38. The Shins, Oh, Inverted World
The debut album from the Shins holds a special place of significance for me in my return journey through college radio. This was the first CD I bought at the primary local, independently-owned record store in my new city of residence. What’s more, I bought it specifically because of the songs I heard played on WPRK. I think I actually decided I had to have it when I myself played “Know Your Onion” on the air, a return to a happy, costly time several years later when filling out my radio playlist directly coinciding with making a record store shopping list in my head. The Albuquerque, New Mexico band–which eventually relocated to Portland, Oregon, because of course they did–featured moody, lush pop songs of crystalline perfection on the debut, which did quite well on college radio but got an enormous boost a couple of years later when Zach Braff used Natalie Portman’s character to position it as life-changing music in his film Garden State. That helped add cachet to the band, especially the songwriting of James Mercer. The release earlier this year of the band’s fourth album, delivered five years after the previous outing, was treated as the monumental return of an indie icon.
37. R.E.M., Reveal
While I was discovering new bands, I was also becoming acquainted with how some of the titans of my earlier era of college radio had settled nearly a generation later. During the eighties and into the mid-nineties, there was no band that dominated the college charts like R.E.M. Appropriately prolific (there was a new full-length R.E.M. album every year from 1983 to 1988, and that doesn’t even include the endearing scrapyard of Dead Letter Office. They slowed down somewhat after that, presumably because success (and, as I can now personally attest, age) cooled their fires. Then drummer Bill Berry left the band, which slowed their momentum further. The band’s first album as a trio, 1997’s Up, was very good, but it was also slow, mellow, even languid, as if the departure of the drummer made a driving rhythm almost impossible to conjure up. Three years passed before they tried again, releasing Reveal, which I would term their first subpar album, despite a good song here and there (though the band’s clear, consensus nadir was still to come). Tellingly, the college radio DJs I was now working with wanted nothing to do with it. The band that was once dominant on the left side of the dial now inspired colossal disinterest, which wasn’t automatically a product of their long history considering one of the biggest college radio albums of the following year was by another band that gave turntables mighty workouts a decade or so earlier. It was just the sorry state of R.E.M.’s musical union as the 21st century was dawning. Yes, they could still make the CMJ Top 50 for the year, but it felt like it was out of just enough lingering nostalgia for the old days than genuine excitement over the music they were making at that point.
50 and 49: Creeper Lagoon and Ryan Adams
48 and 47: The (International) Noise Conspiracy and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
46 and 45: Spoon and Black Box Recorder
44 and 43: Rival Schools and Aphex Twin
42 and 41: Ben Folds and Superchunk
40 and 39: The Faint and Modest Mouse