My 13 “Go-To” Albums

What are the albums you come back to time and time again? The ones you listen to not because they’re classics (although they may well be) but for comfort, for that long car ride, for that specific memory, or because they move you in some profound way?

I got thinking about this recently on a 12-hour drive from DFW to Boulder I was forced to take thanks to a cancelled airline flight. I found myself not wanting to listen to anything new and going to certain albums that I realized were my “go-to’s.” Here they are, in no particular order.

Peter Gabriel 3 (aka the Melting Face album), 1980

It’s 39 years since this album was released, but play it now and it still sounds completely new. That’s how groundbreaking it was and remains. The processed sounds, the unique approach to the drums (Gabriel famously banned cymbals, forcing drummers Phil Collins, Gabriel’s former bandmate in Genesis, and Jerry Marotta to come up with something completely different, one result being the “gated reverb” effect used most dramatically on “Intruder” and most famously on Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”), and the intense almost paranoid nature of the lyrics create an unbelievably coherent work. The lyrics remains deeply relevant today. Just listen to “Not One of Us” or “No Self Control” (a standout for Collins who, whatever you think of his MOR songwriting, was an incredible drummer).

Arcade Fire, Funeral, 2004

Arcade Fire has never put out a bad album (or even anything less than a good album), but I keep coming back to their full-length debut. It captures the spirit of this band perfectly: incredibly uplifting tunes with often dark lyrics, Win Butler’s punk energy combined with Régine Chassagne’s classical sensibilities, songs that rapidly and unexpectedly change direction with fascinating results. “Rebellion (Lies)” is the song that represents this aesthetic perfectly: the pounding bass drum, the churning bass line, the chiming and repetitive piano signature, the cheery “lies, lies” chorus that belies some fairly dark lyrics.

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues, 2011

Their self-titled debut with its gorgeous four-part harmonies (drawn from ‘60s pop and American folk traditions) was a breath of fresh air, but it was with their second album, Helplessness Blues, that Robin Pecknold and company’s full ambitions were met. Every song is exquisite and varied with subtle instrumental flourishes that color the songs without overwhelming them. And the harmonies are as beautiful as on the debut. The title track, opener “Montezuma” and “Grown Ocean” are particular favorites.

The Tragically Hip, Road Apples, 1991

My favorite band, not because they’re the best band ever (they’re not) or because they’re “Canada’s band,” but because I followed their career right from the start and stuck with them every step of the way. I could have picked Fully CompletelyDay for Night (the height of their artistic achievement until, arguably, their final album came along), or even Phantom Power, but this is my car album. I can put this on and from the moment the urgent, churning riff of “Little Bones” hits until the all-too-short coda of “Last of the Unplucked Gems,” I’ll sing every lyric, holler every Gord Downie whoop, live every line of Rob Baker’s slide guitar work, and feel Gord Sinclair and Johnny Fay’s rock solid beat. 

It’s on this album—particularly “Cordelia”—that I first noticed the sense of explosive drama that permeates their most interesting songs. And Downie’s lyrical genius shows through for the first time, whether the word play on “Twist My Arm,” the Shakespeare references, or the brilliant images on “Bring It All Back” (“I’ve been carving you to see what form you’d take. You were hiding in ivory. I just wanted to free your shape.”)

Led Zeppelin, untitled (aka IV, ZOSO or Four Symbols), 1971

Yes, it features the most overplayed song in history (“Stairway to Heaven”) but there’s a reason why it’s overplayed: it’s a phenomenal fucking song. Jimmy Page had a vision of the band incorporating “heavy and light” elements (as the band’s name suggests) and this song—indeed the whole album—is the apex of that goal. From the all-time riff of “Black Dog” to the stomp of “Misty Mountain Hop” to the soft folk of “Going to California,” everything flows perfectly from one song to the next, heavy and loud playing off against quiet and soft. And to me the highlight is the closer, a reworking of Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks,” a tour de force for John Bonham.

Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It In People, 2002

Although only 17 years old, this is another album (like the Peter Gabriel I listed above, although not as dramatically different) that sounded unique right from the start and likely always will. BSS has become considerably slicker over the years (not necessarily a bad thing) so they’ve lost some of the shambolic majesty of this album. It starts right from the opening “tune,” a brief, meandering instrumental that bridges from their previous ambient instrumental approach into the new style of songwriting they’d pursue going forward. It ends with an abrupt horn swell before hitting the slow majestic initial guitar riff of “KC Accidental” which then takes off with multiple guitar noises swirling around Justin Peroff’s cymbal-happy and slightly off-rhythm drumming. (When a band has a unique sound, it’s often something like Peroff’s almost technically wrong drumming that makes it work.) The vocals are often murky and/or treated, and the sheer number of musicians playing on many of the tracks lends a whole live/jam feel to the undertaking. That said, many of these songs are just little pop nuggets hidden by odd production and quirky sounds: “Almost Crimes” (introducing the male/female call and response aesthetic that’s heavily featured on many BSS songs), “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” (with what sounds like a heavily treated banjo), “Cause=Time” and the exquisite “Lover’s Spit.”

Midnight Oil, Diesel and Dust, 1987

On Diesel and Dust, the Oils perfectly managed the high wire act of creating a politically potent album that’s also musically superb. There’s no compromise here. Every song is a kick in the gut. It was inspired by a 1986 tour of the Australian outback with two aboriginal bands, so it’s no surprise that you can practically feel the dust and hear the road noise on these tracks. “Beds Are Burning” is, justifiably, the most well known song on the album but it’s hardly the only standout. “Warakurna” with its sharply observed lyrics or the anti-development anthem “Dreamworld” are at least the equal of “Beds Are Burning” and the defiant closer “Sometimes” captures this band’s fighting spirit.

Cowboy Junkies, The Trinity Session, 1988

For years after this album came out, I’d listen to it just before bed. Its ambience helped me sleep: Margo Timmins’ restrained yet expressive voice, the simple arrangements with accordion, softly strummed guitars, trilling mandolins, fiddle, even the low hiss from the single microphone used to record the band in a small church in Toronto. Like so many of my go-to albums, it creates and sustains a consistent mood.

R.E.M., Automatic for the People, 1992

I suspect the “go-to” for most R.E.M. fans is their seminal Murmur, but while I listen to that a lot, it’s their folk-rock gem, Automatic for the People, that I come back to time and time again. Like Murmur, it evokes a consistent mood; unlike Murmur, however, this is the sound of a much more musically adventurous and mature group. From the moving “Try Not to Breathe” to the yearning “Everybody Hurts” to the uplifting and sweet closer “Find the River,” everything flows together into a coherent artistic statement (although the rant of “Ignoreland” throws things off just a tad). Gone are the obscure lyrics and vocals, replaced by some of Michael Stipe’s most affecting and poetic words.

Tom Waits, Mule Variations, 1999

Just a perfect example of Waits’ artistry: impeccable songwriting from across the American and European canon, each song produced in a unique way with whatever works—from industrial metallic noise to saloon piano to odd guitar figures—all carried by the gravelly acquired taste that is Waits’ voice. 

The Pogues, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, 1987

There were flashes of the kind of lyricist Shane McGowan would be on their first two albums (especially “Streams of Whiskey” on Red Roses For Me and “The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn” on Rum, Sodomy and the Lash) but he came into his own (before he went out in aforementioned streams of whiskey a few years later) on this album. The band stakes their claim from the outset: the album cover features them with a picture of James Joyce. They hit the ground hard with the title track opener and its Irish punk vibe, and then it’s one great song after another: the odd and effective “Turkish Song of the Damned,” the raunch “Bottle of Smoke,” the now Christmas fave of “Fairytale of New York.” They get effectively political on “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” and end (aside from the creepy “Worms”) with the beautiful “Broad Majestic Shannon.” Just a fantastic album beginning to end.

The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema, 2005

One of the most perfect power pop albums ever produced. Carl Newman and company managed to jam 15 songs into 51 minutes without a bum note or throwaway tune in the lot. It’s just gleeful, crunchy, and delicious throughout, with great harmonies. Dan Bejar of Destroyer contributes three songs, toning down his normally whimsical, off-kilter approach so that his contributions fit right in with Newman’s. In fact his “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” is one of my favorite tunes. And not just on this album but all time: when I sort my iTunes library by number of times played, it’s well toward the top, along with “Sing Me Spanish Techno” also from this album.

For a change of pace, they asked Neko Case to sing lead on a couple of the quieter tunes, rather than contributing to the faster paced tunes, and that makes those tunes even more effective. Also making this a fantastic record is Kurt Dahle’s drumming. I saw them live after this album came out and he had an extremely simple drum kit and yet somehow sounds like he’s got three arms, particularly on the aforementioned “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras.”

Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, 1974

That album. The bloated, excessive, weird, sprawling two-disc saga of a Puerto Rican street kid in New York. An album so long and so difficult to make that one of the main contributors, keyboardist Tony Banks, still doesn’t like it. Of all the prog-rock albums I listen to, this is the one I come back to most frequently (with Yes’ Close to the Edge and Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick not far behind). For those who only know the 1980s/1990s MOR version of Genesis, this is a different beast, an art rock monster capable (thanks in no small part to the amazing drumming talents of Phil Collins) of complicated and changing time signatures, bizarre lyrics, theatricality and borderline pretentiousness. The story is intriguing but it’s the songwriting that lifts this up, whether the thumping and rhythmic opening track, the gutsy “Back in N.Y.C.,” the slow ethereal build of “Carpet Crawlers” or the humorous losing virginity song of “Counting Out Time.”

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