Ben Folds Five: Whatever And Ever Amen (1997)

While the piano-based trio with the jokey name came out of the gate fully-formed with their excellent 1995 self-titled debut (managing to include two of the decade's finest tunes in "Philosophy" and "Alice Childress"), it was the 1997 follow-up that established them as one of the few stand-out 90s indie rock bands capable of (deservedly) breaking into the mainstream without losing their integrity.

The album is full of memorable pop tracks, and while it's the relative novelty of hearing a piano at the center of a non-sappy straight-ahead rock band paired with Folds' humorous lyrics that gets your attention, it's the well-crafted hooks that make the album rise above what could have been a jokey novelty act.  "The Battle of Who Could Care Less" is a slacker anthem that out-slackers Pavement, light and smarmy and packing a drop-dead hook in the chorus, the one that earns the album its status as a keeper.  But it's joined by the fun, rollicking opening track, "One Angry Dwarf & 200 Solemn Faces"; the somewhat nasty break-up song "Song For The Dumped"; the complex and infectious tour de force "Fair"; and the upbeat, joyous "Kate."  But the band doesn't skimp on the more earnest numbers, most notably the surprisingly affecting abortion drama "Brick" and the gentle ballad "Missing The War."

At times, Folds' lyrical playfulness distracts from the band's strong performances, a tendency he'd pull back on with later albums and into his solo career, but on the whole it's a consistent album that holds up well and left little doubt Folds was a master tunesmith.

Here's the "Battle" video:
...and "Brick":
Here's "Kate" live: