rock album”, and even the comparatively gutsy “Into You” is still a bit laid-back, with the focus more on confessional honesty than on musical energy. It’s the soft-spoken folksy moments that really stick to my bones here, from huge Christian radio hits like “A Little More” to the delicious contributions of Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile on the Shawn Colvin cover “Diamond in the Rough” and the delicious duet with Margaret Becker, “When Nothing Satisfies”. Knapp has the rare gift of keeping it simple while also being disarmingly transparent.

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93. Switchfoot – Learning to Breathe (2000)
Unlike most folks who first heard of the band when a few tracks from this album made their way into A Walk to Remember‘s soundtrack or when a few hits from The Beautiful Letdown (including “Dare You to Move”, a song which finds its original home on this disc) shot up the mainstream rock charts, I’ve followed Switchfoot since their early days. Their third disc, the last one recorded by just the original three-piece lineup, was when I finally crossed over from being lukewarm about them to realize that Jon Foreman and company could write some pretty brilliant songs. This uneven but deliciously quirky disc finds them right on the cusp of a more mainstream sound without losing their unique edge, and back when they were exploring their well-worn “more to life” theme for the first time, the words hit me a lot harder. That’s why songs like the aforementioned “Dare”, the alt/R&B-hybrid “Love Is the Movement”, the grungy, witty “The Loser”, and the odd album closer “Living Is SImple” still stick in my brain and rank among my favorite Switchfoot songs despite the mostly for-the-better changes made to the band’s sound since then. A sense of humor not seen as much on later albums even shows up in the form of “Poparazzi”, an ode to irritating pop songs which can now only be seen as ironic given that Mandy Moore gave them their big break, and you can’t mention the title now without folks thinking of Lady Gaga. (Back then, a lot of her fans were still saying“gaga”. I might be exaggerating. At least, I hope I am.) I hope these surfing philosophers are still as intriguing a decade from now as they were a decade ago.

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92. Lifehouse – No Name Face (2000)
Hey look, I know that to some folks, Lifehouse represents the most middle-of-the-road version of the post-grunge-gone-pop sound that characterized the early part of the decade. They won’t win a ton of awards for musical originality, but in my book, they’ve mostly made up for it with heartfelt songwriting. And Jason Wade, while he’s a bit too shy to have much of a stage presence, did some of his best songwriting and vocal work on the band’s big debut, which may have gotten them tagged as a one-hit wonder since “Hanging by a Moment” eclipsed nearly everything else by the band and by most other radio-friendly bands in the year 2001, but look deeper and you’ll find a sense of whimsy and wonder to balance out the angst. Lifehouse simply has a more humble and approachably spiritual outlook than a lot of those baritone-fronted post-grunge acts did (without being overblown like Creed, who they were often compared to and who I liked at the time), and unlike some bands whose vagueness on the subject can be frustrating, the open-endedness of a love/worship song like “Hanging by a Moment” or “Everything” served as a connecting point for Christian and mainstream music fans alike. Elsewhere, the more troubling confessions of “Sick Cycle Carousel” and “Somebody Else’s Song” butted up against the more heartfelt confessions of the beautiful “Trying” and “Breathing” and the heartbreaking “Simon”. While mostly a downbeat album, and not as musically inventive as its misunderstood follow-up Stanley Climbfall, it’s packed with classic Lifehouse tunes that for me, defined my spiritual pulse at the beginning of the new millennium.

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91. Alter Bridge – Blackbird (2007)
Hey, speaking of Creed! The three guys who did not sing lead in that band wisely got themselves a far more talented lead vocalist in Myles Kennedy after Creed imploded, and finally made some steps to escape the now-played-out Creed sound by bringing in a lot more metal influence on their second album. There’s nothing new here – those who know their metal bands better than I do will recognize the influences from the 70’s and 80’s that drive Kennedy and Mark Tremonti in their plentiful, melodic guitar solos and jagged riffs, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to write songs that rally a world-weary audience against a vague oppressive force. There’s just a spirited passion driving these performances, which gives an extra fierce bite to intense rockers like “Ties that Bind”, “Coming Home”, “White Knuckles”, etc., while Kennedy’s voice soars through effective power ballads like “Brand New Start”, the conviction to make a difference in “Before Tomorrow Comes”, or the generously lengthy title track, which bids farewell to a dying friend. It’s discouraging that this band was persuaded to put up with Scott Stapp again and reunite Creed (which I suspect was mostly for the money), but still encouraging that Alter Bridge plans to move forward with a third album later in 2010, hopefully after the Creed nostalgia’s over and done with and folks realize we never missed Creed all that much to begin with.

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90. Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam (2006)
This self-titled disc (a.k.a. “Avocado”) was largely a return to butt-kicking, solo-heavy alt-rockers for a band largely known for establishing themselves in a huge way with their debut Ten and then slowly deconstructing alternative rock and dodging fan expectations for roughly a decade and a half afterward. I didn’t know about all that when I came into this album, since it was the first PJ disc I ever heard, but it was front-loaded with up-tempo tracks that struck a good balance between bouncy and angry, with the addictively scary single “Worldwide Suicide” leading the way. Later in the disc, the band pleasantly surprised me with several ballads, most notably the out-of-gas lamentation “Gone”, the dark-hued ode to kicking an addiction “Inside Job”, and most notably, the oldies-esque “Come Back”, which was surprisingly sensitive and straightforward for a band known for their subversiveness. Not that I mind the subversiveness – this disc opened me up to the entire PJ catalogue, and this year I’ve started withTen and caught up with all of their albums up to Riot Act and including the brand spankin’ new Backspacer. Wish I’d had enough time to familiarize myself with those two and Binaural to see if they were worthy of this list, but sometimes you’ve gotta live with an album for a few years to recognize how solid it is (the same could be said for a number of bands I just started getting into at the end of the decade and whose back catalogues I didn’t have sufficient time to peruse.). With the possible exception of the fish-out-of-water “Parachutes”, PJ made no missteps with this self-titled effort, and my appreciation of it has only increased with time.

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89. Sigur Rós – Takk… (2005)
Something changed when this glacier-paced, “indier-than-indie” band from Iceland released their fourth album at the midpoint of the decade. Suddenly their sound was a bit less droning, a bit less “out there”, and yet no less ethereal – just a tad more conventional, and to be honest, more beautiful for it. I didn’t see that at the time, instead being disappointed by what I perceived as a lack of growth. But suddenly they’re everyone’s go-to band for euphoric soundtrack music – just listen to “Hoppípolla” and tell me you haven’t heard a clip of it in at least three different ads. That said, it would still get a lot of laughs if you dared to call Sigur Rós’s music “commercial”, because there’s still plenty of androgynous singing in a foreign (or entirely made-up!) language to go around, plently of long, tranquil passages of strings and sparse piano and background ambiance, and an overall sense of waking up from a dream in which you know you witnessed something painful and yet unspeakably beautiful, but now can’t remember exactly what it was. Commercial pop music generally doesn’t do that to most folks. Sigur Rós – even at their most languid and frustrating – has a weird knack for it.

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88. Cool Hand Luke – The Sleeping House (2008)
I used to respect Cool Hand Luke for their commitment to making artful, deeply personal music that explored tough theological truths without sounding anything like typical, radio-friendly Christian rock. But I just couldn’t get into their music, outside of a select few songs – it just seemed to drag on and on forever without much climax or payoff. That changed when the group took on a more aggressive attitude (without going back to their original screamo style) on their latest album, which compacted their sound a bit, using less muddy production and more of a hook-laden approach, without compromising on the tough-love lyrics or forgetting how to set the mood properly with a moodier, sparser piece or even a gentle praise song. It is very hard for a band to operate in the place where spiritual conviction, memorable melodies, and genuine art collide, and CHL does so by running through a gamut of ideas here, from the in-your-face aggression of “Failing in Love” and “Buy the Truth” to the soft comfort of “The Mirror” and “The House”, while retaining their ability to send chills up a listener’s spine with a ballad like “Eye of the Storm” or “The Incomprehensible Sleep” that challenges us on our ability to have faith in God even in the times of darkest doubt and temptation. It’s sad to see the band winding down (lone member Mark Nicks is planning a final album this year before apparently retiring Cool Hand Luke for good), but hopefully they’ll go out on as strong of a note as this disc, or an even stronger one.

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87. Jon Foreman – Spring & Summer (2008)
While technically not an “album” in the traditional sense, the third and fourth EPs in a year-long series depicting Foreman’s musings on the various seasons of faith were packaged and sold together in stores, and for me, they were the strongest of the set. Spring brought some much-needed color after the relative starkness of the first two discs, evoking the multi-instrumental whimsy of Sufjan Stevens on “March (A Prelude to Spring)” and the excellent “Baptize My Mind”, while also showing an ability to communicate effectively even when paraphrasing simple phrases from the Bible on the prayerful “Your Love Is Strong”, and finishing up with the deliciously ironic “Revenge”.Summer upped the ante even more with the mariachi horns of “A Mirror Is Harder to Hold”, the sitar-rockin’ “Resurrect Me”, the watery, romantic piano ballad “Deep In Your Eyes”, and the voice of God Himself telling off fake Christian scenesters a la the book of Isaiah in “Instead of a Show”, before winding down with the Psalm paraphrase “The House of God, Forever” and the vaguely Eastern “Again”, the flipside of Winter‘s gorgeous finale “In Love”. For a set of EPs that I expected to be mostly bare-bones acoustic guitar tunes, Foreman surprised me quite a bit with his diverse instrumental approach and the gamut of emotions covered on these songs. Spring & Summer isn’t complete without hearing the Fall & Winter set first, but it’s nice when the sequel surpasses the expectations given by the original.

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86. Green Day  – 21st Century Breakdown (2009)
Green Day probably overdid it a bit by coming up with this 18-track whopper in an attempt to surpass the success of American Idiot, but I’d rather see a band like this overdoing it than underdoing it. They discovered their inner Queen and fully committed to doing the rock opera thing, still offering plenty of snarky, bouncy pop/punk passages for the diehards, but also showing surprising restraint on several ballads where the melancholy only works because they’ve got a knack for theatrics. The message of this disc might lob some grenades a little close to home with its biting commentary on fear-mongering disguised as religion and the two budding young terrorists who serve as the story’s protagonists, but it’s an intriguing story to try to unravel. The only things weighing this sprawling disc down, ironically enough, are the lead singles “Know Your Enemy” (which isn’t terrible, but is repetitive and doesn’t come close to demonstrating the potential shown elsewhere) and “21 Guns” (which is just unforgivably ridden with cliches). Beyond that, take your pick – the mood-swinging “Before the Lobotomy”, the suicidally dramatic “Last Night on Earth”, the acoustic/Latin/surf throwdown “Peacemaker”, the 5-minute title track and “American Eulogy” which bookend the album… throw a dart at the tracklisting, and you’re about 80 to 90% guaranteed to hit something pretty darn cool.

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85. Over the Rhine – Films for Radio (2001)
This album was my first taste of OtR, and it’s still my favorite of the albums I’ve explored so far. It’s their most “pop” in the sense that it’s their only album to take a programmed, percussive approach on several tracks and emphasize pop and rock more than the folk and jazz stylings that dominate most of their albums. You’ll still hear a bit of back porch sway in the lengthy “Little Blue River” and the trillion-instrument approach of “Fairpoint Diary”, and more than enough soul to carry ten torches in the slow-burner “When I Go”. But the moments that really stick out to me are the weary, heavy, Peter Gabriel-esque drums of “The World Can Wait”, the secret-agent-y electric guitars of “I Radio Heaven”, the whimsical ode to idealism “If Nothing Else”, and the deliciously bizarre “The Body Is a Stairway of Skin”, which is quite possibly the only trip-hop song to prominently feature a lap steel. Shoot, there’s even a straight-up pop single written by Dido here that manages to be more interesting than all of her albums combined. Films for Radio is the best movie you’ll never watch… because it can only be listened to.

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84. The Polyphonic Spree – The Fragile Army (2007)
Armed with a 20-odd member choir, a bevy of classical and rock instruments, and the bizarrely optimistic musings of one Tim DeLaughter, this strangely cult-like band delivered one of 2007’s most delightful rock albums, a disc which starts off good enough but gets stronger as it goes, with the back half upping the creative ante in all manner of weird ways as it hurtles toward one hell of an inspiring finale. DeLaughter’s lyrics almost define corny at times, yet there’s something lovable about the exuberance that he and his militia put into the performance, leaving almost no space empty that could have been filled with a trilling flute, an operatic solo vocal, a weird, trashy beat, or a piano part lifted from an obscure Broadway musical. It might be a bit much for folks who prefer subtlety to the “wall of sound” approach, but I tend to like albums that are dense enough that you discover new bits of sound lurking underneath that you never knew were there before.

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83. John Mayer – Room for Squares (2001)
It’s been hard to watch Mayer’s slow downward spiral, from a spot on my “best” list with his debut album all the way down to a “dishonorable” mention for 2009’s unbearably dull Battle Studies, but you know, the albums in between weren’t half bad. And I’ve got no axe to grind if Mayer feels more comfortable as a blues guitarist than doing the “acoustic sensitive” thing these days – it’s just that half the time, he goes for middle of the road and lets the reputation he’s built for what he can do override most people’s awareness of what he actually is doing. But enough about Mayer sucking these days. He was a much better songwriter before his ego got the better of him, facing a grown-up world with wide-eyed wonder on the defiant “No Such Thing”, admitting to his own failings and fears on the hilarious “My Stupid Mouth” and the cute ode to childhood “83”, and shoot, even the love songs where he was trying to seduce a girl (like the ubiquitous “Your Body Is a Wonderland”) were much more interestingly phrased back in those days. And it’s not like he couldn’t play back when his music was largely acoustic – there are some rich chord voicings and interesting riffs/runs to be found in so many of these songs, and “City Love” is a good early hint at the soft electric blues exploration he would undertake later on. Maybe he’ll always have a segment of young ladies in his audience who will swoon even if he’s being a complete a-hole to the former object of his affection in the songs he’s writing, but this male fan sure related to him better here when he was a lot less full of himself.

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82. Dream Theater – Octavarium (2005)
Dream Theater has been a bit of a guilty pleasure for me ever since I discovered the progressive metal band in 2003, but after the midpoint of the decade, it was like they went off the deep end into Cheeseville, and no matter how awesomely fast they could play, I just couldn’t get over the lyrics. Looking back, the albums I enjoyed from them were pretty corny too, and this one in particular got slagged by hardcore fans for trying too hard to ape current music trends or whatever. But this was the album that stuck with me the most, especially once I realized how each individual piece from the surprisingly tranquil “The Answer Lies Within” to the intense, fearful blast of “Panic Attack”, culminated into the 24-minute opus “Octavarium” that closed the album, and how deeply the themes of numerology and music theory had guided the creation of the album (from each song being in its own key while the interludes covered the half-steps in between, to the numerous occurrences of “8” and “5” in the album art… there are enough hidden meanings buried here to make a seasoned Lost fan geek out!) Most importantly, I related – whether it was Mike Portnoy‘s ongoing battle with alcoholism in “The Root of All Evil”, the feling of pouring your heart out for someone and having them never give back in “Never Enough”, or the paranoia of feeling trapped in a maze in “These Walls”. But that title track… man, it’s something else, morphing from an ethereal 4-minute keyboard solo into the ramblings of a borderline insane man, into a dizzying maze of musical of pop cultural references that gives way to one of the best improvisational (and dizzyingly fast!) breaks that I’ve heard from the band yet, all leading up to a stunningly intense climax. I wish these guys would come out with something new to re-capture my attention, something where the songwriting is up to snuff with the instrumental skill and the solos serve the songs rather than feeling disjointed and (I hate to say it) masturbatory, but until then, I don’t mind being trapped inside this Octavarium.

2002_TheNormals_APlaceWhereYouBelong

81. The Normals – A Place Where You Belong (2002)
The Normals were one of the first “slow-burn” bands that I came to appreciate, at first being underwhelmed by their laid-back approach and the weary, sometimes hoarse-sounding vocals of Andrew Osenga, but I persevered and found a lot to relate to in the moody musings of Coming to Life. The band’s third and final album added a bit of experimental flair to Osenga’s heart-on-sleeve songwriting, scaling back the expectation of hearing a rock band and allowing a drum loop or background ambiance to drive a song when the mood called for it. The fears of never settling down and finding a home, and of letting a chance at love slip through one’s fingertips due to fear, lust, or just plain not seeing what God’s placed in front of you, hit close to home in a pivotal year when I was trying to figure out how on Earth to have a meaningful long-distance relationship with the woman who would later become my wife. That added extra poignance to an otherwise simple song like “Romeo on the Radio” or the humorous but all-too-true “Less than Love”, and extra gravity to the already heavy-hearted “Happiness” and “Grace”. The band called it quits after this record, which apparently didn’t get promoted too well (as evidenced by the lack of available live footage from it), and Osenga joined up with Caedmon’s Call and went on to become one of their most reliable songwriters during the absence (and later return) of Derek Webb. I have to wonder if Andrew will call up his old buddies now that he’s taking a break from Caedmon’s while they reunite the original band for a new album, but if this is the last the world will ever hear from The Normals, it was certainly a heartfelt curtain call.

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