Picking up where I left off in Part I… this is still the best of the “B plus” material from the last decade.
80. The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema (2005)
I only got into the New Pornos in retrospect, deciding to check out their back catalogue after 2009 brought an excellent album from the band’s mastermind A. C. Newman and a decent one from Neko Case. Those two, plus the wonderfully weird Dan Bejar, are the linchpins of this off-kilter indie pop group, whose best album is one of those discs that seems to never quit, serving up 14 tracks of labyrinthine lyrics strewn across a minefield of exuberant indie-pop hooks. The title track and the hat trick of “Use It”, “The Bleeding Heart Show”, and “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” early in the album are a delightful way to get the listener scratching his or her head, and slipping into the back half, “These Are the Fables” and “Streets of Fire” are more downbeat but lush entries worthy of immersing oneself in, while the album closes with the off-kilter “Stacked Crooked”, one of those obscure oddities that turns out to be my favorite New Pornos song even though I can’t quite explain why. This band’s music is generally more witty and interpretive than explicit and naughty, so don’t let the name scare you off.Twin Cinema is a gratuitously tuneful good time.
79. Sleeping at Last – Storyboards (2009)
This dreamy Chicago band (now down to a duo with the departure of drummer Chad O’Neal) seems to get more intimate and sparse with each record, playing it almost fully acoustic on their latest disc, but not without a generous helping of strings, ukulele, and other colorful instruments to add layers and shading to Ryan O’Neal‘s fragile-voiced poetry. Literature geeks or those who simply love to get lost in a good storybook will likely appreciate this album most as breathtaking creations like “Porcelain”, “Timelapse”, and “Slow & Steady” dance about like feathers caught in the wind, but it’s the slow, pensive numbers like “Naive” and “Birdcage Religion” that cut to the bone, facing the hardest truths with most of those layers stripped away. And then there’s “Clockwork”, a beast unto itself with its hopelessly whimsical Disney-esque string section gone mad. To listen is to slowly fall in love.
78. Deas Vail – Birds & Cages (2009)
I still feel like I’ve barely had enough time to digest this late 2009 release (it showed up as a digital download in late October, with the physical discs mailed out in November), which is why I still haven’t provided a review despite gushing about it in the year’s Top 20 and now here, but suffice to say this piano-driven indie rock act with the golden voice of Wes Blaylock at the center has done it again, perhaps not reaching the euphoric heights of their debut, but definitely keeping up their knack for unusual, interlocking rhythms and generously layered melodic rock songs that morph into several different personalities over the course of few minutes. The full-speed-ahead U2-isms of “Cages” nicely melt into a heavenly piano coda, while the other title track, “Birds”, is the flipside, gradually transforming from moody piano ballad into set-free rocker. And then you’ve got your tracks like “Sunshine” and “Growing Pains” that simply go for the throat with their fiery guitars and intricate drum patterns. Perhaps this album’s only true fault is that it’s consistently enjoyable enough to make the highlights a little less obvious.
77. Jason Mraz – Waiting for My Rocket to Come (2002)
A lot of the things I said about John Mayer and how he seemed less full of himself earlier in his career are also true about Jason Mraz, a man with the same initials who also wields an acoustic guitar and who is often compared to Mayer despite sounding nothing like him. Sure, Mraz isn’t afraid to name-drop himself and even cast himself as a streetwise white boy rapper in “Curbside Prophet”, but it’s that feeling that he’s sending up a genre for fun more than making a serious attempt at it that keeps the mood light and the self-reference bearable. None of us could escape the tongue-twisting optimism of “The Remedy” back in ’03, and while that might still be my favorite Mraz ditty, he shows impressive range here, with sunny, loungy folk songs throwing vibrant chords left and right (“Sleep All Day”, “Tonight, Not Again”, “Who Needs Shelter?”, etc.), and a couple of tracks that approach “rock” as much as an acoustic-driven track can (the hilarious “Too Much Food” and the melancholy “On Love In Sadness”). But perhaps the best indicator of Mraz’s abilities is the heartbreaking, way-over-the-top ballad “Absolutely Zero”, which could have landed Mraz in a Broadway musical in another life. This is a laid-back but impressive disc whose level of quality and consistency Mraz has yet to match.
76. Radiohead – Kid A (2000)
I know it’s like, sacrilege to all serious music critics that I didn’t put this disc right at #1, but considering that I was seriously freaked out and hated it the first time I heard it, it’s a feat that I managed to slowly fall in love with Radiohead’s most jaw-droppingly expectation-defying experiment. Try and dig up reviews written when this thing was brand-spankin’ new and you’ll find a lot of critics playing a different tune than the one they eventually learned, because this attempt to completely deconstruct the apocalyptic alternative rock they’d become known for baffled almost everyone at first with its chilling, icy, robotic bad dream of a soundtrack. Even seasoned Radiohead fans had to fall in love with this thing slowly (and given its stealth release late in 2000, one wonders if it’d have had any prayer at a “Best of the Decade”-type list if popular culture defined 1991-2000 as a decade instead). So it’s no wonder that I, a brand new listener who only checked out Kid A after hearing rumors of a complete trainwreck and witnessing the band’s unsettling performances of “The National Anthem” and “Idioteque” on Saturday Night Live, had no reference point for it at first. Oddly enough, I came to love the idiosyncractic rhythm only barely attached to a melody of the title track, the lonely swooping strings of “How to Disappear Completely”, the chopped-up vocal antics of “Everything in Its Right Place”, and the impressionistic take on divorce in 5/8 time of “Morning Bell”. Shoot, I even thought the indulgently ambient “Treefingers” was kinda soothing… after like three years or so. I still haven’t fully wrapped my head around the distracting “In Limbo” or dug up the hidden beauty of the dirgelike “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, so there are a few trouble spots that keep me from giving this one full marks. But it’s a landmark recording that opened up my mind to the possibility of actually enjoying being confused by music, and it set the tone for a lot of horizon-stretching in the years to come. Given that, and the fact that I do genuinely enjoy this schizophrenic freak-out of an album, I couldn’t not give it a spot in the Top 100.
75. The Echoing Green – The Winter of Our Discontent (2003)
Back on the more conventional side of electronic music, this synthpop duo released their finest (and frustratingly, still their latest) album to little fanfare late in 2003 and again with some alternate tracks in 2004, and I figure there must be few people out there who are up for a combination of new wave and darkwave, because I’ve heard little about this album from other sources. Sure, Joey Belville‘s optimism can be almost cheesy at times, as can his unabashed love of the 80’s (see the Simple Minds cover “New Gold Dream”), but he’s also refreshingly open about the difficult seasons of life and the fact that Christians experience depression just like anyone else. Knowing that he’s been through the valleys he sings about adds extra weight to the darkly-hued standouts “Fall Awake” and “Blind”, while lighter-toned love songs like “Apology” and “Heidi” and half-dark, half-light reflections like “Someday” and “Winter” keep the mood in flux from track to track, and the complete reinterpretation of Velour 100‘s “BIttersweet” and Chrissy Jeter‘s soothing lead vocal on “Starling” throw a few extra curveballs. The Echoing Green is the rare band (and I use that term loosely) that can embrace its inner geek and its dark side at the same time.
74. Jars of Clay – Redemption Songs (2005)
It’s really too bad that I got caught up in the scandal of Essential Records forcing the band’s hand when this folksy hymns album was first released, because it caused me to focus on a suspiciously happy version of “It Is Well with My Soul” more so than most of the album, and not give the band the full credit they deserved for interpreting a series of theologically rich and often obscure hymns in styles ranging from blues to country to Gospel, sometimes altering the melodies and sometimes rewriting them completely as it seemed to suit the mood. An ideal follow-up to the laid-back acoustic vibe of 2003’s Who We Are Instead, the band calls in backup such as the lovely warble of Sarah Kelly for “I’ll Fly Away”, and the soulful wail of The Blind Boys of Alabama for an unorthodox take on “Nothing But the Blood” and the unabashedly bluegrassy “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand”. But the band does exceedingly well on their own, recasting “I Need Thee Every Hour” as melodically intricate alternative folk, “Jesus, I Lift My Eyes” as a minor-key shuffle, and knocking it out of the park on the gorgeously fragile “Thou Lovely Source of True Delight”. Even that version of “It Is Well” sits a little better with me these days. And few Christian bands would dare to record such a somber and ironic take on “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” – the mere mood of the recording almost seems to interpret the title with a question mark at the end of it. Even with songs they didn’t write, this band has a lot on their mind, and Redemption Songs sure came out a lot heartier than the insipid worship album their label probably wanted them to record.
73. Thrice – The Alchemy Index, Vols. I & II: Fire & Water (2007)
Another album that’s not quite an album, but it was released as a 2-disc set, so I’ll fudge the rules just a bit. Thrice’sAlchemy Index project aimed to break down the elements of their sound into groups of songs that echoed the basic elements of the universe. Fire was obviously going to be hard-edged rock, all filled with cries of zeal and obsession, echoing the band’s earlier work but in a more twisted way, from the blistering “The Messenger” and “The Flame Deluge” to the comparatively more melodic “Burn the Fleet” and the rhythmically complex “Backdraft” and “The Arsonist”. Water completely threw out any sense of rock energy, save for a few rough shards of guitar on the instrumental “Night Diving”, replacing it with cool, ambient, but somewhat murky electronica, which worked to great effect on the beat-heavy “Digital Sea” and the heartstring-tugging “The Whaler”, even if it sounded like the work of a completely different band. Not everything worked – at times Fire seemed too forced and Water seemed a little incoherent. But it was the beginning of an exciting chapter for the band, in which they proved their versatility as musicians. The follow-up would prove to be even more intriguing.
72. Eastmountainsouth – Eastmountainsouth (2003)
Take a classically-trained female vocalist from Virginia, a more earthy singer/songwriter from Alabama, transplant them to L.A., set them up in a studio with all of the acoustic instruments that they want, and flavor their music with a bit of drum programming and an overall pop sheen… wait, what? Shouldn’t the glossy L.A. production be kept as far from folk music as possible? Maybe. Sometimes I think Eastmountainsouth’s one and only album is overproduced, sometimes I think it’s got just the right amount of texture to it. It works because the production only adds a subtle hint of change to an otherwise traditional approach, be it the gorgeous interlocking harmonies of the century-plus-old tune “Hard Times” and the short-but-sweet original “So Are You to Me”, the sad but deep intimacy of “Ghost” and “On Your Way”, or the sheer joy of several interlocking acoustic instruments on “All the Stars” and “The Ballad of Young Alban and Amandy”. A surprising religious fervor shows up in “Rain Come Down”, which only works because it gives you the sense that the lyrics are as old as the states these singers hail from, and there’s even a danceable moment all gussied up with thick beats and didgeridoo, unsurprisingly titled “You Dance”. It was a shame to hear that the duo had gone their seprate ways after this lone album, with Peter Bradley Adams managing only average output on his own and Kat Maslich Bode managing to put nothing out whatsoever despite a long-promised EP. My YouTube search shockingly turned up recent footage of the duo performing together again, so I can only hope they’ve reconciled their differences and are planning a sophomore album for the near future.
71. Barenaked Ladies – Barenaked Ladies Are Me (2006)
If you only know the BNL from silliness like “One Week” and “If I Had $1,000,000”, you probably figure the group’s just good for an occasional laugh and not meant to be taken seriously, despite the best attempts of largely ignored albums like Maroon to prove you wrong. Going indie was probably likely to descrease that potential audience even more, but it actually resulted in the group’s finest album since Gordon (and possibly their finest overall – I go back and forth), which unfortunately isn’t something you’d be led to expect from its awkward title (and the even more embarrassing title for the companion album, Barenaked Ladies Are Men. Youch.) But listen to the gentle acoustic chords and plucked banjo on opening track “Adrift”, and you’ll find some surprisingly heartfelt observations beneath the cheeky puns. Ed Robertson and Steven Page are at the top of their game here, with curious depictions of stuff that goes wrong in relationships, taking the occasional humorous side journey to tell us what can go wrong with a bank robbery (“Bank Job”) or even with airport security (“Take It Back”). And there’s definitely a spirit of community as bassist Jim Creegan and keyboardist Kevin Hearn each get their first turn at a lead vocal in a while (“Vanishing” is Kevin’s first since a Maroon hidden track while “Peterborough and the Kawarthas” is Jim’s first since Born on a Pirate Ship). The singles “Easy” and “Wind It Up”, while catchier than some of the other oddities on this disc, are a good template for the BNL’s approach – hook ’em with something deceptively simple and even lightly humorous, then veer left and sucker-punch ’em with a double meaning that makes ’em realize an otherwise sensitive song is actually reading an ex the riot act. Remember “Call and Answer”? Yeah. The best moments here are a lot like that.
70. Thrice – Vheissu (2005)
I was introduce to Thrice’s music through this album, which broke from the “intelligent screamo” tradition of their older stuff and began to place more emphasis on melody and sonic experimentation. It was really the best entry point for me at the time – hard-hitting, diverse, with an almost perfect between what was sung and what was shouted, as delivered by the robust voice of Dustin Kensrue. Not many rock bands viable in the mainstream would look to Thomas Pynchon and C. S. Lewis for inspiration, and not many could pull off morphing the sound of a Morse code transmission (“Image of the Invisible”) or a music box (“Music Box”, obviously) into the backbone of a ferocious rocker, or dare to place the guttural screams of prisoners longing for a jailbreak (“The Earth Will Shake”) right up against the calm, cool keyboard tones of a long-distance love song (“Atlantic”). If you want all hardcore, all the time, it’s best to stick with the band’s early material, but Vheissu is a thrilling exercise in weight and balance from a band who has grown increasingly restless about the idea of doing the same thing twice.
69. Switchfoot – Nothing Is Sound (2005)
This album got a bad rap on its release, most notably due to the overbearing copy protection that made it fail to play in many a CD drive, but also due to the fact that it felt like a thematic repeat of The Beautiful Letdown without as much of an optimistic payoff. Personally, while I didn’t think it matched TBL song-for-song, I appreciated the new sense of weary heaviness that the band had brought into their sound when they hired second guitarist Drew Shirley, and I related to its Ecclesiastical tone, questioning the meaning and purpose of pretty much the entire physical world. Nothing was spared, from politicians to nations to sex to the very idea of happiness itself – “Everything is meaningless”, pined Jon Foreman in the Solomon-inspired musings of “Happy Is a Yuppy Word”. Yet it wasn’t all darkness. The expansive power ballad “The Shadow Proves the Sunshine” used the very existence of darkness and hopelessness to posit the existence of an inherent, beautiful good, while “Stars”, “The Setting Sun”, “Golden”, and “We Are One Tonight” rallied fans around the idea of new hope and perspective for the broken. Despite some musical missteps in the second half, the album closed strong with the acoustic ballad-turned-heavy rocker “Daisy”, perhaps the most intriguing final thought on any Switchfoot album thus far. Nothing Is Sound is exactly the kind of misunderstood follow-up to a big hit that I seem to enjoy defending, that I wish more people would examine for its merits even if it seems like tough going at first.
68. Björk – Vespertine (2001)
I didn’t truly get acquainted with Björk until 2007’s Volta, which had its share of intriguing and perplexing musical ideas, but couldn’t hold a candle to some of the earlier material that I quickly devoured thereafter, most notably her quietest and longest album, the self-consciously small follow-up to 1997’s glitchy, aggresive Homogenic. I normally prefer the more upbeat material with most artists, but in the middle of an unrelenting California summer, Björk’s interpretation of a dreamy Icelandic winter was exactly the antidote I needed. Her obsession with “micro-beats” fueled curiously romantic (and more-than-subtly sexual) concoctions like “Hidden Place”, “Cocoon”, and the glorious “Pagan Poetry”, while a peaceful sense of letting go and letting the universe unfold as it needs to gave a lighter-than-air feeling to the subtler highlights “Undo”, “It’s Not Up to You”, and “Aurora”. While a slightly creepy, almost stalker-ish sort of mood sneaks into a few tracks in the back half and I haven’t completely wrapped my head around some of that stuff, Vespertine is still the rare album that manages to soothe even as it challenges the listener. Quiet songs contain surprisingly dense layers of choral vocals, snowy bells and keyboards, and introverted, computerized rhythms. It’s my favorite album by an artist who easily claims a Top 5 spot on my list of all-time favorite female singer/songwriters… which is saying a lot considering how much I used to dislike her eccentric voice.
67. Iona – The Circling Hour (2006)
Whether undertaking an epic exploration of an ancient Christian text, or simply becoming engrossed in the beauty of nature, Iona has been one of those bands whose point of view is appealing to listeners of varying religious inclinations simply because they are masters of their instruments. They’re most easily defined as a “progressive rock” band, but this simple designation doesn’t take into account their fascination with Celtic music and culture and their talent for creating restrained, meditative, prayerful pieces that sit nicely alongside their more thundering, Messiah-heralding works. On their most recent disc, the band eschewed the mellow, reflective pieces almost entirely, relegating those moods to pieces of long songs that emphasized the group’s rhythm section and their ability to jam on a riff or rhythm as the mood led them. Pieces like “Wind Off the Lake” and “Sky Maps” contain very few lyrics but paint vivid pictures through the ebb and flow of Dave Bainbridge‘s guitars, Troy Donockley‘s pipes, and Frank Van Essen‘s rich percussion and lovely violin. A quieter suite dedicated to the elements “Wind”, “Water”, and “Fire” does exist, but even that explodes into one of Iona’s most fervent, bring-the-house down performances in the final third. Lyrically, it’s their most open-ended and approachable project, which will bug folks who like to define “Christian music” more strictly, but there’s something to be said for simply letting beautiful things that God made be beautiful.
66. Jars of Clay – The Eleventh Hour (2002)
Before 2009’s The Long Fall Back to Earth, this was the most “pop” of Jars of Clay’s albums, taking a variety of musical ideas that had worked for the band on their mega-selling first album and their misunderstood second and third discs, and putting it into a blender that spit out pure liquid accessibility. The immediate shimmering blast of “Disappear”, the loopy grind of “Revolution”, and the relatively straightforward praises and prayers of “I Need You” hit home with fans almost immediately. The fact that I liked it so easily compared to past JoC albums that had to earn my love gradually seemed suspicious, and I still haven’t fallen in love with it as deeply as old personal favorites like Much Afraid, but listen to the glitch-laden lament of “Silence” or the banjo-plucking elation of “The Edge of Water” and it’s clear that this group was far from running out of ideas. The constant is always the songwriting, which creates a relateable backbone through the musical adventures of a thoroughly solid front half, only breaking up momentarily for a few tracks near the end of the album. Even at their most conventional and radio-friendly, this group is far from typical pop music, and that adds a richness of wisdom and experience to their songs that typically isn’t heard on Christian radio.
65. Switchfoot – Oh! Gravity (2006)
Another Switchfoot album in my list, so soon after the last one? Yeah, that’s kind of how I felt when this album was released, barely a year and change after Nothing Is Sound. By all accounts, that album had floundered commercially and the band had rushed out a follow-up, but to be fair, I think Jon Foreman had just entered a period of relentless creative energy that followed him all the way through the subsequent solo/side projects that he would undertake during the band’s hiatus. I regard this record on a level similar to Nothing Is Sound, hence their close placement in my list, but I give this one the slight edge due to a messier, more playful, try-almost anything once approach that leads to deliciously idiosyncratic songs like the hyperactive title track, the old-school Switchfoot throback “Amateur Lovers” (What? It sounds like their old stuff to me!), the swirling “Circles”, and perhaps Switchfoot’s finest song ever recorded, the dobro-plucking, meter-shifting “Dirty Second Hands”. While still repeating themselves a bit by trying to assure listeners of the meaning of life (“American Dream”, for all of its rockage, echoed TBL’s “Gone” a little too closely), the musical approach felt like a new chapter for the band, an assurance that they weren’t just meandering down an increasingly narrow path into polite, polished, middle-of-the-road pop/rock. (Not that I thought this after NIS, but sometimes it was hard to tell from the singles.) Even poppier songs like “Awakening” seemed to have extra bite here, and sure, maybe a couple ballads misfired in the back half, but it’s hard to quibble over that too much when a band can front-load a disc with as much exciting momentum as the entire first half of this one and then have ingenuity to spare for a late-album surprise like the clap-happy “4:12”. This is probably the Switchfoot disc that I pop back into the player the most, years after it stops being considered “new”.
64. Eisley – Combinations (2007)
I’m actually surprised that I was willing to rank this one as high as I did, considering my lukewarm response to it when it came out. Eisley charmed me so much with their sisterly harmonies and their lyrical flights of fancy on their debut Room Noises that I was a bit surprised to find more of a conventional approach to the songwriting dragging down the center section of this new disc, which also seemed disappointingly short at only ten tracks. While the twisted rock experiment “Many Funerals” and the demented body-snatcher ode “Invasion” remained the most attention-grabbing of the new songs, I gradually fell in love with the sweet “Ooh”s of the guitar-heavy love song “A Sight to Behold”, the simple, looping acoustics of “Come Clean”, and the gorgeously baroque take on two being better than one in “Combinations”. If I had it my way, I’d have left the ragtime-meets-fantasy novel “Marsh King’s Daughter”, offered as an iTunes bonus track, part of the proper album, but even with the lean amount of songs offered here, there’s more tasty indie pop goodness to sink my teeth into than I originally gave the band credit for.
63. Relient K – Five Score and Seven Years Ago (2007)
This coming-of-age band, seemingly eager to stretch out from their “punk” roots (and by “punk”, I mean they sounded like a Christian Blink 182), strays farther into the “pop” end of the spectrum with this disc, sprawling all over the place with its acapella intro “Pleading the Fifth”, its bouncy, piano-driven love songs “The Best Thing” and “Must Have Done Something Right”, its gushy synthesized ballad “Give Until There’s Nothing Left”, and the epic, 11-minute “Deathbed”, which I suppose isn’t “pop” in any conventional sense, but sure doesn’t sound anything like punk either, using a Sufjan Stevens-inspired array of instruments to depict an old man’s thoughts as he prepares to breathe his last and meet his maker. The hyperactive energy of old still abounds on “I Need You”, “Devastation and Reform”, and a handful of other tracks, but for my money, it’s the hybrid stuff like “Forgiven”, which bridges the new piano-heavy sound with the old guitar-driven sound, that sticks out the most. Songwriting-wise, it’s a mixed bag, but when it hits, it hits hard, which is surprising for a band known for goofy songs full of pop culture references.
62. Incubus – Light Grenades (2006)
Upon its release, lead singer Brandon Boyd described this disc as sounding like “13 songs played by 13 different bands”. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but then, I’ve known this band long enough to expect curveballs. They might get a bad rap for departing from the heavy funk of their early works and blasting modern rock radio with a lot of power chord-driven singles, but give Boyd and guitarist Mike Einziger some credit – they have a knack for tweaking the sounds of their instruments and twisting their lyrics in interesting ways. Pedestrian power pop bands generally don’t produce the singing/shouting dichotomy of a track like “A Kiss to Send Us Off”, the rapid-fire proto-punk blast of “Light Grenades”, or the acoustic, body percussion-driven romp “Paper Shoes”. Even more conventional singles like the hyper-driven “Anna-Molly” or the smooth, R&B-inflected “Dig” have a lot more on their minds than you’d expect. This band rarely seems to settle for ordinary when they can tweak something in their own weird way, and aside from the occasional misstep like the too-obvious “Love Hurts” or the offbeat false start “Quicksand”, Light Grenades is a delightfully unpredictable arsenal of exploding ideas.
61. David Crowder Band – A Collision (2005)
Is it worship music? Is it art? Crowder and Co. first showed hints of blurring those lines on the joyous romp that was 2003’s Illuminate, but here they really upped the ante, yanking the listener out of their comfort zones with a sprawling album split into four sections, littered with snippets of found recordings and abrupt transitions from one thought to the next, even including single songs that made abrupt right turns from rock to bluegrass or even classical. It was bizarre and hard to swallow, and some of Crowder’s best material (particularly in the solid “C Part” running from the glitchy techno of “Do Not Move” through to the futuristic hymn update “Our Happy Home”) may have gone unnoticed by more casual fans as a result. More heartfelt, straightforward material like “Here Is Our King” and the homonym-obsessed “Wholly Yours” might have been more approachable to that group, and I certainly thought this album could stand to be cleaned up in the “flow” department, but i was fascinated by the band’s willingness to go far beyond the boundaries expected of a “worship band” and confront fears of death and oppression to make an album that truly reflects the sound of a Christian’s long, meandering, confusing journey toward Heaven.