It’s a curious question, to be honest. Most of us (at least those 25 and older) probably own more music in physical formats than we do movies or television. And even then, music is inherently more personal than any other medium. Whether it holds memories of times when your crush didn’t like you back, or when your family fell apart, or that one holiday season when everything came together, our favorite music — more specifically, albums — are always with us: Your favorite songs don’t just stay in your head: they bury themselves in your heart, for better or for worse.
So really, every album someone owns is meaningful. Just by smelling the jacket, or singing along to words on your bedroom floor as your read along to the lyrics, hoping maybe tomorrow that boy or girl you like will change their mind about you … those feelings can never leave. And why would you want them to?
With that said, in no particular order, here five of my favorite albums, and why exactly I hold them so dear.
1. Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette
In the mid-90s, my best friend Ashkon and I would watch Alanis’ video for “Head Over Feet,” and then go outside and ride bikes. We’d sing the song together as we peddled over the sidewalks and asphalt, and we especially loved to exaggerate the part when she sings “I’ve never wanted … something rationAAALL!”
Her other singles were also good, and Mom found out that I enjoyed them, so that Christmas, she bought me the album. I was completely surprised, but not disappointed. In the 20 years since then, I’ve continually been left more and more impressed by Jagged Little Pill every time I spin it again from beginning to end. Alanis wasn’t as angry as her label Maverick Records wanted you to believe, as “You Oughta Know” dominated the airwaves during that time. Instead, the rest of the album is a nuanced, introspective and insecure look into the life of a young woman barely turning 20 years old.
And that’s what’s most impressive, to write an album this honest and intricate at that age, putting to shame pop stars of every generation who consistently get by on marginal talent and no songwriting ability whatsoever. That’s something I couldn’t understand as a fifth-grader, but appreciate now more than ever.
2. Continuun, John Mayer
Love songs always hit harder after a breakup. The rose-colored glasses are off, and life plays out in gothic black and grey for a while.
In 2006 I bought Continuum upon discovering Mayer’s talent for playing bluesy rock Jimi Hendix and Stevie Ray Vaughn would be proud of, with his John Mayer Trio live album, Try!
Up to that point, I hadn’t given Mayer a second thought whenever he’d come on TV and croon about women’s bodies or running through the halls of his high school. But I immersed myself in his new sound. Continuum was a breath of fresh air in the emo-driven culture that had overtaken my rock radio preferences. I needed something cleaner, something with feeling — but not obnoxious feeling — and I needed someone who could play a damn solo.
What I also thought I needed was a girlfriend. Soon after Continuum‘s release, I met someone, and along with introducing her to the comedy stylings of Jim Gaffigan and The Office, I pushed my new favorite record on her. She loved it. My mom bought her a copy for her birthday. One night we were stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway, and I became restless and irritated. We put Continuum in and suddenly everything felt at ease.
Our relationship did not end well — for me, that is. Afterward, songs like “In Repair” and “Dreaming with a Broken Heart” hit me like I never expected. Oh, so this is what it’s like to actually relate to songs about being broken. Before then, I had only been able to relate to songs about pining for someone who doesn’t see you that way. This was way more real.
In 2006 I started taking my first journalism classes, the Dodgers hit four consecutive home runs in the ninth inning of a crucial game, and I fell in love. Continuum was the soundtrack to it all, and I’m not upset about that. Honest.
I should have known: During our relationship, her ringtone for me was “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.” That says it all, doesn’t it?
3. Superunknown, Soundgarden
I’ve never climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, or had an epiphany in some mystical forest, and I’ve never had kids or been married. So I admit this is on a smaller scale, but in 2010 I took steps to improve myself, and it ended being the best and most rewarding part of my life (so far).
It all started with Soundgarden’s Superunknown. I had owned a burned copy at the time, but could never fully get into it, despite the fact I always loved “Fell on Black Days,” and I had been a fan of Chris Cornell’s work in Audioslave. But there are some points in your life where you’re holding an album and you say, “I know I haven’t really felt this record before, but let me try one more time, just for kicks.”
I gave Superunknown another try, and my life changed. At some point that summer, maybe it was during “Mailman” when Cornell screams “I’m riiiiiiiiiiiiding you all the waayyyyy,” or maybe it was after marveling once again to the crazy octave jump on the chorus to “Limo Wreck,” when I realized Cornell had the best voice I’d ever heard. The thing is, I had never really cared too much about vocals before. Of course I knew Cornell could sing, and I had I appreciated greats like Freddy Mercury and Whitney Houston. But that summer is when I changed my preference for what I wanted to take away from a rock band. I came to a place in my mind where I only wanted to hear talented people do amazing things. I didn’t want average people putting together raggedy rock n’ roll records. I wanted Cornell’s voice, Matt Cameron’s take charge drumming, and Ben Shephard’s so-weird-they-actually-work contributions (“Head Down,” “Half,”) and Kim Thayil’s heavy riffs and supporting guitar lines.
Superunknown made me want to work harder at whatever it is I do, whether it was working out, taking classes or writing stories. It’s been six years since I listened to this masterpiece in full, and every day I’m regretful I didn’t do it 15 years earlier. Of course, I wasn’t ready for it back then. But that’s okay: the best things in life are there for you when you’re ready to take that step, not a moment sooner or later.
Listen to this: Check out Cornell’s isolated vocals on YouTube for “Spoonman,” skip to 2:14 and let that sink in.
4. Enema of the State, Blink-182
It was a late afternoon in October. I was coming back from a seventh-grade field trip, a two-day excursion on Catalina Island, located 22 miles from the L.A. coastline. In the back of my friend’s car driving home, his mother had on KROQ, the go-to SoCal alternative station. On the dial was a fast, aggressive song, a man yelling in short spurts on the verses, and one hell of a kick-ass chorus. This is pretty awesome, I thought. This song rules.
It was “Dammit” by blink-182, and the only time I can tell you exactly where I was when I first heard one of my favorite bands. The next spring, radio started playing the boys’ new single, “What’s My Age Again?” It was just as awesome as “Dammit,” and once I heard their new album would be out that June, I couldn’t wait. Blink was now my new thing.
Enema of the State was the album that made me not want to go anywhere, even basketball practice, until I had sat in front of my cheap stereo and memorized every lyric and reveled in every hook. It was the album I played in my head all the way through during eighth-grade math class when I felt like zoning out (which was often — no offense, Mr. Kinney).
When I think of Enema, I think of the sun shining through my windows in my old room, lighting up my hardwood floors as the album played. I think of bright colors. I think of Mark’s earnest lyrics, Travis’ bonkers drumming, and Tom’s fat Fender guitar tone that defined that era of blink.
And so I also think of my place in that era, being with my small class, listening to blink with my friends, not really worrying about anything. One night Ashkon came over and listened to the album on headphones. He sang loud and out of tune. It was funny. It was carefree.
Everything was back then.
Blink therapy: Singing along to the last chorus of “Dysentery Gary” never not feels good. What a release!
5. The Presidents of the United States of America, The Presidents of the United States of America.
Some of us younger kids after school used to gather around this guy, CJ, who was the older brother of my classmate, Ariane. CJ was pretty cool. he openly talked about having a thing for one of his classmates, and how he was going to have a “serious talk” with her mother — who was one of my former teachers back then — about dating her. I thought that was ballsy. But there was also this indifference about him, this way he carried himself that I couldn’t quite understand. He was maybe more disaffected, part of the Gen-X crowd, which again, I thought was pretty cool.
He liked to
talk lecture us about music, as we sat around him in the playground sand. He highly recommended The Smashing Pumpkins (which makes sense considering his personality) but he also talked about this other band which had a cool song called “Peaches.”
This was around the time my friends and I started listening to our own music, and together, we took CJ’s advice and discovered The Presidents of the United States of America.
The Presidents’ self-titled album was the first CD I ever owned, and I’ve always been proud of that. Low on production values, high on the fun factor, the album is an absolute blast to listen to. From the absurd but delightful opener “Kitty” to the rocking drum explosion on “Candy,” there’s never a dull moment through the 13 tracks. Frontman Chris Ballew sings every line with a wink and his tongue in his cheek, and a smile crosses your face when you think about how much fun it probably was for Ballew, Dave Dederer and Jason Finn to record the album.
Every one my age who likes alternative music has mostly likely enjoyed this album at some point in their lives. Although it went platinum thanks to the singles “Peaches” and “Lump,” it still feels like it was caught in between the transition from grunge to post-grunge, from downtrodden malaise to genuine feel-good alt-rock. But its quality and infectiousness was never lost on me and my peers. Blink-182 went to become the only naked and famous group in my list. The Presidents will have to settle for making the album I spun most in my brand new Discman almost 20 years ago.