My Top Ten Albums of All Time

10. Power, Corruption & Lies – New Order (1983, Factory Records, 43 minutes)

We had all driven along the ridge rather quickly, but we’d done it often enough before to ease confidently around the pitfalls and overhangs.  We means me and Billy and Peter and Mike.   The destination was The Overlook, a rocky parking lot that looked out over the city from a distance.  There, marginalized high school students would gather on weekends to meet marginalized high school students from other towns and partake in the classic sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  Billy, Peter, and Mike went for the sex and drugs, but I was there for the rock and roll.

The three of them were quickly drawn to the hood of a red Camaro, where four tall, skinny white girls lounged, passing around a handle of vodka and coughing smoke into the warm spring air.  I watched from afar as the guys coolly leaned against the roof of the Camaro and began to take swigs from the girls’ bottle.  Soon, they were all puffing on cigarettes that Billy pulled out of his back pocket, and the smell pushed me further away.

There were maybe twenty or thirty cars there that night, all lined up against the guardrail so as to look out over the city, which was separated from The Overlook by a grim smudge of ash trees.  Recognizing the safety of the commune, many drivers left their windows open even as they mingled, and some of the drivers even left their radios on.  So it became my custom to weave in and out between cars, honing in on whatever sounds slipped through the cracked windows of idle vehicles.

And that’s when I heard it.  It was far away, well down the line of cars, but I pursued the sound, pushing through plumes of smoke and splashes of beer, until I traced the sound to the radio of a mint-green Honda.  Idling, its lights pierced the rising coal-mist of the forest below.  I sat on the hood with my silhouette in the headlights, and I listened to the song develop its seductive strings and penetrative synthesizers, luring me into a cold sweat and shaking me in euphoria.

I didn’t even know what the song was, or the album, or even the artist, so I jumped off the hood, went around to the open window, stuck my phone through, and Shazam’d it.  With a vibration, my phone told me the song was “Your Silent Face”, a cut from New Order’s 1983 album Power, Corruption & Lies.  With a much stronger vibration, a girl screamed.  The passenger-side back door swung open, and a tall guy in black came around and stood chest to chest with me.  He asserted his territory with incremental chest-bumps that edged me away from the Honda.  And just before I turned to walk away, I saw the girl press her nose against the foggy rear window.  It was Caroline.

I retreated to Billy’s car, but it was locked.  I kept pulling on the handle anyway until finally, I heard Mike yell from the back seat of the red Camaro, telling me that Peter was in there making it with one of the girls.  I couldn’t find where Billy was, but I didn’t want to know.  I sat down on the guardrail, downloaded Power, Corruption & Lies, and listened to it as I stared past the ash trees and toward the caged lights of the neon towers, which somehow remained untainted by my friends’ fervent catcalls and pathetic persuasions.  In the distance there, bands played live sets, singers reached into eager crowds, and guitarists smashed their instruments in crescendos of emotion, all in a grand libidinous expression, but at The Overlook, kids just wanted to fuck each other.

9. Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon & Garfunkel (1970, Columbia Records, 37 minutes)

As the bottom of the sun tucked behind the crest of Noon Hill one crisp, fall evening when I was eight, my mom came home from work and laid her jacket over the arm of the sofa.  She meandered her way to her record cabinet, and unsheathed Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.  She fitted it to the platter of the turntable, and, dropping the needle, she fluttered into the kitchen to put dinner in the oven.

She came back into the living room at the dramatic close of the title track, and she plopped down on the couch and fell asleep, her feet hanging over the arm.  The sun permeated the autumnal leaves like tissue paper, and on her head, the stained-glass colors danced along to “El Condor Pasa” and “Cecilia” in a serene, swaying motion.  She wore a red knit sweater that was slightly too small for her, one that she said my father had given her before I was born.  She wore it a lot in the cold months because it kept her warm and cozy.  Her earrings shot glints of light against the cushion of the couch, and her brown shoes hung halfway off her dangled feet.  As songs passed, the glints moved from the cushion to the wall, and soon, about halfway through “Why Don’t You Write Me”, they faded into the night.  

It was uncanny how perfectly the closing of the album coincided with the blaring of the smoke detector.  Only minutes before, the air was filled with the peaceful ripples of “Feuilles-O”, and Mom could still sleep, but the burnt meal tore her from her golden slumbers and sent her into the kitchen.  She used to set the alarm off pretty frequently when she cooked, so she knew to open the window and wait for the smoke billow out, and I knew to cover my ears.  We had Pop Tarts for dinner that night.

Today, when I listen to Bridge Over Troubled Water, I can almost see her float into the room—asleep, of course, just like that fall day.  She seems to linger in the air, and each time lightning strikes in “The Boxer”, I snap back into reality, shuddering as her fades once more into a gentle oblivion.

8. Grace – Jeff Buckley (1994, Columbia Records, 52 minutes)

I first heard about the album from my Junior English teacher, Mr. Simoneau, who played the third track, “Last Goodbye”, at the beginning of class one day.  He was my favorite teacher, and I wanted to impress him, so when my grandma picked me up from school, we went to buy the album.  I listened to it all through the night, paying particular attention to, as Mr. Simoneau put it, “how the chord progressions mirror the lyrics.”  For example, take the song “Mojo Pin”—the lyrics are a longing for a lost lover, and they’re backed by a recurring C Am / C Am chord progression.  It stays steady as Buckley sings, seeming somehow to fall back into itself and lurch forward at the same time.  I studied this all night, and I really grew to like it.  In class the next morning, Mr. Simoneau discussed The Great Gatsby, and when I stayed after class to talk about the album, he told me that he had a meeting.

Grace really gets me thinking.  Most people only know Jeff Buckley for “Hallelujah”, if at all.  The son of a jazz musician, he grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and KISS, and when he was just twenty-six, he released Grace.  It was a critical darling, and all of his childhood idols loved it.  David Bowie loved it.  Jimmy Page and Robert Plant loved it.  Robert Christgau hated it, but Brad Pitt loved it.

Jeff Buckley died at thirty.  He drowned in the Mississippi just outside Memphis after working on some cuts for his second album.  From the bank, his drummer saw him dive under a passing riverboat, and, after he moved Jeff’s guitar and clothes out of the way of the wake, he looked back to notice that Jeff had never come up.

It hurts me to write this down.  Just think of what we lost that day!  What unknown wealth of musical advancement that washed down the river with him?  What would have changed?  Would modern music be the same?  Maybe my list would be different.  These thoughts really get me going.

7. Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys (1966, Capitol Records, 36 minutes).

Dark along the road, the dashed median fluttered by in time with the third track, “That’s Not Me”.  Her moonlit hair rustled in the breeze that snuck in through my cracked window as the radio console breathed a faint glow on the leather of the bench seat between us.  It was my grandmother’s car, and earlier that night she’d dropped the keys into my hand with a wink, asking me to be home by eleven.

Of course, I’d brought Pet Sounds with me.  I’d first been attracted to Caroline when I heard her humming along to the Theremin solo in “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” from across the bin in the record store.  Our fingers leafed through dusty LPs in the same cardboard box from opposite directions, meandering their way toward a modern Lady and the Tramp moment.  The contact crippled me with ecstasy, filled me with dreams of beachside harmonies and waves crashing à la From Here to Eternity.  I invited her to go bowling that weekend, and when she left, I bought Pet Sounds—the collector’s edition—ready to surprise her and rekindle that initial spark.

And our car ride was just as smooth.  I’d found a girl with whom to share the silence between tracks, one who knew the value of a full album and could list her ten favorites at a moment’s notice.  Our thoughts harmonized that night, and as the CD spun to “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”, she slid toward me on the bench and acted accordingly before Brian Wilson even began to sing.  We never even went bowling that night.  

6. Kind of Blue – Miles Davis (1959, Columbia Records, 46 minutes)

I knew right off the bat when I moved in with my grandma that it was the house for me.  She had a whole room dedicated to music—a piano, an expensive stereo system, and a bookshelf full of pristinely-kept jazz records.  She was always spinning something on her turntable, and because her hearing had been going, she’d always play it really loud.  Each morning I’d wake up to a different jazz standard.  Some mornings it was Duke, other mornings it could have been Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, or Dizzy Gillespie, but on Sunday mornings, it was always Miles Davis.  

She’d play Kind of Blue as she made breakfast, and I knew to expect that when I went downstairs, she’d greet me in the kitchen with a plate full of her famous Kind of Blueberry pancakes.  I’d sit in the booth at the right under the window, and when she’d cleaned up, she’d pull up a wooden chair and sit across from me.  She told a lot of the same stories, especially the one about how my grandpa used to play at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, and how one night, Bill Evans invited him to play.  Sometimes, she’d tell stories about my dad, but I’d chew loudly to myself to muffle them.  There were plenty of other stories, too, like the one where she served Martin Luther King Jr.’s family at the restaurant where she waitressed, or the one about how her brothers accidentally killed a cow on the childhood farm.  Her mom was angry that they’d hid it from her—by the time she found it, they couldn’t use it for meat.
Listening to Kind of Blue is still a little bit of a tradition for me.  Sometimes I even do it over Sunday morning breakfast, but most of the time, I can’t.  I guess it makes me kind of blue.  There’s a lot of memories in this album, and without lyrics, my mind is free to wander through the crypt of them.  That can be a little dangerous, but sometimes, I know I have to do it.

5. Funeral – Arcade Fire (2004, Merge Records, 49 minutes)

For all the old music I’d been brought up with, I’d never really fallen in love with anything made after I was born.  I thought all pioneering predated me, that in some way, my birth signaled the end of the era of creativity and ushered in the boy band.  The age of the album was behind me, and singles now ruled the realm.  Artistry was celebrated only in small chunks, no longer in complete visions.

I was at the record store, probably in the classic rock section—it was middle school, after all—when I heard the clerk change the record, and “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” kicked in.  It was loud, boisterous, angsty, baroque, and goofy.  It was perfect.  I bought the CD after that one song.

It makes great driving music.  Driving through the suburbs, I’ll blast the Neighborhood tetralogy as I look up at the lit second-level windows and smile slyly.  I imagine that just maybe, in one of these passing windows, there might live a boy about my age who waits for the end of the daylight to shoot longing glances at the girl in the window across the street.  Maybe he ties a string above his window and runs over to her house at night to fasten the other end above her window.  He sends her messages across the line and watches as she reads them with widening eyes, and sometimes she slides a note back to him.  They talk about running away together, and where they’ll go, and what they’ll name their children.  But one day, her father is out trimming the hedges, and he notices the line between the houses, and he knows that the boy across the street is a pothead and will fail out of school and wears his hair like a queer, so he reaches up and snips the line.

4. Blood on the Tracks – Bob Dylan (1975, Columbia, 52 minutes)

It was almost like the time that my mom was curled up on the couch, asleep and listening to Simon and Garfunkel, but this time, she was dead.  And she wasn’t warm in the afternoon sun, either—she was actually pretty cold to the touch, like a block of ice carved to look like my mother but definitely not my actual mother.

She was all alone in the room, save for me.  The doctor had told me to come in to spend a few minutes alone with her, and I didn’t really know what he expected me to do there.  I mean, she was dead, and there wasn’t much I could do there that would be practical or reasonable.  So I just sat there at her bedside looking at the machinery that surrounded her and the whiteness of it all.  I think the life support machine might have been made by the same company that made the record player that I’d bought the week before.  If you think about it, it almost kind of makes sense.

It felt like forever that I was alone in that room, but finally, my grandma came in to see me.  My mom was her daughter-in-law, but she still went over and kissed her very gently, like the same way she’d take one of her favorite jazz records out of its sleeve.  It seemed a little much to me.  They weren’t even related.  She told me that she thought I’d seen enough and that I’d be moving in with her at her house and that it was time to leave, so we left the room and went down to her car in the garage.  

As we pulled out of the hospital garage, she put a Bob Dylan CD in the player and told me that this album used to help her get through hard times.  It started off with “Tangled Up In Blue”, and I’d heard that song before, but soon it became ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “Shelter From the Storm”, and I really liked those songs.  They made me think of Dylan on a dusty stage somewhere out west, playing a one-night stand at a crumbling old theater.

When we got home, I read that Blood on the Tracks was the album that resurrected Dylan’s career.  All the critics thought he was a has-been of the 60’s, but this album came out, and he was alive once more.  Maybe this is why Grandma played that album that day, but I don’t think it mattered to me.  It actually took me a little longer to like the album than it normally would have because I was a little bit annoyed that she thought she had to soothe me with music.  She just had to apply music to the moment—she couldn’t just let me listen, and that was the saddest part. 

3. Amnesiac – Radiohead (2001, Parlophone, 44 minutes)

It got to the point where my grandma would forget to pick me up at school, and after waiting outside in the cold for thirty minutes, I’d start to walk home by myself.  Sometimes she’d forget to make breakfast, or she’d take her pills twice a day, or she’d call me by my dad’s name (fuck that), and all this wasn’t so shocking in itself but shocking in how much more frequently she began to do all of this.

My mom had said that the disease was in both sides of our family, and that maybe one day even she would forget who I am.  Perhaps one day, I too would forget to brush my teeth, forget the names of my loved ones, maybe even (God forbid) forget my top ten albums, or that I’d ever even listened to them.  Apparently my mom’s father had it, too, but I couldn’t remember because I was too young.  Now it was right in front of me, and I had to take it upon myself to make sure she didn’t do anything too dumb.

I was her link to the sane world, her reminder system, her personal nurse.  And as she slipped farther down the precipice, I felt like I was slipping, too.  When she relied on me, I had to double-check everything I did.  I had to be twice as sure that she hadn’t taken her pills.  I had to set multiple reminders for doctor’s appointments so I wouldn’t miss them.  In the flurry of these important things to remember, I’d sometimes forget about my schoolwork.  Eventually, my teachers got so fed up that the principal told me to meet with him after school in his office, only I couldn’t do it that day because my grandma had an important appointment with her specialist.  It took months to schedule the appointment, and I wasn’t about to go through all that again, so I skipped out on the meeting with the principal, but the next day, he found me in the hallway and corralled me into an empty classroom.  He told me he was worried about my studies and asked me if everything was alright.  I knew if I told him about my grandma, they’d send her away, and I’d have to move out, so instead, I told him about my mom, and he said he thought that was the problem and told me to let him know if I ever needed any help.  He started saying something about his memories of his mother but I forget what he said—I was too busy trying to remember which pills my grandma would have to take when I got home.

I really like Radiohead’s Amnesiac because it captures the dazzling disorientation of forgetfulness with technological whirlwinds and dizzying harmonies.  The album is actually made up of unused cuts from their previous album, Kid A, and as such, it’s an assemblage of discarded, disjointed things that are forced into reconciliation.  In my grandma’s head—and, to a small extent, in mine, too—ideas floated around in a maze, turning at the wrong corners, doubling back on themselves even as they neared the exit.  When I first listened to Amnesiac, I learned that these wayward, discarded thoughts are destined to come together in a whole product.  Maybe the musical ideas and the biological facts don’t go hand in hand, but at least there’s some reassurance that they might.  

2. Loveless – My Bloody Valentine (1991, Creation Records, 49 minutes)

Caroline’s house sat atop a barren hill and was surrounded by gothic gates and hedges, and in the distance behind it, you could see the radio tower for WZLX blinking hypnotically to deter low-flying planes, a sight you could also see from The Overlook if you really looked for it.  I’d only been to her house once before to pick her up for a date, and I didn’t have to park because she came right out to meet me.  But this time, I had to park, and my grandma’s car was old and didn’t have good parking brakes, so I had to park the car at the bottom of the hill.  

Walking up, I had Loveless playing in my earbuds.  The angelic sweeps of “When You Sleep” soared like the shooting stars above me.  The thumping, distorted guitar sped my heating blood through my limbs, and the staccato tears of the bassline pushed my thoughts forward at a steady pace.  Kevin Shields was the singer in My Bloody Valentine, and for a while, I thought he was a woman.  His voice was shrill and high with a gentleness that I thought only a woman could have.  Even in his whispered singing, there was the anguish of a crying woman afraid of her renegade lover.  It was the perfect soundtrack to the mission.

Mounting the hill, I noticed the mint-green Honda parked in front of her garage.  The lights were all off above ground, but the luminescence of the basement television spilled out onto the fringe of the grass.  Bending to the window, I noticed his burly arms, his thick head, his stubbly face all over her Theremin-humming lips and the silken hair that had once tangled with mine.  As I unsheathed the crowbar that I’d slipped into the back of my pants, “When You Sleep” spilled into the cosmic release of “I Only Said”.

I stepped up to the Accord, and with the swinging guitar wails as my muse, I swung the crowbar through the windshield of the car.  The glass spilled diamond-like at my feet as I moved around my target, smashing windows in time with the song’s crashing cymbals.  Just when I did the driver’s window in, the lights on the ground floor of the house flickered on and bathed the scene in a harsh yellow.  I kicked in a headlight, and by the time I heard his rugged voice boom from the front door, I was halfway down the hill, hidden under cover of darkness.

1. Abbey Road – The Beatles (1969, Apple Records, 48 minutes)

For a while, I didn’t think I was ready to listen to it.  I had seen the album atop so many critics’ top ten lists that I was a little afraid I might disagree and thereby invalidate my own rankings.  So many people had found in Abbey Road some great, hidden beauty, but what if I couldn’t find it myself?

One day I mustered up the courage.  I found the LP in my grandma’s collection and retreated to my room and locked the door behind me—I was ready to be immersed.   I set the record spinning as I laid back on my bed, at peace, relaxed.  Somehow, the album was already larger than its individual parts.  I had seen the cover a million times before—the Fab Four crossing the street from musical supremacy to eternal legend—and I’d heard these songs on the radio hundreds of times, but when they all came together, they formed a magnificent union.  There I was in my bedroom, paralyzed by the grandeur of it all.

I thought of all the other men and women who have ever heard it throughout its fifty years of chart-topping fame.   All those listeners, young and old—it felt like I was sharing an experience with them.  “Come Together” was an invocation, and it felt as if the song really did bring me into communion with all of those critics and music lovers who have ever listened.  The summer-meadow harmony of “Sun King” seemed to be the sound of my voice mixed with the angelic choir of all past Beatlemaniacs.  And when I heard “The End”, Ringo’s drum solo felt like the concord of all of our hearts beating together in one erratic, melancholy life-pulse.  Somehow, at that moment, locked in the darkness of my bedroom, I had this uncanny feeling that I was part of something greater than I had ever known. 

I remember all of those thoughts distinctly, and each time I try to recreate that first listening, I fall short.  Sometimes I notice that I’ve left my door unlocked or that I forgot to close one of my shades.  One time I thought I had it perfect, but my alarm went off halfway through “Golden Slumbers”, and I was lost again.  I’ve never been able to get it just like it was the first time, and I really want to feel that way again.