1. Michael Jackson, Thriller
The ultimate. No album is maybe more familiar or ubiquitous than Thriller. From its dance-inducing title song to the sing-along chorus of “Billie Jean,” MJ’s sixth album has long been a master class for the pop stars during the last 20 years, and is crucial listening for anyone who wants to understand the roots of today’s hits.
2. Dolly Parton, Jolene
Maybe teens are more familiar with Dolly as Miley’s “fairy godmother,” but it’s time they get hip to Dolly’s quintessential album, Jolene, a master class in heartbreak and real talk. From lessons in moving on with respect on “I Will Always Love You” to learning to let someone go on “When Someone Wants To Leave,” Dolly delivers tough truths that we all need to hear, and she does it in the most loving way.
3. Bob Marley and the Wailers, Legend
A compilation album of Bob Marley’s greatest hits, Legend is the definitive introduction to Marley’s messages of love, patience, understanding, and standing up for what you believe in — all values that any young person would benefit from internalizing.
4. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill’s one and only studio album can be life-changing for someone about to embark on the crazy roller coaster of adolescence. “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” warns against falling for someone who may be using you for their own gains, and “Ex-Factor” has helped people ease the pain of breakups for more than 15 years. “To Zion” narrates Hill’s decision not to abort her first son. Like the rest of the LP, it’s a powerful master class in taking your life into your own hands.
5. Bikini Kill, Pussy Whipped
Bikini Kill’s debut album is an ideal record to lose your mind to when you need to let off some steam. The riot grrrl pioneers explore female friendship and love on the anthemic “Rebel Girl,” ownership of yourself and your body on “Magnet,” and more serious issues like date rape on songs like “Star Bellied Boy.” It may be mature content, but it’s never been more imperative for young adults to hear these messages and understand its dangers than when they’re entering the tumultuous world of high school.
6. The Replacements, Tim
When it feels like the rest of the world doesn’t “get it,” it’s time to pull this album out. Paul Westerberg dives into the feelings of isolation and alienation that accompanies adolescence, and decades after Tim’s release, that still resonates with young people — Lorde covered “Swingin’ Party,” on her Love Club EP last year.
7. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Ziggy Stardust is a concept album with a kind of insane and fantastic storyline that can be fun for kids to jump into: Bowie plays the eponymous alien rock star who comes to spread hope in the world as it faces its final five years of existence. And though the album’s guitar riffs might sound outdated to ’00s babies, its glittery swagger is still very much a force in today’s pop divas, from Katy Perry to Iggy Azalea to Nicki Minaj.
8. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
Rumours’ songs burst with raw emotional power. Stevie Nicks cuts straight through the heart on “Dreams,” about the bittersweet end of a relationship, while “The Chain” reverberates with anger as a perfect kiss-off anthem. The album’s a touchstone for more than one generation of music fans, but for all that notoriety, it feels intimate, like a secret you can keep all to yourself.
9. Fela, The Best of the Black President
This compilation gathers the most crucial works of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. Its intricate brass noodling and complex rhythms will inspire kids interested in playing music themselves, but Fela’s just as instantly rewarding to anyone with a pulse who’s down to get lost in a groove.
10. A Tribe Called Quest, Midnight Marauders
Jumpstart budding hip-hop heads with Tribe’s fun-loving Midnight Marauders, which is filled with inspired funk and jazz samples and hooks that are impossible to get out of your head, from the monster hit “Award Tour” to “Electric Relaxation.” The trio explore issues of race, spirituality, and sex with wordplay that any language geek will fawn over.
11. Kraftwerk, Computer World
Well before Calvin Harris, Skrillex, or Kaskade, there was Kraftwerk. Fans of EDM (or pop music in general) would be wise to check out the German electronic music innovators’ eighth album, Computer World, to better understand the roots of the blips and the wobbles they freak out to now.
12. TLC, FanMail
CrazySexyCool was TLC’s blockbuster hit album, but FanMail is full of lessons for growing up. It preaches the importance of not wasting time on selfish, lazy significant others (“No Scrubs”) and gets real about the fact that loving yourself is a journey (“Unpretty”).
13. No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom
No Doubt’s third album brims with colorful, timeless angst. There’s the pain of your first breakup (“Don’t Speak”), the rush of defying sexism (“Just A Girl”), and creepy guys who just won’t take the hint (“Spiderwebs”).
14. Otis Redding, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul
This is why they call it soul music. Otis Blue’s rendition of “My Girl” is a seriously touching mother/father-daughter song, and “Change Gonna Come,” Redding’s wrenching take on Sam Cooke’s Civil Rights anthem, will give you goosebumps.
15. Kanye West, Yeezus
Kanye thought a lot about growing up on his debut album College Dropout, but his most recent album is a vivid result of the culture kids live in now. Ye speaks on the harsh realities of everyday racism, wrangles with his own insecurities and ambition, his anger, and his pride. Together, it’s a sometimes harsh but powerful picture of what it’s like to be struggling with yourself in a digital world. This is punk for today’s generation.