31 Perfect Albums
Perfection is a rough standard, and I rarely acknowledge it.
Quests for the unattainable feel like a waste of time (though, honestly, anything that isn’t driving social justice or fighting for our lives feels like a waste of time right now), and so I try not to wallow in discussions of perfection. Of objectively choosing things like “Michael vs. LeBron” or “Pet Sounds or Abbey Road” because there is no answer. Taste is relative, perfection is impossible, and arguing about both is at a level slightly worse than taking shots of bleach.
I DO like talking about what’s perfect to me, though. That’s very different. A shortlist of things that are perfect to me: hang-gliding in Breath of the Wild; Neapolitan-style pizza; sunrise on day three of a bike tour; a helpful spreadsheet formula.
And a bunch of albums.
- “Nasty” — Janet Jackson
- “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)” — A Tribe Called Quest
- “Swamp” — Talking Heads
- “The Radiator Hums” — Cursive
- “Liquid Glass” — Whirlpool
- “Chinese Satellite” — Phoebe Bridgers
- ”House Where Nobody Lives” – Tom Waits
- “Drove Up from Pedro” — Mike Watt
- “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” — Stevie Wonder
- “The Sounds of Science” — Beastie Boys
- “Call Ticketron” — Run the Jewels
- “Automatic” — The Pointer Sisters
- “Electioneering” — Radiohead
- “Cure for Pain” — Morphine
- “48” — Sunny Day Real Estate
- “Say Yes” — Elliott Smith
This past month, I participated in #perfect31, a one-record-a-day challenge created by Mike Montiero, in which we-the-collective-Instagram-accounts posted a perfect record every day. Mine started with throwaway sentiment, but after a few days of watching Mike and other #perfect31 posters write incredible posts — touching on current and historical social issues and the very nature of music itself — I found myself expanding my captions. What began as a distraction became a really cathartic look at how I’ve grown as a person, and the role that music had every step of the way.
Unfortunately — well, fortunately in most cases — Instagram is fleeting. And, as I got closer to the end, I wanted to make sure I kept this someplace more permanent.
So I tore up the usual monthly mixtape and created one based on these 31 albums. Now all of the Instagram captions have been brought here.
In short: Instagram isn’t forever, but music is. The captions get better as you get further down the page. I’m proud of some of the stuff later on in the challenge. Listen to my mixtape.
These are all perfect albums.
Jawbreaker — 24 Hour Revenge Therapy
Gonna do this #perfect31 thing, where I post a perfect album every day this month. Starting with this perfect gem from Jawbreaker.
Whirlpool — Liquid Glass
In the most niche of niche genres — emo hardcore with alternating male and female vocals and songs about evolution — Whirlpool was the best, and this one’s been knocking around in my head at random times off and on since the late 90s. It’s a perfect record.
Talking Heads — Stop Making Sense
It’s rare to find a live album so good that its versions become the standards. This is a perfect live record.
Mike Watt — Ball-Hog or Tugboat?
Remember in the 90s, when all of the cool bands got weird record deals? All of those bands had a favorite bass player, and his name was Mike Watt, and they all buried their egos for one album and played backup to a weirdo from San Pedro and helped him make a perfect album.
A Tribe Called Quest — Midnight Marauders
I was okay with rap and hip hop growing up, but I didn’t CONNECT with it… until I heard the smoothest voice in hip hop dropping verses over … is this jazz? It’s a toss up between their first three full lengths, but this perfect record always stuck with me.
Snapcase — Progression Through Unlearning
I tried to be a metal kid, but couldn’t pull it off. Not that was that close to pulling off the hardcore punk scene either, but at least the music felt more underground. More MINE. And while there were seemingly hundreds of hardcore bands that sounded the same, Snapcase was the band that got closest, in my mind, to perfecting the sound with this perfect record.
The Cars — The Cars
It took me a while to understand the pop brilliance of The Cars, who were just another old person band when I was a kid. I came around. I heard a podcast host call the first The Cars album, essentially, a greatest hits album, and that person wasn’t wrong: it is perfect.
Split Lip — Fate’s Got a Driver
I went to an all-ages show at the Pomp Room back in high school to see Avail, but left as a fan of this sing-songy former hardcore band called Split Lip. They later changed their name to Chamberlain and (stupidly) re-recorded the vocals on this album, so if you look on Spotify know that you’re missing out on the REAL album. This is the REAL album, and it is perfect.
Tom Waits — Mule Variations
No long caption needed for this one: this is the only album to feature the song “Filipino Box Spring Hog,” so it’s automatically perfect.
Metallica — …And Justice For All
I went to that Sioux Falls Arena show during their tour for the Black album. I barely knew Metallica, but it was my first real concert, with like swears and stuff. I left a little shell shocked, but very ready to try being a metal kid. (Aside: it never really took.) It was a few weeks later that I finally picked up this album to dive into the deeper non-commercial catalog and realized OH THIS IS WHAT THRASH METAL IS. It’s not their best, and it has major mixing issues, but it was the first one I loved and for that it’s perfect.
Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher
This album (Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, an impossible album to photograph at night with lamp light glare) literally just showed up on my front step today, but it’s all I’ve listened to for the past month. Deeply influenced by Elliott Smith, bolstered and challenged by her friends Conor Oberst and Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, and trying as hard as possible in places to pick up the mantle of those Sufjan states records, this album is haunting and sad and beautiful and aloof and perfect and I keep talking about it, much to the chagrin of every person I know.
Cursive — Domestica
Saw a band called Cursive back at the Odd Fellows Hall back in 97, or maybe 98. I remember them being very of that era – a bit spastic, very dramatic. I liked them, but they became another band on my emo playlists.
And then they released a perfect concept album about divorce and I fell absolutely in love with them.
Texas is the Reason — Do You Know Who You Are?
I don’t really know what it is about the only Texas is the Reason full length that struck me 25+ years ago. Literally, I can’t even really describe why it’s the greatest album from the era — why it’s perfect in every way — except that I’ve been singing these songs for looks at watch yup, 25+ years. It’s just perfect. That’s really all there is.
Pointer Sisters — Break Out
I don’t fully remember if this was a staple of Saturdays; of being home from school, of vacuums and Lysol and other weekend cleaning, of doing nothing but playing with Micro Machines. I just know that it’s the album I remember most from those grade school days: the brown carpet, the open windows, and “Automatic.” It got a shout out during the first (and only!) season of Hulu’s High Fidelity, and with good reason: it is perfect 80s nostalgic house-cleaning music that still happens to rock very hard.
Built to Spill — Perfect From Now On
I mean… it’s right there in the title.
R.E.M. — Life’s Rich Pageant
I don’t know where this one came from; physically, it’s in rough shape, and it’s got a giant water stain on the bottom. I also don’t know how THIS, of all the R.E.M. albums, is the one I find absolutely perfect. It’s not the first, or the one I fell in love with. But it’s the one that had all the songs from the mixtape that I loved, and it has the best song about a polluted river ever written.
Sunny Day Real Estate — Diary
It was my sophomore year of high school. I had made my turn from failed mainstream metal kid deep into MTV’s Buzz Bin, deep into grunge, with a quick stop in pop punk, deep enough that I started finding the weird stuff. Weird, at least, to me at the time: the Mike Watts; the Kim Gordons; the Wayne Coynes; the randoms on Sub Pop. And that’s when a lunch room friend — I don’t remember who — asked if I’d heard this album from some new Sub Pop band: Sunny Day Real Estate.
I hadn’t. But with that, everything changed. I had borrowed so many genres for so long, it was fun to find my own. And while Sunny Day was just a stepping stone to the Pomp Room all-ages shows I’d start to frequent — to the emo bands and hardcore punkers and ska that inexplicably made their way through Sioux Falls and taught me the weirdness of independent music — Diary was the perfect launching point.
Ween — The Mollusk
You don’t really PLAN to become a Ween fan. It just happens; one day, you wake up awash in the Boognish, its face shining down upon your lost soul. You last remember watching an episode of _Beavis and Butthead_or, like, the Spongebob movie, and then you find yourself knee deep in third-rate bootlegs of B-side only live tracks like “Cornbread Red.” They don’t fit into a genre. They turn garbage recordings into 15-minute-long concert brilliance. You can only describe their sound as one thing:
They’ve genre-bended their way to a handful of records that I, as a Ween fan, feel are absolutely perfect, and most others, as normal humans, tolerate more than the rest. Just so happens their sea-and-salt-inspired The Mollusk is the MOST perfect of the perfect ones.
Summon the queen.
Radiohead — OK Computer
There was a point in my senior year of high school when I felt the need to double down on whatever sliver of punk cred I’d thought I’d amassed. I ditched pretty much any major label album I’d ever owned. I immediately dismissed anything that wasn’t something I could order through Doghouse Records, completely punk-washing any of the variety and inherent taste I’d built over my first 18 years.
While I still love a lot of the bands I found during that time, many of which are weird and loud and otherwise completely unknown to most, it was also the least creative and most close-minded period of my musical life.
And then I went to college. I don’t know if it was just a change in scenery, or (probably) understanding I shouldn’t really give a shit about genres or labels or airplay or punk points. But I saw the video for “Paranoid Android” and wondered why I’d been purposely skipping this stuff.
And with that, I began a road to just enjoying all music again. OK Computer didn’t do all of this at once. But it came along at a perfect time.
Refused — The Shape of Punk to Come
The spring of 2001, we used our spring break to travel not to the beach or to Europe, but to the drizzling grey of Seattle. I remember a lot of things, sure, but one of the best was our long walk back to our hostel after shopping for CDs. We had the common area to ourselves. We reheated some leftover Indian food. And we plopped Kerrie’s recent purchase into the community stereo: a gem of a punk hardcore album I had somehow missed three years earlier.
You know those times when you hear an album for the first time and it feels like electricity? Like you’ll remember the scene for years, forever tied to the music? This was one of those times, and it was perfect.
Morphine — Cure For Pain
When I worked at Best Buy in high school and had what felt like an endless supply of disposable income (and a very good employee discount), I’d buy any CD that felt even tangentially related to my current favorites. Random stuff by Pigface, a stray album or two from Primus, that one Smashing Pumpkins album with “Tonight, Tonight.”
Most of the time, I sold them within a few months or years. None of them were perfect, at least not to me. Not at that time.
One of my favorite things about collecting records now that I’m becoming an old dad is rediscovering some of those albums I’d given up on. Hearing them in a new light, with a bit more sophistication. In some cases, they’ve become indispensable. They’ve become perfect.
Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels 3
I’ll be honest: I think all four Run the Jewels albums are perfect. This one’s the perfectest.
RTJ 1 gave me faith in angry ridiculous rap again.
RTJ 2 was a masterclass in proving your own hype.
RTJ 4 was the perfect album at an incredibly important time.
But this — RTJ3? — it’s the perfect balance.
Stevie Wonder — Talking Book
Our record collection is a Frankenstein’s monster of collected taste. My grandparents’ collection — the Patsy Cline, the 60s show tunes, the two signed copies of the same album from some band called The Kimberlys — was passed down to my parents, who themselves had combined their collections at one point — Supertramp met Fleetwood Mac; Mahavishnu Orchestra met Pat Benatar — and it was all eventually handed to me, who was already pulling a handful of old punk 7” into a pile and considering jumping back into the vinyl game. I got a kick start, and I’ll never take it for granted.
I was lucky to grow up in a house where all of these tastes — even before they combined on my Kallax shelf — combined over generations. Where I was able to learn a love for honky tonk and stoner metal, New Power Generation and Stevie Wonder. This one specifically: it’s in rough shape, but it’s perfect. The Braille is still readable. So is my dad’s name.
I’ve never tried to force any music on my kids — the second you push your taste down a kid’s throat, they begin looking for ways to rebel. Instead, we just have it on. We model that all music styles are mostly good, and we let THEM figure out what they think is crap. (Like I did with Supertramp.)
And, we make sure their stuff sits alongside ours. Right next to the previous generations.
Janet Jackson — Control
Let’s be honest here. Given her family’s legacy in the music industry — the Motown rise, the Diana Ross praise, the solo success and near-knighting of her brother — it’s easy to think that Janet’s role on popular music might be somehow overlooked.
But given the amount of garbage she’s gone through — go ahead and ask how she feels about JT coming out of that Super Bowl debacle relatively unscathed — and the tarnished legacies of abuse left by her father AND brother, it’s hard not to look at Janet and wonder why she wasn’t the chosen one from the start.
I never fully understood the heaping praise on the kid group and her brother’s solo career. (I mean, I get Thriller, but by the late 80s that formula had grown mold.) But I still remember where I was during the world premiere of the “Rhythm Nation” video.
This is not Rhythm Nation. Instead, this is just another perfect album filled with badass songs from the real legacy of the Jackson family.
Beastie Boys — Paul’s Boutique
First, they overdid fame. They became gigantic. They were incorrigible, brash, loud and childish. They had money. They had fame. Obviously they had “Girls.”
Then, like many before them, they got cocky and took a leap into art. But this time, it was genre-defining. It was, at the time, a perfect mess of technical chops and raw creativity.
And it can never be done again.
The culture of sampling and it’s lack of commercial viability — with the clearing and costs and the utter pain of dealing with the record and publishing industry in general — makes Paul’s Boutique a once-in-a-lifetime album. It was a critical darling, but a commercial failure. It forced the boys to grow up and play their own instruments. And it’s a perfect example of taking what you’ve got and making something better.
Elliott Smith — Either/Or
It’s quiet, and painful, and soothing, and agitated. It’s sadness, but with hope. It pulled from the Beatles, influenced Phoebe Bridgers, and serves as the bridge between art pop and folk.
Elliott played a mean guitar and, if Ben Folds is to be believed, some dirty basketball. He was far from perfect; he was broken and self-destructive and distant. But this album IS perfect, despite what he always believed.
Sleater-Kinney — The Woods
Not every perfect record has a deep and meaningful story. Some perfect records are just three rockers putting out perfect rock songs.
Various Artists — Anti-Matter
Sioux Falls, because it’s on two major interstates roughly a day’s drive from a handful of major cities, ended up with way more punk bands than it deserved, which led to a weird feeling that EVERY band that rolled through was a part of the same community. The east coast hardcore. The west coast punk. The midwest emo. The northwest indie. It was all here, at some point. It was all part of our lives.
That was the brilliance of these collective scenes in the late 90s, when music got weird and everyone intermingled. It was this spirit that led to magazines like Anti-Matter, Norm Brannon’s brainchild of music interviews, which commingled Sense Field and Snapcase, Split Lip and Jawbreaker. And it led to this album, the pinnacle of compilations.
It’s a perfect time capsule of this period, in these scenes, of this music. Of this combined community.
Prince — Sign “O” the Times
I love artists who have eras.
Some artists’ eras were defined by their evolution as artists. Diana Ross had eras: each one pushing her name closer to the front until she was on her own.
Some artists’ eras were defined by freedom and complacency. Classic dad rockers Pink Floyd had eras: from psych to concept to pretentiousness to coasting.
Some artists’ eras were defined by success. Green Day has eras: from underground cool to commercial superstardom to whatever they’ve turned into now.
And then there’s Prince. Prince didn’t just bridge demographics — he’s one of the few that fans of nearly every genre could agree on. He bridged eras. He was his own entire era, even as he changed and shifted and adjusted the game.
He found perfection in just being great at all times. There are early Prince fans. There are Purple Rain Prince fans. There are pop singles Prince fans. I am all of these, but I’m mostly a double concept album social commentary Prince fan. At least, that’s where I’m at today.
Modest Mouse — The Moon and Antarctica
In the summer of 2000, I traveled to England. Kerrie was there — she was part of a study abroad program, staying in a fancy castle later used to film quidditch scenes in the early Harry Potter movies. I was soon there as well, for ten days, visiting the usual places (London, Paris), the historical places (Edinburgh, Canterbury), and the quaint and quiet (Alnwick).
When I think of that trip, I think of a lot of things. I think of how normal white middle-class English grocery stores felt exotic. I remember drinking wine — in Paris, in London, in Canterbury — and eating what, to this day, is the best Indian meal I ever had. I remember seeing the history of 1000s of years scattered around like street signs.
I remember optimism — this was the last year of the Clinton era, and we were all very excited for President Gore. I remember feeling incredibly cosmopolitan, and very excited to travel in a way I never had — in a way my parents never had — both on my own and with Kerrie; acting like an adult; learning new culture, even if that culture was only barely different from my own.
And despite all of that optimism, I was still grounded. Because this album was my soundtrack.
It’s an album of gloom; of empty horizons. It’s the music you’ll hear at the end of the world — spacey and drawn out, as if structure itself was struggling to stay intact. It’s music for long drives to nowhere as you slowly contemplate your place in the universe. As you think about why you’re alive, and what it all means, and how time is a circle and how the Earth is a rock that, frankly, doesn’t care if you’re alive or not.
It’s beautiful and brilliant and intense. And, it was an antidote to complacency. On one hand, I was discovering the world, becoming independent, strengthening my future, soaking in the nutrients of history. It’s a trip I still think about to this day. On the other hand, right along side me, this album reminded me that those nutrients never belonged to me in the first place: I’m just holding them until I return to the earth. All things in perfect balance.
Jets to Brazil — Orange Rhyming Dictionary
I didn’t mean to start my list with Jawbreaker — Blake Schwarzenbach’s most famous band — and end with Jets to Brazil — Blake’s most lyrical band. But when some of your favorite writers are actually song lyricists, these things tend to happen.
Which is not to say that Blake is some kind of Pulitzer-level author. His lyrics are clever, but extreme; he rings out every ounce of emotion, he’s often sappy and cheesy, he’s almost always wearing his heart a little too high up on his sleeve. In person, he’s surly and difficult, and it’s clear he uses his lyrics and his songs to help him sort out his problems. It’s how he writes. Coincidentally, it’s also how I write. Using the journey to figure things out, rather than the destination.
At least that’s how I perceive Jets to Brazil. But I really don’t know. I’ll never know. I’ve only met Blake for 30 seconds as he signed a poster at a record store in Chicago. I don’t know him any better than anyone else on this list. That’s kind of the thing, right? We don’t know ANY of these people — they’re just strangers pouring out their souls, and we’re on the other side of the speaker, hours or days or years away, giving them our time. We don’t know any of them. We probably never will. We only know what they made.
Sometimes, what they make is perfect. To someone, at least.
Orange Rhyming Dictionary bridged two distinct musical eras in my life, and it has persisted through every era since. It’s flawed. It’s definitely not perfect in the pure definition. Really, none of these albums — no album ever, really — are perfect.
Every album is flawed. Because every person is flawed. And that’s how we know enough to know which ones are perfect for us.