As an adolescent, when music truly started to come into my sphere of knowing, I was lucky to have young parents with excellent and profoundly varied music taste. Listening to music with them in the car or at home wasn’t just background noise or the radio, it was an experience. I made off with many of their cassette tapes and later CDs for my own private listening. Their music formed the foundation not only of what I would then seek out for myself, my openness to new sounds, but it also formed who I was.
Music has changed my life, has saved my life. It can turn a shitty day or shitty mood on a dime if you’re open to it. I got the idea for this post last year during the pandemic, when people were tagging each other to share one of their top 10 albums in a post each day for 10 days. I got distracted after day two or three and stopped posting, but I really like the idea of 10 albums that shaped you, ones that you’d choose without hesitation if you were stuck on a deserted island.
Some of the albums I’ve included in my list have been in regular rotation since I was 14. Some are more recent discoveries. I was also that person who had the car sun visor CD holder until I sold my car in 2019. Some of these were fixtures there. Some are records that I’ve inherited. I’m not a record hoarder and I’ve moved around a lot, so the 50 or so LPs I have that are still around are solid to me. I love albums that are interesting, nuanced, tell stories, and are solid from top to bottom.
I’ve become such a playlist person, especially when I started using Spotify in 2011. I’m also huge on discovering B-sides and non-radio hits. They can totally change your opinion of a band, smash preconceived notions. As we move more and more into curated playlists, whether homespun, or served to you by algorithms or friends, the value of the album as an art form seems further and further in the rearview. My way of preserving a bit of that is by sharing my top 10 albums here, in order from newest to oldest. I hope you enjoy, and even more importantly, I hope you listen.
Cult of Luna – A Dawn to Fear (2019)
I found out about this band when I was cruising Instagram. One of the publications I follow (maybe MetalSucks?) posted the Best Metal Albums of 2019 and there were tons of angry comments that this album wasn’t included on the list. So on my 90-minute commute to work one day, I listened to the entire 80 minutes and it fucked me up in such a good way. It was wintertime, so I blasted it on my bus ride home with my noise-cancelling headphones and remember watching the moon rise and having my heart wrenched out of my body by the lilting guitar and steady, driving, somber basslines. This is an album that takes its time and builds up, like any masterpiece should. It also changed how I listened to metal, and reintroduced me to the whole subgenre of post-metal.
I also was lucky enough to see Cult of Luna at Slim’s on March 9, 2020. It was one of the last shows at the venue before it closed for good and my last concert before San Francisco closed down completely for shelter-in-place.
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)
Hip hop and rap music played a big part of my high school upbringing. But even more than any of the artists or albums I blasted in those days, I always come back to Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city as the best hip hop album of my generation. People who aren’t fans of hip hop often complain that rappers are always just bragging about cars, clothes, women, whatever. And sure, there’s a lot of that out there, but this album turns that notion on its head. I’m a sucker for a good coming of age story and this album delivers, it’s filled with stories of young love, gang violence and death, and salvation. All told with Kendrick’s poetic verses and fresh, interesting beats — he’s sampled Beach House, Bill Withers, Janet Jackson and more. good kid, m.A.A.d city won a flurry of awards when it came out, but it’s also worth noting that Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize for his 2017 album DAMN. DAMN is right.
Royal Thunder – Royal Thunder (2011)
I would be completely remiss if I didn’t include this album on the list. A friend and former coworker introduced Atlanta’s own Royal Thunder to me a year or two after this album debuted. For a long time they held the throne as my favorite band; I described their sound as “Sabbath with a Janis Joplin meets Shirley Manson front.” I knew this band was going to be “a thing” for me when I heard the track “Sleeping Witch.” It’s dark, foreboding, and velvety like only Southern metal and Mlny Parsonz can be. She doesn’t so much sing or scream as roar. This band had a big part in shaping my identity in my mid to late 20s. I’m “the girl with the Royal Thunder” tattoo, for fuck’s sake. Years later when I was grabbing drinks at 529 in East Atlanta Village with a friend, Mlny Parsonz sidled up to the bar next to us. I (having met her before but still losing my shit) mumbled something about being the tattoo girl and she (cool as a cucumber) smiled and said “I know who you are,” bought us a round and walked away to start her set. Royal Thunder has put out a handful of albums but this is the foundation.
Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)
When I was in college, Radiohead announced that they’d be releasing this album for a “pay what you wish” download. I scraped together $20 of my crappy bartending dollars to pay for it. Then when I had the chance to buy it on vinyl I did that too. My bond with Radiohead was cemented after cutting my teeth on the album Amnesiac when I was 14. Which any Radiohead fan can tell you was a really, really weird album. But their melancholy yet groovy sound haunted me. Continues to haunt me. When I saw Radiohead in concert with my friend Becky, I cried when they played “Weird Fishes.” After that we also instituted Dance Like Thom Yorke parties because that’s just fun.
Foo Fighters – Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (2007)
This goes hand-in-hand with Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues” in my category of quintessential fall albums. It evokes the feel of leaves crunching under your boots, warm colors and cool air, a blanket scarf the size of Montana wrapped around your neck, and a pint of Pumking in your hand. This album also landed in a sweet spot for the Foo Fighters when they had grown up enough in their sound, but hadn’t yet started churning out the over-produced, easily forgettable albums of the last decade. (And Dee Gees, really Dave?). But of course, rest in peace Taylor Hawkins. You were a brilliant drummer taken from us too soon.
Erykah Badu – Mama’s Gun (2000)
I will forever bow down to Erykah Badu. In my mind, when it comes to R&B, she’s at the level of a god, just fucking immortal. I even drew a portrait of her recently (below). She’s interesting and weird and beautiful, a little nuts in a good way, and always tells it like it is. (You need to pick yo’ afro, daddy, because it’s flat on one side…) This was another of my mom’s CDs, and Mama’s Gun is still in my regular rotation 22 years later, the jazz and classic soul influences slithering through my sound waves. There’s so much longing and self-reckoning in this album. Erykah Badu doesn’t take shit, she leaves a piece of herself with you.
The Sundays – Static & Silence (1997)
This was another of my mom’s CDs that I helped myself to. Alt rockers of the 90s will recognize the song “Summertime” as the hit from this album. The Sundays also covered the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” which is not on this album, but also got some mainstream traction. There isn’t another album that exists that’s more woven into the fabric of who I am than Static & Silence. It’s gorgeous, peaceful, and hopeful. It’s there for me when I’m feeling mellow, pensive, happy, when I’m struggling, or flat out missing my mom who I now live across the country from. And in a particularly dark and lonely moment in college, this album looked inside me, spoke to me, and saved my life.
The Cranberries – Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? (1993)
This was another of the CDs that I absconded/outright stole from my mom’s collection. It was the perfect soundtrack to teenage angst and unrequited love. It contains the radio hits “Dreams” and “Linger.” But a lot of the other tracks are slow, ethereal, dreamlike. Like I said, I’m big on B-sides and underappreciated songs on albums. The strings on “Sunday” will melt your heart. Dolores O’Riordan’s vocals on this debut album are also softer and subtler than the weaponized vocals she later employed on the smash hit “Zombie.” Another brilliant musician taken from the world too soon.
Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy (1973)
Something about this album lowers my blood pressure significantly when I listen to it. Or at least that’s what it feels like. Houses of the Holy reminds me of my brother and dad. I don’t get the Led out very often any more these days, so the times that I do are very special to me. Rockin’ Led Zeppelin can get old, the whole blues cover band trope is certainly valid on some of their bigger hits. But their more mellow songs on this album are simply poetry and art. Bright and dark, lively and somber. Such a classic dichotomy of sound.
Pink Floyd – Meddle (1971)
This is one hell of an underappreciated album. It flew under the radar, coming out two years before Dark Side of the Moon was released in 1973. I was introduced to it by word of mouth. I was at a hippie girl house party in Knoxville, TN, when someone told a hilarious story about listening to the first song on this album while tripping on acid at Dollywood. The story culminated in him getting totally freaked out by the lyrics of the first song: “One of these days….I’m going to cut you into little pieces!” That said, I typically skip the first track on this album and go straight to “A Pillow of Winds.” The middle of the album is a total departure from the typical Pink Floyd sound. Most of their catalog evokes the feeling of tweaking out after a bender, or driving a long stretch of road alone at night. Many of the songs on this album, however, make you feel as though you’re swaying in a hammock while dozing under a palm tree in the Caribbean. And then there’s the 23 minute meandering track Echoes, which sounds a lot more like classic Pink Floyd, taking up a whole album side, and is totally worth the time.
Thanks for reading.