Perfect LP: Yellowcard

News / Perfect LP / Special Features / September 7, 2017

Perfect LP is a feature in which the Modern Vinyl writers take on the tall task of summarizing an artist or band’s career in an LP-sized selection of tracks. Bypassing what was the single, what was the “hit” and what fans call for throughout shows, it’s time to decide what makes up the Perfect LP.

The Rules

The selections will total no more than 50 minutes.
The selections are arranged in logical fashion, as in how you’d like to hear them in a real tracklisting.

The Subject

Yellowcard, beloved Florida pop-punk band who burst onto the scene in the early 2000s with the mega-hit “Ocean Avenue.” The band set themselves apart from the rest of the pop-punk crowd with earnest lyrics and stellar musicianship, with the microscope often landing on Sean Mackin’s violin. They released their final album last September and closed out their farewell tour earlier this year.

The Tracks

The Explanation

Up until they officially called it quits earlier this year, Yellowcard were one of the most beloved bands from the pop-punk/emo scene. For a lot of people — myself included — Yellowcard were a formative outfit. Their songs came along when I was young and starting to find myself and provided a perfect, relatable soundtrack. I can still count on one hand the albums that sound more like summer to me than Ocean Avenue, Yellowcard’s breakthrough record and still their “defining” LP. For good reason, just about anyone of a certain age could sing you the choruses of “Ocean Avenue” or “Only One.”

But while Yellowcard’s mainstream success dwindled around the time of 2005’s lukewarm Lights & Sounds, the band kept pumping out quality LPs for another decade plus. In fact, many fans would argue they made their best music after the mid-career hiatus that followed 2007’s Paper Walls. Between 2011 and 2016, Yellowcard released four full-lengths (not to mention two bonus acoustic records), gradually moving away from their pop-punk sound and toward something more experimental and grandiose.

Here, I’ve tried to balance the various stages of Yellowcard’s career — pre-hiatus and post-hiatus…pop-punk band and not-so-pop-punk band — into a cohesive one-disc journey. For me, Yellowcard’s music was the soundtrack of summer and the soundtrack of growing up. This LP has been loosely curated to reflect those factors, and you’ll notice as you listen how the songs trend from youth to adulthood and from summer heat to autumn chill as the tracklist moves forward.

The Selections

Three Flights Up (from Lights & Sounds, 2005)

In interest of full disclosure, I should say I’m not a fan of Lights & Sounds. In recent years, Yellowcard’s post-breakthrough disc has gotten something of a re-evaluation from many fans. (It would be a perfect choice for our “The One After” feature, in other words.) And for some, the darker vibe of this record works. For me, Lights & Sounds lost a lot of what made Ocean Avenue appealing. Ryan Key’s vocals sound a tad strained throughout, while the songs themselves often drift dangerously close to generic alt-rock territory. But this piano-based intro track is one of the most beautiful compositions in the Yellowcard repertoire. It also transitions just as perfectly into “Ocean Avenue” as it does into “Lights & Sounds,” making it the perfect prologue to my Perfect LP, as well as the perfect way to represent a record I otherwise rarely listen to.

Ocean Avenue (from Ocean Avenue, 2003)

To this day, “Ocean Avenue” is the iconic Yellowcard song. It’s their biggest hit (it went to 37 on the Billboard Hot 100 and 13 on the mainstream top 40 chart) and has their most recognizable hook. Frankly, no Yellowcard collection — be it a “best of” or a primer for new listeners — would be complete without this track. It also holds up better than perhaps any other pop-punk song that landed on the radio waves between 2000 and 2006. Trends may change and fans might grow up, but there’s something about the carefree, sun-soaked highway vibe here that remains timeless. At their last show ever, Yellowcard played “Ocean Avenue” as the final song of their encore, Key fighting through tears to sing the bridge and final chorus. But here, it works better as a starting point: the kickoff to a youthful summer love.

With You Around (from When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes, 2011)

Yellowcard tried to recapture the magic of “Ocean Avenue” a lot of times throughout their career, but never as successfully as with this gem from 2011. “With You Around” is the third track from Yellowcard’s post-hiatus comeback album, and remarkably, it wasn’t even a single — let alone the leadoff single that it probably should have been. But damn, is it an earworm.

“All I can think about is you and me driving with the Saves the Day record on/We were singing ‘til our voices were gone/And I was falling hard, you were barely hanging on/And now I want to chase forever down/With you around.”

Eight years after “Ocean Avenue,” there we were, in another summer, in another car, falling in love with another girl. You can feel the years in the verses: the added weight, complexity, and responsibility that age brings. But when that chorus hits, the impulse is the same as with Yellowcard’s defining hit: skip the next highway exit, roll down the windows, and drive a little faster as you sing along.

Keeper (from Paper Walls, 2007)

For a long time, it looked like Paper Walls was going to be the last Yellowcard record. If that had been the case, it would have been a worthy swansong: an album that pushed toward more mature songwriting and more ambitious musical arrangements while also appearing as something of a return to form after Lights & Sounds. For some fans, Paper Walls still stands as the band’s pinnacle, and it’s not difficult to understand why when you listen to songs like “Keeper.” Yellowcard were always so good when it came to writing heartfelt, slightly ambiguous songs about breakups and unrequited love. “Keeper” is one of those, but it’s taken even one step higher by its massive gut-punch of a chorus, which has to be one of the four or five best in the catalog.

Empty Apartment (from Ocean Avenue, 2003)

The second inclusion from Ocean Avenue, “Empty Apartment” is arguably the song that turned me into a die-hard Yellowcard fan. From the moment I heard “Ocean Avenue” on the radio, I could tell this band knew their way around a hook. “Empty Apartment,” though, was the song that convinced me they had songwriting chops a lot of their contemporaries lacked. Yellowcard’s true debut album came out in 2003, and the band at that point was unrecognizable from what it would become. Crucially, both Key and Sean Mackin were guests on the record, but weren’t full time members yet. By the time Ocean Avenue rolled around, most of the original lineup was gone — some on perhaps not-so-amicable terms. Key wrote the lyrics to “Empty Apartment” about one of those ex-members, and the song’s incredible bridge features some of the most aching lines ever written about a strained friendship. It remains a lyrical high water mark in the band’s discography.

A Place We Set Afire (from Yellowcard, 2016)

There were at least three songs from Yellowcard’s eponymous swansong that I wanted to fit onto this list. “A Place We Set Afire” is the only one I could find room for, for reasons of both space and tonality. But what a song it is. If the first half of this Perfect LP is about being young and the second half is about growing up, “A Place We Set Afire” is the perfect dividing line between the two halves. “You’re feeling you’re boxed in by the youth you’ve left behind,” Ryan Key sings at the top. It was one of several songs on the self-titled that slyly referenced the band’s farewell, but unlike some of the others — the mission statement opener “Rest in Peace” or the epic goodbye that is “Fields & Fences” — it’s a track that can have the same resonance in the middle of a compilation as it does in context.

Shadows and Regrets (from Paper Walls, 2007)

Just about every Yellowcard album has at least one acoustic ballad. Arguably the best one is “One Year, Six Months,” but since I already had a few songs from Ocean Avenue on here, I opted for “Shadows and Regrets” from Paper Walls. The acoustic numbers on later Yellowcard records gave the band opportunities to get a little sappy — usually in charming, heartfelt ways. But “Shadows and Regrets” is full-on nostalgic brooding. The first lines find the protagonist driving through his hometown after years spent away. Everything looks the same, but it isn’t. His friends are gone. The things they did together are just pale memories. And he feels, for a moment, like he might be the only one still telling their stories. In high school, I loved this song because Key sang it with such unbridled emotion. Today, I love it because of how true it feels. It’s a perfect encapsulation of youthful nostalgia, and of those nights alone in the car where you let yourself drift back in time and remember.

Always Summer (from Southern Air, 2012)

If I had to pick a favorite Yellowcard record, it’d be Southern Air. This album — the band’s second after they came back from hiatus — doesn’t necessarily have all the best Yellowcard songs or the most obviously stacked tracklist. It is, however, the perfect summation of everything Yellowcard did well as a band up to that point. It was their last true pop-punk record and their last true summer record, and it’s so good at being both of those things that the band had no choice but to break down new walls on future records. Southern Air is also the Yellowcard album that means the most to me personally, as it came out just a few weeks before I left my hometown for my final year of college and everything that came after. It’s a perfect record for that moment of growing up: that moment where you say goodbye to home and strike out on a new journey.

“Always Summer,” the lead single, is deceptive in that regard. At first, it sounds like another attempt to recreate “Ocean Avenue.” It’s all there: the crunchy guitar riffs, the sunny violin, the propulsive chorus hook. But “Always Summer” is different, because it’s about leaving behind the comfort and nostalgia of those summer streets, maybe forever.

“I left home, but there’s one thing that I still know/It’s always summer in my heart and in my soul.”

When you’re young, summer is endless possibility: it’s long nights, limited responsibility, and nothing to lose. When you grow up, summer is still beautiful, but it can’t be those things anymore. “Always Summer,” despite its upbeat vibe, is maybe the saddest Yellowcard song of all because it sees the band that wrote the book on youthful summer songs finally saying goodbye to youthful summers.

Illuminate (from Lift a Sail, 2014)

Lift a Sail saw a sea change for Yellowcard. The band fired longtime drummer Longineu Parsons, switched labels, and left pop-punk behind. Key was also dealing with the fallout of a recent tragedy in his personal life: an accident that left his wife paralyzed. The result was the heaviest record in the band’s career — at least emotionally. The marketing campaign tried to sell Lift a Sail as a big, ’90s-influenced rock record, but while there’s shades of Foo Fighters and The Smashing Pumpkins, the overall mood of the record was mellower, chillier, and more informed by electronic music than post-grunge rock ‘n’ roll. Many listeners weren’t ready for the shift, and Lift a Sail never really found its niche — either among fans or on the radio. It’s a shame, because the record is arguably Yellowcard’s most unique and revealing work, rarely more so than on “Illuminate.” The electronic elements are on full display in the dark, moody verses, but the sun breaks through the clouds on the chorus, which is pure, classic Yellowcard. “Do you picture me? What do you see?/Maybe a future full of unwritten things,” Key sings. To me, it was always a song about finding hope in a dark time.

The Sound of You and Me (from When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes, 2011)

When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes often gets written off as one of Yellowcard’s less ambitious efforts. It does feel more like a collection of songs than the result of a cohesive vision, and it certainly doesn’t break as much new ground for the band as Lift a Sail or Yellowcard did. But “The Sound of You and Me,” the sublime opener, is one of the most structurally interesting songs in the Yellowcard canon. The song bursts out of the gate at a frantic pace, with Parsons providing some of the most ferocious drum work of his career. The second half, meanwhile, slows things down and moves into an entirely new melodic figure, putting the focus on chiming guitars, symphonic violins, and Key’s yearning vocals. “I’ve never been more ready to move on,” he proclaims in the chorus. After four years away, it was the perfect track to wake listeners up again and bring them back into the fold.

Lift a Sail (from Lift a Sail, 2014)

I can understand how a longtime Yellowcard fan might have been turned off by some of the electronic diversions on Lift a Sail. With that said, I’ll never see how any Yellowcard fan could dislike this track. Sure, “Lift a Sail” is a crisp, autumnal anthem from a band that spent most of its career underneath the mid-year sun. And yes, it’s more melancholy than much of the band’s material. But “Lift a Sail” is also beautifully cinematic and heartbreakingly bittersweet. It hits a lot of the same emotional beats as “Shadows and Regrets,” but bathes them in a different light. Where the narrator in “Shadows” couldn’t let go of the past, the protagonist in “Lift a Sail” is ready to let go of the weight of what came before in order to shoulder the weight of what comes next. With the crashing guitar solo and the confident chorus refrain of “I am ready now, I am ready,” this song provides the perfect transition into the climactic moments of my ideal Yellowcard LP.

Southern Air (from Southern Air, 2012)

Yellowcard were one of those bands that always chose great closing tracks for their records. Obviously, I couldn’t include all of them on a single Perfect LP, which means that legitimately incredible songs like “Fields & Fences” and “California” are not represented here. But even in a sea of great climactic numbers, my two favorites — the two songs that close this mix — have never been in doubt. The first is “Southern Air,” from the record of the same name. As I discussed previously, Southern Air was Yellowcard’s “growing up” record and the title track was the perfect capper, an emotional rocker about holding onto your roots even as you wander away from them. “This will always be home,” Key sings in the chorus. For me, driving away from my hometown for what I thought might be the last time, those words were fitting. For the band, they could have easily marked a final farewell. Yellowcard would come back for two more LPs, but this song was the end of the incarnation of the band that most fans fell in love with. It hit hard then and still does now.

Back Home (from Ocean Avenue, 2003)

For so many, the story goes the same way: you spend your youth in a town you can’t wait to escape, only to find yourself missing it on late nights when you’re alone and aren’t sure where your life is going. “Back Home,” the final track from Ocean Avenue, captures that dichotomy better than just about any other song I’ve ever heard.

“Back home, I always thought I wanted so much more/Now I’m not too sure/Cause sometimes, I miss knowing someone’s there for me/And feeling free.”

Growing up, I’d always play this song on the last night of summer, as the light disappeared from the sky and the season drifted away. There’s something about “Back Home” that’s so perfect for that kind of moment. It spares a moment of reverence for things that are lost to the past; it aches for what can’t be reclaimed; it hopes for better days to come; it embraces the idea of growing up. On those late summer nights growing up, “Back Home” was my chance to lay one chapter to rest while I prepared to open the book on a new one. It’s still my favorite Yellowcard song, and I can’t imagine putting any other track in the closing slot.

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Craig Manning
Craig cares entirely too much about music, specifically that of Bruce Springsteen. He was a Senior Editor at (RIP) and is now a regular contributor at He loves folk, country, and rock 'n' roll.

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