When I started searching for comforting albums, I immediately turned to nostalgia; I wanted to find the familiar soundtracks of “simpler times” and cherished memories. What I discovered, however, is that comfort is not necessarily tied to childhood or a certain era, but to empathy.
I’ve chosen a collection of albums that have brought me comfort in personally troubling times by helping me understand my own psyche and recognize the ubiquity of my feelings in others. While dealing with familial issues, relationship worries, academic pressures and self-doubt, these were the albums that consistently provided reassurance and hope. The most precious music to me has nothing to do with “simpler times”; it is what encourages me in the darkest moments.
“Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964,” Sam Cooke
I was initially wary of including a greatest hits compilation, but no album better captures Sam Cooke’s iconic soulful voice than “Portrait of a Legend.” Sixties R&B and soul is generally lively and moving, but very few voices can completely melt you and your worries like Cooke’s smooth, sweet tenor. The balance of cheerful, puppy-love serenades and gospel-inspired ballads blend to create a tender, immersive experience. Cooke gives us the hope that that a change is gonna come — it always does.
“Cosmo’s Factory,” Creedence Clearwater Revival
As all live performances have been cancelled due to COVID-19, several musicians have been recording “concerts” from home. Rolling Stone’s IGTV series titled “In My Room” features artists including Brian Wilson, Angelique Kidjo and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s lead singer John Fogerty. Fogerty’s raspy drawl is representative of the organic, unpretentious charm of Southern-slash-roots rock.
“Cosmo’s Factory” sounds like a windows-down cross-country road trip, a genuine exploration and admiration of rustic America. Typical of CCR, this album combines socio-political anthems of the Vietnam era with jovial rockabilly-style covers. Unlike the explicit anti-war messages on past albums, though, the simple lyrics and memorable riffs of “Cosmo” invite you to turn off the news, turn on the music and clear your mind.
“40oz. to Freedom,” Sublime
On their 1992 album “40oz. to Freedom,” the ska-punk band combines relaxing reggae rhythms with irreverent punk themes to create a carefree yet invigorating album. This is one of my favorite albums, not because of any profound message or complex arrangement, but because of its undeniable Long Beach feel; songs such as “Badfish” and “Don’t Push” — and all Sublime songs, for that matter — transport listeners to sun-kissed, ocean-side landscapes without the corny “Margaritaville” marimba. The late Bradley Nowell’s unique, breezy voice may help provide a much-needed mental vacation.
“Jagged Little Pill,” Alanis Morrisette
There are an endless number of songs that talk about staying hopeful, but very few that discuss how difficult it is to do so. On this mid-‘90s hit album, Alanis Morrisette gives an honest, brutal look at how we each cope with both trivial and devastating issues. “You Oughta Know” and “Ironic” let you scream out frustrations over breakups, procrastination and a multitude of life’s annoyances.
Morrisette unapologetically confronts issues that make us uncomfortable, including our fear of silence and the constant need to be distracted. This fearlessness, though — her attempt to understand herself without trying to please others — reminds us of the universality of fear and pain. “What it all boils down to,” she sings on “Hand in My Pocket,” “is that no one’s really got it figured out just yet.”
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“Pretty. Odd.,” Panic! At The Disco
On Panic!’s second studio album, the emo band took a break from their harsher pop-punk sound and began experimenting with folk, psychedelic rock and baroque pop. Although it was released well into the era of CDs and iPods, the band arranged this concept album essentially as a continuous one-piece ‘60s record. There’s something calming about its seamless transitions and whimsical lyrics, and the fantastical world illustrated in “Northern Downpour” and “Mad as Rabbits” invokes a sense of nostalgia for a time that never was. It’s simultaneously a magical escape from and connection to the current madness: as the band sings in harmony, “We must reinvent love.”
—Skyler Graham, staff writer
When I think of “comforting” albums, my mind shoots in several directions. Comfort can mean a lot of things. Some albums are soothing, yet sad. Some are mood-boosting, yet stale in the long-term. And some are initially jarring, yet become more comforting with each listen.
In the end, I decided to pick some of my personal favorites, albums that I believe deserve a wider audience or — in the case of the more popular ones — a second listen. I then explored my personal definition of comfort. It would be easy to select gentle folk and dream pop albums along the lines of what you might see in a Spotify “Rainy Days” playlist.
But comfort, to me, doesn’t mean ignoring the world around you. I’ve found that sincerity, earnesty and hopefulness — directed inwardly and outwardly — are what bring me a truer comfort, a comfort that deals with problems instead of ignoring them. The albums I’ve selected are ones I believe capture this unique version of comfort. They are from different time periods and different genres (although all firmly in the Western rock canon) yet they each communicate a vision for hope amid turbulent times.
“What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye
Considered by many to be one of the greatest albums of all-time, “What’s Going On” is just as relevant today as it’s ever been. The album is sung from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran who returns home to an oil-drenched, war-weary, struggling nation. The sources of Gaye’s confusion and worry — innocent deaths, inequality, endless war — are still in full force. But Gaye offers an alternative: love. Fundamentally, these easy-listening soul tracks out of Motown Records are love songs. Invoking Jesus as a model, Gaye pleas for a world peace only radical love can realize.
“Mother Earth’s Plantasia,” Mort Garson
“Warm earth music for plants… and the people that love them.” That’s the subtitle to Mort Garson’s 1976 album “Mother Earth’s Plantasia.” At first glance, it looks like a joke, but no — this album was actually made for plants’ personal listening pleasure, or so the story goes. (The ‘70s were a wacky time.) Filled with precious, whimsical ditties recorded from a Moog synthesizer, “Mother Earth’s Plantasia” happens to sound rather pleasant to human ears, too. Its placid melodies, at times baroque and orchestral, evoke a meditative peace, a simplicity that feels foreign in the current zeitgeist.
“Nowhere (Expanded),” Ride
Shoegaze, an early ‘90s subgenre and predecessor to much of today’s dream pop, is known for its reverb-drenched, distorted guitars that can comfort listeners with a cloud of sound. At once ethereal and raw, Ride’s debut album “Nowhere” is the shoegaze product that resonated most with me, and the one I’ve turned to when feeling over- or under-whelmed with life. The closer on the expanded version, “Today,” begins with a simple mantra — “Wake up, see the sun / What’s done is done” — sung over jangly guitar chords that, over the course of the song, devolve into a loud, squealing, cathartic mess. By choosing to take one day at a time, Ride locates the power in mindfulness.
“The Soft Bulletin,” The Flaming Lips
“The Soft Bulletin” has been called The Flaming Lips’ “Pet Sounds” album. It was the moment that the band upped their game from nondescript rock to elaborate works of record studio wizardry. Layered with sound effects, synthesizers, strings, horns and guitar, the songs are practically symphonies. But it’s the earnest delivery of front-man Wayne Coyne that gives the album its heart.
In “The Spiderbite Song,” Coyne expresses his gratefulness for bandmate Steven Drozd’s recovery from a spider bite: “If it destroyed you / it would destroy me,” he sings. In an interview years later, Drozd revealed he was lying to Coyne — his “spider bite” was actually an infection from repeated heroin injections. This misunderstanding feels fitting, though, for an album that recalls halcyon days when the whole world felt like a PG-rated movie.
“These Things Take Time,” Molly Nilsson
Molly Nilsson’s music can seem bleak. Her album covers are all black and white, and her songs, while catchy, are typically lo-fi, minimalist synth-pop accounts of loneliness and boredom. But on “These Things Take Time,” the swedish singer-songwriter embraces her negativity with wry humor. At one point, Nilsson sings an acrostic poem of the word “diamond,” where “A” is for “I like being alone”; later, she opens the track “Whiskey Sour” with the line, “Now I’m at a party, and I hate everyone.”
It’s clear, however, that Nilsson yearns for solace and companionship. Eventually, she finds someone to spend the night with, but it’s not another human — it’s the moon, her “old friend” she bids to “come back soon” when the night is over. “These things” — love, fulfillment, happiness, growth — take time, and that’s okay. In the meantime, the moon is out, and it’s a beautiful night.
—Stephen Atkinson, staff writer