The Red Album (1962-1966) - The Beatles (1973)
Before I got up the guts to start sneaking my parents vinyl records into my room—a big no-no in my house—I was pressing 'play' on a cassette tape of The Beatles. I know a lot of people grew up listening to The Beatles, but this is the record to revisit if you haven't listened in a while. It has the haunting "Eleanor Rigby," the pop harmonica of "Love Me Do," the whimsy of "Yellow Submarine," and the gypsy goodness of "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)." Even at the age of six, this album taught me that music wasn't just about sounding good; it had the power to make me think.
Waterbed- Herbie Mann (1975)
Okay, so maybe my intro to Herbie Mann's experimental flute album Waterbed meant that I had to backtrack through his catalogue later in life to learn about Mann's jazz roots—but it still had tremendous value. Waterbed is how I learned to appreciate music that didn't follow formulaic verse/chorus structure. The discothèque title track and Middle East-inspired instrumental songs revealed that music had the ability to send my mind far away on a make-believe journey.
Purple Rain- Prince & The Revolution (1984)
There is absolutely no reason why this album shouldn't be listened to at least once a month. To this day, Purple Rain is still my favorite album of all time. I'll even admit to the fact that in 1984 I was dancing in my room to the songs on this soundtrack—something you might still find me doing today. The title track was the backdrop for my crush on Becky Meads in second grade. My understanding of the song "Darling Nikki" was shaky at best, and I for sure didn't know what a 'sex fiend' or 'masturbating' was. It was this album that introduced me to the passionate side of music. It was a window into the potential music had to capture raw emotion.
Ten- Pearl Jam (1991)
If anyone ever had an identity crisis in high school, it was me. While no one I grew up with would describe it as such, largely because I suffered on my own, I would often lock myself in my room with albums from bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam. It was during those times that I released aggression, and numbness took over. Having Ten with songs like "Alive" and "Jeremy" as an outlet for that, allowed me to have the resolve I needed to keep it together at school. It was the first time I realized that music could be a form of therapy.
Hadestown- Anais Mitchell (2010)
Flash forward to just a few years ago when Anais Mitchell's folk opera Hadestown featured modern vocal talents like Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem, and Ani DiFranco. The cast of characters brought the concept album, based on a story from Greek mythology, to life with such precision, listeners literally feel sick to their stomachs with emotional pain by the time it's over. The record follows Orpheus (Vernon) into Hadestown as he pursues his tragically superficial lover Eurydice (Mitchell), who has been lured there by the promise of a life without need. The completeness of the story rendered Hadestown an album by which I now judge much of what is released today. And while I know it is unlikely for most records to have the literal continuity of Hadestown, I look for shadows of its greatness in everything I listen to.