This week, we're starting with Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes.
1. I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
I'm Wide Awake was the first album I heard by Bright Eyes. It came to my attention after reading several best of lists at the end of 2005, and deciding I had to check it out. From the moment that guitar kicked in after Oberst's opening monologue, I was hooked. It felt like something I'd been waiting to hear my whole life had arrived- the raw passion of Oberst's vocal mixed with his lyrical genius was astounding, and from that moment on I began a relationship with Bright Eyes that has lasted to this day, and will continue long into my adult life.
When I later gained context for the album, it was clear to see that this was the moment Conor Oberst truly left behind the angsty teenage fuel that drove his early work, and developed his songwriting to perfection. The matured sounds of Bright Eyes saw Oberst begin the social commentary and world outlook that would dominate later releases, and it was a magnificant change. I'm Wide Awake is no doubt a watershed moment of Oberst's career, he left behind the boy and became a man, right in front of our eyes, and for that, it is a special album that should be recognised as the finest moment for the defining voice of the 21st century.
An acoustic masterpiece that perfectly captures a scene in the listeners mind (New York City in summer against the backdrop of the impending War on Terror) and personally, an album that will always stay close to my heart.
Best Tracks: Lua/Landlocked Blues/Poison Oak
2. Lifted, Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground
Lifted began the process that eventually saw it's climax in I'm Wide Awake, as Oberst began to take a different look at the world and leave behind his dramatic teenage persona. There were still traces of it though, but that's what makes Lifted so great; it was the perfect mix of both Oberst personalities rolled into one- the lovelorn youth exposed himself in ''You Will?'', ''Lover I Don't Have To Love'' and ''Bowl of Oranges'', while taking a decidely more Dylanesque outlook in ''The Big Picture'' and epic ten minute closer ''Let's Not Shit Ourselves'.
Best Tracks: You Will?/Bowl of Oranges/Let's Not Shit Ourselves
3. Fevers & Mirrors
You might think from my first two choices that I was anti teenage Conor. Far from it; Fevers & Mirrors was the soundtrack to my teenage years and a 16 year old me would have it firmly at number 1. I've grown since then maybe, but it doesn't change how important the words of Fevers were to me then and still are now. This is as dark as Bright Eyes gets, songs like ''A Spindle'' and ''Sunrise, Sunset'' being particular examples, but it wasn't without Conor's trademark humour as an Oberst parody following ''An Attempt To Tip The Scales'' poked fun at the pretentious personality of the young songwriter, showing he could take a joke sometimes aswell. And after all the anger and angst, ''A Song To Pass The Time'' brings Fevers to a close in a gloriously uplifting manner.
Best Tracks: A Spindle, A Darkness, A Fever And A Necklace/When The Curious Girl Realizes She Is Under Glass/A Song To Pass The Time
4. Digital Ash In A Digital Urn
The electronic counterpart to I'm Wide Awake didn't receive nearly the same plaudits from critics as it's acoustic twin, some even going as far as to pan Oberst's attempts at the genre, and I'll admit it took me a long time to grow fond of Digital Ash, but when I did, I realised what an electronic beauty it was. There were hints of Oberst's electronica love early on in songs like ''Touch'' and Digital Ash fully delivered on it's experimentation, creating a new side to Bright Eyes that we'd see later on The People's Key while also retaining it's human touch and affecting nature as songs like ''Take It Easy'', ''I Believe In Symmetry'' and ''Devil In The Details'' addressed the personal issues that were largely overlooked on I'm Wide Awake.
Best Tracks: Arc Of Time(Time Code)/Take It Easy (Love Nothing)/I Believe In Symmetry
5. The People's Key
Bright Eyes latest release was promoted as being their last as Oberst stated he wished to ''lock the door and say goodbye'', but if anything The People's Key sounded like a new beginning for a band still full of life and very much in it's prime. Oberst's songwriting is at it's very best on the record, and opener ''Firewall'' announces the album in much the same style as ''The Big Picture'' on Lifted, but it's heavier and with more purpose. ''Shell Games'' addressess Oberst's relationship with the media and is both insanely catchy and full of meaning, while ''Ladder Song'' recalls older Bright Eyes as Conor gets personal for a moment, allowing a glimpse into the darker side of the frontman, but for the most part, The People's Key sounds like a happy, content and settled Oberst. So while ghosts of the past may have been resolved for Bright Eyes, their muscial prowess and ability is far from it, and I for one will be truly heartbroken if The People's Key is the end of Conor Oberst as Bright Eyes.
Best Tracks: Shell Games/A Machine Spiritual (In The People's Key)/Ladder Song
It feels wrong to have Cassadaga at 6 on this list, because it's an album that I absolutley love, which is something I know many Bright Eyes fan are deeply divided on. The sound of Conor having matured and moved on to social analysis and bigger questions was horrifying to many who grew up listening to the hopelessly depressed tone of his original work, but the times were changing and Conor Oberst was now a very different person than the one we met on A Collection of Songs. Personally, the new direction of the band was exciting and refreshing to me, and also made for some excellent music; ''Four Winds'', ''Cleanse Song'' and ''No One Would Riot For Less'' being particular highlights. But the best was saved for last- ''Lime Tree'' see's Oberst at his deepest, and most affecting, proving he could still tug at heart strings when he felt like it.
Best Tracks: Four Winds/No One Would Riot For Less/Lime Tree
7. Letting Off The Happiness
In many ways, Letting Off The Happiness was the mid point of Conor's teenage years, caught in between the bratty ranting of A Collection and the more focused, yet still angry Fevers & Mirrors. There were traces of brilliance that would soon be developed (''June On The West Coast'' would be the main contender for this) but mostly, Letting Off The Happiness was the sound of a young man who was yet to realize his full potential. That's ok though, he was 18 years old, and considering that, this was very much an exceptional record, and showcased the rapidly developing Oberst, who had come a long way in just two years from his Bright Eyes debut.
Best Tracks: Contrast And Compare/Touch/June On The West Coast
8. A Collection of Songs Written And Recorded 1995-1997
Even at 16, it was obvious he was special. Make no mistake, there are some duds here, but what could you have expected from what was essentially a child? A Collection of Songs, at the very least, showed Conor was an exceptional talent and with tracks like ''Falling Out Of Love At This Volume'', it was plain to see there was a songwriting genius inside this 16 year old Nebraska boy.
Best Tracks: The Invisible Gardener/Saturday As Usual/Falling Out Of Love At This Volume
So that's what we think, but what about you? Comment and rate Bright Eyes yourself.
Next Week: Elliott Smith