Okay, here are my top ten albums of the rock era. For selection criteria, see my previous post. If you disagree with one of my picks, your opinion doesn’t count if you don’t own the record! Do yourself a favor and pick up the ones you don’t yet own. Not all at once, of course. This music must be savored.
1. The Beatles, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) – A predictable first choice, but rightfully so. With this album, the Beatles introduced the “concept album,” established rock music as a bona fide art form, and founded or perfected at least three new genres: psychedelic rock, orchestral rock, and nostalgic chamber music rock. And all within the engineering limits of a four-track recorder. Impossible. The album would have been even stronger if the sessions’ two best songs, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” had been included. (Instead, Capitol released them together as a stand-alone single). Classic tracks include “With a Little Help From My Friends,” Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
2. The Clash, London Calling (1979) – If the Beatles were, as McCartney described them, the ultimate “cabaret” band, the Clash were a close second, proving themselves just as capable to try on, and master, a wide range of styles within the rock tradition. The best album by “the only band that matters,” London Calling features an array of music styles and influences—punk, R&B, ska, and reggae. Yet somehow it is a unified piece of work, with no lulls in the 19-song sequence. Unlike the Beatles’ masterpiece, London Calling has only improved with age. The album’s most recognizable songs are “Train in Vain,” which became the band’s first U.S. top-40 hit, and the title track.
3. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde (1966) – This was the final album in Dylan’s early “beat poet” period and the culmination of the most prolific and inspired era in the rock bard’s career. Despite its flaws (occasional sloppy playing and some imperfect mixes) the music always soars. The songwriting dazzles, and the energy of Dylan and his band perfectly matches the songs, which are mostly blues-based rockers. The album is loaded with all-time Dylan greats, such as “I Want You,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” and “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat.”
4. The Beatles, The Beatles (a.k.a. the “White Album”) (1968) – In the summer of 1968, the Beatles sojourned to India to meditate with the Maharishi Yogi. After a few months they were disillusioned about the self-proclaimed holy man, but they returned home with a boatload of new songs and a will to return to an unadorned sound. The result was a 30-song double album which showcases the Beatles’ incomparable versatility. Styles range from blues rock (“Birthday” and “Yer Blues”) to acoustic ballads (“Blackbird” and “Julia”) to Western swing (“Rocky Raccoon”) to bluegrass (“Don’t Pass Me By”) to a 1930s-style show tune (“Honey Pie”). The album also features the controversial non-musical sound art piece, “Revolution 9.” What The Beatles lacks in unity it more than makes up for in quality of individual songs.
5. U2, The Joshua Tree (1987) – On the heels of their Unforgettable Fire album, singer Bono declared that the band had no clear tradition. This motivated them to explore American music, especially blues, country, gospel, and roots rock. Meanwhile, the band was wrestling with political issues related to Central American conflicts. These factors converged to ensure the songs U2 recorded for The Joshua Tree—only half of which appeared on the album—were focused and inspired. Producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois managed to create a sound that is full but also spacious, perfectly complimenting the mood and lyrical themes of the songs. Classic tracks include “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.”
6. Led Zeppelin, Led Zepellin IV (1971) – Although commonly referred to as Led Zepellin IV, this album really has no name. Instead, it was identified only with four cryptic symbols. The music on the record, however, is not obscure in the least but features such straightforward rock classics as “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” and “Stairway to Heaven.” This album displays the talents of a great band at the height of its powers, all harnessed by the underrated producing genius of guitarist Jimmy Page.
7. Radiohead, OK Computer (1997) – At a time when we were all weary of Seattle grunge sound rip-offs and the loud-soft-loud arrangement they turned into a cliché, suddenly there appeared—not without plenty of pre-release hyperbolic praise—an album so beautiful and inspired it seemed to come from another world. (Perhaps fittingly, several of the songs reference aliens.) With their 1995 classic The Bends, Radiohead had mastered the rock genre. Now it was time to transcend it. And, boy, did they (with this album and every one they have made since). Classics include “Paranoid Android,” “Exit Music,” and “Let Down.”
8. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (1965) – This is Dylan the beat poet singer, Allen Ginsberg with a guitar and harmonica. From the classic opening track, “Like a Rolling Stone” to the mesmerizing closer, “Desolation Row,” the album is a non-stop torrent of stream-of-consciousness lyrics, sung over a blues-rock palette. But it’s not just comic nonsense (though it is quite often that), as a prevailing theme of alienation and confusion emerges which at once typifies the mood of the mid-60s and aptly communicates the essence of the human condition. How could he have been so far ahead of his time? Answer: While other songwriters were inspired by popular songs, Dylan was inspired by great poets.
9. Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (1973) – No album has spent more time than this one on the Billboard album charts—a total of 29 years. This is ironic, considering the fact that it is anything but a pop album. The music was highly experimental for its time, and its innovations have aged well. Lyrically, Roger Waters explores the heaviest of themes—mutability, consumerism, ethnocentrism, violence, madness, and death. Classic tracks include “Time,” “Brain Damage,” and “Money.” (As a curious aside, there is also the matter of the album’s strange synchronicity with The Wizard of OZ: http://www.everwonder.com/david/wizardofoz/. Try it out, and make of it what you will.)
10. Queen, A Night at the Opera (1975) – This amazing blend of heavy metal, quasi-folk, nostalgic ditties, and orchestral-operatic rock still defies categorization. Reported to be the most expensive album ever recorded at the time of its release, one listening reveals why. Queen laid down literally hundreds of vocal tracks, and just one section of the album’s masterpiece, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” took three weeks to record. But more impressive than the meticulous production on this album are the songs themselves—each smartly composed and arranged by one of rock’s greatest bands, each member of which sang and wrote songs.