Commentary

I saw the sign so you can open your ears

Updated: June 25, 2009, 4:03 PM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

Sometime in the spring of 1994, I walked out of the West Topeka Best Buy clutching a yellow bag with two new CDs inside. I had just made an outlandish purchase relative to my earnings potential at the time. But I could justify forking over 3 percent of my net worth to a poorly paid checkout girl because I felt that strongly about the two albums in my bag.

[+] EnlargeMike Doughty
Roger Kisby/Getty ImagesGM, Ford and Chrysler wouldn't be in such trouble if they produced something as good as Mike Doughty's "American Car."

The CDs? "The Sign" by Ace of Base and Enigma's "Cross of Changes."

I had sallied forth to Wanamaker Road with a strict chain of events in mind:

1. Buy Ace of Base.
2. Take home.
3. Begin rocking.

My plan hit a snag when I got to the store and I was distracted by the Enigma CD I saw on a New Music rack. I recalled trips to youth basketball games with my best friend. While his father drove us to the YMCA, we'd listened to an early Enigma cassette and I'd been enthralled. The bass, the chanting, the heavy sighs ...

My dubious teenage taste in music was no match for the allure of a new offering from the band. I had to have it. I knew I was taking a chance; I hadn't heard a single song on the new album. For that version of me, buying a CD without radio approval of at least two songs was akin to an attempted make-out with Joey Eck, the best-looking girl in eighth grade, at a school dance.

I felt dangerous as I handed over my cash.

When I got home, Ace of Base stayed in its package while I hurriedly tore into the Enigma CD. I knew I would like the former; songs from "The Sign" were getting hourly radio play and so I was confident I would enjoy everything the Swedes had to offer. My knowledge made them seem boring and, by contrast, made Enigma seem exciting. I couldn't wait to get it into the Sony boom box that dominated the top of my dresser.

I won't vilify my youthful self for his taste in music. I was young, I had no older siblings to guide me and I lived in a cultural wasteland. My point is that we're often most intrigued by that which we don't know. In the context of my job as your musical Sherpa, I fall into the same spike-laden trap. I often become fascinated with trying to find the next great band and so sometimes forget about the great bands I already know.

In that spirit, I'm going back to basics. Below, I'll recommend five albums -- all released within the past five years -- that I think are spectacular works of music. I'm doing so because I was motivated to take on the mantle of resident music guru, knowing that most people don't have time to sift through every record put out by Future of the Left and Jarvis Cocker, and that those people might need help finding good music that doesn't always make it to the radio.

If you're one of those people, think of this as your cheat sheet. And don't forget to click on the links to maximize your reading experience.

Mike Doughty -- "Haughty Melodic"

To start, check out "American Car."

Mike Doughty was the front man for Soul Coughing before going it alone. Soul Coughing was an entertaining band, and he always sounded great (for example, "Super Bon-Bon") but their albums were usually good for two spectacular songs and eight or nine bizarre ones.

Doughty has hit his stride as a solo artist. On 2005's "Haughty Melodic," he sounds like the cool uncle none of us had -- the one who drives a '72 Chevelle not because it looks cool, but because he likes knowing he can take it apart if he wants. Doughty's the guy who has been around the world, who always got the girl, but who doesn't feel obligated to tell everyone about either. When he does, he uses a voice that actually sounds better because of all the bourbon and cigarettes that were ingested along the way.

Pinback -- "Summer in Abaddon"

Listen to "Non Photo-Blue."

I discovered Pinback while in Phoenix, living the carefree life of a bachelor who's on an NBA team but doesn't ever have to play. (Thankfully, I didn't drink in those days. Or unthankfully, depending on whether you side with my liver or my repertoire of stories.)

Pinback was the perfect morning-after soundtrack, made even better by the fact the band consists of two guys who started making music on a whim, found critical success but not commercial, didn't care and kept doing what they liked.

Pinback is perfect background music for a Sunday afternoon poolside conversation about the previous night's events, accompanied by tall glasses of ice water that help salve the gastrointestinal wounds for which that same night was responsible.

[+] EnlargeExplosions in the Sky
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty ImagesExplosions in the Sky's low-impact, instrumental music is perfect for writing or anything that requires concentration.

Explosions in the Sky -- "All of a Sudden I Miss Almost Everyone"

Start with "Welcome, Ghosts" and decide if you agree that rarely has better music been made for a lonely early-summer evening spent on a deck with a glass of wine and a mind devoted to contemplation.

Regular ESPN.com readers will know that columnist Bill Simmons brought Explosions in the Sky to the attention of the masses more than a year ago. In a mailbag, he agreed that there is no situation that would not be made more dramatic if Explosions in the Sky were playing in the background. He's right, of course, but I would submit another reason to listen to the band: low impact. I find very little music I can listen to while I do something that requires concentration. Writing, for example. I can listen to Explosions In The Sky while I write.

The John Butler Trio -- "Sunrise Over Sea"

[+] EnlargeJohn Butler Trio
Kristian Dowling/Getty ImagesSavor life and enjoy the John Butler Trio, from left, Michael Barker, John Butler and Shannon Birchall.
Listen to "Hello."

John Butler is an Australian with the best dreadlocks this side of the stinky girl who frequents the non-Starbucks coffee shop in the nearest college town. Which should be enough to make you want to listen to "Sunrise Over Sea." But I'll give you more.

"Sunrise Over Sea" will always bring to mind a contented morning in the trendy, if badly named, Chic and Basic hotel in the Born district in Barcelona. My then-girlfriend had gone for the day, and my only responsibilities before she returned were showering and exploring the city. I thought I was on top of the world as John Butler Trio played on my laptop and I started my day.

Mr. Butler and his Trio never fail to remind me that life should be savored, because it's going to pass us by whether we like it or not.

Tegan and Sara -- "The Con"

Listen to Tegan and Sara's "The Con" as you read my flailing attempts to describe what it sounds like when Canadian twin sisters perform music that bridges the gap between rock and singer-songwriter folk while singing with reckless abandon about loss, sadness and the recovery from both.


[+] EnlargeTegan and Sara
Matt Jelonek/Getty ImagesTegan and Sara sound like ... oh, just click the link in the story and enjoy for yourself.

These five records won't get anyone laid at the local hipster bar. But one of them might save a Sunday morning, enhance a Friday night, or make the drive to work a bearable one. They're not the spectacular choice; they're not the mysterious band with the shadowy figure on the cover. But I think they're the right choices.

Then again, I once drove 20 miles to buy an album of sickly sweet Eurotechno. You might think that disqualifies me as a source, but that's only because you haven't listened to "All That She Wants" in five years.

Yes, I know, it's better than you thought. Just like the bands on this list.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at MySpace and Twitter and you can e-mail him here.

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