Confession: I am a compulsive list maker and favorites ranker.
On my long commute to work each day, I often find myself mentally compiling lists. Favorite movies, favorite books, favorite hockey players,
favorite children (justkiddingiwouldneverdothat), favorite bands, albums and songs – they’ve all been rehearsed and rehashed.
On the one hand, I recognize that it’s a pretty lame exercise. Mikel Jollett would probably tell me that analyzing and comparing pieces of art as if they were specimens under a microscope is missing the point at best, a complete and utter bastardization at worst. And he’d be 100% correct.
But I do it anyway. Blame it on the brain.
Sometimes when I just can’t decide which album I like better, I compare them track by track to see how they stack up. Which record has the better opener? Closer? Track #5?
Again, I get that it’s crass. Great albums are way more than the sum of their parts, which is why Greatest Hits albums are never as good as the original LP’s that spawned the hits. Ripping individual songs from their context and judging them in a vacuum devalues them to some extent. But then, that’s all part and parcel with living in the iTunes era, right? Sadly, many music purchasers don’t even bother with albums anymore, preferring instead to build patchwork playlists with a little from Arist A, a smidgeon of Artist B, on and on ad nauseum.
With these disclaimers on the table and full recognition of the limitations inherent in what I’m about to do, once you get past the idiocy of the basic premise, it can actually be a pretty fun exercise. And so, what follows is something of a battle royale: groupings of Airborne songs, organized by track number, squaring off to craft my ultimate TATE album.
All opinions are strictly my own, of course. But, as a preview of our upcoming Airborne Toxic Event fan survey, I invite you to place your vote for your favorite track in each showdown, and in a week or two I’ll post the “Fans’ Choice Ultimate Airborne Album.” Feel free to share your selections in the comments below.
Track 1: Wishing Well vs. All At Once vs. The Secret vs. Wrong vs. Poor Isaac
The Airborne Toxic Event starts every album with a bang, so it’s no surprise that Track 1 is stacked with strong contenders. Under normal circumstances, I would be perfectly satisfied with any of “Wishing Well,” “Wrong” or “Poor Isaac,” all of which are top tier songs. But up against “All At Once” it’s a pretty easy call for me. The opener from Airborne’s sophomore album is amongst my top three songs of all time, and was pretty much guaranteed to beat out any competitor it might face. With lyrics that are instantly relatable to any listener and an irresistible, anthemic quality despite (or perhaps because of) its unconventional arrangement, it’s a song that works equally well as a concert opener or closer, and would do the same on the ultimate TATE album.
Verdict: All At Once
Track 2: Papillon vs. Numb vs. Timeless vs. One Time Thing vs. Cocaine and Abel
Track 2 features one of the most eclectic showdowns, pitting punk rock versus ballad, electronica and brass-tinged barroom hoedown. While the unhinged energy of “Papillon” and the wit of “Cocaine” are hard to ignore, this battle comes down to “Numb” and “One Time Thing” – one of TATE’s purest rockers versus the catchiest song in their catalogue (and my current ringtone). I’ve mentally flip-flopped on this one a dozen times and will probably do so again before I hit ‘publish’ on this, but for now I’ll give the nod to the one whose lyrics have resonated more closely with my life of late.
Track 3: Gasoline vs. Changing vs. What’s in a Name vs. Dope Machines vs. A Certain Type of Girl
With its distinctive bass line, high school lyrics and the Anna vs. Steven face-off that is a highlight of every live performance, “Gasoline” gets strong consideration here. “What’s in a Name” feels like a sequel to “Gasoline,” or perhaps a prequel, and its recent return to the live setlist has been more than welcome. But ever since I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to catch its live world premiere, I’ve been hopelessly hooked on “Dope Machines.” It’s noisy, but such a glorious noise, marrying classic, driving guitar to Mikel’s more recent infatuation with electronic music. If I can’t quite squeak “One Time Thing” onto this list, give me the song that Mikel calls its second chapter.
Track 4: Happiness is Overrated vs. All for a Woman vs. The Storm vs. California vs. Change and Change and Change and Change
Another solid grouping from top to bottom. If I was basing this on live performance, I’d have to go with “Happiness,” which, despite its dour outlook, is just a hell of a lot of fun in concert. “All for a Woman” is the first ballad to appear on a TATE studio album, and remains one of their best with its exquisite lyricism and soaring delivery. “The Storm” is the first number from Such Hot Blood to merit serious consideration for me (don’t worry, things will pick up in that regard very soon). But “Change and Change” is my winner here. My favorite song from Songs of God and Whiskey tells a story that is just so Mikel, delivered at a frenetic pace that you just can’t help but sing along to (if you can keep up).
Track 5: Does This Mean You’re Moving On vs. It Doesn’t Mean a Thing vs. Safe vs. Time to be a Man vs. April is the Cruelest Month
Though “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing” has recaptured my affection of late, this is really a two horse race between two of my faves: “Moving On” vs. “Safe.” The former was one of the songs that sold me on the band in the first place, a hooky rocker with interesting lyrics (coquette, anyone?), and a must-play at every Airborne show. But “Safe” is what first sold me on Such Hot Blood. When they dropped that bomb on me under a starry sky at Red Rocks, backed by a 50-piece orchestra, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that my band had done it again. It kills me to cut “Moving On,” but…
Track 6: This is Nowhere vs. The Kids Are Ready to Die vs. Bride and Groom vs. Hell and Back vs. The Lines of the Cars
Okay, I’ll try to be objective about this. When I originally selected “This is Nowhere” as the name of this website, it wasn’t because it was one of my favorite Airborne songs. Really, I just liked the way it sounded, and how it conveyed the sense of a place that isn’t really a place, which seemed fitting for a virtual hangout like this. Of course, since then it’s become a sentimental favorite, and being in the front row to see it performed at The Fillmore is my all-time live TATE highlight. Digging into the history of the band and understanding its connection to Mikel’s short story “The Crack” has also served to deepen my love for the song.
On the other hand, “Hell and Back” thrilled me from the moment I heard a sub par recording of its world premiere radio broadcast on Philly Radio 104.5, and listening to it within the context of Dope Machines has only improved it. And then there’s “Bride and Groom.” When Such Hot Blood became available as a live stream the week before its release, I immediately jumped to this song, the only one on the album that I hadn’t yet heard at least a live recording of. I couldn’t wait to taste the tune that Mikel had referred to as the best he’d ever written. It wasn’t at all what I expected… it was better.
Track 7: Sometime Around Midnight vs. Welcome to Your Wedding Day vs. True Love vs. My Childish Bride vs. Strangers
Much like Track 1, this one isn’t really a fair fight. “Sometime Around Midnight” is The Airborne Toxic Event’s signature song for a reason, and it’s not likely to fall from that perch anytime soon. The other tracks in this battle are an interesting collection, as each of them have unique elements that set them apart from what TATE is usually known for. “My Childish Bride” would be my runner up here, but there’s no conquering the king.
Track 8: Something New vs. Half of Something Else vs. This is London vs. The Thing About Dreams vs. Why Why Why
Here we have a showdown of some Airborne classics against some of the band’s most underrated songs. “Half of Something Else” will undoubtedly make many fans’ lists; I will leave it off mine for the reason that I prefer the heartbreaking dirge of the Going the Distance version of the song to the more upbeat All At Once arrangement. “This is London” has some of the very best lyrics Mikel has ever penned, in my opinion, and a moving viola solo from Anna. It’s a sadly overlooked gem that is deserving of more than the small handful of live playings it has received. “Why Why Why” is likewise worthy of more attention; the line, “Like a guilty man who knows he’s gonna fry” gets me every time. But my choice is “The Thing About Dreams.” My first exposure to it came in the form of a 90-second German iTunes preview clip, and when that falsetto kicked in, I was flabbergasted. My first impression was that this may not be the song for me. That lasted only until the end of my first full listen to the song, by which point I was sold. I love everything about this song, from its dreamy atmospherics to its lyrics that fit me like a glove, and, yes, the falsetto – though I pity anyone who has the misfortune of hearing me attempt to sing along.
Track 9: Missy vs. Strange Girl vs. The Fifth Day vs. Something You Lost vs. California (acoustic)
After 9 years as The Airborne Toxic Event’s go-to show closer, some fans have grown weary of “Missy.” I am not one of them. But with all due respect to my daughter’s favorite Airborne song, it plays third fiddle to a pair of heavyweights. “The Fifth Day” enraptured me at Red Rocks. Never before and never since have I felt chills rip down my spine like I did during that performance; I still get shivers just thinking about it. “Something You Lost,” on the other hand, has that effect every single time I listen to it. “Please don’t ever leave” – it’s a moment that never fails to make my hair stand up. The choice between these two exquisite tunes, both of which are comfortably within my personal Top 10, is easily the most excruciating of this exercise. I have gone back and forth more times than I can count. Had the closing wails of “Fifth Day” been left raw and untreated like they are on stage, I would’ve given it the edge, but as it is, I’m going with…
Track 10: Innocence vs. All I Ever Wanted vs. Elizabeth vs. Chains vs. The Fall of Rome
From top to bottom, the 10th track is the most stacked, with strong contenders across the board. Each of The Airborne Toxic Event’s albums closes with a gorgeous, memorable song, and in any other match-up, any of these tunes could have earned a spot on my final list. But like “All At Once” and “Midnight” before it, “Innocence” is in a category all its own. Showcasing a band at the height of its powers, it is simply perfection, making this a much shorter conversation than it should be given the depth of the competition here. My top choice in the non-Innocence division is “All I Ever Wanted,” but it’s no slam dunk.
Track 11: The Graveyard Near the House
All At Once is the only Airborne album to include an 11th track, so technically “The Graveyard Near the House” qualifies by default. But that is no slight. “Graveyard” is a favorite of virtually every TATE fan, myself included, featuring the consensus best lyrics Mikel has ever penned. It is very well deserving of a spot on the ultimate Airborne playlist.
Verdict: The Graveyard Near the House
B-Sides: The Winning Side vs. This Losing vs. The Girls in Their Summer Dresses vs. Tokyo Radio vs. Haile vs. Parson Redheads vs. Dublin vs. The Way Home
Three of The Airborne Toxic Event’s five studio albums have had b-sides attached to them; the fact that their most recent two records were released simultaneously is likely the only thing that precluded b-sides in those cases. Because I couldn’t stand to limit myself to 11 songs, I’m allowing myself two b-sides. TATE’s collection of bonus songs is remarkable, with a good number of them certainly being album worthy. I’ve always loved the hard rocking bombast of “The Winning Side,” and “Dublin” is just a gorgeous flower of a song, but my top two b-sides are “This Losing” and “The Way Home.” The former showcases everything I love about this band: a symphony wrapped in a rock song. “The Way Home,” meanwhile, stands as the single most personally meaningful song in my life. Quite simply, Mikel wrote my story.
The Airborne Toxic Event: My Ultimate Album
- All At Once
- Dope Machines
- Change and Change and Change and Change
- Bride and Groom
- Sometime Around Midnight
- The Thing About Dreams
- Something You Lost
- The Graveyard Near the House
- This Losing (b-side)
- The Way Home (b-side)
Number of Tracks By Album (including b-sides)
The Airborne Toxic Event – 3
All At Once – 2
Such Hot Blood – 3
Dope Machines – 3
Songs of God and Whiskey – 1
Overall, the even distribution seems about right. I was very surprised that it took until Track 7 to work a song from the debut album into the mix. It just goes to show the limitation of this approach, as it remains my favorite album as a whole.
How about you? What does your ultimate Airborne album look like? Share your picks in the comments!
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.