It seems like this question is less common than it used to be. Maybe because people hear so many more albums than they used to. A Favorite Album of All Time almost has to emerge during a time when there aren’t all that many albums in the listener’s life, seems like. I hope to live another 50 years but it’s really hard to imagine that my Favorite Album of All Time will change during that stretch.
I feel like I have to answer this with two. The first is the album that I’ve had the deepest and most complicated emotional relationship to in my life, and that is Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. It was the second or third LP I ever bought and the first CD I ever bought. When I was 15, 16, 17, a time that I suppose for almost everyone is fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, it was a sturdy companion that made me think of escape and also suggested that there could be ways of dealing with what was around me that could help me to lead a better life. It’s not that the lyrics were instructive in any specific way, and as a kid I certainly wasn’t thinking in those particular terms, it’s more that the album as an idea pointed to how life could be transformed through art in a way that was inspiring.
The answer from my adult life is My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. I first heard it quite a few years after it came out. Through most the 90s I was kind of a vagabond and I usually didn’t have money for CDs, so a lot of that music I caught up with later. But the first time I heard Loveless, which is a sort of involved story that I’m kind of saving to see if it might make an interesting piece somewhere, was an utterly overwhelming experience and more or less kicked open another door in terms of what sound could do to me emotionally. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience with art (as you can see I have a lot of work to do to turn this experience into an interesting piece of writing.)
One thing that kept running through my mind after that initial experience was “This album feels like a gift.” I couldn’t put my finger on it but it felt true. Some time later I read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World and it articulated perfectly what I was feeling.