We continue our series of recommendations, as we all stay home and have no Mets baseball for the foreseeable future, with music recommendations. This series has been one we’re enjoying writing, and we still have a few more categories to go. In case you’ve missed our previous posts, well, here they are:
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard - Nonagon Infinity: I can’t claim to be among the longest-running fans of King Gizz, but my wife and I were lucky enough to catch them live for the first time, opening for Mac DeMarco, as they were touring this album and playing it in its entirety as their set. And one thing I love about how that happened was that we didn’t really know Mac until seeing him at Wilco’s excellent Solid Sound Festival in 2015, got into him there, and then saw these guys play that set opening for him the following spring and got hooked instantly.
As for the album itself, every song connects to the next one, and if you put the album on repeat, that even holds true for the final song going right back into the first one. Infinity, indeed. And obviously what’s most important is that it’s great music. It’s fast and heavy and one hell of an introduction to this band, which has put out fifteen studio albums, so if you like this one, there’s plenty more exploring to do within their stylistically diverse catalogue. “Nonagon Infinity opens the door” is a recurring lyric on this record, and it does, indeed.
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Live at Woodstock: Before this record came out last summer around the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, did you know that CCR had played the festival? I sure as hell didn’t, at least not in any significant way. Turns out a couple songs had been released over the years, but their set just wasn’t famous in the way that so many others were. But with the full set finally being released for the first time, it really should have been among the best-known performances from there. There is nothing wrong with other CCR recordings, but they all pale in comparison to this one, which just oozes exactly the right kind of energy. It really feels like a summer record, but I think it’s absolutely worth listening to while we’re all staying home—and then blasting outdoors once it’s healthy and safe for all of us to get back together in social settings.
Talking Heads - The Name of this Band is Talking Heads: I know Brian just recommended Stop Making Sense in our post with film recommendations, but there’s no such thing as too much Talking Heads. Like CCR, my preference is to listen to them live, and this double-album is just packed with great stuff from start to finish. There’s some overlap with songs that you might watch or listen to from Stop Making Sense, but even if some of those songs appear on both, they don’t sound identical. Hell, there are different versions of the same song included within this album itself. Perhaps it’s having seen American Utopia just a few weeks before the pandemic really started to change things here in New York, but something about David Byrne’s voice and lyrics just seems spot-on to me right now.
The Grateful Dead - Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings: Considering how much time we all have on our hands at home right now, this very lengthy box set is worth a full listen. Recorded on four consecutive nights from February 27 through March 2, 1969, this became my very favorite sound I’d heard from the Dead the first time I listened to it, and it has remained in that slot for me ever since. Disc 4 is particularly great, if you’re looking to start somewhere specific rather than just hitting play from the beginning and going through all of it. It’s a very specific rec, and I’ve had some people who are fairly serious Dead fans look at me a little funny when I bring up how great that disc is.
Mdou Moctar - Ilana: The Creator: I could write hundreds of album recommendations, and hey, that might even be a thing we do over the next few weeks. But I’ll wrap up my list of five here with one of the best guitarists on the planet, one I’ve been fortunate to see twice over the past year. The album itself is great, but the records don’t fully capture the intensity and expertise of this band. Listen to the record, but be sure to check out their set at KEXP on YouTube. Nels Cline is still my top active guitarist out there, but Moctar very quickly worked his way into the second slot of the rankings I keep in my head.
Frank Black and the Catholics - Dog in the Sand: Making music can often times seem like a magic trick. With modern technology, even since the sixties, artists have been augmenting their recordings with overdubs and various studio tricks to appear different than the band sounds just playing in a room.
Frank Black and the Catholics didn’t make records like that. Each one was recorded live in the studio, and by the time they got to their third record, Dog in the Sand, there were no edits whatsoever. The record was the sound of the band, augmented by a few extra musicians, playing live. It might have taken multiple takes, but what you’re hearing is just one of them, from start to finish.
From the Exile on Main Street boogie of “Blast Off” to the nautical fairytale of “The Swimmer,” there are a variety of moods here, with some fascinating topics (Mars, Walmart, anti-social behavior, Californian history) and some absolutely stellar playing. “Bullet,” a true story from the singer’s life, has especially stuck with me over time.
John Coltrane’s 60s: When people think of music from the 1960s, you think of the British Invasion, Motown, Woodstock, Surf. Jazz isn’t the first thing on most people’s minds, yet the 60s showed jazz musicians pushing and adapting just as much as it did for rock. John Coltrane’s 1960s output is a perfect example of what I’m talking about, from gentle ballads to experimental structures to modal experiments to song suites to some music that still sounds ahead of its time nearly 60 years later.
Of particular note to me are three records that should have enough structure and melody to not freak out listeners who aren’t already jazz aficionados. Giant Steps, which came out on New Year’s Day 1960, introduced Coltrane’s ‘sheets of sound,’ engulfing the listener in a near constant stream of improvisational joy. Impressions takes the drone of Indian music - a solid three years before the Beatles introduced sitar on “Norwegian Wood” - and begins Coltrane’s adoption of influences outside traditional jazz on his music.
And the crown jewel of Coltrane’s music, A Love Supreme, is a relatively concise suite, which acts as a prayer to God and a showcase for one of the great quartet’s of all time. Say it with me: A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme.
The Wrens - The Meadowlands: Most of us who fancy ourselves musicians steal time late at night or before the kids are awake to indulge in our musical indulgences. But most records we listen to are created by professionals who have reordered their lives to make music the focal point. The Meadowlands exists in a weird limbo between those two zones: some Wrens band members at the time of recording had day jobs, some didn’t, some lived together, some didn’t, and over the course of 4 years, they assembled this masterpiece of expectations not being met. Four singers, fifty six minutes of music, and a journey through a band’s real life, not stylized or glorified in any way.
The Weakerthans - Reconstruction Site: I am typically someone who values the way music sounds and feels over the content of the lyrics. But there are exceptions to this, and a big one of those is the Weakerthans and their singer, John K. Samson. Samson’s lyrics are more poetry than anything else, and this record, based around a loved one’s stay in a hospital, is an amazing exploration of memory, love, regret, and acceptance.
Unsung - I Looked Back at my House, White as a Washing Stone: Full disclosure: Unsung, aka Steve Miller, is a good friend of mine, so this is a totally biased pick. All of Unsung’s discography is fun, but this record evokes a very specific mood which, not coincidentally, is tied to a very specific part of my life. The songs are always constructed in ways you don’t expect, and the lyrics are insightful, personal, elliptical, and about the inner struggles of life and finding a way through. It is inspiring, thoughtful music.
Green Day - Warning : Green Day are my favorite band of all time, so in my humble opinion, you can’t go wrong with any of their discography. However, even though American Idiot is the Green Day album closest to my heart, Warning is actually my favorite Green Day album. I feel the intervening albums between Dookie and American Idiot often get overlooked and none of them is more underrated than Warning. Warning was the album that really showed that Green Day had matured as a band, taking risks with interesting tracks like “Misery.” But there are classic fast-paced Green Day punk tracks in here too, like “Church On Sunday” (one of my favorite Green Day songs overall) and “Castaway.” “Minority” previews the political bent the band would fully embrace with American Idiot, while “Macy’s Day Parade” is a natural successor to the smash hit acoustic track “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” with even better songwriting chops. At the time, Mike Saunders of The Village Voice compared Warning to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and I think that is spot on.
Fall Out Boy - Infinity on High: Like Warning, this album suffers a fate of being sandwiched between more notable albums in the band’s discography chronologically. But this album is my favorite Fall Out Boy offering. Also like Warning, this follow-up on the album that made the band famous (From Under the Cork Tree) shows more range and maturity musically than its predecessor. This album features some R&B and soul flavors without abandoning Fall Out Boy’s pop-punk roots. My favorite thing about it, though, is that it keeps me entertained from start to finish. It’s an album I used to play during workouts a lot because it has a lot of fast-paced, fun tracks. This album is when Fall Out Boy embraced their status as one of the foremost names in alternative rock and the tracks ooze with that confidence.
Panic! At The Disco - Death of a Bachelor: Okay, so it’s pretty clear by now that I enjoy alternative rock and pop-punk. Panic! At The Disco are very much born of the same era of music as Fall Out Boy, but there are a few distinct differences between the two—namely that Panic! embraces a jazzier style with blaring horns in many of their tracks. Lead singer Brendon Urie also exudes Freddie Mercury vibes in his craft and is honestly a true vocal giant. If you haven’t thought about Panic! At The Disco since their smash hit debut album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, I recommend you revisit them. After a string of mediocre albums, they’re back; they’ve released two fantastic albums in a row. Death of a Bachelor is the first of the two, released in 2016. The band has a different composition than it did back in 2004 and they’ve finally found themselves again. The single “Hallelujah” debuted at a higher place on the charts than any of their songs since “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” and the second single “Victorious” followed to similar commercial success. The album is satisfying mix of Sinatra and Queen and an extremely fun listen.
Outkast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below: This double release came with less critical acclaim than its predecessor, Stankonia, but I always found it to be the more interesting album. The Prince influences are clear in André 3000’s The Love Below, as he experiments with instrumentals, spoken word, and singing rather than rapping. Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx is straight up Southern hip-hop, with tracks that have a huge range thematically. It’s still the only hip-hop album to win a Grammy for Album of the Year, which probably says more about the Grammys than it does about the album, but tracks like “Hey Ya!,” “Roses,” and “The Way You Move” were culturally ubiquitous in my formative years and got a lot of play on my Sony Walkman in 2003. It’s the type of album that I feel like simply doesn’t exist anymore and is worth revisiting if you haven’t listened in awhile or trying out if you never gave it a shot.
Soundgarden - Superunknown: Chris Cornell’s death hit me hard. Really hard. As a child of the 1990s, the grunge music of that era is a part of my DNA and no musician embodies it more than Cornell. I love everything he’s done from Soundgarden to Audioslave to supergroup Temple of the Dog and his solo stuff as well. But to me, Superunknown is his masterpiece. This album is chock full of somber, heart wrenching tracks that only hit harder on the other side of Cornell’s suicide. The songs are honest and they are raw, but beneath the surface, they are hopeful too. “It’s actually, in a way, a hopeful song,” said Cornell to Rolling Stone about the track “The Day I Tried to Live.” “Especially the lines ‘One more time around / Might get it,’ which is basically saying, ‘I tried today to understand and belong and get along with other people, and I failed, but I’ll probably try again tomorrow.’ ”
The Theme From The Natural: Whether you think the sentimentalized movie version of Bernard Malamud’s tragic novel is overrated schmaltz or an American sports classic, Randy Newman’s fantastic score stands on its own. Newman is one of the most decorated American composers of all time, with seven Grammys, three Emmys and two Oscars, as well as penning his own #2 Billboard hit (“Short People”), and Three Dog Night’s #1 Billboard hit (“Mama Told Me Not To Come”). But I would argue that Newman’s best work was his score for the 1984 Robert Redford-starring film The Natural.
While the entire score is worth listening to if you’ve got 34 minutes to spare and movie soundtracks are your cup of tea—it earned Newman one of his 22 Oscar nominations—the essential track is the three and a half minutes that play during the credits. Aptly titled “The End Title,” this track combines all of the score’s major motifs into one transcendent composition. Apologies to Mariano Rivera and Dennis Eckersley, but this is the greatest closer the baseball world has ever seen.
The first minute evokes a nostalgia for old-timey rural America; its tranquil melody brings to mind images of train cars passing through the great plains, surrounded by miles and miles of green nothingness. But it’s not until about a minute and twenty seconds, after a shimmering build-up, that we hit the most memorable part of the score: the iconic horn motif. It plays a number of times throughout the film, most notably when Roy Hobbs’ game-winning three-run shot smashes into the light fixture, causing sparks to rain down on the field.
The final minute and a half of the track features another marvelous motif, eliciting the elation of a slow motion trot around the bases, and concluding with an ethereal flourish. But it’s the triumphant 25-second climax that has become arguably the most recognizable piece of sports-related orchestrated music—admittedly a narrow genre—and I can’t help but get shivers every time I hear it. It’s everything that’s beautiful about baseball boiled down to a handful of horn notes, soaring through the air like a majestic home run.
Green Day - American Idiot: It’s easy to forget two things: When American Idiot was released, a) Green Day was essentially an afterthought in the rock music scene, and b) you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the singles from this record. American Idiot kicked off a second life for the band after they hit the mainstream with 1994’s seminal pop punk masterpiece Dookie, and it has since become their magnum opus. It tells a story of alienation, of confusion, of anger, and of escape in a world where everything is falling apart. It’s very much a millennial album and connects with those who grew up and were shaped by post-9/11 America, but it’s equally timeless at the same time. It’s the album that got 15-year-old me into thinking about every element of music, especially in terms of songwriting, and helped shape my political ideologies from a young age. For those reasons (and more), it remains my favorite album.
The Menzingers - On the Impossible Past: “I’ve been having a horrible time/pulling myself together/I’ve been closing my eyes to find/the old, familiar failures.” So begins On the Impossible Past, a record that deals very heavily with looking back. The best description I ever read for The Menzingers was that their music will make you nostalgic for a moment you didn’t even experience, which is the most appropriate way to categorize this record. The band comes across as a more punk The Gaslight Anthem musically, while Greg Barnett’s and Tom May’s exceptional lyrics take center stage and shine with their vivid imagery and emotional resonance. The Menzingers have established themselves as one of the most consistent bands in the punk scene, and with good reason. While this was their third release, this is the one that cemented their legacy with audiences and music critics alike.
The Wonder Years - The Greatest Generation: The Greatest Generation by pop punk mainstays The Wonder Years concludes a trilogy of albums that focuses on growing up and dealing with failure, anxiety, depression, and pain. Preceded by two terrific albums that put them on the map (The Upsides and Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing), The Greatest Generation remains the band’s best work to date. Vocalist Dan Campbell produces open and honest lyrics that allow the listener to feel as if they’ve known him their entire life. Mike Kennedy’s drumming is one of the most underrated aspects of the record, and the musicianship is one of the things that separate them from other bands from the scene that spawned around the same time. “There, There”, “The Devil In My Bloodstream”, “Cul-de-Sac”, and “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral” are standouts.
PUP - Morbid Stuff: PUP’s third studio album is loud, it’s in-your-face, it’s aggressive, but it’s equally accessible and digestible. The theme of Morbid Stuff is something that’s very easy for everyone to understanding: letting your mind get enveloped by disturbing thoughts during dark times. Vocalist Stefan Babcock isn’t afraid to dive into some morbid topics in his lyrics, but he’s able to balance it by being tongue-in-cheek and never too serious. PUP is an insanely fun band that put out some of the most unique music videos of any group (their earlier ones featured a young Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame), and their live shows are as high-energy as it gets. This album started to gain them recognition among mainstream publications, and they are likely to get more attention from here. Songs like “Kids”, “See You At Your Funeral”, “Bloody Mary, Kate, and Ashley”, and “Full Blown Meltdown” shine, among other tracks.
Spanish Love Songs - Brave Faces Everyone: Brave Faces Everyone came out at the right time, just as the world seemed to be crumbling. The youngest release on this list at just two months old, the record has been a godsend for me personally and has helped me navigate the anxieties of the present we’re living in. The album is not interested in devising a game plan for saving the world, but instead with just dealing with the chaos on a day-to-day basis and putting on a brave face. Whether it’s gun violence, man-made climate change, economic anxieties, or any number of other topics, the album is in many ways pessimistic but never defeatist. The music is raw, real, and effortlessly catchy, with songs like “Losers”, “Kick”, and “Self-Destruction (As a Sensible Career Choice)” that will lodge themselves in your brain. Following in the footsteps of The Wonder Years and The Menzingers, people have recently started taking notice of this band’s endless potential.
Jason Isbell - Southeastern: As someone who normally despises country music, this may seem like an unusual pick for me upon first glance. But Isbell is the rare exception to my hatred of the genre, as his songwriting is some of the very best that I’ve ever heard (in other words, regular country sucks, but woke country is fine). Southeastern, which he wrote immediately after getting sober, is his masterpiece—it is an album about transformation, about trying to pick up the pieces of your troubled past and discovering how hard it is to do so. Several lyrics on this album just completely wreck me every time I hear them, and it will likely do the same to you, so have some tissues handy when you give it a listen. And if you’re a country skeptic like myself, I urge you to put those concerns aside just this once—those who do so will be rewarded.
The entire discography of Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties: This band is the solo project of The Wonder Years frontman Dan Campbell, who takes on the persona of Aaron West and sings folk rock songs about the life of this fictional character. These songs are thus much more focused on narrative than most traditional music, making it necessary to listen to them all by the order of their release. It starts with the album We Don’t Have Each Other, which details Aaron’s life falling apart. It’s then followed by both an EP (Bittersweet) and a single (“Orchard Park”) which details what happens to Aaron after the events of this first album. The most recent release is Routine Maintenance, an album which shows Aaron trying to pick up the pieces of his broken life and become a better person. These songs are simply dripping with emotion as Aaron takes us through the depths of his despair and his subsequent rebirth, and it makes for an unforgettable music experience that is unlike anything else I’ve listened to.
My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade: After almost a decade of being broken up, My Chemical Romance recently reunited for a huge tour, and that will hopefully lead to some new music from them. As such, now is a good time to either revisit their most critically acclaimed concept album or introduce yourself to it and the group as a whole, as I did when I listened to The Black Parade for the first time a few months back. Having largely left my teenage angst years behind me, I was worried that this famously emo band might not connect with me at this point in my life. Those fears proved to be unfounded, however, as I instead found a group that knew how to craft killer rock songs while simultaneously telling an engaging story reflecting on life and death. “Welcome to the Black Parade” is an iconic banger of a song, and there are plenty of others which continue to be stuck in my head months after listening to the album for the first time.
Carnival of Rust: I was introduced to this Finnish rock band through an entirely different medium, as their songs appear in the video games of Remedy Entertainment such as Max Payne 2 and Alan Wake. Those songs caught my ear while I was playing those games, which inspired me to look up the group that performed them and to check out more of their work. In truth, I could have chosen a few different albums from them, as I tend to enjoy them more for their consistency—they seemingly release a new album every two years like clockwork, and there’s always at least one or two new tracks that I’ll listen to on repeat until the next one comes along—than for any one individual release. I chose Carnival of Rust because it’s one of their earlier works, and I feel it gives a pretty good barometer for what to expect from them. The title track in particular is one of the band’s better songs.
Pearl Jam - Ten: Here’s an album that I’ll go back to if I want to truly revisit the angsty days of high school. Ten is simply a classic of 90s grunge rock, and one of the best debut albums of all time. Several of the best songs that Pearl Jam has ever done—such as “Alive,” “Even Flow,” “Jeremy,” and “Black” (which I may or may not have listened to on repeat several times in my life while nursing a broken heart)—appear on this album, and track-to-track it’s probably the most consistent collection of songs that the band has ever released. While I’ve since forsaken some of the music that my teenage self liked to listen to, this album and this band remain a constant presence on my playlist. And if going back to where it all started puts you in the mood to rock out to some more Pearl Jam, you’ll be happy to know that their latest album was released today!
Manchester Orchestra - A Black Mile to the Surface: ABMttS is the most recent album from my favorite band, indie rock group Manchester Orchestra. It also happens to be their most perfect (though not my favorite, that would be 2009’s Mean Everything to Nothing). Lead singer and songwriter Andy Hull lets both his voice and singing ability shine through on each track as he tells the fictional story of a mining town in South Dakota. (Why? Even he doesn’t really know; the band is based in Atlanta.) It features their biggest hit to date, “The Gold,” which is a great song that shows off the bands whole range, from slow contemplation in the beginning to ramped-up choruses and just a teensy bit of shouting, but in a nice way. One of the more delightful moments is the three-song run in the middle of “The Alien,” “The Sunshine” and “The Grocery,” which all blend together in a supremely pleasing and haunting way at the same time.
But where this album really stands out is the ender, “The Silence.” While the studio version is impeccable, where it shines is the live version, which I saw them perform in December and almost cried during (wow, remember live concerts?). If “There is nothing you keep there is only your reflection” wasn’t so long of a lyric, I’d be getting it as a tattoo. I still might.
Also, this is the album I’ve used to turn at least two members of Amazin’ Avenue onto MO, so you’re welcome.
Telethon - The Grand Spontanean: This one is going to feel a little on the nose, but “The Grand Spontanean” is a emo rock opera about the supposed end of the world. The backstory here is that, after stumbling upon this album one way or another, I listened to it every day that I worked from home as an intern my senior year of college. What I came to realize, after finally navigating to their artist page, was that almost no one else was listening to them (a number of their top songs on Spotify still showed >2,000 listens.) I say this not as a “I knew them before they were cool” hipster, but as an admonishment: listen to more Telethon. If you’re hesitant about diving in to an hour and a half story about a guy who finds a website predicting the world no longer spinning in 27 days and includes a trip to Disneyworld populated by some unsavory folks and a choose-your-own-adventure finale, just start with “Punctuation!” It’s all the moody, heavy guitar you could want in emo punk, but also some xylophone and organ, because Telethon loves odd instruments.
Fleetwood Mac - Rumors/Harry Styles - Fine Line: I’ve combined these two because in a letter that went viral, Stevie Nicks called Fine Line Harry Styles’ “Runours,” and I can’t stop laughing at her misspelling her own tentpole album. Also, she doesn’t elaborate on what the connection is, and I don’t think it’s a thematic one, because Fine Line (probably) isn’t about everyone in the band cheating on each other. But anyway, while Harry Styles has mostly shed the One Direction patina that keeps people from taking former boy band stars seriously, some of you are still not listening for that reason, and that needs to stop. Whether you want classic poppy summer fair — “Watermelon Sugar” is a bop and a half — or something just super painfully sad — I have cried to “Falling” a bunch of times — this has it all. Fine Line is perfect, and in that way, it is exactly like Rumours, which I shouldn’t have to pitch you on at all.
Also, watch his NPR Tiny Desk.
Joan Baez - Diamonds and Rust: My entire conception of Joan Baez for a long time was that her name is a good crossword puzzle word thanks to the unconventional “ae” pairing plus a funky letter. I knew she sang folk music because of said crossword puzzles. But then, while reading Joan Didion’s fantastic “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” collection for the first time, her story on Baez and her school for nonviolence inspired me to finally listen to her, and I haven’t stopped. Diamonds and Rust’s title track is her most popular song on Spotify, and for good reason. Baez just lets her haunting singing style go to work over some classic folksy twanging guitars. It’s one of those songs that picks you up and plops you down somewhere else, for me the middle of some dusty midwestern town. This album also reignited my love for any and (almost) all versions of “Danny Boy,” like the good Irish boy that I am, and her’s, in a medley with “I Dream of Jeannie” to end the album, is stellar.
Noname - Telefone: Not to plug myself, especially not myself three years ago, but I wrote about how Telefone was the most perfect rap album of 2016, a year I felt was full of perfect albums, for my college paper. I mention that mostly bad (on my part) review to resurface the only truly good piece of musical criticism I’ve ever written: “Noname’s delivery makes the whole album feel like a rap lullaby. It’s smooth and calming, even when her content does not necessarily reflect the same sentiment. The production reminds you more of front porches in the summer than dark alleys.”
For an album that faces the plight of black people, especially black kids, in Chicago, that’s a hell of an achievement for Noname. The album is able to go from songs about summer love (“Sunny Duet”) to her reaction to a particularly deadly summer in Chicago, disproportionately for black people at the hands of the police (“Casket Pretty”) in a way that feels ethereal. The album culminates with “Shadow Man,” where Noname and guests Saba and Smino describe their funerals, another song that manages to feel happy despite the content. It also includes the line “Tell ‘em play Metro Boomin’ at my funeral,” which is one of the best lines in any song ever.