Prince-Sign-O-The-Times-608x608Sign “☮” the Times
1987, NPG Records/Warner Bros.

By 1987, Prince had moved through many musical modes and distinct identities. Several of his preceding albums reflected singular focuses: 1980’s Dirty Mind pushes Reagan-era buttons about “decency,” 1981’s Controversy gets political, and Purple Rain shoots for stadium pop. Sign “☮” the Times moves like Willy Wonka’s elevator: in any direction it pleases. Several songs come from scrapped projects. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” originated from the shape-shifting Camille album, Camille being a character created by Prince who used a studio to pitch his vocals higher. So, is Prince playing Camille or is Camille playing Prince? On one song, Prince sings about partnering with someone forever, then a few tracks later, he says, “I may be qualified for a one night stand / But I could never take the place of your man.” Hard funk, radio-friendly pop gems, filthy slow jams, and a religious grunge song all spring from the same fertile, polymorphous imagination. Contradicts himself? Very well, Prince contradicts himself. Like he sang in “Uptown” a few years before: “Now where I come from / We don’t let society tell us how it’s supposed to be / Our clothes, our hair, we don’t care / It’s all about being there.” —Annie

I_Am..._Sasha_FierceI Am…Sasha Fierce
2008, Sony BMG Music

It would be a shame to consider Sasha Fierce—Beyoncé’s alter ego who was officially “killed off” in 2010—as just a pop star’s molted skin, a moment in the timeline to be dated and forgotten, when I Am…Sasha Fierce is a crucial artifact made by a star en route to supreme world boss dominance. If Beyoncé was the “stripped down,” emotional self, then Sasha Fierce took charge of the diva role, delivering the bangers everyone wants from a Bey record. Sure, it’s an obvious type of alter ego for an artist, wanting to express the perceived duality of soft feelings and hard bossness, to inhabit. What’s most interesting about Sasha Fierce, though, is that she is, in a way, Beyoncé in drag as herself—the superstar edition. Beyoncé split in two in order to become both—to let sensitive Beyoncé and seductive Sasha Fierce not just exist in tandem, but to fully realize themselves independently. Sasha Fierce was still Beyoncé, just realized through a unique identity, one that could be without apology. When Beyonce announced that she was laying her alter ego to rest, she said that she had grown up, and that there was space for Beyoncé to contain both Sasha and Bey. Beyoncé created her alter ego in order to self-realize, and she came out on the other side able to embody all of herself. Sasha Fierce might be declared dead, but I Am…Sasha Fierce gave us the moment where Beyoncé processed her multitudes, and wrote that process into an album. It was the record where she sang “Ego” and “If I Were A Boy,” where she sing about divas and angels, and where she could feel, and be, it all. —Dylan

NTMT_(Digital_Album) Night Time, My Time
Sky Ferreira
2011, Capitol Records

Sky Ferreira’s freshman album has helped me push past toxic love junk by simply expressing feelings that I couldn’t find words for myself—especially the tracks “Nobody Asked Me (If I Was OK)”, “Ain’t Your Right,” and “Boys.” The thing about Night Time, My Time is that although it’s great listening when you’re getting over someone or something, it’s also just so BOMB that you’ll want to listen to it while doing basically everything else, too. This album marked Sky’s break with her dance and pop background as she ventured into indie-synthpop territory. Since each song is enchanting, and the album expresses a range of emotions, no single track fades into the background. This is such an impressive breakout album, and it’s lovely to hear Sky come through her tracks as not just a super singer, but an actual living being who maybe even deals with break-ups too (although hard to believe…). —Alyson

homepage_large.ee343ff0Van Lear Rose
Loretta Lynn
2004, Interscope

Van Lear Rose marries the incredible talents of the country music star Loretta Lynn with those of Jack White, a musician she has profoundly influenced, and who produces and performs on this album. The two sound like they are having a ton of fun sharing vocals on a track about a heady fling in “Portland, Oregon.” And that isn’t the only song about romance. Lynn weaves tales about relationships that go well (her parents’ story, which she tells on the title track), and the many ways they can go badly. “Family Tree”—which has made me cry many times—is about the effects of an affair on a family, and “Women’s Prison” is sung from the perspective of a woman on death row for killing her cheating lover. On my favorite track, “Mrs. Leroy Brown,” the title character takes a pink limo to the honky-tonk to confront her husband. Whether she’s singing about love or her childhood, Van Lear Rose really showcases Lynn’s storytelling abilities. This album is perfect for long time country music fans, and folks new to the genre. —Stephanie

shoes-black-vinyl1Black Vinyl Shoes
1977, Black Vinyl Records

This album has been received as a power pop masterpiece, a genre which has as its thematic touchstone the sweet-and-sourness of romance and being a teenager. Black Vinyl Shoes stomps right through the ups and downs of that terrain. So sweetly melodic and softly spoken, this album has all the wistful shyness and heartfelt eagerness that come with crush-like affection. Cast in its mild, warm tones are painful beauties like “It Really Hurts” and “Fire For Awhile,” which are so bittersweet about the dissolution of love that your ears might pucker. It was recorded in a living room in 1977, which doesn’t quite make it bedroom pop…still, for some reason, the quality of its home production reminds me of making out after school before my parents got home. I just wish that I had been making out to this. —Dylan

marissanadler-balladsBallads of Living and Dying
Marissa Nadler
2004, Eclipse Records

Marissa Nadler’s first album, Ballads of Living and Dying is achingly beautiful from start to finish. Her lyrics tell troubling and desperate stories, and, as the title suggests, many of the songs are vignettes about death—although some recount sunnier days. Ballads explores the duality of life’s richness along with the emptiness of death: “Annabelle Lee” is about the tragic loss of sweet love, while the first strums of the acoustic guitar in “Fifty Five Falls” have a faraway sound, that puts me in a state of somber recollection. Ballads is a wonderful album for rainy days when you want to get lost in your own memories. It takes you on a journey full of ghosts, but Marissa Nadler’s gentle voice will guide you along the way. —Meagan

Simon_And_Garfunkel_-_Sounds_Of_SilenceSounds of Silence
Simon & Garfunkel
1966, Sony BMG

My first encounter with Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence was when I picked it out at the local record shop for my 16th birthday. It cost five dollars, and the cover showed its age—it would be a minor miracle if it still played. What happened was a major miracle. Not only did it play fine, the album transformed me. Before this album, I believed that music written “before my time” was all sunshine and rainbows. Sounds of Silence not only flipped that notion, but had me grinning ear-to-ear as I caught the lightly-coated, SURPRISINGLY RELATEABLE references to depression. The song “The Sound of Silence” is full of simple, yet WHOA-inducing truths: “People watching without seeing / People hearing without listening.” Closing out the album is “I Am a Rock,” a wipe-your-tears anthem that stops me in my tracks and fills me with wonder at the wisdom of these two artists. There are stories of tragedy in songs like “Richard Cory” and “A Most Peculiar Man,” which also offer some insight into the not-always-easy lives of two celebrated musicians. Sounds of Silence will always be a go-to comfort album, for me. —Alyson

waxahatchee-608x608Ivy Tripp
2015, Merge Records

Waxahatchee’s enchanting third album Ivy Tripp opens like a secret door. On the first track, “Breathless,” a droning organ introduces an unsuspected, dramatic space. It’s like walking into a sanctuary that requires your attention, and—if you were to stick around for the whole program—your vulnerability. What Waxahatchee brings up on Ivy Tripp is an articulation of unanswerables that are just specific enough to feel like your very own hazy apprehension about you/them/it/life, but vague enough to sound just as emotionally nebulous as youth feels. The songwriter Allison Crutchfield sounds so confidently uncertain, which is almost all you can be when you are sussing out the unsteady, unsettling parts of growing up. Yet Crutchfield trades predictable 20-something ambivalence for a disarming openness, and in that openness—as she sings on “Poison”—“I take all the space I need.” —Dylan ♦