“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” begins The White Album, journalist Joan Didion’s mosaic essay collection about the late American ’60s and early ’70s. In the opening essay, Didion finds herself at a point in her life and time in our nation’s history where the old narratives begin to fail her. What was once explainable, predictable, and able to be plugged into proven formulas and woven into familiar plot lines with tried-and-true outcomes no longer fits so neatly. Maybe it’s because I’ve been devouring short stories recently and outlining a novel, but so many of the albums that made this list struck me as having narratives with little precedent or guarantee of a happy ending.
Take some of the unlikely narratives these albums fit into. One of his generation’s most prolific artists gets his heart broken, binge-writes 80 songs, and spins his bewilderment into arguably the finest album of his career 16 records in. A seminal band returns to the studio for the first time in 22 years and somehow manages to recapture the same magic that influenced so many others during their absence. After penning what could be considered the Ulysses of hip-hop, the reigning king realized if you can’t go grander in your vision, then go more grounded and direct to the masses. How about these premises? An album in which no men exist. An album in which an artist memorializes his wife’s dying of cancer and documents his subsequent search for answers in almost real time. Again, not your typical stories.
The artists alluded to above each found themselves as Didion once did: part of a story that they hadn’t planned on taking part in and one of which they likely didn’t know the outcome. But when the world takes it upon itself to alter, rearrange, or upend our lives for us, we can only have faith that our art can also shift, bend, and transform to help us make sense of our newfound circumstances. Each of the 25 albums on this list has its own story to tell, and together they form the first half of a narrative that will no doubt keep us listening straight through to the final scene — whatever that may be.