A thousand lifetimes ago, back in September, Rolling Stone released an updated version of its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Reactions rolled in, mostly in the vein of “huh?” and “mm, I don’t know” and “no, ‘Fine Line’ is not better than ‘Funeral.'”
Among all this #discourse, I tweeted out something like, “the niche presents the top 500 greatest gay pining albums of all time.” As with just about everything I post online, it was a joke, and it wasn’t. I’ve been interested for a long time in quantifying the very specific musical culture of my corner of the gay internet. Why not use this opportunity to take our collective pulse? What music are we turning to most in this sad and lonely time?
When we opened nominations for this list, the Niche’s readership suggested a whopping 361 unique albums. You can view the full list of nominated albums here. 98 of these albums received at least two nominations, and those 98 formed the basis for a second round of voting. This time, voters could vote for as many of the 98 albums as they wanted. The results of that round of voting are available here — but don’t click just yet! We’ve assembled a rogue’s gallery of our best writers, and some friends new to the Niche, to write about the albums you deemed the best of the best, the cream of the crop, the gayest of the gay. Many thanks to these writers: Morgan Bimm, Jordan Currie, Lindsay Eanet, Amal Haddad, Mad Johnson, Lou, Lio Min, Seph Mozes, Sophie Shelton, James Sloan, Peyton Thomas, and Harry Young.
Huge thanks also to Ezra Mattes for the purrfect art accompanying this article.
Without further ado, here we go: the greatest fifty — well, fifty-one; there was a tie — gay pining albums of all time.
51. Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town
Bruce Springsteen’s status as a dykon is well-established, and Darkness on the Edge of Town is packed wall-to-wall with desperate yearning. A special favourite of mine is “Prove It All Night,” which sees Bruce begging his lover to join him late at night in the field behind the Dynamo: you hear their voices tell you not to go; they’ve made their choices, and they’ll never know. Sounds illicit! And gay! I’m all for it.
Check out lesbian musician Julien Baker putting her own spin on Darkness opening track “Badlands.”
50. Arctic Monkeys – AM
Q: What on Earth is gay about the Arctic Monkeys?
A: Show me a circa-2013 8tracks playlist for literally any gay pairing that does not have “Do I Wanna Know” on it. Go on. Show me. I’ll wait.
49. The Mountain Goats – Get Lonely
On “If You See Light,” our narrator draws his knees to his chest under the dining room table as a crowd of villagers storms his door. Fast and frantic, John Darnielle sings, “No one knows how to keep secrets ’round here; they tell everyone everything soon as they know.” It’s easy to classify Get Lonely as the closest the Mountain Goats have come to a break-up album, but underpinning the heartbreak of not seeing their face in the window, of remembering you only need to make coffee for yourself, is the narrator’s dawning realization that they never stood a chance. They see attack on all sides. Love is alien, inaccessible; they have only ever been a pariah. It’s no wonder, then, how the central question — “what do I do, what do I do?” — is answered on closing track “In Corolla.” The narrator sees with perfect clarity that there is nothing left to do but leave his car on the side of the road and walk into the Atlantic Ocean.
48. FKA twigs – MAGDALENE
FKA twigs isn’t queer, but also, yes, she is. Robert Pattinson isn’t queer, but also, yes, he is. The devastating album FKA twigs wrote about the dissolution of her relationship with Robert Pattison isn’t queer, but also yes, it is. Hope this clears things up!
47. Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle
I’ll never forget the time I saw Julien at TURF in, God, it must have been 2016, on this tiny stage buried in the back of the festival grounds. She gazed out into the small crowd and met my eyes during “Everybody Does.” She saw how hard I was sobbing. She visibly startled. It was the first time I wept openly at a Julien Baker show, but it would not be the last.
46. Hayley Kiyoko – Expectations
Don’t act like you’re too good for Hayley Kiyoko. Don’t act like take him to a pier in Santa Monica, forget to bring a jacket, wrap up in him ’cause you wanted to isn’t Lorde-endorsed pop perfection. There are a lot of openly queer artists on this list, but Kiyoko is the only one who’s a lesbian woman of color making pop music on a major. The only one. Don’t underestimate the shit she goes up against on a daily basis to bring you cute bops about kissing girls. You ingrates.
45. Perfume Genius – No Shape
Congratulations to Monsieur Hadreas for soundtracking no less than three film scenes where pining teenagers, queer and straight alike, plunge into swimming pools to experience the catharsis of a metaphorical baptism. What an incredibly specific niche.
44. MIKA – No Place in Heaven
I would like to give thanks to my thirteen-year-old self and his exquisite taste for snatching up a very-back-row ticket to MIKA at the Orpheum in February of 2008. It was my first concert! My very first concert! I attended with a friend from bible study! There really was a time when MIKA was monocultural enough to speak to both the tiny closeted gay teen demographic and the bible-thumping asshole teen demographic. Thanks for reaching into the precarious center of that Venn diagram and rescuing me, MIKA.
43. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
Born in the USA is not an immediately obvious choice for a Gay Pining Album, until you think about it for more than two seconds and remember “I’m on Fire” and “Dancing in the Dark” and, not least of all, “Cover Me,” an undeniably erotic song written for Donna Summer that sounds like it
definitely is might be about bottoming. And hey, check out bisexual artist Lucy Dacus’s splendid cover of “Dancing in the Dark” if you haven’t already.
42. Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN
Beyond the plain, inarguable fact that “Shut Up Kiss Me” is potentially the greatest friends-to-lovers fanfic anthem of all time, MY WOMAN finds its focus squarely in the intimacy Olsen shares with the women she loves. I don’t know much about Olsen, and I have no real interest in speculating on her sexuality, but her music absolutely makes space for queer listeners to soundtrack their own lives. It’s easy to read a song like “Sister” as a narrative of a platonic friendship crumbling to make way for romantic love; it is even easier to read “Woman” as a newly out lesbian narrator coming to terms with what womanhood now means for her. There is a sense, throughout, of throwing out the old and the stifling, embracing instead the danger of pure, sweeping romance. If you want to read the record as a kicking-down of closet doors, a surging out into the unknown, you can, and Olsen will be cheering you on all the while.
41. Tegan and Sara – The Con
Tegan and Sara’s mom was my guidance counselor in high school. In hindsight, that feels like a gift from gay Jesus. If you’re ever a closeted teenager enduring unreal familial and religious trauma for years on end, and you have the opportunity to let Tegan and Sara’s mom shepherd you through it all? Go for it. Highly recommended.
40. Fiona Apple – When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right
If you’ve never sobbed to “Paper Bag” while curled fetal, clad in nothing but a bath towel, on the floor of the guest room in your parents’ house, congratulations! You’re doing better than I am!
Also, if you weren’t already aware, Apple is one of us! In 2012, she reported that she had recently dated “a younger girl… a beautiful dancer with whom she climbed onto her roof to watch the sky at various times of day and night.” These days, she is living with Zelda Hallman, “an affable, silver-haired lesbian,” in a relationship that Hallman describes as a “Boston marriage—but in the way that outsiders had imagined Boston marriages to be.” Good for them!
39. The Mountain Goats – Tallahassee
The premise of Tallahassee, The Mountain Goats’ 2002 Southern Gothic alternative rock concept album, is this: two people, whom John Darnielle (Mr. Mountain Goats himself) calls “the Alpha Couple,” the depth of whose love for each other is matched only by their mutual capacity for self-destruction, move into an old house in Tallahassee together and begin drinking themselves to death. Tallahassee is a horror story about desire. Darnielle compares his doomed lovers to vampires, demons, and the risen dead, and the album’s liner notes end with a quotation from a history of cannibalism at sea—one must not kill one’s shipmates in order to eat them, however hungry one might be. The Alpha Couple’s love is a yawning mouth that threatens to swallow them whole. Have you ever wanted someone so much you felt like your desire would burn you alive, eat your flesh, or tear your house down? Have you felt like the Freddy Krueger who lives in your dreams might jump out and kill everyone you love? This album might be for you.
P.S.: For a delightful queer reinterpretation of the Alpha Couple, check out legendary cabaret duo Kiki and Herb’s cover of “No Children,” embedded above.
38. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
For reasons that are truly beyond me, I will occasionally find myself at parties. Shocked, I will look around, frantic, and find myself surrounded by fifty of my closest acquaintances, at least a handful of whom I could name with a pinpoint 60/40 accuracy. As I desperately look around for an exit, or even just the chips table, I often wonder to myself how I got there. According to my doctor, it’s a side effect of my age, and once I hit thirty, I will instead start winding up by accident at dinner parties, which are apparently the sort of place where I will be required not only to know how to pronounce Vichyssoise, but to eat it. Until then, however, I can only do my best to pay attention to where I’m walking, and at the very least try to avoid sinking into a reclaimed sofa so deep that I either have to “127 Hours” myself out of its cushions or get stuck forever in a conversation with my friend’s coworker’s roommate about his very cool poster where those two girls are kissing.
MASSEDUCTION is an album that takes place at a party — not in any consistent narrative sense, although the frequent lyrical references to drugs and discomfort certainly encourage the comparison. It’s a record that mocks the very consumerism and flashiness it indulges in, recalling every drunken conversation about the flaws of capitalism we’ve ever shouted over thumping cabinet-size subwoofers to a friend of a friend wearing mint condition Yeezys. The production style is flashy and in-your-face, with enticing beats deftly orbiting rich front-mixed synths and the occasional glimpse of a string section or a deep growling solo guitar appearing like a breath of fresh air. And yet the actual melodies, when uprooted from the thrillingly elaborate arrangements that encircle them, are almost like nursery rhymes in their childish simplicity. An immature desire for immediate satisfaction finds itself adrift in the complexity of adult needs. Everything about the composition is attractive, even as St. Vincent’s lyrics anticipate tragedy with such resignation she can’t even muster despair. It’s a wonderfully appealing world without comfort, where everything is pleasing but nothing is quite enough. And then, finally, Slow Disco begins to play, and the odd relief of privacy makes itself known. This moment, strangely, brings to mind the happiest moment of any party – in that it makes you wish you had a partner, so you could drag them away from whatever chitchat they were stuck in with some stranger rocking an alternative haircut and ask them to take you home.
37. Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
I can never listen to Bridge Over Troubled Water — Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio album together and their most successful — without getting nostalgic for all the times I’ve fallen in and out of love with my friends. It sounds like a tumultuous breakup, with its long stretches of melancholy and energetic jolts of jealousy.
Take “The Only Living Boy in New York,” where Simon sings to “Tom” — as grade school friends, the the two performers went by Tom & Jerry — and reflects on their parting. He wishes Garfunkel success in his new film, a project from which Simon’s own role had been cut. It’s a song that obfuscates the pain at its core, while offering raw glimpses of deep love, frustration, and acceptance. Where you read “let your honesty shine, shine, shine… like it shines on me” as tender or passive-aggressive on Simon’s part, it really evokes the very queer experience of breaking up with someone you were never really dating in the first place.
I don’t know if the end of Simon & Garfunkel felt like a heartbreak to either artist, but whenever I listen, I’m reminded of just how romantic friendship can be.
36. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – The Social Network (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Some artists spend entire careers evoking gay tragedy. Reznor and Ross do it in three notes.
35. Robyn – Body Talk
Because why shouldn’t you dance when you’re sad, too? Who said pining had to be downbeat? Can’t we take our grief to a dancefloor, surround ourselves with friends, and transfigure misery into ecstasy?
34. Orville Peck – Pony
Orville Peck, the masked musician dubbed the “Canadian Cowboy,” is not from the South, but he carries a thread of profound reverence for classic country. Pony explores the intersection of growing up gay and growing up country. Against the backdrop of an old, West Texas, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly sound, Peck sings of isolation, placelessness, lost lovers, and thankless work. Showstopping track “Hope to Die” reminisces on a past romance, words that could only be whispered, and the unfulfilled promise to escape together. Though they no longer burn for each other, and they’re “not quite young,” Orville Peck still plans to keep this promise. There’s a misheard lyric here. It’s commonly transcribed: “They don’t cry when we’re gone,” which suggests leaving a place that won’t miss you. To my ear, the lyric actually evokes stealing away to somewhere mythical and idyllic: “They don’t cry where we’re going.”
Beyond yearning for another place and time, there’s a physical distance in Orville Peck’s stage presence. The mask is a barrier he pulls back at will for an unobstructed “yeehaw,” but never for a smile or a kiss. The Hope to Die music video pays homage to gay erotic artist Rip Colt (NSFW) as Orville Peck stands apart from another cowboy, who touches him only to adjust his collar. He even does the dance break – a marriage of line dancing and ballet, group dances – without a pardner. And yet, for every new song Orville Peck makes about how us gay country folk experience loneliness, I feel a little less alone.
Plus, we all saw him blush his way through his Masc for Mask appearance with Brad Leone. Dude’s gonna bring back hanky code all on his own.
33. Kevin Abstract – American Boyfriend
This may be controversial, but I’ll say it: sometimes, Kevin does Frank better than Frank does Frank. And my parents wanna kill me, let ’em kill me, I’ll finally be on TV is one of those times.
32. Snail Mail – Lush
The one flourish in “Pristine” that always gets me is Lindsey Jordan pouring her heart out and then capping the bottle right back up with a non-committal …anyways. It makes me think about all the ways we press ourselves into smaller and smaller spaces when we’re pining. We preserve our hearts by pretending to care less than we do. She doesn’t keep it up for the whole song, though. Hard to walk back a line like I know myself and I’ll never love anyone else.
31. Lucy Dacus – Historian
Dacus, more than any of her peers, makes room in her music for rage. There is a really raw, brutal anger seething under the surface of her best songs. She doesn’t always restrain it, wailing in one song about how she’ll bite the hand that feeds me, and, in another, offering to kill the abusive father of a loved one. On “Night Shift,” the clarion call that opens Historian, she only just manages to restrain this rage. She’s resisting urges to punch you in the teeth, call you a bitch, and leave. It’s refreshing to hear this anger expressed at all: a queer woman aiming at a woman who’s hurt her, telling her exactly how much damage she’s done, without apology.
30. Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism
So much of the gay experience is downloading Tinder and beginning a few half-hearted exchanges with compelling people who live in your town before giving it all up to pine over someone you met online in the Hamilton cannibal mermaid RPF community who lives three time zones and an impossible 47-hour Greyhound ride away from you. Transatlanticism has soundtracked innumerable such crushes. How many, exactly? It’s impossible to know.
29. Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
Born to Run is the aching musical bildungsroman to end all aching musical bildungsromans. I’ve got two especially gay things to highlight here.
First: if you’ve never seen Springsteen and Melissa Etheridge’s wildly endearing duet on “Thunder Road,” where both of them trade flirtatious overtures to Mary, effectively standing before that porch and competing for her love — you’re welcome.
Second: the “Terry” of “Backstreets” is absolutely a dude. Not a joke.
Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see
Trying to learn to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be
And after all this time, to find we’re just like all the rest
Stranded in the park and forced to confess
28. The Killers – Hot Fuss
There’s a slippery ambiguity in the best songs on Hot Fuss, especially “Somebody Told Me” and the immortal “Mr. Brightside.” When she’s touching his chest, when he takes off her dress, it’s clear that the singer is in agony; it’s less clear whether he or she is the specific source of that agony. The band has returned to this kind of soft genderfuckery over and over again throughout their long career, but I’ve always been partial to the video for “Just Another Girl,” from their Greatest Hits album, featuring a never-hotter Dianna Agron pining gaily away in full Brandon Flowers drag, including mustache.
27. Troye Sivan – Blue Neighbourhood
Troye Sivan has ascended in recent years to the very highest tiers of pop supremacy, performing in stadia with Taylor Swift, hopping on tracks with everyone from Ariana Grande to Charli XCX to Kacey Musgraves. It’s touching to remember that he really was just one more queer kid on the internet, once upon a time, cutting his teeth on YouTube and Tumblr before the mainstream was ready. “Blue Neighbourhood” is often cozy and intimate, a well-kept secret built for these small social circles; at the same time, on unrestrained anthems like “Youth,” he dares to imagine his own widescreen glow-up.
26. The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs
You know what I would deeply love? A “69 Love Songs” compilation where, like, Frank Ocean and Phoebe Bridgers and Mitski and 66 other artists all cover one of the 69 Love Songs each. We need it. We need it badly. If only to introduce younger generations to this record. “69 Love Songs” came in far too low in the vote-count; I have to believe this is simply a matter of no one introducing you damn kids to the trials and tribulations — mostly tribulations — of Stephin Merritt. Thanks to South Park, at least, for helping to spread the good word.
25. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Are you a hot knife or a pat of butter? Take this quiz to find out!
24. Joni Mitchell – Blue
There’s a moment in Prince’s 1983 live version of “A Case of You” while, treading through a bioluminescent sonic pool of his own making, Prince gets up off one knee and squeezes his eyes shut, and it looks as though he’s about to say something or stifle a lump in his throat, like he’s fully internalized the next verse of “A Case of You” and it’s breaking his heart in slow motion.
A few years ago, I accompanied a dear friend on a visit to a wolf sanctuary in southwest Indiana. We left Chicago during rush hour, hours lurching in traffic before congestion gave way to road-movie idyll. It’s likely we even listened to “A Case of You” on that ride at some point before arriving, exhausted, at a Best Western just over the state line in Ohio. As we faded off under the blue light of a Friends re-run, we said to each other, “I’m glad you’re here,” and it felt heavy with exhaustion and significance.
The next day, as we pulled out of the sanctuary, I felt that same lump, trying to carefully monologue around it about the importance of welcoming joyful experiences into your life, trying to release just enough of the valve to ease the pressure without unnecessarily flooding us both. (I still overdid it. I always do.)
Maybe it’s because it always takes us as queer people a little longer to grow into our full selves and cultivate genuine relationships as our full selves but sometimes I feel like the world makes dragons of us, desiring to sleep on piles of memories and life-affirming experience, digging at intimacies with claws spread. Everything has to Mean Something. Everything has to be the light reflecting off the water or the dancing falsetto on surely you touched mine.
That first journey you take with Your Person, your camerado, even if it’s just across the street, feels electric and new and how have I never heard this before? The way Prince croons the love is touching souls bit while the Revolution rain atmosphere on everyone screams an intimate moment that you want to cling to forever, and you want it so badly to mean as much to the person next to you as much as it does to you. It’s expansive, and urgent, and still loudly grateful, just like any good road trip memory.
23. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
The Age of Adz is not entirely about pining, true. It is — I’m sorry, I’m getting distracted by his eyelashes in that video thumbnail — about illness, and healing, and bad drugs, and good drugs, and dancing with your best friends on a hillside, and believing in impossible things. In its quiet, still moments, though, it is about sleeping on your friend’s couch, and loving your friend with all your heart, and being afraid to say so.
22. Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
“She knows that I’ve been doing something wrong / But she won’t say anything.”
Besides, perhaps, Sufjan Stevens on Carrie & Lowell, no musician has come close to Kate Bush’s singular articulation of the universally fraught relationship between gay people and their mothers. “She thinks that I was with my friends yesterday / But she won’t mind me lying.” Hounds of Love does it all: mommy issues, drama, longing, 80’s synth, an Irish jig about the meeting of Waiting and Now, and who time belongs to — a conflict essential to any gay pining soundtrack. You are always Waiting, never Now, except then it is Now and you don’t know what to do with it. “I put this moment… here.”
21. Mitski – Retired from Sad, New Career in Business
20. Hozier – Wasteland, Baby!
Lesbians: they love him!
19. Taylor Swift – Folklore
Taylor Swift has always made music about emotional intimacy between women. Some of the most heart-wrenching songs in her canon are about important women in her life. “Breathe” is for her band’s former violinist, Emily Poe. “Holy Ground” and “Wonderland” are about the beginning and the end, respectively, of her relationship with Dianna Agron. And then, of course, there’s her best friend, Abigail. I’m sure many will disagree with me on this, but I always thought that “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind, and we both cried” was an expression of solidarity and care, not a callous slut-shaming. (Although, I’ll admit: I do enjoy Taylor’s one-time dalliance with callous slut-shaming. It’s a bop!) Folklore, though, is the first of Taylor Swift’s albums with moments written unmistakably for queer women. “Betty” is a love song to a girl, sung by a girl! “Seven” is the same! I don’t know about you, but I vastly prefer these experiments with perspective and fiction to the pandering nadir of “You Need to Calm Down.”
18. The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
What is gay, exactly, about Pet Sounds? I have prepared a few answers.
- They are “The Beach Boys,” not “The Beach Boys and Girls.”
- There’s gotta be some made-up micro-identity pride flag that combines yellow, white, and green, right? A quick Google search offers a couple of options.
- Can you even imagine how much “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” must have resonated with gay people in a pre-Obergefell world? I mean, Jesus.
- The protagonist of Pet Sounds feels tremendous, crushing anguish at his inability to become one with the world around him. He is at odds with everyone he meets, completely incapable of making himself understood, perpetually out of place. He just wasn’t made for these times. His only solace is in the happiness he finds with a loved one, whom he can’t marry, and he yearns for the day when they can live together in the kind of world where they belong. So. Like.
17. Lorde – Pure Heroine
Pure Heroine is a record tailor-made for all the gays I was never able to hold a conversation with in high school because I hadn’t yet gotten around to watching Glee. Or maybe we were just afraid to speak to each other because our sense of mutual recognition betrayed some unknown quality that might expose us to the outside world. Lorde’s smoky voice is mixed right into your ears, like she’s murmuring secrets to you in the passenger seat of your dad’s lease-to-own Honda Pilot.
Lorde staunchly insists, throughout the album, on saying almost everything but exactly what she means. There’s a definite sense that she doesn’t trust what she’s saying, and, simultaneously, that she would be devastated to be proven wrong. Hers are brags without belief. Escalating rhythms are presented as a replacement for compositional evolution, and the minimalist production style tends toward the ironically empty. It’s a choice perfectly suited to her genre, in much the same way that Bach’s mathematically calculated compositions never pushed any baroque boundaries but made the limits his own. Without evolution, each song becomes a dissection of a single moment, a door opened to reveal the emotional content of an area rather than a progressive story in itself.
But this, in my opinion, is as teenaged as it comes. At seventeen, every moment seems to last forever. Every drive lacks a concrete destination. The world does not exist outside of the limited distance you might dare to travel on your own. You want to come out. You want to take a leap of faith. But you don’t know anything about the place where you might land. You hardly know the place you’re leaving.
16. Hozier – Hozier
Hozier’s mythic descriptions of women and femininity are reminiscent of the way, say, Sappho or Dickinson would write about women aching sexually and romantically for other women. Sappho once wrote, “In the crooks of your body, I found my religion;” I hear an echo of her spirit when Hozier sings, “The only Heaven I’ll be sent to is when I’m alone with you.” In a letter to her sister-in-law and lover, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, Emily Dickinson wrote, “And I do love to run fast — and hide away from them all; here in dear Susie’s bosom, I know is love and rest…” Hozier matches her longing in his song, “Run,” one of my favourites: “Rare is this love, keep it covered, I need you to run to me, run to me, lover.” Like Dickinson and Sappho, Hozier paints a soft, watercolour picture of a love so rare and special it must be kept as a secret for lovers to savour.
15. Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans
Instead of cracking another “is this song gay or about god” joke, I will link to this cool interview where Stevens discusses how he intentionally blurs the lines between spirituality and eroticism in his music, drawing inspiration from the work of Judee Sill. Stevens cites her song “Jesus Was A Crossmaker” as formative: “I remember being really mesmerized by the song because she’s confusing. The pronouns were kind of confused… The listener isn’t quite sure if she’s singing to a savior or a lover and they become the same person. It was just a mix of the sacred and the sensual.” That, especially on “To Be Alone With You,” is now the standard Stevens playbook.
14. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
There is this recurring motif in Punisher of a dog with a bird in its mouth — a beautiful, fragile thing crushed by an animal acting only out of enthusiasm, joy, love. You can see the parallel there to the fans Bridgers identifies as “punishers” — folks who mob her at her shows, who obsess over her lyrics to glean private details of her life and relationships, who make meet-and-greets a living hell. We’ve all been punishers at one point or another; Bridgers has, too, by her own admission. How deeply human to love someone so much that you both get hurt.
13. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
I’m of two minds here. I could write a moving little paragraph about the emotional resonance of this album for young queer women, or I could tell you that the album’s title is a joke about anal. And… wait, you know what? I think that about sums up Bridgers’ ethos. Come for the tearjerkers, stay for the sex jokes.
12. Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman
“Fast Car” is, of course, the legendary hit, the all-timer, but there is so much more to Tracy Chapman than just the one perfect song. If anything, “Fast Car” is the outlier: an us-against-the-world narrative in an album that celebrates community, intimacy, boundless care between neighbours and strangers. Chapman’s personal is political; her love for her woman is the same love she holds for all women, everywhere. She puts a kind of musical spin on “The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions” — a better world is coming, yes, but in the meantime, she is entirely devoted to touching the lives of people who, like her, are hurting.
11. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Frank Ocean came out in 2012, in a Tumblr post that turned out to be a liner note for his upcoming debut album, Channel Orange. It described his first love, as a teenager, for another boy. I was sixteen at the time; my best friend was about to move to another school and I couldn’t figure out why it felt like a breakup. His is the first celebrity coming-out that I really remember, precisely because his statement didn’t follow the usual sureties and reassurances; it raised more questions than it answered. Instead, Ocean let his music form the connective tissue between himself and the listener. More times than I care to admit, I put “Bad Religion” or “Forrest Gump” on repeat and wallowed in the heartbreak of my friend moving away – a heartbreak I could not make out the precise contours of until I, like Frank, had the clarity of retrospect. Ocean as an identifiable narrator more or less disappears into the mercurial characters of Channel Orange – addicts, single mothers, sex workers, rich kids contemplating suicide – but you get the sense that he’s telling himself stories in order to live, to paraphrase another generational writer renowned for depicting Californian life. Like Didion, Ocean knows that the right story can sustain you; with Channel Orange, he gave us an album’s worth.
10. boygenius – boygenius
I still don’t know if this happened at every show — maybe just the ones where the venues were old concert halls with halfway decent acoustics — but at the end of their Toronto show, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus all gathered on the edge of the stage, without a microphone, to sing the final song on the album. Being in love is the same thing as being alone… nothing to say, but stay on the phone… 1,500 people held their breath as these women sang. We took in their collective yearning, their collective anguish, their collective resignation.
Every devastating line on this self-titled album feels bigger, somehow, because of the way it’s
refracted through three different voices and three different stories. The lyrics of boygenius tell a very particular story about wanting. They are delivered by three queer women with friendships worthy of matching jackets. They share a simmering frustration with indie’s patriarchal bent. They were born, in a group text, out of a desire for queer friendship powerful enough to buoy them up and keep them afloat. When they sing together, you feel it: their bone-deep relief at finally finding each other.
9. Lorde – Melodrama
“Melodrama,” the sophomore album by New Zealand pop star/Antarctic explorer Lorde, is anchored by these moments of reflective yearning. The album is a dark corner in a raging house party. She understands that pining is present not just before romance, but in all of love’s stages, multiplying as choices are made and lost paths spread out in front of her. She regrets; she reassesses. How would life be different if your love had grown up in the same town? If you’d met each other at some different moment?
Lorde’s pining doesn’t begin or end with one person. “Melodrama” was released at the tail-end of her time as a child prodigy, and threaded throughout the album, she asks a nagging question: when so much of yourself is tied up in an identity, what happens when that identity reaches a natural death? Even as Lorde searches for new adventures, she misses the “endless summer afternoon” that she used to live in. Tavi Gevinson, Lorde’s compatriot in Teenage Girlhood, once wrote, in a letter on moving into adulthood, “I’m not sad because I think post-Forever seems terrible; I’m sad because Forever is remarkably peculiar, and I’ve really enjoyed trying to understand why, and I will miss it.”
While Lorde may no longer exist in Forever, her music always will. The next time you need to cry in your childhood bedroom at two o’clock in the morning, “Melodrama” will be there for you.
8. Mitski – Puberty 2
The end, when it finally arrived, was devastating. It did not come via text message. It was a long dissolution, sad and slow. When Mitski played the Danforth that autumn, I contemplated, briefly, afternoon of, not going at all. I would be a wreck, I thought. I would cry in public. But then, so what? Is there a better place to cry in public than a Mitski show? And so, on the walk to the venue, I stopped in at a Shoppers Drug Mart, and I purchased a small carton of Kleenex. The security guards laughed at me, waving me and my Kleenex in; one, oddly, called me sir, and it remains one of the only times a stranger’s ever looked at me and seen a man. Anyway, I stood in the very back of the Danforth’s cavernous auditorium, and Mitski sang, and I wept, freely, vocally, pitching snotty tissue into the trash-can by the door with extravagant abandon.
It is a cliché — and, like, a rude one, even, a misogynistic one — to talk constantly about crying to this or that female musician. The emotional palette of a master like Mitski is so much broader than simply Sad. And yet! Puberty 2 is the saddest album ever to open with a song called “Happy.” It is a story of chosen sadness: betting on losing dogs, lighting your own forest on fire, leaving the white boy who will never, ever understand. “I think I’ll regret this,” Mitski sings, before she walks away from him for good, before the wall of feedback hits, and she does, and I do, but still, we go forward.
7. Frank Ocean – Blonde/blond
On Blonde, Frank Ocean largely eschews the traditional pop structures that scaffolded the characters and stories of Channel Orange in favor of the sprawling, unpredictable shape of real life. The album seems almost to shimmer, as if underwater; its strange, experimental pop details the arcs of undefined, pseudo-romantic relationships, making it the perfect soundtrack to the kind of social life that young queer adults often find themselves in. “Every night fucks every day up,” indeed. Ocean mumbles through the story of a bad date at a gay bar, offers someone weed in exchange for a blowjob, wonders if he’s a fool for living outside societal expectations instead of settling down. “I ain’t a kid no more,” he sings on “Ivy.” “We’ll never be those kids again.” In the distorting rearview mirror of Blonde, this could be either melancholic or relieved; given Frank’s affinity for the irreducible, it’s almost certainly both.
6. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Carrie & Lowell does everything Sufjan does best. His thorough and precise production sensibilities bring an almost yawning depth to every track, without ever standing in the way of the raw and intimate instrumentation he’s so known for. Written during one of the darkest periods of his life, the lyrics are bleak and unromantic, but his compositional style can’t help but lean tender and gentle. A slide guitar echoes previously picked chords like sentiments that linger long after they’ve been spoken. Floating acoustics ring through the recording without ever being given a place to land. His odd and eternally vague lyrics give a companionable sense that any overt expression of the atmosphere being so carefully built may very well shatter this shared moment. Ghosts and shadows are referenced far more intimately than the people who possess them. In this way, though the album is not written primarily about romantic love, it reflects Sufjan’s relationship with the feeling of love itself — a feeling that is, unfortunately, recognizable to many of us. To be gay is to have had revoked many dozens of previous promises of unconditional love before you are even permitted the terrifying opportunity to offer it yourself.
5. Carly Rae Jepsen – E-MO-TION
In the months following this album’s release, I freaked out this girl hitting on me at a bar with the sheer intensity of my screaming and dancing along to “When I Needed You.” I freaked her out so badly that she turned to my friend and asked very earnestly if I was okay. (The answer was, of course, not even a little.) This is the album that couldn’t have happened without the commercial success that was “Call Me Maybe” three years prior, the album that let CRJ get weird and dig in. Are there any boys in the music video for “Boy Problems”? Absolutely not, it’s a mullet and subtext, bro. Will we always remember where we were the first time we heard the sax solo that opens “Run Away With Me”? Indubitably. The real magic of E•MO•TION, however, is — I’ve always suspected — that it gives the listener absolute permission to lean into all of the heart-pounding, snotty-nosed, mascara-running, so-giddy-you-could-kick-a-door-down feelings we’ve all found ourselves lost in at one point or another. And then makes sure you’ll never dance about it alone.
4. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
Illinois is a comprehensive emotional catalog of being young and gay in America. On “Chicago,” there’s Goin’ On A Roadtrip With My Close Friend And Anything Is Possible; on “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” there’s Oh Shit Superman Is Turning Me On; on “Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream),” there’s, well, Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream.
And then, of course, there is “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!”, sincerely one of the great modern documents of young queer desire. Who among us has not been stung in one way or another by the expression of a love we could not articulate? Maybe your Gay Experience At Church Camp was not literally at church camp – maybe it was band camp, or a particular soccer season, or the summer you spent hanging out with that classmate across the street – but the expansive, frenetic outro of “Predatory Wasp” has plenty of room for you, for all of us, even when the telling gets old.
3. Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy
In September of 2017, I received an e-mail from the manager of Car Seat Headrest. He told me that Will Toledo was a big fan of my writing. He asked me if I’d be willing to interview Will and write a press release for the re-recording of Twin Fantasy. I said yes. This is what I wrote. I think it holds up.
Will Toledo always knew he would return to Twin Fantasy. He never did complete the work. Not really. Never could square his grand ambitions against his mechanical limitations. Listen to his first attempt, recorded at nineteen on a cheap laptop, and you’ll hear what Brian Eno fondly calls “the sound of failure” – thrilling, extraordinary, and singularly compelling failure. Will’s first love, rendered in the vivid teenage viscera of stolen gin, bruised shins, and weird sex, was an event too momentous for the medium assigned to record it.
Even so, even awkward and amateurish, Twin Fantasy is deeply, truly adored. Legions of reverent listeners carve rituals out of it: sobbing over “Famous Prophets,” making out “Cute Thing,” dancing their asses off as “Bodys” climbs higher, higher. The distortion hardly matters. You can hear him just fine. You can hear everything. And you can feel everything: his hope, his despair, his wild overjoy. He’s trusting you – plural you, thousands of you – with the things he can’t say out loud. “I pretended I was drunk when I came out to my friends,” he sings – and then, caught between truths, backtracks: “I never came out to my friends. We were all on Skype, and I laughed and changed the subject.”
You might be imagining an extended diary entry, an angsty transmission from a bygone LiveJournal set to power chords and cranked to eleven. You would be wrong. Twin Fantasy is not a monologue. Twin Fantasy is a conversation. You know, he sings, that I’m mostly singing about you. This is Will’s greatest strength as a songwriter: he spins his own story, but he’s always telling yours, too. Between nods to local details – Harper’s Ferry, The Yellow Wallpaper, the Monopoly board collecting dust in his back seat – he leaves room for the fragile stuff of your own life, your own loves. From the very beginning, alone in his bedroom, in his last weeks of high school, he knew he was writing anthems. Someday, he hoped, you and I might sing these words back to him.
“It was never a finished work,” Toledo says, “and it wasn’t until last year that I figured out how to finish it.” He has, now, the benefit of a bigger budget, a full band in fine form, and endless time to tinker. According to him, it took eight months of mixing just to get the drums right. But this is no shallow second take, sanitized in studio and scrubbed of feeling. This is the album he always wanted to make. It sounds the way he always wanted it to sound.
It’s been hard, stepping into the shoes of his teenage self, walking back to painful places. There are lyrics he wouldn’t write again, an especially sad song he regards as an albatross. But even as he carries the weight of that younger, wounded Toledo, he moves forward. He grows. He revises, gently, the songs we love so much. In the album’s final moments, in those “apologies to future me’s and you’s,” there is more forgiveness than fury.
This, Toledo says, is the most vital difference between the old and the new: he no longer sees his own story as a tragedy. He’s not alone no more.
2. Mitski – Bury Me at Makeout Creek
What do you do when Cupid shoots you in the chest with his whole quiver? Maybe you grip the arrows, tear them out, and sigh as your bleeding heart beats faster. This is how I imagine Bury Me was born, emerging from these sanguine tides in pieces, Mitski’s driftwood Aphrodite, an exquisite corpse of not ex-lovers but ex-vessels of love. There was almost something there: a Saturn peach that was just a little too soft; a smile that was just a little too toothy; a fire that you’ve gotten better at lighting but still can’t get to burn through the night. Something is always better than nothing, even if something eviscerates you every time.
That’s the most devastating thing about Bury Me: she knows, she even knows better, and yet. You know, and yet — a laugh is a thunderclap, skin skimming skin is quicksand. You chase the rabbit god and, bowstring quivering, unleash the arrow at yourself. Because the only thing worse than not having the love you deserve is not having the love that you want. So you yank the piercing from its anchor, your palm comes away warm and red, and you sigh. Again.
1. Mitski – Be the Cowboy
The loneliest thing isn’t being alone: it’s being in a room with all the people who love you and waiting for the door to open. The tragedy of Cowboy is that Mitski shows you both the one who passes through the door and the one who doesn’t; you’re both the one who passes through the door and the one who doesn’t. The moment you turn away from the door, she pulls the earth out from under you, and suddenly you’re a meteor falling among many, and in the others’ burning tails you catch glimpses of every life you never lived. How many stars have slipped through your skies without your noticing? How many times do you have to fall before someone finally makes a wish on you? There are no answers, only gravity. And then you land, and you levitate for a heartbeat before you touch down, and you face another door.