Spencer's Favorite Albums Ever: The Best of the Rest
Back in 2017, I got the idiotic idea to rank my favorite albums of all time. I understand the whole listicle thing is lazy, but it gives me an easy writing prompt and I’ve always kind of liked the exercise of sorting things and deciding which is better.
I started knocking off the list in chunks of 10, but started to write progressively more and more. The pieces took longer and longer. Eventually 18 months had passed since I started it, the stupid thing still wasn’t done, and now the list was no longer accurate to my tastes.
I started over.
I re-ranked everything, added some albums, removed some albums, and here we are. The actual Top 50 is coming later this week (promise), but here’s the 10 albums that didn’t quite make the list.
60. The Killers—Sam’s Town (2006)
I’ve always loved the lore of Sam’s Town. The Killers were enamored by the runaway success of Hot Fuss’ “Mr. Brightside” (as they had every right to be) and dove into their next album attempting to blow that anthemic angst into a large-scale, Springsteen-style, power-ballad album. They were earnestly trying to make something akin to a 21st century Born To Run.
Obviously they failed (anyone would have), but whether or not the album succeeded despite that fact is up for debate. Pitchfork largely mocked the effort, writing, “aiming for Springsteen and missing even slightly results in Meat Loaf.” I disagree. Is the album Born To Run? Of course not. But, as I’m writing this in an era without any proper mainstream rock stars, I have to respect the effort. I forgive many of the shortcomings and appreciate it for what it is. Truthfully, I think Sam’s Town has aged rather well, all things considered.
Knowing the inspiration, it does sound exactly like Brandon Flowers doing a Springsteen impression, but singles like “Sam’s Town” and “When You Were Young” are still enjoyable and even ambitious moments like “Enterlude” and “Exitlude” are still charming.
It’s only in its inconsistency that the album truly falters for me. For as many this-is-actually-pretty-good moments as there are, there are still a handful of oh-boy-I-could-do-without-this ones.
I can’t say that my enjoyment of Sam’s Town is rooted entirely in nostalgia, because I actually never listened to this in 2006. That said, I think part of the reason it’s here is because it’s unmistakably a 2006 pop-rock album. I was 14 at the time of its release, and it reminds me of puberty and the angsty joys of rock and roll. Is that so bad?
Recommended: “Sam’s Town”, “When You Were Young”, “Bling (Confessions of a King)”, “Exitlude”
59. Shwayze—Shwayze (2008)
Nothing is more 2008 MTV than Shwayze. This guy (well, duo) was engineered (probably literally) to play over episodes of, like, The Real World or Life of Ryan or some crap. They even had their own show at one point. It suspiciously ran just eight episodes, leading right up to the release of the album, almost like MTV had a stake in their success…
The show was painfully scripted but hard not to enjoy for anyone 16 years old with early delusions of California-style freedom.
For its time, it was a perfect blend of stoner surf rock and hip-hop. “Buzzin’” and “Corona And Lime” reached the charts, with the latter hitting the top 25.
There is no substance here, but there doesn’t have to be. It’s catchy, feel-good summer music. To this day, it’s probably one of my favorite summer albums. There are very few things better to play in the car with the windows down than this album.
It spans 13 songs and 49 minutes and basically every track catches you, or at least doesn’t drive you away. It’s a 2008 time capsule, and it’s kind of a shame that the pair never struck gold on anything again.
Recommended: “Corona And Lime”, “Buzzin’”, “Don’t Be Shy”, “Lazy Suzan”
58. Father John Misty—I Love You, Honeybear (2015)
I don’t know if there could be anything more opposite of the previous album than I Love You, Honeybear. While Swayze is a carefree pop album, this one is (all at once) pretentious, narcissistic, bitter, and wholly entertaining.
Unless we're naked, getting high on the mattress
While the global market crashes
As death fills the streets we're garden-variety oblivious
You grab my hand and say in "I-told-you-so" voice:
"It’s just how we expected"
We’re led by a self-absorbed narrator, desperately and clumsily fumbling through human connections of any importance. His wife is wearing a secondhand wedding dress “someone was probably murdered in.” Later, he’s whining about a former lover who “blames her excess on my influence but gladly hoovers all my drugs.” When he’s on tour, he complains that his ‘honeybear’ “can't drink in silence; she's gotta listen to your tired-ass lines.” However, it’s when the album finally starts to stabilize that it excels.
“Bored in the USA” is an anthem of disillusionment. “Is this the part where I get all I ever wanted? Who said that? Can I get my money back?” At one point he wails, “save me, President Jesus.”
My favorite song, and one of the best of 2015 in hindsight, is “Holy Sh*t.” Singer Josh Tillman wrote it on his wedding day, and it sees our narrator continue to acknowledge all the things he’s cynical about while also letting go and believing in love. He’s heard what his fellow cynics have told him about this “trap” he’s falling into. For once, he doesn’t buy it:
Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty
What's your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?
Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity
What I fail to see is what that's gotta do
With you and me
The album, and Father John Misty, are… a lot. I understand why many people don’t like it, but I think there’s something relatable about a person who self-indulges in misery while also seeing the beauty in it all.
Recommended: “Holy Sh*t”, “Bored in the USA”, “I Love You, Honeybear”
57. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die—Harmlessness (2015)
The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die (TWIABP, for short) is a band that I was aware of for a while, yet never grabbed by attention. Harmlessness, however, had me from the start. The band is made up of nine members, which is obviously a big group. It pays off though, because much of this album has a scope to it that’s enamoring. Bands like Explosions In The Sky are famous for their overall grandeur and anthemic sound, and parts of Harmlessness give me the same vibe.
The lead single, “January 10th, 2014″ feels epic. Epic the adjective, and epic the noun. If you count the preceding interlude that essentially functions as the intro to the song, you’re looking at a seven-minute power ballad. Rousing instrumentation and rising and falling guitars serve as the backdrop for the story of Diana, The Hunter of Bus Drivers, a woman who murdered two bus drivers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to avenge for a string of unprosecuted sexual assaults. In the song, Diana vows to “make Evil afraid of Evil’s shadow” over crashing guitars. If it doesn’t get you amped up, you are dead inside.
The whole album feels like one big “finally fighting back” story, played out in multiple ways. One of my favorite tracks is the second single, “I Can Be Afraid of Anything”. It’s a tale of beating depression, beginning with the struggle: heavy buckets, empty parking lots, anhedonia, and being left in the dust, before showing a triumphant glimmer of hope.
I really did dig my own hole, and I’m climbing out.
I really did dig my own hole, but I can see the top.
I’m climbing out.
It’s not all soaring and yelling though. The album finds time for pondering on the opener, “You Can’t Live There Forever”. After warm, restrained whispers about tiny worlds and distant skies, the song blossoms into something more in line with the rest of the album.
Where is the action?
Where are the streets that take you to bed?
What is your name and what do you do here?
We have the same thoughts clouding our heads.
It’s always fun when you find something and have the thought, “This is really good!” It makes me feel strong, and it makes me think happy thoughts. Butterflies, waterfalls, sunsets, etc. The world really is a beautiful place, huh?
Recommended: “January 10th, 2014”, “You Can’t Live There Forever”, “I Can Be Afraid of Anything”
Adapted from my review of the album, published in 2015.
56. Jay Z—American Gangster (2007)
While The Black Album was victorious and in-your-face triumphant, American Gangster felt more like early Jay Z. Stylistically and aesthetically, the project felt almost like a sequel to songs like “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” portraying Jay Z as a struggling artist and hustler as opposed to the celebrity diving into the Scrooge McDuck money pile we’ve since gotten used to.
It’s a concept album in that it follows the story arc of a gangster protagonist, but it’s loose enough that it allows Jay Z to play around. While the film’s storyline is set in the late ’60s, the album makes mention of 21st century life, such as calling out Al Sharpton or the Don Imus incident. I think this type of freedom is necessary here. Not all concept albums have to be strict, and American Gangster does well just to provide inspiration and framework for Jay Z to regain some of his creative footing.
While I guess there’s something to be said for luxurious ramblings that feel like diatribes against his own listeners, American Gangster feels fresh in so many ways.
Whether it’s the way “Blue Magic” opens with a clip from 1931′s Frankenstein before segueing seamlessly into ’80s references:
Blame Reagan for making me into a monster
Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra
I ran contraband that they sponsored
Or the inventive rhyme schemes of “No Hook”:
I’m so fa sho, it’s no facade
’Stay outta trouble,’ momma said as momma sighed
Her fear: her youngest son be a victim of homicide
But I gotta get you outta here momma, or I’mma… die… inside
And either way, you lose me momma so let loose of me
This also may be the most well-produced Jay Z project since The Black Album. And yes, that includes Watch The Throne.
While recent albums like The Blueprint 3 and Magna Carta Holy Grail put me (and many critics) to sleep, it’s interesting to note that Jay Z can always put himself in someone else’s shoes to regain some of that glory. Nothing like finding yourself by pretending to be someone else.
Recommended: “Blue Magic”, “American Dreamin’”, “No Hook”, “Pray”
Adapted from my review of the album, published in 2015.
55. The Beatles—Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
During my freshman year of college, I took a Public Speaking course. I’ve never had much stage fright, so I enjoyed the experience. One particular assignment involved writing and delivering a persuasive speech designed to convince our audience of something. Looking for the most straightforward route possible, I argued that Sgt. Pepper is the greatest album ever made.
Don’t get me wrong — the album is great. However, I mainly chose to argue the point because of the mountain of empirical evidence I had backing me up. To date, it’s sold something like 40 million copies worldwide, landing it in the top-20 best-selling albums in history. It also has the critic appeal, being named the #1 album ever by Rolling Stone and countless other publications. It’s the pinnacle moment in the lineage of the most famous band of all time.
It has massive singles like “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. It has career-defining songs like “A Day In The Life”. It has oddball deep cuts like personal favorite “Within You Without You”. It has druggy, loping songs like whatever “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!” could be classified as. It has enough folklore and legend surrounding it to last two lifetimes.
One could argue that discovering this album is a rite of passage in the life of every diehard music lover. Sgt. Pepper is iconic and enigmatic and — probably — the best album ever made.
Recommended: “A Day In The Life”, “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!”
54. Brand New—Your Favorite Weapon (2001)
Fans of Brand New, I apologize for how terrible this take is, but Your Favorite Weapon is my favorite Brand New album. The band ascended to new creative heights with Deja Entendu in 2003 and released their magnum opus, The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, in 2006. Those releases have several songs I really like, but nothing has ever quite captured me as a whole like their lighthearted, pop punk debut.
“Jude Law and a Semester Abroad” is one of the better pop punk songs ever written. It hearkens back to MySpace days, but it doesn’t make it any less timeless. “Tell all the English boys you meet about the American boy back in the states” is anthemic and just cheesy enough to hit the sweet spot.
This album reminds me of all of the best parts of being 15 years old.
“Mix Tape” veers more into traditional emo territory, but “Seventy Times Seven” may be the album’s crown jewel. Sometimes I lay awake at night thinking about how I never got to see this song at a show with 100 people crammed into a sweaty bar in 2001.
So, is that what you call a getaway?
Tell me what you got away with
Cause I’ve seen more spine in jellyfish
I’ve seen more guts in 11-year-old kids
Recommended: “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad”, “Seventy Times Seven”
53. Paul Simon — Graceland (1986)
In hindsight, I guess it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time where Paul Simon wasn’t on top of the music world, or at least a widely respected artist. However, following the end of Simon & Garfunkel, Simon’s solo career languished by the time the ’80s rolled around. 1983’s Heart and Bones was a commercial failure, and things were looking bleak.
Through a fateful series of events, Simon discovered the music of South Africa and flew to Johannesburg to record demos for his next album. Eventually, several South African musicians were flown into New York City, and songs like “You Can Call Me Al” were born.
Paul Simon didn’t invent the sound, or even the concept of blending world music with palatable pop, but Graceland is perhaps the most seamless hybrid of international sounds with American populist sensibilities. It’s a perfect intersection of South African inspiration and ’80s pop perfection. It’s a colorful, upbeat album that ties together joyful grooves with just a pinch of We Are The World-era social commentary.
Simon needed something to get his career back on track, and Graceland did the trick. It was named a top-75 album of all time by Rolling Stone and may be one of the best summer albums ever crafted. It reminds me of family reunions.
Recommended: “You Can Call Me Al”, “Graceland”
52. Lorde — Pure Heroine (2013)
It’s hard to believe this album came out in 2013. Pop music is inherently fleeting, but Lorde’s chart toppers from Pure Heroine have been relatively timeless. Fellow 2013 smash hits like “Thrift Shop” and “Blurred Lines” did not age well, but “Royals” and “Tennis Court” still work in the 2019 pop landscape.
Lorde’s overnight success came unexpectedly fast, leaving her scrambling to release an album in time to capitalize on the hype. For that reason, Pure Heroine lacks the fleshed-out development most albums on this list have. It comes across like a collection of singles and random tracks rather than a carefully crafted album. Thankfully, her style is enough to carry things for me.
For a while there, I was unsure if she would be a one-hit wonder. The second album took a long time, but it’s out now. It’s really good. I think Lorde is here to stay.
Recommended: “Tennis Court”, “Ribs”
51. DeYarmond Edison—DeYarmond Edison (2004)
Before Justin Vernon had Bon Iver, he had DeYarmond Edison and one of my favorite fall albums of all time. The band’s self-titled debut is soft and cozy like a chilly Sunday afternoon under an old blanket.
Before Vernon’s lyrics took on a heavy poetic slant with Bon Iver, he went for a much more straightforward angle. DeYarmond Edison reminisces over trucks, dusty roads, parking lots, and sunsets. It would be a country album if Vernon were from Alabama instead of Wisconsin. It’s like a Bruce Springsteen album if 1982’s Nebraska were called Wisconsin and made in the early 2000s.
Aside from its musicality, it’s significant because of its role in the history of Justin Vernon’s long and storied career. DeYarmond Edison was his first serious band and this was their debut. Silent Signs (another great listen) followed in 2005 before the band split and gave way to Bon Iver in 2007, Volcano Choir in 2009, and Gayngs in 2010. Fans of Justin’s work can’t miss DeYarmond Edison.
It’s the musical version of an old hoodie and a late night drive around town after a high school football game.
Recommended: “As Long As I Can Go”, “Dusty Road (So Kind)”
Adapted from my review of the album: “For DeYarmond Edison, Forever Ago” — October 2015