The Elephant Visual Album

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When I trace my musical history back to its origins, there are four or five key discoveries from my childhood that have gone on to become foundational cornerstones of my taste. I’ve written about many of them here from my first iPod and 2006 pop music to entire genres that I stumbled into by accident all thanks to people with better taste than me. I measure my life with music, and these events have all become part of my personal mythology; milestones that have gone on to inform not only my taste, but who I am as a person.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with a dad who cared about music. While that mostly relegated itself to me raiding his CD collection to rip classic rock albums onto my iPod, there were also a small handful of (then) modern bands that we bonded over as I began to show an interest in music. The shared section of our musical Venn Diagram has expanded over the years as my taste has continued to mature, grow, and spiral in unexpected ways, but the first “new” band my Dad and I found common ground with was none other than The White Stripes. 

Luckily, because my dad loved The White Stripes, this meant I had the band’s entire discography at my fingertips. He owned their studio albums, B-sides, singles, live albums, demos, side projects, you name it. As a result, I have a worryingly-deep connection to (and knowledge of) Jack White’s musical catalog.

Around this same time, I was also taking guitar lessons. Aside from the standard “starter” songs like “Smoke On The Water” and “Pipeline,” The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” proved to be low-hanging, easy-playing fruit for a 10-year-old Taylor. Between borrowing the CDs and playing the songs, I showed enough of an interest that my dad decided to take me to see the group on tour in 2003 for my second concert ever. 

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While I’ll admit that the 1.5-decade marination time of nostalgia plays a huge part in it, Elephant remains one of my favorite albums of that genre, this era, and my entire life. Hits and overplayed singles aside, there’s a lot to love about Elephant, and there’s a reason it remains the band’s most enduring release this many years later. 

Literally every track on Elephant hits. “Seven Nation Army” is an unparalleled anthem of the early-2000’s. “Hardest Button to Button” bears one of the best drumlines of the decade. “Ball and Biscuit” is one of my favorite songs of all time with its lumbering blues riff that slowly erupts into blistering guitar solos. There isn’t a wasted moment or an unpolished idea. Elephant is rock in its purest form. A feeling that can’t quite be put into words made by two people with two instruments. Perfect.

As eye-opening as Elephant was, sometimes your favorite albums can slide into the background of your life without you ever noticing. New music, other mediums, or life events can keep you from venturing back, and as embarrassing as it is to admit, this had absolutely happened to me with The White Stripes. It’s almost like taking art for granted. I’d listened to Elephant so many times, heard “Seven Nation Army” in so many different movies and TV shows and commercials that at a certain point it just kind of feels like “well, yeah, everyone knows this album is great, so what’s the point?” 

While my relationship with Elephant is ongoing, a chance encounter with a designer completely renewed my love for the record with a project that was crafted as lovingly as the album itself. Sometimes the classics are not only worth revisiting, but worth diving into on a microscopic level, and that’s exactly what Chandler Cort did with this beloved album. 

Creating what he calls a “visual album” Chandler transposed Elephant onto a 9-foot scroll that tracks the entire record second-by-second. Interpreting each instrument’s volume and the exact starting point for every word sung, Chandler’s creation is one-of-a-kind and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in my life. There’s something to be said for standing face-to-face with one of your favorite records and taking in the entire thing as it towers above you.

While it’s impossible to translate the feeling of interacting with the scroll itself, I wanted to share this beautiful and original piece of art with as many people as possible. Not only was Chandler kind enough to let me share his incredible work on Swim Into The Sound, but he also sat down with me to talk about the process that went into making it as well as his personal background with the band. So without further adieu, I’m excited to present The Elephant Visual Album. 

Full-resolution PDF version of the Elephant Visual Album at the end of the article.
 

The Visual Album and Its Creator: An Interview With Chandler Cort

Much like Taylor, I have a very distinct memory of my introduction to the White Stripes. I came to the party very late, as my parents found it borderline impossible to break away from anything outside of the typical 60’s - 80’s hits they grew up with.

There aren’t many specific events in my life that I would refer to as “life-changing,” but hearing “Rag and Bone” for the first time in my high school art class was absolutely one of them. My obsession with the White Stripes began with Icky Thump and worked its way back to the very beginning of the group’s discography until I had completely immersed myself in everything they had ever produced. The White Stripes were something I listened to exclusively for months. When I wasn’t listening to them, I found myself watching interviews with the members, reading about their history, and completely immersing myself in the group’s mythology. I had never quite felt myself become so taken by a band before.

Six years later, the White Stripes are still one of my favorite bands, if not my all-time favorite. Jack and Meg White have taken hold of a very big piece of my heart, and I don’t know if that will ever be able to be eclipsed.

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The way the project really came about was kind of funny. I was in my first infographics class at Portland State University, and we were told to make a timeline for our first project. The professor made sure he kept things very open-ended, so we had the choice to do an incredibly accurate historical timeline, or we could do something more whimsical like a timeline of the Harry Potter Universe.

I remember going on break one day listening to Elephant, and thinking “it would be funny to do an infographic on the number of times Jack White goes, ‘WOO!’ in one album.” So that’s where it really kinda started. I refined my guidelines a little bit further and decided that I would track the main instruments: guitar, drums, and piano, as well as the vocals. 

The process for this piece is something I feel just as proud of as the actual work itself. All of my research for this project was done entirely audibly. I printed all of the lyrics to every song, and I would sit down at my desk every day, listen to the song, and get the second-by-second timestamps for every lyric, and then go back through, and repeat the same process for the guitar, drums, and piano. This means I listened to every song at least three or four times in full, not counting pausing, rewinding, and playing again to make sure the time signatures were as accurate as possible.

In addition to the individual instrument timelines, each song also got a “genre gauge” that I had designed too. Because Elephant is such a diverse album, I feel like it was very important to describe how each song was different in comparison to the others. Every song was ranked on a scale of punk, blues, folk, and pop, with the end result being a circular graph that represented the track’s sonic texture. 

This was then translated into a second graph that I constructed to help best visualize the album in its entirety. I’d guess this project took somewhere between 40-45 hours total. It was truly a monster, which can be seen in the final 9-inch by 9-foot print. I remember people telling me in class that I was doing was ridiculous, and that I was crazy for even attempting something like this, which honestly just kind of pushed me to do it even more.

A lot of my design work has been very music-focused, and I have done very intense pieces about other albums I love, but I feel like this one is probably the most accessible, and the most interesting. I describe this piece as a visual album because I feel like it is the most literal visual translation of an auditory piece. I’m so happy that this piece has received the reaction it has, and I’m incredibly thankful that Taylor was moved enough to offer me this opportunity, and I hope to be here again someday. 

Until then everyone, be good, and love what you listen to.

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TalkRadar or: That Time A Podcast Changed My Life

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On May 19th of 2008 a file was uploaded to the internet that changed my life forever.

The decade-old file in question was a 49-minute MP3 that belonged to a video game podcast called TalkRadar. To describe something as innocuous as a video game podcast as “life-changing” probably reads worryingly-melodramatic, yet, as overwrought as it sounds, that’s what this site was built upon.

Despite the semi-recent addition of monthly new music roundups, Swim Into The Sound has always been, and will always be a nostalgia-based music blog. The mission statement for this site is to share the things that I love with other people, and that can take many different forms.  

While this blog was a little listless for a while there for a while there at the beginning, I’ve come to view Swim Into The Sound as a way to crystalize my own experiences into something that I can share. Truth be told, it’s as much for me to revisit and remember as it is for other people to read and understand. So it’s not like this is some selfless act, rather it’s me bottling up these experiences of enjoyment into something that’s (hopefully) palatable to a total stranger. 

Given this focus on nostalgia, I tend to write about things that have impacted me profoundly. Most of the time it’s easier to focus on smaller bite-sized pieces of content like reviews, but when I have the time, focus, and energy, I really do prefer to go deep and expel every thought in my head surrounding a formative experience. 

Sometimes in the past I’ve even used the phrase “life-changing,” but this write-up is different. I don’t want to lessen the impact of those other posts, because I stand by every word of them, but they’re life-changing in a way that provided me solace or comfort. The phrase “life-changing” isn’t a stretch, but it’s more that those albums helped me through tough times. They’re pieces of art that mean something to me on a personal level and have lingered with me for years. They’re life-changing in a less-drastic, more-reserved way. However, when I use the phrase life-changing in this post, I truly mean being-shifting

This podcast changed practically everything about me. It changed the way I write and the way I talk. It changed what I wanted to do with my life, and who I wanted to be. It changed the music I listened to, and what I found funny. It changed the way I held myself and behaved. It changed my philosophy and approach to the self. It has gone on to inform nearly every facet of my being down to the way that my brain is wired. There is no me without it. It’s absolutely embarrassing to admit, but this silly, stupid, vulgar video game podcast is foundational to my existence.

This write-up is Swim Into The Sound’s endgame. The thing I’ve wanted to write about since day one. The thing that I’ve been inspired by. The thing I’m still worried I don’t have the language to articulate properly. The thing that’s most important to me in the world. 

This is TalkRadar. 

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I’m sure you’re reading this and thinking that this all sounds like hyperbole, but I can assure you it’s not. I’m choosing my words very carefully, and I want this to come across as calm, collected, measured, and thoughtful. My ideal outcome would be for the podcast’s creators to read this and have some idea of the impact they’ve had on just one of their listeners, but at the very least, this is something that I feel must come out of me for the sake of my own mind… but before we get to that, I suppose I should start at the beginning.

Back in the 90’s and early-2000’s I had scant access to video games. My family owned an NES and (eventually) a Nintendo 64, but the consoles themselves were never in the house. Video games were practically a foreign concept to me, a delicacy. Something sacred that I enjoyed on the weekends, or in very concentrated doses. 

Whenever I got the chance to go over to a friend's house, I’d relish the opportunity to try out their newer, fancier games on consoles I’d never even heard of. Sony? How exotic. Dreamcast? What does that even mean? Super NES? My NES lacks descriptors all-together. 

New games and shiny consoles aside, when one of my childhood friends first introduced me to the concept of “cheats” it blew my mind. Not only do these “next-gen” games exist, but the idea that you can break them and turn the characters into bobble-headed freaks? That was quite the realization for an adolescent Taylor. My friend showed me a website called cheatplanet.com, a haven for game breakers that collected the cheat codes of (seemingly) every game in existence, and that’s where it all began. 

 A bastion of early-2000's web design.

A bastion of early-2000's web design.

Eventually, my siblings and I wore down our parents and games became more of a regular thing in our house. Even with this newfound access, there were still limits on how much we could play, and as a result, Cheat Planet became a loophole that I exploited on a regular basis. I’d print out the codes I wanted to try, memorize paths to hidden collectibles, and study screenshots from games that I didn’t even own. It was digital window shopping and the only way for a video game-starved kid to scratch that itch in a time before smartphones, Let’s Plays, and decent internet. 

One day a few years later I pulled up my browser, typed in cheatplanet.com, loaded up the site and everything changed… literally. Cheat Planet was gone, and something called “GamesRadar” was in its place. The cheats were still there, just pushed off to the side, so I didn’t care much at the time. In fact, GamesRadar grew on me and eventually became a destination all its own; a website with funny writing, wacky images, and topics that I found compelling as a young internet surfer. The website became my first bookmark and quickly grew to be even more of a destination than some rinky-dink cheat site. 

When I visited GamesRadar on May 19th, 2008 the most recent post at the top of the website was a small rectangle bearing a crudely-photoshopped image announcing the website’s inaugural podcast. Interested to hear the voices of the people I’d been reading for so long, I downloaded the episode and synched it onto my click wheel iPod. I didn’t know it then, but that one decision would go on to impact every day of my life from that point on.

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TalkRadar was life-changing in the (very literal) sense that my life would not be the same without it. There's a clear point demarcating my life before it and my life after it. I would not recognize myself if it weren’t for this podcast. Lots of those albums I’ve described as life-changing helped me through tough times, but TalkRadar helped me through life

It was the first podcast I’d ever heard; a low-quality, crass, and juvenile 49-minutes that left me wanting more. It was the most candid I’d ever heard anyone. It was the funniest I’d ever heard anyone. They were discussing things that I cared about, and joking around with each other in a way that I’d never heard before in my life. I suppose I don’t have to explain the appeal of a podcast in 2018, but a decade ago, this felt like a revelation.

As the weeks ticked by, the episode count grew and grew. I was a high schooler who didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs, so I had nothing but time on my hands. I listened to each podcast attentively, and then relistened to them because I truly had nothing better to do. Plus by 2008, not only did we finally have video games in my house, I had a console in my room. I was living out my own childhood dream, and with a little bit of experimentation, I quickly discovered there’s no pairing more intoxicating than sitting down with a good video game and a long podcast. 

After listening to the first 20-some episodes dozens of times, the content began to seep into my brain and embed itself. I had stolen phrases that the hosts used, adopted their mannerisms, even memorized long stretches of episodes. If you’re thinking this all sounds borderline-obsessive, you’re probably right, but this was a level of time, dedication, and interest that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to attain again.

The music exposed me to more bands than I can count. 
The crass sense of humor single-handedly formed what I find funny.
The verbose speaking patterns of the hosts gave me a voice to write in.
The (often drunk) banter replayed in my head so much that I began to think in their voices. 

It’s impossible to quantify the impact that TalkRadar had on me because I’m still coming to terms with it myself, but hopefully it’s starting to become clear how much this means to me. Perhaps most importantly, TalkRadar presented itself at the perfect time in my life. I was an impressionable fourteen-year-old kid, this was the first podcast I’d ever heard, and my first interaction with this type of format on a weekly basis. This came before the great “Serialization” of podcasts in 2014, and it was new enough that it felt exciting. Up until 2008 I’d only ever listened to music, and the idea that I could sit in on a multi-hour conversation about video games once a week was a godsend. It was solace. It was comfort. It was a warm blanket that I could descend into and find reliable serenity in.

They are the ones that made me want to be a writer. They are the ones who gave me, an aimless high school student, something to give a shit about. They are the ones who gave me the voice that you’re reading right now. They gave me myself. 

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Years later I went to college for journalism (because that’s what they did) and the podcast moved on. Hosts came and went, but the podcast remained. Eventually rebranded as its own self-contained entity called Laser Time, the show that began a decade ago as a drunken post-work chat has now ballooned into a fully-fledged podcast network with over a half-dozen shows to its name. 

In 2015 the hosts joined Patreon, a subscription-based crowdfunding service, and I was first in line. Happily supporting them at anywhere from $5 to $15 a month (depending on my economic situation), I’ve been a devout supporter of theirs from the instant that they allowed it. I was happy to repay the hosts for the invaluable gift that they had given me. A true sense of self. A true source of joy. Something to aspire to, and something that will forever motivate me. It’s the closest to a “Thank you” I was able to get. I would have been lost without TalkRadar, and I would be lost without Laser Time.

Now a near-daily tradition, I find myself happily listening to the 6+ hours of content that the network produces each week and wondering where I would be without it. What kind of person I would have turned out to be, or what I would have been doing for all those long podcast-less nights back in high school. Maybe I would have turned out better, but who’s to say?

Unlike most posts here, this write-up doesn’t have a point. If I could get a reader to check out one of their many shows, that would be great, but I’m willing to admit that this post is mostly for me. I started writing this so many times that I finally just gave up and let it all come out, and that’s what you’re reading now. This feels like the most accurate way for me to explain the impact this group has had on me, and I still feel like it’s not enough.

Whether I like it or not, TalkRadar, it’s hosts, and the decade of material that’s come after, have all gone on to become the single most important, formative, and being-affirming thing that’s ever happened in my life. 

As I look back now, I can’t believe how lucky I am to have stumbled upon that first episode ten years ago. I’ve improved as a writer, grown as a pop-culture nerd, and changed as a person. There’s really nothing else left for me to do but say thanks. So to Chris, Brett, Mikel, Shane, Charlie, Tyler, Henry, Lizzie, and every guest, host, collaborator, and community member, I would like to say from the bottom of my heart:

Thank You.

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A Grand Celebration: Musical Serendipity, Distant Memories, and the Preciousness of Tradition. Words on Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan

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There are 48,193 songs in my iTunes library right now. That’s 5,139 albums, 336 gigabytes, and a little over 160 days worth of music. Amongst this staggering (and seemingly-unwieldy) amount of audio lies my most cherished playlist: a 20-hour-long mix creatively titled “December.”

“December” stands alone as a personal treasure, my crown jewel, and the flame that single-handedly ignites my holiday cheer. Grown and cultivated over the course of multiple years, the playlist is a wide-ranging mishmash of various Christmas albums, years-old podcasts, and even some “normal” music that I’ve simply come to associate with the holiday season after multiple years of repeated seasonal listening. My “December” playlist is a testament to curated obsession, self-enforced tradition, and the beauty of the Holiday season. It’s my Christmas spirit encased in a cold, unfeeling .xml file.

The cosmic joke is that, as much as I care for this playlist and the songs contained within it, it’s just that: a collection of random songs. Nobody aside from me would ascribe any particular value to the ordering of these tracks, but I guess that sense of uniqueness is what makes playlists such a sacred musical concept. The other thing that makes playlists so wonderful is their inherent sense of surprise and randomness: the feeling of discovery that comes with stumbling upon a great mix, or the inspiration a single song can carry that inspires you to create one of your own.

Listening to “December” has become a holiday tradition of my own, and as special as the playlist is to me, the entire thing was started by accident. Inspired by a single group of songs and a random iTunes shuffle, this seasonal institution has now ballooned beyond my control and only gotten bigger each year. This is the story of the inception of this playlist, spurred by an album that has severely impacted me and whose sentimentality has become a foundation of my personality.

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Discovery

Back in high school music was my escape… not that I had anything to escape from, but music was (and still is) my reality. My one truth. Every morning as I prepared for the day I would let iTunes run through a never-ending shuffle playlist of my music library. They were my last minutes of absorption. My final escape into the realm of sound before venturing out into the world. It was a ceremony that I relished and grew to hold dear over the years.

One cold November morning six years ago, The Shuffle Gods placed a Sufjan Stevens song at the top of the queue. Back then Sufjan was a curiosity; an artist that I’d heard about and always meant to get into, but perpetually found himself on my musical “to-do” list. Thanks to an overly-eager friend, his discography had been sitting on my hard drive, in full, for around a year at that point. In a way, I suppose seeing the full breadth of his work only made diving into his music that much more daunting.

On this fateful day, iTunes DJ (rest in peace) decided that it was finally time for me to hear a Sufjan track and “Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)” began playing. It was divine intervention. It was exactly what I needed to hear at the moment, and I became transfixed. “Oh God, Where Are You Now” immediately drew me in and hung in my chest like the first deep inhale of a cold winter morning. I was so floored by the song that I needed to hear what came next. I paused the shuffle playlist and embarked upon a search to find the record that this track called home.

This excavation led me to Sufjan’s 2003 album Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State which I promptly queued up and let play out. Turns out “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” was track 13 of 15, so while there were only two other songs that followed, I felt compelled to see this record out to its conclusion.

The two songs that came after (“Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” and “Vito’s Ordination Song”) ended up forming a trio of incredibly potent and deeply-impactful wintery songs that told one coherent and eerie tale.

If the album and songs titles didn’t give it away, Sufjan is not a man who’s concerned with punctuality. While three songs may not seem like much, this final stretch of tracks that close out Michigan ends up coming out to 19 minutes of music. Back in high school, that gave me just enough time to complete my morning routine and get out the door on time.

I became fixated on these three songs, and for the remainder of that year, they became my morning ritual. The soundtrack for two months of sleepy-eyed morning preparation. A sacred custom that I ended up recreating the next year. And the year after that. And the one after that. In fact, for years these three songs were all that I ever listened to from Sufjan’s wide-ranging discography. This 19-minutes of music came to represent the beginning of the holiday season, a near-daily habit of lovingly embracing three folk tracks from an album I hadn’t even listened to all the way through yet.

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Obsession

Several years back I realized how silly it was that these three songs were the only ones I’d listened to from Sufjan in earnest. I repeatedly tried to dip my toes into the rest of his discography, and soon “trying Sufjan” became a yearly tradition as well. Year after year I attempted various entry points: whole albums, popular singles, even the rest of Michigan, but nothing ever grabbed me in the same way that those three tracks did.

Then in 2016, it happened: I became obsessed with Sufjan.

I don’t know how it happened or when it did, but it was as if a switch had been flipped in my head. Suddenly everything clicked all at once, and I found myself devouring his discography whole. I had his 5-hour Christmas catalog on repeat. I read every article with his name in the headline. I purchased enough vinyl to create a makeshift shelter. I couldn’t escape from Sufjan Stevens.

By the end of the year, I had racked up nearly 1,000 Sufjan plays, 82% of which occurred between November and December. Every listen up until that year had been relegated almost entirely to the final three songs off Michigan, but suddenly his entire discography had launched itself into the upper stratosphere of my musical consciousness.

In diving through the rest of his albums last winter I now have a firm understanding of who Sufjan Stevens is as an artist and where he sits on the musical spectrum. It turns out that he’s far from the sad, plucky folk singer that I had initially pegged him as. This year I’ve already exceeded last year’s numbers, and #SufjanSeason has become an official holidayin my house. So not only did 2016 signify a tipping point, it represented the beginning of a beautiful, rabid fandom that has opened the door to a new seasonal tradition and hundreds of hours of beautiful music. At the same time, I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

Trinity

Sufjan Stevens has arguably made two near-perfect albums: both 2005’s Illinois and 2015’s Carrie & Lowell are widely considered masterpieces of the indie folk singer-songwriter genre. The former is a multi-instrumental masterpiece that showcases an astonishing array of sounds, topics, and textures. The latter is an instrumentally-bare folk album that finds Stevens meditating on life in the wake of his mother’s death. They’re both impeccable records that are worth diving into and worthy of their status as indie essentials, but neither are what this post is for.

Despite recognizing both Illinois and Carrie as “better albums,” I enjoy Michigan more, and I’m still grappling with what that means. While these later albums either swirl and flutter to life with a flurry of baroque instrumentation, or reserve all musicality behind a single veneer of raw guitar and vocals, Michigan lies somewhere in the middle. Packed with frost-covered horns, intimate acoustic guitars, and tenderly-delivered lyrics, Michigan is a chilly, introverted, and thought-provoking record that gently congeals into a cozy wintery panorama.

Like untamed cresting hills covered by a blanket of snow, the surface of Michigan is calm and uniform; a stark, raw, and silent beauty. However, much like that bed of new-fallen snow, once you begin to dig all sorts of unknowable intricacies begin to reveal themselves. It’s a winter wonderland of crisp sounds, all delivered in a singularly-grand package. It’s an album that’s whimsical and but also grounded in dissolution and the pain of existence. Michigan is what it would sound like if the Charlie Brown Christmas special took place in the 2000’s and the characters were all listless 20-somethings without jobs.

If I were to get someone into Sufjan Stevens, I’d still probably point them to either Illinois or Carrie & Lowell (depending on their taste), yet Michigan stands alone as an understated personal favorite of mine for many reasons. Perhaps it’s just thanks to my personal relationship with the album, but accidentally falling into Michigan’s embrace over the course of multiple years has allowed it to embody every warm holiday memory that I’ve ever experienced. It’s my favorite Sufjan record, a wonderful holiday offering, and one of the best in the entire genre.

The remainder of this post is a profile of Michigan and a (near-track-by-track) breakdown of what makes the album worthy of worship. I also adore this record so much that I took it upon myself to create a bunch of mobile wallpapers, so have at them.

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Wonderland

Cartoonishly pitched as the first album in a 50-part project covering every state, Michigan is Sufjan Stevens’ third official LP. Preceded by A Sun Came and the electronic Enjoy Your Rabbit, Michigan was far from Sufjan’s first rodeo, but it marked the first time that he seemed to land on a complete and definitive sound. Especially when compared to later albums, Sufjan’s first two outings are great, but end up coming off like a “first attempt” and a left-field electronic diversion that were merely used as stepping stones to later greatness. The entrees meant to hold us over until this: the main course.

Technically a concept album, Michigan is a love letter from Stevens addressed to the state in which he was born and spent a majority of his childhood. The album is a comprehensive look at The Wolverine State, addressing everything from the common points of reference (The Great Lakes, popular sports teams, and overwhelming poverty) to intimate portrayals of what it’s like to live there. All of these tales are sung from the perspective of someone who has a deep, personal, and profound understanding of the area which makes them feel supremely genuine and heartfelt.

Michigan’s first track “Flint (For the Unemployed & Underpaid)” kicks the album off by tackling the exact issue that the state conjures for most people: joblessness. Beginning with a series of arid, ruminating piano chords, Sufjan soon enters singing from a whispered first-person perspective that depicts a dreary future of sadness and uncertainty. Jobless and homeless, the narrator finds himself “pretending to try” but secretly resigned to dying alone. Halfway through the track, a singular trumpet pairs with the established piano melody as Sufjan repeats his death-defying mantra over and over again until the final line is cut off mid-sentence. Shortly after this abrupt end, a hum of ambient noise consumes the song, and the next track begins.

It’s a haunting piece and a stark way to open a record. Most people don’t want to think about losing their job and dying sad, homeless, and alone on the street, yet on Michigan, these ideas are not only commonplace, they’re scene setting. An introduction. The first taste that transports the listener, giving them a sense of place and, hopefully, a similar sense of hopelessness that allows them to empathize with the remainder of the album. This dark opening salvo is contrasted even further by it’s following track “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!” which is a jubilant and bouncy stream-of-consciousness song that explodes with a brassy baroque chamber arrangement.

Here we’re introduced to the “concept” of the album as we realize that every song is sung about the state from different perspectives. This framework allows Stevens to show both the good and bad of Michigan, rapidly shifting from broad sociopolitical issues, then zooming all the way down to hyper-detailed illustrations of interpersonal drama.

Mid-album cuts like “The Upper Peninsula” are down-to-earth groove-centered depictions of rural lower class America. Sufjan finds himself tackling divorce, detachment, and the mundanity of day-to-day life in between Payless Shoes and K-Mart name-drops. Similar sounds are later revisited on songs like “Jacksonville” and “Neighbors” off Illinois but end up focusing on much different song topics.

Even a cursory glance at the album’s credits reveal the shocking amount of instrumentation at play on each of these tracks. Sollum banjo plucks serve as the background on “For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti.” Horns and trumpets emerge at unexpected times but are used so precisely that you probably won’t even notice them upon first listen. Instrumental tracks like “Tahquamenon Falls” are jaw-dropping scenic soundscapes that brim with cascading xylophone notes that dance around your head like snowflakes.

Even “traditional” folk arrangements and piano ballads have never been as poignant, soft-spoken, or heartfelt as “Holland” where single isolated piano notes poke up from a whirling frozen mass of sound. Eventually, a backtracked pair of falsetto vocals emerge to echo the song’s chorus, and it paints a vague picture of a couple singing alone in a house with nothing but a guitar, a piano, and each other nearby.

Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)” is the album’s sprawling ornamental 8-minute centerpiece that begins with a single, rapidly-rung bell. Soon a piano enters the mix, then a guitar, then Sufjan himself. The entire track builds around the beat of that bell until dozens of individual instruments all combine into this massive, extravagant, and decadent force of nature.

Things get personal on the banjo-plucked “Romulus” as Sufjan recounts several strained interactions with his mother even though he recognizes that he would do no better in her position. This dynamic would later be revisited and fully-addressed on Carrie & Lowell, but, “Romulus” is still a striking portrayal of a frayed relationship as well as the joys and frustrations that come along with family.

Finally, “Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie” is an epic, swelling biblical track that escalates in delicate crescendos that all climax into one massive, breathtaking wall of sound. Accompanied by Megan Slaboda and Elin Smith, this late-album cut features an awe-inspiring instrumental mixture of organs, cymbals, and warm brass instruments. A careful and measured track that slows down to nothing then explodes to life.

The entire album sounds like a snow-covered log cabin. It feels like a warm cup of hot chocolate on a cold, grey, rainy day. It smells like a freshly-cut noble fir. It tastes like a home-cooked bowl of soup. It’s the warm wool blanket enveloping your body. The cinnamon-sprinkled cookies that just came out of the oven. The glowing lights that dance and twinkle above your head. It’s musical soul food. It’s wholesome and full-bodied music that makes me want to be a better person. It’s absolutely flawless.

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Despair and Grace

Circling back to the jumping off point of this post: I still remember hearing “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” for the first time and being struck with a strange sense of deja-vu. The track instantly evoked something deep inside of me. It made me feel everything that I’ve described up until this point and also came with a strange sense of familiarity. It felt like a piece of a past life that I’d lost and now recovered. I carefully studied the album artwork, and it looked like a long-lost Christmas album. The majestic snow-covered pine tree, the elegant deer, the warm red lettering, all captured in Laura Normandin’s beautiful brush strokes over a rich parchment. Everything about Michigan felt picture-perfect.

After 47 minutes of splendor, the most brilliant moment of Michigan comes with its final three-song stretch that winds from “Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickerel Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)“ to “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” and “Vito’s Ordination Song.” These three songs stand on their own as a singularly-impactful and world-shaping experience that are intertwined with some of the fondest, warmest, and most intimate memories of my entire life.

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Oh God, Where Are You Now?” begins with Stevens addressing God directly. Paired with a barely-distorted guitar line and a gently-played piano, our narrator finds himself questioning his faith as he whispers the title of the track and begs for God to touch him. Sufjan’s voice intertwines with a hushed group of backup singers comprised of Megan Slaboda, John Ringhofer, and Elin Smith as they collectively ask “Would the righteous still remain? / Would my body stay the same?”

Soon all four vocalists combine into one extraordinary force, all singing over a sparse, mounting piano melody and finger-plucked guitar. Midway through the song, after repeating the same set of heaven-bound lines, all of the vocalists break into a makeshift wordless chorus as they sing along to the now-established tune set by the piano.

All of the instruments all flicker and shimmer as if being played from a distant memory. The piano is patient and carefully tapped. The guitar gleams and quivers, faint and serene. You can hear ambient noise trickling in between the quiet pauses as if the entire of the studio was breathing and coming to life at that moment.

Near the end of the track, Sufjan’s vocals become more prominent and press up against the backup singers as they all revisit the chorus for a third time. Soon a mighty brush of cymbals erupt. Horns emerge from the corners of the mix and play along with the group’s established melody. The piano picks back up, newly energized and boisterous. Soon another pair of horns emerge and add splashes of light to the song’s bigger picture. Every element is working in tandem, taking turns, all adding on to the song’s resounding and soul-affirming chant of “La da da, da da da.”

Then everything quiets to a hum. The horns and cymbals carry the song out with long, colorful streaks. It’s both somber and gorgeous. It’s warm and cozy, a melody that you can slip away into and tuck under yourself like a blanket. A massive tide consuming your soul at a glacial pace. Then, after nine minutes and 24 seconds, it’s gone. Silence.

Picking up exactly where “Oh God” left off, the very next thing the listeners hears are the timbred piano strikes of “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou).” You can make out the distant wooden creak of a chair or a floorboard, and again, your mind is transported back to a remote snow-covered cabin in the middle of the woods. Far-off vocals echo through the top of the mix like specters haunting the lone pianist. Still, the melody continues, the reflective musician is barreling towards his destination with more confidence and determination than ever before.

In the final seconds, Redford’s piano ceases and the ethereal vocals make their last wail before being claimed by static silence, and then the song ends. “Redford” is a momentary meditation before the album’s final impact. The first part of a one-two punch. A connecting piece that serves as the bridge between the album’s two defining works.

Next, the final track unveils itself. “Vito’s Ordination Song” begins with an elongated and heavy organ chord, as if the pianist from the last song had suddenly been brought back to life. It sounds wholesome and church-like, evoking the feeling of both a funeral and a sermon.

Sufjan returns from the instrumental abyss and quietly recalls “I always knew you / In your mother’s arms.” Swiftly navigating toward noisy imagery of marriage, happiness, and warmth as the organ continues beneath his deliberate vocals. Then after a three-song absence, a set of drums enter the fray. Booming in comparison to the sense of quiet softness we’ve been basking in over the past 15 minutes, the drum keeps time while making way for a subtle horn arrangement and heart-beat-like organ passage.

The album’s cast of backup vocalists rejoin Sufjan for one final time, duetting and echoing the same sentiments as the song’s first verse but now full and exploding with liveliness. The group of singers land gracefully upon a final chorus that ferries us along for the remaining four minutes of the album: “Rest in my arms / Sleep in my bed / There’s a design / To what I did and said.”

It’s soul-crushing, heartbreaking, and beautiful. It evokes such a varied range of emotions in me that it feels truly herculean to into words. It is winter. It is Christmas. It is heavenly. It is transcendental. It is every happy moment that I’ve ever experienced over the past decade. The soundtrack to the warm memories that exist only in my head. It’s the reflection of my entire life.

The same way that you feel when you gather with your family to watch that beloved Christmas movie. The way that you feel in the embrace of a loved one. The feeling you get when leafing through an old photo album of memories now long-past. The people you spent your life with. The recipes you made together. The ones that never got to share them. It is love. It is life. It is loss. It is everything and nothing more.

These songs make me unspeakably thankful for the life that I’ve lived, and the life I’m going to lead. They are truly perfect pieces of art. To completely break the flow, I initially wrote this while listening to Michigan for the first time this year, and teared up as I wrote this… Definitely a first for this blog.

In many ways, this three-song stretch is the reason that I created this website. A location for me to document, wholly and lovingly the things that bring me unimaginable joy. The beautiful thing is, everyone has their own three-song stretch. Some little thing that makes you happy. Maybe it’s something that nobody else knows about. Perhaps it’s so esoteric that it feels silly to share with anyone, even those closest to you. But I encourage you to share it. It’s something that you hold dearer than anything else in life. A genuine treasure. A piece of your soul crystallized externally. For me, that’s Michigan. It’s a work of art, a masterpiece, and my life.

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Holiday Traditions, Metalcore Nostalgia, and Worshiping Our Own Past

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Now that the holidays are upon us, it’s officially my power season. As much as I am a militant proponent of Having a Summah, Winter is a close second favorite for one reason, and that’s tradition.

Tradition is the all-encompassing, all-important, and infinitely-renewable source of holiday cheer. A celebration of our own past, and the past of our loved ones. It’s the one thing that makes this time of year truly precious and different from any other. Perhaps best of all, “tradition” is entirely unique from person to person; a double helix of reverence for our own history and memories.

Obviously, most people have traditions that they share with loved ones; picking out a Christmas tree, overeating at family dinners, watching specific seasonal movies, etc. Even the most atheistic household in the world probably has something unique that they do around this time of the year, even if it’s just going to the movie theater to avoid crowds. As great as those communal institutions are, I’ve been a staunch believer that the small, self-made traditions are as just as important as the big shared ones.

Tradition as a concept is so important to me that it was one of the first five posts I ever wrote on this site. Since I’ve already got multiple Christmas/year-end posts cooking up (and because I recognize my excitement for the holiday is offputting to some), I’ll instead use this specific write-up to focus on November.

Fueled by nothing but the endorphin rush of nostalgia and slavish devotion to the Christmas spirit, hyper-esoteric rituals begin to leak into nearly every aspect of my life by the time that Halloween is over. I watch specific episodes of TV shows, replay old video games, change the wallpapers on all of my devices, listen to old podcasts, and of course break out the winter music. In fact, one of the primary reasons for my seasonal exuberance is because I’m allowed to revisit music that’s only “acceptable” to listen to during these months.

As much as I love the gigabytes worth of Christmas music in my library, my “Winter music” playlist consists of much more than just on-brand holiday tunes. Over the years I’ve come to fully-embrace being the guy who gets into Christmas as soon as Halloween is over only because it marks the time of year that I get to break these songs out. Like I said, I’m not going to dip into holiday music on here yet. I don’t want to subject you guys to that much Christmas spirit, I’m merely trying to contain myself.

The point is that it would be a disservice to listen to these songs any time besides now, if only because it would make them less special. Obviously “Jingle Bells” would feel weird to listen to in July (and it does sound like a quirky character trait from a Noah Baumbach movie), but there’s just as much, if not more “regular” music that I relegate to the holiday season.

Case in point: the topic of this post. I tend to dip back into my high school-era metalcore around this time of year. Psychoanalyze that all you want, but I’ve now got a fiercely-cultivated playlist culling hundreds of songs from various years of angsty Christmases past. It’s a weird combination, but maybe this music provided me with some counter-programming that combatted both the warm holiday music and cold weather.

You can consider this write-up a bit of a pseudo-sequel to this post from earlier in the year about springtime metalcore. It’s weird because these two seasons are really the only time that I dip back into the genre, but man do I still have a soft spot for it. It’s mainly weird because these songs and albums now fill me with as much joy and holiday happiness as the tonally-inverse Christmas tunes.

At any rate, the same disclaimer on that earlier post applies here: I’m not necessarily proud of any of the music on this list, but it’s a concoction of albums that I find particularly potent. Records that have brought me years worth of happiness, and still have the power to collectively inspire me.

Artifex Pereo - Am I Invisible (2009)

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Much like Julien Baker’s 2017 album, Am I Invisible begins with a single, eerie wooden creak. Perhaps belonging to an old floorboard or the frame of a handmade door, this haunted timbered gasp immediately gives the listener a sense of place, as if the entirety of Am I Invisible is settling into your headphones then and there. There’s a brief pause, and then the group’s vocalist Evan Redmon makes his presence known as he belts out the album’s title over a seemingly infinitely-layered vocal take. The remainder of the EP is a 25-minute sample platter that combines the best moments of Kurt Travis and Tilian Pearson-eras of Dance Gavin Dance. The album’s closing track “Neighbors” showcases the band’s already-sharp ear for songwriting, melody, and awe-inspiring emotionally-impactful build-ups. While the group only put out one more release with this early line-up, they still managed to capture something incredibly special on this early EP.

Bring Me The Horizon - Suicide Season (2008)

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Back in high school, Bring Me The Horizon’s debut album, Count Your Blessings was the hardest thing I’d ever heard in my life. Filled with bangers like “Braille (For Stevie Wonder’s Eyes Only)” and “(I Used To Make Out With) Medusa” multiple tracks from this album would go on to become genre-defining anthems for this era of the hardcore scene. As you could imagine, the record was an absolute revelation in 2007 and served as the first real brush with deathcore that I’d found palatable at the time. When stacked against the genre-wide impact of their debut, most fans went into the band’s sophomore album with near-impossible expectations.

Softening every aspect from vocals to instrumentation, Suicide Season represents the band’s fully-fledged pivot into a more accessible metalcore sound. While it initially fell flat for me, something kept calling me back to Suicide Season, and in 2017 it’s now my favorite album of the entire genre. Filled with immaculately-produced songs of bile and aggression, tracks like “Diamonds Aren’t Forever” have come to represent the absolute best that this scene has to offer. While the band has continued on a path toward an increasingly-accessible sound, Suicide Season is an achievement that remains an untouched peak of 2000’s metalcore.

A Bullet for Pretty Boy - Revision:Revise (2010)

Hailing from East Texas, A Bullet for Pretty Boy’s debut album is a near-perfect Woe, Is Me doppelganger. Featuring punchy driving instrumentation, tight glitchy drumming, and absolutely crushing breakdowns, every track on Revision:Revise is a pointed showcase of each band member. Guitarist Derrick Sechrist belts out catchy clean choruses, alternating vocal duties with Danon Saylor whose throat-shredding screams impress their weight upon the listener’s consciousness.

While each track is thoughtfully put-together, the album’s definitive performance comes in its final six minutes on “I Will Destroy the Wisdom of the Wise.” The track, which initially made its debut on the band’s 2008 demo, finds new life here thanks to two years of instrumental honing, and a newly-added Tyler Carter feature. It’s quite hard to oversell exactly how much I love this track, but up until last year the song had the unique distinction of my most-played song of all time, and if 200 listens isn’t a commendation then I don’t know what is.

I Will Destroy the Wisdom of the Wise” is my single favorite song of the entire metalcore genre, my wonderful discovery, and lone takeaway after years of embedding myself in the scene. Every element of the song is immaculate, a marvel to have been captured and recorded in such a flawless state, forever encased in unchanging code. Every word is considered, the drumming is ferocious, every moment is well-placed, and the Tyler Carter feature is the vocal cherry on top of an already delicious sundae. A triumph of the genre.

Chiodos - Illuminaudio (2010)

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Fronted by the inimitable Craig Owens, Chiodos was a trailblazing post-hardcore band whose 2005 sophomore album All’s Well That Ends Well served as an entry point to the post-hardcore genre for millions of listeners. In late 2009 Chiodos announced their intention to carry forward as a band without Owens, publicly ousting one of the genre’s most seminal figureheads. Skeptical, cautious, and apprehensive, most fans went into the band’s following album with their guard up; how could the next guy possibly stack up? Like many other fans, I assumed I’d be over the band given the major pivot the comes with the changing of vocalists. In late October of 2010, a friend gave me an impassioned plea to give Illuminaudio a listen, and man am I glad he did. The record is a sprawling, conceptual, and voracious release that aimed high and still managed to surpass every possible expectation.

Much like his predecessor, Brandon Bolmer finds himself handling both clean and screamed vocals throughout the project, managing to reach both high-pitched Owens-esque croons and deep, soul-puncturing screams. The guitar and bass both sound full and rich, providing the perfect counterpoint to Tanner Wayne’s tightly-wound drum patterns. To put it simply, everything is on-point because the band wanted to prove their mettle now that the main star had left. Not only did Chiodos succeed, but they also created the best album in the band’s history and another one of my favorites in the metalcore genre. Owens’ eventual return in 2012 turned Illuminaudio into the unwanted black sheep of the Chiodos family, but in a way that makes this record all the more one-of-a-kind. Truly lighting in a bottle.

Crimson Armada - Guardians (2009)

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With unrelenting vocals, and brutal machine gun-like instrumentation Crimson Armada’s debut album is a little rough around the edges but worth revisiting. The album’s title track “Guardian” alternates from fierce rapidly-spit screams to deep skull-crushing breakdowns. Similarly, “The Sound, The Flood, The Hour” is an absolutely punishing and ruthless track with a surprising amount of melody and musicality (once you adjust to the band’s vocals).

Dance Gavin Dance - Acceptance Speech (2013)

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Far and away the most recent album on this list, Acceptance Speech released in the fall of my third year of college. While I’d largely grown out of the post-hardcore scene by 2013, Dance Gavin Dance remains the one group from the genre that I still listen to regularly. After numerous lineup changes, Acceptance Speech marked the band’s first release of its current incarnation featuring Tides of Man’s Tilian Pearson on vocals.

The album kicks off aggressively with “Jesus H. Macy,” luring long-time fans into a sense of familiarity with Jon Mess’ screamed vocals. The album is home to some of the band’s most experimental tracks like a crushing riff on “Carve,” chopped-up vocals on “Demo Team,” and the remix-ready “The Jiggler.” The album also hosts one of the strongest closers that the band has ever had on an album, making for a nice bookend of screamed Mess vocals.

While I didn’t think much of it at first, Acceptance Speech grew to be my favorite from the band. The entire record has a beautiful feeling uniformity and wholeness to it, making for one of the most pointed albums in the band’s discography. The whole thing has a wonderful haze to it, like it’s been filtered through a cold December night in the city. There are warm glowing lights, and you can practically see the steam rising off the band as they play. It was proof that Dance Gavin Dance wasn’t going to let one member stop them. I’m glad that they’ve continued with this lineup for so many fantastic releases now because this album only represented a new creative peak that the group set for themselves.

A Day To Remember - And Their Name Was Treason (2005)

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A Day To Remember made a name for themselves in 2005 by embracing a unique mixture of metalcore leanings and bouncy pop-punk influences. While later albums are far more polished, fleshed-out, and nuanced, there’s something undeniably charming about the group’s debut. Every band member is still so young and green here, it’s endearing and inspiring to hear such a massively-successful and influential band in such a rough state.

Starting off aggressively with “Heartless,” the band eventually winds its way to the light with “You Should Have Killed Me When You Had the Chance” and “1958,” songs that offered glimmers of the group’s later brilliance. Even in this underdeveloped, underproduced, and underwritten state, there’s an undeniable appeal and magic at play on And Their Name Was Treason, and it’s easy to see how the band made a career out of jumping from pop-punk choruses to metalcore breakdowns. The first of many successful outings in an incredibly-fruitful career.

Dead and Divine - What Really Happened at Lover’s Lane (2005)

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Much like A Day To Remember’s debut album, Dead and Divine’s 2005 EP captures a band in its charming infancy. While their later full-lengths would go on to favor (and hone) a much more aggressive post-hardcore sound, What Really Happened at Lover’s Lane features a softer, more careful approach to the genre. With crisp cleans and deeply-growled screams, each song explodes into brutal crescendos of original storytelling. The band’s masterful approach to the build-up is best exemplified by the album’s closing track “Goodnight, Quiet City,” an acoustic ballad that suddenly erupts into a fierce wall of grief before finishing in an orchestral swell accompanied by piercing anguished growls.

Emarosa - Emarosa (2010)

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Things seemed to be trending upward for Jonny Craig in 2010, he’d rejoined Dance Gavin Dance after a two-album absence and mended fences with Emarosa in order to helm the group’s killer sophomore album. While things came off the rails quickly after its release, Emarosa’s self-titled record took every sound developed from the band’s earlierworks and improved on them markedly.

This is the first time the band congealed into a fully-formed, standalone entity. While many of his other projects see Craig’s vocals taking the lion’s share of the spotlight, on this release the band figured out how to fit his singing into the instrumentation in a way that everything folds together into one presentable package. It’s a record of constant forward momentum, and one of the best uses of Craig’s incredibly-distinct vocals.

Issues - Black Diamonds (2012)

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Formed after the spiteful dissolution of the groundbreaking Woe, Is Me, Issues features a nearly-identical lineup of musicians with a few welcome additions. The group’s 23-minute Black Diamonds EP officially announced the members reuniting, addressed the previous group’s turbulence, and outlined their resolution to move forward with positivity.

After addressing the extra-musical drama, the remainder of the EP is simply overflowing with unique ideas, bringing dozens of fresh elements to a genre that had become stale within the space of a few years. By infusing metalcore with electronic elements, R&B, pop, hip-hop, and much more, the group managed to create something far greater than the sum of its parts: something wholly original and different in a scene where such concepts are often rejected and deemed unmarketable.

Featuring poppy cleans by Tyler Carter and deep fight-inducing screams from Michael Bohn, Issues added some much-needed excitement to the metalcore scene, and Issues’ originality helped differentiate them not only from their previous group but also from the rest of the genre. Two years later the band had released their first full-length, and an accompanying EP that reworked 8 of the band’s songs into newly-formed acoustic tracks. These acoustic versions managed to breathe new life into these already-great songs while also serving as further proof of the band’s musical versatility. These releases represented a positive turning point in my view of the genre and definitive evidence that there’s room for growth in this industry and in life.

Secret and Whisper - Teenage Fantasy (2010)

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As with any other popular music scene, bands are born, break up, and then disappear forever. Throughout the early 2000’s literally hundreds of post-hardcore groups got together, created a Myspace, released some music, and then vanished as quickly as they’d appeared. Of all the bands from this era that released music and died out, the one that I miss the most is Secret and Whisper. If anything, I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that they worked together long enough to leave us something as heartbreakingly beautiful as Teenage Fantasy.

Probably the least “hardcore” of all the bands on this list, this would be my one recommendation to anyone reading this list who is not interested in the scene. It’s one of the most out-there and original approaches to the post-hardcore genre, and an entry I hesitated to include with the other entries on this list.

For 44 minutes Teenage Fantasy shines, glimmers, and brims over the top with fresh ideas. Simultaneously otherworldly and down-to-earth, the album is a glossy and emotional journey into the depths of frontman Charles Furney’s psyche. “Youth Cats” opens the album with a snarling guitar riff and a mythical lyric about the ‘lady of miracles’ who commands the river. Straight out of the gates Furney’s voice is volcanic, straining and stretching, brushing his upper register as the bass bounces back and forth beneath it. “Youth Cats” kicks the entire record off with an unrelenting forward momentum that gives the whole album a sense of immediacy and spectacle.

From there literally every. single. track. hits. Throughout the 44-minute running time the vocals soar, the drums hit hard, and the guitar rumbles, all of which swirl together like paint on a well-worn wooden palette, resulting in one singularly flawless record. Even the slower songs like “Upset Seventeen” have a Daniel Johnston-esque charm to them that make them more personable than nearly every other post-hardcore song you’ve ever heard. There are weird electronic diversions like “Pretty Snarl,” and even typically-boring song topics like love and death are addressed in surprisingly eloquent and thoughtful ways. Sometimes the group ventures out even further than expected, addressing topics like animal testing on “Star Blankets” and drawing parallels between serial killers and stardom on “Famous For a Century.” Everything is handled with a surprising level of tact, but also in a way that nothing sticks out as a poor fit. The entire record is unreal, cavernous, and dream-like. It impacts you once and then slowly envelops your body like warm sand. Truly unlike anything I’ve ever heard before or since. A wonderful and underappreciated masterpiece.

We’re Not Friends Anymore - You Are Television (2010)

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Clocking in at a blazing 13 minutes, We’re Not Friends Anymore’s second (and final) EP finds a band that is hungry for success. The vocals explode and smolder, and the instrumentation brings a distinct groove and movement, making for surprisingly danceable tracks that spring to life. It is a breakup album, but one that seems as ready to move on as it is willing to dwell in the past. I’ve never heard anything like it, and the EP’s punctuality makes for a breezy listen that will quickly embed itself in your brain and worm its way to your heart.

This is only an abridged list of my favorites, you can listen to these albums and many others through this Spotify Playlist.

Heartache, Optimism, and Pop-Punk: How The Upsides Changed My Outlook On Life

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The best creations are born of pain. A sad consolation prize for the inflicted, the result of life experience and raw suffering. As listeners, we judge music based on how much life and “realness” bleed through it, but we also don’t experience anything in a vacuum. Art is tainted by our own memories and experiences. It’s the reason that two nearly-identical albums can feel so different. It’s the reason you enjoy A while I prefer B. Memory is where it all comes into play, and it’s what we add to art as humans. In experiencing art we inject a bit of our own story in the listening process and add on to the creation in whatever way we can.

This is how our tastes, perspectives, and very personalities are formed: through interaction with both art and the world around us. While a positive experience, association, or context can improve our perception of an album, the inverse can also ruin something that’s otherwise objectively good. Think about any album, movie, or TV show that you used to recover from a breakup. Hell, think about a restaurant that once gave you food poisoning. Whether it’s well-founded or not, there’s probably a negative association and personal bias at play skewing your opinion.

I’m of the school of thought that traditionally “great” music starts as something you don’t necessarily love on the first listen, but becomes better over time. Music with depth and complexity that reveals itself with each subsequent spin. Challenging its consumer to be better. Most of my favorite albums were records that I didn’t think much of (or simply didn’t like) upon first listen, but gradually kept burrowing their way further into my brain.

And while memories often retroactively color our impressions of art, sometimes there are also individual works that are able to overcome our own mental hang-ups. Art that’s so strong it’s able to break through our negative associations and emerge from the other side, still enjoyable.

This combination of growth over time and overcoming an uphill battle of negative associations is one of the reasons that The Wonder Years’ second album The Upsides is one of my favorite records of all time.

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From a South Philly Basement

Before I get into weird personal history: some quick background info on the band. Founded in 2005, The Wonder Years are a pop-punk act from Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Following two years of singles, split and EPs the band released their debut album Get Stoked on It! In 2007. Taking queues from the early 2000’s easycore scene, the band’s first record was a keyboard-heavy form of biting pop-punk. Get Stoked is problematic, but also very symptomatic of the year it was made. It’s not a bad record, but it bears very few resemblances to the rest of the band’s work and has been retconned by the band for good reason.

The biggest point against Get Stoked on It! Is that most of the songs were written about generic late-2000’s pop cultural buzzwords. You got a track about a ninja, one about a cowboy, one about zombies, and much more! This is in direct conflict with the band’s later hyper-earnest heart-on-sleeve meditations that pulled from real life experiences and heartfelt emotions (as opposed to funny songs about astronauts). There are still some tracks like “Racing Trains” and “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong” that foreshadow some of the band’s future stylistic leanings, but as a whole, the record is much more underdeveloped and juvenile than their later work.

The band would later go on to “decanonize” this release, publicly stating their distaste for it both in interviews and even referencing it in future songs. When a remastered version of the album came out in 2012, lead singer Daniel Campbell said “If you like the record, enjoy the new mixes. If you hate the record, I’m on your side” which is something I’ve seen very few bands do.

Within two years of their first album, original member and keyboardist Mikey Kelly left the band. His departure essentially represented a “soft reboot” for the band which allowed the remaining members to pivot the group’s sound and take their next album into a more “honest” direction. A year after Kelly’s departure the band released their sophomore album The Upsides in 2010, and my life would change forever.

B-rate Version of Me

In 2011 I went through a horrible breakup. It was my first real relationship, and it hit me as hard as you could imagine a 17-year-old being hit. I’d recently got my driver’s license, started my first job, and I was embarking on my final year of high school, so overall it was a turbulent time of change for me. One night midway through February I was spurred to purchase a digital copy of The Upsides on a whim based on a Tweet made by Amazon Music. This is something I never do, but I had just gotten off a shift at my job and wanted to fill the void with blind consumerism. The album was on sale for $5, so even for a cheap 17-year-old, there’s not much to lose at that price. I can’t even remember if I even previewed the album, but for whatever reason, that tweet was well-crafted enough to spur me into a purchase right then and there. I was in the mood for something new.

I downloaded the album, loaded it onto my iPod, hit play, and sunk into it.

I don’t know how well I’ll be able to articulate the particular brand of slacker malaise I was engaging in at this time, but most waking hours that weren’t spent school were spent in my room playing video games listening to podcasts and music. I was pretty much distracting all my senses and escaping from reality as much as humanly possible without the use of drugs or alcohol. I wasn’t depressed, but I was in a state. Nothing really cheered me up, so it was more of an ongoing war of attrition with my own brain.

I credit The Upsides with single-handedly lifting me out of this post-dump funk and getting me back to feeling like myself. With years of reflection, I was being far more dramatic than I’m giving myself credit for, but I guess that’s kinda the point of being seventeen. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it felt like it… until this album came along.

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A Pop-Punk Oddessy

Upsides begins with a bait and switch. Most pop-punk detractors dislike the genre for pretty specific (and valid) reasons. Maybe they don’t like the genre’s propensity for bitter lovesick lyrics, or they’re turned off by the whiny vocals, but in most cases, they probably have a cartoonishly-exaggerated version of the scene in their head. Thanks to the genre’s explosion in popularity during the mid-90’s, most people just think the music consists solely of whiny Blink 182-types when that’s not the case. While there certainly is no shortage of nasally lovesick songs, that sound isn’t representative of the entire genre.

For better or worse, Upsides begins with exactly what people would expect from the genre. Within the first seconds of the album’s opening track “My Last Semester” a nasally slightly-filtered Campbell sings over a twinkling electric guitar “I’m not sad anymore / I’m just tired of this place.” Within 15 seconds the singing ceases and the guitar strings sustain. An electric whir emerges from the back of the mix and quickly overwhelms the held guitar notes. Suddenly the entire song, album, and band spin to life, energizing the track with a cacophony of brash drum strikes, a biting guitar riff, and a driving bassline. Campbell, now singing at the top of his lung repeats the first lyrics with an angry vitriolic twist, and with that, Upsides has officially begun.

Those first lines of the album sound stereotypical (great, another white dude talking about how sad he is) but upon closer inspection, they’re actually a beautifully-constructed phrase that flips the listener’s expectations on their head by talking about the futility of those sad feelings. It’s a notion that’s devoid of nostalgia, firmly present, and anxiously self-aware. This specific idea of not letting sadness win is a recurring theme throughout the album that the band circles back to frequently. The mantra comes full-circle on the album’s star-studded closer and is even developed further on subsequent releases. But in this first song, the singer articulates this concept by listing all the reasons he could be sad, but then explains that he opted to find the silver lining in his situation: his music. Campbell would go on to address this later in an interview explaining:

“I thought that I had kind of beaten my issues, but when you struggle with depression or anxiety, you never really win. You always carry it with you and the point I learned isn’t to win. The point is to keep fighting. It turned out that ‘I’m not sad anymore’ wasn’t a victory speech. It was a battle cry.”

The opening line pulls double duty by acting as the album’s thesis statement while also serving as the band’s new mission statement. This represents a far tonal shift from what we last heard on Get Stoked. They’re not the same group of 18-year-olds who were singing about pirates and zombies three years ago. They elude to this with the meta line “college hit those dudes like a ton of bricks.” The band did a lot of growing up since we’ve last heard from them, and they are guided by a new creative north star.

Art Imitates Life

The foundation that the band began to flesh out with this record (and would expand upon over the course of a trilogy of albums) is a style of hyper-intricate, self-referential, and pop-culture-obsessed rock that depicts the good and bad sides of a life well-lived. Early on the band used the term “realist pop-punk” when describing the sound of their artistic rebirth. Call it what you want, but it’s still one one of the most refreshingly honest and true approaches to music I’ve ever heard, and it was an absolute revelation to me at seventeen.

There’s beauty in simplicity, and sometimes real life is more compelling than anything you could ever make up. TWY’s music doesn’t revolve around sweeping epics, chasing material goods, or even the other, it’s all music that’s firmly told from one perspective and all bears the insecurities and imperfections that come with it. The focus of the music varies from song to song, but this singular perspective allows for a cohesive vision that the listener can simultaneously empathize with, and project themselves onto.

Throughout The Upsides, singer Dan “Soupy” Campbell flexes his now-well honed writing ability, making it obvious he’d time between albums studying and working on his craft. One of the most under-appreciated aspects of his style is his acute ability to write minuscule details. Small observations and references that add a layer of specificity that makes the album feel more realized and lived-in. Each line adds onto the story that the listener is building in their head until an entire narrative is formed around the character. You’re fleshing out your own universe built on the language of the album and developing a one-of-a-kind relationship with its narrator.

Sometimes The Upsides tackles big psychological issues like post-college listlessness, relationship dynamics, and even death. At other times they zoom down to view life on a macro level and vignette the little scenes that happen in life like a broken down car or going on a midnight pretzel run to the stand behind your house. Sometimes it’s funny and biting social commentary on the Westboro Baptist Church or the shitty fist-pumping people you meet at parties. It’s an album that encapsulates the life of a post-college 20-something from every possible dimension.

To me, the quintessential song on the album is the Deluxe Edition’s penultimate track “Logan Circle: A New Hope.” The song is a stripped-down reworking of the album’s second track “Logan Circle” that echoes many of the original track’s sentiments but also serves as an incremental update on the life of Campbell. “A New Hope” is redone in a slower, more pensive approach that allows the lyrics and instrumentation to shine through and glisten to their full potential, highlighting both the brilliance of the lyrics and the proficiency of the band members.

The first verse of the original “Logan Circle” contains a lyric that hooked me for the rest of the album: “We just can’t blame the seasons / The Blue Man Group won’t cure depression.” The line resonated with me originally because it’s an obvious Arrested Development reference, but it also doubles as a bit of life advice about optimism and outlook. This all circles back to the cliched idea that this album is something I needed to hear at the time. I wasn’t hopeless, but I needed something hopeful. I needed to be told how to handle these feelings I’d never felt before. I needed to be told how to combat them and move on with my life, and that’s exactly what The Upsides did for me. It was musical therapy.

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Emergence

Though I didn’t consider it at the time, I’ve only recently come to realize that pop-punk has been the genre that I’ve listened to for the longest in my life. It’s partly a byproduct of when I was growing up (thanks, mid-90’s) but also it just happened to be one of the first genres that I really explored. As a result, there was something comforting about sinking back into the genre after spending some time away from it. I feel like It’s cheesy to admit an album about not feeling sad helped me stop feeling sad, but Upsides was instrumental in my emergence from sadness in the wake of this first relationship.

It wasn’t just the optimistic messages, it’s that the songs found the optimistic messages in the face of everything else. Feelings of sadness are not invalid, but with enough distance, you realize that there’s no reason for them, there’s nothing to be gained from them, only energy wasted. It was a realistic portrayal of exactly how I was feeling then. And more on-the-nose, the album’s breakup song “Melrose Diner” served as both a validation of my feelings and a cautionary tale about becoming the shitty, bitter ex.

My love for The Upsides grew exponentially with each listen, and within a year it became my most listened-to album of all time, a title that it still retains to this day. In fact, my love for Upsides grew with each subsequent album that the band released as future songs would call back to lyrics contained within their earlier works. By fall of 2011, I’d begun my first term of college and the band had released their third album Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing.

The Upsides marked the beginning of a three album “trilogy” that depict the arc of Campbell’s struggles with anxiety and depression, and with the trilogy’s conclusion in 2013, the band cemented themselves as my favorite act of all time. With three releases that were all equally impeccable, I’ve now spent roughly 12 days of my life listening to the band’s various releases, a number I wouldn’t take back if you paid me.

At the end of the day, The Upsides is one of a handful of albums that changed my life, and there’s no higher praise I can hoist upon it than that. It’s a well-crafted and powerfully intricate release that rewards close listens and spawned its own mythology. It engages the listener in a way that few other pieces of art do. There are lots of albums in my life where I can point to a clearly-defined “before” and “after” period, but Upsides is an album that changed my entire way of being. It shifted my world one step towards a more positive existence, and I can’t thank the band enough for that. It’s a radical powerhouse of a record that I still listen to nearly every week, and I can’t fathom my life in a world without it. It’s a beautiful creation, and the world is a more beautiful place for it.

Thank you for everything, Upsides.