On the month I was born—December 1979—a book appeared called Stranded, in which rock critics wrote essays about what album they would most want to be stranded with on a desert island. Many of those essays have themselves become classics—especially Lester Bangs on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks—but for me, the crown jewel was the 45-page “Treasure Island” discography at its end by Greil Marcus, who served as editor for the volume.
“But someone must put selfishness aside—someone must take responsibility for the tradition,” Marcus wrote in his introduction, as though accounting for rock and roll in its entirety isn’t an even more fun prospect than writing about one measly album. Marcus thus went for rock’s spirit, boiling down the music to an artist or a song’s essence. Sometimes, a single song was all that was needed; other times, quality and scope of career could only be captured on one or more albums. The beauty of his list was that it spoke both to the head and the heart, it was a product of both economy and love.
After spending much of the initial part of this year trying to come up with my own “perfect” 100-200 album canon of rock and roll, I decided to use Marcus’s “Treasure Island” format and concept to deliver a fuller picture of the music. I limited myself to the first 50 years of rock and roll, from 1954 to 2004, to give myself at least a decade of objectivity in judging what seemed worthy. To further structure things, I also gave myself a limit of 500 recordings: 300 albums and 200 songs that are not included on those albums. Otherwise, I would still be adding and subtracting things for the rest of my life.
I consulted countless lists, covering all-time greatest rock albums and rock songs, as well as lists by decades; I utilized the lists of standard publications like Rolling Stone and NME, classic volumes like Dave Marsh’s Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, as well as website-based journalism from Pitchfork and Consequence of Sound, and online aggregates like besteveralbums.com and independent sites such as digitaldreamdoor.com. But just as importantly, I listened to hundreds (if not thousands) of songs and albums, figuring out how they sound in and of themselves, what story they told when put into a greater context. Over the weeks and months, the current list took shape.
I also largely left out soundtracks and multiple artist compilations, unless those albums were stone-cold classics in their own right. I also at times included obscure or out-of-print albums when they served as the most classic or quintessential collection of an artist. That said, the great equalizer of iTunes is keeping many of these alive. Finally, I only included what I saw as being within the scope of pop/rock. As a result, there are no blues artists like Muddy Waters or B.B. King, no country artists like Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, no jazz artists like Miles Davis or John Coltrane, even though these artists and many more were an invaluable influence on the music that follows. By the same token, I also didn’t include a rock artist’s own “out-of-scope” music, such as Bob Dylan’s initial folk recordings.
The number of records for each artist as well as the length of space used to describe each recording has no bearing on the overall influence of the artist. Many of the most influential 1950s artists released an album of hits that accurately summed up their contribution to the music, while other later, lesser-influential artists can only be captured in multiple recordings. Thus, few people in rock are more influential than Buddy Holly, but his essential legacy can be summarized in a single album. Similarly, just because a recording has more written about it doesn’t mean it is more important—it may simply require more explanation to place it into context than a recording that more universally well-known.
The number of records for each artist as well as the length of space used to describe each recording has no bearing on the overall influence of the artist. Many of the most influential 1950s artists released an album of hits that accurately summed up their contribution to the music, while other later, lesser-influential artists can only be captured in multiple recordings. Thus, few people in rock are more influential than Buddy Holly, but his essential legacy can be summarized in a single album. Similarly, just because a recording has more written about it doesn’t mean it is more important—it may simply require more explanation to place it into context than a recording that more universally well-known.
All recordings are listed alphabetically by the artist or album title, with the record label being the artist’s home country label or the company that first released that version of the record. The date at the end of each entry is the year in which the music was released; in the case of multi-year collections, the span of recording years is given, followed by the year in which the collection was released. This system is directly lifted from Marcus’s original “Treasure Island” list.
Greil Marcus wrote that in his list, “my choice of an artifact that could represent all of rock and roll is all of rock and roll. Or my version of it, anyway.” Those last six words are the kicker—I understand that any version of rock and roll that you try to present is ultimately going to be your own version of rock and roll, no matter how objective you try to make the endeavor. That said, the goal of this list is not so much my list of the most essential music, but rather the list of the most essential music. A foolish and perhaps stupid endeavor, yes, but then again, so is trying to explain why The Kingsmen version of “Louie, Louie” is better than anything King Crimson ever did. It is, like the great philosopher John Sebastian once said, like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll.
So what follows is some six months of listening, reading, analyzing, and re-listening to create an ultimate canon of rock and roll’s first half century—500 recordings for 50 years.
Hope you dig. And always keep digging.
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ABBA, “Dancing Queen” (Polar). A pop record so pure, it even uses the words “pop music” in the middle of it and you don’t even notice them. Disco hater or disco purist, I defy anyone to sit still during the glorious swell into its euphoric refrain. 1976.
AC/DC, “Highway to Hell” (Atlantic). The peak of the vintage Bon Scott era of AC/DC, who was found dead in a parked car six months after it was released. 1979.
———Back in Black (Atlantic). In title and concept, a study of death, but in songs like “You Shook Me All Night Long,” this was a hedonistic celebration of life. 1980.
Aerosmith, “Dream on” (Columbia). The archetypal power ballad—just don’t blame them for every one that’s been written since. 1973.
———Toys in the Attic (Columbia). They reached for the sound of Zeppelin and the feel of the Stones, but ended up in the muddy banks of the River Charles with a sleaze that was all their own. After years of trying, this was their breakthrough, propelled by “Sweet Emotion,” which all but invented classic rock radio, and “Walk This Way,” which all but pioneered the breakthrough of mainstream hip-hop. 1975.
———Rocks (Columbia). This album was surely their best—good enough to mark when the band could look back and call themselves “America’s Greatest Rock Band” with a straight face and hip enough to make the top 25 of Kurt Cobain’s greatest albums list. 1976.
Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, “Planet Rock” (Tommy Boy). The signature track of one of the Bronx’s original DJs, who, among his many accomplishments, is credited with coining the term “hip-hop.” 1982.
Allman Brothers Band. At Fillmore East (Capricorn). The biggest American band of their time at their peak, raw and rough and basking in the glory of their brotherhood, both literal and symbolic. If there was freedom in the music, it was only because they were so blissfully unaware of the price they would soon have to pay for it, lurking just around the corner. 1971.
———Eat a Peach (Capricorn). Virtuoso lead guitarist Duane Allman would die during these sessions, which would yield their finest (mostly) studio album. Where the live cuts had a ferocity, the studio tracks had a bittersweet sense of remorse—the lovely “Blue Sky,” the tender “Sweet Melissa.” 1972.
———“Ramblin’ Man” (Capricorn). Countless rock songs have stolen from blues and country songs about rambling. Here, The Allman Brothers return the favor. 1973.
The Best of the Animals (MGM). A quintet from Newcastle upon Tyne with the most obvious name in rock, they held onto the mantle of the British blues scene once The Rolling Stones had gone pop—first in covers like the classic “House of the Rising Sun,” and then in their own tunes, the best of which (“We Gotta Get out of This Place,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”) took the grit of the blues with them. 1964-1965/1966.
Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge). The future of rock and roll as a neighborhood domestic drama, crafted by a Canadian husband-and-wife-led sextet, filled with new wave sounds and beautiful melodies. 2004.
Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, “Work with Me, Annie” (Federal). The song that launched a thousand answer records—and, with Etta James’ first hit, “Dance with Me, Henry,” at least one career. 1954.
The Band, Music From Big Pink (Capitol). Americanism as mysticism. Many cite it as utterly revolutionary in its, well, un-revolutionary-ness, which is to say that its straight-ahead songwriting and group performances were a wake-up call to the excesses of psychedelic rock. Eric Clapton heard this album, broke up Cream, and claimed that he wanted to ask to join The Band (he would form his own version with Derek and the Dominos). And if this album sounds completely standard today, it’s only because we live in the future that it helped to create. Features “The Weight,” about the burden of sin, the devil, and Crazy Chester’s dog. 1968.
———The Band (Capitol). The Great American Novel, as written by four Canadians and a drummer from Arkansas. 1969.
Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (Phonogram). Rock as community service, accidentally placed in the meanest song ever conceived about Christmas. 1984.
Bar-Kays, “Soul Finger” (Volt). From The Premiers’ “Farmer John” through The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” I’ve always been a sucker for a hot party-in-the-studio record. And if no party record is better (or funkier) than this one, then no party record had as tragic of an epilogue—as less than seven months after its release, 4/6ths of this band perished in Otis Redding’s airplane. 1967.
Beach Boys, Endless Summer (Capitol). The warmth of the sun—expressed in harmonies as deep as any ocean. 1962-1966/1974.
———Pet Sounds (Capitol). A city upon the hill of young love and heartbreak. To my ears, it plays like an archetypal concept album, with the songs telling a single story from the idealism of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” through to the devastation of “Caroline, No,” with a nightmare ship of fools (“Sloop John B”) coming just before the emotional apex (“God Only Knows). And yet, it’s only half as good as Brian’s errand into the wilderness—the ill-fated, never-completed Smile—would’ve been. 1966.
———The Smile Sessions (Capitol). If there is an infinite number of universes, than surely there is one where Brian Wilson received the support he needed from his bandmates and his record label to finish Smile. Listening to the scrapped album tapes close to 40 years after they were made—and released only after Wilson himself re-recorded them all in the excellent Smile comeback album in 2004—what is astounding aside from the quality is how finished they all sound. This is not a half-conceived series of demos, but an album that was a good 85-90% already complete. The panorama of American themes, from Plymouth Rock and the iron horse to the barnyard animals and the Church of the American Indian are waiting to be discovered, along with the elements cycle, which turns Aristotle’s earth, wind, fire, and water, into rock and roll mythology. If this had been released in 1967, it wouldn’t have been just The Beach Boys’ best album, it could have beat Sgt. Pepper to become the centerpiece of the era. 1965-1968/2011.
Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill (Def Jam). Three sons of the NYC artistic upper-class reinvent themselves as the first and greatest white rap group. Their oversized gold chains and whinny delivery may have seemed like a joke, but the kids took them very seriously and made this the first rap album to hit #1 on the Billboard chart. This is probably because it tackled the same subject matter that had been rock’s specialty for decades, namely, fighting for your right to party, chasing girls, and driving all night—only with half a dozen stops at White Castle along the way. 1986.
———Paul’s Boutique (Capitol). Three NYC rap-party pranksters reinvent themselves into cutting-edge MCs—sly, slick, and full of allusions—on top of a platter of samples so thick, it redefines the meaning of American freedom in music. The best moment comes in “The Sounds of Science,” where “The End” of Abbey Road is sampled over the opening fanfare of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while the Boys rap ferociously about partying when your drunk and cops making crack. 1989.
Beatles, Please Please Me (Parlophone). The beginning of the modern rock era. Although The Beatles had already hinted at their worth on two hit singles in their native land—“Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me”—they proved it by delivering this, their first LP. Fourteen cuts, a whopping eight of which were original (unheard of for a pop group at that time), and not a loser in the bunch. And in contrast to the extensive studio time that would soon be required for great pop music (which The Beatles themselves would pioneer), most of it was recorded live in a single day. And even when performances or songwriting was less-than-par, the spirit carried it through. It also contains the most thrilling ending to a studio album imaginable—their blistering single take of “Twist and Shout.” 1963.
———With the Beatles (Parlophone). With the most iconic cover of its time (best remembered on the American version, Meet the Beatles!), their second album was as good as the first, with another whopping eight new songs—none of which were released as singles (although “It Won’t Be Long” could have been and “All My Loving” should have been). On With the Beatles, the group proved they weren’t a fluke and hinted at the future of rock and roll: The full-length album. But first, they conquered America. 1963.
———A Hard Day’s Night (Parlophone). If you ever doubt that the early Beatles were anything but the greatest and most powerhouse band on the planet before they took a hit of pot, just put on the original UK version of this album. With 13 songs, it was their first album comprised completely of original songs, and the only album in which Lennon/McCartney wrote every one. Aside from the hit title track and “Can’t Buy Me Love,” you get their best harmony song, “If I Fell,” their best early ballad, “And I Love Her,” as well as hard rockers like “I Should Have Known Better” and “I’ll Cry Instead.” After all of this, the sullen but beautiful closer, “I’ll Be Back,” sets the stage for what was still to come. 1964.
———Beatles for Sale (Parlophone). After three masterpieces, their fourth album could seem like a bit of a slump, as it went back to having “only” eight original songs (oh, how spoiled we already had gotten). But the album wasn’t a slump so much of a comedown from Beatlemania; quite simply, the group was exhausted. The opening “No Reply” gave it away right of the bat, followed by the Dylanesque “I’m a Loser” and the quieter “I’ll Follow the Sun.” But on “Rock and Roll Music,” they proved they were still the greatest rock band in the business, and on “Eight Days a Week,” the proved they could make pop records with the best of them—and then not even release it as a single. (In their native land—the song easily hit #1 in America for two weeks.) 1964.
———Help! (Parlophone). Often overlooked as a necessary if underwhelming stepping-stone, Help! was a masterpiece in its own right. Besides the quality movie songs (which included the wonderful title track and “Ticket to Ride,” as well as the underrated “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”), the second side contained songs that were so forward-looking, two of the best (John’s “It’s Onlys Love” and Paul’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face”) were seamlessly inserted into the American version of Rubber Soul. And if you still have trouble hearing its innovation, just remember that Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters often blasted from their bus on their way to FURTHUR. 1965.
———Rubber Soul (Parlophone). The Beatles take a cue from Dylan—both musically and medicinally—and deliver their first transcendent masterpiece. They tapped not only into Dylan’s folky-ness, but his timelessness, crafting a suite of introspective songs that felt softer even as they dug deeper into sharper subjects. It was earthy and warm, but above all cohesive in its feel, which made it the rock album’s first major step into the realm of Art. 1965.
———Revolver (Parlophone). After the breakthrough cohesion of Rubber Soul, The Beatles find themselves—John in LSD, Paul in classical music, George in Eastern spirituality, and Ringo in a children’s song—but are still enough of a team to bring everything back to a working unit. Song-for-song, this was their finest hour, with flashes of humor, sophistication, and music that was as innovative as it was effective. “Tomorrow Never Knows” was more than just a finale—it was a mantra for the entire album. 1966.
———“Strawberry Fields Forever” (Parlophone). The Beatles’ finest song, which means it is rock and roll’s finest song. 1967.
———Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone). The official “Greatest Album of All-Time,” it perhaps hasn’t aged as well as Rubber Soul or Revolver, but remains a masterpiece nonetheless. Whereas the previous two albums used cohesion as a second mind to bring the songs together, Sgt. Pepper pushed all the cohesion to the surface, creating the alleged first “concept album.” Whether or not it all holds together as well as everyone has taken for granted it did is besides the point; here was a carnival fairground that was the centerpiece of the entire psychedelic rock movement, a golden castle that was an unreachable ideal for a generation. 1967.
———“I Am the Walrus” (Parlophone). Psychedelic music pushed as far as The Beatles would take it—to a darker place than Sgt. Pepper, where the surrealism turns from empowering to ominous. 1967.
———“Revolution” (Apple). Roughly six months after “I Am the Walrus,” Lennon was back at work recording this, which some consider the largest creative 180 of any major rock star (with the possible exception of Dylan going from acoustic to electric). Less than two decades later this song about real revolution from the pivotal year of 1968 would be used to sell sneakers. 1968.
———The Beatles [“The White Album”] (Apple). The Beatles go to India, get disillusioned, and fall back to earth—madly, brilliantly, messily. Often described as a preview of their solo careers, songs like “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” proved that they could still pull together as the greatest rock band ever. Where else could you find masterpieces like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” rubbing up against throwaways like “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and have both be all the richer for it? 1968.
———Abbey Road (Apple). After the collapse of the “Get Back” project, The Beatles regrouped for one final statement, with longtime producer George Martin back at the helm. If the band was still in splinters—at one point, John nearly demanded that all of his songs be on one side and Paul’s on the other—you’d never know it. Like Sgt. Pepper, this was a seamless avalanche of ideas and it remains the best-sounding album The Beatles ever recorded. In this regard it is Sgt. Pepper’s other half—and for my money, far surpasses it. 1969.
———1 (Capitol). A history of the 1960s in 26 #1 hits—and “Something,” if we’re being technical. 1962-1970/2000.
Beck, “Loser” (DGC). “This is neither the ‘looser forlorn’ of nineteenth-century business nor striver George of Bedford Falls, but rather a misfit or outcast—as in a 1994 hit by the alternative musician Beck, who sings the refrain, ‘I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?’” – Born Lowers: A History of Failure in America by Scott Sandage. 1992.
———Odelay (DGC). Americana goes postmodern with Stephen Foster on the turntables and William Burroughs on the mic. Beck wears Mark Twain’s deadpan mask of American humor to deliver this album like a thriftstore cowboy doing a pawnshop inventory, taking two hundred years of American music, putting it into a blender, and then pouring the result into a cheesy synthesizer. His songs draw the lines between rambling and intransigence, dead-end tall-tales of lazy drifters who have seen it all. All this, and you can dance to it, too. 1996.
Belle and Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister (Matador). As some like to tell it, the last cult band of the pre-Internet age, when you had to do the legwork on your own. They basically crawled into Nick Drake’s “Hazey Jane II” and made an entire career out of it, buttressed by clever songwriting, a small army of band members, and some of the greatest melodies to ever grace a pop song. Song-for-song, this was one of the strongest albums of the 1990s; even if the notion of them as a mysterious phantom band is ancient history, the quality of this album is eternal. 1996.
Chuck Berry, The Great Twenty-Eight (MCA). John Lennon once reckoned that another name for rock and roll could be Chuck Berry. He was right—Chuck Berry’s songbook is rock and roll’s songbook. The fact that “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Johnny B. Goode” all sprung from the same pen shouldn’t be taken for granted, it should be celebrated with a “Hail, hail rock and roll,” or at the very least, a Presidential Medal of Freedom. 1955-1965/1982.
———“You Never Can Tell” (Chess). A changing of the guards—the young rockers get married and settle down, the year The Beatles come to America. 1964.
———“Promised Land” (Chess). A cross-country travelogue through the Deep South to Los Angeles, ending with a plane landing to the tune of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” About a decade later, it was also the first Chuck Berry song that Elvis Presley could get right. 1964.
Beyoncé, “Crazy in Love” (Columbia). The crowning of rock’s first couple of the new millennium—even if the crazy has been overpowering the love ever since. 2003.
B-52’s, “Rock Lobster” (DB). They took the desolate wasteland that remained after punk and turned it into an early-’60s beach movie utopia—male and female, straight and gay, human and lobster. 1978.
Big Bopper, “Chantilly Lace” (Mercury). The last of the three who perished on “The Day the Music Died” in terms of influence, but the first in alphabetical order. Still, “Chantilly Lace” is a great song, and a case could be made for The Big Bopper to finally get into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After all, The Baseball Hall Of Fame inducted Tinker to Evers to Chance. 1958.
Big Star, #1 Record/Radio City (Ardent). Easily the most influential band that most people have never heard of, the lion’s share of their reputation lies upon their first two studio albums, conveniently issued as a two-for-one CD in the early 1990s. #1 Record (which ironically never made the charts) jumped back and forth between co-founders Chris Bell’s rockers and Alex Chilton’s ballads; in contrast, Radio City is all Chilton’s show, and he more than rises to the occasion in songs like the immortal “September Gurls.” Thanks to fans like R.E.M. and The Replacements, this music would never die, and it has long since been given its own name: Power pop. 1972/1974/1992.
Björk, Debut (One Little Indian). “If you ever get close to a human…” Björk warns in the opening “Human Behavoir,” “Be ready to get confused.” The rest of the album validates this sentiment, as Björk’s slippery voice sings over shifting sounds and textures in a way that was strange, profound, stunning—and very sexy. 1993.
Black Flag, Damaged (SST). The chief architects of hardcore punk define the music as Henry Rollins hollers his way through the band’s constantly fluctuating manic tempo like a Ramones album being eaten by a tape deck. 1981.
Black Sabbath, Paranoid (Vertigo). The Prince of Darkness receives his crown, on this, the definitive album by the definitive heavy metal band. The riffs were enormous and fueled angst-filled classics like “Iron Man” and the title track, all spit with vemon by Ozzy Osbourne, decades before he became a pop-culture punchline. 1970.
Blondie, Parallel Lines (Chrysalis). CBGB’s Most Likely to Succeed do just that, tearing down the seemingly impenetrable wall between punk and disco. They called it new wave, though it was really just bright and shining pop. 1978.
———“Rapture” (Chrysalis). The first rap song to hit #1 on the US charts. Sung by a blonde white chick. Who was originally from Florida. You can’t make this stuff up—but baby, that is rock and roll. 1981.
Kurtis Blow, “The Breaks” (Mercury). Old-school hip-hop as old-time bad luck. 1980.
Blur, “Song 2” (Food). The term “Woo-Hoo” had been around rock at least since the Rock-A-Teens’ 1959 song of the same name, but it took Blur to canonize it. 1997.
Gary “U.S.” Bonds, “Quarter to Three” (Legrand). The sound of a local street party group playing as though they were the greatest band in the world—in other words, the blueprint that Bruce Springsteen would use a decade later to become The Next Big Thing. The key word here is Big—if Phil Spector used a Wall of Sound, this was a Wall of Noise. 1961.
Booker T. and the M.G.’s, “Green Onions” (Stax). Stax Records’ iconic backing band take center stage on a throwaway jam and produce the funkiest record ever made up to that point. 1962.
Boston, “More Than a Feeling” (Epic). Corporate rock at its whitest, but thanks to the “Louie, Louie” chord structure at its center, it still sounded great. Perfectly described by one critic as the sound of his brother washing his car in the summer. 1976.
David Bowie, “Space Oddity” (RCA). Figures the song that put David Bowie on the map could also be used for the soundtrack of that year’s moon landing. Yet so many Bowie hallmarks are already in place: The innovative production, the space-age lyrics, the sad melody, the surprising-yet-congruent twists and turns of the structure. And he was just getting started. 1969.
———Hunky Dory (RCA). A Kook is born. Featuring his first signature song (“Changes”), his first masterpiece (“Life on Mars?”), three killings of the father (“Andy Warhol,” “Song for Bob Dylan,” and “Queen Bitch”—about Lou Reed), before returning to the weirdness from which he came. 1971.
———The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (RCA). David Bowie takes the concept album to its limits by creating the story of Ziggy Stardust and then acting it out for the next year and a half. The whole thing worked because it wasn’t fueled by camp or pretention, but rather warmth—the love between pop idols and the fans who make them, perfectly captured in “Lady Stardust”: “I smiled sadly, for a love I could not obey—” 1972.
———Low (RCA). David Bowie goes to Berlin and reinvents rock music. Side 1 is a sketchbook of ideas—fragments mixing catchy hooks and experimental sounds—while Side 2 is four different soundscapes that take us to four different worlds. Contrary to popular belief, Brian Eno didn’t produce this album, but he’s all over it, and serves as a sort of spiritual mentor. Pop and rock mixed with still-nascent forms like new age and techno. Within nine months, Elvis would be dead. 1977.
———“Heroes” (RCA). If Low was the greatest album achievement of his famed “Berlin period,” “Heroes” was the greatest single single achievement. Soaring and inspiring, it contained cryptic lyrics and innovative instrumentation on the greatest song ever written about a wall (sorry, Pink Floyd). 1977.
Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra). England’s foremost folksinger and America’s premier rock group of the late 20th Century finish a set of Woody Guthrie songs, as authorized by his daughter Nora, and with a surprise assist by Natalie Merchant. The three-way collaboration brings out the best in all parties—Bragg keeps the structures folksong simple, Wilco keeps the music classic but modern, and Guthrie delivers some of his most surreal and powerful lyrics. The fact that Wilco gets its finest recording from the sessions—the beautiful, timeless “California Stars”—is yet another bonus. 1998.
Brogues, “I Ain’t No Miracle Worker” (Challenge). This is what Jesus sings whenever he goes out to Karaoke with his disciples. 1965.
James Brown, Live at the Apollo (King). To us, it’s the greatest live album of all-time, but to James Brown and His Famous Flames, it was just another night at the Apollo. 1963.
———Star Time (Polydor). From tear-jerking R&B to pioneering soul, trailblazing funk, and the most-sampled hip-hop beat ever, nothing less than a one-man history of modern African-American music. 1956-1984/1991.
Jackson Browne, Late for the Sky (Asylum). As the weight of the 1960s spilled over into the heart of the 1970s, no singer or album bore its load harder; this is an album filled with sorrow, regret, and the occasional ramble into joy. It is also a stark reminder of how much power and beauty can be held within the shift of single chord, when all is bare-bones and looming, like a summer thunderstorm about to break. 1974.
———“Running on Empty” (Asylum). The point at which the Me Generation ran out of gas—almost. 1977.
Jeff Buckley, Grace (Columbia). Columbia Records’ pitch for rock and roll future in the 1990s, Jeff Buckley insisted on making this record an effortless mix of Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, and Billie Holiday, all gathered around the definitive version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” one of the most beautiful recordings in all of rock. Varied where his peers were bombastic and ethereal where they were sleazy, it would be both his first and last studio album released during his lifetime, as he drowned in the Mississippi River at the age of 30. 1994.
Retrospective: The Best of Buffalo Springfield (Atco). A meeting ground of future rock legends (Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Richie Furay of Poco), in which topical protest (Stills’ “For What It’s Worth”) mixed with haunting ballads (Young’s “I Am a Child”), steel pedal waltzes (Furay’s “Kind Woman”), and psychedelic experiments (the mini-epic “Broken Arrow”). This was country rock before such a thing had a name and they played like a proto-Eagles in their short, tumultuous tenure; if few noticed them in the crowded world of late-’60s rock, they’ve been listening ever since. 1967.
Solomon Burke, “Cry to Me” (Atlantic). The King of Rock and Soul lives. 1962.
Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio, “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” (Coral). Between Paul Burilson’s fuzzed and frenzied lead guitar and Johnny Burnette’s wild and desperate vocal, this was the hardest rocking record of the 1950s. 1956.
Burning Spear, Marcus Garvey (Island). The life of the most famous Jamaican up to this point (Bob Marley would eclipse him in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century), seen as a prophet by many Rastafarians. The best of it—“Slavery Days,” “Old Marcus Garvey,” and “Resting Place”—evoked a haunting, off-kilter sound that pulses eternally. The result is the rare concept album that feels entirely organic, filled with threads and themes that are waiting to be put together if the listener so chooses; a Jamaican Red Headed Stranger with the political scope of What’s Going On. 1975.
Kate Bush, Hounds of Love (EMI). Side 1: State-of-the-art pop. Side 2: State-of-the-pop art. 1985.
Buzzcocks, Singles Going Steady (I.R.S.). The closet romantics of the British punk scene—at least once you get past “Orgasm Addict.” 1977-1979/1979.
Byrds, Greatest Hits (Columbia). The lyrics of Bob Dylan mapped onto the shimmering harmony-filled sound of The Beatles, this was folk-rock—literally—in the jingle-jangle morning. 1965-1967/1967.
———Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Columbia). Not the first country-rock album—that distinction goes to Gram Parsons’ The International Submarine Band’s Safe at Home—but the first major country-rock album, courtesy of said Parsons joining The Byrds. Rodeo took in the entire spectrum of the music: Country weepers, jailhouse songs, gospel tunes, murder ballads, and paeans to home. Best of the lot were non-traditional country songs—Bob Dylan’s recent Basement Tapes songs that opened and closed the album, and Parsons’ own “One Hundred Years from Now” and “Hickory Wind.” And for those who fail to hear the rock and roll in it, just remember that the group was kicked off The Grand Ole Opry after insisting on performing the latter song instead of a pre-approved country standard. 1968.
Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica (Straight). Howlin’ Wolf and Ornette Coleman at a battle of the bands in which the bands battle themselves; and like few other albums ever made, an epoch upon itself. 1969.
Champs, “Tequila” (Challenge). A throwaway B-side from a group formed by a bunch of studio execs at Gene Autry’s label (Champ was the name of Autry’s horse). Within a month, it hit #1; within another year, it entered an even rarer category for 1950s rock and roll records: Grammy winner. 1958.
Gene Chandler, “Duke of Earl” (Vee-Jay). A pop song structured in a false doo-wop style that was already going out-of-date by the time it was waxed. Still, when you get to that bridge, you can’t help but feel every word like it’s a last will and testament, even though Gene Chandler is alive and well among us, and still performing. 1962.
Chantels, “Maybe” (End). The archetypal girl group hit—written a sung by a then 15-year-old Arlene Smith—that sounds fresher and packs more impact than nearly all of the copycat records that would follow. 1957.
Ray Charles, The Birth of Soul (Atlantic). Ray Charles’ Atlantic recordings are one of the founding documents of rock and roll, along with such sacred texts as Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis’s Sun recordings, Little Richard’s Specialty masters, and Chuck Berry’s Chess singles. Charles’ comes first chronologically and this is the seminal set that collected the masters all in one place for the first time. Hear him shape the music through shades of jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, and pop, until soul music crystallizes in standards like the cool “I’ve Got a Woman,” the rollicking “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” and the scandalous “What’d I Say.” 1951-1959/1991.
———“Georgia on My Mind” (ABC). Once upon a time, someone wrote a song about a girl named Georgia. Then Brother Ray came along and changed everything, as usual. 1960.
———“Hit the Road Jack” (ABC). His most recognizable hit, probably because it’s the most infectious. 1961.
———Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (ABC). Like all American music icons, Ray Charles tore down walls where people were so used to looking at them, they didn’t even realize they were there. Here, he takes on country music, which was a laughable endeavor at the time. He walked away with his finest studio album, a major hit, and proof that at the end of the day, soul and country were two halves of the same American coin. 1962.
Chic, “Le Freak” (Atlantic). Even more than the average rock movement, disco had its own bevy of bizarre rituals and social outcasts. In that light, this song can be heard as a sort of national anthem. 1978.
———Risqué (Atlantic). One of the few disco bands to craft great full-length albums in their own right, this was their finest; it also had so much feeling from the dancefloor that its first song, “Good Times,” spun off as the hook to “Rapper’s Delight.” 1979.
Chubby Checker, “The Twist” (Parkway). American independence as a dance craze. 1960.
Chiffons, “One Fine Day” (Laurie). A classic song, but it made this list for its one-note piano-hammering intro, which is so hard and simple, it nearly predicts punk rock. 1963.
Chords, “Sh-Boom” (Cat). The quintessential doo-wop song with all the classic elements: A one-hit wonder New York City-based African American group (1) records an unforgettable song (2) with tight harmonies (3) and a slick bass singer who gets down to business (4), all of which easily outdoes the white cover version that was made to cash in on it (5). Or, evidence that life could be a dream. 1954.
Claudine Clark, “Party Lights” (Chancellor). A B-side that was knocked off with such little care that the label allowed Claudine Clark to produce the session on this song that she had written—unheard of creative control for a 21-year-old African-American woman for this time. When the appropriately-titled A-side, “Disappointed,” well, disappointed, DJs flipped to the irresistible “Party Lights,” which hit the Top 5. The result is a record that tells a story about the need for freedom in more ways than one. 1962.
The Clash (CBS). The American version of The Clash’s first album, which serves a virtual greatest hits of their initial punk phase. One can find “Remote Control,” which their label released as a single without their permission, followed by “Complete Control,” which was about the previous “Remote Control” single. And any album that gathers “White Riot,” “I Fought the Law,” and “Janie Jones” in any order can’t be bad—along with “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais,” which, even with its now-famous opening fuck-up, is often considered the greatest Clash song of them all. 1977-1979/1979.
———London Calling (CBS). Released on the brink of the 1980s, London Calling would tower over the decade—and every decade since. Over two LPs, The Clash remade rock and roll into their own image, mixing rockabilly (“Brand New Cadillac”), punk (“Clampdown”), reggae (“Guns of Brixton”), folk ballads (“Wrong ’Em Boyo”), and pop (“Train in Vain”), right down to the cover that echoed Elvis Presley’s debut album. It would mark the pinnacle of punk, only at this point, the music had reached far beyond that genre—even though it lost none of its force, or apocalyptic fatalism. 1979.
———“Rock the Casbah” (CBS). A tease of where The Clash could’ve gone next had they not dissolved: Mainstream, danceable pop. 1982.
The Very Best of the Coasters (Rhino). The clown princes of ’50s rock and roll, they were a slick African-American doo-wop combo given first-rate material by two white Jewish guys. And even though the music was delivered with a light touch, it’s easy to forget how hard these records rock—the saxophone break and fade of “Yakety Yak,” the grit and groove of “Searchin’,” and the overall chaos of their early hit, “Riot in Cell Block #9,” the refrain of which spawned the title of Sly Stone’s dark funk masterpiece. 1954-1961/1993.
Eddie Cochran, “Summertime Blues” (Liberty). The original protest rock song. 1958.
Songs of Leonard Cohen (Columbia). A Canadian novelist absorbs the sophistication of Bob Dylan and creates an album of haunted, highly literate folk-pop, brooding with sex, surrealism, and sacraments. This was a decidedly adult perspective half-spoken without irony by a 33-year-old man—looking for love and comfort at the age Christ was crucified. 1967.
Contours, “Do You Love Me” (Gordy). The crown jewel of early Motown: Wild, exuberant, raw—and, with that sudden suprise fade in the break, a touch experimental. 1962.
Sam Cooke, Portrait of a Legend (ABKCO). When Sam Cooke left The Soul Stirrers to go solo, it was a 1950s equivalent of Bob Dylan leaving folk music to go electric. But like Dylan, Cooke didn’t make a clean break from one music to the other, he brought the emotion and fervor of soul into the subject-matter and sensibilities of pop; it also didn’t hurt he was perhaps the greatest pop singer of his time. This collection gathers material from all of the phases of his all-too-short career, from gospel to rhythm & blues to pop to soul, leading up to “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the finest soul song ever crafted. It took the emotion and fervor of the genre and set it free in a prayer of hope that still resonates today. 1951-1964/2003.
Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True (Stiff). He looked like Buddy Holly but sang with a punk edge, quickly becoming the angriest young man in rock. For all the menace and swagger of songs like “No Dancing” and “Blame It on Cain,” it’s the lovely ballad “Alison” that blows the cover—at its root, this remarkable debut was just a great collection of remarkably well-written songs. 1977.
———This Year’s Model (Radar). The angry young man puts together a tight new backup band—The Attractions—and takes the spirit of punk and drives it into pop. Opening with the line “I don’t wanna kiss you, I don’t wanna touch,” the album follows like a study in obsession and contradiction, until the finale, “Radio Radio,” brings everything home to Sony inches on the reel-to-reel. 1978.
Country Joe and the Fish, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” (Vanguard). A century of American musical entertainment—from minstrelsy to folk-rock—lurking within the funniest (and meanest) antiwar song ever conceived. 1967.
Cream, Disraeli Gears (Reaction). Eleven tracks of Cream on top, just before psychedelic pop gave way to psychiatric self-indulgence. 1967.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chronicle: The 20 Greatest Hits (Fantasy). If you ever want to kill a weekend or two, just listen to CCR’s three consecutive albums from their 1969-1970 heyday—Green River, Willy and the Poor Boys, and Cosmo’s Factory—and try to pick which one is best. The correct answer is “None of the Above” because even if you did choose one, you would still need to get “Proud Mary.” So while it may be gauche to choose hit compilations over original LPs, Chronicle does the trick better than any of the dozen CCR comps before or since, which is an achievement in and of itself. 1968-1971/1976.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Déjà Vu (Atlantic). One version of life after The Beatles—seasoned pros, using harmony-filled pop songwriting, with one hand on the acoustic guitar and the other reaching for Art. 1970.
———“Ohio” (Atlantic). Written, recorded, and released within weeks of the Kent State shooting it depicts, rock had hardly ever been more timely—or efficient. 1970.
Cure, Staring at the Sea (Fiction). I used to work at a used record store with a virtual pop culture spectrum of music fans—punks, indie-rockers, goths, metalheads, stoners, ravers, the works. For whatever reason, this was the only CD we could put on that everyone agreed on. Maybe it was because it was just post-punk enough to have edge, just dark enough to evoke goth, maybe even just hard enough to hint at metal. Or maybe it was just the quality of the music, and The Cure, in and of itself: I mean, how could you not like “Boys Don’t Cry”? Or “Close to You”? Or even “The Love Cats”? 1978-1985/1986.
Daft Punk, Discovery (Virgin). The future of rock and roll, as imagined by a pair of French robots. 2001.
Dick Dale, “Miserlou” (Deltone). With all due respect to The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and the rest, this was real surf rock, by the acknowledged King of Surf Guitar. Such a natural and effervescent recording, it fit right in on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack over three decades later. 1962.
Bobby Darin, “Splish Splash” (Atco). I heard a legend long ago that once when Bobby Darin had writer’s block, his mother gave him the phrase, “splish, splash, take a bath.” The rest is history—although I’m left wondering if the woman who gave him the idea was his biological mother, who he grew up believing was his sister, or the woman he called mother, who was actually his grandmother. 1958.
Spencer Davis Group, “Gimme Some Lovin’” (Fontana). With all due respect to Traffic and Blind Faith, this is the only Steve Winwood song worth hearing. 1966.
De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising… (Tommy Boy). The second of the great trilogy of rap sampling in the Golden Age of Hip-Hop—along with Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique—this is as densely produced and thoroughly entertaining as hip-hop gets. The irony is that the sampling that helped make it great also has led to its (and the industry’s) downfall, namely in their sampling of The Turtles’ “You Showed Me” on the French instructional track. With this leading the way, the album broke the mold of dense sampling, resulting in having the rare distinction of being included in the Library of Congress’s Registry of Recorded Sound, but not available on iTunes. 1989.
Desmond Dekker and the Aces, “Israelites” (Pyramid). The Harder They Come soundtrack was exactly one song away from being the perfect classic reggae sampler. And that song was “Israelites.” 1968.
Depeche Mode, The Singles 81>85 (Sire). Because you just can’t get enough. Just can’t get enough. 1980-1985/1985.
Derek and the Dominos, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (Atco). England’s greatest blues guitarist and America’s greatest slide guitarist unite on a double album about the turmoil that comes with love and agony. “Bell Bottom Blues” set the vibe early on, met at the end by the staggering “Layla,” which has an extended coda that remains the closest rock music ever got to pure transcendence. It was all too good and raw to last, but then again, the best rock usually is. 1970.
Devo, “Whip It” (Warner Brothers). The quintessential New Wave eccentrics deliver the weirdest song to make the US Top 20—electronic and stupid, yet catchy and completely unforgettable. 1980.
Bo Diddley (Chess). One of the true LP masterpieces of rock and roll, Bo Diddley’s self-titled debut contained all of his key hits from his most classic period. Bo Diddley’s namesake beat has long since become an intrinsic building block of rock and roll and the jumping-off point for a thousand classics. Yet perhaps the range of influence of Diddley himself can best be shown by the variety of people and environments in which people would cover the songs from this album: Buddy Holly’s early rockabilly version of “Bo Diddley,” Eric Clapton’s inclusion of “Before You Accuse Me” on his kajillion-selling Unplugged album, an early incarnation of The Band backing Ronnie Hawkins on his fire-breathing take on “Who Do You Love?”, The Sex Pistols covering “Pretty Thing” as a testament of snotty come-uppance (or the mods-turned-rock-opera pioneers Pretty Things naming themselves after it). For a person associated so closely with one basic singular rhythm, perhaps the greatest testament to his music is that it could lead almost anywhere. 1955-1958/1958.
Dion and the Belmonts, “I Wonder Why” (Laurie). The greatest white doo-wop record ever made, firing at all cylinders at once, as big and bright and entertaining as a pinball machine going nuts. 1958.
My Blue Heaven: The Best of Fats Domino (EMI). Chuck Berry was more influential, Little Richard was flashier, and Bo Diddley was cooler, but Fats Domino was the biggest. It was because of his warmth, his lack of danger that allowed his music to outsell all of those listed above (read: to white audiences) and inspire kids like Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, and Ricky Nelson. Like his native New Orleans waterways, his music flows beneath rock, giving it swing, grace, and groove, that have inspired countless to declare, “I found my thr-ill—” 1949-1961/1990.
The Doors (Elektra). Beneath the diamond sky of The Summer Of Love, The Doors’ self-titled debut remained lodged behind Sgt. Pepper at #2 on the Billboard Charts, a harbinger for the dark days that lay just around the corner. Yet time has proven much kinder to The Doors, because its pretentions fit in better with the (post)modern age, as the likes of Iggy Pop and X followed it into punk rock. But then again, any album that begins with “Break on Through,” has “Light My Fire” as a centerpiece, and ends with “The End” is gonna be a defining classic. 1967.
Nick Drake, Pink Moon (Island). The Emily Dickinson of pop music—which is to say, an essentially unknowable phantom who created brilliant, timeless work. This was his most timeless. Stripped of the British folk stylings of his first two albums, Pink Moon plays like a demo; legend has it that the label first heard of it when it was delivered to them. Two years later, Drake would be dead of an overdose of antidepressants—like Dickinson, he died in his childhood bedroom. 1972.
Dr. Dre, The Chronic (Death Row). N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton may have announced gangsta rap’s arrival, but it was The Chronic that put it over and became the most influential rap album of the 1990s, setting the course from parties or politics to guns, women, and money. It might all be too rough were it not for the smooth stylings of Snoop Dogg, who broke onto the world stage on this album and became a legend in his own right. 1992.
The Very Best of the Drifters (Rhino). Brill Building’s finest compositions given to R&B’s sleekest vocal group, with pioneering strings orchestrated by Lieber & Stoller—with an assist from a young Phil Spector. Yet the soaring sounds of “There Goes My Baby,” the cool grittiness of “Under the Boardwalk” and the reverie of “Up on the Roof,” easily transcended the trappings that created them. 1959-1964/1993.
Duran Duran, “Hungry Like the Wolf” (EMI). It didn’t take long before MTV ran out of established artists to play. Suddenly the channel became a battle of the bands of obscure foreign groups, the first round of which was decisively won by these guys. And unlike the other 99% of their catalog (and most of their contemporaries), this song holds up great, even without the painted girls and exotic locales of the video shoot. 1982.
———Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia). Dylan goes electric—on record, anyway. After driving cross-country the previous year to discover America, he discovered The Beatles instead, which plugged him back into his pre-folk, Little Richard-idolizing roots. Yet the folk poet remained and for the first time in rock, lyrics were given equal weight as the music. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was a call to arms and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was a final reckoning. 1965.
———Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia). From the gunshot crack of the drum opening “Like a Rolling Stone” through the surrealist wasteland of “Desolation Row” some 50 minutes later, this was Bob Dylan’s masterpiece, with restlessness in its heart and the highway as its spine. It was also, perhaps not coincidentally, also his first fully-electric album. 1965.
———“Positively 4th Street” (Columbia). A kiss-off to the folk scene, structured like a no-refrain folk ballad, but delivered with luscious pop-rock. 1965.
———Blonde on Blonde (Columbia). Dylan goes to Nashville, teams up with some slick studio musicians, and catches what he famously called “that wild, mercury sound”—although a better description might be that grand outlaw sound. 1966.
———The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert (Columbia). Once Dylan went electric onstage, lines were drawn between the folk purists and those who understood where Dylan was going. What the purists didn’t realize is that Dylan wasn’t selling out to rock—he was remaking it like The Beatles were doing right beside him. So he hired the best Band in the world and hit the road to prove it, culminating in this legendary concert where someone famously calls out “Judas!” before the finale of “Like a Rolling Stone.” “I don’t believe you—” Dylan says. “You’re a liar!” He then turns to The Band and says, “Play fucking loud.” They do, and close the concert in an epic gesture of words and noise. 1966/1998.
———and The Band, The Basement Tapes (Columbia). Dylan moves to Woodstock, crashes his motorcycle, and then spends The Summer of Love in exile with The Band recording mysterious music in their shared home, Big Pink. Greil Marcus has famously deemed it music that tapped into “The Old, Weird America” and he’s right—this is utterly timeless, effortless music that is not trying to be anything other than what it is. “This Wheel’s on Fire” brings the proceedings to a close with a rumination on time that, like so much of the material, gets more impossible yet precise with every listen: “And you know that we will meet again, if your mem’ry serves you well.” 1967/1975.
———John Wesley Harding (Columbia). After working all summer and into the fall on The Basement Tapes, he quickly recorded and released this album in the winter. Gone were the sing-along refrains of the basement music; in their place were mysterious tales and seeming parables told with stripped-down country instrumentation. Dylan himself uncharacteristically blew its cover when he mused that it was the first “Bible rock” album, and one look at the title figure (J-W-H) would bear this out. Featuring “All Along the Watchtower” as a stately sketch; it would take Jimi Hendrix to paint the final masterpiece in full color. 1967.
———“Lay Lady Lay” (Columbia). Dylan quits cigarettes, adopts a weird croon, and winds up in the most unlikely place—the Top 10 of the Billboard Charts. 1969.
———“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (Columbia). A song that no one will ever forget, written for a film that no one remembers. 1973.
———Blood on the Tracks (Columbia). Dylan gets a divorce, records this album twice—once acoustic, once with a band—and splices them together to make what some consider the finest album of the 1970s. With the stunning “Tangled up in Blue,” the wistful “Simple Twist of Fate,” and the wailing “Idiot Wind”—easily the most terrifying song he ever cut—it certainly had his finest songs of that decade. 1975.
———“Blind Willie McTell” (Columbia). An outtake dating from his 1983 album Infidels, this song not only outclassed everything on the Infidels album, but everything he recorded in the entire decade. This was deep blues masquerading as 19th Century parlor music, with an unflinching eye on history, at once eerie and unbelievable. Featuring Mark Knopfler on guitar with an assist so good, you’ll almost forgive his entire catalogue with Dire Straits. 1983/1991.
———Time Out of Mind (Columbia). Dylan’s 30th comeback album, which is to say, his 30th album. But this one was a comeback like no others—he not only came back from a near-fatal heart condition, but also from someone left for dead (or more tellingly, left for the classic rock stations) to a vibrant force in popular music once again. It also nabbed him his first (and so far only) Grammy for Album of the Year. In the acceptance speech, he thanked Buddy Holly, who he had seen live in the second to last concert before Holly’s own death. 1997.
———“Love and Theft” (Columbia). Dylan didn’t really name this album, he stole it from Eric Lott’s book Love and Theft, which tells the history of minstrelsy, a tradition that is itself based on stealing—whites blackening their faces to steal from blacks, who in turn blackened their faces to steal from whites, and so on, continuing into an endless circle. On “Love and Theft”, Dylan reaches into this circle to deliver an album that tangles the musics of whites and blacks into a continually shifting sound of rockabilly and swing, blues and vaudeville. It is his most cryptic album—and perhaps his most American. And the fact it was released on September 11, 2001, only heightens its drama. 2001.
Eagles, Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 (Asylum). The best-selling album of all-time—until Michael Jackson’s death restored Thriller to this rank. Still, it functions as a perfect summary of The Eagles’ pre-Hotel California era, with all of their irresistible hits (“Take It Easy,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling,”) as well as “Desperado,” which somehow was never issued as a single. 1971-1975/1975.
———Hotel California (Asylum). Manifest Destiny fulfilled, in the sleaze of the title track and the excess of “Life in the Fast Lane”; but it was the closing “The Last Resort” that gave away the album’s secret in the shape of a glossy folksong: “’Cause there is no more new frontier/We have got to make it here.” 1976.
Duane Eddy, “Rebel-’Rouser” (Jamie). Rock’s original instrumentalist, Duane Eddy helped to establish the guitar as the instrument of rock and roll, at a time in which it was battling some serious competition from the piano and saxophone. But by the end of the 1950s, Eddy’s instrument won out—or, as he might say, have twang, will travel. 1958.
Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, “Get Ur Freak On” (Goldmind). A modern classic from one of the finest MCs to ever grace a microphone; so hot that even Michelle Obama loves to jam out on it. 2001.
Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (Aftermath). What if the angriest person in America was also the most intelligent? 2000.
———“Lose Yourself” (Aftermath). What if the angriest person in America was then recognized by the Academy? 2002.
Brian Eno, Another Green World (Astralwerks). Released one month after Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, it offers as complete and singular—if entirely opposite—a vision of rock and roll music. The album catches Eno halfway between his more accessible work with Roxy Music and his abstract ambient music towards the end of the decade. Where Springsteen’s opus could’ve happened on one long summer night, Eno’s maps out an entire atmosphere in fire, water, and land; the whole thing saved by pretension by its earnestness, as well as songs like “I’ll Come Running,” which remind you that he could still deliver a solid pop song. 1975.
Eric B. and Rakim, Paid in Full (4th and B’way). If being an MC was a flat square when Rakim showed up, he turned it into a cube. With more internal rhymes than you can shake a dictionary at, he held the mic like a grudge and proved that both he and his music style were no joke. With Eric B.’s solid beats behind him, Rakim rapped with a precision that was staggering, setting the stage for Chuck D, Nas, and Eminem, among countless others. For both excellence and influence, many hold that this is the crown jewel of Hip-Hop’s Golden Age, and the finest rap album, period. 1987.
Everly Brothers, Cadence Classics: Their 20 Greatest Hits (Rhino). Harmonies from the hills meets rhythms from the city, in rock’s first and most influential duo. Everyone from Lennon & McCartney and Simon & Garfunkel on down were cribbing notes from the songs, produced with a deceptively simple sound by Chet Atkins. But it’s Don and Phil themselves who make every song a classic, no matter how great or maudlin the initial material. 1957-1960/1990.
———“Cathy’s Clown” (Warner Brothers). Sweet enough to pull at your heartstrings, but hip enough to be name-checked in Elliott Smith’s even lovelier “Waltz #2 (XO).” 1960.
Betty Everett, “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” (Vee-Jay). Is it possible that the greatest girl group record was credited to a single person? 1964.
Fairport Convention, Liege & Lief (Island). The leaders of British folk rock (not to be confused with American folk-rock), this long-lasting, ever-changing group hit their stride here, buoyed by its two key members, vocalist Sandy Denny and guitarist Richard Thompson. It was a vast, beautiful sound filled with modern sing-a-longs and ancient murder ballads and was in its own way a sort of British Music from Big Pink. 1969.
Charlie Feathers, “One Hand Loose” (King). The great lost rockabilly song of the 1950s, sung by the great lost rockabilly singer of the 1950s. 1956.
“5” Royales, Dedicated to You (King). The great lost rock album of the ’50s by the great lost rock band of the ’50s. Featuring two rock standards—“Dedicated to the One I Love” and “Think”—plus a bunch more just awaiting rediscovery. Your move. 1955-1957/1957.
Five Satins, “In the Still of the Night” (Standord). Recorded by four Satins in a church basement, this record sounds heavy in ways that most heavy metal songs could only begin to reach for. 1956.
Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Brothers). An alternate history of rock and roll where The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour wasn’t a failure, but an improvement upon the inconsistencies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to create a future in which conceptually-based psychedelic rock could flourish and The Velvet Underground remained a historical curiosity, remembered only by fans of Andy Warhol. 1999.
Flamingos, “I Only Have Eyes for You” (End). Doo-wop as an exercise in elegance. 1959.
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (Warner Brothers). The remains of a British blues band join forces with a couple of kids from California, and define pop-rock music of the era. On this, their second LP in their classic configuration, they found their masterpiece, writing upbeat songs about marriages dissolving. Call it inspiration or luck, but whatever it was, it worked—and became the best-selling album in America until Thriller. 1977.
Eddie Floyd, “Knock on Wood” (Stax). Only Eddie Floyd could take a situation so terrifying—being drawn to someone’s love despite the fact that it literally frightens you—and make it sound so happy, so desirable. 1966.
Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin (A&M). Gram Parson quits The Byrds, grabs bassist Chris Hillman to join him, and delivers an archetypal country-rock masterpiece. The structure was country but the sounds were steeped in psychedelic, songs filled with longing regret but also the thrill of why you did it in the first place; you can practically hear The Eagles cribbing notes from every song. 1969.
Frankie Ford, “Sea Cruise” (Ace). Originally recorded by the legendary R&B outfit Huey “Piano” Smith and his Clowns, Ace Records erased Smith’s vocal and replaced it with a white kid’s named Frankie Ford; the result was Huckleberry Finn singing in Jim’s place, an irresistible, clattering, joy of a record. 1959.
Four Seasons, “Sherry” (Vee-Jay). Frankie Valli may not have been the first rocker to hit a high falsetto, but since this debut single hit #1, he can be heard in everyone who’s reached for one ever since. 1962.
Four Tops, The Definitive Collection (Motown). There are two versions of the Motown myth: One is the classic lineup era of The Temptations, where you sing about having my girl, marvel at the way she does the things she does, and yet are not to proud to beg for her. The other version belongs to The Four Tops, where love is at best fleeting and at worst an illusion, a shadow cast over seven rooms of gloom, all agonized by lead singer Levi Stubbs, one of the finest singers of soul music. This album presents their best work, although oddly not in chronological order, presumably so that it could kick off with the enormous “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”—conceived as love song but executed like it was recorded in the jungles of Vietnam. 1964-1972/2008.
Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Atlantic). The fervor of the altar reaches the fury of the bedroom, as songs of secular desire are fueled by an almost sacred fire. In the title track, Aretha sings like a cross she has to bear; in “Drown in My Tears,” she beats Ray Charles at his own game. But it’s the opening cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” that pushed the game one step further—into the realm of gender politics. Easily the greatest soul album ever made. 1967.
———Lady Soul (Atlantic). With “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” the title is a sorry understatement—this is the music that established her as soul’s reigning Queen. 1968.
Bobby Freeman, “Do You Wanna Dance” (Josie). How many songs can you name that have been covered by both The Beach Boys and The Ramones? 1958.
Fugazi, 13 Songs (Dischord). As a band, they were post-hardcore, but as a philosophy, they were post-music industry. But more importantly, they were endlessly innovative, intelligent, and massively influential. When they played at my college’s senior year spring carnival, I’m not sure which was more glorious to see—my indie friends’ love and pride or the preppie frat kids’ loathing and contempt. 1988/1989.
Bobby Fuller Four, “I Fought the Law” (Mustang). A great concept that becomes a great record when the drummer hits the snare six times for the “Robbing people with a six-gun” line. In the end, it wasn’t the law that did Fuller in, as he was found dead in a car within a year after this song peaked in the Top 10; the reason for his death remains a mystery. 1965.
Funkadelic, One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Brothers). A funk state of the union that catches the singular George Clinton at the peak of his powers and influence. 1978.
Funky Four Plus One, “That’s the Joint” (Sugar Hill). For a brief period—basically the three-year period between The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”—“That’s the Joint” was the greatest rap record ever made. Though largely forgotten today, The Funky Four—K.K. Rockwell, Keith Keith, Li’l Rodney C!, MC Jazzy Jeff (not to be confused with The Fresh Prince’s DJ)—plus one—Sha Rock, believed to be the first female rapper in a group—were the first rap group to appear on national television (when Debbie Harry hosted Saturday Night Live in early 1981); they never recorded a full-length album, but this song should grant them rock immortality. 1980.
Peter Gabriel, So. (Charisma). Out of all the established rockers, Peter Gabriel was the best prepared to take on the futuristic textures of the 1980s because the future is where his music was all along. After doggedly pursuing progressive art-rock—first with Genesis and then as a solo artist—Gabriel finally broke big with this, his fifth album, featuring the blue-eyed soul of the #1 “Sledgehammer” (which is still the most-played video in MTV history) and the sheer beauty of “In Your Eyes” (rescued from pop oblivion by Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything). My favorite is still “Big Time,” which rivals Madonna’s “Material Girl” as the most quintessentially ’80s song. 1986.
Gang of Four, Entertainment! (EMI). One way out of punk rock: Instruments pitted against each other as the singer surveys a capitalist wasteland. And as a young hipster going to a dance night in Boston, I will never get over how good “Damaged Goods” sounds right up against Motown and Stax soul classics. 1979.
Marvin Gaye, Super Hits (Talma). Is Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” the greatest rock single of all-time? It could—and has—been argued. The song feels like an arrival, but it is followed by songs that spun off journeys of their own: “Can I Get A Witness” (covered by The Rolling Stones), “Baby Don’t You Do It” (transformed by The Band), and the opening lick of “Hitch-Hike,” which powered key songs by both The Velvet Underground and The Smiths. And that’s not even to mention “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” perhaps the happiest Motown record of them all. 1962-1969/1969.
———and Tammi Terrell, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Talma). Marvin Gaye sung with many duet partners over the years, but none as magically as Tammi Terrell. The two of them were musical soul mates who evoked an idealized couple in love. This song was surely their finest, released in April 1967; six months later, Terrell collapsed into Gaye’s arms onstage after suffering from a brain tumor. 1967.
———What’s Going on (Talma). A sermon disguised as a concept album—brave and focused on heaven, but weary as hell. 1971.
———“Let’s Get It on” (Tamla). After conquering the sacred world, he returned his focus to the secular one like he never had before. 1973.
Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive” (Polydor). Disco was worth it if only for giving us this, the greatest dance song ever waxed. 1978.
Leslie Gore, “You Don’t Own Me” (Mercury). A prequel to “I Will Survive” that’s both dire and life-affirming. 1963.
Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & the Furious Five, The Best of: Message from Beat Street (Rhino). The epicenter of old school rap, which is to say that their early party records proved they were Elvis and The Beatles rolled into one. Until they shocked everyone with “The Message,” which established themselves as the music’s Bob Dylan, too. 1980-1985/1994.
———“The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel (Sugar Hill). A remix cover of Blondie’s “Rapture,” which, in itself was trying to be a Grandmaster Flash song, beats Blondie at her own game—and revealed that the Wheels of Steel truly do go around in circles. 1981.
Grateful Dead, Workingman’s Dead (Warner Brothers). After spending much of the 1960s trying—and usually failing—to capture their legendary live sound in the studio, The Grateful Dead took a new approach with the new decade. They focused on the songs, as opposed to the performances, as well as their folk and country roots. The result was timeless, elegant music, with “Uncle John’s Band” playing to the tide and “Casey Jones” emerging from the shadows of folklore into a coke fiend’s bender. 1970.
———American Beauty (Warner Brothers). The Dead follow the trail of Workingman’s Dead and deliver their masterpiece. “Box of Rain,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Friend of the Devil,” and “Ripple” are the standards, while the oft-quoted “Truckin’” ends thing on the perfect note: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” The trip would continue for decades, but it would never sound better than this. 1970.
Al Green, Greatest Hits (Hi). Al Green took his place in the ’70s as the last great classic soul singer, inheriting the mantle from Sam Cooke in the ’50s and Otis Redding in the ’60s. Green could be smooth like Cooke or rough like Redding, sometimes within the span of a single song. This album, one of the finest “Greatest Hits” LPs ever assembled (only the great Columbia label ones by Sly and the Family Stone or The Byrds can give it a run for its money), is an instant Al Green primer, all built around the sexy, funky “Love and Happiness,” his finest record. 1971-1973/1975.
———Call Me (Hi). Al Green’s masterpiece. A survey of Southern and soul music, he evoked Cooke and Redding, but also the sweet tenor of Curtis Mayfield and the one-man vocal group layering of Marvin Gaye’s contemporary work. The album spawned three big hits (“You Ought to Be With Me,” “Here I am (Come and Take Me),” and the title track), but most impressive were the country classics (Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away”) sit so comfortably beside them, proving the wall between country and R&B was simply an illusion. Keeping it all together was the drumming of Stax’s Al Jackson, Jr., and his protégé, Howard Grimes, providing a sturdy backbone to Green’s eternal soul. 1973.
———“Take Me to the River” (Hi). Where Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” was made into a bigger hit by Herman’s Hermits and Otis Redding’s “Respect” was made into a bigger hit by Aretha Franklin, this song was covered by Talking Heads and gave them a rare Top 30 hit; shockingly, Green never released his version as a single, but his version remains definitive. Just listen to the way the girl takes his money and cigarettes. 1974.
Green Day, Dookie (Reprise). When Nirvana’s Nevermind hit #1 on the pop charts, 1991 became “The Year That Punk Broke.” Yet, for all of the celebration of Nirvana, they never exactly sounded like punks. Green Day became the punk traditionalists, coming with three chords and a snotty attitude, with songs about boredom, madness, and girls. It sounded something like The Clash before they made their way into London Calling, although one can hear the power of The Who in “Welcome To Paradise” and The Beatles lurking in “Pulling Teeth”; as great as Dookie is as an exercise in trad-punk, it’s even more fascinating as a harbinger of the artistry and rock operas to come. 1994.
Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (Geffen). L.A. heathens whip hard rock back into shape, just in time to put the last nail in glam-metal’s coffin. “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City” were perfect testaments of rock excess, but just as impressive was “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” in which the entire axis of rock music turned on Slash’s riff. 1987.
Bill Haley and His Comets, “Rock Around the Clock” (Decca). A B-side to a non-hit single that was spliced together from two takes because the group couldn’t get all the way through it once. Then one day the producers of The Blackboard Jungle needed a song for their opening credits… 1954.
The Harder They Come Soundtrack (Island). Rock and roll breaks through into the third world in this soundtrack to the first film ever produced in Jamaica. Taking their cues from gangsters (some two decades before gangsta rap), the songs tell of tough-guy posturing reminiscent of the 1950s, intercut with visions from the Old Testament. It isn’t until Jimmy Cliff’s title track that the cover is blown: “I would rather be a freeman in his grave/Than living as a puppet or slave.” For, along with Elvis, The Beatles, and countless more, rock and roll was a way out of the circumstances from which they were born, and into a brave, free world. 1967-1972/1972.
Joyce Harris, “No Way Out” (Infinity). As a record, it was pure joy; as history, it was rock and roll’s version of the Voynich manuscript. 1960.
George Harrison, “My Sweet Lord” (Apple). A theological dissertation on comparative religions, held up in court under the doctrine of subconscious plagiarism. It’s also simply a great song and as natural a hit as George Harrison would ever write—subconscious assist or not. 1970.
PJ Harvey, Rid of Me (Island). The greatest British female rocker of her generation makes her major label debut by grabbing producer Steve Albini (just fresh off Doolittle and just before In Utero) and retreating to the Minnesota tundra for two weeks. The resulting errand into the wildness is a psychological study of sex, confusion, and rage, with slashing guitars, thundering drums, and blood waiting around every turn. It is at once vengeful and lustful, yet brimming with bravery. 1993.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “I Put a Spell on You” (Okeh). Rock and roll as a voodoo spell; it must have worked, given at the time of his death, Hawkins had 56 known offspring and counting. 1956.
Isaac Hayes, “Theme from Shaft” (Stax). One of those rare recordings that transcends time and boundaries—how else is it that Isaac Hayes has an Oscar while Paul McCartney and U2 still wait for theirs? 1971.
Richard Hell and the Voidoids, “Blank Generation” (Sire). A remake of Bob McFadden and Dor’s 1959 novelty record “The Beat Generation,” this was a parody of a joke masquerading as an anthem. But Richard Hell sells it, with a deadpan vocal and a blank stare—matched by the “I belong to The—Generation!” cry in the refrain, a blank that would have made Emily Dickinson swell with pride. 1976.
Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced (Reprise). Rock’s greatest guitarist delivers rock’s greatest debut, which sounds like an avalanche and feels like a greatest hits: “Purple Haze,” “Manic Depression,” “Hey Joe,” and those are just the first three songs. For a brief period in the late ’60s, Jimi Hendrix was the epicenter of rock and roll; this album documents why. 1967.
———Axis: As Bold as Love (Reprise). An underrated “sophomore slump” that most bands would kill to have as their finest album. Hendrix digs in and deepens the textures—both musically and lyrically—on “Spanish Castle Magic” and “Little Wing,” but it’s the epic “If 6 Was 9” that may just contain psychedelic music’s most profound statement: “If 6…turned out to be 9…I would not mind.” 1967.
———Electric Ladyland (Reprise). For the only time in his all-too-brief career, Hendrix received unlimited studio time and delivered this, a double-LP masterpiece of love, rock and sci-fi that took you to unimagined places, some of which only hint at where Hendrix could have gone from there. After funky hard rock, slow burning blues, and LSD-underwater expeditions, Hendrix ends the album by burning it to the ground with the triple-header of “House Burning Down,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” An entire book could be written about each one, but I’ll just pause to single out “Watchtower” as the finest Dylan cover ever cut—and somehow, Hendrix’s only US Top 20 hit. 1968.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse). Ex-Fugee Lauryn Hill goes to Tuff Gong, Jamaica, and records an album encompassing the entire stretch of modern black music from pop to rock to reggae to hip-hop (and back)—and with her own #1 hit, “Doo Wop (That Thing),” she even added to it herself. The title was lifted from pioneering African-American scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro, but the vision was all Lauryn’s; her sad decline ever since makes this singular document all the more impressive and invaluable. 1998.
Hole, Live Through This (Geffen). Released virtually minutes after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, his widow Courtney Love’s breakthrough album was so great (and sexism in rock was so prevalent) that it was soon rumored—falsely—that Kurt had ghostwritten it. Make no mistake, this album was done on Love’s own terms, right down to one of the lines of the decade: “I want to be the girl with the most cake…Someday you will ache like I ache.” 1994.
Buddy Holly, 20 Golden Greats (EMI). Rock and roll’s first recording artist, Buddy Holly packed in about three lifetime’s worth of music in the roughly year and a half between his first major hit, “That’ll Be the Day,” and his tragic death in February 1959. All of the music was great (just check out one of the attempts to collect his complete recordings), but the best summary is this 1978 collection from England. All of the signature hits and phases are hit, from his early rockabilly covers through his classic period, late-period string ballads, and the posthumously-overdubbed demos. The sequencing is just as good as the material, and while one can always dig deeper, this serves as an ideal one-stop goldmine. 1956-1958/1978.
Whitney Houston, “How Will I Know” (Arista). Even since her death, rock music has turned a cold shoulder to Whitney Houston, who has yet to make the ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, despite her overwhelming talent, success, and influence. Her self-titled debut was enormous—which is saying something for the larger-than-life pop stratosphere of the 1980s—and this was its finest (and, not coincidentally, most fun) cut, years before she started taking herself too seriously (along with everybody else) in the even bigger soundtrack to The Bodyguard. 1985.
Human Beinz, “Nobody But Me” (Capitol). The most negative song in rock and roll, according to Dave Marsh who counts the word “no” over 100 times in its 2:16 running time (“nobody” is said an additional 46 times). Who knew that something so negative could sound so positively good? 1967.
Human League, “Don’t You Want Me” (Virgin). The innovations of Kraftwerk melded with the sensibilities of pop and put into the most sophisticated music video to see the light of day on MTV up to that point. The result was a pioneering #1 hit, on both sides of the pond. 1981.
Isley Brothers, “Shout (Parts 1 & 2)” (RCA). Saturday night dance music as Sunday morning testimony. 1959.
Michael Jackson, Off The Wall (Epic). Motown’s boy wonder grows up and, with two #1 hits (“Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You”) and two more reaching the Top 10 (the title track and “She’s Out of My Life”), a star is born—on the disco dance floor, of all places. Still, when the album was denied a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, Jackson cried tears of rage, unsatisfied with what he saw as a consolation award for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male. He swore that next time, he’d release something that they couldn’t ignore or ghettoize into the R&B categories… 1979.
———Thriller (Epic). For one brief, bright shining moment, rock, pop, and R&B all converged into one place. The once and current best-selling of all-time—and it actually deserves to be. 1982.
Jackson 5, “I Want You Back” (Motown). The most glorious pop record ever made; someone could write a sermon about James Jamerson’s bass line alone. 1969.
Etta James, “At Last” (Argo). Pop music as The Great American Songbook. 1960.
Rick James, “Super Freak” (Gordy). “The Sound of Young America,” after it had gone through puberty. 1981.
Tommy James and the Shondells, “Hanky Panky” (Snap!). Garage rock so trashy, you’d never know it was carefully written by Brill Building royalty and sung by a guy who would later be famous for “Crimson and Clover.” 1966.
Jane’s Addiction, Nothing’s Shocking (Warner Brothers). The archetypal alternative rock band’s major-label debut, with touches of folk (“Jane Says”), metal (“Mountain Song”), and an almost intergalactic sense of weirdness, courtesy of the otherworldly interplay between guitarist Dave Navarro and singer Perry Farrell. 1988.
———“Been Caught Stealing” (Warner Brothers). Turns out the first great rock song of the 1990s was about shoplifting razor blades. We’ve come a long way from Carl Perkins’ “Dixie Fried.” 1990.
Jay-Z, The Blueprint (Roc-a-Fella). Released on September 11, 2001, when Jay-Z’s hometown was facing its darkest day, this album—his sixth in six years—established him as the city’s new music king, inheriting the throne from the late, great Notorious B.I.G. Hits like “Jigga That Nigga” and instant-classics like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” proved that this was no fluke. 2001.
———“99 Problems” (Roc-a-Fella). Not just a great song, but a great phrase—lifted from Ice-T’s 1993 single of the same name—but it’s Jay-Z who makes it immortal. 2004.
Jaynettes, “Sally Go ’Round the Roses” (Tuff). The weirdest of all the girl group songs—a riddle wrapped in an enigma, or more accurately, a wash of echo and a chorus of voices; the most scrutinized pop song until Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” although “Sally” towers over it like a sphinx. 1963.
Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow (RCA). Haight Street meets Main Street, thanks to a mix of hype (a feature in Newsweek, a showpiece set at Monterey Pop) and hits (“Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”), which powered by the sheer force of Grace Slick’s vocals, remain for many the definitive 1960s San Francisco psychedelic rock band. 1967.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Boardwalk). Historically, it was a cover of a song by the long-forgotten ’70s British band The Arrows; symbolically, it was ground zero for riot grrrls everywhere. 1982.
Billy Joel, “Piano Man” (Columbia). An angry young man uses the trappings in which he finds himself as a way out; also significant for introducing the world to the phrase “real estate novelist.” 1973.
———The Stranger (Columbia). After years of struggles and misses, Billy Joel teams up with Phil Ramone and finally creates an album that delivers on his promise. With “Anthony’s Song (Movin’ Out),” “Just the Way You Are,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Only the Good Die Young,” and the mini-rock opera “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” it plays like a greatest hits collection, but it’s the deeply-felt deep cut “Vienna” that may just be his finest song of all. 1977.
Elton John, “Your Song” (DJM). Elton’s first major hit—and his signature ever since. 1970.
———“Tiny Dancer” (DJM). For all the division and confusion of early 1970s rock, this song was a rare common beacon—as illustrated by the classic sing-a-long scene in Almost Famous. 1972.
———Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (MCA). The 1970s’ grandest artiste makes his grandest statement, a double-LP tour of rock and pop, country and rhythm, reggae and orchestral suites, ballads and blues, all tied together in a gesture towards the golden era of the silver screen. Classics abound—the rocking “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting,” the affecting “Candle in the Wind,” the ridiculous “Benny and the Jets”—but it’s deep cuts like “Grey Seal” and “Love Lies Bleeding” that demonstrate how deftly Elton could walk the line between hedonism and commercialism, and make us all richer for it. 1973.
Janis Joplin [featured in Big Brother and the Holding Company], Cheap Thrills (Columbia). Big Mama Thorton drops acid and falls into a guitar factory, as drawn by R. Crumb. 1967.
———Pearl (Columbia). Janis Joplin never delivered a front-to-back masterpiece album, but this was the closest she got. The funky “Move Over,” the enormous “Cry Baby,” the surprise cover of “A Woman Left Lonely,” all centered around her cover of Kris Kristopherson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” It was a four-and-a-half minute encapsulation of the complexities of American pop music: A blues-belting woman singing a country man’s song, morphing it from a ballad to a mid-tempo rocker into a half-time stomping jam, all working together to hone in on the most famous definition of freedom ever broached by the music: “Just another word for nothing left to lose.” 1971.
Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures (Factory). They had the same instrumentation of every major rock group—drums, bass, guitar, vocals—but Joy Division was one of those rare groups that put them together a wholly unprecedented way. The drums sounded like a machine, the bass lines were high and tinny like lead riffs, the guitar was either hollow, lonely lines or electric washes, while leader Ian Curtis’s vocals were half-spoken intonations, punctuated with awkward movements that sometimes overlapped with his real-life epilepsy. Best of all is “She’s Lost Control,” about one’s psychological need to keep a better handle on the world, inspired by a real woman’s epileptic fits. She would die from one of these fits soon after the song was released, and you can hear that in here, too. 1979.
———“Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory). Sung like the cold comfort of a dead man as the epitaph it literally became after Ian Curtis hanged himself. 1980.
———Closer (Factory). If “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was the epitaph, Closer was the dark, cold ground that lay just underneath—as implied by the chiseled tomb on its cover. Simply put, death is everywhere in this record. The eerie visions of Unknown Pleasures have become full-blown soundscapes, thanks to layers of synthesizers and guitars. And Curtis’s vocals are at the center of it all, garbled as though he was trying to sing with dirt and stones in his mouth. 1980.
Bill Justis and his Orchestra, “Raunchy” (Sun). In theory, “Raunchy” was a solo spot for Sun saxophonist Bill Justis, but in reality, it was a twangy showcase for the greatest 4-note guitar riff of its time, played either by Sindey Manker or Roland Janes, or both (or, perhaps, neither). It was a 14-year-old George Harrison’s ability to play this riff perfectly that convinced John Lennon to let him join The Quarrymen. 1957.
Ben E. King, “Stand By Me” (Atco). A tribute to solidarity that transcends race, age, genre, and time. 1961.
Carole King, Tapestry (Ode). James Taylor may have been bigger and Joni Mitchell may have been better, but for many, Tapestry is the defining album of the early-1970s singer-songwriter era. It didn’t hurt that instant-classics like “It’s Too Late” and “I Hear the Earth Move” sat comfortably next to chestnuts like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” I’m pretty sure that no one was allowed to leave the decade without a copy of the album—and sure enough, it still regularly jumps into the lower reaches of the Billboard 200 to this day. 1971.
Kingsmen, “Louie Louie” (Wand). On April 6, 1963, 19-year-old Joe Ely stood on his tiptoes and sang through his braces into a boom microphone suspended from the ceiling as his Portland, Oregon, rock band, The Kingsmen, bashed their way through one take of an old R&B song that was their signature tune. Despite audible mistakes (including the word “fuck!” exclaimed drummer Lynn Easton at 0:54 when he loses his place and never quite recaptures it), they are told that was good enough. Later that year, the record breaks in Boston when a DJ begins playing it as a joke and then…punk rock is born?
Kinks, Greatest Hits (Rhino). Of the numerous unheralded great moments in rock and roll, one of the most influential is brothers Ray and/or Dave Davies busting the cone in their guitar amp to come up with a raw, fuzzy sound. This sound eventually culminated in their breakthrough it, “You Really Got Me,” which has been cited by scholars of both punk and heavy metal as a starting point for their respective genres. Of the many Kinks early-years compilations, this is the best because it includes all of the essential sound-alike follow-ups (“All Day and All of the Night,” “Set Me Free,” and “Till the End of the Day”), omits a regrettable sidestep in to psychedelic rock (“See My Friends”), and provides the key early excursions into commentary on the British class system (“A Well-Respected Man,” “Sunny Afternoon”) that would write the next chapter of The Kinks’ story. 1964-1966/1990.
———“Waterloo Sunset” (Pye). The pinnacle song of Ray Davies’ British class system songs, about Terry and Julie, a train station, and one man’s vision of paradise. 1967.
———Are the Village Green Preservation Society (Pye). The pinnacle album of Ray Davies’ British class system albums, with Ray tipping his hand in the first song: “God save the little shops, china cups, and virginity.” 1968.
———“Victoria” (Pye). The lead song from Ray Davies’ most ambitious album up to that point, Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), the song packs more punch and commentary than any other song The Kinks would ever record; where the LP was ambitious and uneven, this song was direct and exciting. 1969.
———“Lola” (Pye). Banned from the US over a permit issue back in 1965, The Kinks had regrouped in their native England and watched their success dwindle down to a cult following, until they didn’t even make the charts there. And then came “Lola.” Rock’s greatest (and funniest) song about transvestitism returned The Kinks to international stars, even if the BBC censored it—for using the term Coca-Cola. 1970.
Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Buddah). A sequel to Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” sung from the woman’s perspective; turns out the blue light was her blues, too. 1973.
Kraftwerk, “Autobahn” (Philips). A cover of Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” as played by mannequins. 1975.
———Trans-Europe Express (Kling-Klang). A cover of Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” as played by mannequins with better production values. 1976.
Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (Epic). Not just a great song, but an irresistible idea. How did it take rock nearly 30 years to think of it?! 1983.
Led Zeppelin (Atlantic). From its titanic cover through every fiber of its grooves inside—the rocking “Good Times, Bad Times,” the enormous “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” the slow-burn of “Dazed and Confused,” the rollicking “Communication Breakdown,” and all the rest—this was one of those rare albums that simply changed everything. 1968.
———II (Atlantic). For the record, Led Zeppelin was never a heavy metal band, although heavy metal music would be unimaginable without them. They were an electric blues outfit, and it is on this album that they pay their dues, with nods to Muddy Waters (“Whole Lotta Love”), Robert Johnson (“The Lemon Song”), and Willie Dixon (“Bring It on Home”), as well as mixing in their own soon-to-be standards like “What Is and What Should Never Be” and “Heartbreaker.” They would make more ambitious albums, but none that rock so hard, start to finish. 1969.
———“Hey, Hey, What Can I Do” (Atlantic). A B-side to the lead single off of their third album, “Immigrant Song” that outdid not only its flip but practically everything else on the LP. And it still gets airplay—probably because it blends in seamlessly with most acoustic-driven 1970s “classic rock,” even if it is more driving than nearly all of it. 1970.
———Untitled [IV] (Atlantic). Their most popular album, and it’s easy to see why—it virtually serves as the greatest hits collection that they refused to issue in their lifetime. Has there ever been a more impressive Side 1 than “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” “The Battle of Evermore,” and “Stairway to Heaven”? Yet it’s the underrated closer, “When the Levee Breaks” that steals the entire show. Their finest album. 1971.
———Houses of the Holy (Atlantic). The band stretches out into more progressive territory, but prove that they can still rock in “Over the Hills and Far Away” and deliver the finest dose of white reggae this side of The Clash, “D’yer Mak’er.” 1973.
———Physical Graffiti (Atlantic). Led Zeppelin were nothing if not a band that celebrated hedonistic excess, and no format was more excessive than the 1970s double-album. Here is their contribution to the genre, filled with nearly as much treasure (“Kashmir”) as trash (“Boogie with Stu”), as well as their funkiest music (“Tramped Under Foot”) and their most epic (“In My Time of Dying”). They would release further albums, but for all intents and purposes, this was the grand finale of their work. 1975.
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Apple). Album-making as primal scream therapy—or with “God,” a Cartesian exercise into what constitutes reality. 1970.
———Imagine (Apple). Rock’s original genius finds his way home. Beginning with the title track—which was so successful in its pop perfection that many missed its underlying radical socialist message—he fights his way through contempt, jealousy, war, protest, perception, and slander, before finally landing in the middle of a cloud. 1971.
Jerry Lee Lewis, 18 Original Sun Greatest Hits (Rhino). Rock’s ignoble son is mad: Mad call I it, for to define true madness, What is ’t to be nothing else but mad? 1956-1961/1984.
———“You Win Again” (Sun). Jerry Lee Lewis could sing country music better than any other rocker; this is his masterpiece, which takes it to an elegant, soaring place that Hank Williams’ original only vaguely suggested, but then again, Hank Williams didn’t have a doo-wop group backing him or Sam Phillips at the helm overseeing it all. 1957.
Little Eva, “The Loco-Motion” (Dimension 1000). Ever since the invention of the iron horse, America has been staring the dilemma of man vs. machine in the face, never more beautifully captured than in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. But some 6 years earlier, man becomes the machine in a catchy dance classic, envisioned by Carole King and brought to life by her babysitter. 1962.
Here’s Little Richard (Specialty). A rare ’50s LP masterpiece that holds its own against every album since. Features the fierce boogie of “Long Tall Sally,” the hedonistic pleasure of “Rip It Up,” and “Tutti Frutti,” which contains the best description of rock and roll in 10 words or less: “A-wop-bob-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!” 1955-1956/1957.
———“Good Golly, Miss Molly” (Specialty). A classic rock song—and character. 1958.
Little Willie John, “Fever” (King). Of all the hot young R&B singers of the 1950s, Little Willie John is perhaps the greatest talent with the smallest amount of modern-day fame and recognition. “Fever” is his standard contribution to the pop song book, as covered by everyone from Peggy Lee and Elvis to Madonna and Beyonce. Not that Little Willie John lived to see most of these—he was convicted of manslaughter and died in prison at the age of 30. 1956.
LL Cool J, Radio (Def Jam). Don Juan gets a radio, and finds he can’t live without it. 1985.
Love, “7 and 7 Is” (Elektra). The best one-two punch in rock music: Driving garage rock that explodes into a perfect bluesy jam; like Hitchcock’s Psycho, it works because the whole initial setup doesn’t even begin to suggest the rest. 1966.
———Forever Changes (Elektra). Postgraduate psychedelic rock, wrapped in warmth, fueled by paranoia, and masked with cryptic song titles. 1967.
Lovin’ Spoonful, “Do You Believe in Magic” (Kama Sutra). In the wake of The Beatles came a new crop of American bands that tried their innovations. The Lovin’ Spoonful was the quintessential band of this group, setting aside their folk instrumentation for delicious pop-rock. This was their breakthrough hit, and tellingly the one that made producers consider casting them in an early version of what would become The Monkees—before they realized it would be easier to make a fictional group. 1965.
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” (Gee). Real street-corner doo-wop from Harlem, featuring the soaring vocals of 13-year-old Frankie Lymon, rock’s first major child star. A dozen years later and a thousand worlds away, Lymon also would become rock’s first major heroin victim—though there’s not a hint of that darkness in the joy encapsulated here. 1956.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Freebird” (MCA). Somebody raise a lighter. 1974.
Madonna, The Immaculate Collection (Sire). ’Tis a party, she’s a whore—until “Like a Prayer,” in which she suddenly lives up to her namesake. 1983-1990/1990.
Mamas and the Papas, “California Dreamin’” (Dunhill). Before they became the Fleetwood Mac of the ’60s, The Mamas and the Papas were an innovative group that mixed Byrds-like harmonies and Spector-like productions; their crowning achievement was this, one of the most evocative records in rock—and that’s just in the song’s first five words. 1965.
Manfred Mann, “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” (HMV). A failed follow-up single for The Exciters (“Tell Him”) by Brill Building masters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwhich, stumbled upon by a British group who scored a #1 with it at the peak of international Beatlemania. Also serves as further proof the best rock lyrics are the ones that are complete gibberish. 1964.
Marcels, “Blue Moon” (Colpix). White and African-American Yinzers harmonizing together to rock the crap out of a Rodgers and Hart standard that was originally published the year that Elvis Presley was born. 1961.
Bob Marley and the Wailers, Catch a Fire (Island). A statement of purpose, where songs of protest intermingled with songs of love—except for “Concrete Jungle,” in which they were one in the same. 1973.
———Burnin’ (Island). The politics of revolution, captured in the most timeless protest rock record ever recorded. “Get Up, Stand Up” was the rallying cry, “Burning and Looting” was a dispatch from the streets, but “I Shot the Sheriff” was like “Stagger Lee” put on trial with all the musical and emotional textures of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” 1973.
———Live! (Island). Like all rock legends, Bob Marley had a hell of a touring band and stunned audiences around the world. He’s captured at his peak in this live album recorded in London: “Trenchtown Rock” is remade into the driving anthem it never came close to being as a studio recording, while one could feel the pain of “Burnin’ and Lootin’” and the fire of “I Shot the Sheriff,” in these more organic readings. And at the center is the definitive version of “No Woman, No Cry”—to many, the definitive reggae song—which reveals the album’s secret weapon: Its warmth. 1975.
———Exodus (Island). Salvation found, amid the love and politics that had shaped his work thus far. As cohesive of a statement of Bob Marley’s vision he ever reached, the album proved pop music filtering down to a colonized third-world country only to come full circle to conquer the world at large—and in so doing was as good of a choice as any for TIME’s Album of the Century. 1977.
———“Redemption Song” (Island). Best heard in the undubbed solo version found on Legend; I would say that you should own it, but you already do. 1980.
Martha and the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street” (Gordy). One of the all-time great rock standards, and, with its knowing nod to the riots happening in the streets at that time, a premonition of rock’s future as a cataclysm for social and political change. 1964.
Marvelettes, “Please Mr. Postman” (Tamla). Gladys Horton had the sexiest voice at Motown, best heard here, on the label’s first #1 pop hit; a song so good, even John Lennon couldn’t resist trying his hand at it two years later. 1961.
Massive Attack, Blue Lines (Virgin). England reacts to The Golden Age of Rap, filters it through its native club scene, and creates trip-hop’s first masterpiece. 1991.
Curtis Mayfield [and the Impressions], Anthology: 1961-1977 (Curtom). Disc 1: The sweet dreams of the ’60s, carried on a soaring tenor; Disc 2: The bitter realities of the ’70s, carried on that same soaring tenor. Or, Dante’s Divine Comedy in reverse, initially rising to the glory of “People Get Ready,” before descending into the flames of “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go.” 1961-1977/1992.
———Superfly (RCA). Along with Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ on!, this set the high-water mark for early ’70s black music. In many ways, Superfly was an opposite kind of statement—tight where Riot was sprawling, direct where Riot was obscure. It’s no wonder that many have called it “the black Sgt. Pepper” as its innate sense of unity sets it apart from many albums made before or since. But most striking was its refusal to romanticize, from the dark temptations of the “Pusherman” through to the cold truths of “Freddie’s Dead.” 1972.
Maytals, “54-46 That’s My Number” (Beverly’s). A real-life “Jailhouse Rock”—from the streets of Funky Kingston. 1968.
———Funky Kingston (Mango). Although it had the same name and title as their 1972 Jamaican LP, this American version only contained three of the same tracks—the other seven were comprised of their 1973 album In the Dark and the classic “Pressure Drop” single from 1969. Still, there is an underlying joy to The Maytals’ music even in darker material like “Time Tough” or the utterly fierce title track. Their version of “Louie Louie” reclaims it from the Pidgin English that spawned it and by simplifying the lyrics and further syncopating the rhythms, both takes it home and brings to a new place. But it’s the last track “Sailin’ on” that seals the deal, one of the most graceful and satisfying songs to ever close an album. 1969-1973/1975.
Paul McCartney and Wings, Band on the Run (Apple). After years of near and far-misses, The Cute One finds his voice and delivers his solo masterpiece, slick, melodic, and driving, as if he could deliver a masterpiece any other way. 1973.
MC5, Kick Out the Jams (Elektra). Managed by John Sinclair, founder of the White Panther Party, this Detroit quintet delivered revolution just as the ’60s were imploding into chaos with a sound so raw and hard, they soon were calling it punk. As the man said, Kick out the jams, motherfuckers. 1969.
Don McLean, “American Pie” (United Artists). History of Rock: 101. 1971.
Metallica, Master of Puppets (Elektra). The masterpiece of the original Metallica, the saviors of heavy metal from the rock-trash heap. Six months after its release, their tour van crashed in Sweden and killed their original bass player. Metallica would regroup and get bigger, but with diminishing metal returns. This was the real deal. 1986.
George Michael, “Faith” (Columbia). The Bo Diddley beat redefined. By a British white guy. During the Reagan Era. 1987.
The Complete Million Dollar Quartet (Sony Legacy). The legend is that on December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley swung by Sun Records, where he found Jerry Lee Lewis playing on a Carl Perkins session; Johnny Cash then came by to pick up a paycheck, and they began to jam. The truth may not be as magical as the legend (such as whether Cash actually stuck around during the recording), but the music is: A history of rock and roll music where gospel is as important as country or blues. Yet the finest moment was pure American pop: Elvis Presley imitating a young and unknown Jackie Wilson (then the lead singer of Billy Ward and His Dominos) who was in turn imitating Elvis singing “Don’t Be Cruel.” 1956/2006.
Minor Threat, Complete Discography (Dischord). As a completist, I find it beautiful that a band as influential as Minor Threat—the quintessential straight-edge hardcore punk band—can fit their entire discography (three EPs, plus some scattered tracks) into 47 minutes of music. If only all of rock could be so well organized—not to mention direct and to the point. 1981-1983/1989.
Joni Mitchell, Blue (Reprise). The finest album of the early-’70s singer-songwriter era. Mitchell laid her soul and instrumentation bare, and delivered the finest set of songs of her life, an entire album standing as an answer to the eternal question of “California”: “Will you take me as I am?” 1971.
———Court and Spark (Reprise). Joni Mitchell does something on this album wholly unexpected: She sharpens her wit and her musical pallet, and somehow winds up more commercial than anything else she has ever done. It still feels paradoxically shocking and obvious every time I hear “Help Me” come on in a major-chain corporate drugstore. 1974.
Moby, Play (V2). America taken apart and reassembled as a dance party. 1999.
The Modern Lovers (Beserkley). The missing link between The Velvet Underground and punk rock. Jonathan Richman assembled a supergroup-in-hindsight of future members of Talking Heads and The Cars to help him slash through two- and three-chord rockers with his heart firmly attached to his sleeve. Includes “Roadrunner,” with perhaps the most memorable count-off in rock—“1-2-3-4-5-6!”—which, with all due respect to The Standells’ “Dirty Water,” is the real anthem of Boston. 1971-1972/1976.
Alanis Morissette, “You Oughta Know” (Maverick). Her breakthrough and still finest song, it has a toughness that cut through everything else on the radio at the time—and most things ever since. 1995.
Van Morrison, “Brown Eyed Girl” (Bang). A love song, flawlessly executed from behind the stadium with you. 1967.
———Astral Weeks (Warner Brothers). Jazz as pop as rock as memory as time, ventured in the slipstream and wrapped in the blues, way up in the heaven. 1968.
———Moondance (Warner Brothers). Astral Weeks was an ethereal masterpiece; Moondance brought him back down to earth. Although just as cohesive of an album, Moondance’s songs could also stand out on their own, whether on the radio (the title track), live (“Caravan”), or in movies (“Glad Tidings”). It is simply one of those rare albums that capture an artist at their artistic and commercial pinnacle, an album that one can virtually never grow tired of hearing. 1970.
Mott the Hoople, “All the Young Dudes” (Columbia). In which David Bowie Uses His Newfound Clout to Help Out His Heroes, Part 1. Written by Bowie, but embodied by Mott leader Ian Hunter (who sounds remarkably like John Lennon), there is simply not a second wasted on this record. The finale—and the place where it goes from classic to transcendent—is the extended coda, in which Hunter hones in on some person in the crowd wearing glasses. “I’ve been wanting to do this for years,” he says, in a gesture of pure joy and unbridled excitement. 1972.
My Bloody Valentine, Loveless (Creation). A fortress of driving hard rock woven by densely textured guitars with an ethereal cotton-candy center. The critics called it shoegazing, but the listeners just called it beautiful. 1991.
Nas, Illmatic (Columbia). The modern gold standard for being an MC was set by Nas’s debut album, where he built upon the foundation laid down by Rakim and brought it into the modern gangsta era. The album contains more internal and double rhymes than you could shake a dictionary at, none better than this breathless passage from “Memory Lane”: “It’s real, grew up in trife life, did times or white lines/The hype vice, murderous night times, and knife fights invite crimes.” It also stands as a seldom-heeded warning from the dawn of the CD era: Although many maintain it to be one of the greatest (if not the greatest) rap albums ever made, no one seems to notice that part of its power comes in the economy packed into its 40-minute length. 1994.
Johnny Nash, “I Can See Clearly Now” (Epic). The brave new world of reggae takes rock into an area it had seldom seen: Unabashed hope. 1972.
Ricky Nelson, Greatest Hits (Capitol). When Ricky Nelson sang “I’m Walkin’” on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in 1957, rock and roll suddenly became something safe for “respectable” teens to be interested in. But unlike most pretenders—legend is that Nelson recorded “I’m Walkin’” to impress his girlfriend who, like every other warm-blooded teenage girl of her time, was hung-up on Elvis—it turned out Ricky could actually sing real rockabilly and his records came armed with the lead guitar work of James Burton, one of the instrument’s true unsung heroes. Nelson was also the only 1950s star to make the transition from real rock and roll (“Be Bop Baby,” “Waitin’ in School,” and the incredible “Believe What You Say”) to the mellower, teen idol music of the 1960s (“Travelin’ Man” and “Hello Mary Lou”) without missing a beat. The fact he even scored a surprise comeback hit with the classic “Garden Party” is just icing on the cake. 1957-1972/2005.
Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge). A love letter to Anne Frank, written with an acoustic guitar, wrapped in funeral brass, and sealed with bio-lab lust. 1998.
New Order, “Blue Monday” (Factory). The best-selling 12” record of all time from a group that had risen from the ashes of Joy Division. 1983.
The New York Dolls (Mercury). They wanted to be The Rolling Stones, but they sucked—which is why they’re so important. Instead of becoming the greatest rock and roll band in the world, they accidentally helped to sew the seeds for the sound of punk rock and the look of glam. Within a few years, The Rolling Stones were literally following their lead, although by that point, The Dolls were already long gone. 1973.
Randy Newman, 12 Songs (Reprise). Actual Americana music, long before hipsters stole the term for alt-country. Randy Newman effortlessly blends pop, rock, country, blues, and even an old jazz standard in this, his most unassuming album—at least on the surface. His is an America where high school graduates get killed by beach cleaning machines, where men stalk women by picking their name out of a telephone book, where people get drunk, kick their mother down the stairs, and proclaim “I’m alright cuz I don’t care.” It was a bit like In Cold Blood, only with fictional characters and very real irony. 1970.
Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine (TVT). Turns out the first major ’90s album was released in the 1980s. With “Head Like a Hole” and “Terrible Lie,” this was trailblazing industrial rock, with Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor diving headfirst into a dark sea of pain and synthesizers. He would create bigger and more celebrated albums, but none was as tight and forceful as this full-length debut. 1989.
———The Downward Spiral (Nothing). Reznor’s opus, with the beautiful “Closer”—his masterpiece—and “Hurt,” which was so devastatingly deadpan and unflinchingly honest, Johnny Cash turned it into an American standard. 1994.
Nirvana, Nevermind (DGC). Three punks from Aberdeen, Washington, generate enough local buzz to get picked up by a major label. They choose Butch Vig as their producer, tell him they want to sound like Megadeth, and release an album called Nevermind. Within a year, it displaces Michael Jackson from the top of the album charts and becomes the greatest album of the decade by the most influential band of their generation. 1991.
———In Utero (DGC). Kurt Cobain was quick to point out that any innovations in Nirvana’s sound had already been mapped out by The Pixies, so here he grabbed The Pixies’ brilliant producer, Steve Albini, and set off to record the album that he always wanted to make. If it felt messier, more varied and uneven than Nevermind, that was the point. But the result was a fuller portrait of the band—the quiet-loud-quiet “hit” sound of “Heart-Shaped Box,” the disturbing “Rape Me,” the tender “All Apologies.” Though Nevermind was surely the more influential album, many fans hold that this was their artistic masterpiece. 1993.
———MTV Unplugged in New York (DGC). A tantalizing hint at where they could have gone—acoustic guitars and violas, but with no grit lost. It’s no secret that Cobain was a huge fan of R.E.M.’s recent release Automatic for the People; it was the album playing while he killed himself a few weeks after this was released. As it turns out, this concert was also Cobain’s last public performance, and no artist has ever gone out with a finer set. Old songs were made new again, heroes were canonized through well-chosen covers, and everything ended with a version of “In the Pines” so haunting, it could make Lead Belly sit up in his grave and shiver. 1994.
Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die (Bad Boy). A portrait of the artist as a young gangsta. From birth to death with countless women, shootings, drugs, and stacks of money in between, as complete of an autobiography as ever conceived in modern popular music. Biggie would not live to complete another studio album, but after this, he didn’t need to. Best line comes early in “Things Done Changed” (which can also be found in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature): “Because the streets is a short stop/Either you’re slingin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” 1994.
Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 (Elektra). Garage rock trash heaven—which is to say, the music of the influenced as opposed to the influencers: B-, C-, and D-level versions abound of The Beatles (The Knickerbockers’ “Lies”), Stones (The Standells’ “Dirty Water”), and Dylan (Mouse’s “A Public Execution”), not to mention strange takes on soul (The Vagrants’ “Respect”), pop (The Cryan Shames’ “Sugar and Spice”), and cutting-edge psychedelic rock (The Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” as well as The Remains’ “Don’t Look Back,” a little-known hard rocking gem that seemed to encapsulate the entirety of rock music up through that point—and hint at the future. No wonder they kept this compilation in rotation between the sets at CBGB’s. 1964-1968/1972.
N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless). White Suburban Youth Seeks Black Urban Culture: Must like loud, aggressive beats and offensive lyrical content. 1988.
Oasis, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (Creation). An advanced course in melody courtesy of the Brothers Gallagher; this was great music, but no means as great as they thought it was. Still, few songs were as instantly iconic as “Wonderwall” and “Champagne Supernova” or as bottomless as “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” their finest recording. 1995.
Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Chrysalis). An “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” of its time (Marvin Gaye version)—which is to say, it took you through the psychology of an entire relationship. 1990.
O’Jays, Back Stabbers (Philadelphia International). The kings of Philly Soul paint a portrait of a world filled with betrayal, adultery, and problems—lifted by the occasional love song and the slickness of the sound, and redeemed by the closing “Love Train,” which played like a beacon of hope at the end of a dark night. 1972.
Roy Orbison, For the Lonely: 18 Greatest Hits (Rhino). Roy Orbison began his career as the only Sun Records rockabilly singer hiding a 3-to-4 octave range, resulting in dynamic, if a bit weird, classics like “Ooby Dooby” and “Rockhouse.” After leaving Sun, he let his full range unfurl on a large march of moody ballads about wanting the girl, working hard for the girl, and losing the girl—until the last notes of the finale “Oh, Pretty Woman,” when he finally gets the girl. 1956-1964/1990.
OutKast, Stankonia (LaFace). Speakerboxxx/The Love Below may have gotten the Grammy, yet their masterpiece—and the actual Best Album of 2000—had been released three years earlier; so sorry Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature, but this is for real. 2000.
———“Hey Ya!” (LaFace). Infectious, irresistible, and inevitable—a modern-day “Shout (Parts 1 & 2)” and the first true rock anthem of the 21st Century. 2003.
Parliament, Mothership Connection (Casablanca). Trailblazing funk as a radio station broadcast from an intergalactic spaceship. Somehow it all works, especially when the entire solar system seems to part for a deep voice intoning “Tear the roof off the sucker, tear the roof off the sucker…” 1975.
———“Flash Light” (Casablanca). If you put this on and don’t dance, you must be made of stone. 1978.
Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted (Matador). Once Nirvana kicked the door open for alternative rock, some of the most creative music in years came through the floodgates, including this classic debut. The Rolling Stone Album Guide dubbed this “the quintessential indie album” and it’s easy to hear why—one can hear the development of the music charted at every turn, from The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed’s solo work to the dense textures of Sonic Youth, the brittle songwriting of The Pixies, and the etherealness of R.E.M. Every song tells a different piece of the story while touching upon all of them—and while still sounding entirely unprecedented. 1992.
Pearl Jam, Ten (Epic). Although initially received as a Seattle grunge band following in Nirvana’s wake, Pearl Jam was none of these things—they were a San Diego-based band who preferred Neil Young to Frank Black and released this, their debut album, roughly a month before Nevermind hit the shelves. They would record many more great albums that branched out into other sounds, but Ten is the one that everyone will always come back to because of the avalanche of great songs on it. “Alive,” “Evenflow,” “Jeremy,” “Black,” and the rest all felt so fresh and exciting at the time, but even more impressively, have managed to feel that way ever since. 1991.
Penguins, “Earth Angel” (Dootone). As a recording, it was one of the first and most beautiful rock records ever made; as a chord progression, it was a backbone of rock and roll music. 1954.
Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (Blank). Groundbreaking art-rock from Cleveland that was high in influence and low in sales. Accurately dubbed “avant-garage” by frontman Dave Thomas (the only lead singer regularly described as “hulking”), theirs was an often abstract, challenging music. They reached back into The Stooges, encouraged contemporaries like Talking Heads, and all but invented Frank Black. “Non-Alignment Pact” rocks as hard as anything in their native city’s Rock Hall, although proximity of birth is probably the closest Pere Ubu will ever be to getting into it. And if the devil comes, we’ll shoot him with a gun. 1978.
Carl Perkins, Original Sun Greatest Hits (Rhino). Never as flashy as his Sun labelmates, Perkins could match them with songwriting and guitar chops. His songbook is filled with rock classics—“Honey Don’t,” “Matchbox,” “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” and of course, the immortal “Blue Suede Shoes”—but it’s “Dixie Fried” that may just be his masterpiece. And as Carl says through that song, “Rave on, chilluns I’m with ya.” He meant it. 1955-1958/1986.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “American Girl” (Shelter). A song so perfectly and instantly familiar, when Roger McGuinn first heard it, he had to pull his car over to figure out whether he had written it. 1976.
Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (Matador). A song-for-song answer record to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, told by the coolest girl you’ve ever met in a series of deadpan vignettes about the hipsters, punks, and losers she’s tried to court or have tried to court her. Along the way, Phair establishes herself not only the smartest songwriter of her time, but one of the finest—and funniest—too. 1993.
The Very Best of Wilson Pickett (Rhino). Starting with the epic “In the Midnight Hour,” “Wicked” Pickett sang some of the hardest soul of his day: The hot “Land of 1,000 Dances,” the cool “Funky Broadway,” and the slick “Mustang Sally”; in “634-5789” he proved he could even sing the phone book and make it sound sexy. 1965-1971/1993.
Pink Floyd, “See Emily Play” (EMI). The greatest psychedelic recording after “Strawberry Fields Forever.” 1967.
———The Dark Side of the Moon (Capitol). An uncompromised dissertation on Pink Floyd’s secret twin obsessions—human darkness and mental madness—that was nonetheless gobbled up by the masses; included if only because it stayed on the U.S. charts through four presidential administrations—and into the election year of a fifth. “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark.” 1973.
———Wish You Were Here (Capitol). A worthy tribute to Syd Barrett, who showed up during the album’s production, unannounced and unrecognizable, overweight, with a shaved head and eyebrows, holding a plastic bag, and talking nonsense. The band was finishing the mix of the song that was most directly about him, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.” Like the song implied, he was already long gone, but his influence on this album keeps him immortal. 1975.
———The Wall (Capitol). A rock opera about the rise and fall of a rock star that beats its pretentions (just barely) through tracks like “Hey You” and “Comfortably Numb.” And yet, the beautiful minute-and-a-half of “Vera” steals the entire show. 1979.
Pixies, Doolittle (4AD). Perfecting the quiet-verse/loud-chorus that would later turn up in Kurt Cobain’s head (check out “Wave of Mutilation” or “There Goes My Gun”), with post-punk weirdness (“Monkey Gone to Heaven”) as well as the finest song about Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou ever written (“Debaser”). And, just to prove they could create straightforward perfect pop if they wanted to, they deliver “Here Comes Your Man,” which ranks alongside Big Star and Blondie as the finest power-pop of the post-Beatles era. But it was this intrinsic understanding of pop that made the experimental music that surrounded it all the more enticing—and successful. 1989.
Platters, “Only You” (Mercury). Worth it just for the way that Tony Williams sings the word “can.” 1955.
Police, “Roxanne” (A&M). Not just a great song, but a great drinking game: One team drinks on “Roxanne,” the other on “Turn on the Red Light.” “But how do you know who’s won?” A 15-year-old me asked the 21-year-old guy explaining the game. His reply: “Um, no one really wins at drinking games…” 1978.
———Synchronicity (A&M). Australia’s premiere punk-come-reggae unit goes out on top with their masterpiece; and when the pretentions didn’t overwhelm it, a rare album that mixes technical sophistication with audience accessibility. Also, not coincidentally, it contains the most misunderstood wedding song of all-time, the inescapable “Every Breath You Take.” 1983.
Iggy Pop, “Lust for Life” (RCA). “Rock and roll music and why I preach against it: I believe it is a contributing factor to our juvenile delinquency of today…” warned the Rev. Jimmie Snow in the mid-1950s. “If you talk to the average teenager of today and you ask them what it is about rock and roll music that they like, and, the first thing that they’ll say is the beat, the beat, the beat.” 1977.
Elvis Presley, The Sun Sessions (RCA). Ten perfect sides pitched between blues and country—literally, with the blues song on the A-side and the country song on the B-side—if this music didn’t invent rock and roll, it solidified it as an art form. Interestingly, it is also the most celebrated and influential album to be entirely out-of-print for the last 30 years, despite continuing to make numerous “best albums” lists (like this one). 1954-1955/1976.
———Elvis Presley (RCA). Rock and roll’s first long-playing masterpiece and the beginning of the rock album canon. And with hot cuts like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Got a Woman,” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You),” this was the hardest, rawest music he would make until the Comeback Special. 1956.
———Elvis (RCA). His first wholly major-label album. Some hold that it’s better than his previous album; it’s definitely slicker. “Love Me” was so good it became the first EP track to land on the singles chart, while songs like “Paralyzed” and “Anyplace Is Paradise” hinted at the weird new pop he would soon forge. Also contains the 4-minute plus “Old Shep,” his first foray into embarrassing schmaltz. 1956.
———Elvis’ Golden Records (RCA). If Elvis Presley was rock’s first great studio album, this was its first great greatest hits package. From “Hound Dog” to “Heartbreak Hotel,” “All Shook Up,” “Love Me Tender,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and the rest, it also remains the greatest hits to beat. 1956-1957/1958.
———Elvis Is Back! (RCA). 1960. Songs like “Make Me Know It,” “Fever,” and “Thrill of Your Love” are overflowing with confidence, lust, and joy, but it’s all a buildup to “Reconsider Baby”—4 minutes of the hardest blues he ever cut, with Boots Randolph stealing the show with a double sax solo. The whole thing is a testimony to promise, but unfortunately its promise would go largely unrealized for the next 8 years.
———“Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (RCA). Back from the Army, Elvis proves that he can even turn 1927 Tin Pan Alley music from “the chairs in your parlor”—literally—into transcendent pop. 1960.
———“Can’t Help Falling in Love” (RCA). #2 with a bullet (#1 on Cashbox), this propelled the Blue Hawaii soundtrack to become the biggest-selling album of his lifetime. But that album sucks, whereas this song still rules. 1961.
———ELVIS [The 1968 Comeback Special] (RCA). The proto-“Unplugged” sit down sessions get all the attention, but this album would make this list if only for the “Trouble/Guitar Man” opening where Elvis sings with a fervor that borders on rage. He sounds like a man who has had to fight his way back against all odds—in part because, with this very song, he has. 1968.
———From Elvis in Memphis (RCA). “I had to leave town for a little while—” the album begins and becomes apparent that the place where Elvis had left was rock and roll music itself. But the real homecoming was in the haunting “Long Black Limousine,” which stands alongside the finest music he would ever make. 1969.
———“Suspicious Minds” (RCA). A mature, psychologically complex study of paranoia that cuts down to the core—and went all the way up to become Elvis’s final #1 Billboard hit. 1969.
———“Burning Love” (RCA). Elvis’s last truly classic performance, and a worthy farewell. 1972.
The Pretenders (Real). A new-age hippie from Ohio named Chrissie Hynde moves to England and gets real punk cred—working at Malcolm McLaren’s SEX shop, almost marrying Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious to get herself a visa, hanging out with members of The Clash, and playing guitar for an early version of The Damned—then forms her own group, named after The Drifters’ “The Great Pretender.” By the time their first album came out, punk was quickly being overtaken by new wave, but her album has much of punk’s original toughness intact, but still hinting at what was to come with the pure pop of “Brass in Pocket.” 1980.
Lloyd Price, “Stagger Lee” (ABC-Paramount). The definitive telling of the original gangsta rap folk ballad. 1958.
Prince, 1999 (Warner Brothers). A double-record spaceship party that was Prince’s first full-blown masterpiece. The title track and “Little Red Corvette” were the hits, but as with Prince’s finest music, it took the funk of the past, put you on the dance floor in the present, and delivered a preview rock and roll’s future. 1982.
———Purple Rain (Warner Brothers). The Purple One at the peak of his artistic and commercial powers. Featuring “When Doves Cry,” the funkiest song ever recorded that doesn’t have a bass line. 1984.
———Sign ‘O’ the Times (Warner Brothers). With all due respect to President Reagan’s address two months before this album came out, this was 1987’s State of the Union. 1987.
Procol Harum, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Deram). Proof on how far a great sound and a great line can get you—into the back of John Lennon’s limousine, where he listened to this song repeatedly on a portable record player while riding around London, and into the front line of immortal rock classics. 1967.
Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam). Black Panther politics met with hot beats and cold lampin’. The Sgt. Pepper of rap—which is to say, it’s the “official” default agreed-upon Best Rap Album of All-Time. 1988.
———Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam). Hip-hop as prophecy. Features “Fight the Power,” their hardest cut, immortalized by the opening of Do the Right Thing. 1990.
Public Image Ltd., Second Edition (Virgin). A post-punk Plastic Ono Band with the hellfire screams replaced by ice-cold liberalism. Pick to click: “Albatross.” 1979.
Pulp, “Common People” (Island). So great that not even William Shatner could ruin it. 1995.
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (EMI). A rock opera, with the emphasis on opera, for better or for worse. 1975.
? and the Mysterians, “96 Tears” (Cameo-Parkway). The trashiest of the garage rock hits, which is perhaps another way of saying the finest; only “Louie, Louie” could give its cheap organ sound a run for its money. 1966.
Radiohead, “Creep” (Parlophone). Hard as it is to believe now, Radiohead were initially considered a one-hit wonder in the United States. This song is why. As so often happens with American assumptions about popular music, we were proven very, very wrong. 1992.
———The Bends (Parlophone). Or: While America Slept. Fragile melodies entrenched behind walls of guitar, which made them the biggest and most important band in the UK on their way to conquering the world. If not their finest album (that would be OK Computer or Kid A, depending on where you stand), then it’s their “rock-est” album, proving they were worthy successors to The Beatles’ original recording label. If they never rocked harder “Just,” then they never sounded more timeless than on “High and Dry”—and yet in hindsight, they were only hinting at what was to come. 1995.
———OK Computer (Parlophone). The collapse of the 20th Century in an album that made Radiohead the most influential group at the brink of the 21st, walking a line between post-grunge edge and a wistful beauty. 1997.
———Kid A (Parlophone). The first masterpiece of the 21st Century—postmodern, challenging, and utterly beautiful. 2000.
Rage Against the Machine (Epic). Anger is a gift. 1992.
The Ramones (Sire). 4 losers posing as brothers, 3 chords per song, 2 minutes per song, 1 maximum impact in under 30 minutes. If this didn’t create punk rock, it solidified it as, to paraphrase the late, great Joey Ramone, “bubblegum music for sick kids.” 1976.
———“Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” (Sire). The greatest #1 song to never make it past #81 on the charts. 1977.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Warner Brothers). The Chili Peppers’ major-label debut is an open mix of alternative rock, funk, and rap that tested rock’s boundaries and found few; includes “Give It Away,” their greatest song, “Under the Bridge,” their most overplayed, and “Breaking the Girl,” their most underrated. And they even found time at the end to tip their hat to Robert Johnson in the weirdest cover of his weirdest song. 1991.
Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul (Volt). The King of Soul’s finest hour, as he reinterprets old standards (“A Change Is Gonna Come”), makes new ones (“Respect”), takes on the rockers at their own game (“Satisfaction”), and ruminates on love as only he can (“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”). 1965.
———“Try a Little Tenderness” (Volt). One long slow build, until it explodes with sheer power and conviction. 1966.
———“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” (Volt). Written while listening to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper on headphones, this is not just a classic song, but a tantalizing hint at what could have been. 1968.
Lou Reed, Transformer (RCA). Two years after The Velvets, Lou Reed’s finest solo album displays a depth that belies his deadpan mask—the surrealism of “Andy’s Chest (which Lester Bangs once dubbed the first existential rock song), the beauty of “Perfect Day” (the closest thing Reed has written to a standard), and the dark allure of “Walk on the Wild Side” (which, despite its tales of transvestitism, prostitution, and oral sex, was a #16 US hit and, according to a Billboard book I once had in high school, was at one point the 499th best-selling song of all-time). 1972.
R.E.M., Murmur (I.R.S.). Archetypal indie rock with jangling guitars and buried vocals—part Southern Gothic, part post-punk, and all very, very weird. 1983.
———Document (I.R.S.). A commercial breakthrough, with the Top 10 hit “The One I Love” and the classic “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” as well as the haunting “Welcome to the Occupation” and the political “Exhuming McCarthy.” 1983.
———“Losing My Religion” (Warner Brothers). “This next song,” said Michael Stipe before singing this song at their first MTV Unplugged session, “is about you.” 1991.
———Automatic for the People (Warner Brothers). A rumination on the limits of the American South told in tales of death and suicide, sacrifice and loss, sidewinders and skinny-dipping, broken up by nods to Stax Records, David Essex, and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” as well as odes to Montgomery Clift and Andy Kaufman, before closing with the beautiful, sweeping “Find the River.” Their finest record. 1992.
Replacements, Let It Be (Restless). A band of punks from Minneapolis stretch out their sound to include pianos and ballads, until the punk gives way to pop and they wind up with a coming-of-age masterpiece that sounds like Bruce Springsteen backed by The Clash. Contained within were songs about liking girls, suffering through tonsillectomies, and hating music videos. It was all a bit stunning, and with the closer, “Answering Machine,” which predicts OK Computer nearly 15 years beforehand, a bit prophetic. 1984.
Billy Lee Riley and his Little Green Men, “Flyin’ Saucers Rock and Roll” (Sun). The greatest Sun Records artist to never actually score a nationally-charting hit, Riley delivered a hard rockabilly few could match, but mostly served as a session man for label-mates like Jerry Lee Lewis. “Flyin’ Saucers” was Riley’s masterpiece, and among his Little Green Men was Lewis himself, returning the favor. 1956.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Definitive Collection (Motown). The most sophisticated of Motown’s stable of ’60s singer-songwriters—his “Shop Around” was so glorious it became Motown’s first million-seller, while he didn’t let the intricacies of adult relationships get in the way of “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” later covered by a young John Lennon. But it was the internal rhymes “Tracks of My Tears” and the wit of “I Second That Emotion” that informs Bob Dylan famously calling Smokey “America’s greatest living poet”—and validates it. 1960-1972/2006.
Rolling Stones, Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) (London). From the opening blast of “Satisfaction” through the rock-hard “The Last Time,” the storming “It’s All Over Now,” the caustic “19th Nervous Breakdown,” and the defiant “Get Off of My Cloud,” to the final, unresolved ending of “Play With Fire,” the music upon which The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the world built their legend. 1964-1966/1966.
———“Paint It Black” (London). The Stones take on the multi-colored dream world of psychedelic rock and paint it, well, you know. 1966.
———Aftermath (London). A long record about the passage of time centered around the endless “Goin’ Home,” which, like the rest of the album, took them as far away from their blues roots as they had yet ventured. 1966.
———“Ruby Tuesday” (London). American radio was too chicken to play this single’s A-side, “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” so they made its flip a #1 hit. 1967.
———“Let’s Spend the Night Together” (London). An answer record to “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” even though it came first in conversation. 1967.
———“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (London). After a strange flirtation with psychedelic music, the Stones are reborn in a crossfire hurricane. 1968.
———Beggars Banquet (London). With “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man,” The Stones enter their classic era of four back-to-back masterpieces that are as worthy as Dylan’s first three electric LPs or The Beatles 1965-1967 stretch. This was hard, roots music, filled with factory girls and parachute women, sexy young girls and the return of the prodigal son. For like the latter, The Rolling Stones were back too. In the form of the devil. 1968.
———“Honky Tonk Women” (London). Their best-selling hit, all about sleaze and seduction, country and blues. 1969.
———Let It Bleed (London). From the opening onslaught of “Gimme Shelter” through tales of excess (“Live With Me”), sex (“Let It Bleed”), and murder (“Midnight Rambler”), the album ended with the wisest words of all: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” So too ended the ’60s, in the hellfire of the Altamont concert held just days after its release. 1969.
———Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones). Essentially a holding pattern, but what a holding pattern! “Brown Sugar” is among their finest rockers and “Dead Flowers” is their finest excursion into country rock. Meanwhile, songs like “Sway” and “Bitch” burrow their way into your unconscious, topped only by the nightmare of “Sister Morphine.” The ’60s had ended in chaos, but within two years, The Stones were already up to their ankles in the mud that would define their next album. 1971.
———Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones). Exiled to France from their native England, The Rolling Stones converged into an old building once used as a Nazi headquarters—down to the floor vents in the shape of swastikas—and recorded their masterpiece, a work that was as dense as it was sprawling. This was Mick Jagger’s finest hour as a vocalist, strutting through some songs and simply trying to make it out alive in others. The messy swagger of the resulting album is rock in its purest form, which is to say, blues, country, and gospel all intertwined freely and frequently. To my ears, the finest part is the epic “Ventilator Blues,” which sounds giant in a way that only the Delta bluesmen could touch, merging into the macabre “Just Wanna See His Face,” which had ghosts in it. 1972.
———Some Girls (Rolling Stones). The Stones are the only classic rock group who could take on punk and new-wave—in part because they were such a crucial influence. Five years earlier, The New York Dolls tried their damnedest to be The Stones, and in their failure, helped to invent something new; now The Stones bring things full-circle by taking a cue from The Dolls. With the funky “Miss You,” the sexy “Beast of Burden,” and the misogynist title track, the younger generation didn’t just goad them into a classic exercise in hedonism, but their last great album to date. 1978.
———“Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones). After a strange flirtation with disco (“Emotional Rescue,” anyone?), the Stones re-start themselves up for their final classic single. 1981.
Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Definitive Collection (Motown). The Motown sound in its Platonic form, featuring 12 #1 US Billboard Pop hits—still a record for an American vocal group—plus an additional half dozen that could’ve been. 1964-1969/2008.
Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure (Atco). The core of Roxy Music was initially built around the twin peaks of singer Bryan Ferry’s romanticism and keyboardist Brian Eno’s experimentalism—old-fashioned crooning and new-fangled synthesizers, traditional pop rock and avant-garde art rock. This album, their second (and last one with Eno), caught their unique tension better than any other. How many other bands can say that they directly influenced both disco and the underground music that resisted it? But this album should make this (or any) list if only because Morrissey called it the “one truly great British album” he could think of. 1973.
———“Love Is the Drug” (Atco). Once Eno was out of the picture, Roxy Music became a vehicle for Bryan Ferry to become the postmodern lounge lizard he had always envisioned himself. They still made great music, but none so successful as “Love Is the Drug”—their only song to hit the Top 40 in America. They may have called it art rock at the time, but they’ve been calling it pop ever since. 1975.
Run-D.M.C., Raising Hell (Profile). Breaking down the wall between rap and rock both literally (in the video) and metaphysically (on the album), with “Walk This Way,” while the rest of the album finds them in top form. Features “My Adidas,” the funkiest song they ever cut. 1986.
Sam and Dave, “Soul Man” (Stax). A near sound-alike to their breakthrough “Hold on, I’m Comin’” (which this song nearly name-checks in the first verse), this was the more classic sequel, with sweeter guitar work, an assured horn section, and a better concept. Most people quote the refrain as the song’s essence, but it’s the diamond-hard precision of the band stopping cold for the solo piano lick in between verses that no local bar band could nail. 1967.
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, “Wooly Bully” (XL). So stupid, but still better than Yes’s entire back catalog. 1965.
Santana, Abraxas (Columbia). After their coolly-received debut, Santana stretched out on Abraxas and discovered their signature sound, as songs like “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” and “Oye Como Va” fused rock guitar with Latin rhythms, rounded out with touches of the blues. Somewhere Ritchie Valens was smiling, because his work was being continued. 1970.
Saturday Night Fever: Original Sound Track (Polydor). An instant disco collection starring The Bee Gees, The Tramps, KC & The Sunshine Band, and all the rest; if everyone hated it so much, how the hell did it sell so many copies? 1975-1977/1977.
Neil Sedaka, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (RCA). On the surface, a study in corniness, but there’s nothing corny about that killer hook that will stay in your ear for days—not to mention that underlying feeling of bittersweet remorse. Maybe that was why Sedaka was the only songwriter from Brill Building—the rock and roll version of Tin Pan Alley of the early-’60s—to crossover into his own major pop career at that time. 1962.
Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, “Night Moves” (Capitol). Awkward teenage blues. Now, what was that song from 1962? My money’s on Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” 1976.
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Virgin). Rock and roll as postmodern art. The antiheroes of rock’s failed third revolution (Elvis and The Beatles led the successful first two, respectively), The Sex Pistols had all the elements of rock legend—a domineering manager, a wild look and sound, and great pop songs. “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen” get all the attention, but it’s in the less-celebrated singles of “Pretty Vacant” and “Holidays in the Sun” that you can hear the band stretch out and stake their claim on rock and roll. And people listened—the legend is that the day after seeing The Sex Pistols for the first time, Elvis Costello quit his job and started doing music. How many bands can you honestly say are quit-your-job good? 1977.
DJ Shadow, Endtroducing..... (Mo’ Wax). Rock and roll as found art. Building upon the sample-heavy innovations of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising… and The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, DJ Shadow loses the MCs and lets the samples speak for themselves. It’s a game as old as DJ Kool Herc’s turntables, but this album elevates it to a new artform. America has always been the land of packrats grabbing at some pieces of culture and tossing other ones aside; the key to this album is that it is not the production values or even the samples themselves—but rather, the act of reinvention. 1996.
Shaggs, Philosophy of the World (Third World). Rock and roll as outsider art. Three sisters—Helen, Betty, and Dot Wiggin—from Fremont, New Hampshire, were coaxed into forming a band and making a record by their father, who was apparently oblivious to the fact that they couldn’t sing or play like anyone from this planet. Sing-song melodies spill out over slashing guitars while a drum keeps time to its own rhythm, disconnected from the rest of the song. Some guy took their money, printed up the record, and then disappeared—along with 900 copies of the album. The few that made it out grew to become thrift-store legend, and you can hear why—I dare you to find a rock song as unique and unprecedented as “My Pal Foot Foot.” 1969.
Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack” (Red Bird). The crown jewel of the Brill Building era, this classic was co-written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (the team responsible for pretty much every classic Phil Spector record, plus “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and about a thousand more), it pulled out all the stops: A girl group sound, lush production, and sound effects to tell a story that melded the great themes of the era: Forbidden teenage love and death. All that said, at this point I listen to it just for those intricate (and believable) conversational vocals, which all but provide the blueprint for Grease. You get the picture—yes, we see. 1964.
Del Shannon, “Runaway” (BigTop). Featuring the cheesy organ to end all cheesy organs, this was an ominous tale of lost love punctuated by a thrilling high falsetto. Unfortunately for Shannon, it was the darkness that won out, as he ended his life less than 30 years after this song hit #1. 1961.
Shirelles, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (Scepter). The first song by an all-female group to top the US Billboard Pop charts. And it was about sex! 1960.
Silhouettes, “Get a Job” (Junior). Greaser’s paradise, with a hook so good, it spawned its own vocal group. 1957.
Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain” (Elektra). The cleverest breaking of the fourth wall in rock and roll, and empowered by feminism, to boot. But for me, the real shock of this song is that it introduces the world to the most unlikely yet effective backup singer imaginable: Mick Jagger. 1972.
Paul Simon (Warner Brothers). The most intimate of the male singer-songwriter albums, yet when you heard “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” you wanted to dance, and when he sang “I’m gonna be up for a while” in “Peace Like a River,” you knew he meant it. 1972.
———Graceland (Warner Brothers). A state-of-the-art ambitious mish-mash of pop and rock, Cajun and zydeco, Africa and Tennessee. No other album of its time utilized the spirit of world music, the ghost of Elvis, the horrors of Vietnam, and the beauty of love; Simon could have just as easily could have called this Bringing It All Back Home. 1986.
Simon and Garfunkel, “The Sound of Silence” (Columbia). An acoustic folk song from the duo’s failed 1964 debut. But then somebody at Columbia threw a backing band on it without telling them, released it as a single, and the next thing you know… 1965.
———“Mrs. Robinson” (Columbia). Incidental music for an instantly iconic film, stretched into a #1 hit that has the distinction of being Frank Sinatra’s worst cover. The rare song that summarizes an entire era without even trying to. 1968.
———Bridge Over Troubled Water (Columbia). An epitaph for the 1960s, released less than a week before the 1970s had begun. There were touches of pure joy (“Cecilia”), hard perseverance (“The Boxer”), and deep friendship (the title track), with a hint of the internationalism (“El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”) and pretensions (“So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright”) that would define Simon’s work for the remainder of the decade. 1970.
Percy Sledge, “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Atlantic). Aching, mesmerizing, and sung with every syllable being felt. In other words, soul music at its most soulful. 1966.
Sly and the Family Stone, Greatest Hits (Columbia). A rare “greatest hits” album that not only accurately summed up its artist but also the era in which they thrived—which is to say it is perhaps the most optimistically shining album ever assembled. 1967-1969/1970.
———There’s a Riot Goin’ on! (Columbia). The Golden Age of Sly Stone (and the ’60s) comes crashing down in one long, drug-induced hangover. Yet it was still funky enough to hit #1 and spawn a #1 hit single, “Family Affair,” one of the heaviest records ever waxed. 1971.
Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (Virgin). Behind schedule and over budget, leader Billy Corgan aimed for Nevermind on the Pumpkins’ major-label debut, and missed, but wound up with an ethereal mix of hard rock, alternative, and shoegazing. Louder songs like “Cherub Rock” and “Today” announced their arrival, while the more nuanced “Disarm” set the stage for their work to come. 1993.
Patti Smith, Horses (Arista). With the best opening line in rock—“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”—Patti Smith drove poetry into the heart of garage rock and found her own version of punk rock. Rarely has a debut been so unprecedented, yet so obvious in hindsight. 1975.
The Smiths (Rough Trade). Childhood: Cradles are rocked and crushes are formed, until pretty girls make graves and the LP ends in the morgue with the young victims of the Moors murders. One piece of advice from my personal life experience regarding the latter: Never trust a girl whose favorite Smiths song is “Suffer Little Children.” 1983.
———“How Soon Is Now?” (Rough Trade). A critique of gay club culture, which was shrewd enough to paraphrase Middlemarch and slick enough to be used in a 2000 commercial for Nissan Maxima. It also stands as proof that some 30 years on, the Bo Diddley beat remained an integral part of rock’s collective unconscious. 1985.
———The Queen Is Dead (Rough Trade). Adulthood: Love lies while death looms, until “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” which uses death to measure love. Their finest album—and the best rock album of the decade. 1986.
Soft Cell, “Tainted Love” (Some Bizzare). The strange new world of ’80s synth pop: Novel enough to sound utterly bizarre and unforgettable, but familiar enough to be merged seamlessly with “Where Did Our Love Go?” 1981.
Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation (Enigma). The heir apparent to The Velvet Underground and the key link between The Velvets and Nirvana. Like The Velvets, Sonic Youth mixed gritty songwriting with soundscapes of music, noise, and feedback, taking the music to places The Velvets never got to. But where Sonic Youth succeeded where so many other bands failed was that they understood that it wasn’t about dumbing down songwriting or turning up amps—it was about being straight-ahead with no bullshit, in all of its ragged glory. 1988.
Britney Spears, “…Baby One More Time” (Jive). The most perfect pop single of the last 20 years. There. I said it. 1998.
The Specials (2 Tone). The first founding document of the second wave of ska. 1979.
Phil Spector, Back to Mono (1958-1969) (ABKCO). Hear “The Wall of Sound” being constructed brick by brick—from the primitive Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” through the Atlantic sessions like Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem,” and then finally as his own auteur in songs like The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me” and The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” coasting on that glorious sound, which reached its maturity with The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and found a finale with Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” And then as an encore, put on A Christmas Gift For You, rock music’s finest Christmas album, included as a bonus disc; on the final track of “Silent Night,” you can hear the man himself thanking everyone in his fey, wispy voice, which brings the festivities to an appropriately unsettling close. 1958-1969/1991.
Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis (Atlantic). The apex of the first wave of blue-eyed British soul, with the smoky-voiced and perfectly named Dusty picking up Aretha Franklin’s rejects—literally—in “Son of a Preacher Man,” which she did so faithfully to the southern sound that the Queen of Soul herself soon covered it. The album that surrounds it plays out in vignettes of hushed rumors and secret desires of men and women on all parts of the spectrum of falling in and out of love. The sexiest is “Breakfast in Bed,” the refrain of which lifts title phrase of an earlier hit, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” and constructs a narrative around it that rings offhandedly, devastatingly true. 1969.
Bruce Springsteen, Greetings from Asbury Park (Columbia). The Kid gets his break. This is the hungriest debut record ever made and you can hear energy and ambition bursting out of every groove. In his Rolling Stone review, Lester Bangs reckoned that it had more words in it than any other record that year—and I would add possibly ever. It also contains one of his greatest songs, the cool street-hustle rush of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” with those glorious opening words: “I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard luck of a cobra.” 1973.
———The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (Columbia). The Kid puts together a band and tries again for international stardom. He misses, initially anyway, but you’d never know it by these songs: “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” “Incident on 57th Street,” and “Rosalita (Come out Tonight)” were all stadium-ready epics when he finally did break through to stadium tours with his next album. 1973.
———Born to Run (Columbia). The Kid gets one last chance to make it real. Warned that his label would him if he couldn’t deliver a hit album, Springsteen spent months toiling away at this work, mixing Phil Spector with a hearty helping of Dylan and a hint of Leonard Bernstein. These were piano songs disguised as guitar songs—the storming title track, the defiant “Backstreets,” the mini-suite of “Jungleland.” But it was the shimmering beauty of “Thunder Road” that was perhaps the most thrilling, containing my vote for the greatest couplet in rock music: “There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away/They haunt this dusty dirt road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets.” When he sings about pulling out of here to win, you believe him. And with this record, he actually did. 1975.
———Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia). The Kid trades his innocence for fame. The Empire Strikes Back of the Springsteen catalog, which is to say, it’s the darker, moodier work that many of his “real” fans hold as his masterpiece. For the first time, he writes a fist-pumper that is much darker and more complex than it first appears (“Badlands”), and follows it with songs about growing older and more jaded—the father and son tensions of “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Factory,” the Motown reinvention of “Racing in the Street,” the looming title track; even the album’s love song, “Prove It All Night,” implicitly has strings attached. But the centerpiece is “The Promised Land,” which walks the line between dreams and reality. “I’ve done my best to live the right way,” the singer sings at one point. “I get up every morning and go to work each day.” Shouldn’t the glory of The Promised Land follow, he seems to ask? The album that surrounds this question provides the murky, complicated answer. 1978.
———Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia). The Kid achieves rock immortality. Though strangely maligned today, Born in the U.S.A. was Springsteen’s hardest-rocking album up to that point and the one that put him on the Mt. Rushmore of 1980s idols, along with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince. It was also song-for-song his strongest album. Perhaps because it was so popular and overplayed (7 of its 12 songs were released as singles—and deserved to be—and all 7 of them hit the Top 10), its reputation has diminished, but make no mistake, this album is a major achievement. The protest rock of the title track and the bar band swagger of “Glory Days” were among his finest rockers, while “I’m on Fire” and “My Hometown” were among his finest ballads. And “Dancing in the Dark” proved that you didn’t have to be a R&B or club band to make great dance music. After all, you can’t start a fire without a spark. 1984.
Staple Singers, “I’ll Take You There” (Stax). Soul music evolved out of gospel music; in this song, The Staple Singers literally take soul back to its roots. 1972.
Ringo Starr, “It Don’t Come Easy” (Apple). When asked if Ringo was the greatest drummer in the world, John Lennon supposedly answered, “He’s not even the greatest drummer in The Beatles!” But here, Ringo delivers a song about knowing your limits and staying within them, with his appropriate lack-of-overreach. It was not only a natural hit, but an honest one, too. 1971.
Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic (ABC). Rock and roll as an exercise in precision. Two men in a studio recording jazz-influenced rock and pop music, with rich sounds and harmonies backing opaque lyrics. The hit single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” gets all the attention (although no one seems to know what the hell it’s about), but it’s the title track that tells the tale of an entertainer who wants to go down south to join the minstrel show that seems to put popular music culture in its crosshairs. All this, and Duke Ellington’s signature Cotton Club theme song, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” with wah-wah guitar filling in for muted trumpet. Only in America, which was probably the point. 1974.
Steppenwolf, “Born to Be Wild” (Dunhill). A version of American freedom, conceived of by Brits and enacted by the cast of Easy Rider; the song is also believed to have spawned the term “heavy metal,” which it wasn’t. 1968.
Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells a Story (Mercury). One of the finest and most expressive voices in all of rock provides a tour of the music in ragged warmth and acoustic instruments at the brink of a new decade, taking in Elvis (“That’s All Right”) and Dylan (“Tomorrow Is a Long Time”), gospel (“Amazing Grace”) and folk (“Reason to Believe”), Motown (“(I Know) I’m Losing You”) and rock (the title track)—and even adding his own standard (“Maggie May”) to the conversation. 1971.
The Stone Roses (Silvertown). While it originally went by unnoticed on this side of the pond (and, truth be told, initially in England too), this went onto become one of the most influential albums of the era, basically inventing the Britpop sound, and refocusing guitar-centered rock for the next generation. In songs like “I Wanna Be Adored” and “I Am the Resurrection,” one could hear not so much The Beatles or The Byrds, but The Beatles played over the Byrds with a touch of psychedelic Hendrix thrown in. It all worked best when the melody was strong, as “She Bangs the Drums” and “(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister” were testimony to not just sound and attitude, but to their genuine songwriting craft. 1989.
Stooges, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” (Elektra). About 15 years ago, I asked a good friend to name a better rock song than The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” I’m still waiting on an answer. 1969.
———Fun House (Elektra). Proto-punk with an impending sense of chaos, until “L.A. Blues” burns down the walls of Babylon with a saxophone. As the man said, No walls! 1970.
———Raw Power (Columbia). I know a guy who is an expert in Renaissance studies who says that if Iggy Pop was around in the 1600s, he would have been treated like a prophet. This music is why. In songs like “Search and Destroy,” “Gimme Danger,” and “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell,” few albums predicted both the sound and the danger of punk rock, but it’s in the title track where you can hear the hard rock singing style of Kurt Cobain at its first conception. 1973.
Strawberry Alarm Clock, “Incense and Peppermints” (UNI). The rare song that conjures up an era (the psychedelic ’60s)—because of sheer calculation and design on the part of the record producers. 1967.
Strokes, Is This It (RCA). The great white hope (hype?) of the 21st Century, The Strokes put together this masterpiece with post-Velvets sensibilities and a garage rock stance, sung through a megaphone. Nothing they’ve done—or nearly everyone else—since can even begin to touch it, apparently answering the album’s titular question with a “Yup.” But few songs have the drive of “Last Nite” or the beauty of “Someday,” let alone the sense of timelessness in which they were conceived and remain. 2001.
Sugarhill Gang, “Rapper’s Delight” (Sugar Hill). The “Rock Around the Clock” of rap music, which is to say, the first major hit that anyone noticed and as convenient a starting point as any. 1979.
Donna Summer, “Love to Love You Baby” (Oasis). “Now Summer created a tour de force of sexual simulation, extending the original version into a quasi-pornographic vocal performance in which she was literally ‘faking it’ on tape.” – Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor. 1975.
Talking Heads: 77 (Sire). Cryptic, twitchy, and catchy—in other words, post-punk dance music for and by the weird art kids. Qu’est-ce que c’est, indeed. 1977.
———Remain in Light (Sire). The weird art kids take on the world, one rhythm at a time. 1980.
James Taylor, Sweet Baby James (Warner Brothers). The most iconic statement by the most iconic singer-songwriter of the early 1970s. Haters may hate, but no one can deny the wistful beauty of the title track or the stoic hard truths of “Fire and Rain.” 1970.
Television, Marquee Moon (Elektra). Another way that punk could have gone—long, meandering jams, held together by brittle verses and transcendent choruses. 1977.
Temptations, The Definitive Collection (Motown). Motown’s biggest band and it’s easy to hear why—the rollicking “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” the lilting “My Girl,” the gruff “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” all had a momentum that couldn’t be stopped even when lead singer David Ruffin was ousted in favor of Dennis Edwards. It was in fact with Edwards that the group scored three of their four #1 pop hits (“Can’t Get Next to You,” “Just My Imagination,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”). This album has all these and more—with the exception of the #3 pop hit (and #1 R&B hit) “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” which somehow evaded both this collection and the similar, slightly longer Ultimate compilation. Not that you even notice it’s missing. 1964-1998/2008.
Them, “Gloria” (Decca). Van Morrison as you’ve never heard him since: A ’60s garage punk. 1964.
Tornados, “Telstar” (Decca). Joe Meek, the UK equivalent of Phil Spector, wrote this song as inspired by the satellite of the same name—it went on to become one of the most innovative records of its time and made The Tornados the first UK group to have a #1 US single, two years before The Beatles arrived. 1962.
Trashmen, “Surfin’ Bird” (Garrett). As music, it was simple enough to be covered by The Ramones; as lyrics, it was complete a vision of rock and roll to be quoted verbatim at the beginning of Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock. 1963.
A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (Jive). Hip-hop as a laidback excursion into jazz, featuring the smooth flow of Q-Tip—one of the finest and most underrated MCs to grace the mic—as balanced by the irreverent rhymes of the late, great Phife Dawg…and featuring Ron Carter’s bass. 1991.
Troggs, “Wild Thing” (Fontana). Jimi Hendrix offhandedly referred to this at the end of his legendary Monterey Pop set as the “unofficial anthem” of America and England—and he was right. 1966.
2pac, Me Against the World (Jive). 2pac was one of the rare artists of the album era who was vastly influential, but never created an album that was a flat-out masterpiece. The closest he got was Me Against the World, which was not coincidentally also the closest thing to an autobiography he would ever write. He paid the price to have the cred to make the music—this album made him the first person in jail to have a #1 album—which spoke to both the toughness and swagger being consciously earned. And yet, it is his touching portrait of his mother in “Dear Mama” that remains the most famous track—and one of the few rap songs to make the Library of Congress’s Registry of Recorded Music. 1995.
———“California Love” (Death Row). If you need proof whether California knows how to party, please put on this song immediately. 1995.
T. Rex, Electric Warrior (Fly). Real glam rock from the enigmatic Marc Bolan, which managed to be both rootsier and sexier than all of the imitators who followed. Most of the songs are rooted in acoustic guitar, with a nod to hard rock electric guitars here, a wink to rockabilly there. But given that its most famous song is “Bang the Gong (Get It on),” this is a surprisingly mellow record, with plenty of air to breathe; it’s deadly focused, yet wry, with its head on the ground gazing upward into the infinite stars of the night. 1971.
Big Joe Turner, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (Atlantic). The Boss of the Blues contributes a founding cornerstone to rock and roll, both in terms of phraseology and songcraft. Cleaned up by the likes of Bill Haley (and most white singers since), Haley accidentally left in the filthiest (and finest) verse of them all: “I’m like a one-eyed cat, peepin’ in a sea food store—” 1954.
Tina Turner, Private Dancer (Capitol). Rock’s greatest comeback since Elvis Presley’s 1968 television special. After years of performing under the thumb of Ike Turner in a relationship that was so bio-pic ready it literally became an Oscar-nominated bio-pic, Tina steps out on the stage on her own terms and finds the greatest success of her life. “What’s Love Got to Do with It” is the standard, with its central question—“Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?”—as cutting as anything in a ’60s girl group song, but it’s the title track that is both matter-of-fact and devastating, in part because it carries its matter-of-factness on its sleeve. One cannot listen to it without hearing it as a version of Tina’s own story, and that only further fuels its power. 1984.
U2, War (Island). Hard as it is to remember now, U2 broke onto the scene as an alternative college rock band, around the same time as R.E.M. and The Smiths. While some argue the merit of their underrated first two albums, Boy and October, it is their third album, War, in which they fully demonstrated what they could do: Take the post-punk soundscapes of Joy Division and reshape them into the hope and fury of Bono’s majestic vocals. “New Year’s Day” remains the finest song ever written on the subject, while “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was their first rallying-cry anthem. 1983.
———“Pride (In the Name of Love)” (Island). Early morning, April 4th: An ending in Memphis, Tennessee, a five-minute drive from where Elvis Presley made his first recording. 1984.
———The Joshua Tree (Island). Songs with a sound as vast as the land they sought to conquer—and, through this album, did; outside is America, with a terrain so wide-open it could only be contained within one’s imagination. 1987.
———Achtung Baby (Island). On the verge of breaking up, the then-biggest rock band in the world writes their finest song, “One,” and then follows that with their finest album. The building blocks of rock and roll was at its core—the posturing of Elvis, the guitar power of Chuck Berry, the beat of Bo Diddley—and they followed it up a cutting-edge world tour that brought Bono closer to the self-fulfilling caricature of a rock star since David Bowie insisted that reporters call him “Ziggy.” 1991.
———All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Island). U2 has fallen into that category of Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Paul Simon, where every new album that is released is hailed as the best since Blood on The Tracks, Some Girls, and Graceland, respectively. Two years go by and it is promptly forgotten until the next album is given the same title. Although now over 15 years old, this album was U2’s final grasp of the gold ring, anthem-ready instant-classics like “Beautiful Day” and “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get out of,” built around sheer songcraft and melody. 2000.
Ritchie Valens, “La Bamba” (Del-Fi). A Spanish folksong, sung by a 17-year-old who had risen to stardom so fast that many papers listed his name first among the casualties of tour-mates Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. This song was also a hint at the richness of Hispanic and Latino culture to come, as well as a reminder that with the best rock, you can never understand the words anyway. 1958.
Van Halen (Warner Brothers). It was all pretty obvious in hindsight—take the feeling of Led Zeppelin, the guitar wizardry of Jimi Hendrix, and the sleaze of Aerosmith and mix it all together in a sound that could pass as heavy metal to kids who didn’t know any better. Purists may scoff, but this album helped to create the legend of this band and the sound of hard rock in the early 1980s, all hanging on Eddie Van Halen’s ridiculous workout “Eruption,” which, maybe you had to be there, but at the time, more than lived up to its name. 1978.
———“Jump” (Warner Brothers). A 1980s version of “I Feel Good,” complete with a pop hook, a sizzling guitar solo, and Diamond Dave crooning with his back against a record machine. 1984.
The Velvet Underground & Nico (Verve). Ground zero for underground rock (’60s), proto-punk/art rock (’70s), college rock (’80s), alternative rock (’90s), and indie rock (’00s). Brian Eno famously reckoned that everyone who heard it went out and started a band, which might in fact be true. Before this album, the future of rock always came from above—big sensations like Elvis Presley and The Beatles—but with this album, it began coming from below. All that said, it’s often overlooked that this is also just a damn good record with damn good songs. 1967.
———White Light/White Heat (Verve). Many people cite The Velvets’ first album hitting #167 as proof that they were relatively successful in terms of avant-garde art rock, but the real shocker is that this album hit #199 for one week. It was as though the fall of Western Civilization was jammed into an amplifier and undulated endlessly between the two chords of the 17-minute “Sister Ray.” 1967.
———The Velvet Underground (Verve). The “quiet” album, if you can consider unsettling ballads about transvestites and adultery quiet. With “Jesus” and “Beginning to See the Light,” it is also the closest the group ever came to religious music. An album so good that not even the failed 9-minute art project of “The Murder Mystery” can ruin its power or continuing influence. 1968.
———Loaded (Coltillion). One last earnest attempt at pop immortality—and with the now-classic “Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Jane,” mission accomplished, only the radio dial was running about 20 years behind, as usual. 1970.
Ventures, “Walk, Don’t Run” (Blue Horizon). The quintessential song from the short-lived wave of instrumental rock in the early 1960s—and Exhibit A for why kids have been playing Fender Telecasters ever since. 1960.
Gene Vincent, “Be-Bop-A-Lula” (Capitol). The signature song of the rockabilly legend, the only one who match Elvis in both brooding substance and menacing style—as borne out by the legend that Gladys Presley called her son to congratulate him on it the first time she heard it on the radio. Not bad, but my favorite anecdote about it comes from Vincent himself: When asked why drummer Dickie Harrell screamed at each refrain, Vincent replied, “He’s 13 years old. I don’t know why he does any of the things he does.” 1956.
Tom Waits, Rain Dogs (Island). A view of the world from the gutters of New York City, told in the collective unconscious of 150 years of American popular music. Lyrically, it’s as close as anyone has gotten to Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes—that is, if Kurt Weill sat in for Richard Manuel—although it ultimately sprawls like a Yankee Exile on Main Street; no wonder Keith Richards sounds so at home here. 1985.
Weezer, Pinkerton (DGC). Madame Butterfly remade as a grunge opera about looking for love in all the wrong places, but finding only angst and irony. 1996.
Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella). And on the Eighth Day, God created Kanye. At least according to Kanye. 2004.
White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy). Garage rock for a new millennium—so raw and stripped down, it turned the standard rock three-piece into a two piece by getting rid of the bass. And how did it take 20 years for someone to think to animate a video using LEGO? 2002.
———Elephant (V2). The band’s major-label debut, chockfull of new sounds (a bass on “Seven Nation Army”!) and old driving rock (the masterful “Hypnotize”), with hard blues, Beatles-like psychedelic flourishes, and Burt Bacharach tunes thrown in, in equal measure—and equal volume. 2003.
Who, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy (Track). For all of their success on the long-playing format, it’s often forgotten that The Who were first and foremost one of the most exciting singles artists of their time. They were definitely the only major act to use their first single, “I Can’t Explain,” as the opening song of their concerts for decades. But there was also the lovely “The Kids Are All Right,” the weird “Happy Jack,” and of course, “My Generation,” complete with two key changes, a bass solo, and a stuttering vocal that dares to ask: “Why don’t you all just f-f-f—” 1965-1970/1971.
———“A Quick One, While He’s Away” (Polydor). There was a reason why The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus TV special remained buried for nearly three decades—the headliners thought The Who had upstaged their entire set. And they were right, but in their defense, there was no one who could have topped it. In one seven-and-a-half minute performance, The Who deliver their finest and tightest rock opera—a tale of adultery and redemption, that starts as Dylan-style folk-rock, then turns into a railroad train, a cowboy song, and crashing church bells, before delivering the most uplifting finale this side of a spiritual awakening. It is quite simply one of the most perfect rock performances ever committed to tape. The Stones never stood a chance. 1968/1979.
———Tommy (Track). The first full-length “rock opera” remains a creative touchstone in rock and roll, even if its pretentions come close to outweighing its achievements. Despite what you may have heard, the best song on it is “Go to the Mirror Boy!” and the whole thing is actually heard best live in the second disc of the Live at Leeds deluxe remaster. Still, rock, history, art, influence, blah, blah, blah. 1969.
———Who’s Next (Track). The Who graduate from art rock to stadium rock with arena-ready classics like “Baba O’Riley,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” They are also the first—and so far only—major rock band to successfully meld together rock and synthesizers. Their best album. 1971.
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch). Prophecy as alt-country. Released just after 9/11 with track names like “War on War” and “Ashes of American Flags,” many assumed it was a response to the terrorist attack, but it was actually recorded just before they occurred. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” has the loveliest idea, but it’s “I’m the Man Who Loves You” that tells the history of rock music, from blues to psychedelic, art rock to indie, The Band to The Breeders, spirituals to Stax—and back again. 2002.
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury). A folk singer-songwriter drives country into the heart of the blues until it becomes rock and roll. As a timeless portrait of the American South, it rivaled The Band’s finest work; as a rock testament to honky-tonks and fallen angels, it stands alongside Gram Parsons’ solo LPs. Drenched in reverb like Buddy Holly and equal parts sexy and tough like Ronnie Spector, it is an album inspired by the road and best heard while driving along one. 1998.
J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, “Last Kiss” (Josie). The finest of the early ’60s wave of death songs, dripping with sentiment, but still with a hard enough backbeat to be resurrected by Pearl Jam in a surprise hit cover thirty years later. 1964.
The Very Best of Jackie Wilson (Rhino). One of the greatest and most influential singers in all of rock and roll, with a captivating style that led to his nickname “Mr. Excitement.” In 1958, he cut “Lonely Teardrops,” which was not only the funkiest song of the decade, but a blueprint for the Motown sound, as Berry Gordy founded the label after not getting enough money for his work on the song. But Jackie Wilson had more than just R&B hits, he sang with a near-operatic range that is not unlike an African-American Roy Orbison. Hence, he could do standards like “Danny Boy” just as easily as his last major hit, the gospel-inspired “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” 1957-1967/1994.
Wire, Pink Flag (Harvest). A prescient roadmap for the way out of punk rock, issued before The Sex Pistols broke up. 1977.
Bill Withers, “Lean on Me” (Sussex). The most obvious melody ever picked out on a piano, which is just to say that it stands as a reminder that the deepest soul music—and the gospel it came out of—gets its beauty from simplicity. 1972.
Stevie Wonder, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” (Tamla). After years of one major hit (“Fingertips, Part 2”) and dozens more near- or half-hits, The Artist Formally Known As “Little” Stevie Wonder blew everyone out of the water and gave the first indication that he was a musical force to be reckoned with. 1965.
———Talking Book (Talma). Motown’s Boy Wonder turns 21, takes advantage of not being a boy anymore, and negotiates a man’s contract. This is the first fruit of his labor—and the beginning of his classic period—featuring “Superstition,” the funkiest funk ever told. 1972.
———Innervisions (Talma). Motown’s Man Wonder nearly dies in a car crash and recovers by locking himself in the studio to become a one-man band. Wonder could do anything, and here he pretty much does, freely mixing psychedelics (“Too High”), social protest (“Living Just Enough for the City”), funk (“Higher Ground”), gospel (“Jesus Children of America”), love (All in Love Is Fair), humor (“Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing”), and politics (“He’s Misstra Know It All”) in 45 minutes or less. Generally considered his finest album, not just for its musicianship and song-craft, but for its economy. 1973.
———Songs in the Key of Life (Talma). Motown’s King Wonder gets free reign and comes up with a double-LP masterpiece with a bonus EP insert. Like all great 2 album sets (i.e., “The White Album,” Exile on Main St.), it meanders and arguably could have been edited here and there, but is ultimately fascinating in its sprawl. For all the hits and classics—and there are a lot of them (“I Wish,” “Isn’t She Lovely?,” “Sir Duke,” and “As,” to name a few)—the finest moment comes from the relatively understated, effortless “Knocks Me off My Feet,” which remains so fresh that it makes the lyrics “I love you, I love you, I love you” sound anything but cliché. 1976.
Link Wray and his Ray Men, “Rumble” (Cadence). The electric guitar, still soaking wet after emerging from rock’s primordial ooze. 1954/1958.
Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud). One of the finest and most influential debut albums in all of rock music, this album also contained some of the hardest hip-hop of its time. The super-group-in-hindsight talents of Method Man, RZA, GZA, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and the rest proved that too many cooks don’t necessarily spoil the soup. Throw in the kung-fu movie clips and violent and/or raunchy in-between tracks, and you have a portrait of life on the New York City streets in the early ’90s, with references to Miracle on 34th Street, Geraldine Ferraro, Indiana Jones, Cooley High, and Full Metal Jacket—all within a single song. 1993.
X, Los Angeles (Slash). The greatest album of the L.A. punk scene by one of the most criminally underrated bands of all-time. Bassist John Doe sang while his then-wife Exene Cervenka sang minor harmonies and guitarist Billy Zoom added rockabilly flair until the music became a runaway rocket ship. The songs were tales and sketches of L.A.’s seedy underworld, clothed in some of the finest rock titles ever conceived: “The Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not,” “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline,” and “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss.” 1980.
Yardbirds, Greatest Hits, Volume One: 1964-1966 (Rhino). Brittle R&B and proto-psychedelic rave-ups on songs that were hits and those that should have been, until the final three songs lifted from their legendary live album, where they all but set the joint on fire. If a young Eric Clapton had made no other recordings other than these live blues workouts, he would have still gone down as a legend. 1990.
Neil Young, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Reprise). Neil Young had worked with Buffalo Springfield and even released a solo album before this, but it is here, working for the first time with backing band Crazy Horse, that he met his musical soul mates. “Down By The River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” has their extended jams and “Cinnamon Girl” has its legendary one-note guitar solo, but it’s the fleeting title track that steals the show and leaves you wanting more. Luckily, Young would spend the rest of the decade delivering on its promise. 1969.
———After the Gold Rush (Reprise). From the tender beauty of the title track through to the savage assault of “Southern Man,” no other album so deftly displayed the limits of Young’s talents, with each new turn so unexpected yet so natural. No wonder it’s most commonly cited as his masterpiece. 1970.
———Harvest (Reprise). Neil Young at his most shocking: Laidback, mellow, and utterly commercial—with a #1 hit (“Heart of Gold”) to boot. 1972.
———Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise). He took the formula of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home (half-electric, half-acoustic) and reversed it on the other side of punk rock’s mirror (acoustic half followed by electric half), tying the death of Elvis Presley to the birth of Johnny Rotten in an inspired stroke of history. Young would make scores of more albums, but this was his final masterpiece. At least to date. 1978.
———“Rockin’ in the Free World” (Reprise). Neil Young rewrites “Masters of War” into a fist-pumping anthem with a central bitterness that was largely ignored; a companion piece to Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” only about George H.W. Bush instead of Ronald Reagan. 1989.
Young Rascals, “Good Lovin’” (Atlantic). “Lovesick Blues” crossed with “La Bamba” on speed, with a break that my Mom said took forever to nail on the dancefloor. 1966.
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, We’re Only in It for the Money (Verve). The Bride of Frankenstein of rock and roll—which is to say, the sequel (a send-up of The Beatles’ already instantly-classic Sgt. Pepper), that in mocking the original in a gesture of skepticism and camp, actually bettered it. From “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” through to “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body,” this is not only a song-by-song free associative analysis into the failures and broken promises of 1960s counterculture (right when 1968 was threatening real revolution), it was the finest concept album ever made. 1968.
Warren Zevon (Asylum). A cynic’s hedonistic portrait of the American West, beginning with Frank and Jesse James and ending with the hum of hotel air conditioner. 1976.
Zombies, “She’s Not There” (Decca). Odd, moody, and melodically sophisticated, this was the rare British Invasion single that held within it the exciting creativity that awaited just around the corner. 1964.
———Odessey and Oracle (CBS). By the time this album finally came out—with a misspelled title to show how much care went into its final production—The Zombies had ceased to exist as a band. It’s a shame because in the crowded canon of the late 1960s, Odessey and Oracle ranks among the finest work. A loose concept album about a girl who changes with the seasons—with a nightmare to the World War I Western Front thrown in the mix—it was the harmonies of The Beach Boys combined with the discipline and quality of The Beatles. Somehow the finale “Time of the Season” became a breakout hit, but it only hinted at the depth of this masterpiece. 1968.