Review: Something Corporate – Leaving Through The Window

“Write what you know.” That piece of advice has been given countless times to countless writers across countless different mediums, from books to films to TV shows. It’s not a bad tip, especially for greener storytellers, but it can also be limiting. In the world of songwriting, especially, one of the great joys is how a song can allow you to inhabit someone else’s life for a few minutes, or to experience a world other than your own. There’s something exhilarating about when a talented songwriter steps outside their own life to take a walk in someone else’s shows, whether it’s Springsteen writing a bunch of songs about killers and criminals on Nebraska or Taylor Swift closing her own diary to explore character on folklore and evermore. Still, for some writers, the “Write what you know” mantra is the gateway to brilliance, and few young songwriters ever took it more seriously than Andrew McMahon did on Something Corporate’s 2002 major label debut, Leaving Through the Window.

McMahon turned 19 on September 3, 2001. A few months later, on the day after Christmas, he and his bandmates commenced recording for the album that would become their big breakthrough statement. By January, the album was done, and on May 7, 2002, it hit the streets. McMahon was still four months shy of his 20th birthday, and less than two years out of high school. Rather than try to write songs that hid his youth, McMahon embraced it. The result was one of the greatest and most authentic albums ever made about teen angst, growing up, and coming of age. Leaving Through the Window is now older than McMahon was when the record came out, but it remains gripping and beautiful due to how timeless the themes and stories proved to be.

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Review: fun. – Some Nights

fun. - Some Nights

I can still remember the moment when I realized that fun. were going to be ubiquitously, annoyingly, stratospherically huge. It was February 5, 2012 and I was sitting on a ratty faux-leather sofa in my college apartment, hanging out with my roommates and watching the Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. During one of the commercial breaks, I heard an already familiar (to me) wall of synths and tinkling pianos, and a soon to be inescapable (to everyone) chorus hook that loudly declared: “Tonight/We are young/So let’s set the world on fire/We can burn brighter/Than the sun.”

That 60-second TV spot, an ad for the 2012 Chevy Sonic, effectively launched this trio of pop-rock polyglots into outer space. “We Are Young” already had a little bit of buzz building behind it at that point, having featured prominently in an episode of Glee that aired in December 2011. But it was the Super Bowl placement that, to quote the song, set the world on fire. A week later, “We Are Young” topped the Billboard Hot Digital Songs chart. 16 days after the Super Bowl, fun. released Some Nights, their sophomore album, which contained “We Are Young” in the track-three slot. The album sold 70,000 copies in the first week and debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts, despite generally mixed critical reviews. By March 17, “We Are Young” was the No. 1 song in the United States – a status it maintained for six weeks.

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Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2021

A year ago, I wrote about how 2020 forced me to lean on music in a way that I hadn’t since my tumultuous coming-of-age years. All the fear and heartbreak and uncertainty of last year caused me to turn to songs and albums for solace and comfort like I was a teenager again, looking for answers in his headphones. In the midst of so many dark days, music felt like one of the few things that kept me sane and kept me hopeful.

2021 was different. Where almost every day of 2020 – at least, every day after about March 13 – felt like it brought some scrap of very bad news – this year was more about the ups and downs. The music I listened to and fell in love with reflects that roller coaster. In the albums and songs discussed below, there are dizzying, euphoric highs and deep, dejected lows. Some days, I could listen to a song in the car with the windows down and feel like life was normal again. Some days, life was normal again. From crossing the finish line at the end of my first half marathon to watching one of my best friends from college tie the knot, 2021 reminded me again and again how sweet the world can taste on the good days. But there were the heartbreaking days, too: being there for my wife and her family as we said goodbye to both of her grandparents, less than six months apart; watching COVID come back with a vengeance; seeing my small town land in the national news for one of the most appalling reasons imaginable.

And so, again, music proved to be something I needed desperately in 2021. After experiencing a waning level of engagement and excitement over new albums in 2018 and 2019, I now feel as ecstatic about music discovery as I ever have. I spent this year pushing beyond my comfort zone, both in terms of the new albums I was finding my way toward and the many older records I listened to for the first time in the past 365 days. The result is probably the most surprised I’ve ever been at the year-end list I made. That’s not to say there aren’t old favorites of mine represented here – including at the very top of the list. But there are also artists who I learned about for the first time, or veteran bands who I’d largely written off. There are pop superstars and under-the-radar up-and-comers. Maybe most notably, there’s a contingent of young women who are reigniting rock music within the pop mainstream in a way that I find extremely exciting.

You never know which music years or end-of-the-year lists or individual albums are going to end up “standing the test of time.” Who knows if these records will still mean much to me in a year, or five years, or come 2029 when it’s time to compile another end-of-the-decade list. All I can do for now is look back at the last 12 months and survey the music that defined the moments that filled them. To the best of my ability, these are the albums that tell my 2021 story.

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Review: Counting Crows – Recovering the Satellites

Few trends scream “nineties” more loudly than the “rebellion against fame” album. Nirvana made In Utero. Pearl Jam made Vitalogy. R.E.M. made Monster. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a rock band ever becoming famous enough in the mainstream to then justify the creation of a “rebellion against fame” album. For awhile there, though, making this type of album—usually a louder, more abrasive follow-up to a cleaner, more tasteful, massively successful predecessor—was a rock ‘n’ roll rite of passage. Few bands ever steered into the skid quite as much as Counting Crows did on Recovering the Satellites.

It’s difficult, from the vantage point of 2021’s pop music status quo, to describe how absolutely massive Counting Crows were in the mid-90s. The band’s debut, 1993’s August & Everything After, is certified seven-times platinum in the United States and has sold well north of 10 million copies worldwide. The flagship single, “Mr. Jones,” made it to number 2 on the Billboard Mainstream Top 40 chart. Ironically, “Mr. Jones” was a song about wanting to be famous; to be “big, big stars.” “When I look at the television I wanna see me/Staring right back at me,” frontman Adam Duritz sang in the song.

Be careful what you wish for, Adam.

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Review: Noah Gundersen – A Pillar of Salt

Sometimes you can lose something that is still right there in front of you. A city you called home; a person who once felt as close to you as the wind on your face; a chapter of your life that still seems fresh in your memory, even if it’s long gone. These are the people and places and things that seem to form the beating heart of Noah Gundersen’s sublime fifth album, called A Pillar of Salt. It’s an album about bright little lost things; about flickers of memory so vivid that they seem like they’re happening now; of recollections or fragments of dreams that hurt like a dagger in your side because they remind you how much things have changed. Gundersen has always been good at conveying that type of loss: Of writing songs about lost loves that feel like cigarette smoke in your chest, or of capturing the very rhythm of autumn in his words and music. But it’s possible he’s never assembled a set of songs as stunningly beautiful and as disarmingly visceral as the 11 tracks that make up A Pillar of Salt. It’s an album that blindsides you, and that might just leave you gasping for air. I have not been able to go more than 24 hours without listening to it since I first heard it three weeks ago.

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Review: The Horrible Crowes – Elsie

Brian Fallon didn’t NEED to make Elsie. By the time this album arrived – the one and only record Fallon made with the side project he dubbed The Horrible Crowes – Fallon was already well on his way to rock star status…or, at least, it seemed that way at the time. His full-time band, The Gaslight Anthem, had released three albums and an EP in the space of three years and about two weeks – a remarkable run that saw the band gaining ground with each release. By the time Elsie arrived in September 2011, there was already buzz brewing about Gaslight Anthem LP4, and about how that album had the potential to launch Fallon and company into a whole new stratosphere. Just about anyone else would have taken a well-deserved break. Based on the exhaustion that would eventually crash The Gaslight Anthem, maybe Fallon should have. Instead, he teamed up with his guitar tech, Ian Perkins, and made one of the great left-turn albums in 21st century rock ‘n’ roll. Some days, I think it might just be his masterpiece.

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Review: The Killers – Pressure Machine

“I never really gave up on breaking out of this two-star town.”

When Brandon Flowers sang those words back in 2006, he completed a rock ‘n’ roll rite of passage: that of penning a great escapist anthem. The album he was working on at the time, the sophomore Killers LP Sam’s Town, was in part an homage to Bruce Springsteen, so it made sense for there to be a song like “Read My Mind” that channeled some of the pulling-out-of-here-to-win energy of Born to Run. When Flowers sang that song, you could hear in his voice the yearning to get out and find something better. You didn’t know where he was going, but you felt like he was probably never coming back.

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Review: Jimmy Eat World – Bleed American

Jimmy Eat World - Bleed American

Some songs just linger in the cultural bloodstream. It’s impossible to predict, in the moment, which songs those will be. Occasionally, it’s the big hits, but it’s also often those same world-conquering smashes that end up sounding the most dated in retrospect. Usually, you have to wait years or even decades to see which songs have truly become songbook classics, once all the context and narrative and hype and promotion has drifted into distant memory. You have to get to the point where all that remains is the song itself and the mysterious, beguiling hold it somehow continues to have over people.

There’s a spectacular cover band in my hometown that mostly plays songs from the classic rock era. It’s not hard to see why: Those songs have been proven staples for so long that building a setlist around them is just a smart business decision. You can’t miss with “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Don’t Stop Believin’” or “American Girl.” You can’t miss with The Beatles or The Stones. There are precisely two post-2000 songs that I remember regularly hearing in the setlist from this particular cover band. The first one was “Mr. Brightside.”

The second was “The Middle.”

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Review: The Dangerous Summer – War Paint

The Dangerous Summer – War Paint

I’m not sure I have ever needed an album more than I needed War Paint.

Sometimes, as a music fan, you lean on the records you love to help get you through things: breakups; losing loved ones; navigating huge tectonic shifts in your life; global pandemics. As someone whose love for music springs from an extremely emotional place, I have leaned on a lot of different albums over the years, for a lot of different reasons.

But even in that context, War Paint, the sophomore LP from Baltimore-based rock band The Dangerous Summer, was an album I needed. I needed it so badly that I listened to it more times in July and August 2011 than I have ever listened to any other album in a two-month span. It was the rhythm of my days and nights; the heartbeat of my dreams; the soundtrack of my summer. To this day, I can’t think of a single thing that happened that season without also remembering the songs on War Paint. For me, that time in my life and this album will always be inextricably intertwined, as if they were hardwired together.

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Review: Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Bon Iver, Bon Iver sounds like a summer storm. A muggy June evening; temperatures that hang suspended in the mid-70s, even after the sun goes down; heat lightning flashing on the horizon; and then, eventually, a torrential downpour, crashes of thunder, strikes of lightning too close for comfort.

Or maybe I just think this album sounds like all those things, because that happened to be the environment in which I first heard it. The night Bon Iver, Bon Iver leaked on the internet, weeks ahead of its June 21, 2011 release date, it was pouring in northern Michigan. When I first heard “Perth,” it felt like someone was taking the weather outside and translating it into music. The far-off guitar notes felt like the first flickers of lightning on the horizon. Vernon’s multi-tracked, harmony-backed voice, when it breaks through the waves about 45 seconds in, evoked the gentle drizzle of the storm’s start. And then, the crescendo: a martial drumbeat, a wash of horns, the guitar sparking louder and louder. The song builds until it sounds like a furious storm—the rain clattering against your windowpane, the thunder rattling the glasses in the cabinets, the lightning flashing so quickly that it seems to illuminate the entire outside world for minutes at a time. Soon, the song subsides, burns itself out. It fades to nothing as quickly as it exploded— just as a summer storm eventually crashes away.

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We Were Both Young When I First Saw You: A Closer Look at ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version)’

Can a re-recorded version of a beloved album recapture the magic of the original? Taylor Swift is betting on the answer being “Yes” as she embarks on a journey to remake her first six albums. First up? 2008’s Fearless, the breakthrough LP that netted Taylor some of her biggest hits, won her a Grammy trophy for Album of the Year (the first of three, so far), and made her a generational pop music superstar. contributors Craig Manning, Anna Acosta, and Garrett Lemons took a closer look at the project, revisiting the original Fearless and exploring the various ways that the new Fearless (Taylor’s Version) stacks up.

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Review: Yellowcard – When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes

Yellowcard - When You're Through Thinking...

These days, bands don’t really break up: they go on hiatus. Occasionally, you’ll get a band separating more deliberately – doing or saying or writing something that makes it clear this break is meant to be permanent. More often, though, bands just stay dormant until they want to do it all over again – the recording sessions, and the press interviews, and the grueling tours – and then they reconvene. From Fall Out Boy to My Chemical Romance to Blink-182 and beyond, this narrative has played out repeatedly in our little music scene over the years. 10 years ago this week, it happened with Yellowcard.

Yellowcard are unique in that they’ve had both types of endings: the temporary one, with a hiatus designed as an indefinite time away from the music industry; and the permanent one, with a proper send-off album and farewell tour. When the band announced their hiatus in April of 2008, though, most fans probably would have bet on that being the period at the end of the sentence. “It doesn’t have anything to do with turmoil in the band,” frontman Ryan Key said at the time. “It’s more of a…[we’re] facing adulthood now, and we can’t stay in Neverland forever. I think we just need a break.” The Peter Pan reference? The suggestion that rock ‘n’ roll is a young man’s game? The exhaustion that seemed to permeate the last sentence? These ingredients did not bode well for the return of America’s favorite violin-toting pop-punk band.

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Review: Adele – 21

Has any artist ever thrown down the gauntlet at the beginning of a year quite like Adele did with 21? Arriving on January 24, 2011 (in the United Kingdom, that is; it hit shelves in the States a month later), 21 quickly became not just the defining musical blockbuster of that year, but also of the still-young decade. No album since has had the same impact on the music world, or the world as a whole. 21 briefly made it feel like no one had ever heard another breakup album before. The mythology around the album (“Who broke Adele’s heart?” was a common question), along with the strength of the songs, made for a moment in music history that was genuinely monocultural. These days, it seems like there’s nothing everyone can share as common ground – period, let alone musically. 21 was different: a true four-quadrant classic that had something for everyone. From the pop music stans to the music critics to the songwriting classicists, Adele checked every box. Looking back, it feels like the last album that everyone could agree on. In terms of cultural significance, chart dominance, Grammy chances, and a million other metrics, every other artist who released something in 2011 was competing for second place.

While 21 dropped in January. I have never thought of it as a “winter” album. One of the (many) disadvantages to being a broke college student living in an outdated dorm in the winter of 2011 was that you had no good method to hear the latest music as it was breaking. Spotify hadn’t launched in the U.S. yet, paying for downloads via iTunes (or driving somewhere to buy a CD) wasn’t in the budget, and pirating music over the ethernet-only internet connection was both slow as hell and risky. That’s why I often went months without hearing the music that everyone else was talking about, 21 included. In this particular case, though, the delay proved to be serendipitous.

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Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2020

I never thought I’d need music again like I did in 2020.

I spent big chunks of 2018 and 2019 sorting back through records that had been formative in my life, first from the 2000s and then the 2010s. If anything, those processes showed me that the way I listened to music and connected with it had largely changed. And that made sense: the 2000s were the decade where I came of age, where I fell in the love with music for the first time, and where I went through the tumult of high school and all the joys and stumbles that path entails; the 2010s were my college years, the decade where I fell in love with my wife, where I saw my big youthful dreams die, where I saw another set of dreams sprout up to take their place, where I got married, and where I found my way toward contentment in my professional and personal life.

That kind of contentment is a gift, but it can also change the way you connect with art. When you’re young, you latch onto music in a primal way, because your emotions are heightened and every year brings so many milestones and so much change. Settling into the routine of adulthood affords fewer reasons to rely on an album like it’s a lifeline, or to listen to a song and feel like it might have just saved your life. Looking back at my year-end lists from the past two years, it’s clear to me that I was losing that visceral bond with the songs I thought I loved. While there are albums I adore on those lists, there are also many that don’t have any true relationship with beyond simple appreciation. 2020 was different. The world was a storm and I turned to music again as my raincoat, not unlike the way I used to in high school or college and facing a broken heart or a moment of crisis.

In recent days and weeks, as countless music fans across the internet have shared their “best of 2020” lists, I’ve read time and time again that folks “didn’t listen to much new music in 2020.” Maybe they felt they lacked the mental or emotional capacity to process anything else that was new and unfamiliar when our entire way of life suddenly seemed alien. Maybe people were just retreating to albums and songs they’d loved for years, taking solace in sounds that felt like old friends.

That wasn’t me: I spent the year putting out a call to the music world to give me something, anything that made me feel alive, or that spoke to the hope or grief or resilience or frustration I was feeling at any given moment. And the artists more than answered that call, delivering music that kept me afloat through it all, from the early days of the pandemic to a summer that never quite was, and from the jitters of election night through to the melancholy sadness that floated over the holiday season. It’s my favorite single-year slate of albums in at least half a decade – a list where I feel a more emotional connection with the LP at number 26 than I did with last year’s number 6. For the sake of the world and my own mental health, I hope I don’t have a reason to lean on music as much in 2021 as I did in 2020. But during a time when almost everything around me felt like it was falling apart, these albums gave me the hope and faith to keep going. I’ll never forget that.

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Review: Taylor Swift – Evermore

Taylor Swift - evermore

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Taylor Swift’s folklore was one of 2020’s few saving graces. For myself and many other Taylor fans, the songs on that album were a salve to sooth some of the heartbreak and disappointment of this year. Even the discourse around the songs was a welcome distraction from all the bad things happening around us. That the album would never have come to exist, likely in any form, without the pandemic is one of the only positives in this remarkably net-negative hellscape we’ve been living in since March. So when Taylor announced that she’d be dropping a sequel album called evermore last Thursday, it felt a bit like lightning striking twice. The first album was a sepia-toned autumnal beauty shot through with the wistful strains of a dying summer—in 2020’s case, a lost summer. Released two weeks out from what could be the loneliest Christmas many people ever experience, evermore promised to be folklore’s wintry twin: a cold-weather soundtrack full of snow-strewn backdrops, frosty windows, and solitary reflections. Taylor positioned the album as her gift to everyone else for her 31st birthday, but it’s more like alternative Christmas music in a year when playing the usual celebratory Christmas tunes seems bizarre or even profane. Tis the damn season, folks, and Taylor Swift is here to get you through it.

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