Music: 10 CDs to liven up your collection

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Mike Hart is dying to know if you're still holding on to that Meatloaf album. E-mail him at mhart@steamboatpilot.com.

Ah, Labor Day weekend. If only we could turn back the clock to that farewell to summer, just to enjoy a few more warm days. It was the last time to lounge in a lawn chair, wearing shorts and sandals, before the air began turning frigid, the trees shed their leaves and we began looking forward to snowfall. A time for barbecues, parties and a carefree attitude that only college students have the luxury of enjoying on a daily basis.

This year, you decided to have a party at your place, show off your home to some friends, have some drinks and indulge that insouciant attitude you fondly recall from your younger days.

Everything was going well until the two new guys from the office showed up. For some unknown reason, your intuition told you not to invite those twenty-somethings.

It wasn't until they asked to change the music, and you told them to go grab something from your CD collection, that your relaxing weekend turned into a humiliating moment of self-realization. You noticed them laughing at your selection as they flipped through the cases: The Bee Gees, Journey, Meat Loaf, the latter caused a painfully coarse burst of laughter.

They teased you a bit, assuring you it was all in good fun, but when the day ended, your ego felt like it had taken a swift kick where the sun don't shine.

"Am I really that out of touch?" you asked yourself.

Yeah, you are. Fortunately, it's not difficult to fix. Catching up with pop music is relatively inexpensive and doesn't take much time. Be thankful they didn't say your clothes looked like something Bill Cosby would wear. That'd be a bit more difficult to deal with.

All you need to do is check out a record store, see what's popular there and pick up a few of the new releases. To catch up with some of the music you've missed out on, start by adding these 10 albums to your collection. They should give you a well-rounded collection of modern pop albums.

Coldplay "Parachutes"

The rise in popularity of Coldplay came at the perfect time. Just when pop music connoisseurs had completely given up on the radio - it seemed Limp Bizkit would never go away - British pop rock returned to the scene in the form of four college students whose songs found perfection in simplicity.

"Parachutes" is a relatively short album - 10 songs, one of which is less than a minute long, another barely passes the two-minute mark - that embraces melody, acoustic guitars and stripped down production.

The band has since become one of the biggest acts in the world - lead singer Chris Martin even married into Hollywood when he courted Gwyneth Paltrow - but the album remains their most impressive, and the fact that its opening track, "Don't Panic," recently popped up in the film "Garden State" is a testament to that.

DJ Shadow "Endtroducing:"

Music stores typically push DJ Shadow into the electronic genre, but don't expect to see this guy playing a rave. He considers himself a hip-hop artist, but it's not likely you'd see him sharing a stage with a rapper.

DJ Shadow could probably best be described as the most talented musician the world has never heard play an instrument. Armed with only his turntables and a collection of obscure records, DJ Shadow produced an album that stands out as one of the most intriguing of the '90s. This is an impressive feat because his art form is still denounced by many, though it's even more impressive because the album features very few vocals.

"Endtroducing:" does for turntables what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar.

Elliott Smith "Figure 8"

Among the most gifted songwriters of the past two decades, Elliott Smith went largely unnoticed outside of the indie scene until being asked to contribute music to the film "Good Will Hunting."

Even after his Oscar nomination for the song "Miss Misery," Smith was never an artist found on the radio aside from college stations. But his work for the film led him to a contract with Dreamworks, which allowed him to up his production and give his recordings the complexity that songs such as "Junk Bond Trader," "L.A." and "Color Bars" deserved.

Unfortunately, the haunted, beautiful lyrics that were his trademark reflected the depth of his inner turmoil. "Figure 8" was the last album he completed before taking his own life.

The Flaming Lips "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots"

If you ever wondered what Oklahoma rock sounds like, The Flaming Lips probably aren't the best example.

The band, especially on "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots," stands in a league of its own. As the album title suggests, The Flaming Lips have gained a reputation for being strange. But, as lead singer Wayne Coyne said of the lyrics to the album's title track, most people think the lyrics are absurd, but they simply tell a story about a person having faith in a friend (even if it is a friend who is defending the world against pink robots). The lyrics tackle common themes, despite finding odd ways to project them. "Do You Realize???" is one of the best songs ever written about mortality, a theme also found on "All We Have Is Now."

The album's lyrics, though, could be written in a foreign language and the songs would remain irresistible. The compositions are that good.

Nirvana "MTV Unplugged In New York"

Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged In New York" is one of the few live albums that really matter.

With most live releases, whether it's Pearl Jam, Tom Petty or Led Zeppelin, the recordings are, at best, alternate versions of the original - a solo might be a bit more pedantic or the vocals a bit less restrained - but usually the recordings are just novelties.

With Nirvana's unplugged performance, Kurt Cobain dropped his rock and roll ego and played his songs, and some written by favorite artists, without the distortion, feedback and snarling vocals that had come to personify him. A majority of the "MTV Generation" owns this album, and it's partly because it allowed the human side of an icon to finally be seen by the youths who felt so connected to him.

Outkast "Aquemini"

There was a time in rap history when the only voices heard were found on the coasts, primarily New York or Los Angeles. Outkast changed all that.

Showing that country music wasn't the only sound being produced in the South, "Aquemini" drew from jazz, funk and R&B influences and changed the expectations of what rap could be - "cooler than a polar bear's toe nail." The album's biggest hit, party anthem "Rosa Parks," remains a crowd pleaser, as do "Da Art of Storytellin' (Part 1)" and "Spottieottiedopalicious," a song that's more spoken word than rap.

The group's later albums may have gathered more awards ("Stankonia") or been more experimental ("Speakerboxxx/The Love Below"), but "Aquemini" remains the group's greatest album.

Radiohead "Kid A"

One of the most unusual albums ever categorized as rock and roll, Radiohead's experimentation on "Kid A" makes Pink Floyd sound like child's play.

Most of the album is noticeably devoid of guitars, a strange turn for a band which arrived on the mainstream scene in the early '90s with a single, "Creep," that held its own with the grunge rock anthems that surrounded it. Beginning with the album's opener, "Everything In Its Right Place," there isn't a song that comes close to fitting the rock 'n' roll niche until the sixth track, "Optimistic." But that's not a bad thing.

When "Kid A" was released in 2000, it was an album that was talked about so much that people began buying copies to place on their coffee tables as conversation pieces. Quite the buzz for an album that wasn't even promoted with a single.

The Roots "Things Fall Apart"

Known for intellectual lyrics, smooth as stainless steel flows and puissant live performances, The Roots stand out from other hip-hop groups with one other important characteristic - they play instruments.

"Things Fall Apart" begins with samples of Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes (in film roles) discussing varying opinions on black music, and concludes with a critic saying, "Inevitably, hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable, they are not maximized as product even, you know, not to mention art." The next 16 songs set out to change that. And, if any rap group has the ability to force art elitists to pay attention to hip-hop, it's The Roots.

Known in the mainstream for the resplendent love song, "You Got Me," the album's other heavy hitters include "The Next Movement," "Step Into the Realm," "Dynamite" and "Adrenaline."

Sublime "Sublime"

If not for front man Bradley Nowell's death, Sublime likely would have gone on to become one of the biggest bands of the '90s.

The Long Beach band's self-titled album, released posthumously, shows amazing maturity for a major label debut. A mix of punk, reggae and hip-hop, it includes the singles, "What I Got," "Wrong Way," "Santeria" and "Doin' Time."

The album's molding pot of musical styles helped the band create a uniquely diverse fan base, appealing to skaters, fraternity boys and hipsters all at once. It's a shame Nowell didn't live to see it.

The White Stripes "Elephant"

Detroit rock duo The White Stripes miss the good old days when blues ruled the airwaves - a time before either member of the band had been born. Nevertheless, Jack and Meg White pay homage to the raw power of blues with a sound that's intentionally unrefined.

"Elephant," the album that launched the band into the spotlight, could easily be mistaken for a recording from the 1960s. It has a low-fidelity quality that fits the band's two-piece arrangement and complements White's songwriting, particularly on songs such as "I Want To Be The Boy," "Ball & Biscuit" and their most commercially successful release, "Seven Nation Army."

Expect The White Stripes to be one of the biggest names in rock for years - especially with Jack White's quirky personality, a feature that helps him fit the rock star mold.

Expanding your collection

If you add the 10 recommended albums and you start looking to expand further, add these five to your collection:

  • Jeff Buckley "Grace"
  • Common "Like Water For Chocolate"
  • My Bloody Valentine "Loveless"
  • Thievery Corporation "The Richest Man In Babylon"
  • Wilco "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"

Oldies but goodies

Although you're in need of newer music, by no means should you shun the old stuff. It's probably safe to say keeping your Genesis or Abba albums out of sight is a good idea, but don't forget about the artists who set the standard for cool - The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, James Brown. Some pre-'90s albums you should invest in:

  • The Clash "London Calling"
  • Funkadelic "One Nation Under A Groove"
  • Nick Drake "Pink Moon"
  • Neil Young "After the Gold Rush"
  • The Pixies "Surfer Rosa"

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