Tuesday, September 17, 2013

My Favorite Fall Albums [Part One]

Matt Dippong 2013

It's easy at the beginning of any season to claim it as your favorite.  There is nothing more refreshing and inspiring than the change of pace when crippling cold or stagnant heat gives way to the welcome change in conditions.  That said, fall is without a doubt the time of year that I enjoy the most.  The crisp breeze whisks away the summer haze and wraps the world in glowing oranges and browns.  The flannel shirts make their way out of the closet, more blankets find their way to the bed, coffee tastes better than you ever remember, football comes back to life with a vengeance,  and an aura of ominous mystique envelopes your being.  More than anything however, it provides the absolute perfect setting in which to listen to the most genuine, organic music ever created.  

Perhaps more so than any other season, I find it easy to articulate what it is that, to me, makes great "fall music".  The tempo is casual and the instrumentation is sparse, laden with windy harmonicas and strumming acoustic guitars.  The lyrics are introspective, nostalgic, celebratory, and rustic, often ingeniously at the same time.  It is music that makes you yearn to wander aimlessly in the woods, amongst the dead leaves as they litter the cold ground and flutter in the breeze.  It is music that puts you fireside in a log cabin, with nothing else around but the mountains and the deer.  It is music that represents the season of death after the summer revelry, and how we have learned to embrace it.  

Here then are my top ten (for now) absolute favorite albums for this pivotal time of year.

[NOTE:  This article deliberately excludes albums that are specifically fitting for Halloween, that list is for a different time…]


1. Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Simply put, it would have been easy for me to fill this list with Neil Young albums.  He is hands down my favorite musician to ever walk the earth, and the autumnal spirit of his music is a big reason why.  So out of fairness to everyone else who has ever made a record, I decided to let the king of fall music sit alone at the top.  

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere introduced the world to the beast that is Neil Young with Crazy Horse, as Neil straps on Old Black and embarks on many a wandering journey of distorted guitar navigations.  Rust Never Sleeps builds on this even further, while simultaneously presenting an album-side of highly personal and organic acoustic contemplations.  Several years earlier Neil had introduced this aspect at its most extreme with Harvest, which may as well have been crafted specifically to be the greatest fall album ever made.  Decades later he saddled up the horse and delivered Ragged Glory, putting everybody in a classic car, roaring down the open road as the red landscape whirls by and deep, loud guitars fill the air.  

All hail the king.  

2. Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde

Ol' Bobby is another genius that could probably have several albums on here, but to me Blonde on Blonde stands above the rest in terms of fall music.  On Blonde on Blonde Dylan put forth a slowed down, slightly derailed version of the ramshackle rock he struck with his preceding album Highway 61 Revisited, added even more surreal imagery, and put the harmonica and acoustic guitars at the forefront of it all.  The result is a crisp, breezy, lightweight soundtrack to orange leaves drifting in the wind.  He occasionally takes this sound in a darker direction with the types of yearning ballads that would be explored to more devastating depths with Blood on the Tracks, but overall strikes the perfect balance between lighthearted whimsy and empty sorrow.  

3. Eddie Vedder - Into the Wild

Given its status as an original soundtrack, a handful of songs on Into the Wild suffer from underdevelopment and rushed endings.  That said, Eddie Vedder was the perfect man to capture the motivation and experience of rejecting society to withdraw into the wilderness, and he absolutely nailed it.  As a whole the album combines the driving rhythms of the open road with aural imagery of majestic untamed landscapes.  The primitive desperation to embrace nature and search for America among the death of autumn is undeniable.  

4. Husker Du - Candy Apple Grey

Husker Du's move to a major label led them to adapt their version of hardcore punk into slower, more heartfelt songs.  As a testament to their greatness as a band, the result was an extraordinary collection of their most genuine, expressive songs.  Nothing was lost in the melodically fuzzed-out guitars or the urgent emotion in the vocals; if anything, the more streamlined template brought out their strongest aspects even more.  Candy Apple Grey sounds symbolically like the strangely blissful ruminations of a man buried deep in the cold dirt under dry leaves, reflecting on how he wound up there and coming to terms with the fact that he will never get out.  

5. Pearl Jam - No Code

Mr. Vedder's second appearance in the top five comes in the form of the Pearl Jam album that saw him break through the "grunge" barrier and truly emerge as a powerhouse songwriter.  No Code, for the most part, trades the grimy guitars and howled vocals for the soft rhythms of folk and Eastern music.  The varying moods and instrumentation is unlike anything Pearl Jam, or the Seattle scene in general, had done before, and thusly it makes a strong impression while leaving much room for contemplation.  No Code takes the listener directly to the mental place that the band itself was in at the time, which is one of self-examination; preferably done while lying face up in a plowed field as the clouds roll by overhead on a brisk September afternoon.  

6. The Velvet Underground - Loaded

There's just something about the brilliant nostalgia of Sweet Jane and Rock and Roll that strongly evokes the windy arrival of cool air, the changing colors on the horizon, and the way we continue through life amidst the transition.  Put into this context the rest of the album plays as a temporary goodbye to the summer, and a joyous celebration of autumn's arrival.  

7. Built to Spill - Keep it Like a Secret

The fractured, fuzzy, wide-open soundscape of Keep it Like a Secret provides plenty of room for Doug Martsch's Neil Young-esque wandering, discontent guitar sequences, and also serves as the perfect platform for Martsch to nasally display his regretful, unsatisfied lyrics.  It is a very introspective album without ever being boring.  The overall sound has a unique vibe of nostalgia for that which is yet to happen, and it lends itself very well to the new-beginning brought on by fall.  

8. Blitzen Trapper - Furr

Furr is definitely rooted in the wistful breeziness of great folk music, but Blitzen Trapper creatively mixes in a certain backcountry spaciness through the instrumentation and song structures that make for a truly unique (yet not overly challenging) listening experience.  The sparse title track puts a somewhat abstract spin on the familiar "back to nature" theme, and fellow standout Black River Killer plays like an incredibly well-crafted vintage murder ballad, which leans slightly toward the paranormal with the synthesizer's entrance.  The rest of the album churns along with fuzzy folk and offbeat country, and if you close your eyes you might swear you were sitting in a log cabin on a chilly, mysterious late October night.   

9.  Uncle Tupelo - No Depression

Rustic blue-collar country meets grinding punk angst, and Jeff Tweedy gets drunk on the gravelly cocktail while belting out song after song of a beaten-down man medicating himself against the brutality of life.  It doesn't get muchmore "real" than No Depression, and it fits perfectly with the reality check that the crisp breeze brings in after the daydream of summer.  

10. The Decemberists - The King is Dead

"Here we come to a turning of the season".  That is how The Decemberists kick open The King is Dead, their 2011 departure from their usual literary style to their roots of woodsy, stomping, harmonica-laden folk.  What follows is 41 minutes of direct celebration of the undeniable celestial cycle that graces us with the beautiful inspiration of transitional seasons.  There is no better album at putting the fall season in perspective, and uniting us to raise a glass under its presence.  


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