Patti Smith
1975, Arista

Before I listened to this album I would always hear people say that the important thing about Patti Smith was that she fused rock & roll with poetry. I didn’t really understand why that was a big deal—lyrics are a form of poetry, after all, so couldn’t the same be said of any artist whose music has words? But now I realize what the big deal is, because I finally heard Horses, and HORSES IS THE BIG DEAL. On these songs Patti recites poetry with the visceral, explosive intonations of rock & roll, and performs rock & roll with the thoughtfulness, nuance, and intent of a poet. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard, and moves me like nothing else. This is spiritual rock & roll, which is almost everything I’ve ever wanted in a work of art. —Dylan

The Cloud of Unknowing
James Blackshaw
2007, Tompkins Square

Several years ago, the person who was in the process of breaking my heart played me “The Cloud of Unknowing,” the first song from the album of the same name by James Blackshaw. I was in the middle of a creative-writing MFA program and was hanging around poets who abused the phrase “that’s beautiful” so frequently that I started to instinctively curl my fingers into fists whenever I heard the word beautiful. But one minute into listening to this song for the first time, I blurted out, “That’s beautiful.” Even though the whole album is just one guy and his 12-string guitar, the compositions have a way of occupying every molecule of a room until it feels like music is blooming from your ears. The first time I listened to James Blackshaw, my heart was breaking, and the person who was breaking it was also trying to heal it by giving me these songs. And it worked. —Jenny

All Things Must Pass
George Harrison
1970, Apple

My winter thus far has been the backdrop for a certain inner crisis, and the most peace I have found has been in listening to George Harrison’s voice telling me to “let it roll” and assuring me that “all things must pass.” George has always and forever been my favorite Beatle, and his solo stuff lets his spiritual side shine. On this album it feels like George has figured out what is important in life, and his wisdom and constant striving for inner peace have been keeping me going. It was co-produced by Phil Spector and has that “wall of sound” thing going on, which makes it sound really big, like it was recorded outside (which it wasn’t). George’s voice sounds timeless and rugged, yet sweet and heartfelt too. He sounds like he is singing to everyone in the whole world, but simultaneously like he’s speaking just to you, only you. He sings about nature and renewal and the passing of time, and it is just really comforting when you need to be reminded that life always goes on, that this too shall pass. —Naomi

Queen of Soul
Aretha Franklin
1968, Hallmark

Coming across this record was my version of a miracle. Aretha’s music is honey to my soul, soothing all my ills, and after a long day nothing can restore my faith in humankind like the raspy timbre of the Queen of Soul. This LP compiles some of her greatest songs, like “What a Difference a Day Made” and “Follow Your Heart.” Any time I’m having a bad day, all I have to do is place the needle down and lie down and listen until it’s time to turn it over. By the end of side B, I’m restored. Thank you, Ms. Franklin, for your gift to humanity. —Cynthia

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas albums
1957-2012, various labels

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has released around 15 different Christmas albums, many of them called something along the lines of Christmas With the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and they are all my favorite. Over the course of 60 years the 360-person lineup has changed constantly, of course, and there’s a lot of overlapping content on these recordings, which is comforting somehow. “The First Noel,” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” “Silent Night”—all of the Christmas classics are given the royal treatment. Mighty crescendos, booming bass notes, and shattering high notes are belted out full volume from the record player in the living room while you bake cookies in the kitchen or hang ornaments on the tree. These albums have been the soundtrack to every Christmas in my entire existence. They make me feel solemn and glad. –Krista

Ray of Light
1998, Maverick

More than 15 years into her career, Madonna had been through countless self-reinventions, from ’80s dancehall queen to faux Monroe to dominatrix to Eva Perón (with several stops in between). Yet I can remember when the video for “Frozen,” the first single from Ray of Light, was released, and the general consensus (among people I knew, anyway) was “WTF?” followed quickly by “YESSSSS.” That video’s goth-witch vibes introduced us to a record about spirituality, transcendence, love, loss, motherhood, and, naturally, reinvention (as well as her best hair ever, if you ask me). It’s about finding yourself after a period of darkness (“And I feel / Like I just got home”) and allowing yourself to let go of the things that have held you back in the past. It is beautiful and spooky and fun and the work of someone who finally seems comfortable in her skin, after so many years of shedding it. —Pixie

Another Christmas at Home
Eux Autres
2009, Bons Mots

When it comes to Christmas music, I prefer songs that make me feel like I am in a commercial for a sweater sale. You know those ads where people of all ages are coordinated and playing in the snow and dancing and laughing about something (not really sure what) like they are in a cardigan-worshipping cult? Eux Autres’ Christmas album makes me feel that way all December long! It consists of just three songs, but that doesn’t really matter, because you will want to play them over and over and over again. I think if Françoise Hardy, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and the Charlie Brown Christmas album had a baby, it would sound like this. My favorite track is “Teenage Christmas,” because I think teenagers really get the short end of the stick when it comes to holiday music. We like roasting chestnuts over an open fire and dashing through the snow just as much as the non-angsty portions of society, and I love Eux Autres for acknowledging that. —Gabby

Channel Orange
Frank Ocean
2012, Def Jam

Frank Ocean’s world is a strange, tender place where young people fall in and out of love, make bad choices, and do everything they can to make their realities live up to their dreams. Over the 10 sprawling minutes of “Pyramids,” for example, Cleopatra’s pet cheetahs are turned loose to look for her, then everything suddenly slows down and our Egyptian queen is transformed into a Vegas prostitute, and her life becomes sordid and hard to bear, and the song starts to feel like a love poem to the dispossessed and oppressed—those of us who have suffered too long and endured too much. And then, at the end of the song, Cleopatra gets with some dude who thinks he’s hot shit, but they’re both in the shit, and the stripped-down arcade music in the background feels less innocent than it does pathetic, and that is a Frank Ocean moment—one that makes us see how pathetic we all really are, but which also wraps our failings in genuine, glistening hope. Even the darkest of Ocean’s songs contain a childlike insistence on possibility, constantly asking, “But what if?” So, what if? On the single “Thinking About You,” Ocean asks sweetly, boyishly, “I been thinking ’bout ya / You know know know / I been thinking ’bout ya / Do ya think about me still? / Do ya, do ya?” And then his voice goes up a few octaves and he answers his own question: “Or do you not think so far ahead / ’Cause I been thinking ’bout forever.” And I don’t know how to say it, but that moment is what makes faith so painful, and yet so worth it. Ocean’s protagonist is always too clever—too clever to love someone who doesn’t love him back and too smart to make dumb decisions—but in the end, his cleverness cannot and does not save him. He still falls in love too quickly, he still can’t help imagining a long and happy life with the wrong person, and he’s still an addict who believes his drug habit is just a hobby. In the end, the heroes in these songs have to believe, even if what they believe in is impossible, because belief is all they’ve got. “Bad Religion” is one of the tracks that led music critics to publicly wonder about Ocean’s sexuality, because the object of the love song is identified with a male pronoun (prompting Ocean to post a beautiful, humble, and vulnerable letter to his fans on his Tumblr about falling in love with a man when he was 19). The song compares the kind of passionate, all-consuming love that love songs are written about to a religion, and though Channel Orange is almost totally devoid of the kinds of dance-y hits and showy vocals that most R&B records make liberal use of, Ocean allows himself a rare moment of showmanship here, belting out the lines “If it brings me to my knees / It’s a bad religion,” and then takes it right back down to a whisper: “This unrequited love / To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult / And cyanide in my Styrofoam cup / I can never make him love me.” By the end of the song I feel like my faith has been tested, and I come out the other end with more questions, a little more cynical and a whole lot shakier, but still a believer, always a believer. —Jenny

For the Roses
Joni Mitchell

In a live performance at Carnegie Hall in 1972, Joni Mitchell said that the name of this album’s title track came from the expression “to run for the roses,” which is what racing horses do when they’re trying to win a race (the winner gets a wreath of flowers around its neck at the finish line). “Then,” she said, “one day they take him out and shoot him.” She giggled and added, “That’s kind of a macabre thing to say, isn’t it?” The song is about the fleeting, fickle nature of fame, where the record company will celebrate you, but only so long as you’re making them rich (“They toss around your latest golden egg … Who’s to know / If the next one … Will glitter for them so”). Then she sings, “I heard it in the wind last night / It sounded like applause … It was just the arbutus rustling / And the bumping of the logs / And the moon swept down black water / Like an empty spotlight,” and you get chills, and then you find out that “For the Roses” was something of a goodbye song, because she took an extended break from the music business right after this, and you think about that racing horse again, and you’re just punched in the gut. My favorite song on the record, “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio,” is a message sent into the ether, pleading for a response from a man who either never gets it or chooses not to answer it, while “See You Sometime” is less hopeful, acknowledging the impossibility of communicating with an ex. Mitchell’s faith and optimism seem to wane over the course of this album, but a thread of longing runs throughout. —Minna

Christmas Album
Boney M.
1981, Atlantic

Ever since I could remember, Christmas never officially began until my parents popped in this CD. As soon the steel drums on “Mary’s Boy” kick in, my dad attempts to shuffle his feet and move his arms around at the same time, in what my family has come to understand is his version of dancing. This is why I proclaim this album a Christmas miracle, because even though the heyday of disco has long passed, no one can resist the sprinkling of some funk over the traditional classics, especially not my father. —Cynthia

Saint Dymphna
Gang Gang Dance
2008, The Social Registry

Listening to Gang Gang Dance had always been akin to a religious experience for me. Their sound is otherworldly; it’s easy to get lost in the layers and feel like you are being transported to a higher dimension. GGD experiments with sounds and instruments from all over the world, and on this record, their second, all of the vibez they had been playing around with came together to tell a story—I can’t tell you what the story is about, but I know that after I listened to it I felt different from before. Lizzi Bougatsos’s singing is so muddled it sounds like you’re discovering a secret transmission from somewhere very long ago or very far away, and the tiny bits of lyrics that you can make out are like little drops of awesome. Like, on “First Communion,” you hear her sing, “We can’t separate the wings that carry us,” and it hits you like an affirmation. “Vacuum” feels like a trip through the universe where you’re crying from the beauty you are witnessing and are not able to verbalize. But the killerest track is “House Jam,” a straight-up dance song that is also totally epic. My best nights out the summer this record came out were spent singing along to that song at the top of my lungs while dancing in a circle with my friends. —Laia ♦