In preparation for the new year, I implore you to get ready to write along with me by spotting your 40 most inspirational writing-along-to-the-music albums. These are the albums that makes us bleed onto the page and shape our writing zietgeist.
The rules are: 1) only one album per artist, 2) whole albums (and not just songs), 3) any genre, and 4) help make you the writer you are today. For bonus, try not to rely on many/ any greatest hits albums and let me know what songs help you write the most and why.
Below are mine, in no certain order.
WARNING: This is not a greatest albums list of any sort. In fact, I don’t really like some of these, but yet they are influential and I write to them blaring on the stereo headphones.
1. The Cure – Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me
The clever lyrics, complex symbolism, double entendres, and catchy hooks make me itch to write something, anything, now. The whole bloody thing is Just Like Heaven. Dive in.
2. Everything But The Girl – Temperamental
It’s hard to make time to write. My sweet spot is often late, in the Low Tide of the Night, and this one keeps me in the groove, even when the words get Temperamental and there is no one to Blame.
3. Stone Roses – The Stone Roses
I honestly can’t say why this one is so damn right for writing. I haven’t been able to stop playing it since I first discovered it my freshman year of college. The first track, I Wanna Be Adored whispers into my ear like many of my characters do begging for voices in print. Going Down is exactly what new love looks like in most romance novels, and Elephant Stone is deliciously open to interpretation like any good poetic description.
4. Waylon Jennings – Nashville Rebel
No record company would cut a four hour plus album like this today, and even if they did, I don’t think any other artist could give you the heart of a story in each and every song on it like Waylon did here. Stop the World (And Let Me Off) is a bedrock writing anthem.
5. Fall Out Boy – From Under the Cork Tree
Each song on this album is an excellent chapter title. I give a listen to any one of them and 2,000 words come around faster than a Sophomore Slump.
6. George Strait – Troubadour
It is extremely hard to pick only one influential George album, but in terms of being a writer this one takes the prize. The title track reminds me what it’s all about and that I will go out the way I came in –just aching to tell a story. (If Heartaches were Horses and House with No Doors are also writing highlights, as they remind me that the best stories require conflict.)
7. Ella Fitzgerald – Let No Man Write My Epitaph
As a writer, I think even this album title is cool. Every single song on this album describes quintessential experiences that belong in many stories. Haven’t you felt like Black Coffee, thought I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, and wondered Who’s Sorry Now? You can bet readers do.
8. Billie Holiday – All or Nothing At All
Listening to this album is like smoking a really great cigarette and drinking a very expensive bourbon in a private library while listening to the band play on the lawn outside as the woman you love dances with some millionaire. By the way, it’s his bourbon your drinking and if that doesn’t make you feel like writing your soul out then you’ll “never do nothing.”
9. Sarah McLachlan – Remixed
Crunchy cello, jarring synths, and hardcore drum and bass accompany some of Sarah’s most piercing songs like Fear and Possession. If I need to write a thriller or a killer, then this album helps.
10. Blue October – The Answers
Totally unsophisticated and definitely not their best album (Foiled probably is), but this one is raw and pure the way that good writing should be, like Breakfast After Ten–and also ready to show the best of the worst like the Darkest Side of Houston’s Finest Day. Plus it’s good to take a break from writing and jump up and down shouting the lyrics to Italian Radio, “I ended the book that I’m writing.”
11. New Order – Total
Almost a best of album, but not. It’s a glimpse into that feeling I hope to have one day looking back over my total body of written works and it is a reminder that some of the works I value the most won’t always be the most popular–but if I am lucky, then they might still be meaningful to enough people to matter like Bizarre Love Triangle, Regret, and Blue Monday.
12. The Smiths – Hatful of Hollow
This one sums up the sad relief I feel after finishing any story. It’s so much fun to play in another world that I almost hate to say I’m done. I can usually already hear them singing Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now in my head as I try to pick which story I should try writing next, and then anytime I’m looking at sales statistics for the finished product I’m singing Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.
13. Patsy Cline – Gold
This is a best of as it includes every song that went gold so to speak. As a writer, I find these songs still have a lot of gold to mine too. Walking After Midnight, Crazy, I Fall to Pieces, Faded Love, and Sweet Dreams aren’t new sentiments but they’re true sentiments and listening to them helps me remember to stick with the good stuff.
14. Modest Mouse – Good News for the People Who Love Bad News
Because listening dares you to name your character children “after towns that we’ve never been to” and have metaphors like “Black Cadillacs circling around outside a funeral.” It keeps me from being pleased with my own verbosity and reminds me to look for the blunt, brilliant words instead.
15. Giuseppe Verdi, La Traviata
The epitome of a baroque and beautiful soap opera. I don’t think anyone else takes me to the treacle edges of drama and tragedy without falling over into sappy-land like Verdi. This is how a master writes all the highs and lows without going cliche.
16. Beastie Boys – Ill Communication
Sometimes I just have to dance it out to find the muse and this always does the trick. Plus all writing does feel like Ill Communication anyway — we love playing with words but they’re not really perfect at holding our meaning no matter how well we wield them. It’s like Sabotage. But we don’t stop trying to get the Root Down and that’s the Sure Shot.
17. The Chieftans – Santiago
Their best known work is playing traditional Celtic tunes, but for this album they were immigrants and something amazing happened in each song. It reminds me as I write that they best stories come from taking our skills and stretching them, from being a refuge determined to build a new world–even if it is only in my imagination twining old emotions into monuments as they do in Tears of Stone. A guest appearance form Linda Ronstadt and Los Lobos in Guadalupe also says a lot for inviting your talented friends to play with your plot bunnies with you.
18. U2 – Joshua Tree
Before I knew I wanted to be a writer for sure, I rode around in the back seat of parents cars listening to this album, making mini-music video stories in my head for each track. We didn’t have cable, so no MTV for me. Ironically, I have now been to that place Where the Streets Have No Name and the dreams loom like ghosts there and tell wonderful stories.
19. Gypsy Kings – Compas
When I need to remember what it is like to be on a hot dusty road in a beautiful foreign land with time on my side or what it’s like to have a broken nose in a country where I don’t speak the language, this helps with tracks like Ami Wa Wa and Lo Mal y Lo Bien. And late nights writing are made for Salsa De Noche.
20. Neon Trees – Habits
Good stories come from having more fun than I should and not giving a flying shit what others think about my adventures, and this album makes me feel the truth of that philosophy with songs like Sins of My Youth, Love and Adventure, Animal, In the Next Room, and Our War.
21. Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes
The soundtrack of every anti-hero I want to create starts with this album. I would french kiss these songs way before I would even shake hands with Hans Solo. They’re worthless and they know it in the sneakiest most endearing way possible. Go ahead and Add It Up.
22. Eric Church – The Outsiders
It isn’t my favorite Eric Church album, but it is the best one to write to. All writers are outsiders, and it’s (not coincidentally) the name of one of my favorite books too. These songs got your back when the writing gets tough. Cold One helps you find your funny bone for writing that giving up the no-good ex scene. If Like a Wrecking Balldoesn’t inspire you to write a better sex scene, then you’re hopeless. Roller Coaster Ride is a memory aid for good plot structure.
23. Gary Allen – Get Off On the Pain
Writer’s must get off on the pain, or why would we spend so much time making pain feel real to us in our stories? Gary Allen’s voice always carries me to that place where I remember desperation well enough to write it, but this album also pulls some bonus punches like Kiss Me When I’m Down, and When You Give Yourself Away (like Hemingway to his critics) before reminding me how We Fly By Night.
24. Rodney Crowell – The Houston Kid
This one probably helps me more than most writers because I am a Houston kid and the imagery in songs like Telephone Road, Highway 17, and I Wish It Would Rain really make sense to me. I aspire to write descriptions and characterizations with this kind of power and efficiency.
25. Incubus – Morning View
My main characters like to sing Have You Ever and Are You In to me late at night in the dark and Echo in my head until I heed their Warning to tell their stories in ways that help people “see through sickness” and spark a few hearts. When I have to write an angry fight scene, little helps as much as listening to Blood on the Ground and Nice to Know You.
26. Cake – Fashion Nugget
This album reminds me that very dark moments and emotions can make for playful, even perky, stories. Contrasting silly tone with terrifying vulnerability is one of the keys to plucking a genuine note sometimes–not taking ourselves so seriously that we can caught up in our own story lest we forget how to read others as described in Open Book. I’m also certain I’m not the only writer who feels exactly as alone and driven as the driver in The Distance. Plus, when those editors’ comments get a little too snarky, its fun to sing along to this particular cover of I Will Survive.
27. OneRepublic – Waking Up
Writing really is the Good Life, and many of these songs tell me why in ways that I can hear well.
28. Ani DiFranco – Little Plastic Castles
I write because I want to Loom, and this album understands all about Swan Dives and how I want to be read As Is.
29. Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Inspiring imagery haunts every track and reminds me to use words like a poet even when telling a story. Also, I think Metal Fire Cracker is an open letter to my readers, “Promise not to tell anyone the things that I told you.”
30. The Bellamy Brothers – Sons of the Sun
Because Lovers Live Longer and that is definitely true in fiction– love stories are more memorable and all readers really want to know about my books is Do You Love As Good As You Look. Also worth mentioning is It’s Hard to Be a Cowboy These Days, Classic Case of the Blues, and We Don’t Know No One in Nashville when you need to write like you’re down and out with a grin.
31. David Gray – White Ladder
Many famous writers have said that all stories are ultimately about love and redemption. On days I believe that then nothing sums up the premise of so many stories so well as three songs on this album, Babylon, Please Forgive Me, and Sail Away. All the great things my characters want to say to beg for love and understanding find their tone here.
32. Randy Travis – Storms of Life
Writing good fiction is all about Digging Up Bones and watching the Storms of Life mix and swirl into threads you can tug enough to unravel and reweave. Sometimes the stories don’t work out and then Send My Body Homeperks me back up.
33. Imogene Heap – Speak for Yourself
Much like EBTG’s Temperemental album, this one is a go-to for late-night-writes. Imogene Heap often plays a dozen instruments herself and then loops them over one another as she sings, which is just amazing, and resembles the cast of characters playing in my head. Headlock, Just For Now, Closing In, and I Am in Love with You mirror the flow of better romances.
34. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant – Raising Sand
This one is haunting. Plus every writer ever will understand songs like Please Read the Letter, and Killing the Blues all too well. We all burn to write something meaningful before we’re Gone, Gone, Gone.
35. Harvey Danger – Where have all the merrymakers gone?
Carlotta Valdez, Wooly Muffler, Jack the Lion, and Old Hat illustrate brilliant characterization when I’m flummoxed on how to turn a two-bit character into someone real in just a few words. And writing is a love-hate relationship, so when I’m in that aphasic hate stage I love to bellow Flagpole Sitta.
36. Black Lab – Your Body Above Me
A heady emotional mixture rolled into one palatable pill. Take one listen and call your publisher in the morning because likely side effects are binge writing whole novels. Especially be aware of songs like Wash It Away, Ten Million Years, Time Ago and Can’t Keep the Rain.
37. R.E.M. – Monster
This album knows that sexy villains and seemingly charming but apathetic people are the real monsters. The kind we need to write and read about. You can hear your darker dopelganger chanting along to Let Me In, pushing you to be a King of Comedy, and dance along with the Bang And Blame victimization.
38. The Nationals – Trouble Will Find Me
This album is the answer to writer’s block. Eventually every writer feels Graceless, and singing Don’t Swallow the Cap cures it.
39. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz
These songs have no shame in being the characters with the most gloriously gorgeous angst and attractive imperfections. Highlights include the desperation of Soft Shock, the abandon of dancing to low-self esteem like it’s a party in Zero, and giving in to that inner disco anger in Heads Will Roll.
40. Twenty-One Pilots – Vessel
There are more hits on the newer album, but for a writer it’s hard to top the perfect description of how stories take over your head described in the song Car Radio. Writing gives you a clarity that is as wonderful as a House of Gold and as dangerous and annoying as Guns For Hands.
Happy bleeding…I mean creating. #BeMightyWrite