The Best of the Ought Nots, Part III: 41-60

We’ve reached the midpoint of my personal hit list now – at some point in the 40’s is where we cross the threshold from the material bubbling just under the “5 star” barrier, to the material that I feel fully earned the highest marks in each glowing review that I wrote. The higher up we go, the more unbridled my joy in going back and revisiting the great music that the 2000’s had to offer.

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60. The Flaming Lips – At War with the Mystics (2006)
Yeah, I said it. I love this album and hate Embryonic. You wanna make something of it? While I realize my opinion breaks with that of your average hardcore Flaming Lips fan, and that they were wildly experimental long before they were making lush dream pop albums like The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, I still enjoy them in this mode better, and I actually found Mystics to be a slight improvement over their first two entries in this genre. It’s certainly not for lack of experimentation – it’s not like the hyperactive vocal hook of “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” or the hiccupy Prince send-up “Free Radicals” are sure-fire radio-friendly material that anyone could fall in love with. Nor would the sprawling, 70’s inspired melodic turns of “The Sound of Failure” or the collision between Beach Boys-inspired harmony and ear-splitting guitar feedback in “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion” be sure-fire highlights of your average pop fan’s playlist. Even at their most supposedly predictable, the listener has to play by The Flaming Lips’ rules, and what Wayne Coyne might lack in vocal skill (there’s likely some severe pitch correction going on even in some of his more fragile moments here), the band makes up for with thundering, percussive energy and a truckload of fuzz and talkbox effects overlaid onto the guitars and bass. All of this power is, somewhat humorously, used to create a deliciously layered album that asks whether those who have the power are well-equipped to use it, and that ponders the powerlessness of one man’s small place in a big universe. Even at their most lyrically vicious (“The W.A.N.D.”), their most morbid (“Mr. Ambulance Driver”), or their most apocalyptic (the rolling, crashing “Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung”), there’s a beautiful balance between the organic and the electric, which gives this album a color palette surpassing anything I’ve heard from the band before or since. Other albums might be more daring, more baffling to the untrained ear, and might get the critical lauds for it, but this is the one that really hits home for me.

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59. Jars of Clay – The Long Fall Back to Earth (2009)
My favorite band goes 80’s! That’s actually a tough proposition for a guy who finds that decade, in all of its rubbery, one-hit-wonder glory to be a bit overblown in terms of the popular music it produced, but the band struck a wise balance between glossy programming and the authentic lyrics and guitar-driven sound that fueled Good Monsters and The Eleventh Hour. This band’s run the gamut from openly religious to utterly cryptic over the years, and I’ve loved them in both modes, so  wasn’t surprised or put off at all when they made a conscious effort to write a lot of relational songs here, mostly eschewing the devotional language of the more pensive entries on Good Monsters, and instead simply writing what they knew about long-distance yearning, parenthood, impending divorce, and broken friendships in need of mending. Charlie Lowell is the band’s star player here, from the grand, cascading piano of the intro track through the delightful synth rips of “Heaven” and the 8-bit throwback “Closer”, all the way to the “video game urban” loops of the closing track “Heart”. Even though lighter fare like the playful “Don’t Stop” and the lovelorn she-doesn’t-even-notice-me pining of “There Might be a Light” isn’t quite my speed, there’s astonishing depth to the aching beauty of “Safe to Land” and the adventurous, sprawling “Scenic Route” and plenty of tracks in between, which helps to demonstrate this band’s knack for coming up with a little something for every maturity level, knowing that their audience is diverse and never coming across as fake in their silliest or most serious moments. This isn’t what I would want every Jars of Clay album to sound like, but then, I can’t name any one album that I’d want them to do over. They’re at their best when they’re genre-hopping.

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58. A. C. Newman – Get Guilty (2009)
It might be because I fell for Newman’s latest solo effort first and then got addicted to The New Pornographers as a result of it that I still hold this disc in slightly higher regard than the excellent Twin Cinema. In any event, it’s tough to find anything that isn’t a highlight on Get Guilty, as Newman employs words simply because they’re fun to rhyme and alliterate and otherwise stumble across, with any apparent meaning being seemingly malleable. His sunny, 60’s-era pop/rock approach is a big driving force that helps this gleeful approach to songwriting take flight – even at its most melancholy, there are usually giddy background vocals and brash cymbals crashing and choruses that seem to effervescent to be legal. While I can’t name a particular track here that would go down as an obvious classic in the same way that a highlight from a New Pornos album might, that’s only because of the oblique nature of the songwriting, which gives off more impression than emotion. While that might keep me at a distance outside of a few emotive tunes like “The Heartbreak Rides” or “Young Atlantis”, I’m still impressed at how delightful every single track on this album is, and how that doesn’t diminish at all with repeated listens. Newman can push words around all he wants, as far as I’m concerned.

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57. Skillet – Collide (2003)
This raspy-throated youth group favorite band has been quite the whipping boy for critics throughout most of the decade, but even despite the most embarrassing missteps of freak flag-flying albums like Alien Youth, I still supported ’em up until the noticeable decline in their output in recent years. Collide found the band in an unusual place of not trying to be all things to all people, and just going all-out heavy on all but one or two tracks, not caring whose eardrums it might split or how much Christian radio would have to hack and slash at it (and boy, did they!) just to get a track on the air. Oddly enough, the hard-hitting, action-packed “Savior” scored reasonably well at mainstream radio, prompting a re-release of this disc in 2004 with a bonus track thrown in for good measure. But either version of this album is a solid listen for those who don’t mind John Cooper‘s raspy screams from time to time and the sometimes dorky, overblown lyrics. A song like “My Obsession” works because you truly believe that Cooper’s gone off the deep end for God; a song like “Fingernails” or “Forsaken” works because it taps into desperation in a way that justifies the jerky guitars, creepy synths, and all of the thrashing about. Even a (fake) string-drenched epic like the title track or a comparatively more laid-back ballad like “A Little More” packs a lot of extra punch compared to how it likely would have been arranged on other albums, and the band rarely lets up from after that point, straight through to the kamikaze antics of “Cycle Down”. Skillet certainly ain’t for everyone, and I don’t think their songwriting will ever be as solid as it was on Hey You, I Love Your Soul, but musically, this album is one wild ride in the best way possible.

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56. Falling Up – Captiva (2007)
I was pretty sure this band had lost touch when they lost lead guitarist Tom Cox and started downplaying the speedy riffs that had characterized their early sound in favor of synthesizers and other spacey sounds. Captivaslowed things down a bit, also diversifying things after the frustratingly indistinguishable back half of Dawn Escapes, but occasionally running the risk of sounding like a “normal band” when they dared to drop the tempo to anything approaching “mid”. I was focusing on the wrong things, and I slowly came to find that this band did ambiance (not to be confused with “Ambience” – that was on Crashings) and a sheer sense of awe and wonder better than they did youth-groupy riff rock. Anyone who paid close attention could see that there was only so far that the bouncy power chords and their occasional flirtations with rap/rock could take them anyway – Jessy Ribordy‘s lyrics were always a bit too obscure to be easily interpreted, and that’s a big no-no for CCM, but a big plus for a band with more artistic aspirations. Here, from the murky, distant glow of “A Guide to Marine Life”, to the medieval yet robotic dance of “Drago or the Dragons”, to the starry vastness of “Captiva” and “The Dark Side of Indoor Track Lights”, to the surprising sparseness of the piano-driven “Arch to Achilles”, there was a deeper story lurking underneath, giving their music a sort of science fiction bent without quite making this disc a concept album. They’d tackle that with the equally bizarre Fangs! a few years later, but first they needed to get through this crucial transitional phase, and looking back now, I find this more expansive sound a lot more appealing than the ADHD nature of their old stuff.

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55. Relient K – Mmhmm (2004)
The cheeky pop/punk act’s mainstream debut is still the disc I regard as their best work, finding itself on more even ground than the sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-pensive, and sometimes-misguided mixed bag found on any of their older albums. Mostly gone are the just-for-fun asides, with the possible exception of “My Girl’s Ex-Boyfriend” and the bizarre mouthful of a song “The Only Thing Worse than Beating a Dead Horse Is Betting on One.” The band’s penchant for being humorous one moment and spiritual the next has shifted to a more honest (but still witty) examination of who a young man is vs. who he wants to be, tackling breakups (“The One I’ve Been Waiting For”), wars between supposed friends (“Which to Bury, Us or the Hatchet”) and cycles of sin (“I So Hate Consequences”) with raucous, youthful energy, while saving the sunnier, poppier side of their sound for the bad-weather-as-depression analysis of “High of 75”. Surprising maturity abounds in the acoustic-gone-epic closer “When I Go Down” and the lushly orchestrated “Let It All Out” (both featuring John Davis on guest vocals), while future memberJohn Warne shows up to add a little extra zing to the popular singles “More than Useless” and “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been”. This was the first disc that showed Matt Theissen getting as comfortable in front of a piano than he was with a guitar slung around his neck, and he’s quite reliable in both modes, sorting through all the ups and downs of loneliness and apathy and just trying to figure out who the heck he is, and coming out lifting his eyes to the heavens on the other side.

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54. Evanescence – Fallen (2003)
Go on, laugh. I know this wannabe-Goth band is just a gimmick in most people’s eyes. I wouldn’t take Fallenseriously as a genre exercise – Evaenescence spent a year in the spotlight because they had a keen ear for a killer hook and because people thought Amy Lee was hot. But forget for a second that they ever tried to pose as anything, and just listen to that gorgeous voice, crystal clear and dripping with emotion one minute, while guttural and brooding the next. (When she’s not jumping all around on stage, that is – some bands are just plain better in the studio.) Partner in crime Ben Moody (who abruptly exited the band causing its near-implosion later in the year) may have been almost all power chords, all the time, so while the music wasn’t the most original, the band as whole still knocked it out of the park thanks to Amy’s versatility and a host of creepy background vocals and strings. Fallen was the moody pop album that just wouldn’t quit, from the slicing opening riffs of “Going Under” all the way through to the chilling Latin choir that closed out “Whisper”. Listening to Amy battle personal demons in the darkly captivating ballads “My Immortal” and “Hello”, the suicidal ramblings of “Tourniquet”, or the escapist storybook fantasy of “Imaginary”, was the real fun of this record, and while it may have all been carnival theater, they played the act really,really well. The band also showed a penchant for devlishly creative music videos when the “big four” at the beginning of this album hit it big, from the dizzying heights of Amy’s false savior search in “Bring Me to Life”, to the creepy zombies in “Going Under”, and they even showed a sense of humor about the image they were selling us as “Everybody’s Fool” placed her at the center of a few of silly commercials. “My Immortal” may have been more conventional by comparison, but watching Moody play piano in his own little isolated space away from the remainder of the band was eerily prophetic. There were certainly deeper, more artistic records released in 2003, but you certainly could have done a lot worse for ear candy that year.

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53. Doves – Kingdom of Rust (2009)
To label Doves “Britpop” is to seriously oversimplify things. You might confuse these guys with Elbow or evenColdplay at a passing glance, but Doves have a little more grit thrown into their mix, as evidenced in the apocalyptic, stuttering electronica of “Jetstream”, the swirling dark magic of “Spellbound”, the bad-@$$ bassline and funky disco feel of “Compulsion”, or the drawn-out, disorienting weirdness of “10:03”. They’ve created their own decayed, dystopian kingdom and stuck to it, which makes Kingdom of Rust a fascinating mix of energetic rock and odd experimentation, accomplishing quite a bit more with the dual vocals of Jimi Goodwin and Jez Williams and a mere three-member lineup than you might think possible. Catchy, but not quite conventional, and unsettling yet uplifting, Doves have thrown me a delightfull curveball with this record, reminding me that I really ought to go back and check out their past work sometime.

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52. Copeland – You Are My Sunshine (2008)
I wasn’t sure what was up with this introverted, grey-hued indie pop experiment the first time I heard it. Copeland had already tested how soft you could get and still call it “rock” on previous albums, actually finding their greatest strength in some of the most purely ambient moments when it was just Aaron Marsh‘s fragile voice, a bit of piano, something being played backwards, and a light but intricate rhythm. Some of Sunshine follows that template, and some unfolds at a frustratingly offbeat pace, such as the shifting rhythms of “The Grey Man” and “On the Safest Ledge” (a.k.a the two songs that seem to have swapped choruses), the fragile synth-and-bass bump of “The Day I Lost My Voice”, or the introverted techno approach taken on “Not Allowed”. Brief moments of fire come through in the clustered rhythms of “Good Morning Fire Eater”, the relatively more straightforward, swooping guitar attack of “To Be Happy Now”, or the distorted squeal that livens up the middle section of “What Do I Know”. It’s definitely the band’s most unpredictable, out-of-focus ride, but I came to love it for that, finding myself willing to endure that way too indulgent 10-minute slow-burn of “Not So Tough Found Out” and gradually come to admire it, if only to get back around to the delectable dual-tracking of “Should You Return” that would always steal my attention right at the beginning of the disc. Copeland makes no pretense of being tough – they go where the bleeding hearts on their sleeves take them, even if it means diving into this idiosyncratic, effects-laden world where few seem willing to follow. I don’t know if the band’s final record will take the shape of a greatest hits or B-sides disc or whether they’ve got a full set of new material planned, but even in the worst case scenario, if Sunshine ends up being Copeland’s last true album, it’s a defiantly sweet note to go out on.

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51. Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid (2008)
Speaking of “sweet”, this British act (not to be confused with the aforementioned Doves) could practically rot your teeth with its grandiose visions of love won and life lost, marrying an uncanny sense of groove to a knack for stately, string-drenched suites. Thrill to the thundering horn and drum blasts that punctuate the otherwise delicate “Starlings”. Swoon to the unrbidled doe-eyed admiration of “Mirrorball”. Weep for the fallen tightrope walker plunging into the bottomless pit in the vertigo-inducing “Some Riot”, and then come right back out of your depression to the tune of “One Day Like This” and its grand orchestral exclamations. Do some sort of slow, forbidden dance to the lightly sexy rhythm of “An Audience with the Pope”. (Can songs about the Pope be sexy? You be the judge.) And if you’re not the type for romance and you’re feeling a little cynical, slip into a suit, tie and shades and hang out with Richard Hawley as he and Guy Garvey croon about the horse race they’ve rigged to make themselves millionaires in “The Fix”, or bounce along to the sinful, snarky rhythm of “Grounds for Divorce” as you get p!ssed in your favorite watering hole. Don’t worry, Elbow’ll get you home before the wife gets suspicious.

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50. The Listening – The Rock ‘N Roll Worship Circus Becomes The Listening (2006)
I used to think these guys were pretty gimmicky back when they were known as The Rock ‘N Roll Worship Circus, mining just about every classic rock cliche they could in their own brash attempt at revitalizing youth groupy worship music. It only sort of worked. By when they transformed into The Listening, their focus changed. Still very reverent, even directly worshipful at times, they became a little less obvious and began to use the sound of the music itself to evoke a sense of wonder. They brought in atmospheric electronic effects into play and employing an almost trancelike repetition in several songs just to let the mood linger, but without losing any of the fire or passion that a good rock band is supposed to possess. (CLassic rock aficionados would likely say it’s a little less Rolling Stonesand a little more Pink Floyd.) It’s an odd mixture, going from the wide-eyed adoration of cuts like “Glory of the Feared” and “Triple Fascination” to the tales of troubled hearts failing to find God in earthbound obsessions that play out in tracks such as “Be in Your Eyes”, “Lovely Red Lights”, or the epic, prophetic echoes of “Hosea in C Minor”. Your average worship album generally doesn’t contain dark, non-linear allegories like “The Factory”, which sounds like it could describe the plot of a spy movie, nor does it open up into the light but inventive electronic pop of a song like “Everything Is Nothing” which simply celebrates the meaning of love, not having to qualify it as spiritual instead of romantic just to make it fit into a Christian worldview. The Listening’s music often seems to be an attempt to capture the things God might say to man, instead of just aggregating common phrases that men like to say to God. And I actually prefer that approach to your run-of-the-mill Sunday morning stuff.

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49. The Reign of Kindo – Rhythm, Chord & Melody (2008)
The members of TROK coined the term “jazzyish” to describe their music – the setup is still that of a rock band, but the piano is given prominent placement in the lineup, and it’s not the plodding, same-chord-every-quarter-note stuff that you’d hear from your average Coldplay imitator. These guys know their way around their instruments, and they remind me of that fact quite frequently as they navigate their way around complex rhythms and dramatic instrumental passages, often evoking the tone of what you might call “smooth jazz” but refusing to be the kind of band that’s only good for background music. This means that they can be quite dense and aggressive on a standout like “The Moments in Between” or “Great Blue Sea”, use a deceptively laid-back musical approach to tell a chilling story in “Breathe Again”, and even record a pensive, lengthy instrumental suite like the title track while remaining versatile enough to bang out a Latin-inspired throwdown like the closing “Hold Out”. Joseph Secchiaroli is in fine form as a lead vocalist, able to weave around the circling notes of “‘Til We Make Our Ascent” or pull back for a bittersweet love story like “Nice to Meet You”, and while the lyrics are sometimes a bit corny (particularly in the album’s back half), they can also make striking observations about mankind’s folly and the need for grace. TROK doesn’t bill itself as a “Christian” band, but there’s a pattern of regret and remorse leading to repentance and redemption in their lyrics, in between simpler celebrations that just delight in the beauty of making music. They speak my language.

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48. Falling Up – Fangs! (2009)
I debated about this one for a while, because sometimes I think Captiva is stronger song-for-song, but Fangs! is the album where this unconventional Christian rock band with a knack for obtuse, allegorical lyrics finally picked a fictional setting and stuck with it for an entire album. Keeping the spacy synth-rock approach of Captiva, but placing more of the focus on raw drums and bass this time around, the band creates a dense, rhythmic sound with a soft center (the album’s mellower midsection) that flows through odd segues from one bizarrely titled track to the next, purportedly telling the story that could pass for both fantasy and sci-fi, of a distant planet’s residents dying due to poison in the fibers of their clothing, in a land of kings and reefs and rockets and underwater gears and golden arrows and goddesses. The album’s central character may or may not be an allegorical “Christ figure” who sacrifices himself on a journey into space to find the cure – it’s all quite open to interpretation and I haven’t worked out the particulars nearly a year later. I just love the imagination present in these songs – you may have no clue what half of the archaically-spelled jargon means, but that somehow makes the journey all the more adventurous.

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47. Copeland – Eat, Sleep, Repeat (2006)
This was my first Copeland album, and I’ve come to see it as a crossroads between the more conventional emo-rock of In Motion and the synthetic experimentation of You Are My Sunshine, since it’s got a good balance between the calm, starkly lovely piano-driven moments (“Love Affair”, “When You Thought You’d Never Stand Out”), the eerie, experimental moments (the echoing vibraphone of “Where’s My Head”, the out-of-synch with time backmasking of the title track and “The Last Time He Saw Dorie”), and the occasional up-tempo pop moment that bursts out with a sudden guitar solo or moment of layered euphoria (“By My Side”, “I’m a Sucker for a Kind Word”). While I was never fully convinced by some of the band’s attempts at more conventional radio singles here (“Control Freak” and “Careful Now” feel slightly anemic), and not every experiment works (“I’m Safer on an Airplane” feels a bit cold and distant), Aaron Marsh really knocks it out of the park with some of his most self-conscious and yet reassuring songwriting. It’s the little bits of sound that fall in between the cracks that stick out in my head more than the hooks on this disc, once again bolstering my position that Copeland is much more fascinating in the studio than live on stage.

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46. MuteMath – MuteMath (2006)
This New Orleans-based act’s proper debut was a long time coming – I had been excited for these guys ever since their first EP, since I used to follow some of the members back when they belonged to the short-lived rap/rock/reggae outfit Earthsuit. Lead singer Paul Meany finds the perfect balance between soothing and scratchy here (which is funny, since during his tenure with Earthsuit, his vocal contributions were mostly rap breaks) on a mostly uplifting, high-energy set of songs, many of which seem to wrestle with themes of control vs. surrender (“Chaos”, “Without It”), pointing out the desire for something unusual to break life out of its monotony (“Typical”) and revealing a soft spot underneath in Meany’s expressions of simply wanting to rediscover his heart and be immersed in the beauty of genuine, lifelong love (“Noticed”, “You Are Mine”). Mute Math’s sound – which always seems to have one more thing going on than you have the time to notice – seems to be an attempt at post-modern rock by way of vintage instruments, and so you’ve got thrilling, driving guitar riffs leading the way through a maze of programmed beats matched up against energetic live drums. The band even shows a little jazz influence, as filtered through the space age, when they bring in upright bass for the melodically contrary “Stare at the Sun” and its instrumental jam session outro, “Obsolete” (and also in the delicate drums and spacey keyboards of “You Are Mine”). It’s hard to find a flawed moment on this thoroughly excellent release – my only real complaint is that the free-form jams and interludes take up enough space that there’s only truly room for 9 songs. The re-released version which most fans are familiar with sort of remedies this by adding remixed versions of tracks from 2004’s Reset EP, but that one drops “Without It” and the outro “Polite” to make room, so there’s still a lack of true new material there. But despite being slightly short on content, Mute Math is long on talent and pretty much all of the musical ideas presented here are brilliant, so it’s a thrilling, emotionally rewarding listen.

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45. Future of Forestry – Twilight (2007)
Future of Forestry represents the maturation of Something Like Silas, a worship band that was already swimming in the deeper end of the pool when they came to a point of realizing they wanted to redefine what they were doing and take their sound and lyrics in a more experimental direction than the already lovely sound they started with. This might mean a trade-off between the more directly worshipful lyrics Eric Owyoung wrote in the SLS days (though the songs here are still quite devotional) and the rocking energy of many of that band’s highlights in favor of a more open-ended approach that favors unique arrangements and inventive ways of playing their instruments (the use of theremin on the restrained but beautiful title track, the dramatic ringing bells and tricky drum soling in the midsection of “Sunrising”, the multi-tracked female vocals that support “Sacred Place”, etc.), while stripping things back to more of an acoustic sound and taking the approach of facing loneliness and comforting the listener in the depths of it (“Speak to Me Gently”), or even celebrating the simple beauty of finding love again after heartbreak (“If You Find Her”), and just like I said about The Listening, you won’t find these things on typical worship albums. The band can still rock the crowd with a pure praise anthem like the heavy-hitting “All I Want” and “Gazing”, and they even show a liturgical bent with the ethereal Latin chant of “Sanctitatis”. Sometimes it’s hard to believe this is all coming from the same band, but Twilight is an ingenious debut which sets the group up nicely for the experiment they would later undergo on their three Travel EPs. It’s their only complete album thus far, and it’s a relatively easy way to get in on the ground floor if you’re not yet familiar with this fascinating band who celebrates a creative God through the sound of their instruments just as effectively as they do through their words.

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44. Green Day – American Idiot (2004)
It’s exceedingly rare that I’m actually willing to give an album five stars when it’s got a Parental Advisory label slapped onto the front of it. Billie Joe Armstrong certainly does have a potty mouth at times, but when a band’s got something worth being p!ssed off about, I can tolerate that sort of thing a little better. Many misunderstood this band’s sudden turn toward political songwriting as an attempt to take cheap shots at America during a period when it was controversial to insult our President or government during a time of war, and they also added to the confusion by making some pretty harsh comments about a heavily Americanized, suburban version of Christianity. I didn’t really get it at first, but the band’s first attempt at a “punk opera” slammed through some of their most exciting hooks and surprising musical left turns as it told the tale of odd, dejected characters who ran the risk of getting too old and jaded to remember what they were fighting for. The true enemy described here is fear itself – a fear driven by a misplaced sense of nationalism mixed with a superficial take on religious faith. These are the things that I’m convinced got Bush re-relected (or at least, the reasons I stupidly bought into when I chose to give him my vote that year), and probably the things that the band was trying to speak out against, with the album arriving right on the heels of the 2004 election. And that’s not to say listening to Green Day radically altered my politics or anything – I still love the music here even when I don’t line up with the beliefs and actions of the characters (who I’d suspect weren’t written to always handle their fears and frustrations properly). I think their music just fell in line with a growing realization that I began to have in 2005 and beyond, that as long as I let unfounded fears choose for me who my leaders should be (in both the political and religious sense), I would keep making the wrong choices. For that reason, this album represents a shift in my personal beliefs – not necessarily away from everything conservative, and certainly not away from Christianity, but definitely away from fighting petty culture wars and making everything about “us” versus “them”. American Idiot described the kind of idiot that I had been in danger of becoming. (2005’s release of a mash-up album called American Edit, credited to “Dean Gray”, also turned out to be one of my favorite examples of blatant copyright violation used to wonderfully humorous effect, even if it did reveal the man behind the curtain in terms of where Green Day got most of their musical ideas for these songs.)

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43. Nickel Creek – This Side (2002)
I thought this young San Diego trio was talented on their self-titled national debut, but there was something about the flow of that album (slow vocal track, fast instrumental, slow vocal track, etc.) that made it feel a bit scizophrenic. Nickel Creek slowly won me over with this disc, which began their habit of infuriating bluegrass purists by following whatever curious bunny trails came to mind. That meant there was only one rip-roaring instrumental for the traditionalists this time around (“Smoothie Song”, which amusingly featured the bassist from Metallica, of all bands, in the music video), while elsewhere the band would perform offbeat covers (Pavement‘s nafflingly cheery “Spit on a Stranger, Carrie Newcomer‘s indictment of an ex “I Should’ve Known Better”, Andy Irvine‘s “Sabra Girl), mess around with background whispers and odd tunings and whatever percussive weirdness Chris Thile could eke out of his mandolin, and make the album overall feel like a cornucopia of interesting ideas coming from the pens and voices of all three members (OK, Sara Watkins didn’t write anything, but the gleeful spunk shown on the aforementioned “I Should’ve Known Better”, as well as the rhythmic trickery of “Beauty and the Mess”, as well as her beautiful fiddle playing, put her personal stamp on large portions of the album). Even their take on a traditional folk song (“House Carpenter”) was much more haunting this time around. Sean Watkins‘ title track summed up the band’s manifesto this time around: “Only the curious have something to find.”

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42. Muse – The Resistance (2009)
Sometimes it just takes one really good disc to win me over to an artist I thought I couldn’t stand, and open me up to past stuff that I had previously dismissed. Matt Bellamy and his bandmates sounded absolutely visionary to me on this weird, mutant hybrid of an album, which largely sidesteps the Radiohead comparisons I had dogged them with, and throws in seemingly every influence from Depeche Mode to Queen to Chopin, demonstrating incredible musical versatility which is successfully unified by the bizarre conspiracy theory that seems to pop up again and again throughout the record. It’s electronic, it’s operatic, at times it’s even classical – and despite a few oddball interludes that might temporarily throw me for a loop, it’s remarkably consistent. There’s not a dud track to be found here, with even some of the stranger ones incorporating unusual instruments or featuring cleverly defiant turns of phrase. This album will probably remain best known for the trifecta of runaway pop hits that open it (“Uprising”, “Resistance”, “Undisclosed Desires”), but there’s a lot of equally good stuff here like the meandering “Unnatural Selection” or the closing suite “Exogenesis” that would likely have only seen the light of radio if this thing had been released in the 70’s. It’s been fun to go back to Black Holes and Revelations (a solid album in its own right that started Muse’s electronic revolution) and even Absolution, the album that initially sparked my disdain for this band, and see the progression from there to here. A band with a name like Muse can only be expected to follow theirs, right?

2002_SixpenceNonetheRicher_DivineDiscontent

41. Sixpence None the Richer – Divine Discontent (2002)
Ah, Sixpence – the misunderstood alternative pop band with the little girl voice that somehow couldn’t manage to keep a flailing record label in business despite a massive hit (a song which I shouldn’t even have to name at this point) in the late 90’s. Just as the self-titled album which produced said hit was largely born out of their frustrations with R.E.X. Records, Divine Discontent, the follow-up which was delayed several years, found them once again pondering their future direction in the wake of troubles at Squint Entertainment. The band had released enough cover songs in between the two records to practically become known as a cover band, but that didn’t really do their own songwriting justice (even their cover of Crowded House‘s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” on this disc, while I enjoy it, feels like a concession to radio programmers who don’t want to touch their deeper stuff.) But give ’em credit for being malleable – the band successfully runs from refreshing, upbeat acoustic pop (“Breathe Your Name”) to dark semi-autobiographical rock (“Paralyzed”) to masterfully phrased expressions of unbridled praise (the loopy slow dance of “Dizzy” and the poetic, string-drenched musings of “Melody of You”) and surrender (“Still Burning”) without missing a beat, even if one or two of the more conventional pop songs aren’t quite my thing. Divine Discontent is certainly the group’s poppiest album, but to call it simply that would be to gloss over their gift for taking unexpected turns with their melodies that reveal a love for the particulars of music theory underneath (remember that Matt Slocum arranged many of the string sections himself). And Leigh Nash, whose voice can be a bit of an acquired taste, reveals an endearing vulnerability on several of these tracks that the band’s earlier, alternative-rock material didn’t always demonstrate. Sadly, this fine album was largely glossed over by a public who either expected another “Kiss Me” or hated the band on principle due to that song being massively overplayed, and the lack of attention may have precipitated a premature breakup in 2004, which the band thankfully reconsidered in 2008, and they’re now working on a brand new studio album for 2010. Welcome back, Sixpence. It’s been far too long.

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