As the years go on, I find myself interested by how differently I’m using music from one year to the next. In high school, music was purely an emotional soundtrack to all the upheaval that time of your life brings. In college, it was the soundtrack to the thousands and thousands of miles I drove to keep a long distance relationship alive. In the years immediately following college, it was background music as I found my way as a freelance writer. And then later, as I picked up songwriting, I studied the music I loved almost academically, trying to figure out what made it work from lyrical, musical, and production standpoints.
The last few years have brought new utilities for music in my life. In 2020, music was a crutch, something I relied on to get me through hard times. In 2021, it felt like so much of the music I loved was about communicating and amplifying the euphoria of being able to get back to some semblance of a normal life. This year, music was jet fuel. I spent 358 hours running this year and covered 3,131.3 miles, first in preparation for my first marathon, then for a variety of other races and goals. Music was a companion across most of those miles, pushing me forward and giving me the inspiration and the confidence to push harder — to drop the pace another 30 seconds per mile, or to keep going on those 20-mile days when my legs were burning and even my brain felt tired.
I think I’ll always have a special connection to these albums for how they accompanied me on that brand-new journey. There will be other marathons and many more miles to run, but 2022 will always be the year that I pushed myself to do something that even 28-year-old me never would have thought I could do, and the music on this list will always remind me fondly of pushing those limits and discovering that no human being is limited. Here’s to pushing a few more limits in 2023. Read More “Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2022”
There are moments growing up that feel jarring and alien and terrifying for how wildly different they seem from everything else that came before them. Your first kiss; the first time you drive a car without anyone in the passenger’s seat; the first time you feel the buzz of alcohol; the first night in your college dorm room, knowing you’re in uncharted territory. These moments can feel like swimming off the deep end without a lifejacket for the first time, or maybe even like skydiving without a parachute. They’re exciting because of the unpredictability, because they feel dangerous. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, but you do know that you’ve just crossed some invisible line on the journey of growing up, and that you can’t turn around and go back.
On Red, Taylor Swift captured the unpredictable, stomach-dropping, dangerous rush of perhaps the most important growing up “first”: falling in love. The result was her best record, the greatest album released in the 2010s, and one of the most complete documents ever made about young love’s roller-coaster highs and crushing lows. Even good albums about love often cover only a fraction of what it’s like to go from strangers to friends to how-can-I-ever-live-without-yous and then back to strangers again. Even great albums about love might only paint with a hue or two from that expansive, explosive palette of technicolor emotion. On her fourth album, Taylor Swift painted with all the colors in love’s deep, endless rainbow – even if, at the time, she probably would have told you she was only painting with one. Read More “Taylor Swift – Red”
John Fullbright was the best songwriter in the world. Then he disappeared for eight years.
Let’s put that eight years in perspective. In the film Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays a man stranded on a desert island for four years. In that time, he grows a monster beard, makes fire, and becomes best friends with a volleyball. When he gets home, he discovers that he’s been declared dead and that the love of his life ultimately married someone else and had a daughter. In the fictional world of Cast Away, in other words, a person vanishing for four years is tantamount to them no longer existing as a part of the world. Imagine, then, what eight years of absence can do.
The last time we heard from John Fullbright, at least as a recording artist, he was a 26-year-old up-and-comer promoting one of the buzziest song-forward albums of the 2010s. The record in question, 2014’s Songs, was Fullbright’s second full-length, and his apparent masterpiece. The title, so simple but so apt, spoke to the type of performer he was. Rather than try to give the album extra significance with some profound title, Fullbright gave the album the plainest name possible and let the content speak for itself. It did: Songs was one of the richest and most potent albums of its era, crammed top to bottom with gorgeous, aching, heartbreaking, life-affirming songs about life and love and death and rain. The first time I heard the album, I pegged Fullbright as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, and I pegged Songs as a collection of songwriting right on par with what Jason Isbell had delivered a year earlier with Southeastern. Read More “John Fullbright – The Liar”
It’s easy to love a thing that everyone else loves. In the music world, there is something thrilling about the communion that comes with shared adoration: about falling head over heels for something that resonates with a lot of other people at the same time as it resonates with you, or of getting the affirmation that comes from seeing all your friends and family and acquaintances fall in love with an album or artist you already adored. It’s far harder to stand your ground when you love something that everyone else says is dogshit. It’s difficult to keep carrying the torch for an album when even the artist who made it has come to view it as sub-par.
I bring all of this up because this weekend marks 10 years since The Killers released Battle Born, their fourth album and an LP that just about everyone – frontman Brandon Flowers included – is convinced is mediocre or downright bad. They’re all wrong: This album fucking rules. It has always ruled, and it will always rule, and it is the perfect bridge between The Killers that were and The Killers that are today. There have been times, over the years, where I would have called it the band’s best album. (I believe that my review of the album for AbsolutePunk.net, still listed as the most positive write-up the album got on Metacritic, made precisely that claim.) From the vantage point of 2022, following two game-changing, band-redefining albums from The Killers in 2020 and 2021, I’m not even sure what my favorite Killers album is anymore. Best or not, though, Battle Born deserves more credit than it got in 2012, and I’m here to make the case for it – even if no one else will. Read More “The Killers – Battle Born”
A bar band balladeer playing songs in a smoky dive, hammering away at the piano and spilling his soul onto the keys as the hour gets progressively later and the inattentive crowd gets progressively more intoxicated. Or maybe there isn’t much of a “crowd” at all and he’s mostly playing for the bartender and a few drunk regulars. For so many musicians, these sentences describe a day-by-day and night-by-night reality. Getting gigs is easy; getting the audience to pay even an ounce of attention is hard. And yet, if you live that life, you still show up every night, seeking solace in the songs you’re playing and hoping that, one of these nights, even one other person will find meaning in them too.
We tend to think of careers in music as glamorous, but if you’ve actually tried your hand at one, you know the reality is something else entirely. It’s late nights and long tours and loneliness. It’s drunk people talking over your songs. It’s the sting of polite but passionless applause. It’s bar fights breaking up your set and derailing any momentum you felt you had going onstage. It’s the hope that maybe this song, maybe this show, maybe this night will be different; maybe this one will be the big break. And it’s the crushing disappointment of your reality consistently falling well short of your expectations.
On his 10th full-length album, Butch Walker turns all of this not-so-glamorous musical reality into fertile ground for the best music he’s made in years. The album in question, Butch Walker As…Glenn, is a not-quite-concept-album about a bar singer named Glenn (Butch’s middle name) and the songs he plays in his set on any given night, in any given pub, in any given town in America. Unlike Butch’s last album, 2020’s full-blown rock opera American Love Story, there isn’t really a firm narrative here. The concept is little more than a framing device, with the album starting on an introduction of the titular singer, ending with an encore, and featuring a skit about one of those aforementioned bar fights somewhere in the middle.
But listen to the songs themselves and you can hear how the spirit of the concept bled into Butch’s writing for this album. All the big-dream romanticism and all the weathered weariness of being a working-class career musician is there in the music, and the album knits those conflicting emotions and moods together into a surprisingly poignant treatise on resilience and the beauty of a no-frills, knockout song. Will Hoge once wrote: “Keep on dreaming if it breaks your heart.” Glenn is all about the musicians who keep dreaming that dream year after year, looking for moments of transcendence amidst colorful stage lights and bar floors sticky from decades worth of spilled beer. Some nights, you find that transcendence. Other nights, it might as well be a billion lightyears away. Read More “Butch Walker – As…Glenn”
By default, the most important Yellowcard album is Ocean Avenue. It’s the one that made the band stars, the one that gave them a classic hit that still lingers in the cultural bloodstream, and the one that provided them with the platform to launch a long, rewarding career. But Southern Air, the band’s eighth studio album, is uniquely vital to the band’s story too, because without it, the Yellowcard arc would feel incomplete. It was the album that took everything they’d been building toward and everything they’d been promising as a band and captured it all perfectly in 10 songs and 40 minutes. It’s not the most famous Yellowcard album, and there are days when it’s not even my favorite, but it is the best single-album distillation of what this band was capable of when they were at their best. And somehow, it’s 10 years old this week.
When Southern Air came out, it felt like Yellowcard had a lot of gas left in the tank. The band had just roared back to life the year before, with 2011’s When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes, and Southern Air felt like the blockbuster sequel to that album. The two records share a lot, from their fleet 10-song tracklists to the faux vinyl wear rings that are drawn into the album art. Like two movies in a duology, they play beautifully as companion pieces – When You’re Through Thinking coming across as the origin story and Southern Air playing as the bigger, bolder, louder sequel that deepens the themes of its predecessor. In 2012, it felt like Yellowcard could keep making these types of albums forever, but looking back, Southern Air feels oddly like a swansong. The band would make another two LPs after this one, but this version of Yellowcard – this lineup, this sound, this aesthetic – would never exist again. Read More “Yellowcard – Southern Air”
Northern Michigan tends to be famous for its brutal winters, but come around here in the summer and you might just see some shit. And by “some shit,” I mean blisteringly hot and oppressively humid days where there’s not a cloud in the sky to shield you from the unrelenting sun. Such were the conditions the first time I ever heard Handwritten.
The Gaslight Anthem’s fourth full-length album leaked to the internet on the hottest day of the hottest summer I can remember in my hometown. I recall that because my parents had no air conditioning when I was growing up, which meant their house could turn into a downright sweatbox on days like this one. My shitty 10-pound college laptop tended to overheat real fast on the hot days, which made it hard to do work, or download music, or talk about that music with your fellow fanatics on AbsolutePunk.net. So when Handwritten hit the web, I downloaded it quickly to my iPod and then just as quickly left the house for a beach three miles down the road.
My first listens of Handwritten were spent sitting at a picnic table less than 50 feet from Lake Michigan as evening settled in and a red-hot July sun sunk mercifully beyond the horizon. Every four or five songs I paused to plunge myself into the waves and cool myself off from the radiant heat that was still lingering thanks to sunbaked concrete and white-hot sand. By the time the album spun around to its last two tracks, a pair of glorious evening beauties called “Mae” and “National Anthem,” the temperature in the air was finally dissipating and a nighttime chill was creeping into the breeze. Somehow, a sweltering day had morphed into an unspeakably gorgeous summer night, and I got to experience it while watching the sunset over the water and waiting for kingdom come with the radio on.
I can’t recall many more idyllic first listens to an album than that one, and it’s still the first thing that pops into my mind whenever I hear Handwritten. “I’m in love with the way you’re in love with the night,” Brian Fallon sings on the title track. I always loved that line and how much it said without saying very much it all. It’s a lyric that conveys romance, and possibility, and youthful abandon, and all the magic a night can hold when you’re young and you’re up for anything. Hearing it for the first time on the cusp of a night just like the one described in the song, in the grips of full summer glory, was perfect. So was the album. Read More “The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten”
Counting Crows will always be a band affiliated first and foremost with the 1990s. There are many good reasons for this fact, starting with the band’s 1993 debut album August & Everything After. A massive LP that spawned singles like “Mr. Jones” and “Round Here,” August remains the pinnacle of the band’s legacy. A few years back, when I saw the Crows live on a co-headlining tour with Matchbox Twenty, it was still the August songs that got the biggest response.
For me, though, I always affiliate Counting Crows instead with the mid-2000s. That’s not because I wasn’t aware enough to know about their music in the ‘90s. On the contrary, “Mr. Jones” is the first song I ever remember liking, and the band’s sound in general just makes me think of growing up. When I started really getting into music in 2003, I remember revisiting those first two Counting Crows albums—August and 1996’s Recovering the Satellites—and hearing so many songs that I recalled from my formative years. It felt like reconvening with old friends. Read More “Counting Crows – Hard Candy”
Fireworks, drums that sound like bomb blasts, lightning bolts of electric guitar, and a rhetorical question: “Long lit up tonight and still drinking/Don’t we have anything to live for?”
So begins one of the greatest rock records of the 21st century. It’s also one of the most aptly named. Celebration Rock. Rarely has an album title ever doubled so effectively as a perfect description of what’s inside. In 2012, with their second LP, Canadian rockers Japandroids served up music perfect for…well, for celebrating to.
What were we celebrating, you may ask? Frankly, if you had Celebration Rock blasting out of a stereo back in 2012, it didn’t matter what you were celebrating, or whether you were celebrating at all. The songs made it feel like a celebration. They made any moment feel like a goddamn, out-of-hand, my-car-is-in-the-swimming-pool rager.
I’ll forever be thankful that I was the age I was when Celebration Rock landed on May 29, 2012. As a recently-minted 21-year-old, I was old enough to get into bars and legally consume alcohol. But I was also still a college student, still sharing an apartment with my college buddies, and still another year or so shy of when real-life responsibility would start to set in. In other words, I was old enough to celebrate the way the characters in Celebration Rock celebrate, and young enough to do it with all the reckless abandon of youth. Even thinking about some of the shit I did while playing these songs very loud on my apartment stereo makes my head hurt with the ghosts of shitty mixed drinks and dreadful hangovers. Read More “Japandroids – Celebration Rock”
“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 shoes, 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. Read More “Something Corporate – Leaving Through The Window”
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. Read More “fun. – Some Nights”
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. Read More “Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2021”
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. Read More “Counting Crows – Recovering the Satellites”
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. Read More “Noah Gundersen – A Pillar of Salt”
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. Read More “The Horrible Crowes – Elsie”