All-TIME 100 Albums - Time Magazine

The album may be dead, but it's certainly not forgotten. TIME's critics have chosen the 101 greatest and most influential musical compilations since 1954.

1950s: Miles Davis Kind of Blue, Little Richard Here’s Little Richard, Frank Sinatra Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Frank Sinatra In the Wee Small Hours
1960s: The Beatles Abbey Road, Miles Davis Bitches Brew, Sly and the Family Stone Stand!, Van Morrison Astral Weeks, The Beatles Rubber Soul, The Beatles The Beatles (“The White Album”), John Coltrane A Love Supreme, The Jimi Hendrix Experience Are You Experienced, James Brown Live at the Apollo (1963), Aretha Franklin I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, Ray Charles Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues, The Velvet Underground The Velvet Underground and Nico, Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde, The Beach Boys Pet Sounds, The Band The Band, The Beatles Revolver, Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, Otis Redding Otis Blue, Aretha Franklin Lady Soul
1970s: The Clash London Calling, Parliament Funkadelic One Nation Under a Groove, The Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, Fleetwood Mac Rumours, The Eagles Hotel California, John Lennon John Lennon Plastic Ono Band, Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life, Dolly Parton Coat of Many Colors, Van Morrison Moondance, Bruce Springsteen Born to Run, David Bowie Hunky Dory, Patti Smith Horses, Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin IV (a.k.a. Zoso), Willie Nelson Red Headed Stranger, Black Sabbath Paranoid, Al Green Call Me, The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers, Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Carole King Tapestry, David Bowie The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust, Marvin Gaye What’s Going On, The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street, The Who Who’s Next, Stevie Wonder Talking Book, Neil Young After the Gold Rush, Jimmy Cliff and Various Artists The Harder They Come, Simon and Garfunkel Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Ramones Ramones, Joni Mitchell Blue
1980s: Madonna Like a Prayer, Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique, The Stone Roses The Stone Roses, Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton, Paul Simon Graceland, Metallica Master of Puppets, Run DMC Raising Hell, Bob Marley and the Wailers Legend, Talking Heads Stop Making Sense, Chuck Berry The Great Twenty Eight, Michael Jackson Thriller, R.E.M. Document, AC DC Back in Black, Eric B. and Rakim Paid in Full, Prince and The Revolution Purple Rain, Prince Sign O’ The Times, U2 The Joshua Tree
1990s: Lucinda Williams Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Radiohead OK Computer, DJ Shadow Endtroducing…, Oasis (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, U2 Achtung Baby, Nirvana Nevermind, R.E.M. Out of Time, Bob Dylan Time Out of Mind, Various Artists Back to Mono (1958 1969), Garth Brooks Ropin’ The Wind, James Brown Star Time, Hole Live Through This, A Tribe Called Quest The Low End Theory, Mary J. Blige My Life, The Notorious B.I.G. Ready to Die, Pavement Slanted and Enchanted, Dr. Dre The Chronic, Elvis Presley Sunrise
2000s: Hank Williams Turn Back the Years: The Essential Hank Williams Collection, Kanye West The College Dropout, Elvis Presley Elv1s 30 No. 1 Hits, Sam Cooke Portrait of a Legend 1951 1964, Elvis Elv1s 30 No. 1 Hits, Muddy Waters The Anthology, 1947 1972, Radiohead Kid A, Outkast Stankonia, PJ Harvey Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, Eminem The Marshall Mathers LP

Miles Davis Kind of Blue
In 1959, Miles Davis had already remade jazz in his own image several times over. The Birth of Cool introduced a smooth, sophisticated approach, and then Walkin’ heated things up again. His classic ’50s quintet raised the bar for small-group improvisation. But when he assembled an unprecedented all-star team (featuring John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on tenor and alto saxophones, and the masterful pianist Bill Evans) for the two-day sessions that became the Kind of Blue album, Miles left his most lasting mark. The open-ended songs, barely sketched out around “modes,” or scales, rather than chord changes, were given just one or two takes — and the glorious results, the best-selling jazz disc of all time, are simultaneously delicate and powerful, and teeming with life.
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Little Richard Here’s Little Richard
It doesn’t get any more rock & roll than this. Richard Penniman already had six hits on the charts, starting with the cataclysmic “Tutti Frutti,” before his label decided to gather them up on a long player. The results are glorious anarchy, let loose by a crack team of New Orleans musicians with the most distinctive, most outrageous voice of them all leading the charge. Just look at the songs he was banging out so rapid-fire: “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Slippin’ and Slidin'” — Here’s Little Richard is twenty-eight minutes of gleeful mayhem. From Paul McCartney to Prince to Axl Rose, the legacy of Little Richard has never waned, no matter how many insurance ads he does.
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Frank Sinatra Songs for Swingin’ Lovers
So much for feeling blue. With Ava Gardner in the rearview mirror and lord knows who in the backseat, Sinatra had his strut back and wasted little time in applying it to jazzier versions of pop standards like “Pennies From Heaven,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Makin’ Whopee,” all of which have now become the standard interpretations. The best moment of pure singing is on Cole Porter’s traditionally zippy “Anything Goes,” which Sinatra negotiates at a composed, I-ain’t-singin’-this-like-no-fruity-show-tune, trot.
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Frank Sinatra In the Wee Small Hours
For a decade, Sinatra pushed to make a cohesive LP at a time when no one in the record business was thinking beyond singles. Finally, his break-up with Ava Gardner provided the perfect catalyst. These 16 ballads, recorded in just a few days, are the authoritative take on masculine loneliness. Like all Sinatra songs, they’re not just beautifully sung but interpreted into drama: the title track is the initial confession of pain, Rodgers and Hart’s “Glad to Be Unhappy” and Cole Porter’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” the futile denials, and “I’ll Never Be the Same” the grim acceptance that the lady’s gone for good.
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The Beatles Abbey Road
The last album the Beatles released was the messy, joyless Let It Be. But the last album the Beatles recorded was Abbey Road, their most polished and crafted long player. Though the break-up was looming, you’d never know it from the driving funk of “Come Together” or “Something”‘s gentle warmth — much less the majestic harmonies on “Because.” Side two’s famous medley might only be a bunch of bits and scraps stuck together, but it still sounds fantastic — Paul’s surging, melodic bass playing alone would make this album a landmark. A worthy last chapter for the greatest band of all.
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Miles Davis Bitches Brew
Jazz-rock fusion would get a well-deserved bad name in the Seventies for its self-indulgent noodling, but that wasn’t how it started. Inspired by the visionary work of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone, Miles Davis began incorporating funk grooves and electronic instruments into his music — first with the languid, contemplative In A Silent Way (still so cool that it was recently sampled by Diddy), and then on the double-LP monster Bitches Brew. Many called Miles a sell-out, but such critics obviously didn’t listen to the album’s complex, hypnotic cauldron of sound. Virtually every major fusion star played on Brew — Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter — but even the best of them seldom matched its depth and intensity.
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Sly and the Family Stone Stand!
As a late 60s metaphor for hope, the only thing that topped Sly Stone’s multi-ethnic, mixed-gender band was the music it produced. “Everyday People” (“different strokes, for different folks”) and “I Want to Take You Higher” were utopian anthems propelled by Larry Graham’s slap bass while “Don’t Call Me Nigger”, Whitey proved that Sly wasn’t (yet) blind to contemporary reality. The lyrics are rarely simplistic, the singing never less than spectacular, and each track has such an abundance of rhythm that standing still isn’t a possibility.
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Van Morrison Astral Weeks
It is one of rock’s least-likely masterworks. Van Morrison had made a name for himself as the lead singer of the Belfast bar band Them, which achieved immortality with the garage anthem “Gloria.” He then signed a solo deal in the US, skimming the Top Ten with the irresistible singalong “Brown-Eyed Girl,” but he dismissed the album that came from those sessions. Signing with Warner Bros. Records, Morrison then assembled a bunch of jazz-based players, took them into a New York studio, and emerged two days later with Astral Weeks, a languid, impressionistic, utterly gorgeous song cycle that sounded like nothing he had done previously — and really, nothing anyone had done previously. Morrison sings of lost love, death, and nostalgia for childhood in the Celtic soul that would become his signat
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The Beatles Rubber Soul
These 14 songs are The Beatles’ pivot point. On the cover they still have the mop tops, but they’re shaggy and the photo is slightly distorted. The opener, “Drive My Car,” (“Beep beep’m beep beep yeah!”) is rooted in their early cute phase while track two, “Norwegian Wood,” is mysterious and pained and gives George his first sitar solo. An amazing document of progress that just happens to be crawling with songs — “Michelle,” “In My Life,” “Nowhere Man” — it’s also one of rock’s first album-qua-albums; not a raft for a few hits or a soundtrack to a wacky film, but something to be listened to and contemplated from start to finish.
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The Beatles The Beatles (“The White Album”)
The end had already begun. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was dead, and (other than George) they felt burned by their visit with the Maharishi. In the middle of these sessions, Ringo was the first Beatle to temporarily quit the band. Most of these thirty songs were recorded by various subsets of the group, who were seldom all in the studio at the same time. Producer George Martin fought hard to edit the project down to a consistent single album, but the Beatles were right to keep the scraps, experiments, and jokes — the tension and confusion of the time became central to The Beatles (which was originally called A Doll’s House, a fitting title for its odds-and-ends feel). The album’s curious, unique genius reveals the Beatles at their hardest (“Helter Skelter”), softest (“Julia”), and w
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John Coltrane A Love Supreme
This album is a humble offering to Him, wrote John Coltrane in the linter notes to his masterwork A Love Supreme. “An attempt to say ‘Thank You God’ through our work.” After groundbreaking work with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, Coltrane had taken flight as a solo artist. But after his monumental 1959 Giant Steps, he had taken his powerhouse “sheets of sound” approach to the tenor saxophone as far as he could go. A Love Supreme‘s four-part suite represented a new approach — sparer, more fluid, more intense. This musical prayer was the high-water mark, too, for Coltrane’s classic quartet of pianist McCoy Tyner, bass player Jimmy Garrison, and monster drummer Elvin Jones. (The 2002 deluxe reissue includes the only live performance of the suite.) Elsewhere in the notes, Coltrane wrote that
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The Jimi Hendrix Experience Are You Experienced
Seattle-born former paratrooper James Marshall Hendrix worked the back-breaking chitlin’ circuit playing guitar with the likes of Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. But to turn into a star, he had to go to England, where he joined forces with bass player Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. The trio’s debut was an unprecedented barrage of joyful noise — Hendrix literally redefined and expanded the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar (strung upside-down for this left-handed virtuoso), while the propulsive rhythm section heightened the attack. But what made Are You Experienced? more than a mere instrumental novelty was the strength of its songs — an even dozen classics including “Purple Haze,” “Fire,” and the dreamy “The Wind Cries Mary” that sound as revolutionary and as far
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James Brown Live at the Apollo (1963)
In 1962, James Brown was known, but not—owwwww!—well known. Frustrated at his inability to break through, the ever-savvy J.B. asked his label to record one of his acclaimed live shows and release it as an album. When the label refused, Brown bankrolled the recording himself. “Are you ready for star time?” the emcee asks the Apollo crowd on the night of October 24, and for the next 40 minutes Brown puts on a flawless show of dynamism that lost nothing in the transfer to vinyl. Only a few thousand copies of the original were pressed, but demand became so great (it ultimately sold well over a million) that DJs played the album in its entirety, and the legend of the hardest working man in showbiz was born.
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Aretha Franklin I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You
The centerpiece of Franklin’s first album for Atlantic Records was her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” the song that, released in the midst of the racial and sexual tumult of 1967, meant so much to so many people. It remains her signature anthem, and for good reason, though its overexposure means that her powerful versions of Ray Charles’ “Drown In My Own Tears” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” as well as her emotionally delicate performance of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” are often underappreciated.
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Ray Charles Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
No one did more to integrate the various genres of American music than Ray Charles, and here he doesn’t just link up country with his trademark soul, but stirs in some big band—the opening of “Bye Bye Love” could have been composed by Glenn Miller—jazz and rock and roll, too. As much as this album was a musical labor of love, there was also an obvious subtext given its release at the height of the civil rights struggle. Charles knew that musical integration was a good metaphor for racial integration, and in particular his cover of Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” seems to carry a larger message for white audiences.
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The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Of course you’re tired of hearing about how it turned rock into art. Of course the “sophistication” that this “concept album” introduced led to innumerable sins of pretentiousness. Of course the “tangerine trees and marmalade skies” sound dated. But have you actually listened to Sgt. Pepper lately? The songs are breathtaking, the musicianship unparalleled, the production perfect. There has never been another band that could do so many different things — songs like “Good Morning Good Morning,” “Getting Better,” and, of course, the climactic “A Day in the Life” cover more ground than you get in most rock careers. Backlash be damned; a splendid time is still guaranteed for all.
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Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues
Johnson is serious, like the scorched earth, wrote Bob Dylan. “He seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.” The story at the time was that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to learn how to play guitar. The revisionist history is that he wasn’t really the greatest blues musician of his era, he was just lucky enough to get recorded. The response to both stories is simple — just listen to his songs, all 29 of which are contained on the two-disc King of the Delta Blues set. Though he was dead at age 27, Johnson’s masterful writing, with its perfect control of images and emotion, and magnificent guitar playing loom large over music to this day. If you only know his songs through covers by the likes of the Rolling Stones (“Love in Vain”), Led Zeppelin
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The Velvet Underground The Velvet Underground and Nico
The band name came from a book about S&M while Nico, the possibly German, possibly Hungarian model turned actress turned singer, came courtesy of manager Andy Warhol. If all that weren’t enough to make them the poster children of the avant-garde, there were also the songs. Lou Reed infused “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” with lower east side realism and boho style. John Cale, an imposing Welshman tutored by ambient composer John Cage, introduced the rock world to feedback through his shrieking viola while Nico’s vocals on “Femme Fatalle” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” were beamed in from an icy cabaret. It was hipness on vinyl, but with an abiding narcotic beauty.
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Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde
In 1965 and 1966, Bob Dylan went on a creative sprint that has never been matched. Over the course of fourteen months, Dylan recorded Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited — and then capped it off with Blonde on Blonde, rock’s first significant double album. Cut in Nashville with an ace team of studio musicians (and, for the first time, Robbie Robertson as Dylan’s lead guitar foil), the album had a tense, shimmering tone that Dylan described as a “thin, wild mercury sound.” Though unfortunately it opens with the tiresome one-liner “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” (universally known as “Everybody Must Get Stoned”), after that the Blonde on Blonde reaches some of Dylan’s greatest heights — which is to say, the very pinnacle of rock.
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The Beach Boys Pet Sounds
All of the original Beach Boys sang on Pet Sounds, but from the very beginning this was Brian Wilson’s autocratic attempt to recreate the noises in his head. Laying the groundwork for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a year later, Wilson plundered orchestra pits for new instruments and obsessed over the layering of what may be the most perfect harmonies in rock history. At the time of its release, Pet Sounds was a commercial disappointment, largely because it broke from the unadulterated chirpiness of the Beach Boys’ early work. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows” teeter on the edge between adolescent euphoria and adult lament, while “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” provided what was to become Wilson’s defining lyric: “Sometimes I feel very sad.”
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The Band The Band
It took a group that was eighty percent Canadian to assemble what might be rock’s strongest meditation on American history. After years as the barnstorming bar band the Hawks and a few turns as Bob Dylan’s comrades in arms on his first electric tours, the five members of the Band retreated to a house outside of Woodstock and recorded a pair of unprecedented masterworks. Music from Big Pink defined the back-porch rootsiness that remains a central inspiration for the “alternative country” movement, but it was The Band that solidified their accomplishment. Passing their instruments around like it was a hootenanny, such songs as the joyful hoedown “Rag Mama Rag,” the achingly wistful “Whispering Pines,” and the Civil War epic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” all represented uncharted terr
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The Beatles Revolver
Make me sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, John Lennon told engineer Geoff Emerick. The result, on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Revolver‘s concluding track, effectively kicked off the psychedelic rock movement. But the songs leading up to that still-trippy knock-out punch reveal the Beatles in transition on their most varied album. The melancholy strings on “Eleanor Rigby,” the guitar attack of “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and the loopy carnival of “Yellow Submarine” illustrate the unlimited palette the Fab Four were introducing to pop music — and make Revolver the best introduction to their work, and the strongest single example of their magnificence.
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Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited
From the pistol-crack snare that opens “Like a Rolling Stone” to the hazy dream visions of “Einstein Dressed as Robin Hood” that close “Desolation Row,” the action never stops on Bob Dylan’s most relentless and flawless album. Powered by Mike Bloomfield’s slashing guitar lines and Al Kooper’s bracing, rudimentary organ, the head-spinning race Highway 61 Revisited offers through America’s music — rock, blues, folk, country — maps the strip of road that gives the record its title. The next forty years of Dylan’s career would trace the routes mapped out on this album, and most of these songs remain part of his concert repertoire to this day.
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Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison
He never did any hard time, but Cash had a natural sympathy for men who gave in to their worst impulses. At California’s Folsom Prison, songs like “Cocaine Blues” (“When I was arrested I was dressed in black/ They put me on a train and they took me back”) and “25 Minutes to Go” (“With my feet on the trap and my head on the noose/ Got 5 more minutes to go”) lose some of their defiance and gain some sadness, particularly when they’re interrupted by announcements like, “88419 is wanted in reception.” The final track, “Greystone Chapel,” was written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley. Cash heard it for the first time the night before the show and learned it fast so that the last lyric his audience heard was, “Inside the walls of prison my body may be/ But my Lord has set my soul free.”
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Otis Redding Otis Blue
Otis Redding never made a bad album. Hell, Otis Redding never cut a bad song. But most of the LPs released in his tragically short career were, in the manner of the times, patched and cobbled together. Otis Blue is the Big O’s one album that most plays like an album. The songs are strong throughout, anchored by three Sam Cooke covers and Redding’s versions of classics from “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to “My Girl,” climaxing in his own soul-stirrer “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” The Stax house band — Booker T and the MGs, augmented by Isaac Hayes and the Mar-Key horns — crackles, and Redding’s voice was never better. Which is truly saying something.
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Aretha Franklin Lady Soul
The singing here isn’t technically perfect—the roots of what would become Franklin’s unwavering campaign of melody obliteration are evident—unless we’re speaking emotionally, in which case there’s not a wrong note. “Chain of Fools” (inspired by the lines of cotton pickers songwriter Don Covay saw growing up in the south) was the biggest hit and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” written by the husband and wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, became an enduring gender anthem, but it’s a testament to Franklin that these songs sound unwritten, as if they didn’t exist until she opened her mouth and gave them life. Even her cover of the Young Rascals’ throwaway “Groovin'” is transcendent.
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The Clash London Calling
There were more than a few outraged faithful who thought their heroes had sold out because the sound was too smooth to be punk, but London Calling proved that a band could be anti-establishment and pro-melody. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones kept their collective pen focused on the issues of contemporary England and (they hoped) late capitalism (“I’m all lost in the supermarket/ I can no longer shop happily/ I came in here for that special offer/ a guaranteed personality”) but they also had enough maturity to realize that, while politics was inseparable from life, it was not life’s entirety. The cover features the most famous photo in rock, Paul Simonon the moment before his guitar becomes thousands of expensive toothpicks, bracketed by the same font and colors used on Elvis Presley’s debut.
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Parliament Funkadelic One Nation Under a Groove
Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?! is the title of a song on Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove, but it was also the band’s long-time statement of purpose. For years, George Clinton had been wheeling and dealing his musicians into different configurations, mostly as a way to outwit the record companies. Parliament was the dance band; Funkadelic was the home for guitar-frenzy acid-rock freak-outs. On One Nation, he brought the sides together for a crazy electro-jam dance party. The title track is an African-inflected booty-shaking philosophical anthem, and the slow jam “Into You” manages to be both romantic and patriotic. As for “Lunchmeataphobia,” its subtitle is more relevant now than ever — “Think! It Ain’t Illegal Yet!”
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The Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
One album was all they made, and probably all anyone could stand. Johnny Rotten, who had never sung before, had a gift for malice that he turned on the complacent England of the 70s. “God Save the Queen” dared voice the opinion that the monarch “ain’t no human bein’.” “Holidays in the Sun” mashed the Holocaust, the British economy and third world tourism into something offensive to hear (“I don’t wanna holiday in the sun/ I wanna go to new Belsen/ I wanna see some/ History ’cause now I got a reasonable economy”) and more offensive to ignore. Sid Vicious was a tragic sideshow, but credit guitarist Steve Jones, now one of America’s best radio DJs, with making the songs explosive and catchy.
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Fleetwood Mac Rumours
Some of this record’s groovy, licentious aura is stoked by the circumstances of its creation: during recording, the group’s two couples — John and Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks — were breaking up, and drummer Mick Fleetwood was hardly an innocent bystander. All that sloppy, vengeful friction infuses songs like “Go Your Own Way” and “Never Going Back Again” with a fury that even the very L.A. production can’t smother. The rest comes down to individual strengths: Christine McVie’s tough-talking smoothness; Nicks’ vulnerability; Buckingham’s precise guitar, and the taut blues rhythms of John McVie and Fleetwood.
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The Eagles Hotel California
Henley, Frey and co. spent most of the nation’s bicentennial year locked in a studio making a record about the nation on the verge of its bicentennial. Decadence was their major topos, and they wanted to reference drugs and innocence lost and lots of other stuff, though, like much of their catalog, Hotel California seems a lot smarter when you listen to it than when you talk about it. “Life in the Fast Lane” drew a line between the band’s country-tinged past and rock and roll future, but the big hit was the title track, a sprawling epic with Satanic undertones that might have been subconsciously cribbed from Jethro Tull’s “We Used to Know” when the bands toured together. As for the warm smell of colitas, fans are split on whether the word is Spanish slang for cannabis buds or an easy lay.
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John Lennon John Lennon Plastic Ono Band
Never before or since has an image been so quickly destroyed and rebuilt into something just as powerful. On the heels of the Beatles’ break-up, John Lennon entered “primal scream” therapy, and channeled all of the resultant emotional turmoil and exposure into his first solo album. Plastic Ono Band, recorded with a bare-bones trio and majestically produced by Phil Spector, revealed feelings never expressed on a pop album. Lennon sang of his fears (“Isolation”), his personal losses (“Mother”), and his journey from disillusionment to independence (“God”). From the spare loveliness of “Look at Me” to the raging proto-punk of “Well Well Well,” Lennon’s writing was never sharper, and his still-underrated singing stands with rock’s finest.
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Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life
After running off a rapid-fire string of hits and a shelf full of Grammy awards in the early Seventies, Stevie Wonder signed an unprecedented $13 million contract renewal with Motown Records — and then he made them wait. And wait and wait. Two-plus years passed after 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, an eternity in R&B. But when he delivered Songs in the Key of Life, a double-album with a bonus EP included, there was no doubt that the wait was worth it. It topped the charts for almost three months, and featured more true classics than even most great artists write in a lifetime. Celebrating childhood (“I Wish”), jazz (“Sir Duke”), and the beginnings of life itself (“Isn’t She Lovely”), Songs in the Key of Life was a powerhouse — a rare moment when a master was faced with a new level of
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Dolly Parton Coat of Many Colors
Anyone skeptical of a music career that’s been gradually obscured by Parton’s exuberance on talk show couches needs to pay attention to this archetypal album. The title track, about a mother’s love conquering poverty, is built on an image so central to Christians (the mother weaves a box of rags into a coat for her daughter) that it’s a wonder country’s voracious song sharks overlooked it for so long. It’s followed by “Traveling Man,” in which a girl and her mama chase the same no good guy (“The traveling man was a good bit older/ But a girl needs arms to hold her”), and “If I Lose My Mind,” in which Parton’s boyfriend cheats right in front of her eyes. Parton’s not above sentimentality, but it’s in constant battle with her feminist/realist leanings, and the whole package is tied together
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Van Morrison Moondance
After the dreamy acoustic sound of Astral Weeks, Van Morrison switched gears. For Monndance, he built his arrangements around a powerful horn section, veering more toward the punchy, old-school R&B he loved than Astral‘s jazzy meanderings. Morrison’s singing got more aggressive, too, on the gospel-flavored “Brand New Day” or the glorious “Caravan,” the first in a series of tributes to the otherworldly powers of radio. He kept his croony side, though, on the murmuring “Into the Mystic” and, of course, the immortal, swinging title track — a staple of prep schools and lounge acts to this day, and still none the worse for wear.
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Bruce Springsteen Born to Run
Springsteen’s first two albums were commercial duds. He had no money, and the sound he wanted for his third record—The Boss later described it as ‘Roy Orbison singing Bob Dylan produced by Phil Spector’—required months of studio tinkering to perfect. So Jimmy Iovine (then a recording engineer, now the head of Interscope Records) took care of hiding stacks of overdue bills from the record label while Springsteen obsessed over things like just how many guitar overdubs the title track needed. If it seems trivial to note that the final tally was 12, listen again, because, it’s the accumulation of details, both musical (the warm wind of the saxophone on “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” the violin that comes out of nowhere on “Jungleland”) and lyrical (‘The screen door slams/ Mary’s dress waves…’) tha
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David Bowie Hunky Dory
At a moment when no one knew whether David Bowie was a transvestite, provocateur, folk singer or space alien, the then 24-year-old released an album that slyly capitalized on the confusion. “Life on Mars?” placed him in deep space, while a trilogy to his idols (“Andy Warhol,” “Song for Bob Dylan” and “Queen Bitch” — for Lou Reed) clarified his earthbound ambition to be a boho poet with prodigal style. Changes, meanwhile, proved he could write a great pop song about who really (maybe) was.
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Patti Smith Horses
Because Smith was a poet before she was a singer… and John Cale of the Velvet Underground produced… and her lover Robert Mapplethorpe took the cover photo, Horses is often praised for fusing classical verse, feminism, punk and the avant-garde—which makes this epic debut sound like it belongs on a syllabus for a class few people would willingly take. In fact, it’s a rock record of overwhelming power. For all her poetic skill, the album’s most memorable words are its first: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” From there, Smith’s voice—like a match dragging across the side of a matchbox just before it ignites—and unrelenting band (guitarist Lenny Kaye, pianist Richard Sohl, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and bassist Ivan Kral) swagger through a complete reinvention of Van Morrison’s Gl
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Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin IV (a.k.a. Zoso)
Titles? We don’t need no stinkin’ titles! Guitarist Jimmy Page, no doubt in a moment of complete sobriety, wanted to see if Led Zeppelin’s music could sell itself, so the band’s name, as well as all other words, were struck from the album cover. Instead, each member picked an occult symbol representing their mystical identity to appear on the LP’s spine. Why? Because it was 1971. Enough fragrant air has been exhaled about “Stairway to Heaven” (which was never released as a single and thus never appeared on the Billboard charts) for several lifetimes, but “Going to California” is the best thing they ever played at a pace below ‘manic,’ “Rock and Roll” is the best thing they ever played above ‘manic’ and “When the Levee Breaks” is their most convincing blues. Just call it Zeppelin’s greatest
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Willie Nelson Red Headed Stranger
In the early Seventies, Willie Nelson was a songwriter legend, with such classics as “Crazy” and “Hello Walls” behind him, but wasn’t a major-league artist on his own. When his Nashville home burned down, he hightailed it back to Texas and began remaking himself as a country music outlaw, as he and such kindred, independent spirits as Waylon Jennings became known. With Red Headed Stranger, a self-produced (heresy to the Nashville establishment) concept album about a renegade preacher on the run, Nelson introduced a new sense of ambition and possibility to the genre. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was a Number One single, and when Stranger was followed up with the breakthrough collection Wanted! The Outlaws (with Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser), country music had entered a new e
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Black Sabbath Paranoid
Thanks to This is Spinal Tap and The Osbournes, it is now impossible to think of this band as anything other than a bunch of hysterical wankers. At the time of Paranoid‘s release, though, the world was convinced that these working class chums from Birmingham, England (originally called the Polka Tulk Blues Band) were either satanists or an incredible facsimile. Some of that owed to Ozzy Osbourne’s declaration that he had sat through The Exorcist a gazillion times (bat-biting would come later); most was due to the dark thunder of Tony Iommi’s guitar playing, Geezer Butler’s massive bass riffs and apocalyptic songs like “War Pigs.Luke’s Wall” and “Iron Man,” which are no less great for being totally incomprehensible. For better or worse, Paranoid is the birthplace of heavy metal. Mark it wit
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Al Green Call Me
Al Green was hands-down the dominant soul singer of the Seventies, and his run of albums, especially in the first half of the decade, was so consistently strong that it’s hard to pick a favorite. I’m Still In Love With You has the back-to-back perfection of “Love and Happiness” and “I’m Glad You’re Mine.” Let’s Stay Together has, well, “Let’s Stay Together.” But top to bottom, Call Me is the one to beat, with the effortlessly sexy title song and the devastating “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).” Covers of songs by Hank Williams and Willie Nelson seal Green’s linking of Memphis and Nashville traditions. And the closing song, “Jesus is Waiting,” turned out to be the bridge to Green’s future in the pulpit.
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The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers
In the aftermath of the Altamont disaster, which would have broken or shaken most bands, the Rolling Stones came back nastier and more assured than ever — Sticky Fingers is loaded with sex, drugs, and rock & roll, and became their biggest seller to date. Massive riffs power “Bitch,” “Brown Sugar” (proof that a slave trader’s sexual fantasies can make for a Number One hit), and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” a showcase for new guitarist Mick Taylor. “Dead Flowers” is a definitive comedy of decadence, “Wild Horses” is as tender as the Stones can get, and “Sway” is pure terror. It doesn’t have the sprawl and mood of their next release, Exile on Main Street, but Sticky Fingers truly captures the Stones at the peak of their game.
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Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Longevity has a way of obscuring greatness, and while no 70s actuary would’ve bet a dime on John to make it through the century, let alone the decade, no 70s music fan would have placed him anywhere but atop the pop heap. This double LP is overstuffed, but its highlights—”Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”—remain standards more than 30 years later thanks to Bernie Taupin’s sharpest lyrics, John’s propulsive keyboard skills and vocals that leap into falsetto without losing any of their power.
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Carole King Tapestry
Her songs with husband Gerry Goffin had been hits for talents as diverse as Aretha Franklin with “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” and Little Eva with “The Locomotion,” but it took a push from James Taylor to get King to record a few herself. King’s voice has limits, range chief among them, and that’s a critical part of Tapestry’s charm; her take on “Natural Woman” feels more vulnerable than Franklin’s, her slowed down “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” more poignant than the Shirelles’. The warmth of those easy melodies drove Tapestry to sales of 10 million copies and created the archetype of the female singer-songwriter.
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David Bowie The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust
I became Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie once said. “David Bowie went totally out the window…I got hopelessly lost in the fantasy.” Possibly the first true rock concept album, complete with narrative, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars tells the story of a Martian rock star whose mission is to offer sex and salvation to earthlings. In the climactic “Rock & Roll Suicide,” Ziggy is torn apart by the fans he inspired. With such killer songs as “Suffragette City” and “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie matched his arty, theatrical ambitions with crunching, arena-ready rock, setting in motion the glam rock movement that echoed from Alice Cooper to Marilyn Manson. For the album’s 30th anniversary, a few of Ziggy’s songs were broadcast into space from Roswell, New Mexico, using a hig
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Marvin Gaye What’s Going On
Motown Records — which introduced the concept of the assembly line to pop music — had no interest in giving its artists creative control, much less in venturing into territory that was explicitly political. But Marvin Gaye, the label’s greatest pure vocalist, was prepared to wait out Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr — and when Gordy finally, grudgingly caved to Gaye’s artistic ambitions, the result was one of the defining albums of its time. What’s Going On not only kicked off an era of unprecedented social consciousness in R&B, it also introduced a whole new style of making records, layering multiple vocal lines and rhythm tracks into mellow, hypnotic grooves that made the hard-nosed message of songs like “Inner City Blues(Make Me Wanna Holler)” and the immortal title song utterly irresisti
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The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street
Raucous, boozy, weary, violent and sex-obsessed, this double album sounds like the work of heathen outlaws, which of course it was. On the run from Fleet street mobs, narcotics officers and the Inland Revenue, the Stones holed up at Keith Richards’ chateau in the south of France and composed an epic blues that went beyond tribute and beyond blue. Producer Jimmy Miller valued atmosphere over precision in his recording techniques, so Mick Jagger competes with a wooly sax and a juke joint piano and still his vocals make “Sweet Virginia” feel purple, like a bruise that’s fun to touch. Through out, Jagger manages to sound intently focused and deeply stoned, while Charlie Watts minds the store with impeccable rhythm.
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The Who Who’s Next
Pete Townsend wanted to follow Tommy with Lifehouse, another rock opera, but after two fruitless years and a near-suicidal breakdown, he gave up. Freed from thematic grandiosity, The Who took Lifehouse‘s rough material and made a hit-filled album that was plenty large. “Baba O’Reilly” (named for Townshend’s guru Meher Baba and minimalist composer Terry Riley) opens with a skittering synthesizer that flirts with melody until Townshend moves to the piano and bangs out the iconic notes of a completely different melody. “Behind Blue Eyes” has drumless stretches and an emotional, though not wussy, acoustic guitar lead. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is so dense that it’s hard to believe it’s played by a three piece. In addition to providing enduring lyrics (“Meet the new boss/ Same as the old boss”;
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Stevie Wonder Talking Book
When he reached the age of majority, former child prodigy Stevie Wonder renegotiated a contract with Motown Records that granted him creative independence. This was big news as a business move — but when you’re dealing with perhaps the purest raw talent in pop music, “independence” takes on another meaning. His first release under these terms, Music Of My Mind, demonstrated that Wonder could work as a truly self-contained unit — writing and producing all the songs, and playing virtually all the instruments, entirely alone. His next album, Talking Book, secured his position as the reigning genius of his era. With earth-shaking funk (“Superstition”), candy-coated pop (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life”), and an emotional range from the blues of “Maybe Your Baby” to the soaring exuberance of “
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Neil Young After the Gold Rush
Since coming to California from his native Toronto, Neil Young had joined Buffalo Springfield and seen the band break up; teamed with Crosby, Stills, and Nash for the massive Déjà Vu album; and released a few discs of his own, including Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, a brain-shredding guitar powerhouse. The mysterious, elusive After The Gold Rush represents the morning after the mayhem, both personal and cultural — the sound of Young waking up with a post-’60s hangover, catching his breath, and trying to sort through the wreckage. The cryptic title song and “Southern Man” are the tracks familiar to casual fans, but only Neil Young could have written the chilling “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” or the homespun “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” — much less both on the same album.
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Jimmy Cliff and Various Artists The Harder They Come
The 1972 movie was a mixed bag, but its soundtrack served as most Americans’ first introduction to reggae. Jimmy Cliff (playing Ivanhoe Martin, would-be reggae singer turned renegade) provided vocal star power on the title track and the funeral-staple “Many Rivers to Cross.” Desmond Dekker & The Aces showed off reggae’s roots in 50s R&B on “(007) Shanty Town.” Just as good are the contributions from mostly forgotten acts like The Melodians and The Slickers, whose “Johnny Too Bad” is a parable of the film—only far better. “The Harder They Come” was only a modest success, but it opened the door for the arrival of Bob Marley, global superstar, a few years later.
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Simon and Garfunkel Bridge Over Troubled Water
These lifelong friends pretty much hated each other by the time their fifth and final album came out. Simon wrote most of the songs while Garfunkel was acting in Catch-22, and when they got together to finalize material they feuded endlessly. (Garfunkel vetoed a song about Nixon; Simon overruled a Bach chorale. Call it a draw for them and a victory for listeners.) What made it onto the album are some of the duo’s saddest melodies (“El Condor Pasa,” “The Only Living Boy in New York”) and most buoyant harmonies (“The Boxer,” “Cecilia”). Only Garfunkel sang on the title track, which, according to BMI, was the 19th most performed song of the 20th century, spawning versions that run the quality gamut from Aretha Franklin’s transcendent cover at the Fillmore in ’72 to Clay Aiken’s considerably l
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The Ramones Ramones
Legend has it that Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy spent a total of $6,400 recording this debut, which leads to an obvious question: Where’d all the money go? These 14 tracks sound like they were mixed on a runway at LaGuardia, but the playing is impressively clean given its speed (no song lasts longer than 2:40) and Joey’s singing proves you don’t need range to sound exuberant. Music historians long ago decided that Ramones is punk rock’s Rosetta Stone, but “Judy is a Punk,” “53rd & 3rd” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” (whose famous “Hey! Ho!/ Let’s go!” was an homage to the Bay City Rollers) succeed mostly because of the pop influences at their core.
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Joni Mitchell Blue
It’s not deceptively simple, just simple. From the bare arrangements of acoustic guitar and piano with maybe a hint of dulcimer, to the lyrics — “All I really want our love to do/ Is to bring out the best in me/ and in you, too” — Mitchell whittles her journal entries and melodies down with poetic economy and relies on her falsetto to add the dramatic tension. Enjoyment depends entirely on your tolerance for sincerity, but even cynics concede the greatness of lines like, “I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet.”
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Madonna Like a Prayer
This is the moment Madonna peaked as a pop star and mass media manipulator. First, the manipulation. In the title track’s video, Madonna kisses a saint, shows off some self-induced stigmata and dances in a field of burning crosses. Caving in to protests from religious groups, Pepsi pulled out of a Madonna sponsorship deal (she held on to a $5 million payday) and the whole episode generated enough publicity to ensure the album’s debut at No. 1. Brilliant. As it happens, so was the record. “Like a Prayer” was a genuinely soulful first single and “Express Yourself” merged Madonna’s dance sensibility with her strongest feminist message. Stephen Bray, Patrick Leonard and Prince (yes, that Prince) rescued the few middling tracks with production that elevated Madonna’s voice out of its early bubb
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Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique
There will never be another record like Paul’s Boutique. Not because there aren’t innovative musicians, but because after changes in copyright law required all samples to be cleared with their creators, the only person who could afford to make it is Bill Gates. On one song, “Egg Man,” the Beasties sampled Sly and the Family Stone, Public Enemy, Curtis Mayfield, Bernard Herrmann’s score from Cape Fear and dialogue from Jaws and Psycho. All of the samples were stitched together and overstuffed until they became a mattress for bouncy, pop culture obsessed rhymes (“There’s more to me than you’ll ever know/ And I’ve got more hits than Sadaharu Oh/ Tom Thumb, Tom Cushman or Tom Foolery/ Date women on TV with the help of Chuck Woolery”). Few records of any kind evince this much head-spinning joy,
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The Stone Roses The Stone Roses
There’s almost no precedent for the Stone Roses. Inspired as much by the 1968 student riots in Paris (the album cover has the French flag turned on its side) as their own collective ego (sample hits: “I Am the Resurrection,” “I Wanna Be Adored”) their debut was a fully formed gem that gave birth to an entire genre—Brit-pop. Singer and lyricist Ian Brown infused “Made of Stone” and “Waterfall” with lyrics that flicked at epic romance (“See the steeple pine/ The hills as old as time/ Soon to be put to the test/ To be whipped by the winds of the west”) without veering into sentimentality, while guitarist John Squire lingered over chords like the Byrds’ Roger McGuin. A label dispute sidelined them for four years and the Stone Roses never got back on track, but their one great album gave birth
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Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Chuck D. scared the hell out of America’s white parents with lyrics that praised Louis Farrakhan and a delivery that made retributive black violence seem inevitable, rational and—egad!—cool. His deeply felt and commercially calculated radicalism was best expressed in “Bring the Noise” and “Rebel Without a Pause”, whip-smart, reference-filled songs saved from pretension by Flavor Flav, rap’s greatest hype man, who even makes the prison break in “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” seem like daffy fun. Producers Bill Stephney, Hank Shocklee, and Terminator X—known as The Bomb Squad—laced every track with siren-wails and funk explosives that ratcheted the tension ever higher.
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N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton
Rappers had flirted with hardcore themes and street violence before — Schooly-D’s “PSK (What Does it Mean?),” “South Bronx” by Boogie Down Productions — but Straight Outta Compton was the hip-hop shot heard ’round the world. Almost twenty years later, virtually all gangsta rap remains a response to or an elaboration of this one album. N.W.A’s name — that’s short for “Niggaz with Attitude,” in case you forgot — was the first sign that this was no ordinary group. From “F— tha Police” (which earned them a warning letter from the FBI) to “Gangsta Gangsta” and “Dopeman,” Dr. Dre’s jittery, cinematic production was matched by Ice Cube’s unflinching ghetto reportage. Add in group founder Eazy-E’s oddly menacing high-pitched snarl, and support from MC Ren and DJ Yella and it made for a true gang-b
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Paul Simon Graceland
The story goes that Simon heard a tape called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II and immediately hopped a flight to Soweto to learn more about the township jive called mbaqanga. It’s not true (it was months before he went to South Africa) but it is the most spontaneous thing the world’s most rational songwriter is even rumored to have done, and that sense of liberation and adventure is all over Graceland. In addition to throwing his ears open to a host of new players and singers—Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Boyoyo Boys, Tao Ea Matsekha and, back in the U.S., the Mexican-American group Los Lobos—Graceland was the first album Simon ever made in which the rhythm tracks were recorded first, and the exuberant, propulsive tempos make even his gorgeous lament “Losing love/ Is like a window in y
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Metallica Master of Puppets
Their next album would be the glossy, gazillion-selling breakthrough, but on Master of Puppets Metallica didn’t bother with hooks or pop discipline. Instead, on their final recording with bassist Cliff Burton (who would die in a tour bus accident) they reinforced everything good about heavy metal (the velocity of the playing, the emotional release of the vocals) while undermining at least a few of the cliches. The title track was unmistakably anti-drug—”Chop your breakfast on a mirror/ Taste me you will see/ More is all you need/ You’re dedicated to how I’m killing you” — while they also got in digs at the military industrial complex and head banging conformists.
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Run DMC Raising Hell
Darryl McDaniels, Jam Master Jay and the Reverend Run wore black leather suits, gold chains and Adidas with no laces. They looked like drug dealers, and plenty of people thought they were. In reality, they were middle class kids from Queens desperate to become rock stars, and Raising Hell was their defining statement. They opened with “Peter Piper” (“Now Peter Piper picked peppers, but Run rapped rhymes/ Humpty Dumpty fell down, that’s his hard time”) to show off their spitting speed, followed it with “It’s Tricky” to prove their ferocity, “My Adidas” to test their promotional skills and “Walk This Way”, the first rock-rap collaboration to hit the Top 10, to show off their catholic tastes. And those are just the first four tracks. Raising Hell is rap’s first masterpiece, and it’s just as a
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Bob Marley and the Wailers Legend
There are other greatest hits or complilation albums on this list, but making Marley’s lone reggae selection a greatest hits—not to mention a greatest hits that’s been co-opted by America’s fraternity brothers in their endless struggle against oppressive deans—may strike some as dilletantism. Or an even worse kind of ism. Here’s why it’s not: Marley made some very good albums, (Burnin’, Natty Dreads) but none of them capture the complete Marley as well as this expertly curated posthumous set. The live version of “No Woman No Cry” from a July 1975 concert in London has more humor, warmth and sex appeal than the original. “Is This Love” shows off his ability to make polyrhythm into melody, “I Shot the Sheriff” his gift for politics, and “Redemption Song” hints at the depths of his spirituali
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Talking Heads Stop Making Sense
Talking Heads were part of the first wave of New York City punk rock, but their angular, jittery grooves were a long way from the full-throttle assault of the Ramones or the Dictators. Their interest in funk and African rhythms eventually started moving forward, peaking on the extended jams of 1980’s Remain in Light before connecting with a pop audience on Speaking in Tongues in 1983. On the follow-up tour, captured in Jonathan Demme’s phenomenal concert film Stop Making Sense and its soundtrack, the band recreated its journey — opening with David Byrne alone onstage with a boom box and gradually adding musicians until the show was a full-on psycho-Afro-disco frenzy, and “Burning Down the House” wasn’t just a song title, it was a manifesto.
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Chuck Berry The Great Twenty Eight
Elvis may have been the King, but without Chuck Berry, the sounds of the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, and the Beach Boys would all have taken very different paths. Adapting Louis Jordan’s jump blues for electrified instruments, Berry created the definitive architecture for the rock and roll band, and shifted the spotlight to the guitar. Most significant was Berry’s writing, which placed country-style storytelling in a youth-oriented context that perfectly captured the lives, thoughts, and dreams of baby-boomer teens. The Great Twenty-Eight has all the essential hits, from “Johnny B Goode” to the slyly subversive “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” to “The Promised Land” — in a better world, our true national anthem.
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Michael Jackson Thriller
How good is Thriller? Put it on right now and you’ll be amazed at how easily the most frightening public image of the late 20th century melts away. Michael Jackson was 24 when he released what was to become the best-selling album of all time (until it was eclipsed in the late ’90s by The Eagles Greatest Hits, 1971-1975), and there’s no whining about celebrity, no messiah complex — just nine immensely catchy tracks, seven of which went Top 10. The Quincy Jones-produced hooks remain awe-inspiring, and while Jackson had few ambitions beyond global domination, it’s worth noting that “The Girl Is Mine” made interracial love pop and Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It” guitar solo bridged arena rock and soul four years before Run-D.M.C. met Aerosmith.
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R.E.M. Document
Michael Stipe mumbled his way through R.E.M.’s early albums, but on Document anger finally spurred him to clarity. “The One I Love” beats all comers as the most brutal love song ever to hit the Top 10 (“A simple prop, to occupy my time/ This one goes out to the one I love”), “Welcome to the Occupation” (“Sugar cane and coffee cup/ Copper, steel and cattle/ An annotated history/ The forest for the fire”) made imperialism rhythmic, while “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” proved Stipe’s pessimism was trumped by his sense of humor.
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AC DC Back in Black
Though unabashed in its misogyny—”Let Me Put My Love Into You” would be nicer if it were a request rather than a command while “Given the Dog a Bone” breaks the rules of chivalry and grammar—this testosterone filled romp’s passion for bangin’ is less focused on hips than heads. Produced by reclusive genius Robert “Mutt” Lange (now better known as Mr. Shania Twain), “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Hells Bells” are arena anthems of uncorrupted hookiness and sonic quality. Angus Young’s guitar riffs are instantly memorable while Brian Johnson, in his rookie campaign replacing the late Bon Scott, sings as if he’s being tortured—and thoroughly enjoying it.
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Eric B. and Rakim Paid in Full
The duo of Eric B. on the turntables and Rakim on the microphone changed the sound, flow, and potential of hip-hop. If Rakim is still the greatest MC of all time, as many argue, this album is the evidence. The group ran off a string of hit singles in the mid-Eighties, and then gathered them up on its relentless debut album Paid in Full. Over Eric B’s pulsing, minimalist tracks — which introduced James Brown samples to hip-hop, a radical maneuver — Rakim constructed icy, menacing rhymes of steel. “I Know You Got Soul,” “Move the Crowd,” and the title track revealed layers of complexity far beyond previous rap records. Where most old-school MCs yelled or declaimed, Rakim barely rose above a whisper — and his words hit all the louder.
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Prince and The Revolution Purple Rain
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Electric word, life. It means forever, and that’s a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell you there’s something else: the afterworld. A world of never-ending happiness where you can always see the sun. Day … or night.”
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Prince Sign O’ The Times
With songs culled from a series of aborted albums during the nadir of Prince’s Purple Rain hangover, Sign O’ the Times has no business being anything but a career-sinking mess. Instead, it’s the best album of the 80s. Most of this is attributable to genius; Prince flips back and forth between R&B and rock like a kid popping wheelies, but that’s more virtuosity than the G word. Genius is knowing that “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “The Cross” don’t need much adornment and the “Housequake” does. Genius is also the ability to usher in a succession of female vocalists—Camille, Susannah, Sheila E. and Sheena Easton, playing way out of her league—and coax career-defining performances out of them.
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U2 The Joshua Tree
This is U2’s America album, in part because songs like “Bullet the Blue Sky” are explicitly about American subjects, but also because the band did their homework and got the sound of the country just right. “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” could be played under a revival tent, while you can road trip in the open space between the Edge’s guitar notes. Bono sings at or near the top of his range through out, but never more thrillingly than on “Where The Streets Have No Name,” which belongs with “Like a Rolling Stone” on the short-list of best album openers.
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Lucinda Williams Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
These up-from-Dixie tunes flow so easily, like conversations over a low backyard fence, that it’s hard to believe Williams spent six years obsessing over each chord and syllable. On “Can’t Let Go,” “I Lost It” she starts with evocative nouns and everyday thoughts (“We put on ZZ Top, and turn ’em up real loud/ I used to think you were strong, I used to think you were proud”) and dramatizes them with indelible country and rock guitar hooks to create a sense of the modern rural South as a place that’s sometimes sad, but always seductive.
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Radiohead OK Computer
The English are not effusive by nature, but they make exceptions for David Beckham, Cliff Richard and Radiohead. Given the choices, Radiohead seems by far the most rational, even if OK Computer is not, as voted by the readers of Q magazine, the greatest album in the history of the world. What it is is a spooky, atmospheric, intense and paranoid rumination on modern life—the kind of thing that would be insufferable if it didn’t float along on a procession of gorgeous melodies (“Karma Police,” “Lucky”) punctuated by Thom Yorke’s elastic tenor. It also marked these five Oxonians’ departure from mainstream rock and their assumption of the title The Only Band That Matters, which they still hold as of this writing. Whether any of this can be attributed to the fact that OK Computer was recorded i
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DJ Shadow Endtroducing…
In 1994, DJ Shadow (a.k.a. Josh Davis) locked himself in his basement with a sampler, a sequencer and one of the world’s strangest record collections. Two years later, he emerged with a completely original electronic symphony. The 13 tracks vary in length and tone—some are beat driven and under a minute while others have orchestral swells and stretch to almost ten—but all are constructed entirely from samples, and the only voices are from obscure spoken word and comedy albums that sound like they’re being beamed from outer space. Somehow a narrative emerges, and on “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt,” we even get autobiography by proxy. “I’d like to just continue to be able to express myself,” says a self-taught drummer through the fuzz and pop of vinyl scratches, “as best as I can.”
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Oasis (What’s the Story) Morning Glory
Tossers, wankers—pick the derisive British term of your choice. The Gallagher brothers (Liam on vocals, Noel on guitar) spent the 90s getting arrested, yelling at each other and warring with Blur’s Damon Albarn over the very important matter of which band was Britain’s best. But for 12 songs they came as close as anyone to combining the tunefulness of the Beatles with the attitude of the Stones. From “Wonderwall” (a title taken from an obscure film scored by George Harrison) to “Don’t Look Back in Anger” to the epic arena rawk of “Champagne Supernova,” all of Noel’s compositions swell perfectly at the chorus, and Liam, whose voice is a no-frills vessel for carrying a tune, knew how to turn each song into a sing-a-long.
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U2 Achtung Baby
Coaxed to Berlin by producer Brian Eno, U2 spent several chilly months arguing over how they wanted to sound in their second decade. Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton were in the ‘Ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ camp while Bono and The Edge campaigned for changing everything. The final product is less a revolution than a reformation; the grand guitar hooks are still there, but they’re buried under polyrhythms and effects borrowed from electronic music. The songs seldom start and end at the same pace; they require more attention, and reward it, too. Bono veers between his love of sinners and saints, but his lyrics make sure it’s a fair fight, as proven by “One,” a song so accessible that it started as a bitter take on Bono’s relationship with his father, twisted into a commentary on the state of
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Nirvana Nevermind
We’ll pass on the chance to add to the Kurt Cobain cliche heap and instead offer seven thoughts about the finest album of the 90s.
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R.E.M. Out of Time
All R.E.M. wanted to accomplish with its seventh album was the reinvention of the love song. Rather than treat the most overdone of emotions directly, Michael Stipe took an oblique approach, writing impressionistic lyrics about the way love manifests itself in loneliness (“Belong”), regret (“Country Feedback”) and, most famously, obsession (“Losing My Religion”). The music was similarly inventive. Peter Buck put down his Rickenbacker and picked up a mandolin, while Mark Bingham’s sugar-free string arrangements and Kate Pierson’s guest vocals added the kind of ethereal beauty rarely heard on a rock record.
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Bob Dylan Time Out of Mind
After a decade of borderline irrelevance, the lead track, “Not Dark Yet,” appealed to sentimentalists because it felt like Dylan was revealing a truth (“Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear/ It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there”) and bearing down for arts’ sake, too. Forget truth—Dylan always has—and focus on the sly, world weary atmospherics of “Dirt Road Blues” and “Highlands,” Dylan’s funniest song since the 60s. (“She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs/ She says “what’ll it be”/ I say “I don’t know, you got any soft-boiled eggs.”‘) Despite winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, it was cover versions of “To Make You Feel My Love” by Garth Brooks and Billy Joel that generated the bulk of the cash Dylan made from Time Out of Mind.
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Various Artists Back to Mono (1958 1969)
Two hits and ten pieces of junk, was how Spector described the typical album, so the groups he produced released singles—honed to perfection and exclusively in mono. (Spector thought that stereo sound gave listeners more control than producers; he really liked control). This junk free four disc set released in 1991 includes Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem,” The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (Brian Wilson pulled off the road and wept with joy the first time he heard it) and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” all pinnacles of Spector’s Wall of Sound production techniques, as well as A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, the only holiday album one ever need own.
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Garth Brooks Ropin’ The Wind
It makes sense that this was the first country album to debut atop the pop charts, for Garth Brooks was as omnivorous a commercial force as music will ever see. With an advertising degree from Oklahoma State in his pocket, he invaded Nashville in the mid-80s with unparalleled instincts for how to walk the line between corn pone and pop. Music Row was suspicious — (particularly of his liberalism) but his tastes and influences were truly catholic—which explains how he careens so easily from the honky-tonk of Merle Haggard to the tenderness of James Taylor in a single verse. That Ropin’ is only his second-best selling album (a mere 14 million units moved) probably sticks in Garth’s craw, but it is his best, and “The River” and “We Bury the Hatchet” (“but leave the handle stickin’ out”) endure
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James Brown Star Time
Funk nirvana. James Brown has one of the richest and most influential bodies of work in musical history, but before this 1991 box set, his catalogue was a mess to sort through. Albums were in and out of print, singles were impossible to track down. The four discs of Star Time, though, are the very model of a great compilation — comprehensive without being overwhelming, they tell the complete James Brown story, using unreleased material and newly-discovered, unedited or unaltered versions of songs judiciously, to flesh out the incomparable greatness of Soul Brother Number One. Hearing “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” at its original tempo — it was sped up for release — is a revelation, and a live medley of “Brother Rapp/Ain’t It Funky Now” showcases the jaw-dropping, drill-team precision funkin
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Hole Live Through This
Released a week after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, rumors started immediately that it was Cobain, not his wife, Courtney Love, who wrote the majority of these churningly catchy songs. Forget that there’s no proof, that their marriage was collaborative and that it’s a nasty thing to say, “Live Through This” is clearly a woman’s work. It’s about exploitation, which explains Love’s amp curdling anger on “Jennifer’s Body” and “Plump,” but it’s also funny, self-aware (“I fake it so real I am beyond fake”) and far more swaggerning than any album any grunge man ever came up with. When Love sings, “I went to school in Olympia/ Where everyone’s the same,” it’s obvious she thinks she’s not, and that she’s right.
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A Tribe Called Quest The Low End Theory
The link between rap and jazz has always been more wishful thinking on the part of critics than anything actual, with one grand exception: The Low End Theory. Tribe’s DJ, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, used lots of jazz bass samples (and one notable live contribution from upright master Ron Carter) but the connection was more atmospheric than specific. “Buggin’ Out” and “Check the Rhime” are studies in minimalism that feel like smoky rooms where cool guys, like rappers Phife Dawg and Q-Tip, say cool things. (Phife: “I float like gravity, never had a cavity/Got more rhymes than the Winans got family.” Q-Tip: “If knowledge is the key then just show me the lock/ Got the scrawny legs but move just like Lou Brock”). The album was socially conscious without being dull and closed with “Scenario”, a group
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Mary J. Blige My Life
Purists complain that too many of these songs skate by on the familiarity of the R&B classics they sample. They have a point, but they also overlook the element that makes My Life both original and indelible: Blige’s voice. It’s never, ever perfect; sometimes Blige can barely stay on key such is the excess of feeling. Yet that careening-out-of-control sound gives My Life an instant intimacy that cleaner singers never approach. Producer Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs probably didn’t twist too many dials, but he knew that he wanted to reinvent R&B, and by blending the wah-wah pedals and strings that signified romance to his parents’ generation with the heavy breathing and beats that did it for the kids, Combs helped do just that.
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The Notorious B.I.G. Ready to Die
Christopher Wallace was a Brooklyn drug dealer, and, if his early interviews are to be believed, not a very nice one. Luckily, this was not his signal accomplishment. On Ready to Die Wallace took his street corner experiences and filtered them through his considerable charm. The result was a record that mixed long stretches of menace (“Things Done Changed,” “Everyday Struggle”) with romance (“One More Chance”) and lots of humor. No rapper ever made multi-syllabic rhymes (“Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis/ When I was dead broke man I couldn’t picture this”) sound as smooth.
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Pavement Slanted and Enchanted
Sales of Pavement’s fuzzed-out masterpiece don’t stack up to the rounding errors on Nevermind, but its influence on Beck, Blur, Radiohead and countless other musicians of the 90s is incalculable. Lead singer and former Whitney Museum of Art security guard Stephen Malkmus expressed alienation with the same lo-fi guitar grit of Kurt Cobain, but his lyrics and vocals are models of cryptic passion. “Summer Babe” could pass for a rougher than normal bit of classic rock if Malkmus weren’t singing, “She waits there in the levee wash, mixing cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar” before finally getting to the money line—”You’re my summer babe!” Somehow his word salads communicated both the ennui of a suburban smart ass as well as an awareness that ennui isn’t tragic. As Malkmus yelped on “Conduit
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Dr. Dre The Chronic
The disgust Dre packed into the word ‘bitch’ is terribly embarassing in retrospect, both for him—he’s age 41 now and well past gangsta caricature—and for listeners who may have mimicked him without a second thought. But what’s kept The Chronic so potent is Dre’s invention, not quite from scratch, of a sound that defined early 90s urban L.A. in the same way that Motown defined 60s Detroit. Over grooves built from liberally sampled pieces of the Funkadelic catalog, Dre delivers his verses with hypnotically intimidating ease, so that “Let Me Ride” and “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” feel like dusk on a wide-open L.A. boulevard, full of possibility and menace. The Chronic also introduced the world to Snoop Doggy Dogg, and while it’s debatable whether this was a net positive for the world, Snoop’s draw
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Elvis Presley Sunrise
On July 5, 1954, Elvis Presley walked into Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis and invented rock and roll. The moment when Presley, 19, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black first started messing around with Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup’s “That’s All Right”—making it faster, more exuberant—is captured here, and it still sounds audacious, as if the players themselves can’t believe what they’re doing. The same originality animates “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Mystery Train,” and makes a lot of the work Elvis did later seem, if not superfluous, at least a little dull.
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Hank Williams Turn Back the Years: The Essential Hank Williams Collection
Hank lived and died before the advent of the album, and numerous collections have overcompensated by lassoing the entirety of his scattershot output. This Mercury three-disc set omits a few of the big hits (most notably his last, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”) but each of Hank’s major themes—honky tonk, heartbreak and gospel—gets its own 20-song disc that blends standards with obscurities. What links all the material is the simplicity of Williams’ approach. There are few extraneous nouns, barely any adjectives—and no drums at all. Just a man confident that his voice and his guitar can convey everything in his sad, sad, heart.
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Kanye West The College Dropout
Even with extended skits and lots of filler, West’s debut stands as the smartest, funniest and most important rap album of the new century. The pink Polo-wearing son of an ex-Black Panther and a college English professor, West wasn’t the first to bring a buppie sensibility to hip hop, but he infused “Jesus Walks,” “All falls Down” and “Never Let Me Down” (which featured a tremendous guest verse from his mentor and record company president, Jay-Z) with wit, intelligence and most of all, complexity.
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Elvis Presley Elv1s 30 No. 1 Hits
It’s no great surprise that the second half of this chronologically ordered collection sags in direct proportion to the Big E’s waistline. Still, given that most of his RCA albums had valleys of filler that would shame anyone but Colonel Parker, this is the best way to hear Elvis the Superstar. “Hound Dog,” “All Shook Up,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and the ever zany “Suspicious Minds” still sound fresh and immediate—impressive given how many times most the world has heard them—and show off the diversity of Elvis’ singing, from the purity of his gospel falsetto to his rock and roll purr. The liner notes, written by Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick, provide excellent accompaniment.
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Sam Cooke Portrait of a Legend 1951 1964
Sam Cooke could sing anything. Within the span of a few months in 1963, he recorded Night Beat, a wonderful collection of Sinatra-style late-night crooning, and Live At The Harlem Square Club, a raw, down and dirty R&B set for a hard-partying crowd. The 31 tracks on Portrait of a Legend impressively capture Cooke’s range on a single disc. Beginning with “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” his own classic gospel composition, the collection winds through such irresistible hits as “You Send Me,” “Cupid,” and “(What a) Wonderful World.” Cooke’s voice, filigreed but never showy, reinvents songs from innocent pop (“Tennessee Waltz”) to gutbucket blues (“Little Red Rooster),” climaxing in his incomparable final statement, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Many artists are called “legends,” but Sam Cooke trul
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Elvis Elv1s 30 No. 1 Hits
It’s no great surprise that the second half of this chronologically ordered collection sags in direct proportion to the Big E’s waistline. Still, given that most of his RCA albums had valleys of filler that would shame anyone but Colonel Parker, this is the best way to hear Elvis the Superstar. “Hound Dog,” “All Shook Up,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and the ever zany “Suspicious Minds” still sound fresh and immediate—impressive given how many times most the world has heard them—and show off the diversity of Elvis’ singing, from the purity of his gospel falsetto to his rock and roll purr. The liner notes, written by Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick, provide excellent accompaniment.
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Muddy Waters The Anthology, 1947 1972
Muddy Waters brought the blues from the Delta to the city. This meant not only his own journey from Mississippi to Chicago, but his remarkable writing, which expressed the lives and thoughts of the newly-urban black working class. The Anthology collects fifty songs from his classic era, most originally released on the Chess label (not that there aren’t other great Waters songs from before and after these years). His massive, sonorous voice, backed by the finest bands in the genre (the training ground for such stars as Little Walter, Buddy Guy, and James Cotton), makes his deceptively crafted lyrics sound like sermons from the mount. “Mannish Boy,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man” — they’re all here, laying the groundwork for the rock & roll that followed.
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Radiohead Kid A
Rather than return to a straight ahead guitar sound after OK Computer, Radiohead went further down the experimental rabbit hole, embracing samplers, sequencers and, to the eternal dismay of drummer Phil Selway, a drum machine. The album opens with the heavily Cuisinarted voice of Thom Yorke declaring “Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon,” and only gets cheerier from there. Melodies bob and weave behind walls of dissonance, but they are there, and when they resolve there are many moments of hard-earned beauty. Kid A is the opposite of easy listening, and the weirdest album to ever sell a million copies, but it’s also a testament to just how complicated pop music can be.
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Outkast Stankonia
High Times’ man of the millenium Big Boi and jodhpur-wearing thespian Andre 3000 have to bridge aesthetic galaxies just to make small talk, so it’s no surprise that their musical partnership, which started in high school, yielded an integrative masterpiece. The fluid rhymes (“Speeches only reaches those who already know about it/This is how we go about it”) ground Stankonia in rap, but it’s the soul singing in the chorus that makes Ms. Jackson so tender and the jagged guitar riff that makes “Gasoline Dreams” so hard. Then there’s “B.O.B. (Bombs over Baghdad),” which fuses funk, punk, techno, disco, Atari sound effects and a gospel choir into a millenial dance party.
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PJ Harvey Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
Legendary DJ John Peel wrote the first ever review of a PJ Harvey song, “Dress”, in 1992: “Admirable, if not always enjoyable.” For a decade, the label stuck, at least in part thanks to Polly Jean’s own insistence on reaching for Big Themes while screeching over blues guitar feedback. But Stories resolves almost everything about her career—the battle between rough blues and sweet rock melodies, between demons and bright days—over the course of 45 minutes, and without a single dud track. On the roaring opener “Big Exit” she feels immortal and makes you believe she might be. “You Said Something” hovers gorgeously over Manhattan. Even a duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke can’t drag her back into paranoia. One of modern music’s great artists at the very peak of her abilities.
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Eminem The Marshall Mathers LP
His debut, The Slim Shady LP, established Eminem as a major force in both hip-hop and broader contemporary culture, but there was still doubt as to whether he would be the latest in a string of short-lived white rap novelties. The Marshall Mathers LP raised the stakes, raised his profile, and damn near raised the dead. Eminem delivered dizzying, blistering rhymes that laid bare his neuroses, his fury, and his confusion. He jumped from laugh-out-loud funny to chillingly menacing from one line to the next, and went after his critics (“The Way I Am”) and his fans (“Stan,” the mesmerizing high-wire act in a stalker’s voice) with equal fever.
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