As a music obsessive, I am always on the lookout for perfect albums. My criteria are vague and often sentimental, attempting to balance my feelings toward the band and associated memories with the merits of the specific tracks and how the album holds together overall. I keep a mental catalogue of what I consider perfect albums, so I was delighted when a friend recently tagged me in a Facebook meme to share 10 favorite albums. It read:
10 days, 10 favorite albums. What really made an impact in your life and is still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.
It sounded so easy, but for someone who overthinks music the way I do, this was a real Sophie’s choice. I could easily make a list of hundreds of favorite artists and albums. I guarantee that whatever your taste, you will find something good (or hopefully new to you) below.
The Chosen Ten
- Counting Crows – August and Everything After (1993)
- Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)
Though I was aware of Joni Mitchell from my mother’s records and a bunch of VH1 best lists, I must sheepishly admit I actually got into this album after a beautiful performance of “River” by Robert Downey, Jr. on Ally McBeal. Regardless of how I got to it, it opened up such an important time for me when I was 18 in my sophomore year of college. It was one of the first times I understood that women’s sensibilities matter precisely because they speak to an experience that isn’t necessarily mainstream, popular, or fun to discuss. Guys probably weren’t going to be impressed if I played Blue, nor would it go over well at a party – it was just for me. Joni sings with such an intimacy and tenderness that it feels like she is in the room with you, pouring her heart out and singing the things that everyone has felt and hasn’t known there were words for. It also remains one of my favorite albums to sing along to, especially in the shower.
- Radiohead – The Bends (1995)
It would really be more accurate to say every Radiohead album, but this was the one that first grabbed me and turned me from a casual fan to obsessed. Something about “High and Dry” and “Black Star” just wouldn’t let go, but every song is strong. As an album it’s near perfectly crafted, with a powerful emotional catharsis and deftly modulated energy among tracks. It’s probably tied with “In Rainbows” for the most accessible / listenable and the one I’d recommend as a solid entry point to my favorite band.
- The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)
Right around when this album came out I had been talking w a friend about how the Flaming Lips were one of those bands that you could tell were amazing, but only had one well-known radio single, “She Don’t Use Jelly” (which up until this moment I would have sworn was called “Vaseline”). He pointed out that it was equivalent to assessing Radiohead only by “Creep” and encouraged me to dig deeper. I am so glad for that conversation, as between Clouds Taste Metallic, The Soft Bulletin, and Yoshimi, the Lips opened up a beautifully psychedelic place in my mind previously occupied mostly by the Beatles. I played this album near constantly in my studio while figuring out what kind of painter I wanted to be, and it consistently inspires me to strive for joyful originality and unabashed weirdness. It is also one of those albums that no matter what kind of mood you are in, it will fill you with joy and creative energy as you travel through all its delightful and wildly imaginative songs
- This Will Destroy You – (self-titled) (2008)
After a hurtful breakup, I was whining to my best friend about how one of the worst parts was how just about every song on my iTunes reminded me of my ex. Ever the music obsessive (and probably a large part of why we are BFFs) he suggested it was the perfect opportunity to get into all new music. On his recommendation, I gleefully fell down the post-rock rabbit hole and have never looked back. This album stands out as one of the more emotionally resonant, beautifully crafted masterpieces of everything I discovered. When I saw them from the front row at the Ecstatic Music Festival live with a string sextet, remixing electronic passages and captured string reverberations in person, I realized I was watching true compositional and musical genius. Anyone I’ve ever recommended this album to has come back loving it. And any time I hear it, I fall in love all over again.
- Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight (2008)
One of the music blogs I used to follow had a monthly international exchange feature, where bloggers from other countries recommended their current favorites. I discovered a lot of excellent music that way, and I am especially grateful to the Scottish blogger who suggested Frightened Rabbit. The combination of achingly honest lyrics, a gorgeous Scottish lilt in Scott Hutchison’s soulful voice, and solidly enjoyable music makes for a great indie rock experience. This album holds together particularly well in its themes and has some of the band’s best tracks overall. Also some of my all-time favorites performed live.
- Tori Amos – From the Choirgirl Hotel (1998)
I got into Tori Amos in a roundabout way when I read that she and Trent Reznor were close and he had contributed to the production on Under the Pink (it was a toss-up between the two albums for this favorite). This one has what I consider some of her strongest songwriting and best singing, but the electronic elements bring it to a visceral, crunchy, dark and dream-like next level. “Playboy Mommy” and “Jackie’s Strength” overflow with yearning and intensely lovely passion. There are so many clever allusions to mythology, literature, and cultural history that it proved irresistible in my sophomore year at Trinity. Tori Amos occupies a similar place in my heart as Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, but this album also hit the part that liked to wear dark lipstick and metallic leather pants sometimes.
- Simon & Garfunkel – Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits (1972)
In Mindy Kaling’s memoir, she mentioned that she cries every time she listens to Graceland because it so completely transports her to long car rides with her family and felt like the soundtrack to her childhood. I imagine there is some perpetual nostalgia that happens with Simon and Garfunkel, as their music has filled me with a sense of memory and hazy summer days that seem to harken back to an America I haven’t really known personally but still miss somehow. This album was one of the few my family always agreed on, and it’s one that will go over well with almost any crowd, so it was the soundtrack to countless family dinners, workdays when I needed to chill out, and get-togethers with friends over the years. As far as songwriting and harmonies go, they’re among the best of all time.
- Sigur Rós – ( ) (2002)
This is another album for which I am indebted to my BFF, and I still remember him explaining how, “A lot of people think it’s a zero or an O, but the title is actually two parentheses!” as well as the correct pronunciation of the band’s name. This album is transcendent, heavily atmospheric, and endlessly fascinating. I was initially disappointed when I learned that what I thought were Icelandic lyrics were an untranslatable invented language, but I kind of like the ability to attach whatever words and meaning I want to it now. Like classical music or opera, this one is great for when I am writing or doing something that needs concentration, but it is engaging enough that I come away full of memories of the landscapes and beauty of Iceland and a revitalizing sense of imagination and limitless possibility.
- The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969)
There were easily 40 other albums that could have made this list (and I’ll talk about those
soonbelow) but when I think of perfect music, it’s the Beatles, and I always hear the opening lines of “Come Together.” Abbey Road doesn’t have all of my favorite Beatles songs, but all of its songs are among my favorites. It makes me sad that the recording sessions were so full of tension and strife, the band effectively already split up and pursuing solo projects, but the creative energy is palpable and overflowing. Abbey Road and Let It Be feel like the aletheia of the Beatles, and in turn, a high water mark of 20th century music. I truly believe 500 years from now, however music and society transforms, people will still love Beethoven and the Beatles.
- Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001)
This album is like a favorite sweater I slip into over and over again. I listened to it so much one March in Italy that I have basically memorized the whole album, yet every time I hear “Radio Cure” or “I am trying to break your heart” or “Heavy metal drummer” or “I’m the man who loves you,” it’s as if for the first time.
- The xx – xx (2009)
I think the spectacularly talented members of the xx were like 20 when they made this album, and it has so much youthful energy and sexiness it can be overwhelming. This album feels like limerence to me, the awakening of passion and losing oneself in the intoxication of another person. It is also just beautifully crafted, and seeing them perform at Radio City (especially Jamie mixing!) was one of the more spectacular music experiences I’ve had to date.
- Junip – Junip (2013)
The thing with Junip is that they are perfect. I fanatically love José González’s velvety voice and the incredible tenderness of his songwriting (you’ll note he appears twice on this list). So naturally when he made a band, he got even better. These songs are like poetry, sung straight from the heart, put together with a simplicity and originality that betrays how viscerally satisfying they are. “Walking Lightly” is one of my favorite songs of all time for what a sonic breath of fresh air it is. The other thing with Junip is that if someone likes them, I already know they have great taste and are probably a good person. The audience at Junip’s concert at (le) poisson rouge was one of the kindest, most sensitive I’ve ever been part of. And watching the way these beautiful songs were made was just hypnotic.
- Milagres – Glowing Mouth (2011)
I saw Milagres open for James Iha (of The Smashing Pumpkins) at the Mercury Lounge, and they just blew the doors down. Their music has such a lightness and vibrancy to it that it is impossible to hear it and not want to dance or tumble through fields of flowers. Lead singer Kyle Wilson sings so passionately you can’t help but adore him, and the lyrics feel written by a truly old soul. They are one of those bands that ought to be world famous any day now.
- M83 – Saturdays = Youth (2008)
I think 2008 was a magical year for my taste in music. It was the year I turned 27, and I was going through some major life changes. I fell down an electronic rabbit hole and discovered so many great bands and new styles. I think I got to M83 through a Maps remix of “We Own the Sky,” but I fell in love for “Couleurs,” which has one of the more perfect breaks at 6:02, introducing this spectacularly warped bass line that transforms the whole song into something profoundly exciting. This album is so good for walking around the city with headphones on, and it always fills me with inspiration and a sense of possibility. And yeah, “We Own the Sky” will make you think you can fly.
- Washed Out – Within and Without (2011)
This album would probably be at the top of my “Sexiest Album Covers” list, but the music itself is even sexier. I had a time starting around 2009 where my favorite thing in the world was to go to chillwave concerts and dance with other sweaty people in their twenties. Ernest Greene is one of the sweetest and most sincere performers I’ve ever seen – genuinely concerned that everyone have a good time while giving every song his all. “Amor Fati” is a jewel of a song that scratches the nostalgia itch anyone born in the 80s can feel, and “You and I” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful (yet lyrically baffling) love songs I’ve ever heard.
- Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
At first I didn’t think it would be possible to pick a favorite Bob Dylan album because he is one of my favorite songwriters of all time. But when I really have to choose favorite songs, they’re almost all from this album, especially “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.” It was a real toss-up between this album and Blonde on Blonde, but ultimately I feel like there is a more satisfying balance of blues and folksy elements that ever so slightly tilts the scale toward this one. Honestly though, it’s all tremendous.
- Ryan Adams & the Cardinals – Cardinology (2008)
It seems like people either love Ryan Adams or have never listened to him – there isn’t much middle ground. These songs are poetry, sung warmly, with enough softness and folksy twang to make them both approachable and thought-provoking. I want so much to know the kind of love expressed in “Go Easy,” and I identify so strongly with the sentiments in “Crossed Out Name.” There isn’t a bad song on this album, and they are all filled with longing, nostalgia, and warm light.
- José González – Veneer (2003)
Remember when we were talking about Junip and I said they were perfect? This album is José González’s debut, and it feels like a portrait of his soul. The songs are sparse, delicate, often just José and a 12-string guitar, and for that they are extraordinary. I rarely make the argument that minimalism and quietness are great things in music, but there is a purity and distillation of emotion that happens on this album the likes of which I’ve never heard before (or since). His cover of The Knife’s song “Heartbeats” is one of the loveliest songs ever recorded.
- The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (1971)
I love the Rolling Stones across the board (that feels like saying I love the Beatles, like, duh, of course I do). I think this is my favorite Stones album because you can hear them discovering something about themselves as they knock into country and American folk stylings, then bounce back into rock. “Sway” and “Wild Horses” are two of my all-time favorites, and “Sister Morphine” is achingly gorgeous.
- R.E.M. – Out of Time (1991)
I will maintain that Michael Stipe is one of the better songwriters of the 20th century, and R.E.M. is one of my very favorite bands. It took me a while to warm up to this album, and for years I would have said I preferred Automatic for the People or New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but I was holding the radio overplaying “Shiny Happy People” and “Losing My Religion” against it. There are incredible songs on this album, especially “Half a World Away,” “Endgame,” and one of the most seriously beautiful songs ever written (and Michael Stipe’s favorite), “Country Feedback.” I know I’ve said this about a lot of songs on this list, but seriously, watch this live version or this one or this one with Neil Young and try not to cry.
- Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993)
I was really close to picking Surfacing to rep Sarah McLachlan, but since this album was the first of hers that I fell in love with, it holds a special place in my heart. There is a rawness and confessional honesty to the songs that was rare even for the time, and it creates a complete mood. I like the little warbles in her voice during the live tracks, and the songs “Possession” and “Ice” are masterpieces.
- Portishead – Roseland NYC Live (1998)
It is impossible to estimate how many times I listened to this album in college, but it certainly feels like one of the underpinning soundtracks that was constantly playing. Portishead is another band that you either completely adore or have never heard of, and this album is packed with solidly seductive, deeply emotional music. I recently had occasion to introduce someone to Portishead via a make-out playlist, and I was so jealous that he got to hear “Glory Box” for the first time in that setting. He stopped kissing me to say, “Oh wow, this song. Oh, oh wow.” I knew exactly what he meant because this whole album makes me feel that way.
- Bat for Lashes – Fur and Gold (2006)
First I have to say I really wish Bat for Lashes, a solo act, would use her real name of Natasha Khan, and I wish she would reconsider pretty much all of her album covers and promo art. However, once I heard her music I got over the weirdness of her choices and just fell in love with her voice and songwriting. The first track I heard off this album was “Prescilla,” which is one of my very favorites, along with “Tahiti” and “What’s a Girl To Do?” She’s one of the few artists who’s covered a Springsteen song and both captured the feeling of one of my favorite songs and made it her own, with “I’m On Fire.” Her music is deeply feminine, and she is unbelievably charming in concert, a true ray of light.
- Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism (2003)
Between the Postal Service and Death Cab, it feels like Ben Gibbard was the soundtrack of my first two years out of college. I happened to be lovesick in a long-distance relationship when I was listening to this album, so the songs really spoke to me. Just about every track is a winner, but “Tiny Vessels” is one that is forever sealed in my early-20s heart. There was a long time when I couldn’t listen to this album because it so completely transported me back to that time emotionally, but I got it back finally and I’m keeping it for myself now.
- U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)
I go back and forth in a love-hate feeling about U2 and Bono specifically, but I have a permanent soft spot for this album, which I played constantly in my sophomore year in college. I bought it because I was obsessed with “Beautiful Day” but I loved it because it felt like U2 just being a great band, without pretense or ulterior motives or integrated marketing or shaming people into being better humans. These are just solid, strong songs, and as a whole, the album takes you on a great journey. The songwriting feels more sincere and heartfelt than many other albums, and if there could be a sunnier sequel to The Joshua Tree this feels like it.
- Van Morrison – Moondance (1970)
The first five songs on this album might be my five favorite Van Morrison songs. I have a lot of family memories wrapped up in Van Morrison (for better or worse) and this album evokes a deep nostalgia similar to Simon & Garfunkel. As an album, it creates a strong atmosphere full of summer sunlight, margaritas, and dancing barefoot.
- Bob Marley and the Wailers – Legend (1984)
This album is inextricably linked with my freshman year high school drawing assignments, as I used to listen to it on repeat every weekend while trying to figure out how to model and shade forms. I have memorized every song and still hear “Is This Love” in my head whenever I start a drawing. I inherently distrust anyone who doesn’t like – no, love – Bob Marley.
- Miike Snow – (self-titled) (2009)
Miike Snow is one of those peculiar groups – actually three producers who decided to make a band – who found their way onto my iTunes and changed my sense of music. I had downloaded their debut album and dug it, but it wasn’t until “Sans Soleil” came up one day on shuffle that I really woke up to what I was hearing. This song – and their music in general – feels like the sun coming out from behind clouds, and it became a perfect accompaniment for countless early morning ferry rides while I was studying chemistry at Pace. They put on one of the loudest, most exciting, and best live shows I’ve yet seen.
- Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had a Dream That You Were Mine (2016)
A collaboration between Hamilton Leithauser (of The Walkmen) and Rostam Batmanglij (of Vampire Weekend and Discovery, among other projects), this album is one of my recent favorites and damn near perfect. It creates a gorgeous mood from the beginning and captures the best qualities of both artists. It is compulsively listenable, and the song “In a Black Out” is so poignantly beautiful it hurts a little.
- Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti (1975)
How does one pick a favorite Led Zeppelin album? They’re one of my all-time favorite bands. I went with my first favorite Led Zeppelin album, so chosen primarily for “Kashmir.” It could as easily be any of their albums though, and I was strongly considering Houses of the Holy; they’re all pretty perfect.
- Pink Floyd – The Wall (1979)
I’m pretty sure I fell in love with a guy in high school just because one of our first dates was watching The Wall together. He was wearing too much cologne and had a cheesy blacklight on that made our teeth glow, but still it was all so sexy. I know there are better Pink Floyd albums, especially with Syd Barrett, but there is only one Roger Waters rock opera, and it’s an incredible work of art.
- Tori Amos – Under the Pink (1994)
I was so close to including this album in my top 10. I think this is some of Tori’s best singing and songwriting ever, right from the emotional core that made her music so vitally important to sensitive kids in the 90s. It has a consistency that some of her other albums lack, and even though it includes some upbeat and playful songs, it doesn’t traipse into frivolity the way some of her more recent stuff has. It works so beautifully as an album, building a sincere emotional trajectory and exploring a whole series of fascinating ideas in a visceral, but logical development. I will always love this album.
- Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
I think there is some sort of cultural imperative, growing up in the same town on the Jersey shore where Bruce lives, to be a lifelong Springsteen fan. Strangely, my parents didn’t really like him when I was a kid, so I didn’t get into Bruce until my first (real) boyfriend made it a project to make me fall in love. This album (and all of Bruce’s music) is forever intertwined with memories of my first love and the feeling of driving around too fast in the summer with the wind blowing through my hair. “I’m on Fire” is one of the best encapsulations of young lust, longing, and restlessness that never fails to light me up, and you’re literally not allowed to attend a wedding in New Jersey without dancing to “Glory Days.”
- Zola Jesus – Stridulum / Stridulum II (2010-ish)
One of my biggest musical regrets is skipping a Zola Jesus concert when my date flaked out on me. It was in 2010, just after she released this album, a combination of her two brilliant EPs, and from what I understand she put on an incredible show. The songs on this album are intense, with her powerful voice creating entire worlds and universes of her own. They’re all good, but my three favorites by far are “Night,” “Sea Talk,” and the utterly exquisite “Run Me Out.”
- Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (1977)
I was obsessed with Tango in the Night when I was a girl (see below) but Rumours is objectively Fleetwood Mac’s best and most exciting album. I’m mad at them for recently firing Lindsey Buckingham because this album is proof of his essential genius and the massive contributions he made to shaping the band’s sound. I’m really glad I saw the band intact (less Christie McVie, so no big loss there) because his guitar and singing were some of the real highlights (along with Stevie Nicks spinning to “Gypsy” naturally). I think “The Chain” and “Gold Dust Woman” are two of Fleetwood Mac’s best songs, but this whole album captures an energy and a creative pulse that feels fundamental to the band.
- The Grateful Dead – American Beauty (1970)
No one honestly has a favorite Grateful Dead album because if you like one, you probably love them all. It is a close tie between this album and Workingman’s Dead, and because we played them both so regularly throughout my childhood, it basically comes down to how much I love “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple,” both of which I sincerely intend to learn to play on the guitar soon.
- alt-J – An Awesome Wave (2012)
This album got me through so many bad days at work, and yet I still love it. They are another indie band that seems not yet as famous as they should be, as they make wonderful music. The songs on this album are short, occasionally frenetic, and addictive. Every time I listen to “Something Good,” I want to put it on repeat. Other standouts are “Tessellate,” “Fitzpleasure,” and “Breezeblocks,” though they’re all good. I really wish more people knew this album because everyone who’s given it a real listen on my recommendation has fallen head over heels.
- Pearl Jam – Vitalogy (1994)
I know this is a weird favorite Pearl Jam album to have, but I can’t help it. It caught me at just the right moment, and I found it fascinating. I loved the weird cover booklet, the playful song conceits, and the overall vibe. I used to play “Better Man” so often while making out with my high school boyfriend that he finally asked if I was trying to tell him something. I know objectively that Vs. is probably a better album, but this one was mine.
- Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced (1967)
To say I love this album is basically just to say I love Jimi Hendrix. And for real, doesn’t anyone with even a modicum of good taste love Jimi Hendrix? Every single song is dynamite, and as an album it’s an amazing listen. This may be one of the best debut albums of all time, or it might be that Jimi was just that good.
- Beethoven – Greatest Hits
There is all other music, and then there is Beethoven, who will forever be my favorite. When I was a little girl, we had this record (I can’t find much more information about it besides its cover) that included the more well-known movements of Beethoven’s 5th and 9th symphonies, along with “Moonlight Sonata” and several others. This is the first record I am personally responsible for wearing out, as I wanted it played constantly, on a loop, so I could soak in all these amazing sounds. Beethoven is probably what woke me up to music, art, and having a soul in general, and it would be a vast understatement to qualify this album as anything less than formative. I think a similar experience can be had with the Immortal Beloved soundtrack, but really just start anywhere and listen to it all.
- Air – Le voyage dans la lune (2012)
Made as a soundtrack to the restored version of the 1902 silent science fiction film A Trip to the Moon, this album is magnificent. I learned about it when I went to see a hand-colored version at the Film Society at Lincoln Center and adored the playful, imaginative songs. I love Air anyway (I’d recommend Moon Safari if you aren’t already familiar) but the cinematic, weird qualities of this album remind me of the best Flaming Lips songs, where they create their own worlds.
- Bon Iver – Bon Iver (2011)
Odds are high that if someone is around my age and at all sensitive, they love this album in a deeply sentimental way. “Holocene” expresses my emotions circa 2012 so completely it’s a bit scary, and the overall tone and mood of this album are just pitch-perfect. It is one of the purest, most heartfelt albums I’ve ever heard, and I know for the rest of my life it will give me pause.
- The Head and the Heart – (self-titled) (2011)
I wish I had a cooler story about how I got into The Head and the Heart, but basically I heard someone I had a huge crush on singing “Down in the Valley” one day, and I wanted to know what kind of music he liked, so I Googled the lyrics, and there I was. Head over heels in love with an amazing band and even more smitten with this person because he had such great taste in music. This album hits the same spot certain Avett Brothers songs do, where it evokes a whole world I don’t quite know personally but imagine being intensely beautiful, rustic, earthy, and full of genuine experiences. When I saw them live, I was even more convinced this is one of the more perfect albums made in my lifetime, and they are truly brilliant musicians.
- Janis Joplin – Pearl (1971)
To date, Janis Joplin remains the archetypal badass female singer upon whom I base all my musical fantasies. She is the Georgia O’Keeffe of music for me, seeming so fixed on her creative expression and living freely that nothing else mattered. She was wild, original, vibrantly creative, and one-of-a-kind, and few things are as liberating and empowering as singing along with this album at the top of my lungs.
- SBTRKT – (self-titled) (2011)
I learned about SBTRKT when I heard Little Dragon was singing on “Wildfire,” and this album blew my mind. Frequently featuring Sampha‘s gorgeous vocals, these songs have a wonderful energy that makes them great fun to dance to (and like, I hate Terminal Five, but I danced my face off when SBTRKT played there). “Go Bang” is another one of those songs that makes me feel like I could fly.
- Passion Pit – Manners (2009)
There was a time in 2009 when I was commuting between New Jersey and Brooklyn where I listened to this album every morning. “Sleepyhead” is the perfect song to wake up and march through Penn Station and Manhattan (it’s also on my favorite running playlist), and “Moth’s Wings” was a wonderful reminder that there must be life beyond work and school. This album was a promise to myself (which I kept) that one day I would be dancing my face off to this incredibly energetic music at an outdoor concert and feeling incredibly happy to be alive and free.
- The Wallflowers – Bringing Down the Horse (1996)
I love Jakob Dylan. I love his voice and his whole vibe and beyond being a famous dude’s son, I see he is a spectacular musician in his own right. The rest of the band is a murderer’s row of brilliance, especially Rami Jaffee (whom I am convinced is part-Muppet) and Michael Ward. This album is just spectacular, and I am pleased that the Wallflowers were one of the first (if not the actual first) bands I ever saw in concert.
- Carole King – Tapestry (1971)
I have a separate list of favorite singer-songwriters and folk-style musicians, which Carole King also dominates, but this album and the very idea that a woman could write songs about her feelings and they nattered was enormous for me. I know every word of every song, and I just adore the realness of her voice. This is one of my all-time favorite albums to sing along to, almost certainly because my mother used to sing the opening lines of “Beautiful” to me all the time when I was a girl.
- Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)
I have always felt that if you want to understand the political history of a time, you should look to the art, literature, and music to get a sense of how people felt. This album is so rawly human, so real that it serves like a time machine to an era I only know historically but understand intimately. I think “What’s Going On” is one of the best songs written in the 20th century and probably the most engaging expression of conscience I’ve ever heard.
- The Breeders – Last Splash (1993)
I loved the Breeders because they were so weird and confusing to me. A refreshing counterpoint to the male-dominated grunge scene of the early 90s, Kim and Kelley Deal were the badass cool chicks I looked up to and wanted to be, merging fuzzy, crunchy guitar with creative and sometimes off-the-wall lyrics. “Cannonball” was the main radio hit, but the album is packed deep with great songs, especially “Divine Hammer,” “Invisible Man,” and “Do You Love Me Now?” There are also confounding experimental pieces that I loved precisely because they made no sense to me and challenged what I thought music should be. So many years later, this album holds up surprisingly well.
- The Doors – (self-titled) (1967)
Jim Morrison may be personally responsible for my sexual awakening. Every song on this album is amazing. The Doors are an amazing band. I will never hear Jim Morrison’s voice without getting chills. I could probably say the same about every Doors album. They were just that good.
- Belle and Sebastian – The Boy with the Arab Strap
A friend burned me a CD of this album in college, and I was instantly hooked. Despite the tragic lyrics on songs like “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career,” there is a luminous quality to the singing and music that makes the album a real pleasure to listen to. Songs like “Sleep the Clock Around” seem to acknowledge that we’re all screw-ups sometimes, so we might as well have a bit of fun. “A Summer Wasting” is sparkling and the kind of song that any feverishly artistic person can directly relate to. This album has a very specific energy, but it’s one I haven’t gotten tired of for years now.
- Neon Indian – Psychic Chasms (2009)
I recognize that most people would not like this album. Era Extraña is probably more accessible and listenable, but this is the one that feels urgent, full of energy and excitement, and practically assaults the senses with the textural lights and colors of psychedelic electropop meeting chillwave. It is so perfect for summer, and “Should have taken acid with you” is one of my unabashed favorite songs. Seeing them live at Terminal Five (ugh, I know) in 2012 was maybe the most fun I’ve ever had at a concert, as well as the sweatiest I think I’ve ever gotten. The mixing on this album is nuts too (in a good way) and it’s definitely worth listening with good headphones to catch all the clever little things they do. It is dizzying and dazzling and wonderful.
- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Greatest Hits(1993)
I wish I were cool enough to have a favorite Tom Petty album, but the truth is I didn’t know anything about him really until this compilation came out during my childhood. I fell in love hard, and I memorized every song. For a brief time I considered “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” my favorite song. I was elated when Wildflowers came out because I realized they weren’t done making music yet. I deeply regret not rearranging my schedule to see what ended up being one of his final concerts last summer. Listening to this album right now still makes me way too sad, but I have confidence with time I’ll get it back.
- The Black Keys – Brothers (2010)
I got into the Black Keys in 2003 with Thickfreakness, so I was beyond ready for them to put out a strong album like Brothers. I convinced a friend to go with me to a free concert in Central Park days after this album came out, promising a phenomenal show, and the next time we saw them (less than a year later) they were headlining MSG. Every single song on this album is great, the album as a whole is great rock n’ roll, and the Black Keys are truly exceptional musicians.
- MGMT – Oracular Spectacular (2007)
This album is so full of youthful energy it makes me think I can dance through walls and run 4-minute miles. It’s got a lot of depth beyond the huge hits “Time to Pretend” and “Kids,” with some particularly gorgeous moments in “Pieces of What,” “Electric Feel,” and “The Handshake.” There’s really not a bad song on here, and not surprisingly, they are phenomenal in concert.
- Sheryl Crow – Tuesday Night Music Club (1993)
This album is steeped in a very specific mood, and it’s flawlessly executed. It’s almost a shame “All I Wanna Do” became so popular because it is arguably the least interesting song on this brilliant album. “Strong Enough” was one of my favorite pseudo love songs as a teenager, and I thought “Leaving Las Vegas” deserved to be the hit single, but the lyrics and mood in “No One Said It Would Be Easy,” “We Do What We Can,” and “I Shall Believe” fall in that beautiful country-inflected bluesy-jazzy place that she hits again in her best songs on Sheryl Crow. I think this album is some of her best and most honest work.
- Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)
I am one of those people who loves Coldplay unironically. I can’t deny it, and I’ve given up trying. Prior to this album I only really knew the song “Yellow” (which I loved). The guy who at the time I thought was the love of my life lent me his copy of this album, and I fell hard. I love every song on this album, which I must have listened to thousands of times. I spent days and weeks and probably months listening to this album while painting, and I still get choked up when I hear “The Scientist.” I can’t help it, and I don’t want to. This is a fantastic album.
- The Cardigans – First Band on the Moon (1996)
This album instantly transports me to high school. Once again the radio single “Lovefool” was the least interesting song on a wonderfully crafted album. Nina Persson was so effortlessly cool, and I loved her voice. “Been It” and their cover of “Iron Man” are particularly enjoyable, but the whole album carries a solid mood of gentle energy and sweetness that I can’t help loving.
There were several Counting Crows albums I could choose, but this was the one I played obsessively while surreptitiously burning incense in my bedroom, making charcoal drawings, and scribbling overwrought teenage poetry. It made me feel so much deeper and more sensitive than the people who only knew the pop hit “Mr. Jones” bc I really *got* the complexity of emotion in songs like “Anna Begins,” which is still one of my all-time favorites. I bonded with one of my best friends over our mutual love of Counting Crows, and our friendship was solidified forever when he gave me the sheet music to “Raining in Baltimore,” which I will admit I still haven’t learned to play. Hearing a Counting Crows song is one of the quickest cuts to deep nostalgia and memories of love and longing, dreaming fervently about adventures ahead and what my life would become.
To round out the top 60 was just as difficult as choosing the first 10 (as in, I started at 40, then 50, and finally sort of drew the line at 60). Though it probably betrays my preferences, I’m presenting them in stream-of-consciousness order.
Almost Made the Top 10
There are a number of other artists and bands who belong in the pantheon of favorites, but who either just narrowly missed the top 60 or for whom I really can’t pick a single album, so much as a compilations playlist. And occasionally a band may not be one of my favorites, but they make a perfect album, which as a standalone work of art belongs here in some way.
So these are the ones that, were I feeling a little more decisive, easily could have made the top 60.
- Every other Radiohead, Thom Yorke, and Atoms for Peace album (except Pablo Honey)
I mean obviously, they are my favorite band and Thom Yorke is a musical genius who comes precariously close to dethroning Beethoven sometimes. Of particular note, since I don’t know many people who have given Atoms for Peace a whirl, the song “Dropped” is a masterpiece. The moment at 1:19 when the bass line kicks in is one of my favorite, most exciting moments in all of recorded music.
- David Bowie – pretty much all of it, right?
He is one of the great musical geniuses of our time, and I know I say that a lot, but he’s truly in the top 10. I don’t know that I have a specific favorite Bowie album, though, because his work exists in a different stratosphere from other music. Still it would be remiss not to say he’s probably made one or several of the best albums of all-time.
- Motown – 25 No. 1 Hits from 25 Years
We had this compilation CD of amazing Motown songs when I was a kid that I played around the clock. This album is included here more as a placeholder for like “all of Motown,” which is some of my very favorite, best-loved music and some of the most formative for my sense of what I want out of music. I feel like Motown needs to be treated as its own category of music (like jazz or classical or the blues) since it would not be possible to single out individual albums from the overall adoration I have for, well, all of it.
- Billie Holiday
Again, I am short-changing a hugely influential and beloved singer because I can’t decide which of her albums I love most (or if it’s all of them). Listening to Billie Holiday definitely changed my life, but it’s hard to say what exactly did it.
- Nirvana – a dead tie between Nevermind (1991) and In Utero (1993)
I loved Nirvana and thought they were one of the greatest bands of my childhood. Like everyone my age, I vividly remember the cultural shift that happened when “Nevermind” knocked Michael Jackson off the #1 spot on the charts and how eye-opening it was to wake up to grunge. I thought “In Utero” was artistically more interesting and had some of my favorite songs, but I didn’t tend to listen to either as complete albums, so much as make a playlist of my favorites from across Nirvana’s discography.
- Diana Ross
Again, a brilliant singer whose music fundamentally changed me as a person, but who I know more for singles than albums. I know I sing Diana Ross songs when I am in love or want to celebrate, but they are from everywhere in her catalogue, so I don’t even know where to start on picking an album.
- The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)
It’s possible I only exist because of the Beach Boys (I’ll tell that story another time) and Brian Wilson is another true genius. This album has some of his best work, and I especially connect with “God Only Knows” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”
- Fleetwood Mac – Tango in the Night (1987)
I went back and forth between this album and Rumours in my top 60. I think I have a particularly nostalgic attachment to this album because I have such fond memories of playing it as loud as we could stand in my mother’s white Chrysler LeBaron convertible with the top down. I thought Stevie Nicks was so cool, and I loved “Seven Wonders” and “Little Lies” so much I’m pretty sure I wore the cassette tape out playing them on repeat.
- Beck – Sea Change (2002)
A simply gorgeous album, with one of the most complete moods built and explored on any album I know. The conversations I’ve had while this album played have been among the most interesting of my life.
- Moby – Play (1999)
It is ridiculous how good this album is. How can someone put songs like “Porcelain” and “South Side” on the same album, and have them not only fit together organically, but combine spectacularly to build such a specific, fantastic energy? Moby is so refreshingly original and this album is amazing.
- Ani DiFranco
I think Ani DiFranco is such a consummate singer-songwriter that every song is crafted as a standalone gem, so it’s hard to know where to even start on picking a favorite album. There were days when I think my Ani playlist is the only thing that got me through college and my 20s. Favorites are probably “Falling Is Like This,” “Both Hands,” and “Untouchable Face,” though everything she writes is amazing. She is also one of my favorites to sing along with, as she is fairly close to my actual vocal range (not that that has ever stopped me anyway).
- Billy Joel – probably Piano Man, but honestly, has he ever made a bad song?
Pretty much all of it, even the terrible stuff.
- Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
- James Taylor – probably Sweet Baby James (1970)
James Taylor has written and performed some of my favorite songs, but again, I can’t pick one specific album. I got lawn tickets to see him at the Garden State Arts Center when I was a teenager, and we lay looking up at the stars while he sang. It was one of the most perfect nights of my life at the time and one of my favorite memories.
- Eric Clapton – 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974)
Eric Clapton is really a legend, and I was torn between this album and a Cream greatest hits CD I used to listen to all the time, but ultimately as an album, this is so beautiful it stands alone. “Let it Grow” especially.
- Modest Mouse – Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004)
I listened to this album so much when I was first living in Brooklyn. I didn’t know Modest Mouse well, but I wanted to like them after meeting a really cute hipster graphic designer who said they were his favorite band. I think this album was as close as they got to mainstream popularity, in that everyone heard “Float On” all summer in 2004. There are some real gems on here though, like “Ocean Breathes Salty” and “Bukowski,” and as an album it has a frenzied, gnashing, flailing-about energy that I still really like.
- Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (1959)
I am woefully ignorant about jazz. I know there are parts of it I seriously love, but there are others that drive me mad, and I need to be in exactly the right mood to want to listen to it. I asked a friend who was a jazz fan to recommend his favorite albums, and along with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, Miles was at the top of the list. This album made me get it and made me realize what I was missing out on. It also makes me believe there is so much more to discover, if I can become smart enough to appreciate it.
- N.E.R.D. – Fly or Die (2004)
Pharrell’s side project from The Neptunes in the early 2000s, this album is amazing. The lyrics are alternately ridiculous “Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride” and profound, and I played this constantly while driving to and from work in 2004-5 (it’s also pretty great for working out).
- Sam Cooke – everything
I was asleep on Sam Cooke for a long time until someone I adored randomly sent me one of his songs, and it clicked just how many songs of his I love with all my heart. I’m pretty sure that if I get married, I want my wedding song to be by Sam Cooke.
- This is Your Captain Speaking – Storyboard (2005-6)
From a fantastic Australian post-rock band, this album is just plain brilliant. I got into it when it was recommended by my best friend, and he and I agree that we are charmed by the title and enchanted by the song “A Wave to Bridget Fondly.”
- U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)
If you think of an achingly beautiful U2 song, it’s probably on this album. This one is a masterpiece.
- Vance Joy – Dream Your Life Away (2014)
I don’t have a good intellectual or artistic argument for this album. I just love it because it makes me so happy. Vance Joy is an Australian cutie pie who writes infectious, lovely songs, and this whole album puts me in an irrepressible good mood.
- The Velvet Underground
Lou Reed is a genius, I think we can all agree, and he made some of the most interesting and energetic music of his time. I can’t possibly pick an album because damn, there are so many good ones. One thing I will say is that the use of “Pale Blue Eyes” in the Vietnamese movie The Vertical Ray of the Sun remains one of my favorite cinematic moments to date.
- Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
This is another album I listened to constantly the first year I was living in the city. It is both a time capsule and a seriously good album.
- Fever Ray – (self-titled) (2009)
I love this weird, incredibly crafted album so much it scares me sometimes. The ominous, otherworldly sounds on songs like “If I Had a Heart” are simply transcendent. It is one of the most fascinating albums made so far this century, I think. But the extent to which I love this album is not even a fraction of how much I can’t stand the new album. So I would suggest treating this moment of brilliance as a one-off and enjoying it for what it is without exploring any more of Fever Ray until she returns to her senses.
- Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (2006)
There is a great line in Broad City where Lincoln says, “You know, I’m still not over Amy Winehouse. It’s like, we knew it would happen, but we didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t know her know her, but I still miss her.” That’s the way I feel, like I’m still not ready to talk about this album, but obviously it is amazing.
- Adele – 25 (2015)
Hello from the other siiiiiiiiidddeee….!!! But for real, this whole album is gorgeous.
- Weezer – (The Blue album) (1994)
I will never be able to hear “Say It Ain’t So” without singing along and remembering what a massive crush I have always had on Rivers Cuomo. There are so many Weezer songs I like, but they are spread across albums enough that I hope there will one day be a greatest hits I can use as a cop-out.
- The Smashing Pumpkins
I am really conflicted on the Smashing Pumpkins now that Billy Corgan has fallen into some bizarre alt-right / libertarian wormhole and is making bombastic Alex Jones-style statements and firing D’Arcy, like… WTF, Billy Corgan? Get it together. On the other hand, Siamese Dream is the first album I ever owned on CD, and some of the songs off Gish and Mellon Collie are among the best made in the 90s. It is a shame Billy seems to have stopped listening to his own music.
- Green Day – Dookie (1994)
Who knew Green Day would have such legs as a band? As much as it was fairly straightforward pop-punk, this album is just really good and so full of great memories.
- Sublime – Sublime (1996)
I have such an Amy Winehouse feeling about Sublime (and Blind Melon and several other bands) but this album is surreally good. It makes me sad every time I think about what more Sublime could have gone on to do. It also wrecks me to think about people I discussed this album with who went on to die of drug overdoses themselves. Ugh.
- Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982)
This album is poetry and it showed me that Bruce is much more of an artist than I first knew him to be. “Atlantic City” will always touch my heart, but as a whole, it’s just solid, beautiful storytelling and incredible musicianship.
- The Postal Service – Give Up (2003)
If you’re only going to make one album, might as well make it a really good one, right? This album has such a distinct feeling of love, loss, hope for the future, electronic possibilities, and yearning it is near palpable.
So… I’m sure I’ve missed a lot. I know I left off Elton John, The Who, Cat Stevens, The Kinks, Dave Matthews Band – Crash, and quite a few other favorite bands and artists. If there are particularly glaring omissions, or if you have a suggestion you think I’d like, or if you want to fight, please let me know in the comments. I am always on the hunt for new music and will be forever indebted to anyone who introduces me to a new favorite.