Liner Notes: My Favorite College Albums

For my last column, I’ve conducted a retrospective of some of my favorite albums that have been released in these past four years. Music is so indicative of certain times in our lives – years later, I hope these records will have the power to evoke just how I felt when I first listened to them. And I think they will – they’ve already served the purpose of helping me make sense of my college years. Upon closer examination, I realized that all of these selections deal with similar themes, but maybe that’s why I’ve gravitated toward them and held them so dear. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re some of your favorites as well.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Favorite Track: We Used to Wait

“The Suburbs” is a masterpiece concept album of disconnect and it came out at a time when I could really relate to its themes. It details the pains of growing up and away from your hometown and former identity, and searching for a grander life – or at least one that has meaning. It’s a perfect capsule of our times and our generation. There’s this overarching sense of loss throughout it that echoed that painfully poignant experience of going away to college – “Sometimes I can’t believe it/I’m moving past the feeling” – as well as capturing the nostalgia for the dullness and safety of the suburbs and simpler times – “If I could have it back/all that time we wasted/I’d only waste it again.”

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

Favorite Track: All

It’s hard to believe now, but Lana Del Rey was once the most mocked figure on the Internet, following her disastrous first appearance on Saturday Night Live. Music critics called her a threat to the authenticity of indie rock, formulated and calculated. But still, there was something that intrigued me so much about her and that first single, “Video Games.” I started watching interviews with her and there was something so enchantingly human about her presence, the nervous way she licked her lips, and her answer to the question, “what would you say to the people that hate you?” When I watched her reply, “I don’t think I would say anything,” I knew I loved her, this problematic genius. I was working as a music director at the time, and I was commanded to throw out her record upon first sight, but I disobeyed. Instead, I listened to it on repeat all throughout the semester. I would listen to 100 other records, but there was something so captivating about “Born to Die” that kept me coming back. Eventually, many other people realized this same thing, and by fall of that same year, Lana was an icon. But I’ve been with her since the beginning, and on some level, I feel a kinship to her, as we share the last laugh. 

Best Coast – The Only Place

Favorite Track: Up All Night

In their second album, Best Coast stripped away their trademark reverb and brought to their sound to a more modest, but personable level. “The Only Place” tackles the meaning of home (“I’ve seen all the mountains/Yes, I’ve seen all the trees/I’ve seen all the water/But nowhere compares to home”) and identity (“I don’t want to be how they want me to be”). It was released just as my freshman year was winding down and I was headed back home for the summer. Home – and I – would never be quite the same, but I still longed for what I knew.

Mister Loveless – Grow Up

Favorite Track: Curfew

Growing up and drifting apart are themes that have been explored time and time again, but “Grow Up” still makes them interesting. Beyond that as well, it really captures the stubborn childlessness of our generation (“These meaningless problems still weigh a ton.”) The songs on this album are littered with others (it’s a socially dependent generation), but there’s a pervasive sense of loneliness – “does anyone really know anyone/when we all have a past to outrun?” The closing track “Curfew” has become one of my favorite songs of all time. One of its lines is “I’ve never felt this way before/never even tried” and that’s exactly how the song makes me feel.

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Favorite Track: Hannah Hunt/ Unbelievers

This is probably the album I’ve listened to most in college. Vampy Weeks are shameless academics, and their songs carry a slew of highbrow references that seem decidedly collegiate. However, on this album, the band has realized just how far away they are from the ivory tower of college, and thematically, it deals with the hardships of growing up: “nobody knows what the future holds/and it’s bad enough just getting old.” It gave me some anticipatory nostalgia for the college years.

Lorde – Pure Heroine

Favorite Track: Ribs

This album addressed so many things in my life perfectly, especially the boredom and wonderment of being young – “we’re never done with killing time, can I kill it with you?” “Royals” reminds me of living in Busby and visiting friends in West, how Busby felt like a palace but it was only when I was in West that I felt like I was really living. My heart just bursts every time I listen to “Ribs,” and I wish so achingly that I wrote it. Lorde perfectly articulates my exact feelings and fears and desires. “I want them back, the minds we had, it’s not enough to feel the lack!”

Taylor Swift – 1989

Favorite Track: Clean

I was going to try to play it cool but I can’t – Taylor is my goddess. At first, I was completely underwhelmed by “1989” but it has become an absolute essential. The former queen of the fairytale romance has embraced the idea that things don’t have to be forever to matter. In my transitory final year of college, this theme rang especially true. As Taylor said about the song “Out of the Woods,” “It stresses that, even if a relationship is breakable and fragile and full of anxiety, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthwhile, exciting, beautiful and all the things that we look for.” Everything about these years is ephemeral and evolving – “1989” embraces that. And then of course, there’s the absolutely masterful “Clean” which I apparently have listened to 246 times and it still hasn’t gotten old. I love the way it ends the album, giving the sense that the rest of it has been a catharsis, a vehicle to help Taylor – and us – arrive finally at a sense of peace.




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