This is an evolving list of albums that I consider to be formative, important, unquestionably great or possibly all three.
- The Beatles– The Beatles: “The Beatles,” AKA The White Album, This is not the sexiest Beatles album to like at the moment, that would be “Rubber Soul.” However, it is my favorite Beatles album. It contains everything from bizarre looping vocals to Manson-inspiring rock licks to simple country songs about people with the surname of Raccoon. It’s The Beatles at their wooliest, wildest and sweetest often on the same side of the album.
- Pet Sounds– The Beach Boys: “Pet Sounds,” is the sonically dense product of a pop music genius’ dalliance with madness. The album is on the record as being one of Paul McCartney’s favorites and the inspiration for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” There is not much to say about Brian Wilson and his arrangements that has not already been said. He wanted to create a gorgeous album unlike anything before it, and he succeeded. The gorgeous vocal harmonies, the wide array of musical instruments, the gentle swelling melodies and a constant undercurrent of sadness were all present as The Beach Boys helped birth the concept of the modern album. At the same time Wilson and company managed to deliver pop gems that sounded as deceptively simple as ever.
- Doolittle– The Pixies: It might seem like an overreaction to place The Pixies as high on this list as hallowed artists such as The Beatles and Beach Boys, but this album is entirely deserving. It’s Pixies at their most accessible and enjoyable without sacrificing any of the weirdness that stood out on “Surfer Rosa.” This album’s track listing nearly reads as a greatest hits compilation from one of the most important and influential bands of the past 25 years. Nirvana is usually credited with killing off hair metal, but this 1989 released created the loud/quiet/loud blueprint that would prove the be the death knell. This album makes everyone that hears it want to grow up to be a debaser.
- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy– Kanye West: This album is absolutely epic. It’s over an hour long,it has multiple songs that hover around the 7-minute mark, but it never feels particularly bloated, and it also has an appropriately intense origin story. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” lives up to its name with opulent, surging beats and lyrics that ranged from angst-ridden depravity to fantastic, manic highs. This is the work of someone who clearly believes they are the consummate tortured artist, but it is also some extremely creative sampling as ‘60s psych rockers rub shoulders with Aphex Twin. West also has the rare ability to maximize the enormous roster of guest artists on this album. Rick Ross quite convincingly sounds hungry, Nicki Minaj has one of the best guest verses in recent history and somehow “All of the Lights” doesn’t collapse under the cavalcade of stars or its orchestral interlude. Cohesive themes of infidelity, power, influence, self-mythology and the moral trappings that come from fame and being human run throughout the album adding lyrical weight to an album that is a sonically extraordinary snapshot of an innovator at his prime.
- Pinkerton-Weezer: This album was not a critical or commercial success when it was first released in 1996. However, over time Pinkerton‘s reputation continued to improve. The originally beleaguered album picked up new fans during Weezer’s 5-year break from making music, and it is now considered a classic and perhaps the band’s best work. “Pinkerton” was originally going to be a rock opera set in space, called “Songs from the Black Hole.” Ultimately, this project was scrapped, and it’s songs and ideas were reshaped into Pinkerton, although wistful fans have since recreated the original operatic concept using b-sides and demos. The final project would be an album much more abrasive than the band’s debut. The pop hooks and shout-along choruses were intact, but they were fueled by dirty guitar, pounding drums and genuine, tormented howls. Pinkerton was essentially ’90s alternative rock’s The Catcher in the Rye. It was all emotional honesty, pervasive angst and lamentations of isolation begging to resonate in teenage skulls. The songs are largely based on Rivers Cuamo’s time in Harvard, personal injury and reaction to “Madame Butterfly.” Excellent song craft, memorable guitar work and raw production allow the album to stand up to listen after listen. Although it was reviled upon its release “Pinkerton” rightfully deserves the accolades it now receives. It’s the raw, painful, imminently hummable sophomore effort from a band at its underrated peak.
- Elephant– The White stripes: Elephant is the best album from one of the best rock bands of an era. The almost-bass of “Seven Nation Army” has even gone on to become a sports anthem. It is a signature album from a band that never released a bad LP.In the early ’00s a garage rock revival breathed new life into a stagnate rock scene, and The White Stripes were easily the best band to emerge from that scene. On Elephant Jack and Meg White showed they drew from a deeper, weirder reservoirs of talent and influence than their contemporaries. A cover of a Burt Bacharach song made popular by Dusty Springfield joined the crunch and stomp, searing 2-minute cuts followed 7-minute orgiastic blues frenzies, there is a spoken word introduction about the inspirational qualities found in squirrels and Meg even got to sing. Of course, Elephant is a White Stripes album, so there is a lot of quirk involved in the album’s production. It was recorded in two weeks using pre-1960s equipment. Even the album cover has an interesting back story. While it isn’t blatantly obvious the cover art is supposed to resemble an elephant. This is a weird, wonderful album to get to know.
- All Hail West Texas– The Mountain Goats: This album is as sparse as the landscape of its titular location. Josh Darnielle’s voice, guitar strumming, the occasional percussive tap and the sometimes audible whir of the tape deck being used to record everything are the only sources of noise on this record. While simple, the music is never boring. This is entirely because of the quality of songwriting. Darnielle’s lyrics paint vivid pictures of instantly familiar characters while subverting genre conventions. The Mountain Goats’ masterpiece isn’t just Peter Paul and Mary with no budget. It’s a rap-referencing, self-assured album with attitude and sense of humor to spare. From the moment Darnielle shouts, “Hail Satan!” in the album’s opening track, The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton, I was hooked.
- Hippies-Harlem: I absolutely love Hippies by Harlem. It was released in 2010 by a band whose most notable achievement is either opening for Jack White’s side project, The Dead Weather or an incredibly entertaining Twitter account. Still, Harlem’s 2010 release, Hippies, is one of my most listened to albums of all time. It’s also probably the least defensible album among the ranks of my other favorite albums. Hippies is not a transcendental album, and it was made by a band almost no one has heard of. Still, I’ve written at length about exactly why Hippies is part of my personal cannon.
- Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer- Of Montreal: This is a well-regarded album, and it’s generally considered the best of Of Montreal’s later, electronic-tinged work . However, after certain listens, I thing Hissing Fauna… might be my favorite album of all-time. Musically, it’s excellent, but there’s far more to it than pleasant indie electro-pop. This is an album that tackles the emptiness left by the disintegration of a monolithic relationship, references Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and name drops George Bataille–in the same song. An absolutely stunning album, and I am pretty much incapable of turning it off once it starts to play.
- Celebration Rock- Japandroids: Japandroids formed in 2006, but did not breakthrough to critical or commercial success until 2009. Post-Nothing was supposed to be the duo’s ultimate release, but in a turn of events, which recall Guided By Voices continued existence after the release of Bee Thousand, Japandroids were suddenly beloved as a raucous breath of shoegaze-influenced air. It took three years for Brian King and David Prowse to cobble together a scant 8 songs for Celebration Rock. While the album’s running time is diminutive, the songs are massive, caterwauling guitar anthems. Celebration Rock is combines the energy and urgency of ’80s underground rock staples such as The Replacements, The Gun Club and Hüsker Dü with accessible Springsteen-esque choruses. Celebration Rock is an album that absolutely wallows in the joy of existence after coming perilously close to never being made.