elliott smith from a basementFrom a Basement on the Hill
Elliott Smith
2004, ANTI-

When I was trying to figure out who I WAS my freshman year of high school (and how to deal with being in love for the first time) I listened to Elliott Smith, especially From a Basement on the Hill. This is his sixth and final album, which was assembled by his ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme and producer Rob Schnapf after Smith’s death, which was never officially classified as a suicide. Some of these songs are terribly sad, like “King’s Crossing,” where he sings, “Give me one good reason not to do it,” but they are also beautiful and full of life. In that same song, you can hear his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba say “Because I love you” in the background, much like she and a friend are said to have shouted “We love you” at his shows. I always think of Elliott Smith’s songs as deeply, mysteriously personal, so it’s interesting to me to listen to an album of his music put together by his friends. In some way it’s like you’re seeing his talent and spirit through their eyes. This album is more rock and less folky than his others, and my personal favorite for that reason. It’s just the thing to listen to while you’re working out your own disappointments, fears, or issues in love and life. I still know all the words by heart, which is a testament to how much I loved and leaned on this album when I was 15. Even though these songs were released after his death, it’s an album bursting with life—messy, complicated, good, bad life. It made me want to make art out of my feelings, just like Elliott did. —Monika

rid of meRid of Me
PJ Harvey
1993, Island Records

Rid of Me is an album about trying to define exactly who you are and what you’re capable of, on your own terms. Sometimes PJ Harvey plays with gender, like on “Man Size,” when she sings from the perspective of a leather-booted person who doesn’t need to shout for people to hear her (him?). “50ft Queenie” has her loudly proclaiming she’s both the biggest woman alive and the king of the world. Other times Harvey lays down how she wants to be treated, even when it’s in dark ways. “Yeah, you’re not rid of me,” she sings on the album’s creepy title track, “I’ll make you lick my injuries.” Throughout these songs, she pushes the limits of her love, her body, and her anger to a place that will make you forget “impostor syndrome” is a thing that even exists. Harvey is always asking for more, more, more—because she deserves it. —Hazel

my beautiful dark twisted fantasyMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West
2010, Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy celebrated its fourth anniversary just a couple weeks ago. Earlier this week, filmmaker, actor, and comedian Chris Rock told the New York Times that the album is “probably the best piece of music made in the last 25, 30 years.” While lots of outlets ran with Rock’s contentious quote that the record is “better than [Michael Jackson’s] Thriller,” I was more interested in his observation that Kanye is “the only guy that ever did party records that make you think.”
      MBDTF is the distillation of everything Kanye is about. It is 68 minutes and 36 seconds of what it means to be a creative, challenging, artistic, sexual, tortured, funny black man in America. In the opening track, “Dark Fantasy,” he talks about the difficult realities of success: “I fantasized ’bout this back in Chicago/ Mercy, mercy me, that Murciélago […] Me drown sorrow in that Diablo/ Me found bravery in my bravado.” The final track, “See Me Now,” is a joyous celebration of his life as a self-fulfilled prophecy: “Rap god, Greek mythology/ And this life too crazy to think logically/ Here’s something that you could use an analogy: My life is like a child’s illusions become reality.” And it may be a 2010 remix of a 1970 spoken-word poem by Gil Scott-Heron, but now, following the failures to indict the killers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, MBDTF’s “Who Will Survive in America” takes on new meaning.
      Pitchfork awarded MBDTF the number-one spot on their list of the 100 best albums of the decade so far, with writer Ian Cohen justifying its position with the line (that brings shivers down my spine every time I read it, which is often): “West broke the ground upon which the new decade’s most brilliant architects built their masterworks; Bon Iver, Take Care, Channel Orange, and good kid, m.A.A.d city don’t exist without the blueprint of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The list ends here because it’s where the decade truly begins.” —Brodie

lauryn hillThe Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill
1998, Ruffhouse/Columbia

This is Ms. Hill’s only solo studio-recorded album, and it’s one of the best records ever made. Hill makes her life’s statements through lyrics—for example, in the title song she says “And I made up my mind / to define my own destiny,” which just screams “self-claiming.” With these words comes Hill’s melodic voice and rhythms, which help document her experiences as a woman in the world. So, while we hear about her emotional connection to motherhood and pregnancy in “To Zion,” we get a glimpse of her foundation, aka childhood, in “Every Ghetto, Every City.” There’s an education in Lauryn’s supposed “miseducation” in every single track. —Chanel

andrew birdThe Mysterious Production of Eggs
Andrew Bird
2005, Righteous Babe

The guy who first introduced me to Andrew Bird got really upset when I said, “Oh! He’s like a better Jack Johnson,” because Andrew Bird is “classically trained.” So I’ll amend my description to a “better Jack Johnson who also plays the violin.” The Mysterious Production of Eggs is Andrew Bird’s third album of what I call “rainy music,” or music that I like to listen to when it’s raining outside or in my head. Andrew Bird’s music is the best music to listen to when you’re trying to make your slow, cold, or homework-laden days feel like a pretty movie. This album is smart, easy-going, and friendly—sort of like how I expect Andrew Bird to be. Apparently he lives on a farm, and one of my friends has a story about bumping into Andrew Bird in Michigan. The story goes that he sat on a curb, pulled out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a Ziploc bag, and struck up a conversation with her. After about 30 minutes he was like, “I have to go play a show in 10 minutes, but nice to meet you!” That’s sort of what this album is like: cool, but not intrusive or in your face about it. It’s easy to digest, with lyrics that take a few listens to tug at you. Listen to it while you’re staring longingly out the bus window, waking up late on a Saturday in the winter, or writing lengthy, profound journal entries. —Tova

thought i was an alienI Thought I Was an Alien
2012, Community Music/Babycat Records

The best part of I Thought I Was an Alien is not found in perfection, but in imperfection. The cracks in Soko’s voice make her relatable and raw. When Soko sings, it feels like she’s whispering a secret to you, making the experience of listening to the album incredibly personal and intimate. Aside from vocal harmonies and guitar strums, the album seems to be void of synthetic distractions. Amidst the bass and clamor of a lot of modern music, Soko stands out. Her writing is direct, carrying an element of childhood hope and sadness that seep from each song. It’s easy to feel like you’re the only person on the planet while listening to this album, and I often find myself tearing up while listening to the powerful lyrics of “For Marlon” and “I’ve Been Alone Too Long.” I Thought I Was an Alien has always seemed like a timeline of a relationship. A true gem, it was one of the only albums I kept to myself upon discovery. I never wanted to share it with my friends, because I felt like it belonged to me. —Mads

The Emancipation of MimiThe Emancipation of Mimi
Mariah Carey
2005, Island Def Jam

Even before I knew much about Mariah Carey, The Emancipation of Mimi emanated the vibe of an artist letting loose and having fun. After falling from the top of the charts following the failure of the tragically awful movie Glitter (2001) and her forgettable comeback album Charmbracelet (2002), Mimi came back a refreshed woman with Emancipation, which is an R&B album that’s a little retro but totally steeped in danceable ~new millennium~ hip-hop. I really adored the videos for “Shake It Off” and “We Belong Together” because they’re so glamorous and shiny. Plus there was a story arc between “We Belong Together” and an earlier single from the album, “It’s Like That,” which is supposedly about her marriage to music executive Tommy Mottola. You can practically hear the release of tension in the way she sings. Emancipation kick-started an amazing new period in Carey’s career that has helped her maintain the longevity her talent deserves. Now excuse me as I go listen to “We Belong Together” a thousand times in a row. —Brittany

sibylle baierColour Green
Sibylle Baier
2006, Orange Twin Records

In the 1970s, Sibylle Baier wrote songs on an acoustic guitar and recorded them as a hobby, and then put the tapes away. Aside from appearing in Wim Wenders’s film Alice in the Cities, and having some of her songs appear in Wenders’s other films, she never pursued music as a career. Thirty years later, her son, who must have recognized that his mother had the voice of an angel, compiled the songs for family members. Oh, and for J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., who passed them on to the label Orange Twin Records. Colour Green is the result, and it’s comprised of those home tapes. It’s a document of the life of a woman who wrote honest songs from her perspective as mother to a couple very young babies, and who was deeply in love with a man whom she would play her songs for when he came home from work. It sounds like the diary of a brilliant, caring, sweet, and kind woman at peace with her life and happy with her choices. It’s one of the most soothing, gorgeous records ever made. Recently, her son announced that they were working on another album! I really hope that actually happens, as I think it would be amazing to hear a woman in her age group reflect on a life she very clearly loved. —Meredith

indexKing of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 1
Robert Johnson
1961, Columbia

Robert Johnson, a Mississippi bluesman, was not only the “King of the Delta Blues.” His sound paved the way for the Chicago blues scene (you’ll find his rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago” on here; it’s the first recording of that song, and the only version powerful enough to make me homesick for the city). He influenced artists like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jack White (if you’re a White Stripes fan, you’ll recognize “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues,” which they covered on their first album). There is just nothing like the way he plays the slide guitar. Johnson was a member of the 27 Club, and legend has it that he made a bargain with the devil to enhance his musical gift. “Cross Road Blues” and “Hell Hound on My Trail” are interesting listening in light of that fact. Johnson’s very real experiences as a black man living in the American South at the beginning of the 20th century are at the heart of all his songs. Listen for those stories—and some of the most influential guitar playing of all time—on this record. —Stephanie

david bowie lowLow
David Bowie
1977, RCA

Low speaks to me more than anything in Bowie’s discography because it’s the first album where he seems like himself and not a character; the album where he starts a new chapter. Tracks like “Breaking Glass” and “Sound and Vision” are fun—they’re Bowie at his pop-star best. And then other songs represent this BEAUTIFUL phase of experimentation. Bowie gets in touch with his surroundings (which, at the time, was post–World War II Berlin), the influence of Brian Eno, the Krautrock scene, William Burroughs, and the playfulness of Dada. The album’s closer, “Subterraneans,” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard. Bowie soars into some of his first ventures in soundscaping, which, through instrumentation, gets in touch with something beyond words and the chaos of Bowie’s stardom. —Eleanor

nightmare airHigh in the Lasers
Nightmare Air
2013, Saint Marie Records

Los Angeles’s Nightmare Air are named after a skateboarding trick mentioned in the ’80s skate cult classic The Search for Animal Chin. I’ve lost count at how many times I’ve watched that movie AND listened to High in the Lasers. It is by far the best shoegaze record I’ve heard all year. I like to put this album on when I sit down at my art desk and I’m pottering around in my own little world making stuff. It gets my creative juices flowing! The psych-noise loops, epic walls of guitar, super fuzzed-out bass, and layered boy-girl harmonies are the tightest. —Bianca

1987, Dischord Records

Ian MacKaye was the frontperson of the super-crucial early hardcore band Minor Threat (you know, the band that coined the term “straight edge”), and was in Fugazi. His three bandmates in Embrace (one was Ian’s brother Alec) were members of the Faith, best known for their side of the epic Faith/Void split LP. All of these bands, as well as Embrace, were released on Ian’s label, Dischord Records. Why am I telling you all of this? To enunciate just how overwhelmingly up-close-and-personal this record is. Embrace only released this one record in their short time as a band, and it stands as a testament to self-definition and acknowledging one’s feelings and experiences. It’s largely a record about what happens when you realize you’ve been coping with your feelings by distancing yourself from them, and the process of undoing that bad habit in order to really feel again. Songs like “Give Me Back” and “If I Never Thought About It” are about that return to feeling, while much of the rest of the record is about asserting your stance against a world that causes so many people so much pain. —Meredith

cibo matto hotel valentineHotel Valentine
Cibo Matto
2014, Chimera Music

On their first album in 15 years, Cibo Matto has created a world centered around the comings and goings at the mythical haunted Hotel Valentine. Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori have a magical chemistry. They unravel a supernatural tale with songs that tread the boards, genre-wise, of trip-hop, lo-fi funk, lounge, jazz, lush pop, and post-punk. This colorful, moody, and atmospheric sensory overload of an album is one of my favorite records released this year! Pre-orders came with a handwritten Valentine’s Day note from Cibo Matto. How rad is that?! I recently saw them play live here in Australia—they were amazing! They wore all white and donned sunglasses for the especially rockin’ parts of the set. There was even synchronized dancing! I have never seen a live vocal performance as perfect as Miho’s. I am beyond excited they’re coming back next year to play a tribute to the legendary filmmaker, David Lynch. They’re a perfect fit to bring his hauntingly beautiful movie soundtracks to life. —Bianca ♦