Oh boy. We’re in for trouble. The greatest albums…of all time? Are they nuts? Where do they get the nerve? Wait ’til they hear my piece of mind! All thoughts racing through your temples right now. (That is, if you’re even taking the time to read this.) But, think about it: You love these lists. We do, too. But more on that in a second.
For now, try and imagine the culture we live in. The idea of learning about someone through conversation, or even something as rudimentary as spending time together, is so “old-fashioned” and so “passe.” Nope. Anything that takes longer than 30 seconds isn’t worth your time. It’s the runoff from our Facebook culture, where identity depends on how well your profile looks. Do you have an underrated band next to an acceptable mainstream group? Is your bio too long or too short? Are you quirky without trying too hard? Do you look chubby in your profile photo?
Don’t shake your head. That’s how society works these days – at least our online culture here. We’re quick to pass judgment within seconds. That’s why we try to be on our toes at all times, ready for criticism and on the defensive. (Sometimes we try to just say, “Oh, fuck it” and ignore you. But that takes patience, which comes with time. Don’t ask.) Because of this difficult and remarkable situation, we turn to “the list.”
These days, lists have become synonymous with identity. Is that a surprise? It’s a collection of someone’s opinions on an easy-to-swallow topic. Whether it’s the Top 10 Solos by Ace Frehley or the Top 10 Feel Good Hits of the Summer, you’re leaving with an impression. This impression is incredibly valuable to you, the reader, and us, the publisher. It offers some clarity for you and some air for us. We may have to wash our shirts out from the rotten tomatoes, but hell, it feels good to know we tore down the proverbial curtains.
So, what about this specific list? Is it a bit much for us to lay out what we feel are the greatest albums of all time? Sure, you could argue that. (We did. Several times. Until we finally just…decided it’d be fun to do.) However, you’d be missing the point. Despite all the forthcoming disagreements, this list summarizes where we stand with our views on music. It’s sort of a, uh, take it or leave it approach, really. Are we expecting you to agree? No. Of course not. In fact, given that this is a collective endeavor, we don’t necessarily agree with every decision made here on a personal level. But, we’d all agree that this is the best representation of how we, as a staff, rank all the albums in music history.
90. Refused – The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts
In 1998, a hardcore band from Umea, Sweden, released one of the greatest, if not the greatest, hardcore/punk albums of all time. Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come remains to this day one of the most assaulting and unpredictable albums I’ve ever heard. The album’s theme is based on the idea that hardcore and punk bands who have a political message are completely counterproductive if they keep packaging their anti-establishment message in poppy punk songs for the masses.
So Refused came along to fix that by having on-a-dime tempo changes, synth-jazz beats and breaks, and vintage recording interludes all combined with raw and angry vocals and guitar riffs and some of the best hardcore drumming of any record ever. “New Noise” encapsulates the album’s message, while “Liberation Frequency”, “Refused Party Program”, and “Protest Song ‘68” drive home Refused’s political ideologies into your brain like a Ginsu blade.
The band members put so much effort and anger into this album that it would be their last as a band. Shape of Punk to Come caused the band to famously explode during an American tour in support of the album—as seen in their documentary Refused are Fucking Dead. The epic disintegration of the band left behind a larger-than-life myth for Refused that still lives on in their final, and greatest, album. -Nick Freed
Essential Tracks: “New Noise”, “Liberation Frequency”, and “The Deadly Rhythm”
89. Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique
Whenever the Beastie Boys were namedropped in teenage conversation, the pinnacle of my knowledge sat on any one of numerous singles from Licensed To Ill and a few scattered hits about the radio stream. I thought they were funny in the way that ICP is funny or Biz Markie is funny, so whatever, right? Wrong. A couple of years ago, I saw this used copy of Paul’s Boutique in CD Warehouse for about $10 after having heard the name come up before. I played this album in the van and started picking out familiar samples — Jaws theme, Pink Floyd, Average White Band, Afrika Bambaata, The Eagles, James Brown. Beastie Boys were juvenile rappers for most of their career, but look close at 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, the predecessor to mash-ups before samples were monitored like drug traffic and WMG-censored YouTube. Lyrically, Paul’s Boutique is goofy and unintentionally clever, but musically, it has more layers than a Grand’s biscuit. -David Buchanan
Essential Tracks: “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun”, “High Plains Drifter”, and “B-Boy Bouillabaise”
88. Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral
Trent Reznor has come a long way since his one-man studio band Nine Inch Nails injected 1994’s The Downward Spiral into mainstream radio. Taking some pop aesthetic from 1989’s dance-oriented Pretty Hate Machine and grinding it up with the legendary middle finger known as the Broken EP, Reznor spat out a suicidal concept record with industrial metal roots (not to mention its ’95 remix companion). The Downward Spiral spearheaded a wave of industrial pop, nu-metal, mid-90s alternative, and the like, all alongside a leviathan called grunge rock. While the overall sound and motivation of Nine Inch Nails and its sole creator has taken dramatic shifts post-’99, despite a “fist fuck” here and a marriage there, Trent Reznor will go down in history as Mr. Self Destruct — the man who brought us “closer to God” in so many words. On that note, you know you’re awesome when Johnny Cash makes one of your songs his own personal, unplanned eulogy. -David Buchanan
Essential Tracks: “March Of The Pigs”, “Heresy”, and “Hurt”
87. N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton
Although they probably owe Schoolly D and the Park Side Killas some credit for pioneering gangsta rap, N.W.A. can proudly say that they brought this style of Ã¼ber-catchy, ultra-violent hip-hop to the mainstream. Released in 1988, Straight Outta Compton featured what would eventually become some of the genre’s biggest names — Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren – spinning tales of life in one of Los Angeles’s roughest neighborhoods over minimalist beats and scratching provided by DJ Yella and Arabian Prince. Cuts like “Fuck Tha Police” and the title track came to epitomize the West Coast sound and paved a road that led to rap music infiltrating every household in America. Even if you were from the most tranquil corners of suburbia, you tensed up, clenched your fists, and pretended you were popping off rounds when you listened to Ice Cube open the record by declaring, “When I’m called off/I get a sawed off/squeeze the trigger/and bodies are hauled off.” N.W.A. made you feel hard even though you still had to turn the volume down when your mom was home. -Ray Roa
Essential Tracks: “Straight Outta Compton”, “Fuck Tha Police”, and “Dopeman (Remix)”
86. Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
After already releasing six standout records, Elton John’s lucky number seven slapped us with piano glam rock at its finest, strutting a supersonic sound with prowess and ease. It opens with back-to-back blowouts “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” that set in motion what is still John’s most prized record to date. John had successfully become the biggest hit-maker since The Beatles, and this double record was his magnum opus. “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” easily finds itself in the top echelon of fist-pumping rock songs that get your blood boiling and your head banging.
The grandiose rock is filled with an energy unlike any of his other works, giving us a new side to the piano man. Ballads “Candle in the Wind” and the title track, along with every other hit off this record, have since become staples in pop, turning the record into an early greatest hits collection. Beyond that, deep cuts like “Grey Seal” carry the same huge presence, showing just how stacked this record really is. All of this could only come from the man in the glittery glasses who knew no limits to where his piano could take him, and thank God for it. -E.N. May
Essential Tracks: “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”, “Grey Seal”, and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
85. Michael Jackson – Off the Wall
I’ve never been one of those purists who claims that all “new” music is woefully shamed by all “old” music. For one, even prior to the Internet, the standard for “old” was nebulous at best, and two, the claim simply doesn’t hold up when you consider how inventive, or how life-altering, many records have been since we entered the modern era (whenever that was). But, if I’ve ever been tempted to cozy up to that idea, it’s been while listening, or rather, while being transfixed by a record like Off the Wall. Released in the fall of 1979, the record almost immediately affirmed the late Michael Jackson as the preeminent pop talent of his day, an instant classic that married the prevailing sounds of the funk, soul, and disco-inflected 70’s with an innovative zeal that, I’ll concede, has rarely been seen since.
Having met producer Quincy Jones while filming The Wiz, Jackson knew he’d met the man who would help him step out as a true solo artist, someone who could actualize his expansive vision in the wake of a young lifetime performing alongside his brothers. From the opening string-laced groove of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, which is perhaps the catchiest, most vibrant song I’ve ever heard, it was obvious that their creative union was nothing short of magical, a serendipitous collaboration that would subsequently yield the highest-selling album of all time, Thriller, in 1982. Contributions from Stevie Wonder on the smooth funk of “I Can’t Help It”, Paul McCartney on the tropical soul of “Girlfriend”, and Ron Temperton on the dance floor-igniting “Rock With You”, “Off the Wall”, and “Burn This Disco Out” further shaped Off the Wall into the Grammy Hall of Fame-inducted masterpiece that it is, a groundbreaking pop record for the masses that continues to be transformative even today. – Ryan Burleson
Essential Tracks: “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, “Rock With You”, and “Girlfriend”
84. The Who – Tommy
There have been many attempts at the rock opera, but none will come close to the epic that is Tommy. By 1969, The Who had already gained substantial recognition for being the loudest band, so with Tommy they decided to flex their creative muscle and write a story. In doing so they gave us some of the most recognizable riffs and themes in rock. From the anthemic strums of “Pinball Wizard” to the last notes of “Amazing Journey”, they raise the hair on the back of your neck like only The Who can do. Just how a “deaf dumb and blind” kid can actually play pinball is only one part of the story. They would try and save Tommywith Jesus and give him acid. Tommy would be ridiculed and tortured, all the while crying out, “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me”. There’s a strong and rare theatrical quality in the music when it comes to tracks like “Tommy Can You Hear Me”, “Go to The Mirror Boy”, and “Smash the Mirror”. That writing style combined with The Who’s lush instrumentals and imaginative story line have given us the gold standard for rock operas. Others have tried, but when it comes down to it, there will be only one Tommy. -E.N. May
Essential Tracks: “The Acid Queen”, “Pinball Wizard”, and “I’m Free”
83. John Lennon – Imagine
The second album by John Lennon, Imagine, stands as his best release. While the songs are less experimental and more commercial, at least in comparison to his debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, you can’t argue that “Imagine” might be one of the best songs ever written. No religion, no prejudice, and the world living as one was Lennon’s dream on this track. He would also claim that this song was as good as anything he had written with his former band The Beatles. He wouldn’t be alone in these sentiments.
On later track “How Do You Sleep?”, which actually features George Harrison on the guitar, Lennon takes a jab at former collaborator Paul McCartney, as he sings, “The only thing you done was yesterday/And since you’ve gone you’re just another day,” letting the world know that there wasn’t peace between the former bandmates. While one can argue that’s hypocritical of his album’s title track, you have to look at it in a different light. This album represents a freedom for Lennon. After one listen, it’s rather apparent he still had a lot to say about his life and the world he lived in. History will always peg him as a Beatle, but on Imagine, he lets you know there was more to that. – Kevin Barber
Essential Tracks: “Imagine”, “Jealous Guy”, and “How Do You Sleep?”
82. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
Terrible afflictions such as pain, loneliness, and insecurity have produced some of the finest art in the world, and the Smashing Pumpkin’s 1993 album, Siamese Dream, is no exception. Frontman Billy Corgan, drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, guitarist James Iha, and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky were facing some of their darkest demons while making this album, including heroin addiction, heartache, and writer’s block, all paired with Corgan’s intensely perfectionist personality and unyielding management. But with the help of producer Butch Vig, who produced their first album, Gish, as well as Nirvana’s Nevermind, they somehow managed to stick together as a band and create an album that would shape and mold the landscape of 1990’s alternative rock. -Karina Halle
Essential Tracks: “Cherub Rock”, “Hummer”, and “Soma”
81. Neil Young – Harvest
Neil Young’s 1972 solo release, Harvest, was his commercial breakthrough. Riding the wave of the number one song “Heart of Gold”, Harvest gave Young a success and credibility to his solo career that would solidify him as one of rock and folk music’s greatest artists. The album, though uneven at times, contains some of the best work of Young’s career. “Heart of Gold”, “Old Man”, and “The Needle and the Damage Done” are three of his strongest songs, and “Heart of Gold” remains Young’s only number one hit. Young instituted the help of former band mates David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, as well as friends James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt for Harvest. The success of the album allowed Young to keep pursuing his solo work, and his output in the next few years would become the best work he’d ever done. -Nick Freed
Essential Tracks: “Heart of Gold”, “Old Man”, and “The Needle and the Damage Done”
80. Paul Simon – Graceland
When Simon and Garfunkel broke up in 1970, there was little doubt that Paul Simon would go on to have a successful solo career. His angelic-voiced partner Art Garfunkel had little part in writing the songs, and it was apparent from Simon’s own pleasing voice that he could do it all on his own. Simon’s first solo album, Paul Simon, was a critical success and showed that he could dabble in alternative cultural music styles such as reggae. This curiosity and willingness to explore other types of music eventually led Simon to create the greatest album of his career, the Grammy-winning Graceland. Instead of the Jamaican, Puerto Rican, and gospel-influenced beats from his previous albums,
Graceland was conceived after Simon visited South Africa and soaked up the pulsing flavor of the pre-apartheid country. Influenced by the many different musical styles of the area, such as isicathamiya and mbaqanga, Simon took these newly discovered sounds and successfully matched them to his trademark songwriting. He recorded with African artists Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Okyerema Asante and US staple Linda Rondstadt, creating an explorative and unique album, unlike any the world had heard before, that went onto be highly influential in the pop-rock world; one look at Vampire Weekend and you can see where the connection lies. -Karina Halle
Essential Tracks: “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”, “Graceland”, and “You Can Call Me Al”
79. Björk – Post
Björk is one of few artists who could put out an album juxtaposing blistering electro-pop with big band, club-ready tribal dance with downtempo trip-hop and find both critical and commercial success. Her second album (of her adult career), Post, the title signifying a “letter” to her Iceland self after her move to England, is everything Debut was and more. She brought back Debut producer Nellee Hooper but also worked with Tricky, Howie B., and others and did plenty of production work herself. What resulted is an album where every song contributes its own voice to create a much larger sound. It’s tempting to call what Björk does on Post pop experimentation, but it never feels like she’s experimenting. The scattered, whispering minimalism on her tribute to music, “Headphones”, comes just as naturally to her as the pop hooks on angry industrial opener “Army of Me”. -Harry Painter
Essential Tracks: “Hyperballad”, “It’s Oh So Quiet”, and “Headphones”
78. Sly And The Family Stone – There’s a Riot Going On
You know all that hot fun you had in the summertime with Sly & The Family Stone? Well, watch out, ’cause summer turns cold. Taking a page out of Bitches Brew‘s book, Sly came into the ’70s with a new plan, albeit a drug-addled one. Emotions are running high, narcosis seeps and slithers throughout the album, and militant disaffection with the then state of affairs is all but pounded into ears. The lyrics “feel so good/don’t wanna move” speak to the continuum connecting the hubris of the late 60s and the stasis of Sly and his mind/society in the early 70s.
Outside of its timely relevance, the origins of hip-hop, funk, R&B, and fusion are present throughout the album. The ur-synth beat on the beginning of “Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle'” might just be the herald of 808s to come. Sadly, There’s A Riot Going On also heralds Sly’s descent into addiction. But the best album of Sly and his band’s career came in on a cloudy, groovy haze of sex, drugs, and, yeah, rock and roll, and few albums are as honest and heartbreaking and funky as this. -Nick Freed
Essential Tracks: “Family Affair”, “(You Caught Me) Smiling”, and “Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle'”
77. Cat Stevens – Tea for the Tillerman
1970’s Tea for the Tillerman continued Cat Stevens’ transition from mop-top teen idol to introspective singer-songwriter — a goal he began reaching for earlier that year with Mona Bone Jakon. However, Tillerman is more than an attempt at transformation. It’s a calling card to those entering adulthood — a warning and reminder pertaining to the thrills and challenges of leaving home. “Wild World” reminds that pretty girl from high school that “it’s hard to get by just upon a smile.” “Miles from Nowhere” and “On the Road to Find Out” provide spiritual signs along life’s highway. “Hard Headed Woman” is about finding those people who will tell you like it is and love you just as fully, while “Sad Lisa” is about the person you love who is too wrapped up in his or her own past to embrace that love. The jewel of Tillerman is “Father and Son”, which is the ultimate in awkward father-son chats, with Stevens’ stunning, alternating bass and tenor vocals painting the conversation. How is Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame again? – Justin Gerber
Essential Tracks: “Hard Headed Woman”, “Wild World”, and “Father and Son”
76. Sigur Rós – Ágætis byrjun
Densely layered with white noise, strings, choirs, the saw of a cello bow against a guitar, and sublimely indecipherable lyrics, Ágætis byrjun is both intense and ethereal and always unabashedly gorgeous. As Jónsi Birgisson howls in what is too uniquely otherworldly to be merely labeled as falsetto in both Icelandic and Vonlenska, a nonsensical language made and used by Birgisson on the title track and “Olsen Olsen”, the soundscapes that are divinely crafted by Sigur Rós on Ágætis byrjun are transformed into something completely alien. With so much feeling behind both languages, it doesn’t matter what the band is, or isn’t, saying. -Frank Mojica
Essential Tracks: “ViÃ°rar vel til loftárása”, “Starálfur”, and “Olsen Olsen”
75. Jay-Z – The Blueprint
Only eight percent of this list consists of hip-hop, so when we say Jay-Z’s The Blueprint belongs on this list, you better believe we mean it. What can be said about Jay-Z that hasn’t already been said about Pac and Biggie? No-holds-barred, the Jiggaman is widely considered the best rapper alive. Jay arrived on the scene in the early 90’s and has remained a solid presence in the rap game ever since. All 11 of his albums have debuted in the top 25, and all have achieved at least platinum status. But none was more notable than The Blueprint. Aptly named, The Blueprint laid the foundation for the future of all hip-hop. The album was a deviation from the power-hook radio hits Jay-Z and his contemporaries had been accustomed to cranking out, and it ended up being all for the best.
Instead, the album utilizes rich, intelligently placed soul-sampling that boosted not only the beats of the songs but built an immovable foundation for Jigga to throw down on. The production on this album was pioneering to say the least, and it couldn’t have been done without the cunning skills of Jay-Z to accompany it. It also helped further establish the career of an up-and-coming producer, one Kanye West, who, as we all know, has now become one of the most prominent rappers in the game. Thanks to genius production and masterful rhyming by the best rapper alive, the rap game was permanently changed for the better with the release of The Blueprint. -Winston Robbins
Essential Tracks: “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)”, “Never Change”, “Song Cry”, and “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”
74. Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks
All things considered, the 70’s were not Bob Dylan’s best period. Sure, Desire was solid, and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid produced one of his most beloved tracks (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”), but the decade also saw him release some relative clunkers like Self Portrait, Planet Waves, and Street Legal. Luckily, all the sub-par 70’s releases are overshadowed by one of Dylan’s masterpieces, 1975’s Blood on theTracks. Widely regarded as Dylan’s most personal record, even if he denies the claim, there’s no arguing the fact that the album is filled with pain. The recording sessions in 1974 came just off the heels of his messy divorce with then-wife Sara. The songs that came out of these sessions are timeless songs of heartache, loneliness, and anger that still resonate with listeners 35 years later. –Carson O’Shoney
Essential Tracks: “Tangled Up In Blue”, “Simple Twist of Fate”, and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”
73. Radiohead – Kid A
Everything was in its right place. But, clearly that wasn’t enough for Radiohead. No, these five lads had to rewrite their perfect formula. They had to take everything they knew about how to be a great rock band–which they most certainly were–and throw it down the garbage disposal, flipping the switch till it was growling and coughing up an almost entirely new entity. Few guitars, vocals filtered through ondes martenots, analog synthesizers, digital drums, clamoring traffic jam horns, and lush strings make up one the most jarring stylistic shifts of the past 20 years, and one of the finest records of the past 10. Somehow, whether by sheer, anxious determination or pure creative genius, by doing everything backwards, everything was in its right place again on Kid A, but the place just looked a hell of a lot different. -Drew Litowitz
Essential Tracks: “Kid A”, “The National Anthem”, “How to Disappear Completely”, “Idioteque”, and “Motion Picture Soundtrack”
72. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magic
Today, the Red Hot Chili Peppers stand as royalty on the radio. But back in the ’80s, the only thing you knew about “red hot chili peppers” was that, depending on the Mexican stand, you either could or couldn’t stomach them. Hardy har har. But it’s true. Unless you were hip to the California music scene, or caught a George Clinton show, you’d never know who the hell they were. Well, that’s only half true. Mother’s Milk did chart at number 52 on the Billboard Top 200, but overall? No. That is, until Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
Everything just fell into place. It would be the band’s first release with Warner Bros. Records, producer Rick Rubin would take over the controls from Michael Beinhorn, and all members had finally become comfortable with one another. For recording, the band shacked up in what’s now called The Mansion, which at the time was an old Laurel Canyon estate that had once belonged to Errol Flynn. Both drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante, to this day, claim they felt a ghostly presence while living there – so much so that Smith eventually left. (Look in the album artwork. There’s a “supernatural” surprise in one of the photos!) Over a month, they spent time writing and recording and consulting one another. This sort of bonding experience washed over into the album.
For one, it’s a very cohesive experience – each song blends into the next – and what’s more, it’s all incredibly tight. Once “The Power of Equality” kicks off the funky fellowship, it’s clear that this isn’t the band who once sang about “…Coyotes” or “Magic Johnson”. (Technically it wasn’t.) Instead, this was a band ready to take itself seriously, while having fun doing it. Despite what detractors say, they didn’t go soft here. They took their ferocity and channeled it into something that could affect or change people…not just make ’em laugh and shake. This wouldn’t be more obvious than on “Under the Bridge”, the single that still has folks turning up the dial whenever rock radio decides to plug it, which hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years. And while Californication nearly rivals it, Blood Sugar Sex Magik remains the watermark that set the Chili Peppers’ flag high above the rock and roll scene.
Modern day Rolling Stones? Pretty close. Pretty, pretty…pretty close. -Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “The Power of Equality”, “Suck My Kiss”, and “Under the Bridge”
71. Tom Waits – Rain Dogs
While most albums in this list fit this criterion, in the grand scheme of things it’s pretty rare to have an entire album that does not contain a single bad track. It’s even more rare to have an album like that when it spans 19 tracks, but that’s exactly what Tom Waits did with Rain Dogs. Some of the songs may be a little too far out there for some listeners, but every song is just as effective as the next. After years of playing the club scene with just his voice and a piano, Waits shocked everyone when he came out with the jangled and insane Swordfishtrombones in 1983. This shift in his musical style would eventually define his career, even after he moved into new territory once again. While Swordfishtrombones saw him dive off the deep end, it wasn’t until his next album that he perfected his new brand of music that was all his own.
To describe it is useless; it’s something that begs to be experienced. Waits has always had an obsession with the down-and-out deadbeats on the streets, but it was never as obvious as it is on Rain Dogs – the name itself being a reference to these same type of “urban dispossessed”, as Waits describes it. And while the lyrics often deal with the bizarre side of things (“The captain is a one-armed dwarf/he’s throwing dice along the wharf”), they’re often as universally affecting as his earlier work (“Tear the promise from my heart, tear my heart today/ You have found another, oh baby I must go away”). Waits’ songwriting ability is also put on display on tracks like “Downtown Train”, which eventually became a top-five hit when Rod Stewart covered it four years later. There are many essential records in Tom Waits’ long and storied career, but Rain Dogs might be the most essential of them all. –Carson O’Shoney
Essential Tracks: “Singapore”, “Anywhere I Lay My Head”, and “Big Black Mariah”
70. The Beatles – Rubber Soul (UK Version)
It’s difficult to make one of the greatest albums of all time (understatement of this and the previous century). The Beatles made several, and Rubber Soul is undoubtedly amongst them. That tremendous bass and guitar to open up “Drive My Car”, courtesy of legends (again, an understatement) Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The only Lennon/McCartney/Starkey credit in the band’s discography, “What Goes On” is one of Ringo’s finest moments. “I’m Looking Through You” is one of McCartney’s finest offerings, with the scream of “You’re not the same!” providing one of the highlights of an album chock-full of them. However, this is John Lennon’s album. Picture Rubber Soul without the sitar-infused “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, the somber “Nowhere Man”, the sensual “Girl”, the dark “Run for Your Life”, and arguably the greatest love song of them all, “In My Life”. It’s hard to imagine that later Beatles records actually managed to top it. -Justin Gerber
Essential Tracks: “Drive My Car”, “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, and “In My Life”
69. The Smiths – The Smiths
“It’s time the tale were told/Of how you took a child/And you made him old.” From the initial lyrics of “Reel Around the Fountain”, we knew The Smiths’ self-titled debut was destined for classic status. Morrissey’s dour lyrics juxtaposed against Johnny Marr’s lifting guitar only made this more apparent. The theme of child abuse is prevalent throughout (“Reel Around the Fountain”, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”, “Suffer Little Children”) but somehow made bearable by that aforementioned guitar, soothing our fears while Morrissey recites nightmares both fact and fiction. The singer’s ambiguous persona is on display, as well, whether in the passenger seat of “This Charming Man” or arm-in-arm in “Hand in Glove”. Given the success of The Smiths, the multitude of fantastic singles, and a couple more classic albums, it’s hard to believe just three years later it would be over. Genius band, genius album. -Justin Gerber
Essential Tracks: “Reel Around the Fountain”, “Hand in Glove”, and “What Difference Does it Make”
68. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Looking back to ’98, Lauryn Hill seemed primed to have a huge solo career ahead of her, especially after her stint with The Fugees. Instead, there was nothing. Well, not nothing. There’s always The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which notched eight Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and Best New Artist, earning Hill all the praise from the industry and media she wanted. Instead of following up, she just, well, quit. Only recently has her name come up as she plans her follow-up. 12 years for a follow-up is one hell of a hiatus.
But what an album to follow. It could be considered one of the best solo female albums ever recorded. Full of soul and passion, you can hear and feel the messages she tries to get across about God, love, motherhood, and life. “To Zion”, one of the album’s finest songs, speaks of putting family first over the music business, which she eventually did. With a perfect blend of hip-hop, R&B, gospel, and soul, Hill brings this album to life, working from a vocal range that (arguably) still goes unmatched today. –Kevin Barber
Essential Tracks: “Doo Wop (That Thing)”, “To Zion”, and “Everything is Everything”
67. Leonard Cohen – Songs of Leonard Cohen
Infinitely imitated and infinitely respected, Songs of Leonard Cohen sounds like an apocalypse when we listen to it today. His mellow, dejected folk mapped out a hollow blueprint for what Jack Black referred to as “sad bastard music” in High Fidelity. Ironically, it was Judy Collins who first cut and recorded the immortal “Suzanne”, the album’s memorable lead track. Spare and affected, Cohen’s delivery worked all the more because of the late 60s psychedelia his music eschewed.
Recently crowned indie-rock royalty The National accidentally swapped instruments with Cohen before a show in Brooklyn this past summer and patently refused to use Cohen’s instruments out of respect for his songwriting. There’s a certain command that Cohen’s music respects at this point in his career, and that says just as much about Songs of Leonard Cohen as his unassuming guitar lines and his pensively personal lyrics. Like his contemporaries Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen’s debut clued us in that he was here to stay. -Eric Vilas-Boas
Essential Tracks: “Suzanne”, “So Long, Marianne”, and “Sisters of Mercy”
66. Devo – Duty Now For the Future
Duty Now For the Future doesn’t feature any songs about whipping, monkey men, or the illusion of a “beautiful world”, but the album is pure Devo. Duty Now is first and foremost a punk-rock album, flirting lasciviously with the mysterious force that would become new wave, and was among the first rock albums from a major label to heavily feature synthesizers. Guitars and electronic instruments have never purred so sweetly together before or since.
The album set precedents for how raw art-house rock can be and how surrealist punk rock can get. Everything from the government to burger commercials are touched upon, and many songs are steeped in sexual tension and masculine fury. Duty Now harbors the manic sensibilities of every underground comic ever published, with the cartoon horniness of Tex Avery’s Big Bad Wolf – pop art and punk rock’s plastic-wrapped bastard baby, a perfect specimen of devolution. -Cap Blackard
Essential Tracks: “Smart Patrol/ Mr. DNA”, “Clockout”, “Wiggly World”, and “The Day My Baby Gave Me a a Surprize”
65. Arcade Fire – Funeral
At the beginning of my senior year in college, my new neighbor, future music guru, and inevitable lifelong friend invited me up to his apartment because there was something I had to hear. The song was “Rebellion (Lies)”, and it was like nothing I had heard at that point. The pulsing drumbeat, the slow build, the giant finish, the words “sleeping is giving in” that rang too true. The wild ride Arcade Fire had on the horizon sounds like PR hype, but it came from people we knew, straight from our friends’ mouths. The performances with motorcycle helmets and flashlights, the sunset Coachella set that every other music festival performance seems to stand in the shadow of, performing with David Bowie, and ultimately living up to the promise with two more impressive and career-building records.
But none will ever be Funeral, a record that really needed none of the mythology. It worked in a tiny bedroom with two dudes quietly listening and being taken aback. With showstopping moments including the aforementioned track, future NFL anthem “Wake Up”, and album opener “Tunnels (Neighborhood #1)”, it took no time to grow on listeners and never has gotten old. At six years old, it still sounds fresh and exciting, yet it’s also comfortable on a list with the rock and roll classics. Unlike them, however, the ripples of this one are still being felt. At the very least, this album was instrumental in me meeting my dear friend. Either way it’s a win. -Philip Cosores
Essential Tracks: “Wake Up”, “Rebellion (Lies)”, and “Haiti”
64. The Doors – The Doors
The self-titled debut album from acid-rockers The Doors was released in 1967, climbing to No. 2 on the Billboard charts and achieving multi-platinum status. Featuring 11 tracks mostly penned by the poetic frontman Jim Morrison, the album has stood up to the test of time and is an essential component of any serious music collection. Featuring the hit single “Light My Fire” and covers of the scat-filled “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)” and “Back Door Man”, this album launched The Doors into their current status as classic rock icons. The fittingly titled “The End” closes out the album with nearly 12 minutes of singing, talking, storytelling, and guttural screaming over haunting guitar riffs. This album was just the beginning for the band that created music that has endured long after Morrison’s untimely death just four years after the release of this debut album. Its influence is rampant. Just look at old performances by Ian Curtis, or ask Iggy Pop. –Kelly Quintanilla
Essential Tracks: “Break on Through (To the Other Side)”, “Light My Fire”, and “The End”
63. R.E.M. – Document
If you were young in the 90’s, R.E.M. was a gigantic enigma that didn’t tour and seemed to continually increase in popularity without capitalizing on any of it. Like U2, they were larger than life, thus making it hard to believe that at one point they were shy southern boys who made jangly college rock that was indebted to The Velvet Underground. We live with indie bands rising to fame all around us, but in the early 80’s, it was weird to be a musician and be understated. Also, remember that this wasn’t the era of overnight sensations, and it wasn’t a swift shift from indie darlings to pop juggernaut, it was a metamorphosis over five albums, and Document would be their last as an “indie.”
Purists may cite Murmur or Reckoning as the more influential album, and pop historians could point out Out of Time or Automatic for the People as greater crowd pleasers, but Document is about the only time you will ever please both camps. It was their first platinum release and contained their first top 10 hit with “The One I Love”, yet this R.E.M. still had the balls to throw a cover of Wire’s “Strange” on side one. And then there is a little song called “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, R.E.M.’s signature song in a back catalog full of signature songs. It was the tune that took us from the 80’s straight through to Y2K. After the world didn’t end with the year 2000, you seemed to hear it a little less, but go see R.E.M. in concert and there is a good chance you’ll here it at the end. -Philip Cosores
Essential Tracks: “Exhuming McCarthy”, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, and “The One I Love”
62. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
The definitive Bible of underground hip-hop. No album was rawer, grittier, or better-crafted than Wu-Tang Clan’s opus, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). They were a group to fear (after all, they knew karate) and made it known in the first 20 seconds of “Bring Da Ruckus”. On the opening track, Wu-Tang sounds like they’re begging you to bring on the heat, because they know as a collective crew, they could hold together through anything.
This album showed the kind of ethic they would keep for the rest of their careers both on group and solo efforts. The way Raekwon and Ghostface trade off lines together on “Can It Be All so Simple” is some of the finest swapping in hip-hop. The flow and beat from Inspectah Deck and RZA on “C.R.E.A.M.” will forever stand as one of hip-hop’s finest lyrical and production achievements. Not to mention, the raw and fantastic verses spit by legends Ol’ Dirty Bastard on “Shame on a Nigga” and Method Man on his biographical track stand as some of the best rhymes in hip-hop to date. Wu-Tang created an empire, and this was the first and most essential brick within it. -Ted Maider
Essential Tracks: “Protect Ya Neck”, the only track on the album to feature almost all members.
61. Green Day – Dookie
Green Day broke into the mainstream with Dookie, perfectly timed to arrive hot on the Doc Martens heels of the grunge scene. The California-based band fronted by Billie Joe Armstrong and rounded out by bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tre Cool found success by fusing the anti-establishment nature of its punk rock roots with a grunge appearance, backed by catchy pop melodies and hooks. Exploring everything from panic attacks to masturbation to bisexuality, the lyrics struck a chord with fans of all ages and positioned Green Day as the modern punk band for the masses.
Released in 1994, the band’s third and best-selling album found commercial success, reaching number two on the Billboard charts and scoring a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. The band was accused of “selling out” by previous followers of the underground punk scene, but Dookie found a way to reinvigorate interest in the original punk legends by serving as an entry-level punk record and giving a voice to rebellious teens who didn’t actually have a lot to rebel against in the relatively placid mid-1990s. –Kelly Quintanilla
Essential Tracks: “Basket Case”, “When I Come Around”, and “Longview”
60. The Band – Music From Big Pink
The Band never quite fit in with the 60s and 70s rock scene. They weren’t political, they constantly switched instruments, and they loved their families. Sure, there were drugs and women, but while other groups made songs out of such decadent behavior, The Band remained firmly rooted in tradition, filtering all of their lyrical subject matter (even the love songs) through a lens of mountainous, archaic Americana, spinning yarns about courageous settlers and the Civil War. What kept it from being corny was their sense of communal musicianship, their chestnut lyrics set ablaze by each member’s skills, and their debut album, Music From Big Pink, which captured them at the peak of their powers, before all the legal squabbles, back when they were just five fellas playing music in a cavernous house in the Catskills (the namesake of the album).
Listen to Big Pink and you can feel each member in the room. There are no stage hogs and everyone stands out. You remember Garth Hudson’s Captain Nemo organ solo on “Chest Fever” just as well as you remember the stacked harmonies and traded leads of Levon Helm and Rick Danko on “The Weight”. And let’s not forget the back bayou thump of their rhythm chops either. Robbie Robertson really cooks on “Caledonia Mission”, and Richard Manuel’s aching pipes drench the entire album in earnest, alcoholic tears, especially on closer “I Shall Be Released”, inevitably performed by some of the surviving members at his funeral in 1986. Behind the tumble and prophecy of Big Pink‘s elaborate orchestration was a heart so wonderfully simple in times that were not. -Dan Caffrey
Essential Tracks: “Chest Fever”, “The Weight”, and “I Shall Be Released”
59. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
Talk about turning the card on the sophomore slump. Today, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless stands as a testament to the beauty of sonic chaos. Originally believed by the band’s label, Creation, to be recorded in five days, the 48:36 seconds of absolute sonic bliss came to fruition after a series of catastrophic incidents. The laundry list includes dementia, bankruptcy, tinnitus, and isolation. One label head’s hair even turned gray. But like anything in art, perfection never surfaces without its share of consequences. Under a multitude of churning, whirly guitars and a bookshelf of harmonies, the diamond-like sequencing of Loveless sucks you into the madness, as well. But, it’s a beautiful trip that’s unique to the creative mind of Kevin Shields and one that nobody’s been able to replicate since. -Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Soon”, “To Here Knows When”, and “Only Shallow”
58. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
Many bands break up because of infighting, but Fleetwood Mac may have been the first to be threatened by insleeping. When recording for Rumours began, the band dynamic was heading straight to hell. One band couple (Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks) broke up. A second (John and Christine McVie) got divorced. Emotional/sexual bonds formed, broke, then reformed in new configurations. Everyone cheated on everyone else in a series of many-strings-attached encounters. By the time the band hit the studio, pretty much no one was speaking to anyone else.
Unlike the more collaborative effort of previous albums, Buckingam, Nicks, and Christine McVie wrote most of the songs separately. In perhaps the most brutal moment, McVie wrote “You Make Loving Fun” about her affair with Fleetwood Mac’s lighting designer and made her cuckolded husband play bass on it. As devastating as the lyrics are to these songs, the pop production lifts them above dreary anguish. The tune of “Go Your Own Way” bounces along, seemingly oblivious to its heart-wrenching lyrics. “The Chain” turns bitter rejection into a series of sing-along hooks. This tension between pain and pleasure infuses the album with its conflicted character. Never has heartbreak been so much fun. –Ray Padgett
Essential Tracks: “Second Hand News”, “The Chain”, and “Oh Daddy”
57. Genesis – Genesis
As both a prog-rock band and a pop-rock band, Genesis never produced anything short of incredible albums, but it was when they straddled both genres equally that the band showed its greatest strengths. Genesis’ cusp period is the very definition of art-pop, and no record evokes this more clearly than their 1983 self-titled album. Genesis is a tour de force of the Collins-era band at their most creative. Every facet of the band is represented: dark pulpy narratives like “Mama” and “Home by the Sea”, goofy but brilliant tracks like “Illegal Alien” and “Silver Rainbow”, and masculine pop hits “That’s All” and “Just a Job to Do”.
The production is crisp and inspired, from the opening sound collage of “Illegal Alien” to the mystical synth noises of “Silver Rainbow” and the funky breakdowns of “Just a Job to Do”; every track is simple, honest, brilliance. In this day and age when every new act gets hung up on who they’re taking inspiration from and who they hope to sound like, it’s albums like this that listeners can turn to to remind themselves what a truly original art-pop record sounds like. – Cap Blackard
Essential Tracks: “Mama”, “Home by the Sea”, “Just a Job to Do”, and “That’s All”
56. The Who – Quadrophenia
Tommy may be their most well-known album, and Who’s Next is the record that propelled them to superstardom, but for many Who fans, Quadrophenia is the British quartet at their most ambitious. Released in 1973, Pete Townshend and company put together a brilliant coming-of-age story of a young mod in Britain during the band’s formative years. From the tenacity of “The Real Me” to the overwhelming power of “Love Reign O’er Me”, Quadrophenia truly encapsulates Townshend’s genius as a songwriter.
Unlike Tommy, this album is a straightforward, no-frills rocker that gives Roger Daltrey the ability to show his incredible vocal range and elevates him to rock god, while John Entwistle’s rock-solid bass and Keith Moon’s manic drumming lay the perfect foundation that allows for their bandmates to shine. Townshend is one of the only musicians to have the ability to add a synthesizer without sounding out of place. His tactical use of synthesizers on songs like “5:15” and “The Sand and The Sea” adds depth and becomes an essential addition for each track.
Though it doesn’t feature any songs on the CSI soundtrack, it’s fair to say that Quadrophenia is The Who at the top of its game, and that’s saying something. –Daniel Kohn
Essential Tracks: “The Punk and The Godfather”, “5:15”, and “Love Reign O’er Me”
55. Prefab Sprout – Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen has been called both the Pet Sounds of the 80s and one of the most perfect pop albums ever made – serious praise that it rightly deserves. The album is an example of incredible songwriting given the gift of likewise incredible and intelligent production, a once-every-planetary-cycle happenstance. The tracks are written in a classical style, derived directly from the high-water mark set by George Gershwin and Brian Wilson but mimicking neither.
Frontman and songwriter Paddy McAloon’s unique personality shines through in lyrics laced with clever cynicism (“I hear you’ve got a new girlfriend. How’s the wife taking it?”) and heartfelt irreverence (the spite shown towards Heaven in“When the Angels” for the murder of Marvin Gaye). Each song was handpicked from McAloon’s back catalog by producer and keyboardist Thomas Dolby, turning simple acoustic tracks into lavishly produced and timeless pop masterpieces. -Cap Blackard
Essential Tracks: “Faron Young”, “Goodbye Lucille #1”, “Bonny”, and “When the Angels”
54. The Strokes – Is This It (UK Version)
In the years that spanned the close of the ’90s and the beginning of the millennium, it seemed as though all music would be electronic in this brave new century we found ourselves in. Bands like The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers were burning up the dance charts, the rock charts, the pop charts—all of the charts, really—with their fledgling new genre, electronica. Guitars and amplifiers would most certainly be a thing of the past in 2001.
Is This It? put that school of thought to rest with the first few new notes of its title track. It boasted fuzzy amps, an organically monotone voice, and catchy self-loathing lyrics for those who loved Lou Reed both ironically and sincerely. In just under an hour, Is This It? managed to make New York City music cool again and saved rock and roll at one of the most crucial points since the advent of disco. -Christine DiPaolo
Essential Tracks: “Soma”, “Hard to Explain”, and “NYC Cops”
53. Bob Marley & the Wailers – Exodus
I kid you not, the following events are 100% true. I was in a gas station near the University of Utah, waiting to hand the cashier my money, when on comes the Bob Marley song “Waiting In Vain”. No big deal, right? Happens all the time. Well, this particular afternoon was a different story. A very large, bearded African American man in the back of the store (who was most unmistakably inebriated) began to sing along with the song at the top of his lungs. After a few lines, he staggered up one of the aisles and began serenading myself and the cashier, who looked as though he was certainly part of some sort of biker gang. The cashier laughed in confusion and looked at me like I knew how to handle this sort of situation. I looked back at the drunk man to find that he’d changed his path to sing to a confused cyclist who had just stumbled into the store.
When I looked back at the cashier, I found, much to my surprise, that he, too, had begun singing and swaying emphatically. And then the guy pointed at me to join in. I did so hesitantly, and much to my relief, so did the cyclist. It was seriously a real-life, feel-good moment straight out of Newsies, and one that I’ll remember forever. My point in telling you this is that Bob Marley spans every demographic. I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, or what you do, you know the words to all these songs, and they all make you feel good. Honestly, any BM album could have made this list, but Exodus plays more like a greatest hits collection than a standard LP. Bob Marley (along with help from Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, and others) put reggae on the map and legitimized the genre in world culture, simultaneously making it accessible to every demographic. Exodus is the most candid example of Marley’s timeless charisma and musicianship. -Winston Robbins
Essential Tracks: “Jammin'”, “Waiting In Vain”, and “One Love”
52. The Replacements – Let It Be
Who would have thought four twenty-somethings from Minneapolis could produce something so timeless, so vital, and so vivid? Back in 1984, when The Replacements dished out their magnum opus, Let It Be, nobody did. While all eyes were on Prince at the time, Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars, and Bob Stinson created pure, unadulterated rock and roll. With his heart on his sleeve, Westerberg poured his love, his loss, and his inhibitions into each and every lyric, note, chord, and yelp.
On “Androgynous”, the first hit of the piano strikes your nerves, tugging at your eyes, and by the time Westerberg sings, “Future outcasts, they don’t last”, you’re right there beside him – in the dusty bar, within the late hours of a week night, and with nobody to hold onto but the music. That’s everything The Replacements were meant to be…and here they do that in every note, over 11 tracks, and for 33 minutes and 31 seconds. It’s not an album, it’s a life preserver. -Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Sixteen Blue”, “Unsatisfied”, and “Androgynous”
51. Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
The farther we get from the the 80’s, the harder it is to explain Sonic Youth, because to each generation the sound loses a bit of its edge while still remaining difficult and, at times, even abrasive. And most kids don’t want a history lesson telling them why Sonic Youth is good and important. They want to simply hear it and like it, as music tends to be one of the most self-explanatory likable things we have. But not Sonic Youth. They had a lot to reconcile. How would you create meaningful music in their hardcore circles while remaining true to what often seemed like polarized leanings? Looking to The Velvet Underground for inspiration as much as Black Flag and Minor Threat, Sonic Youth were in the punk circle yet could dwell on finding beauty in noise rather than just in rebellion. It’s not easy to use these established musical platforms to create something that can make you uncomfortable, enthralled, excited, and heartbroken within the same improvised jam.
And while no one will ever tell you that Sonic Youth is for everyone, no one will deny that maybe their goals for their art were a little loftier than their contemporaries, and appropriately, on Daydream Nation, when their sound became fully realized, their lofty goals yielded lofty results. But don’t let this scare you. If Sonic Youth was that hard to get, we wouldn’t be celebrating them. Daydream Nation was their most listenable record at that point, an album even casual music listeners could approach and enjoy. And with “Teen Age Riot”, they had themselves an honest-to-god anthem. One of the best of all time, perhaps. Could they have just made more tunes like this and pleased a hell of a lot of people? I imagine, but where would the fun be in that? Doing things their way, Sonic Youth have managed to stay relevant for nearly 30 years. And it’s because of Daydream Nation that the relationships, the public interest, and the continually adventurous sounds have held together. -Philip Cosores
Essential Tracks: “Teen Age Riot”, “Hey Joni”, and “The Sprawl”
50. Prince and The Revolution – Purple Rain
In the summer of 1984, Purple Rain dropped as a soundtrack to the cult film of the same name and instantly cemented the status of one Prince Rogers Nelson as a superstar. Having already tasted crossover success with 1999, it is with Purple Rain that Prince made his full-fledged foray into the worlds of rock and pop by fusing them with funk, R&B, and even a touch of heavy metal. From the creepy organ solo at the beginning of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the bass-free dance floor hit “When Doves Cry”, Purple Rain is an album that defies convention. After all, the most lascivious song on this sensual album ends with a backwards coda containing the hidden message of the Lord’s imminent return. Ambition and genre-bending weirdness aside, Purple Rain is also memorable for its infectious hooks and riffs that represent pop music at its most delightful. 26 years later, Purple Rain still sounds fresh and gripping and remains the greatest soundtrack of all time. -Frank Mojica
Essential Tracks: “Let’s Go Crazy”, “When Doves Cry”, and “Darling Nikki”
49. Black Sabbath – Paranoid
This is the reason metal exists. While Black Sabbath’s debut was pretty good, it’s Paranoid that supplied the spark for everyone from Metallica to Slayer. This is a more immediate and rockier album than the scary, sometimes sluggish mood of their first LP. The one-two opening punch of “War Pigs” and “Paranoid” is one of the best in all of metal. But the eerie nature of their debut still had its place on songs like “Electric Funeral”. Dealing with everything from drugs to apocalyptic warfare, it created the blueprint that all future thrashers followed. -Joe Marvilli
Essential Tracks: “War Pigs”, “Paranoid”, “Iron Man”, and “Electric Funeral”
48. Iggy & the Stooges – Raw Power
Although credited as the unofficial birth of punk rock, The Stooges’ third (and last great) album was largely dismissed at the time of its release, and it’s easy to see why. The original cut was tinny and poorly mixed, drenched in nothing but James Williamson’s shark tooth guitar and the Asheton brothers’ speedball rhythm section, which left Iggy Pop’s snarling vocals largely drowned out.
It wasn’t until the various subsequent remasters that listeners realized just how nasty this thing really was, all spit and apocalyptic imagery with napalm classics like “Search And Destroy” and the rusted tambourine jangle of the title track. The steady, acoustic pace of “Gimme Danger” may convince some that Detroit’s favorite bastard son was going soft, but listen to the lyrics. “There’s nothing alive but a pair of glassy eyes” is as romantic as this album gets. -Dan Caffrey
Essential Tracks: “Search And Destroy”, “Gimme Danger”, and “Raw Power”
47. Dr. Dre – The Chronic
Rap music was already shaking the ground in the early 90s, but Dr. Dre’s solo debut, The Chronic, brought the fucking house down. The warnings to play this album on home stereos, preferably in a residential area, were no joke. The Chronic bumped louder and harder than anything else in hip-hop up to that point (except for maybe Dre’s six-four). Nothing beats a sonic introduction of Calvin Broadus, aka Snoop Doggy Dogg, who at the time was unknown to most ears around the world.
But when “Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)” starts out, you know his voice was perfect, complimenting Dr. Dre’s low, slow flow on the entire album. That track is stellar, as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg call out all those who have fucked with Dre in the past, showing that the new Dre is even harder. Not to mention several head-turning glimpses of hood-life like “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”, “Lyrical Gangbang”, and “Lil’ Ghetto Boy”. On this album, Dr. Dre and Snoop showed the world how united their crew was in a place where everything else seemed divided, and that they were not the people to mess with. -Ted Maider
Essential Tracks: “Nuthin’ But a G’ Thang”, “Lyrical Gangbang”, and “Lil’ Ghetto Boy”
46. The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main St.
The Stones’ 10th album came during their most decadent and hedonistic period. With the band settling in France in 1971 to avoid tax troubles in England, the Stones set up shop near Nice where Keith Richards rented a villa and recorded songs that were written between 1968 and 1972. These legendary sessions defined the adage “sex, drugs and rock and roll” before it became cliché. From these drug-fueled sessions came some of the best work of the band’s career and the album that defined early ‘70s rock and roll. Exile takes the best elements of country, blues, and R&B and makes them the band’s own.
This, combined with the warm feeling of having been recorded in Richards’ basement, puts you in a manic frenzy that hits you so hard and fast that you have no choice but to listen. Mick Jagger’s charisma and frustration with the band’s legal situation are evident from the get-go when he sings, “I only get my rocks off while I’m sleeping” on the record’s opener. Songs like “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy” remain staples in the band’s live set, while others like “Shine A Light” and “Soul Survivor” sound as energetic and powerful as they did when recorded 38 years ago.
The Rolling Stones’ angst and tension within their personal lives during this tumultuous period were channeled musically, and Exile is one of the most revered albums of the band’s illustrious career. –Daniel Kohn
Essential Tracks: “Tumbling Dice”, “Rip This Joint”, and “Happy”
45. Nick Drake – Pink Moon
Be it posthumous mythicism or…Volkswagen, Nick Drake finally became recognized in the 21st century, the least of which was that his songs wound up on everyone’s “Night Driving” mix, the most of which was his deserved recognition as a true father of folk. His third album, Pink Moon, strips away all the production of his previous efforts so much so that the piano tinkling on the title track almost sounds a little too much.
Even with this album clocking in at under 30 minutes–undoubtedly the shortest album on this list–Drake’s songs conjure up the pith of melancholy, loneliness, and sparsity with just an acoustic guitar, his whispered British baritone, and his chilling lyrics. You put on this album at night, alone, and you can almost feel Drake at the end of his rope. Like Jeff Mangum after him, you feel anxious entering into his world, like his parasite could actually attach to you. It’s probably good this album is only 30 minutes. -Jeremy D. Larson
Essential Tracks: “Pink Moon”, “Know”, and “Parasite”
44. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
One of the geneses of fusion, this is an album of ideas. Cool ideas born from Miles’ years as a bebop jazz blower and flung into Columbia’s 30th St. recording studios and simmered for three days straight. What’s ironic is that the sonics on this album are anything but fused. Layers of Wayne Shorter’s sax, Chic Corea’s keys, and the amazing Jack DeJohnette on percussion cohere at points, but it’s the struggle of the band to absorb the musical ideas, the push and pull of the polyrhythms and modal soloing that make Bitches Brew so rewarding. Signifying a shift in jazz, the roots of fusion and funk, and displaying Davis’s range as a musician, this 1970 staple demands a lot from the listener whether they’re versed in jazz or not, but the fruits of the work taste so sweet. Also of note, it’s not the possessive Bitch’s Brew, so the directive of the album title makes the music all the more ferocious. -Jeremy Larson
Essential Tracks: “Bitches Brew” and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”
43. David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Let’s just be honest here: This is the definitive glam-rock record. There are plenty more great ones from T. Rex’s Electric Warrior to Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes, but no one did it quite as well as David Bowie. By letting his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, take over, Bowie ascended to new heights. In doing so, he also just so happened to make one of the best concept records ever.
Who else could make an album about an androgynous alien from Mars who becomes a huge rock star in the final years of Earth’s existence and make it one of the most loved and revered albums ever? The correct answer is no one. David Bowie is a singular personality (albeit, he’s gone through multiple personalities), and his Ziggy Stardust years remain one of his most popular stylistic periods. The album, with all its funk, glam, rock, pop, and soul, was unlike anything anyone had heard at that point, and it has never been replicated since. –Carson O’Shoney
Essential Tracks: “Suffragette City”, “Moonage Daydream”, and “Ziggy Stardust”
42. Bruce Springsteen – Darkness On The Edge Of Town
If you trace the lyrical arc of Bruce Springsteen’s career, each of his early albums got progressively more optimistic, culminating in the comet urgency of Born To Run. Even the more tragic characters of that record radiated some sense of hope. This all changed with Darkness On The Edge Of Town, kicking off a string of records that would examine the more dismal aspects of American working life, a haunted despair that would reach its apex on 1982’s Nebraska. While there are still some celebratory moments on Darkness (each side kicks off with a whiplash cry for escape – “Badlands” and “The Promised Land”), the majority of the songs introduce us to characters or situations devoid of all hope.
We know that the protagonist of “Candy’s Room” will never get through to the drug-addled object of his affection. We know that the marriage in “Racing In The Streets” will eventually succumb to the narrator’s hazardous lifestyle and the banalities of domestic life. Even the E Street Band, so orchestral on Born To Run, are stark and stripped down here, with most songs driven by the rainfall echo of Roy Bittan’s piano. The guitar work is sparse as well, centering around Springsteen’s and Steven Van Zandt’s singular solos as opposed to the wall of guitars that trumpeted their last outing. Sax titan Clarence Clemons has plenty to do on “Badlands” but mainly stays on handheld percussion elsewhere. Tonally, Darkness was the beginning of the end until Born In The U.S.A., a fascinating portrait of a musician beginning to lose hope in his own dream. -Dan Caffrey
Essential Tracks: “Something in the Night”, “Candy’s Room”, and “Adam Raised a Cain”
41. Patti Smith – Horses
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Those eight words, the first spoken on Horses, encapsulate the album’s major themes. Rebellion. Irreverence. A middle finger to society. If etiquette demands that girls wear dresses and shave their armpits, etiquette can suck it. The attitude on this debut earned Patti Smith the title “Godmother of Punk,” but the nickname is misleading. From the beginning, Smith was more poet than punk. Her hyper-literate lyrics referenced Rimbaud and Verlaine, imbuing each syllable with meaning. The album opens with a quasi-cover of Them’s frat-rock classic “Gloria”. In it, Smith becomes a woman on the prowl, her sexually predatory verses stalking boys, girls, and anyone else she takes a lusting to.
Just listen to how she yowls “G-L-O-R-I-A”, spitting out the letters ahead of the beat as if ridding herself of a foul taste. Her ferocious delivery gives Horses its fire, but often overlooked in the equation is the backing band. Anchored by longtime associates Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty on guitar and drums, the crack combo show an unusual diversity for a punk band. They slip effortlessly from the island reggae of “Redondo Beach” to the raucous thrash of “Free Money”. The band’s ebb and flow help Smith push two songs to the 10-minute mark: the stream of consciousness “Birdland” and the rape-rocker “Land”. The album celebrates life even as it condemns it, marveling at society’s hypocrisies. “Because the Night” made Smith famous, but Horses made her a legend. –Ray Padgett
Essential Tracks: “Gloria”, “Free Money”, and “Land: Horses / Land of a Thousand Dances / La Mer (De)”
40. The Beatles – Revolver
No list of greatest albums would be complete without Revolver. It’s the first curveball of The Beatles’ back catalog — a set of pop songs dressed up in reverse guitar, feedback, loops, and strings. Where to begin? There is George Harrison’s sneering commentary and Paul McCartney’s genius bass/lead guitar work on “Taxman”. Lie down for the night to John Lennon’s hazy “I’m Only Sleeping”, and jump out of bed the next morning to “And Your Bird Can Sing”.
For classical music, the album provides the eerie strings of “Eleanor Rigby” against the big bouncy horns of “Got to Get You into My Life”, both McCartney highlights. The standout, of course, is Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”, a track that clocks in under three minutes yet features the likes of a sitar, organ, tape loops, tambourine, piano, guitar, bass, and drums. Revolver is The Beatles’ bridge record — a display of what they once were and what they were about to become. – Justin Gerber
Essential Tracks: “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Eleanor Rigby”, and “Taxman”
39. Meat Loaf – Bat Out of Hell
I rarely remember where I buy a record, but I remember precisely where I got Bat Out of Hell: the Virgin Megastore in Times Square. I cannot imagine a more fitting place to discover this album. Like Times Square, Bat Out of Hell represents American culture taken to the limit. Both are flashy, neon, larger-than-life to the point of absurdity. Bat Out of Hell often gets compared to Born to Run, but it took Springsteen’s masterpiece even further. Sure, it features the same small-town themes, epic production, and even personnel (the E Street Band’s Max Weinberg and Roy Bitten play on Bat), but where Born to Run provides a nuanced look at the trials and triumphs of kids bursting out of small town America, Meat Loaf throws subtlety out the window.
Everything here is bigger. “Bat Out of Hell” turns “Born to Run” into a 10-minute roar, throwing motorcycle sound effects and “Leader of the Pack” melodrama into the pot. The three-part “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” echoes “Jungleland” but adds in a baseball announcer to narrate the backseat hookup. Even as things get increasingly ridiculous, Meat Loaf never cracks a smile. The utter lack of irony adds an endearing charm. At some point during your teenage years, there’s probably a brief moment where all this will seem deadly serious. The rest of the time, it’s just fun to join the ride. –Ray Padgett
Essential Tracks: “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, “Bat Out of Hell”, and “All Revved Up with No Place Go”
38. Pink Floyd – The Wall
Some will call this bassist Roger Waters’ personal soapbox while pinning the Floyd’s magnum opus dedication to Dark Side Of The Moon, and in truth, this is probably best. If Dark Side is meant to tread the full spectrum of humanity’s emotional expanse, then The Wall is a magnifying glass on the heart of isolation and insanity. I know explaining the concept in detail will seem redundant by now (see: Rock History 101), so I won’t ramble on about that, but here’s a better point to make. Why did The Wall make our list? Its story is frantic yet cathartic, the music is theatrical, the chaos is tangible, and the film version features a talking anus and Bob Geldof in key roles without seeming too unstable. All of you probably know someone a bit like The Wall’s main character, someone depressed and withdrawn and ready to explode; this is The Wall, a psychiatrist’s wet dream and my favorite concept album to date. -David Buchanan
Essential Tracks: “Mother”, “Another Brick In The Wall (Pts 1-3)”, and “Comfortably Numb”
37. The Police – Synchronicity
The Police’s swan song is also arguably their best. While every record was chock full of hits, Synchronicity puts the rest to shame with the amount of classics. Not only does it include the worst wedding song ever in “Every Breath You Take”, it also moves through various moods in every track. From the social commentary of “Synchronicity II” to the dark, dramatic “King of Pain”, Sting’s songwriting is at its peak here. While it was a shame when the group called it quits, there’s no better closing soundtrack to their career than Synchronicity. -Joe Marvilli
Essential Tracks: “King of Pain”, “Synchronicity II”, and “Every Breath You Take”
36. Stevie Wonder – Talking Book
Name a Stevie Wonder album from the 1970s, and it could probably be on this list. As the second in his five-album “classic period”, Talking Book deserves its place on our list for a number of reasons. Despite this being his 15th album, the record sees Wonder access new and often unfound creative freedoms from the strict confines of Motown R&B. With the addition of synthesizers to his piano playing, not to mention clear-cut elements of funk, Talking Book has it all, musically speaking. From the simple yet soulful “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” to the raucous jam “Superstition”, this 1972 album still speaks volumes and was just the beginning of the reinvigoration of a man and several musical genres. Whether it’s soft and sweet or full of bluesy energy, Talking Book is one album that will continue to speak to fans for years. -Chris Coplan
Essential Tracks: “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)”, “Superstition”, and “Maybe Your Baby”
35. Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction
Say what you will about modern rock today, but back in 1987, people had every right to turn up their speakers and blast what we consider “oldies” today: “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Paradise City”, and “Sweet Child o’ Mine”. Oh, Guns N’ Roses…the great rock and roll tragedy. Until the Smashing Pumpkins recently, there wasn’t a more depressing story in the genre. Five rock stars. The world’s greatest selling debut album. Twenty-eight-million fans. They had the look, they had the sound, and they had the edge. But they couldn’t hold it together. Instead of marching on, they ran straight into the ground, spoiling just about everything that had made the band so goddamn successful from the start.
Long ago, Axl Rose could saunter onstage four hours late, and people would still throw roses at his feet. Today? He’s lucky if he doesn’t get pelted with bottles for making it on time. But that’s another argument, altogether. Regardless of the lineup changes or the drama that continues to ensue, Appetite for Destruction remains absolutely flawless. It’s the type of record every rock and roll band should aspire – or at least attempt – to create. Is it timeless? Not as much as it should be, but its crossover appeal is far greater than you’d like to believe.
Think of it this way, every night (and, no, that’s not an exaggeration) tracks off this record are not only playing on some PA, but literally moving people. Whether it’s at a sports arena, at some teenager’s house party in Oshkosh, WI, or at a shitty, hipster dive bar in Brooklyn…people still can’t get enough of this album. Hell, you’d have to pay Chuck Klosterman $5,001 to never listen to it ever again. Whether or not that’s a compelling argument is up to you. Bottom line: It’s a diamond album, end of story. -Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks:“Welcome to the Jungle”, “Rocket Queen”, and “Sweet Child o’ Mine”
34. U2 – Joshua Tree
Arguably the biggest album of the 1980s. Joshua Tree shipped platinum thanks to tracks like “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “ I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “With or Without You”. Most importantly, the album was the first glimpse of what U2 would go on to become. The lads were out of the UK and here in the states and ready to do more than be just another group of rowdy punks from the other side of the pond. They were here to make good music, and they were here to make sure that some day they would be the biggest band in rock music. More than 20 years after its release, Joshua Tree is proof that lightning can be captured in a bottle. -Christine DiPaolo
Essential Tracks: “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “Bullet the Blue Sky”, and “With or Without You”
33. Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
A simple analogy will explain why we chose Bridge Over Troubled Water for our top 100: Peanut butter and jelly are to sandwiches as Simon & Garfunkel are to folk/rock music of the 60’s. Apart they’re average (arguable on all four counts), but together, they’re an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. Despite a shaky personal relationship, they had a fruitful career penning transcendent songs that still garner significant airplay even today. In 1970, they released what would be their final album together and arguably their magnum opus, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
The iconic and anthemic opening and title track, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, is one of the finest pieces of modern music ever composed and has been covered by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Perry Como, Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder, Andrea Bocelli, etc. My point is, some of the greatest artists/singers of our time have covered the song, and it’s not hard to see why upon listening to it. Starting out as a sweet piano ballad with deeply pensive lyrics, the track follows Garfunkel’s beautiful falsetto into an earth-shattering climax that sends chills down your spine and leaves you wondering whether you should applaud or weep. The album on the whole is a wonderful testament to what a wonderful songwriting pair these two were. -Winston Robbins
Essential Tracks: “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Celia”, and “The Only Living Boy In New York”
32. Nirvana – Nevermind
It’s hard to write about Nirvana’s 1991 album, Nevermind, without feeling the whole concept is cliché: The naked baby in a swimming pool cover, the pep rally gone wrong video a la “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a morose Kurt Cobain smashing his guitar on TV. But when you make the effort to really examine the album for what it is, there is a quiet genius about it. The sound is exceedingly simple. At a time when rock and roll consisted of long-haired macho men and insipid ballads, Nevermind took rock back to its roots and started all over again.
They brought indie-punk pop to the masses and cemented Seattle’s grunge scene across the world with a few power chords, a dose of distortion, and Cobain’s gravelly screams over nonsensical lyrics. Cobain wasn’t the best guitar player either, but that helped give off the “I don’t care” vibe that resonated with an emerging Generation X. On the album’s landmark single, Dave Grohl’s hammering drums, Krist Novoselic’s prominent bass line, and Cobain’s cynical slurring, “I find it hard/it’s hard to find/oh well/whatever/nevermind” are quintessential Nirvana. Though Nevermind was Nirvana’s first album on a major label, the folks at Geffen weren’t sure how well it was going to be received. The label’s president Eddie Rosenblatt said their marketing plan was to just “get out of the way and duck.” It worked. Nirvana was left to do things their own way and the result was incendiary. -Karina Halle
Essential Tracks: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “In Bloom”, and “Territorial Pissings”
31. The Ramones – Rocket to Russia
The idea of punk rock is an argumentative one…and it should be, given its intended nature. However, despite what your rejected school bully told you in detention class, it’s a bullshit genre that’s incredibly hypocritical. The mere thought of putting eggs in your hair, wearing tight, ripped denim, or not showering for days does nothing but make you less approachable. And an asshole. What’s worse, most of the anti-establishment ideas and themes that these “punks” support actually limit a population. Oh, at the end of the day, the methodology behind being a punk is no different than a group of jocks wearing a jersey to support a team or a few rich kids rocking the Polo. It’s just a uniform subscription. In hindsight, punk rock has always been tagged to a shitty scene, just with one hell of a soundtrack. Sort of like the film 200 Cigarettes or Empire Records. Yeah.
Ringleaders to the punk scene could technically be traced back to The Who – Buddy Holly even – but, in all honesty, it goes back to New York City’s rag-tag quartet: The Ramones. Over sloppy repetitive chords and popcorn drumbeats, Joey Ramone, easily the ugliest frontman in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, won the hearts of every teenager who ever wanted to throw a rock at their parents, their school teachers, or their nagging siblings. Sure, it started with “Blitzkrieg Bop”, and rightfully so, but it all culminated on Rocket to Russia. For only $25,000, the New York brats were able to punch every kid, critic, and rocker in the face from 1977 until the end of time.
Everything about The Ramones dwells here. One of their earliest demos, “I Don’t Care”, crudely surfaces to become one of their most anthemic tunes (even despite its simplicity); that is, until three tracks later when “Teenage Lobotomy” kicks in, which just might be their greatest song in their infinite catalogue. Tommy Ramone’s marching percussion and Dee Dee Ramone’s thudding basslines do nothing more than inspire. It sort of brings clarity to the whole bullshit punk scene, come to think of it. Then there’s “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”, but that song’s jarring for a whole other reason. You can blame director Mary Lambert and a semi-truck for that one. Look it up. -Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Teenage Lobotomy”, “I Wanna Be Well”, and “Cretin Hop”
30. Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
The sneering put-down “Like a Rolling Stone” is arguably rock and roll’s greatest revelation, but Highway 61 Revisited is perhaps best described by a lyric from the album’s own “Ballad of a Thin Man” on which Dylan sings, “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.” This record is nearly an hour of mostly electrified blues that places the listener in a room with no less than Jack the Ripper, Lady Jane Grey, and Einstein disguised as Robin Hood.
From the surreal romp of the title track to the delicate strumming of the record’s epic closer, “Desolation Row”, precise meaning always seems just out of reach, and yet a nerve is always touched somehow. The language, both musically and lyrically, of Highway 61 Revisited is poetic, sarcastic, and ironic—tongues that have always spoken to some essential part in the human makeup. And while listeners may never quite get Dylan, everyone comes away with something worthwhile. -Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Desolation Row”, and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
29. AC/DC – Back In Black
In the wake of Bon Scott’s death, Back In Black could have easily been both the band’s funeral march for its fallen leader and its official goodbye to its legion fans. Instead, with new lead singer Brian Johnson at the helm, the band proved that there was still plenty of life, screams, and killer riffs left in the band – if not more. Opening solemnly with the haunting toll of the bell on “Hells Bells”, the album is a tribute to Scott’s songwriting, as well as the endurance of a truly great band. Today, we celebrate its material like it’s a national anthem. “Shook Me All Night Long” tends to soundtrack any victory (both personal or public), while “Back in Black” signifies every one of our triumphant returns. It doesn’t look like that’s going to change. Ever. -Christine DiPaolo
Essential Tracks: “Shoot to Thrill”, “Shook Me All Night Long”, and “Back in Black”
28. Joni Mitchell – Blue
Joni Mitchell’s Blue opened a floodgate for thousands of other imitators in 1971. It took obvious and not-so obvious cues from Miles Davis, offered heartfelt ballads still heard on radio stations across the country today, and strung together so much unadulterated Joni that it catapulted her into Canadian Americana like few other artists since or hereafter. Fragile, precious songs like “All I Want” and “River” are rock-solid singer-songwriter jewels spangled across the folk spectrum.
By the time she had released it, Mitchell had spent six years professionally making music over the course of four studio albums. Like Leslie Feist, another female Canadian singer-songwriter with a heart of gold, who released a critically acclaimed fourth album in 2007, Blue’s success just feels right. Unlike Feist’s The Reminder, Joni Mitchell’s Blue has long since turned timeless. On the album’s first song “All I Want”, Mitchell sings, “I want to belong to the living / Alive, alive…” Forty years later, her album still is. -Eric Vilas-Boas
Essential Tracks: “All I Want”, “Blue”, and “A Case of You”
27. Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced (US Version)
Shaking hands is a polite way to introduce one’s self to someone, but Jimi Hendrix left the prim and proper behind on his 1967 debut. Instead, Hendrix, with the help of Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, took the world by the ears and rattled them out of their cozy, folked-out cocoons. Released just three months after the UK version, the stateside release of Are You Experienced introduced Americans to a sound that was hard and psychedelic at the very same time. Having been influenced by legends like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Little Richard, Hendrix used the hour-long album to pack legendary songs like “Foxey Lady”,“The Wind Cries Mary”, and “Purple Haze” in between lesser known, revolutionary tracks like the title track and “Manic Depression”, which finds Hendrix unearthing a new style of guitar playing while singing a line that any music lovers of any degree can get behind: “Music sweet music/I wish I could caress in a kiss.” -Ray Roa
Essential Tracks: “Are You Experienced”, “Purple Haze”, and “Red House”
26. Johnny Cash – Live at Folsom Prison
This live record begins with a simple “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” followed by resounding applause. The catch, of course, is that the cheering audience members are all inmates of California’s Folsom State Prison. The idea of playing a prison show had always appealed to Cash, and with his career floundering in 1968 due in large part to drug abuse, the time seemed opportune for an unlikely comeback. Accompanied by June Carter, Carl Perkins, and the Tennessee Three, Cash rolled out every prison song he knew over two sets at Folsom.
Two elements make this recording so remarkable. The first is Cash’s conviction while singing these songs. When he confesses, “But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” part of the listener believes him, and when he sings about a prisoner who misses his wife and wishes to know his young son on “Give My Love to Rose”, it’s easy to forget that, unlike his audience, Cash gets to go home after the show. The other element that resonates is Cash’s interaction with the inmates.
Not only did he pick a set list that they could relate to, but he constantly pauses to speak and joke with them. This human touch coupled with the way he openly carried his own troubles and shortcomings on his sleeve create a camaraderie that the listener can’t help but notice. And, as Cash himself admitted, those two shows in prison resurrected his career. -Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Give My Love to Rose”, and “25 Minutes to Go”
25. Peter Gabriel – So
Peter Gabriel’s two albums before So, both called Peter Gabriel, were landmark prog rock albums. On those albums, Gabriel used the latest music hardware to compose with sampled sounds as well as music and rhythms from cultures who’d never before been integrated into Western music. Gabriel was breaking breathtaking new ground, and with So he brought his sonic discoveries to the mainstream. So is a landmark pop album that overwhelms listeners with emotional and rhythmic songs drawing from the heart of the human spirit. Case in point, the No. 1 song to play outside someone’s window, “In Your Eyes”. Gabriel’s voice and lyrics are raw and passionate with simple but overwhelmingly powerful imagery. African rhythms keep the song alive and away from the sappy path so many love songs tread, and the soaring vocals of Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour transcend language with pure celebration.
This theme of emotional, boundary-breaking, human communication permeates all of Gabriel’s works but is strongest in So, where it continues to touch the most people. When Gabriel screams “only love can make love” in “That Voice Again” even the most cynical listener can’t help but feel some tingle of truth. Tracks like “Red Rain”, “Mercy Street”, and “Don’t Give Up” (a duet with Kate Bush) operate on the opposite end of the spectrum, discussing vulnerability, weakness, and the chance to carry on. So even accommodates a couple avant garde tracks such as the unnerving “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” and the moody “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)” written and performed with Laurie Anderson. And of course, everybody knows “Sledgehammer” and its outstanding music video. No heady concept there, just pure fun and a brilliant renvisioning of Motown soul. Depending on your state of mind going into listening to it, So will either leave you charged or worn-out. Either way, it’s a good feeling. – Cap Blackard
Essential Tracks: “Sledgehammer”, “Red Rain”, “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)”, and “In Your Eyes”
24. Neil Young – After the Goldrush
Neil Young was a busy man in the late 60’s and early 70’s. After recording three albums with his first band, Buffalo Springfield, he went solo – only to join another group, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, after two solo albums. That didn’t hinder his solo output though – in fact, his best solo album came the same year that CSN&Y put out their first album. After the Gold Rush was not immediately universally recognized as a brilliant album – Rolling Stone was especially critical when it first came out – but over the years even initial naysayers have changed their mind.
Now, 40 years later, even Rolling Stone has realized the error of their ways, and now call the album what it should be called – a masterpiece. The entire album is full to the brim with classic songs of heartbreak and mystery. From the hard rock of “Southern Man” and the balladry of “Birds” to the twangy folk of “Cripple Creek Ferry”, there’s something for fans of every side of Neil Young on After the Gold Rush. Some of Young’s best songwriting can be found here as well, from the otherworldly “After the Gold Rush” to the always-poignant “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”. While Young has had a long and storied career filled with multiple near-perfect albums, this one stands above the rest as his absolute masterpiece. -Carson O’Shoney
Essential Tracks: “After the Gold Rush”, “When You Dance I Can Really Love”, and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”
23. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Music, as we know it, has its origins at least partially rooted in a revolutionary soil. And Public Enemy’s sophomore record, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, is one of music’s all-time great political game changers. With this record, Public Enemy singlehandedly changed the idea of what a hip-hop group and rap album could be and influenced an entire generation of socially conscious black and white youth. Chuck D booms like a play-by-play sportscaster while hype man extraordinaire Flavor Flav manically interjects on driving tracks like “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype”, which are equal parts PSA and house party.
Chuck D is backed by the Bomb Squad’s innovative production, which samples everything from funky James Brown horns and drums to spoken-word clips of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. On “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, Chuck D details a fictitious prison escape over a teetering Isaac Hayes piano sample; it’s a bone-chilling commentary on the effects of both American racism and the country’s prison system. Chuck D, perhaps, said it best: “Hip-hop is the CNN of the black community, and nobody broadcasts louder than Public Enemy.” -Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, “Louder Than a Bomb”, and “Bring the Noise”
22. The Beatles – The Beatles (White Album)
Detractors often call The Beatles an overstuffed mess. In this accusation, they are entirely correct. It is an overstuffed mess. That’s why it’s great. Sure, you could pare the tracks down to a dozen or so classics. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Blackbird” along would certainly hold up any single album. Do so, though, and you lose what makes The Beatles special. The other songs, the non-classics, give the album its unique character.
From Harrison’s hippie harpsichord on “Piggies” to Lennon’s horndog howl on “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” you can’t lose a single moment without making the rest collapse. The confounding moments, the ones that only work in context, lift the album from pop to art. Taken alone, the ambient-noise “Revolution 9” seems a sick joke, but in context the joke makes perfect sense. You can’t explain it, but somehow you know why it’s there. The Beatles is the sound of the biggest band ever breaking all the rules. It’s a messy process. –Ray Padgett
Essential Tracks: “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, “Cry Baby Cry”, and “Helter Skelter”
21. Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
It’s hard to believe that Astral Weeks was only the second album in Van Morrison’s career. Its loose, combustible jazz sound still ranks as one of the most innovative things he’s done. But this display of the singer-songwriter’s early genius was birthed not from meticulous musical planning, but rather circumstances that were dire and stressful. After a dispute with his record label, founder Bert Berns died of a heart attack, which his wife blamed Morrison for, going as far to try and deport him back to Europe.
Morrison avoided this by marrying his then girlfriend (now ex-wife) Janet Minto, moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts with her where he worked on the club circuit, playing with a group of student musicians as his backing band. Although he would only bring along the bass player for the recording sessions of his next album, it was in Cambridge (and from producer Lewis Merenstein) that Morrison was heavily exposed to jazz, something he was unfamiliar with at that point. The improvisational atmosphere was the perfect musical fit for Morrison’s mindset at the time. He’s stated in interviews that he was broke, tired, and simply did not know what to do. He didn’t want to think about it and he wanted musicians skilled enough to just follow him.
And thus came Astral Weeks, a gorgeous, freewheeling meditation on life and looking forward, a kaleidoscopic, sylvan soundscape focused on images and feelings rather than a coherent narrative. The only constant is the gentle strum of Morrison’s acoustic guitar as the nodding lull of the upright bass, horns, and I-didn’t-know-it-could-actually-be-cool jazz flute swirl around it, always on the verge of floating away, but preferring to stay in place to catch Morrison on his next musical shift.
His vocals are constantly morphing (a practice he would take up in later live performances), sometimes crooning, sometimes clipping the words, and sometimes not even finishing sentences at all as he floats through the optimistic, string-soaked “Madame George”, the whimsical harpsichord of “Cyprus Avenue”, through ferry boats and forests all the way until the baroque Nashville pluck of the closing title track. Morrison may have been high strung at the time, but you would never know it listening to such a dazzling and relaxed album. -Dan Caffrey
Essential Tracks: “Madame George”, “Cyprus Avenue”, and “Sweet Thing”
20. Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
What in God’s name do you think Jeff Magnum is doing right now? He’s not promoting a clothing line, or a new album, or counting money, that’s for damn sure. However, he still gets to bask in the glow of the fact he, along with his outfit Neutral Milk Hotel, made one of the best records in the past 20 years. But what’s so great about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? It sounds like it was made in a garage for one, but still, everybody ate it up like cake. The majority of this record’s instrumentation was an acoustic guitar, yet other instruments included accordions, trumpets, and a trombone solo.
And the songs fit perfectly. “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” is one of the best starting tracks of all time, while its proceeding song, “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 and 3”, is one of the most furious and sonically opposite songs on the album. The gritty yet poetic title track is a beautiful and lulling acoustic number (recently covered by Phish), and “Holland 1945” could get a hipster mosh pit started any time it comes on the stereo at a dive bar. In all honesty, Neutral Milk Hotel doesn’t even need to record another album, it’s better that for the one moment they shone through, they caused people’s brains to explode. -Ted Maider
Essential Tracks: “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 1″, “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 and 3″, and “Holland 1945”
19. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
Marvin Gaye only lived to be 44-years-old, but this album is proof that his contribution to popular music still rings loud and will most definitely live on forever. Those who took the bait and bought What’s Going On thanks to gems like “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved You)” and “Let’s Get It On” were surprised to find social commentaries like the title track and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” buoying this classic album. Although the nine-song set was released in 1971, the two tracks find Gaye soulfully singing a narrative that is still eerily relevant in this day and age. Hearing Gaye – who died in 1984 – sing “Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas…oh mercy, mercy, me” is proof that even after nearly 30 years, we’re still getting angry about the same old crap. –Ray Roa
Essential Tracks: “Let’s Get It On”, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, and “What’s Going On”
18. David Bowie – Hunky Dory
Released in 1971, Hunky Dory was David Bowie’s fourth album and the first to feature the line-up that would become the Spiders from Mars. Setting aside the blues-rock and psychedelic angles of his previous release The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie instead favored a lighter, more acoustic pop approach with Hunky Dory. The themes and ideas scattered throughout the songs’ lyrics and arrangements set the stage for not only Ziggy Stardust, but for much of Bowie’s output in the ’70s. At times Bowie wears his influences on his sleeve, as in his obvious titular odes to idols Dylan and Warhol or a direct sound connection to the Velvet Underground with “Queen Bitch”.
Other times the songs have to be listened to a bit more closely and possibly even deconstructed to notice the heavier occult related themes via Aleister Crowley in songs like “Quicksand”. Bowie’s desire to approach the album from a more old-time pop, acoustic direction creates a merry-go-round of songs, all a little different but connected by a common grounding. Hunky Dory is not a concept album, but the concepts within would eventually solidify and manifest in the character of Bowie’s spaceman and perhaps even in his personal philosophies. If anything, Hunky Dory is a testament to the grand scope and vision that David Bowie had as a young artist. –Len Comaratta
Essential Tracks: “Changes”, “Oh, You Pretty Things”, and “Life on Mars”
17. Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
Before Hounds of Love, Kate Bush’s previous albums suggested that she was certainly a brilliant and daring songwriter. Hounds revealed her to be a musical prophetess. A friend once asked me, “Is it weird that I feel like Kate Bush is some sort of mystical being from another place – that she’s come here to teach us something?” I told him I’d always felt the same way. I think a lot of people do. Hounds is a musical achievement and a testament to Bush’s unprecedented dedication to crafting an album until it’s ready. It was entirely self-produced and composed in her own private studio space. Her seclusion caused rabid tabloid speculation and rumors only to be quickly silenced by Hounds release, knocking Madonna’s Like a Virgin out of the #1 slot in the UK charts.
Hounds of Love is an exaltation to light and darkness. It’s a practice in walking the tightrope between pop and experimental music. Just look at the titular track: the music and Bush’s passionate voice are wild with trembling beauty, amidst dark beats, threatening strings, and lyrics that are both affectionate and sinister, with a chorus backed by vocals mimicking baying hounds. The song shouldn’t work, but it does and it’s perfect. One listen and you’re running through the woods, terrified but exhilarated, chased by a passion that leaves your heart soaring. The rest of the album is an experience to say the least and it’s no wonder that Hounds of Love has inspired an expansive breadth of modern artists, everyone from Coldplay to Big Boi. From the opening, haunting chord of “Running Up That Hill” to the last hopeful string pluck of “Morning Fog”, Hounds of Love is a musical tapestry and a visionary album. -Cap Blackard
Essential Tracks: “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”, “Hounds of Love”, and “Cloudbusting”
16. The Who – Who’s Next?
Out of all the legendary albums on this list, I doubt many of them had their origins as an abandoned rock opera. Many arrangements and scraps of Pete Townshend’s abandoned Lifehouse project were the origins of Who’s Next, an album that had no underlying theme or storyline. This sense of freedom allowed The Who to focus on making great individual songs rather than an overarching story.
The result is The Who growing up in public. The songs combine the hard-hitting energy of the band in their youth with their more experimental elements explored on Tommy. The most noticeable improvement is Roger Daltrey’s voice, reaching heights that were only hinted at in the past. Keith Moon’s drum solo followed by Daltrey’s scream at the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” remains as one of rock’s greatest moments.
While everyone knows about the singles, from the opening keyboard of “Baba O’Riley” to the building acoustics of “Behind Blue Eyes”, every song on this record is a potential hit. Listen to the explosive chorus of “Bargain”. Check out a rare lead vocal from bassist John Entwistle on “My Wife”. With tracks like these, it’s easy to see why Who’s Next moved The Who from a great band of the ’60s to a rock superpower in the ’70s. -Joe Marvilli
Essential Tracks: “Baba O’Riley”, “Behind Blue Eyes”, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”
15. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
Unknown Pleasures arrived in June 1979, cementing itself as the worst summer album of all time. There’s nothing about Joy Division’s debut that’s sunny, peachy, or even remotely positive. It’s one of the most depressing records in music history, second only to the band’s follow-up, 1980’s Closer. But that’s what makes it so unique. With its stark, iconic album cover – the eerie sound waves that look all too similar to a jagged razorblade – and its rough-yet-precise production by Martin Hannett, you can’t help but feel isolated, alone, and distorted while listening. Although most of its rhythm is catchy and ironically poppy (“Disorder”, “Transmission”), the morbid lyrical imagery, thanks to the late Ian Curtis, keeps things in perspective. But what makes this all so compelling is that this album is less a collection of music and moreover a snapshot of thoughts and feelings. Everyone tears at their own soul here.
You have Curtis’ soul-scraping vocals, Peter Hook’s top-heavy basslines, Bernard Sumner’s heart-piercing guitar lines, and Stephen Morris’ highly-concentrated beats, all moving together with the same emotion and gravitas. Once you reach the first guitar line on “Disorder”, a mere 18 seconds in, you can’t help but think this was a group of young men who needed the sound more than we did. Of course, decades and decades later, we now know how dangerous this music was to them – especially Curtis. But, to this day, regardless of its consequences, it stands as the most influential record of all time. We should only be so happy that Factory Records’ own Tony Wilson sank all his life savings into it. He didn’t see the returns (possibly ever, really), but rest assured, it paid off. Big time. -Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Disorder”, “Transmission”, and “She’s Lost Control”
14. Pixies – Doolittle
Try to ignore the Pixies’ false obscurity as that little ’80s indie band everyone knows about. Try to ignore their play-count in Kurt Cobain’s tape collection and the “Where Is My Mind” Fight Club appearance now lost to the annals of pop culture. Once you can ignore all that, you’ll listen to the lyrics and opening chords of “Debaser” the same way Kurt did – as playfully diabolical power pop perverting Salvador Dali’s surrealist film Un chien andalou. And “Debaser” is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Here Comes Your Man”, “Tame”, “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, and every other two to four minute gold nugget on Doolittle find a comfortable balance between angry distortion and some of the bounciest sunshine music this side of flower power. The Pixies’ lead single “Here Comes Your Man” was so accessibly happy, in fact, that when asked to play it on the Arsenio Hall Show, the band refused, opting to play the more abrasive “Tame”. It was rejected after Arsenio Hall’s people heard about it, which in retrospect feels appropriate, given Arsenio Hall’s current standing versus the Pixies’ standing in the pop culture lexicon. Doolittle moves almost imperceptibly. It jigs, jumps, and jives … and by now everyone knows why. -Eric Vilas-Boas
Essential Tracks: “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, “Here Comes Your Man”, and “Wave of Mutilation”
13. Led Zeppelin – IV
When Led Zeppelin IV was released in 1971 it became an instant worldwide hit. It’s been almost 30 years and its status hasn’t changed one bit. It is a still a massive, influential juggernaut of an album that has made many of the “top albums of all times” lists over and over again. One look at the eight tracks listed and it’s easy to see why; aside from the underrated “Four Sticks”, we’ve got “Black Dog”, “Rock and Roll”, “The Battle of Evermore”, “Stairway to Heaven”, “Misty Mountain Hop”, “Going to California”, and “When the Levee Breaks”, all of which are instantly recognizable on their own as Led Zeppelin, if not rock music, at its finest.
Before the album, the band was a well-established mover and shaker in the music world, with Robert Plant’s overtly sexual posturing and wailing voice, Jimmy Page’s spectral presence, John Paul Jones’ unassuming skills, and John Bonham’s ridiculously inhuman drumming. But the release of IV cemented Led Zeppelin in the critic’s hearts (who were slow to warm up to the British rockers) and proved to be one of the most durable, commercial successes in their catalogue.
The poetic, often Tolkien-influenced lyrics combined with a musical orgy of metal, progressive rock and even country was a winning formula to stand the test of time. Interestingly, there were only two singles from IV: the swaggering “Black Dog” and the aptly-titled “Rock and Roll”. The epic saga that is “Stairway to Heaven” and the soulful strumming of “Going to California” would find their iconic notes into the ears of the population anyway, proving that Led Zeppelin IV was the ultimate earworm of the rock and roll genre. -Karina Halle
Essential Tracks: “Rock and Roll”, “Stairway to Heaven”, and “Going to California”
12. The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed
There are quite a few Rolling Stones records we could tack onto this spot, if not higher up, and that would be justified by one simple fact: The Rolling Stones always rock and roll, no matter if the tunes are jangly honky tonk or straight-up heavy blues or pop. Personally, I’ve always leaned toward a mish-mash of the first two genres regarding the Stones (or even December’s Children); it’s a Bob Dylan lo-fi and folky vibe on a ’50s rock slant…from some British guys who are now the butt of numerous geriatric jokes at their expense.
1969’s Let It Bleed is very blues and country heavy with the exception of closing pop single “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and iconic psychedelic opener “Gimme Shelter”; it really shows the (ehem, pardon the pun) bare bones of this band’s ’60s era material, book-ended with two of the most notable songs in the Stones’ canon to this very day.
Harmonica here, fiddle there, the final appearance of Brian Jones, this record is definitive blues Stones if not definitive Rolling Stones altogether. While not my all-time choice for ’em (that honor goes tied between December’s Children and Beggar’s Banquet), it stands as testament to the raw aforementioned jangle that I have always loved about this notable classic relic of a band. -David Buchanan
Essential Tracks: “Gimme Shelter”, “Monkey Man”, and “Let It Bleed”
11. Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
He would go on to record again that decade, but make no mistake about it: Blonde on Blonde was the swan song of 60s Bob Dylan. The iconic hipster depicted with wild hair and a checkered scarf on the 1966 album’s blurry front sleeve would not be seen or heard from again. It’s perhaps fitting then that this particular incarnation of Dylan went out with arguably the finest record of the decade and one of the first double albums in rock history. Blonde on Blonde documents Dylan expanding upon the blues-rock sound of Highway 61 Revisited. Tracks like “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and “I Want You” borrow the surreal imagery and character types of the subdued “Desolation Row” and set them to up-tempo, glowing arrangements of harmonica, guitars, and swirling organs.
“Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” and “Obviously 5 Believers” sound like natural, more polished and eclectic extensions of earlier blues rockers like “From a Buick 6”. But then there are new, less predictable songs with no real predecessor like the achingly beautiful “Visions of Johanna” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” with its carnival sound and saloon atmosphere. And, of course, there is the sprawling “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, which consumes an entire album side and sweetly reveals pieces of Dylan’s relationship with his wife, Sara. Per Dylan, Blonde on Blonde was the closest he ever came to achieving the sounds he heard in his head. And then he was gone. -Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “Visions of Johanna”, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, and “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”