Top 20 Bands: 6 & 5

6. Sufjan Stevens [UPDATE: moved to number 3.]

My deep admiration for Sufjan Stevens is paired with the sad realisation that his rapid rise to fame in 2005 inevitably wore him out.  Many feared that Sufjan wouldn’t make another proper record after certain statements he made last year, but lo and behold, this year he unexpectedly released a new EP (All Delighted People) and his newest album, The Age of Adz was released on 12 October [and topped my and Greg’s Top 10 Albums of ’10].  Exciting times, and from the sound of his newest material he is pulling away from the mass appeal generated by Illinois.  This recent venture back into semi-electronic, erratic, avant-garde territory is incredibly appealing to me.  Three of his records are featured on my Top 50 Albums list: A Sun Came (2000), Greetings From Michigan (2003) and The Age of Adz (2010).

‘For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti’ from Greetings From Michigan, live on a farm:

‘Too Much’ from his forthcoming album Age of Adz, live at Castaways in Ithaca, New York in 2009:

Sorry Sufjan fans (and if he’s reading this, sorry Sufjan), but there’s only room for five in the ‘Top 5’ and he’s not there quite yet. In order to gain membership in my coveted Top 5 [please note the sarcasm] he’ll have to beat the five to follow, beginning with The Smiths.


5. The Smiths/Morrissey [UPDATE: moved to number 6.]

There are major differences between The Smiths and Morrissey, but it didn’t used to be such a stark contrast.  For instance, everything The Smiths made was great (if not better!) while the Mozzer has been on a steady decline with few recent high points.  Still, taken as a single unit they are phenomenal (and I still believe in you Morrissey!).  Through their charisma and uniqueness (largely on account of the Mozzer’s voice and Johnny Marr’s guitar), The Smiths have secured their place as the kings of indie pop.  Three of their records can be found on my Top 50 Albums list: The Queen is Dead (The Smiths – 1986), Louder Than Bombs (The Smiths – 1987) and Bona Drag (Morrissey – 1990).

‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ from Hatful of Hollow (The Smiths – 1984), live in Madrid (after two minutes of cheering fans):

‘Suedehead’ from Viva Hate (Morrissey – 1988), live on Later… with Jools Holland:


Top 20 Bands: 20 & 19, 18 & 17, 16 & 15, 14 & 13, 12 & 11, 10 & 9, 8 & 7


Happy 41st, Elliott

Today marks what would have been Elliott Smith’s 41st birthday and I’d like to share a brief thought.

Think about some of the most influential popular musicians from the last 50 years.  Perhaps Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Creed [followed by an audible laugh] and so on.  Perhaps we could come to a consensus and say that these names (with the exception of one) are legendary.  Dylan, McCartney, Lennon, Gilmour, Waters, Jackson, Cobain.  We could continue the list for ages, but what I want to point out is that I’ve listed surnames and readers who are familiar with popular music in America and Britain probably knew exactly whom I was referring to.  When I write ‘Paul and John’ you probably realise that I am referring to the principle songwriters (though George is clearly the best) of one of the most influential bands in history and in the proper context we will often call Michael by his forename without too much confusion.  This is probably due to the fact that Michael Jackson and The Beatles are very much household names.  Still, taken on their own we’ll more typically employ the surname.

Now, I am not suggesting that somehow Elliott Smith might someday be recognised among these greats.  He’s been grossly underrated and ignored in the public, but such is the lot of a shy and reclusive indie songwriter who killed himself at 34.  Regardless, I find it quite interesting that when I write about Elliott Smith I cannot write, ‘Smith recorded his debut record while still fronting Heatmiser.’  It feels unnatural and impersonal.  Elliott wouldn’t want to be talked about that way (although he probably wouldn’t want to be talked about at all).  (This is all apart from the fact that ‘Smith’ is one of the most common surnames in the English language.)  Perhaps the same can be said of Sufjan Stevens, but we all know that writing/saying ‘Sufjan’ is a billion times more pleasing than writing/saying ‘Stevens’.  When we write or talk about Elliott it is as if we are talking about an old friend.  I never knew Elliott.  I never met him and I never saw him in concert, but his music reaches out to listeners like me and each listen becomes a very personal encounter.  Elliott shares his soul with us and—as I’ve written about before—he shares our souls for us.

I’ve been compiling a list of my ‘Top 50 Elliott Smith Songs’ for several months now.  As Greg so conscientiously shared his ‘Top 50 Sufjan Stevens Songs’ in order based upon his preference, I had hoped to do the same for Elliott.  But Elliott’s work is quite different from Sufjan’s and I found that after arranging the first few songs on the list in preferential order it became very arbitrary – I am in love with different tracks for different reasons.  So, like my ‘Top 50 Albums’, I am going to organise these songs by title.  These tracks (as well as many many others) are all gems and if you don’t own any of the official releases I suggest you look into making some purchases immediately.  Enjoy.

Top 50 Elliott Smith Songs

  1. ‘2:45 A.M.’/Either/Or, 1997
  2. ‘Angeles’/Either/Or, 1997
  3. ‘Baby Britain’/XO, 1998
  4. ‘Between the Bars’/Either/Or, 1997
  5. ‘The Biggest Lie’/Elliott Smith, 1995
  6. ‘Can’t Make a Sound’/Figure 8, 2000
  7. ‘Christian Brothers’/Elliott Smith, 1995
  8. ‘Coast to Coast’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  9. ‘Dancing on the Highway’/Basement era sessions, circa 2003
  10. ‘A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  11. ‘The Enemy Is You’/Either/Or era, circa 1997
  12. ‘Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands’/XO, 1998
  13. ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’/Figure 8, 2000
  14. ‘Going Nowhere’/Either/Or era, circa 1997, officially released on New Moon in 2007
  15. ‘Good to Go’/Elliott Smith, 1995
  16. ‘Happiness’/Figure 8, 2000
  17. ‘High Times’/Either/Or era, circa 1997, officially released on New Moon in 2007
  18. ‘How to Take a Fall’/Either/Or era, circa 1997
  19. ‘I Better Be Quiet Now’/Figure 8, 2000
  20. ‘I Can’t Answer You Anymore’/3 Titres Inedits (French promo), 2000
  21. ‘I Didn’t Understand’/XO, 1998
  22. ‘In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)’/Figure 8, 2000
  23. ‘King’s Crossing’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  24. ‘L.A.’/Figure 8, 2000
  25. ‘Last Call’/Roman Candle, 1995
  26. ‘Let’s Get Lost’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  27. ‘Miss Misery’/Good Will Hunting (soundtrack), 1997
  28. ‘Needle In the Hay’/Elliott Smith, 1995
  29. ‘No Name #2’/Roman Candle, 1995
  30. ‘O So Slow’/Basement era sessions, circa 2003
  31. ‘Oh Well, Okay’/XO, 1998
  32. ‘A Passing Feeling’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  33. ‘Pictures of Me’/Either/Or, 1997
  34. ‘Pitseleh’/XO, 1998
  35. ‘Pretty Mary K’/Figure 8, 2000
  36. ‘Roman Candle’/Roman Candle, 1995
  37. ‘Rose Parade’/Either/Or, 1997
  38. ‘Say Yes’/Either/Or, 1997
  39. ‘Shooting Star’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  40. ‘Son of Sam’/Figure 8, 2000
  41. ‘Southern Belle’/Elliott Smith, 1995
  42. ‘Splitsville’/Southlander (soundtrack), 2001
  43. ‘Strung Out Again’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  44. ‘Stupidity Tries’/Figure 8, 2000
  45. ‘Sweet Adeline’/XO, 1998
  46. ‘True Love’/Basement era sessions, circa 2003
  47. ‘Twilight’/From a Basement on the Hill, 2003
  48. ‘Waltz #2 (Xo)’/XO, 1998
  49. ‘The White Lady Loves You More’/Elliott Smith, 1995
  50. ‘You Make it Seem Like Nothing’/Either/Or era live recording, circa 1996

(For the sake of space I’ve omitted anything Elliott did with other musical acts, otherwise I’d certainly include ‘Plainclothes Man’ and ‘Half Right’ from Heatmiser’s 1996 album Mic City Sons and the rare recording from a French radio broadcast of ‘The Machine’ from Elliott’s high school band Stranger Than Fiction.)

Happy birthday, Elliott.

1969 – 2003

A modest proposal for Sufjan Stevens regarding the completion of his 50 States Project

Dear Sufjan,

The other day my friend Erin Hennessy saw you on the F train in NYC, but she couldn’t get up the nerve to say anything to you.  That got me thinking of what I would say to you if I ran into you (even though I never would, as I live on the other side of the country).  The first thing that came to mind was to talk to you about your 50 states project, which you began so beautifully with Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State and Illinois/The Avalanche.

Now back in the day (the early two thousands or so), I took your proclamation to make an album (or EP, maybe?) for each one of the 50 states seriously, even though some of my more cynical friends would mock me saying it was impossible for you to do in your lifetime (they would start with some calculations, ask your age, etc. PS We share the same birthday!).  The reason I believed you was because I saw this limitless sort of creative genius in you, and even beyond that, it was as if you were the Emersonian “Poet” for this generation of Americans–seeing and showing us the beauty and agony and the divine in the everyday, transforming the mundane into the sublime, telling us stories full of wonder and longing and brilliant details from towns like Ypsilanti and Holland and Romulus.

You made me suddenly attentive to the people and places of America: you imbued them with a magical luster simply by naming them in the midst of your deeply moving, melancholic, and rich melodies and arrangements, or by inserting them amongst such evocative mystical lines of verse:

When the revenant came down
We couldn’t imagine what it was
In the spirit of three stars
The alien thing that took its form
Then to Lebanon, oh God!
The flashing at night, the sirens grow and grow
(Oh, history involved itself)
Mysterious shade that took its form
(Or what it was!), incarnation, three stars
Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes

-“Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”

All that to say that I really, really wish the 50 states project would continue–I think it could become one of the national treasures of our country for centuries to come, a Leaves of Grass for the 21st century that American kids would listen to to understand where they’ve come from and what kind of people we are.  I heard at one point that you said the 50 states project was “such a joke,” but I would challenge you in earnest, if only for the sake of those future little kids, to reconsider abandoning this momentous endeavor.

Realizing that it might very well be impossible for you to write and record all of the albums yourself, what if you instead became the director of the project–you have set the standard quite high with your first two albums–and with the profound respect you have from your artistic peers, I honestly believe you could rally together the best artists from each state to collaborate with to make this happen, creating a kind of ark of American culture.

Here are some suggestions to begin with (I admit some may be wishful thinking) & I call on any reader to add to/better the selection of songwriters for any state (I have put brackets around bands with whom I have only a cursory familiarity & some states I have absolutely no idea about):

  • Alabama = The Snake the Cross the Crown
  • Alaska = Portugal The Man
  • Arizona = Calexico
  • Arkansas = ???
  • California = Elijah Wade Smith, Beck, Stephen Malkmus
  • Colorado = DeVotchKa, The Apples in Stereo
  • Connecticut = Rivers Cuomo?
  • Delaware = The Spinto Band
  • Florida = Iron & Wine, Aaron Marsh
  • Georgia = Deerhunter, Of Montreal, Bill Mallonee
  • Hawaii = Mason Jennings
  • Idaho = Built to Spill, Finn Riggins
  • Illinois = Sufjan Stevens
  • Indiana = Mock Orange
  • Iowa = Caleb Engstrom
  • Kansas = Drakkar Sauna, Mates of State, The New Amsterdams, The Appleseed Cast
  • Kentucky = Bonnie “Prince” Billy, My Morning Jacket
  • Louisiana = Jeff Mangum, Mutemath
  • Maine = [Phantom Buffalo]
  • Maryland = John Vanderslice, Wye Oak
  • Massachusetts = Lou Barlow, Winterpills
  • Michigan = Sufjan Stevens
  • Minnesota = Low, Cloud Cult, Lucky Wilbur
  • Mississippi = ???
  • Missouri = [Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin]
  • Montana = Colin Meloy
  • Nebraska = Cursive, Bright Eyes
  • Nevada = The Killers?
  • New Hampshire = [Wild Light]
  • New Jersey = Sufjan Stevens (?), Danielson, Yo La Tango
  • New Mexico = The Shins, Beirut
  • New York = The Magnetic Fields, Sonic Youth, Interpol, The Walkmen
  • North Carolina = The Mountain Goats
  • North Dakota = [The White Foliage]
  • Ohio = Robert Pollard, Over the Rhine, The National, Mark Kozelek
  • Oklahoma = The Flaming Lips, Kings of Leon
  • Oregon = Laura Veirs, M. Ward, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, The Decemberists
  • Pennsylvania = The Innocence Mission, Denison Witmer, Matt Pond PA
  • Rhode Island = The Low Anthem, Death Vessel
  • South Carolina = Band of Horses
  • South Dakota = Haley Bonar
  • Tennessee = Derek Webb
  • Texas = Josh T. Pearson, Ramesh Srivastava (formerly of Voxtrot), The Polyphonic Spree, Okkervil River, Devendra Banhart
  • Utah = [Joshua James]
  • Vermont = Anais Mitchell
  • Virginia = Thao Nguyen, Hush Arbors
  • Washington = David Bazan, Damien Jurado, Jeremy Enigk, Fleet Foxes
  • West Virginia = ???
  • Wisconsin = Bon Iver, Marla Hansen
  • Wyoming = ???

With the deepest respect & admiration,

Greg Stump

Nihilo sanctum estne?

I recall when the first iPod came out in 2001.  It was revolutionary – 1000 songs on a portable and extremely attractive hard drive!   Less than two years after the release of the iPod, Apple launched the iTunes Store.   It was one thing to fit [a portion of] your CD collection onto an iPod, it was another to be faced with the reality that said CDs were no longer useful; one can simply purchase and download digital files which would be synced up with your iPod in minutes.  One need not drive to the record store only to find out that the record they intended to buy was no longer in stock (and would, say, Best Buy even carry a Danielson record?!).  Soon the iPod (or any MP3 player for that matter) would be easily adaptable to all settings: one’s car or one’s living room, through a portable stereo in the park or strapped to one’s arm during a workout.  The sale of CDs has steadily dropped since the introduction of the iPod and similar devices and CDs are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Although I often despise the association, I am of the CD generation.  My family made excessive use of cassette tapes (especially my father’s Van Halen and Eric Clapton and my mother’s Fleetwood Mac and The Beach Boys), but CDs were around for four years before I was even born.  I remember my first two CDs: Weezer’s first self-titled record (aka The Blue Album) and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins.   Since then, my collection has grown considerably.  Still, even with the hundreds of CDs I’ve collected over the last fifteen years, I can fit four times as many on my 120 GB iPod.  With services like iTunes, eMusic, Lala, Amazon, etc., complete MP3 albums can be downloaded for a fraction of the price of a new CD, and unless one has some high-end headphones or a high-end stereo system (a lot of $, £, €, ¥,…) the difference between a standard MPEG audio file (160 kbps) and a standard CD (1200 kbps) is rather unnoticeable.

With all of this technological allure some people are still unsettled by the change.   I myself prefer to have the album in my hands because I appreciate creative packaging design to a near-obsessive degree.  Any look inside a [post Pablo Honey] Radiohead album booklet would quickly convince one of the inferiority of an exclusively digital musical experience (even such an experience with a picture of an album cover on a computer screen).   And while we already have the platform for digital music (computers and MP3 players) couldn’t we save on so much physical consumption by switching exclusively to digital music?   Even when considering environmental issues like the possibility reducing the production of plastics and paper, I find this option difficult to stomach for the same reason that I find digital books difficult to stomach.   There’s something to having a physical CD/package and a physical book in one’s hand…or is there?

Mass production of recorded music didn’t exist until about a quarter of the way into the 20th century.   At that time the vinyl phonograph record was the standard and it could only play from two-to-three minutes of music per side.  By 1949, vinyl records were in 12-inch LP (45-minute long play) form.  This became the standard length of a record.  Eventually this was followed by the use of magnetic tape: the 8-track cassette in the late sixties and early seventies followed by the compact cassette, which could generally play up to 45 minutes of music.

In a recent interview with Paste, Sufjan Stevens expressed his own crisis with regard to this whole shift in the way we can experience music:

I’m wondering, why do people make albums anymore when we just download?  Why are songs like three or four minutes, and why are records 40 minutes long?  They’re based on the record, vinyl, the CD, and these forms are antiquated now.  So can’t an album be eternity, or can’t it be five minutes? … I no longer really have faith in the album anymore.  I no longer have faith in the song.

Perhaps we find ourselves in this crisis with Sufjan, but while he remains skeptical, I remain hopeful.  From 2006 to 2007, vinyl record sales jumped more than 85%, and from 2007 to 2008 vinyl record sales jumped another 89%.  Yes, collecting vinyl records is extremely trendy and hip at the moment, and yes, when these hipsters accidentally become parents or are forced into real life via some other circumstance they might realise that investing their money in vinyl records solely for the propagation of their hipster image is not very hip after all.  But I still believe that these market figures are indicative of a basic human need for ritual and tradition of some sort.

It is true that there is nothing particularly sacred about the length of an LP or a cassette or a CD, but does the freedom of the age of digital music distribution and consumption require that we abandon the [recent] traditions we’ve grown up with?   Just because the technology moves along and just because we move along with it doesn’t mean that we can’t slow down and savour the beauty and simplicity of the traditional way we experience recorded music, packaging included.  After all, music is art and art is aesthetic and aesthetic is beauty and beauty, as Kant has defined for us in the Third Moment of his Critique of the Power of Judgment, “is the form of the purposiveness of an object, insofar as it is perceived in it without representation of an end.”

I see great correlations between this issue, ritual, and Church tradition, but that’s for another post.

[Elijah adds: Pet Sounds added to Listening]