In honor of me turning 30, I made mix CDs of my favorite songs from each of my 30 favorite musical artists/groups. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for this list. They’re simply my personal favorites. Coming in at number 6 is Ben Folds.
Depending on your age, you might know Ben Folds as the sarcastic and sometimes sophomoric frontman of 90s alt-rock band Ben Folds Five or as the bespectacled, dorky dad who critiques people’s singing on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Somewhere between those two benchmarks Folds became one of the most influential musicians in my life.
Like most people my age, my introduction to Folds came in the form of the 1997 Ben Folds Five hit “Brick.” However, it wasn’t until I listened to songs from 2001’s Rockin’ the Suburbs, specifically versions played on a piano in a Mercyhurst College practice room by a young Jessie Badach on a spring evening in 2005, that I became a full-fledged Folds fan.
After that night with Jessie, I began catching up on everything in Folds’ discography, including the fabulous Ben Folds Live album he released in 2002. Upon listening through that album many times, it was undeniable. I had to see Ben Folds live in concert. Correction: I had to see Ben Folds live in concert with Jessie. As luck would have it, Folds was coming to the Promowest Pavilion in Columbus, Ohio, later that summer. As soon as that tour date was announced, I purchased the tickets online.
However, I failed to account for one minor detail. Jessie’s parents were not too keen on the idea of their fresh-out-of-high-school, 17-year-old daughter traveling across state lines to see a concert with a college boy. In hindsight, I totally understand their skepticism, but at the time I was devastated. But I’m one of the good ones, I thought to myself. If they actually knew me, they wouldn’t hesitate to trust me, I reasoned. Looking back with my current day wisdom, I can see the fault in my argument, but back then at 20 years old I was nearly inconsolable. Rather than find another friend to attend the concert with me, I protested and stayed home. I still have the ticket to this day! Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. Less than three months after the concert that wasn’t for Jessie and me, Ben Folds headlined a show at Allegheny College, where Jessie was a freshman. As a birthday gift, Jessie got me a ticket, and we were the first people in line for the show, which earned us a front row spot for the concert. As expected, my appreciation for Folds’ music only grew after seeing him perform live.
Following in the tradition of Elton John and Billy Joel, Folds is a masterful pianist and clever songwriter. His crowd-pleasing personality makes for a very entertaining performance on stage, as he enjoys and even encourages crowd participation at many points during the show. His engaging, interactive, sometimes improvisational approach made for some memorable moments. The two tracks that made it onto my compilation from Ben Folds Live are good examples of what makes Folds so fun to see in concert. “Rock This B—-“, which clocks in at just 1:17 is an improvisational little ditty that Folds has probably played hundreds of different ways over the years. Then there’s “Army”, one of my favorite tracks, which features an incredible, vocal audience that Folds splits in two to fill in for the missing saxophones and trumpets that can be heard on the studio recording.
Ben Folds Five’s self-titled 1995 debut album landed three tracks on my compilation. The band is confusingly named considering they’re actually a trio featuring Folds, bassist Robert Sledge, and drummer Darren Jessee. “Philosophy,” “Best Imitation of Myself,” and “The Last Polka” all showcase Folds’ songwriting and piano prowess as well as the band’s uptempo, alt-rock style.
“One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces”, from 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen, continues in that same style with an extended instrumental jam in the middle of the song. However, the other three tracks that made it from that album are sadder, slower tunes, including the aforementioned “Brick”, “Smoke”, and “Evaporated.”
Two additional Ben Folds Five tracks are included on my compilation. “Don’t Change Your Plans” comes from 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner and “Draw a Crowd” earned a spot from the band’s comeback album, 2012’s The Sound of the Life of the Mind. “Draw a Crowd” is lyrical proof that Folds still holds on to some of that sophomoric humor from his early years. Add in Folds’ impeccable cover of an early 90s Dr. Dre classic, and it’s clear that Folds’ love of language includes foul language.
But I saved my two favorite Folds albums for last. 2001’s Rockin’ the Suburbs includes a title track in which Folds parodies the Limp Bizkit style of that era. He temporarily replaces his piano for distortion-heavy electric guitar and lets loose on the microphone “just like Quiet Riot did.” Folds returns to form on “Still Fighting It”, a relatable ode to childhood and growing up that Folds addresses to his son:
Good morning, son
In twenty years from now
Maybe we’ll both sit down and have a few beers
And I can tell you ’bout today
And how I picked you up and everything changed
It was pain
Sunny days and rain
I knew you’d feel the same things
It sucks to grow up
And everybody does
It’s so weird to be back here.
Let me tell you what
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it, we’re still fighting it
You’ll try and try and one day you’ll fly
Away from me
As much as I love “Still Fighting It,” both the album and my compilation use a different track as the finale. “The Luckiest” is arguably Folds’ best tearjerker. It is the kind of heartfelt, sentimental love song that surely has been used at many wedding receptions and anniversary celebrations.
Next door there’s an old man who lived to his nineties
And one day passed away in his sleep
And his wife; she stayed for a couple of days
And passed away
I’m sorry, I know that’s a strange way to tell you that I know we belong
That I know
That I am
If Rockin’ the Suburbs was the album that got me hooked on Folds and the live album reeled me in, Songs For Silverman was…well, whatever the final phase of the fishing metaphor would be. Sorry, I’m not much of an outdoorsman. I can definitely vouch for Songs For Silverman though.
Don’t let that song title scare you off. “Bastard” is a tremendous musical and lyrical piece about being a know-it-all. “Landed” is about coming out of a bad relationship. “Late” is Folds’ lamenting tribute to Elliott Smith, a friend and fellow singer/songwriter who died tragically in 2003 at the age of 34. Finally, “Gracie” is the complement to “Still Fighting It.” This time, Folds’ daughter is the audience of one that he is addressing, and he does so beautifully.
The tracklist intentionally works from the more juvenile and vulgar side to the more mature and grown up side of Folds’ personality. Altogether, I think it captures his unique character quite well. From a foul-mouthed, fun-loving frontman to a lullaby-singing, sentimental-songwriting father, Folds is a true gem and well deserving of his spot on the countdown.
MM 30 at 30: Ben Folds tracklist (finalized August 3, 2014)
1. B—-es Ain’t S—
2. Rock This B—- (Live)
3. Rockin’ the Suburbs
4. Draw a Crowd*
5. Army (Live)
7. One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces*
8. The Last Polka*
9. Best Imitation of Myself*
12. Still Fighting It
17. Don’t Change Your Plans*
19. The Luckiest
* denotes Ben Folds Five track