Ten Albums to Help you Escape Suburban Gloom

You give up a lot of things when you settle in suburbia and start a family.  The ability to make a spur-of-the-moment dinner date at a hot new restaurant in the city. Meeting friends after work for drinks. Deciding to go dancing all night at a club you’ve just read about.  Taking off work to stand in line all day for tickets to a favorite band’s concert.

Oh wait – did I admit that last one out loud?  Yeah, I did that.  It was 1985 and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were coming to Dodger Stadium for the “Born in the USA” tour.  In those days, we’d line up in front of the Tower Records in Westwood (yes, there still WAS a Tower Records in Westwood back then) and wristbands would be dispersed.  Your wristband was the key to purchasing actual concert tickets.

While I can’t say I miss the standing in line part, I do miss Tower Records, not to mention the idea of buying and listening to an entire album.  But my passion and love for music has never disappeared.  While I might have lived the past twenty years of my life in suburbia, I’ve never given up on music’s ability to stir the soul, to conjure up all of our hopes and dreams, the promise and the heartbreak. Music can make you feel simultaneously young and old, ecstatic and despondent, motivated and apathetic, driven to tears, to desire, to desperation. And most of all, music is the background of our lives, the way in which one song can suddenly transport us to another time and place, reminding us of who we were, who we are and who we could be.

Full disclosure: I sometimes feel that Cameron Crowe is living the perfect life.  Almost Famous is my favorite movie. I don’t consider it summer unless I’ve attended at least two outdoor concerts. I probably have more songs on my iPhone than photos, contacts and emails combined.

I decided it was time for a more lighthearted post and hence, prepared this list of the top ten albums that can help you recapture your soul in the midst of suburbia. I know there’s an inherent problem with lists. Everyone’s will be different. Everyone will complain that you’ve left their favorite artist/album/song off the list.  The number ten is random and limited. But I love music and I love lists and therefore, I love lists about music. So while certainly not even close to definitive, here are my picks – a short list of some amazing records that can get you through just about any dull or uninspired day. Some are old, some are new and the genres are all over the place since I like all kinds of music (save hard-core country/western – sorry, just can’t do it).  Also, these are in no particular order and I’ve included some links to give you a sample of what you might expect on each album.

1) Adele’s 21:  Much has been said and written about Adele and this album. She has won numerous awards and accolades, so it’s probably not a surprise to see this album on anyone’s list. But truly, 21 lives up to the hype. 21 struck a chord with teens, tweens, young adults, middle-aged men, senior women, hipsters, rappers – basically, anyone with ears. I can’t think of any other artist with such broad crossover appeal.  Adele’s pure and soulful voice is just that good and the songs – an amazing amalgam of pop, jazz, R&B and rock – transcend genre. I’m thankful Adele came to popularity in the U.K. Had she been born in the U.S., I fear the music industry would have told her to lose 50lbs, pick a specific genre, and sing more “radio-pleasing pop songs.” Thank goodness she didn’t do any of these things. When I listen to her, I wonder if she can hear, herself, how truly good she is. If I were Adele, I’d probably just sit in my room and sing to myself all day.

2) U2’s Achtung Baby: Ok, let’s just all agree up front that U2 is awesome.  And if you’re not willing to agree to that, just skip to #3 on the list. I think I recall that at one point in the band’s early days, lead singer, Bono, was quoted as saying that U2 wanted to be bigger than The Beatles and everyone laughed at his hubris. U2 may never quite fill those shoes, but is anyone still laughing? U2’s brilliant songwriting, impassioned performances and now-proven longevity, have put them right up there with the best. I could have picked almost any album from their catalog to put on this list (except maybe Pop — hey, every great band has to overreach sometimes when trying to be creative). But Achtung Baby stands out to me because every single song is a gem. Everyone knows the anthem, “One”, and has probably rocked out to “Mysterious Ways”, but even the lesser known “Acrobat” and “Ultraviolet”, are worthy of admiration.  As complete albums go, this one is flawlessly executed with masterful songwriting, soulful vocals and the perfection that comes when a group of musicians know who they are and love making music together.

3) Dave Matthews Band’s Crash: You either love Dave Matthews or hate him and if you love him, you love him passionately. I’ve never met anyone who said they were “sort of” a DMB fan, or that they “kinda like” Dave Matthews. There is no in-between and Dave is on the list because, well, I love him. It’s ok, my husband knows about my somewhat obsessive fandom and has also become a DMB fan. So do both of my kids who I’ve somehow, miraculously and possibly through continual over-exposure to DMB music, converted into Dave fans, as well. To be completely honest, both the Under the Table and Dreaming and Big Whisky and the GrooGrux King albums are probably better overall records than Crash. But the title song was the first Dave song I ever heard and began my 10+ year love affair with this band, my very favorite Dave song, “#41” is on this album and my husband’s favorite song, “Two Step”, is also on this album (yes, he has a favorite song – I’ve converted him!). So, in short, there was no way this album wasn’t going to make my list. It’s true that you probably need to see DMB live to truly appreciate them, but give this album a listen and you might see why it’s one of my picks for lifting you out of the doldrums.

4) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn The Torpedoes:  This album instantly grabs you with the opening chords of “Refugee” and never let’s you go. It’s one of those albums I will never grow tired of hearing, one that always brings me back to exactly where I was when I first heard it and one that will always remind me of some supremely good and equally bad times.  My personal favorite track is “Even the Losers” and I fondly remember singing (loudly and badly) to it, on many a night with my college roommates, feeling like Tom Petty must have written it just for me. Tom Petty put it all out there in every song and made you feel that he knew just what you were going through. Petty has always been a quintessential California artist, even though he rarely gets mentioned in those California-specific music lists.  There’s the ode to “Century City” on Damn the Torpedoes, and I’ll never forget hearing the plaintive opening chords of “Free Fallin’“(though not on this album) when I was living in Dallas for one, long, miserable year and feeling so homesick for Los Angeles and “all the vampires, livin’ in the Valley”, that I could cry. If you have no history with Tom Petty and this album, I can’t guarantee you’ll feel the same way, but I bet you’ll like it, just the same.

5) The Beatles’ Abbey Road:  The Beatles are revered the world over and are certainly not a surprise on anyone’s list of best, greatest, favorite, etc…. I could have easily chosen Sgt Pepper because it’s the album I most associate with my childhood, having heard it on constant repeat in my house for years – not to mention, Rolling Stone chose Sgt Pepper as #1 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. I could have picked Revolver or The White Album which some think were more creative and boundary-pushing. But at the end of the day, I love Abbey Road the best – and not just for the iconic album cover.  It’s just a perfect mix of the genius of Lennon (“Come Together”), the beauty of Harrison (“Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” – perhaps, my favorite Beatles song of all time), the signature sound of Sir Paul (“Oh! Darling”) and yes, even the quirky contributions of Ringo (“Octopus’ Garden”). And how can you dislike an album that ends with this simple and beautiful adage: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love…you make”. It’s sheer Beatle brilliance, reminding you why no one comes close to The Beatles’ singular place in music history.

6) Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s Born to Run:  As with U2 and The Beatles, it’s pretty tough to choose just one Springsteen album, but if I had to recommend one to someone who had been living in a cave and had never heard of Bruce Springsteen, this would be it. First off, it contains “Thunder Road”, a song that has caused some to call Springsteen the Shakespeare of rock music.  Rolling Stone listed Thunder Road as #86 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and it’s no wonder – you don’t have to be New Jersey born and bred to relate to Springsteen’s desire to “trade in these wings for some wheels.”  It’s a universal song of youth, the desire to escape the everyday, the feeling that something waits for you beyond your front doorstep, if you can just get out.  If Thunder Road has never spoken to you, you should probably check your pulse…just sayin’. Beyond that, there is, of course, the title track, which is quintessential Springsteen, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out”, which is guaranteed to make you miss Mr. Clemons, and the superb, nine minute plus “Jungleland”. All I can say is…BRUUUUUUCE!

7) Green Day‘s American Idiot: In making a list about lifting one out of suburbia, one must consider an album that contains a song called “Jesus of Suburbia”, right?  Beyond that, I told my husband that I think American Idiot is the “definitive rock opera” made by a band that had a grandiose idea that actually paid off. When I said this, he raised his eyebrows and reminded me of all the great rock operas that came before like The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and many more. Yeah, he’s right. I overstated the case. However, I put this album on when I want to be reminded of the punk spirit that lives somewhere inside all of us and how a band can take an idea and create a whole series of moving songs, one flowing into the other, that tell a story. I also love that everyone had written these guys off as punk wannabes who made trivial songs about apathy…until this. I recently saw American Idiot, the musical based on the album and while it didn’t quite live up to the expectations I had, the actual music still stood out as a testament to this band’s creativity and raw talent.  The progression on side one of “Jesus of Suburbia” into “Holiday” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is epic and moving. If you still need another reason to listen, how about because, quite simply, it totally rocks.

8) Coldplay’s Mylo Zyloto:  Coldplay has yet to prove they have the longevity of U2, despite the comparisons they made to their Irish counterparts early on. But they are establishing an impressive body of work that is bringing them closer to the mark. While previous albums like A Rush of Blood to the Head contained some of their best songs like “The Scientist” and “Clocks”, their newest album, Mylo Zyloto, is my favorite and the one that I listen to all the way through, almost every time I start it.  The joyful opening chords of the title track and world-music vibe of “Hurts Like Heaven” are guaranteed to make you smile and “Paradise” is a brilliant mix of layered choral vocals and booming guitar and synth sounds. I’m seeing them live in May at the Hollywood Bowl and I cannot wait. Maybe Rihanna will make a guest appearance for their collaboration on “Princess of China”, a dark and powerful ballad about break-ups. A girl can hope!

9) Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road:  Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the first album I ever bought with my own money. I will never forget taking the bus to the mall, walking into the Wherehouse and handing over my hard-earned babysitting money for the plastic-wrapped, colorful, animated package that was this double album. I went straight home, closed the door to my room, put that record on and probably didn’t stop playing it for the next two weeks.  I poured over the lyrics and the album artwork – always a revelation with an Elton album – and learned every word to every song.  But I have to believe that even if this album didn’t hold that special place in my own personal memory, it would still be on the list  – a wild combination of beautifully executed tunes – each one a story, each one different than the one before. From the creepy-sad opening of “Funeral for a Friend” to the futuristic sounding beats of “Bennie and the Jets”, this album was never dull, always offering something new every time you listened to it. I bow to you Sir Elton.

10) Bob Marley‘s Legend:  While I typically think it’s a cop-out to put a greatest hits compilation on any kind of best/greatest/favorite albums list, I will make an exception for Legend (and I’m not alone – Rolling Stone ranked it #46 on the 500 Greatest Album list). It is not summer for me until I hear the reggae sounds of “Jamming” escaping from our stereo, no matter what the calendar says, how much sunshine is filtering through the blinds or how many margaritas I’ve had.  This album equals summer for me, although, clearly, Marley had a bit more in mind than a lazy, mellow summer day when he wrote these songs. Despite the deceptively cool reggae beat, Marley certainly had more important things to communicate when he wrote “Buffalo Soldier”, “Get Up Stand Up” and “No Woman, No Cry”. That’s probably the genius of Marley – that he could trick you into listening about revolution and social injustice by infusing it with Jamaican spirituality and a laid-back vibe.  Plus “Redemption Song”, with the plea to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery” is one of the best songs ever written, IMHO.

So that’s ten and it was mighty hard to come by. I guess I have to qualify this with a list of honorable mentions, albums I also love dearly that didn’t, but could have easily, made the list: Peter Gabriel’s So, Steely Dan’s Aja, The Police’s Sychronicity, Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles, Eminem’s Recovery, Counting Crows’ August & Everything, Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Carol King’s Tapestry, Van Halen’s, Van Halen, Billy Joel’s The Stranger, The Eagle’s Hotel California, Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, Alicia Keys’ Songs in A Minor, Queen’s The Game, Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings, The Clash’s London Calling, Nirvana’s Nevermind, REM’s Out of Time, James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, The Killers’ Hot Fuss, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti and In Through the Out Door and nearly every album ever made by The Beatles, U2 and one of the most obvious omissions, The Rolling Stones. And lest anyone ask why Bob Dylan is not on the list, ok, here’s the thing – as lyrics go, Dylan is a brilliant poet. But I have just never been able to listen to that voice for the course of an entire album. Sorry. I know. I’m a heathen.

Alright, open the floodgates for comments. I know all you folks out there have opinions on this one – and I want to hear them!  Which choices do you love or hate? What did I leave out that one must own and listen to when stuck in suburbia?

Let the Games Begin…The Hunger Games, That Is

I know, I can hear you sighing and see the rolling of your eyes already. If you’re the parent of a child who falls into the Young Adult novel demographic, you’re already tired of hearing about the latest blockbuster trilogy premiering this week in a theater near you. Hell, you’re probably recovering right now, giant cup of coffee in hand, promising yourself you’ll never give in to your child’s pleading to attend a midnight premier ever again.

If you don’t have a child of a certain age in your household, you’re wondering what the hype is all about and why you should care.

So, I’m here to tell you why: because The Hunger Games is a great story. Fans of War and Peace and The Corrections (I can see Franzen cringing at the notion of Suzanne Collins’ books sitting next to his on Oprah’s bookshelf) alike: I’m talking to you, too.  This is a damn good story.

Let me add that I also enjoyed all four Twilight books. You do not need to be a “young adult” to enjoy good YA fiction. And if you’re a parent whose children enjoyed these books, you have even more compelling reasons to pick them up yourself.

Here’s why you – and by you, I include PhDs in English literature, along with fans of People Magazine – should read The Hunger Games:

1)    Everyone loves a good story. As Lisa Cron, author of the forthcoming Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence explains so articulately in her recent NY Times op ed, it’s not the “exquisite sentences and breathtaking images” that grab us when we read a novel, but “a sense of urgency and the desire to know what happens next”.  It’s the story itself that hooks us, no matter how beautifully written or how advanced the vocabulary. I dare you to read the first page of The Hunger Games and not want to keep going.

2)    Connect with your kids and be a role model. We all want our kids to read, right? The best way to encourage your kids to read is to be a role model for reading yourself. I think we can all agree that the old “Do as I say, not as I do” isn’t a stellar parenting strategy. Doctors will tell you that if you want your kids to eat right and exercise, you have to put down the potato chips and get off the couch yourself.  Let your kids see you reading and they’ll know it’s a priority for you, something you value and deem important. I would go one step further and say that it’s even better when you take an interest in what they’re reading and can discuss it with them. So if they’re devouring The Hunger Games series, maybe you should take a look, too, and see what all the fuss is about.

3)    Tackle important issues in a context kids can understand. The great thing about YA fiction is that the best of it can present important social and cultural topics in a way that kids find interesting and can relate to. It also gives parents a perfect opening to discuss important topics. The Hunger Games presents a dystopian world in which a big brother-like Capitol pits young “tributes” from districts of differing socio-economic levels against each other in a widely hyped and televised fight to the death. This fictional world raises so many relevant real-world issues from personal liberties to war and violence, from hunger and poverty to the role of the media and “image-making” in our lives. Furthermore, the hero of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, is a young female.  In a political realm where women’s rights are being increasingly threatened and young girls have to sift through a pop culture wasteland of Jersey Shore and The Kardashians, to seek real female role models, a heroine like Katniss is a welcome figure.

So tonight, I’ll be braving the crowds at our local theater with my 13-year old daughter and her friend and I’m honestly not sure who is more excited to see how Collins’ vision is translated to the big screen. Either way, I know we’ll have much to talk about on the car ride home.