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”