When media attempts to capture the college experience, it can often perpetuate an idea that this time in life is a bountiful playground of parties and boisterous antics. While social prosperity is a given for many who are able thrive in this environment, the reality of many college students’ experiences is far different. The four fleeting years of undergrad are often abound with financial, social, and career-related anxiety. This is especially true in the situations of those who are grappling with mental health adversity, balancing part time jobs with the rigor of academics, or maintaining the strict requirements of a crucial scholarship.
Music can be absolutely vital to navigating the stress of university. Whether you’re walking to class, enduring a lengthy study session, or unwinding with friends after a long day, it’s important to have music available to you that parallels and narrates these sentiments of young life.
There are plenty of lists on the internet with headlines like “Top 20 Essential Albums for Every College Student!”, but these are mostly concocted by 30-somethings praising the banality of getting stoned and truly understanding ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. (Spoiler alert: ‘The Wall’ is better.)
This is not one of those lists.
This is a list of albums about the trials of being a young adult and maneuvering through the complexities of situations and feelings that we are often not yet able to comprehend.
Go yell, cry, dance, create, protest, study, or do nothing at all. You’re only young once.
Fiona Apple – Tidal
Fiona Apple was NINETEEN when she created her debut masterpiece, ‘Tidal’. NINETEEN. Furthermore, many of these songs were written when she was in her much younger teens. Her masterful lyrical capabilities weave with jazz influenced piano ballads, creating anthem after anthem about perseverance and love. Apple’s supple alto voice is ideal for a rainy afternoon spent wallowing in your dorm/apartment.
Further reading: MTV VMAs “This World Is Bullshit” Acceptance Speech. It’s the ultimate pre-game jam.
Dismemberment Plan – Emergency & I
On ‘Emergency & I’, Dismemberment Plan frontman and lyricist Travis Morrison sharply captures the existential dread and grim bouts of self reflection that often burn themselves into your head in your 20s. From the manic reorganizing of your life during a period of lethargy: “I’ve realized my friends’ true intentions/Cut all ties/I’ve been doing ten thousand pushups a day”, to the ennui of living in a place that’s unfitting for your needs and desires (even if you’re not sure what those are exactly): “The streets are silent like my lifeless telephone/And this is where I live, but I’ve never felt less at home”, ‘Emergency & I’ is an exercise in wallowing in your perturbation and accepting it for what it is.
NoName – Telefone
Noname’s soft voice paired with her intricate, scat-like flows over playful beats makes for a soothing listening experience with plenty of gentle head bobbing. Perfect for an airy spring walk across campus, the dark lyrics featured on ‘Telefone’ reveal introspection into the dense subjects of poverty and police brutality with a hopeful sense of assurance and liberation. Noname delivers a perfect coming-of-age record with confidence-boosting, heartbreaking storytelling.
Animal Collective – Sung Tongs
Wholly original and innocent with an occasional hint of overbearing goofiness, Animal Collective’s 2004 record ‘Sung Tongs’ is a package of gnarled campfire songs. ‘Sung Tongs’ feels like it was created in a substance induced haze at 2 AM on the kitchen floor, with Avey Tare and Panda Bear reveling in their capability to emulate a childlike sense of unadulterated instrumental and vocal experimentation. With Beach Boys-esque vocals over a slimey instrumental, the track “College” stands out with its only lyric, “You don’t have to go to college”. One can dream.
Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
What is a list of college albums without the divisive, prep-school pop rockers of Vampire Weekend? Their self-titled debut is uncomplicated and infectious. With self-aware lyrics nodding at their ivy league origins, ‘Vampire Weekend’ remains as topical and full of pure fun as it was during its release ten years ago. As much as I don’t want this fact to remain attached to my name on the internet forever and ever, I can’t count the times of walked across campus listening to “Campus”, only because Ezra Koenig says “Then I see you/You’re walking cross the campus”. It’s nice to feel narrated, no?
Kero Kero Bonito – Bonito Generation
Kero Kero Bonito have risen to internet infamy with their polarizing, electro-pop nursery rhymes. Love it or hate it, ‘Bonito Generation’ has an enthralling array of songs that are ideal for getting a pep in your step and exuding common sensations tied with being in college. ‘Bonito Generation’ covers a range of feelings, from feeling an unremarkable (and expensive) accomplishment “Today’s my graduation/I’ve done my dissertation/Even got a hat I can throw (but I’m not going)” to the various ways we remind our parents that we’re doing just fine ,”Yes, I’m sticking to my bedtime/And I’m keeping very warm”. It can come off as playful and silly, but Kero Kero Bonito serves some of the most acute and catchy lyrics on young adult life in recent memory.
If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.