All-Time Favorite Albums – Capsule Reviews

Note: This list is in MAJOR need of a heavy revision. Hopefully by EOY 2021.

Recently, I commented on Twitter and Facebook about Amy MacDonald’s album becoming one of my favorites. It made me wonder — how many times have I made that proclamation? Is it more hyperbole? Well, I’ve decided to finally compile a list of my all-time favorite albums. Some of these may raise an eyebrow. It may even create a unibrow or two. But all of them had some kind of influence on my life, or connected to a life event which caused it to stick with me. There are so many others on the cusp, and I’m sure albums will move in and out of this list. There are also many deserving songs which aren’t on these albums. But these are the albums that, to me, are so end-to-end good, I just have to list them somewhere.

I traversed my catalog alphabetically by artist, so the list follows that order. Therefore, it isn’t ranked. Too hard to do that. It happens to contain 48 albums, just because. It also spans the 70s through today quite evenly. Although I’m a fan of music from way before the 70s as well, the 70s is when I really started getting into it.

Here’s a link to my Spotify playlist. One or two may only be available to me on my local machine (for example, Tribe’s great Abort album, which never made it to Spotify (yet?)). Some stats are listed at the end.

10,000 Maniacs – Our Time in Eden (1992)

This was the first time I actually paid attention to 10,000 Maniacs, due to the huge airplay and video rotation for “These Are the Days.” I put the album aside for a few years, and randomly decided to play it while working one day. I realized how many songs from them I’ve heard over the years, and discovered the fantastic end-to-end quality of the entire album. Nothing to skip. The first reviews I read were mediocre, and I was stunned. I guess it took awhile to sink in with reviewers, since these days it’s generally recognized as an excellent album.

Alizée – Gourmandises (2000)

A friend of mine was doing a web search for rare U2 recordings back when I ran a popular U2 site, and he stumbled across Alizée’s “Moi… Lolita.” He was first taken in by her looks, but when he shared a streaming link for this album, we were blown away with French pop perfection. We discovered she was a “project” led by Mylène Farmer (a great French Canadian pop artist). This introduction got us into French pop a bit in the early 2000s. I guess if French was our language, we’d think the lyrics as lame as a lot of American pop these days (and her English versions of some songs fit into that category — please stick to French, Alizée). We’ve followed her career since. She’s really matured, and still records great French pop. But this album will always be a very special discovery.

Amy MacDonald – This Is the Life (2008)

Amy MacDonald is a recent discovery, and her first album is what triggered this article. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s pure perfection from top to bottom. I’m a huge fan of female pop / rock / folk mashup music, and Amy has perfected it in both her releases. I discovered her through the song “Run” on a Spotify radio station based on Heather Nova (see below), and as I always do, I had to listen to the full album (and her follow-up album, Life in a Beautiful Light). It didn’t take long for it to become one of my favorites. After a few month rest, I returned to it to see if it still lived up to my initial reaction, and I loved it even more. It’s that good.

Angels & Airwaves – I-Empire (2007)

When I first heard that Tom DeLonge started a side project featuring anthemic music harking back to 80s U2, I was intrigued. I wasn’t a Blink-182 fan, although a few of their songs were very listenable. I always found his voice very annoying, yet at the same time hiding something more. I really enjoyed their songs from the first album, We Don’t Need to Whisper, but never listened fully. But I loved the lead single from I-Empire, “Everything’s Magic,” and the accompanying video, so I listened to clips and purchased the album. Blown away. This was the first album that I ever gave 5 stars to every (proper) song, and for a while, it bypassed U2’s The Joshua Tree as my all-time favorite. It sounded so amazing every time I listened. Still does. Perfect in every way.

Boston – Boston (1976)

Ahhh, Boston. How much I loved you in the 70’s. I’ll always connect this to one of the best days of my life — a high school trip with selected members of my Spanish class to NYC around Christmas, 1976. Such a fun day, capped by a delayed bus stop in front of Bondy’s record shop on Park Row on the way home, where we were able to get off the bus for a while and shop. “More Than a Feeling” was getting major airplay at the time, and I HAD to get that album. Unfortunately, I ran out of money. Thankfully, a classmate lent me ($4? $5?). I was thrilled! The notes on the back of the album compared Boston to Led Zeppelin, and I was thinking, “Are you insane? Apples and oranges!” I was only really into music for a couple years at the time, but even then it felt insane. No, there was no one who sounded like Boston at the time. The album was my soundtrack for the next two years, until their follow-up (and constantly delayed) Don’t Look Back was released in 1978. Yeah, Tom Scholz is a perfectionist, but two years is nothing between album releases these days. Hey, U2 — it’s been over 4 years! These days, I find Boston’s sound to be fairly sterile, but this will always be a very special in my life.

The Cars – The Cars (1978)

The Cars’ first album will always be connected with my family’s first home purchase, since I bought it when we were moving in. I found it wonderfully tuneful new-wave, yet robotic. Ric Ocasek has a way with cryptic lyrics that mean absolutely nothing to me. I couldn’t even apply my own meaning to them. But they were great. I had their debut on repeat for months, skipping only “I’m In Touch With Your World” if I could get to the needle fast enough (still boring). “Moving in Stereo” will always be tied to “Fast TImes,” although we knew the song way before the movie. To this day, “All Mixed Up” is still one of my all-time favorites — that sax! Amazed that they came out with a decent album just recently, still sounding like The Cars. But it’s very, very sad that we lost Benjamin Orr. His voice and songs were a great alternate to Ric’s.

Chumbawamba – Tubthumper (1997)

Yes, Tubthumping was a crazy popular song in the late 90s, and surprise exposure for this strange, underground, political band. A blip that came and went just as quickly, as their career just continued on under the radar, and their massive catalogue continued to grow. But how many people realize that the entire album was chock full of potential hits? And that the title track was of middling quality compared to the rest of it? One of the most fun albums I’ve heard, and their follow-up, WYSIWYG is almost as consistently good — listen to that for “Pass It Along,” if for nothing else.

Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)

I don’t know if it was because we just got over (never got over) 9/11, but we all needed this album. A lot. I wasn’t overly impressed with Coldplay’s debut, but this album was so good, it actually hurt. I mean, in every song, I anticipated the next note, the next refrain, the next bridge. And it was exactly as I had hoped. It touched every nerve. It was so perfect. Sure, a lot of it is completely played out on radio now. But when it was released — perfection. Easily one of the best albums ever recorded.

Counting Crows – August & Everything After (1993)

I’ll always remember the first time I saw the “Mr. Jones” video. It sounded so… familiar? It was utterly addicting. And who was this lead singer? What’s his story? He was so… familiar? Yet, very different. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I have a somewhat negative opinion about Adam Duritz these days, but Counting Crows was folk rock done beautifully in the early 90s. I’ll always connect this album to road trips, and to a celebration of passing a difficult technical certification test with flying colors. It shot to my (and many other’s) top 10 albums of all time back then. But Adam, why so incredibly vulgar in concert? Why ruin almost every song? Why ruin my first (and last) Counting Crows concert? We had to leave early, because we just couldn’t stand one more random, unexpected F-bomb. Even a bandmate’s personal apology doesn’t change that. And it wasn’t just this show. I gave up on live recordings as well. Mr. Duritz, you have some major issues.

The Cure – Disintegration (1989)

The Cure was my entry to alternative rock fandom. My brother-in-law (a man of very few words, but cool musical taste) introduced me to WLIR (which became WDRE, which again became WLIR), and his “weird” album collection back in the late 80s; The Cure and Psychedelic Furs, in particular. It became a ritual when visiting my in-laws, running up to his room to dig into his albums and see what I could borrow next. It opened up a whole new world of music to me. I was always into discovering hidden gems and unknown artists on NY stations like WPIX back in the late 70s. So I guess this was a natural eventuality. Still, I feel like I joined the game a bit late, but did a lot of catching up, thanks to him. Of course, when The Cure’s next album came out, I had to grab my own copy, and it was dark and amazing. Long, long intros into fascination (uh, street?) of where those long intros would lead. Complete satisfaction, of course. If this is goth, paint me black.

Dan Folgelberg – Nether Lands (1977)

If this was released at any other time, I probably would have missed this. But it was a huge part of the magical year of 1977. It helped that several songs made it onto my mix tapes off of WPLJ, which I was heavily into at the time — both the mix tapes and the radio station. More objectively, this is still a beautiful album, and a great mix of folksy ballads and rock. At times dramatic, and at other times emotional, but the best moments have both. The final song, “False Faces” is the signature track which encompasses all the ingredients that define this album. It’s best listened to in its entirety, but “Love Gone By” can always stand on its own.

Danielle Brisebois – Portable Life (1999)

When Danielle was featured on an episode of VH1’s “Where Are They Now?” I was shocked that she was the same person who played Stephanie Mills on “All in the Family” in the 70s. She rocked, seemed somewhat aloof, and was no longer a brunette. But the clips of her music were intriguing. So I had to check out her only album at the time, “Arrive All Over You,” released in 1994. It seemed fairly mainstream aside from the opening track — the incredible “What If God Fell From the Sky.” What touched me most, however, was the passion she brought to all of her songs. She put her heart into everything. When a promo of her second album was leaked in 1999, I’ll admit that I grabbed a copy and fell completely in love with it. Her passion was still there, but the music was at another level altogether. Again, she opened with a killer song, “I’ve Had It,” which is quite possibly one of the most intense pop-rock songs I’ve ever heard. But the album was put on a shelf by the record company, and unreleased for nine years! I still don’t know why. But for all those years before it was finally released, I felt like part of an exclusive club. It was only after it leaked that I realized she was half of New Radicals. Of course, now she’s much better known as a producer and writer behind some popular music instead of behind the mike… which I feel is a shame. I miss her passion.

Depeche Mode – Black Celebration (1986)

Depeche Mode always seemed unsure if they wanted to be goth rock, new-wave, electronic, or whatever. Based on Black Celebration, they should have focused on goth. The first 75% of this album is perfect, and is a time capsule for the mid 80s. “Blasphemous Rumours” would have fit perfectly here as well, but was released too early. Violator may have been their most successful album, thanks to the popularity of “Enjoy the Silence,” but it was more mainstream, and not the classic Black Celebration has proven to be, at least to my ears.

Elton John – Captain Fantastic (1975)

I remember my friend’s older sister coming home with a copy of Elton John’s Captain Fantastic, yet complaining that he “changed his style.” At that time, Elton John WAS my music world, and my friend and I already loved what they were playing on the radio from the new album. She had a point — it did sound a bit different from his earlier work. But to our ears, it was still fantastic (pardon the unintended pun). As a silly kid of 14, I taped the album off his stereo by placing the tape recorder next to his left speaker. I just didn’t get the concept of “stereo” yet, and couldn’t understand for the life of me why “Writing” seemed like a different on my tape than his album. It took playing me some Beatles songs with their pure separation to get me to understand the concept. Silly me. We spent the next several weeks memorizing the lyrics, going over them in the school hallway between classes. To this day, Captain Fantastic remains my favorite all-time Elton John album, with Caribou a very close second (c’mon, you know “Ticking” is his best song), mainly for all its memories. But it’s such a close call.

Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (1977)

Yet another amazing album from the magical year of 1977 — the year I traveled the trains alone for the first time, and took advantage of my newly found freedom, with cassette player in hand, of course. By this time, music was everything to me. I couldn’t go anywhere without listening. All the time. Every time. Day and night. During sleep. I remember my father driving me to my friend in late 1976, hearing the first single, “Go Your Own Way” for the first time. I was floored. This was like the best song I’ve ever heard! That guitar solo! Those drums! The passion! The anger! And “Dreams” was a huge part of my soundtrack of that wonderful summer. That bass and the fadeout on “The Chain!” This was a fantastic album, and will remain so forever more. Everyone knows this. Nothing more to say.

Fleetwood Mac – Say You Will (2003)

Fast forward 26 years, and they release this completely unappreciated, excellent (yet a bit uneven) album, that was simply the best they released since Rumours. 26 years later, and they still had it! Frankly, I didn’t miss Christine McVie. I always found her songs to be their most saccharine, anyway. It’s been 10 years since, and they were still rocking, until John’s cancer. Waiting for something more than their recent EP, though. Still, Stevie Nicks’s solo effort a couple of years back, in her 60s no less, was still very, very good. I love how bands like Fleetwood Mac and The Cars can still make great new music into their 60s. Inspirational. 60 is the new 30.

Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials (2011)

Florence became my favorite quirky redhead musician in 2011 (sorry, Tori). Like many great albums, this one was a slow burn. Several songs took their turn as my favorite. You must, must, must get the deluxe edition, since some of the best tracks are only available there. This practice of separate “basic” and “deluxe” releases must die a quick death. There is no room for this in the current market. It’s a sham, plain and simple. Ceremonials proper IS the deluxe edition. Period. More on this, ahead.

The Go-Go’s – Beauty and the Beat (1981)

It’s a shame, but in 1981, all-girl rock bands were unheard of. This album was a breath of fresh air at the time, and looking back it is a lot more pop than rock. Low-fidelity pop rock. But these girls could play. They put on one of the most energetic shows I’ve ever seen. There’s was the first concert where I stood the entire time. Everyone was on their feet.  It was frenetic. “We Got the Beat” was the keynote of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. This is the album Hole would make, if they were pop-rock. But they had their turn with their pop-twinged grunge rock classic mentioned below.

Heather Nova – Oyster (1994)

I consider the late 80s through the mid 90s a fantastic stretch of music… IF you could get beyond the crap they were churning out on radio. Thanks eternally to the Internet for what it has done for music. We live during an era of embarrassment of riches. But back when the Internet was just about to be born, we had to discover great music the old fashioned way — via CD magazines, such as CMJ. That was where I discovered Heather Nova, even before she became a darling of the WB youth drama soundtracks. I first discovered her via her sly, and not so innocent “Walk This World.” It’s not really representative of Oyster, but like the rest of the album, it’s not as sunny as it sounds. This is a dark, beautiful album; probably the darkest and most personal album Heather has ever released. I’ve never paid as much attention to lyrics as I do to the music, but some of these lyrics downright burn. This is another slow burner of a classic, and I appreciate it more every year.

Hole – Celebrity Skin (1998)

For probably all of 1998 and 1999, Celebrity Skin came close to one of my top 5 albums of all time. Don’t shoot me, but I consider Courtney Love’s late husband’s band one of the most overrated bands. I don’t get their influence. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t part of his generation. But I feel that Hole and Foo Fighters have contributed considerable more quality than Nirvana did. Sure, Courtney is a flake, and her voice can grate, but she has musical chops, and she can sure pick the right talent to help. This album has everything, from glistening pop-rock, to raw, emotional bleeding ballads, to anthemic power rockers, to beautiful, quieter moments. It never falters. They’ve released quality stuff before and since, but this is Hole at their best and most accessible.

The Jezabels – Prisoner (2011)

I’m trying to put into words how a Jezabels song makes me feel. But I can’t describe the nerve they hit. Some say a lot of their songs can blend together, but I could play a single track on repeat and still feel the same emotion, so it doesn’t matter much to me. As of this writing, “Catch Me” is my all-time favorite song (and a damn, damn shame they hardly ever play it live — at least there’s one performance available on YouTube), edging out # 2, Sia’s “Breath Me”, and # 3, U2’s “With or Without You”. When you listen to all three, you can see what kind of music touches my soul. I guess they fit into the shoe-gazer genre, and would fit right into what I consider the golden age of “120 Minutes” (grungeless) alternative rock — the late 80s, early 90s. (Nothing against grunge, but I was a shoe-gazer.)

Kansas – Leftoverture (1976)

When I was younger, I felt that you never really “listened” to an album until you gave it the full “headphone test.” These days, I don’t follow this rule religiously (thanks to my fear of diminished hearing). But in the late 70s, Leftoverture was the headphone test winner, mainly because it was the album I fell asleep to most of the time. I especially liked the second half; the more progressive side of the album. I’d throw on the album, put on my Koss around-the-ear headphones, and slumber into bliss. This is Kansas’s Magnum Opus. Sorry — another pun. I really don’t get into progressive rock like I used to. Not sure why. Maybe it requires patience I no longer have, musically. But this album will always be brilliant to my ears.

The Killers – Battle Born (2012)

Although The Killers made a huge splash with their debut, Hot Fuss, I felt it just died halfway through. I didn’t have too much hope for their sophomore effort, but was wrong. Sam’s Town was excellent, end to end. Their next album, Day & Age didn’t really hit my radar for some reason, and when I did listen, I thought it so-so. Four years on, and one solo album later, I pretty much thought it was over. Wrong again. Battle Born was my top album of 2012, and every single track is strong. It received very mixed reviews from fans, mainly because it’s probably their most mainstream release. But don’t hate on great music! Let it stand on its own.

Lorde – Pure Heroine (2013)

Lorde, Lorde, Lorde… you pushed your way onto this list, didn’t you? I know many 16 (now 17) year old kids are deeper thinkers than most adults realize or remember. I know I was. But I could never express those thoughts as well as Lorde does, even now. This is easily the best debut album I’ve heard since, what, Alanis Morissette’s in 1995? No wonder her’s is one of the records Lorde broke. When I first heard “Royals”, I really wasn’t much of a fan. But for some reason, I could never get myself to change the station. Was it the lyrics, the mood, the attitude? Still, I was curious how the album would sound. It blew me away. It’s a short album, but so great. This girl has amazing potential. What a year 2013 has turned out to be.

Meat Loaf – Bat Out of Hell (1977)

Although this album was released in 1977, it was my soundtrack of 1978. Back then, it seemed like this was all anyone played. I was a sucker for dramatic rock, and this is as over the top as it gets. 1978 was also the year I was introduced to “Rocky Horror”, so it kept the Meat Loaf momentum going. I never heard anything the likes of the title track, and played it at full tilt repeatedly until I wore it out. This was also the first CD I ever purchased. But like other albums from this era, I rarely listen to it anymore. Thanks to radio, it was totally played out. It’s a bit sad, don’t you think? I also feel dramatic rock didn’t age very well. But this will always be a classic, and a huge piece of my childhood.

Midnight Oil – Blue Sky Mining (1990)

Midnight Oil was one of those bands that made the late 80s / early 90s for me — my golden era of music. This was my generation’s political music boom, from U2’s Bono’s cries of “how long and why?,” to Midnight Oil’s rubber-band-man Peter Garret’s politically-themed passioned growls over atmospheric anthemic rockers, to Chumbawamba’s playfully disguised rebellious sing-a-longs. Blue Sky Mining was a sequel of 1987’s Diesel and Dust, and the two best albums from this fabulous live act.

Midnight Oil – Diesel and Dust (1987)

“Beds Are Burning” epitomizes the era. I was lucky to see Midnight Oil with my wife, Lorri, twice at NY’s Jones Beach at key moments of our lives. For a couple of years, both Diesel and Dust and Blue Sky Mining were on constant rotation on our CD players and tape decks. This is one of the few bands I discovered later in their career, and had to grab up their entire back catalogue in a hurry. I bled Midnight Oil for quite some time.

Natalie Imbruglia – White Lilies Island (2001)

It’s sort of a shame that most people consider Natalie Imbruglia a one hit wonder, with “Torn” — one of the most successful singles of all time. It’s not even hers. But she’s not played often inside the United States. She happens to be one of the most talented female pop-rock artists of our time. White Lilies Island was one of the only beautiful things to come out of that horrible, horrible year. The glimmer of hope. Don’t let the opening track, “That Day” throw you. Its frenetic pace that makes you wonder where each line starts and ends is not at all symbolic of the rest of the album. But on repeated listening, it’s one of the top tracks. Fantastic album, and my top of 2001. Since it was released in the US in 2002, some sources maintain that release date. I bought the European release in 2001, and that’s what I count. It’s no fluke — her follow-up, Counting Down the Days happens to be my top album of 2005, although it’s not on this list. It’s the combination of surprise and the one bright light of 2001 that pushes White Lilies Island onto the list. She deserves a lot more recognition than she gets, at least in the US.

Nelly Furtado – Folklore (2003)

Here’s an example of the major impact music videos have had since the early 80s. Everyone knew the huge hit, “I’m Like a Bird,” from Nelly Furtado’s 2000 debut, Whoa, Nelly! It was sweet, nothing too special, but introduced another female artist moving to the forefront of pop at the time. I wasn’t very impressed by her follow-up single, “Turn Off the Light,” (not a hip-hop fan) and didn’t have too much of an afterthought about her music. But when the “Powerless” video from her 2003 follow-up, Folklore was released, I fell in love with her colorful, joyful performance. I immediately sampled and bought the album. Absolutely love the whole album, and it became my favorite of 2003. I don’t think any of her albums have reached the same level since, but that’s likely because I’m not really into hip-hop, and her subsequent work have pretty much a 50%-50% split. This was her most “pop-rock” release. “Manos Al Aire,” from her Mi Plan album is my favorite foreign language track, and one of my favorite songs, overall. She’s supremely talented.

Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory (1995)

When Oasis debuted Definitely Maybe, I thought they were whiny and overrated. But by the time Morning Glory came out, I started thinking they were the best thing out of Britain since The Beatles. For a while, I imagined they sounded like The Beatles would have if they were still together in the mid-90s. Today, they again seem whiny, overrated, and full of themselves. This was my soundtrack of 1995, and Oasis at their best.

The Partridge Family – Sound Magazine (1971)

I assume that this is where I’ll get the most raised eyebrows. But The Partridge Family was my introduction to popular music when I was a child. I was addicted to their first three albums (and even their Christmas album). I was 9, 10 years old, and still remember exactly when I bought their first two albums. Our father used to wake up me and my brother for school by playing their albums on our record player. Looking back, I still feel their first three albums contain some of the best late 60s / early 70s pop. Still just as brilliant as when I was a kid. Sound Magazine was their strongest, end-to-end, so it places in this list. It influenced my musical tastes. Ok, you can stop laughing now, look past the show, realize it was actually David Cassidy’s and Shirley Jones’s band, and give it a listen.

Pat Benatar – Precious Time (1981)

Pat Benatar was the female rock & roll star of the 80s, hands down. Complemented by her husband (to-be), Neil Geraldo, her first several albums were such perfect rock gems, they still sound great today. It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite from her early collection, but I cannot keep her off this list. So Precious Time makes the cut, where her raw passion met her maturity.

Peter Frampton –  Frampton Comes Alive (1976)

In 1975, the question would have been, “Who the hell is Peter Frampton?” By the end of 1976, Framptom Comes Alive was on everyone’s turntable. It was unheard of — a live album becoming a virtual unknown’s first hit album. But it broke all the rules. A rock classic. I don’t think there willl ever be anything quite like it again. And don’t tell me you didn’t expect a firecracker during “Baby I Love Your Way” when you saw him in concert.

Pink Floyd – The Wall (1979)

This album is tied to a very special time, the most exciting year of my life. It was when I met my wonderful wife, Lorri, and the year I stayed at my best friend’s dorm at Stoney Brook University in order to cram for finals. Yeah, like that worked. No, aside from the fact that it was my only true college campus experience (I went to local city colleges), the highlight of that stay was my introduction to this incredible album. A concept rock album that made The Who’s “rock opera” Tommy feel like a slapped together bunch of unfinished tunes. The first song I heard from this on WPLJ was “Hey You.” It was good, but didn’t grab me until I heard it in context. As a matter of fact, I believe the only song that really stands on its own is “Comfortably Numb.” The Wall is an album that begs to be listened to in its entirety, end-to-end, in order. And that’s the difference between this and Tommy. The Who is a great band, and had some classics, but aside from a few gems, Tommy is uneven. The Wall, however, has great individual tracks which are much more amazing when listened to in context. You may think it unfair that I’m making such a comparison, but when I was growing up, these were the two contrasting examples my friends and I thought of.

Psychedelic Furs – Midnight to Midnight (1987)

Another alternative group introduced to me by my brother-in-law (when alternative was alternative). The Furs were more radio-friendly, and an easier on-ramp for me. Mirror Moves was my introduction. Although the world was introduced to them through “Pretty in Pink,” I found it a bit uneven. The wonderful “Heaven” video, that just evoked such joy of… dancing in the rain(?) was my true introduction, on the first UHF station I ever watched, U68. If you never had the opportunity to watch U68, it was like a 24×7 version of MTV’s 120 minutes. Along with WLIR (WDRE), it was my initiation into the “alternative” rock world. Although fans of the Psychedelic Furs generally panned Midnight to Midnight for being too mainstream, it was the album I listened to constantly in early 1987, right before U2 released The Joshua Tree.

Spys – Spys (1982)

I refer to this as the last great album of my “childhood.” I was 21 when it was released, but that was when I was entering the true adult years of my life. Lorri and I just got engaged on New Year’s Eve, 1981, and life was about to get real. I don’t even remember how I discovered Spys, but it could have been on WPIX, which was where I got my early taste of non-mainstream rock (not quite new-wave, and right before alternative). There’s not a weak song here, and it’s one of the most melodic rock albums I’ve ever heard. Seems like no one else heard of them, but not many people heard of others I was discovering back then either, like UFO, The Records, and Shoes. If you were around to remember, radio truly sucked big time in the 80s. I found most of the music I loved then mainly through videos and record store recommendations. We’re unbelievably spoiled today. The Internet gives us an embarrassment of riches I could never come close to imagining back then, when finding great new music was like finding a needle in the ocean. Oh, yeah… that happened a lot back then 🙁

The Strokes – Comedown Machine (2013)

My three all-time favorite bands are (in order) U2, Tegan & Sara, and The Strokes. I was a latecomer with all three. I “rediscovered” U2 with The Joshua Tree, and rushed out to get their entire back catalog. I had only listened to their prior release, The Unforgettable Fire, a couple of times. It took a chance listening of the live version of “Bad” on New York’s WDRE one night in my car that sucked me in. I discovered Tegan & Sara in a very modern, Internet-way, hearing “Where Does The Good Go” on Pandora. It was a bit quirky, but I’m a fan of quirky. Those are the growers. I bought So Jealous, and completely fell in love. I immediately bought their entire back catalog in a single purchase. Loved all of their phases. And to complete this long intro, my Strokes “discovery” was a bit more similar to U2. I was somewhat familiar with their most popular songs over the years. But they never “stuck” with me until “Taken for a Fool” got airplay. Loved it, and considered looking into them more. Although it made me a bit more aware, especially when “Under Cover of Darkness” started getting airplay, I still didn’t dig too deep. When Alt Nation first played “One Way Trigger” from Comedown Machine, it didn’t hit me at first. It was… different.. yet interesting. And when “All the Time” got airplay, I thought it decent, and a lot more “Strokes”-sounding. Nothing too special. But the more I heard “One Way Trigger,” I started loving it, and had to get the album. After around five or ten listens, I was convinced that not only was it the (close) second best album of 2013, it was also one of the best I’ve ever heard. I was surprised at the mixed reviews, until I dug into their back catalog. It woke me up to all I actually knew from The Strokes, and I realized how damn good they were. And after understanding the impact Is This It actually had when it first came out, I understood where the negativity came from. I guess I was lucky I discovered them late. It didn’t cloud my judgement of Comedown Machine on its own merits. And I appreciate their entire catalog that much more. Then I realized just who Julian Casablancas was. I loved a couple of his solo tracks when they got airplay, and knew he was the lead singer for some group, but didn’t make the connection at first. All of this quickly brought them to the top of my list. The only reason Comedown Machine is not my favorite of 2013 is simply because Tegan & Sara’s Heartthrob is so incredible, and so… well… Tegan & Sara (more on this, below).

The Strokes – Room on Fire (2003)

Definitely better than their famous debut, Is This It, but that’s mainly because they’d matured a bit at this point. Is This It is great, yet raw. As I mentioned above, I feel Comedown Machine is their best, although most early fans may disagree. I think recent fans like myself appreciate the newer stuff more, yet still appreciate the early albums. I’ve been listening to Room on Fire nonstop for a while now, and it doesn’t grow old. It’s really hard to figure out which of their albums belong on this list. They are that good.

Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob (2013)

Similar to my comment about Ceremonials, above, this practice of releasing “bonus tracks” separately MUST die. An incredible album in its own right, the two bonus tracks for Heartthrob take it over the top. I’m convinced that Tegan & Sara would be successful releasing any style music. Breaking from their traditional folk-pop-rock roots, this year they released one of the best pop albums of all time. You can’t get much more perfect than this; so good it hurts. As I mentioned above, The Strokes simply picked the wrong year to release Comedown Machine. Otherwise that would have been the album of the year. Yeah, 2013 is not over yet. And yes, I said I would be shocked if anything released this year would be better than Heartthrob, and I was almost wrong twice (see Lorde, above), so you never know. The last couple of years have been the best in music since 1991-1992. These twins are just so talented, and as sweet and funny as anyone. They’re so easy to root for, and they always give us a reason to. Can’t wait to hear what they try next.

Tegan and Sara – So Jealous (2004)

Pandora Radio made me first realize how lucky we’ve become as music fans. No longer were we prisoners of FM radio, (and XM had started its own downward slide). Although Pandora wasn’t on-demand like Spotify et al, it did introduce us, with surprising accuracy, to great new music we’d like based on our selected music. They still have the formula better than any other streaming company, although their overall selection is relatively minuscule. I’ll always be grateful to Pandora for introducing me to Tegan and Sara, when it played “Where Does the Good Go” for me. I was smitten, and quickly purchased So Jealous, and then every single album they released to that date. Just as quickly, they became my second all-time favorite band. The biggest hit from it, surprisingly to me, was “Walking With a Ghost.” While pleasant, I find it repetitive.

Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes (1991)

When I first saw the “Silent All These Years” video I had to watch it a few times to understand why this girl seemed so different. It was a playful video, but belied the story it told. There was something under the surface that I had to look into. Wow. This turned out to be the most unusual of the best debuts I ever heard. I was addicted to this in 1991, listening to it constantly on daily three hour drives. I must have memorized every note in a few weeks. The song “Winter” is the first since Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” to bring me to tears. Although Tori became, uh, quirkier from album to album, she’s always had that special hook. She’s an acquired taste, though. Sadly, none of her subsequent albums were able to meet or exceed her debut… until a decade later…

Tori Amos – Scarlet’s Walk (2002)

Although Little Earthquakes will always hold a very special place in my heart, from beginning to end Scarlet’s Walk is Tori’s masterpiece. It came out shortly after 9/11, and features a beautiful song about it, “I Can’t See New York,” I find even harder to listen to today. I think what makes the album really succeed is the theme: a journey across America. This is a very long album, but it’s so strong throughout, you never want it to end. My only complaint is the muddy sounding production.

Tribe – Abort (1991)

I owe this discovery to a single episode of MTV’s 120 Minutes, when they played the video of the quirky and fantastic song, “Joyride (I Saw the Film).” Yes — even though U2 released Achtung Baby in 1991 (one of the best music years ever, in my opinion), Tribe’s Abort wins album of the year, hands down. It’s such a shame that they only lasted for two albums, and none are even on Spotify or Rdio. If you think you’ve never heard of them, you sort of did — two key members were the driving force behind the famous “Guitar Hero” game series. This album packs some of the most emotional, melodic, harmonic, and at times, quirky rock you’ll ever hear. They were huge in circles in Boston, and will always hold a special place in the hearts of the people who were fortunate enough to hear them.

U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)

Thank you, Ann Marie. Thank you for lending me your Joshua Tree cassette the moment you purchased it. I will be forever grateful. It took me several listens, but I finally *got* it. Now, I can hardly believe it took me more than one listen. I labeled this album as the “miracle” album, because I considered it a miracle for an album to be so perfect. To think this was released almost 27 years ago makes me want to cry. Thank you, Edge, for saving “Where the Streets Have No Name” from the scrap heap. You’ve changed U2’s history forever. Can you imagine a live show without it? And thank you, U2, for having the first three songs make the rest of the album irrelevant. You could have added “Revolution 9” as filler for the rest of it, and it would still have been a miracle.

U2 – No Line On the Horizon (2009)

My review of this album was so long that it literally pissed people off. So I won’t say too much here, except that 1) I still think this is U2’s 2nd best album, and 2) No, I don’t rate it as highly as I did back then. But it still makes my list, because 3) I still find it amazing that they were able to create this kind of quality after 30+ years of being together. I just hope they trigger my hyperbole gene again in 2014.

Vanessa Carlton – Heroes & Thieves (2007)

The early 2000s brought us some great, new, “real” female artists. You know — the ones who write and perform their own material, and break out of the tired formula followed in the 90s. I always thought Vanessa Carlton had the ability to be the best piano-focused female artist since Tori Amos (quirk and all). Although her second album produced one of my favorite songs (“Who’s To Say”), it didn’t all come together until Heroes & Thieves. It reaches the stratosphere with “Home,” if nothing else. What a piano solo! Vanessa is a huge talent, but she seems to have stalled. I think her last release, Rabbits on the Run, was a misfire, but I know the potential is still there… somewhere. And while we’re on the subject of great new female artists of the early 2000s, what ever happened to you, Michelle Branch? Well, at least Avril Lavigne (my favorite guilty pleasure) is still rocking it.

The Wonder Stuff – Never Loved Elvis (1991)

Another reason 1991 was an incredible year for music. I was introduced to this theme-based album via the music video channel U68 (see above), and their constant play of “The Size of a Cow.” What a fun, fun album, blowing away their earlier releases by far. They only released two more albums, but this was the soundtrack of a very exciting time of my life.

Yes – Going For the One (1977)

My friend, George, introduced me to early Yes, and songs that took the entire album side back in the early 70s. Aside from a few great songs, I thought it way too weird, and long for the sake of being long. Aside from the closing semi-ultra-long track, “Awaken” (great song, by the way), Going For the One is one of their most traditional albums, and my late 1977 soundtrack. I listened to this non-stop on a surprise trip to visit a girl I met over the summer in the Catskills (one of those very short-lived summer romances). Hours and hours and hours of trains and buses, just to have her sister slam the door in my face when I reached her house. Ouch. But what a beautiful album.

1970s – 11
1980s – 8
1990s – 11
2000s – 12
2010s – 6

Female Lead – 19
Male Lead – 26
Mixed – 3

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