musings

my top 5 albums of all time

We all have comfort foods, but I have comfort everything. For example, whenever I get the flu, or whenever the winter blues kick in (as they always do), I somehow end up re-watching Glee. It’s a guilty pleasure, sure: Glee rarely gives enough time and seriousness to any of the many issues briefly written into the show. Each time I re-watch, I’m filled with anger, irritation, frustration—but also with deep, profound warmth and love. I’ve spent a long time trying to justify my appreciation for a show that’s widely regarded as both ground-breaking and problematic. Recently, after watching the final season for the first time, I realized what Glee is really about: the healing power of music.

I wasn’t ever a great singer or dancer, but I was in band in high school. There were only about 40 of us in a good year, so we developed a pretty tight camaraderie in the face of the rest of the school’s lack of appreciation for the hard work we did in the band room every day. I certainly bring this experience to my viewing of Glee, but it’s more than that. The characters on Glee face many challenges, but the overarching theme is that of having big dreams that are constantly being mocked by your peers. This is where my writer side comes in, but it’s bigger than that. The arts are so important when you’re a kid, when you’re trying to figure out how to express yourself creatively, and when you’re searching for a sense of identity. For those who are brave enough to be true to themselves and to speak that truth, whether in writing or in song, this can be a rewarding experiencing.

As I finished the series (after many tears were shed), I began thinking about the effect music has had on my life. I was exposed to so much of it as a child, from the hymns I sung in church with my family to the old school records my parents brought out on occasion, to the radio tunes and the first CDs I bought (and the many I downloaded on Limewire—those were the days). There are certain musical artists I turn to when times get tough, artists who taught me to keep pushing through the pain, who told me it was okay to be just the way I was in that moment. These are albums I still sing along to in the shower, or turn on when I’m having a rough day and need to cry it out, when I’m seeking encouragement or just self-expression. It was hard to narrow them down, but here are

The Top 5 Artists/Albums That Impacted My Young Life 

1. James Taylor – Greatest Hits (1976)

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As a kid, my family took a lot of road trips, particularly to the Ozarks area in Missouri, which was about a four-hour drive. My brother would often nap for most of the drive, but I was always filled with too much excitement and a sense of adventure. On these trips, we’d cycle through the various cassettes my parents brought, and this was my first education in music. Many great albums appeared here (namely Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and Eric Clapton’s Unplugged), but for some reason James Taylor’s soothing voice and acoustic guitar stuck in my memory. I couldn’t exactly relate to the content of the songs about falling in love or being out in middle America, but I enjoyed the feeling of listening to my dad sing along. Listening to my dad sing is still one of my favorite things about growing up; he might not be the best singer around, but that didn’t keep him from belting it out to his favorite songs. James Taylor stuck with me through high school; in the years of depression-induced insomnia, I’d often put on Greatest Hits when I couldn’t sleep. I’d listen to “Fire and Rain” with silent tears rolling down my cheeks and remember that I would make it, no matter what.

2. John Mayer – Room For Squares (2001)

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When I was in middle school, “Your Body Is a Wonderland” always seemed to come on the radio when I was in the car with my mom. While there weren’t any curse words in the song to be bleeped out, my 12-year-old self-consciousness latched onto the lyrics about making love, a concept I hardly understood at all. The only information I had was passed down from my friends or in songs like this one or the many, many rap songs that were edited on the radio. “Your Body Is a Wonderland” made me uncomfortable because, well, I certainly didn’t feel that my body was something anyone would want to explore—I was still waiting for my period, for recognizable boobs, for any sort of curves to round out my awkward angles. Plus I had acne and no sense of style whatsoever, despite the fact that I joined the cheerleading squad that year.

I didn’t really take notice of John Mayer until sometime around my sophomore year of high school, several years after he rose to fame. I’m like that with music, always jumping on the bandwagon about five years after it’s taken off, getting weird looks from the so-called real fans—and even weirder looks from the people who are already over the artist in question. I was that way with John Mayer, whose Room For Squares became my go-to album the winter of 2005-6. I listened to it on repeat, over and over again. I felt his pain in “My Stupid Mouth,” despite the fact that I was far to shy to talk to the boy I was crushing on. I longed for my childhood, although mine was in the 90s rather than “83.” On a long trip to Memphis with my parents, I listened to “3X5” and wished I had someone to write letters of my adolescent adventures—all I had was a stack of journals. I discovered a bootleg of a live version of “Love Song for No One” which I alternately smiled and cried to, waiting for someone to come along and love me. That song got me through the better part of my teens and twenties as I fell for the wrong guys repeatedly.

I could keep going, but you get the idea: every single song on Room For Squares has deep emotional history for me. And while Continuum was the last JM album I actively listened to, I still come back to Room For Squares—and it gains new meaning for me with the years that pass.

3. Carole King – Tapestry (1971)

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I grew up hearing Carole King and her contemporaries. I didn’t realize how much I loved her until much later, after her words had pretty much infiltrated the way I think about things and when I was old enough to really understand some of the experiences she was talking about. To me, Tapestry is more than just a breakup album; it’s an album about the complexities of being a woman. One the one hand, she’s angry and telling him “It’s Too Late” while on the other hand she’s telling him she’ll follow him anywhere in “Where You Lead.” She deals with the complicated effects of the so-called Sexual Revolution in “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and talking about the importance of positive self-talk and self-love in “Beautiful.” By the time I’d grown up and moved halfway across the country, “Far Away” could bring me to tears at the thought of all the people I’d left behind, while reminding me that I’d made the right choice.

Carole King is an inspiration to me because she made her way in the world by writing and singing honestly about the varied experiences of being a young woman in this society.

(also: this album cover is everything)

4. Sara Bareilles – Little Voice (2007)

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Back in the late 2000s, my best friend and I went to different schools, so one of the ways we kept in touch was by making each other mix CDs. I owe my friend for half of the music I discovered between 2006-2008, and Sara Bareilles is one of those artists. “Fairytale” appeared on one of my best friend’s mix CDs the fall of my senior year of high school; by the summer after graduation, I was playing the whole album on repeat.

Most people know Sara Bareilles for the title song on the album, “Love Song,” which is a loosely disguised stab at a recording industry that tried to force her hand in songwriting. “Love Song” is still highly overplayed and often causes eye rolling among listeners, but that’s the least of Sara’s accomplishments in my option. See, the final song on the album, “Gravity,” was my go-to crying song for a decade. While many of the songs on Little Voice are upbeat, pop-y, and filled with power and, well, feminism, “Gravity” is a song about the opposite of power. No matter how strong of a woman you are, I think we all have that one person who gets us to bend no matter what, the one who breaks down our defenses time and again, the one we secretly wish we could be rid of—the one who draws us in like gravity against our will. Listening to “Gravity” as a half-broken 18-year-old, I held on tightly to the knowledge that even an amazingly strong woman like Sara Bareilles has been in my shoes.

At various points in the almost ten years I’ve been listening to this album, each song has taken on a special significance in my life. Each song fills me with a sense of gratefulness that someone out there is expressing the feelings that I have—that I’m not alone. While her other albums have great songs on them, Little Voice is an entire album of truth and wisdom and honesty.

5. Fiona Apple – Tidal (1996), When The Prawn… (1999), Extraordinary Machine (2005)

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Try as I might, I can’t narrow it down to one album with Fiona. Another artist my best friend put me onto, Fiona is known for her quirkiness, her anger. She came about in the 90s, but I discovered her in college, in the wake of the biggest heartbreak of my life as well as an economic recession that made me question my decision to get a degree at all—but I digress.

In high school, I listened to a lot of emo/pop punk bands, a bunch of guys singing about heartbreak and generalized angst. I related to the emotions, for sure; I was always falling in love with the wrong person, and I felt very disenfranchised from society at large. Yet as much as I got what the guys were singing about, they were guys, so they weren’t writing about my experiences. I hadn’t discovered Paramore yet, and I hadn’t really gotten into female singer-songwriters either. Discovering Fiona Apple was like discovering a long-lost older sister.

Fiona doesn’t do what other people want her to do. She doesn’t write upbeat love songs and her anger is anything but restrained. She talks about the pain and the depression, the multiplicities of loving someone (particularly someone who doesn’t treat you as you deserve). She’s feisty and powerful, but also soulful and broken. She writes about being the Other Woman in “I Know” and about loving someone who makes you feel “sick in the head” (“Tymps”). She writes about being damaged goods in a sense and claims her own “Criminal” side. She claims her power as an “Extraordinary Machine,” a song that helped me claim my own brand of feminist power.

But my favorite Fiona songs are about the experience of pain and depression. “Sullen Girl” has gotten me through some of the worst days of my life; seeing Fiona claim her identity as a “sullen girl” allowed me to acknowledge myself as a depressed individual. Fiona Apple, like Sara Bareilles, showed me that there’s something truly sacred about seeing yourself reflected back from the world.

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