Some of my favorite things

October 20, 2023 10:50 PM ET music

I’m currently juggling reading a few books at once (something I don’t recommend, and typically don’t do) and the one that presents a particular challenge is Susan Rodgers and Ogi Ogas’ This Is What It Sounds Like, because it uses audio references and so requires more time and attention than the average read.

Over the years, I’ve thought about this a lot myself. Why do I like what I like? What is it I like about this song or this artist? We all have favorites, but my favorite doesn’t imply that it would be your favorite unless you know what I like and why. (This is also why I watch reaction videos.)

Anyway, I wanted to write about my favorite artist, but in order for that to be meaningful, I have to first explain some of my favorite things.

Born in the 1970s, I grew up in the 1980s, and reached adulthood, um, in a gradual process since then. My first introductions to music were what my parents listened to, and so I had a lot of exposure to musicals, classical music, and songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Being a “child of the 80s” (grades 2 through 12), my own musical tastes were born out of popular music at the time, despite (or in addition to) the seeds of other genres that were planted in my earliest years. Shaken out of this in adolescence, I dove into “progressive rock” and “classic rock,” with a heavy emphasis on rock bands that had dedicated keyboard players. (Honestly, this is in large part due to my friends who wanted to start a band, and focused heavily on Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Rush, and Yes.) Anyway, this is where the journey begins.

They Might Be Giants

In college, I was majoring in music and fully invested in the marriage of hard rock and progressive rock (so, yes, I was listening to Dream Theater’s Images and Words more than I should’ve) with a dash of more experimental things. My girlfriend at the time listened to very different music, and she introduced me to They Might Be Giants’ recently-released album Flood. Unlike anything else I was listening to at the time, it became a constant in my leisure listening. My college career coincided with the release of TMBG’s Apollo 18 and John Henry, and I was hooked – I went back and immersed myself into the rest of their catalog.

Now, I don’t know what my favorite TMBG song is, but I know that “Ana Ng” best exemplifies one of the things I love about them. Not because it’s a popular song, but because it showcases their use of internal rhythms against (underneath?) the vocal melody. The song opens with a rhythmic figure, and that figure continues through the verse, aligning with the vocal line only in spots. But TMBG writes earworms, and these easy-to-grasp rhythmic hooks are just part of the package: even in the chorus of “Ana Ng,” there is another rhythmic hook that grabs the ear while the vocal line continues its slight syncopation. This song is just one example, and certainly TMBG does not do this in every song. But in every song (even the very bizarre), TMBG delivers the melody on a plate, with a solid framing of rhythmic activity. The are focused, targeted, intentional, short songs that live for days in your brain like a parasite. It reminds me a bit of XTC, who also deliver mesmerizing pop melodies dressed in more of a post-punk attitude – where being musically capable is often viewed as a liability – but TMBG reduces that recipe to its most potent and pure form. [Not for nothing, while I respect XTC’s melodic sensibility, I found Apple Venus and Wasp Star to be their most appealing albums, but that’s a different story.]

Jason Falkner

Many years after college, I started a web development job at a small creative agency in DC. For reasons I no longer recall, a woman who worked there and knew I liked music gave me a mix CD of songs from bands I had never head of. Because the truth is that DC’s rock scene grew from roots that I was completely unfamiliar with. Bands like Bad Brains, Jawbox, Shudder To Think, and others were not groups I’d ever seen or heard (where I grew up had its own robust local scene, but not on the level of Washington DC). On this CD were some tracks that would go on to change the way I listen to music, but one of the standouts was Jason Falkner’s “Afraid Himself To Be.”

This song blew me away. It starts like a simple singer-songwriter tune, but the prechorus ramps up, and the chorus unfurls in all its post-Beatles glory. I was so impressed that I immediately bought the record it came from, Presents Author Unknown, and I was not disappointed. The entire record is full of songs that are melodically inspiring and surprisingly complex without seeming so. I wasn’t familiar with his previous band(s), Jellyfish and The Grays, and this kind of electric power pop that didn’t stem from the post-punk pop of things like Blink-182 (keep in mind this was the early 2000s). With its rich harmonic structures, creative melodies, and guitar playing that stayed away from open mic strumming tropes, it was a breath of fresh air.

But I didn’t keep going with Jason Falkner. It was his lyrics that I found lacking. While admittedly I’m drawn to lyrics about social change, protest, metaphysics, or other existential issues, I’m fine with songs about relationships, breakups, or longing if they have enough musical heft (Aimee Mann is a good example). Falkner’s lyrics should have satisfied me, but I think because the artistic level of the music was so high, I wanted more out of the lyrics; when I isolated the words, I found them... not enough in any direction, and I got bored.

The Weakerthans

I didn’t know who The Weakerthans were before I played on Maritime’s Glass Floor and then went on tour. Maritime was opening for The Weakerthans and Decibully for a few nights, and when you’re on tour you spend equal time playing with your band and listening to the others. The Weakerthans were touring in support of Reconstruction Site and I got copies of their records from their merch stock.

John K. Samson, the lead singer of The Weakerthans, is one of the best lyricists I’ve ever heard. What was even more amazing was how these lyrics worked in the song, but read differently on the page. Whereas most songs fit words to the music, these fit music around the words, and the result is poetry (I’m transcribing these as sentences rather than the stanzas they create when sung):

Garage sale Saturday, I need to pay my heart’s outstanding bills. A cracked-up compass and a pocket watch, some plastic daffodils, cutlery and coffee cups I stole from all-night restaurants, a sense of wonder (only slightly used, a year or two), to haunt you in the dark. For a phone call from far away with a “hi, how are you today?” and the sign, “Recovery comes to the broken ones.”

Wage slave, forty-hour work week weighs a thousand kilograms, so bend your knees (comes with a free fake smile for all your dumb demands). A cordless razor that my father bought when I turned seventeen, a puke-greeen sofa and the outline to a complicated dream of dignity. For a laugh, too loud and too long, or a place where awkward belongs, and a sign: “Recovery Comes to the broken ones.” Recovery comes to the broken ones. Recovery comes for the broken ones.

Or best offer.

- “Everything Must Go”

There are so many to choose from. So many incredible lines, like:

And I’m leaning on this broken fence between past and present tense, and I’m losing all those stupid games that I swore I’d never play, but it almost feels okay

- from “Aside”


My city’s still breathing, but barely, it’s true, through buildings gone missing like teeth. The sidewalks are watching me think about you, sparkled with broken glass. I’m back with scars to show, back with the streets I know will never take me anywhere but here

- “Left and Leaving”


Headlights race towards the corner of the dining room and half illuminate a face before they disappear. You breathe in forty years of failing to describe a feeling; I breathe out smoke against a window, trace the letters in your name.

- “This Is a Fire Door, Never Leave Open”

and that’s all from just one record (Left and Leaving).

But as great as these lyrics are, The Weakerthans struck me as having basically three speeds: chugging rocker (like “Plea From A Cat Named Virtue”), quiet thoughtpiece (like “My Favourite Chords”), and mid-tempo indie-rock (like “Civil Twilight”). This is not a bad thing, and probably not even entirely accurate; but the sense I got from listening to them was that I wished their music were as adventurous as their lyrics. Samson’s voice is fine enough for indie rock, but a little too reedy to express anything outside of intellectual desperation.

Rage Against The Machine

I’m all for intellectual desperation, but sometimes that desperation needs an outlet. Where The Weakerthans had you accept your fading future, Rage Against The Machine would have you take to the streets. I was late to was Rage Against The Machine; they hit when I was in high school, and (with my head firmly jammed inside a vaseline-filled bucket of prog rock and self-importance) I was not interested. Surprise surprise when, a decade or so later, I finally read the lyrics and found that they are the best protest lyrics ever. This was my kind of creed, even if it wasn’t always my kind of music. I’m still regularly floored by these words, and I realized years ago that this kind of social commentary – this kind of music as the vehicle for change – embodied how I want to fight the power.

The Dear Hunter

I was introduced to The Dear Hunter a few years ago, and they quickly became two of my favorite records. The records in question are Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise and Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional. These are part of a planned six-album arc, but if I’m being honest, I don’t care. I find the whole story hard to follow; but even without it, Acts IV-V stand on their own with themes of mortality, salvation, and fate. I’ve tried several times to get into Acts I-III and other TDH records, but none seem to stand up as well as Acts IV-V. With the storyline and recurring themes, it’s easy to lump these records (and this band) into the “progressive rock” category. People tend to do that to records that mix rock sounds and orchestral sounds (there are orchestral interludes between each song on Acts albums). I would just call it more sophisticated songwriting and orchestration than you hear on mainstream rock albums.

But it’s the details of why these albums are great that makes them so, well, dear to me. Bandleader and songwriter Casey Crescenzo has a gift for inventive melodies, and the voice to back them up. His might be the ultimate rock voice: he has range, power, control, and a sensibility that is rarely heard. If John K. Samson is the best lyricist, Casey Crescenzo is the best vocalist. Casey is also the lead guitarist (and a luthier!) with a beautiful tone and knack for voicings. But the rest of the band fills out the aesthetic – it’s worth calling out Casey’s brother, Nick Crescenzo, whose drumming anchors these songs no matter where they go. It’s tasteful and smart, elegant in its storytelling, and definitely more on the art-rock side of the spectrum. Because it’s so rare to find a band that puts all these ingredients together, it makes me sad that I don’t find other albums in their discography as good as these two (which I have listened to probably hundreds of times).

What I want is something that rolls all of these things together: high-quality lyrics, singing, songwriting, guitar playing, and creative music. Fortunately for me, there is such an artist.

J. Robbins

At the risk of sounding like the world’s biggest fanboy, let me preface this by saying that no one is going to be the best at everything. But if you are looking for someone with a strong rock voice, a creative and melodic sensibility across all instruments, intelligent lyrics about the struggle we all endure with a healthy dash of political social commentary, then ladies and gentlemen look no further than Washington DC/Baltimore’s own J. Robbins. You might know him from Jawbox, Burning Airlines, Channels, Office Of Future Plans, or his solo work. If you don’t know all of what I just listed, but you like some part of what I just listed, then you’re in luck, because his work never, ever disappoints.

A few paragraphs above, I wrote about receiving a “mix CD of songs from bands I had never head of.” Well, the agency I was working at was co-founded by ex-Jawbox guitarist Bill Barbot, and the person who gave me the CD was Robbins’ wife, Janet, who also worked there at the time. This mix CD was full of good songs from bands I’d never heard, and two tracks stood high above the rest: Falkner’s aforementioned song, and “Pacific 231” by Burning Airlines. “Pacific 231” grabbed me by my ears and dragged me into Robbins’ discography. After plowing through Burning Airlines’ two (excellent) records, I went back and tried to immerse myself in Jawbox’s catalog. While most of it was more punk than I fancied, “Savory” showed me that the aesthetic of Burning Airlines was no fluke. And this has been true for every one of his records.

Robbins is the ultimate weapon: he can write, record, produce, engineer, play, and sing. But capability does not a favorite make. What I love about his music is the way he treats guitar lines as melodies equal to the vocal line, yet in no way traditional or predictable (people love to describe this as “angular,” but if you want a more academic description, then it’s his use of nonharmonic tones in the construction of the guitar’s melody without interfering with the vocal melody). The drum parts are almost as creative as the guitar parts (“Pacific 231” is a great example of this), and the bass is yet another equal voice. It’s the closest thing to a chamber music approach to rock songwriting that I’ve ever heard. Wrap all of the preceding bands’ strong suits into one act, and you get something still less than what Robbins gives you on every record.

The vocal melodies are always highly singable, and the supporting music has its own internal rhythmic character and melodic anchors. It has a punk attitude with a skilled technique. It has a classical intelligence with a post-punk middle finger. It has a pop form with art rock internals. It is everything rock music should be: smart, catchy, and well-crafted.

There is no single song that stands above the rest. I can’t choose one song from Robbins that I wish I wrote, because I wish I wrote all of them, or maybe any of them. I don’t understand why more people don’t know his music. That he is not more famous is proof that the music industry is a broken thing. Do yourself a favor and buy any full-length album that J. Robbins has made. You will not be disappointed. You will probably discover a new favorite.

Here’s a brief gem from Burning Airlines that illustrates this balance of creativity, skill, and performance: The Surgeon’s House:

The Surgeon’s House

Where did my father find this photograph? Where is the spite, the narrowed eyes?
She was so beautiful in black and white. Anywhere else, would I recognize this smile (is it like mine)?
Was this before she died from making the best of it?
Prehistory in tacked-up polaroid. Proof of a life nothing survived.
Anger like amber, where they’re fossilized. Maybe I like the way it dulls the light.
Anaesthetized. Were we ever alive? It’s so cold inside the surgeon’s house tonight.

Not enough for you? Then check out To The New Mandarins:

To The New Mandarins

It’s tricky to relax
while bracing for impact
call it your patriot act
the panic room’s in back
with victory on tap
show ‘em your patriot act

new mandarins, your color-coded bulletins
are doing my poor head in
while you place bets on what I’m most dreading
so well-informed, I don’t know where the truth begins
I grew up on science fiction
that doesn’t mean I want to live in it

o mandarins! new mandarins!
pranking the homeland hotline
threat level yellow sunshine
come on in, the fear is fine
mergers and acquisitions
murders and executions
your worst suspicions can be proven

needles and pins between the spins and counter-spins
the fix is in like it has never ever, ever been
we pin merit badges on these Machiavellians
their future hell is History 101 but no-one is telling

o mandarins! new mandarins!
pranking the homeland hotline
threat level yellow sunshine
you in your bunker, me in mine
mergers and acquisitions
murders and executions
hail the prophets of confusion

wrap yourself up in plastic
and wait for the next disaster
you’ve got to hand it to the bastards

Last one: Un-Becoming:


Calling to all contestants, sleeping on your feet
This game’s got you beat
Dancing in circles, days into weeks

The time machine is running, burning money money money as you’re dyin’ to take it for a ride
You’re surely not the first to want to throw it in reverse, destination: 1929

Get your guns, run to greet the gilded age
Un-becoming, we peel the layers away to brittle bones, decades of decay
Then we trade the mirror for the masquerade

No bread, just vicious circuses, to overload your circuits til you miss what’s right before your eyes
All the medication in this karaoke nation couldn’t make you see the other side

Twenty-one guns to greet the gilded age
Un-becoming, we peel the layers away to brittle bones, decades of decay
Then we trade getting sane for getting paid, the mirror for the masquerade

When all of your buried corpses finally start to speak
They tell you the Earth inherits the meek