Remember when in order to hear a particular song, you had to buy the entire album? Doesn’t it feel like the distant past—flipping through CDs at the store; examining the album artwork and not knowing what the music would sound like until you brought it home; studying the lyrics and liner notes; memorizing the track numbers of your favorite songs…
In the era of streaming songs on-demand rather than owning them, and listening to music in playlists and on shuffle, it’s rare that we listen to an entire album in a single sitting. We forget that with the very best albums, each track can stand alone; but you get a more cohesive, enhanced experience when you consume it all at once.
I wanted to share with you the albums that have made me feel this way—both new discoveries and old favorites, from folk to indie rock to pop and everything in between. They’re in alphabetical order, from Aoife O’Donovan to You + Me.
You can listen to my favorite songs from each album on this Spotify playlist. Happy listening—let me know what you think!
My Top 50 Must-Listen Albums
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #1
Fossils: Aoife O’Donovan
Favorite track: Red & White & Blue & Gold
Fun fact: She writes & performs with other bluegrass legends Sarah Jarosz & Sara Watkins as “I’m With Her” (before it was a campaign slogan). Also, she grew up in Newton, MA.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #2
Twelve Mondays: Ari Hest
Favorite track: The Weight
Fun fact: In 2008, Ari wrote, recorded & released 1 song each week for a year—these are his 12 favorite picks.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #3
The Longest Day: Barnaby Bright
Favorite track: Old Coats
Fun fact: They’re married! They’re also good friends with Liz Longley, another amazing artist on this list.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #4
Mutual Friends: BOY
Favorite track: Drive Darling
Fun fact: The duo sings exclusively in English, while living & touring almost exclusively in Germany. Every couple of years, they’ll play a single secret show in the U.S. I’m determined to see them someday!
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #5
We Were Here: BOY
Favorite track: No Sleep for the Dreamer
Fun fact: BOY played a set at SXSW where their instruments & amps failed disastrously. They embraced the moment by stepping off the stage and playing an incredible acoustic set on a street corner.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #6
Brandi Carlile: Brandi Carlile
Favorite track: Follow
Fun fact: Since her earliest days, she’s performed exclusively with two twin brothers, who she affectionately refers to as “the twins.”
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #7
The Story: Brandi Carlile
Favorite track: Turpentine
Fun fact: This album was instrumental in shaping my sound as a songwriter when I was at Berklee.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #8
Barton Hollow: The Civil Wars
Favorite track: My Father’s Father
Fun fact: This album forever set the standard for singer/songwriter duos. Every artist in this niche names The Civil Wars as a primary inspiration.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #9
The Civil Wars: The Civil Wars
Favorite track: The One That Got Away
Fun fact: The duo haven’t spoken to one another since the album was recorded in 2012. It’s a dramatic story.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #10
Favorite track: Sparks
Fun fact: Back in the days of physical CDs, Coldplay had a habit of quietly including little-known tracks when they released singles—and sometimes only in particular countries. My favorite Coldplay song, “Careful Where You Stand,” was only released as a hidden track on the Japanese edition of “Shiver.” Thanks to Spotify, we now have access to all of them!
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #11
Plans: Death Cab for Cutie
Favorite track: Marching Bands of Manhattan
Fun fact: The album’s name is a reference to the dark joke, “How do you make God laugh? You make a plan.”
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #12
This is Somewhere: Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
Favorite track: Apologies
Fun fact: This has been my all-time favorite song since 2008. I’ve seen her perform it live several times and it truly never gets old.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #13
This Empty Northern Hemisphere: Gregory Alan Isakov
Favorite track: Big Black Car
Fun fact: Brandi Carlisle (also on this list) sings background vocals on many of this album’s tracks.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #14
Favorite track: In a Week
Fun fact: The woman he duets with on this track is Karen Cowley, who also attended a program at Berklee. (It’s a small world there, truly.)
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #15
Everybody: Ingrid Michaelson
Favorite track: The Chain
Fun fact: Ingrid is currently kicking off a 34-date tour at a single venue in Cincinnati, complete with “a full band, full lights & stage design” (in her own words). Count me in.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #16
The War Inside: Jill Andrews
Favorite track: I’m Not OK
Fun fact: Jill was a member of the 2000s folk duo The Everybodyfields.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #17
Born & Raised: John Mayer
Favorite track: Born & Raised
Fun fact: David Crosby & Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills & Nash) sing background vocals on the title track. Also, be sure to check out this jaw-dropping video, which shows exactly how the album artwork was created.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #18
Continuum: John Mayer
Favorite track: Stop This Train
Fun fact: He wrote this song while stuck in bed with 2 kidney stones, a story that he recounted during a clinic at Berklee (where I was fortunate enough to be in the second row!).
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #19
Heavier Things: John Mayer
Favorite track: Wheel
Fun fact: There’s a live version of this song where, partway through, John says: “I have a feeling that it all evens out. At the very end of your life, you’re going to sit down at the table; you’re going to shuffle up the good and the bad, and it’s all going to make perfect sense to you when you figure out that in the accounting books, it comes up completely even. And then you’re going to ask, ‘Well, what was it all for?’ and they’re going to say, ‘Well, you did it, didn’t you?’” This explanation was the missing piece in my theory of how I like to believe the universe works, which I discuss in this post.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #20
Paradise Valley: John Mayer
Favorite tracks: Wildfire
Fun fact: The album is named after the river valley in Montana where he retreated from the public eye in 2012.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #21
Room for Squares: John Mayer
Favorite track: 3×5
Fun fact: Several of the songs on this album were written while John was at Berklee, which were first released on the EP Inside Out (which I found at a garage sale when I was in high school and freaked out.)
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #22
Great Lakes: John Smith
Favorite track: Town to Town
Fun fact: John has released 4 albums as a 100% independent, unsigned artist by choice.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #23
In Deepest Blue: Joshua Hyslop
Favorite track: Living & Dying
Fun fact: He just finished touring North America, exclusively playing & staying in people’s homes. He wrote about each host family on his blog, which I find endlessly charming. I volunteer!
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #24
Pageant Material: Kacey Musgraves
Favorite track: Dime Store Cowgirl
Fun fact: “Dime store cowgirl” was an insult thrown at Kacey during a childhood talent show. She turns it into a positive in this cheerful song.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #25
Same Trailer, Different Park: Kacey Musgraves
Favorite track: Keep It To Yourself
Fun fact: Kacey got her start on the TV show Nashville Star. Also, she wrote her first song for her elementary school graduation; it was called “Notice Me.” (Adorable.)
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #26
Bad Self-Portraits: Lake Street Dive
Favorite track: You Go Down Smooth
Fun fact: This band first gained popularity after their cover of a Jackson 5 song on a Brighton, MA street corner went viral. It now has over 4 million views.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #27
July Flame: Laura Veirs
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #28
Year of Meteors: Laura Veirs
Favorite track: Magnetized
Fun fact: Before she was a full-time musician, Laura majored in Geology & Mandarin in college.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #29
Hot Loose Wire: Liz Longley
Favorite track: When You’ve Got Trouble
Fun fact: Liz & I grew up in the same area and overlapped for a second time at Berklee.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #30
Plastic Moon: Madi Diaz
Favorite track: Love You Now
Fun fact: Madi & I also both attended Berklee, although we missed each other by a year.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #31
Vignette: Maggie Chapman
Favorite track: Wannabe Rebel
All of her music recently disappeared… I’ll keep trying to find you guys a link!
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #32
Hotel Paper: Michelle Branch
Favorite track: Tuesday Morning
Fun fact: This album was among the most influential for me as a budding singer, songwriter & guitarist in the 2000s. I played these songs over and over and over as a teenager, both in my room & at shows.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #33
Babel: Mumford & Sons
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #34
Sigh No More: Mumford & Sons
Favorite track: White Blank Page
Fun fact: This album includes references to Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, The Odyssey, Of Mice & Men, East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath & more famous works.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #35
Why Should the Fire Die?: Nickel Creek
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #36
The Fall: Norah Jones
Favorite track: Even Though
Fun fact: Norah is sitar master Ravi Shankar‘s daughter.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #37
Traces: Peter Bradley Adams
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #38
Crazy Ever After: The Rescues
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #39
Lead Balloon: Rosi Golan
Favorite track: Seeing Ghosts
Fun fact: Rosi’s songs frequently appear on TV, both in commercials and on TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill, Jane the Virgin & Nashville.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #40
Kaleidoscope Heart: Sara Bareilles
Favorite track: Basket Case
Fun fact: Sara explains the title of the album this way: “A kaleidoscope is the tool that helps make sense of the mess. Or at least makes it nice to look at.”
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #41
Build Me Up From Bones: Sarah Jarosz
Favorite track: Build Me Up From Bones
Fun fact: Sarah played her first bluegrass festival when she was 11. She’s now 25.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #42
Undercurrent: Sarah Jarosz
Favorite track: House of Mercy
Fun fact: The title track gets its name from a church in Los Angeles. Also, this album just won multiple Grammys!
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #43
Say It Louder: Sarah Siskind
Favorite track: Dress Me Up
Fun fact: Sarah writes many of the songs featured on the TV show Nashville.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #44
Rise & Fall: The Sweeplings
Favorite track: On & On
Fun fact: This duo formed because songwriter Whitney Dean’s wife saw singer Cami Bradley on America’s Got Talent & put them in touch with each other.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #45
1989: Taylor Swift
Favorite track: Style (followed closely by Wildest Dreams)
Fun fact: An 8-second track purely consisting of white noise was accidentally released from the album… and it topped the Canadian iTunes chart. Also, alt-country legend Ryan Adams recorded his own version of 1989, covering every song on the album in his own style.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #46
Red: Taylor Swift
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #47
Speak Now: Taylor Swift
Favorite track: If This Was a Movie
Fun fact: Every song on this album was written 100% by Taylor, without a single cowriter.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #48
Bringing Down the Horse: The Wallflowers
Favorite track: One Headlight
Fun fact: This is one of a handful of non-embarrassing albums that I loved as a 12-year-old.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #49
Stand Still, Look Pretty: The Wreckers
Favorite track: The Good Kind
Fun fact: The (Cass County Home-)Wreckers was a too-short-lived band made up of Michelle Branch and country artist Jessica Harp. Their voices are often indistinguishable from one another on this album.
Top 50 Must-Listen Albums: #50
Rose Ave.: You + Me
Bonus: My Favorite EPs
Live at the Quick Center: Ari Hest
Favorite track: Hallelujah
Fun fact: “Hallelujah,” originally written by Leonard Cohen, has been covered by hundreds of artists. The first ground-breaking cover was by Jeff Buckley; and in my opinion, it’s rivaled only by Ari Hest’s live cover of the song on this EP. If you love “Hallelujah” but are growing tired of hearing it again and again, this version will renew your love for the song.
Down Like Silver: Down Like Silver
Hourglass: Jane Ellen Bryant
Favorite track: Make Believe
Fun fact: I happened across a YouTube video of Jane leading her college acapella group in a performance of Priscilla Ahn‘s “Dream,” one of my favorite songs. (It played at my wedding as I walked down the aisle!)
Inside This Song: Liz Longley
Favorite track: I’ll Show You How
Fun fact: My favorite show of Liz’s was when she performed with Ari Hest (another artist on this list). Their voices together—two of the very best out there right now—were sublime.
Cold Answer: Matthew Perryman Jones
Favorite track: Cold Answer
Fun fact: He wrote his first song, “Sunshine Heart,” at age 15. The lyrics included, “There is sunshine on a rainy day, even if the sun doesn’t show/There is peace in a hateful heart, that’s what we all need to know.”
Everything Comes and Goes: Michelle Branch
Favorite track: I Want Tears
Fun fact: This EP was her last official release; it was supposed to be a full-length album, but this and her next pending release (West Coast Time) were never put out by Sony, the reason for which she was never told. She finally switched labels in 2015 and is recording a new album!
Woodland: The Paper Kites
Favorite track: Bloom
Fun fact: I made an entire Spotify playlist inspired by how much I love this album’s sound!
Fortuna: Rosi Golan
Favorite track: Got What We Wanted
Fun fact: Rosi was born in Israel and speaks 5 languages (English, French, Hebrew, German & Hungarian). She’s also a frequent collaborator with artists like William Fitzsimmons and Ari Hest (another songwriter on this list, with whom she released an album as The Open Sea).
Open Water: The Saint Johns
Favorite track: Your Head and Your Heart
Fun fact: When The Civil Wars broke up, this song was one of a handful that could temporarily ease my nostalgia!
What are your must-listen albums? Did any of your favorites make the list? Let me know in the comments!
Listen to my favorites from every album in this Spotify playlist.