Defining the college experience in three albums

Cover art for The Strokes Is This It (2001)

Cover art for The Strokes “Is This It” (2001)

Whether it’s introspective headphone listening in a dark dorm room, or being knocked out by subwoofers at a loud party, music permeates college life.

Though it frequently surrounds us, music is only truly rewarding when it validates our emotions and shortens the bridge of empathy between friends and strangers. What follows aren’t “college albums” per se, but they have been have been essential to my growth as a person and a listener.

These are the albums that have made Pitt and Pittsburgh feel a little more real and little more like home. And perhaps they can do the same for new students trying to shape the sounds of their lives in a new place.

“Is This It” by The Strokes

I grew up with a love for The Strokes, but following a high school obsession, college has minted the band’s debut album as a personal favorite.

The Strokes’ early work was arguably the greatest influence on post-2000’s rock, reinventing garage rock and setting a new standard for what cool sounds like.

By running his vocals through a guitar amp, songwriter and vocalist Julian Casablancas put a contemporary spin on the simple rock band outfit. And with remarkably tight craft and effortlessly catchy melodies, the frontman managed to create a modern classic that would be a creative peak.

With lyrics that sound like fragments of trivial conversation — “I can’t think cause I’m just way too tired” — and Casablanca’s convincing Lou Reed impression, the attitude of “Is This It” at times radiates disenchantment, apathy and sexual frustration.

But each meticulously composed, instrumentally lean song provided the punchy bewilderment to sell new-age cynicism. In his words, the then-22-year-old provided some sage, albeit cocky, quips about 21st century zeitgeist — “I should have worked much harder / I should have just not bothered” still stands out.

There’s also plenty of nostalgia. “Someday,” their best song and one of their most popular singles, shimmers with sly pop mastery and longing lines like, “When we was young, oh man did we have fun / Always, always.”

And doesn’t, “I’m working so I don’t have to try so hard,” perfectly describes the ironies of college and new adult life?

Wistful, blissful and effortless, “Is This It” doesn’t age, and its timelessness resonates with a college-aged kid in a big city. Its calculated aggression and youthful swagger make it essential and comforting listening to the potentially disoriented, anxious first-year.

“Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” by Kendrick Lamar

No doubt you will hear at least one track from this recent masterpiece bouncing off the walls at any given house party during the semester.

“Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” was one of my first great submersions into the art of hip-hop, hooking me to a further obsession with the brief history of music’s currently most popular and controversial genre.

Lamar’s brilliant quasi-biographical LP is introspective and a real banger, often at the same time. Granted, a dubious number of frat bros are too caught up drinking to the beat of “Swimming Pools (Drank)” to notice its blatant and ironic stance against alcohol indulgence.

Album highlight “Backseat Freestyle” features some career-best verses by the West Coast rapper. The song doubles both as a raw, hard-hitting single, and, in the album’s context, a semi-satirical adherence to typical rap staples of guns and misogyny.

The tact and painstaking structure of its concept makes “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” worth revisiting often. Lamar proved his mainstay in the hip-hop community with last year’s widely acclaimed “To Pimp a Butterfly,” so overplayed tracks like “B—, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Money Trees” are likely to be queued and blasted over bass-heavy speakers on the weekends for years to come.

But they’ve held up so far, so no one will mind.

“Merriweather Post Pavilion” by Animal Collective

This is based on personal experience, but “Merriweather Post Pavilion” has been a seminal album for my college years and music palette in general.

The most accessible of their discography at the time of its release, the album was still startling to me in my first year at Pitt, as I was bred on relatively safe indie rock in my high school days. The dense, alien-pop of the eighth album by hipster-cred band Animal Collective is intricately produced and — at least to virgin ears — wildly experimental.

This album helped me embrace the challenging side of music, and ultimately convinced me to try and resonate with sounds and situations that may put me off at first or make me feel uncomfortable.

Of course, if you want to stay cool around AnCo fans, you’re better off saying “Feels” or “Here Comes the Indian” is your favorite record, even though “Merriweather Post Pavilion” is objectively one of their best.

Experimentation is a given of the college lifestyle, but you have to actively find the pleasure in weirdness and testing the limits of your taste in order to get the most out of music and college.

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