Tag Archives: 30 at 30 musical artists

30 at 30 Lists #19: Musical Artists

In honor of me turning 30, I’m compiling 30 different top-30 lists on a wide variety of topics ranging from trivial interests of mine to meaningful life moments. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for these lists. They were composed by a panel of one—me.

30at30Since this is the list that inspired the whole 30 at 30 project, and I’ve already written at length about each of the musical artists featured on the list, I’m going to keep this introduction rather short. Suffice it to say that music has played an instrumental role in my life thus far. Although I am not a musician, I have been influenced and inspired by many musicians—famous musicians like many of the names included on this list—and local musicans, including my wife and her family, all of whom happen to be musically gifted.

To every musician who has created music that I have enjoyed over the first 30+ years of my life, I say thank you. In good times and bad, music has been a constant companion throughout my life. From cathartic breakup music to celebratory bonfire music, my ears, my heart, and my soul have been treated well by by talented musicians, specifically the 30 musical artists and groups who form this list of my all-time favorites.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this process of compiling these 30 discs from my 30 favorite musical artists, counting them down, writing and reflecting upon them. If you enjoy any of the artists on this list, I’d invite you to read through my article about him/her/them and comment with your own personal favorite tracks. If you’re looking to discover something new or rediscover a band you haven’t listened to in a while, I’d invite you to do that as well. Links to each of my 30 musical artist articles are included below. Here’s to the next 30 years of music!

30. Oasis
29. The Fray
28. Ben Lee
27. The Decemberists
26. Sufjan Stevens
25. Jill Scott
24. Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie / The Postal Service)
23. Howie Day
22. Gavin DeGraw
21. The Farewell Drifters
20. Eminem
19. Coldplay
18. Ryan Adams
17. Jack Johnson
16. The Beatles
15. Iron & Wine
14. Alicia Keys
13. Jay-Z
12. Beyoncé
11. John Legend
10. Jamie Cullum
9. Jason Mraz
8. Wyclef Jean
7. Dashboard Confessional
6. Ben Folds / Ben Folds Five
5. Ingrid Michaelson
4. Kanye West
3. John Mayer
2. Dave Matthews Band
1. Counting Crows


1. Counting Crows

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 1 is Counting Crows.


Counting Crows had a profound influence on me as an adolescent and young adult. Although I first heard Counting Crows on the radio in the early 90s when I was a preteen, I rediscovered the band and their music during my senior year of high school.

The number one reason I connected with Counting Crows was the lyrics of lead singer Adam Duritz. Despite being 20 years my elder, Duritz’s lyrical poetry resonated with me on a deep, spiritual level. The combination of his artfully crafted words and his passionate, vulnerable vocal performances made me relate to Duritz as a soul brother.

Counting Crows released their fourth studio album, Hard Candy, on July 8, 2002, midway through the summer before my senior year of high school. I probably listened to that album 100 times that summer while also immersing myself in the previous Counting Crows releases. I attempted to compile a “Best of” Counting Crows CD and ended up making a three-disc set that nearly included every song from their catalog. Every time I listened through an album it seemed like a different line from a different song caught my attention and fit my mood.

The welcome letter I received upon joining Cloudkookooland, the official fan club of Counting Crows.
The welcome letter I received upon joining Cloudkookooland, the official fan club of Counting Crows.

By the time the spring of 2003 rolled around, I was an unabashed Counting Crows fanatic. I joined the band’s official fan club at the time, Cloudkookooland. As the letter reads, the name “comes from Aristophanes’ play, ‘The Birds’, and was the name for the city, built by birds, suspended halfway between heaven and earth where the impossible was possible.” I also spent evenings reading and posting on Counting Crows message boards, which is how I discovered the burgeoning subculture of online bootleg music trading. Although the Internet connection speed of the early 2000s made it difficult, I slowly built a sizable collection of Counting Crows concert bootleg recordings, which the band did not discourage so long as they were not being sold by anyone for profit.  Unfortunately, I lost most of those recordings in an apartment fire in 2009. However, the time I spent listening to recorded versions of live Counting Crows performances opened my ears to a whole new world of Counting Crows music that I never had experienced before. Two things stuck out from the live shows: Adam’s innate ability  as a storyteller on stage and first-rate musicianship of the individual band members, especially Charlie (Gillingham), Dave (Bryson), Dan (Vickrey), and Immy (David Immerglück).

What I didn’t know was that listening to all of those live recordings was priming me for one of my the most meaningful experiences of my life. As fate would have it, Counting Crows’ spring tour brought them to the Warner Theatre in Erie, Pennsylvania, on April 23, 2003. It was my favorite band in my hometown less than two months before graduating from high school. Oh yeah, and it was also the first concert I ever attended. My buddy Ryan Colvin and I had great seats up front on the left side near the stage, and we were treated to an unforgettable performance. Fortunately for me, the show was recorded and I was able to obtain a copy through the online Counting Crows community that I was a part of. That live recording remains a treasured piece of my collection to this day, and that concert cemented Counting Crows’ legacy in my own mind as my all-time favorite band.

CC_bedroomAfter coming home from the concert I was insatiable. No amount of Counting Crows seemed to be enough. Impulsively, I decided then and there to redecorate my bedroom wall, which had previously been adorned exclusively with sports posters. I cleared the area of the wall above my bed. Centered above the bed was a poster of the band I had purchased at the concert. Meticulously, I surrounded the poster with printed copies of the lyrics from every song as well as the album artwork from each of the band’s four studio albums on coordinated colored paper. Obsessed? Perhaps. Dedicated? Undoubtably. I was no longer just a member of the fan club Cloudkookooland, I was living in it.

Counting Crows concert tickets
My Counting Crows concert history:
1. April 23, 2003, at the Warner Theatre in Erie, PA 
2. August 12, 2003, at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center in Darien Center, NY
3. July 11, 2004, at the Jerome Duncan Ford Theatre in Sterling Heights, MI
4. July 15, 2006, at the Post-Gazette Pavillion, in Burgettstown, PA 
5. July 31, 2007, at Jerry Uht Park in Erie, PA 
6. August 20, 2009, at the House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach, SC
7. December 6, 2014, at the Packard Music Hall in Warren, OH.

In all, I have seen Counting Crows live in concert on seven occasions. I’ve seen them in five different states. I’ve seen them perform at inside at concert halls and outside in a baseball stadium. I’ve seen them perform in spring, summer, and winter. To me, asking me to compare shows is like comparing children. They are all special and unique, and I wouldn’t trade away the experience of attending any of them.

There's us and there's the stage.
There’s us and there’s the stage.
Posing for a photo with Adam at the close of the Counting Crows show in Warren, Ohio, in December of 2014.
Posing for a photo with Adam at the close of the Counting Crows show in Warren, Ohio, in December of 2014.

Having said that, my most recent Counting Crows live experience understandably stands out freshest in my mind. It was the first time seeing the band live since I got married in 2011 and the first time Jessie and I had seen them together since all the way back in 2006, so I knew it was going to be a memorable event. The icing on the cake was that we had front row seats! Plus, the band had just released its latest album Somewhere Under Wonderland in September, five days before my 30th birthday. Hearing many tracks from that album live for the first time that night was among the many highlights, including a rocking rendition of “Miami” and the seasonally appropriate “A Long December“.

“Mr. Jones”—the one Counting Crows song that everyone has heard—was first released as a single in December of 1993. Twenty-one years later, the band didn’t even play it at the Warren, Ohio, show, and it didn’t lessen my appreciation of the performance. If anything, I enjoyed it more because that meant I got to hear something rarer, a non-canon track like “Richard Manuel is Dead” or “Washington Square.”

I wholeheartedly disagree with one of the regular criticisms of Counting Crows concerts. If your goal for a concert is for the band to play a carbon copy of the album you listened to on the way to the concert, Counting Crows is probably not the band for you. Adam is bound to change the words, wander in and out of songs with storytelling snippets, slightly alter a melody here or there, or add in an alternate verse to your favorite song. They might play that fast song you like slow or turn that acoustic ballad you love into an electric rocker. Sure, singing along at a Counting Crows concert often becomes difficult because Adam zigs when you expect him to zag, but while Duritz may pump fake the audience better than Michael Jordan with his lyrical alterations, the rest of the band remains in sync with their lead singer, and there is never a question of whether the band is feeling it or not. These guys were born to rock. With Adam as the eccentric, sometimes brooding leader, the band puts on a show night after night, year after year. It’s clear that they’re having the time of their lives, improvising riffs and solos, playing off one another, and creating something special in the moment for that particular audience on that specific night. I’ve been privileged to be part of that audience seven times, and hopefully number eight isn’t too far off in the future.

Continue reading 1. Counting Crows

2. Dave Matthews Band

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 2 is Dave Matthew Band.


I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Dave Matthews Band  (sometime in the mid-90s) nor which song it was that I first heard (likely something from Under the Table and Dreaming). I do remember that DMB struck me differently than most of the music I had been listening to up until that point. I was young enough to still soak up much of top-40 pop radio yet just old enough to question if there was something more that I was missing.

Meanwhile, out in his studio, my dad was making pots while listening to B.B. King and Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan. My dad loved jazz and blues, but it wasn’t quite palatable for a simple-minded pre-teen like myself who was simultaneously embracing Ace of Base and Shaq Diesel (seriously). In addition to becoming my second favorite band, Dave Matthews Band is largely responsible for opening the musical doors for me to explore and appreciate other types of music, particularly the jazz and blues that my dad enjoys so much.

DMB was one of the first groups that made me listen to music for something other than the lyrics. No, that’s not quite accurate. DMB’s lyrics have consistently resonated with me on a personal level. What I mean to say is that DMB’s music enticed me to listen to more than lyrics alone. Even on their studio tracks, the band’s musicianship has always stood out. Their songs are so etched into my memory that I often find myself trying to sing along note-for-note to the instrumental solos in addition to the actual lyrics.

If my memory serves me right, 1996’s Crash was the first DMB album that I actually purchased, and I quickly wore it out in my CD player. I was hooked. Today, in terms of official non-bootleg releases, I own more CDs from Dave Matthews than any other group or artist. The collection includes every studio album DMB has released as well as an assorted number of live releases that really showcases what has made DMB the concert band of my generation.

When summer rolls around, you can be sure that DMB will be touring. I first saw DMB live on June 26, 2003 at the Post-Gazette Pavilion in Burgettstown, Pa., with my friend Ryan. I’ve seen them live four times in all, and although each show was at the same venue, each show was different and awesome. No two DMB performances are exactly alike, and that’s part of the thrill. Thanks to the amazing database at DMBalmanac.com,  I can look up the entire setlist from that show and pretty much any other DMB show dating back to the band’s first performance in 1991.

As I mentioned before, I own a lot of DMB music. Trying to narrow it all down into one compilation CD of my favorites was a painstaking process. More than any other band, I think that my list of tracks with DMB would likely shift somewhat if I attempted to re-do the process. With the exception of maybe The Beatles, no other group on this list would likely cause other fans of the band to complain more, telling me that I left (insert song title here) off the list. Sorry, folks. It’s my project. It’s my list. I’d love to read about your favorite DMB songs, so feel free to leave them in the comments. In the meantime, click below to read about my favorites.

Continue reading 2. Dave Matthews Band

3. John Mayer

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 3 is John Mayer.


John Mayer’s personal life has often overshadowed his ability as a musician and a singer/songwriter. From a series of failed high profile celebrity relationships to his occasional forays into the world of TV comedy to his infamous interviews with Playboy and Rolling Stone that turned the court of public opinion against him to health issues with his vocal chords, Mayer’s music has been mostly backstory throughout his career. Interestingly, the shift in focus seemed to coincide with a conscious decision by Mayer to shift his music from the acoustic rock/pop sound that first got him fame to a more blues-inspired sound that he felt passionate about.

Although there were some hints of Mayer’s musical direction shifting as early as 2003’s Heavier Things, Mayer made waves in 2005 when he formed the John Mayer Trio with bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan to play blues/rock music that was a clear diversion from what a large segment of Mayer’s pop audience was listening to on the radio. The band released a fantastic live album Try! that was adored by my dad and people like him and generally ignored by my sister, who is 6 years younger than me, and people like her.

Caught in between were people like me. Suddenly, my ears were opened to a new style of music. Previously, I had appreciated blues but it was not something I would seek out on my own or listen to over more genres that were more contemporary and popular at the time. Mayer’s decision to go against the grain probably cost him from becoming a top-level pop star, but it also cemented his status as a legit music guy. While his personal life may tell another story, professionally, Mayer was less concerned with being a star and more concerned about making music that mattered to him.

Since forming in 2005, the John Mayer Trio released just that one live album. They never produced a studio recording, and the group has only appeared together for a handful of appearances since 2006. Nonetheless, the influence of the group was felt on Mayer’s career moving forward.

Starting with 2006’s Continuum, Mayer’s solo albums have sounded significantly different than his 2001 debut Room For Squares. In addition to the blues influence, Mayer has also infused folk and country-rock in recent albums.

Without a doubt many people hear the name John Mayer and first think of the person, often in a negative way. That’s unfortunate for John Mayer the musician because at age 37 he already has an amazing discography that rivals anything anyone has produced this millennium. John Mayer the musician is one of the most influential performers of my lifetime, and I cannot wait to see how his legacy continues to evolve as he continues to mature and let his music speak for him in the years to come.

Continue reading 3. John Mayer

4. Kanye West

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 4 is Kanye West.


With apologies to Eminem, Kanye West is probably my most controversial inclusion on this list, especially ranking as high as he does. Kanye West is a polarizing figure who over the past 10-15 years has grown from little known beat-maker, to well-known rapper to full-blown celebrity. Love him or hate him, if you pay any attention to pop culture in 2015, you likely have an opinion about Kanye West.

So what is it about Kanye West that attracts so many fans and so many naysayers? How is it that one man is simultaneously praised as a genius and despised as a cancer. In a word: Ego.

Rembert Browne wrote an article in February titled “We Love (And Hate) Kanye West Because He Says What We Think,” in which he astutely observed the following:

What Kanye has managed to do is unlike anyone else. He’s not a divider. It’s not that black people love him and white people hate him. Or men love him and women hate him. Or rap fans love him and non-rap fans loathe him. Or young people love him and old people despise him. Or even that Democrats love him and Republicans think he’s the absolute worst.

He’s found a way to rub large segments of every demographic the wrong way. Even Kanye West fans are split on the public persona of Kanye West. There are few things like it.

The polarized response to Kanye is similar to that of another public figure who Kanye name-drops in his verse on the “Ego” (Remix) embedded above, a certain NBA superstar that shares some common character traits with Mr. West: Kobe Bryant.

Like Kanye, Kobe has a loyal legion of fans who will passionately defend him against any negative comments. And like West, there is also never a shortage of negative comments being made in reference to Bryant. (Seriously, if you want to lose faith in rational human interaction, search Twitter for “Kanye West” or “Kobe Bryant” at pretty much any time of day or night.)

Both West and Bryant are undeniably gifted. Kanye West is both critically and commercially one of the most successful hip hop artists of all-time. Similarly, Kobe Bryant is statistically one of the most impactful players in NBA history and his starring role in five NBA championships puts him in the discussion among the games all-time greats. You can argue where Kanye and Kobe fall in the all-time pecking orders of their respective crafts, but they have accomplished to much to be left out of the discussion regardless of whether you like them or not. (There are also people who are entirely dismissive of the NBA as a genre of basketball and/or rap as a genre of music, but I’ll table those arguments for another day.)

The anti-Kanye camp and the anti-Kobe camp have many of the same gripes. Their complaints center around one of the most compelling questions in celebrity culture, an issue that likely has a different answer depending on who is being asked. Should celebrities be judged based on their work, their life outside of their work, or some combination of both? And if it’s the latter, what is the formula that determines such a criteria?

The biggest complaints about Kanye and Kobe are rarely about what they have accomplished in music or basketball. Generally, the complaints about them are about the perceived character flaw of hubris that they share. “Pride comes before the fall,” say the haters, as they wait with bated breath for Kanye and Kobe’s fall from stardom.

The criticism is not entirely without merit, especially if our celebrity approval rating factors in life outside of work. Unfortunately for Kanye and Kobe, if life outside of music and basketball is a significant part of the equation, Kanye and Kobe will always have their critics. Because like it or not, the same reason people hate them is what makes them great.

Kanye West and Kobe Bryant are special for a reason. Kanye West is more than a good rapper. He is a musical pioneer who Paul McCartney recently compared to John Lennon. Kobe Bryant is more than a good basketball player. He is a basketball savant, obsessed with perfecting his craft. However, the greatest strength of Kanye West is not his ability to rap. And the greatest strength of Kobe Bryant is not his ability to score a basketball. The greatest strength of both Kanye and Kobe is their unwavering self-belief. In Kanye’s mind, he is the best rapper alive. In Kobe’s mind, he is the best basketball player alive. Do they sometimes blur the lines between confidence and cockiness? Absolutely. But their belief does not have an off switch.

We live in such a celebrity-obsessed culture. Our society places great demand on our celebrities: musicians, athletes, and entertainers. We want our celebrities to aspire to greatness and, in turn, to inspire us to greatness. Yet we also want our celebrities to be selfless and humble before, during, and after they have achieved said greatness. Fans are willing to forgive a litany of celebrity sins from performance enhancing drug use to infidelity, but if they deem certain celebrities are being selfish or self-centered, they will turn on them or tune them out.

The character foil for Kobe Bryant is Tim Duncan. They came into the league one year apart and both undoubtably will be first ballot Hall of Famers. Both have won five NBA championships. Bryant is 17-time all-star, 4-time All-Star Game MVP, 1-time NBA MVP, and 2-time Finals MVP. Duncan is a 15-time all-star, aa 1-time All-Star Game MVP, a 2-time NBA MVP, and a 3-time Finals MVP. Bryant has played his entire career in the bright lights of Hollywood for the Lakers while Duncan has played his entire career in small market San Antonio for the Spurs. Unlike Kobe Bryant, no one hates Tim Duncan. He is universally respected as the consummate professional and ideal teammate. Is Duncan better than Bryant? Is Bryant better than Duncan? Which player has been the NBA’s best of the 2000s? It is a debate that fans will have for years to come.

It’s less clear who the character foil is for Kanye West. Who is the Tim Duncan of rap? Will Smith? Nas? Rap is more of a brash, in-your-face genre. Perhaps looking more broadly at music in general, someone like Beyoncé would be a more apt comparison as someone with a higher Q score. Everyone would agree Kanye is a better rapper than Beyoncé and Beyoncé is a better singer than Kanye. There is no argument there. But if the question was framed as: who has had a bigger impact on music, Kanye West or Beyoncé? That sets up for a more interesting debate.

As a fan, I am generally willing to overlook minor character flaws in celebrities—such as a lack of humility—especially when the artist/athlete in question would arguably not be as successful without that characteristic. Of course I believe there are some aspects of an artist’s or athlete’s life that cannot be overlooked. There are some personal lines that cannot be crossed without overshadowing professional successes. In general, however, I prioritize the performance over the player and the art over the artist. And that is why I have no trouble ranking Kanye West as my fourth favorite musical artist of all-time.

Continue reading 4. Kanye West

5. Ingrid Michaelson

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 5 is Ingrid Michaelson.


I have watched exactly one of the more than 240 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy (the season three finale). While I knew next to nothing about the characters or the plot, that climactic scene of that dramatic episode featured a never-before-heard song, “Keep Breathing” by a then-unknown artist, Ingrid Michaelson. That episode aired on May 17, 2007. Although that was only 8 years ago, the world was clearly a much different place because I remember scouring the Internet unsuccessfully trying to find the song to download it.

Before I eventually found a low-quality recording of the song from the show, I stumbled on to Ingrid’s 2006 album Girls and Boys on MySpace and instantly knew she was more than a one hit wonder, at least to my ears. The Grey’s Anatomy spot was her first major breakthrough, but when “The Way I Am” was used in an Old Navy ad, Ingrid’s career really began to take off. Despite lacking a major music label, Michaelson was making the transition to mainstream success. “The Way I Am” is simple and short, but it’s so sweet and singable that it climbed as high as #37 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

A multi-talented singer/songwriter, Ingrid plays piano, guitar, and ukulele, but it is her voice that stands out as her most potent instrument. She has a beautiful voice and a tremendous way with melody that allows her to take simple song constructions and make them sound epic.

I have seen Ingrid perform live twice, in Pittsburgh on Nov. 11, 2007, and in Cleveland on October 30, 2009. In addition to showcasing her musical ability, the live shows allow Ingrid’s charming personality to shine through. Her banter between songs with the audience resonates with a warmth and humanity reflective of someone who clearly does not feel she is above her fans. Both shows had a very communal feel, as if those who were in attendance were in on a shared secret. I’m sure the size of her shows has grown since then, but the heart of her shows remains unchanged. Ingrid remains connected with her fans via social media, and she maintains that girl-next-door sweetness even though she is now a well-established performer.

Continue reading 5. Ingrid Michaelson

6. Ben Folds

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. Continue reading 6. Ben Folds

7. Dashboard Confessional

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 7 is Dashboard Confessional.


Acoustic guitar + emotional lyrics + passionate vocalist = Dashboard Confessional. At its core, Dashboard Confessional boils down to that simple formula. Over time, the band expanded and the musical complexity increased. But the heart of Dashboard Confessional was, is, and always will be Chris Carrabba. In many ways Carrabba is Dashboard Confessional the way Sam Beam is Iron & Wine.

The way I first heard of Dashboard makes me feel incredibly old. I used to belong to something called the BMG music club. Every month they would mail me a catalog from which I could order CDs at a discounted rate. One month Dashboard Confessional’s The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most was the featured album of the month, and I decided to order it on a whim. It arrived at a time in my life when I was just beginning to care about romantic relationships, and the lyrics struck a chord. The album was short, consisting of 10 tracks and clocking in under 30 minutes. I put the CD on loop on my bedroom stereo. Each heart-wrenching lyric fed my teenage angst more and more, and my appetite was insatiable.

Carrabba’s lyrics came from an intersection of heartbreak and hopeless romantic. Perhaps no line hit me harder from my first listen through than the closing line of “This Ruined Puzzle”, in which Carrabba somberly asks the most pertinent question in the world for a lovesick teenager: “Does he ever get the girl?”

Thankfully in 2015, I can answer a definitive “Yes!” to what once felt like an eternally rhetorical question. And it’s in no small part thanks to Dashboard that I can answer affirmatively. The truth is the relationship I have with my wife Jessie was rooted in music. Our story dates back as far as 2003 when she began working with me at Giant Eagle. The first area of common ground that we struck was our interest in music, particularly Dashboard Confessional. After all, we were teens in the early 2000s. Dashboard lyrics obviously flavored our AOL Instant Messenger conversations and away messages during those days.

The opening track on this compilation, “So Impossible” from 2001’s So Impossible [EP] holds a special place in our relationship as well. Jessie used the song’s question-laden lyrics as email bait to learn a little more about me in our earliest days of courtship. Fast forward to Nov. 6, 2005 when Jessie and I were just a few months removed from our first breakup. We nonetheless traveled together to attend Dashboard live at SUNY Fredonia. When Carrabba sung, “As Lovers Go,” I joined in with a message that I believed wholeheartedly.

And I said “I’ve gotta be honest
I’ve been waiting for you all my life.”
For so long I thought I was asylum bound,
But just seeing you makes me think twice.
And being with you here makes me sane,
I fear I’ll go crazy if you leave my side.
You’ve got wits… you’ve got looks,
You’ve got passion but are you brave enough to leave with me tonight?

But you’ve got me…

I’ll be true, I’ll be useful…
I’ll be cavalier…I’ll be yours my dear.
And I’ll belong to you…
If you’ll just let me through.
This is easy as lovers go,
So don’t complicate it by hesitating.
And this is wonderful as loving goes,
This is tailor-made, whats the sense in waiting?

I don’t know if I should credit Carrabba’s lyrics or my valiant attempt to sing along, but whatever the magic bullet was, Jessie and I were dating again within a matter of days. We even saw another live Dashboard performance in Erie in April of ’06. Throughout our college years, Dashboard remained a musical fixture. Sometimes our buddy Rich would play guitar and we’d have late night Dashboard singalongs.

Continue reading 7. Dashboard Confessional

8. Wyclef Jean

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 8 is Wyclef Jean.


Wyclef Jean first became famous as part of The Fugees. Teaming with Lauryn Hill and Pras, the group’s second album The Score won the Grammy for Best Rap Album in 1996. It’s a great album that I eventually bought, but the first Wyclef album I ever owned was actually his solo debut The Carnival in 1997. I remember it well because it was one of, if not THE, first album that I was allowed to buy with a “Parental Advisory” label on it. It’s somewhat ironic since Wyclef’s rap style is more insightful than inciting. But I remember having the discussion with my parents about how I was old enough and mature enough to know that just because someone else uses explicit language, it doesn’t mean I should. Those who know me know that to this day, I rarely swear.

The Carnival was a revelation for my just-about-to-be teenage ears. Although Wyclef typically gets lumped in as a rapper, his hip hop style was so much more than rap alone. On “Gone Til November” Wyclef delivered a smooth groove featuring the The New York Philharmonic Orchestra. On “Staying Alive” he rapped over a Bee Gees disco sample. On “Mona Lisa” he crooned with The Neville Brothers. The album was unlike anything I had ever heard before, rich with different flavors and textures. Some of the songs weren’t even in English, which brought Wyclef’s background as a native Haitian to the forefront. Wyclef’s was a minority voice I hadn’t been exposed to before, and it felt like I was getting this sneak peak into another world that I previously didn’t know existed. Continue reading 8. Wyclef Jean

9. Jason Mraz

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 9 is Jason Mraz.


“Yeah the Mr. A to Z, they say I’m all about the wordplay,” Mraz sings on the song “Wordplay,” a self-aware song of saccharine pop music in which Mraz explains the twists and turns of his lyrical acrobatics. Although that song didn’t make the cut for my ultimate compilation, Mraz’s lyrics have left an indelible imprint on my life. Over the past decade or so, Mraz has combined cocky, clever wordplay with introspection and sentimentality in his songs. His ability to vacillate between ice cool confidence and heart-on-his-sleeve vulnerability—plus his ability to turn a phrase—is what makes Mraz a top-10 favorite of mine.

After one listen through his 2002 album, Waiting For My Rocket to Come, I was on board the Mraz bandwagon. Songs like “Curbside Prophet” demonstrated a hip hop influence in terms of the way he put words together, but Mraz would never be confused for Eminem. He’s not a rapper, and unlike Eminem, the man can sing, too. Plus, in place of thumping bass beats, Mraz’s music included everything from acoustic guitars to a brass section to banjo. And for every happy-go-lucky track like “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)” Mraz also had something like “You and I Both”, a tender-hearted love song. Over time, Mraz’s softer side would prove to be his most commercially successful avenue, but it’s his combination of moods that kept him in my rotation. Continue reading 9. Jason Mraz