Monday, January 16, 2012

Six Song Six-Pack - Albums To Get You Through Your Twenties


Until at least the middle of the twentieth century there would be no need for "music to get you through your twenties". Once most people graduated high school, or (for those lucky few) college, they would marry, get a job (or, if you were female, quite your job) start having kids and work till retirement. It was a straightforward life with perhaps less self-discovery but also less self-exploration and its attendant self-recrimination.

For a lot modern Americans however, the twenties are an increasingly complex period containing a slow and erratic shift from adolescence to mature adulthood. If you're in your twenties with a college education odds are you're spending that post-grad decade trying different jobs, cities, mates, ideas and attitudes on for size before taking the big plunge. It's a life of late nights AND early meetings. Paying bills AND playing in bands. You're not quite ready to give up the ghost and "settle down" but you're also working your ass off to make a career and define a place for yourself in the world. It's not as bad as being a teenager but, like pretty much every stage in life, once you're there you find that it's nowhere as easy as you thought it'd be.

If there ever were a medium that would understand the feeling of being an overgrown teenager (or immature adult?) it's rock n' roll. Here are six of best records that will help get you through your third decade alive.

1. Tim - The Replacements  Buy it.
This album was a breaking point in the Replacements history. During their indie, Twin-Tone years they'd been brilliant but spotty would-be saviors of punk who instead ended up getting drunk and playing AM radio covers. Tim was their first album on a major label and though they'd lost none of their spark (and barely sobered up), they were being dragged into the grown-up world of responsibilities and maturity (albeit kicking and screaming). Each side of the album starts with anthemic rejections of adulthood, with Paul Westerberg fighting tooth and nail against his future begging, "Hold my life... until I'm ready to use it" and then comparing his situation to "picking cotton and waiting to be forgotten". Everywhere you turn, he exposes his vulnerability whether it's through envious humor in "Waitress In Sky" or naked tenderness on "Swingin' Party".

To be fair, the 'Mats do hit a couple sour notes with attempts to recapture their fuck-all adolescent charm falling flat in "Dose Of Thunder" and "Lay It Down Clown". But those are more than made up for by surprisingly polished love songs like the commuter's crush of "Kiss Me On The Bus" and the painful empathy of "Little Mascara". Closer "Here Comes A Regular", is perhaps their most realized ballad yet, telling the story of a man drinking to forget his failure to find a place in life. Overall, Tim is an album that laughs, cries and rages against the indignities of one's twenties all at once. What holds it together, however is Westerberg's heart-on-the-sleeve honesty. "If being afraid is a crime, we hang side-by-side" he assures us. The Replacements can't solve your problems, but joining you in them can sometimes feel better anyway.
Key Songs: Hold My Life, Bastards Of Young, Swingin' Party

2. ...And The Horse You Rode In On - Scotland Yard Gospel Choir  Buy it.
Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, at least in its current incarnation, is apparently no more, which is a shame because this Chicago band was just hitting its peak with their last album. Lead singer Elia Einhorn's lyrics mixed Morriseyesque drama with defiantly twee phrasing that managed to be sweet, bitter and charged in short succession. Combine that with a punky lead guitar/rhythm section and some lush texture via violin, cello and horns and you've got a uniquely sweet and rousing indie rock combo. It's a good thing too because ...And The Horse You Rode In On is an album full of over-the-top pathos, spurned lover cliches and romantic ennui that by all rights should fail disasterously and would in the hands of any other band. 

The album starts with a shot across the bow as Einhorn sings "I hope that you catch syphilis and die alone", starting off a series of songs to a woman whose left him both angry and desperate to get her back. In "Something's Happening" he chronicles the conflicted feelings of missing an ex while simultaneously dragging yourself to vegetarian restaurants and midnight movies to find new love. "I Pretend She's You" has a self-explanatory title and the devastating line "I'm tearing up at fourties love songs / at Spector I lose it completely". Everywhere SYCG plays chugging punk guitars off elegiac violin and playful fiddle. "One Night Stand"'s anthemic praise of the hookup is undercut by Einhorn's desperate delivery while tender ballads like "Well I Wouldn't" and Mary Ralph-sung "Praying Is A Heartache" and "Sixteen Is Too Young" push the emotion to the forefront.

The running time of ATHYRIO is spent riding the el, looking for love, feeling miserable and then allowing oneself a tiny sliver of hope only to then have it be dashed once again. It's an album mostly looking for love but with enough of an eye on the rest of the world 
Key Songs: Tear Down The Opera House, Something's Happening, One Night Stand  

3. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band - John Lennon  Buy it.
John Lennon’s twenties were, it’s no stretch to say, unique, as he went from hopped-up club rocker to divorced pop icon in eight short years. By the time he was 28 in 1970, he was looking reflect on his adult years, put all he’d learned in perspective before moving into the next stage of his life, which he did in his Plastic Ono Band LP. Looking to step back from the pop grandeur of the Beatles, it’s a stark sounding bass, guitar and drums record with a few touches of acoustic piano recorded with Ringo and Klaus Voorman as his backing band.

Plastic Ono Band feels like nothing so much as an open therapy session set to music as Lennon works through the disappointments, triumphs, hopes and fears both personal and political with a directness that’s light years away from “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “I Am The Walrus”. He continues working through his parental abandonment issues via primal-scream workout of “Mother” and projects those feelings more broadly in “Isolation”. He mixes angry rave-ups like “I Found Out”, “Remember” and “Well, Well, Well” with soft breaks like “Love” or the Dylanesque brilliance of “Working Class Hero”.

It’s a record that’s satisfying in it’s ability to tackle the affairs of the heart the self and the culture all at once without preaching or pandering. It deals with the disappointments we all feel in those areas bluntly but never in a way that loses hope. Full of wounded hope and bruised romanticism, Plastic Ono Band  never makes it’s ethos clearer than in its second song when, over a bed of soothing bass and pacific watery guitar Lennon sings “hold on… it’s gonna be alright”. Better advice a twenty-something cannot ask for.
Key Songs: I Found Out, Hold On, God

4. Emergency & I - The Dismemberment Plan  Buy it.
This is the album that inspired this post, a perfect companion for the lonely, isolated, overwhelmed, nostalgic twenty-first century city dweller trying to make it from wherever they are in life to whatever comes next in one piece. Although songwriter Travis Morrison claims to be unsure of the title’s meaning, Pitchfork's Paul Thompson contests (fairly persuasively) that it’s a description of finding personal happiness, or at least stability amidst the constant crisis that is the modern world.

Emergency & I sounds like no other album you’ve ever heard and the Plan creates a magic mixture of tweaked-out white boy funk mixed with punk energy, hip-hop rhythmicism and commercial pop’s catchiness and grandiosity. Keyboards burble, guitars click and fire spastic bursts of noise while drummer Joe Easley dabbles in time signatures you never knew existed to create a danceable yet alienating sonic landscape. This approach is most fully realized in the barrenness of “The City” but is capable of assuming an impressive variety of other textures. There’s the laid-back nostalgia of “Spider In The Snow” the chilling nihilism of “The Jitters” and the frenetic frustration of “Girl O’Clock” that all explore different aspects of that same unfulfilled, isolated, aimlessness that hits all of us. “You Are Invited” is a desperately needed and joyously executed ray of light through the clouds of Emergency & I, providing a way out of gloom of the rest of the record. 

For best results listen to this album with a lyrics sheet in hand as Morrison’s words cab be easy to miss but most songs could stand alone as poems, especially closer “Back and Forth”, whose funky groove and breathless lyricism are enough to stanch any existential crisis.
Key Songs: The City, Spider In The SnowBack And Forth

5. Ain't That Good News - Sam Cooke  Buy it.
Sam Cooke isn’t about reveling in doubt or anxiousness, he’s about turning pain and travail into uplift, so this will easily be the least conflicted album of this set. Ain’t That Good News was his final release before his tragic death and it was the first where he was given total creative control to select songs, players and arrangements. Not surprisingly it’s also his most consistent and fully-realized album. It’s also his first record after losing his infant son, so the theme of overcoming struggling and searching for solace is especially pronounced.

The undeniable hope in songs like “Good Times” and “Ain’t That Good News” provide solace and hope that anyone needing to forget their troubles after a long week can relate to but it’s hardly a one-not record. Cooke plays with both the temptations of money that surely drive many a fresh graduate in “Sittin’ In The Sun” but is more relatable looking at the emptiness of such promises in “Another Saturday Night”. Whether applied to love, work or any number of new problems “Rome (Wasn’t Built In A Day)” is the perfect song for a twenty-something struggling to adjust to the grindingly slow pace of real-world success after college. Those looking for succor can choose between the contended “Home (When Shadows Fall)”, hopeful “Falling In Love” or the wounded “There’ll Be No Second Time”.

Of course, the record’s centerpiece is Cooke’s masterful swansong “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Released in 1964 on the cusp of so many seismic changes it’s both a promise and vindication of whatever personal, political or societal struggle you might be going through that everyone needs throughout their decade of doubts. Soul music does nothing if not provide hope and comfort in the midst of turbulence and uncertainty and no one did it better than Sam Cooke, if you haven’t already, it’s time to make him a integral part of your twenties.
Key Songs: Another Saturday Night, Good Times, Rome (Wasn't Built In A Day), A Change Is Gonna Come

6. Let Go - Nada Surf  Buy it.
I’ve already written on the understated brilliance that is Nada Surf’s 2001 pinnacle of an album, so I won’t belabor this write-up. However it would be impossible for me to make a list of albums for your twenties without Let Go. Although it's packed with memorable songs, this record is best experienced as a whole. Like life itself, these songs are alternately, dreamy, energetic angry, contemplative, defeated and resilient. In short, it's early adulthood set to music.

Whether it’s life’s sudden and blurred acceleration as you enter full adulthood (“Hi-Speed Soul”, “Fruit Flies”), the dual emptieness and necessity of the late-night bar (“Killians Red”) or the desperate need to achieve a goal whose exact contours remain maddeningly blurry (“Paper Boats”), Let Go allows you to escape your worries and fears by letting you know that they’re shared. It’s one of those albums that work just as well on a Friday night as a Sunday morning, when you’re happy or heartbroken and when you want to hear something comfortingly familiar or filled with new meanings to unspool. Matthew Caws has managed to take Nada Surf from angry teenage buzz-band to parent-friendly writer of graceful, everyday anthems without losing his voice or sacrificing quality. Let Go however, is the pivot point between these two visions of the band, the synthesis of which is aural tonic for those melancholic years between 19 and 30.
Key Songs: Happy Kid, Hi-Speed Soul, Paper Boats

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