Plug in your headphones: eight albums to listen to from start to finish

Evan Amos - Wikimedia Commons

A black vinyl record spinning under a needle. A CD playing in the car on a long road trip. A digitized collection of tunes resting in your Spotify library. The album has taken on many forms over the years, but one thing has remained constant; it is a cornerstone of music creation and consumption. It is an art form that celebrates the additive quality of music, the way that songs can take on new meanings when grouped with others, creating an auditory expression of the artist’s life and experience at that time. 

It seems to me, however, that with the rise of streaming services there has also come a decline in the popularity of the album. I love Spotify’s tailored playlists as much as the next person, but I have also realized that a lot of the new music I consume comes in the form of individual songs handed to me by the algorithm, stripped from their collective story. So in an ode to the album, here are eight albums that you should listen to from start to finish, with a good pair of headphones and without that shuffle feature. I will do my best to group these records together to spare you eight paragraphs, but each of these albums are entirely their own. 

My first grouping of recommendations are the albums “Ghosteen” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and “Illinois” by Sufjan Stevens. While very different, I suggest these albums if you are interested in a longer, immersive experience brimming with lush, orchestral instrumentation. “Ghosteen” was created several years after the tragic passing of Nick Cave’s son, and you can feel the grief, processing and glimmers of hope throughout this musical journey. It contains beautiful lyrics rooted in repeated imagery that pops up throughout the album, such as the chorus of the haunting track “Galleon Ship”, which describes “a thousand galleon ships [sailing] / ghostly around the morning sun.” Production-wise, “Ghosteen” thrives in minimalism, often pairing Cave’s meditative voice with synth pads, haunting voices and strings. “Illinois” utilizes similarly lush instrumentation, but is far less minimalist. Strings, horns, guitars, drums, banjo and many more instruments guide the listener through this musical tribute to the titular state, weaving together stories from both Stevens’ life and the history of Illinois in a profound way. The album is sequenced wonderfully, with an hour flying by like 10 minutes, and it dabbles in many different genres and musical styles. By the end of it, you’ll feel fulfilled, inspired and a little more curious about obscure Illinoian history. 

The albums “IGOR” by Tyler, the Creator and “22, A Million” by Bon Iver both shine in their concise storytelling, brilliant use of electronic synthesizers, and excellent sequencing. Both of these albums employ great transitions between songs, which is one of the most satisfying parts of listening to an album in its intended order. “IGOR” is much more (purposefully) jarring and heavy in its transitions, often cutting between songs very suddenly with hardly any spacing. It’s a musical push-pull between songs that makes the overall narrative feel like a fast-paced rollercoaster through Tyler’s head. The variety in the instrumentation is exciting, the melodies are addictive, and it truly thrives as a cohesive story. “22, A Million” is generally smoother and more abstract in its storytelling, with songs transitioning into each other languidly instead of abruptly and flourishing with triumphant horns, autotuned vocals and ghostly pianos. Every song is different on this album, from the hard-hitting drone of “10 d E A T h b R E a s T” to the folksy but orchestral swoon of “29 #Strafford APTS”. As always with Bon Iver, you may listen and feel that you’ve never been so heard in your life, even though you can’t decipher half of what he is saying.

My next batch of albums are indie rock staples, Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (my personal favorite album) and Modest Mouse’s “The Moon & Antarctica.” Wilco’s 2002 magnum opus traverses so many moods and sounds while remaining coherent, floating through a spacy, moody void filled with yearning, frustration, doubt and above all, the desire to connect with both oneself and someone else. Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics paint this picture of isolation and failed communication wonderfully, and Wilco uses the instrument that is the studio to bend the band’s expertly crafted songs into something even better. Modest Mouse’s “The Moon & Antarctica” occupies a different space within the indie rock pantheon, feeling more raw and hopeless. Whereas “Yankee” perhaps fit better within the “indie” part of the label, “Moon” shows off the “rock,” with more of an emphasis on electric guitars, groovy basslines and anthemic choruses. Still, “Moon” has that same early 2000s cosmic angst that “Yankee” has, thriving within thought-provoking imagery of space, gravity and isolation. The album’s genius transitions make the 15 songs feel like a breeze.

In a different vein, two albums that I recommend for a stripped-down folk experience with masterful lyrics are “Southeastern” by Jason Isbell and “Benji” by Sun Kil Moon. Jason Isbell is one of the sharpest lyricists and singer-songwriters out there. On “Southeastern, he compiles 12 tightly-written songs filled with anecdotes, personal narratives and stark lines that will make you think (such as “If there’s one thing that’s real clear to me / no one dies with dignity” off the harrowing track “Elephant”); when put together, this batch of songs only become more profound, representing a very important time in Isbell’s life. This album varies wonderfully in its musicality, with songs falling all along a spectrum of soft and contemplative to rockin’ and rollin’ (in a folksy manner). Sun Kil Moon’s “Benji” takes the autobiographical to the extreme, piecing together 11 songs that feel plucked straight out of the artist’s life with no filter and no detail left out. It feels especially poignant when listened to together that these many stories and random-seeming details add up to a wonderful expression of the human experience, with musings on childhood, mortality and family that will leave you poring over the lyrics. It’s an album that’s often bleak, but in the end, incredibly life-affirming in its illustration of life’s many nuances and complexities. 

So there you have it, my personal take on eight albums that you should listen to in full. Of course, I’dalso recommend classic albums such as “Abbey Road” and “The Wall”, but I thought it would be fun to write about some more personal picks or some that may be lesser-known. With just a pair of headphones or even a phone’s speaker, a batch of songs can transport you to new worlds, new experiences and new emotions. A journey, a story… an album. 

 

3 Comments

  1. While I’m all for returning to the full-album listening experience, it’s a little strange that on this list of eight albums, not a single one is by a female artist. To the Misc art editors, be careful—while I’m sure it was not the intention, this article creates the implication that women aren’t capable of album-length statements. Sam, you seem like a genuine music lover, so don’t box yourself in by only listening to male artists! Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” and Alice Coltrane’s “Journey in Satchidananda” are great places to start.

    • Thank you so much for the feedback! I’ll definitely give those a listen :) Are you a St. Vincent or Phoebe Bridgers fan? They have some of my other fav albums which I also recommend!

      -Sam

  2. Spiritualized: Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space

    My Morning Jacket: The Waterfall II

    and last but certainly not least…..Bob Dylan: BLONDE ON BLONDE
    Dylan always works. Always

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