1. Beatles - Abbey Road
Why? Because there’s no other choice. This is my favorite work of art ever. It’s certainly the album I’ve listened to the most, driving cross-country, or prepping for work, or writing and dreaming and seeking perfection. The prettiest melodies. The most transcendent harmonies. The goofiest lyrics. The phattest bass. George sings his best song ever. Ringo sings his best song ever. Lennon/McCartney’s a duel till “The End.” John almost freestyle raps, Paul believes he’s writing a symphony, and everything crescendoes with love, love, love: The meaning of life. A shiver down the spine. Drumming on the steering wheel, singing along.
2. Jeff Buckley - Grace
The voice alone can break your heart. The music by itself can move you to weeping. It’s hard not to hear this album as a requiem – not for the artist, but for your “Grace”-less self. Play it once; I double dare you. That’s all it took for me to be saved. The ignorant, pre-“Grace” person was dead, replaced by this person whose zeal is probably scaring you. Sorry for witnessing so goddamn ardently. To quote Roget instead of Christ, the album is a classic, a masterpiece, a paragon. The passion of an artist. The voice of an angel.
3. Guns N’ Roses - Appetite for Destruction
Amazing? Awesome? Radical? Ridiculous! From the skulls on the cover to Axl’s shouts of “Yowzas!” everything about this album should suck. Everything seems like something to scorn, now that I’m older and wiser and lamer, more prone to reading feminist texts than listening to hatred packaged as pop. But underneath Axl’s schizophrenic voices, underneath Slash’s xenophobic riffs, I’m hearing something lonely and scared. I feel the way I felt at eleven, ugly and angry, but beautiful inside. Almost two decades after I bought it, I still play this cassette all the time. It never ceases to make me jog faster.
4. Nirvana - Nevermind
Let me recount my musical biography: Loving family. Suburban home. Smart and shy. Creative and curious. Naturally, I listened to antisocial rock, the stuff young Catholics hide from their parents, which, in the early ‘90s, was grunge. I was a freshman when Kurt Cobain killed himself. I’m a walking ‘90s cliche! Maybe these facts will make me original: I listened to this album en route to losing wrestling meets. I had to look up some of its words, particularly “mulatto,” “libido,” and “lithium.” I wrote a placement essay about it, earning the highest possible score. Hearing it still saddens me.
5. Billy Joel - The Stranger
Mostly, I hated the music of my parents, a genre known as “easy listening.” Billy Joel probably seemed rockin’ to them. Two years in a row, which they probably don’t remember, my parents gave me a Joel tape for Christmas. I didn’t really know him, and I certainly hadn’t asked, but the coolest thing is, my parents guessed correctly. One of these gifts was a perfect pop album, track after track of songs I wish I’d written, one of which I sang in my American Idol tryout. This gift gave me the joy of music. My parents rock after all.
6. Stone Temple Pilots - Purple
Fuck Scott Weiland. There. I said it. If not for his struggles with heroin and heroines, this band could’ve ruled the ‘90s, rocking even more, or more often, than they did. They could’ve kept improving on their murky, grungy start, and raced the Smashing Pumpkins to an arty, poppy finish. They could’ve become my favorite band. Instead, they raced my other idols: early dissolution through self-destruction, testing and finally failing their fans. At least they made this masterpiece. Ever love something beyond all common sense, beyond the critical and cultural consensus? This is my band. I can’t explain it further.
7. Tori Amos - Little Earthquakes
To all the women I’ve ever misunderstood:
Play the piano and sing. I’ll get it. At least I’ll try. I really will. I’ll study your voice and learn from your words. I’ll listen to you and fall in love again. Please tell me everything, so clearly yet poetically, so I can know all your desires and fears: Love and lust and body and family. Being late and getting raped and feeling scorned by men. You try to melodize, and I’ll try to empathize. I promise to try my best. I promise.
I know I’ve failed. I hear what you’re saying.
8. Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon
Four bored kids on a quiet summer night, stuck in the St. Louis suburbs, unless...
“Let’s go out, man. Let’s do something.”
“How 'bout the laser light show?”
We jumped in the car and drove downtown, singing along to Live and Bush. Actually, we didn’t know much about the Floyd. Also, remember, we were all good kids. Our pockets were free of paraphernalia.
We payed the fee. The room went dark. Lasers and stars and spinning and sound. My mind was blown to smithereens.
“This must be what being high feels like.”
I bought the album the very next day.
9. Radiohead - OK Computer
Can you believe I bought this album used? Whoever sold it back was a faulty machine, a radio automaton, a man without a head. This is the reason I shop for used CDs, the bargain I hope to find in the bins, the baby refusing to drown in the bath. As awesomely dystopic as 1984, with scarier riffage than 1984, this is the soundtrack to science-fiction nightmares, a desert-planet pick of both me and HAL 9000. This album is so awesome it’s scary. This album is so scary it’s awesome. Awesome, scary... Scary, awesome.... A broken record, dancing the robot.
10. Beastie Boys - Paul’s Boutique
College gave me so many things: friendship, love, a trip to Australia, mad writing skillz, and respect for good hip-hop. I opened my ears and let myself listen. I browsed the local bargain bins and got an education. I learned what I probably should’ve learned in high school: Everyone needs some rap in their lives. Sorry for projecting myself onto everyone. Also, sorry for being white. But everyone needs a song about egging. Everyone needs to go, “What the hell was that?” as this one bouillabaisse mashes up everything. Everyone needs to hear science getting dropped. Misappropriation is totally fun!!!