We’re living in a singles era. The rise of playlist streaming and the quest for social media relevance have arguably reduced the album to its least relevant state since Motown was still cutting 45s. Still, an album — a fully realized artistic work, consumed as a whole — satiates in a way algorithmic curation never can. In these idle, quarantining times, there’s no reason not to sink your teeth into your favorite artists’ records in their entirety — or explore new ones. During global health crises or otherwise, these are some of our features staffers’ favorite front-to-back albums.
Megan Burbank, outdoors/general assignment reporter
The Clash, “London Calling”
It’s iconic for a reason. From Mick Jones’ robust guitar lines to Joe Strummer’s manic, almost panicky delivery and Paul Simonon’s jumpy basslines, “London Calling” is the perfect sonic background to crisis — public health, political, personal or all of the above. The imagery on this album is ageless. “The ice age is coming / the sun is zooming in” wasn’t written about climate change, but it’s prescient in its “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”-style dread.
Punk is often accused of sloppiness, and I’ve never been enamored of the genre’s masculine swagger (give me The Slits over the Sex Pistols any day), but The Clash were different, with a sense of social justice underlying the noise, and gems buried in between rooster-like crows and scruffy duds like “Lover’s Rock” (arguably the worst song on the album). Listen for the Federico García Lorca reference on “Spanish Bombs,” for the soft precision of “Lost in the Supermarket,” an indictment of capitalist nihilism contained in seemingly quiet lyrics about a sad suburban childhood. Listen to “Rudie Can’t Fail” and just TRY not to dance. Lean into the anti-Nazism of “Clampdown” and the reggae-inflected “The Guns of Brixton,” the first song Simonon wrote for the band. And if you feel ennui setting in, let the charging bridge of “I’m Not Down” bring you back home to yourself. “London Calling” is the album I listen to front to back when everything feels wrong and upside-down. There’s a moral clarity in these songs, a cleansing rage, a reminder that things have always been unfathomable and frightening, and that it’s never too late to fight back.
Brendan Kiley, arts and culture writer
Alabama 3, “Exile on Coldharbour Lane”
This album is a soundtrack for trouble. Released in 1997 by the not-very-well-known British band/collective Alabama 3, “Exile on Coldharbour Lane” is a weird, delta-swampy, city-grimy, improbably synchronistic mix of gospel, techno, country and blues that plays like a parable. Its bandmember-characters (Larry Love, The Very Reverend Dr. D-Wayne Love, Sister Ese, I.V. Lenin and more) and story line begin to take hazy shape after repeated listening, but “Coldharbour Lane” is more about a milieu than any definite plot: Something about hard-drug addiction; gutter-glamour, street-preacher evangelism; running from the law; and an undercurrent of revolutionary Marxism. (One of the more electronica-heavy songs keeps repeating: “Mao Tse Tung said change must come / change must come through the barrel of a gun.”) Also, they seem to loathe hippies — specifically, the specimen who lounges “on some Third World beach wearing spandex-psychedelic trousers, smoking damned dope, pretending he gettin’ consciousness expansion. I want consciousness expansion, I go to my local tabernacle and I sing!”
The more you decipher the song cycle, the more mystifying it gets (Are they preaching addiction or recovery? Are they Christians? Is that skin-crawling sample actually from a Rev. Jim Jones death-cult sermon?), which makes it a fitting record for repeated listening in a catastrophe. “Coldharbour Lane” is dripping with doom — and gritty, bruised-knuckle vitality — but carries the gospel glow of a mysterious, undefined redemption. In music as in life, there are no easy answers.
Trevor Lenzmeier, travel and books coordinator
Fleetwood Mac, “Rumours”
If Fleetwood Mac’s gloriously toxic magnum opus isn’t among your top five desert-island (or quarantine) albums, you won’t last three months. “Rumours,” with its soaring, inestimably influential harmonies, is endlessly listenable, with classic after bona fide classic (“Dreams,” “Go Your Own Way,” “The Chain”) and countless lyrics you know by heart, almost instinctively — like even before you were born, Stevie Nicks had whispered in your ear, “Players only love you when they’re playing.”
Listening to “Rumours” is like watching four cocaine-fueled breakups simultaneously — because that’s what was happening as the band wrote and recorded the record. The deliciously messy result is the greatest pop-rock album of all time.
Spotify streams the “super deluxe” reissue, featuring the original 11 tracks plus three hours of live recordings, demos, songs from other projects and, most important, would-be album closer “Silver Springs,” the scathing breakup anthem initially nixed by Lindsey Buckingham. “You’ll never get away from the sound of the woman that loved you,” Nicks howls on the house fire of an outro. For some reason, men to this day still aren’t listening. Go get lost in “Rumours” for an afternoon.
Kendrick Lamar, “DAMN.”
On Kendrick Lamar’s fourth borderline-flawless album, “DAMN.” (winner of five Grammys and a Pulitzer), the greatest rapper alive dissects his own double standards and their reflection in this country — “not a place,” but “a sound / Of drum and bass; we close our eyes to look around.”
There’s a battle in all of us between salvation and damnation, between “LUST” and “LOVE,” “FEAR” and “PRIDE.” Lamar recognizes his sins and blindness before his neighbor’s, but there are things he can do — beyond his sprawling vision and masterful meter, diction and flow — that no other rapper can. Like scoring features from Rihanna and U2, or placing protest anthems next to trap beats, mellow introspective jams and the song of the summer (“HUMBLE”).
“Hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years” drones a clip of Geraldo Rivera on the bombastic “DNA.” Hip-hop has treated Lamar well (“Diamond in the ceiling, marble on the floors … Baby in the pool, ‘Godfather’ goals”), but the cruel adversity that forged rap — the stacked deck Black Americans play against — surrounds all of us still. Lamar hasn’t forgotten. Listen to “DAMN.” frontward, then backward, then watch the album’s five cinematic music videos while considering how complacency upholds systemic racism, then repeat. That’s a whole quaran-day.
La Dispute, “Rooms of the House”
“Rooms of the House” is a concept album loosely tied to a couple’s home, but the story spans decades, tracing the shared history of a community. Anxiety lines the foundation — traffic, storms, a bridge collapse, people caught underwater, love, marriage, divorce, death — set to the tune of grinding post-hardcore punk riffs and frontman Jordan Dreyer’s growling melodies, with verses and bridges that border on spoken word.
On standout “For Mayor in Splitsville,” the narrator recalls a road trip when his ex said, in “that movie voice she uses when she reads / ‘Welcome to the Land of Enchantment,’ from a highway sign.” When the spell fades and the couple return to Michigan, the rent is due and the protagonist is jobless. He remembers, “How you said, ‘I just don’t know,’ and I promised / We’d rearrange things to fix the mess I’d made here / But I guess in the end we just moved furniture around.”
The home decays to empty rooms and packed-up memories. “Rooms” is heavy, tender, heartbreaking — but not a total downer, I promise — and it’s certainly a fitting soundtrack for anxious times, as we grow familiar with the echoes in the rooms of our own homes.
Stefanie Loh, features editor
Brandi Carlile, “The Story”
The titular track on this album always makes me close my eyes and think about “the stories of where I’ve been, and how I got to where I am.” We played it at my wedding reception, right after my wife and I walked into the room as newlyweds, and it is probably my favorite song of all time because of its depth and how it tells the story of a hard-fought love finally found after a sweeping scale of trials and tribulations. That is universally relatable, and it’s probably a big part of the reason why, in 2018, NPR ranked “The Story” the ninth greatest song by a female or nonbinary artist in the 21st century.
Carlile’s music has always struck a very personal note with me, perhaps in part because we’re both queer women of about the same age, and I’ve often caught glimpses of my life in her lyrics; it feels like we’ve grown up together through each of her albums. This one grabbed me at a particularly uncertain time of my life. It was released during my senior year of college, and it spoke directly to just about every emotion my young-adult heart experienced that year. From the dreamy “Late Morning Lullaby” to the empowering jams of “My Song,” the soul-crushing ache of heartbreak described in “Cannonball” (“I was born when I met you / Now I’m dying to forget you / And that is what I know”) and the on-the-nose way Carlile depicts, in “Shadow on the Wall,” the frustration that comes with trying to naively pursue someone who doesn’t quite love you back, every song of this album resonated deeply with my 21-year-old self, and yet, they’ve also held up beautifully through time.
Crystal Paul, travel and communities reporter
Lauryn Hill, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”
This was THE album back in the day. Everybody had it in their Walkman or samples of it on their mixtapes. From poppy hits like “Doo Wop (That Thing)” to heart-wrenchers like “Ex-Factor” to sexier slow jams like the duet with D’Angelo “Nothing Even Matters” (everything is sexier with a D’Angelo feature), this album had it all and something for everyone.
The album’s interludes, in which the absentee Lauryn Hill misses out on lessons about love in a unique school curriculum, reflect the album’s own ruminations on love lessons learned the hard way through missteps, heartbreaks and “that thing.” Whether you found ways to love yourself by reflecting on your own origins through songs like “Every Ghetto, Every City,” or mended your heartbreak by vibing to D’Angelo crooning out lines like “You’re part of my identity, I sometimes have a tendency to look at you religiously … ” (I mean, seriously, D’Angelo???!!), this album was an education for us all, and maybe still is. It’s a shock to think it was Lauryn Hill’s first (and cruelly her only) solo album. I’ve never listened to just one song on the album without immediately playing the whole thing, and I still listen to it all the way through on some particularly bad days or some particularly good days, or days that could just use a little more swagger. I imagine, we’re all about to experience plenty of all three.
A Tribe Called Quest, “Midnight Marauders”
You could hardly craft a more enticing opening to an album than the opening bars of “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)” on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders.” It pulls you right in and the album doesn’t let you go until the last beat of the last song “Hot Sex,” which ends with what always sounded like a short intake breath as if, maybe just maybe, it’s all about to begin again. (“Hot Sex” was tacked on as the closer to European pressings and later reissues, for the purists out there.)
The jazzy and funk beats on this album will take you back to the good ol’ days of hip-hop, and for some reason, that always makes me think of summers lounging on the stoop with my friends or riding around my neighborhood with my cousins, happy and satisfied to have nowhere to be. And, well, right now, we’ve all got nowhere to be. (Most of us anyway. Shout out to all the front-line and essential workers out there keeping us safe and fed.)
Even as Phife Dawg describes an annoyingly bad day in “8 Million Stories,” you can’t help but vibe to it. This album is the perfect soundtrack to keep you energized yet chill on a quarantine day spent people-watching out your window, realphabetizing your bookshelves, or just talking a walk through your otherwise ghost town of a neighborhood.
Michael Rietmulder, music writer
Prince, “Sign o’ the Times”
Picking my favorite front-to-back records is impossible. But if I’m grabbing a pair before sealing off the quarantine bunker, there has to be some Prince. The music icon’s 1987 double album “Sign o’ the Times” found the eternal king of freakiness at his freakiest, sonically. The more cohesive “1999” and “Purple Rain” were tighter and yielded bigger hits, though neither captured his enigmatic purple spirit as well. At the time, this was heyday Prince’s most sprawling, unhinged batch of grinding funk, rock ’n’ roll, pop euphoria and toe-curling balladry. It’s sexy, funky, liberating and a little unsanitary — everything quarantine life is not. If the title track’s slinking electro-funk hasn’t elicited involuntary hip gyrations by the third measure, seek medical attention immediately (*do not seek medical attention).
White Lung, “Sorry”
There’s not a wasted second on this modern PNW punk classic, which doesn’t even crack the 20-minute mark. Before the Vancouver punks crossed over to hip indie label Domino, their pristinely ferocious sound came into focus on this tightly wound gem, released through B.C.’s Deranged Records. Mish Barber-Way’s full-throated, shout-sung melodies are as brash as they are infectious, flying over careening post-hardcore riffage and shotgun rhythms. It moves too fast to fall apart, the twisted-metal tension never relenting from opener “Take the Mirror” to the unruly “Bad Way.” I almost always play it twice.
Lori Taki Uno, desk editor
Earth, Wind & Fire, “That’s the Way of the World”
This classic 1975 album takes me back to my Franklin High School days — a time when you actually put needle to vinyl. From the smooth groove of the title track to the soaring heights of Philip Bailey’s falsetto on “Reasons,” the songs on this soul/R&B/funk album still give me a “Happy Feelin’.” (For fans, EWF is scheduled to play a Gorge concert with Santana on June 27. Hopefully it doesn’t get canceled!)
Jackie Varriano, food writer
Smashing Pumpkins, “Siamese Dream”
Spoiler alert, everyone: I am not cool. I’m getting better about being OK with it. I am not cool enough to own a record player either, so, sadly, my real-full-album-buying days have dropped off significantly ever since CDs were also deemed not cool. The newest physical CD I bought was Andy Shauf’s 2016 album “The Party” (highly recommend), but my kid recently found a stash of my old CDs in a box and wow, have I had a great time listening to them lately.
I have unapologetically loved this Smashing Pumpkins album since a friend gave it to me way back in 1993. Listening to the first seconds of the first track, “Cherub Rock,” INSTANTLY transports me back to my seventh grade self; pre-first kiss, post-self-cut-bangs disaster. I loved Billy Corgan’s whiny whine. I loved how the songs flowed into one another, how the guitar licks were crunchy as hell and how the lyrics seemed so, so deep to my 12-year-old ears. I have vivid memories of listening to the dreamy “Mayonaise” on my Discman while wandering the Minneapolis airport during a layover and feeling like I was in a music video (did I mention I’ve never been cool?). I don’t know what the alternative-music equivalent to “slaps” is, but every track on this album slaps. I find myself blaring “Geek U.S.A.” while my husband looks on, horrified. I’m whirling our kid around to “Disarm.” I’m rediscovering my love for “Sweet Sweet.” I’m sad when it’s over. And I don’t care who knows I’m into it.
The Postal Service, “Give Up”
If I had to give Ben Gibbard a dollar for every time I scream-sang this entire album on the drive from my apartment in Minneapolis to my parents’ house in Fargo, North Dakota, from 2003 to 2007, I would never get out of debt. This 2003 album saw me through graduating from college, navigating devastating breakups — with both a boyfriend and a friend — a move, getting and losing my first “career” gig, and who even knows what else. It pulls you in from the beginning and keeps you close. I’m convinced it’s as impossible to listen to “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” on low volume as it is to resist dancing to “Nothing Better.” Crying while listening to an uplifting, poppy electronic beat is weird, but also cathartic. Is this album why people go to Dance Church? IS this album Dance Church? It is in my house.
Yasmeen Wafai, news assistant
Walk The Moon, “Talking Is Hard”
This album was one of two I had on a heavy rotation my senior year of high school, a seminal time in my life that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. A time that brought a lot of change, growth and a whirlwind of emotions — kind of like right now. This is a great album to listen to front to back because not only will it make you want to sing and dance (hello “Shut Up and Dance”), the lyrics are heartfelt and honest enough to provide comfort. See “Cause even on your own / You are not alone” from “Portugal.”
Taylor Swift, “1989”
I understand there are plenty of people out there who have a lot of … feelings about Taylor Swift, but if you look past the headlines and the rumors, she is, without a doubt, one of the greatest songwriters of our time. Not long after this album came out, whenever I got the chance to borrow my dad’s car, I would pop a copy I burned from a friend into the CD player (if you are one of my co-workers who denies my millennial status and are reading this, how’s that for something a Gen Z kid would NEVER do?), roll the windows down and drive on my favorite scenic road while singing along. This album reminds me of the sense of freedom I felt when I did that, and of a time when my biggest worry was whether or not I’d ever get over my first breakup — simpler times that would be so welcome right now. Aside from my sentimental connection to this album, it’s a great front-to-back listen because I think, now more than ever, it’s important for everyone to dance like no one is watching — and “1989” is perfect for just that.
Amy Wong, features producer
BTS, “Love Yourself: Answer”
Anyone who has had any interaction with me whatsoever is aware that I am a BTS stan. And thank god America is finally warming up to the idea that K-pop is a genre worthy of love and admiration. All of BTS’ albums are great in their own way, but “Love Yourself: Answer” was what got me hooked, and what I think is the best one to listen to all the way through. Opening with Jungkook’s ethereal bop “Euphoria,” the album weaves between solo songs and full-group productions, each artist showing off different facets of BTS’ musical prowess. “Love Yourself” effortlessly blends different genres, taking influences from R&B, hip-hop, alt-rock and pop, while also exploring themes of love, self-exploration and empowerment. Overall, the album features an even mix of certified bangers and bouncy, chill tracks, making for easy listening.
Vulfpeck, “Thrill of the Arts”
Vulfpeck, kings of new-wave funk, nonsensical lyrics and exploiting Spotify loopholes, are worth your attention at all times, but their first full-length album, “Thrill of the Arts,” is an absolute staple. This album fully demonstrates all of Vulfpeck’s greatest strengths: catchy melodies in “Back Pocket,” legendary vocals from regular collaborator Antwaun Stanley on “Funky Duck,” stacked harmonies in “Christmas in L.A.,” a confusing but soothing monologue from bandleader Jack Stratton on “Guided Smile Meditation,” and crunchy basslines from Joe Dart on, well, every song. “Thrill of the Arts” is a perfect wave of groove, funky enough to make you bounce in your seat, but chill enough that you don’t mind listening to it while you work.
Kina Grannis, “In the Waiting”
The first time I listened to Kina Grannis, I remember thinking, “This is the closest to perfect any human voice has ever sounded.” Grannis was one of the first viral YouTube music stars, and since then, she’s managed to stay relevant in an ever-changing online landscape, culminating in what I think is her most polished album to date, 2018’s “In the Waiting.” The album is anchored by songs “California” and “For Now,” which she wrote while “quarantined” in Indonesia for 100 days due to a legal mishap during a tour. Maybe a little too on-the-nose for the current time, but both songs are hauntingly beautiful accounts of her thought process during the time. “In the Waiting” is a relatively simple album, composed mostly of just Grannis’ voice and an acoustic guitar, but it’s that bare-bones sound that shows off her poetic lyrics and simple genius. It’s an especially good work-from-home album, quiet and soothing, perfect for a focused morning.
Listen to a sampling of songs from our staffers’ favorite front-to-back albums with this playlist. (Note: Some of the songs contain explicit lyrics.)