Fifteen albums that have stuck with me

A friend challenged me to come up with a list of the “fifteen albums I’ve heard that will always stick with me.” I was supposed to do it in less than fifteen minutes, but I sort of cheated there.

The process was difficult because it underscored the fact that my listening style has undergone a pretty sharp shift starting a little before I graduated from college. Up until that point, I listened to music almost entirely in album format. So had you asked me three years ago to compile this list, I probably could have done it off the top of my head.

But since then I’ve shifted to listening to music in mix form. That is, I listen to albums to get to know them, then pick out songs and arrange them into mixes, and listen to those mixes over and over again. So the correlation between my favorite artists and my favorite albums is not near as strong as it used to be.

So, my favorite overall artist – Bruce Springsteen – doesn’t have any of his rock albums on this list. There’s probably a half-dozen of them that I’d unhesitatingly give five stars to. But due in part to when I finally added his entire collection to my iTunes (late in my senior year) none of them seemed to have that eternal je-ne-sais-quoi of “will always stick with me.” (Had I discovered “Born To Run” as a high school junior, things might very well have been different. My musical tastes back then were pretty barren and I’m sure it would have blown me away permanently.)

As a result of all this, the list is pretty heavily weighted towards music I had in my collection before graduating, even though about a third of my library has been added since then. I’m not sure if I’d come up with exactly the same list tomorrow.

To simplify things, I excluded classical music, soundtracks and compilations. I went back and forth about live albums, originally trying to make the list wholly from studio albums. In the end I decided that was a silly distinction and included a few.

My list:

  1. Paul Simon, “Graceland

  2. Tom Russell, “The Man From God Knows Where

  3. Atmosphere, “Lucy Ford EPs

  4. Jonathan Byrd and Dromedary, “The Sea and the Sky

  5. Nickel Creek, “This Side

  6. Bruce Springsteen, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

  7. Peter Gabriel, “Secret World Live

  8. U2, “Joshua Tree

  9. Great Big Sea, “The Hard and the Easy

  10. The Beatles, “Rubber Soul

  11. Cat Stevens, “Tea for the Tillerman

  12. Mos Def, “Black on Both Sides

  13. K’Naan, “The Dusty Foot Philosopher

  14. Bob Dylan, “Live 1966: The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert

  15. Mark Knopfler, “The Ragpicker’s Dream


  1. Zydeco-haters be damned, this album is pretty darn near perfect, great fusion of rock, zydeco and South African music

  2. Simply superb, this is a high-concept “folk opera” about immigrants to America. Russell recruited a bunch of different artists to sing different roles (the original concept was apparently for a live show; they later turned it into an album). The music is great and the lyrical stories fantastic

  3. The least-polished of the Twin Cities rapper’s work, it’s nonetheless my favorite

  4. Also something of a concept album (note the developing theme), this is the result of a team-up between a country-folk singer-songwriter and a world music instrumentalist duo that sounds nothing like either of their solo works. Great stories, great vocal harmonies

  5. Nickel Creek’s self-titled debut album could have easily made this list, but I think when push comes to shove I like their sophomore offering better. (“Why Should The Fire Die?” is also good but clearly third)

  6. Yes, this is the Springsteen I chose. The largely unrehearsed energy with which the band approaches this makes it hard to deny

  7. I like his studio stuff, but most of the live renditions here are better, to my taste

  8. Still seems fresh even though everyone and their mother has imitated it

  9. Another high-energy folk album, another pseudo-concept piece. Great Big Sea usually performs a mix of traditional folk (consistently great) and original folk-rock (hit-or-miss), but this album is traditional-only and the better for it.

  10. I’ve lately gotten in to the early Beatles, but this was the first Beatles album I got into and still the one I come back to the most. I’m less a fan of the late Beatles than most.

  11. Stevens here combines soulful reflectiveness with low-key pop melodies. I ultimately find it to be just slightly deeper and more enjoyable than that also-very-good “Teaser and the Firecat”

  12. I haven’t listened to this lately as much as I should; it’s an excellent example of conscientious hip-hop

  13. A more recently entry into that same genre, K’Naan adds world music influences from his native Somalia to his own sing-song rap

  14. My first serious exposure to Dylan came in the form of a greatest hits CD, perhaps rendering me incapable of picking out just one of his studio albums. But it’s hard to say no to this infamous concert, with an acoustic first set and an electric second set capped by an unforgettable rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone” after Dylan was called a “Judas”

  15. Another album that’s fallen off regular rotation but probably shouldn’t have. Great stories with low-key roots-rock music.