BWW Exclusive: The 101 GREATEST ALBUMS of the Rock and Rap Era (1950-2020)
With so much time on our hands these days, and no shows to review, I find myself falling back on my hobbies: Eating ice cream. Binging Netflix. And best of all, making lists.
Below is my latest list...of the 101 GREATEST albums of the Rock and Rap Era. That's 70 years worth of music. The earliest that charted is from 1954; the latest, from 2017. Using a rubric, we tried to spread the wealth with a litany like this, capping an artist or group's total at three (otherwise this would be a collection of the Beatles best LP's). Only a handful wound up having more than a single work on the 101: Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Miles Davis, The Beach Boys, Prince, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, and Kanye West.
No greatest hits records have been allowed, mainly because the best albums are more than just a collection of great singles. (This greatly affects singles artists like Chuck Berry, CCR, Madonna or most Motown greats.) Four soundtracks made the grade, mainly because they were highly influential to their musical genres: Reggae (The Harder They Come), Soul (Purple Rain), Funk (Superfly) and Disco (Saturday Night Fever). And two Original Cast albums are here, but you'll have to scroll down to see which ones found a home here.
Every type of music is represented: pop, rock, r & b, hip hop, country, jazz, disco, funk, reggae, punk, musical theater and even opera. There's something for everyone. Also, not all of these are classics that you usually find in record bins in Boomerville; there are plenty of more recent works to please Millennials and Gen-Zers. So you'll see Kendrick Lamar in the same list as Dolly Parton; the Ramones and Patsy Cline; Frank Ocean and the Sex Pistols. Also, some more under-the-radar artists are here...like the amazing group Love, whose Forever Changes is a lost hippy classic, and Laura Nyro, who during the Age of Aquarius helped usher in the singer-songwriter movement.
Some of these choices are obvious, while others will be head-scratching to some of you, especially those who have not listened to music created within the last twenty years. This sort of enterprise is designed to start light debates. You may not like a particular album spotlighted, or you may find that your favorite LP or group has been neglected. It's a subjective exercise that strives for objectivity, hence the use of a rubric.
So, while we are still stuck at home during the current crisis, here's the latest list for you to debate and defend while you practice social distancing. Hopefully you'll find some surprises and lots of happy memories. Have fun!
THE 101 GREATEST ALBUMS of the Rock and Rap Era (1950-2020)
1. SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND [The Beatles; 1967]
A pop culture revolution in 13 songs. In June of 1967, the Beatles' released the album that changed the world, changed the way we listen to music, and even changed the way we look at album covers. The music was unlike anything, not quite pop, not quite rock...it was its own entity. It offered something for everyone: Rock n roll (the title tune and its reprise); a sweet sung monologue about friendship ("With a Little Help from My Friends"); trippy psychedelia ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"); good feelin' power pop ("Getting Better"); an ode to cannabis, according to Paul McCartney ("Fixin' a Hole"); a sad story song ("She's Leaving Home"); freaky circus music ("Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite"); sitar mysticism ("Within You Without You"); an old fashioned ditty ("When I'm Sixty-Four"); a sexual tryst ("Lovely Rita"); a throwaway that takes its title from a Corn Flakes box ("Good Morning, Good Morning"); and the greatest single creation of the Beatles, their own Waste Land, perhaps the finest song of the rock era ("A Day in the Life"). Whew, that's some line up. But SGT. PEPPER'S would prove more than just a record; it would be a generation's testament, a flag-in-the-sand statement of greatness by the world's most famous band. Okay, boomer, we know you love it; but Gen X and Millennials love it too. And who knows, maybe Gen Z will get there someday as well. There's so much goodness here for every generation to love; they just have to listen.
2. PET SOUNDS [The Beach Boys; 1966]
Some of the albums on this list were not commercial hits at the time of their release; PET SOUNDS is a pristine example of this. Although not popular at the time, it is now considered an American masterpiece. No one captured teenage isolation and awkwardness better than Brian Wilson. And it contains the loveliest tunes he would ever write: "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Caroline No," and "God Only Knows," the latter which Paul McCartney deemed his favorite song of all time. As Andrew Oldham put it: "I think that PET SOUNDS is the most progressive album of the year in as much as Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade was. It's the pop equivalent of that, a complete exercise in pop music." Only the Beatles keep this out of the contention as the greatest album of all time, the very top spot; as it stands, it must rest at #2 with the knowledge that it is arguably the greatest American pop album yet created.
3. HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED [Bob Dylan; 1965]
Dylan at his snarling best. Every song flexes its cynical muscles, especially the title tune, "Desolation Row," "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," and "Ballad of a Thin Man," the latter sneeringly sung to an eponymous Mr. Jones. "Like a Rolling Stone," voted by many as the greatest single to ever hit the Billboard Top 10, opens this album with a bang. A literal bang, as Bruce Springsteen called it, "[a] snare shot that sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind!" In 2014, the handwritten lyrics to "Like a Rolling Stone" fetched $2,000,000.00 at auction, but in reality, it and the entire album that spawned it are forever priceless.
4. KIND OF BLUE [Miles Davis; 1959]
Jazz's finest moment. Although the album only contains five numbers, it towers as perhaps the most influential album on this list. Those five songs--"So What," "Freddie Freeloader," "Blue in Green," the 11-minute "All Blues," and "Flamenco Sketches"--gloriously displays Miles Davis' style filled with improvisation and complex chord progression. But who cares about the jazz lingo; KIND OF BLUE is just so much fun to listen to, to drive to, to chill to. It can be in the background or it can be spotlighted front and center, it stands the test of time wherever it fits into your life. And Davis' line-up is one for the ages: John Coltrane, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. That's an all-star band if ever there was one. The Jazz Gods were smiling on the days these cool cats got together to create this hard-bop Goliath.
5. REVOLVER [The Beatles; 1966]
Although Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band may be #1 on this list, many individuals believe that this is the Beatles' masterpiece. This is the moment where the Beatles were in the middle of things, in media res, where they were evolving into their latest sounds. Rubber Soul, which preceded this, was the first step in this growth; this was a major leap. George Harrison comes into his own with "Taxman" and "I Want to Tell You." Paul's most endearing love songs can be found here--"Here, There and Everywhere," "Good Day Sunshine" and "For No One." John is at his acerbic best: "I'm Only Sleeping," "And Your Bird Can Sing," and "She Said She Said." Even Ringo gets to sing on the silly children's tune, "Yellow Submarine." And those aren't even the best songs. Paul gets two classics, the rollicking jazzy "Got to Get You into My Life" and the sorrowful and beautifully haunting "Eleanor Rigby." And John gets to end the whole thing with an early psychedelic twister, "Tomorrow Never Knows," based on The Book of the Dead. In 1966, REVOLVER opened the door not just for the Beatles' new sound, but for the ever-changing world at large, a world both lovely and thrilling, just like this album.
6. THRILLER [Michael Jackson; 1982]
Most albums in the Top-10 of this list do not have a bad cut on them, and that's certainly true of THRILLER, which is turning 38 this year and still holds up as if it was released last week. "Billie Jean" is the standout here and perhaps the best song of the 1980's. "Beat It," with Eddie Van Halen's gutsy guitar work, gave Jackson a whole new audience. "Wanna Be Startin' Something" is the funkiest number he would ever produce. "Human Nature" and "The Lady in My Life" are some of his most touching ballads. "Thriller," the greatest Halloween song ever. "The Girl is Mine," his duet with Paul McCartney, is goofy fun. Only "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" doesn't work to modern sensibilities for reasons that go beyond the song. Jackson would be inundated with eyebrow-raising scandals years later, but none of that takes away from the power and the glory of his masterwork here.
7. UNTITLED (LED ZEPPELIN IV) [Led Zeppelin; 1971]
From the blast of "Black Dog" to the command of "When the Levee Breaks," this goes down as the ultimate heavy rock album, a powerhouse. It contains Led Zeppelin's iconic songs, like the rousing "Rock N Roll," the danceable "Misty Mountain Hop," and the Celtic mythology of "The Battle of Evermore." Not to forget the anthem of a generation or two, the epic 8-minute "Stairway to Heaven," the War and Peace of rock n roll.
8. NEVERMIND [Nirvana; 1991]
Post-punk and proto-nu metal, grunge mattered, the last great rock movement of the Twentieth Century. And no band exemplified its emotional isolation and alienation more than Nirvana, led by Kurt Cobain. And NEVERMIND is not just their masterpiece, it is the ultimate grunge album. With so many great cuts, including "In Bloom," "Breed," "Polly," and "Endless, Nameless," the album is a mucky musical feast. Three songs stand out: "Come As You Are," "Lithium," and the ultimate grunge anthem, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which has been ranked #1 on NME's all-time great songs list and #9 on Rolling Stone's 500 greatest singles chart. What a song; what an album!
9. AT FOLSOM PRISON [Johnny Cash; 1968]
The greatest country album of all time, not even close. Cash was the real deal, and he understood the plight of those incarcerated (even though he never was). But he had been through his own personal hell and had live to sing about it. So many Cash classics are here, like "I Still Miss Someone," "Cocaine Blues," "The Long Black Veil" and "Green, Green Grass of Home." "Jackson," sung with June Carter, still holds up. But it's the first cut, "Folsom Prison Blues," that puts this one over the edge and into the Top 10 albums of all time: "But I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die/When I hear that whistle blowin'/I hang my head and cry...".
10. MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY [Kanye West; 2010]
Everything comes together with this, hip-hop's finest moment and Kanye West's greatest album, sort of a rap Sgt. Pepper's, if you will. It earned top reviews, with the Los Angeles Times going so far as to compare West to Picasso. According to Michael Mekus, actor and hip-hip connoisseur: "The nine minute 'Runaway' may be the most spectacular song of his career, the fact that it came just after his least acclaimed album (which appears on this list later because it was deserving of high praise)...and the chaotic and controversial upstaging of Taylor Swift (Kanye was at his lowest point) serves as a metaphorical 'rising, like a phoenix from the ashes.'"
11. ABBEY ROAD [The Beatles; 1969]
The Beatles' slickest, most professional album, their last hurrah. Side One is a collection of wondrous singles ("Come Together," "Something"), Ringo-led goofiness ("Octopus' Garden"), black humor ("Maxwell's Silver Hammer"), a throat-scraping vocal exercise ("Oh Darling!"), and the Fab Four's heaviest rocker with an ending that it's impossible to predict ["I Want You (She's So Heavy)]." And Side Two, along with "Here Comes the Sun" and "Because," contains the infamous ABBEY ROAD suite. It's breathtaking, ending with a song appropriately entitled "The End" with some of the Beatles' most inspired words of wisdom: "And in the end the love you take/Is equal to the love you make..."
12. EXILE ON MAIN STREET [The Rolling Stones; 1971]
The first double album on the list, this is most certainly the Stones' flagship. Such classics as "Rocks Off," "Rip This Joint," "Sweet Virginia," "Happy," "Let It Loose," and "Shine a Light" prove that this is so good, a regular studio album that plays like a greatest hits package. And "Tumbling Dice" is up there with "Satisfaction," "Paint It Black" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" as the finest song the Stones would ever record.
13. BLONDE ON BLONDE [Bob Dylan; 1966]
Another double album, Bob Dylan's magnum opus. It opens with Dylan's #2 everybody-must-get-stoned smash, "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35." And then there are so many Dylan treats to nibble on..."Visions of Johanna," "I Want You," "Just Like a Woman," "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," "4th Time Around," and the long "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." Exquisite stuff. So why is it called BLONDE ON BLONDE? That the first letter of each word spells out "Bob"? That he was hanging around the blonde Warholian superstar, Edie Sedgwick? Or that he was alluding to his earlier influence, Brecht on Brecht? The LP title may be a question, but the superb quality of Dylan's work here is not.
14. ANTI [Rihanna; 2016]
Is this the finest album of this century? With the exception of Kanye West's stellar 2010 album (see #10), it just may be. Rihanna used her status as a cultural icon and delivered a viscerally stunning pop/punk/alternative/soul/r&b album about love, loss, desperation, and sadness. All of these emotions are on display here with her legitimate vocal ability. As Michael Mekus told me, "ANTI is the last great rock album, and music hasn't come close since...I knew it was the best album of 2016 when it came out, but as time has passed, it's emerged as the best album of this century." It's certainly one of them.
15. SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE [Stevie Wonder; 1976]
"Just because a record has a groove don't make it in the groove..." Stevie sings in his salute to Duke Ellington, "Sir Duke." Well, this double album has a groove, it actually has 17 of them, all deep. Some critics place Wonder's Innervisions or Talking Book over this epic. But fantastic as both are, they don't come close to this, a culmination of everything Wonder has tried to do. With classic songs like "Love's in Need of Love Today," "Have a Talk with God," the ironic "Village Ghetto land," "Ordinary Pain," the pulsating "Black Man," and his ode to his daughter, "Isn't She Lovely?" Add to those his two number one hits--"Sir Duke" and the nostalgia-fueled "I Wish"--and you have the Ultimate Steve Wonder Experience. Also, if that's not enough, we wouldn't have "Gangsta's Paradise" without Wonder's "Pastime Paradise." Need I say more?
16. THE SUN SESSIONS [Elvis Presley; 1954 (Released 1976)]
This is the Elvis right before he became ELVIS, the rhinestone wonder of the world and rock royalty. This is a young man, still a teen, recording various songs in 1954, the cutting edge of rock. He's onto something, early greatness. But the songs are incredibly stark, haunting. His "Blue Moon" is a ghostly cry, and "That's All Right, Mama" and "Good Rockin' Tonight" was a preview of a music style to come. This is his best, before the hit singles, the screaming girls, the army and Vegas and excess...before he would be crowned the King of Rock N Roll. But if you ever doubted his talent, please listen to these songs. In a world of Beatles People versus Elvis People, I am usually Team Beatles. Except when I hear this. THE SUN SESSIONS can turn this rabid Beatlemaniac into an Elvis Person overnight.
17. READY TO DIE [Notorious B.I.G.; 1994]
By the age of 21 Notorious B.I.G. had already mastered every aspect of rapping as an art form, and nobody has probably ever done it better. This, his debut, is harrowing and serene all at once and, even at 77 minutes long, still feels too short.
18. WHAT'S GOING ON [Marvin Gaye; 1971]
Gaye came of age with this incredible array of nine songs, each backing away from the lightweight but soulful pop-fluff of Motown's past. There's not a hot-button issue that Gaye doesn't tackle, including the environment ["Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)"], urban plight ("Inner City Blues), and the war in Vietnam (the title song). Speaking of the title track, it stands alongside Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," Gaye's duet with Tammi Terrell, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and the Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," as the single best song to emerge from the Motor City.
19. THE WALL [Pink Floyd; 1979]
Time has elevated this double album triumph, which was released the last month of 1979 and has not gone out of favor since. Its concept maybe a stretch--about a rock star named Pink, partly modeled after former Pink Floyd bandmate Syd Barrett, whose societal self-imprisonment is symbolized by a wall--but the music holds up. The songs include the #1 hit "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2," "Mother," "Goodbye Blue Sky," Hey You," "In the Flesh," and "Run Like Hell." Standing out among this crowd of amazing numbers is "Comfortably Numb," easily the group's finest song and one of the best of the late 1970's. Many critics place Pink Floyd's other masterwork, Dark Side of the Moon, higher on their lists, but truth be told, this is Pink Floyd's chef-d'oeuvre. Accept no substitutes.
20. BORN TO RUN [Bruce Springsteen; 1975]
The album that landed the Boss onto the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines during the same week in 1975. Built for greatness, maybe too self-consciously, but it works. Filled with terrific after terrific song, like the iconic title tune, "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," and "Thunder Road." It all culminates in a Wall-of-Sound wonder called "Jungleland," which may be the best thing Mr. Springsteen has ever done.
21. LONDON CALLING [The Clash; 1979]
Punk's pinnacle, an acclaimed primal masterpiece. Listen to the title song, "Rudie Can't Fall," "Death or Glory," and the hit, "Train in Vain," if you want to know why this ranks so high on every Best Album list. Critic Robert Cristgau wasn't wrong when he deemed it the greatest double album since the Stones' Exile on Main Street.
22. THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS [David Bowie; 1972]
Glam rock's game-changer and Bowie's best. It's a concept album more than a guitar-driven opera about an androgynous red-headed rocker diving into a world of pansexuality, multiple taboos and even aliens. Pocked with such great glam greats as "Moonage Daydream," "Starman," "Lady Stardust," "Suffragette City," and "Rock N Roll Suicide." Circus magazine called the whole sizzling and shocking salutation to excess "a stunning work of genius" and they've never been more correct.
23. THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON [Pink Floyd; 1972]
One of the best-selling albums of all time and staying on the Billboard album charts for over 900 weeks, this is a slick, brilliantly produced (by Alan Parsons) LP that makes a fun mini-soundtrack to accompany The Wizard of Oz (or so they say). "Breathe," "Time," "Money" "Us and Them," and "Brain Damage" are the standout songs in an immortal progressive rock classic.
24. ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? [Jimi Hendrix; 1967]
The greatest album by the world's greatest guitarist, a revolutionary blast, a pyrotechnical new sound. Some of the best of Hendrix, including "Purple Haze," "Foxy lady," "Hey Joe," "Fire," and "The Wind Cries Mary." It's been compared to almost anything, from an atomic bomb blast to James Joyce's Ulysses. The thing is, it earned those comparisons while staking out its own, bombastically original claim. Nothing quite like it, still.
25. LIVE AT THE APOLLO, 1962 [James Brown; 1962]
Recorded a week before I was born in 1962, this is one of the few live albums on the list, a musical buffet of less than 30 minutes. The MC5 listened to it while tripping on acid, and their classic, Kick Out the Jams, was born.
26. TAPESTRY [Carole King; 1971]
"Beautiful": That's the title of a song on the album as well as the Broadway show that the LP would inspire. This is where the singer-songwriter movement of the 970's hit its apex. Every Carole King song here snaps gold-"It's Too Late," "I Feel the Earth Move," "So Far Away," "You've Got a Friend," and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." Yeah, that's the word that describes this gloriousness best: "Beautiful."
27. HOTEL CALIFORNIA [The Eagles; 1976]
"Mirrors on the ceiling, pink champagne on ice...". Nothing comes as close to exploring L.A. Decadence during the Bicentennial.
28. AQUEMINI [OutKast; 1998]
The start of southern rap (currently the most dominant region of rap since the mid-2000's), with two great rappers (Andre 3000 and Big Boi) balancing each other out. Essential.
29. 808s & HEARTBREAK [Kanye West; 2008]
In one album, the blueprint to where music has gone and to where it will continue. Just ask Drake.
30. BLUE [Joni Mitchell; 1971]
1971 was a key year for singer-songwriters with this Joni Mitchell classic and Carole King's Tapestry coming out just months from each other, two of the finest albums by female artists. With such songs as "California," "River," and "The Last Time I Saw Richard," BLUE is an album of honesty and emotional depth, with lyrics that will leave you breathless.
31. KID A [Radiohead; 2000]
As good an album as the 2000's have wrought, this combines synthesizers, drum machines, brass and strings, all leading to a hypnotic effect. It leads off with Radiohead's brilliantly sparse and mesmerizing "Everything In Its Right Place," which is a great way to describe Radiohead's greatest record...a work with everything in its right place.
32. THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO [Velvet Underground; 1967]
Lou Reed's finest song-writing merging with the death-voice of Nico, and you have this 60's cult classic. Standout songs include "Venus in Furs," "Waiting for My Man," "I'll Be Your Mirror," "All Tomorrow's Parties" and the epic "Heroin." The epitome of Warholian aloofness and cool bleakness.
33. ASTRAL WEEKS [Van Morrison; 1968]
"If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dream...". Almost transcendental, a journey of the mind and heart, with some of Morrison's finest compositions: "Beside You," "Madame George," the jazzy "The Way Young Lovers Do," "Sweet Thing," "Cyprus Avenue" and the dream-inducing title song. Hearing it today is like being caught in a blast of Sixties nostalgia. Hypnotic, floating, flowing, an Impressionist painting sprung to musical life.
34. RUMOURS [Fleetwood Mac; 1977]
How discourse can create a classic in 11 great songs. During the making of RUMOURS, relationships broke up and a surplus of drug use, hedonism and squabbles followed. But what emerged is one of the 1970's finest creations, with such songs as "Dreams," "Go Your Own Way," "The Chain," "You Make Lovin' Fun," "Gold Dust Woman," and the feel-good "Don't Stop." It bursts with life, the mellow-yellow seventies music full of optimism, dreams, love, and togetherness, even if the band that created it was coming apart at the seams.
35. TOMMY [The Who; 1969]
See it; feel it. There are so many moments in The Who's TOMMY that soar: The catchy "1921," the brutal "Cousin Kevin," the hot "Act Queen," "Sensation," "I'm Free," "We're Not Gonna Take It," and the hit single, "Pinball Wizard." The storyline is muddled--a deaf, dumb and blind pinball star turns messiah--but who cares with music this rip-roaring glorious?
36. A LOVE SUPREME [John Coltrane; 1964]
One tenor saxophonist, one album, four songs: "Acknowledgement" "Resolution", "Pursuance", and "Psalm." Brian Wilson once called music "the voice of God," and that's certainly the case here--Coltrane's ode to God, to the universe, a spiritual love more powerful than a thousand Sundays in church.
37. SIGN O' THE TIMES [Prince; 1987]
A tour de force of 80's r & b and funk, by the Purple One at the height of his powers. Yes, it's better than PURPLE RAIN, no question.
38. ALL EYEZ ON ME [Tupac Shakur; 1996]
"It's like a Cali thug-life version of Pink Floyd's The Wall," Rolling Stone magazine complained at the time. They may have meant it as a critique but it's a perfect summation from rap's great double-LP, the masterwork by a legend who left us way too soon.
39. FOREVER CHANGES [Love; 1967]
This is one of psychedelia's best, a hypnotic land of horns and violins. ("The Red Telephone" is both demented and dreamy, and "You Set the Scene" up there with the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" as a brilliant summation of the Summer of Love.) The lyrics are cutting, morbid at times, which beautifully plays against the lusher than lush music. You may not have heard of this one, but do me a favor, listen to it from first song to last. Please do it now. You'll thank me later.
40. IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK [Public Enemy; 1988]
Pubic Enemy set out to make a hip-hop equivalent of Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On, but they did something even better: They created one of the greatest and most influential albums of all time.
41. I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU [Aretha Franklin; 1967]
Aretha. The name says it all. Listen to this Queen of Soul album, especially her iconic and groundbreaking "Respect" and her version of Sam Cooke's opus, "A Change Is Gonna Come," to hear the single greatest vocalist of the rock and rap era. No one comes close.
42. WHO'S NEXT [The Who; 1971]
"Meet the new boss....same as the old boss...". "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Baba O'Riley," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Goin' Mobile"...these treasures and more on one of the 1970's preeminent albums.
43. JOHN LENNON/PLASTIC ONO BAND [John Lennon; 1970]
Even though Lennon and Yoko Ono posed nude for their Two Virgins LP two years earlier, this is where Lennon got emotionally naked. Stark, harrowing, guttural, primal, naïve. "Working Class Hero" would become Lennon's moniker, while "God" would be his greatest work as a vocalist.
44. STICKY FINGERS [Rolling Stones; 1971]
The Stones' other masterpiece, with "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses" leading the way. But the second-tier songs are just as good: "Dead Flowers," "Can't You hear Me Knockin'," and "Moonlight Mile." The sexually suggestive Warhol cover of a well-endowed man (claimed to be Joe Dellasandro) contained an actual working zipper in the days where album covers were deemed works of art.
45. BITCHES BREW [Miles Davis; 1970]
Fusion, where jazz and rock consummate, coming together in holy musical matrimony and spawning something completely new.
46. THERE'S A RIOT GOIN' ON [Sly & the Family Stone; 1971]
A master of bringing people from all walks of life together comes undone here. It's a proto-funk spectacular, with the the #1 "Family Affair" as the headliner. But "Runnin' Away," You caught Me Smilin'" and especially "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa" have a grungy drive to them--it's slo-mo-funk on major downers. Or as writer Griel Marcus put it, "Muzak with its finger on the trigger."
47. PURPLE RAIN [Prince; 1984]
The epic title tune, the catchy "Let's Go Crazy," the big hit single, "When Doves Cry," "I Would Die For You," and the underrated "Take Me with U." Those songs create one of the 1980's great r & b experience. With this, Prince shot for stardom and hit the bull's-eye.
48. MODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY & WESTERN MUSIC [Ray Charles; 1962]
Nearly 60 years before "Old Town Road" is this margining of country, western and rhythm and blues. Ray Charles' masterpiece, led by the stirring "I Can't Stop Loving You."
49. BLONDE [Frank Ocean; 2016]
Experimental soul, a revelation. You can hear the influence of Stevie Wonder and the Beatles in these tracks, but it's The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson who would be Ocean's biggest influence here, especially the use of strings and heartbreak of his lyrics. And BLONDE, like the finest wine, will only get better over the years and keep moving up this list as time goes by.
50. BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER [Simon & Garfunkel; 1970]
The title tune may be 1970's most inspirational song (beating out the Beatles' "Let It Be" in the Hallelujah sweepstakes), but it's some of the other tunes that make this Simon & Garfunkel's best: the singalong "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)"; the infectious "Cecilia"; the worthy-of-a-short-story "The Boxer"; and the exquisite echo chamber of "The Only Living Boy in New York."
51. NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS HERE'S THE SEX PISTOLS [Sex Pistols; 1977]
"Anarchy in the UK," showcased here, is punk's shining moment--hateful, angry, shrieked rather than sung. Ghastly, guttural, glorious. Add "Pretty Vacant," "Holidays in the Sun," and "God Save the Queen," the latter banned in the UK...and you have a safety-pin-in-the-cheek half-shaved-head-banger's ball.
52. ILLMATIC [Nas; 1994]
Gang wars, despondency, urban plight. Nas' touchstone of East Coast hip hop. As Jeff Weiss of Pitchfork wrote, "It's somewhere between The Basketball Diaries and Native Son..."
53. AMERICAN IDIOT [Green Day; 2004]
Meet Jesus of Suburbia, the anti-hero of AMERICAN IDIOT, an anti-Bush and anti-war Millennial masterwork. Some of the most amazing songs of the 2000's can be found here: "American Idiot", "Boulevard of Broken Dreams", "Holiday", "Wake Me Up When September Ends" and "Jesus of Suburbia." Iconic enough to spawn a Broadway musical.
54. MOONDANCE [Van Morrison; 1970]
It's a marvelous night for a Moondance and for any night where you play this album. A jazz-pop landmark, with "Into the Mystic," "Caravan," "And It Stoned Me," "Crazy Love" and the toe-tapping title tune leading the way.
55. GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD [Elton John; 1973]
Elton John's double opus, peppered with a little bit of everything: Classical ("Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding"), iconic torch songs ("Candle in the Wind"), power pop ("Grey Seal"), pop bop ("Bennie and the Jets"), reggae ("Jamaica Jerk-off"), LGBTQ anthems ("All the Girls Love Alice"), straight up rock n roll ("Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting"), and a catchy tune of tune or two ("Harmony"). It's a splendid mass of pop music at its outrageous best.
56. THE STRANGER [Billy Joel; 1977]
The is the album that turned Billy Joel into a mega-star. The singles are great, especially the future wedding staple "Just the Way You Are," the energetic "Movin' Out," and the raucous "Only the Good Die Young." But it's the haunting title song and movie-like "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" that make this a pop slam dunk. And we can forgive the album's one sour note, the popular-but-forced "Only a Woman."
57. BLOOD ON THE TRACKS [Bob Dylan; 1975]
"Tangled Up in Blue," "Simple Twist of Fate," "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts"...it doesn't get any better than this.
58. GRACELAND [Paul Simon; 1986]
"And she said losing love is like a window in your heart/Everybody sees you're blown apart/Everybody sees the wind blow..." Simon's solo masterpiece.
59. BORN IN THE USA [Bruce Springsteen; 1984]
"Dancing in the Dark," "Glory Days," "My Hometown," and the overplayed title song catapulted the Boss into superstardom. But the best song is the haunting and sedate "I'm on Fire," Bruce's finest two minutes and forty seconds.
60. CATCH A FIRE [Bob Marley & the Wailers; 1973]
Marley and the Wailers stir it up with this, reggae's very best.
61. SUPERFLY [Curtis Mayfield; 1972]
Funk becomes a major player with Mayfield's Blaxploitation soundtrack, and with "Freddie's Dead," its "Stairway to Heaven."
62. SHOWCASE [Patsy Cline; 1961]
It is not an overstatement to proclaim that Patsy Cline is the finest female country singer of all time. What Aretha Franklin is to soul, what Whitney Houston is to pop, and what Janis Joplin is to rock, Patsy Cline is to country music. No one sounded quite like her. That voice: hearty, tough and velvet lovely, all in one, with a certain lilt that cannot be replicated. I grew up with the goddesses of the classic rock era (Ann Wilson, Chrissie Hynde, Tina Turner and Stevie Nicks), but it's this country star who shames them all with her yearning twang combined with a gruff alto. Even though she was country (far from my favorite genre), I listened to her as much as I listened to them--that ferocity and sensitivity, sometimes captured in the same breath. No wonder she was voted Number One in the CMT's "40 Greatest Women of Country Music." Because she died so young (age 30) in a notorious plane wreck, she became a mythic figure. But her records live on, her range showcased best of all in the album appropriately entitled SHOWCASE, featuring the hits "Walkin' After Midnight," "I Go To Pieces" and the incomparable "Crazy." There's been no one quite like her since.
63. ELI AND THE THIRTEENTH CONFESSION [Laura Nyro; 1968]
It's a shame that many people don't know who Laura Nyro is. Whenever I mention her name, various individuals inevitably respond by squinting their eyes in confusion and uttering a single word: "Who?" Then I have to tell them that she's in the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and, soon enough, I find myself forced to list a myriad of her tunes (usually a hit single for someone else). Her second album, ELI AND THE THIRTEENTH CONFESSION, is considered her best, with such songs as "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Sweet Blindness," "Poverty Train," "Lu," and "Timer." Nyro was a combination of Tin-Pan Alley, pop, folk, gospel and especially soul. She's sort of like Buffy Sainte-Marie meets Patti Labelle, but she's better than that odd combo suggests. Although she passed away in 1997 at the age of 49, her legacy is here where she was at her best, in the grooves.
64. PEARL [Janis Joplin; 1971]
"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose...". Kris Kristofferson may have written those words in "Me and Bobby McGee," but they exemplify Janis' life, her credo. PEARL is her one great album, a testament to that once in a generation blues sister whose death preceded the release of this album.
65. THA TOUR PT. 1 [Rich Gang; 2014]
The best rap duo since OutKast and hands down the best pure rap of the last decade.
66. THE MISEDUCATION OF LAURYN HILL [Lauryn Hill; 1998]
Love, God, pregnancy, and the Fugees. Hill's only studio solo work would become a critical and commercial hallmark. "Do Wop (That Thing)" was the hit single, but the whole record sizzles.
67. LIVE IN EUROPE [Otis Redding; 1967]
Recorded March of 1967. More than his studio LP's, this is a lions roar, with Redding, backed by Booker T and the MG's, giving the performance of his life in front of a worshipful European congregation. His performances of "Respect" and "Shake" are noteworthy, but listen to those cover versions--"Satisfaction" and "Day Tripper," pumped with new life. "I've Been Loving You Too Long" is Redding at his passionate best, and his rabidly emotional "Try a Little Tenderness" finds him in rare form, building into a fierce hoarse-voiced climax. Sadly, Redding would die in a plane wreck before 1967 would be through.
68. THE CHRONIC [Dr. Dre; 1992]
Welcome to G-funk, songs with a slightly sluggish, riper beat, sampling Seventies and Eighties funk. Kanye West once rightfully labeled it rap's Songs in the Key of Life. One of the 90's finest moments, with Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang," "F**k with Dre Day (And Everybody's Celebratin')," and "Let Me Ride" heading the pack.
69. SURREALISTIC PILLOW [Jefferson Airplane; 1967]
"One pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small/And the ones that mamma gives you/Don't do anything all/Just call Alice/When she's ten fee tall..." (from White Rabbit). 1967 was a key year for music, and the Airplane's SURREALISTIC PILLOW, San Francisco psychedelia par excellence, was one of the reasons why. It had the trippy hits, like "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," but was also filled with Marty Balin's earnest ballads like "Today" and "Comin' Back to You." There was the adrenaline-rushing "She Has Funny Cars" and "Plastic Fantastic Lover." And the instrumental "Embryonic Journey" would become the album's lynchpin, used in any TV show or movie that wants to scream SIXTIES!
70. THE DOORS [The Doors; 1967]
The orgasmic, organ-fueled "Light My Fire" was #1 during the Summer of Love, but it's the other songs on this album that put this so high on the list: "Break On Through (To the Other Side)," "Soul Kitchen" "Twentieth Century Fox," "Back Door Man," and the other-worldly "Crystal Ship." Special mention to the album's last number, the Oedipally epic "The End," that would cement the Doors' legacy even if they didn't do anything else.
71. DISRAELI GEARS [Cream; 1967]
"Clapton is God!" That graffiti would be found all around London and San Francisco. Listening to DISRAELI GEARS, its title a play on words of a bicycle's derailleur gears, Clapton deserves some sort of deified status. Heavy rockers like "Strange Brew," "Sunshine of Your Love," "SWLABR," and "Tales of Brave Ulysses" were proof that, even though the Summer of Love had ended, the good vibrations still hung in the air.
72. RAMONES [Ramones; 1976]
"Blitzkrieg Bop," "Judy Is a Punk," "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," and "Let's Dance"...punk has never been more fun.
73. IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS [Frank Sinatra; 1955]
Is this the first ever concept album? Although it plays like a Sinatra greatest hits package, it's a studio record (his first 12") that contains some of his most poignant songs: "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," "When Your Lover Has Gone," "Glad to be Unhappy," and the ethereal "Mood Indigo." Melancholia never sounded so good.
74. SAIL AWAY [Randy Newman; 1972]
Music so incredible that it saved Brian Wilson's life, as he listened to it during the depths of his depression. The entire album is wondrous, with a special nod to the title tune. The song "Sail On" sounds so homespun and cheery until you understand that it presents America in the far past as an ultimate Promised Land to incoming slaves.
75. AT FILLMORE EAST [The Allman Brothers; 1971]
A live album that explodes from the speakers, the Allman Brothers at the top of their game. Is there a more rockin' song than their version of "Whipping Post" heard here?
76. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER [Bee Gees; 1977]
In the 1970's, people either loved or loathed disco. My brother-in-law hated it so much that he banned it from his 1979 wedding reception. But looking back, there are a lot of stellar disco moments, from Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" to Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way," from Sylvester's "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real" to Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." Standing in the spotlight in front of them all has to be the Bee Gees, and Saturday Night Fever is the disco album designed to last. Check out this line up: "Night Fever," "How Deep is Your Love," "You Should be Dancing," "More Than a Woman" and the ultimate tale of survival, "Stayin' Alive." But there are so many disco cuts from other groups as well, including Yvonne Elliman's #1 "If I Can't Have You," KC and the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Shoes," and the Trammps' scorching "Disco Inferno." The entire album is a real disco inferno, designed to light up any dance floor. "Burn, baby, burn!"
77. THE SLIM SHADY LP [Eminem; 1999]
Eminem, rap music's Elvis, hits the big time with his debut on a major label. If "My Name Is" doesn't get stuck in your head, then you may need to get your hearing checked pronto.
78. BEYONCE [Beyonce; 2013]
Grammy-winning and critically acclaimed (reviewers would rank it among the top albums of the 2010's), this is where Beyonce planted her artistic flag. "The whole project is a celebration of the Beyoncé Philosophy," according to Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone, "which basically boils down to the fact that Beyoncé can do anything the hell she wants to."
79. JAGGED LITTLE PILL [Alanis Morissette; 1995]
In the mid-1990's, a female singer-songwriter movement began, featuring the likes of Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, and Sarah MacLachlan to name a handful. Standing head and shoulders above them was Canadian Alanis Morissette, whose JAGGED LITTLE PILL became a mid-90's landmark. With such songs as "You Oughta Know," "Ironic," "Hand in my Pocket" and "You lean," this was destined not just for classic status, but to become a Broadway show to boot!
80. ROCK N ROLL ANIMAL [Lou Reed; 1974]
Lou Reed live, with the band jamming, the audience enraptured, and Lou in top form. Here, "Sweet June" turns into a Bronte-sized epic; "Lady Day" becomes downer-slow as a Sylvia Plath poem; and a thirteen-minute "Heroin" grows as large as a Proust novel.
81. REMAIN IN LIGHT [Talking Heads; 1980]
"Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...". The irony is, the Talking Heads weren't the same as anything; under David Byrne's artsy-geeky persona, they were so idiosyncratic and different than every other band. And "Once in a Lifetime," the centerpiece here, is unlike anything ever heard. Music for aliens.
82. DAMN [Kendrick Lamar; 2017]
With "Loyalty," "Love," and the #1 hit "Humble," the exceptional Lamar has created the finest album of the past few years, one that should stand the test of time. Damn excellent.
83. MUSIC FROM THE BIG PINK [The Band; 1968]
They emerged from the shadows of being Bob Dylan's backing band, and with songs like "The Weight" and "This Wheel's on Fire," helped close out the 1960's on a high note.
84. AFTER THE GOLD RUSH [Neil Young; 1970]
Is it folk, or country, or rock, or a combination of them all? Young's homerun 60's-hangover, summing up the decade with a wink and a nod to the future 70's. Contains the moving "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," the mundanely apocalyptic "After the Gold Rush," plus the beautiful simplicity of "Tell Me Why" and "Til the Morning Comes." Add to that the galvanizing, Dixie-slandered "Southern Man" that would inspire Lynryd Skynrd's best song ("Sweet Home Alabama") and you have Young's greatest achievement.
85. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET [OBC; 1979]
The light operetta SWEENEY TODD (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) has been deemed by many musical theatre aficionados as Sondheim's masterpiece, his Citizen Kane, his Ulysses. It's a darkly comedic homage to the horror films that influenced his youth, his tip of a stovepipe hat to the Alfred Hitchcock themes of Bernard Herrmann. It's also a celebration of theatre, telling one of the most warped tales found in an accessible show: A barber, seeking revenge to those who had wronged him and his family, goes off the rails and starts killing his customers, where their bodies are ultimately ground, cooked and turned into tasty meat pies in London. Who knew that that Grade-Z plot would lead to the pinnacle of musical theatre excellence? The OBC (Original Broadway Cast) recording nails it with the original Sweeney (Len Cariou), Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury) and a cast that hits home runs with Sondheim's greatest collection of songs. It's impossible to choose a favorite..."A Little Priest," "Epiphany," "Pretty Women," all three version of "Johanna" (including the Judge's demented flagellation ode), "By the Sea," and the lovely "Not While I'm Around." Is this the greatest Broadway cast album? If it's not, then I don't know what is.
86. THE JOSHUA TREE [U2; 1987]
I had heard of U2 for almost a decade when, in 1987, I saw the cover of Time magazine with the group on the cover and the famous quote: "Rock's Hottest Band." I knew then that they had gone mainstream, and THE JOSHUA TREE would be their E-ticket to Top-40 platinum-hood. Every song seemed like a hit, especially "Where the Streets Have No Name," "With or Without You," "Running to Stand Still," "One Tree Hill," and "Mothers of the Disappeared." And in "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," U2 found their iconic best song, ironically on an album where they had obviously found what they were looking for: Stardom.
87. SYNCHRONICITY [The Police; 1983]
The Police hit the jackpot with the paranoid anthem, "Every Breath You Take." Other songs on the album, like "Wrapped Around Your Finger" and "King of Pain," solidify its greatness as an 80's staple up there with the likes of Thriller, Purple Rain and The Joshua Tree.
88. LAYLA & OTHER ASSORTED LOVE SONGS [Derek & the Dominoes; 1970]
Eric Clapton's super group that created this blues-rock classic, containing such songs as "Bell Bottom Blues" and "Little Wing." But it's the song "Layla," a monolith of yearning heartbreak. An epic fever. Clapton and Duane Allman's roaring slide-guitar work in the title number ends with a poignancy rarely found on a rock album. Primal then mournful, an elegy of sorts, as beautiful and moving as music gets.
89. CLOSER [Joy Division;1980]
A haunting reminder of the greatness of Ian Curtis, who committed suicide two months before this, his final album, would be released. If you wonder what lurked behind Curtis' end, listen to "Isolation," one of the most beautifully brooding songs ever, with the lead singer's walking dead voice chilling the bones.
90. STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON [NWA; 1988]
West Coast gangsta rap super group if ever there was one; check out this all-star line-up: Arabian Prince, Dr. Dre, Easy-E, and Ice Cube, plus DJ Yella and MC Ren. The album had a profound effect on the culture, with such divisive songs as the title cut, "F**k he Police" and "Gangsta Gangsta." But it all started here, one of the toughest, fiercest, most offensive-to-some and liberating albums on the list.
91. HAMILTON [OBC/Lin-Manuel Miranda; 2015]
There are not a lot of original cast recordings on the list, mainly because they are meant for the stage rather than living and dying on record. There are only two that made the 101: Sweeney Todd and Lin-Manuel Miranda's HAMILTON. HAMILTON isn't just a "rap musical," as it's sometimes labeled. It's an amalgam of all sorts of music, like hip-hop ("My Shot"), TLC-like girl-group funk ("The Schuyler Sisters"), jazzy boogie woogie ("What'd I Miss"), British Invasion pop ballads ("You'll be Back"), and the greatest song written about loss in decades ("It's Quiet Uptown"). If this was a litany of the 101 greatest cast albums, then HAMILTON would certainly rank a lot higher... but that's for another list.
92. EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH [Philip Glass; 1976]
Philip Glass' avant-garde opera is four acts of repeating flutes, organs, piccolos, sopranos, all together in cascading sound. It's a manic pool of minimalism, for the acquired taste and not for everyday listening pleasure. For those who dive into its exquisite Glass-ness, it's a lovely dream-mess, each major act separated by ethereal "Knee Plays," which turn out to be the highlights of the work. Make no mistake, there's nothing quite like it.
93. A FEVER YOU CAN'T SWEAT OUT [Panic! at the Disco; 2005]
One of the top debut albums of this century, an emo pop electro-punk classic. The hit single, "I Write Sins Not Tragedies," opened the door for the rest of the record.
94. THE HARDER THEY COME [Jimmy Cliff; 1972]
This is to reggae what Saturday Night Fever is to disco. Jimmy Cliff's hard-nosed film unleashed some of the finest reggae unto the world with this unforgettable soundtrack: "You Can Get It If You Really Want, "Many Rivers to Cross," and perhaps the greatest reggae tune of all, "The Harder They Come."
95. THREE CHEERS FOR SWEET REVENGE [My Chemical Romance; 2004]
This "pseudo-conceptual horror story" includes such post-hardcore numbers as "Helena," "Give Em Hell, Kid," "The Ghost of You," and "Thank You for the Venom."
96. BACK IN BLACK [AC/DC; 1980]
They say music is the soundtrack of our lives, and BACK IN BLACK is the soundtrack of my senior year of high school. Listening to such songs as "Hells Bells," "Shoot to Thrill," the pounding title tune, and especially "You Shook Me All Night Long," takes me back to those old days, good times I remember.
97. AJA [Steely Dan; 1977]
Steely Dan's most unified work. With "Peg," its infectious Top-40 hit; "Aja," New Age meditative mood music; "Josie," its rock n roll heart; "Black Cow," its pop-funk synthesis; and, best of all, "Deacon Blues" as the epic tale of a cool bohemian cat past his prime: "I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues..."
98. COAT OF MANY COLORS [Dolly Parton; 1971]
One of country music's glowing albums. Over the years we forget what a tremendous songwriter Dolly Parton is, but we're reminded of it here, with such stellar classics as "Here I Am," "The Mystery of the Mystery," My Blue Tears" and the title song, which also happens to be both her personal favorite and a heart-tugging country masterpiece.
99. AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE [REM; 1992]
REM's most emotionally resonant album, especially with songs like "Drive," the pleading "Everybody Hurts," and the contemplative "Nightswimming." But then there are those other songs, impossible to categorize, like REM's best work: "Ignoreland," "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight," and "Man on the Moon," the latter an ode to late comedian Andy Kaufman that brings together Elvis, Charles Darwin, the moon landing, Mott the Hoople, Monopoly and Risk.
100. GOING TO A GO-GO [Smokey Robinson and the Miracles; 1966]
Smokey's velvet voice never sounded so good, so soothing. And it highlights some of his greatest vocal achievements: "The Tracks of My Tears," "My Girl Has Gone," the bouncy title cut, and the ultimate Smokey love song, "Ooo Baby Baby." Melts in your heart, not in your hands.
101. THE SMILE SESSIONS [The Beach Boys; 1967 (Released 2011)]
For a variety of reasons, Brian Wilson could not complete his magnum opus, his Sgt. Pepper, SMILE. Slated for a 1967 release, it just could not come together. Some of its songs were added to other albums over the years, and we never got exactly what the concept album SMILE would be about. Time marched on, and listeners forgot about it and moved onto other groups, other stylings, other genres. But not Brian Wilson, tied with Stephen Sondheim as the greatest composer of the past 50 years. In the 2000's, Wilson's post-Pet Sounds masterpiece, his musical snapshot of America, was pieced together, and the results are breathless, some of the finest pop ever produced in this country. Yes, "Good Vibrations," the Beach Boys biggest hit, ends the whole thing, but the true power is felt elsewhere. There is string of five songs, in row like dominoes, that is unbeatable: "Cabin Essence," "Wonderful," "Look (Song for Children)," "Child Is Father to the Man," and "Surf's Up," the latter the most dynamic, difficult and ingenious song Wilson would ever construct. SMILE, lost for so many decades, finally found its breath of life in the Twenty-First Century. It was worth the wait.