Content for COVID: album picks

So it's April 4th today, and we have this pandemic thing going on—the novel coronavirus. I'm three weeks into working from home here in NYC, and something I've been thinking about on and off has been this nagging sense that my life doesn't actually feel all that different.

I've definitely been taking a lot more time to check in on various loved ones and important people in my life, trying to find ways to free up any cash I can spare to help support various local businesses I have ties to, and really just worrying about others more in general. But I'm not necessarily feeling as much impact in my own life, personally.

I'm working from home, yes—and I definitely miss various niceties at the Facebook office—but I'm also realizing how many of my habits and routines had already been shifting to give me the mental space to work more creatively. Whether I structured my life like this intentionally or not, I was already drifting from the daily goings-on of most of the world; I already kept odd hours, had a working space at home, and had interests and hobbies that I pursued almost entirely on my own.

One thing in particular that strikes me is that I had already made very conscious efforts at some point to increase the amount of really substantive content that I was reading, watching, and listening to. In practice, this meant that I'd try to read more books and fewer blogs or news articles, watch more movies while paring down the number of TV series I was following, and look out for good albums I could dig into while dodging the random new singles Spotify would recommend me. It was never a question of eliminating those latter groups, just trying to find a way to not let them overwhelm my interest in the former.

At some point I had found that if I didn't make a conscious decision to build these substantive experience into my life, it was very easy for them to get washed out while I was dealing with my day-to-day routines, and this was a much more dangerous trap than it might seem. I noticed that really good, substantive content stayed with me in a way that was sort of hard to explain. It gave me something to think about, kept my perceptions open to new kinds of experiences, and actually helped calm me down, overall, in a way that I could only really compare to exercise—it isn't necessarily obvious in any given moment, but I'm definitely less anxious overall when I'm reading a book a week versus when I don't even open the Kindle app for a month. The danger here is the same one as exercise, in fact: if I don't stick with it, everything feels more overwhelming, and when I'm feeling overwhelmed like that it becomes that much harder to step back into positive habits.

As it is now, I feel almost pleasantly un-stuck in time. A nice thing about really substantive content is that it stands on its own, giving it that "timeless" quality. It doesn't matter if something was first published 40 years ago if it's really good, because you have this primary experience with it—it doesn't matter if it's new, it's a new experience for you. That helps you break from the habit of compulsively seeking consensus with others that can be all too easy to fall into, and focus on just appreciating your own experiences with a work without worrying about your own taste being good or bad. It also, conveniently enough, helps you get a bit of psychic distance from whatever concerns you're dealing with at that moment, and can help you keep perspective on whatever challenges you're facing on any given day, which ultimately leave you better equipped to handle them.

Because this has been so helpful for me, I thought I'd do a few posts highlighting really substantive content that's been meaningful to me, personally. The idea is to promote the overall concept, give people some pointers if they find it hard to discover meaningful stuff, and just share some work that I've really loved across my life.

I'm (somewhat arbitraily) starting with music albums. I didn't want to try to put together any kind of definitive list—even of my own favorites—because it's not about the rankings, just sharing meaning. Instead, I quickly ran through my Spotify et al, looking for albums that met all these criteria:

  • Albums I listen to all the way through, start to finish
  • Albums I've listened to at different points in my life, at least a few months apart
  • Albums that left me with some kind of expanded sense for what kind of music I like and want to find more of

Even without trying to be exhaustive, I ended up with these 68, and I think they cover a pretty broad variety of sounds and time periods. Hopefully there's something new in here for you, but also—hopefully—it makes you think of at least one or two albums you'd definitely put in your own list.

Year Artist Album
1959 Miles Davis Kind of Blue
1963 Bob Dylan The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
1964 Cannonball Adderley Nippon Soul
1966 Cannonball Adderley Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at "The Club"
1974 Parliament Up For The Down Stroke
1976 Ryo Fukui Scenery
1980 Dead Kennedys Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
1980 Himiko Kikuchi Don't Be Stupid
1980 Talking Heads Remain in Light
1983 Yo-Yo Ma Bach: Unaccompanied Cello Suites
1985 Kate Bush Hounds of Love
1990 Jawbreaker Unfun
1991 My Bloody Valentine Loveless
1991 Nirvana Nervermind
1993 A Tribe Called Quest Midnight Marauders
1994 Jawbreaker 24 Hour Revenge Therapy
1994 Ryo Fukui My Favorite Tune
1999 Mos Def Black On Both Sides
2001 Daft Punk Discovery
2002 The Mountain Goats All Hail West Texas
2002 Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2003 Jay-Z The Black Album
2003 Nujabes Metaphorical Music
2004 Death From Above 1979 You're A Woman, I'm A Machine
2004 Modest Mouse Good News For People Who Love Bad News
2004 Roy Davis Jr. Chicago Forever
2005 Common Be
2005 Deep Dish George Is On
2005 The Mountain Goats The Sunset Tree
2005 The Shanghai Restoration Project The Shanghai Restoration Project
2005 Wilderness Wilderness
2006 Clipse Hell Hath No Fury
2006 Phoenix It's Never Been Like That
2007 Jay-Z American Gangster
2007 Kanye West Graduation
2007 Radiohead In Rainbows
2007 The-Dream Lovehate
2008 of Montreal Skeletal Lamping
2008 Vampire Weekend Vampire Weekend
2008 Zac Brown Band The Foundation
2009 The xx xx
2010 The Drums The Drums
2010 End of a Year Composite Character
2010 Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
2010 of Montreal False Priest
2010 The-Dream Love King
2011 Destroyer Kaputt
2011 Drake Take Care
2011 James Blake James Blake
2011 Jamie Woon Mirrorwriting
2011 Wale Ambition
2012 Breakbot By Your Side
2012 Chief Keef Finally Rich
2012 Kendrick Lamar good kid, m.A.A.d city
2012 Miguel Kaleidoscope Dream
2013 Pusha T My Name Is My Name
2014 Jungle Jungle
2015 Jamie xx In Colour
2015 Jeremih Late Nights
2015 Soichi Terada Sounds from the Far East
2016 Car Seat Headrest Teens of Denial
2016 Mallrat Uninvited
2017 2 Chainz Pretty Girls Like Trap Music
2017 Jay-Z 4:44
2017 Playboi Carti Playboi Carti
2018 Haru Nemuri harutosyura
2019 Toro y Moi Outer Peace