Tuesday, June 1, 2021

25 Years, 25 Albums

For many artists, time can be measured not in years, but in album cycles. Records condense years of intense emotion into an hour-long time capsule, forever a monument to their creator's life at that time. That can be said not only for those who produce records, but for those of us who listen to them, as well. We use them as lightning rods for our own circumstances -- records, after all, often capture and transmit our own feelings with the elegance and clarity we sometimes lack.

Turning 25 years old this month, I realize I have lived only long enough to qualify for the military draft, the purchase of lottery tickets and alcohol, and a quarter-life crisis. But as someone with a somewhat poor memory for someone my age, I often find myself reliant on music to unlock memories from my past. This year, I examined the albums that defined me: The ones over which I obsessed for months, the ones that primed me for wider appreciations for music, and the ones that impressed upon me valuable perspective.

While not every one of them is a perfect listen, these 25 records made me the listener I am today.


During most family car rides to the mall or grocery store, I was not free to reach for the radio presets from my place in the back seat. When my Walkman’s batteries had died – or worse yet, I had outright forgotten it at home – I was subjected to my parents’ taste for classic rock and country music. Little did I know that many of my favorite songs from their stations came from one record. It was embarrassingly late in my life – perhaps even early high school – when I finally deduced that omnipresent songs in my life like “Dreams” and “The Chain” originated from the same record: Rumours, a soft rock record that has endured time’s uncaring march forward. Every listen hits me with the intensity as the last: The pain and the passion still jolt from the exposed wiring of two long-destructed relationships.


It should be considered impossible to have grown up in the Midwest around Y2K without developing at least a modest appreciation for Shania Twain. Come On Over, the Diamond-plated record at the centerfold of her peak popularity, was the record around which my childhood revolved: Executing feminist country-pop with near-perfect precision and underselling adult themes with radio-ready language, the record was deemed appropriate for younger listeners like me – and for a few years, an inherited copy of the CD (sans its cover, which I taped to my wall as a makeshift poster) was the only album I owned. And you know, with an album equipped with 16 hits, who would need anything more anyway?


While I’m sure that I will find it at a thrift store one day for 50 cents, I would pay much more to own Believe on cassette tape for nostalgia’s sake. My nana kept this album on tape in her Jeep’s center console when I was a kid, and I used to play the hell out of Side A – so much so that I often forgot Side B, including the incomparable "Dove L’Amore," existed. While the album’s take on disco is a bastardized, ultramodern interpretation, my love for dance and disco were birthed from this album's digital architecture: The clash of human emotion and mechanical magic dazzled me to the point of obsession. Even today, my nana reminds me of our trips to the store and the hairdresser, when I would always ask to listen to "that tape where Cher sounds like she's in a computer." 


As a kid, I was thrilled to hear a fellow kid like Britney Spears making music for kids. As I created album-long dance routines to Oops!... I Did It Again with my cousin, I didn’t realize that the first act of Britney Spears’ career would become the ultimate template for teen-pop stars: Through music and spectacle, she defined much of the lasting legacy for turn-of-millennium pop culture. Oops!... I Did It Again leaned into – and perfected – the full-bodied, double-chorused Max Martin formula upon which teen pop careers were built in the late ‘90s. In fact, it may have been the brightest the Martin bonfire burned before the winds of hip-hop and rock blew it out.


Aqua is the antithesis to everything my parents preferred in music: Presenting like a Scandinavian cartoon strip to masquerade some raunchy lyrics, the band produced top-tier synthetic, ultra-fun Eurodance music. To me, they were Cher's Believe on steroids. For all those reasons and more, their first two records were on heavy rotation for many years of my childhood. Though the band fell apart during its promotion, Aquarius clearly normalized the band’s level of service compared to its predecessor. Songs like “Cartoon Heroes” and “Freaky Friday” leaned into the band’s chintzy origins with a clever wink, while “Good Guys” and “Aquarius” proved to be much better ballads than they could deliver on their debut record.

ARULAR • M.I.A. (2005)

As someone whose parents blacklisted rap music from communal listening selections, I had to explore the genre on my own time. M.I.A.’s 2013 release Matangi served as my introductory point to her work due to my delayed start in the world of hip-hop, but I was quick to admire an earlier record like Arular for its brash, primitive approach to dance-injected hip-hop. As a pioneer for bedroom dance records, Arular developed my appreciation for unsound melodies, DIY sound collages, and unconventional songwriting.


After thumbing through my father’s dirty travel case of loose CDs and finding some joy in Bob Marley and the Wailers, I flexed hard as a Midwest kid when my mom finally let me purchase my own copy of the group’s posthumous Gold collection. I distinctly remember the day I walked to a (country ass) friend’s house with one of the discs in my Walkman, determined to prove reggae and ska are, in fact, good. While Marley sits just adjacent from the yacht rock popular among my family’s variant of Midwest White People, Gold introduced me to new instrumental textures and relaxed attitudes toward songwriting.


By 2006, I was old enough to begin sharing music among my friends. My best friend introduced me to Evanescence, a band that would co-sponsor my generation's preteen angst. The Open Door was (and still is) my favorite of the band's releases thanks to its progressive, multifaceted approach to hard rock, and it was the one I asked to buy first as a new fan. There was such an odd dynamic during the car ride home with the purchase in the CD player, as I jammed with the very person who provided me so much emotional turmoil. Oh, the irony in the fact that my father raved over “Call Me When You’re Sober,” deeming it a good message for me to hear and repeating the song once over during our maiden listen together. 

FUNHOUSE • P!NK (2008)

As P!nk’s indisputable creative peak, Funhouse connected with me strongly as my love grew for both pop and rock music. Perhaps the last notable blockbuster hurrah for rock music in the popular music scene before the late aughts dance revival, Funhouse was the perfect transitional piece to which I could sunset my pre-teen attitude and replace it with some admirable (even if sometimes misconstrued and pointed) self-confidence. (In hindsight, P!nk may have even encouraged uncomfortably pointed confidence in my generation amid her separation from her husband.) Irony, of course, struck again when my father proclaimed his love for "Sober," a song over which I would superimpose him in my head.


A four-disc career-spanning compilation record may seem like a cop-out, but there isn’t any other way to represent accurately how Dolly Parton affected me, especially in 2020. In the wake of the Dolly Parton’s America podcast, my co-workers and I found our childhood passions for Dolly Parton rekindled just before the pandemic locked down the world. I listened once again to decades of Dolly Parton storytelling, from "The Bridge" to "Better Get to Livin'." If ever I am guilty of idealizing my time in lockdown decades from now, it will be due in part to the work captured on Dolly – nearly 100 of Dolly’s best songs – and the indescribable comfort it brought me when I needed it most during an isolating pandemic.


In 2011, I was a high school freshman on the cusp of accepting my sexuality. Just as was the case for many in a similar position, I found solace in Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. Its title track’s success foreshadowed a changing tide in public perception of the gay community – at least enough that I, a cisgender white gay male, could come out to my family. For all intents and purposes, this record was my formal gay awakening. With it, Lady Gaga sneered at the thought of normality while shoving together pop, dance, rock, and country music into a nuanced collage.


Released in the dubstep tidal wave of the early 2010s, Siberia proved the genre to be a viable basis – not just an occasional touchpoint – for pop music. At the time, I was looking for a more aggressive approach to pop music without rummaging too deeply into the Vans Warped Tour roster. Swinging away from the glossiest synthpop imaginable, Lights juxtaposed light melodies with the thickest, most aggressive production she could conjure on Siberia. As a proof of concept that pop music didn’t need to be smooth, clean, or glossy, the album very well could have been – hear me out – the earliest template for the phenomenal Charli XCX and Caroline Polachek brand of hyperpop music that would follow years later.


When Lana Del Rey released Born to Die, she reinvented what it meant to be a popular artist. Until this record, I listened to music introduced to me through school, cable television, or the radio; I had not considered the internet as an independent discovery platform beyond some novelty music videos on YouTube. And while Born to Die is a sturdy effort even today, it may hold greater significance to me as my launchpad into a broader selection of pop and alternative music. Del Rey built her own fame upon a bad girl parody and hip-hop appropriation, inspiring a class of musicians – many of whom were high school favorites for yours truly – to ride her wake before maturing into their own visions.


As high school graduation neared, I found myself uncomfortable with the thought of leaving. By my senior year, I felt I had grown out of my awkward isolationist attitude and began to feel comfortable in my routine: I made an effort to make a few new friends, found my passions, and liked my classes. While I didn't graduate until two years after this record was released, Halcyon was the record I revisited most in high school: It both intensified my nostalgia for a place I had not yet left and inspired me to find peace with my next steps.


It may be unreasonable to choose one record to define what Taylor Swift means to my generation, who grew up alongside her as she produced the soundtrack to every step. Although it endures some blatant growing pains and the grand misfortunate of an Ed Sheeran collaboration, Red managed a lasting impression because elegantly marked a transitional time for Swift and me alike. While Swift merged into pop music then reconciled the move with her country legacy, I had decided that my feigned hatred for Taylor Swift (in an attempt to camouflage into the sea of straight boys) was not worth the struggle.


Even if it isn't Miley Cyrus' most graceful nor her most impressive record, Bangerz was the cultural moment that defined my senior year of high school. With its cultural bookmarks of twerking and naked rides atop wrecking balls to distract from its resonant trauma and intense rebounds, the album deconstructed and redefined (for neither the first nor the last time) how Miley Cyrus could leverage her star power. The significance of Bangerz may be magnified in my timeline because it worked tandem with own character growth. It inspired me to loosen my grip on perfection a bit and enjoy my teens: To be a little unwieldy and sometimes (often) annoying.


When she released E•MO•TION, Carly Rae Jepsen effortlessly legitimized pop music in a way that the genre’s most prominent headliners tried to accomplish for decades. A comprehensive fever dream of the best 1980s teen-pop, the album both vindicated my own music tastes and enhanced my first experiences with love after exiting the closet. I was out and unabashed to embrace pop music, the "gay" genre of music, for all of its glory. And as she honed the single most cohesive vision for a pop record in recent memory, Jepsen crafted a record worth every revisit.


In the summer of 2015, a medical event rendered my uncle unresponsive in a nearby hospital for two months before his death – the first major loss among my closest family members in my lifetime. I transported my grandparents to and from his bedside nearly every day during that time, and my copy of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful may as well have melted in the car’s stereo during those hot summer days. Playing on a loop at a quiet volume, it softened any stark silence between my grandparents’ stories about my uncle and themselves. In hindsight, the record’s roots in nature and raw humanity made it the perfect time capsule upon which I could impress my memories of these conversations – and in turn, “Mother” may be the only song that has provided me absolute peace in regard to my own mortality. 


As a record that explored whether it was best to settle for familiar happiness or to continue the pursuit for more, The Fool laid the blueprint for my wide open future at the time of its release. Redefining myself as a college student and setting my sights more solidly on a future career, I found myself balancing the same questions that Weaver posed with her debut (and as of 2021, her only) record. A signed Polaroid of Weaver and me from a backstage meet and greet still sits behind my desk today to remind me of this record's eternal question – even if I no longer wish to run alone to new constellations. 


In the months-long lead-in promotion for Banks’ sophomore record, my life was caught in near-constant turbulence. My first relationship had ended, unresolved paternal tensions had snapped, and I started to spend most nights speed-dating to escape. Feeling particularly neglected in an unhealthy home environment, I felt every word and vocal snarl of The Altar resonate through my own narrative. While many albums allow us to idealize our memories, this is not one of them: Each listen still rattles me with its rich production and incomparable vocal textures, but not without grazing over healed scars.


After he asked us students to suggest potential term paper topics in a communications research class, my professor rebutted my assertion that Beyoncé had tapped into something academically significant with her new record that year: “Well, I don’t know that a Beyoncé album merits a research paper.” Seeing the record affect people in such a visceral way – “Formation,” in particular, which was a bombshell in its own right – led me to defy his opinion and carry forward. At the end of the term, my professor placed my graded paper face-down in front of me: “The Priming Effects of Beyoncé’s Lemonade,” a research proposal on the record’s effects on attitudes towards African-Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement, had received a 98%, the highest in the class. Checkmate, professor. 

ABOUT U • MUNA (2017)

About U and its preceding extended play, Loudspeaker, were on heavy rotation during my senior year of college. As I adjusted to a turbulent new chapter in American history and prepared myself to make significant decisions after my undergraduate education concluded, the record brought me peace during long drives through a snowy countryside for night classes and solo study sessions in my favorite corner of an academic hall. Katie Gavin’s rippled voice soothed my suppressed anxiety, reaffirming to me that happiness isn’t effortless – especially when breaking away from a comfortable scenario for your own growth.


On paper, my life presented as nearly ideal in 2017: I graduated from college, secured a stable job in my field weeks prior to graduation, and I moved out of my lifelong home and into my own apartment with my then-boyfriend, now-husband over 90 minutes away. But everything had moved far too quickly. Carrying myself with the grace of a car accident, I crumbled under the idea that every aspect of my normality had been ripped away from me in just a few weeks’ time. I cried a lot that year, often to Melodrama. Lorde painted the perfect coming-of-age record – and at the time, it only validated what I felt daily. 


As we entered our second year of engagement and neared our wedding day, my husband and I became just as enamored with Golden Hour as we were with each other. Unlocking a feeling of zen within me, the record captured our effortless love for each other – it accompanied car rides, days working on our first home together, and eventually, our first dance as a married couple. (I taught him to step with enough rhythm for us to dance to “Butterflies.”) Its evergreen radiance will forever be attached to visions of my husband – especially his incredible smile and that handsome navy suit with the little bow tie on our wedding day.


Of the new records that were released throughout 2020 as touring and traditional album promotion halted to prevent the spread of COVID-19, very few of them managed to allure me in a way like Women in Music Pt. III. Working alone on warm summer days that should otherwise have been spent at the beach or an amusement park under normal circumstances, I often found myself alone in my home office with nothing but a cup of coffee, the dog, and this record to accompany me. It's a beautiful West Coast rock record that perfectly soundtracked my sizzling summer days alone – and for that, the record will forever be like a familiar old friend to me.

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