Wednesday, July 11, 2018

My Top 100 Favorite Albums of the 2000s

A few months ago, I was veering dangerously close to burning out on writing. I had been juggling too much work and it was starting to take a toll. It was also cutting into my leisure time, specifically the time I'd always set aside to write for myself. For years, I'd used music writing almost as a form of therapy: a way to put emotions or memories to paper and keep myself grounded. Those opportunities becoming less frequent meant I was finding more of a foothold professionally, but it also meant I was losing part of what had made me fall in love with writing in the first place.

So I started this project. I'd never gone through the process of building out a ranked albums list for the 2000s, so I figured, why not give that a shot? It could be my practice run for next year, when I have to do this again for another decade and a whole new set of albums.

So many of these records are things I have written about at length in the past. It's possible I've spilled more words about Letters and Futures than any other writer on this planet, so deep is my love for those albums. So I set myself a challenge here: write about these records in new ways. I wanted to find an angle for every album that could shine a light on why I love it, why it means the world to me. In some cases, that meant writing more traditional blurbs. In other cases, it meant focusing on one song or one idea or one theme and exploring that a bit. In a lot of cases, it meant writing about my life and why these albums became a part of it.

The resulting project took me the better part of six months. I chipped away at it every night before bed, taking just 10 or 15 minutes before I turned in for the night to sit down in front of the computer, choose an album, and cast myself back in time to when it captured my world. Slowly, the list took form. Eventually, I realized that the list wasn't just a catalog of music, but also an autobiographical story, told through albums that I loved in the most formative years of my life. As it turned out, writing about the music I loved between the ages of nine and 18 meant writing a lot about my life. Some of the stories told below are things I've revealed before. Some are things I don't think I've ever told anyone. All form the backbone for a collection of albums that is completely "me." I didn't write these records, but there's at least a song from every single one of them that feels like it came directly from my heart.

And so, finally, after half a year of writing and reminiscing, I'm ready to let this project be finished. I don't know if anyone will ever read all of it, or any of it for that matter. For those who do, though, I hope you'll see this list for what it is: not just a collection of 100 amazing records, but also a tribute to the power of music and its ability to break your heart, weave it back together again, preserve your memories, keep friends close, take you back in time, transport you across the country, and bring back loved ones who are no longer there to call.

1. Butch Walker - Letters

Sometimes, falling in love with music happens gradually. The term is “grower,” for an album or song that slowly and steadily takes ahold of you. Letters, for me, was the opposite. It was a dizzying dopamine rush of a record. It took me, in the space of four or five tracks, from being barely aware of the artist behind it to loving his music like I’d been listening to it for my whole life. In the years since, Letters—and Butch Walker in general—has meant a lot of different things to me. It’s been a soundtrack to early mornings and late nights, heartbreaks and triumphs, love and death. It’s been the technicolor explosion of a perfect pop song and the ragged acoustic symphony of a dejected soul. But even after hundreds of listens and thousands of memories, I’ll never stop going back to that first time, when everything clicked so fast and changed my life like the beat of a drum.

2. Jimmy Eat World - Futures

The cover of Futures depicts a guy huddled outside an out-of-order telephone booth on a dark night. It’s a lonely shot—at least, by all accounts it should be. But something about looking at that cover always felt so hopeful to me. There’s a romance to late nights, to telephone booths, to looking for any way in the universe that you could reach the person you love right fucking now. I played this record over and over again in the fall of 2004, when I was 13 years old and just starting to realize how much a heart could feel. That probably sounds corny, but there’s something to be said for the records you find when you’re young and unguarded and willing to pour every piece of yourself into the songs. There’s so much to love in this record: slow dances and friends all around you and night drives and train rides. But to me, it will always epitomize those crisp, cold nights in November 2004, believing in futures like my life depended on it.

3. Jack's Mannequin - Everything in Transit 

There’s a sound of summer, and it’s called Everything in Transit. Radiant piano keys, beachy melodies, and lyrics scrawled in a diary by a heart ready for something more. For every kid at the end of the school year whose life was becoming a boring pop song, this record offered a tonic. It hearkens back to a time when summer was carefree and full of every possibility you could fathom: love and mixed tapes and crowded rooms; beaches and late-night swimming pools and tidal waves ready to put your whole town underwater. When you grow up, you shed that possibility for stability and routine. But records like this one keep you young by always offering a door to the past, and to a time when there really was a such thing as a holiday from real.

4. The Dangerous Summer - Reach for the Sun 

Graduating from high school is thrilling. It’s also scary. Even when you have a college lined up and a major picked out, it’s very difficult to know for sure what comes next. Maybe you’ll keep ties with your friends, or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll find your way back home, or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll stay who you are right now, or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll end up working in the field you have in mind, or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll get your dreams, or maybe you won’t. Reach for the Sun came out right at the beginning of my final month of high school. That spring, as that chapter of my life drew to a close, I remember driving around with this album playing on the car stereo, capturing every ounce of excitement, uncertainty, and fear I was feeling. As the world began to shift around me, this record kept me sane and kept me brave. Today, a lot of things have changed—my friends, my dream, my home, and me—but this record always makes my heart beat the same way it did the night before graduation.

5. Matt Nathanson - Some Mad Hope

Some Mad Hope. I always loved that title. It was the hope that the girl you liked might like you back, or the hope that your life might just work out the way you dreamed it when you were young. For Nathanson, on this record, it was the hope that he might salvage his marriage before he broke it entirely. When I was young, I heard these songs primarily as hymns of unrequited love, because that tends to be the only thing you hear in songs when you’re experiencing it. The actual words and themes are so much more complex, though. There’s a tension in these songs, between the restlessness of wanting to run, to escape, to find something more, and the certainty you feel about loving the person you’re committed to. Most records about relationships find their protagonists at one end of the spectrum: all in, or ready to get out. On Some Mad Hope, Nathanson acknowledged that even the strongest relationships can be mired by doubt or restlessness from time to time. It’s a record that has comforted me hundreds of times at the end of hard days, just by showing me that it’s sometimes okay to dwell in the gray areas.

6. Green Day - American Idiot 

American Idiot will forever be pegged as a political album. It is, to a certain extent. Green Day wrote it in part as a response to the Bush years, and it released in the fall of an election year. But American Idiot is most adequately described as a coming-of-age album. It’s a record about disenfranchised, rebellious youths who run away from home, get caught up in the underbelly of the big city, fall in love with each other, break each other’s hearts, and end up back home with little to show for it all but scars and hard-fought wisdom. Of course, there are also appropriate rock opera tropes along the way, like alternate personalities and the ultimate destruction of those personalities. Still, American Idiot resonates ultimately not because of politics or because of high-concept twists, but because the core story of growing up is a universal one. We’ve all stumbled down that boulevard of broken dreams, and we’ve all ended up yearning for a whatsername after the dust cleared. On this record, Green Day tapped into those small, unglamorous stories and made them feel epic enough to be operatic.

7. Butch Walker - Sycamore Meadows

Butch Walker found the strength to make Sycamore Meadows after his house burned to the ground and he lost every material possession he’d ever owned. I found the strength to move on with my life after listening to it. Sycamore Meadows found me just a few months after the first girl I ever loved broke my heart. I spent the fall destabilized, trying to find my way back to the center not because I wanted to, but because I knew I had to. This record was the first thing that made me feel like there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Its songs—crushing breakup ballads, radiant road trip anthems, and everything in between—painted a portrait of recovery and resilience that I wanted so badly to live up to. I’d like to think that I did. Today, I consider Sycamore Meadows the first record I fell in love with after I really grew up. In that sense, it’s easily one of the most pivotal albums of my life so far.

8. The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound

The ’59 Sound captures the transition from youth to adulthood in all its growing pains and glory. It’s a record for when you’re still young enough to take the girl on a date to the carnival and ride the Ferris wheels into the July night, but old enough to know you’ve got responsibility waiting for you in the morning. For years, I heard this record as a parallel to early Springsteen LPs, about youthful summer nights spent bumming around the streets of a beachside town. Certainly, there are flickers of that feeling on The ’59 Sound. These songs are crammed full of classic cars, movie screens, and references to iconic rock ‘n’ roll songs. But there’s also darkness lurking in these songs, somewhere off toward the edge of town. Friends die in a car wreck on a Saturday night, and late night diners turn from places of communion to places of commiseration. The journey from youth to adulthood proves to be a treacherous one, littered with broken hearts and broken promises. But as the album draws to a close, it seems to ask: is it better to be happy and oblivious, riding in the backseat of your own life? Or would you rather take the wheel and reap all the joy and hardship that comes with the freedom of adulthood? Growing up means learning how to take the bad with the good, and the ugly with the beautiful. On this record, Brian Fallon and his bandmates understood that fact better than most. 

9. John Mayer - Continuum

I’m of the mind that John Mayer has never made a bad album. He’s crafted great records as a teen pop heartthrob, as a folk artist, as a guy dabbling in country, and as an adult contemporary singer-songwriter. With Continuum, though, he set out to make a masterpiece and succeeded. Everything about this record feels calibrated for classic status, from the epic guitar solos to the stylish, minimalist album artwork. What makes Continuum so great, though, is the songcraft. Plenty of artists have tried to will themselves toward making a masterpiece. Few have accomplished the feat. Mayer did it by being honest about the pains of growing up, getting your heart broken, and realizing that the world is probably a much more fucked up place than you thought it was as a kid. Mayer himself might not be built for the era of political correctness and pop star backlash we’re living in today, but on this record, he made an album as durable as any other composition from the 2000s.

10. U2 - All That You Can't Leave Behind

When U2 made All That You Can’t Leave Behind, they intended it as their big comeback—their way of “reapplying” to be the biggest band in the world. When a pair of planes hit the towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, it became something more. It didn’t matter that All That You Can’t Leave Behind had predated the attacks by almost a year, or that none of the songs were explicit responses to the tragedy. It didn’t even matter that these guys were Irish instead of American. The tunes on this record became symbols of hope and resilience in the months and years after 9/11, and U2 became a big part of the recovery. Today, the songs on All That You Can’t Leave Behind are older than “Where the Streets Have No Name” was when U2 played the Super Bowl Halftime Show. They also sound roughly as timeless. U2 always specialized in writing songs that were specific enough to feel of the moment, but vague enough to be whatever listeners needed them to be. This record proves that fact. For the world, it was the sound of shaking off the dust and rubble and seeing beautiful days once more. For me, it’s been the sound of graduations, cross-country flights, Christmastimes, reflections on mortality, and much more. Regardless of the occasion, it’s always been a perfect soundtrack.

11. Counting Crows - Hard Candy

Hard Candy frequently sounds like a glossy, happy-go-lucky pop album. What I always loved most about it, though, is that it isn’t. Early on, Counting Crows gained a lot of fans for writing songs that were as crushingly sad as they sounded. With this record, though, they flipped the script. These songs often sounded happy—with their big hooks, bright production, and soaring guitar solos—but they weren’t. One song is about suicide. Another is about a miscarriage. Several are about struggles with mental illness. A good portion of the record is filtered through the insomnia that was plaguing Adam Duritz when he wrote the songs—a factor that lends the album a delirious, late-night feel. And the song named after “Miami,” one of the sunniest cities in the United States—is a crushing breakup anthem. That’s the thing with Counting Crows, though: things aren’t always what they seem to be.

12. Mat Kearney - Nothing Left to Lose

To me, Nothing Left to Lose has always been about packing up and leaving. It’s a classic record about the call of the highway and the excitement of adventure. It’s also a coming of age record, for the moment in your life when getting in the car and driving away isn’t just a desire, but an actualized possibility. It’s not always clear why the protagonist in these songs is running away. Is it to chase a dream? To see about a girl? To run away from an identity that scares him? Is it to scratch a youthful itch? To see the rich tapestries of the American highways? To get so far away from home that he starts missing it every time he hears a train whistle? For me, at different times, it’s been all of those things: a record for running away from something, and a record for running toward something. Kearney’s musical DNA for this record includes a lot of different influences, from Springsteen to Coldplay to hip-hop, but to me, Nothing Left to Lose will always sound like one thing: the wide open road.

13. Dashboard Confessional - Dusk and Summer

There will never be anything as beautiful in this world as a late summer night. The sunset splashed across the sky; the sound of the waves hitting the shore; the hum of crickets reverberating from every direction; the warmth still hanging in the air, even as you feel the first crisp notes of autumn creeping in. Nights like that can be enjoyed in so many ways: at concerts; sitting around bonfires with friends; out on the porch with a beer in your hand, laughing with family as the hour grows later and later. But they’re best with the girl that you love laying next to you on the beach, knowing that you’ve still got at least one more night of this perfection before it’s back to the reality of everything else. This album bottles those nights and makes it possible to relive them whenever you want. It’s aching, yearning, wistful, and gorgeous. It both hurts like hell and feels as euphoric as any music released in the 2000s. Chris Carrabba made a lot of great albums between 2000 and 2009, but none captured a specific vibe or moment quite as well as Dusk and Summer. It was also the album playing when I fell in love with the girl I was going to marry, a fact that will always elevate it to a higher plane for me.

14. Safetysuit - Life Left to Go

The soundtrack for a summer love that never quite was. Every note of it brings back little moments of that season: her smile, the way she felt in my arms, the newfound excitement of sneaking out of the house for a party. The long days spent at the beach, or the late nights cruising around my hometown, reflecting on my life as the music pulsed and expanded in the background. Elation, heartbreak, and everything in between. This record set my heart aflame with optimism when I thought I had a chance with her. It cut through the doldrums of a 4 a.m. rainstorm when I finally started to let go of that hope. And it drifted through my car at some point on the night she broke my heart. By the time the end of the summer rolled around and that girl walked out of my life, these songs were an aching reminder of what could have been: an entire season of love and loss, encapsulated in a cataclysmic rush of emotional vocals and pounding guitars. I’ve come a long way since that summer, but when I play these songs now, it’s like nothing has changed: suddenly I’m 17 years old again, wandering through corridors of drunken euphoria, sweltering summer nights, and heartbroken resolve, and wondering what happened to the best friend I made the mistake of falling for.

15. Cary Brothers - Who You Are

The bisecting, overlapping highways that bedeck the cover of Who You Are mean a few things for me. This album hit me in the summer of 2009, just a month or two past my graduation and just when I was staring down the barrel of a new adventure. It also hit me in the week that my family said goodbye to our first dog, which happened to be my first experience with death. This album encapsulates the mix of emotions that was that summer and the following fall. There’s loneliness and grief and heartbreak in these songs, but there’s also a steely resolve to get over those things and move on with your life. “Would you leave your life and ride?” Brothers asks at one point. That fall, as I drove back and forth between my hometown and my college town and slowly uncoupled myself from my old life, that question and the unassuming, patient songs surrounding it felt like a new beginning. Those highways on the cover say it all: chaos, confusion, possibility, freedom, gridlock, and escape.

16. Butch Walker - The Rise and Fall of Butch Walker and the Lets-Go-Out-Tonites!

The Rise and Fall is not my favorite Butch Walker album, but it might be the one I remember most fondly. When Letters broke through, I was at the peak of adolescent blues. By the time Sycamore Meadows came around, I was starting to feel the pressure of high school ending and college looming. The Rise and Fall arrived in between, in the middle of one of my last carefree summers. At 15, with no job, no responsibilities, and nowhere I had to be every day, I was living the truest summer vacation lifestyle. This record is perfect for that: it’s all L.A. glam and raucous parties, channeled through filthy guitar riffs and sky-scraping choruses. The Rise and Fall also had the benefit of being the first Butch Walker album to come out after I became a die-hard fan, as well as the first one I ever saw him play live. To this day, it’s an album that takes me back to one of the purest and most fun seasons of my life. I love it for that, but also for the songs, which pack deep emotion, wry humor, and sharp barbs into the most singular music Butch Walker ever made.

17. Will Hoge - The Wreckage

Will Hoge crashed his motorcycle and almost died before making The Wreckage. The result is the most urgent and redemptive music he ever made. It’s an album that either beats with the wild optimism of having a new lease on life, or aches with the exquisite pain of chances not taken. The redemptive road trip anthems are offset by stark heartbreakers about broken marriages and relationships that have lost their spark. But in the midst of it all, Hoge finds the silver lining: in the person he loves, in the call of the highway, and in the battered chords of a rock ‘n’ roll song. “Keep on dreaming, even if it breaks your heart,” he sings at one point. It’s one of the best and wisest pieces of advice an artist has ever put in a song, and a line I've called upon over and over again in the midst of my darkest moments.

18. The Killers - Sam's Town

Critics hated Sam’s Town, and it isn’t hard to see why. Where Hot Fuss was a hooky, hedonistic opus overflowing with urban nightlife debauchery, Sam’s Town is a dark, rusty record about small town life in Dead End, America. The stakes on Hot Fuss were in the urgency of Brandon Flowers’ voice, or maybe the murder theme that ran through two of the songs. The stakes on Sam’s Town are no less than life or death, escape or burnout. There’s drama and tension in these songs, because it feels like the people in them are gambling their last few dollars on a fool’s hope of getting out. The result is a record that is a lot less fun than Hot Fuss, but no less thrilling. Sam’s Town captures the wide-eyed dream of youth, the open arms of the highway, and the promise of a wide open future. In 2006, it sounded like a pop band overreaching. Today, when rock bands have stopped being big enough to take this kind of risk—let alone bold enough—it sounds nothing short of heroic.

19. Dashboard Confessional - A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar

No one was ever better at tapping into teenage angst than Chris Carrabba. In lesser hands, Dashboard Confessional’s lyrics could have sounded laughably overwrought. But Carrabba had the voice, the earnestness, and the sense for dramatic melody that could take those emotions and make them sound as big and cinematic as they do when you’re actually living them. A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar might be his quintessential record. Here, Carrabba captured the rush of a perfect first date, the numbing devastation of a breakup phone call, and everything in between. Of course it matters that A Mark, A Mission is bracketed by some of the best, most defining songs ever to come out of the emo movement—particularly the iconic “Hands Down,” which will never, ever get old. But what makes this record the definitive Dashboard Confessional document is the way it distills the growing pains and heartbreaks of adolescence into something that could soundtrack every dejected drive, every bedroom cry, and every hard-earned realization that things were going to work out okay. I’m not sure anyone’s ever made a better or more accurate coming-of-age record.

20. Keane - Hopes & Fears
Keane were never going to be cool. Pitched as the heir apparent to Coldplay, arriving on the scene with an exceedingly romantic power ballad, and playing with a lineup that featured no guitars at all, these guys were destined to be written off by critics and snobs alike. As a 14-year-old kid with a crush on a girl and a penchant for earnest songwriting, though, I gravitated to Keane for all the reasons that the cool kids hated them. The skyscraping hooks, the vulnerable lyrics, Tom Chaplin’s big-hearted vocals: these ingredients tapped into my sonic pleasure points and made Hopes & Fears the soundtrack of my life. Briefly, in the winter of my eighth grade year, I would have pointed to this album as my favorite record of all time. It just seemed to capture so perfectly what I was feeling at the time: adolescent longing, crushing loneliness, the butterflies of a half-formed romance, and the sense that everybody and everything around me was changing. That year marked the end of a chapter in my life, my eighth and final year at the school where I’d grown up and met all my friends. Soon, it would be on to a new school, a new group of friends, a new life. When I listen to “Everybody’s Changing” now, I think of those people and that place and can’t help but feel a wave of nostalgia for something golden that felt like it lasted forever—right up until the moment it was gone.

21. The Killers - Hot Fuss

A lot of people fell in love with Hot Fuss in their late teens or early twenties, when its rip-roaring, hedonistic pop songs soundtracked endless nights of drinking, drugs, and meaningless sex. I can certainly imagine Hot Fuss being that kind of record for people who were of a certain age when it came out—the only album you wanted to hear at parties when you were pounding shots with your friends. There’s a darkness to this album that not many mainstream acts can pull off—a risky, unpredictable vibe that encapsulates a time in your life when it really feels like the night can take you anywhere. I was only 14 the first time I heard Hot Fuss, but I still felt the dingy excitement in these songs—even if I wasn’t old enough to live it. It didn’t hurt that The Killers were writing better hooks than anyone else in 2004, or that the songs somehow managed to have just the right mix of dumb charm and surefooted swagger. The Killers are still touring and making records today, but this incarnation of the band only existed for one record—a fact that makes Hot Fuss even more special in retrospect.

22. Augustana - Can't Love, Can't Hurt

“It’s quiet in the streets now,” Augustana frontman Dan Layus sings at the outset of Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt. For me, this record was the calm before a turbulent storm. I remember hearing those words and these songs on spring nights at the tail end of my junior year of high school, driving home from late rehearsals for my choir’s annual pop variety show. The music seemed to capture the floral fragrance of the season, the possibility of the evening, and the aching anticipation for summertime. As I fell for one of my best friends—slowly at first, then with quick and reckless abandon—these songs seemed to send another message: things were never going to be the same again. They weren’t. The wildness of the summer broke my heart, splintered my dreams, and hardened me for the fight to come: the fight of growing up and facing the challenges of adulthood. This record plays like a reminder of the way things were right before everything changed, its radiant choruses and lilting alt-country vibes taking those unseasonably hot spring evenings and transforming them into something that can be conveyed through a speaker.

23. John Mayer - Heavier Things

Heavier Things is not the best John Mayer album. I think, at most, I would put it at number three. But this record was the first piece of music I ever purchased with my own money, and to that end, it will always hold a place near and dear to my heart. Every music fan has an album (or a few albums) that preceded their voracious appetite for music. An album they played every single day for months on end, sometimes twice. An album that defined, all by itself, a complete time period in their lives. An album that sounds like the past preserved in amber. This is one of those albums for me. When I hear it now, it sound like the autumn of 2003: seventh grade, in all its awkwardness and possibility. Back in those days, I used music to express the things I could never say myself: about who I was as a person, or about the feelings I had for friends or girls or both. Heavier Things was a container for all those feelings, and years later, it still is. That point alone will always make it a fond listen, a familiar old friend that I can convene with at any time. The fact that this record has continued to resonate with me over the years, though, is due just as much to the songs, which capture the emotions and revelations of early adulthood with surprising grace and wisdom.

24. Iron & Wine - Our Endless Numbered Days

The first time I ever fell in love, I was sitting near the back of a tour bus on the return trek from a class trip. It was late at night, we were still hours from home, and the bus was pitch dark. Everyone was trying to get some sleep because we all knew we had to be up bright and early the next day for the last week of school. I was a junior. The girl leaning against me, with her head on my shoulder, was a senior. We were listening to music on my iPod and letting it sooth us to sleep, one earbud apiece. Our Endless Numbered Days was the record I chose, because there’s not much that’s more soothing than the sound of Sam Beam’s voice whispering gently over an acoustic guitar. But I wasn’t being soothed to sleep. I was wide awake, electricity coursing through my body. I was aware of everything, from the smell of her hair to the gentle rise and fall of her breath. And when “Fever Dream” played, when it hit that mandolin interlude right in the middle, my heart started to race, and I looked out the dark window at the highway, and I knew I’d just fallen in love with that girl sitting next to me. In the months to come, “Fever Dream” would be both a happy memory of that moment and a crushing reminder of what I couldn’t have. Today, I can’t listen to that song—or this album, frankly—without feeling my heart start to race just like it did that night. That girl isn’t in my life anymore, but these songs seem to guarantee that she’ll never quite be out of it either.

25. Jimmy Eat World - Chase This Light

There aren’t many songs on this planet that have moved me like “Dizzy” did. Though it’s the final track on Chase This Light, “Dizzy” was actually the second song from the record I heard. I wasn’t listening to leaks yet at the time, but my brother was, so when this record hit the internet, he sent me this song. Even if I was going to wait until release day to hear the rest, he wanted me to experience what he said was the best Jimmy Eat World song ever. That song quickly became the soundtrack of that fall for me: of moving through the whirlwind of emotions that was playing the lead in my high school musical; of spinning in the grips of pure adolescence. “If there’s half a chance in this moment/When your eyes meet mine, we show it.” Back then, I heard those lines as hopeful. Half a chance, I thought, is better than no chance at all. Eventually, I recognized the heartbreak in that song, about a relationship that’s dead and the people inside it who are too blind to read the writing on the wall. The same heartbreak courses through the rest of Chase This Light, a devastating account of lost love and missed opportunities that masquerades as a set of pop-rock anthems. But “Dizzy” is always the song that leaves me feeling like there’s a knife in my back. The first time I listened to it, I caught myself holding my breath during the bridge, wrapped up in the intensity and stakes of the song. Today, I still can’t quite breathe during that big climactic moment, just because it seems like the perfect catharsis for all the things that were but can never be again.

26. Matchbox Twenty - More Than You Think You Are

Matchbox Twenty were my first “discography” band. They were the first band where I legitimately loved every record they’d put out. Granted, at that point in time, Rob Thomas and company only had three full-lengths. Still, for a 13-year-old kid who has maybe heard 50 albums in full, ever, loving three from the same band was significant. I still love all the Matchbox Twenty albums—even North, the record that took 10 years to come to fruition—but More Than You Think You Are is my favorite. Yourself or Someone Like You is more iconic, and Mad Season has a stronger string of singles, but More Than You Think You Are is really the album that made me see just how great “deep cuts” could be. I still love the hell out of the hits: “Bright Lights” might be the best Matchbox Twenty song ever, while “Disease” makes ample use of its Mick Jagger co-write. But the best songs on this record were the ones that never got much attention from radio: torrential rockers like “All I Need” and “Soul”; the gospel-laced bombast of “Downfull”; definitely the wistful summer night heartache of “The Difference.” I fell in love with these songs before every “big” album in my life came along: before Futures, before Letters, before Everything in Transit, even before Heavier Things. They shaped me as a music fan before I became the music fan I am today. Before the iPod and the thousands of songs and the hundred-album lists, these 12 songs (13 counting the hidden track) were enough to be my whole soundtrack.

27. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

I always liked thinking of For Emma, Forever Ago as Christmas music. It’s Christmas music without Jesus or angels, without Santa and his reindeer, without trees or chestnuts or cookies or colored lights. Maybe that impression is just because of the first time I heard it: weeks away from my final high school Christmas break, watching out the window as my hometown was blanketed in a gentle layer of snow. For weeks, I listened to nothing else on my drives to school. I was beguiled by Justin Vernon’s smooth falsetto—the way he could build it into a layered symphony at one moment and let it convey crushing solitude the next. It was a gorgeous sounding record, but I think I most gravitated to the lyrics: odd, often indecipherable things that made it easy to take these lonely, cold songs and fill them with my own memories. Not many things make me miss scraping snow off my old blue Chevy Cavalier at 7:30 in the morning, or bundling up because the car didn’t have a super reliable heater. Not many things make me miss driving five and a half miles in treacherous conditions to get to school, or using the gearshift to help slow the car down at icy intersections. Not many things make me miss those particular memories, but this record does.

28. City and Colour - Sometimes

Breakup albums often paint heartbreak as something noble or grandiose. On his first record under the City & Colour moniker, Dallas Green showed heartbreak for what it really is: a fit of desperate loneliness, stretching out into a dark, dark night that doesn’t feel like it’s ever going to end. I can’t think of a record that sounds better when you’re at your lowest point. Even the acoustic guitars sound dejected. By the time I finally heard Sometimes, the record was almost two years old. I don’t know why I’d never heard of Dallas Green before that, but I’m glad I hadn’t. Because when I got my heart broken in the summer of 2008, I leaned on this record hard. I leaned on it for dozens of late-night drives—drives home from a job I hated with a girl on my mind who I knew I could never have. I didn’t want to be at work, but I didn’t want to be home either. I didn’t want to sit in my room feeling sorry for myself, waiting until I got tired enough to stumble to my bed and fall asleep. So I drove. I took the long way home. I was still feeling sorry for myself, but being in transit made it better somehow. At least for a few minutes, I could fool myself into thinking that I was going somewhere—to meet friends maybe, or to see her. Or maybe I just wanted to play this record and shout along to every word. Either way, those drives established this record as one I will love for the rest of my life.

29. Jack's Mannequin - The Glass Passenger

Sometimes, records come along when you need them most. That was the case for me and The Glass Passenger. In the summer before my last year of high school, I fell in love with one of my best friends. Things didn’t work out, and she ended up driving off to college and leaving me behind. I wasn’t surprised. At a party at her house the night before she left, we’d had a heart to heart and she’d come clean to me: I was one of her best friends, someone she even had feelings for (maybe). But she was in a relationship with someone else, and she was leaving, and whatever we had didn’t make sense. The day after she left, The Glass Passenger leaked online. The arrival was six weeks ahead of the late September release date, but I’m not sure I’d ever needed an album more. I remember driving around that town aimlessly, with nowhere to go, and feeling how empty it was. I also remember drawing strength from these songs. “Just keep your head above,” Andrew McMahon sang on “Swim,” and I felt like he was talking to me specifically. Looking back, I see The Glass Passenger as a dividing line: between naivete and maturity, between my youth and adulthood. That fact alone makes this record hard to listen to. Where Everything in Transit is something immortal to my ears, The Glass Passenger is caught in some weird purgatory between who I was and who I became. Still, there’s something to be said about the record that picks you up at the far side of that journey and ferries you safely to the other side. While this album will never be my all-time favorite, I can count on two hands the records that have played a more important role in my life.

30. Butch Walker - Left of Self-Centered

Today, there are eight Butch Walker solo albums, plus two substantial EPs of original material. When I became a fan, there were only two records, plus the Marvelous 3 material. If I’d become a fan later, I might never have gravitated to Left of Self-Centered the way I did. In terms maturity, quality of songwriting, and overall artistic vision, Self-Centered pales in comparison to virtually every Butch Walker album that followed it. But as a young fan just discovering the genius of Walker’s songwriting, the album hit me like a bomb. I immediately liked Letters more, for its emotional resonance and deeper songwriting. But Left of Self-Centered was the album I reached for when I just wanted something breezy, catchy, and fun. Hook for hook, this record can go up against anything else that Butch has ever released. The songs capture a pop genius at work, in the moment before he became a go-to professional songwriter and producer. Just listen to the hooks on “Far Away from Close” or “Alicia Amnesia” and you’ll hear every bit of melodic craftsmanship that would make Walker a star. Butch doesn’t like this album much today. Maybe he views it as too gaudy, or too influenced by the major label machine. Maybe he just thinks it sounds too much like a Marvelous 3 record. Far from being an undercooked arena rock album, though, Left of Self-Centered displayed a guy with serious writing chops and the urge to explore something darker and more nuanced than what you’d find on the radio. “Suburbia” is a monstrously clever tune about the dark underbelly of boring America; “Trouble” is a surprisingly poignant story song about an accidental pregnancy; “Sober” is a dark look at the devastating effects of alcoholism; and “Diary of a San Fernando Sexx Star” and “Take Tomorrow (One Day at a Time)” were both odes to fallen friends. All the seeds for Letters and everything that came after it were planted right here.

31. Third Eye Blind - Out of the Vein

The best Third Eye Blind album will always be their self-titled debut. It’s the only one that had the alchemy of a functional Stephan Jenkins/Kevin Cadogan partnership (the two were on the outs for much of the recording of the follow-up, 1999’s Blue) and the only one where the album tracks were better than the singles. Out of the Vein, though, came close. Released in 2003, this record followed Jenkins’ breakup with girlfriend Charlize Theron. The result is an aching set of songs that tries to hide its scars behind big, poppy hooks and wry, tongue-in-cheek lyricism. Strip the songs back to their words, though, and Out of the Vein is a sad and wounded record. It captures a singular moment after a breakup, where it hasn’t really been long enough for you to look back on the relationship with any sort of perspective. Instead, Out of the Vein is about those moments post-breakup when you forget, for a moment, that you’re no longer romantically involved. Case-in-point is “Blinded,” an incredible and nuanced song where the protagonist lets himself into an ex’s apartment and spies on her through the shower glass, yearning for a moment for things to be like they used to be. The song could easily be played as a stalker anthem, but it comes across as something deeper: a treatise on the human nature behind failed relationships and the bold, foolish drive to challenge it. It sets up the album’s themes beautifully: of trying save something that’s already gone—and of slowly, painfully coming to terms with the fact that it can’t be rebuilt.

32. Will Hoge - Draw the Curtains

There was a time when Draw the Curtains wasn’t just my favorite Will Hoge album, but one of my top five favorite albums of the 2000s. I saw it as a devastating first-person account of what it’s like to watch a marriage die, a Blood on the Tracks for a new era. Over the years, I started returning to other Hoge records more: the call of the highway on The Wreckage; the hymns for home on Small Town Dreams; the masterclass of songwriting that is every track on Never Give In. This album didn’t draw me back in the same way, in part because a lot of it hurts to listen to. As far as I know, these songs weren’t autobiographical, at least not totally. Hoge and his wife never divorced. But Draw the Curtains is so wrought with the agony of a crashed relationship that it can’t help but make me think of some of the lowest moments I’ve had in my love life. Songs like “When I Can Afford to Lose,” “Dirty Little War,” “I’m Sorry Now,” and “Draw the Curtains” don’t romanticize a single lick of heartbreak. They just paint it as it is: a mess of dissatisfaction, regret, and unquenchable anger at oneself and one’s choices.

33. Chad Perrone - Wake

Most of the records on this list take me back to my high school years. Wake came out in 2008, but I didn’t hear it until two summers later. For me, it became the sound of the summer where I fell in love with the girl I was going to marry. “Blinded” was the first song I ever put on a mixtape for her and the song I quoted in my toast at our rehearsal dinner: “How do you believe in anything enough to know that it will never change?” Even in the infant stages of our relationship, those words meant something to me. They reassured me on the days when our long distance relationship seemed hardest, and made me smile when I thought about our happiest memories. The rest of the songs also carry echoes of the best summer of my life: the perfect weather, the sundrenched drives, the long days at the beach. Chad Perrone has a talent for writing sad, weighty ballads, but here, he went in the opposite direction, delivering his sturdiest hooks and brightest production ever. The upbeat numbers sound like anthems, while the slower songs feel as wistful and reflective as a late summer night. Both sides of the coin are transcendent.

34. Jimmy Eat World - Bleed American

“With one hand high, you’ll show them your progress/You’ll take your time, but no one cares.” There’s a lot to latch onto on Bleed American, from the ubiquitous hit (“The Middle”) to the all-time classic tearjerker (“Hear You Me”). Personally, though, I’ve always gravitated most to “My Sundown,” and that line up there in particular. I think it’s human nature to think about how other people will react to your accomplishments. Will they be impressed? Will they congratulate you? Admire you? Reminisce of the you they used to know before you became something admirable? We’re all the stars of our own movies. We’d like to view everyone else as the supporting players, reacting to what we do. In reality, though, people are usually too busy with their own movies to pay much mind to what you’re doing, which means you always end up disappointed when you want to “show them your progress.” “My Sundown” is crushing because it recognizes a brutal truth: not only are other people not the supporting characters in your movie, but they’re usually not even watching. Of course, that revelation is also kind of liberating, because it means that you are more free of other peoples’ expectations or impressions of you than you ever believe in your head. Growing up, I gravitated to that line about showing off your progress because I wanted people to care about what I did. I thought “My Sundown” was about the validation that comes after personal growth. Now, I see the song for what it is: not about the validation, and maybe not even about the growth, but about the self-driven journey to get there. It drives home what I think is the message of the record as a whole: “Live right now, just be yourself.”

35. John Mayer - Room for Squares 

To listen to John Mayer throughout the 2000s was to hear one of the most talented songwriters of his generation chronicle the trials of growing up in real time. Room for Squares is ultimately a coming-of-age record. Though the album starts with a guy envisioning himself going back to his high school reunion as a big success story—a tale Mayer probably got to live out in real-life—much of the record revolves around that same guy admitting that he doesn’t have everything figured out just yet. There are songs about moving into your first post-college apartment and feeling lonely and directionless. There are songs about letting your stupid mouth get the best of you. There are songs about sex and romance and butterflies, but also songs about breakups and heartbreaks and feeling like you’ll never find “the one.” Few records catalog the growing pains of young adulthood better than this one. It’s an album about being old enough to be free and independent, but maybe not mature enough for your relationships to last through the holidays. A weaker songwriter would revel in the unbridled freedom of young adulthood: the hookups and the late-night bars and the spontaneous adventures with friends. Room for Squares incorporates those things, but it also touches on the loneliness and existential crises that so many of us work through in our 20s. There might not be a single album better suited to the millennial generation.

36. Bruce Springsteen - The Rising

The first Bruce Springsteen song I ever loved wasn’t “Thunder Road” or “Jungleland.” It wasn’t even “Born to Run.” It was “My City of Ruins,” the redemptive, gospel-laced ballad that closes out The Rising. For so many years, I knew nothing about Springsteen. I didn’t understand why they called him The Boss. I got “Thunder Road” and Rocky Road ice cream mixed up. I was oblivious to the Springsteen mythos, from his legendary band to his marathon live shows to the iconic records he’d made. When I heard him sing “Ruins,” though, I understood. I understood the pain and the hope coursing through the music, and I understood why the guy singing the words was considered one of the best of all time. The rest of The Rising took me years to appreciate. It seemed blasphemous for songs like “Mary’s Place” and “Let’s Be Friends” to coexist side-by-side with crushing heartbreakers like “You’re Missing” and “Paradise.” As time went on, though, I saw that Springsteen didn’t set out to make an album about 9/11 here. Instead, he set out to make an album about life: about how it ends, transcends, or goes on. The best thing about this album isn’t the way it exorcises grief, as I once thought. Instead, it’s the way it captures moving on after unspeakable tragedy. How do you pick up the pieces of your life and figure out a way to be happy again? Sometimes, it’s by crying, by praying, by keeping the person you loved in your thoughts. Other times, it’s by going to a party, putting a record on the turntable, and turning up the volume.

37. Valencia - We All Need a Reason to Believe

Valencia deserved better than pop-punk. In a genre known for being low-stakes, formulaic, and frankly pretty toxic to women, Valencia frontman Shane Henderson wrote achingly personal songs that distilled heavy subject matter into breezy summertime pop tunes. Henderson was also considerably more creative than most of his genre contemporaries, a fact that showed on the band’s genre-hopping swansong, 2010s Dancing with the Ghost. We All Need a Reason to Believe is less adventurous, but it’s also the superior album, thanks in part to the personal resonance of the songcraft. Henderson wrote most of these songs about his girlfriend, who passed away shortly before the album was made. The result is a record about looking back: about planning for summers that you never got to have with the person you love, or about waking up at night from a dream where things went differently and that person was still by your side. It’s a record that should be crushing—and Henderson even made a version of it that was, in a side project disc called When the Flowers Bloom (also on this list). But the music is sunny and the hooks are huge, and Henderson sounds hopeful even when he has every right not to be. Because eventually, you just have to let go and move on—not because mourning is a bad thing, but because your loved ones would want you to revel in all the beauty of the world while you still can. The way Henderson comes to terms with that fact on We All Need a Reason to Believe makes it one of the most life-affirming records of the 2000s.

38. Dashboard Confessional - Alter the Ending

Chris Carrabba has always been a songwriter infatuated with summertime. So it was surprising when, in 2009, just three years after making an unabashed warm-weather record called Dusk and Summer, he turned in one of my all-time favorite fall albums. Maybe it’s just when Alter the Ending came out. Dropping in the fall of my freshman year of college, and hitting the internet on a gorgeous, unseasonably warm autumn weekend that I spent at home, this record glowed like the last flickers of an Indian summer. It’s not my favorite Dashboard Confessional record, but I’ve often considered it Carrabba’s best. In terms of sheer hooks or rock star charisma, Carrabba never sounded better than he did here. It didn’t hurt that Butch Walker sat behind the boards for this record and produced the absolute hell out of it. Looking back, Carrabba has admitted that he thinks his early acoustic records are his high point—swayed, perhaps, by the endless insistence of old die-hard fans. Few of these songs ever make it into setlists, rendering Alter the Ending a true overlooked classic. 

39. Mat Kearney - City of Black and White

Two albums defined the summer between my high school graduation and my first days of college. The first was The Dangerous Summer’s Reach for the Sun, which I’ve already talked about. The second was City of Black and White, Mat Kearney’s proper sophomore full-length. These two albums captured the dichotomy of emotions I was feeling at the time. Sun was mostly the weighty side of the emotional spectrum: fear, doubt, regret, and vulnerability. City was the brighter side of things: hope, excitement, and the unbridled freedom you feel for a few months when you’re a high school used-to-be and a college going-to-be. Sun, unsurprisingly, was my late night record. City of Black and White was my daytime summer jam mix, my soundtrack for sun-soaked drives through my hometown. To this day, City is one of my go-to summer records. Kearney left behind his hip-hop-influenced sound for something more akin to James Taylor and classic folk-pop. The result is a record laden with bright, road-tripping hooks. As the album barrels toward its conclusion, though, the songs fade to evening and the wistfulness of a summer night sets in. Suffice to say that when the summer came to a close and it was time to leave, “City of Black and White” felt like a fitting curtain call.

40. Death Cab for Cutie - Plans

“Love is watching someone die,” Ben Gibbard sings on Plans standout “What Sarah Said,” before arriving at the song’s punchline: “So who’s gonna watch you die?” It’s a heavy question—one that probably looks overwrought on paper. In context, though, it floats along on the same currents of grief and loss that define both the song and an album. This record’s settings—Manhattan streets, hospital waiting rooms, solitary hotel rooms, and deserted highways—serve as perfect backdrops for its ponderings on life, death, and fading youth. When I was younger, the album resonated to me as an end-of-summer ode. Songs like “Summer Skin” and “Your Heart Is an Empty Room” seemed to epitomize what my literature teacher had once told me: that summer symbolizes life and fall and winter represent aging and death. Later, I gravitated to it more as an exorcism of grief and catharsis following the loss of a loved one. But the album’s biggest strength is that it can balance these two ideas at the same time. It’s not just a gloomy collection of songs from a few guys who were thinking a lot about mortality. On the contrary, it’s also a reminder to cherish your life and the people in it while you can—before the time inevitably comes to follow them into the dark.

41. Marvelous 3 - Readysexgo!

By the time I got my hands on Readysexgo!, Marvelous 3 were long gone and the album was out of print. As a defunct 90s one-hit wonder band fronted by Butch Walker, Marvelous 3 weren’t ever going to be easy to find on the shelves of a music store circa late 2005. But I’d fallen deeply in love with Butch’s music, and I knew I had to hear the albums he’d made with his previous band. So I waded into the realm of online used CD shopping and picked this album up for about three bucks on Amazon. At the time, I shared an account with my mom, which meant she got a notification whenever I placed an order. She and my step dad were quite concerned about this album in particular, and thought that I was trying to order pornography under their noses. They could be forgiven for that assumption: the title for Readysexgo! should definitely raise some eyebrows, and the cover isn’t exactly PG-rated either. That hilarity aside, Readysexgo! remains a seminal album in my life—a record with the kind of bold fearlessness that I still try to aspire to in anything I attempt. Coming off a record that produced a hit, the Marvelous 3 could have sold out, made a radio rock album, and become superstars. Instead, Butch Walker and company rebelled against a neglectful label by making an intentionally unmarketable arena rock record. It was a prescient record—and not just because the sky-scraping tunes could have been right at home in the midst of the mid-2000s pop-punk scene. On “Radio Tokyo,” Walker sang about a future where the music business system of label and radio tastemakers wouldn’t matter anymore. 18 years later, we’re living that future, and goddamn: it feels good.

42. Yellowcard - Ocean Avenue

Music rituals are my favorite traditions. Every year, I play the same songs for the same occasions: the drive home for Thanksgiving, the arrival of my Christmas vacation, the first hints of summer. My favorite musical ritual of all time, though, started on Labor Day 2005, the day before I started high school. Before freshman year, I’d attended the same school—with mostly the same group of kids—for eight consecutive years. It was a small school, no more than 20 students per grade, and I was anxious about graduating to a bigger school with tons of people I’d never met. When the end of that particular summer came around, I really wasn’t ready to bid farewell. So, logically, I tried to make the last day of that season count. I enjoyed the weather outside; I logged a few hours playing video games; and I made a playlist of songs that I felt captured the end-of-summer ethos. Every year since, I've made a point of playing the same songs at some point during Labor Day weekend. I did it before every year of high school and every year of college, all the way into my adulthood. Two songs from Ocean Avenue always featured on that playlist: the title track and “Back Home.” The former seemed to bottle the sun-drenched beauty of beaches and oceanside streets into a melody; the latter captured that moment at dusk, right after the sun sinks below the horizon, when you know the season is over. Both felt fitting. “Back home, I always thought I wanted so much more, now I’m not too sure,” Ryan Key sings. The melancholy felt so fitting for that last night of summer every year. I’d gone off and had all these adventures, and now it was time to return to normal. Even now, when I haven’t felt those “last night before school starts” jitters in five years, that song and this record still resonate with me. They’re an ever-present reminder of what summer was back when it meant 2-3 months of complete and utter freedom.

43. Sister Hazel - Chasing Daylight

I search for it every year: the summer soundtrack album. That one record that, for whatever reason, will come to define the season. That quest started here. In the summer 2004, after stumbling upon Chasing Daylight by chance in the stacks of the music store in my local mall, I fell in love with it. Sister Hazel were one of those bands from my childhood that I figured had ceased existing around the turn of the millennium. But here was a record that took the unique roots-pop sound they’d perfected on “All for You” and expanded it into a kaleidoscope of bursting summertime colors. I remember playing these songs over and over again that season, trying to take the little moments—the nights spent laying by the school and swearing “forever” in “Best I’ll Ever Be,” or the sky falling down to the smell of June in “Come Around”—and bottle them up for a lifetime. A lot of years have passed since then, and a lot of new “summer soundtrack” albums have come along and put their stamp on my life. But I’ll always have a soft spot for this one, because it established the prototype. The basic blueprint of every summer playlist I’ve ever made is locked in this album’s hooky, wistful DNA.
44. Something Corporate - Leaving Through the Window

“I met a girl who kept tattoos for homes that she had loved/If I were her, I’d paint my body ‘til all my skin was gone.” Of all the beautiful, insightful lines that Andrew McMahon has written over the years, that one might be my favorite. It comes from “I Woke up in a Car,” which I’ve always viewed as the commencement of Leaving Through the Window, even though it’s track 2. The song is about coming of age and taking control of your life for the first time—about grabbing the wheel and starting to steer after years of sitting in the passenger seat. It’s a song about restlessness, but also about contentment. What could possibly be a happier sentiment than saying that you’ve found dozens or even hundreds of places that felt like home? It’s a reflection of a beautiful, privileged youth—one spent with people and places that feel comfortable and welcoming, but also one that you have to leave behind. When you grow up, leaving home is a rite of passage, no matter how much you love the place you’re leaving. This record reflects that feeling in all its technicolor splendor and pain. It’s a record about nostalgia, rebellion, old friends, and homesickness. It’s chaos and it’s wonder and it’s growing up. And it’s perfect.

45. U2 - How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was the first album I ever put on my first iPod, and the first U2 album I ever listened to in full. For many U2 fans, this record floats near the bottom of the discography. Personally, I will always have an immense fondness for this album. Sure, it’s a grab bag of moods and subject matter. And yes, the mid-section is a little soft compared to the beginning and end. At its best, though, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is a gripping inspection of mortality and of the relationships that children have with their parents and vice versa. The title is a reference to Bono’s relationship with his father, a complex bond that was often painful for the singer. At 14, Bono lost his mother. As an only child, he and his father ended up sharing a house that was filled with grief, both unable or unwilling to open up and talk. “If we weren’t so alike/You’d like me a whole lot more,” Bono sings in “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own.” The song, written after Bono’s father died of cancer in 2001, is a piercing and emotional showcase of grief, regret, and gratitude. For awhile, it was maybe my favorite song ever. Even now, I can’t listen to it without choking up.

46. Better Than Ezra - Before the Robots

There’s this place my family used to go in the summertime called Palisades, right on the shores of Lake Michigan. Three times between the summers of my eleventh and fifteenth years, we retreated to this gorgeous park of cottages, dirt roads, and beachfront expanses. Going to that park felt like journeying to another era—one without TVs or computers or the internet. This record reminds me of one of those summers, because I bought the CD the day before we left. To a lot of people, Better Than Ezra are one-hit wonders, known for their 90s hit “Good” and nothing else. To me, they’re this record—a hooky, wistful collection of songs that sound like summertime and also a little bit like U2. They’re also that second Palisades summer, when I was 14 years old and just about to start high school. To me, that year was the best year—because my entire extended family visited and also because I was still luxuriating at the age when you have zero responsibility. It was a time when I could go off the grid for a week in the summertime and feel like I wasn’t missing anything, or when I could spend an entire day playing in the waves with my stepdad and know it was more important than anything else I could be doing. That kind of escape doesn’t really exist anymore, not just because I grew up, but because everyone is always a tap of a screen away from the real world. This record preserves that innocence for me, though, in a place where three and a half minutes can really feel like a lifetime.

47. Death Cab for Cutie - Transatlanticism

Sometimes, albums just seem like they’re made for you at a specific moment in time. Much more rarely, a million other people end up feeling that exact same way about the exact same album at the exact same time. That’s what happened with Death Cab for Cutie and Transatlanticism. The angst. The longing. The dissatisfaction. The feeling you get when it’s the New Year but you don’t feel any different. Ben Gibbard wrote smartly and astutely about being a heartbroken, directionless young adult, but he also did it in a way that made those emotions seem worthy of screenplay treatment. Or maybe that was just the OC/Seth Cohen angle talking. Whatever the reason, Transatlanticism became the kind of record just about anyone who was between the ages of 13 and 30 when it came out could have fallen for. 15 years later, the songs still sound epic, yet intimate—pristine reminders of a time in your life when every date, kiss, phone call, and heartbreak seemed like the most important thing in the world. 

48. John Mayer - Battle Studies

I’ve got a soft spot for late night records. Around when I started driving, I fell in love with the night and how it made music sound. I can’t tell you how many records I’ve lost myself in because of solitary late-night drives. There’s something about being in the car by yourself, on a road with no other headlights, with the music playing loud, that takes songs to a higher plane. Battle Studies is one of those records. This album only came out three years after Continuum, but it felt like a lifetime to me. Where Continuum bowed in the fall of my sophomore year of high school, Battle Studies found me in college and living away from home for the first time. One positive change was I had a car and a lot of time to spend listening to records, mostly on my long drives back and forth from home to school. Battle Studies sounded particularly splendid on those drives, with its lonely late-night stories about broken hearts and recovery. As the title suggests, this record casts a breakup as an act of war. One song is called “Heartbreak Warfare.” Another is called “Assassins.” A third is called “War of My Life.” Mayer was clearly going through some pretty serious shit when he wrote these songs, and the result is the rawest and most honest record he ever wrote. It also has maybe his best song: the sublimely beautiful “Edge of Desire,” with a guitar solo that sounds like the stars on a cold, clear night.

49. Snow Patrol - Final Straw

When I was young, my grandparents lived in Hanover, New Hampshire, the home of Dartmouth College. Everyone has a destination their family visits every summer. Hanover was mine. I still have so many fond memories of those summers: going for hikes on my grandparents’ sprawling wooded property; playing badminton on the back lawn; spending long days or muggy evenings out on the screened-in porch. In a lot of ways, that place was summer to me as a kid. So when my grandparents decided to move to Ohio in 2004, it was a major blow for me. On the one hand, they’d be closer to where my family lived, in Michigan. On the other hand, that summer’s trip out to Hanover would be the last. The day before we made the long drive from northern Michigan to New Hampshire for the last time, I picked up this album at a bookstore. Over the course of more than a thousand miles—and a few routing snafus that delayed our arrival time by many, many hours—I listened to Final Straw upwards two-dozen times. We drove through the day, into the night, and all the way until dawn, and these songs kept me company in the backseat. “Run” was my favorite—a heart-wrenching epic that sounded as big as our journey—but the pounding beat of “Chocolate” might have made it the most ideal road trip song. To this day, I can’t listen to any of these songs without reminiscing about that last July week in Hanover. I haven’t been back since, and frankly, I doubt that a return trip would mean all that much to me now. Most of the things that made those trips so special are gone. That house is someone else’s now. My grandpa passed away in 2014, 10 years after leaving Hanover behind. And what’s a trip to New Hampshire without a comically long road trip with the whole family? At some point in your life, you realize you can’t go back to your youth. You can go to the same places and do the same things, but time changes everything. If there’s one way in the world for me to go back to that last New Hampshire trip, it’s this record. I’ll love it for the rest of my life just for that.

50. Something Corporate - North

I don’t know what I expected the first time I heard North, but it wasn’t the sound I heard coming out of my speakers with “As You Sleep.” The cover made me expect something along the lines of what my classmates were listening to in ninth grade: a Fall Out Boy or a Panic at the Disco. Instead, I heard a virtuosic piano player and a poetic string of words that I related to immediately. That was my introduction to Andrew McMahon, who would go on to become one of my top three favorite songwriters of all time in the years to follow. Since then, McMahon has kicked off any vestiges of the emo and pop-punk influences that were still clinging to him and his keys on this record. With North, though, McMahon mastered the art of teenage angst. I once read that Something Corporate’s songs sounded like all the very private lessons you learned about life when you were up in your room crying over a girl or feeling sorry for yourself over something that probably didn’t matter. 15 years after the fact, this record still sounds like that teenage bedroom, but with some wisdom you probably didn’t notice back then.

51. Motion City Soundtrack - Even If It Kills Me

Few bands have ever done the balance between catchy music and devastating lyrics quite as well as Motion City Soundtrack did it here. Even If It Kills Me sounds radiant. It’s layered in poppy production and huge hooks. It’s so immediate, in fact, that I initially mistook it for shallow. In the fall of my junior year of high school, I spent a lot of time in my buddy’s car—cruising around town, driving back and forth to musical rehearsals, preparing for nights of debauchery, etc. This album was always the thing playing in his CD player, and for a long time, I didn’t get past the hooks. I liked the songs, of course. “Fell in Love without You” and “Antonia” were irresistible and infectious in the best way. But I didn’t realize the demons that were lurking beneath the gloss. I didn’t hear the debilitating loneliness in songs like “The Conversation” or “Hello Helicopter,” and I didn’t hear the life-or-death stakes raging in the title track. Years later, I reconvened with this album and I saw beneath the surface. But I still regret not really listening back then, because it was a lonely year for me, and I feel like this album could have made it seem a little less alone.

52. Matchbox Twenty - Mad Season

Rob Thomas was one of the last great hit machines. Before Max Martin, before Dr. Luke, before the songwriter-for-hire trend got out of hand, Rob Thomas was churning out one bulletproof alt-rock single after another. There’s a reason Matchbox Twenty were able to cross over onto the pop charts so many times. Thomas had enough rock ‘n’ roll grit in his voice—and a talented enough band behind him—to sell his band as something more than just a “pop” act, but he also had an innate ability to pen a rousing hook. When I saw Matchbox Twenty last summer, reunited for the first time in five years, I was struck by just how much firepower the band had in their arsenal. The largest quantity of hits come from the band’s debut, Yourself or Someone Like You, but the best ones might hail from Mad Season. “Bent,” “Mad Season,” and “If You’re Gone” are up there with the best radio rock singles of the 2000s. The former even managed to make it to number one on the Hot 100, the only time that ever happened for this band. The hooks on these songs are massive, but its Thomas’s impassioned delivery that sells them. For all his big hits, Thomas could never be a gun-for-hire writer, because so much of Matchbox Twenty’s appeal was always grounded in his ability to sell the songs. That point holds true for the rest of Mad Season as well, especially “Rest Stop,” which might be the most interesting song he ever wrote. A story about a couple that breaks up on the highway in the dead of night, “just three miles from the rest stop,” the song captures the ragged exhaustion of both a broken relationship and a highway drive that just won’t seem to end. Thomas’s talent is that he makes you feel like you’re in that car, being jerked awake as the girl slams on the brakes and tells her man to take a (literal and figurative) hike.

53. The Wallflowers - Rebel, Sweetheart

The Wallflowers never got a chance to burn as bright as they should have. A mix of bad timing and big pressure (something you can hardly avoid when your frontman is the son of arguably the greatest songwriter of all time) meant that these guys never lived up to the promise of their breakthrough, 1996’s Bringing Down the Horse. They came pretty close, though, nine years later. Rebel, Sweetheart is a solid runner-up in the Wallflowers catalog, stacked with catchy, classic-sounding rock songs that get some extra muscle and charm from the expert production work of Brendan O’Brien. My favorite songs were always the most anthemic and hopeful ones, like “Days of Wonder,” a big rousing rocker that sounds like springtime, or “Nearly Beloved,” a kinetic bolt of energy. Jakob Dylan comes perhaps closest to his dad’s legacy, though, on long, contemplative ballads like “God Says Nothing Back” and “From the Bottom of My Heart.” It took seven years to get a follow-up to this record—2012’s good-not-great Glad All Over—and the band has been dormant since. It’s a shame, because at their peak, The Wallflowers were maybe the best rock band on the planet.

54.  Taylor Swift - Fearless

There are a lot of things you could say about Fearless. You could point to it as the major coming-out party for the biggest star in modern pop music. You could talk about its radio domination, courtesy of songs like “Love Story” and “You Belong with Me.” You could look at it as a turning point in country music, toward a more pop, radio-focused future. You could even call it “the pop-country Thriller,” as a friend of mine has done in the past. The thing that really sticks out to me about Fearless, though, is how wonderfully, wistfully adolescent it is. Swift is a lifelong Dashboard Confessional fan, and you can pick up Chris Carrabba’s influence all over these songs. Like Carrabba, Swift has the ability to make songs about high school crushes and heartbreaks sound profound instead of petty. Unlike Carrabba, Swift was still in high school when she was writing those types of songs, which makes their insight and perspective that much more impressive. The ubiquitous pop singles are the capital letters in the sentence that is Fearless, but the best songs are the ones that never got a lot of play: the high school whirlwind of “Fifteen,” the fairy tale gone wrong in “White Horse,” and the long, sad highway drive of “Breathe.” “It’s 2 a.m., feeling like I just lost a friend/Hope you know it’s not easy for me,” Swift sings on the latter. Growing up sometimes just seems like a collage of moments like that, driving away from a friend or a place you’re not certain you’ll ever see again. That song and this album, snapshots of life in the days between youth and adulthood, perfectly capture the bittersweet ache of leaving your roots behind you.

55. Switchfoot - The Beautiful Letdown

I envy the budding music fans of today. They have all the music they could ever want to hear, just a click away. I suppose the same could have been said for my generation—the Napster generation, or maybe the Limewire generation. But I personally felt weird downloading full albums. Grabbing a track here or there was fine, but if I wanted a record, I still felt duty-bound to buy the CD. It was the limitations of my music-buying budget—along with the limitations of the K-Mart CD selection—that put The Beautiful Letdown in my collection. I walked into K-Mart that day hell-bent on buying a CD, some CD, and this album was the only reasonable candidate. It was still kind of an impulse buy. I liked “Meant to Live,” and I’d heard “Dare You to Move” a couple times, but I had no guarantees that I was going to enjoy the rest. Thankfully, my gamble paid off. The Beautiful Letdown was catchy, chill, and eclectic. The riff-heavy rockers got my blood pumping, and the ballads served as a fitting backdrop for a lot of summer evenings. Plus, as far as inspirational rockers go, it’s tough to do a whole lot better than “Dare You to Move.” Looking back, The Beautiful Letdown feels like the last of a dying breed: a profound, intelligent mainstream record from a band that could really rock. I’d kill to hear songs like these on the radio again.

56. The Hold Steady - Boys & Girls in America

There was a time in my life when Boys & Girls in America meant more to me than virtually any other record on the planet. In the fading days of college, as I felt the last of my youth slipping away, I turned to this album over and over again. Its loud, raucous songs seemed to offer a refuge where responsibility didn’t exist and youth could last forever. Where all I’d ever need to do was round up my best friends and head to a bar for a pint or six. That world didn’t exist, but at some of the best moments of my life, I willfully ignored that fact. Boys & Girls in America never meant to me as much after those loud, spontaneous college years. In 2014, when I was living in Chicago a year after I’d graduated, I tried to will spring into being by blaring these songs from my car speakers. It didn’t work, and it never worked in quite the same way again. But even knowing that this record has gone beyond the point of relatability to me, I can’t imagine a world where it doesn’t exist. Sometimes, nothing seems more romantic than getting drunk and crumbling into dust, a la the perfect “Stuck Between Stations,” or hanging around at a shopping mall waiting for a pretty girl to blow you away.

57. Boys Like Girls - Love Drunk

Boys Like Girls were always going to be a summer band for me. From the first time I heard them sing “Your voice was the soundtrack of my summer” from the stage of a smoky dive bar in Detroit, it was clear this band was for crushes, flings, and trips to the beach. The band’s second album should have been that, too. This record is wall-to-wall hooks. The band was writing pre-choruses and bridges that were better than most bands’ choruses. I remember playing the title track on a road trip to a Boys Like Girls concert in the summer of ’09, still months from the fall release date of this record, and feeling like I was living in some larger-than-life teen movie. In actuality, the record became the soundtrack to my fall. The day I left for my freshman year of college, this album hit the internet. It’s the first thing I played on my drive, and I vividly recall the closer—a sentimental graduation-ready ballad called “Go”—playing as I pulled onto the highway. “Go on and take a shot, go give it all you got,” Martin Johnson sang through my speakers, and it hit me like a bomb. I was scared shitless. I was leaving my friends behind to chase a dream with the odds stacked against me. I was worried I wouldn’t make friends, worried I wouldn’t like my major, worried I would be homesick. This song, cheesy as it was, gave me the strength to keep driving, and this album, cheesy as it is, kept me afloat in those early days of life out on my own. I will forever love this album for that stroke of good timing, but also for the neon-drenched, Bon Jovi-aping pop-rock songs. It's a miracle this band never got bigger than they did.

58. The Damnwells - One Last Century

Nowadays, we’ve gotten used to music being free. Between Spotify, Apple Music, and the still-common strategy of pre-release streams, hearing an album for free has become the norm. Even at the tale end of the 2000s, though, that wasn’t the case. The music that was offered for free—usually by bands trying to get people to listen to their stuff—varied in quality, but was typically unprofessionally recorded and not quite ready for the big stage. All these things made One Last Century a big, big surprise for me in the spring of 2009. Linked as part of a “Free Music Friday” feature on (RIP), this record had an RIYL of Ryan Adams and was a no-strings-attached free download. By the end of the first track, I was hooked. These guys had a gift for melody, a flare for lush, rootsy instrumentation, and a refreshing tendency to pull no punches in their lyrics. Slowly, what had been a free download from a no-name band became one of the dominant albums soundtracking my final months of high school. To this day, I still smile when songs like “Everything” and “Bastard of Midnight” come up on playlists.

59. The Promise of Redemption - When the Flowers Bloom

In high school, I met a girl who wanted to be an actress. I also met her mom, who was an actress, and who—funnily enough—I ended up in a TV commercial with thanks to a friend’s class project. After high school, I lost touch with that girl, but I was close enough to hear the bad news when her mom got diagnosed with brain cancer. One morning in my junior year of college, I was scrolling through my phone in class when I saw a post on Facebook that her mom had passed away. It was the kind of moment you have more and more as you get older: moments where you hear, from afar, that someone you knew is no longer on the planet. That loss felt like a cruel twist of fate, though, because this girl I knew had been one of the friendliest, most spirited people I’d ever met, and because I remembered her mom as being so funny and full of life. I recall thinking, “We’re too young to lose our parents. Why is this happening?” When I got to my car, I put this record on and listened to “It Just Takes Time,” the heartbreaking penultimate track. It wrecked me. Songs about death are often written with the perspective of time, when you can look back in sadness but also fondness. Not these songs. These songs reel with the aching, gaping lack of a person who should still be there. “But this is the very first time/That I have been afraid to go home/In fear that I might fall apart/From this foreign feeling that I’m completely alone.” Songwriter Shane Henderson bellows those words into the ether on “It Just Takes Time,” and they hurt. They are sharp knives that pierce your heart and force you to consider loss in all its unendurable scope. That morning, grieving for the mother of an old friend, I think I finally understood the vast foreverness of death, and it shook me to my core. To this day, I can’t listen to this album without reckoning with the impermanence of everything else, and the importance of cherishing what I have while I have it.

60. Averi - Drawn to Revolving Doors

It’s funny how your view of a song can change completely over time. There are songs love that I adore now for the same reasons I did when I first heard them. There are also songs that have grown and changed with me—sometimes to the point where I stop being able to hear them the way I used to. “Goodnight, Goodbye,” the closing track from Drawn to Revolving Doors, is that kind of song. In early June of 2010, when I first heard this record, I thought it was a quintessential late night summer song. Something about the simple acoustic guitar chords at the start of the song reminded me of crickets crackling through a muggy August evening. I can’t say how many times I played this song that summer, usually on late night drives home from friends houses, or from spending time with my girlfriend. It wasn’t until four years later that I finally saw the song for what it actually is: a farewell to a loved one on their deathbed. The day I got the email that said my grandpa’s health was failing, I pulled out my guitar and played that song. As I fought tears to get through the final refrains, I realized Chad Perrone was doing the same thing on the record: trying to remain composed even as his emotions overwhelmed him. After my grandpa died, this song was perhaps the most crucial inspiration behind the song I wrote for him—the first song I ever wrote that I played in front of other people. I played that song at his wake, but I played this one later, back at my grandma’s house with friends and family around. I’d like to say it struck a chord, as I believe it could with anyone who has ever had to say goodbye to someone they loved. The rest of this album is eclectic and adventurous in a way not many pop-rock records from this era were, but “Goodnight, Goodbye” is what makes it an all-time favorite.

61. Moses Mayfield - The Inside

Moses Mayfield only made one album. The alt-rock band burned briefly for 2007’s The Inside and then shattered, with frontman Matthew Mayfield launching a prolific and consistently solid solo career in the aftermath. As a solo act, Mayfield is often an acoustic-guitar-toting troubadour. On this record, though, he was a charismatic frontman with a commanding rock ‘n’ roll voice. He was capable of selling grittier numbers when he needed to—like the scathing “Control” or the big, building leadoff track “Days Away”—but he was at his best on U2-esque arena ballads like “Fall Behind” and “A Cycle.” The favorite for me was always “Element,” a song that conveys the exhaustion of a relationship that isn’t where it needs to be. At different times, I’ve heard the song as a yearning hymn of unrequited love, as a missive about a long distance relationship, and as the aching post-script to a broken relationship. “Are you fine? I still need to know,” Mayfield sings in the bridge. Earlier in the song, the plea is simpler and blunter: “I don’t want to miss you more.” There aren’t many songs that feel lonelier to me, and I think it’s because there’s something in Mayfield’s voice that captures all the distance and time and mistakes that can build up between two people who used to be closer than anything in the world.

62. The Swell Season - Once

For a lot of people, Once was a surprise. The film came out of nowhere and blew audiences out of the water with its honest, intimate portrayal of a not-quite love story. By the time I first saw the film, I was already closely familiar with the music, thanks to the recommendation of my parents. I ended up buying the DVD for my stepdad for Christmas 2007, and that evening, the entire family gathered on the couch to watch the film together. From the first moment the camera dropped on Glen Hansard, screaming his lungs out to “Say It to Me Now,” I knew Once was going to mean something to me. Hearing these songs on record was one thing; seeing the stars sing them on film—and I mean really sing them, since Once was certainly no lip-syncing project—was something else. When the reprise of “Falling Slowly” wound around at the end of the film, capturing both the heartbreak and the possibility of the open-ended conclusion, there were tears in my eyes. While Once the film remains one of the more vivid movie watching experiences of my life, though, the soundtrack offers plenty to love on its own, from the film’s obvious standards (“Falling Slowly,” “When You’re Mind’s Made Up”) to the more under-the-radar classics (“Leave,” “Lies,” “All the Way Down, “Once”). 11 years later, I don’t think we’ve seen a better soundtrack, or a better music film.

63.  The Wallflowers - Breach

Bargain bins are a beautiful thing. At least they were, back in the era when everyone was buying CDs. And in the 90s and very early 2000s, people were buying a lot of CDs. When Napster took off and iTunes became a thing, people didn’t just stop buying CDs, but they also sold a whole hell of a lot of them back to music stores. There were some usual suspects in these bins: Monster by R.E.M. might be the all-time staple, but virtually any record from a 90s rock band that wasn’t considered a classic was a good bet, from Hootie & the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View to Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping. Breach was one of those records I found in a bargain bin. The Wallflowers were my favorite band as a kid, but I lost track of them after their seminal hit record, Bringing Down the Horse. Breach, the 2000 follow-up, didn’t land on my radar until the summer of 2004, when I found a used copy for four dollars in the racks of an FYE. Rediscovering my once-favorite band was a surreal experience. By this point, the Wallflowers had released not one, but two records since Horse. I liked Breach more of the two. I’d wondered why the Wallflowers had vanished from view, and this record seemed to answer the question. Jakob Dylan was uncomfortable in the spotlight—especially since the spotlight only ever shone as bright as it did because he was the son of Bob Dylan. This record delves into that complex father-son relationship, with a series of songs that shroud deep wounds in wit and cynicism. It’s an album that has only grown on me over the years, as I’ve begun to understand better the complicated bonds between children and their parents.

64. Snow Patrol - Eyes Open

The iconic song here is “Chasing Cars,” and for good reason. When I bought Eyes Open back in 2006, I could hardly stop playing the single for long enough to hear the rest of the album. Eventually, though, I settled on other moments as my favorites. The most crushing is “You Could Be Happy,” a song about yearning for another person even as you wish them the best with someone else. The most sumptuous is “Open Your Eyes,” a sweeping, symphonic piece of pop that fits perfectly in the penultimate slot. And perhaps the best is “It’s Beginning to Get to Me,” a song that kept me going at the end of my freshman year of high school, even as one of the worst years of my life was starting to get to me. Snow Patrol eventually became something of a punchline, whether because of their mainstream-leaning sound, their sheer earnestness, or their status as a go-to coda soundtrack band for shows like One Tree Hill and Grey’s Anatomy. On this record, though, they were aping U2 just about as well as anyone did all decade.

65. Bruce Springsteen - Magic

The Rising was Bruce Springsteen’s comeback album and the beginning of his new era. Just four years later, though, on Magic, it sounded like the E Street dream was starting to wind down. Right before the album came out, Bruce’s longtime assistant Terry Magovern died. The next April, E Street organist Danny Federici was gone. Clarence Clemons had less than four years left in his hourglass. Bruce couldn’t have known any of that was coming when he penned this record. He slid “Terry’s Song,” a tribute to Magovern, into the bonus track slot with just weeks to go to release. Somehow, though, it felt like Bruce sensed that the good times were running out. The result is the most openly nostalgic record in Springsteen’s catalog, but also one of the darkest. Songs like “You’ll Be Coming Down,” “Livin’ in the Future,” and “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” are big, bright, 70s rock ‘n’ roll throwbacks, while the closing quartet of “Magic,” “Last to Die,” “Long Walk Home,” and “Devil’s Arcade” is mired in shadow. It’s a gripping dichotomy, made more emotional in retrospect. This album was the last time that the E Street Band would sound complete and unleashed. 2009’s Working on a Dream didn’t have the songs to do them justice, and 2012’s Wrecking Ball was post-Clarence. Here, though, everything was in its right place for one last time. 

66. Relient K - Forget and Not Slow Down 

I’m not sure any album encapsulates the fall of my freshman year of college better than this one. There were albums I played more, but I’ve also played them more since—to the point where they’ve gathered new memories and new associations. This album, though, still sounds to me like the campus of Western Michigan University on a crisp autumn morning. “Is it time I befriended all the ghosts of all the things that haunt me most?” Matthew Thiessen sings in the first song and title track. It’s a fitting question for a boy on the cusp of new adventures to ask. For me, leaving high school behind was hard. Leaving the familiarity of friends and family and home was hard. That song and this album seemed to speak to that struggle: the struggle born from an urge to move on, even when I knew that I’d left at least a part of my heart three hours north. “I’d rather forget and not slow down.” I didn’t end up having that option, and as it turned out, not having it was for the best. My ties with home never died, and I eventually married a girl from that place and returned to call it home once again. When I listen to this record, though, it still sounds like that fleeting attempt at escape—and all the growth that happened along with it.

67. Switchfoot - Nothing Is Sound

The Beautiful Letdown was the record that made Switchfoot stars, but Nothing Is Sound is the one where they became confident playing that role. This record is big, glossy, loud, and self-assured. The songs rock hard but still showcase a lot of heart, not to mention a penchant for huge skyscraping hooks. The album ultimately resonates, though, because of its lyrical themes. Switchfoot started as a Christian rock band, but they always had the hearts of wanderers—a fact that meant they would never be satisfied with songs that simply basked in the grace of God’s love. Indeed, there is very little complacency—or even satisfaction—to be found in these songs. “Lonely Nation” sets the tone for the record. Frontman Jon Foreman said he wrote it about the “masses of lonely, scared kids” who were coming to the band’s shows at the time. And later in the record, on “The Blues,” he’s asking one question of confusion and discontentment after another. When the record came out, I was reeling at the start of a new life chapter: a new school, a new group of friends, a new world that I didn’t quite fit into—at least not yet. I listened to this album a lot in those days, because it seemed to say: “Don’t worry; everybody’s lonely; nobody has everything figured out; you’ll be fine.”

68. Jon McLaughlin - Indiana

Jon McLaughlin should have been a superstar. In the annals of great piano-driven singer/songwriter records, Indiana is near the top—at least for me. It’s a record that hearkens back to a time when a guy behind a piano could be a rock star, a la Billy Joel or Elton John. On future albums, McLaughlin would try a little too hard to play the pop game, losing a lot of what made him special in the first place. On this record, though, he relied on the quality of his songwriting the carry the day. The songs—about girls who love their mamas' lemonade and boys lying about their biggest regrets—pair shimmering piano licks with big, grand hooks that feel like summertime. It’s a shame the guy who made this record could never tap into the same special alchemy again.

69. Low Millions - Ex-Girlfriends

Ex-Girlfriends is an album about feeling so broken and fucked up that you’re not sure you’ll ever put yourself back together again. The band’s name itself—and the name of one of the songs on the disc—refers to a feeling of being unexceptional. This record certainly hammers that point home. It’s also a breakup album, but it has an X-factor (or ex-factor?) that many albums about broken relationships lack. Part of it is the specificity. Frontman Adam Cohen (son of legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen) isn’t afraid to name names on this record: “Eleanor”; “Julia”; “Hey Jane”; “Nikki Don’t Stop.” The album is fittingly titled because it feels like a cataloged list of the women that have wandered in and out of Cohen’s life over the years. But another part is the attention to detail—details that paint a portrait of loneliness so profound that it drives you mad. In “Statue,” the hum of the refrigerator stops for a moment, leaving a deafening silence in its wake. In “Hey Jane,” the narrator drinks himself into a stupor while he listens to cars drive by and to the sound of his neighbors making love upstairs. And in “Julia,” the guy chases his girl to the train station in the rain, but his umbrella gets torn and she never shows up. These little nuances sell the mundanity of heartbreak: the boredom, the silence, the romantic gestures that never pay off like the romantic comedies told you they would. They make these songs ache like a breakup that is still fresh—even if the album itself is 14 years old and never got a proper follow-up.

70. The New Frontiers - Mending

Sometimes, brilliant bands come along, release one classic album, and then disappear into thin air. That was the case with The New Frontiers, a band I never knew anything about aside from the fact that I loved their one and only album, 2008’s Mending. To this day, I don’t know where this band hailed from, what any of the members’ names were, or why they broke up. All I know is that Mending is too good an album to have never gotten a follow-up. Pitched somewhere between alt-country, indie folk, and mid-2000s emo, The New Frontiers cultivated a chilly, winterish sound that made them the perfect soundtrack for melancholy December and January afternoons. I’ve already talked about how Bon Iver became my unofficial Christmas music in the winter of 2008. The New Frontiers (and Fleet Foxes) came along at the same time, filtering into the same mood-setting soundtrack for that time in my life. A few months later, when I was going through auditions for college music schools—and getting rejected right and left—songs like “Strangers,” “This Is My Home,” and “Who Will Give Us Love” seemed somehow intensely comforting. “This love has taken its toll on me,” goes the refrain of “Strangers.” The song itself is a heartrending portrait of a relationship breathing its last gasp. For me, it came to be about how my own dreams were breaking my heart. Years later, that song still makes my heart ache a bit. Those failures aren’t fresh anymore, but the song makes it feel like they are.

71. Damien Rice -

Damien Rice spun such a rich web of beauty with the songs on O that it took him 11 years to make another album that even approached the same level. The follow-up, 2006’s 9, was a solid record that lacked the haunting, gorgeous intensity of this album. 2014’s My Favourite Faded Fantasy got a lot closer. Still, O is Rice’s crowning achievement, and it probably always will be. It’s not just because the first four songs—the untouchable string of “Delicate,” “Volcano,” “The Blowers Daughter,” and “Cannonball”—all became new songbook standards within a few years. For the most part, it was Rice’s voice, and the way it meshed and clashed with the fragile timbre of his collaborator and partner Lisa Hannigan. “Delicate” remains the purest distillation of Rice’s gifts, starting with a guitar strum so soft that you hardly even realize the song is playing. That’s how things often are with the songs on O: they start simply and quietly, in an unassuming way that makes you think Rice could be just another coffeehouse troubadour. But then the songs build, and Rice’s voice leaps up the octave, and suddenly he’s howling a lyric like “Why’d you sing ‘Hallelujah’/If it means nothing to you?/Why’d you sing with me at all?” That was the thing about O: for one record, Rice’s words and his voice seemed to capture the purest and most potent sound of a heart crying out in agony.

72. Pete Yorn - Musicforthemorningafter

In retrospect, it’s not easy to categorize Pete Yorn or the chameleonic music he made on his debut LP, 2001’s Musicforthemorningafter. He had shades of Springsteen’s anthemic Jersey-rooted rock ‘n’ roll, but he also had the road-weary grit of an alt-country singer, the genre-hopping restlessness of a trendy indie-rocker, and the brand of foot-tapping hooks that might have landed him on the radio in the mid-1990s—perhaps alongside the likes of Jakob Dylan and The Wallflowers. Yorn’s mystique would only grow on later records, as he became both darker (Nightcrawler, partially produced by Butch Walker) and more headline-worthy (Break Up, his 2009 duets record with Scarlett Johannson). But Musicforthemorningafter remains his opus, the kind of debut album that could simply never be topped. Listen to it once and you’ll probably see why. Though it sticks around for 53 minutes, Musicforthemorningafter is a feast of one great song after another, from the twangy rockers (especially the timeless “Life on a Chain”) to the yearning ballads (beauties like “Just Another” and “EZ,” which temporarily made Yorn’s music common fodder for early-2000s TV soundtracks). 

73. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd’s Dog

I have a love/hate relationship with The Shepherd’s Dog. On the one hand, this record took Sam Beam away from the entrancing solo acoustic songs that he’d built his brand on. If I could trade this record for another two or three discs in the ilk of Our Endless Numbered Days, I would do it in an instant. On the other hand, though, not many acoustic-to-full-band transitions work out as well as the one Beam makes on this record. The Shepherd’s Dog is lively, eclectic, and fully realized. Beam works like a mad scientist, concocting songs that draw convincingly from jazz, blues, Americana, reggae, and even West African music. The experiments are always well-executed and often thrilling, but it’s instructive to note that the best songs here were still the ones that sounded the most like classic Iron & Wine. No writer from this decade excelled so consistently at crafting gorgeous, aching, stripped-down ballads. The fact that Beam could pull out songs as good as “Resurrection Fern” and “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” even as he was leaving his roots behind is testament to just how unstoppable he was during this era.

74. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

There might not be a more enveloping, immersive album-listening experience from the entire 2000s than Fleet Foxes. The opener, “Sun It Rises,” sounds like descending into a mystical canyon at dawn and being immediately put under the spell of the place. For the next 40 minutes, that spell never breaks. Fleet Foxes create a world of pastoral beauty and rich Appalachian folk aesthetic by combining rich vocal harmonies with lyrics that sound like they could have been here since the middle ages. When frontman Robin Pecknold does drop a trace of modernity into his songwriting—like with the mention of someone missing a connecting flight in “Blue Ridge Mountains”—it feels spookily anachronistic. Few albums have ever swept me away quite like this one, and while future Fleet Foxes albums would offer up better songs (the title track from 2011’s Helplessness Blues) and bigger ambition (2017’s Crack-Up), Fleet Foxes remains their crowning achievement to me.

75. Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs

Narrow Stairs was a tough pill to swallow at first, for me and for so many other Death Cab for Cutie fans. The band’s previous two albums—Transatlanticism and Plans—made heartbreak sound almost noble. Listening to those records on your saddest days told you that you at least weren’t alone. They were perfect bedfellows for those moments of self-pity and commiseration, and they got a lot of us through the toughest parts of adolescence. In comparison, Narrow Stairs was jagged and abrasive. Suddenly, Ben Gibbard wasn’t the guy who understood you anymore. Instead, he was kind of a creep, with a lot of bottled up anger inside him and tendencies for emotional abusiveness (“Talking Bird”) and downright stalking (“I Will Possess Your Heart”). Narrow Stairs is a bleak-as-fuck record, one littered with loveless relationships (“Cath”), depressing one-night stands (“Pity and Fear”), and wildfires that are both literal and metaphorical (“Grapevine Fires”). By the time the breakup song finally winds back around at the end of the record, with the frigid “The Ice Is Getting Thinner,” it doesn’t break your heart the way “A Lack of Color” did on Transatlanticism. Instead, it feels like a sigh of relief, because it’s pretty clear that this record’s fucked-up protagonist isn’t in any position to be in a healthy relationship with another person. Looking back, it’s pretty clear that Gibbard was playing a character here—perhaps as a rebuke to fans who always thought his sad songs were the reflections of a consistently heartbroken person. At the time, though, Narrow Stairs sounded bitter and unwelcoming—a fact that kept me at arm’s length from the record for the better part of seven years.

76. Counting Crows - Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings

When I first heard Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, I fell in love with it. How couldn’t I? A big part of the reason I’d become a die-hard music fan was listening to the Crows non-stop in 2004—from short winter days soundtracked to Films About Ghosts to muggy summer evenings spent to the sounds of Hard Candy. I didn’t know at the time that I was going to have to wait another four long years for a new album. So when that new album finally arrived, the stakes were too high: I had to fall in love with it. I’d eventually drift away from this record (and then back toward it), alternating between my adoration for songs like “Hanging Tree” and “Washington Square” and my rejection of the overwrought concept or dull-as-dirt tracks like “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago.” These days, I’m back to “love” on this record, perhaps because it captures such a particular point in my adolescence. “I have waited for tomorrow from December to today/And I have started loving sorrow along the way,” Adam Duritz sings in the life-affirming closing track “Come Around.” To me, those words were like a diaristic scrawling. I spent the winter of 2008 in a weird kind of funk, withdrawing into my own solitude and letting the short days and cold weather get me down. The album came out right before spring break, and after hearing those words on that song, I vowed to get over myself and live my life. For better or worse, I did, and I think this album is to thank for it.

77. Arcade Fire - Funeral

A specter of death hangs over all of the best music Arcade Fire ever made, but it’s different kinds of death. Neon Bible (which only just missed this list) actually sounds funereal, grounding its rejections of organized religion in dark, foreboding church organs. The Suburbs, meanwhile, is a record about stagnating in America’s unwieldy sprawl. Funeral was inspired by death, but it’s not necessarily about it. Rather, Funeral finds redemption and renewal in the aftermath of a loved one’s passing. Before I’d had any experiences with death firsthand, I heard these songs as powerful expressions of grief. These days, the album strikes me more as a recognition that it’s time to grow up. Dealing with death, often, is the last barrier we cross at the conclusion of our youth. Some of us have to go through that doorway far too soon. Others get 20 or 30 years of innocence before an aging loved one exits the frame. When that moment inevitably comes, though, it hits like a punch to the gut. Because how can you think of yourself as “young” when your loved ones are old enough to die? Arcade Fire pose this question, eloquently, on Funeral, especially on “Wake Up,” still the pinnacle of the band’s discography. “If the children don’t grow up/Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up/We’re just a million little gods causing rainstorms/Turning every good thing to rust/I guess we’ll just have to adjust.” When you lose someone or something you love, there is no option but to adjust, move on. This song (and this album as a whole) are aching reminders that growing up, often, is just an exercise in learning how to lose.

78. Lydia - Illuminate

Back in my high school days, it used to take me about 15 minutes to walk out the door, drive to school, and get to my first class. One day in mid-November 2008, it ended up taking me 90 minutes. The town had turned into an ice rink and the roads were comically unsafe. I can’t believe nobody died on the way to school, nor can I believe that we didn’t have a snow day. That drive was hilariously dangerous, incredibly long, and vividly memorable, thanks to the fact that Lydia’s Illuminate was playing through my car speakers. Illuminate is a good album that sounds nothing short of transcendent on crisp autumn and winter days. Something about the haunting piano keys of “This Is Twice Now” or the stormy guitars of “Fate” make Illuminate arguably the go-to album for cold, overcast mornings and blustery afternoons. Most of the tracks here bleed into each other seamlessly, creating an immersive, trance-like listening experience that isn’t quite like any other album I’ve ever heard. Lydia never made an album that I really cared about after this one, but Illuminate remains an ultimate cold-weather classic—not to mention a document of one of the most unbelievable driving experiences of my life.

79. Yellowcard - Paper Walls

For the better part of four years, Paper Walls was Yellowcard’s swansong. The band eventually came back, for a four-album arc that culminated in a more decisive farewell, 2016’s Yellowcard. I was thankful for the return, because the band’s first wave never meant quite as much to me as their second—at least when it was happening. Looking back, though, Paper Walls is one of the all-time great pop-punk records. Where Ocean Avenue was a record flecked with youth and with the excitement of leaving home for the first time, Paper Walls is the work of a veteran band with lots of stories to tell and plenty of confidence to tell them the way they are meant to be told. Things are different here. Instead of leaving home, the songs stare back at the past with 20/20 hindsight vision. “Shadows and Regrets” is about driving through your hometown and reliving every choice you wish you could get back, while the title track is a direct response to the band’s success and what it means to keep moving when all your dreams come true. Tinged with darkness, as well as broken friendships (“Five Becomes Four”) and exhausted relationships (“Keeper”), Paper Walls was a natural end to the first era of Yellowcard. For some fans, it will always be the band’s magnum opus.

80. Keane - Under the Iron Sea

After Hopes & Fears, I would have been just fine getting more of the same from Keane. I loved that album. The big hooks and heart-on-the-sleeve emotion aligned perfectly with what I wanted from music in the fall and winter of 2004. So when the band started talking about making a funk-influenced record for the follow-up, I was terrified. Under the Iron Sea is decidedly not that album—though the uneven follow-up Perfect Symmetry kind of was. Instead, Sea is a pointedly darker release. The hooks aren’t as big, and they definitely aren’t as bright. Foreboding melodies, electronic-influenced atmospherics, and a bit of Achtung Baby-style experimentation (especially on the lead single “Is It Any Wonder”) make for an album that took Keane a long way from their roots. The band’s description of the record—as a “sinister fairytale world gone wrong”—proved to be accurate. It’s not my favorite Keane album: it never had the personal resonance for me that Hopes & Fears did, nor do I think it has the indelible melodies of the band’s swansong, 2012’s Strangeland. But I always admired Keane’s willingness to cast aside the romantic power ballads that had made them stars and start drowning their songs in stormclouds. That push for something different yielded some true gems—particularly “A Bad Dream,” still arguably Keane’s best song.

81. Jesse Malin - Glitter in the Gutter

A lot of rock artists started cribbing moves from the Springsteen playbook in the mid-2000s. From indie rock darlings (The Hold Steady, The National, Arcade Fire) to mainstream titans (The Killers), all the way to erstwhile punk rock bands (The Gaslight Anthem), everyone was suddenly borrowing from Bruce. Jesse Malin was the only one of them lucky enough to score an actual appearance from The Boss on one of his albums, though. Springsteen himself steps in for the second verse of “Broken Radio,” a key track from Glitter in the Gutter, and it’s a legitimately thrilling moment—even despite the song’s slow tempo. Bruce wasn’t the only notable guest on the album, either. Ryan Adams, Chris Shiflett, Josh Homme, and Jakob Dylan all make appearances. Malin tends to have a lot of goodwill in the rock world, thanks in part to his days fronting the glam-punk band D Generation, a core act in the ‘90s New York City scene. But Glitter in the Gutter is not a punk album. Malin transforms The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” from a ragged anthem of youth into a contemplative piano ballad about the passage of time, and the two best songs—“Broken Radio” and “Aftermath”—are gorgeous ballads. He still flexes his rock ‘n’ roll muscle plenty, though, delivering big, anthemic hooks on tracks like “Don’t Let Them Take You Down” and “NY Nights.” Not many releases from the 2000s make for better road trip records.
82. Coldplay - Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

Throughout the 2000s, I had something of a love/hate relationship with Coldplay’s music. There were songs I adored—“Fix You,” especially—but their albums were consistently less than the sum of their parts. My brother’s fierce loathing for this band probably didn’t help matters. It was with Viva La Vida that my opinions began to shift. Coldplay’s clearest play yet for U2-sized ambitions, Viva is a stadium rock record big enough to reach for the cheap seats. Much was made of the band’s decision to hire Brian Eno to help produce this record. You can probably thank him for a lot of Viva’s odder quirks—like the fact that several of the songs are paired together into extended two-part tracks, causing stuff like “Yes” to swerve from foreboding indie rock into interstellar shoegaze. Ultimately, though, bringing in Eno helped Coldplay craft their Joshua Tree, with a few flickers of The Unforgettable Fire thrown in for good measure. After this LP, the band would start drifting restlessly toward poppier textures, probably because Viva La Vida ended up being 2008’s single biggest seller. That course shift has often been thrilling, but it’s also meant leaving behind some of Coldplay’s commitment to shaking arenas all the way to the rafters. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I like this album a lot more than I did back then. Unabashedly huge arena rock records like this are tough to find these days—especially ones that are willing to take a few risks underneath all the sheen and hooks.

83. The Killers - Day & Age

My first reaction to this album was something along the lines of “What the hell happened?” Coming after two records that I consider to be the pinnacles of 2000s radio rock, Day & Age threw a wrench in The Killers’ legacy. The album felt like a reaction to a reaction—specifically, a response to the critical thrashing that Sam’s Town had received. Parts of it feel like the band’s attempt to retreat to what they were doing on Hot Fuss. Other parts still have the Springsteenian swell of the previous record, but with the seriousness (and stakes) dialed down to more mainstream-appropriate levels. The result is that, on first listen, Day & Age sounded lightweight and silly. There were great songs, of course—the bombastic “Losing Touch” is a strong start, and the zippy “Spaceman” is like nothing else in the band’s catalog. The best song, though—the radiant, wistful “A Dustland Fairytale”—sounds like the album Brandon Flowers probably wanted to make after Sam’s Town. Elsewhere, the band was throwing everything at the canvas to see what stuck, whether it was sax-driven funk (“Joyride,” the worst song in the Killers discography) or cruise-ship-advert-worthy soft rock (the Caribbean-flavored “I Can’t Stay”). It’s a bizarre left-turn of an album, one that trades the band’s flair for the dramatic for low-stakes experimentation. The difference between 2008 and now is that what sounded disappointing to me then sounds lively and unexpected now. Sure, Day & Age is probably the worst Killers record, but it’s also the only one where they don’t seem to be chasing some big, out-of-reach ambition. Just like it's nice sometimes to sit around talking aimlessly with friends, rather than doing anything in particular, it’s kind of neat to hear a band like The Killers fucking around and having fun.
84. Maroon 5 - Songs About Jane

Not many artists I once respected have ever sold out on the level of Adam Levine. For a few albums, though, Maroon 5 were pop savants, churning out inventive and engaging music that was still extraordinarily catchy. They peaked here, with their first full-length record. The singles were solid enough—especially “She Will Be Loved,” which still encapsulates pretty perfectly what the summer of 2004 sounded like. But Songs About Jane got more interesting once you got past “Harder to Breathe” and “This Love.” Here was a band willing to experiment with the sounds of classic soul, funk, R&B, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll. Today, this type of record would probably be labeled “cultural appropriation.” Back in the early 2000s, when Songs About Jane slow-burned its way from under-the-radar 2002 release to 2004 cultural domination, it was just viewed as something fresh. Songs like “The Sun” and “Sunday Morning” hearkened back to the sounds of the past, but gave them an innately modern twist. Tied together as a breakup album supposedly written about a single girl, those eclectic sounds coalesce into a surprisingly emotional piece of work.

85. The Wallflowers - Red Letter Days

Red Letter Days was the one album where The Wallflowers reached a little too far. After Breach failed to earn much of an audience in 2000 (thanks largely to the four-year wait after the gargantuan Bringing Down the Horse), The Wallflowers turned around and delivered this record just two years later. The quick return was accompanied by an attempt to shed a lot of the roots rock influence that had been the band’s bread and butter since their radio heyday. The result is an odd, disjointed record, one that goes from the synth blips of “When You’re on Top” to the creepy crawl of “Health and Happiness” to the sunny folk closer “Here in Pleasantville.” Not everything works, and the timeless classic rock sound of the band’s best records is certainly missed. Red Letter Days certainly sounds like an early 2000s rock record. The flipside of The Wallflowers trying to recapture their mainstream appeal is that Red Letter Days offers arguably the best glimpse ever at Jakob Dylan’s indelible melodic gifts. In terms of both sweeping balladry (“How Good It Can Get,” “Closer to You,” “Three Ways”) and driving upbeat pop songs (“If You Never Got Sick,” “See You When I Get There”), Dylan stacks one great hook on top of another. It’s a side of his songwriting that would never get enough emphasis after he went solo in the late 2000s.

86. Fastball - The Harsh Light of Day

Fastball left their fame in the 90s. Just like so many other bands—from The Wallflowers to Third Eye Blind to Sister Hazel—it wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t sustain success. Virtually every rock band that struck radio gold in the 90s was doomed to fail in the new millennium, as pop trends, radio formats, and entire music business models began to shift. On The Harsh Light of Day, though, Fastball took it all in stride by making arguably their best album ever. Even at their peak, Fastball sounded like a band out of time—like a disciple of the Beatles in an era where rock was favoring edge over melody. On this record, they didn’t try to fit in. Rather, they wrote brilliant pop songs with a tinge of darkness. The songs on this record are effortlessly catchy, but they often reflect the album’s cover and title, from the late-night delirium of “Vampires” to the twilit haunt of “Funny How It Fades Away.” Two or three years earlier, at least one of “You’re an Ocean,” “Dark Street,” or “Whatever Gets You On” would have been a smash radio rock hit—if not all three. It’s a shame they all got overlooked—and that Fastball ended up getting lost to near-obscurity as a result.

87. Michael McDermott - Hey La Hey

Hey La Hey was the last album I fell in love with before the clock struck 12 on the 2000s. A Christmas Day download, just days before 2009 wound down and disappeared forever, this album sounded perfect on those crisp, cold winter afternoons. Listening back now, it’s one of those time capsule records, an album so wrapped up in a specific time that it’s difficult for me to go back to it. I listened to this album a lot that winter, during drives back and forth from home, or long weekends spent alone in my dorm room when my roommate was out of town. It was a lonely season, and this album was a comforting companion. Songs like “So Am I” and “Carry Your Cross” spoke of love and companionship so deep and pure that I wanted to bottle it up and make it my own. It was listening to this album that I realized that I was tired of being alone. There’s a line in “The Great American Novel” about writing a book about “the loneliness of a lone assassin,” but I was tired of loneliness being a core tenet of my story. Being lonely wasn’t romantic, or even tragically beautiful. It was long drives with nothing but music as a companion, or weekends spent missing my friends back home. It was a grayscale mess of boredom and mild pain that I was tired of having as a part of my life. That summer, everything changed, and I fell in love with the girl I was going to marry. Years later, I ended up on stage with Michael McDermott—purely by chance—to sing a Springsteen song. I didn’t get to thank him for the music that kept me company during my life’s loneliest period, but I wish I had.

88. U2 - No Line on the Horizon

It took me a long time to appreciate No Line on the Horizon. U2’s other 2000s records—All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb—are catchy, accessible, and emotionally resonant. In comparison, I found this record meandering, cold, and lyrically oblique. I remember hearing songs from it on XM Radio while traveling to one of my college auditions in February 2009, right before the album hit the streets. My first impression was something along the lines of “Is this it?” After Atomic Bomb and songs like “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” and “City of Blinding Lights,” it felt like U2 had lost their mojo. That feeling of disappointment hung over my first listens and lingered throughout the year, to the point where I don’t even remember placing this album on the makeshift “Best of 2009” list I made around Christmastime. It was in the months and years that followed that No Line crept up on me. The opening trio hit first. Bono sounded hungry and raw on the title track; “Magnificent” lived up to its title with a grandiosity that called back to The Unforgettable Fire; and “Moment of Surrender,” about a drug addict having a crisis of faith at an ATM machine, punched me right in the gut. The other tracks came later: the desolate winter expanses of “White as Snow” and “Cedars of Lebanon”; the kinetic ricochet of “Breathe”; the meandering landscapes of “Fez – Being Born” and “Unknown Caller.” Even the opportunistic radio grabs of “Get on Your Boots” and “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” eventually clicked. Some people view No Line as U2’s lowest point; for me, it was a sign that they were ready to reach again after a decade spent doing victory laps.

89. Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown

21st Century Breakdown is a mess. As the follow-up to American Idiot, it suffers from trying to one-up its predecessor in every possible department. It’s bigger, longer, more grandiose, and more musically varied. It’s also incomprehensible from a story standpoint (Green Day decided to go the rock opera route again) and occasionally feels like it’s buckling under the weight of its own lofty ambitions. The songs, though, make up for it. Packed with hooks, slick production, shimmering pianos, and big multi-part suites, 21st Century Breakdown is as memorable as it is frustrating. Green Day spend the record cribbing moves from Springsteen, Dylan, The Beatles, The Who, Queen, and even Meat Loaf. The result is overwrought, overblown, and overlong, but it’s also one of the last times a mainstream rock band really seemed to push themselves. I bought this album on my senior skip day, just a few weeks shy of graduation, and it was one of the last albums I ever bought on the CD format. Today, I look back on it as the end of an era: the death of a certain type of mainstream rock.

90. Emerson Hart - Cigarettes & Gasoline

As the frontman for 90s one-hit wonders Tonic, Emerson Hart was never going to have a ton of cred in the Pitchfork era. Suffice to say that, of the 90s radio rock staples, “If You Could Only See” is on the cheesier and more dated end of the spectrum. On his 2007 solo debut, though, Hart transcended his roots with one of the best singer-songwriter albums of the decade. Hart, it turned out, was more versatile than just about anyone would have thought. Here, he pulled off big epic power ballads (“If You’re Gonna Leave,” “When She Loves You”), sunburnt acoustic folk songs (“Green Hills Race for California”), crunchy alt-rock (“I Know”), and even big, aching piano ballads about flying kites (“Flyin’,” really a metaphor for the pains of growing up). Hart’s sense for melody—along with his big, earnest vocal delivery—made for a record that soundtracked one of the most tumultuous periods of my life. Because of how many links this album shares with my junior year of high school, it’s not always easy to hear it outside of that context. Still, when the title track comes on—Hart’s aching eulogy for his late father—Cigarettes & Gasoline becomes momentarily timeless.

91. Third Eye Blind - Ursa Major

For me, Ursa Major had a lot to live up to when it finally arrived in the late summer of 2009. Not only had it been more than six year’s since Third Eye Blind’s previous record, 2003’s sublime Out of the Vein, but the songs from the band’s self-titled album had also only come to mean more to me as I grew older. My defining experiences with “Motorcycle Drive-By” and “The Background” came within a year of this album’s release, even though they were both songs that had been around for 12 years at that point. But Ursa Major also happened to come out just weeks before I left my hometown behind for college, and that serendipitous timing made it one of the most instantly nostalgic records I’ve ever heard. The songs themselves did most of the heavy lifting. In the annals of great summer evening tracks, “Bonfire” and “Sharp Knife” at least deserve honorable mentions. The album quickly came to encapsulate those final weeks of security and familiarity to me, between the raucous rush of the rockers and the series of beautiful, devastating images that frontman Stephan Jenkins has always been so good at dropping into his songs: the “muffled ‘I love you’ through an oxygen mask” as the plane goes down in “Water Landing,” or the mother “who shattered ‘cause no one loved her” on “Monotov’s Private Opera.” Third Eye Blind were a band that soundtracked a whole lot of my childhood, so it always felt fitting to me that they were there to help lay it to rest.

92. Boys Like Girls - Boys Like Girls

From the first time I heard “Thunder,” I knew these guys were going to be huge. That happened in a sweltering Detroit music venue on the first of August 2006. This album—the Boys Like Girls debut—wasn’t out yet, and I’d never heard of this band before. But they were opening for Butch Walker, and I knew instinctively that their songs were hits. They also played “The Great Escape” that night, which was the song that actually would garner them radio airplay and send them to a level where they could feasibly bring in Taylor Swift for a cameo on their next record. But my favorite was “Thunder,” which might contain the single most apt description of a summertime romance I’ve ever heard in a song: “Your voice was the soundtrack of my summer.” If this album had come out a few years earlier, that line would probably have been a quintessential AIM away message. It’s still a song that gets heavy rotation on my summer mixes, and one that feels timeless and ageless to me now. The rest of the album is more a product of the mid-2000s pop-punk/emo fad, but I still love it for its bold hooks and teen-movie-worthy drama.

93. Nada Surf - Let Go

Throughout the early half of the 2000s, my main source for music discovery was TV. Shows like The O.C. and One Tree Hill briefly made music licensing a major component of virtually every drama on television. On one of those shows—a bland drama called The Mountain that I think only got half a season—I happened to hear “Inside of Love,” a track from Nada Surf’s Let Go. I don’t remember anything about that show now, but the song ended up sticking with me. Prior to that point, the only Nada Surf song I’d ever heard was “Popular”—an awful novelty single from the '90s that made these guys into one-hit wonders. But “Inside of Love” was something entirely different: an aching, exhausted plea for connection from a narrator who is beginning to resign himself to a life of loneliness. I was surprised the band that made “Popular” could craft something so beautiful and so unguarded. I was surprised again when I heard Let Go in full. Eclectic and lively, this album jumps from gorgeous ballads to SoCal surf rock to French-language ditties. The subject matter, meanwhile, ranges from the the Blizzard of 1977 to fruit flies to Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. It’s an idiosyncratic set of songs, but it never lets its inherent quirkiness get in the way of Nada Surf’s impeccable songcraft or sense for melody. The result is one of the decade’s most unique and beautiful records.

94. Ryan Adams - Gold

Gold is where Ryan Adams became Ryan Adams. After Adams made his debut solo LP, 2000’s Heartbreaker, delivering more of the same would have been a genius career move. A sparse acoustic record of breakup songs? For a guy who’d already penned modern classics like “Come Pick Me Up” and “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” there was no surer bet. Rather than take the road toward money and success, though, Adams made a risky, genre-hopping LP called Gold. So was born one of the decade’s most contrary musical figures: someone who always zigged when you expected him to zag, and someone who outpaced the conventional release cycles of the era to such a degree that he ended up with at least five albums of extra material. For ages, Gold was my favorite Ryan Adams album. Certainly, it has some of his sturdiest songs ever—like the oft-covered alt-country standard “When the Stars Go Blue,” the rousing “New York, New York,” or the heartrending “La Cienega Just Smiled.” Mostly, though, I admire Gold because it showed an artist unwilling to play by any set of rules but his own. As both a melting pot of different influences and a harbinger of the mercurial, unpredictable star Ryan Adams would turn out to be, Gold is a genuine classic.

95. Sister Hazel - Absolutely

During the 2000s, Sister Hazel were probably one of my four or five favorite bands. Between 2000 and 2006, they released four albums that I love without reservation. Two of those albums, Chasing Daylight and Absolutely, are on this list. The other two, Fortress and Lift, easily could have been. Absolutely ended up being kind of the end of the road for the band for me, though, at least for a little while. After this, a mix of songwriting shakeups in the band and my own musical growth pushed me away from these Gainesville roots rockers. (Though they eventually won me back over in 2016, when they went country on an album called Lighter in the Dark.) Fittingly, Absolutely represents an end of innocence for me. This album was in heavy rotation in my life when I happened to be going through my first real relationship. Songs like “Truth Is,” “Where Do You Go,” and “Everything Else Disappears” came to represent the butterflies of that time. The not-so-graceful end of that relationship left a bad taste in my mouth, and a fair few of these songs were tainted as a result. Years after the fact, though, I can go back to Absolutely and admire it again, both for the unbridled optimism of the love songs and for the rootsy, melodic stomp of highlights like “Shame” and “Mandolin Moon.”

96.  Black Lab - See the Sun

See the Sun is the sound of a relationship breathing its last dying gasp. Ever since I started listening to music, I’ve always been drawn to songs and albums that ache like a broken heart. There is something so cathartic and relatable about listening to another human being exorcise those ghosts for you to hear. “Do you remember? ‘Cause I remember,” sings frontman Paul Durham early in the record. It’s a simply lyric, but it functions as the mission statement of the album. In the breakup of a relationship, there’s always someone who hurts more. Someone whose heart is more broken. Someone who misses the other person more than the other person misses them. This album is from the perspective of that person, and it’s as raw as any breakup album released in the 2000s. On the final track, Durham envisions that moment where “the circus lights go out” and everyone goes home—where he stops pretending he can win her back and hustles to the parking lot to beat the traffic. “The one mistake I never made was to come right out and ask you if you need me/Do you need me now?” he bellows on the bridge. The implicit answer is “No,” and the pain of that moment is so rich and so tender that it hurts to listen to.

97. R.E.M. - Around the Sun

People hate this record. R.E.M. are a beloved band, to the point where even their weaker albums—Around the Sun’s predecessors, Up and Reveal, along with Collapse into Now, their lukewarm swansong—are typically treated with indifference, at worst. Around the Sun got bashed by critics and is so maligned in the fanbase that you are unlikely ever to come across a discography ranking where it doesn’t end up dead last. In my view, Sun is criminally underrated. Maybe it’s because this was my first R.E.M. record, or because it came out right in the midst of my most formative musical years. Whatever the reason, I loved Around the Sun in 2004 and I still love it now. Everything people don’t like about this album works for me. It’s true that the band sounds disconnected, like they were recording their parts in different studios at different times. It’s true that the production is slick and poppy. It’s true that the album is not super dynamic. For me, though, all those qualities contribute to the album’s overall mood: of austere loneliness, creeping dread, and cautious hope. Released right before the 2004 election, in the wake of years of war and relentless fear, Around the Sun served as a fitting snapshot of the political exhaustion and resignation of the time. The result is a record that, to me at least, still sounds strangely comforting on dark, troubling days—especially the rain-soaked beauty that is “Leaving New York.”

98.  Red Hot Chili Peppers - By the Way

Somewhere around the mid-2000s, Red Hot Chili Peppers became a punchline. To be fair, there is a lot to make fun of in this band’s DNA: their roots as guys who performed onstage naked, with nothing but socks covering their private parts; Anthony Kiedis’s nonsense lyrics, usually having something to do with California; the fact that their bassist calls himself Flea. When I first heard RHCP, though, they were pitched to me (by my brother) as killer musicians with a true full-band ethos. In my mind, never was that pitch more accurate than on By the Way. Californication and Stadium Arcadium yielded bigger singles, but both are wildly inconsistent—both tonally and quality-wise. By the Way—arguably the band’s most grown-up record—is maybe the only Chili Peppers LP with decent pacing. Nonsense lyrics or not, Kiedis was at the top of his game here, delivering next-level melodies and vocal performances on songs like “Universally Speaking,” “Dosed,” and “Tear.” He’s not the only person performing at the top of their game, either. I’m of the mind that the Peppers never sounded better than they do on “Don’t Forget Me,” and guitarist John Frusciante was certainly earning his paycheck with killer Beach Boys-esque backing vocals on nearly every track. The band would start to implode after this, first with excess on Stadium, and later with the departure of Frusciante (and an accompanying identity crisis) on 2011’s I’m with You. For one more moment in 2002, though, Red Hot Chili Peppers were completely worthy of being one of the biggest bands on the planet.

99. Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

In the winter of my freshman year of college, I went down the rabbit hole of Pitchfork-approved indie music: a little LCD Soundsystem, a metric ton of Modest Mouse, a dash of the Dirty Projectors, a small amount of Sufjan Stevens. Of those binges, only a few songs stuck here or there. My February/March infatuation with I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, though, did make a lasting impression. I never liked any other Bright Eyes records. There are a handful of songs I love on records like Cassadega and Lifted, but for the most part, I found Conor Oberst’s songwriting to be overwrought and overrated. Not so with this album, which is the closest he ever came to making a proper alt-country record. This record became the soundtrack to cold walks to class, lonely evenings in my dorm room, and long drives home. I liked all of it—the random monologue at the beginning of “At the Bottom of Everything,” the lovelorn sentiment of “First Day of My Life”—but the last three tracks took it to the next level. “Land Locked Blues” is a philosophical end to a relationship; “Poison Oak” is a rumination on the death of a friend; and “Road to Joy” sets everything on fire—a manic, chaotic anthem set to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

100. Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand

The first time I heard this record, I hated it. We’re talking legitimate “I can’t believe this is so bad” loathing. 2004 was a huge year for indie rock records: The Killers, Arcade Fire, Wilco, Modest Mouse, Snow Patrol, etc. I’d found something to love in all of those albums, so when Amazon kept showing me the “customers like you bought…” recommendation for Franz Ferdinand, I took it seriously. (It didn’t hurt that I’d obviously heard “Take Me Out,” which I obviously found to be amazing.) Those factors convinced me to buy Franz Ferdinand sight-unseen while out and about Christmas shopping for that year. The next morning, when I finally got a chance to give the record a listen, I was turned off to say the least. The scattershot vocals, the messy arrangements, the guy-on-guy love song that was “Michael”: it was all a little much for my 14-year-old ears. But I kept going back to Franz Ferdinand. Something about the way the album didn’t work for me was fascinating. And slowly, it started to click. What had once seemed messy began to sound glammy, loose, and infectious. I was drawn to songs like “Jacqueline,” which always seemed just about ready to crash off the rails, but managed to keep things together for the sake of the hooks and the kids on the dancefloor. Franz Ferdinand had an unpredictable energy to their sound and songs that made their music stick in my brain—even when I thought I didn’t want it to be there. Their sophomore LP, the next year's You Can Have It So Much Better, is almost as good.

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