Career Best: Bob Dylan’s Best Songs

Career Best: Bob Dylan’s Best Songs

We’ve covered Dylan’s Top 12 Albums, so let’s move on to Dylan’s songs. I have to be honest though- the record companies have done a good job of fully cataloging Dylan’s career by releasing countless live albums and collections of all the different versions of even the deep cuts on his albums. So I’m sure there’s plenty I haven’t listened to, and even if I have listened to something, I may not have been able to give it a fair shake. So basically, if I leave something off, it’s not my fault, it’s Dylan’s for creating too much music.

The Top 25 Bob Dylan Songs

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25. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home): Dylan was already known for his protest songs, but “It’s Alright, Ma”, recorded in one take, was different, replacing his previous tempered optimism with utter disillusionment.

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24. “Just Like a Woman” (1966, Blonde on Blonde): I’ve often struggled with the apparent misogyny of the lyrics (though whether or not Dylan was using sexist overtones to strike back at sexism itself is an arguable explanation), but the creativity of the lyrics and Dylan’s obvious fascination with this one woman pull me in regardless.

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23. “Not Dark Yet” (1997, Time out of Mind): On Dylan’s big ‘90s comeback album, “Not Dark Yet” stood out both for its ambient beauty and for its unrelenting optimism.

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22. “Maggie’s Farm” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home): There seems to be confusion about whether the uproar over Dylan’s performance of “Maggie’s Farm” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was about opposition to his new musical direction toward electric guitars or about poor sound mixing, but the song remains a powerful statement of independence no matter what.

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21. “With God on Our Side” (1964, The Times They Are A-Changin’): It starts in a way that may convince you Dylan is showing a patriotic side, but as the lyrics progress this highlight from Dylan’s third album becomes a clear diatribe against the kind of political religiosity that still plays a role in America’s governmental goings-on.

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20. “Visions of Johanna” (1966, Blonde on Blonde): This is sort of the go-to song to demonstrate how inscrutable Dylan’s lyrics can be sometimes, and yet as you parse through the bars, “Visions” reveals itself as a lovely meditation on the space between desire and resentment.

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19. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan): Running 7 minutes long, “Hard Rain” is Dylan’s first protest epic, a desperate screed that eschews any sort of call to action for a simple prophecy of impending doom.

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18. “Tears of Rage” (1975, The Basement Tapes): “Tears” originally appeared on The Band’s debut album in 1968, but it didn’t come into its own until this original, collaborative recording was released 7 years later with a more collective anguish.

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17. “Simple Twist of Fate” (1975, Blood on the Tracks): On Dylan’s most heartbreaking album, this might be his most heartbreaking song.

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16. “Someday Baby” (2008, Tell Tale Signs): “Someday Baby” was a great single on 2006’s Modern Times, but this version on 2008’s Bootleg Series volume is lighter, more hopeful.

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15. “Hurricane” (1976, Desire): While lyrically it’s a simple exposé of America’s broken, racist justice system, “Hurricane” is one of Dylan’s most ambitious musical arrangements, using the fiddle to great effect, building on its themes from verse to verse, and ultimately contributing to a swell of support for boxer Ruben Carter’s eventual release from prison.

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14. “Girl from the North Country (feat. Johnny Cash)” (1969, Nashville Skyline): Nashville Skyline Dylan is the Dylan with the most interesting vocal performances, and none were better than this plaintive duet with the Man in Black himself.

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13. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (1973, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid): With a 2:29 run-time, “Knockin’” feels like one of Dylan’s more minor songs, and yet the simple melody of the chorus has had a major impact, and the song has gone on to become one of his most covered.

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12. “Shelter from the Storm” (1975, Blood on the Tracks): Dylan is known for his croaky voice, his acerbic wit, and his protest music, but “Shelter” is an example of something he should get more credit for: being able to write a beautiful love song.

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11. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home): It might be going too far to claim Dylan was the protogenitor of rap, but “Subterranean” finds Dylan right at his sweet spot for using rhythm and rhyme to get across a certain dissatisfaction.

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10. “Lay Lady Lay” (1969, Nashville Skyline): Dylan gets his closest to a typical vocal delivery on Nashville Skyline, and “Lay Lady Lay” just may be his most beautiful song. I remember hearing it on The Essential Bob Dylan when I was first discovering his music and thinking it was a completely different artist. Every so often, Dylan succumbs to his romantic side, and “Lay Lady Lay” is the purest version of it.

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9. “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (1966, Blonde on Blonde): Speaking of romance, here’s an 11-minute song about Dylan’s then-new wife! Remember that thing I said about “Lay Lady Lay” being the purest version of Dylan’s romantic side? Well, “Sad-Eyed Lady”, which closes the brilliant Blonde on Blonde, is Dylan’s romantic side at its most utterly Dylanesque, from its epic run-time to its absurd imagery.

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8. “Mississippi” (2008, Tell Tale Signs): The Bootleg Series collections of the vast troves of Dylan’s unreleased material recorded both live and in-studio, are invaluable and fascinating. But the best is Vol. 8 and its three versions of “Love and Theft”’s “Mississippi”, which is a remarkable song all on its own. But what’s more remarkable is how each version is great in its own way, though I prefer the one that appears first on Tell Tale Signs for the thoughtful way it rolls along to its understated conclusion.

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7. “Desolation Row” (1965, Highway 61 Revisited): In the 2010s we know all about the extended length of Dylan’s songs, but when Highway 61 Revisited was released with an 11-minute folk epic at its end, it was new ground for Dylan. While some of Dylan’s longer songs can become tiresome, “Desolation Row” never gets old, perhaps because it was his first. The surreal world Dylan builds over the song’s run-time is as vivid now as the first time I heard it, like a recurring dream .

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6. “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home): I made the decision beforehand that Dylan songs with superior cover versions wouldn’t make it on the list, which is why “All Along the Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix), “It Ain’t Me, Babe” (June Carter and Johnny Cash), and “I Shall Be Released” (The Band) didn’t make the cut. The Byrds recorded a sublime version of “Tambourine”, and I do like it better than Dylan’s, but Dylan’s remains iconic. Where “Desolation Row” would paint a surreal picture of chaos later that year, “Mr. Tambourine Man” painted a surreal picture of peace, and it’s a peace that has never stopped resonating with me.

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5. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan): There aren’t too many surprises from here on out- maybe #1, but the next 4 at least are all-timers, the songs a Dylan layperson could pick out of a lineup. “Don’t Think Twice” was the B-side to Dylan’s breakout single, “Blowin’ in the Wind”. On the A-side, listeners got their first taste of Dylan’s protest chops, and on the flip side was one of Dylan’s most personal songs ever, a quiet dismissal of a lover’s selfishness.

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4. “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan): I think it’s easy now to dismiss “Blowin’ in the Wind”. As Dylan’s breakout single, it’s been around longer than any of his other songs, and he would go on to write far more complex songs and to craft an entire persona beyond the simple protest folk artist he started as. But the separation between the artist Dylan was and the artist he became actually contribute to the purity of “Blowin’” in retrospect, making it not only one of his best songs but a timeless one.

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3. “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965, Highway 61 Revisited): This was Rolling Stone’s top song of all time, which is a fine choice, even if they were undoubtedly a little biased. The amount of hype “Rolling Stone” has gotten throughout music history should have outstripped its quality by now. But the lead track on Highway 61 Revisited is such an impeccably structured masterpiece with so much vitriol baked into its bars that its quality will always remain undeniable.

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2. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1964, The Times They Are A-Changin’): Like “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Times” has become overshadowed by the vast catalog that followed it. But “Times” is Dylan adopting the stance of a prophet unwelcome in his hometown, and the message he’s proclaiming has the distinction of defining not only its own era but every era since. The times indeed are changing, and we just can’t keep up.

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1. “Tangled Up in Blue” (1975, Blood on the Tracks): The best Dylan song is also the saddest, the loneliest, the realest. The lyrics take some surreal turns, but by and large they concern the end of a relationship. Finding specific meanings in Dylan songs is often a fruitless exercise. He deals more in vignettes and moods than in lessons or themes, and “Tangled Up in Blue” is a myriad of vignettes all in one mood: longing. I first found “Tangled Up in Blue” while I was happy in a relationship, but I didn’t fall in love with it until I experienced some heartbreak. You can appreciate the song while you’re happy, but it won’t be until you’re broken that “Tangled” truly inhabits you.

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Career Best: Bob Dylan’s Best Albums

Career Best: Bob Dylan’s Best Albums

I didn’t grow up listening to Bob Dylan. My house was a Beatles house. I knew most of the Beatles choruses by heart. But Dylan? I couldn’t have told you any of the names of his songs until my senior year of high school. By that time, I had begun listening to a lot of the pop classics. When I got to Dylan, I was so confused. How did a guy with this voice get to be considered the Voice of a Generation?

If Dylan’s unorthodox voice threw me off at first, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with his originality. As strange as his voice is, there’s no arguing Dylan’s ability to craft a tune or write a lyric. Pretty soon, that one-of-a-kind, reedy voice came to hold a special kind of beauty to me. After some time exploring his catalog of albums, he became one of my favorite artists.

Listening to any artist’s entire discography can be exhausting and tedious, but Dylan had so many different phases and personalities over the years that each new wave felt like discovering a new artist. From all of his 36 studio albums, I picked the top 12. Why 12? I don’t know. It’s a third of 36. Seemed good.

The Top 12 Bob Dylan Albums

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12. Down in the Groove (1988): The common refrain is that the ‘80s were a lost decade for Dylan. He got caught up in a born-again Christian fever and his creativity dipped- or so they say. There’s no question that the genius of his ‘60s and ‘70s albums didn’t surface in the ‘80s, but in retrospect it seems like Dylan’s initial spate of faith-focused albums turned critics off and they largely ignored the rest of the decade’s output. Only Infidels (1983) and Empire Burlesque (1985) get any love, and it’s muted love at that. But I prefer two other albums: Shot of Love (1981, see below) and this one, a 10-track diamond in the rough that has perhaps the purest, least-dated music of Dylan’s 1980s. Groove also has two of his best songs of the decade, the punchy “Silvio” and the soulful “Shenandoah”.

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11. Modern Times (2006): As the third album of Dylan’s late-career renaissance, following Time Out of Mind (1997) and Love and Theft (2001, see below), it was understandable to expect a dip in quality. After all, Dylan had silenced his critics with two works that seemed to erase the bad will he built up in the 1980s. Most artists don’t even have one good record after 30 years making music, let alone two. Was three too much to expect? Turns out it wasn’t, as Modern Times sees Dylan at the top of his (admittedly old) game, turning out 10 great folk songs that were interestingly focused on the future. Dylan is almost defiant in his hope for a better life, a life without romantic worries in “Someday Baby”, a life free of the wickedness of others in “Ain’t Talkin’”.

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10. Tempest (2012): Dylan’s last great album, and the one on which it sounds like the Bard’s vocal larynx has finally sprung a leak. If you weren’t turned off by Dylan’s voice before Tempest, this won’t be the one to convince you his songwriting is worth getting past the scratchiness (which makes it all the more humorous that he’s releasing a second Frank Sinatra covers album this year). But after the bland Together Through Life (2009), Tempest was a return to the strong songwriting of Modern Times. This time Dylan doubled down on a blues-rock groove that belied an even more light-hearted take on the world, climaxing with the whimsical last track, “Roll On John”.

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9. Shot of Love (1981): This is the best of Dylan’s post-conversion albums. You can see why critics continued to lump this in with the uninspired Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980). There are some unabashed attempts to proselytize through song, like “Property of Jesus” and “Every Grain of Sand”. And Shot was a further commitment to move away from the introspective folk of Dylan’s early-to-mid-‘70s. In fact, Shot is Dylan’s album with the most soul, from the opening title track’s gospel-inspired backup singers to the old-fashioned spiritual style of “Watered-Down Love”.

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8. The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964): While not as well-remembered as Dylan’s breakthrough, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963, see below), Times was arguably crafted to make more of an impact. Freewheelin’ had “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”, but nearly every song on Times was meant to be a protest song, starting with the opening title track that became an anthem for the ‘60s, all the way through “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, about the murder of a hotel worker by a rich white man. The songs are less witty than on Freewheelin’ and their styles are more one-note, but Times solidified Dylan’s reputation as the Voice of a Generation.

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7. “Love and Theft” (2001): Dylan had already had his big critical comeback in 1997 with Time Out of Mind. But I prefer 2001’s “Love and Theft”. Time was Dylan’s first album of original material in 7 years, and as such was his most personal album in a long time. But “Love and Theft” is a more ambitious album full of story songs, weaving tales of the South and its racial tensions. Album high point “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is a tribute to the esteemed blues pioneer in the guise of a story about the 1927 Mississippi River flood in Louisiana. The closer “Sugar Baby” talks about looking for fulfillment in the era of Prohibition. And “Mississippi”, on an album full of concepts, is one of Dylan’s most personal songs, facing romantic consequences that can’t help but feel inevitable.

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6. The Basement Tapes (1975): After Dylan survived a traumatic motorcycle accident in 1967, the backing band on his last tour, the Hawks (who would later become The Band), joined him for one of the most famous collaborations in Americana history. In fact, The Basement Tapes, which weren’t released until seven years had passed, is credited with birthing modern Americana, though that’s a specious claim, since it seems there hasn’t been a decade before or since in which Americana didn’t have a big influence on the current music. Regardless, the combination of Dylan with fellow musical geniuses Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel produced some of the most beautiful and fun music of Dylan’s career, including album standouts “Tears of Rage” and “Crash on the Levee”.

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5. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963): “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Freewheelin’s opener became the most famous protest song of all time, so it’s easy to forget that it’s a very simple song. All the songs on Freewheelin’ are simple, so much simpler than the brand of folk-rock Dylan became famous for later on in the ‘60s. But the lack of lyrical complexity doesn’t mean a lack of lyrical creativity. “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is one of Dylan’s funniest songs, and “Blowin’” has some of his strongest imagery. And the lack of musical complexity doesn’t mean a lack of musical beauty. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” finds its home in a mournful yodel, and the way the chorus builds to its resigned conclusion in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is one of Dylan’s better compositions.

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4. Highway 61 Revisited (1965): It’s tempting to put Highway 61 Revisited higher on this list on the strength of “Like a Rolling Stone” alone, but the albums ahead of it are there for a reason. This was the album where Dylan “went electric”. To our modern ears, there might not be much of a difference between Highway and its predecessor, Bringing It All Back Home (1965, see below), but so much of Highway is treading new ground. The whistles and slide guitar on the title track are just the most obvious wrinkles Dylan threw into the album’s mix. “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Desolation Row” are perhaps the most indicative of Dylan’s new direction, the former for its heavy dependence on the organ (foreshadowing Dylan’s collaboration with The Band) and the latter for its 11-minute stream-of-consciousness poetry.

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3. Bringing It All Back Home (1965): Album opener “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (which some have said is the first rap song- some have said it, not me!) and “Maggie’s Farm”, while still conforming to Dylan’s established folk structure, are subtle hints at the direction Dylan was about to go. He was beginning to get bored of following the same patterns on song after song, and Bringing is the first step towards his more avant-garde hit albums Highway and Blonde on Blonde (1966, see below). Released the same year as Highway, I prefer Bringing, because though it’s longer, the songwriting is stronger across the board, including “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the underrated “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.

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2. Blonde on Blonde (1966): The best of Dylan’s ‘60s albums is also the longest, which should work against it, but there are just so many great songs on this record. It starts off with his weirdest song to date, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, which riffs on the folk community’s overblown reaction to his new direction using a pot pun. Then there’s a 6-song run, starting with the effortlessly beautiful “Visions of Johanna” and ending with the spiteful “Just Like a Woman”, that is simply unparalleled in pop music. The final song is another 11-minute epic along the lines of “Desolation Row” called “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, but this one was a love song, an ode to Dylan’s new wife, and it’s Dylan at his most direct and most tender. Recorded in Nashville with session musicians, Blonde on Blonde finds the newly married Dylan at his peak, a point that he wouldn’t return to until that new marriage reached a point of turmoil 9 years later.

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1. Blood on the Tracks (1975): The breakup album is a well-worn trope in the pop music world, and we may have Dylan to thank for that. Though his relationship with his wife wasn’t ending, they were estranged during Blood’s recording. Dylan has claimed Blood wasn’t a personal album; bullshit. This is one of the most achingly painful albums of all time, at some points full of grief and at others full to bursting of anger. “Idiot Wind” is the best example of the latter, as the title refers to the air coming out of his lover’s mouth. The best example of the former is the opening track, “Tangled Up in Blue”. I’ll write more about this song next week, but it sets the tone for the whole album, communicating with precision the complex and inescapable grief that comes with an ending relationship. I was trying to remember if Blood on the Tracks helped me cope with any of my own dissolving relationships in the past. “Cope” isn’t the right word. I would say that Blood has helped me put my own sadness into words and pictures, and that was more valuable to me than any album that might make me feel better for a little bit.

Next week I’ll cover Dylan’s Top 25 Songs.

Career Best: Leonardo DiCaprio

I’m in 8th grade, and I’m sneaking into a movie for the first time. It’s sold out, so we bought a ticket to a different movie, probably some crappy comedy marketed to my teenage brethren, and we’re sneaking into the one we actually came to see. There are still a couple seats up front that we immediately grab, and we lean back and crane our necks to take the biopic in. Howard Hughes towers over us, flying Katharine Hepburn over the city, admiring his massive jumbo jet, repeating “Show me the blueprints” over and over, peeing into milk bottles. The actor playing him redefines acting for me at a time when I still have dreams of acting for a living, of making art and telling stories for the rest of my life.

Leonardo DiCaprio has been my favorite actor since I saw him that night in The Aviator. He’s the best actor and movie star of his generation, and I’m convinced it’s not close. He built his career from the ground up, from child star to ingénue to movie star to movie mogul. Having secured his wealth and bankability early in his career, DiCaprio has the luxury to pick and choose his roles, prioritizing auteur directors over box office potential, so he’s had the most consistent filmography of any 21st-century star. Partnering with Alejandro Iñárritu for the upcoming The Revenant continues that trend.

Leo is also a fascinating persona outside of the movies. The allure he holds as a man of wealth and a playboy and a philanthropist is akin to pre-Amal George Clooney or a real-life Tony Stark. Because he’s never settled down and he expresses such deep emotion in his movie roles, I always wonder if he feels fully satisfied, if he ever wonders if there’s more to this world than the instant gratification of his riches or the tortured pathos of his art. Maybe someday in the future we’ll gain insight into his psyche, but for now, in the 25th year of Our Leo, we can at least look back at his career so far. Here’s a ranking of all of his movie performances, from the not good to the perfect.

(Disclaimer: The clips in the title links may contain profanity. Actually, they probably all do.)

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Nope

Celebrity (1998), Brandon Darrow (audio is out of sync)
Critters 3 (1991), Josh
Don’s Plum (2001), Derek
Poison Ivy (1992), Guy
Total Eclipse (1995), Arthur Rimbaud
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Jordan Belfort

These are all the Leo movies I haven’t seen, The Wolf of Wall Street the only one by choice. Well, I suppose I chose not to see the other ones too, but the rest of them wouldn’t have been free. I couldn’t track them down at the library or on Netflix, and I didn’t care enough to look for them illegally or to buy them on Amazon. None of them have a good reputation, or even any reputation at all- except The Wolf of Wall Street, of course, which I’m choosing not to see because of its reputation for end-to-end sexual content. It’s a shame, because I’ve heard it’s among Leo’s best performances. But it doesn’t seem worth it.

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Not good

21. J. Edgar (2011), J. Edgar Hoover

This is DiCaprio’s only bad performance. It’s hard to blame him for it though. Clint Eastwood’s movie is such a mess across the board, and it’s not DiCaprio’s fault the age makeup is terrible. He’s a good enough actor that he can play old and it’s not weird, but everything about his performance as the old Hoover is made weird by fatsuits and bad bald wigs. Nothing works, not even Leo. But it’s the only movie of his you can say that about, which is better than almost anyone else can say.

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Not not good

20. The Basketball Diaries (1995), Jim Carroll
19. This Boy’s Life (1993), Toby
18. The Quick and the Dead (1995), Kid
17. The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), King Louis XIV / Philippe

As a boy from 1993-2000, DiCaprio exhibited two traits better than any others: idealism and petulance. Unfortunately, these roles are all petulant kids, which makes them less likeable than his others from this period. The Quick and the Dead’s Kid is at least as endearing as he is arrogant, so he’s at least fun to watch, even if he’s a caricature of an archetype, like almost every other character in the Tarantino-scripted movie. And in The Man in the Iron Mask DiCaprio actually plays two characters, only one of whom is petulant; the other one is in a metal mask for most of the movie, so he hardly counts. And while his performances in The Basketball Diaries and This Boy’s Life are probably accurate depictions of male adolescence, his characters’ entitlement really grates the nerves. As his career progressed, his characters’ flaws wouldn’t decrease, but they certainly became less annoying.

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You had my curiosity, but now you have my attention.

16. The Beach (2000), Richard
15. Marvin’s Room (1996), Hank
14. Romeo + Juliet (1996), Romeo

It’s not that DiCaprio was so much older in these movies than in the previous four, but the performances are all much more mature. Surely part of the reason is that these three are just better movies with better direction, so he had stronger guidance. The Beach is the strangest movie of the first half of his career, but because it’s the latest his performance seems much more assured than most of what came before. If it weren’t for the movie’s strange turn in the last quarter, which includes a bizarre acting decision from Leo, The Beach would be higher on this list. Marvin’s Room has DiCaprio as a character much like his roles in The Basketball Diaries and This Boy’s Life, a willful and rebellious teenager, but Scott McPherson’s screenplay gives Leo more room to show his joyous side, making it the most rounded of the three performances. And Romeo + Juliet, far and away the best film mentioned so far with Baz Luhrmann’s now signature flourishes, is Leo at his most enamored, a Leo entranced by his Juliet’s beauty, even more so than Jack in Titanic. These three movies give you a glimpse of both the level of skill he’d display in the 2000s and the kinds of adult characters he’d be most suited to.

T.I.A. This Is Acting.

13. Gangs of New York (2002), Amsterdam Vallon
12. Body of Lies (2008), Roger Ferris
11. Blood Diamond (2006), Danny Archer

Ah, here we go. This is the Leo we’re most used to now, the Leo who takes roles that require Acting and makes it look like he’s only acting. DiCaprio had struck gold before 2002 (see below), but Gangs of New York began a stretch of projects that he took on very particularly, choosing carefully which directors to whom he would give his time (and sometimes money as a producer). Gangs is also the first of his so far five-movie oeuvre with Martin Scorsese, and, while it’s the worst, it might be the biggest challenge, considering he was pitted against the titan Daniel Day-Lewis and a miscast Cameron Diaz. He acquits himself well though, taking that petulance so prevalent in his early movies and applying it to a noble character to turn that negative quality into honor. Body of Lies and Blood Diamond have DiCaprio playing essentially the same character, with his role in Blood Diamond a little more nuanced. Both movies have Leo as an opportunistic ass trying to make do in a volatile foreign situation. However, Blood Diamond has DiCaprio pulling off an effective South African accent, so it has the slight edge.

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O trespass sweetly urged! Give me my sin again.

10. Revolutionary Road (2008), Frank Wheeler
9. Shutter Island (2010), Teddy Daniels

We love to watch DiCaprio suffer, apparently. He keeps taking painful roles, and we keep watching him. The Revenant won’t be any different, if the buzz from its production is to be believed. In Revolutionary Road he’s suffering from a failed marriage to Kate Winslet’s April. Some people don’t like RR, because it’s just Winslet and DiCaprio fighting for two hours. But I think it’s incredible, because despite all the yelling and selfishness from the two main characters, both have a hope that they’ll find happiness. They’re just unable to articulate it. In Shutter Island, Leo’s suffering from past trauma brought on by his wife’s murder of their three children. Shutter Island was fascinating the first time, but Leo’s performance is even more entrancing the second time through, because his desperation takes on new meaning after you know the twist ending.

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I’m the king of the world!

8. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Arnie Grape
7. Titanic (1997), Jack Dawson
6. Catch Me If You Can (2002), Frank Abagnale Jr.

These are some of DiCaprio’s most fun roles to watch. If the last two were painful to watch (on purpose), these three are a joy. Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is one of Leo’s first film roles, which blows my mind, since Arnie is intellectually disabled and DiCaprio basically goes “full retard”, a big risk for even a mature actor and generally a terrible idea. But DiCaprio and director Lasse Hallström make Arnie’s main trait his infectious happiness, so if Leo got any of the physical characteristics of Arnie’s disability wrong, you’d never notice, because you’re too busy falling in love with the kid. Jack Dawson is a romantic idealist, but he’s also worldly, so we trust him implicitly from the beginning of Titanic. And Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can is a charming narcissist, whose narcissism manifests in entertaining con jobs that make up the bulk of Spielberg’s movie, so Leo is entertaining from beginning to end. We tend to reward actors for suffering in their roles, but sometimes the harder job is making the audience love your character. DiCaprio pulls it off wonderfully in these three films.

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Is it possible? Is it possible to improve on perfection?

5. Inception (2010), Cobb

I didn’t see Inception’s Cobb on a lot of the Top 10 Performances for Leo around the Internet. It seems underrated to me, probably because Christopher Nolan movies don’t showcase performances like other directors’. It’s unfortunate, because this is the performance in which DiCaprio does the most expressing with the least effort. Cobb is a man on a mission, and his determination is clear, even when marred by guilt over his wife’s deterioration. The final moment of the movie, when he stares one last time at the spinning top and then tears himself away from his totem to join his kids, is one of my favorite DiCaprio moments.

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4. The Great Gatsby (2013), Jay Gatsby

Leonardo DiCaprio is Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is such a classic literary character that he should have been impossible to bring to the screen. But DiCaprio lives a Jay Gatsby life, with models at parties on yachts, in Cannes and L.A. and the Caribbean, spending more money in a week than I’ll make my whole life, wealthy beyond anyone else’s wildest dreams. The extravagance of Leo’s performance matches the exuberance of Baz Luhrmann’s direction. There’s also a hint of Gatsby’s green light on DiCaprio’s real-life persona; surely all his exploits with his riches have exposed a little emptiness in his heart? Jay Gatsby is Leonardo DiCaprio.

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3. The Aviator (2004), Howard Hughes

This is the first moment we knew Leonardo DiCaprio could fulfill the promise he had shown in his twenties. Howard Hughes, much like Gatsby, was a larger-than-life man, and the mythos of Leo’s celebrity lifestyle hadn’t solidified in the public consciousness quite yet when The Aviator came out. But DiCaprio fills Hughes’ pilot boots and more, from his charm to his OCD tics, from his ambition to his resignation. It’s not that he wasn’t a good actor before The Aviator, but we weren’t sure if he would ever be truly great. The Aviator is his announcement that he skipped great and went straight to timeless.

2. The Departed (2006), Billy

Now they’re just toying with us. DiCaprio’s and Scorsese’s third partnership is their best and most complex, with DiCaprio as an undercover cop in a Boston organized crime family. Leo isn’t required to do a lot of extraneous acting in The Departed. The movie around him is so well-constructed and his character so well-written, his performance doesn’t have to carry the movie, even if it is the best performance in the movie. The whole thing, from his performance to the rest of the cast’s to the story execution itself, feels so effortless, you’re surprised at the end when Billy’s death hits you in the gut, and you realize you’re sad you don’t get to watch DiCaprio battle the demons of undercover life anymore.

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1. Django Unchained (2012), Calvin Candie

Funny that the best performance by such a big movie star would be one of his few supporting performances. Calvin Candie may be a smaller role than the rest of DiCaprio’s filmography, but the performance is just as big. While Leo has played many bad people before, the only other villain he’s portrayed was in The Man in the Iron Mask, and King Louis is a saint compared to Candie. It’s not that Candie is that much scarier or more violent than other slaveowners in movie history; Michael Fassbender’s Epps from 12 Years a Slave would scare Candie out of his well-shined shoes. But what makes Candie different from a bastard like Epps is that he’s under any delusions that he’s anything more than evil. He’s a fitting reflection of the society around him in that he’s perfectly willing to treat Django like a white man but willingly- no, happily- pits his slaves against others’ to the death. And yet DiCaprio is an absolute pleasure to watch; he’s completely depraved, but his charm is off the charts. He steals the movie right out from under the capable noses of Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz, even if Waltz is the only one who ended up with an Oscar. The movie’s delicate balance of outrage and farce doesn’t work without DiCaprio.

In fact, after 25 years, one could argue that the movies don’t work without him.

Career Best: Bruce Springsteen’s Best Albums

One of my favorite days so far this year was the day in May that I got to see Bruce Springsteen in concert. Vicky was unable to come due to a misunderstanding at the hotel with our dog, so I went by myself. Not the ideal situation, but it was the best we could do at the time. I sat next to a couple from New Jersey and a couple from Alabama. We all chatted about college football and where we were from and how many Springsteen concerts we had been to. But there wasn’t any chatting after the music started.

It was the best concert experience I’ve ever had. I wasn’t very close to the stage, but Springsteen and the E Street Band are experts at playing to a crowd. But it’s not just that they put on a good show. It has far more to do with my own personal relationship with his music and getting to spend 3 hours with a huge group of people celebrating everything great about it together.

It’s a shame Vicky couldn’t be there. You should share the things you love. That’s why I do these Career Best posts. I love Bruce Springsteen’s music, and I want to share it with you. Why only 6 albums? I dunno. He has 18 studio albums, so I divided that by 3. You’re getting one third of Springsteen’s entire oeuvre. Enjoy.springsteenalbums16. The River (1980): It’s easy to overlook The River, sandwiched between his classic ‘70s albums and his reinventing ‘80s records. But The River was a reinvention of its own, moving away from the wall of sound that characterized Born to Run and Darkness to a style more suitable to Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry. The River truly rocks, with Springsteen hitting his stride on upbeat paeans to young love such as “Fade Away” and “Sherry Darlin”. But, as a double album, The River has more than enough room for somber reflection in songs like “The River” and “Stolen Car”. This was Bruce Springsteen flexing and finding he had room to grow.

springsteenalbums25. Born in the U.S.A. (1984): This is when Springsteen “went commercial”, a phrase that is as nasty to Boss purists as “went electric” was at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But it’s hogwash. The vast majority of Born in the U.S.A. is the same roots-driven rock Springsteen was churning out at a professional pace in the decade before Nebraska. There are only a few songs that bear the marks of the ‘80s: “Downbound Train”, which like his typical rock songs in every other way, is layered over subtle synths; “Dancing in the Dark” is Springsteen fully embracing the ‘80s’ worst trends and, in fact, redeeming them; and “I’m on Fire” dives into synth-pop to the point that it becomes a predecessor to shoegaze. No, just because Born in the U.S.A. sold millions of records doesn’t mean Springsteen “went commercial”. He grew into this record, and it caught on at precisely the right time.

springsteenalbums34. Nebraska (1982): The opening song of Nebraska is a tune called, fittingly, “Nebraska”, and after the utter bleakness on that track, you’re ready for Dust-Bowl-level sparse on the rest of the album. That isn’t quite the case. There are several songs that have at least a modicum of upbeat in them, like the relatively rollicking “Atlantic City” and the somewhat rocking “Open All Night” and…okay, you’re right. Every song is pretty depressing. But Springsteen reached an authenticity on Nebraska that he’s never since come close to replicating.

springsteenalbums43. Wrecking Ball (2012): Arguably the best of the Boss’s later albums. After a slump in the 1990s, Springsteen rediscovered his roots on The Rising and on folk-based albums Devils & Dust and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Session. Since then, he has not been shy about the causes his albums are stumping for. Magic was an indictment of the Bush era, Working on a Dream was an optimist’s boasting after Obama’s election, and Wrecking Ball is the comedown record set in our economy’s dog years. It’s also the strongest since the ‘80s, mixing every style he’d attempted since The Rising and trying some new things, some of which worked (Irish drinking songs!) and some which didn’t really work at all (Hip-hop!). But he maintains a consistent hopefulness in the face of the economic recession he knew was plaguing his fans, even while encouraging a patented defiance.

springsteenalbums52. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978): It’s unfair that Darkness had to come after Born to Run. When you come out of the gate at such a lightning-fast pace, it’s going to be hard to maintain. But Springsteen and his E Street Band made up for it by doubling down on their sweeping aesthetic of hard rock mixed with story songs to create what is essentially Born to Run’s sequel and nearly its equal. If it doesn’t reach quite the emotional heights as Born to Run, we can chalk it up to chance. I mean, what are the odds you make two iconic records in a row? As it turned out, in the late 1970s, Springsteen beat the odds.

springsteenalbums61. Born to Run (1975): Born to Run isn’t Bruce Springsteen’s debut, but it feels way more like a statement of identity than the two albums before it. Early in his career, Springsteen wrote with a lot of specificity about Jersey, but his songs never made their rough-and-tumble nature seem anything but universal. If falling in love was like “She’s the One” in New Jersey, it was just as raw and potent everywhere else in America. If adolescence was like “Jungleland” in New Jersey, it was just as fraught and melodramatic everywhere else in America. And if the average youth in Jersey can feel as much hope for the future as “Born to Run”, so could the average youth anywhere else in America. Springsteen and the E Street Band took each of their skills to the limit to create that super-Spectorized sound that many have tried to imitate since then, the sound that came to be synonymous with growing up and trying to make good. Springsteen had already made good in 1975, but Born to Run stood for everyone who hadn’t.

Career Best: Bruce Springsteen’s Best Songs

Career Best is a feature in which I look back on the career of one of my favorite artists and walk through their best albums and songs. This week we’re taking a long look at the Boss.

25. “Dancing in the Dark”: I used to hate this song, and if I didn’t hate it, I at least thought it was among the Boss’s most overrated singles. But this perfect, synth-driven anthem to finding someone, anyone in between night shifts has grown on me. The incredible, ‘80s-defining video helps- a lot (in the link above).

24. “Blinded by the Light”: This song has found most of its popularity from the cover by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, which, incidentally, is also the version where it sounds like they say “revved up like a douche” instead of “revved up like a deuce”, so make of that what you will. The Springsteen version (which is the original, thank you very much) sounds about as different as you’d expect, more stripped down and rambling, which was typical of his early music. I still to this day have no earthly idea what the lyrics mean, but the chaos Springsteen weaves with his random words is somehow intoxicating.

23. “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”: The most brilliant version of this song is the Jackson 5 cover, but there’s a special place in my three-sizes-too-small heart for Springsteen’s version. It’s got something to do with Springsteen being unable to contain his merriment at Clarence Clemons’s Santa laugh. The joy in this song is contagious, and it’s made all the more enjoyable when you realize it was recorded in 1975, early in Springsteen’s career, and the E Street Band sounds like they’re already in peak form.

22. “Glory Days”: It’s easy to look back at Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. days as the moment he left rock music behind and went all in on ‘80s overproduction and high hats and synths. And it’s not totally off, but there’s something glorious about Roy Bittan’s keyboard synths on “Glory Days”. The chords don’t come out perfect on every play, reminding you that there’s a human back there playing them, and setting a fitting backdrop for an ode to the washed up, middle-age people who are the backbone of our country.

21. “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)”: If The River was meant to be a mix of solemn songs and songs that celebrate the joy of rock n’ roll, it’s a tragedy that “From Small Things” was left off. Few songs capture the joy in rock better than this one. The story is classic Springsteen, but maybe this would have been better off on Nebraska rather than The River, because the main character ends up being pretty twisted.

20. “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”: Hands down one of the most gorgeous songs Springsteen recorded. I suppose this could come off a bit creepy, but “Girls” instead sounds like a loving ode to the enjoyment of the female figure. I don’t think I made it sound any less creepy with that sentence, but give it a listen; Springsteen makes it far more about the passage of time than a man’s lust.

19. “I’m on Fire”: If you had to guess the most-covered Bruce Springsteen song, would “I’m on Fire” have even been in your top 5? It’s been redone at least 21 times, which is 12 more than the next tune. Artists from Tori Amos to Kenny Chesney to Chromatics have recorded this song, but the best version still belongs to the Boss.

18. “The Promised Land”: This was Springsteen at the peak of his powers, when even throwaway tracks could tear into your heart. It includes one of his favorite themes, the hope of the American dream clashing with American realities. It also includes one of the great Big Man solos, in the top five at least.

17. “Wrecking Ball”: “Wrecking Ball” is good enough to make me forget that it’s a song celebrating the stadium of the New York Giants. It (strangely effectively) doubles as a song about new beginnings. The defiance in “Wrecking Ball” has become a theme for Springsteen recently, as if Springsteen is warding off the haters who accuse him of phoniness.

16. “Stolen Car”: Springsteen does quietness better than any other rock star or group. For him, it’s not just about a different modulation; the quiet becomes him. On “Stolen Car”, his voice being barely above a whisper is a sign of his resignation that nothing about his life is going to change.

16. “Backstreets”: And we’ve finally reached our first Born to Run track! Who knows if Springsteen ever really knew what it was like to live his life hustling on the streets? Probably whoever wrote or has read his biography, but I haven’t, so I just have songs like this to utterly and completely convince me.

14. “The Rising”: “My City of Ruins” was the song that best encapsulated the post-9/11 mindset of New York, but “The Rising” was the nation’s. The imagery was powerful and intoxicating, this picture of pulling ourselves up out of the mire together. But it’s not just about the rising; Springsteen gave us a picture of the light we were rising to.

13. “She’s the One”: Hope you like Born to Run, because there’s a lot of it on this list. “She’s the One” isn’t about love at first sight, or even about pining away for some girl who fits your image of the ideal woman. “She’s the One” is the moment you decide to do something about it.

12. “The Wrestler”: Springsteen honed his Pete Seeger folk chops on albums like Devils & Dust and We Shall Overcome, and “The Wrestler” is the best version of that version of the Boss. Describing a character using powerful metaphors is one thing, but Springsteen sings as the man describing himself with such despondent images. This man is aware that he’s not worth much to the world, and fewer things cut closer to the bone.

11. “Nebraska”: Some of the finest harmonica ever put to vinyl. “Nebraska” is the centerpiece of the spare album Nebraska, and as such it enjoys the sparest of production. The song would float off into the wind, if it weren’t for the singer’s insistence that he doesn’t have a reason for why he killed that man, just that there’s a certain amount of unexplainable evil in the world.

springsteensongs110. “Land of Hope and Dreams”: Opening with a gospel choir would seem an admission of irrelevance on any other classic rock artist’s song. For Springsteen, though, it’s just one brushstroke on a vast canvas. Most of the rest of the songs on this list boast specificity as one of their defining qualities. “Land of Hope and Dreams” is huge and broad in scope as Springsteen invites sinners of all kinds to join him on the train to heaven. I can’t speak for where Springsteen’s heart is when it comes to the finer points of reformed theology, but, regardless, this is a pretty accurate assessment of what the elect will look like: just a bunch of ragamuffins.

springsteensongs29. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”: There was a point in my college career when I dated someone whose parents were not my biggest fans. I’ll admit that at the time I wasn’t the best boyfriend to their daughter, but I often leaned on “Rosalita” when it seemed like the deck was stacked against me. For me, it captured what it meant to be in love and to feel like it was you and your significant other against the world. Listening to “Rosalita” now, at my wisened age of 25, Springsteen sounds like a guy who’s undoubtedly immature, but he also sounds like a guy who one day may rule the world. Maybe Rosie’s parents should have given him the benefit of the doubt.

springsteensongs38. “Atlantic City”: For some reason, I had this idea of “Atlantic City” in my head as one of Bruce Springsteen’s overproduced, late ’80s songs, even though it’s on Nebraska. It doesn’t quite have the emptiness of “Nebraska”, but it’s still a song with a hole in its heart. There’s definitely a pop song somewhere on the edges of “Atlantic City”, and maybe if someone else had this song, they would’ve taken that chorus and made it more upbeat, along the lines of “Hungry Heart”. But in Springsteen’s voice, with the layered, ghostly harmony, “Atlantic City” is a lament.

springsteensongs47. “Long Walk Home”: Magic basically ensured that Bruce Springsteen would forever be appreciated by liberals, if Born in the U.S.A. hadn’t accomplished that 20 years prior. The album is a thinly veiled invective against the Bush administration. Seen in retrospect, it plays a little more subtly, especially since Springsteen’s tone hasn’t changed much since then, implying that the same problems we had then as a country are still in place today. “Long Walk Home” is the best argument for this, both a warning and a celebration. A warning that the way to a better country will be arduous, and a celebration that if any country can do it, it’s this one.

springsteensongs56. “The River”: It’s amazing I ever got married after listening to “The River”. This song has haunted me since high school. Springsteen has plenty of songs just like this one about marriages that lose their spark, but none have anything that pierce so quickly to the heart as the opening harmonica or the eerie chorus or the unforgettable line, “Now I act like I don’t remember / Mary act like she don’t care.” I did get married, though, so I obviously know “The River” isn’t the ultimate end for every marriage. And Springsteen knows that too, since he’s also married, but I will say that it would be surprising if you could listen to this song and not think of a marriage in your life that it reminds you of. Powerful stuff.

springsteensongs65. “Born in the U.S.A.”: Probably Bruce Springsteen’s most recognizable song, with the possible exception of “Dancing in the Dark”. Even the most pop-culture-ignorant person has heard the rousing chorus. It’s incredible that “Born in the U.S.A.” survived its run on the charts and its misuse by nearly every pseudo-patriotic politician to remain one of the best rock singles ever. By now, the song’s misunderstood nature is well-documented: written as an anti-Vietnam screed and as an ode to veterans and their struggles, the song has been blindly appropriated by different groups over and over again as an anthem. If you listen to the lyrics, only veterans could use this as an anthem. For the rest of us, “Born in the U.S.A.” is a reminder of the complexities of our nation’s history.

springsteensongs74. “Jungleland”: The E Street Band deserves much of the credit for reorienting popular music’s use of instruments beyond guitar, bass, and drums. “Jungleland” may be the song most responsible. It opens with an indelible violin solo, transitions into one of the most memorable piano riffs of the ‘70s, and climaxes with the most famous saxophone part in all of rock music. Forgive all my superlatives- you’ll understand when you listen. Every song on Born to Run is an epic story, but “Jungleland” is the epic story to end all epic stories. It’s hardly one of Springsteen’s more specific stories; instead, he opts for broad images of kids trying to make it out of the war zone that is adolescence. He uses every weapon at his disposal to get that feeling across. This is the E Street Band’s finest moment.

springsteensongs83. “Darkness on the Edge of Town”: The opening piano riff gives you the idea that this is going to be an R&B song in the style of Dusty Springfield or the Staples Singers. That funkiness hangs out around the core of “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, giving an edge to the chorus when Springsteen lets out his raspy howl. It’s another sad song disguised as a happy one, though maybe it’s time to stop trying to differentiate between sad and happy. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” does have a certain bleakness, dealing with broken dreams hiding in regular American towns. But the music doesn’t let you slip into a depression about it. It is what it is, and we’ll go on living.

springsteensongs72. “Thunder Road”: 10 appreciations.
10) The reference to Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely”.
9) That piano gets louder through the first verse- how often to you actually hear instrumentation crescendo like that anymore in pop music? It’s more immediate when it sounds live.
8) He wants her to go with him to “case the promised land.” Perfect line.
7) It ends with the line “It’s a town full of losers / And I’m pulling out of here to win”, which is a pretty succinct summary of every kid’s mindset when he/she leaves home for the first time.
6) I can’t tell if Springsteen is writing from the perspective of an older man or from the perspective of a young man who thinks he’s getting old. Like someone around the age of 25 who is still in the college mindset that anything above 22 is old.
5) That harmonica is the opening to my favorite album ever, and it never fails to excite me.
4) The second-greatest sax part in all rock music at the sprawling coda.
3) He had help from Elton and Billy, but Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” made piano rock cool.
2) When Springsteen tells her, “You ain’t a beauty, but, eh, you’re alright.”
1) The command to roll down the window to feel the wind, cementing this as the all-time greatest driving song.

springsteensongs91. “Born to Run”: It’s hard to write about my favorite song. I mean, I know you’re not going to love it as much as I do (unless you already do), and nothing I write is going to convince you to make it your favorite song. You don’t adopt anything as your favorite anything because you read something. It’s usually a lot more organic than that. I don’t have a story for why “Born to Run” is my favorite song- not just my favorite Bruce Springsteen song, but my favorite song period. Some people have reasons, I guess, for why they have a favorite song, some connection to their dad or an association with a cherished memory. I don’t have any of that. But I could write about 100 appreciations for “Born to Run” like the ones I wrote above for “Thunder Road”. I could list for you all the times I’ve been stressed out or down on myself or burnt out and listening to “Born to Run” reminded me of the hope that I have, the drive to live a full life. Even though my wife probably hates this song (I’m not sure there’s a Bruce Springsteen song she likes), I could point you to all the passionate lines in “Born to Run” that I look to as inspiration for how to love her well. I don’t consider myself a “tramp”, I couldn’t care less about cars, and I’ve never loved a girl named Wendy. But I have felt like a town is a “death trap”, and that I had to get out. I have enjoyed a kiss so much that I felt like I could die happy if it never ended. And I know what it’s like to long for someplace better, “that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.”

Career Best – Relient K

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)

relientk1Five 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.

relientk2Forget 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.

relientk3Let 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):

relientk310. “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.

relientk49. “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.

relientk58. “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.”

relientk67. “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!”

relientk66. “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.

relientk75. “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.

relientk14. “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.

relientk63. “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.

relientk82. “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.

relientk91. “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.