Published April 7, 2012 by Jeff Becker. Revised as needed.
Rule #1 (‘The Beatles’ rule)
Only one album is allowed on the list for each artist or band (call it ‘The Beatles’ rule). Yes, picking one Beatles album is like choosing your 2nd scoop at Baskin & Robbins. It’s tough, but it has to be done.
Very recently released albums are difficult to add to the list. They haven’t stood the test of time, yet. Sometimes there are exceptions. Just not often. So don’t throw a fit if you don’t see the new Arcade Fire album on the list that you just love oh so much.
The 1970’s did not fare very well. Yes, the greatest decade (1960-69) in music history was followed by one that struggled. I know the Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd fans may disagree, but four years of disco can do that to a decade. That doesn’t mean the list won’t include one or two from the Floyd, Stevie Wonder and Fleetwood Mac but even they weren’t good enough lifeguards to save this decade from nearly drowning.
Don’t dislocate an elbow because you think #11 should be #7 or #14 shouldn’t be on any list, or the choice for #2 is insane. It’s not worth the elbow pain, it really isn’t. Don’t get in a twist on the numbers!
Yes, I know, Sgt. Pepper isn’t on the list. I know. I can see that. It’s ok, I’m fine. Re-read rule #1 please.
The White Stripes – The White Stripes
Jack White will go down in the annals of rock and roll as maybe the greatest thing since Kurt Cobain, and rightly so. The prolific output from Mr. White and his wife (now ex) Meg created a surge of garage band influences that goes on today at full speed. But none were better than the White Stripes debut album from 1999. For the decade that followed the White Stripes re-defined everything that was great about rock and roll. Grunge had died by then, hip hop had taken over every radio stream and the public forgot that people still knew how to play electric guitar. Now I’m not overly thrilled that Jack has collaborated with everyone minus Britney Spears in the past 5 years, but he brought rock and roll back versus changing it.
Stevie Wonder – Talking Book
Every artist or band on this list had a brief period of time where their next release was the most highly anticipated event in music since, well, their prior release. There was a timeframe from about 1972-76 where Stevie Wonder dominated – and there was no better. From a pop perspective, the dancing and high gloss appeal of Michael Jackson took that torch from Stevie in the late 70’s (even though Prince was a more accurate comparison to Wonder’s potpourri of talents). Songs like ‘Superstition’ were jaw-dropping. Find a song sounding anything even remotely close to ‘Superstition’ before 1972. Stevie Wonder brought new sounds on vinyl as easily as we make phone calls.
Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister
This is the de facto standard for hipsters. An absolute staple in the indie pop catalog. Call it twee pop or hipster, this album (part of a 3-album string that also included Tigermilk and Boy With the Arab Strap) provided the soundtrack and undercurrent of indie pop at its finest in the late 90’s. But Stuart Murdoch didn’t stop here. While there’s been some brief dips in the Belle and Sebastian catalog, Murdoch has continued to reclaim and grow his following, releasing new, vibrant albums yet to this day. This just happens to be the one everyone thinks of first.
You can pinpoint a handful of hip-hop/rap albums that triggered the genre that has lasted longer than anyone originally expected, however, none were more impactful than this early work from Public Enemy. It’s turned Chuck D into a household name when compiling any best of list over the last 25 years.
One of those rare albums that creates a musical niche (sheogaze) on its very own and after 20+ years of imitators still stands alone at top of the heap – by a long shot. A masterful mix of sound, reverb, breathless indiscernible vocals, melody – and oh, that’s just in the first 10 minutes.
#15 and #14
Rolling Stones – Exile on Main St and Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
Two masterpieces with entirely different textures but equally impactful. The Stones at their most raw as they survived the 60’s as one of the few great bands still in tact (and alive) – and Dylan creating a poetic landmark that foreshadowed the singer/songwriter influence of the 70’s and ultimately artists like Springsteen, etc.
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
Most people haven’t listened to this album, but if you’re walking in a record store and see this on vinyl, grab it, take it home, play it and you’ll know why it’s on this list and should be on every top 20 list until the end of time. Stunningly talented man with an album so powerful that I wish every hip hop artist would stop for 45 minutes and take a listen.
Fleetwood Mac – Rumors
The 2nd best pop album of the 1970’s (Off The Wall wins that one), and also the decade’s most popular record (a very rare combination these days). Armed with one of the best triple threats in pop history – the bermuda triangle created by Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie (with all 3 sharing songwriting, lead vocals, and perfect harmonies) helped create brilliant pop music that sounds like everything you’ve ever heard before and still sounds like no other – all at the same time.
There’s nothing that can be said about this album that hasn’t already been said. No album on this list was made and released with less fanfare yet reached such iconic status – in large part due to Cobain’s death. Yes it was a great album anyway, but his early passing firmly etched this album into eternal greatness. One of many albums (like the Clash did a decade earlier to get us out of the 70’s) to rescue humanity from the glam rock power-ballad hair-bands of the late 80’s. Produced by the uber-slick Butch Vig, the opening chords of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was a tectonic shift in music for the next half decade, and at just the right time! Good-bye Whitesnake!!
It’s better than Nevermind. A double album tour de force of eclectic styles with a hit single (1979) that was as good as anything on the radio in the 90’s. It showed a dramatic departure from the single-style slick sonic boom of their hugely popular and critically-acclaimed predecessor Siamese Dream (also produced by Butch Vig). For a moment in time during the latter half of the 1990’s with Nirvana now nevermore, the Smashing Pumpkins were the true pulse of alternative, indie, punk and rock – all at once. And no one pulled it off better than Billy Corgan along with the heart-pounding skills of Jimmy Chamberlain on drums.
It’s better than Thriller. Not better than ‘Billie Jean’, but it’s better than Thriller. An absolute R&B pop masterpiece from the opening gun. If only Michael released something this good after Thriller, instead of the factory-produced Bad. But Off the Wall captured the original MJ during what would be a decade long peak of his true powers. And powerful he was. He was the Elvis of the new generation, and everyone saw it coming. Incredible looks, a remarkably underrated voice, the best performer of his era and a knack for rolling out the best songs that pop could offer. From 1979-1983 no one, except for Prince, could even approach his stratosphere. He shaped an entire generation with his visual style and forever changed how we watch music.
Just when you thought their predecessor Out of Time was the greatest R.E.M. album since well, probably the R.E.M. album before that one (or the one before that one, or the one (you get the drift)), the Athens, GA heroes deliver the masterpiece of their catalog. Every group or artist has a peak and R.E.M. hit theirs artistically with this. ‘Losing My Religion’ from Out of Time was their commercial peak, but this album is where they etched themselves into the alt-rock hall of fame. The album closer, a back-to-back juggernaut of ‘Nightswimming’ and ‘Find the River’ is the finest two-song album closer since the Beatles closed out Abbey Road. They were never the same again after this. They tried. They produced great albums, wonderful singles and kept the torch burning until 2011. However, this is the centerpiece of their catalog – which says a lot given the series of stunning releases they made during their college-indie days of the 1980’s.
He’ll probably go down as one of the most underrated songwriters and band leaders of all time but the catalog that Jeff Tweedy has built with Uncle Tupelo and Wilco is superlative. Along with Radiohead, only Wilco remains in tact with the ability to impact a generation. U2 and R.E.M. started to slide away after 10 years, as did so many others on this list. But Wilco stands tall, still. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is inarguably the finest work from that remarkable catalog. Song after song leaps from melody to melody. An album that lived up to the tremendous underground hype that built up to its release, and then surpassed it. What makes this album even better is the continued relevance of Wilco and the Power of Tweedy.
Oasis – Definitely Maybe
A debut album better than Radiohead’s. Better than U2’s debut. Better than the Beatles debut. Better than the Rolling Stones and yeah, it’s just probably the best rock and roll debut album in history. If not, it will stand up alongside anything you throw at it. From start to finish and anywhere in between this album is a torch. Can one album cement Noel Gallagher as one of the 5 best songwriters of his generation? Well, I think so. But who cares if it doesn’t. He followed this up with two more, What’s the Story and The Masterplan. Which gem do you want to listen to (or rave about) first? ‘Supersonic’? ‘Live Forever’? ‘Columbia’? Take your pick and you’re going to be good. Has any series of albums influenced more wannabe’s than the first three Oasis releases? No way. Perhaps Nirvana did with Nevermind but not since the Beatles have listeners said to themselves, “I want to be like them when I grow up”.
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
Several of the greatest groups on this list benefitted remarkably from having multiple talents – two or more creative forces working together to create something exponentially better than three people could create. This is why this era of Pink Floyd and this album are so high on the list. Dark Side of the Moon is perhaps the single best concept album of all time, along with Sgt. Pepper. Sonically it’s beautiful but the suicidal-inducing songwriting style of Roger Waters, mixed with his serial killer-like voice creates vinyl magic when paired with the catatonic singing counterpoint that David Gilmour provides. Gilmour’s guitar work soars, as it did in the albums before and after Dark Side. His singing gives the listener the much needed relief from the knife that Waters puts in your hands. While Wish You Were Here is possibly their finest, Dark Side is the halo cloud that still floats above every rock recording in the 70’s and 80’s – and still does. Track by track feeds into the next until the climax of ‘Eclipse’ at the end. 43 minutes of an album that was 15-20 years ahead of its time – which is coincidentally how long it stayed in the charts. Why weren’t there very many imitators of the Floyd? Because fledgling new bands wouldn’t even dare try!
U2 – Achtung Baby
Much like their generation’s counterpart R.E.M., U2 grew from a post-punk indie rock band in the early 80’s into a juggernaut by the end of the decade. They just did it on two separate continents. Keep in mind that U2 won a Grammy for album of the year in 1987 with The Joshua Tree, but no one expected the 180 degree twists and turns that Achtung Baby threw in our face. At a time when grunge was beginning to rule one spectrum, Achtung Baby created one of its own. It was the most popular yet daring musical release by a major band since the Beatles brought out Sgt. Pepper. What appeared was U2’s most eclectic, (at times even danceable) and melodic release to date with each tune putting you in a different trance. Featuring a lead single that hit dancefloors, ‘Mysterious Ways’ was an about face for a band that previously released the alt-country-rock sing-along classic ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’. How could this be the same band? But the reinvention worked and it worked wonders. A thrilling release from top to bottom with the centerpiece ‘One’ as the album’s emotional focal point. U2 turned themselves and their fans inside out and upside down – but found a way to do so without alienating any of them. The dare paid off and they exploded into biggest band in the universe with an album that was equally worthy. Much like R.E.M. though, U2 could never relive this level of magic. They’ve maintained their fan base for three decades now but this 2nd life they created with Achtung Baby would never again be replicated.
Prince – Sign O The Times
From 1982-1988 no artist in pop music gathered electricity for new releases like Prince did with critics and music connoisseurs. Rolling Stone magazine would publish full page articles about listening parties for new Prince albums being released a month later. In the last 40 years of popular music no one (minus Radiohead) has generated anticipation for new material like Prince did for those 6 years. During a 36-month span from 1984 to 1987 Prince released (get this!) a staggering 4 albums – full length, including this double LP in April of 1987. That’s 5 albums worth in 3 years when there was no internet. No artist was more prolific. No artist was more polarizing. No artist was more talented. No artist could write better songs. No artist influenced an entire generation musically in the 80’s like Prince did. Sign O the Times is his White Album. Written and recorded nearly entirely as a one-man band after inexplicably dumping his fan-favorite backup band The Revolution, Prince dropped this in our laps and said “top this!”. And we couldn’t. No one could. A genre-jumping, mind-blowing array of styles that we could list out for the entire page. Gospel rock, loopy bass lines, R&B ballads, rock and roll bliss, dancefloor trauma – pick one, it’s there and in its finest form. Prince was 28 when this double LP was released and like so many on the list above, he always struggled to revive public interest as he did during this period, or anytime after Purple Rain. But this album was his new foundation, the album that critics stopped asking if he was a true genius, and started knowing he was. Everything we looked forward to from Prince was realized by this release. From the opening title track to the finisher ‘Adore’, everything in between put Prince on a pedestal that we all acknowledged was his alone.
Radiohead – OK Computer
Like U2 did before them with Achtung Baby, 1997 found Radiohead making a dramatic shift in their music. After two very accessible and reasonably successful debut albums, Radiohead turned everything you thought they were upside down and presented this electronic avant-garde rock masterpiece into the mainstream of alt-rock. While it never received proper accolades in America for its obvious greatness like far lesser albums did, the large clan of alt-rock critics knew that this would be the standard by which all other alt-rock albums would be measured by. Which classic track takes you to the heavens quicker? Is it ‘Karma Police’? Or how about the incredible ‘No Surprises’? Perhaps it’s the emotionally crushing ‘Let Down’ or the classic ‘Paranoid Android’. Radiohead has released eight albums now, each of which Chris Martin would trade in the entire Coldplay catalog to call just one of them his own. To call Thom Yorke a great songwriter is like calling Jesus a pretty decent guy. U2 and R.E.M. make music that new bands wish they could make. Radiohead makes music that U2 and R.E.M. wish they could make. There’s a big difference, and yes the gap is that big between Radiohead and their competition. OK Computer is the best rock record since the Beatles broke up. End of story.
The Beatles – Abbey Road
We all know it wasn’t a matter of who got the top spot, but instead – which album of theirs landed on top. Let’s not debate this album choice against the several other obvious choices the Beatles brought to the table. There isn’t a lemon in their catalog. On Abbey Road both ‘Come Together’ and ‘Something’ are two iconic Beatles classics – and they aren’t even on the best side of the album!! Flip the vinyl over and be swept away by 24 minutes of consecutive greatness by four men, who by this time in their careers, could not stand to be around each other. They knew this was their last hurrah and what a grand finale they provide. Remarkably prolific the Beatles released 13 albums in eight years, not to mention landmark non-album singles (Hey Jude) that have been passed on from generation to generation. Their output was staggering, their ability to quickly change (and conquer) new styles set them apart from everyone, and most importantly – they had the greatest songwriting duo in the history of pop music. Throw in a late-charging George Harrison, the perfect producer in George Martin, and what you have is the recipe for something untouched that sits alone at the top. If the 16-minute medley that fills up most of side B doesn’t hold you locked in, then just go choose from the remarkable standalone singles on the rest of the album. The medley finds McCartney at his finest – purely remarkable. And I’m actually a Lennon guy!
If Abbey Road isn’t the greatest Beatles album of all time, then it surely stands parallel with its competitors before it. Sure, nearly every Beatles album has perhaps one tune that we could live without. Let’s nominate ‘Octopus’s Garden’ off of Abbey Road. Fine. But what a fitting swan song from the Greatest Band. Ever. What has permanently etched the Beatles into greatness was their willingness to call it quits at the aggregate age of 30 and thus not be remembered as a nostalgia act for the next 25 years. Sure, John Lennon’s death made certain of that, but they weren’t getting back together. Where other great bands show a significant decline in quality output the Beatles will be forever remembered iconic due to parting ways after 8 years in their prime and a string of albums that still form the finest catalog of music by a long shot. Whoever’s in second place isn’t even in the conversation. There’s no gray-haired festival to remember them from, thankfully. There’s no album in their catalog that they’re ashamed of. The Beatles will be remembered as forever young and forever great. The final line of ‘The End’ on side B sums it up all too well (and if you don’t know what it is, go play it – it’s worth it).