One of the most rewarding experiences of listening to music is developing a relationship with an album. You learn the ins and outs of the album. You think of the album as a single piece of work with its own shape and form. It starts feeling wrong to hear one track and then not hear what immediately follows it on the record. And when you’ve listened to an album enough, it takes on a life of its own: memories, emotions, situations, people all become associated with the record, with certain sections of songs, certain lyrics. You find yourself returning to certain albums when you feel certain ways, or want to feel certain ways. These are 10 albums I found myself returning to in college, over and over and over, which capture the college experience best for me.
1. Bob Dylan & The Band, The Basement Tapes
This is the Swiss army knife of albums. Whether you’re just hanging out with some friends drinking some beers, going to bed at the end of the night, waking up in the morning and not wanting to get out of bed, sitting on your porch in the sun, laying on your floor putting off doing whatever you it is that you need to do—The Basement Tapes suits pretty much any mood and situation. The Basement Tapes are a world unto themselves, a strange, imaginary America in a time and place that probably never existed, and escaping there with Dylan and the Band is one of the better ways to spend 90 minutes.
2. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
Like The Basement Tapes, Rumours is a multipurpose album. And, even more so than The Basement Tapes, it’s a crowd pleaser. Anybody whose parents put a classic rock radio station on in the car even a handful of times growing up probably already knows half of the songs on this pop juggernaut. It just might be a sociological fact that any group of college kids, no matter how divergent our music tastes, can put on Rumours and all be happy. It’s a good record to have in your back pocket and throw on whenever you need something completely unobjectionable. And, besides being easy to agree on, it’s just an absolute masterpiece of pop music.
3. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, I See A Darkness
Chances are, sometimes you’re going to be sad during college. If you go four years and experience nothing but happiness and great times, more power to you. But if you’re a normal human and sometimes get a little down, Bonnie “Prince” Billy is here for you. I See A Darkness is 40 minutes of staring death and depression in the face: There’s a sequence of three songs in a row called “I See A Darkness,” “Another Day Full Of Dread,” and “Death To Everyone.” I See A Darkness is one of the most emotionally draining pieces of art I know, but that can be exactly what you need on occasion during college. Moments of optimism shine through, as on the title track, and when all is said and done, it’s a cathartic experience.
4. Fela Kuti, Best of the Black President
Everybody has go-to albums for studying, and this Fela Kuti collection is one of my standards. I think there’s a sweet spot for things you can listen to while reading: a middle ground between so minimal and unobtrusive that the music completely fades into the background, and too much going on to the point where it’s distracting. Best Of The Black President hits the sweet spot perfectly. It keeps occupied that part of your brain that wants to run off and think about anything other than what you’re supposed to be reading, but it doesn’t distract you from concentrating. Not to mention most of the songs are 10-plus minutes, and the album itself is two-and-a-half hours, so you don’t have to break your concentration every 40 minutes to find something new to listen to.
5. Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Bachman-Turner Overdrive II
I’ll be the first to admit that this album is really bad. But I paid a dollar or two for it at a record store, and I’ve never regretted it. Why? Because of the last two songs on side A (“Stonegates,” “Let It Ride”) and the last song on side B (“Takin’ Care of Business”). I’ve listened to the other five songs on the album maybe twice, and that was enough to know that I never needed to again. I put the record on, drop the needle in track three, listen to three and four, flip it over, drop the needle in track eight. And every single time, it puts me in a fantastic mood. There was a month or two stretch where I listened to those three songs every morning while getting dressed. Or I’d come home after a bad day, put on “Takin’ Care of Business,” and it’d put a smile on my face. Everybody in college (really just everybody) needs to find that album that can put you in a better mood no matter what.