The decades may be gone, but many of today’s teens still have an affinity for the albums that for generations have carried a cult following in America’s high schools. Here are 25 time-tested albums that you can share with the teens you serve, culled by teens at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
Abbey Road (1969)
You can’t pick just one, but The Beatles’ last album to be recorded vies for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for the most iconic cover. It also contains a nice array of songwriting contributions from all four members of the band, whether in Lennon and McCartney’s moody “Come Together” or George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” Mak Delaney’s Pepperland is a touching teen novel you can use to follow up with any Beatles-loving teen.
This incredibly visceral 80s hardcore album has raged for over two and a half decades. Damaged vacillates its lyrics between the serious (alienation, boredom, etc.) to the humorous (television), but it never falters in the intensity department. From the riffs to teens ears, Black Flag is a blistering document of young rage.
Quite easily the most popular and influential heavy metal album of all time, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid maintains a consistent atmosphere of dark, heavy riffs that still resound with teens who are looking to take metal back to its heavy blues rock roots. It’s unfailingly dramatic themes take listeners through war, annihilation, death, and drugs and deposit them thoroughly rocked.
There’s no denying the aesthetic influence that Robert Smith’s teased hair and eyeliner has had on today’s teen music fashion, but The Cure’s dark, bittersweet pop songs developed a soaring, epic quality that’s been faithfully replicated in some genre of teen music for the last 20 years. [Editor's note: while typing this write up, a teen actually walked past me, gave me a thumbs up, and exclaimed, "The Cure... all right!"]
The Doors (1967)
The Doors blended hypnotic, seductive, and accessibly daring music with Jim Morrison’s drug-fueled poetic musings to create another psychadelic 60s album that maintains a place in music lore. Morrison died four years later, presumably of an overdose, leaving a legacy of neo-surreal abstraction that teens love.
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Every generation has its inner folkies, and today’s high schoolers are no exception. For the contemporary teen, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is probably the best bet. It’s the first full Dylan album to go electric, and the first in which Dylan takes on the persona of the erstwhile folk wanderer for a more streetwise urban feel.
The Slim Shady LP (1999)
Eminem’s bouncy, yet entirely disturbing rap debut eschewed gangster tropes in favor of dark humor and vivid imagery. It’s hard to look past the iconic pop status (not to mention multiple Grammy Awards as well as an Academy Award) to remember how villified Eminem was, from critics who were afraid of the effect that Eminem’s violent creative imagination would have on America’s children. Despite not releasing an album since 2004, Eminem remains one of the most popular rappers, and this album still has a legion of teen fans who enjoy dark rap with biting sarcasm and incredible lyrical skill.
This album sparked the mainstreaming of pop-punk and still holds up as a snotty, self-loathing document that’s still scrawled in marker on teens backpacks. Filled with adolescent jokes without losing as much edge as being on a major label can afford, Dookie is still a safe bet.
Guns N’ Roses
Appetite for Destruction (1987)
Sex, drugs, liquor, urban decay, and skulls? It’s not just doodles in the average teen’s math notebook, but Axel Rose and company’s debut album of fast and dirty hard rock. With ugly riffs, even uglier lyrics, and frenetic guitar solos, Guns N’ Roses turned the tide from “good time” radio rock to something much more angry, dark, and disaffected.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Are You Experienced? (1967)
In an album that over 30 years later still seems otherworldly, Jimi Hendrix and company fused the most future-sounding elements of sixties psych with rock, pop, blues, and soul to form one of the most lasting and virtuoso rock debuts to grace teen ears. I recommend Jimi & Me, by Jaime Adoff, as an exploration of the relationship that Jimi Hendrix can have with teens today.
Rife with bluesy big riffs, dramatic lyrics, and epic bombast, Led Zeppelin’s IV epitomizes everything that teens hold dear about 70s hard rock. Robert Plant’s sensual, otherworldly vocals cap off an album that has staved off all attempts at imitation to remain fresh with each successive generation.
Bob Marley & The Wailers
The most iconic reggae artist in history (and one whose image adorns the wall of many high school seniors on their way to college) returned in 1973 to lead The Wailers in an album full of downtempo, anthemic protest songs. This album captures Marley perhaps at the most confrontational and anti-authoritarian, addressing the stark poverty of the Jamaican streets.
Nine Inch Nails
The Downward Spiral (1994)
Nihilism, depravity, and bleak soundscapes round out this Nine Inch Nails mainstay. The Downward Spiral gave heavy industrial music a nuanced pop structure and a very handsome, if brooding, face. For many teens, this album remains a gateway to even bleaker, heavier, noisy fringe music.
Full of raw music, buzzsaw guitars, guttural yelps, and dark lyrics, Nevermind has remained a mouthpiece of youthful disillusionment. The subsequent suicide of Kurt Cobain will likely preserve this status for generations to come.
Tragic Kingdom (1995)
Gwen Stefani’s persona straddles the line between punky riot-grrl and innocent blonde. These internal contradictions have made No Doubt’s early blend of punk, pop, and ska still hold up amongst teens, despite the propensity for teens to forget about the early works of current pop stars (i.e., Beyonce, Lil Wayne, etc.).
The Notorious B.I.G.
Ready to Die (1994)
The East Coast counterpart to 2Pac was The Notorious B.I.G., who elevated New York gangsta rap to commercial success with this brilliant collection of anthems. In spite of its subject matter, Ready to Die is full of easygoing bravado, slick beats, and a slew of expertly crafted narratorial voices that resound with teens (that is, if you trust the close-up of Christopher Wallace that adorn teens’ memorial shirts).
Wish You Were Here (1975)
Dark Side of the Moon may be their most famous work, but Wish You Were Here tends to be the most appealing to teens. Formed as a song cycle dedicated to Syd Barrett, who’d left the band amidst speculations of mental illness caused by heavy drug use, it’s mostly David Gilmour’s warbly and shimmering production which resonates with teens who are really into recreating the drugged-out aesthetic.
A Night at the Opera (1975)
Self-conscious pomp and circumstance form the basis for a lot of music teens love today, and it’s hard to find a band who does it any better than Queen. While it doesn’t have the stadium anthems of A Day at the Races, this album has enough proggy, overblown, and epic rock to get teens going.
The Ramones (1976)
The Ramones stripped rock to its bare elements with this wildly fun debut. Widely heralded as the founders of punk, the Ramones parlayed three chords, upbeat drums, and goofy lyrics into an album that’s still fast and loud enough to annoy parents but simple enough to birth countless high school bands.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Another defining quality to many teen-appreciated albums from the 90s is infectious funk. Red Hot Chili Peppers employ this in spades on Bloodsugarsexmagik, a slap bass romp through topics like failed relationships, drug addiction, and hippie-ish dreaming of a better world.
The Sex Pistols
Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
A snotty assault on all things “good taste,” The Sex Pistols crafted this album to offend as many elements of British high society as possible. What resulted is a fashionably anti-melodic and harsh set of anthems about being dissatisfied with the establishment. Their fashion statements still live on in the hallways of high schools wherever rebellion lies.
The Queen Is Dead (1986)
Morrissey’s clever, coy lyrics and sensitive sap persona have led to a dedicated cult of personality that has emerged with each successive generation. The Queen Is Dead has proven to be The Smiths’ most lasting effort, with a slightly more varied and occasionally rocking album full of wistful masterpieces that alternate between young love and clever satires of British class mores. For an amusing look at one teen’s relationship with Morrissey, read Lauren Weinstein’s comic collection Girl Stories.
Sublime’s eponymous album arrived just months after singer Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose. This made their pop singalongs, culled from a fusion of reggae, dub, and so-cal punk, all the more appealing on long bus rides or driving around town with no place to go.
All Eyez on Me (1996)
Langston Hughes’s age-old question “What happens to a dream deferred?” may have been answered by this gangsta magnum opus, the first two disc rap album of original songs ever released by a single artist. 2Pac began recording this record within hours of being released from prison, and its nihilistic, middle-fingers to the world attitude is as relevant to the teens we serve now as ever. For a good look at how this relationship can play out in the real world, see Jacqueline Woodson’s After Tupac and D Foster.
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
While it might be a Pittsburgh thing based on the Andy Warhol connection, almost all teens who are interested in left-of-center rock (from indie to contemporary new wave) can–and often do–trace its roots back to this album. This album was as diverse as it was expressive, with hints of pop, garage rock, and R&B fleshed out by Lou Reed’s risque lyrics and colorful, if grim, guitar.
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Teen