The memory is hazy, but it’s mostly there.
My dad had taken me to One Way Bookstore in St. Charles, a now-defunct shop specializing in all things Christian culture. I was mostly there because I was 8 or 9 years old (I don’t remember the exact year) and didn’t have the capacity to drive myself home from school, but I cherished spending some quality time with my dad. He was off looking at some books that I found to be boring, so I began to wander, as 8/9 year-olds tend to do. I found myself in the music section perusing through CD’s. I hadn’t developed much of a taste for music as of yet, but I enjoyed singing and dancing to whatever liturgical music happened to be playing at any given point.
And then, I saw it.
In all it’s glory sat a copy of Relient K’s “The Anatomy of Tongue and Cheek.” Maybe it was the simplicity of the cover or the bright orange lettering. But I had to have it. For whatever reason, I knew I needed to take that compact disc home with me. I’m sure there was some begging on my part, but my gracious father ponied up the $10, and on that day I took home my first CD.
My collection of CD’s has grown to over 200 albums full of all sorts of music. But that first purchase of album from the Canton, Ohio, punk-pop band shaped my musical tastes forever. To this day, Relient K holds the distinction of being my favorite band, as much for critical reasons as sentimental. And here, for your enjoyment, is my Not-So-Definitive ranking of Relient K’s 10 best songs, along with some short thoughts on each track (and my favorite lyric from each.)
Honorable Mentions (By Album):
17 Magazine (Relient K, 2000)
Failure to Excommunicate (The Anatomy of Tongue and Cheek, 2001)
Mood Rings (Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…But Three Do, 2003)
Falling Out (Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…But Three Do)
Getting Into You (Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…But Three Do)
Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been (Mmhmm, 2004)
When I Go Down (Mmhmm)
Apathetic Way To Be (Apathetic EP, 2005)
In Like a Lion (Always Winter) (Apathetic EP)
Faking My Own Suicide (Five Score and Seven Years Ago, 2007)
Number 10: The Lining Is Silver (The Birds And the Bee Sides, 2008)
Relient K’s tenth best song is a bit of a hidden gem. The Birds And The Bee Sides came out in the middle of summer 2008 (I remember the day actually…I was seeing them at Vans Warped Tour.) It was classified as a B-Sides album, but the entirety of the release actually included a 13-track EP entitled The Nashville Tennis EP. It’s a bit of a misnomer, because all 13 tracks are originals. I find it interesting, but cool, that Relient K didn’t hype it up as a full-length album. It became a sort of bonus for fans. “The Lining Is Silver” is the album (ahem, EP) highlight. It’s undoubtedly Relient K in nature. The message of the song is spirit-lifting and brutally honest. Thiessen’s lyrics work best when they come off transparent, and they are such in this case. It’s simplistic feel and gang yells in the chorus are vintage Relient K: fun and positive, everything a summer song should be.
Best lyric: “I found a love in me. I always somehow knew that it existed, it just needed to be set free”
Number 9: Must Have Done Something Right (Five Score and Seven Years Ago)
Matt Thiessen has penned a number of sappy love songs in his expansive career, and “Must Have Done Something Right” ranks as his best. I’m not usually one for cliched phrases, but sometimes when a songwriter really commits, it works. And Thiessen softens the blow of said cliches with the recognition that everything he’s saying has been said before…and that doesn’t change how he feels. People are always looking for ways to express how they feel. But sometimes emotion and love takes importance over creativity and wit. This song perfectly captures that sentiment, with its jangly, feel-good tone.
Best lyric: “We should get jerseys, ’cause we make a good team. But yours would look better than mine, ’cause you’re out of my league”
Number 8: Be My Escape (Mmhmm)
Mmhmm was a ground-breaking release for Relient K in two major ways. First, it saw their first major commercial breakthrough outside of a Christian market. Second, it was the first album where the band ventured from their pop-punk adolescence. Mmhmm was a heavy dose of reality, and “Be My Escape” was the turning point. Thiessen’s piano work stands out especially, both as a compliment to Matt Hoopes’ heavier guitar work and as a work on its own. It’s decidedly minor, as is the song. It’s a tale of regret, twinged with just enough hope to hit home in a heavy way.
Best lyric: “And this life sentence that I’m serving? I’ll admit that I’m every bit deserving. But the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair”
Number 7: Sadie Hawkins Dance (The Anatomy of Tongue and Cheek)
Sometimes music is just about having fun. And there may have never been a song that is as purely fun and care-free as the classic “Sadie Hawkins Dance.” It makes sense, as the band’s second record saw them still in the midst of their punk-heavy phase. You’ll never meet a Relient K fan who doesn’t know every word of the tribute to the junior high/high school dance. But more than that, it’s a tribute to the feelings of delight and horror at the little things in life as a young person. Whether that’s the joy of having one of your jokes laughed at or the terror of a beating from a jealous school jock, high school is a time of ups and downs. In this case, there’s a happy ending – “a girl so stunning.” But the sense of nostalgia this song carries makes it impossible to not feel something when you hear the choruses famous “Oh, oh, oh!”
Best lyric: “She said, ‘You’re smooth and good with talking. Will you go with me to the Sadie Hawkins?'”
Number 6: Let It All Out (Mmhmm)
I mentioned earlier how Thiessen’s piano work shone through on “Be My Escape.” On album highlight, “Let It All Out,” it’s the focus. Mmhmm took such a turn in the middle of the record (“Which To Bury, Us Or the Hatchet”), and this is the culmination of the heartbreak. Thiessen’s usually rowdy vocals turn soft on this track, and it’s always a treat to listen. The song is gut-wrenching for the first three and a half minutes, but the final three minutes are filled with gentle acceptance and fond remembrance. It’s that final minute that really sells the song. Heartbreak is always devastating, but there’s a quiet happiness in moving on.
Best lyric: “You said, ‘I know that this will hurt, but if I don’t break your heart then things will just get worse'”
Number 5: Savannah (Forget And Not Slow Down, 2009)
The slow build is one of the most tiresome techniques in music. Few bands can pull it off without making it seem forced. But “Savannah”, Forget And Not Slow Down‘s tender love song, is about as natural as it comes. The song itself plays as a contrast on an album full of soul-searching; it finds the singer as sure of himself as he is on the entire record. As if the sun is setting on a great day (or relationship), the song builds to a climax, then slowly fades. Surrounded by turmoil, “Savannah” gives off a radiant glow as warm as the “Georgia sun.”
Best lyric: “Savannah, our backs supported by a hammock, we sum up perfection like a handbook, and God knows it all too well”
Number 4: In Love With The 80’s (Pink Tux To The Prom) (Two Lefts Don’t Make A Right…But Three Do)
Remember when I wrote that Relient K had written an expansive amount of love songs. This song might not qualify on a technicality, but it’s got more love in it than any song Relient K has ever written. The lyrics themselves are so personal that you can’t help but feel as if this might be the band’s love song to everything that inspires them: Tears For Fears, The Breakfast Club, skateboarding and being a teenager. It’s not a staggering work of genius, but there’s a quiet honesty and translucence in this alt-rock gem about living free that resonates more than any technical accomplishment could.
Best lyric: “I am gonna wear a pink tux to the prom. Live without a care; what could possibly go wrong?”
Number 3: Collapsible Lung (Collapsible Lung, 2013)
If there’s any song on this list that stands the shoulders of its album, it’s “Collapsible Lung.” Relient K’s most recent album caught fans a little off guard with its stylistic departure from lyrical, rock pieces. Instead the group released a grouping of pop nuggets that polarized long time listeners. Many of the record’s songs are fine pieces, but the album closer is in a league of its own. It’s the only track that plays to the tendencies of Relient K’s past, specifically of their best album. It’s metaphorical and poetic, something that much its album isn’t. I won’t go into great detail on my interpretation of the track, but listen to it in the context of the entire album and it may make a whole lot of sense. And if it does, it’s one of Relient K’s most rewarding songs.
Best lyric: “I’m like a ladder with a missing rung, and it’s a slow climb headed back to the sky”
Number 2: Deathbed (Five Score and Seven Years Ago)
Album closers are always a tricky thing. There’s always the weight of “How do we want to sum up this entire process?” wrapped up into one song. Sometimes it takes more than the regular 5 minutes to accomplish, but if you go for length, you better not lose listener. Because then there’s a bad taste left behind.
“Deathbed” is horrifying. I don’t say that because the song scares me. It’s just the sheer prospect of investing my time to the 11-minute epic is daunting. It tells the story of a dying man on his…well, death bed. As cancer slowly drains his life force, he recounts his sad, lonely story in a tragically beautiful way. I won’t give a recap, because it’s something you have to experience for yourself. The third verse particularly is crippling.
The reason I put “Deathbed” so high on this list is because of how open it is. I don’t know the circumstances behind the writing of this song. Maybe it’s a fictional story; maybe it was something personal to the band. But the process of the narrative is grueling, fighting through everyday hardships that are are so common to this life that it feels like the story might be a caricature. It’s easy to dismiss the song’s main character as a sort of sad sack. And yet, the redemption of the final few minutes is the driving force behind every note and word. There’s hope and love in every stitch of the song, and it makes the journey worth it.
Best lyric: “But this was my death bed. I died there alone. When I closed my eyes tonight, you carried me home”
Number 1: Forget And Not Slow Down (Forget And Not Slow Down)
As much as I love Relient K, I have to say that this was a surprisingly easy choice. That’s shocking considering it took me about a few hours to pick 20 songs that I thought I liked best (then I changed a few times.) But the namesake of Forget And Not Slow Down finds Relient K at their most solid…and at their best.
Everything is in play here: Thiessen’s wordplay; driving rhythm lead by excellent guitar work; a new found maturity; and a brutally honest message. Forget And Not Slow Down is Relient K’s most personal and transparent work to date, and to shake the melancholy of the album by opening on a high note is unprecedented. It’s a bold move, but a calculated one, as the album may be a little too dim without the kicker of an opener. Simply put: it’s the best song on the best album, and it has tons of lasting value. If that doesn’t personify Relient K, I can’t say I know what does.
Best lyric: “I’ll watch the glint in my eye shine off the spring in my step, and it could be blinding depending on the amount of you that I reflect”