When the first long-playing record was introduced by Columbia Records at a press conference in New York’s Waldorf Astoria in 1948, it was considered primarily as a boon for selling classical music, whose long form had been ill-suited to the 78rpm format – the first ever long-player was a recording of a Mendelssohn concerto. However, it wasn’t long before more popular artists saw the potential of LPs. Bing Crosby, who was at the forefront of various 20th century music technologies, from the microphone to magnetic tape, was among the first artists to see his work appear on album format – Crosby Classics, a collection of his 30s recordings released by Columbia.
Frank Sinatra took it further, understanding the narrative potential of the LP on In The Wee Small Hours (1955). Its cover art, featuring a lonesome Sinatra on a street corner swathed in a blue half-light, could have appeared on the front of a paperback novel. Its songs are like chapters dealing with different themes concerning the downside of romance – no wonder it has been described as the first “concept” album.
Jazz, meanwhile, was undergoing its own postwar evolution, graduating in seriousness, no longer just the stuff of dancehall entertainment. Artists like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker demanded a new level of attentiveness. Miles Davis pulled together sessions from 1949 and 1950 into the retrospective statement of intent that was 1957’s The Birth Of The Cool. Two years later, he released Kind Of Blue, a masterpiece of modal jazz which demonstrates that the long-player wasn’t merely a matter of quantity; that it provided a cumulative experience greater than the sum of its tracks. Other artists such as Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane would go on to be defined as much by their album releases as their playing.
By the 60s, rock’n’roll became less of a 45rpm jukebox experience thanks to the arrival of a new generation of visionary composers such as Lennon & McCartney, Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds marked the passage from surfer innocence to a more adult, introspective consciousness borne of experience. To play the album right through to closing track Caroline No and the mournful toll of the train bell at its fadeout, is to feel this [though controversially, it doesn’t actually make the final cut here – Ed]. The Beatles retreated to the studio, ostensibly because of the futility of playing live but also to mark their transition from pop sensations to artists, making the most of studio technology to expand their songwriting palette, offering a listening experience that was literary, formally adventurous and sonically colourised. Pink Floyd, The Who, and The Velvet Underground also made LPs informed by a conscious, art school sensibility.
By the 70s, soul artists, led by Marvin Gaye, were breaking away from the 60s hit factories. In the early 70s, Stevie Wonder made a series of synth-based albums whose innovation was foundational for future R&B. Progressive rock took the album format to the edge of pomposity, eschewing the pop single as puerile and ephemeral. Punk blasted that conceit: the terse, three-chord 7” had come to drive out the gatefold-sleeved double album. And yet post-punk made huge additions to the album canon, from PiL’s Metal Box to Wire’s 154, Joy Division’s Closer to The Human League’s Dare.
The arrival of CDs in the mid-80s was a mixed blessing: their smaller format meant a diminution of artwork if not of scope. Meanwhile, the 80-minute storage capacity allowed artists to get away with double-LP-style indulgences over
a single disc. Reissues suddenly became encumbered with extras and outtakes, add-ons to the original, carefully-sequenced LP experience. However, they did benefit classical music artists such as Górecki, Tavener and Arvo Pärt, offering the possibility of extended, immersive experiences in the post-rave ambient era. MTV’s video culture making the single the event once more; the internet and its attendant capacity for streaming and cherry-picking playlists… For some years, it has been commonplace to declare that the LP is in decline, while these days albums are seemingly released to promote tours, rather than vice versa.
Certainly, it’s unlikely that the album will ever regain its old primacy. The very idea of sitting down and listening to a long-playing record from beginning to end, giving its narrative arc your undivided attention, feels like a daunting feat of endurance in an era of multiple distractions. And yet the album remains resilient, precisely because none of the forces that have assailed it have been for the better; it has yet to be exceeded as a format for fully-realised creative expression. After 70 years, the long-player still has a long future.
And so to our 70 Landmark Albums list. What, you say, no Pink Floyd? The Who? Marvin Gaye? Edgar Broughton Band? Certainly, there are what seem like glaring omissions. No Pet Sounds, for example? Well, that’s partly to do with the criteria of the list. Firstly, we only permitted one album per artist, be they The Beatles or Burial (though some appear a second, even third, time in the “runners-up” lists under each entry – those runners-up should, together, provide a broader view of RC’s music tastes). So, no Sergeant Pepper’s; in our judgment, though important in its time, the debut Velvet Underground album, less recognised in its day, was worthier of inclusion for its longer-lasting reach and influence. Gaye’s What’s Going On gave way for Led Zeppelin IV while Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon had the misfortune of being released the same year as Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. The emphasis was on influence more than immediate impact, future significance rather than blockbuster sales, critical rather than commercial success – hence, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn rather than, say, a Thriller, a Be Here Now or Brothers In Arms.
Still, no doubt you’ll find plenty to debate here, even as you luxuriate once more in the brilliance of these 70 classics….
1948: Stan Kenton And His Orchestra - A Presentation Of Progressive Jazz, 1949: Frankie Laine - Frankie Laine Favorites, 1950: Les Paul - The New Sound, 1951: Sister Rosetta - Tharpe Blessed Assurance, 1952: Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie - Bird & Diz, 1953: Peggy Lee - Black Coffee, 1954: Chet Baker - Chet Baker Sings, 1955: Frank Sinatra - In The Wee Small Hours, 1956: Elvis Presley - Elvis Presley, 1957: Little Richard - Here’s Little Richard, 1958: Nina Simone - Little Girl Blue, 1959: Miles Davis - Kind Of Blue, 1960: Muddy Waters - At Newport, 1961: Robert Johnson - King Of The Delta Blues Singers, 1962: Howlin’ Wolf - Howlin’ Wolf, 1963: James Brown - Live At The Apollo, 1964: The Rolling Stones - The Rolling Stones, 1965: Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited, 1966: The Beatles - Revolver, 1967: The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1968: THE Jimi Hendrix EXPERIENCE - Electric Ladyland, 1969: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band - Trout Mask Replica, 1970: Neil Young - After The Goldrush, 1971: Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin IV, 1972: David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust, 1973: Stevie Wonder - Innervisions, 1974: Kraftwerk - Autobahn, 1975: Patti Smith - Horses, 1976: Ramones - Ramones, 1977: Sex Pistols - Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, 1978: Elvis Costello - This Year’s Model, 1979: Talking Heads - Fear Of Music, 1980: Joy Division - Closer, 1981: The Human League - Dare, 1982: ABC - The Lexicon Of Love, 1983: Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones, 1984: Frankie Goes To Hollywood - Welcome To The Pleasuredome, 1985: Kate Bush - The Hounds Of Love, 1986: The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead, 1987: Prince - Sign “O” The Times, 1988: My Bloody Valentine - Isn’t Anything, 1989: Beastie Boys - Paul’s Boutique, 1990: Public Enemy - Fear Of A Black Planet, 1991: Nirvana - Nevermind, 1992: Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works, 1993: Wu-Tang Clan - Enter The Wu-Tang, 1994: Portishead - Dummy, 1995: The Chemical Brothers - Exit Planet Dust, 1996: DJ Shadow - Endtroducing, 1997: Radiohead - OK Computer, 1998: Mercury Rev - Deserter’s Songs, 1999: Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin, 2000: OutKast - Stankonia, 2001: The Strokes - Is This It, 2002: The Streets - Original Pirate Material, 2003: Dizzee Rascal - Boy In Da Corner, 2004: Arcade Fire - Funeral, 2005: Sufjan Stevens - Come On Feel The Illinoise, 2006: Amy Winehouse - Back To Black, 2007: LCD Soundsystem - Sound Of Silver, 2008: Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes, 2009: Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion, 2010: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2011: PJ Harvey - Let England Shake, 2012: Frank Ocean - Channel Orange, 2013: Daft Punk - Random Access Memories, 2014: D'Angelo And The Vanguard - Black Messiah, 2015: Tame Impala - Currents, 2016: Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker, 2017: Kendrick Lamar - DAMN