15 Albums That Made an Impression On Me as a Teenager, 1986–1993
The following list contains fifteen albums that influenced little, teenage me between 1986 and early 1993.
I realize that this is a pretty male-dominated set of albums, but I was in a pretty male-dominated place at the time. There wasn't anything like Google or Spotify to broaden my listening in the 1980s, my suburban library's music collection was not exactly centred around younger tastes unless they included Fred Penner, and I relied on word of mouth and my meagre allowance to round out my collection at a pretty dude-heavy record store. Ah, the eighties.
If this were a list of songs instead of albums, though, there would be a lot more women on it. For instance, I loved Banarama's "Venus" and The Bangles' "Manic Monday", but I never spent time listening to a whole album of either band. Again, though, this might be because my friends didn't, either, so I didn't have access to whole albums of theirs to listen to in the first place. The girls I knew had older brothers who I think largely influenced our musical tastes with alternative male bands like The Gruesomes.
Enough of the apologetics now. On to the album list, in order of album release dates with Spotify links so you can listen:
The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (June 1967)
I latched onto this album in grade 8 and didn't let go for two whole years. It was pretty much the only thing I wanted to listen to at all times, and that might explain part of the reason why my friend Laurie and I only hung out at her house.
My favourite song for the longest time — which strikes me as odd now, because it's easily the weakest song on the album — was "She's Leaving Home". I liked to imagine myself becoming rebellious and doing dangerous things like running away so I could live a cooler life than my parents. Instead, I waited until I was 19 to move into a terrible apartment where I had to sleep on the floor, there was never hot water, and I papered an entire wall of my bedroom with job rejection letters.
My favourite song on the album now is "Lovely Rita". There's something about the tenor of the song and meter of the lyrics that keeps it playful while not making a mockery of the deep crush. There was a girl it made me think of in about 1987, but she never acknowledged my existence and dated basketball players. Sniffle.
Joni Mitchell's Blue (March 1971)
I listened to this album on repeat during the spring of 1993. Technically, I wasn't a teenager at this point, but I had just turned 20, and I wasn't a very mature 20.
I had fallen in love with a guy a few years older than I was, and our relationship was heading toward marriage pretty quickly. I was equally excited and horrified at the prospect, and "The Last Time I Saw Richard" became my anthem for acknowledging the gross mistakes I was making to create the situation. I was sure I'd end up the one who was "romanticizing some pain that's in [my] head."
I managed to put a tragic and halting end to that romance, but I still ended up romanticizing pain. My nature is steadfast. I still have to figure out how to write happier poetry.
U2's War (February 1983)
The 1980s had me lying awake at night hoping the Russians wouldn't drop a nuclear bomb on my house, and this album served as a window into a world where things like war mattered to people with bigger voices than I had.
No following U2 album ever hit me in a similar way. They all felt like they were running down the telescope of commercial viability after that, which can be great for business but not so great for inspiring this passionate heart.
Puberty came at me late, and it was a bitch, to say the least. War entered my music rotation in grade 11 because it got at that suddenly dizzying piece of my new-grown anger. When my world felt upside down, War dangled the possibility in front of me that some things might actually matter when my world felt steeped in a dangerous and complacent sameness.
Wham! Make It Big (October 1984)
The song that did me in every time was "Careless Whisper", and I was deeply ashamed of how much I liked it in grade eight. I even kept the tape hidden in the back of my cassette drawer. The happy pop sound went against the moody, serious writer personality I was trying to cultivate at twelve.
Secretly, I recorded "Careless Whisper" repeatedly end-to-end so I could listen to it for an hour straight. Sometimes I would sway in the dark with my eyes closed and imagine that I could be loved that passionately, that I could love someone else that passionately. I wondered if such incredible magic could ever happen to me.
I never realized at the time that the song was about the consequences of meaningless cheating on someone you were supposed to cherish.
I can admit that I like Wham! now, but I still carry some of that original embarrassment. I AM A SERIOUS PERSON, DAMMIT.
The Dead Milkmen's Big Lizard In My Back Yard (June 1985)
This album entered my collection in 1988 just after I arrived at a Mennonite boarding school for grade eleven. I think I accidentally ordered it through the Columbia Record & Tape Club before I read the fine print.
This album is offensive in a number of ways even beyond the fact that it uses ableist slurs, and it's kind of painful to think about what a dick I was at the time for laughing along to some of these lyrics, but this album did one very important thing for me: it made me lighten the hell up once in a while.
I was a deeply depressed teenager who walked around with two lists of ways I could kill myself, one with ways that would make my death look accidental and one with ways that would broadcast my desperation. This album injected some silliness when I needed it most.
I am not saying that Big Lizard In My Back Yard saved my life, because that would be ridiculous, but it did offer some relief in an otherwise emotionally dark time.
The Smiths' Meat Is Murder (February 1985) and The Queen Is Dead (June 1986) dubbed cassette
This guy I knew in grade 10 gave me a cassette tape with The Queen Is Dead on one side and Meat Is Murder on the other. I was so flustered that I barely squeaked out a thank-you.
It was a pretty confusing time. I had simultaneous crushes on both him and his twin sister, and at the time my brain could not handle the simultaneous problems of gender and sexual orientations, the still-looming concept of religious sin, and the issue of incest fantasies with opposite sex twins. I dove into this dubbed cassette with everything I had, though, subverting all my confusion and lust into memorizing Smiths' lyrics. "I Want the One I Can't Have" eventually grew warbly from my constant rewinding:
On the day that your mentality
decides to try to catch up with your biology
come 'round, 'cause I want the one I can't have,
and it's driving me mad.
It's all over, all over, all over my face.
Even writing this down makes me feel like I'm sticking a note in my crushes' lockers. What is wrong with me?
Paul Simon's Graceland (August 1986)
I never actually owned this album, and I spent the last half of grade nine feeling truly aggravated by it.
A girl in my home economics class insisted on playing it every day while I tried to sew horrible pairs of bermuda shorts out of two-dollar bargain bin cloth. I wanted to strangle Paul Simon with my drawstrings. The combination of military-sounding drums and fixing the thread tension on an ancient sewing machine undid my inner calm.
The next summer, my cousin listened to it on repeat at the lake, and I wondered why she'd raided her mom's music collection.
Graceland grew on me, though, but I continued to refuse to admit it, because that girl in home economics ran the ghetto blaster with an iron fist, and SHE. MUST. NEVER. BE. RIGHT.
The Cure's Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (May 1987)
My Boys Don't Cry poster was like religious iconography to me from the first moment I stuck it up in my dorm room in 1988. My roommate hated The Cure so much that she wouldn't let me play it when she was around — I even had to plead to have my poster on the wall — so I'd plug the Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me tape into my Walkman and hide under a blanket with a pair of cheap, leaky Woolco earphones.
I put that poster up in every space I lived in for about ten years, even after I had to border it with duct tape to keep it from falling apart, even after I started hiding it behind my closet door like a kid who's too old for their beloved blanket. Eventually I rolled it up and kept it in a cardboard mailing tube until the duct tape had grown soft and gummy. It was fifteen years before it disappeared in a move, and I still secretly hope it will turn up in a closet.
The Dead Kennedys' Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death (June 1987)
One when I took out my retainer to eat at the mall, this kid in my group of friends recited the following lyrics to me:
You give me head.
It makes it worse.
Take out your fuckin' retainer
and put it in your purse.
I was the second least sexually experienced person I knew out of all my friends in grade 10, and I wasn't even entirely sure what a blowjob entailed. My face burned with embarrassment, but I still hit Records On Wheels the next weekend and brought this vile album home. It has been much-loved ever since.
I have this idea in my head that I'm not supposed to love this album, and I'm pretty sure the lyrics would be revealing. Whatevs. HOLIDAY IN CAMBODIA…
Midnight Oil's Diesel and Dust (August 1987)
I have memories associated with every album on this list but this one. It could be that I was the only one of my friends who liked it.
The lead singer was strikingly bald, and I think that's what gave me a taste for bald people.
This was also the first cultural product outside of the kids book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day that made me think much about Australia.
That's all I got, I think.
Also, burning beds are sexy when you're an imaginative 14-year-old. And that's all I'll say about that.
Guns N' Roses Lies (November 1988)
I bought this album in Normal, Illinois when I was at a Mennonite peace conference in the summer of either 1989 or 1990. I dressed sweetly but secretly skipped most of the sessions so I could hover around this music store and a couple of nearby coffee shops I found.
That music store was the first place I'd seen commercial drug paraphernalia, and I wanted to touch it so badly, but since I had no real access to cocaine that I knew of — Mennos aren't known for their raging coke habits — I left the miniature, silver vacuum in the display case. Instead, I bought a Christian folk tape to assuage my growing guilt.
Was I really going to snort coke through a miniature vacuum off my new Guns N' Roses album at a peace conference? Never. I filed that possible adventure away for my bright future as a dangerous rebel. I dreamt big.
The Sugarcubes' Life's Too Good (April 1988)
Something about the sound of The Sugarcubes confused me. I listened to this album repeatedly, trying to figure out what was happening in it. It was like learning a new language. It was a series of puzzle pieces with parts I didn't understand how to stick together.
Then I saw the video for "Motorcrash" and fell in love with how wide Björk opened her mouth when she sang. Her mouth didn't look like it needed to be nearly as wide as she was opening it, but there it was, opening as far as it could go. This affectation felt brave to me as a kid who'd been taught to sing politely in four-part harmony. She was doing it just because she could do it.
She also looked like no one ever hassled her to brush her hair. I was always being hassled to brush my hair.
I wanted to know what I could become, and I decided that I'd stick around to see what she did next.
Nirvana's Bleach (June 1989)
Nirvana broke away from all the other music I knew until then. It was loud, but it wasn't just anger and spit. It was meaty.
It was 1991 when I finally heard Bleach, and its new musical narrative matched my frustrated post-high school search for independence. I was weighed down by cultural expectations to get baptized and find a nice boy and pick out a career, but none of those things lived in my heart. I was compelled to transform myself into something completely other, even though I had no vision of what that other could be.
I became quite adept at the art of getting lost over the next few years, but getting lost was prime driver that helped me find my creative footing. Without this translation of the energy I had thrumming through me, I might not have fought so long to grow myself up right.
Lenny Kravtiz's Let Love Rule (September 1989)
Lenny. Oh, Lenny.
Didn't everyone want some potential love interest who wrote just for them? Who could play for a whole room of people, but you'd know that they were playing just for you?
I spent hours lying on my bed through hot afternoons feeling like he was talking to me, for me.
That was a time, wasn't it? When music felt like it was somehow intrinsically, personally ours? I swear I had entire lives within the music I listened to and the people I loved through it. I was never one to send roses to dressing rooms or write letters to famous musicians, but part of my brain believed they knew me.
Teenagers are demented.
The Grapes of Wrath Now and Again (September 1989)
I listened to this album quite a bit in that terrible space in between graduating from high school and figuring out what came next. During that time I plotted my suicide, tried my hand at transcendental meditation, wrote to the Rosicrucians, contemplated becoming a Mennonite pastor, applied for a library tech program, and wrote embarrassing poetry I sent to a literary magazine that eventually quit even sending me rejection letters.
Listening to this album now, it sounds much more upbeat than it sounded to me back then, but I was looking at everything through a fairly dismal lens while I worked out what the hell I was supposed to be doing. Thankfully, I didn't know that it would be another 13 years before I even started to figure that out. I never would have made it. I wouldn't have had the patience.
It turns out that ignorance can be a fantastic gift.