Career Best will be a feature where I look back on the career of one of my favorite artists and walk through their best albums and songs.
I shouldn’t like Relient K. Their style of music is one that I usually loathe*. That pop-punk style that dominated popular rock music in the 2000s can occasionally make me want to hurl, which is a word I probably haven’t uttered out loud since the 2000s, so you can see what even talking about this music is doing to me. When you look up Relient K’s music on iTunes, listeners apparently also bought Blink-182, Fall Out Boy, Jack’s Mannequin, and the All-American Rejects, all bands that I’ve sworn to hate. With the possible exception of FOB, which I’m more ambivalent to than anything.
But I do like Relient K. I love Relient K. And I fell in love with them at college after I had already discovered bands such as Radiohead or The Hold Steady or Fleet Foxes and thought I was above such pop tripe. But then my wife (girlfriend at the time) introduced me to their music, whole albums beyond just the hit single “Be My Escape”, which was the only song of theirs I really knew. And I didn’t start to like them just because she liked them; once she gave me their CDs, we talked about them maybe three times afterward. It’s not like I fell in love with Relient K because I was falling in love with her (though I was falling in love with her); Relient K just proved to be far more than any of those other pop-punk bands. They were a legitimate band, a group that grew past their original sound to try out other ways of expressing themselves, a group that wrote lyrics about more than one thing and even about more than one category of things, a group that felt as complicated as I did.
It also helped that they were a Christian band, because that meant they tended to write about subjects that I inherently related to. Matt Thiessen wrote about the weight of sin, the hardness of forgiveness, hypocrisy, and hateful churches. Sometimes he was more direct about it than others, but he was always smart about it. There was artistry to his cleverness that other pop-punk bands and other Christian bands didn’t have. When Thiessen turned a phrase, you knew you were hearing something unique, a level of wit you wouldn’t hear from anyone else.
I’m writing in the past tense, but not because they’re not making music anymore. They actually just put out an album in June, and it was okay. If Relient K used to be on the opposite side of the road from those other pop-punk bands, Collapsible Lung brought them closer to the double-yellow lines. But nevertheless, their discography stands on its own as proof that there was a band that made the pop-punk sound not only listenable but great. Hopefully someday they’ll make another album to stand with these albums. Till then, here’s their best albums; the best songs will come on Thursday.
*“Loathe” might be too strong a word. Maybe just “despise”.
Top Albums (in alphabetical order)
Five Score and Seven Years Ago: Relient K had been steadily improving with every album. Mmhmm was great, but they reached new heights on Five Score. You could hear the budding maturity in songs like “The Best Thing” and “Must Have Done Something Right” that came to full fruition in their next album. There’s not a dud on the whole record, something Relient K’s previous albums couldn’t claim. But the best thing (haha) about the album is its closer, “Deathbed”, which opened up huge doors for the band musically. After this album, the sky was the limit.
Forget and Not Slow Down: This was the peak of their perfect progression from the raw band they were at the beginning to the mature punks they had become. Everything was wiser and more astute, from the grown-up lyrics to the adventurously inventive melodies. It’s not that they started singing about different, more adult things; instead, they covered the same subjects with more poise and less limits. Instead of sticking to the same pop-punk sound they had mastered over the past decade, the whole band broadened their sound, embraced a more mellow pop style, and meandered occasionally into lyrical abstraction. And while Relient K had obviously matured, they didn’t sound old. They were still hung up on girls, still bashing out great riffs, and still whipping out classic one-liners like, “Because I’m here wondering what could you be thinking / though I know that you’re thinking I wonder that all the time”. They were old men who weren’t afraid to be young.
Let It Snow, Baby… Let It Reindeer: I’m not sure if it’s a huge compliment or an extreme insult to put a Christmas album in here. Usually Christmas albums are throwaways in an artist’s discography, novelties that don’t last past Boxing Day. But Let It Snow (as that endlessly amusing title hints) doesn’t fit that mold. Brilliant covers are one thing- they knock out a rockin’ version of “Angels We Have Heard on High”, croon a winning “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, and play the cover to end all covers of “12 Days of Christmas”- but they also add a few songs to the Christmas canon. “Merry Christmas, Here’s to Many More” is a melancholy love song in the vein of “Have Yourself”, while “In Like a Lion (Always Winter)” is a Narnia-channeling Turkish delight. And “I Celebrate the Day” might be the best Christmas carol you don’t sing every year.
Top Songs (in not alphabetical order):
10. “12 Days of Christmas” from Let It Snow, Baby… Let It Reindeer: This is probably the most annoying Christmas carol in the wide pool of annoying Christmas songs to choose from. And I have no doubt that Relient K’s version is an annoying one to some people. Yes, they sing every verse. But the song changes with every verse so that something so familiar gradually turns into your favorite new song. The way they play with the “five golden rings” line never fails to amuse me. Besides, they openly admit what we were all thinking: these gifts suck.
9. “High of 75” from Mmhmm: These pop-punk songs are so emo, aren’t they? Not “High of 75”. No other band but Relient K did such a bang-up job of tearing apart the stereotypes assigned to the artists in their genre. “High of 75” sounds just like other pop-punk songs, but it’s undeniably happy. It’s almost a jab at those other bands, acknowledging the “heavy heart” and “bipolar” nature of most of their songs’ protagonists, then turning that conceit on its head with the most positive chorus in the history of pop songs. Ever. Well, maybe not ever. But it’s certainly up there.
8. “The Best Thing” from Five Score and Seven Years Ago: An unabashed declaration of love. Relient K, like other pop-punk bands of their era, were good at capturing what it felt like to be an adolescent in our American middle and high schools. So many of Relient K’s lines sound like something the best version of my teenage self would have said. So it goes with “this is the best thing that could be happening / and the best thing is that it’s happening to you and me.”
7. “Sadie Hawkins Dance” from The Anatomy of the Tongue and Cheek: Okay, so this is supposed to be a throwaway song, right? WRONG. I get that it’s kind of a joke song, but that doesn’t keep it from being the most perfect capsule of high school hopes and dreams ever. From the chorus’s almost desperate “Baby do you like my sweater” to that middle verse when (SPOILER ALERT) the girl calls him “smooth and good with talking” (the ultimate non-jock’s go-to quality for winning over the gals) and asks him to the dance. And then: “oh-oh-oh!”
6. “Failure to Excommunicate” from The Anatomy of the Tongue and Cheek: An early sign that Relient K was willing to try different things. As soon as the voices come in, you’re unsure if it’s even a Relient K song. They go a little harder here, and while I wouldn’t normally like something that leans as close to metal as a non-metal song can, the contrast between the grungy verses and the softer, Thiessen-sung chorus works. The lighter chorus functions as a balm for the gritty vocals and chunky guitars on the verses, while it remains one of their tightest songs in terms of execution. It’s a nice image of Jesus’s dual nature of wrath and love, and the beautiful mystery that is His love for those to whom He’s extended grace, even in the midst of their sin.
5. “Must Have Done Something Right” from Five Score and Seven Years Ago: The finest example of Thiessen’s lyrical genius also happens to have one of the band’s catchiest choruses. Seriously, there is no opening couplet better than “We should get jerseys ‘cause we make a good team / But yours would look better than mine, cause you’re outta my league”. Period. End of discussion. Don’t even try to send in contenders, because it’s not an argument.
4. “Deathbed (feat. Jon Foreman)” from Five Score and Seven Years Ago: 11 minute songs shouldn’t work. I’m generally against them; Bob Dylan is the worst offender. The man is a brilliant songwriter, and there’s no denying that some of his longest songs are his best; but do they really have to be so drawn out? You’ve made your eleven-minute song, Bobby; it was called “Desolation Row”. You’ve got nothing left to prove. But if there’s any song that earns it’s length, it’s “Deathbed”. This song is an epic recounting of a man’s average life from his (yep) deathbed, from his early marriage to his divorce to the lung cancer that brought him to this song in the end. Relient K throws in mundane details that make “Deathbed” a complete confession from this man; he tells us how he used to smoke till he threw up, then would smoke some more, which led to his cancer. He tells us his drinking preference was Sam Beam and how many nights a week he used to bowl to escape from the responsibility of his undesirable home life. And there have been few songs that have detailed so well the steps toward salvation. It’s a specific story, but in its specificity Relient K allows us to see how salvation is possible for us all.
3. “For the Moments I Feel Faint” from The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek: One of Relient K’s simplest songs, and their best declaration of faith in Christ. They went acoustic for this one, a tactic they didn’t use often. It’s a striking choice here; some strings join the voice and the guitar after the first verse, but they don’t overpower. Instead, they buoy up the band’s obedient boast in Christ alone.
2. “Forget and Not Slow Down (feat. Tim Skipper)” from Forget and Not Slow Down: There’s not a single watershed moment in my life after high school that this song hasn’t touched. There was a time when I had just finished being president of my fraternity*, had recently started dating the woman who would later become my wife, was making the decision of where to go to graduate school, and was preparing to graduate from undergrad. It was a period of looking back and ahead, of making great new friends and painfully burning some bridges out of pride and laziness. At some point, you can’t live in shame for the mistakes you’ve made. You make amends as well as you can, and trust the God of love and mercy to wash you clean and sanctify you to do better next time. That is what this song has been for me. That is what it will be for me.
1. “Be My Escape” from Mmhmm: If they ever put me in charge of giving out the award for best pop-punk song ever (because why would they choose anyone else?), I won’t hesitate to kneel before Relient K and present them the Axe-hair-gel-shaped trophy. “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” is up there, and definitely the only Yellowcard song that anyone knows, but “Be My Escape” is the ultimate. It’s simultaneously Relient K’s best song, for having a perfect chorus that rides the emo wave of feeling trapped to the eventual breaker of salvation, and their most frustrating song, for basically validating the whole pop-punk genre. In “Be My Escape”, pop-punk was both overly dramatic and perfectly focused on God’s grace, and I still sing every word at the top of my lungs when it comes on in my car.
*An opportunity that I was both extremely blessed to have and very unqualified for. I grew a lot that year.