Top 5 albums that conjure up memories

Earlier this year, I read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. One of the novel’s recurring themes is the characters trying to list their top 5 albums — perhaps of all time, or in a particular category. I was thinking of this while driving down to Bethesda to give a speech last night. It was a 3-hour drive down and a 2.5-hour drive back. I brought a few old CDs to listen to. I was amazed by how well I remembered these CDs — not having listened to them, in some cases, for 5+ years. I was also amazed by their ability to conjure up memories of being the age I was when I discovered them. Here are 5 albums that made an impression on me at an impressionable age (in no particular order).

Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes. General teen angsty music. I discovered Tori while at my first high school in Indiana, where I had some serious angst myself about desperately wanting to get out of there. I was quite taken with how opaque some of her language was — could you be that non-obvious in rock-type music (even “alternative” music)? I aspired to that in the gobs of fiction I was writing at age 15-16 — short stories cranked out in my bedroom at night. Some of her stuff is more obvious and listening to some of it now makes me cringe at how self-esteem-y it is (“she’s been everybody else’s girl — maybe someday she’ll be her own!”) But I was also studying piano fairly seriously at the time I was listening to Tori and this album still shocks me as to what you can do with that instrument. It is marvelously creative (I also liked her next album, Under the Pink, and I learned to play parts of “Icicle” on the piano, though I didn’t get into her later albums).

Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill. Can we say 1995-1996 without talking about her? Her album took the pop world by storm by being angry yet singable. It was refreshingly different — intriguing, complex and good, but not obsessed with being pretty. While tracks like “Ironic” got more radio play, I was a lot more into ones like “You Live, You Learn.” Unfortunately, I don’t think her next album (Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie) was as good. Maybe because she wasn’t as angry anymore.

Indigo Girls, 1200 Curfews (with a nod to Swamp Ophelia). This 2-CD set has some clunky and too pointed tracks. But mostly it’s live performances of greatest hits, including classically singable Indigo Girls fun like Galileo and Closer to Fine. It also has the Girls covering some amazing other stuff (like Midnight Train to Georgia and Tangled up in Blue). My brother gave me this set for my birthday when I turned 17, and when I listen to it, I am instantly 17 again. I’d transferred from my first high school to the Indiana Academy, and was liking life a lot more. It’s only missing a few great tracks from the Swamp Ophelia album (like “The Wood Song”), which I’d discovered prior to this one, and had checked out of the library like literally 10 times. Yes, that’s what you do when you’re 16. So I’d add in that to this to get 3 CDs of mostly good stuff. (As with the previous two entries in this list, I kind of lost interest in the Indigo Girls’ work after this one).

Dixie Chicks, Fly. I didn’t discover this one until my senior year of college (2000-2001) so I was a wee bit late to the Dixie Chicks party. But I love how the Dixie Chicks re-cast country music. While some of the lyrics are a bit cheesy, like they’re caricaturing country (Mary Ann and Wanda  were both active in the FFA?), it takes a certain gumption to turn the sad tale of an abusive husband into a singable and upbeat revenge fantasy of murdering him and wrapping him up in a tarp and stuffing his body in your trunk (Goodbye Earl). “Cold Day in July” is just a good country break-up song. I checked this one out from the library a lot too (then bought it later).

Bach B-Minor Mass (Collegium Vocale, Philippe Herreweghe conducting). I bet you didn’t expect to see this album on my list of chick rock. My choir at Princeton performed the Bach B-Minor Mass in early 2000, but I’d already gone to Australia for a term abroad and missed performing it with them. It remains my favorite choral work of all time, and someday I will get to actually sing it. I listened to this mass again and again and again. I prefer this recording to some of the more famous ones (like the Robert Shaw Chorale). I feel it’s crisper. Or maybe I listened to this one first and am forever primed to prefer it this way. The mass itself has a lot of 5-part harmony on the choral parts, with a second soprano line. Since that’s my part, it had an extra challenge from the usual soprano line because I was not the highest voice. When something is hard, it probably burns in your brain more. The Et Resurrexit coming out of the Crucifixus is one of the most joyous moments in choral music (I will admit it is not quite as joyful as the first time the full chorus sings the Ode to Joy part of Beethoven’s Ninth, but the sudden arising out of a quiet moment is very similar). The Agnus Dei alto solo is utterly gorgeous as a low woman’s voice sings a few hauntingly higher notes than you might expect. In another life, I will have the voice to do that solo justice.

What would you put on your list of 5 influential albums?

28 thoughts on “Top 5 albums that conjure up memories

  1. REM- Out of Time– First album I bought myself (age 16).
    Metallica Black– Had a massive crush (age 15) on a boy who loved Metallica.
    NIN- (age 17) #2 used to play this in high school when she was in a certain kind of bad mood. I hate that album.
    D’Oyly Carte HMS Pinafore– First album I got really excited about (age 6). Listened to it nonstop before seeing the Pinafore, saw the pinafore as my first show, memorized songs.
    Can’t pick a #5.

    1. Actually #5 has got to be TMBG Flood. That’s like all of high school wrapped up with a bow. Why is the world in love again? Why are we marching hand in hand? (Even though I was not in high school in 1990, the album was heavily prevalent.)

      1. @NicoleandMaggie – wow, I have not thought about They Might Be Giants in a while. Now I’ll have to go track that one down!

  2. I agree with 1 & 2. For me it was Indigo Girls Rites of Passage (with “Joking” and “Romeo and Juliet” as well as Galileo). Yes to REM’s Out of Time. I’d add: U2 Achtung Baby (the first CD I bought for my new CD player) and (of course) Counting Crows August and Everything After. Oh, and Dave Matthews Band Under the Table and Dreaming and Crash both remind me instantly of the college days.
    I can think of many many more, music was a huge part of my life until very recently when I’ve completely lost touch….

    1. @Ana – oh yeah, Romeo and Juliet was great. I guess that’s one that’s missing from the 1200 curfews and Swamp Ophelia. As for Dave Matthews — very true that Crash was like the soundtrack to college. Somebody should try to calculate how many collegiate hook ups between, say, 1996 and 2002 involved the title track of that album. I never owned the album — probably so many people I know did I felt I was absorbing it by osmosis.

  3. oh dear, all of us and our angsty tori! i would say she was on my list too, but not until her 3rd album. starting back YOUNG:

    1) madonna, like a prayer. OH YEAH. brings me back to dance contests in our basement and the most ridiculous getups imaginable.

    2) barenaked ladies, maybe you should drive. the first band i was ‘obsessed’ with. cute 🙂

    3) aimee mann, magnolia soundtrack/bachelor #2. basically COLLEGE on a disc for me.

    4) radiohead – kid A. symbolizes the transition from college–> adulthood for me somehow. and changed the way i thought about music.

    5) elliott smith – xo. early med school/relationship with my now-husband.

    now i want to listen to all of these!

  4. What a fun topic! I’m cheating a bit, grouping a few things together.

    1)The Best of Peter, Paul and Mary and Willie Nelson – What a Wonderful World – Childhood on tape.
    2) Joan Osborne – Relish – My angst-y early-teenage soundtrack
    3)The Best of Chicago – We played a Chicago show in marching band my freshman year of high school, and this music always reminds me of the fun and exciting parts of being a teenager
    4)Pineapple Poll / Candide Suite / Elsa’s Procession to the cathedral – Why I love love loved playing the oboe as a teen.
    5)Rusted Root – When I Woke – Even though this album had been out for a long time, I remember listening to it while doing homework with, and falling in love with, my now husband.

    1. @Chelsea – Chicago’s greatest hits album was the first CD I ever owned for my own personal CD player (which I think I got in like 7th grade). I owned a few tapes before that: Paula Abdul (cracks me up that today’s young people just know her from American Idol!) Vanilla Ice, if you can imagine. I was just that cool.

      I listened to the Chicago album so many times I still know it by heart. But maybe I wasn’t angsty enough in 7th grade to have it stick as much as the chick rock. Also, Chicago just wasn’t as deep.

  5. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was the first record I ever owned. First video I ever watched. Really, this is the one and only memory conjurer for me!

  6. 1. Guns and Roses – Appetite for Destruction — Best album EVER

    2. REM – Green

    3. Cure – Disintegration

    4. Duran Duran – 7 and the Ragged Tired (shut up, I was going to marry Simon)

    5. Nirvana – Nevermind

    1. @Arden Spark – I agree that G&R is pretty awesome. I learned a piano solo version of November Rain once. Maybe it was my Tori obsession transferred over to G&R…

      1. The boy I had a crush on dedicated nov rain to me. :). And unfortunately it was kind of an accurate depiction of our relationship. Or perhaps fortunately because my husband is amazeballs and I’d be dreadfully unhappy with whasshisname.

  7. I could take the angst one level deeper and trade your Bach with Ani Difranco’s Living in Clip. It played on repeat on our freshmen hall 1996-1997. Otherwise, we had the exact same playlist during high school and college.

    1. @Griffin – Ah yes, Ani could go in there for many people I know. I just never got quite as into her — maybe I just didn’t discover her until later and my formative years were over by that point.

  8. I love this post (!) and all the responses so far. I started thinking about my music list after I read Rob Sheffield’s ‘Love is a Mix Tape’ and all his subsequent brilliant books, all laced with musical musings. Still haven’t finalized it but most definitely there would be some love for White Snake’s ‘Here I Go Again on my Own’.

  9. post that recipe for hot chocolate that involved vodka — you posted it like years ago … like how you and your husband had adult hot chocolate together… I have been enjoying a lot making hot chocolate for the kids.. and am looking for an adult version of the experience.. I thought of that post so maybe repost – like snow day for adults… like this idea …. definitely there is a market for women for music .. personally I find the current system personal and that the technology isn’t that easy to use to compile the personal lists… would love a 30’something or adult woman version of how to tap this, “this is my music” feeling in 30 minutes with super easy super fast technology… best music to find yourself in trip from work to daycare… the idea of this time as important and the music as part of it is nice.. and the idea that we all have our segments in music where we find some aspect of ourselves I like…

    1. @Cara- it wasn’t too crazy. There is marshmallow flavored vodka you can buy. So you just make hot chocolate as usual (often cocoa powder with milk or water), then mix in a shot of vodka. Top with marshmallows or cream. Yum! Warms you up inside.

      I got the marshmallow flavored vodka as a naughty Santa gift so, come to think of it, I’m not sure how many stores carry it. But you could just do straight vodka too. It mixes with just about anything.

  10. I don’t have a particularly deep knowledge of music, but here are some albums that I listened the heck out of during my teen years and still love:
    1. Lisa Loeb, Tails. I just love her lyrics, which sometimes use big words and were very relatable for me at 14 and 15.
    2. Green Day, Dookie. Hate that word, love the album. Listened to the album on repeat during an angsty trip to London with my eighth grade Girl Scout troop.
    3. Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. My soundtrack for much of high school.
    4. Nina Simone, Greatest Hits: Bought this at 22 or so, “Mississippi Goddamn” and “Four Women” were my favorites. A more mature angst.
    5. Beatles, Rubber Soul. Perfect bridge between their poppy early years and psychedelic later years.

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