Of all the lists we've had to do here, this one was easily the most difficult. I started with about 60 albums just off the top of my head, then narrowed it down to about 25, then added 10 more I had forgotten about, and finally cut it down to the required amount. Given the time period involved, this list represents my 20 favorite albums that were made while I was really aware that there was more to music than my Dad's AC/DC tapes (which I still love) and my mom's cassingle collection (which I will always grudgingly appreciate for giving me the ability to obsessively listen to the same songs over and over again). It was a hard list to make, but here it is, presented in chronological order with commentary, because having to order them from most to least favorite would've been far too cruel an exercise for me to undertake.
Nation of Ulysses - Plays Pretty for Baby
I've always been glad that I discovered this band in the days before the Internet had every single piece of information on everything ever just a few keystrokes away, giving me the opportunity to really explore the band's strange, youth-cult mythology without having it cracked wide open by the advent of the information age.
Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Pavement caught on like a virus amongst my friends in high school, and the vector was a CD single of "Cut Your Hair," which was passed from person to person to be listened to obsessively until you finally purchased a copy of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and passed the single along to someone else, thus repeating the cycle.
Weezer - Weezer (Blue Album)
Years ago, I would've pointed to Pinkerton as my top Weezer album without hesitation, but now I find that the glossy innocence of their debut just speaks to me more. This is another one of those "start to finish" albums that feels just about perfect all the way through.
At the Gates - Slaughter of the Soul
I was fortunate enough to have this be the first death metal album I ever heard, and the summer I spent playing video games and absorbing this record ranks as one of the greatest summer vacations of all time.
Tool - Ænima
I wasn't initially a big fan of Tool, but a friend of mine left this album at my house in the summer of 1997, and I decided to give it a listen while I undertook the grand task that was mowing my parents' expansive lawn. I remember being blown away by how patient songs like "Third Eye" and "Eulogy" were. Today, I'm blown away by how current the album sounds.
Coalesce - Functioning on Impatience
While there are a lot of bands out there that are aggressive, Coalesce has always felt like they were on a completely different level. This album taps into a well of such raw, primal rage and catharsis that other bands seem merely annoyed by comparison.
Silver Jews - American Water
The languid earnestness of David Berman's lyrics earns him an easy place as one of my favorite songwriters, and easily my favorite poet. I could listen to "Smith and Jones Forever" for, well, forever.
Sloan - Navy Blues
Though I think most people would point to One Chord to Another as their go-to Sloan record, I think that Navy Blues is easily the band's best work. It's like the perfect convergence of Thin Lizzy and the Beatles, and it's a ridiculously fun album from start to finish.
The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin
My favorite album from one of my favorite bands, The Soft Bulletin celebrates all of the inevitabilities of existence in grand fashion, tackling subjects like life, death, and friendship in a way that makes me feel something even when I just have this album playing in the background.
Deftones - White Pony
With White Pony, the Deftones made the switch from alt-metal to art metal, and in the process released what in my book is the heavy metal equivalent of OK Computer, proving that the genre could be deeper and smarter than anyone could've imagined.
The Decemberists - Castaways and Cutouts
At times, Castaways and Cutouts feels more like a collection of short stories than an album. The Decemberists certainly have an ornate preciousness that turns some people off, often times feeling like Wes Anderson's collective filmography started a band, and though I could never blame anyone for not being into them, I can escape into this album at a moment's notice.
Isis - Oceanic
From the enigmatic lyrical excerpts in the liner notes to the drifting, reverb-drenched expanses of the music itself, Oceanic captures its ominous, maritime concept in every possible way. The defining statement of one of the most influential bands in modern metal.
Ween - White Pepper
Perhaps Ween's most grown up and coherent album, White Pepper strips away a good chunk of the band's weirdness to showcase the sweet pop core that rests at the heart of the unfortunately defunct duo.
Saturday Looks Good to Me - All Your Summer Songs
In the name of full disclosure, Fred Thomas is sitting about ten feet away from me as I type this, but given the earnest, heart-on-sleeve nature of his songwriting, I'll risk embarrassment and say that this album could make my list just on the strength of "The Sun Doesn't Want to Shine," a song that all other songs hoping to evoke heartache should be measured against. Fortunately, the rest of it is, as its name promises, a summertime jammer.
The Hold Steady - Separation Sunday
If Castaways and Cutouts is a short story collection, Separation Sunday is the great American novel. Mixing brows high and low, the album merges bar rock with a sprawling, reference-heavy narrative, creating a kind of freewheeling rock for a beer-soaked dive bar where you're more likely to get into a fist fight over the finer points of Kerouac than for hitting on someone else's special someone.
J Dilla - Donuts
If you're not quite paying attention, it's easy to not "get" what makes Donuts such an incredible album. On the surface, it can feel like a collection of scattered, half-baked beats in search of an MC. Those who explore its depths will find an album filled with so much pathos and mystery that they'll instinctively cringe the next time they dismissively hear someone say that rap "isn't music."
Torche - Meanderthal
This unlikely combination of droning doom heaviness and pop sweetness might be one of the best mash-ups since that one guy got his peanut butter in that other guy's chocolate (or vice versa, depending on who you believe). When I first heard this album, my initial review was going to be "Meanderthal is as heavy as a Noah's Ark filled with dinosaurs, and twice as awesome," but I was told that was much too short.
Harvey Milk - A Small Turn of Human Kindness
Even though other Harvey Milk albums might be heavier, weirder, or more obtuse, none of them have the sustained, emotional brutality of A Small Turn of Human Kindness. A beautiful and utterly devastating album from one of metal's most innovative bands.
James Blake - James Blake
James Blake's self-titled album has a sparseness and frailty about it that, at the risk of sounding dramatic, I find enthralling. Being so minimal, you really feel like every little detail of the songs has been carefully considered, which is perhaps what draws me back to it any time the days get even a little grey.
Thee Oh Sees - Carrion Crawler/The Dream
While I'm a big fan of all Thee Oh Sees records, this one feels like the first of their albums that captures the boundless, sweaty energy of their live shows, which is an experience that is not to be missed.