Like a fine wine or high-quality bourbon, some albums just seem to get better and better–some get better with multiple listens, some get better because they were too ahead of their time, and some get better because they exist completely outside of time. Here are a few albums that, if you haven’t heard them in a while, should be given another few listens.
Better with Multiple Listens
Atlas Sound — Parallax
Atlas Sound’s stellar 2011 album is my poster child for an album that gets better with each listen. I bought it on a whim over the summer of 2012 during a trip to Indy CD & Vinyl, based on my (somewhat forgivable) assessment of Parallax‘s first song being distinctly Interpol-y. After one disappointed listen I shelved the album until two years later when I finally gave it another listen. Freed of erroneous misconceptions and two years wiser, I fell in love with this, Bradford Cox’s most personal album. It’s an album constructed as much around curious sounds and bedroom echoes as conventional instrumentation — each listen reveals new riches to be unearthed. A muffled, distant “woo!” on “Amplifiers”; a new keyboard layer during the outro of “Doldrums”. Most importantly, every listen reaffirms that the power of the album derives from its sheer joy. Not that this is a joyous album, lyrically; rather, each song brims over with the ecstatic effusions of a man constructing music he finds joyful to create, joyful to discover. And with innumerable layers to peel back with each re-listen, Parallax invites you to share in that discovery.
The National — Trouble Will Find Me
If you had asked me what I thought of Trouble Will Find Me just after its release in May 2013 I would’ve told you that Alligator, High Violet, and Boxer were all better than it. Yet, here we are nearly two years later and I find myself continually reassessing and reaffirming that Trouble Will Find Me is the National’s best album. Similar to Parallax, TWFM lends itself to sonic deconstruction — the richness of the sound reveals melodies and tones that are obscured on the first listen. Matt Berninger’s lyrics stand out here too as the strongest set he’s composed, despite the presence of the disappointing “Fireproof”. He touches on similar themes he’s been tackling for a decade now, but with a new-found charming self-deprecation and a touch of humor. “I am secretly in love with / Everyone I grew up with” is hilarious and beautiful and true, and lines like “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart” poke self-aware holes in the band’s sad-sack image. Trouble Will Find Me also has a few stunners that sneak up on you: as strong as the opening 3 songs are, the album’s closing tetrad (“I Need My Girl”, “Humiliation”, “Pink Rabbits”, “Kiss Off”) sneaks up on you with its mixture of quiet drama and humor (Berninger deadpanning “I know I was a 45 percenter then” is notable) as well as its daring musical turns and utter beauty (the conclusion of “Humiliation”, the synthesizer in “Girl”, Berninger’s sleepy delivery on the closer).
Ahead of Its Time
Pink Floyd — Animals
Every time I get to middle section of “Dogs”, when several minutes of the song consist of only a rustling synthesizer droning over a looped and distorted clip of David Gilmour singing “stone…stone…stone”, all I can think is that this album must’ve sounded like it was a transmission from an unknown plane of existence back in 1977.
The album’s freedom of musical expression, length (it consists of three songs at 17:08, 11:28, and 10:20 respectively, plus a one minute intro and outro), and its total eschewing of the rock songwriting that made “Money”, “Time”, and “Have a Cigar” hits all prefigured the stark turn into electronic post-structuralism, lyrical abstraction, and societal criticism that bands like Radiohead, Wilco, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor would make 20 years later. Animals was so famously unappreciated at the time that fans at concerts constantly screamed at the band to stop playing it and start playing “Money”, the disconnect between fan and musician inspiring Roger Water’s ideas for Pink Floyd’s The Wall two years later. Now, it stands as Pink Floyd’s best and most daring album.
Outside of Time
Godspeed You! Black Emperor — F# A# Infinity
Speaking of which, here is F# A# Infinity, an album so confounding that I’m balking a bit at the prospect of trying to write about it.
What does one say about it? F# A# Infinity is beautiful and terrifying and ancient and archaic and modern and dark with light creeping through the window shades and apocalypse salvation a political manifesto about governmental corruption making a statement on human nature turning through deserted worlds to expose every thought that has ever been is will be will not have been.
It does all this without words. It does all this with only three tracks, the shortest of which is 16:28. It does this with an opening monologue that begins with the lines “The car is on fire / And there’s no driver at the wheel / And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides.” There’s little reason to think that music like this should work. There’s little reason to think that music like this should even be music. But somehow this creaking assemblage of inexpressible ancient thoughts manages to be so achingly beautiful that you will cry. And the beauty lies inside some fundamental truth both hidden and exposed by this music. Each listen gets you maddeningly closer and closer to discovering it, only for it to slip away under the weight of its ancient melodies, melodies that feel as though they were first written by primeval man upon watching Cain receive his mark, or upon watching the first home, the first sanctified human space, the first civilization ever built, burn to the ground. All of this from an album released the same year as Backstreet’s Back. Astounding. F# A# Infinity was so ahead of its time that it defies the very notion of it.