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17 years: Ten Seminal Records

Last updated on June 25, 2020

Facebook tropes are usually just fodder for scam artists trying to steal personal question answers, but the “10 albums no explanation” trope is charming to me. I loved seeing my newsfeed populated by pictures of album art, before the trope got stopped cold by the George Floyd protests. (Who knew so many of my friends were influenced by Based on a True Story by Fat Freddy’s Drop?) My modus operandi is talking about music at length, so I was always going to fail at just posting album art. Instead, I’m making an essay out of it. Intriguingly, no one tagged me in to the chain for music, although one person did for books. I’m tagging myself in. Here’s 10 albums that cover my formative years of 1988-2008.

  1. The Lord Reigns – Bob Fitts. One of my earliest memories of recorded music is me pulling out the drawer on a CD cabinet and seeing this right at the front of the line. My family listened to this live-recorded worship record all the time. Pretty much everything about this album is indelibly printed on my brain, from the sonics to the melodies to the lyrics to the artwork to the included lyric sheets. This album is so bedrock in my listening experience that I can’t explain what parts of it specifically went forward with me. (I would guess not the high-’80s trumpet synths.) I can say without shame that I still jam out to this record.
  2. Songs – Rich Mullins. Everything I know about Christian songwriting (non-corporate-worship division) and many things I know about music in general I learned from Rich Mullins. Christians can doubt in song (“Jacob and 2 Women”), write about things other than God (“The River”), write perfect albums (A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band), excel musically (“Creed”), expand the universe (“Calling Out Your Name”), be funny (“Screen Door”), write demos (The Jesus Album), I could go on. His hit-to-filler ratio was so high that it was unfair. (I’m not going to defend “Higher Education and the Book of Love,” though, that one is just a straight-up clunker.) While I think that Liturgy is perfect and The World as Best as I Remember It, Vol. 1 is his desert-island record for me (I just love “The River” and “I See You” so much), Songs is the one that I remember listening to the most as a kid.
  3. The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek – Relient K. Christmas, 2001. My grandmother gifts me a lime green Discman with three CDs: Relient K’s Anatomy, The OC Supertones Strike Back and a third album lost to time. (It’s fully possible that it was Superchic[k]’s Karaoke Superstars, but I cannot confirm.) I went upstairs after opening my gifts, sat on my bottom bed of my red metal bunkbed, picked Relient K’s record to try first, put it on, and was blasted by the opening snare hits and charging pop-punk guitars of “Kick-off.” At the end of the 0:39 song, I remember distinctly thinking, “I don’t know what this is, but I want to do it for the rest of my life.” 17 months later, I was running Independent Clauses. I was 15 years old.
  4. Philmore – Philmore. This obscure, bizarre punk rock record is notable because Philmore lived next to my friend William in a neighborhood a mile down the road from my house. This was my introduction to local music, and I’ve done my best to be a fan of and friend to local music ever since. (The record is so way out of print and the band so long gone that I am shocked that they still have a Wikipedia page.) There is a cover of Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” on this record, as well as a remarkably audacious, not-a-joke song extending the “more fish in the sea” metaphor to absurd levels. (It was the single!!)
  5. August and Everything After – Counting Crows. In early 2003, my friend Annie was incredulous that I had never heard of Coldplay. (I did not listen to the radio.) She burned my A Rush of Blood to the Head (which is barely missed making the cut itself, being a force in its own right on my musical thinking; I would later form a band that went through a serious Coldplay phase) and August. August is a tour de force of perhaps-too-vulnerable lyrics and impassioned, idiosyncratic, non-standard pop songwriting; my deep affection for both of these things is directly related to hearing this record. “Raining in Baltimore” blew the top off my brain and pretty much still does every time I listen to it.
  6. Give Up – The Postal Service. Ben Gibbard’s 2003 output was so formative to me that I have both of his ’03 records on this list. The Postal Service’s lone record has been one of the deepest wells of delight a single record has ever produced for me. Longtime readers of this blog will remember that when it came time to celebrate the 10th anniversary of IC, I chose Give Up as the album to cover. The fusion of indie-pop melodies with subtle electro-pop backdrops influences how I think about both of those things, even now.
  7. Transatlanticism – Death Cab for Cutie. The second Ben Gibbard record of ’03 to grace the list. It is not an exaggeration to say that every indie-pop record I have ever listened to has been filtered through the lens of Transatlanticism. Even more specifically, the ineffable, inexplicable beauty of “Title and Registration” and the slightly cracked enthusiasm of the ode to anxiety “The Sound of Settling” have shaped my reviewing to an extensive degree. This album is, to me, perfect–anything you dislike about this record is an area of disagreement on our aesthetic values. Where Give Up expanded my horizons (electro-pop was new to me), this cemented an undying love of indie-pop that Counting Crows had begun in me.
  8. Thought Control EP – The Felix Culpa. At almost the same time as I was looking out from pop-punk to the milder climes of indie-pop via Ben Gibbard, I was exploring darker, harsher sounds as well. I grew to love post-hardcore before I discovered The Felix Culpa, but “Good Business Moves” and “Commitment” (which, humorously, does not appear on the album Commitment) are basically the apex of my interest in two types of post-hardcore. “Good Business Moves” is a socio-critical rager with one of the most monster riffs I had ever heard at that point (it’s still a top-10 riff), while “Commitment” is headier, more personal, dealing with the mature troubles of marriage (which were a foreign country to me at that point in 2005). When I think of post-hardcore, I think of the Felix Culpa, period.
  9. Rehearsals for Departure – Damien Jurado. I can’t pin down when I first heard Jurado, but I know that I saw him live somewhere in 2007-2008, so it had to be before then. Rehearsals opened up a whole new world for me. I had heard and enjoyed acoustic music from pop-punk bands who were doing acoustic ballads, gimmicky larks or genuine side projects like The New Amsterdams. But Jurado’s fully-developed world of gentle acoustic sounds, tightly detailed lyrics, and almost timeless angst plunked me straight down in a place I’d never been. The 2009-2018 iteration of this blog focused on folk-pop was almost entirely due to my obsession with Jurado that was rekindled by Mumford & Son’s Sigh No More. 
  10. The Sunset Tree – The Mountain Goats. While I first heard “It Froze Me” on Pandora, then heard most of Get Lonely live, it’s The Sunset Tree that turned me into a hardcore tMG fan. The combustible combination of even-more-detailed-than-Damien-Jurado lyrics, impeccably arranged indie-pop songwriting, howling vocals, and dense worldbuilding sucked me in. Beyond this record, I found worlds upon worlds built by John Darnielle, and they are all what keep me going farther in. But I could have stopped at Get Lonely, despite how great a record it is–I could not stop after The Sunset Tree. Even as I move away from covering indie-pop, if anyone mentions the Mountain Goats in their PR, I will listen. I will always listen.

There’s a whole other list I could put together for touchstones from 2009-2019; perhaps in another decade I’ll put together that list. Happy 17th anniversary to Independent Clauses, by the way–we keep on truckin’.