Be forewarned, this is really more of a self-serving article than anything else. Two weeks ago, my wife gave birth to my beautiful daughter and throughout the pregnancy, I was looking forward to the plethora of things I am going to do with her or show her. One of those things is music. It’s no secret that I listen to a lot of music across nearly every genre (though, unfortunately, I have no musical talent to speak of). There is just, simply put, a soundtrack for everything, regardless of your mood, state of mind or setting. As artist Jean-Michael Basquiat once said, “If art is how we decorate space, music is how we decorate time.”
So to prepare myself for this, I compiled a list of 100 albums that hold some sort of significance in my life, whether it was introduced to me by someone, got me through something, made me feel something different, or, most importantly, is just a great album. Keep in mind, these aren’t what I deem are the 100 greatest or most significant albums of all time, and in many cases, these aren’t even the artist’s best work, but they mean something to me and I can’t wait to pass it on to my daughter.
To give as diverse of a collection as possible (even though it definitely leans towards the alternative rock spectrum), I limited this to one release per artist. And to answer your question, yes, there are definitely some albums that will be introduced to her later in life due to the album’s content. This list is in alphabetical order as it is simply not a ranking.
Acceptance – Phantoms (2005)
A cult classic band, Acceptance released their debut album in 2005 only to break up a year later and become one of alt-rock’s biggest “what if” stories. The band would eventually reunite nine years later and release two more albums, but with that much separation from Phantoms, it was impossible to replicate their initial success. Phantoms is diverse without stepping over the line to be pigeonholed into one specific subgenre, instead, utilizing the best aspects of several.
Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill (1995)
I was 7 when Morissette released her landmark single “You Outta Know” and while at that age, I did not understand the meaning behind lyrics like “And every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back/I hope you feel it/Well, can you feel it?” there was no denying this was a song sung by a woman scorned. And perhaps her love life was not the sole reason she was scorned. Morissette initially broke through as a pop singer, releasing two albums before leaving the sound behind completely and shifting to alternative rock. This album has many layers to it lyrically, from the desire for a mental connection, Catholic upbringing, pushy parents and, infamously situation irony. Morissette’s drastic transition shows you never have to settle, and that stepping away from the comfort zone may be your path to success.
American Football – American Football (1999)
When Mike Kinsella created American Football, he was looking to go back to the roots of the original sound of one of his other bands, Joan of Arc. Influenced by The Cure, The Smiths and, as Kinsella eloquently puts it, “super sad shit,” American Football’s full-length debut was the ideal mixture of Midwest-emo and math rock, experimenting with a variety of instruments to provide its unique sound, including horns, a tambourine and, most famously, a Wurlitzer electric piano. American Football would disband a year after the album’s release, eventually reuniting in 2014 and release the much-anticipated follow-up album two years later, followed by their third full-length in 2019. Unlike other bands who took that long of a hiatus, American Football never lost a step, but as magnificent as their follow up albums are, their debut still reigns supreme.
American Nightmare – Background Music (2001)
This one may take a while for me to introduce Boston hardcore outfit American Nightmare to her, but this landmark album is a necessity for anyone who likes aggressive, loud and fast music. Clocking in at just 23:33 over 11 tracks, it’s a quick listen, but is easily a go to album to get your blood pumping. They don’t reinvent the wheel, but the album doesn’t fall flat anywhere as it leans on power chords and Wesley Eisold ironically screaming “screaming gets you nothing”. Lyricists like Eisold are few and far between in hardcore.
Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I am Not (2006)
The internet, and especially MySpace, created new avenues for artists to get recognized and the Arctic Monkeys were one of those success stories as they shared the demos for their debut album on the information superhighway to develop a following. Upon release, the Brit rockers were immediately dubbed the new Oasis and dominated the U.K. charts. Often misconceived as a concept album due to its heavy lyrics on British club life, it’s really more of an anthem for a specific group of teenagers in mid-2000s England that was good enough to transcend past the demographic.
At the Drive-In – Relationship of Command (2000)
One of the most influential post-hardcore releases ever, NME ranked it 12th out of the top 100 albums of the 2000s. At the Drive-In was always known for the sporadic playing style that teeter-tottered between aggression and melody, but it was their final album before their hiatus that finally put everything together. The guitars on this album are still as explosive now as they were 20 years ago and the vocal delivery between restrained singing and wild screaming (especially in the opening track, Arcarsenal) would lay the framework for other artists of the genre over the next decade. Many artists tried to replicate the sound, but none could match it.
Basement Jaxx – Rooty (2001)
My introduction to Basement Jaxx was having MTV on late at night when they played music videos of songs that haven’t quite broken through yet on the mainstream. The music video for “Where’s Your Head At?” was on and I didn’t think much of it, the video was weird, but (many) years later, the song randomly got stuck in my head and it caused me to search for the song and download the album. “Where’s Your Head At?” became somewhat of a dance anthem for me, it was my ringback tone when those were a thing and my coworkers at Applebee’s would call my phone for a quick dance party as a stress reliever during our shifts. But the rest of the album is stellar too with heavyweights like “Romeo” and “I Want U”. I was never that into house music, but this album always stood out.
The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)
Frontman Brian Wilson yearned for an album that would connect with adolescents and to capture this audience wrote introspective lyrics on self-doubt played over early renditions of acid rock. One of the first-ever concept albums, Pet Sounds’ lasting legacy influenced both their contemporaries (notably the Beatles) and future artists (notably Weezer and The Flaming Lips).
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Inspired by the previous album on this list, The Beatles responded with the quintessential concept album of the fictitious Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s live performance. While Paul McCartney and John Lennon were the band’s primary lyricists, both George Harrison and Ringo Starr also penned a track in an album that is also widely regarded as heavily drug-infused and ultimately the anthem for the 1960s counterculture.
Billy Joel – The Stranger (1977)
Recording this album, Billy Joel found himself at a crossroads with his record label, Columbia. Piano Man, his 1973 sophomore effort, was an unexpected hit, but he failed to capitalize on his two follow up albums and faced being dropped by the label had The Stranger not performed well. Instead, it became Joel’s breakthrough album and the two have remained together since. Many songs on this album, including “Moving Out (Anthony’s Song)”, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “Only the Good Die Young” have become staples in Joel’s live performances. She’s from New Jersey, so listening to Joel is a requirement.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Exodus (1977)
Recorded shortly after Bob Marley relocated to London following an assassination attempt in his homeland of Jamaica, Exodus is the magnum opus of Bob Marley’s career, providing us a laid back reggae album with themes of sex, religion and politics. While Marley today is associated with the cannabis culture, he was a true superstar with his music achieving popularity in the U.S., Europe and Africa. With tracks like “Jamming,” “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” “Exodus” and “Waiting in Vain,” we see Marley and the Wailers at their best and is best listened to on a Carribean island with a drink in hand.
Brand New – The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me (2006)
It was legitimately hard to choose which Brand New album to feature. They’re all great in their own ways and the band never released the same album twice, evolving their sound as they matured, but there is no denying that their explosive 2006 effort is their finest hour. They are a long way from their angst-ridden debut, Your Favourite Weapon as this album focuses on themes of death, depression and religion (punctuated by their single “Jesus Christ”). “Degausser” has always been a favorite track of mine, switching back and forth from the calm, somber delivery of the verses to the raw emotional chorus. While Brand New’s fame has waned following their penchant for being vague and, more importantly, allegations of sexual misconduct by frontman Jesse Lacey, there is no denying the pure talent this Long Island, N.Y. outfit had.
Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005)
Not many musicians out there are sampling Beethoven, let alone as well as the Conor Oberst-led indie band did in the album’s closing track “Road to Joy” and while The Spill Canvas was playing as my daughter was being born, it was “The First Day of My Life” that was playing in my head as I first laid eyes on her. Oberst’s lyrics sound like they come directly from his diary and Bright Eyes experimented with a lot of sounds in this album, including a mandolin, pedal steel and vibraphone.
Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run (1975)
As mentioned earlier, being from New Jersey, there are a few artists she is required to listen to and Bruce Springsteen is one of them. While I may not share the same affinity for the Boss as my stepfather does (to be fair to me, I am a transplant to the Garden State, moving here in 1996 after living in Virginia), this is a stellar album, one that Pitchfork gave a rare perfect score. At only 24, Springsteen was being hyped as the new Bob Dylan and it would have been easy for him to break under the pressure. Instead, he left a permanent mark on the rock scene with the album’s titular track, which was punctuated by one of the best saxophone solos ever. While Springsteen’s previous works were so over-the-top Jersey, he toned down the references to his home state in order to give Born to Run a more broad appeal that pays off in a big way.
Buddy Holly – Buddy Holly (1958)
We would never be where we are sonically if it was not for the revolution of rock and roll in the 1950s and we have to thank artists like Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly for this. I was torn between Holly’s self-titled album or That’ll Be the Day, but opted for the former as it features my two favorite Holly tracks, “I’m Gonna Love You Too” and “Peggy Sue”. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were so enamored with Holly’s lyrics, performance style and persona that they were heavily influenced by him, even going as far as basing the name of The Beatles off of Holly’s backing band The Crickets.
The Cars – The Cars (1978)
Both my mother and my father were the basis for me discovering The Cars and their self-titled debut album that was massively influential to the artists I listen to today. While “Just What I Needed” may be the most famous song off the album, all nine tracks could have been a single. “My Best Friend’s Girl” chronicles having your girlfriend stolen from you and “Moving in Stereo” is the band’s most experimental tracks, but “Bye Bye Love” may be the true unsung hero of the album. This album was one of the early entries into the new wave genre and is still heralded as one of the best of the movement.
Cartel – Chroma (2005)
When Cartel released their debut album in 2005, they were entering a saturated pop-punk market and stood out above the fray by delivering a polished album that blends Will Pugh’s stellar vocals with some spectacular guitar riffs. “Burn This City” has always been a standout track for my wife and I as we would belt out this tune at the top of our lungs every time we put it on.
Chamberlain – Exit 263 (2001)
Originally formed as the hardcore act Split Lip, the band rebranded themselves as they drastically changed to a more indie/emo sound. Exit 263 almost never happened, it was released after the band broke up and was essentially a compilation of the band’s demos whose release was rejected by Doghouse Records before the band’s management ultimately released it independently. A mish-mash of demos should come together so cohesively, or sound so good, but Chamberlain made it work. Despite being an emo album, Exit 263 has deep country roots, which are exemplified in songs like “My Side of the Street” and “Steady Trying to Holler”.
Chon – Grow (2015)
This album is proof that you don’t need vocals to make a solid album. The California-based progressive rock outfit minimized the vocals (in fact, only one track even has vocals), instead letting their guitars do the talking. This album is laid back and yet complex and layered at the same time, almost like a modern jazz record, the sound just goes with the flow.
Chuck Ragan – Feast for Famine (2007)
After releasing six albums, Hot Water Music took a hiatus and while frontman Chuck Ragan began a solo act, the rest of the band stayed together to release The Draft (among other ventures). Punk rock acts tend not to do well as solo artists, due much in part to the fact that you don’t need stellar vocals to make it work in punk rock, but Ragan and his trademark raspy voice is an outlier. The songs are about things Ragan loves, with tracks focused on fishing, food and love for life itself and the album ends on a calming note with seven minutes of waves crashing onto the beach.
Circa Survive – Juturna (2005)
Shortly after leaving Saosin, Anthony Green would return home to Philadelphia and form Circa Survive with Colin Frangicetto, Brendan Ekstrom, Nick Beard and Steve Clifford, a lineup that has remained the same through six albums. Green’s vocal range is on full display here in an atmospheric progressive rock record chock full of references to Roman goddesses, Edward Gorey and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The Clash – London Calling (1979)
In their landmark album, The Clash departed from their punk rock origins and developed an affinity for rock and roll, leading to a heavy influence for their third album, permanently cementing the influence of their forefather by basing their now iconic album cover on Elvis Presley’s 1956 self-titled album. One of the early post-punk albums, London Calling features themes of England politics, police brutality and world events all centered around 1970s London. Released in December 1979, London Calling set the tone for rock albums in the 1980s.
Coheed and Cambria – In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 (2003)
Another progressive album that was immensely popular with emo kids, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 served as the bridge album for their all-encompassing, arena rock driven follow up album, Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV. Claudio Sanchez takes it to the next level both as a singer and the lead guitarist and the band had some mainstream success with their singles “A Favor House Atlantic” and “Blood Red Summer”, but this album is not by any stretch of the imagination an easy listen. There are long, structured songs blended with lyrics that don’t entirely make sense when you’re unfamiliar with the fact that there is a graphic novel that accompanies it, but the end result is nothing short of spectacular.
Cursive – The Ugly Organ (2003)
While most artists experiment with a new sound by featuring a unique instrument on a track or two, Cursive took it a step further by, not only adding cellist Gretta Cohn to their band, but by making the instrument a key feature in some tracks. How many artists can say they have a cello solo like Cursive can in “Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand”? The Nebraska-based band tackles Disney tales (“Driftwood: A Fairy Tale”), the difficulty of being an artist (“Art is Hard”) and promiscuity (“Butcher the Song”) across al album that clocks in at just a shade over 40 minutes.
D’Angelo – Voodoo (2000)
Voodoo was released to critical acclaim upon its release, but what really cemented the neo-soul album’s legacy (and D’Angelo’s status as a sex symbol) was the music video for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” which left little to the imagination for the then 26-year-old singer. But that video took attention away from the song, which was, according to D’Angelo, a tribute to Prince. Another album that was given a perfect rating by Pitchfork, Voodoo pays respect to previous soul acts while simultaneously ushering the genre into a new age.
Daft Punk – Discovery (2001)
Equal parts dance pop and something you would hear while shopping at Express, Daft Punk beautifully blended elements of house, disco, R&B and electronica in their sophomore effort. Lyrically, this album is nothing spectacular and mostly repetitive, but you’ll be bopping your head along to the beat too much to notice. Plus, it features the guitar-driven “Areodynamic”, something completely unexpected in an electronica album.
David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Often misconceived as a concept album, it really isn’t – most of the story was written after the album was recorded, but it did spawn the bisexual alien/rock superstar Ziggy Stardust, a persona David Bowie brought with him on stage that became part of what made him an icon. Ziggy Stardust features many of Bowie’s biggest hits, including “Starman”, which barely made the album, becoming a last-minute replacement for a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round”, “Moonage Daydream”, which introduced us to the character of Ziggy Stardust and the Little Richard-inspired “Suffragette City”.
Death Cab for Cutie – Plans (2005)
I got into Death Cab for Cutie much later than I rightfully should, not listening to a track of theirs until “I Will Possess Your Heart” off of 2008’s Narrow Stairs, but it was Plans that really grabbed my attention as “Crooked Teeth” and “Soul Meets Body” received regular play on the jukebox of the T.G.I. Friday I used to work at. This album mixes a laid-back, mellow sound with dark lyrics, such as meeting in the afterlife with “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” and makes it sound so hauntingly beautiful. Just, whatever you do, do not listen to the Everclear cover of this song.
Deftones – Adrenaline (1995)
One of the early pioneers of nu metal along with Rage Against the Machine, we can thank them both for giving us a world in which Limp Bizkit exists, but it can be forgiven as most of Deftones’ catalog is stellar and it all begins with Adrenaline, their debut album. Praised upon its arrival for it’s raw and original sound, the guitars were grungy, the vocals switch from a soft-spoken to pissed off and aggressive, giving us a sense of controlled chaos.
Depeche Mode – Violator (1990)
Breaking out of the new wave trend were the synth-pop outfit from England. “Enjoy the Silence” may be one of music’s best utilization of the synthesizer, providing a haunting background music to Dave Gahan singing “Words are very unnecessary/They can only do harm”. It’s the dark pop album we needed at a time when bubble gum pop reigned supreme.
Descendents – Milo Goes to College (1982)
My introduction to Descendents was accidental. I was listening to Sublime’s 40 oz. to Freedom and my favorite track off of the album was “Hope”, unbeknownst to me it was a Descendents cover. Despite having 15 tracks, Milo Goes to College is just 22 minutes long and showed me that punk rock doesn’t always have to be so politically driven. Instead, Milo Auckerman sings about fishing, rebelling against your parents, love and their high school social status. It has been nearly 30 years since Milo Goes to College was released and it remains a major influence in both the punk rock and pop punk scene.
The Eagles – Hotel California (1976)
Clearly, I’m not the Dude as I have always been fond of The Eagles. When I first moved to New Jersey, it was just my mother and me and we spent many nights in her Mazda MX-6 listening to music, where she introduced me to artists like The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Prince, David Bowie and Sade. Hotel California was played on repeat and although it is their iconic track, my personal favorite song from them is “Life in the Fast Lane”, which chronicles a couple living life on the edge.
Elliott Smith – XO (1998)
Honestly, any Elliott Smith album is appropriate here, but XO will forever be special to me as it was the first Smith album I listened to. The dwindling guitar is infectious in “Tomorrow, Tomorrow” and Smith’s distinct vocal style was never better. Despite being his first major label release as a solo artist, Smith didn’t stray away from his deeply personal lyrics or stripped-down musical tone. It’s truly a shame that we lost a musician as talented as Smith at such a young age.
Elvis Costello – My Aim is True (1977)
A beloved classic among hispters everywhere, Elvis Costello served as the midpoint between Buddy Holly and Rivers Cuomo of nerdy, glasses-wearing rockers. My Aim is True wears his heart on his sleeve (you can hear the pain in his voice in “Allison”) in his debut album in a way that he was never able to replicate upon further releases. Part punk, part rockabilly, part piano rock, Costello’s debut was another formative album for a burgeoning new wave scene.
Eric Clapton – Slowhand (1977)
Often credited as one of rock’s greatest guitarists, Eric Clapton kicks off this album by putting his talent with the six string on full display in “Cocaine”, a song that was so misinterpreted to the point that Clapton modified the lyrics during live performances to reflect the fact that the song is an anti-drug ballad. Clapton is another artist my mother introduced me to at a young age, but he was one I never truly appreciate until much later in life.
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters (2020)
Recorded over a period of five years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters was a long-awaited album that did not disappoint. With themes of freedom from oppression, bullying and sexual assault, this is a deeply personal album for Apple and was released at a time when society is more focused than ever on these topics. This was the album we needed as the pandemic started and it’s easy to see why Pitchfork gave it their first perfect rating on a new album in a decade.
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (1977)
There is no band out there that immediately makes me think of my mother more than Fleetwood Mac. She played their albums for me so often as a child that songs like “The Chain” and “Dreams” are permanently burned into my memory. Today, she claims they aren’t her favorite band, but I have yet to hear her tell me an alternative answer. The initial release of this album did not include “Silver Spring” due to the tensions within the band, but it was ultimately added to the remastered version and has become a mainstay in their live sets. The song is an ultimate revenge for Stevie Nicks, who wrote the song about how much of an asshole her ex-lover, Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham is. Now, Buckingham is stuck performing this song on practically every live set. “The Chain” remains the iconic track off of this album and their single greatest song, between the progressive bass line, near banjo-like guitar sound in the song’s verses and an extended bridge that makes use of each band member’s musical talent.
Foo Fighters – Foo Fighters (1995)
Sometimes albums are therapeutic and in the case of the Foo Fighter’s self-titled debut, the therapy wasn’t for the listener. Grieving over the loss of good friend and Nirvana bandmate Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl wrote and recorded every instrument for the Foo Fighters’ self-titled effort before filling the band out with ex-members of Afghan Wigs and Sunny Day Real Estate. While serving as Nirvana’s drummer, Grohl would write music and bring his guitar with him on tour, but was so blown away by Cobain’s ability as a writer, he always felt inadequate. The success of this album was a liberating experience for Grohl and in many ways helped mold him into one of rock’s nicest personalities. Grohl today is vocal about doing what you love as a musician, following your dreams and not doubting yourself.
Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand (2004)
Off the heels of the band’s breakthrough “Take Me Out,” which featured one of the 2000s decade-defining guitar riffs, my mom purchased this album and was played continuously in the car for the rest of the year. This brand of alternative rock wasn’t the norm for my mother, but it worked with a spoken word intro to “Jacqueline” erupts with an all-hands-on-deck approach halfway through the song. “Tell Her Tonight” delivers what would have been the best guitars on the song if it wasn’t for “Take Me Out”. A great blend of garage rock and post-punk, this was one of the alternative rock albums that was a star of the decade.
Fugazi – 13 Songs (1989)
Really a compilation of the band’s first two EPs, 13 Songs showed that frontman Ian MacKaye didn’t lose a step when shifting their sound away from his hardcore roots with Minor Threat and Embrace to the post-hardcore legend Fugazi would become. “Waiting Room” was an instant hit for the band, using elements of ska and reggae into their main guitar riff while MacKaye yells “I’m gonna fight for what I wanna be”. More importantly, Fugazi further strengthened MacKaye’s do-it-yourself ideals, including making the moral and ethical decision along with his bandmates, trying to ensure that venues did not charge more than $5 for their shows and speaking out against violent dance styles that emerged in the hardcore scene. In short, Fugazi rocked both on record and in real life.
Fugees – The Score (1996)
As “Killing Me Softly” dominated the airwaves in the summer of 1996, Lauryn Hill’s beautiful vocals got the world’s attention and while Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel were talented in their own rights, Hill was just a world above them. This star-led group leaned on the strengths of all three artists and paid homage to their influencers by sampling several alternative hop-hop acts while showing their reggae roots. This was unfortunately the end of the road for the group as they split a year after the album’s release, all going solo.
The Get Up Kids – Something to Write Home About (1999)
I’ve always loved The Get Up Kids, but my affinity for them grew as they were the first artists my wife and I saw live together and one of the bands we make an effort to see every time they come to town. This album has it all, kicking off with a pick-slide to the fast-paced “Holiday” and “Action & Action” before settling down with “Valentine”. “Ten Minutes” has become a staple encore song for the band’s live performances with the opening drumbeat getting the crowd pumped. Matt Pryor flashes the progression of his vocals throughout the album in one of emos most diverse releases.
Green Day – Dookie (1994)
Any time I think of Green Day, the first thing that immediately comes to mind is my best friend from when I worked at Burger King who loved this band more than anyone I know. Dookie was the band’s third album, but it was the one that finally led to the band’s breakthrough with hit singles like “When I Come Around and Basket Case”. Mental health, boredom, parents and ex-lovers were some of the main themes of the album. This album is often credited with bringing punk rock back into the mainstream, though many feel the album is too “pop” to be punk.
Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction (1987)
To this day, there are still wrestling teams who are entering the mat to “Welcome to the Jungle”, the opening track off of an album that was a defining moment of ’80s hard rock. Armed with two of the genre’s most talented musicians in Axl Rose and Slash, we were blessed to hear Rose’s wide range on the mic while Slash continued to provide infectious hook after infectious hook. This album, at many times makes you want to run through a brick wall, but it also knows when to settle down with tracks like “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and “Mr. Brownstone”. Appetite for Destruction’s legacy was forever cemented when Pitchfork gave the album a perfect rating in a retroactive review.
Head Automatica – Decadence (2004)
Inspired by Britpop and hip-hop artists, Daryl Palumbo knew that the music he wanted to make would never fit in with Glassjaw, the post-hardcore act he serves as the frontman for. Palumbo’s crooning vocals shouldn’t go together so well with the upbeat, synth-heavy dance-punk album and yet it somehow works so well. The album puts you on your feet immediately with the punchy guitars on “At the Speed of a Yellow Bullet” and the opening riff of “Brooklyn is Burning” received airtime during Brooklyn Nets broadcasts, but the track everyone remembers off of the album is “Beating Heart Baby” where Palumbo wails “I don’t know what to do with you/Cause you don’t know what you do to me”. Head Automatica’s success in a scene they should have never been successful in ultimately inspired other acts like Young Love and Men, Women & Children.
Hey Mercedes – Everynight Fire Works (2001)
Following the dissolution of Braid, Bob Nanna, Damon Atkinson and Todd Bell joined Mark Dawursk and Michael Shumaker to form Hey Mercedes, a midwest emo band that spotlighted Bob Nanna’s falsetto and melodic guitars. But it’s not all interwinding guitars and melodic vocals, the drums shine in the ballad “Que Shiraz” and the bassline sets the tempo in “What You’re Up Against”. But at the end of the day, Nanna is the true star and one of rock’s most underappreciated artists.
Hole – Live Through This (1994)
Released just a week after the death of frontwoman Courtney Love’s husband, Kurt Cobain, Live Through This became an instant classic and was given a perfect rating by Pitchfork in a retroactive review. Hole shifted away from the hardcore-rooted sound of their debut album to a more well-rounded grunge effort that starts off with a pissed off, aggressive “Violet” a song about the scorned Love’s relationship with The Smashing Pumpkins singer Billy Corgan in 1990. It wasn’t the only reference to Love’s relationship with rock stars. “Doll Parts”, arguably the shining star of the album, is about Love’s insecurity surrounding Cobain’s romantic interest in her when they first met in 1991. Above all else, Hole proved that women are just as capable of developing a stellar rock album as men.
Hot Hot Heat – Make Up the Breakdown (2002)
Never judge a book by its cover, or in this case, an album by its cover. Despite the bleak, black and white artwork, every song on this album is an upbeat modernization of new wave/indie pop. While “Bandages” was the featured track off the album, the keyboard-heavy “No, Not Now” was the album’s true star. While Hot Hot Heat would become more radio-friendly over the years with their follow up albums, Elevator and Happiness, Ltd., Make Up the Breakdown gave us an album that truly went against the grain in 2002.
Hot Water Music – Caution (2002)
“I need a remedy of diesel and dust/Something I taste with the things I can trust/Another high, more potent than lust/Eating and repeating/Like the working of rust and time” yells Chuck Ragan to kick off Hot Water Music’s fifth studio album and from that point on, the energy just remains the same through the next 36:22. Some were let down by the band’s previous effort, A Flight and a Crash (I was not one of those people) as Hot Water Music lowered the tempo in their debut with Epitaph, but they made up for it and more with Caution. This album was made to be played live and the band does not disappoint as “Remedy, “Trusty Chords” and “Wayfarer” have all become staples of their live sets over the years.
Jack’s Mannequin – Everything in Transit (2005)
With tensions rising within Something Corporate, the band took a break and Andrew McMahon went back to his hometown in Orange County, Calif., and immersed himself in writing new music influenced by the landscape and atmosphere of Southern California. The result was McMahon’s new band, Jack’s Mannequin and the concept album, Everything in Transit, which chronicles McMahon’s return. Several parts of the album focus on McMahon being “sick”, which was a reference to the recovery from nonstop touring with Something Corporate, but it took on an entirely different meaning when the band had to cancel the promotional tour for the album as McMahon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at just 23 years old. He would ultimately recover and is still making music today, but his diagnosis and subsequent recovery will forever be synonymous with this album. But none of that takes away from just how stellar this album is. The opening sound of the California beaches and seagulls in “Holiday From Real” has become the unofficial beach anthem any time I head down the Shore, “The Mixed Tape” brought that pop punk sound McMahon was known for with Something Corporate, but it’s tracks like “Miss Delaney” and “La La Lie” where you see both McMahon’s sharp wit as a lyricist (“Finally, I’m letting go/Of all my downer thoughts/In no time there’ll be/One less sad robot/Looking for a chance to be/Something more than just metal”) and his skills on the piano, which include a solo backed by a harmonica in “La La Lie”. Also, for a footnote and I recently discovered, Tommy Lee (yes, that Tommy Lee) did the drums for several tracks on this album.
Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid (2010)
I don’t know what was better on this album, Monae’s absolutely incredible vocal range or the way it beautifully blends soul, hip-hop, Britpop and disco. This was a soul album we didn’t deserve in 2010, but one we definitely needed. Monae was fearlessly creative in what could have very easily been a dud of an album with a few missteps even as it transitions genres between tracks, they all just flow together, whether it is the neo-soul track “Dance or Die” to the swing band influenced new wave track “Faster” or the more traditional R&B track “Locked Inside”. Arguably the biggest treat of the album is “Come Alive” where we get hear Monae stretch her vocal range to the absolute extreme and hold a high-pitched wail for much longer than I ever thought was humanly possible. How Monae has never won a Grammy (despite eight nominations) is mind-boggling.
Jawbreaker – Dear You (1995)
In their final effort before their breakup, Jawbreaker fans were introduced to vocalist Blake Schwarzenbach’s new voice as he underwent vocal cord surgery before the recording of the album. The result is a less raspy, more tobacco-stained voice that helped carry the more mellow tone of this album as opposed to their previous releases. The initial reaction by their fans was mixed, but it is partially due to the band’s decision to sign with major label DGC despite the band making numerous comments in the past that they abhor major labels. Well, money tends to change things and the reported advance of $1 million to come to DGC likely played a role in the band’s decision to sign. Years later, many have finally recognized the album for the underappreciated gem that it was after the disdain from fans wore off and the band was able to get out from the shadow of Green Day’s Dookie. With deep heartfelt lyrics in songs like “Accident Prone”, a strong bassline in “Chemistry” and the acoustic sign-off “Unlisted Track”, this album was a proper finale for the band who eventually reunited 22 years after the album’s release.
Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003)
Between 1996-2003, Jay-Z released one album per year, solidifying himself as one of rap’s hardest workers. So when Jay-Z announced that The Black Album would be his swan song, we couldn’t help but acknowledge it as a well-deserved retirement. His retirement is a recurring theme throughout the album and in true Jay-Z fashion, he wanted to work with as many producers as possible, including Kanye West (“Encore”), The Neptunes (“Change Clothes”), Timbaland (“Dirt Off Your Shoulder”), Eminem (“Moment of Clarity”), Rick Rubin (“99 Problems”) and more, each providing their unique fingerprints across each track. “99 Problems” also provided a lesson in criminal procedure, something that came in handy while my wife studied for the bar exam. Fortunately for us, Jay-Z’s retirement was short-lived as he returned in 2006 and has released five new albums since The Black Album.
Jimmy Eat World – Bleed American (2001)
While Clairty is my personal favorite Jimmy Eat World album, Bleed American is the better introductory album for the band. This was the album that brought the emo genre to mainstream, led by the single “The Middle”, which spoke out to all outcast adolescents to let them know that life gets better after this and to accept themselves. Jimmy Eat World also didn’t pull any punches when it came to honoring their influencers. Davey von Bohlen (The Promise Ring) provides backup vocals on “A Praise Chorus”, which itself also includes lyrics from several bands. “The Authority Song” is a direct reference to John Mellancamp. The album kicks off with the titular track, which puts your right on your feet before peppering in softer tracks, like the ballad “Hear You Me” or the album’s closer, “My Sundown”.
Johnny Cash – Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957)
Blending country and rockabilly, Johnny Cash’s debut album delivered some of his biggest hits, including “Hey Porter”, “Cry Cry Cry” and “Folsom Prison Blues”. The Man in Black became an immediate sensation and would go on to inspire many musicians during his career which spanned nearly 50 years before his death in 2003. Here, we get it all from Cash, his signature guitar play (best exemplified in “I Walk the Line”), his calm baritone voice and abilities as a songwriter (“When I was just a baby/My Mama told me, “Son/Always be a good boy/Don’t ever play with guns, “/But I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die”). This is a landmark album and a must-listen no matter what type of music you listen to.
The Juliana Theory – Emotion is Dead (2000)
A tongue-in-cheek album title, the emo genre didn’t die as this album assumed. This album has the trademark emo songs (“Don’t Push Love Away”, “If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?”) but it also includes a song for the naysayers (“We knew you’d hate this before we wrote it/So listen up, we’re telling you before you tell us”). While “We’re at the Top of the World” was on seemingly every teen-focused CW television show in the early 2000s, “If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?” is the true gem of Emotion is Dead, with a mood-setting build up before Detar yells at the top of his lungs. Not every song necessarily fits (“Something Isn’t Right Here” seems like it belongs as a filler song on an *NSYNC album), but it all works in its own way. I got into The Juliana Theory late (I discovered them while seeing an ad for their final album in Alternative Press), but was instantly swooned by them, my senior quote was a song lyric of theirs.
Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle (2015)
At just 20 years old, Julien Baker delivered a fresh take on folk music with Sprained Ankle, an unapologetically honest album covering depression, substance abuse and a general crisis of faith, all recorded less than two years after Baker found sobriety. A true minimalist, Baker doesn’t rely on much else than her guitar and he beautiful voice. Along with Phoebe Bridgers, Baker is bringing in an era of female folk artists, setting the tone for the genre for the next decade.
Justin Timberlake – FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006)
In the early 2000s, group pop acts were at a crossroads. The Spice Girls broke up, Beyonce was becoming too big for Destiny’s Child and *NSYNC broke up, paving the way for Justin Timberlake to emerge as a solo artist, releasing Justified in 2002 to much acclaim. For his follow up, Timberlake enlisted producer Timbaland and the two had an immediate connection. Powered by the pounding bass and electronic chords of “SexyBack” (a song my then 3-year-old brother sand ad nauseam), you immediately knew this album was shifting away from pop as Timberlake was solidifying himself as an R&B star. The lead single was no fluke either, “My Love”, “What Goes Around… Comes Around” and “LoveStoned” continued to carry this album and ultimately serve as Timberlake’s best material – both as a solo artist and with *NSYNC.
Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material (2015)
While Kacey Musgraves’ follow up album, Golden Hour, is her most critically acclaimed (and excellent in it’s own right), I am sticking with her sophomore effort, which is more country than her country-pop follow up. Pageant Material doesn’t try to blow you away with big hooks or a grandiose bellowing from Musgraves, instead opting for a softer tone with well penned, authentic lyrics by a woman from east Texas. She writes what she knows, whether it’s minding your own business in “Biscuits” or the realization that you’re not living up to the lofty expectations of others in the album’s titular track, which features one of my favorite double-entendre lyric this side of Ludacris (“I ain’t pageant material/The only crown is in my glass”). Traditionally, I am not a country fan, but Musgraves is an exceptional artist.
Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Mixing neo soul and R&B, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill served as a blueprint for artists of the new millennium. After the demise of the Fugees, Lauryn Hill found herself 22 and pregnant, which helped fuel the creative juices for this album. Focused on not just making another Fugees album, Hill was able to adapt elements of what made the Fugees great and turn it into her own unique creation. Led by one of the most creative music videos that gave us a side-by-side comparison of 1960s and 1990s Washington Heights, “Doo Wop (That Thing)” would become the single that solidifed Hill as a legitimate solo artist. The album explores themes of love, with multiple interludes of a teacher discussing the topic with his students. Hill’s skills are also on full display, whether it is her razor-sharp rapping in “Lost Ones” or her exemplary voice in “Ex-Factor”.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
Although just eight tracks, Led Zeppelin IV was the band’s most complete album and a stellar response to the critical reception of the underrated Led Zeppelin III. “Stairway to Heaven” has become one of the greatest rock tracks of all time due to it’s buildup from a slow acoustic song to a hard rock arrangement accompanied by one of the most famous guitar solos ever. “Rock and Roll” includes a Chuck Berry-inspired guitar line while “Black Dog” is sung in caller/response format. Each track is different from one another but at the same time you never feel like it’s from a different band.
Lily Allen – Alright, Still (2006)
The first time I came across Lily Allen was seeing her music video for “Alfie”, a childish tune about her younger brother’s (actor Alfie Allen) propensity for smoking weed and playing video games. While not necessarily a stellar song, it got me intrigued enough to check out her debut album and I was blown away about Allen’s brutally honest lyrics of sexual frustration, jilted ex-lovers and avoid that creepy guy at the bar. For a pop album, Alright Still is in many ways raunchy, “Not Big” was a middle finger to her ex and his lack of anatomy, but it’s accompanied by music rooted in pop, reggae and R&B. The beat for “Friday Night” is something out of a piano bar while “Everything’s Just Wonderful’s” use of synthesizers is something sraight from the 80s. Allen never became a true pop star, but she did become my generation’s Liz Phair.
The Loved Ones – Keep Your Heart (2006)
In some ways, The Loved Ones are a supergroup, with members from hardcore legends Paint it Black and Kid Dynamite helping make up the five piece. What makes The Loved Ones so unique, however, is how they blend pop punk with heartland rock in vein of Tom Petty, a sound they would double down on that helped influence two other bands local to the Philadelphia/New Jersey scene, The Gaslight Athem and The Menzingers. Never truly appreciated, Keep Your Heart should have gone down as one of the decade’s best pop punk releases.
Man, or Astro-Man? – Destroy All Astromen! (1994)
In the mid-2000s, I was very active in MySpace groups, specifically for a variety of different genres of music, which helped expose me to a greater variety of artists who I otherwise would have never heard of. Man, or Astro-Man?, a space rock band that is reminiscent of Dick Dale, is one of the bands I discovered through this through a friend I made. They rarely use vocals, instead focusing on making songs that sound like they would be perfect to play in the backdrop of a surfing competition, which is interesting when you consider that the band is from the near landlocked Alabama.
Mariah Carey – Daydream (1995)
Each decade has their own female pop star who defines the decade. The 1980s had Madonna, the 2000s had Beyonce, the 2010s had Lady Gaga and the 1990s had Mariah Carey. Carey released a whopping seven albums during the decade, including Daydream, her second diamond album of the decade. I was 7 when Daydream was released and it was my first exposure to songs like “Fantasy”, “One Sweet Day” and “Always Be My Baby” and I was immediately hooked by her unique “squeaky” voice. She could hit every note, but didn’t always have to, utilizing more ballads in this release. Carey would go on the shift more and more towards R&B in her later releases, but this is arguably the pop album of the 1990s.
The Menzingers – After the Party
Talk about perfect timing. The Menzingers released this album, which was a self-described love letter to their 20s, right before I turned 30 and with lyrics focused on specific landmarks from Asbury Park, located just 15 miles from my hometown Middletown, this is one of those albums I really felt with each track. “Lookers” tells the tale of lost youth, “Bad Catholics” reflects on the rebellious teenager and how friends grow apart from one another over the years. My only qualm with the album is that the titular track should have been the album’s closer, but they instead opted to make it the penultimate track before ending withthe somber “Livin’ Ain’t Easy”.
Michael Jackson – Thriller (1982)
By 1982, Michael Jackson was only 24 and already a seasoned veteran in the music industry. So when disco was officially declared dead following Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in 1979, Jackson knew his follow up album to 1978’s Off the Wall had to be something spectacular or he would risk burning out in the new decade. The end result was Thriller, incorporating more rock elements into his pop/funk sound. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones were focused on making “every song a killer” and they did just that. Seven of the nine songs were released as singles, all of them charted in the top 10, led by No. 1 singles “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”. Not to mention the now iconic music video for the titular track. Thriller is the greatest selling album of all time and would become an album that defined the ’80s.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
The shining moment of lo-fi indie, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea relied on heavy distortion, less conventional instruments (such as flugelhorn and zanzithophone) and an abrupt change in tempo from track to track. Singer Jeff Mangum delivers a stream of consciousness style of songwriting in the album with lyrics that one could only describe as odd. Unfortunately, the critical reception and subsequent cult following was too much for Mangum, who was tired of touring and having to discuss his lyrics, leading to him committing himself in isolation and ultimately leading to the band’s demise.
The New Amsterdams – Worse for the Wear (2003)
In between album releases for The Get Up Kids, frontman Matt Pryor was releasing solo material under the moniker The New Amsterdams before deciding to expand it into a full band, including The Get Up Kids bandmates Rob and Ryan Pope. Due to obligations with The Get Up Kids (On a Wire was released a year before), they could not extensively promote the album, ultimately becoming an underappreciated gem. Worse for the Wear made use of a pump organ to open up the album and mixes in a bit of banjo throughout the album, giving a final product that is as relaxing as it is entertaining.
Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
Before Trent Reznor was composing music for David Fincher films, he was releasing groundbreaking material as the mastermind behind industrial rock outfit Nine Inch Nails. Pretty Hate Machine was a heavily synth-driven rock album blended with an aggressive sound. If Terminator was released five years later, “Head Like a Hole” would undoubtedly be on the film’s score. But the synthesizer and drum machine don’t always carry the album. “Terrible Lie” is a guitar-led follow up to the lead track. Usually, albums as ambitious as this don’t do well, but Pretty Hate Machine has teeth behind Reznor’s honest lyrics about being in your early 20s and feeling like your life is already over.
Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
I was only 3 years old when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” dominated the radio and it was the first rock song to get its hooks on me. I would sing the (wrong) lyrics at the to of my lungs every time the song came on that it got to a point that my dad would turn on the country station and try to tell me it was the “acoustic version of the song”. But Nevermind was much more than that iconic single, it was the album that ushered in the grunge era in America. The raw intensity of Nirvana is felt through tracks like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Territorial Pissings” and “Stay Away” but they weren’t afraid to take a more stripped-down approach to some tracks as well, led by singles “Come As You Are” and “Polly”.
OutKast – Stankonia (2000)
While “Rosa Parks” will forever be my favorite track from this hip-hop duo from Atlanta, Stankonia is their most complete effort led by iconic singles “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh, So Clean”, but the unparalleled star is “B.O.B” which features rapid-fire rhymes in which both Andre 3000 and Big Boi find themselves in competition with the drum machine before being punctuated by a Jimmy Hendrix-infused guitar solo and a gospel choir. The duo refrained from listening to hip-hop while recording this album, instead opting to listen to Prince, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix, helping shape this album as atypical as to what was being released at the time. “Gasoline Dreams” is reminiscent of Public Enemy, tackling the death of the American dream and shining the spotlight on the difference between white and black people when it comes to drug offenses. Not only was Stankonia different than any other rap album being released, each track was unique to one’s self.
Paramore – Brand New Eyes (2009)
Hayley Williams has always been a person to march to the beat of her own drum. Discovered in Tennessee when she was only 14, Atlantic Records wanted to turn her into a solo pop star, but she objected, wanting to instead front a pop punk act. She would ultimately form Paramore and wouldn’t release any solo material until 2020. During that time, however, a generation of fans grew with her and their music grew with them, becoming less pop punk oriented and more alternative and new wave with their later releases. Their best effort, however, was Brand New Eyes, which included the track that began their shift to maturity with “The Only Exception”, a stripped down acoustic ballad that really showcases Williams’ vocal talent. I wasn’t a huge Paramore fan from their first efforts, but Brand New Eyes was the album that made me see them in a new way.
Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
While I owe Nirvana all the credit in the world for exposing me to rock and shaping how I listen to music, Pearl Jam’s Ten is the true masterpiece of the grunge era. Just about every track on this album could have been a single led by the strength of its powerful chords and Eddie Vedder’s iconic voice. Vedder covers topics like homelessness, depression and abuse and you truly feel the weight of his words in songs like “Black”. Nirvana brought grunge to mainstream, but Pearl Jam was the band to perfect the sound.
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher (2020)
2020 has become a banner year for the 26-year-old folk rock darling. She released her sophomore album, Punisher to critical acclaim and her record label, Dead Oceans, announced that she founded a record label, Saddest Factory, in partnership with the label. Punisher tackled themes of missed connections and watching things end. Her debut album, Stranger in the Alps tackled trauma she had suffered, while Punisher delves into how she survived and thrived from the trauma. Bridgers is so young and yet so perfectly tackles such complex themes.
Pixies – Doolittle (1989)
One of the hardest selections on this list as there are four legitimately correct answers to which Pixies album to include, but I went with Doolittle due to the album’s largest variety of tracks. While Pixies were never commercial darlings, their influence was ubiquitous in 1990s alternative rock. Kurt Cobain openly admitted that he was trying to mimic their sound with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Weezer used the opening riff and vocal delivery of “I Bleed” in both “Undone (The Sweater Song)” and “Only in Dreams”. Pixies always delivered complex lyrics, and Doolittle is no different, covering topics like environmental catastrophe “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, Salvador Dali (“Debaser”) and prostitutes (“Mr. Greaves”). The songs are just as diverse as their lyrical content too, whether it is the Hawaiian tinged “Here Comes Your Man”, the buildup from a slow, angular guitar intro to the hyper-aggressive “Crackity Jones” to the mellow “La La Love You”. Coincidentally, it was because of a band heavily influenced by Pixies (Weezer) that I discovered them.
Prince – Purple Rain (1984)
While Michael Jackson’s Thriller set the tone for the 1980s, it was Prince who delivered the crown jewel of the decade with Purple Rain. My mother introduced me to Prince when I was 8 and I still get chills down my spine when I hear the opening guitar riff of “When Doves Cry”. Prince was at his experimental peak with Purple Rain and blended just about every genre he could think of over the course of this nine-track album. This album, which earned a perfect rating from Pitchfork, solidified Prince’s reputation as a music and multi-instrumental genius and is one of the greatest records of all time, transcending generations.
Protest the Hero – Kezia (2005)
Part Metallica’s thrash, Coheed and Cambria’s vocal range and The Dillenger Escape Plan’s precision, Kezia is an album packed with explosive instrumentals in nearly every second. But there is no sloppiness at all with Protest the Hero’s sound, every last pluck of the guitar string is well thought out and wonderfully timed. Kezia is also a concept album, shown from the perspective of the priest, the executioner and the titular Kezia, a female prisoner on death row. There are a lot of moving pieces for this album, especially for a band making releasing their debut album, but Protest the Hero had the ambition needed to make it work.
Queen – Jazz (1978)
Although not initially loved, the reception for Jazz has softened over the years and it has emerged as one of their finest hours, featuring songs like “Fat Bottomed Girls”, “Bicycle Race” and my all-time favorite Queen track, “Don’t Stop Me Now”. Queen is my favorite classic rock band, and there is plenty of time to introduce her to their extensive catalog (this was their seventh album), but outside of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, there isn’t a better starting point for Freddie Mercury and Co.
Queens of the Stone Age – Songs for the Deaf (2002)
One of the best guitar-focused albums in recent memory, Queens of the Stone Age delivered an album that essentially summed up the state of rock in early 2002, more and more bands were experimenting and rock began splitting more and more into different genres. Aiding to the success of this album is hired gun David Grohl as the drummer and lead single “No One Knows”, which perfectly finds that middle point right between hard rock and metal.
Radiohead – The Bends (1995)
Truth be told, I have already introduced my daughter to this album, as it was the first one I played as we left the hospital with her in tow. Many will crucify me for not listing Kid A or OK Computer, but The Bends has always been my personal favorite out of Radiohead’s catalog. This album was a turning point for the band, shifting away from Thom Yorke’s angst-ridden lyrics into more cryptic ones. “High and Dry” shines the spotlight on Yorke’s falsetto, while the post-grunge guitars in “Just” are also exemplary. This album wasn’t without controversy. “Fake Plastic Trees” was the lead single for the album and Capitol records was dissatisfied with this song, which served as the follow-up to “Creep”. The record label re-mixed the track, which, fortunately, Yorke refused to greenlight as it gutted out the soul of the song, and luckily for us as the song has become one of the band’s greatest hits.
Rage Against the Machine – The Battle of Los Angeles (1999)
Never ones to shy away from their political beliefs, despite what people in 2020 think, The Battle of Los Angeles opens up with the Orwellian-laced “Testify” before segueing into more heavy-handed political barbs throughout the album. Tom Morello’s iconic guitar is on full display, most notably during the blistering solo of “Sleep Now with the Fire”. Seven years after their selt-titled debut, Rage Against the Machine is doesn’t lose a touch, staying strongly opinionated while blending rock, funk and rap.
Ramones – Ramones (1976)
A landmark album in punk rock that perfectly encapsulated the pogo element later used heavily by The Bouncing Souls, the Ramones kick off the album with a three-chord assault of their iconic track “Blitzkreig Bop”. The Queens-based quartet blended bright, uptempo sounds of punk with dark imagery of lyrics that focused on themes of brutality (specifically Naziism), drug use and relationship issues. In 1976, playing songs this fast wascompletely unheard of, even in their slower songs like “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”.
Rancid – …And Out Come the Wolves (1995)
Nearly 20 years after the Ramones brought punk rock to mainstream, Rancid found themselves being courted by seemingly every major label out there in preparation of their third album. The Berkley, Calif. based outfit ended up staying with Epitath records and aptly named their next album after the bidding war by major labels looking to court them. I discovered this album in seventh grade when I first started listening to punk rock and was instanly hooked by Matt Feeman’s Charlie Daniel’s Band-inspired bass solo in “Maxwell Murder”, which to be is the greatest bassline in music. From a mainstream standpoint, punk rock was dead and Rancid’s emergence helped pave the way for it’s revival.
Rocky Votolato – The Brag and Cuss (2007)
One of the artists introduced to me by a friend I made in a MySpace group (and one I still keep in contact with), Rocky Votolato may be from Seattle, but he has deep country roots. Votolato has a soothing, raspy voice that he presents over 34 minutes. The Brag and Cuss doesn’t try to outdo his predecessors by doing anything overly complicated, instead sticking with the basics while sprinkling in bits of banjo, organ and slide guitar. Votolato discovered his unique sound in Makers and perfected it with The Brag and Cuss.
Saves the Day – Through Being Cool (1999)
The first time I heard Saves the Day was when “At Your Funeral” was making its rounds on MTV2 when I was in middle school and the band has a little fanfare in my class because one of my classmates is related to singer Chris Conley. While Stay What You Are was my first foray into Saves the Day, Through Being Cool was their masterpiece that captured 1990s pop-punk in a way nobody else could. The album served as the midpoint between moving from their melodic hardcore debut, Can’t Slow Down and their full-blown pop-punk/emo followup Stay What You Are, the guitars chug at times and the double-time drums are still there, but Conley finally emerges as the vocalist he is today and the album is much more polished than its predecessor. Without Through Being Cool, we don’t get Fall Out Boy or Taking Back Sunday.
Sense Field – Tonight and Forever (2001)
One of the most underappreciate bands from their scene, Tonight and Forever saw Sense Field shift away from their emo/punk-oriented roots to a more modern emo sound. “Save Yourself” gave the band some recognition, appearing on the show Roswell and the piano bridge in “Waiting for Something” is a high point of this album. Tonight and Forever isn’t daring, but it is an album that shifts the focus on Jon Bunch’s vocals to much acclaim. I got into Sense Field long after their demise, but it was looking like they were gearing towards a reunion before Bunch’s unfortunate death in 2016.
The Shins – Wincing the Night Away (2007)
Remember the Zune, Microsoft’s unsuccessful answer to Apple’s iPod? Well, the opening track off of this album was heavily used in their commercials. Sleep, or lack thereof, is a recurring theme, kicked off by the opening track, “Sleeping Lessons”, which includes a synthesized sample of “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes. The album progresses to more upbeat indie pop. The band breaks out multitude of instruments to blend together the album’s unique sound, including a banjo, a ukelele, an organ and lap steel.
The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)
While their follow-up double album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, launched The Smashing Pumpkins into the stratosphere, it was Siamese Dream that really established the band in the post-grunge alternative rock world. Billy Corgan kicks off the album by tackling his perception of the American music industry with “Cherub Rock” before singing about depression, his autistic half-brother and his girlfriend, who he briefly broke up with while writing this album. The repeated four bar introduction of “Today” is nothing short of beautiful, almost lullaby-like before the song delves into Corgan’s bout with depression and suicidal thoughts and despite the dark tone, was their first massive hit. After the success of their debut album, Gish, The Smashing Pumpkins were dubbed the next Nirvana and while they may not have reached that level, you can’t say they didn’t meet expectations.
The Spill Canvas – Sunsets & Car Crashes (2003)
In a way, The Spill Canvas has already had a significant impact on my daughter’s life as we were playing them in the delivery room as she made her big arrival. I discovered The Nick Thomas-led project in 2006 via a friend right after One Fell Swoop was released as she felt “Lust a Prima Vista” as the ultimate middle finger to her ex. But the band evolved into more than that for me. I introduced them to my now wife and we have seen them countless times, including album anniversary shows, a requestour or on my wife’s birthday. Had we had a dance floor at our wedding, we would have chosen a song from them as the song for our first dance. I went with Sunsets & Car Crashes, the effort Thomas as an official solo project (though he does add backing members) before he added a full band as we get to see his full talents as a lyricist (“So don’t go worrying about me/It’s not like I think about you constantly/So maybe I do, but that shouldn’t affect/Your life anymore/I knew it the moment you walked into the door”) and the full range of his abilities on the acoustic guitar, whether it’s the light strumming of “All Hail the Heartbreaker” or the power chords in “Bracelet”. Not many bands make it out of South Dakota, but The Spill Canvas are an exceptional talent.
The Story So Far – Under Soil and Dirt (2011)
One of the most angst-ridden albums in pop-punk, singer Parker Cannon picks at his old high school wounds whether he is asking “Do you look yourself straight in the eyes/And think about who you let between your thighs?” or flat out telling his ex-flame, “I’d like to think that you’re worth my time by you embody everything that I hate”. Cannon was hurt when he wrote this song and the album was therapeutic for him. You really only get one shot at an angst-ridden album before people write you off a childish and The Story So Far hit a home run with their lone opportunity.
The Strokes – Is This It (2001)
The cornerstone of the garage rock revival, oddly, I never heard The Strokes on the radio, only by name. I caught onto The Strokes a few years later when a megafan I befriended on a MySpace forum was gushing over them. Is This It just hits that groove in a way no other artists did. I don’t know if it’s because of Julian Casablanca’s Lou Reed-esque vocals, the way they feature the guitars in songs like “Last Night” or “Alone, Together” or the way the lyrics focus on life in New York City in your 20s (something I would discover myself a few years later), but everything blends so well together whether they are being melancholy or channeling their inner Aerosmith. To answer the album’s question, yes, this is it and in a very good way.
Taking Back Sunday – Tell All Your Friends (2002)
Whether it’s belting out the opening lines of “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut From the Team)”, the uber-emo lyric “The truth is you could slit my throat/and with my one last gasping breath/I’d apologize for breathing on your shirt” or their beef with Brand New that resembled rapper making diss tracks, Taking Back Sunday left their permanent mark in emo music, even if this album is more pop-punk. Following a fallout with former bassist Jesse Lacey, the band had several lineup changes before the Long Island outfit imported Adam Lazzara from North Carolina to be their frontman. This lineup change wound up being significant for the genre, Lazzara’s ability to transition from being nearly raspy to melancholy has become a trademark of the band (not to mention his live antics) while Lacey’s departure opened the doors for him to form Brand New. This album also spawned the band’s trademark feature of layering vocals with guitarist John Nolan’s rapid-fire delivery making it feel like you’re listening to two separate songs to the same beat and yet flows together oh so well.
Tears for Fears – Songs from the Big Chair (1985)
While I have always been fond of “Everybody Want to Rule the World”, what really got me into this British progressive pop duo was hearing “Head Over Heels” while watching Donnie Darko. For their followup to The Hurting, Tears for Fears went thematically small while going but just about everywhere else. Saxophones, live drums on top of drum machines and guitar solos are sprinkled throughout the album, but it’s the larger-than-life vocals of Roland Orzabal that carries this album, bombastic enough to fill a stadium but yet at the same time so soft and gentle.
The Terrible Twos – If You Ever See an Owl… (2007)
I am sure my wife will smack me the second she sees this as she can’t escape the earworm once this album plays. Playing with the same lineup as The New Amsterdams, Matt Pryor wanted to make children’s songs while spending time with them during The Get Up Kids’ hiatus. The result is the perfect children’s album for those who are tired of hearing Frozen on repeat. Pryor has forever been one of my favorite musicians, so having to opportunity to introduce him to my daughter at such a young age is a treat for me.
Texas is the Reason – Do You Know Who You Are? (1996)
Much like American Football before they reunited, Texas is the Reason simply arrived, dropped an absolute gem and then left before they wore out their welcome. Blending post-hardcore and emo music while singing songs about John F. Kennedy assassination theories, including the aptly titled track “The Magic Bullet Theory”. While Garrett Klahn has always been praised for his vocals on this album, the one track that has always struck out to me is the calming instrumental “Do You Know Who You Are?” which gives you (and the band) a chance to catch your breath before the amps are plugged back in and their heaviest song on the album, “Back and to the Left” is played. When Texas is the Reason was formed, it was by hardcore veterans who were looking to get away from the “macho and preachy” hardcore scene and that’s exactly what this album was. No preachy undertones, no hypermasculinity, just a quartet looking to making their mark.
A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders (1993)
Admittedly, I don’t have enough hip-hop albums on here (and don’t worry, there are plenty of albums that simply missed the cut), but A Tribe Called Quest is a must-have. Lyrically, the New York City four piece has never been better and they focused on topics that matter, whether it be social injustice or the usage of the n-word, along with sports references and everyday life. “8 Million Stories” was the hip-hop version of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic”, just a song that cataloged everything that’s going wrong, whether it’s getting your car stolen or John Starks getting ejected at a Knicks game. “Award Tour” discusses the group’s desire to perform, and look back fondly at the days before they made it big (“I have a quest to have the mic in my hand/Without that, it’s like Kryptonite and Superman”). Pfife Dawg, Q Tip, Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad brought forward their slickest effort in this album. Each musician has their chance to shine and they all flow so well together.
Van Halen – Van Halen (1978)
Van Halen was one of the first artists introduced to me by my step-father and I was immediately blown away, specifically by the instrumental “Eruption”, a track that showcased all of Eddie Van Halen’s talent to the point that you’re not even aware it’s just one guitar. The California four piece brought it with every track on this album with piston pumping, high octane rock that has aged magnificently over the years. They took The Kinks “You Really Got Me” and made it their own, cranking up the amp and adding a well-placed chug before David Lee Roth begins singing. Van Halen is not an album meant to be played soft, this is an album meant to make your house shake but the punching bass.
Weezer – Pinkerton (1996)
I discovered Weezer in 1994 after my mom purchased their self-titled debut (which is now called the Blue Album since Weezer just loves to release color-themed self-titled albums) and loved “Buddy Holly” and “Undone (The Sweater Song)” but I was fortunate to not hear their followup album when it was released. The album was ahead of its time and at 8 years old, I was simply too young to appreciate its brilliance. Rivers Cuomo was in a much different space while writing Pinkerton, he was distressed from the rock and roll lifestyle, had just undergone a painful procedure to lengthen his right leg and was attending Harvard University while creating what would become a much darker album than its predecessor. The initial rejection hit the band hard, they went into hiatus, not releasing another album for five years before returning to Ric Ocasek (who produced the Blue Album) to produce their follow-up album. For a long period of time, Weezer refused to play any songs from Pinkerton live, even with fans and critics coming around to the album (Rolling Stone initially listed it as one of the worst albums of 1996 before giving it a five-star review eight years later). Over the past decade, however, the songs have returned to their setlist. Even Pitchfork has given the album a perfect score.
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001)
Pitchfork called this album a masterpiece while giving it a perfect score and nearly 20 years later, it’s still one of the greatest albums of the new millennium. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the crown jewel of lo-fi indie, as there are so many unique sounds and instruments sprinkled in over the course of 51:51 that it’s an entirely different listening experience each time you listen. The album isn’t carried by one specific instrument or performer and each song has something memorable or unique to it, whether it’s the violins in “Jesus, Etc.”, the soft jangy piano in “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” or the twang of the guitar in “I’m the Man Who Loves You” (or the horns during the song’s build up). Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is unlike anything that came before it and there hasn’t been a musical act who has quite captured the album’s brilliance since.