High Fidelity: Five Albums. Five Stories. Oh No.

by James Cassar

I probably couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner on Tuesday but queue up any one of the following full-length records and I could probably dish out a novel-length recollection about what I smelled like when I pressed Play on track one for the first time. Okay, maybe not, but the breadth and intensity that these five albums hold in my head (and heart, if you’re a fan of sentimentality) are unmatched. Let’s dive in.

1. blink-182 – Enema of the State

First, let me stress that this is neither my favorite album by this pop-punk trio, nor is it their best LP by most objective standpoints. (On both counts, 2003’s Untitled promises the better listening experience. Don’t believe me? Listen to “Violence” and “Stockholm Syndrome” back-to-back. You’re welcome.) No, this record was, rather, the first I heard from the band that would define near-fifteen years of overflowing angst. (This role would later be assumed by Modern Baseball. You probably could’ve figured that out if you’ve ever followed me on Twitter, and if you have, I’m so sorry.)

For some reason, my sister found it acceptable to have her little brothers clean her room in 2000. The robot vacuum wasn’t invented yet (Wikipedia charts the first Roomba model somewhere around 2002), so I guess there was a fair case to be made in some parallel universe. Alas, in the universe I lived in, that’s how some of my Saturdays were spent. But, to the cleaner came the spoils. I was paid in used CDs. For a six year old, this was as close to real money as it came.

“You can’t listen to any tracks but numbers 3, 4, 7, 8 and 11.” Those five tracks on Enema of the State defined a huge portion of my childhood.

“Aliens Exist” played in the background of caffeine-fueled sessions of Need for Speed Underground 2 spinning in a GameCube while a too-small TV showed my souped-up Mitsubishi Lancer being lapped by my more nimble-thumbed opponent in the chair to my left.

“All the Small Things” was covered by my uncle’s band at a Halloween party on a back porch while I was dressed as Denver Bronco-has been John Elway and smearing black face paint stripes with fat tears.

“Wendy Clear” and “Going Away to College” introduced me to the boy-chases-girl narrative that blink would grow tiredly famous for (and that I would grow tired from in my own story).

“Adam’s Song” would be a song I’d burn on a CD (in 2008) to listen to during grueling physical therapy sessions. I’d let my feet stagger and skip over a treadmill’s belt to the band’s slowest single. A solitary line still stands out to me. It’s after the explosive bridge and the piano solo. “Tomorrow holds such better days.” If I don’t get that tattooed on one of my legs before I die, I don’t really know what I’m doing here.

2. Yellowcard – Ocean Avenue

Back when Borders was a thing (R.I.P.), I’d barely have made it through a week visiting my grandparents in New Mexico without entering one of the state’s many bookstores at least once. If you’re not familiar with the chain (I’m assuming you’re also under the age of eleven), they once sold CDs. Yellowcard’s Ocean Avenue was the first CD I ever paid for with my own money. (And to the girl that currently has that CD, nine-year-old me hopes you enjoy it. Kind of.)

As it turns out, I already had this record, and the band’s previous LP, One for the Kids, on a Memorex CD in heavy rotation while I danced around in my underwear to violin-licked pop-punk in the third grade. The compilation was from one of my sister’s friends, who slapped both records on one disc in a different running order. I remember that track listing better than the official ones. Weird.

Love is dumb. It’s also considerably dumber when “love” is synonymous with “the kids with the best lunchtime snacks.” Her name was Mackenzie, she liked Little Bites Muffins. I think we’re Facebook friends. (Hi, if so.) “Inside Out” will always remind me of her. I guess in some chronologies of the James Cassar canon, she was my first girlfriend. We held hands once. It was pretty serious stuff.

Yellowcard is honestly one of my favorite bands, if I can blot out the fact Lift a Sail existed, which I try to do every morning after I brush my teeth. I’ve screamed “View from Heaven” with my sister (same one from Enema of the State-ville) in her Honda Accord. My first Warped Tour ended with a crowdsurfer falling on me during “Ocean Avenue.” I’ve put “Life of a Salesman” on a CD for my dad every Father’s Day and “Only One” on the stereo every Valentine’s Day. This record is tradition amplified.

3. Jack’s Mannequin – Everything in Transit

Whereas Ocean Avenue closes with a bittersweet reflection on California, this LP is a love letter to the Golden State. While I did spend a summer interning in Burbank with Warner Music Group, this record’s hold on my soul wasn’t as crushing as another on this list (Sports). Jack’s Mannequin was tenth grade. How can a band be a grade, James? You feeling okay, buddy?

Exhibit A: “The Mixed Tape.” Wanna know a song that has both defined my life and destroyed it? I tried to ask a girl to homecoming in the band room, this hulking mound of rafters and drywall in metro Detroit, in my sophomore year of high school. I used a Pokemon card, a Paras, first printing. (That’s not really integral to the plot of this sobstory, but I figure the extra detail would accentuate how lame I am.) I had my brother tape a custom “card” over it that basically asked her to homecoming for me. She said no. In front of like fifty hormonal geeks. Tight. And this was after the mixtape (read: mix CD) – nine tracks delivered on September 9, 2009. Rest in peace.

Exhibit B: “Into the Airwaves.” Last track of the record, and if we’re tying in to giving mixed tapes to girls with cool haircuts, this Last Track (a concept outlined in this piece I wrote last week) meant everything. My first kiss was in tenth grade. I actually remember the date and time, but for the sake of my small readership and in the interest of expanding it, I won’t bore you with the details. After that fateful moment, we didn’t talk. I was bummed. Especially after giving her two (2) mixtapes/mix CDs and my copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Tight. (However, we’re cool now. Relax, Internet. That was a million years ago.) Long story short, “Into the Airwaves” has a line about moving across the country – and I packed up with my family and headed to Virginia before junior year. I texted her that at the Paramore/New Found Glory show. I got a response in two seconds. Everything in transit sped up.

4. Panic! at the Disco – A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out

Also in tenth grade: I was in a band. Like Sex Bob-Omb, the fictional band from the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series, we weren’t very good. Unlike that cartoon group, however, we didn’t even write our own songs. We played one gig – with me, anyway, the remaining members after my move to Virginia played one more – and won first prize at a battle of the bands. Various Student Council reports claimed our families stuffed the ballot box. Jealous turds.

Anyway, I was the band’s secondary vocalist and primary lyricist, which mirrored the role of Ryan Ross who left Panic! after ripping off the Beatles in 2008 with Pretty. Odd. and later would thieve every Beach Boys convention with The Young Veins. Before this larceny, Mr. Ross wrote some incredible Chuck Palahniuk references into songs that are a refreshing hybrid between vaudeville stomp, white-boy angst, and emo-pop shimmer. Pitchfork SAT-word descriptions aside, it’s a damn fine record. So what did I try to do with my band, Cut Through Static, and its lyrics? I wanted to rip off Panic! at the Disco.

Why? This record is even one my younger brother still listens to, even though at this point his favorite artist shared an MC name with a delicious candy-coated chocolate circle. (Eminem? Anyone?) It’s also incredibly layered – synths stab through guitar chugs better than early Enter Shikari (Contentious point! Sorry!) and Brendon Urie slurs through Auto-Tuned phrases better than Kid Rock in 1998. The record is divided into two halves thematically! What band in the Fueled by Ramen crop did this? No one! I still don’t know what “aubergine” means, though. I’m too proud to Google it.

Even in my time before Cut Through Static, I tried to play Ryan Ross. My first “artistic project” (tenth grade me SUCKED) was called Theater of the Absurd, after some pretentious goo random articles on Wikipedia gargled up. It had this whole plot behind it, something like a 2009 Catcher in the Rye re-hashing set against “emotive” guitar lines and “tasteful” double-bass kick drum. This is probably something my inflated sense of creative genius probably coughed up. I promise I’m better. Many might disagree.

5. Modern Baseball – Sports

I don’t want to rewrite anything I’ve already written on this, so read this if you’re really interested in my complicated, tragically pathetic relationship I have with this record, its contents, and probably the band itself. I’m sorry for bringing this up for the millionth time.

If this LP were a book, you’d have a Melvillian treasure trove of symbolism, and by the end of your first listen through this, you’d have my White Whale: an almost-attainable-but-just-out-of-reach entity that for some time consumed my existence. Okay, maybe not to that extreme. I’m not that much of a Moby-Dick. I just wanted to escape whatever trap I was stuck in. This helped me see I could dig myself out. (Read that link for more details. It kind of is too much to retype.)

I suck at having feelings, probably because I have too many, and the fact that I’m revealing this during some words about a record that divulges a fair amount of emotion isn’t a coincidence. Both MoBo and I were in college when this record was written and recorded, except those dudes probably had their lives reigned in a little more. That is, enough to help encapsulate my past few years of higher education. There’s the obvious social media nods, which somehow made my abysmal Twitter track record and Tumblr-girl romances valid. I, too, was either the Hipster with Glasses outlined in the opening bars of “The Weekend” or the one chasing a Hipster with Glasses. “Play Ball!” is pretty much about a mixtape (it’s probably about songwriting, but let me have this one for the sake of argument). I’ve played this record so much it’s on daily rotation in my headphones or turntable. I’ve seen this band play more than any other and I’m sure I’ll see them more than once in 2015. And I’ll never get sick of it. I wonder if that’ll change. Probably not.

Records that hold stories can speak more about the listener than the band, and for me, Sports taught me a lot more about myself than I ever thought I’d discover without it. For that, I’m thankful.