Recently I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Celebration Rock, the second album from raucous Vancouver anthem-punks Japandroids. Like a lot of good-natured pop, it does its best to crystallize those precious, perfect moments of youth. I like albums that edit out all the boring, confusing parts about being immature and instead focus on the great emotional peaks. Yes, there’s an inherent dishonesty since everyone who writes about being young pays no mind to physical limitation or history. But you can never underestimate a kid’s ability to feel wrapped in injustice.
So here’s my list of albums about youth, or more specifically, albums about youth in motion. These albums have inspired runaway dreams, or vicarious renegade ethics, but mostly they represent the viciously idealistic fantasies that have flourished in every American generation who grew up with pop music.
In some ways The Sunset Tree was John Darnielle’s first, definitive emotional fold. A very personal record written from a very personal perspective, it’s essentially a fragmented, here-and-there retelling of a brutal stretch of years under the watch of a drunk, violent, and woefully depressed stepdad. This from the guy who spent the previous decade rallying tape-nerds with sports metaphors and Death Metal fantasies. Darnielle reached back and grasped his restless teenage shakes with both hands—ruthless revenge fantasies, freewheeling ambivalence, crushing loneliness, defeated anonymity, and even a dash of remorse. “ALONE IN MY ROOM, I AM THE LAST OF A LOST CIVILIZATION.” I’d like to think when the crowds shout these lines back, 15-year old John feels beautifully righteous. We certainly weren’t all abuse victims, but the prickly agitations of The Sunset Tree belongs to all of us.
There’s a subtle poetry to No Age’s very unsubtle pounce. Maybe it’s a time and space thing. The L.A. blast-punk duo is known for their relentless dedication to the underground circuit, if there’s a co-op floorspace in your city, that’s where you’ll find them. The second album, Nouns, jingles like a tribute to wide eyes and full hearts. It delivers directly, and passionately, to its disciples. No Age is a band loved enough by the California faithful that their name is still proudly enshrined on top of The Smell, straight-edge, all-ages, and deeply adored DIY icon where their legend begins. Nouns is built for that wonderfully disaffected youth, those brave enough to explore the bare, fringe outskirts of the music industry—vegan, solar-powered, and absolutely pumped with vagabond soul.
A-Plus was 19, so was Phesto and Opio, in fact they were all born within a few days of each other in late April. Tajai was the elder-statesman at a venerable 20. Just four friends who liked rapping, with the talent, savvy and charisma to seduce a major label and book time in a San Francisco studio. Twenty years later ’93 til Infinity feels just as fresh, brimming with fertile, youthful pride—eager to break rules, take dares, and turn tricks. Sure Jay-Z and Biggie were just as young, but their rhymes were weighted with painful poverty-line realities, the Mischief kids reflected a floating, fleeting sense of detached, devil-may-care optimism. They had friends, 40z’s, and a few microphones. Hip hop has never felt the same way. The title track in particular traps eternal teenaged summer in 4 minutes and 47 seconds.
It takes a certain degree of artistic solipsistry to believe that your bad breakup deserves a record and the world’s projection, it takes a very specific degree of artistic solipsistry to channel your bad breakup through a beguiling, and utterly overstuffed Civil War storyline. Thankfully Patrick Stickles was one of those weirdos. Titus Andronicus’ second album remains one of the truly epic undertakings in recent indie-rock memory. Consider track one, side one, “A More Perfect Union.” Our hero gets fed up with Jersey, the Newark Bears, and looks for something better. “If I come in on a donkey / let me go out on a gurney,” but it doesn’t take him more than a song to realize he should’ve “never left New Jersey.” In terms of clarity, The Monitor is an overblown, muddled mess, but in terms of representing the self-involved schizophrenia of your average angry, Bruce-obsessed malcontent locked away in a town they don’t get, it couldn’t be more precise.
In the early ’80s, perfectly normal boys and girls from across America started making music in a different way. They packed like sardines into barely-running vans, toured small-scale clubs and welcoming houses, and issued records on local, interdependent labels. “Our band could be your life,” sang D. Boon halfway through Double Nickels on the Dime. The rambunctious, elastic funk-punk minute-and-a-half vibrations that run through these 43 tracks fall like notebook scraps and refurbished ideas. It rumbles like cracked asphalt, the sleeve literally puts you in the backseat. A lot of the albums on this list cast dreams off into far-off stars; the Minutemen wanted you to know it was right under your feet.
What are your friends named? Joe and Jill? Craig Finn was rolling with Gideon and a little hoodrat named Hallelujah, and boy does he have some stories to share. The Hold Steady’s second album Separation Sunday is a crusty, surface-street rock-opera with popcorn characters moving in some criminal ways. It’s everything a teenage runaway hopes for: handsome, in love, romantically doomed—call it lovable-scamp syndrome. Some of Finn’s battering feels like barstool brags; after all, we have no idea if he got high in the camps down by the banks of the Mississippi River, how would he know how it feels? It doesn’t matter; this is alternate-hardcore-history, heroes and villains, kids yearning for a Technicolor life with new scenery every day. Foolish, raucous, full of bad advice, and thoroughly unapologetic—Separation Sunday is gutter-poetry at its most vital.
You know, I’ve never been to Omaha, Neb., nor have I ever really considered making a trip. I’m certainly not the only one; it’s a very foreign place in a very big country. Our reconnaissance came from a then-19-year-old Conor Oberst—a lonely, isolated kid who had plenty of reasons to feel lonely and isolated. “Does he kiss your eyelids in the morning? Does he know that place below your neck?” he snarled on the perennially angsty powderkeg “The Calendar Hung Itself,” for the millions of other kids stuck in equally unhip locales, identifying was easy. Fevers & Mirrors still resonates simply because, unlike a lot of the memories on this list, Oberst wrote in the heat of himself.
Quadrophenia is Pete Townshend’s less remembered rock-opera, behind the blown-up playhouse opus Tommy. His fictional, motorcycle-loving ruffian Jimmy Cooper falls in love, goes to rock shows, gets high, flip-flops personalities and eventually drowns in one of the most pulpy rock-’n’-roll deaths in history. It reverberates like the way The Who wanted to remember their fraction of England; soulful horns, rubbery bass, and Keith Moon’s constant, amphetamine-addled drums—cobblestones, smokestacks and working-class dysphoria. Written in 1973 but lovingly cranked back to ’64 and ’65, such nostalgia for irreverent youth has never been articulated better.
The album that solidified Prince as an eternal superstar also got Tipper Gore ringing him up as a pornographer, (honestly those “Darling Nikki” turns haven’t gotten any less skeevy.) Arguably his grandest and most streamlined achievement, Purple Rain is nakedly blatant even for a subgenre defined by broad strokes. It’s pure teengirl-fantasy, one of the few titanic, world-dominating pop relics of the ‘80s that still resonates as much with graying, early-60s boomers and snobby, upstart indie-rock lifers. “Let’s Go Crazy?” hell 23 minutes later he’ll “Die 4 U.” Few of us non-rockstars ever vibed in the reckless fastlane drugs/sex/sweat ephemeron that Prince occupied for a few years, but did “Take Me With U” make a lot of sense on too many Saturday nights? Did “When Doves Cry” make it on a couple ill-advised mixtapes? Absolutely.
“Like A Rolling Stone” would probably feel more of an embattled sneer at those oh-so-unfaithful coffeeshop beatniks if it wasn’t such a good roadtrip song. Instead “to be on our own, like a complete unknown” sounds pretty close to what we were aiming for. Nothing (and I’ve tested this) makes the boundless, burgundy southwestern hills feel more vital. Bob Dylan’s go-to ’65 classic remains in perpetual motion. The title-track’s basement-blues, the barreling, bone-dry upper-middle dismantling of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” but mostly the winding, laconic “Desolation Row,” scrolling through scenes like a car-window vista—Dylan’s been a road-poet for decades, but Highway 61 Revisited remains his most lucid moment.
2010’s The Suburbs was Win Butler’s stringent meditations on his domesticated roots. How does the world change when your roots are sprouting right out of the sprawl? But he wasn’t always so prudent. Tracing Arcade Fire’s first few audacious steps points to a miraculously headstrong band. Funeral speaks every itch of the American Teenaged Experience. Restless escapism (“Neighborhood #1”) melodramatic, bedroom heartbreak (“Crown of Love”), the night-drive (“Rebellion (Lies)”), the day-drive (“Neighborhood #3”), the big giant festival-closer that makes us all feel slightly closer together (“Wake Up”). In a culture that valued skepticism, elusion and irony, Arcade Fire made the indie-rock record that encouraged us all to let our hearts take over.
In some ways this is a very cynical album. In the sense that Springsteen managed to condense decades of wistful high-school romance, debauchery and liberation dealt in cool cars and sax solos. Born To Run called up a demographic and a genre, and made its owner very rich in the process. But isn’t that the beauty of it all? Born To Run is eternal, Born To Run is universal, Born To Run continues to pile up disciples (many of whom are included on this list) because of its unparalleled, vigorous and truly singular presence in rock ’n’ roll canon.