A Field Guide to Formative Albums and Gut-Punch Love

I never do those Facebook memes. I don’t even have to explain them — you know the ones. But I surprised myself when my A+ friend Megan, who has a lot of amazing feelings and opinions about music, posted the following:

In your status update, list 12 albums that have stayed with you over the years in some way. Don’t take too long on this list. – Just a few minutes. These don’t have to be great records, or critical darlings, just ones that mean something to you personally.

For whatever reason, this one became a compulsion. So, here’s my list, with a whole bunch of videos. I think it’s very revealing in interesting ways, and not just because 1995 to 1997 were very big years for me. Oh, and I couldn’t stop at 12. But 18 is a nice number. So.

1) Tori Amos, Boys for Pele

My forever girl, the one who got me through adolescence. The sounds she makes. My older sister liked her, so I bought this album because of that, and because I played piano and was bored with it. I was 11. This album scared me, and entranced me. I thought Tori breathed too much. I had a VHS of her music videos, 1991-1998, that I probably wore out, I watched it so much.

2) Oasis, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

Driving back from Columbus with Clay and Teddy, singing along to every word, belting it out. Loving “Wonderwall” without irony. Cocky, strutting, rampaging inside. Fascinated by the violent, bombastic Gallagher brothers. The bigness of that sound. I could never really get into Blur.

3) Judy Collins, Whales & Nightingales

Listening to this on vinyl on our big Grundig record player, over and over again. I was 5 and obsessed with whales, asking my dad to put the needle back to “Farewell to Tarwathie”; I was 6 and obsessed with the JFK assassination, not understanding that “Patriot Games” was about something else entirely. I was 8, at my first real concert, Judy Collins in Columbus — we drove two hours to get there! She didn’t sing anything from this album, which disappointed me, but she has that voice, that clear, pure, full-of-conviction voice.

4) Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

The voice that fills the world. County noir, mythic Americana. Most brutal, most unflinching, poet and vivisectionist. Neko has evolved into something no one sees coming. I think she can save the world. This is how I met her first.

5) Lhasa de Sela, The Living Road

The things she does with stories, with rhythm, with language, with that unexpected voice. This album is like falling sideways. Matchless Lhasa, I miss you.

6) Kate Bush, Hounds of Love

I bought The Dreaming first, one of those “If you like Tori, try this!” buys. Kate Bush scared the crap out of me: shrieking, howling, moaning, snarling. I aged into her, and when I was ready to hear her, God, what she had to tell me.

7) Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Now I Got Worry

It begins with screaming. Always jarring when you’re playing your iTunes library on shuffle at full volume while working at your college coffee shop. Foul, frothy, fun as hell — aggressive, dirty, giving no shits. Hell of a live show too.

8) Joan Osborne, Relish

If the radio wasn’t playing “Hand in My Pocket” or “Who Will Save Your Soul?”, it was playing “One of Us.” I thought the whole album would be like that. Boy, did Joan Osborne prove me wrong right out of the gate. One pop hit carries along with it a raspy, bluesy, clear-eyed storyteller with some much more interesting things to say.

9) Iron & Wine, Woman King

As a whole, unified product, nothing else that Sam Beam has done has captured me the way this EP has. I think it’s because he makes himself sit with tension and momentum — none of this lo-fi whispery stuff, which I love, but which all starts to sound the same after a while, no matter how delicate the poetry. This is powerful Biblical imagery, though, visceral in a way that’s more than praiseworthy, and “Jezebel” still hits me in a hidden place every time I hear it.

10) Fiona Apple, When the Pawn…

I discovered Fiona the same way I found Kate Bush: “If you like Tori, try this!” Tidal came in a shipment of Columbia House Music Club CDs. I still remember the moment I caught I sight of the cover, which stopped me in my tracks. Just a pair of smoky eyes and pale skin: it startled me. And yes, she writes and sings and plays with anger, with this white-hot, disciplined, vengeful thing inside, but when she goes quiet, you know to listen to that too.

11) Erykah Badu, Baduizm

When I first heard her, I didn’t know enough to understand that Billie Holiday had a worthy successor. All I knew was that she didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard before, and she led to so many other good things.

12) Delerium, Poem

A guy in my dorm made fun of me loving that “techno-granola bullshit.” Fffft, I likes what I likes, and if it involves sampling chanting monks, lush orchestrations and former members of Dead Can Dance, that’s cool.

13) Dar Williams, End of the Summer

She came to Athens while I was in high school, just when I needed her. You felt like she took the things in your heart seriously.

14) the cranberries, No Need to Argue

“Zombie,” holy cats. I’d already been taken by Dolores O’Riordan’s voice, by the interesting things they did with percussion and by pairing ferocity with such a beautiful human instrument, but this album took what made their debut wonderful and grew.

15) Celine Dion, The Colour of My Love

I love “The Power of Love” as much as anyone else — don’t pretend you don’t too — and this cassette was one of the first I bought that wasn’t a Disney soundtrack. You don’t have to love it without irony like I do, but I bet you didn’t know that it’s better than you thought.

16) Bjork, Homogenic

I got a lot of guff in college, at the aforementioned coffee shop, for loving Bjork as much as I do. But you’re not allowed to make fun of me for that in light of your incessant System of a Down, Manu Chao and Sleater-Kinney, let’s be fair. And Bjork is weird in such a wondrous way: she’s so in love with everything, absolutely everything. I don’t know how you can’t be caught up in it.

17) Beck, Odelay

I have this cousin who’s in show business. He lives in L.A., and this was an album he recommended when I met him for the first time I could remember, at my bat mitzvah. I was so wide-eyed that I suddenly had family members who were cool. Cousins are great! And as it turns out, so is Beck. Don’t pretend you don’t still sing along to every word of “Where It’s At.”

18) The Beatles, With the Beatles

It would take us years to work through all the feelings I have about the Beatles. Years. But The Beatles Anthology came out when I was in sixth grade, and despite not knowing any of their names before that Thanksgiving, I listened to virtually nothing else until about eighth grade. I wrote reams of fiction about them, I bought all kinds of books and biographies, I loved their entire corpus, even the solo stuff. But With the Beatles, I defy anyone who says their early work is uninteresting to find themselves uncompelled by their rawness, their sense of fun and the sheer charisma of the Beatles at the outset of changing the world.

2 thoughts on “A Field Guide to Formative Albums and Gut-Punch Love”

  1. Esther,
    I am so loving your blog. I keep picking up the PolicyMic articles in my fb thread and thinking “Damn, she IS good”. That’s all 🙂 Thank you for writing!

    1. Adrienne! Hey lady, so good to hear from you — and thank you so much! I really appreciate it, and I’m glad you’re digging this stuff. 🙂

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