The first time I heard this album, I didn’t really get the hype — 40 minutes came and went and I thought Springsteen was a little overrated. But later that night, as I was trying to go to sleep, I had an earworm that I couldn’t identify, a thundering piano part that I couldn’t run away from. I realized before I drifted off that it was the main melody of side A track 4, “Backstreets,” a ballad about summer romance gone bad. It quickly became my favorite of Bruce’s songs and Born to Run became my favorite album. It’s hard to articulate exactly what the album does for me that makes it so good — part of it is the music itself, inspired by Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and full of drama; part of it are the lyrical themes, capturing both bright-eyed optimism and hope for the future, as well as loss and despair and the death of your dreams. It’s not a rock opera, but it does tell a story about (for lack of better words) what it’s like to be alive, and for that it is my favorite album.
2. Modest Mouse, The Lonesome Crowded West, 1998
A lot of people know Modest Mouse for their post-2004 output, where they became one of the standard-bearers of radio indie rock, but their stuff up to that point was raw and unhinged, not so much lo-fi as no-fi and at some points depraved. LCW is them at their peak, capturing all of Isaac Brock’s sound and fury and using the declining American West as both backdrop and macrocosm for his own intimate struggles — with addiction, with compassion, with a meaningless universe. There’s a lot of anger but also a lot of tenderness. It’s a very human record.
3. Los Campesinos!, Romance is Boring, 2010
Los Campesinos! are probably my favorite band in the world and they are never going to be famous. the lead-singer can’t sing, the songs are over-wieldy and composed entirely of obscure references and the sound (indie pop but with occasional nods toward sweeping post-rock and the world’s catchiest melodies) is, at times, obnoxious. But I love all of that. This record in particular might not even be their best, but it captures the band at its maximalist peak, throwing everything at the wall that they can and seeing what sticks. Some of it doesn’t stick, but most of it does. The last five songs are, for my money, the best run of five songs in history. It’s an important record not just in the band’s maturation but in my own.
4. Brand New, The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me, 2006
I don’t listen to a lot of emo, but then again, Brand New aren’t like other emo bands. This album elevated them from their basic pop-punk roots to something much more mysterious and, at times, seemingly sinister. There’s a really dark energy pervading through this one, in part because the narrative of a young girl’s death in a drunk driving accident occurs throughout, but also in part through Jesse Lacey’s cryptic, poetic lyrics. Through it all, it just sounds good: alternative rock suffused with emo and a healthy sense of drama. It may be the only album that has actually scared me while I listened to it the first time, and that’s high praise.
5. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010
Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMAs changed my life, because I was left with so many questions: who is this man, and why is he such an asshole? Then he dropped “POWER” and I was immediately hooked. MBDTF is maximalism with a capital M, made by committee in Hawaii and jam-packed with guest features, prestige beats and Kanye at his braggadocious best. It’s an album about being (in)famous in the 21st century in a way that only Kanye can attest to, but it’s somehow as relatable as anything else on this list.