Trying to come up with any kind of “definitive” list of 10 greatest albums from a decade as rich and diverse as the aughts– or, really, any decade at all– is an exercise in futility. I’ve seen people try; it very quickly becomes a list of personal favorites, a list about “influence” and iconography, or a list of chart-topping unit-shifters. These are all perfectly valid lists in their own right, and worthwhile topics to explore, but they fall far from the purported goal: an objective ranking of “greatness”.
Now, even if this was a website that concerned itself with anything other than the annals of my experience, I’d stay the hell away from applying the word “objective” to any type of artistic analysis: I think maintaining real objectivity about the quality of music– unless you’re approaching it from an academic standpoint, like jazz as an athletic showcase for instrumentalists and composers– is damn near impossible without falling into the trap of “I don’t like it, which means it’s objectively inferior.” Truth be told, I don’t believe in any objective measure you could apply to any album to conclude that it’s any “greater” than the S Club 7 Greatest Hits collection.
So what I’m left with is preference and personal significance. Even if I’m only taking these two factors into account, there will sometimes be a bit of a disconnect: some of my favorite music is of little personal significance, and some of the most significant albums in my life I simply can’t listen to anymore. Then there’s albums like “Left and Leaving”, the second LP by Canadian folk/indie/punk outfit The Weakerthans. This is an album that I love to death, an album that holds an immense amount of personal significance, and also an album that’s raw, imperfect and sometimes hard to listen to.
Formed after John K Samson’s unceremonious dismissal from Propagandhi due to conflicting songwriting approaches (Samson’s timid and tender tunes sat in hilarious contrast with Chris Hannah’s angry snarl), The Weakerthans combine nervous punk energy with a gentler, folksier approach. They write delicate, hushed ballads that transition into roaring pop-punk numbers, all the while maintaining a sweetness and naiveté to their melodies through Samson’s endearingly never-quite-completely-in-tune vocals. While the music is good, it’s the lyrics that really elevate these songs: Samson is one of the most skilled and literate lyricists around, effortlessly conveying melancholy, hopelessness, self-deprecation and humor in a way that doesn’t come off as precious and self-satisfied as other would-be wordsmiths of indie rock (looking at you, Colin Meloy).
My first exposure to The Weakerthans came from one of those dirt-cheap punk rock samplers I wrote about a while ago. Specifically, the Hopeless Records compilation “Hopelessly Devoted to You” volume III, which I picked up while on a trip to the US when I was 14. The Weakerthans song “Watermark” stood out as a punchy yet emotional number amidst the brawnier, brattier fare of bands like Dillinger Four, Fifteen, Selby Tigers and Against All Authority. I was especially impressed by the lyrics: “Speech will spill on space, our little cups of grace. But pauses rattle on about the way that you cut the snow-fence, braved the blood, the metal of those hearts that you always end up pressing your tongue to. How your body still remembers things you told it to forget. How those furious affections followed you.” It quickly became my favorite track from the compilation, so I sought out the album.
I listened to “Left & Leaving” obsessively through the remainder of my teens. I would read the lyrics over and over like poetry, marveling at the depth of feeling conveyed in these songs– “My city’s still breathing, but barely, it’s true, through buildings gone missing like teeth. The sidewalks are watching me think about you.” I also loved the sound of the album: it’s a ragged, rickety thing, barely holding together, nearing the point of collapse during some of the more hard-rocking tracks, the crudeness of the sound mirroring the rawness of emotion laid bare in the lyrics. This album stood by me through the more dramatic years of my teen life. I listened to it non-stop. It became a big, big part of who I was– and who I still am.
Maybe that’s why I find it a little tough to get through today. As much distance as I like to imagine between present-day-Jorge and the waffley puddle of feels that was Teen Jorge, all those anxieties and neuroses are still very much a part of me. And yes, I internalize pretty much every album I listen to and make it part of the ongoing narrative of my life, but albums like “Left & Leaving”, “Disintegration” and “In The Wee Small Hours” have an incredible ability tap into that backwater reservoir of emotion because they are linked to very specific moments and incidents and people. Though I may only be able to make it through a few songs before feeling the strange urge to switch to something less emotionally triggering, this remains one of my favorite, and most personally significant, albums of all time.
At the end of the day, that’s about as close to “definitive” as I can get.
Listen to the song “Pamphleteer” from “Left and Leaving” by clicking the embedded player below: