Five Albums That Changed My Life by Koethi Zan

(1) Artist: Morrissey, Album: Viva Hate, Era: High School. I grew up a Goth kid in rural Alabama, where football and rebel flags reigned supreme. And there I was: the bookish, outsider weirdo writing poetry and looking sullen, thinking no one understood me. Then I discovered Morrissey. He got it. He was practically describing my town in Every Day is Like Sunday, so I smiled knowingly when he wished its demise with, “Come…come, nuclear dawn.” Morrissey is still my favorite, and recently, on a trip to LA, I met him. I can now die happy. As I shook his hand, I fawned over him like a thirteen-year-old fangirl—though one who rarely leaves her room and who has to explain “I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside, inside.”


(2) Band: Nirvana, Album: Nevermind, Era: College. When Nevermind was released, I’d spent the few years prior dancing my heart out to techno and industrial music in every club from Birmingham to New Orleans. The glam years, I think of them. Then, one night, my best friend and I were on the stage of some seedy club with walls papered in slightly sticky aluminum foil—I was wearing a black velvet A-line shift dress, with a white lace collar and cuffs—when the DJ played something a little different: Smells Like Teen Spirit. At the first sound of the pounding drums, my friend and I looked at each other across the room, our eyes wide, and then, suddenly it hit everyone in the place at once: this was it. We all moved as one to form a giant mosh pit. But it wasn’t just the hard thrust of the noise that got me. Even as I was jostled by the crowd, my tangled hair clinging to my face, I was thinking: “Wait, wait, is he saying ‘Here we are now, entertain us’? If so, then this dude is a genius.” And that’s the day I went grunge.


(3) Band: The Breeders, Album: Last Splash, Era: Law School. When I was in law school, I was trying to reform my ways. I was trying to learn to be normal. Appropriate. Professional. I forgot about all that though when I heard Last Splash. Raw, hard-driving, feminist-girl-power to the nth degree, Last Splash spoke to me louder than lectures. Maybe that’s why I thought I’d better at least work my way into entertainment law rather than banking or real estate. And maybe, too, it was some kind of sign when Last Splash happened to be the CD playing at the Yale grad student bar one night when I met the man I would later marry. No bye, no aloha.


(4) Band: Belle & Sebastian, Album: Boy with the Arab Strap, Era: NYC Law Practice. I was already a huge B&S fan when Arab Strap was released in 1998, but that’s the one I ended up playing on endless loop. There was something about it that contrasted so beautifully with my regimented, disciplined life as a lawyer. Here were these brilliant Scottish cool kids with their wry sense of humor and melodic irony. I pictured them sitting by fountains in the city square, sketching or whispering to each other as they give passersby sly sidelong glances. Ethereal, artistically pure, carefree. It wasn’t long afterwards that I left practicing law for a year to study Cinema at NYU. That’s what Stuart Murdoch would have done, after all.


(5) Artist: Lykke Li, Album: Youth Novels, Era: Writer Life. I found Lykke Li when I was trolling around on Youtube looking at Bon Iver videos (yes, that’s how I avoid writing). In one video, the two of them perform a duet of her song, “Dance, Dance, Dance.” Her sound was so fresh, so raw and pure. And she is so delightful, exuding an unorthodox blend of confidence and vulnerability. It was kismet. I was in the middle of editing my book when I discovered her, immersed in a strange upheaval transitioning from lawyer to writer. I needed a push. And Track 3 on her album is the song “I’m Good, I’m Gone,” which perfectly articulates the hard down-and-dirty mental and emotional labor that goes into the creative process—the way you have to force yourself to keep going, to work against your own self-doubt, and then gird yourself for judgment. She inspired me to write the post-it I kept over my desk as I moved toward the finish line: Buck. Up. And I still play that song when I need a little reminder.


Koethi Zan is the author of THE NEVER LIST (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking; On-sale July 16, 2013). Zan was born and raised in rural Alabama, then moved to New York City after earning a J.D. from Yale Law School. She practiced entertainment law for more than fifteen years, working in film, television, and theater, and most recently at MTV.  Zan now lives in an old farmhouse in upstate New York with her husband and two daughters.