With the album hanging by its fingernails on the edge of a cliff while the digital download stomps all over it, now seemed as good of a time as any to compile a list of the rock canon, in 50 discs' worth of music. These aren't necessarily my favorite discs as they are an attempt to reach "the" essential discs, whatever that means.
The task was to strike a balance between the artist & the album; thus, I compiled most of the lists in sets of 5—if I get only 5 more discs, what would they be?—& continued until I got up to 50. In this regard, it was a bit like a "desert island" list, with each new set allowing it to grow outwards one more layer.
Overall, it's definitely slanted towards the older (none of this music was issued after 1991 & none of these albums were released after 1994), but that only seemed appropriate—if this the canon where everything came from, it would be counterintuitive to also expect the list to be contemporary. To this end, I stuck with the "most classic" editions of the albums, including modern substitutes if it has gone out of print.
Finally, for the reviews, I stuck within a 140-character "tweet-size" review/statement/headline to get a one-sentence gist of what it was doing here. When it came down between an album & an artist, I usually went with bigger artist as opposed to the "better" album.
So here's the list in rough "essential" order, from most essential to least, The 50 Essential Rock Discs, "50 Sleeves Of Great."
1. The Beatles: 20 Greatest Hits [US]. A history – of the Beatles, of the 1960s, of modern rock & roll – in 20 number-one American hits.
[OOP: Substitute The Beatles: 1.]
2. The Beatles: Rubber Soul. The Beatles’ first masterpiece, taking in Dylan & drugs for a deeper, folkier, & more introspective sound.
3. The Beatles: Revolver. As the artistic ambitions grow, so does the quality & richness of the music—song-for-song, their finest album.
4. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper. The “Greatest Album of All Time”—at least in terms of influence—proving that rock could be Art.
5. The Beatles: Abbey Road. A fitting finale of the greatest band of all-time—with production & musicianship, they went out on top.
6. Elvis Presley: The Sun Sessions. The Big Bang of rock & roll, built around 10 perfect singles—blues on one side & country on the other.
[OOP: Substitute Elvis Presley: At Sun.]
7. Elvis Presley: Golden Records. Rock’s premier icon defines the music on “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” & lots more.
8. Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home. Dylan plugs in—on record, anyway—& brings lyricism to rock—brash, surreal, & utterly indispensible.
9. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited. From the gunshot opening of “Like a Rolling Stone” through the end of “Desolation Row,” his masterpiece.
10. Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde. The poet-king hooks up with Nashville’s finest session men & spins surreal songs of love, drugs, & wine.
11. Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks. Half-electric, half-acoustic, & with “Tangled Up in Blue,” all gold—his finest album since the ’60s.
12. The Rolling Stones: Big Hits. With “Satisfaction,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” & “It’s All Over Now,” the hardest rock of its time.
13. The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet. They master their own voice on “Sympathy for the Devil,” then dig deep into their folk roots.
14. The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed. With “Gimme Shelter” & the rest, the music that made them the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World.
15. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St. Their masterpiece—a mix of rock & rhythm, blues & country, pain & irony, mud & swagger.
16. Chuck Berry: The Great Twenty-Eight. With “Maybellene,” “Rock & Roll Music,” & “Johnny B. Goode,” the rock upon which rock & roll rests.
[OOP: Substitute Chuck Berry: The Definitive Collection.]
17. James Brown: 20 All-Time Greatest Hits. A history of modern black music by the man who pushed it the hardest & drove it the furthest.
18. Jimi Hendrix: Are You Experienced? Rock’s best musician delivers the music’s finest debut—an acid blast of sex, drugs, & “Purple Haze.”
19. Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man… The Queen of Soul pushes the sacred into the secular, & on “Respect,” love into politics.
20. Ray Charles: The Very Best of the Atlantic Years. With “I’ve Got a Woman” & “What’d I Say,” the rock of ages that created soul music.
21. Beach Boys: Pet Sounds. A tale of love found & lost, told through rich harmonies & dense instruments—& the finest music up to its time.
22. Jerry Lee Lewis: 18 Original Sun Greatest Hits. With “Great Balls of Fire” & “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” rock’s wildest goes mad.
23. Little Richard: Here’s Little Richard. From “Tutti-Frutti” to “Long Tall Sally,” the “ooooo” that launched a thousand bands.
24. Michael Jackson: Thriller. For one brief, shining moment, rock, pop, & R&B all converged—& in songs like “Billie Jean,” it was Good.
25. Led Zeppelin: Untitled [IV]. The “first” heavy metal band’s finest hour, with the epic “Stairway to Heaven” & “When the Levee Breaks.”
26. Buddy Holly: The “Chirping” Crickets. With “That’ll Be the Day,” a rare hallmark album from the ’50s from one of rock’s key founders.
27. Bob Marley: Legend. Reggae’s master summed up on the genre’s best-selling album ever. I’d say you should own it, but you already do.
28. Stevie Wonder: Innervisions. The ’70s most-celebrated star survives a car crash, becomes a one-man-band, & makes the music of his life.
29. Nirvana: Nevermind. After two failed attempts—one US, one UK—punk finally broke. Out of Seattle, of all places.
30. Sam Cooke: The Best Of. Effortlessly mixing rock, pop, & R&B in hits like “You Send Me,” they called it soul, & for good reason.
31. The Velvet Underground & Nico. Punk, alternative, indie—it all starts here. The rare album (& band) that literally changed everything.
32. Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On. Motown’s slickest star grows weary & scruffy, looks inward, & crafts his—& soul music’s—masterpiece.
33. The Who: Who’s Next. The ’60s mods become ’70s rockers through their fiercest anthems: “Baba O’Riley” & “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
34. Otis Redding: Otis Blue. Sung like blues, marketed like soul, & backed by funk, this was music that dug so deep, it felt bottomless.
35. Madonna: The Immaculate Collection. ’Tis a party, she’s a whore—until “Like a Prayer,” in which the artist suddenly lives up to her name.
36. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks. The anti-leaders of the aborted 3rd wave of rock—an implosion of anarchy, nihilism, & fury.
37. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run. Rock’s biggest fan goes for the music’s biggest statement &—in songs like the title track—gets it.
38. The Ramones. 14 songs in 30 minutes. No solos, no bullshit. As their singer once said, it was “bubblegum music for sick kids.” 1-2-3-4!
39. The Doors. Lodged behind Sgt. Pepper during the Summer of Love, the dark, brooding (& more timeless) underbelly of rock’s diamond sky.
40. The Clash: London Calling. After the apocalyptic title track, the band surveys rock, pop, & reggae, remaking it into its own punk image.
41. Prince: Purple Rain. The Purple One at the peak of his talent & popularity, turning funk into confession & sex into love.
42. U2: The Joshua Tree. Outside is America—or, the album that made them the biggest band in the world, which they have been ever since.
43. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions… The Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop—i.e., if not the actual, then the “official” greatest rap album.
44. David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust. A passion play about an alien who saves the earth, & the breakout of the even stranger star who created it.
45. Janis Joplin: Greatest Hits. Rock’s greatest white female vocalist—dressed like a hippie, but all blues down to her tortured soul.
46. Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water. The calm in the storm of ’60s rock at the end of the decade & fracturing—beautifully.
47. Sly & The Family Stone: Greatest Hits. Archetypal funk as psychedelic rock as American utopianism. “I Wanna Take You Higher,” indeed.
48. Neil Young: After the Gold Rush. The ’70s iconoclast at his finest—wistful (title track), fierce (“Southern Man”), & uncompromised.
49. Van Morrison: Astral Weeks. Ignored then, revered today, a journey into the mystic by the most mystical performer of them all.
50. The Byrds: Greatest Hits. With “Mr. Tambourine Man” & “8 Miles High,” a perfect summation of the band from folk-rock through space-rock.