Coming From Reality
1971, Sussex; rereleased in 2009, Light in the Attic Records

I was already a fan of Sixto Rodriguez’s phenomenal, soul-clutching songwriting before I saw Searching for Sugar Man, the documentary about him that came out last year. But that movie gave so much more depth and context to his music, which had seemed vague and mysterious to me. For those who haven’t seen the film, or heard the story elsewhere: Sixto Rodriguez is a folk singer who was discovered in the late ’60s in a bar in Detroit by two Motown producers who thought he would be the next big thing. They recorded two albums with him, but both of them mysteriously tanked, despite being filled with humanist songwriting that warranted comparisons to Bob Dylan. Well, they tanked in the U.S., at least. Unbeknownst to Rodriguez or his producers, the first of those two albums, Cold Fact, which came out in 1970, had somehow made its way to South Africa and spread, pre-internet viral-style, over the next two decades, making him a legend there on the level of the Beatles and Elvis Presley, even though he’d never even been to the country. His mythological status only grew when rumors spread that he was dead, having committed suicide onstage.
     Decades later, the makers of the film—two fans of Rodriguez’s music—decided to investigate the mystery of Sixto. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you—there are twists and turns that are worth experiencing as you watch—but it’s not a secret that they found him very much alive, still totally unaware of his massive fame in South Africa, and they took him there to do a series of concerts, and to his fans there he’s risen from the dead, like a prophet or like Jesus, and it’s just so incredibly mystical and impossible and might be the most stunning music legend of all TIME. Prepare to weep.
     The songs on his splendidly dark and touching second album, Coming From Reality, carry even more weight once you know his story. It’s a full-bodied, beautiful experience that seems so much more meaningful than other music I’ve ever heard, with new layers to discover with each listen. —Dylan

In the Court of the Crimson King
King Crimson
1969, Island/Atlantic

Sixty seconds into In the Court of the Crimson King you might feel a sudden flash of recognition as singer Greg Lake howls, “Twenty-first-century schizoid maaaan”—Kanye West sampled it for his smash hit “Power,” and that, of course, was everywhere. But there is so much more to this album than that. People like to crap on prog rock because it tends to be elaborate and contain flute solos, but I like it better than just straight-up rock music, because it generally attempts to find a middle ground between hard rock, psych, classical, and jazz—or at least this album does. Besides, it was 1969 and everything in the world was getting groovy and weird. As you can maybe tell by the freaked-out dude painted on the cover, a lot of this album is about being paranoid, but the secret magic of it is that it is all about grown-ass men having really open, extreme feelings about confusion and disillusionment and most of all loneliness, which are made that much more feelings-y by the occasional curlicue on the aforementioned flute. This was a big deal back then! Plus, the slower jams invite you to rest your head on the softest down pillow covered in marigolds and vibe out. “Moonchild” is a megafave, ’cause it invokes a really gentle image of a lovely girl in a white dress “gathering the flowers in a garden…drifting on the echoes of the hours,” while simultaneously having really unselfconscious amounts of cymbal taps. —Julianne

The Ghost Who Walks
Karen Elson
2010, Third Man Records

This album is like a collection of fables, all told with vivid details and the right amount of theatricality. If I had to explain the sound to you using overwrought comparisons, imagine folksy country music as performed by a cabaret singer, but mellower. “Cruel Summer” sounds like it was written in a dusky attic while surrounded by pressed roses and faded love letters. “100 Years From Now” is a warped circus theme. By far the best song, though, is the album’s title track, which starts off prettily enough but gets downright intoxicating by the chorus. —Anna

Adam Hurst
2010, Ash Records

Whether I’m writing or riding the train or just lying around in my room when I listen to this gorgeous music for cello and piano (and no singing), I see girls running through snowy fields, dancing, mourning, and living out all the ups and downs of a fairy tale. Maybe that’s what you’ll see, maybe not. The beauty of this music is that it can provide the soundtrack to whatever silent film is playing in your brain. —Stephanie

…And Don’t the Kids Just Love It
Television Personalities
1981, Rough Trade

This is the first Television Personalities record I ever heard, and it was a total REVELATION. Sure, I had heard “punk” music before, but this was different: the power chords and dangly bass lines were there, but where every other band was trying to hate everything and destroy “the system,” the Television Personalities were telling stories with a childlike sweetness and a sense of wonderment that felt totally new in this kind of music. Like in “The Glittering Prizes,” when the singer, Dan Treacy, goes, “Gliiittering priiizes for me!” and it’s the brattiest thing ever. The best song on this record is definitely “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives,” a quiet guitar ballad full of birds chirping and basically the sweetest song you’ve ever heard until an “OH SHUT UP!” welcomes you back to reality. Come for the fun lyrics, stay for the great music and rad vibez. —Laia

Cocteau Twins
1984, 4AD

This is the best Cocteau Twins album ever, and probably the best album of 1984. It’s mostly all about singer Elizabeth Fraser, whose vocal glory is like some strong, magical, swanlike apparition standing on a mountaintop, conjuring fantasies of beauty and love. Many of the songs on here are named for female figures in mythology, like Persephone, Pandora, and Lorelei, and Fraser sings in a totally invented mixture of languages and vocal tones inspired by their names. So there’s nothing to distract you from just sinking into the sound of it all and daydreaming, which I highly recommend. There are so many movie scenes I am mad at for not being scored with tracks from Treasure: Edward Scissorhands slicing up ice snowflakes onto Winona’s eyelashes, the Chronicles of Narnia kids getting sucked into the painting of the ocean, the entirety of the first Twilight film, etc. —Julianne

2001, One Little Indian

For years, we have always driven to visit my aunt and uncle by the seaside on Christmas Day. They’re an artist couple living in an old Victorian house with their two cats; ornamental tin birds are everywhere, as are handmade velvet cushion covers and homemade jams, chutney and chestnuts. The day is always quiet and comforting. During the two-hour ride home, we’d listen to Vespertine in its entirety. I’d watch the car window slowly steam up as I gazed out of it dreamily, the specks of light by the roadside slipping by in jittery trails. The haunting, pulsating beat of “Hidden Place” would slowly breathe out of the car speakers, gradually building up with ethereal choir vocals, and then permeating every inch of air as an orchestra swells up and up and up. Every time I hear it is almost like the first, I can’t believe my ears are consuming something so beautiful. I burst into tears when I saw Björk perform that song live, with the Icelandic Choir sighing behind her in sparkling dresses, and images of starfish and icicles from the TV movie Frozen Planet projected behind them. Every other track is just as good, and they all touch you in different ways. Every track I could strongly argue for best track on the album, but they all touch you different ways. “Cocoon” is a fragile love song that sleepily sits upon a glitchy beat (which apparently is a sample of someone shuffling playing cards). Even “Frosti,” the 1:42 interlude track in the middle of the album, feels like a standout track. When Björk performed it at the Royal Opera House in London in 2001, she sat on a giant music box made to look like ice, and confetti rained down on her. One of the most goose-bump-inducing songs on the album is “An Echo, a Stain,” which creeps up on you, conjuring images of night creatures and bubbling swamps. (Björk has explained that Vespertine is a winter album, and that she wanted it to sound like all the things you don’t know about that happen outside in the middle of the night.) “Harm Of Will” holds a very special place in my heart, with its beautiful lyrics written by Harmony Korine. But it’s the last track, “Unison,” that always moved me the most: as Björk’s voice soars into the chorus, singing, “Let’s unite tonight, we shouldn’t fight, embrace you tight, let’s unite tonight,” you can’t help thinking about winter and mystery, isolation, comfort, and love. —Eleanor

Deltron 3030
Deltron 3030
2000, 75 Ark

This is one of my favorite hip-hop albums of all time. I love it so much I have it on CD, vinyl, a reissue with bonus tracks, and even an instrumental version. The concept album tells the story of an interplanetary avenger, Deltron Zero (emcee Del tha Funkee Homosapien), rising up to rebel against a New World Order in the 31st century along with his pals the Cantankerous Captain Aptos (producer Dan the Automator) and Skiznod the Boy Wonder (DJ Kid Koala). Automator’s beats transport the listener to a surreal soundscape of orchestral crescendos and futuristic blips. Del, meanwhile, narrates sci-fi battles while adding social commentary on the side. His rhymes are probably my favorite thing about this album (example: “Drift by a star, absorb it, and store it. Leave tourists porous, my galaxy’s gorgeous. Quantum jump, I’m right at your doorstep” from “Positive Contact”). Plus there are fun guests like Prince Paul, Sean Lennon, and Blur’s Damon Albarn. I’m super excited for the follow-up album, Event II, set to drop this year! (Here’s the first single, “Pay the Price.”) —Bianca

Dave Hause
2011, Paper & Plastick

This solo album by the lead singer of the Philly punk band the Loved Ones proves that punk can be just as powerful when it’s acoustic and stripped down—maybe even more so. Songs like “C’mon Kid” and “Pray for Tucson” are reminiscent of Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen. “Melanin” and “Resolutions” capture that cabin-fever feeling of winter and the desperate need to get some sun and a fresh start. It’s the perfect music for January, because it’s about coming to terms with past mistakes, wiping off the dirt and the blood, and heading toward the next hurdle. —Stephanie

Hounds of Love
Kate Bush
1985, EMI

I live in the deep rolling hills of the southern-English countryside, and I can safely say that there is no better soundtrack to driving through open winter landscapes than this double-concept-album by the mystical Kate Bush. It’s not surprising, since she was born and raised in this area. Her music always touches something quintessentially English to me, like the tragedy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles trudging through moors. Side one is called Hounds of Love, and it opens with “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” which feels hypnotic and persuasive as it reaches into you and claws at your soul, and continues with standouts like “The Big Sky” and “Cloudbusting,” all very ’80s-sounding, what with the violins and Fairlight synthesizer, but made timeless and transcendent by virtue of Bush’s shrieks over driving percussion. Side two is a whole separate concept album, this one called The Ninth Wave, which leaves pop music behind in favor of some of Bush’s most experimental music ever. The explained this collection of songs as being “about a person who is alone in the water for the night. It’s about their past, present, and future coming to keep them awake, to stop them drowning, to stop them going to sleep until the morning comes.” My favorite song in the bunch—possibly my favorite Kate Busy song EVER—is “Watching You Without Me,” in which lullaby lyrics like “You watch the clock move the slow hand” unravel over a hypnotically ticking beat. This whole double album is so profane and dark and interesting and weird that it gives me real hope to know that it’s Kate Bush’s best-selling record to date. —Eleanor

In the Flat Field
1980, 4AD

This record, the first one by the goth-rock pioneers Bauhaus, never fails to take me back to that period in my life when I skulked around dark dance clubs in black dresses with bat sleeves. The stark instrumentation on songs like “Spy in the Cab” makes you feel like you’re staring out at a world that’s just been blanketed in snow late at night. Then there’s the twitchy, jangly guitar that compliments Peter Murphy’s spooky howl about “the pangs of dark delight” on “Double Dare,” and the gorgeous frenzy of “Stigmata Martyr” which has Peter singing in tongues and “St. Vitus Dance,” a song about literally dancing until you explode. It’s a quirky, dark, and brilliant album, perfect for dancing around your room on a winter night with black candles lit and clove incense burning. —Stephanie ♦