Facebook has become a really odd entity over the past couple years. It used to keep us connected and perhaps to some extent still does, but I’ll admit I’m using it less and less. All of that connectivity is stressing me out and I’m realizing my brain is better used elsewhere. It’s all too much—too many opinions, too much despair, and too many people posting videos of their workouts as if that’s something we’ve asked to see. Still, the site has its merits from time to time. Last week, a friend nominated me to post about the ten albums I consider the most significant in my life. I tend to ignore these sorts of things because I don’t have much interest in the digital chain letter, but this particular exercise sounded appealing and I decided to join the fray.
A couple albums came to mind instantly but as I combed through my iTunes library and various streaming playlists, I realized there were, in fact, ten albums that have become emblematic of specific periods of my first 35 years of life—albums that transport me back to a specific feeling or headspace—and just like that, the process of putting my list together became less a Facebook challenge and more a journey through my past.
As a writer, I tend to write primarily about my own life so journeying into my past is a fairly regular occurrence for me. I really should have some sort of frequent flyer program for all the miles and years I travel during my daydreams at work and the quiet moments during my commute. I knew there was a soundtrack playing along with those memories and that music is what actually made those memories remain alive and palpable. So, starting with my first music memories and working my way to the most recent, I began to chart the ten albums that’ve shaped me.
When I was a kid, the principle place I listened to music was in the car with my parents. I eventually had a CD player in my room but it was in our big blue Aerostar where music really seemed to come to life. There were two times in the year when this was most pronounced: the summer as we drove somewhere for vacation or to go swimming and Christmastime as we drove to church, to look at Christmas lights, or to our grandparents’ houses.
During my family’s vacation-bound road trips, we routinely listened to Nat King Cole’s Greatest Hits. It’s the first album I can remember being a staple in my life and during songs like “Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Ramblin’ Rose,” my family sang together in the same way Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel did on their cross-country trip. Trip after trip, that cassette played those songs and for whatever reason, we never got tired of them. It was our thing and we loved it. When we weren’t in vacation mode, our childhood summers were spent being driven to Day Camp or to swimming lessons. On those mornings, particularly swimming lesson mornings, we listened to a different compilation album—The Beach Boys Greatest Hits. We sang about Rhonda and Barbara Ann and daddy taking the T-Bird away and it felt easy and simple, like summertime is supposed to feel. Listening to those songs today, I’m back in that van with my siblings—sitting on our Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Little Mermaid beach towels so our damp swimming suits don’t get the seats wet—and we’re singing about wishing they all could be California girls with not a care in the world. It doesn’t get much better than that.
The third album we wore out in that van was A Christmas Together by John Denver and The Muppets. Christmas music is special because most people only listen to it during a finite period of time each year and as such, it evokes specific feelings about family and tradition. There are so many Christmas albums I’ve loved since I was a kid, but among those in regular rotation in our van, I preferred singing along with John, Kermit and Piggy the most. My siblings and I did our impressions of their Muppet voices as we sang along, something I still do today, and it’s become the album that symbolizes my childhood Christmases. That season is different when you’re an adult and the year seems to pass in the blink of an eye. Childhood Christmases seemed to take forever to arrive and felt more wonderful, more colorful, and more magical than anything else in the world. That’s what that album brings to life for me and I try to bring that inclination for wonder with me every day.
The period of my life when the importance of music was most pronounced was when I was a teenager. In the late ‘90s before the internet changed the world, we bought CDs and listened to them in our cars, our Discmans, or in our six-disc CD changers. In my CD changer, there were three albums that spun more than the rest.
I can remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Britney Spears’ Oops…I Did It Again album. I remember the greens of the trees outside my parents’ house, the dark interior of my red convertible, and the way time stood still because a pop star I loved had released new music. It’s not that the album was some sort of musical masterpiece, but Oops transports me back to driving with my convertible top down on Loop 820 on my way to Six Flags. It was my “wake up during my morning commute to school” music, my “let’s go to Sonic after church and get milkshakes” music, and my “I got out of work late and need to stay awake to drive home” music. It also represents what it felt like to feel the first breezes of independence in my hair. For the first time, I was singing in a car where I was the driver, not the passenger. This album marked that shift.
The next album in the CD changer couldn’t be more opposite than the first. More than any other music, Kirk Franklin’s has served as the most formative and foundational to my growing into myself. From the first time harmonizing to “Why We Sing” with the youth choir to dancing along with “Stomp” and later belting out the whoas in “Now Behold the Lamb,” his music has charted every move I made in my young life and beyond. His God’s Property album, his Christmas album and particularly his Nu Nation album are really three paint strokes in the same painting for me. Collectively they are fully representative of that phase of my life—the late junior high to high school phase—and I come back to them again and again. I feel lucky that I’ve had the chance to tell him that.
The third album in the changer came out two weeks before I tripped up the stairs to the stage at graduation. My best friends and I were there on opening night when Moulin Rouge was released in theaters and as the credits rolled, we sat gob smacked in our seats, speechless. The only word that was uttered was, “wow,” and it was back to stunned silence. It was the film that took the blinders off my brain as pertains to the possibility of what movies could do. Yes I’d seen many movies and loved many as well, but I’d never felt so fully immersed and utterly moved by a film. The soundtrack became the music to laugh, to cry, to smile, to think, and to create to.
As college came around, my whole world changed. New people, new ideas, new experiences—everything was new. I brought up writing this list to my college roommate and he knew a specific album would make the cut. He knew this partially because he had to endure listening to it on repeat during fall afternoons but also because he still knows me better than most people. That album is Ocean Eyes by Owl City. It’s perhaps the most left-field of the albums on my list and my roommate is, without question, the only person in the world who would know that album fastened itself to me so strongly, but it’s what played while I wrote papers during undergrad and grad school. Listening to it today, I’m back in our living room in Apartment 3. The Baylor away game is on television, a few oversized fall candles are lit around the room and a large glass bowl in the shape of a pumpkin sits in the center of the kitchen table. It’s full of candy corn pumpkins that I will never eat but will keep stocked for my friends who will take handfuls. With the windows open, the football game in the background, and the cool autumn air breezing through the apartment, those were perfect afternoons.
The other album that came to define that period of my life was the soundtrack to the Broadway revival of Hair. From my experience sitting in the theater to singing along with the soundtrack in my SUV, the hippie words of angst and anguish, of hope and love, and of resistance and openness crystallized inside me. It was an affront to my routine, to the way I’d known life to be. The urgency with which the voices expressed their feelings reverberated inside of me and in doing so, shook loose much of what I’d thought to be fastened and concrete.
When I moved to New York City, I left singing in the car behind but commuting on the subway or walking through the streets of the city is rarely without headphones. Music quickly became an invisible companion as I went to and from my apartment but among the albums that have kept me company, two have had a more pronounced impact than the others: Ceremonials by Florence and the Machine and Illuminations by Josh Groban. These albums became the soundtrack for my building a life in New York, something I feel most expressly during autumn when the weather cools and the city comes to life in warm hues. I still find myself turning to these particular albums because they remind me of the crazy fact that I get to live here. They fill me with possibility and gratitude for my life here that I get to experience.
As I wrote down the tenth album, I realized my list is a strange one. It’s both fully representative of who I am but it also omits so much about myself at the same time. For example, not a single song that I consider to be one of my favorite songs appears on any of these albums. The songs I could listen to on repeat for the rest of time and never grow tired of them—they aren’t represented here at all. But isn’t that the wonder of music? It’s diverse. It encompasses multiple feelings and moods. It’s a real life time machine. It’s a shovel that digs into us and unearths who we are, how we love, and where we should go.
Today, music has become somewhat dispensable. Our instant gratification existence has turned an album release into a fleeting moment that’s quickly run over by the next release the following week. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. The first thing I do every Friday morning at my desk is listen to this week’s new albums online. I quickly scan through them and by the end of the morning, if nothing has caught my attention, I’m back to listening to an album or playlist already in my arsenal. The following week, I’ll do the same thing all over again, pouring albums through a strainer and catching very little worth keeping or purchasing. But every now and then, an album resonates clearly and no matter how much ephemeral noise tries to distract me, it keeps pulling me back. The most recent album that did that for me was By The Way, I Forgive You but Brandi Carlile. There will be more. That’s the wonder of music.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon.