black sabbathMaster of Reality
Black Sabbath
1971, Vertigo

People used to be absolutely terrified of Black Sabbath. Their occult themes, apocalyptic lyrics, love of illegal drugs, and low, evil-sounding tunings led convinced people that the band was BFFs with Satan. Meanwhile, I used to babysit my boss’s awesome seven-year-old niece, and we would weed the garden listening to Master of Reality while dancing our butts off. Our headbanger-ballerina moves weren’t very Satanic; they were pretty joyful and awesome. This album is heavy and spooky and dark, in a super-epic, melodic and elevating way. Black Sabbath inspired everyone from Iron Maiden and Metallica to Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, and you can hear that future being forecasted in every song on this record. It’s a classic. —Meredith

pixiesDoolittle
Pixies
1989, 4AD/Elektra

Doolittle is my favorite Halloween album—it’s sinister, bizarre, irreverent, and upbeat. Each listen leaves me completely impressed by the range of what the Pixies can do; the surfer-ish “Here Comes Your Man” is dance-party appropriate, while “Mr. Grieves” is macabre and “Hey” is an eerie, hauntingly beautiful anti-love song. I imagine if a spirit with unfinished business and some pretty sick talent wrote an album, it would be a lot like this one. If you’re planning any midnight ghost hunts or graveyard picnics, it is a very fitting soundtrack. —Lucy

julianna hatfield threeBecome What You Are
The Juliana Hatfield Three
1993, Mammoth

I played this album on repeat during a time when I felt like a total alien in my own skin. Its most well-known songs are “My Sister,” about loving, hating, and missing a bitchy yet super-cool older sibling, and “Spin the Bottle,” about intensely hoping to get five minutes in the closet with a crush who barely knows you exist. I love them both, but the song that still really speaks to me is “For the Birds,” which describes the experience of falling out of the proverbial nest. (My favorite part is when Juliana sings, “I’m lying if I say that I’m cool, ’cause really I’m not.”) Juliana’s voice and music are really sweet and seemingly innocent but also capture that restless, itchy feeling of wanting to figure yourself the hell out. —Stephanie

cree summerStreet Faërie
Cree Summer
1999, Work/SME

Cree Summer’s Street Faërie rescued me from the throes of a breakup during college. My initial interest in the album was because my rock-star crush, Lenny Kravitz, produced it, but Cree was the reason it became my personal soundtrack. Her honesty—about period sex, for example, in “Miss Moon” or anger related to being racially fetishized by a creepy ex in “Curious White Boy”—resonated with me. She normalized being a young woman, and a spiritual woman of color during a time when I often felt alienated. Her unapologetic celebration of sisterhood in “Soul Sister” comforted me when I missed my friends from my all-girls school, and “Naheo” empowered me to learn more about my ancestors as I explored the meaning of my identity. Street Faërie was a musical affirmation of my growing pains and some of the high points, too. Cree was the cool big sister I never had. —Jamia

zola jesusThe Spoils
Zola Jesus
2009, Sacred Bones

The witchiness on this album is palpable. Its songs are desperately bleak, and Nika Danilova’s operatic voice and piercing screams are made all the more unnerving by its lo-fi production quality. It sets an especially eerie mood that is perfect for when fall turns bitterly windy and cold. “Sink the Dynasty,” my absolute favorite Zola Jesus song, is a spooky jam that makes me want to run away to a forest with only ghosts for company. The whole record taps into a darker, more abstract world that I don’t want to leave. —Meagan

smithsThe Queen Is Dead
The Smiths
1986, Rough Trade/Sire

Early in my high school years, this album was basically my salvation. As Smiths fans know well, there’s a certain sense of community among people who feel like aliens compared to the rest of society, and this album was huge in helping me (and countless others) bond with people who also felt like outcasts. Misery loves company, which is something this album expresses better than any other. I have the sneaking suspicion that Morrissey is actually the reincarnated soul of Edgar Allan Poe or Lord Byron; his Victorian-esque lyrics, both morbid and beautiful, combined with Johnny Marr’s soaring, ’80s guitar riffs are perfection. —Lucy

cro-magsThe Age of Quarrel
Cro-Mags
1986, Profile

John Joseph has lived his entire life as an outcast on the margins of society. He was raised in an abusive foster care situation, started going to punk shows as a teenager, was homeless on the streets of New York, joined the Hare Krishnas and then the Navy, went AWOL, started hanging out with Bad Brains, and survived a host of other maniacal exploits that somehow led to him forming Cro-Mags, which then put out the greatest hardcore record in history. Every one of the 15 songs on Age of Quarrel is about fighting for survival in a doomed era. But it’s not totally a negative record: Yes, the world is a horrible place that’s fundamentally out to get you, and life can be tedious and soul-crushing, but if you stay focused and do what’s right, you’ll survive and be better and tougher for it. Next time you have a really bad day and you’re pissed off at the entire universe, play this record as loudly as you possibly can and just try not to get amped the second the guitars come in. I can’t stress enough that this is the greatest record ever. —Meredith

moondogMoondog
Moondog
1969, CBS Recordings

Moondog, adorned in a Viking helmet and cloak, was a street-artist fixture on Manhattan’s Upper East Side from the 1940s through the ’70s. The blind poet, composer, and instrument inventor was emblematic of “outsider” culture due to his genre-transcending musicianship, quirky style, and unstable housing status. More than a decade after his death, he remains a part of New York City’s mythology. Moondog’s music evokes the past and future, much like his own persona. His self-titled album chronicles compositions from the ’50s and ’60s that were influenced by jazz, baroque harmonies, Native American beats, and ambient sounds. “Bird’s Lament,” a tune he wrote for the jazz legend Charlie Parker, and the “Witch of Endor,” a ballet he created for modern dancer Martha Graham, bring me to tears. Both songs are so magical that they move me to drop everything, step away from my desk, and pirouette around the room. If you’re looking for creative inspiration—and a reminder that being yourself is the greatest legacy you can leave the world—this album is for you. —Jamia

hype williamsFind Out What Happens When People Stop Being Polite, And Start Gettin’ Reel
Hype Williams
2010, De Stijl

There’s the famous hip-hop music video director Hype Williams, and then there’s the mysterious European musical duo that named themselves after him. Inga Copeland and Dean Blunt deliberately tell lies about themselves and their music, which they claim to have once released by “putting USB sticks in apples and selling them in [London’s] Brixton market.” Inga Copeland and Dean Blunt aren’t even their real names! They’re just aliases! But the true mystique is in their sound: This album opens with an auto-tuned sample of a baby crying, and continues with regular scatterings of pitch-shifted vocals, dreamy samples, analog synths, and hugely badass beats. It alludes to ’80s horror-movie soundtracks and the sound of a car blaring music as it cruises by. I listen to it whenever I want to feel like an enigmatic megaboss. —Eleanor

ariel pinkMature Themes
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
2012, 4AD

Light up some incense, lay down in darkness, and listen to Mature Themes. Seconds into the album’s first track, “Kinski Assasin,” it’s clear that nothing will make sense and everything will be swathed in psychedelic fuzz. Perplexing, anarchist, and hazy, Ariel Pink’s conundrums make me ponder things like pink slime and Freudian analysis. Pink’s personal decency has been (rightly) questioned time and again, particularly after he praised the Westboro Baptist Church and defended his own misogyny. I don’t agree with or admire him, but I’ve also never heard an album that reflects the inherent insanity and boundaries of human existence better than this one. Mature Themes is mystical, haphazardly political, dark, and dreamy all at once. —Mads

black flagDamaged
Black Flag
1981, SST

Henry Rollins definitely falls under the “great art, problematic person” subheading, now and since about 1981, when this record was made, but Damaged is still really special and essential to the history of punk. Black Flag went through several lineup changes and singers before Rollins joined the band; this was his first record with them. “Depression” is a total ripper, an anthem for someone fed up with being on the outside but not ready to go “swimming in the mainstream” (OK, that quote is actually from a song on Black Flag’s My War, but it fits—and you should totally listen to that record, too!). But “Life of Pain” is, to me, the most important song on this record, because it’s about a girl with a self-injury problem. When I was a young teenager going through that same thing, it made me feel like there was someone out there who was advocating for me and wanted me to feel better. I was weird and different, but I wasn’t alone. Thanks for that, Henry. —Meredith

st vincentMarry Me
St. Vincent
2007, Beggars Banquet

St. Vincent’s music switches between opposite ends of spectrums: angst and serenity, sweetness and darkness, experimentation and mass appeal. The songs on Marry Me often start by sounding somewhat taunting and childlike—almost like pop versions of children’s nursery rhymes—until Annie Clark’s guitar explodes into noisy, sonically massive solos. Clark is mega-talented at creating music that jerks back and forth, but in a beautifully composed, effortlessly cool way. (You can really hear it in “Your Lips Are Red.”) Time and again, she skillfully moves a song’s aggressive power toward a soaring, transcendent, emotional conclusion. —Eleanor

against meTransgender Dysphoria Blues
Against Me!
2014, Total Treble Music/Xtra Mile

I’ve been an Against Me! fan for almost a decade, and Transgender Dysphoria Blues made me fall in love with them all over again. This was the first album the band released after singer Laura Jane Grace came out as a transgender woman. I’ve always loved LJG for her honest lyrics, and here she speaks directly and powerfully about gender identity. In the title track, she sings, “You’ve got no cunt in your strut/You’ve got no hips to shake/And you know it’s obvious/But we can’t choose how we’re made.” She doesn’t shy away from dark political imagery, either, like in “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ.” The album has many angry moments, but more than anything it’s energizing. The guitars are fast and jangly, like a sped-up version of the Replacements, and there’s fight and spirit in the many sing-along choruses. And you can’t ignore Laura Jane’s signature howl—it’s one of the best and most ferocious voices in all of punk rock. —Stephanie

grouperA I A: Alien Observer
Grouper
2011, Yellow Electric

Singer/songwriter Liz Harris writes ambient, nonlinear music that isn’t just background noise; her delicate songs demand attention. Her gentle voice guides you through cavernous sci-fi melodies that sound expansive enough to reach other planets. You can hear the heartache in “She Loves Me That Way,” and though I can barely make out the lyrics in “Come Softly (for Daniel Dalzell),” it is clearly a love song. The question isn’t so much “Who is Daniel Dalzell?” as it is, “Who is my Daniel Dalzell?” I project my own feelings on the whole record, but that’s the cool thing about ambient music—it’s especially open to your own interpretations. —Meagan ♦