Taylor Swift
2012, Big Machine

The bridge in “Treacherous” will play a movie in your head. “22” is a solid “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”-type jam. “Stay Stay Stay” has shades of a Hannah-to-Adam speech from Girls. “Sad Beautiful Tragic” is a good example of the classic Taylor theory that the act of feeling is itself sacred and makes you feel alive, if not necessarily happy. “The Lucky One” is like a smarter “Lucky,” and much less eerie, since the artist actually wrote it and you get the feeling she will not end up like Britney Spears. The last track, “Begin Again,” is about meeting someone new, but he’s not Taylor’s savior so much as just someone who lets her be herself. Of her ex, she sings, “He didn’t like it when I wore high heels / But I do.” Wait! As opposed to sneakers? The secret message in her liner notes (look for the capital letters) confirms: “I wear high heels now.” In addition to this FYI that she now wears grown-up lady shoes, Red features Swift’s most blatant pop songs and a ton of new backup singers, and also her logo is big blocky letters instead of her girlish cursive, and also she permanently straightened her signature princessy locks. (To serious Swifties, these have all been big deals.) But the album also includes more of her sneaker-wearing (I swear I will ditch this symbolism soon) side than ever before. The acoustic tracks feel much more private, and like they took a lot more pain to write. They sound like real secrets, with none of the shimmer of even the saddest tracks on her previous albums. Her universe is no longer a vacuum of small towns and high school and fairytales; RED takes place in cars and trains and cities, trying to get somewhere, thinking about one’s place in the world. It’s best to listen to it without any knowledge of who the songs are about or who she is dating, or why, as a recent US Weekly cover asked, she CAN’T FIND LOVE. I know why! She is a 22 year-old person. In her song about this age, she says, “We’re happy, free, confused and lonely in the best way,” and I think that’s exactly where one should be. And, she’s managed to avoid the traps that are set in the 23rd year of life for beautiful, famous people like herself by driving her own career—from the songwriting to the business details—since the beginning. She’s so successful and her image so wholesome that it’s easy to see her as someone with no hint of rebellion. But her defiance has never been about pissing off the parents who made her a star before she’d gone through puberty, it’s been about proving wrong anyone who thinks a young woman singing about her personal life couldn’t possibly be in control of her career or genuine in her writing. Taylor’s victory is in just being really good at what she does, and this album is a prime example. —Tavi

How Sad, How Lovely
Connie Converse
2009, Lau derette Recordings

For years Connie Converse was a forgotten pioneer. Long before the “singer-songwriter” genre existed, she wrote and sang songs that were personal, that told stories, that were musically simple (and beautiful) but lyrically clever. This was in the 1950s in New York, and her music was so far ahead of its time that no record company wanted to record it. (It would have fit in perfectly with the great singer-songwriters of the ’60s, like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.) After about a decade of failing to make it in the music industry, she became disheartened and moved to Ann Arbor, where she worked as an editor for a while. Then in 1974, hopeless and depressed, she packed her belongings into her Volkswagen Beetle and drove away, never to be heard from again. Thirty-five years later, her recordings from the ’50s were discovered and released as this album, to much critical acclaim and “How have we not heard of her till now?!”-ism. The collection is indeed so sad and so lovely—the songs are lilting, haunting remnants of a life that didn’t go entirely to plan. “Roving Woman” is especially eerie when you know her whole story (“When I stray, there’s positively got to be someone there to take me home”). “Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains)” is a beautiful song where the song’s chorus, instead of coming between the verses, appears twice, at the beginning and the end, like two bookends (or, come to think of it, two tall mountains), and the stuff in between changes its meaning. It will echo in your mind for days. There are tinges of gritty sarcasm, too, like Alanis Morrisette except a good 40 years earlier. If she’s alive today, Converse is 85 years old, and maybe she’s smiling somewhere and saying, “I told them so.” —Minna

Social Studies
2012, Antenna Farm

I’ve been listening to this album nonstop since Tuesday, when it came out. It’s the perfect thing to put on when you’re making something and need to turn on the ~creative~ part of your brain. The lyrics are poetic, and the music is hypnotic and beautiful, lush but somehow stark at the same time, so it sweeps you away from your everyday cares and concerns but still gives you room to invent your own story. The title of the record feels perfect, because listening to it I feel like I’m in a darkroom watching each song develop like a picture, seeing the images form: faces, landscapes, buildings, characters, stories. My favorite songs so far are “Terracur,” “Western Addition,” and “Think of the Sea,” all of which are so emotionally true, they leave you feeling bruised, but real and hopeful. —Stephanie

The Information
2006, Interscope

This album was the gateway drug into my obsession with Beck. I admit, as a visual artist, that it was the visuals that drew me in: first of all, the album comes with a graph-paper cover and then a set of stickers (many of which were created by one of my favorite artists, Mercedes Helnwein) that you can use to INVENT your own album artwork—for me, a dream come true! And the bonus DVD was an absolute feast of music videos (which you can actually now watch on YouTube), each filmed on a whim, with Beck’s family, and each one sillier than the last. On top of all that, there were official videos for the singles, including one by one of my all-time favorite directors, Michel Gondry, in which Beck wanders around a torchlit hotel room and interacts with giant robots who metamorphose into various buildings and items of furniture. Enough said! (Oh, and the music’s pretty great too. Especially “The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton,” one of my favorite songs ever ever EVER. Period.) —Eleanor

Neil Young
1982, Geffen

If you know anything about Neil Young, you probably know he is the nasal-voiced, shaggy-haired dude responsible for the epic country/folk/rock hits “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.” If you know him a little better, you’ve probably spent some time appreciating his sweet songs, like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” and angry, rambling dirges like “Cortez the Killer.” But very little in his catalogue prepares you for the weirdo magnificence of Trans. Heavily influenced by the synthesizer-heavy music of Kraftwerk, the album prominently features a Vocoder effect that transforms one of the most distinctive vocals in rock into a burbling chorus of grumbly robots. But this is no nightmare dystopian vision of an electronic future: “Transformer Man” and “We R in Control” are songs about the benevolent computers that run things while everyone is sleeping. “Computer Age” describes a world in which human and computer functions are intimately intertwined. “Sample and Hold” imagines a dating service by and for bots—because machines need love, too. Young has said that the songs on this album were influenced by his difficulty communicating with his son, Ben, who was born with severe cerebral palsy and without the ability to speak. Inspired by his son’s dependence on technology and challenged by the difficulty of connecting with someone who is beyond language, Young invented a new sound to reflect the complicated harmonies of the computer age. —Rose

Queen of the Pack
1993, Epic

Nineties dancehall singer Patra is a goddess, and this, her debut album, proves it. The title song is all brash braggadocio, not just demonstrating that she’s well aware of her goddess status, but also making me feel like maybe I could attain it too. My favorite song besides that one is “Romantic Call,” which features the brilliant rapper Yo-Yo. The best thing ever is the breakdown, where Patra and Yo-Yo discuss what kind of men they like and Patra gets all shy and adorable. That album-only moment isn’t in this video, but it’s OK, because the cutest Tupac cameo in the world is. LOOK AT THAT ADORABLE GRIN. Even he can’t take the focus off Patra, though, who is not only the queen of the pack, but also of my heart/life. —Amy Rose

Saturdays = Youth
2008, Virgin/EMI, Mute

This dreamy record is a soundtrack to teenagehood; it makes you feel like you are experiencing everything for the first time. “Kim & Jessie” is very ’80s-y and cinematic; it reminds me of the scene in Pretty in Pink when Andie is getting ready for prom. You can feel the quickening heartbreak, the longing, the tragedy. My favorite song on this record is “Skin of the Night”—it captures those scary adolescent feelings of lust, heartbreak, and insignificance. It’s best to listen to it with your eyes closed—I bet you’ll find it beautiful. —Tara

¡Hey, Hey Pioneers!
Farewell Continental
2011, Paper + Plastick

Last year a friend of mine linked me to Farewell Continental’s “Who’s the Boss” video, correctly guessing that I would adore the dual vocals of Justin Pierre (from Motion City Soundtrack) and Kari Gray set against a perfect blend of frantic, fuzzy, poppy keyboards and guitars. I immediately downloaded the album and made plans to see the band live. What I love best about Farewell Continental is that they somehow manage to take anxiety and heartbroken self-destruction and set it to danceable indie pop that lifts you out of your emotional haze and helps you work through it and reinvent a brave new world for yourself. —Stephanie

Beach House
2012, Sub Pop

This is one of my new favorite albums; I cannot stop listening to it! It makes me feel so very alive. It’s about creating a fantasy and finding yourself. I love Victoria Legrand’s low voice, which can be quietly raspy or powerful, and express everything from melancholy to bewilderment. My favorite track is the lush and dreamy “Wild”—I listened to it during the hurricane and it made me feel like I was in Melancholia, that Lars Von Trier movie about that dizzying state right before an apocalypse. Listen to Bloom if you want to feel like you are in a state of half-sleep, your mind flooding with images. —Tara

Building Nothing Out of Something
Modest Mouse
2000, Up

Oh man, do I ever love this collection of singles, rarities, and EPs from Modest Mouse’s golden age, 1996-1999. The title is a clever joke about turning a bunch of previously homeless works into a cohesive album, like making a new collage out of scraps from old ones, or a big poem from a bunch of odds and ends you didn’t know what to do with (I do both of these things a lot). Modest Mouse’s little poem-scraps are particularly beautiful, and together they make a love, emotional, and raw whole. One of those scraps, “Baby Blue Sedan,” a bony, mournful song about how difficult it can be just to be a person in the world, absolutely peels my heart apart. All of the songs are like that, really, but that one’s my favorite. Or maybe it’s “A Life of Arctic Sounds,” a song about a really long car ride that is really a song about heartbreak. Building Nothing Out of Something is a perfect album right after a breakup, because it knows exactly how you feel and it screams about it a lot (9 out of 10 dentists agree that post-breakup screaming always helps you feel at least a little better), and then builds you up again, even if you feel like you’ve got nothing left to go on. —Amy Rose

Coral Fang
The Distillers
2003, Sire

I credit Coral Fang, the Distillers’ best and unfortunately last record, with helping me get out of an unhealthy relationship with an alcoholic when I was in high school. I have probably listened to “The Hunger,” my favorite song on the album (and maybe my favorite song in the world, period), a thousand times. It’s starts slow and acoustic, with lyrics about wanting and craving someone you know is bad for you, and then Brody Dalle screams, “DON’T GO!” in what is seriously the most perfect rock & roll scream of all time. From the very first line of “Drain the Blood” (“I’m living on shattered faith, the kind that likes to restrict your breath”), this album is about being bruised and broken, totally destroyed by something you loved and believed in so much. But rather than wallow, Brody and the band thrash and scream and willingly go through the torture because survival is essential, survival will lead to reinvention (“There’s a highway to the edge, once a night you will drive yourself there. At the end of the road, you will find the answer,” as she sings on my second-favorite song, “Hall of Mirrors.”) Surviving also, this record promised me when I need to hear it, can lead to new love (“Beath Your Heart Out”) and some pretty awesome sex (“Death Sex”). Whenever one of my friends is going through a bad breakup or serious emotional crisis, I give them Coral Fang. —Stephanie

Top 10 Hits of the End of the World
Prince Rama
2012, Paw Tracks

It just came out a week and a half ago, but I already know Top 10 Hits is one of my favorite albums of the year. It’s a concept album, with a story: the world has just ended, and the ghosts of 10 pop bands who perished along with everyone else get together to make a compilation album of those bands’ greatest hits. This turns out to be a fun songwriting exercise for Prince Rama, two sisters from Brooklyn—they get to write in 10 different genres (and even photos as all the different bands for the album cover). “So Destroyed” (by the fictional band Rage Peace) is a psychedelic garage-y disco jam that had me bedroom-dancing for weeks on end when it came out earlier this year. I also love “Blade of Austerity” (big drums and Middle Eastern vibes by the ghosts of Guns of Dubai) and “Fire Sacrifice” (channeling Black Elk Speaks). The concept makes the album super varied, but all of the songs are dance-y pop at its best, and they all have Prince Rama’s signature chanting vocals and hypnotic drumming. —Eleanor

Dark Night of the Soul
Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse
2012, Parlophone/EMI/Lex

I sought out this album when I heard that David Lynch had not only designed surreal album art for it, but also sang on two tracks! There are a lot of other fantastic guests, too, like Julian Casablancas, Iggy Pop, and Suzanne Vega. The whole collection is shaking with fear and anxiety. “Revenge” (featuring Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips) is painfully vulnerable: Coyne sings, “You can’t hide what you intend. It glows in the dark. Once we become the thing we dread, there’s no way to stop.” YOW. The two songs Lynch sings on are of course FANTASTIC. “Star Eyes (I Can’t Catch It)” makes me feel like I’m floating through space, and “Dark Night of the Soul,” juxtaposing Lynch’s nasal voice against a jazzy piano and a gritty guitar, is as wonderfully peculiar and uncanny as one of his movies. —Tara ♦