Here is the first part of my list of the best albums of the rock era: 1955 to 2000. (The top ten will appear in my next post.) My list comports with what might be called the rock music “canon.” As much as I could manage, I have refrained from accentuating my own stylistic predilections, which happen to be progressive rock and British pop. My selection criteria include: 1) lyrical and musical originality, 2) historical impact, and 3) consensus of music critics. Regarding criterion #3, I have allowed my own judgments to be heavily influenced by published lists such as those by Rolling Stone magazine and VHI.
11. The Beatles, Abbey Road (1969) – The swansong of the most important band in history. Even while in the midst of a bitter break-up, they managed to make an album that was not only cohesive, but groundbreaking. The second side of the album flowed continuously from song to song, inspiring the same convention in such later albums as Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick. Classic tracks include “Here Comes the Sun,” Something,” and “Come Together.”
12. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) – A concept album which tells the tale of Ziggy Stardust, a space alien rock star who comes to Earth to inspire humanity, only to self-destruct through dissipation. Sound familiar? But it is the album’s individual songs, not its narrative, that make it great. It is chock-full of classic tunes, but some of the more familiar ones are “Suffragette City,” “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” and the title track.
13. Elvis Costello, This Year’s Model (1978) – After his heralded debut, My Aim is True, Elvis, the “singing dictionary,” hand picked his band, The Attractions, and this, their first album together, brims with passion and angst, beating his contemporary new wavers at their own game. The album’s relentless energy is matched by its lyrical cleverness. One of the best albums of the new wave era.
14. Jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced? (1967) – How does he get those sounds out of his guitar? Is it R&B or psychadelia? How many rules can you break and how many different rock genres can be spawned by one album? And yet, ironically, this album is a return to the rock’s blues roots. Classic tracks include “Purple Haze” (U.S. release), “Hey Joe,” and “The Wind Cries Mary.”
15. The Kinks, Muswell Hillbillies (1971) – The last of a string of great records during the Kinks’ “golden age.” Ray Davies wry wit and ingenious social commentary is at its finest, with classic tunes such as “Alcohol” and “Complicated Life.” With the recurrent anti-technology theme, it even manages to be a concept album in an unselfconscious way. As wonderful as this record is, one staggers at the thought of how strong it would have been if produced by someone more able than Ray Davies (with all due respect to Mr. Davies, who is one of rock’s towering figures).
16. REM, Automatic for the People (1992) – After ten years of resisting pressure to make a commercial album, the Athens, Georgia founders of “indie rock” finally dished it out in good measure. The album was indeed a commercial success, but it was also an artistic breakthrough for the band, as many of the songs, such as “Nightswimming,” featured innovative arrangements, while others had surprisingly weighty personal themes, such as “Everybody Hurts”—a tragically ineffectual plea to Kurt Cobain.
17. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (1966) – The Beatles self-confessed inspiration for Sergeant Pepper, this album was itself inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. Pet Sounds features some of Brian Wilson’s most ingeniously crafted pop tunes, including the plaintive “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” a gorgeous cover of “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows,” which became the first top-40 hit whose title featured the name of the deity.
18. U2, Achtung Baby (1991) – The last great album by Ireland’s greatest band, Achtung Baby was a surprising departure from the American-influenced sound of their previous two LPs. Though adorned with a lot of experimental guitar work, this rarely gets in the way of the songs themselves, most of which are brilliantly crafted in their own right, including “Mysterious Ways,” “One,” and “You’re So Cruel.”
19. Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street (1972) – Emerging from the shadow of the Beatles two years after the Liverpudlians split, the Stones were free to indulge their street blues roots while experimenting with other genres as the new kings of rock. This sprawling double album is their least polished but most pure in terms of rock and roll energy. It also features some of the best Jagger vocals, Richards’ guitar work, and Glimmer Twins songwriting in the bands’ repertoire. Classics include “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy.”
20. Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (1975) – After his first two strong, but overwritten, albums, the Boss secured manager-producer Jon Landau who refined Springsteen’s image as well as his musical vision. Upon the album’s release, Springsteen instantly became the voice for ordinary working-class (especially blue-collar) Americans, a mantle he has proudly worn for over three decades since. Classic tracks include “Thunder Road,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and the title track.