September 7, 2012


Fuse's 20 Essential College Albums

Getty Images, 4
Getty Images, 4

College: It's awesome. No mom and dad, or brother or sister, and you can basically do whatever you want—like pay thousands of dollars a year for the privilege of skipping class! Still, one of the best part of this whole college thing is meeting new people and discovering the fruits of the World at Large, like new music.  

There are classic (read: cliche) "college" albums, like, say, the Beatles' Revolver or Bob Marley Legend or anything Dave Matthews or O.A.R. But we're all tired of hearing those anyway, so the Fuse news writers put together lists of the albums that were formative during our college years. The soothing music after a crushing breakup? It's here. The house party-rockin' jams? Duh. The introspective stuff to get you laid by that intellectual hottie in Psych 103? Def. Check it out below, complete with TMI explanations from some of us here at Fuse. And for an unbeatable soundtrack to your reading experience, listen to Fuse's Favorite College Albums Spotify Playlist. News Editor William Goodman

The Strokes, Is This It (July 31, 2001)

British music mag NME hailed the 2001 debut from this rag-tag crew of downtown New York City hipsters as the Greatest Album of the Decade, and I agree. As a college freshman in rural Pullman, WA (Go Cougs!), attempting to make sense of a post-9/11 world, this album of jangly, whip-smart, gritty garage rock became my peephole to NYC, and frontman Julian Casablancas my drunken guide. We rode in cabs, tossed back shots and hit the City hard (at least in the fantasy in my head). And late one night, literally dancing my way across campus back to my dorm, DISCMAN in hand, I jauntily tried to butt-slide down a banister over some 75 stairs (I mean, a suave Casablancas would). When I awoke, with a cracked forehead and covered in my own blood, the sound of “Barely Legal” blared in my ears. I smiled, then walked to the hospital.

Beck, Sea Change (September 24, 2002)

There’s nothing like the neuron-fireworks of first love, and there’s nothing like the pain of losing it. Enter Beck’s Magnum Opus. When I heard its opening track, “The Golden Age,” I was entering the long recovery process from said first love, and living alone for the first time ever, during my sophomore year of college. Having written the album after splitting from his longtime GF, Beck was a kindred, albeit broken, spirit. So, totally cash-strapped and needy, I admittedly lifted the album from the Washington State University Book Store (sorry, it was necessary… but it wasn’t the last either), and soaked up its psychedelic, sweeping, lovelorn beauty. A longtime Beck fan, Sea Change was a leftfield release for the self-effacing boho, but one that proved he wasn’t just a “Loser” or a slap-happy dude in glittery disco pants, but a real artist who could tap into his, and our, deeper emotions. 

Sparta, Wiretap Scars (August 13, 2002)

I became obsessed with Texan prog-punks At the Drive-In in high school, so much so that my best friend and I broke flight protocol by listening to the opening sequence of Relationship of Command’s “Invalid Litter Dept.” during takeoff to a family vacation in the Caribbean because we thought it’d, you know, be like totally rad. When the band split in two (Sparta and the prog-leaning Mars Volta), Sparta seemed custom-designed to my likes: rid of that salsa-influenced prog crap and let the angsty pop hooks rule, which is exactly what happened thanks to guitarist/vocalist Jim Ward, now in command. It’s the band’s career highpoint (sadly), and represents a specific period of college, one experienced with some people who are now gone (RIP Neil Wakefield). We’d scream along to the soooo-sharp and explosive “Cut Your Ribbon,” and our friends even formed a band called—no joke—Post-Automatic, heavily influenced by Sparta. We rocked out at all their shows and rehearsals. Wiretap Scars is still a stone cold classic in my book, and definitely one that takes me back.

Modest Mouse, Building Nothing Out of Something (January 18, 2000)

This slot could go to any number of albums—Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac. Any of the early Beatles singles (“This Boy”? “Yes It Is”!?!). Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Air’s Talkie Walkie. Built to Spill’s Keep It Like a Secret. …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s acclaimed Source Tags and Codes. But it was the 2000 comp Building Nothing Out of Something, from then newbie Seattle band Modest Mouse, that ruled as my college years came to a close. Druggy, hazy and sometimes just wandering blissfully on a lost highway of reverb, this collection of songs soundtracked all-night marathon road trips to San Francisco, Seattle or Gillette, Wyoming (…just because), or moon-lit swims in the Snake River, or raging house parties or arms-on-shoulders sing-alongs, or, on more than a few occasions, sunrise climbs up the oak trees across the street from my apartment. On songs like “Broke,” “Medication” and “Grey Ice Water,” all faves, frontman Isaac Brock sounds bankrupt on soul, exhausted, crazed even—it was during this era that I saw him throw two freshly cut, bloody pig heads off the stage at the Showbox in Seattle, BTW. At first listen it sounds like he’s half-assing the songs, too (this is a comp, after all, not a proper album), but instead, to the right ear (read: mine), they sounded perfect, tailored to evoke something from the most emotion-wrung soul: “I’m working on leaving to live,” he sings with a lisp. “In heaven everything’s alright.” Sounded about right to me. Staff Writer Nicole James

Notorious B.I.G.Life After Death (March 1997)

While you’re not busy navigating the usual crippling collegiate existential crises, you’re probably either studying (pshhh) or partying, and the latter’s all the late, great Biggie Smalls would ask of you. Notorious B.I.G.’s second and final studio album can just as easily soundtrack a kegger today the way it could when it was released to critical acclaim in 1997. Download this album and skip class altogether: Everything you ever need to know you’ll learn on "Ten Crack Commandments." 

Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto (March 1964)

American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz teamed up with Brazilian guitarist Joao Gilberto on 1965’s Album of the Year, Getz/Gilberto. The album, which went on to become one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, not only helped introduce American audiences to this sexy little Brazlian genre called bossa nova, but it gave us the Record of the Year, “The Girl From Ipanema.” In addition, the cover art was painted by Puerto Rican abstract expressionist Olga Albizu Rosal, so Getz/Gilberto basically covers all of your first-year humanities credits in one fell swoop.

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme (February 1965)

When you’re going through your quarter life crisis and thinking you really have what it takes to be a starving, tortured poet, you’re going to want a soundtrack from a guy who knows your struggle. Enter jazz great John Coltrane’s 1965 release, A Love Supreme. Coltrane was at the forefront of the American free jazz movement, which sounds like a bunch of crazy saxophones and cymbals banging into one another upon first listen. The manuscript for the album is featured in the Smithsonian’s “Treasure of American History” exhibit.

Fiona Apple, When The Pawn… (November 1999)

“I’ve acquired quite a taste for a well-made mistake,” Fiona Apple pleads on When The Pawn…. And let’s face it – “A Mistake” is exactly what most of your college relationships are. Not only did Fiona’s brand of inimitable wrath on her second studio album help get me through dramatic college breakup after dramatic college breakup, but Spin also named When The Pawn… among the best of the last 25 years. Senior Writer Jason Newman

The Roots, Illadelph Halflife (September 24, 1996)

As a suburban white male whose major musical influence was a suburban white male older brother, my main exposure to hip hop pre-college was N.W.A., Dr. Dre and any other gangsta rap far removed from my actual life. Before college, rap was something to be fetishized more than celebrated; a curious outside-looking-in view of a lifestyle I had never experienced. Illadelph Halflife, the Roots’ third album, flipped that on its head. Years before live bands backing rappers became commonplace, the album’s live vibe, alongside Black Thought and Malik B’s dexterous flows, became the first hip hop album I “owned” for myself, owing as much to the improv-friendly jam band scene as Compton and Shaolin. It would launch a two-year mission to catch up on 20 previous years of hip hop classics. 

DJ Shadow, Endtroducing… (November 19, 1996) 

Bay Area producer/record collector maestro DJ Shadow’s debut album, composed entirely of hundreds of samples culled from tracks both ubiquitous and unknown, changed the way I heard music and remains on my Top 5 Albums of All-Time list. Album opener "Building Steam with a Grain of Salt," built around an ominous piano loop and eerie female chanting, terrified and engrossed me. It was hip-hop produced for a cult sacrifice. Endtroducing… became my Rosetta Stone to discovering trip-hop, turntablism, musique concrete, early electronic and 70s funk and proved that conventional notions of "genre" were just self-limiting constructs.

Supergrass, In It For the Money (April 21, 1997) 

In the mid-90s, NME-curated Britpop battles (Blur vs. Oasis, Blur vs. Pulp, Oasis vs. Everyone) never made it past my headphones, which were firm and stubborn conduits for grunge and post-grunge U.S. rock. A chance encounter with Supergrass’ second album on an online radio channel dubbed “If You Like Radiohead…” led me down the Supergrass (and their predecessors’) rabbit hole. Sure, there were some bands still too fey and bouncy for my taste—oh, Boo Radleys, will I ever understand you? —but bands like Elastica and Suede, alongside lesser-known groups like Black Grape and Ocean Colour Scene, became daily listening to complement my new NME subscription.

Fiona Apple, Tidal (July 23, 1996)

In retrospect, it was the worst reason to buy an album. A female friend told me to buy Fiona Apple’s debut to appear more sensitive to women, which is exactly the kind of idiotic, Maxim-esque advice that people give (and listen to) their freshmen year of college. But Apple's confessional lyrics and "F--k you" attitude over Jon Brion’s orchestral pop resonated with me; aggressive enough for my rock-addled brain, yet melodic enough to lead me to classic female singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Carole King, which led me to Brill Building, which led me to Phil Spector, which, you get the idea… Staff Writer Taylor Berman

Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (December 7, 2006)

Hell Hath No Fury is the best hip hop album of the mid-2000s, which, as it happens, was when I was in college. Over the Neptunes’ strangest and best beats, the brothers Thorton (Pusha T and Malice) gave us their strongest rhymes (and yes, this includes Pusha’s recent GOOD music resurgence, “Runaway” and all); “Wamp, Wamp,” “Mama, I’m So Sorry,” “Keys Open Doors” and “Trill” are all classics. When I was in my last year of college, I listened to HHNF on a loop. Eventually, a tour was announced, and they were coming to my school’s town.  I bought tickets and went with a good friend of mine. Because I’m neurotic, I insisted that we arrive right when doors opened. Over the next three hours, at least four opening acts took the stage, all of whom were awful. My friend was ready to stab me. But when Clipse finally performed, they were electric, so good that my friend forgave me the previous three hours.  What’s more is HHNF still sounds as good today as it did then.

Cannibal OxCold Vein (May 15, 2001)

Along with his own solo LP, Fantastic Damage, Cold Vein is the album that cemented El-P's status as one of hip-hop's true innovators in the early 2000s. The album, for which El-P produced every track, has a steady, dark, almost claustrophobic feel to it, the perfect back ground for Vast Aire and Vordel Mega's dense, acrobatic rhymes. On a personal level, this was the album that introduced me to the extended Def Jux/Company Flow family. From there, I went on to buy and obsess over albums by Aesop Rock, El-P, Mr. Lif and RJD2. But of those groups, all of which were excellent, the album I come back to most is The Cold Vein. I wore this one out in college. I had a Cannibal Ox t-shirt, and tickets to their 2003 fall tour, which, to my devastation, was cancelled the day before they played my town.

The Knife, Deep Cuts (October, 31 2003)

According to my now defunct account, I listened to Deep Cuts over a hundred times. The best Knife songs have an ability to be pop, or at least catchy, while maintaining an underlying sense of mystery and weird melancholy, and “Heartbeats” and “Pass This On” from Deep Cuts are perfect examples. The Knife took a turn towards the more abstract (though still excellent) on 2006's Silent Shout, so this is the album I'd suggest first. As for college memories, few songs sounded better (or worse, if you lived on my floor) at obnoxiously high volume from my dorm room’s computer speakers than the synth-heavy “Heartbeats.”

Magnetic Fields, Holiday (September, 27 1994)

This is now one of my least favorite Magnetic Fields albums (which is to say, it's significantly better than almost anything else out there), but it was the first one I heard, in the fall of my freshmen year. “Desert Island” is one of those perfect pop songs that brings me instantly right back to my freshman dorm room, the feel of the place, my strange roommate, my college girlfriend, everything. Of course, Stephin Merritt and the gang would go on to record dozens of other perfect songs, but this is a great place to start. Staff Writer Joe Lynch

Sly and the Family Stone, Greatest Hits (September, 21 1970)

Back when buying CDs wasn't tantamount to writing an essay using an inked quill, I was browsing a used CD store in Milwaukee and wondering which $7 disc was worth my last few dollars for the week: Sly and the Family Stone's ‘Greatest Hits’ or ‘The Best of KC and the Sunshine Band.’ KC's comp had "Boogie Shoes" to recommend it, but Sly had "Everyday People" and "Hot Fun in the Summertime." I ended up buying Sly's just because it had cooler cover art. Now nine years and literally hundreds of spins later, I still haven't bought a KC and the Sunshine Band compilation but I can say with 100% certainty I made the right choice on that day. There's no doubt my life would be far dimmer without 12 slices of perfection from the moment R&B turned into funk.  

Patti Smith, Horses (December 13, 1975)

Aside from being one of the most intense, cathartic listening experiences in rock n’ roll, this holds a special place in my heart because of what my girlfriend said to me years after I bought it for her birthday gift (don't judge—I tossed in a bag of Skittles, too). She opined that she would have gotten into the Velvet Underground or Prince regardless of my obsessive influence, but she thanked me for making her listen to and fall in love with an album of glib punk poetry she would have otherwise regarded with suspicion. 

Davie Bowie, Low (January 14, 1977)

I never realized chilly, emotionally disconnected music could be just as satisfying as sing-along, fist-pumping songs until I bought this album. Ziggy Stardust is endlessly listenable fun, but I can put on Low at any moment of any day and be totally enveloped by its unmatched mixture of rock, electronic, funk and ambient music. It was a lesson that music needn't push any sentimental agenda—joy, heartbreak, summer fun—to cut straight to your core. 

X, Wild Gift (April 15, 1981)

Aside from being an unsurpassed entry in the "duetting lovers doomed to fail" genre, this 1981 punk classic set the tone for my college experience by introducing me to one of my favorite university friends. It was the sound of X blasting from his room that spurred me to barge in, introduce myself and make sure we were going to be friends. It sums up being young, desperate, drunk and in love within 33 minutes—and more effectively than most bands who write about those things for years.