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Essential Albums

"Now I look for the beauty in songs" –Jackson Browne, Farther On

I love music. I love to just listen to an album or, preferably, to sing along. I like the albums to be slightly melancholic. If you were stuck on a desert island and could bring only X albums to listen to ever, which would you bring? These are my choices:

August and Everything After

Counting Crows, 1993
In 1994, I told my sister that it was unlikely that any of these new bands, including Counting Crows and Smashing Pumpkins, would be anything more than one-hit wonders. It just goes to show you that you can't always predict success (or failure). Soon after muttering those words, I purchased this album. At that time, the new single "Round Here" was making headway on VH1 and MTV. While I thought "Mr. Jones," their first hit, would just be a catchy one-hitter, "Round Here" was a different matter. It showed that the band could go beyond catchy pop. It turns out that this album is more "Round Here" than "Mr. Jones." It's pretty depressing (the only exceptions being "Mr. Jones," "Rain Kings," and "A Murder of One").

Still, as far as depressing pop goes, this is the definitive album. The most impressive of the depressing tunes is "Raining in Baltimore:"
   I need a phone call
   I need a rain coat
Perhaps lyrically best is the ballad of Adam Duritz's love affair with a girl in a foreign country. It seemed like a good fling, since it couldn't last. But, what if you both get in too deep:
   The time when kindness falls like rain
   It washes me away and anna begins to change my mind
   And every time she sneezes I believe itís love
   And oh lord.... Iím not ready for this sort of thing
Counting Crows have never been able to match the emotions or consistent quality of their first album. Being one of the greatest albums of the '90s, it's no wonder. This is definitely one to put on when you want to get more depressed.

Tonight's the Night

Neil Young & Crazy Horse, 1975
This is perhaps the worst album of all times. There are mistakes galore. Everyone is high on pot. Neil's voice is even worse than usual. It's messy, sloppy, greasy, acrid, and brilliant. Neil and company are mourning two of their fallen compatriots, roadie Bruce Berry and guitarist Danny Whitten, fallen to drugs. Each sound, whether musical note or whining vocals, aches.

Initially, the record company rejected this album. Neil's last album was Harvest, which produced the No. 1 hit "Heart of Gold." This didn't sound like a follow-up. In fact, it just didn't sound good. Finally, in 1975, Tonight's the Night was released. When Rolling Stone Magazine released their top 200 albums of the twentieth century, Tonight's the Night was the only album that made it into the top 100. It goes to show you how much the record companies know.

In 1994, I discovered Neil Young. I had a Neil album before that (Unplugged), but I didn't really grow to love it until '94. I purchased every Neil album I could. I knew that people generally thought well of TTN, but I couldn't understand it. It just wasn't accessible. One day, I took it to work and listened to it over and over and over again. By the end of the day, it was one of my favorite albums ever. It's so raw. It almost bleeds.

Late for the Sky

Jackson Browne, 1974
On Jackson Browne's greatest hits collection, entitled The Next Voice You Hear, two amazing songs ("Late for the Sky" and "Fountain of Sorrow") from this album are included. If you take those songs off this album, you are left with a great album. Few albums are gifted with songs as wonderful as those two and I know of no other album that could still be called great after the removal of its two best songs. Altogether, this may be the most consistently good album that I know of, with the possible exception of Carole King's Tapestry.

Jackson Browne is rock 'n' roll's best lyricist and it shows on this album. On the first track, "Late for the Sky," he recalls the end of a relationship and how it changes your perspective:
   How long have I been sleeping?
   How long have I been drifting alone through the night?
   How long have I been running for that morning flight?
   Through the whispered promises and the changing light
   In the bed where we both lie
   Late for the sky.
On the second track, "Fountain of Sorrow," he tells the story of finding an old photograph and all the memories associated with that. You can't help but be emotionally involved. Again, the lyrics are stunning:
   And while the future's there for anyone to change
   Still you know it seems
   It may be easier sometimes to change the past
"Farther On" is Browne reflecting on his ability to live life vicariously through literature. "The Late Show" is a sober reflection on the relationships between people:
   Maybe people only ask you how you're doin'
   Cause that's easier than letting on how little they can care
   But when you know that you've got a real friend somewhere
   Suddenly all the others are so much easier to bear
"For a Dancer" is perhaps the best reflection on the death of a friend ever. It starts off somber, but ends up upbeat. It has been played at many funerals and I'd like it to be played at mine. "Before the Deluge" addresses the end of the hippie period elegantly.

In the end, you can't go wrong with this album. Browne's vocals are evocative. David Lindley's guitar and violin playing is haunting. The music is addictive.

Live Through This

Hole, 1994
At Georgia Tech, we have a music listening room—you can select a CD and listen to it while in that room. I saw that they had this Hole album. This was the summer after Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, had killed himself. I thought that I should check it out. After all, I was a Nirvana fan (even if my fandom for Nirvana was a bit limited) and Courtney Love, lead singer of Hole, was his wife. Anyway, I took a listen to it. Two thirds of the way through, I was liking it. It was angry, self-depracating, and diverse. Cool. Then, the magic happened. In the middle of "I think that I would die," Courtney Love screams at the top of her lungs "F#$K YOU!" I knew that this was one album that I must have. It sounds silly, but I was able to understand this music.

By the end of the year, Live Through This was my favorite album of all time. It's not the songs. It's the album. While some of the songs ("Miss World," "Violets," "Doll Parts") got a decent amount of airplay and are quite good, it's really the feeling of the entire album that does it. I can put it on and listen to it from "Violets" to "Rock Star" and it turns into a cathartic experience. Seriously, Hole rules. Now, I don't think everyone can understand this music. It'll give many people a headache. Others won't even give it a chance. That's okay. Unlike most of the other albums on this list, I wouldn't recommend most people to get it. But, I couldn't create an essential albums list without putting my favorite album on it.

Hounds of Love

Kate Bush, 1985
I was first introduced to Kate Bush by watching the "Wuthering Heights" video; of course, I was making fun of it. It certainly wasn't good. Hilarious yes, but not good. After showing it to several people, the song grew on me. Now, I like it. I started listening to more Kate Bush. While her early work is good, this album eclipses that work. This album is quintessentially 80s (think synthesizers, drum machines, etc.). While I generally don't like that 80s sound, it works for Kate Bush. "Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God)," "Hounds of Love," and "Cloudbusting" are highlights. However, the album as a whole is also coherent and strong.

Bat Out of Hell - Meat Loaf

Tapestry - Carole King

Blue - Joni Mitchell

"A Case of You" is one of the best songs of all time.

For the Roses

Joni Mitchell, 1971
Less accessible, both in terms of music and lyrics, and less commercially successful than its predecessor (Blue) or its successor (Court and Spark), For the Roses is deeply rewarding once you get used to it. This is not a collection of songs recorded to generate hits; only "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" was a hit-single. It's a collection of songs that Mitchell needed to compose. Unlike the confessional and honest Blue, the songs are mainly introspective and cryptic. It takes some getting used to. Once you get there though, you just want more.

Like most Mitchell albums, the album seems to build—the later tracks are (in general) better. There are plenty of highlights. Mitchell's voice is amazing on "Let the Wind Carry Me" and "Electricity." Her composition skills shine on "Judgement of the Moon and the Stars (Ludwig's Tune)."