2006, Big Machine
Taylor Swift is credited (or co-credited) for every single song on her debut album, which she wrote when she was a freshman in high school and released before her 17th birthday. She was trying to make it in Nashville then, so there’s a lot more twang than attitude in her voice and more banjo in the background than dance-y pop beats. The details of the lyrics may be different than those in her more recent hits (pickup trucks, Tim McGraw, slammin’ screen doors), but their essence is the same (dumb boys acting sweet, sweet boys acting dumb, growing up). The thing that really sticks out in her earliest work, though, is that it’s mostly about her one true love: music. “He’s the reason for the teardrops on my guitar,” she sings. “He’s the song in the car I keep singing, don’t know why I do.” But even when she’s acknowledging her weaknesses, Taylor can’t help taking control by doing what she does best, which is writing. The album ends with the line “I grabbed a pen and an old napkin, and I wrote down our song.” —Joe
There’s probably some definitive “hierarchy of shoegaze albums” list on some internet forum that I do not read, but I’m here to stomp all over said hypothetical list: Spooky is the greatest shoegaze album of all time! Not up for discussion! This album is a silvery cotton-candy dream of perfect cloud harmonies between the flame-haired Miki Berenyi, one of my style icons, and her best friend Emma Anderson. It’s full of all kinds of whispered, personal lyrics that cast concepts and characters into poetry. It’s also a little bit melancholy, but I can’t begin tell you how many times I have listened to this breathy, pretty album and felt like I was wrapping myself in a warm comforter. —Julianne
Daydream is almost 20 years old, and the fact that it still fills me with emotion to this day is proof that Mariah Carey is forever the Queen of Pop. The album starts with “Fantasy,” the perfect upbeat tune to sing at the top of your lungs when you’re driving around with your girl friends instead of being in class. Mariah then gently takes your hand and guides you through some pretty intense romantic ballads that showcase her superhuman vocal range. “Underneath the Stars” and “Always Be My Baby” will get you feeling a little bit swoony, but by the time you get to “Melt Away” and “Forever,” Mariah will have your mushy heart sitting on a platter. (It will be right next to mine, so at least it won’t be alone.) —Marie
Their Dreams Are Dead, But Ours Is the Golden Ghost!
There have been many bands including married couples—Fleetwood Mac, Arcade Fire, Sonic Youth—but the newlyweds in the indie-punk duo Slingshot Dakota really know how to tug at my heartstrings. This album came out years before they said “I do,” and it makes me swell with happiness that Carly Comando and Tom Patterson are still touring and making music together. Two-piece duos run the risk of sounding really stripped down and empty, but Slingshot Dakota fills your ears with warm and fuzzy songs about driving (literally, they drive all the time) down the seemingly endless road that is life. “Home is where the heart is,” Carly sings on “The Golden Ghost,” “and my heart is every highway, every city, every street corner that I have yet to see.” The most powerful song on this album, in my opinion, is “Until the Day I Die,” Carly’s passionate tribute to Tom, her one and only. She hammers heavier and heavier on the keys as the song progresses, and her voice soars when she repeats, “I’m gonna love you till the day I die!” By the end it feels like you’re ascending with them to the greatest heights of everlasting L-U-V. —Suzy X.
This is my dream album. It tells stories about all of the things I love: the suburbs, dogs, friendships, loveships. The songs are sweet and simple and sound like they were written by that boy down the street you grew up with. There isn’t a single one that doesn’t give me forever-longing vibes of simpler times—being 15, walking around my old neighborhood and in love with everyone. “Suburban Landscape” and “Front Lawns,” my two faves, never fail to make me tear up. Whether you’re exploring your hometown with your best buddy or daydreaming about the days you used to do that, this is the perfect thing to tune in to. —Allyssa
In Effect Mode
Al B. Sure!
1988, Warner Brothers
For the past few years, there’s been a trend to make late-night-appropriate R&B with a sort of submerged-sounding quality, like it was recorded on the bottom of the ocean. It started, more or less, with the Weeknd, but now we’ve got much better stuff by awesome singers like SZA, Tinashe, and FKA Twigs. The person no one ever really talks about, though, is the godfather of this sound: Al B. Sure!, a wonderfully monobrowed ’80s R&B singer from Mount Vernon, New York. In Effect Mode was his very successful debut album, and it set the template for mysterious, murky R&B. Al B. Sure! falsetto’ed his way through love-buzzed lyrics, watery synths, and a cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” that could bring you to tears. I was nine or ten when I first heard this album, and its harmonies wrought feelings in me that were way too deep for me to understand at the time. Later I figured out that it was pure sensuality. Even now, when I listen to the ghostly synths of “Naturally Mine” or the clamoring drums on “Just a Taste of Lovin’,” I get a little giddy. And when I say Al B. sang in falsetto: THIS ENTIRE ALBUM WAS FALSETTO. I swoon at the thought! —Julianne
1999, Chair Kickers Union
Low’s Christmas is like tinsel, a fluffy snowfall, or twinkly lights in the distance—it’s everything magical yet underrated about the holidays. The first song, “Just Like Christmas,” evokes the giddiness of the season without being over-the-top about it. The rest of the songs are just super mellow, including original titles like “Long Way Around the Sea” and covers of “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Blue Christmas.” Generally, I like Christmas carols, but they can get a little exhausting after too many listens, like how the first candy cane of the season is great, but by candy cane number 27 you don’t think you can have anything sweet ever again. This album, however, is subtle and pretty enough that I can listen to it on repeat without ever getting sick of it. —Anna F.
2007, GOOD Music
Common’s love for soul music, and for creating music that transcends genre, is evident on Finding Forever and make it an instant favorite for me. He samples greats such as Nina Simone on “Misunderstood,” Stevie Wonder on “Black Maybe,” Gil Scott-Heron on “The People,” and the Isley Brothers on “So Long to Go,” the last of which includes a cameo from D’Angelo. I love how the last track, “Forever Begins,” sounds like a marching band, and how Common makes references to the civil rights movement and the late, legendary producer J. Dilla. The line “When she said Dilla was gone, that’s when I knew we’d live forever through song” sums up the theme of the album. And, as can be expected with Common, he marries hard-hitting lyricism with soulful beats in a beautiful way. —Nova
2010, Sub Pop
I have always loved Beach House, but the moment Teen Dream really crystallized for me was when I saw the duo perform it in concert. Halfway through the set, they played “Walk in the Park.” I’d been kind of meh about the song before, but live, it was totally transformed, and it ended in a way that made my heart ache. For the first time, the line “More, you want more, more, you want more, you tell me, more,” felt more defiant and optimistic than resigned. It became the simplest, most evocative musical expression of yearning I’d ever heard. Now, everything about this album feels like love, bittersweetness, and summer to me. It was even recorded in a studio called Dreamland! The song “Norway” is about a lover who is leaving for distant shores, and “Lover of Mine” continues that story with recollections of happier times and deeper connections. But even though this album is tinged with sadness, there’s so much wisdom in it. When I’m feeling vulnerable, I love nothing more than listening to “Better Times.” And few things sound warmer or sweeter to me than this promise in one of the album’s closing lines: “I’ll take care of you, if you want me to.” —Estelle
Let It Be
An album focused on growing pains, Let It Be is all about the temporal. The pace ebbs between ants-in-your-pants punky jams like “We’re Comin’ Out,” and softer, more sentimental ballads like “Androgynous,” which reminds me that cultural norms surrounding gender are always shifting. The listless trudge of “Sixteen Blue” accurately portrays the despair of being too young to live the life you wanna live and feeling like you’re never gonna grow out of that discomfort. Paul Westerberg asks, well aware of how frustratingly long pubescent limbo feels, “You’re looking funny… You ain’t laughing, are you?” The fluctuating tempos reflect the struggle with time—the agony of those waiting periods between the frenzied attempts to get all your kicks in before you run out of breath. But as the Replacements put it themselves, sometimes you just gotta let it be. —Suzy X.
2010, Mom + Pop
It was last summer when I finally noticed that songs from Treats were in almost EVERY MOVIE BEING MADE ABOUT TEENAGERS. Theories as to why that might be have singled out songs like “Kids” and “Crown on the Ground” and the qualities that supposedly make them sound like “bad kid” or “mean girl” music. I’d like to think it has more to do with the way this record subverts nursery-rhyme-type, sing-songy repetition with lyrics that seem to suggest that the old ways—good or bad—are about to be totally upset. (“You’re gonna have to, have to, have to, set, set that crown on the ground.”) —Lena ♦