Music was a soothing savior in 2020, and the trend has not stopped. Even though I’m never completely satisfied with my redecorating (no matter where I position the couch, it refuses to magically transport me to the beach), hanging my records and guitar on the living room wall did bring a small jolt of joy. Ever read James Baldwin while listening to Nina Simone and sipping red wine in your comfiest pajamas? Does the heart good, I tell you.
When I got tapped in the summer by a former friend to share the 10 albums that changed the way I hear music, my immediate thought was “Only 10? Whew boy.”
The rules were to challenge someone else (too much like the old chain letters so I passed), and share why it’s great music (trust me, it is). No explanations required, but I know a prime opportunity for storytelling when I see one so here’s part 1.
5 Pivotal Moments.
10. Aretha Franklin, Live at Filmore West
I had just graduated college. I told myself moving back in with my family was smart, but as I packed my things, I felt perhaps I had grown too much while away. I feared moving back home would be similar to squeezing into one of the warm sweaters I was currently tossing out, once simultaneously comforting and comfortable, now too tight and frayed to be of any use. When I slammed my suitcase shut, I tore my earphones apart, and that was the last straw.
Like maybe I wore my heart a little too loosely on my sleeve. Maybe I was too naïve to go off on my own with no family or friends nearby. For the next few months, I shamed myself for being so chicken. For not having the guts to live life to the fullest.
An invitation from my Nana to visit turned into a weekend stay as this 5’9” 20-year old bundle of nerves curled up on a small couch under a crocheted blanket listening to her grandmother’s old records on repeat and trying not to cry. A simple, heartwarming dinner of roasted chicken and potatoes and Aretha’s rendition of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ later, I was pouring out my soul to her. My dreams. My fears. My insecurities. She gently shushed me and told me a lesson I’m still trying to really learn.
You cannot shame yourself out of fear. Stop trying. It can’t be done. To give up anything, you must gain something greater. You can’t run away from something to nothing; no human can. They must be convinced there’s something better on the other side. You cannot shame yourself out of fear. You can only be loved out of fear. That is the only way.
Two months later, I signed for my first apartment. A dinky, little studio on the corner of a busy street in a neighborhood where I’d see mega-rich couples and a person struggling with homelessness waiting at the same corner. Where I had my first adventures and got to know the names and faces of almost every shop owner on the street. Where I started opening the windows and playing all sorts of music while I cooked. The first thing I purchased for my new home? A record player, this record, and a simple dinner of chicken and potatoes.
9. Motley Crue, Too Fast For Love
Leather jackets. Steel-toe boots. Only drank espresso but wasn’t pretentious about it. She’d spent five months on the Appalachian Trail and designed an ax after working as an honest-to-goodness lumberjack for two years in Yellow Springs, the town 20-minutes away. She used to sing, “All the christians I know come here/just for the weed and beer.” to make me laugh. Comfortable in her own skin and a genuine badass, to this day, she was one of my most unlikely friendships. At the time, growing up to be her was all my awkward, home-schooled self-wanted. Forget about leaving lipstick stains on collars. She left lipstick stains on souls.
After a day of rock climbing and hiking ended in a torrential downpour that had us racing to the car, we ended up sitting and talking about our favorite bands. When I asked her what type of music felt most like her, she snorted and asked,
“Me on what day?”
“Today. It’s thundering outside, your legs are shaking from climbing, and we’re about to go get coffee and pie. Right now. What feels like you?”
She thought for a few seconds and said “Mötley Crüe” My face must have shown my confusion because she fake-gasped and grabbed my shoulders.
“Don’t tell me little Miyah, queen of the nerds, never listened to Mötley Crüe in between her reading and arithmetic classes!” After this, I googled the record and knew most of my Christian friends would instantly dismiss the band because of the album cover.
“I hate you”
“You love me, and you’re about to love me more.”
She dug around in her glove compartment and told me to close my eyes. As the first notes of Live Wire rang out, I was instantly in a crowd at a rock concert, surrounded by sweaty bodies, and my jaw went slack. She grabbed my hand, but my eyes stayed close until the end of the song when I did a long exhale.
“That was like……….like………” I scrambled for words.
When The Dirt came out last year, she was the only person I messaged.
8. Civil Wars, Barton Hollow
He never cursed. It just wasn’t in our nerdy personalities. I remember LOTR marathons over weekends where all we ate was junk food and laughter, drinking coffee by the cold lake, and rock-climbing sessions in the early morning, racing to get back to campus before classes. He introduced me to both the Civil Wars and the habit of sticking a candy cane into my coffee on December mornings. Sprawled across the floor, legs resting on legs, surrounded by textbooks, we’d listen to the same songs repeatedly.
The girls in my dorm were excited I might like a guy and betrayed me. Even the RA, whose sole purpose was to prevent pimple-faced boys , told him I was in my room and pointed him down the hallway. There he was at my door.
“I’m doing homework, Andrew”
“No, you’re watching Star Wars”
I keep my eyes on the screen
“Why are you not talking to me?”
The next 60 seconds were a cliched sitcom moment, and I hate cliched sitcom moments almost as much as I love them. Stepping into the room, he asked again.
“Why are you not talking to me?”
“Look, I like you-”
“No……Andrew….I *like* you”
“That’s a problem we can handle.”
“No we can’t”
His eyes narrow.
“ Why not?”
“I can’t like you like that.”
Instantly, his face became a computer database searching through every moment of our friendship wondering what flaws he exposed that made him unlovable. I reach out and stop him.
“No, sweetheart, I can’t love you. It’s me with the skull and crossbones over my heart. It’s me whose love is not a good thing”
“That is the most poetic piece of crap you have ever said”
“I can’t like anyone. Not like that.”
We had a twelve-second staring contest before he exploded.
“That is the stupidest f***ing thing I have ever heard. Don’t try to hide behind your tragic past. Don’t try to hide behind your semi-rough childhood. You are the most naive woman I have ever met. You didn’t know what oral sex was until seven months ago and you are 18 goddamn years old. You like Star Wars and Buffy and crooks and criminals and badasses, but you also like princess dresses and tiaras and tutus”
He pulled me in by the shoulders and kissed me on the forehead
He put his hands on my cheeks and touched our noses together then whispered a prayer that shot gunned from his lips to mine
“When you figure it out, come find me”
As I stared at his number in my phone, I told myself: I just hadn’t figured it out yet. When I got up the courage to call 9 months later, the number had been disconnected.
I haven’t talked to him in years.
7. John Mayer, Continuum
The summer before my senior year, I took a Greyhound to Colorado with $150 in my pocket. I hitchhiked around the state for two and a half months doing odd jobs. Why Colorado, you ask? I didn’t know anyone there, and I wanted to go be on my own. I hadn’t had the greatest year. I’d had my first bout with my depression, got my first F, had my first heartbreak. You know the deal. We’ve all been there before when our optimism runs face-first into reality, and we must readjust. Lick our wounds and recalibrate.
It was a desperate reach to scrounge up some happiness. Before I left, a friend gave me this CD and a CD player. In a bout of boredom on the trip, I queued it up. Instead of starting on the first track, it started at ‘Stop This Train’. My eyes went wide and my chest stilled. Turning towards the window so my seatmate wouldn’t ask me questions about my quiet sobs, I replayed that track 11 more times. ‘Gravity’ is still one of my favorite song descriptions of depression, ‘Slow Dancing in a Burning Room’ haunts me to this day, and ‘Dreaming with a Broken Heart’ is brutal. They’re all brutal, but in the best way.
This album came at one of the toughest times of my life, and it encapsulated (and still does) a life lesson of letting go of regrets, nostalgic longing for people and spaces that will always have pieces of our heart, and bittersweet joy. We always say life is short, but it doesn’t really work that way. We can’t stop the train, and that’s going to have to be okay.
6. Amos Lee, Amos Lee
“I ain’t no wide-eyed rebel. Oh, but I ain’t no preacher’s son”
By 2001, my mother had been in and out of the hospital for about two years. With my dad working 12–16 hr. days on a long-haul truck, my older brother at college, and my older sister burning a pot of water on the stove (love her), most of the household keep fell to me.
I took to daydreaming the weirdest dreams as a way of escape. Physically washing dishes or sweeping floors but mentally battling dragons or pitching a perfect MLB game. I also picked up the odd habit of walking in circles. Silently. In the dark. I’d daydream about traveling. Or living in an apartment by myself with maybe a small cat. I wouldn’t have to clean after anyone. Cook for anyone but myself. Have full control of my destiny. That fork in the road didn’t come to pass. Too much fear. Not enough self-love.
When he came home, my older brother would play this album at top volume from his room, and I’d sit outside the door with my eyes closed. Imagine myself in a smoky lounge listening to Amos Lee live. Started listening to him when I was sad, when I wrote, when I just needed a break. I’ve imagined being the safe space in ‘Arms of a Woman’ countless times, lived through the quiet desperation of trying anything in ‘Black River’, and sang ‘Give It Up’ as my audition song for the Cincinnati Black Theatre Company. I love his other albums, but this one? It’s got a special claim on my heart. ‘Dreaming’ might as well be the theme song of my life.
If you’re doing some late-night ceiling staring, he’s a good addition.
5. Oasis, What’s The Story, Morning Glory?
The first time I heard Champagne Supernova, I was 17-years old, zoned out on my dorm room floor, while YouTube Recommendations ran wild and went down rabbit holes. I was slowly discovering that being the awkward, sheltered geek didn’t net you very many friends. Do you know what it’s like to feel like you’re waaaay behind your peers before your 20th birthday? The emotion was heavy, potent. The line, “Where you were while we were getting high?”, opened the floodgates as I scoffed at myself. Probably reading. Or writing in a journal. Or daydreaming.
When the song ended, I scrambled up before the next video played and looked up the band. Though most of my favorite albums or songs from artists are their debuts, this was one of the first sophomore albums that I loved. I listened to every track: while I jogged across campus, while I got ready in the morning, while I walked to class. Devoured information about the band and this new-to-me type of music.
I was/*am* still awkward, but I started reaching out more. I accepted invitations from people to hang out, went camping and stared at the stars from an old flatbed, started writing for the university newspaper, hosted a radio show at Resound, crashed another university’s dance, and got fireman-carried across campus by a 5’8 redhead theatre geek who became one of my best friends. Quarantine is the perfect time to revisit or be introduced to this album. Go check it out, friends.
What are some of your pivotal albums? The ones you danced to at sleepovers with friends? The one that kept you company on the lonely road? The one that you sobbed to? I’d love to hear them!