I usually write about film, but one of my other great passions is music. I recently came across a list of my Top 50 favorite bands that I had written almost 15 years ago. I discovered that I could barely write back then and that my taste in music hasn't changed much.
So I decided to spend some time writing about my Top 25 favorite bands (quite a lengthy project). I hope it will be interesting and revealing, but it would be even better if you discover a new band that you like from this chaos.
For the purposes of this list, I have omitted all compilations and live albums from consideration. Also, there's a limit of one album per artist, unless a band member formed a separate band.
One thing I have always wondered is why so few people like the kind of music I listen to. Whenever I go to a concert, it's filled with people, but I rarely encounter them in other situations. Is my taste really that out there? I don't think so. Anyway, let's get on with it.
1. Dirty - Sonic Youth
Many Sonic Youth fans would say that Daydream Nation is the best in the band's impressive catalog. While I obviously love it, Dirty works better for me. It's such a hard choice because I would imagine that at least 10 Sonic Youth albums would make my Top 100, with three or four in contention for the Top 10.
Dirty has a little bit of everything. Thurston and Kim share vocal duties for the most part, but Lee's Wish Fulfillment sounds magical and is a vital component. There are so many great moments in 59 minutes that it's hard to keep count. The only weaknesses are the throwaway Untouchables cover, Nic Fit, which lasts 59 seconds, and the closing Créme Brûlèe.
Chapel Hill is a strong contender for my favorite song from any band. You can check it out here:
Theresa's Sound-World is a masterpiece, and it builds wonderfully. Sugar Kane reminds me a bit of the Rolling Stones, but it blows away anything they ever produced. Kim is well represented, with Drunken Butterfly, Swimsuit Issue and JC among the best songs she has sung. Just when you think all of the highlights are over, Purr kicks in. It's only a fraction behind Chapel Hill in brilliance.
This is Sonic Youth at their best. Nothing too self-indulgent, and so many sweeping guitar songs. I would happily listen to it at any time. The 2-disc deluxe edition is the version to own if you are buying it for the first time.
Full Track Listing:
Orange Rolls, Angel's Spit
Youth Against Fascism
On the Strip
2. Marquee Moon - Television
Television are always mentioned in the same breath as Talking Heads, The Ramones and Blondie because they all used to play at CBGB in New York in the 70s. I own plenty of albums from those other three bands, but Marquee Moon is the one I always return to. For some reason, it's a bit of a cult record. I only really got into it completely around 15 years ago, but I mention it at every opportunity.
What makes Television unique is the guitar interplay between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. I'm not a musician, so it's hard to describe some of the sounds. I just know that no other band ever did this.
The lyrics are clever and the musical structure is complex. See No Evil is so accessible that it's almost pop, but pop with a raw edge. It's followed by Venus, which continues in the same vein, if a little darker. Friction kicks in with a cascade of guitar notes, and then starts spiraling into madness. The lyrics fit perfectly, and it's hard not to smile every time I hear "You complain of my dic-tion."
Even if the first three tracks don't capture your interest, it's hard to ignore what comes next. The title track is absolute perfection. Hey, it may even be better than Chapel Hill. Most fans would agree that Marquee Moon is the best song Television ever recorded, and it's even better live. The opening vocals are eerie and set the scene.
"I remember how the darkness doubled"
"I recall, lightning struck itself"
"I was listening, listening to the rain"
"I was hearing, hearing something else"
No need to take my word for it, listen for yourself:
Make no mistake, this is a song that transports you to another world. Verlaine's vocals are more like David Byrne than a rock artist, but his limitations don't ruin the delivery. If you make it through this list, you'll notice that few of the bands can really sing. I like things a bit messed up. Just when you think the song has weaved its spell and can't possibly do any more, it returns to the opening verse. It absolutely has to be there to make the song feel complete.
Marquee Moon does not contain a weak song. Make sure you buy the remastered version or you'll miss out on Little Johnny Jewel. Television may also have been responsible for the best live album ever recorded, Live at the Old Waldorf.
Full Track Listing:
See No Evil
Little Johnny Jewel ( on the 2003 remastered version)
3. Doolittle - Pixies
It's almost impossible to choose just one Pixies album. It eventually came down to Surfer Rosa or Doolittle. If I counted CDs rather than albums, I would have gone for Surfer Rosa/Come On Pilgrim, but Doolittle has the edge if we are sticking to the one album rule.
I'm always surprised at how few people have listened to the Pixies. Kurt Cobain freely admitted that he was a fan of the band and their loud quiet loud approach. Doolittle is a combination of punk, pop, and haunting melodies. It's exciting and action packed, but the songs are much more than rants or ballads. There's so much going on in the rhythm section.
Black Francis is into space, UFOs, and thinks that music is like math. He's absolutely right. The seemingly chaotic sound of the Pixies still has a precise structure.
Like Marquee Moon, the first three songs grab you immediately. Debaser starts with Kim Deal's base, and that's a big part of the Pixies' sound. Francis delivers the lyrics with venom, and it's intensified on Track 2, Tame, which is contention for the title of the band's best track. Here it is:
Wave of Mutilation completely changes the mood and allows you to catch your breath, and Francis switches to atmospheric mode. Such a versatile vocalist. Monkey Gone to Heaven is perhaps the most famous Pixies song, and it's full of harmonies and epic guitar.
Many of the songs sound mystical, as if they are reaching toward something important. They simply soar. How can you not love the vocals on No. 13 Baby, or Hey, or the haunting (there's that word again) closer, Gouge Away. Yep, Doolittle is a brilliant album. The only weak track is La La Love You, sung by drummer David Lovering, but I'll forgive him because of his work on the remainder of the album.
Full Track Listing:
Wave of Mutilation
Here Comes Your Man
Monkey Gone to Heaven
La La Love You
No. 13 Baby
There Goes My Gun
4. Wowee Zowee - Pavement
It took me a while to truly get Pavement. Their style is sloppy and almost lazy, but it works. Vocals are shared by Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg and occasional rants from Bob Nastanovich, but Malkmus is the magic ingredient and takes on most of the vocal duties.
The thing is, Malkmus can't really sing. He'll change key and try to hit notes any way that he can, and it can be almost funny. I can sing that well, so I often join in. That said, I love his vocals. He's quirky and funny, and he doesn't take himself seriously. That sense of fun is what makes Pavement a great band to listen to. When Malkmus plays guitar, it just flows, and it can be just as quirky as his vocals. Sometimes I think the guitar is speaking to me or dropping one-liners.
Despite recognizing all of the limitations of the band, I will never forget the concerts I attended. I'll never tire of listening to their music either, but Wowee Zowee is my clear favorite. We Dance is a slow opener, and uses the word "castration" in the opening line, but that's the most uncomfortable thing about it. The lyrics are almost nonsensical, but it sets the mood. What follows is my favorite Pavement track, Rattled by the Rush. This just demands to be heard, so here it is:
The album is a complete mess, consisting of a variety of styles, and refusing to adhere to any one of them. Black Out is so relaxing that it's almost a lullaby, Grounded contains a wonderful intro and builds majestically, Serpentine Pad is a rant, and then Motion Suggests Itself returns to the laid back vibe. I love the line "Captivate your senses like a ginger ale rain."
Father to a Sister of Thought contains actual hooks, and is as catchy as hell. Grave Architecture and AT&T are other highlights, before fans of 70s rock and psychedelia get their fix with Half a Canyon.
Wowee Zowee is quite a departure from the more accessible Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Slanted and Enchanted, but it eventually takes hold of you if you listen often enough. The slack structure seems to take shape and the album really comes to life. Yes, it's Pavement's best, and that's saying a lot. Make sure you buy the Sordid Sentinels Edition if you're new to the album.
Full Track Listing:
Rattled by the Rush
Motion Suggests Itself
Father to a Sister of Thought
Best Friend’s Arm
Flux = Rad
Fight This Generation
Half a Canyon
5. Unknown Pleasures - Joy Division
I remember the first time I heard this album. A friend at school gave me the tape in 1979 and I played it that night. I have to admit that only a few songs grabbed me on the first listen. Some were too slow and dreary to excite me in the way that most of my favorite music did. However, repeat listens enabled me to see the beauty in this majestic music.
Most new bands at the end of the 70s were young and enthusiastic, and it was more about the style and delivery than the content. Joy Division did not fall into that category. If you have ever seen Anton Corbijn's movie, Control, you'll understand what Ian Curtis went through. He was a young man, in love with two women, trying to come to terms with epilepsy. Like most of my favorite vocalists, he had his limitations.
What separated Joy Division from the pack was the passion. Curtis lived and breathed those songs. His delivery was real in the true sense of the word. You'll never see a singer mean it like Curtis if you only watch American Idol or The Voice.
Joy Division were more than just one man though. The music had a depth to it, with each component a vital part of the sound. Peter Hook's bass was extremely prominent. Sumner's lead guitar dominated a few tracks, while the drums ranged from driving to sparse, with Morris adding to the desolation when appropriate. Insight, New Dawn Fades, and She's Lost Control formed the heart of the album. The ever-present bass added weight to the sound, and it's incredible how much beauty was present. Listen to the slow burn of New Dawn Fades and you'll begin to understand Joy Division.
If I had to pick a favorite track, it would probably be Shadowplay. Here's a live version from their first TV appearance:
The album begins with Disorder, which gives you a good idea of the importance of each instrument as they are gradually introduced to the mix. These guys could really play. Day of the Lords sounds sinister and ominous, but there is so much feeling. Candidate is a good example of a song that sounds too desolate to be enjoyable, but it becomes meaningful and almost uplifting once you know it well enough.
If you missed seeing Joy Division more than 30 years ago, it's worth checking out Peter Hook and the Light if they are playing Unknown Pleasures or Closer in your town. The sound is surprisingly close to the original.
Unknown Pleasures is a must-own album, but is too difficult for the casual listener. I would recommend the Heart and Soul box set, which includes all of the albums and singles, plus the Warsaw tracks. The fourth live disc seems to have been recorded at the wrong speed, but the first three discs capture Joy Division brilliantly. It might take a little time, but it's worth getting to know the music of Joy Division. The potential rewards are huge.
Full Track Listing:
Day of the Lords
New Dawn Fades
She's Lost Control
I Remember Nothing
6. The Lonesome Crowded West - Modest Mouse
Choosing between The Moon & Antarctica and The Lonesome Crowded West was an agonizing decision, and I might make a different choice on another day. I discovered Modest Mouse relatively late, but they have become one of my favorite bands. The thing is, I'm not sure why.
Like Pavement and Sonic Youth, the arrangements are unconventional and seemingly all over the place. It took me a while to see some kind of pattern in the chaos, but it was worth the effort.
The album opens with Teeth Like God's Shoeshine, and it's fairly typical of what is to follow. The song seems like three or four different tunes blended together. It's out of tune and a bit of a rant to begin with, but then it builds into something more. Heart Cooks Brain employs a totally different style, creating an atmosphere that's both eerie and compelling. Convenient Parking is repetitive as it bores its way into your brain, and you might find yourself humming it a few hours later.
Three tracks in and the album already feels like the start of a weird and wonderful journey. Lounge is a strange creature, opening with a funky beat before Isaac Brock rants over the top. Like so many Modest Mouse songs, it has a lot of recognizable phases, and it's never predictable or boring. My favorite track has to be Doin' the Cockroach. It builds slowly, with Brock making some interesting observations before the chorus kicks in.
"I was in heaven"
"I was in hell"
"Believe in neither"
"But fear them as well"
Then the track really takes off and it becomes extremely addictive. Here it is (with lyrics):
I could praise every track, but it's best if you check out the album for yourself. Notice the structure of the songs and how they employ space. Some songs, like Shit Luck, are outright rants; others, such as Trucker's Atlas, take plenty of time to develop into arty jams.
Modest Mouse are not an easy band to get into initially, but it will happen if you give it a chance. When your brain learns the intricate patterns, you'll find yourself eagerly anticipating every song. Unlike some bands, the 15 tracks cover a variety of styles. The Lonesome Crowded West is a great place to visit for 74 minutes. You might find yourself spending a lot of time there.
Full Track Listing:
Teeth Like God's Shoeshine
Heart Cooks Brain
Lounge (Closing Time)
Jesus Christ Was an Only Child
Doin' the Cockroach
Out of Gas
Long Distance Drunk
Bankrupt on Selling
Styrofoam Boots/It's All Nice on Ice, Alright
7. Real Emotional Trash - Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
Yes, Stephen Malkmus is responsible for two albums in my Top 10. His fourth album with The Jicks is probably the most conventional thing he has ever done, but that's not a criticism. The 10 tracks average more than 5 minutes each, and all have recognizable hooks. Some develop into outright jams and could appeal to fans of more traditional rock. Despite that, Malkmus includes plenty of whimsical moments, and songs that are easy to fall in love with.
This might be sacrilegious, but I like Real Emotional Trash more than some of Pavement's albums, and I love all of those.
Dragonfly Pie is a big and bold opener, and it's followed by Hopscotch Willie, which contains lyrics that Bob Dylan wouldn't be ashamed of. Check it out for yourself:
Cold Son changes the mood and has a more quirky structure than the previous tracks, but the 10-minute Real Emotional Trash slowly builds into an epic jam. Malkmus uses his guitar to great effect throughout the album, but it's extremely prominent on this title track.
I completely relate to the powerful lyrics of Out of Reaches, which appears heartfelt and real. Baltimore and Elmo Delmo are longer jams that wouldn't be too out of place on a 70s album, with the poppy Gardenia sandwiched between them.
Real Emotional Trash is easily my favorite Jicks album, and I like them all. I played Wig Out at Jagbags every day last week and love every track, but Real Emotional Trash is unlikely to be replaced as my favorite Malkmus effort since Pavement. If the vocal style doesn't put you off, it's one of the best alternative rock albums out there.
Full Track Listing:
Real Emotional Trash
Out of Reaches
We Can't Help You
8. The Holy Bible - Manic Street Preachers
The Manic Street Preachers have produced a few good albums, but only one of them deserves to be called great. The Holy Bible is full of venom, profanity, and controversy, but almost every track is a highlight. I originally thought that James Dean Bradfield's voice was too bland to appeal to my eccentric taste, but it definitely works here.
The album opens with Yes, which is indication of things to come. Just read the lyrics and you'll get a good idea of the tone of this album. Some of the topics include anorexia, white America, evil, pain, and all kinds of darkness. I can't begin to imagine what Richey Edwards was going through when he wrote these songs, but the Manics never produced such darkness on subsequent albums.
The biggest reason I return so often to this album is the style of the songs. The best tracks owe their origins to punk, and some of the delivery contains a wall of sound that would be expected from bands such as Nine Inch Nails, The Clash, or The Jesus and Mary Chain. However, while a lot of punk is forgettable, these songs will stay with you. They have substance and power.
The one weak track is This Is Yesterday, which feels as if it belongs on a different album. Along with Yes, the real gems include Of Walking Abortion, Archives of Pain, 4st 7lbs, Mausoleum, Faster and Revol. It's best to experience the album as a whole, rather than selecting individual tracks, but P.C.P. is one that I hope you'll listen to. Here it is (with lyrics):
If ever a closing track left you wanting more, that has to be it.
If you like The Holy Bible, check out Everything Must Go and Generation Terrorists. I'm surprised that the band didn't have more success outside the UK.
Full Track Listing:
Of Walking Abortion
Archives of Pain
This Is Yesterday
Die in the Summertime
The Intense Humming of Evil
9. Turn on the Bright Lights - Interpol
With Joy Division in my Top 5, you knew that Interpol would appear somewhere on this list. But despite those obvious comparisons, Interpol produce a sound that is so much more than that of a copycat band. There's not a single weak track on the album and most of them shine brightly.
Untitled opens the album and immediately creates a mood. It's optimistic, atmospheric and masterfully structured. The vocals slowly build and you quickly realize that all the essential components are there for the album to be one that leaves an impact. These tracks have depth.
Obstacle 1 does sound like something Joy Division might have produced; at least in terms of structure. The bass and the vocals channel Hook and Curtis without any doubt. NYC is a slower song that has a certain beauty to it, before PDA kicks in with its irresistible assault on your senses. Here's the video:
Turn on the Bright Lights sounds like albums released 20 years before for the most part, but at times offers songs that could be on a Strokes album. Roland is one of the highlights, with Leif Erikson a great choice to close the album. I love bands that produce layers of sound because there's always something new to discover on repeat listens.
Interpol's other three albums all have something to offer, but nothing quite matches the consistent excellence found on their debut.
Full Track Listing:
Say Hello to the Angels
Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down
10. Red Heaven - Throwing Muses
I knew nothing about Throwing Muses when I saw Bright Yellow Gun performed on TV in 1994, but that quickly changed. I remember buying concert tickets soon after to see Belly, P.J. Harvey, and Throwing Muses. I fully expected the Muses to be the weakest of the three, but I ended up playing all of their albums every day for about a month in preparation. It took three or four listens before Red Heaven really started to make sense, but then I became totally hooked. As a result, the Muses concert turned out to be one of the best I have ever attended.
Furious is an opener which demands your attention, and Firepile doesn't let up. What's immediately clear is how tight the band sounds, despite the complicated layers present on most of the tracks. The full sound is also present on Dio and Dirty Water, but the best track on the album has to be Pearl. It has a few phases and highlights both the fury and sweetness of Kristin Hersh's voice. Here it is:
The Throwing Muses are complicated, layered, real, and often raw. However, the chaos has definite patterns, and the music can be sweeping and majestic at times. Kristin's guitar style is very distinctive, but every component is vital to the sound. This was my favorite band for over ten years, and I'll never tire of hearing their music. It was such a pleasant surprise to discover 32 new Muses tracks in the recently released Purgatory/Paradise. If you do check out Red Heaven for yourself, try to give it at least three listens. You might just find something you love. I once flew 3,000 miles just to see this band.
Full Track Listing: