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The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

The classics are still the classics, but the canon keeps getting bigger and better

Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time was originally published in 2003, with a slight update in 2012. Over the years, it’s been the most widely read  — and argued over — feature in the history of the magazine (last year, the RS 500 got over 63 million views on the site). But no list is definitive — tastes change, new genres emerge, the history of music keeps being rewritten. So we decided to remake our greatest albums list from scratch. To do so, we received and tabulated Top 50 Albums lists from more than 300 artists, producers, critics, and music-industry figures (from radio programmers to label heads, like Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman). The electorate includes Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Billie Eilish; rising artists like H.E.R., Tierra Whack, and Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail; as well as veteran musicians, such as Adam Clayton and the Edge of U2, Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan, Gene Simmons, and Stevie Nicks.

How We Made the List and Who Voted

When we first did the RS 500 in 2003, people were talking about the “death of the album.” The album —and especially the album release — is more relevant than ever. (As in 2003, we allowed votes for compilations and greatest-hits albums, mainly because a well-made compilation can be just as coherent and significant as an LP, because compilations helped shaped music history, and because many hugely important artists recorded their best work before the album had arrived as a prominent format.)

Of course, it could still be argued that embarking on a project like this is increasingly difficult in an era of streaming and fragmented taste. But that was part of what made rebooting the RS 500 fascinating and fun; 86 of the albums on the list are from this century, and 154 are new additions that weren’t on the 2003 or 2012 versions. The classics are still the classics, but the canon keeps getting bigger and better.

Written By

Jonathan Bernstein, Pat Blashill, Jon Blistein, Nathan Brackett, David Browne, Anthony DeCurtis, Matt Diehl, Jon Dolan, Chuck Eddy, Ben Edmonds, Gavin Edwards, Jenny Eliscu, Brenna Ehrlrich, Suzy Exposito, David Fricke, Elisa Gardner, Holly George-Warren, Andy Greene, Kory Grow, Will Hermes, Brian Hiatt, Christian Hoard, Charles Holmes, Mark Kemp, Greg Kot, Elias Leight, Joe Levy, Angie Martoccio, David McGee, Chris Molanphy, Tom Moon, Jason Newman, Rob O’Connor, Park Puterbaugh, Jody Rosen, Austin Scaggs, Karen Schoemer, Bud Scoppa, Claire Shaffer, Rob Sheffield, Hank Shteamer, Brittany Spanos, Rob Tannenbaum, David Thigpen, Simon Vozick-Levinson, Barry Walters, Jonah Weiner

From Rolling Stone US


R.E.M., ‘Automatic for the People’

“It doesn’t sound a whole lot like us,” warned guitarist Peter Buck. But by stripping back their sound to a spare, largely acoustic essence, the college-rock kings made the most powerful album of their career — an argument for sweetness and softness in an increasingly hard world. The bold sonic change-up laid bare Michael Stipe’s keening baritone and expansive vocal melodies, accentuated in several songs by Led Zeppelin member John Paul Jones’ gorgeous string arrangements. The album “was beautiful. It was quiet,” Stipe said. “It flew in the face of everything that was going down musically at the time.” At a time when grunge angst ruled, songs like “Everybody Hurts” and the lovely “Find the River” offered solace.


Drake, ‘Take Care’

The Toronto MC had his creative and commercial breakthrough on Take Care, establishing his image as the Champagne Papi who can always find a way to overshare, whether in the club or the bedroom. Drake covers both seductive R&B finesse and hip-hop swagger, with his longtime producer Noah “40” Shebib, along with guests like Rihanna and Jamie xx. “Marvin’s Room” is the showstopper — late at night, Drake drunk-dials his ex to figure out what went wrong (“I’ve had sex four times this week, I’ll explain/I’m having a hard time adjusting to fame”). Hard time or not, Take Care showed that Drake is always best when he bares his feelings in the spotlight.


The Stooges, ‘Fun House’

With garage-savvy ex-Kingsmen keyboardist Don Gallucci producing their second album, the Stooges made their most fully realized effort, despite their collective drug problems. “We had a certain purity of intention,” Iggy Pop asserted. “I don’t think we did ever get it from the drugs. I think they killed things.” They couldn’t kill what he has called the relentless “troglodyte groove” the band had on Fun House. “I stick it deep inside,” Iggy growls on “Loose,” one of the album’s typically confrontational tracks. Later, on “1970,” he insisted, ad infinitum, “I feel all right,” and there’s no question you wouldn’t want any of whatever he was on.


Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, ‘Supa Dupa Fly’

Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott made her name as a songwriter behind the scenes, even before she dropped her 1997 debut. But Supa Dupa Fly introduced everyone to Missy’s world, with avant-funk cosmic swamp beats from Timbaland. What a team: two kids from Virginia Beach, Virginia, dazzling the planet with a playful homegrown sound nobody could imitate. “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” was the breakout hit, taking an old-school Ann Peebles soul oldie and looping it into a Dirty South jam — Missy sings, raps, giggles, and talks her shit. Supa Dupa Fly changed the sound of hip-hop, but also kicked off a tradition — every year, Missy and Tim would score the jam of the summer, while everybody else was still trying to catch up with what they did the summer before.


The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Axis: Bold as Love’

Jimi Hendrix’s first album remade rock & roll with guitar magic that no one had ever even dreamed of before; his second album was just plain magic. It started with some musings on extraterrestrial life, then got really far out: jazzy drumming, funky balladry, liquid guitar solos, dragonfly heavy metal, and the immortal stoner’s maxim from “If Six Was Nine”: “I’m the one who’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.” All over the album, Hendrix was inventing new ways to make the electric guitar roar, sing, talk, shriek, flutter, and fly. And with the delicate “Little Wing,” he delivered one of rock’s most cryptic and bewitching love songs.


Bruce Springsteen, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’

“When I was making this particular album, I just had a specific thing in mind,” Bruce Springsteen told Rolling Stone. “It had to be just a relentless … just a barrage of that particular thing.” His obsession on this album is a common one: how to go on living in a mean world when your youthful dreams have fallen apart. Springsteen sang with John Lennon-style fury, as he chronicled the working-class dreams and despair of “Prove It All Night” and “The Promised Land,” as well as his definitive car song, “Racing in the Street.” After the youthful exuberance of Born to Run, Darkness was the first sound of Springsteen’s hard-won adult realism


Neil Young, ‘After the Gold Rush’

For his third album, Neil Young fired Crazy Horse (the first of many times he would do so), picked up an acoustic guitar, and headed to his basement. He installed recording equipment in the cellar of his Topanga Canyon home, near Los Angeles, leaving room for only three or four people. There, Young made an album of heartbreaking ballads such as “Tell Me Why” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.” The music is gentle, but never smooth. Nils Lofgren, then an 18-year-old hotshot guitarist, squeezed into the sessions — but Young assigned him to the piano, an instrument he had never played in his life.


Erykah Badu, ‘Baduizm’

“If the head wrap was my trademark, the drums, African drums, were my soundtrack,” Erykah Badu recalled. “It’s just who I was at the time, and I wanted to be completely who I was when I did what I did.” Recorded between New York, Philadelphia, and her hometown of Dallas, the singer’s debut suggested a Billie Holiday raised on hip-hop and Stevie Wonder, celebrating herself and her heritage over resplendently relaxed grooves. Baduizm’s Seventies-meets-Nineties vibe, Badu’s exquisite lyricism (“On & On” is at once spiritual, apocalyptic, and funny), and jazz-steeped cadences (see “Appletree”) combined to make the 25-year-old singer a figurehead for the neo-soul genre that essentially began with this album.


David Bowie, ‘Hunky Dory’

David Bowie, then 24, arrived at the Hunky Dory cover shoot with a book of photographs of Marlene Dietrich: a perfect metaphor for this album’s visionary blend of gay camp, flashy rock guitar, and saloon-piano balladry. Bowie marked the polar ends of his artistic ambitions with tribute songs to Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol. In “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Quicksand,” and “Changes” he invented and perfected a new style of rock & roll glamour. On “Life on Mars?” he sings to all the weirdos like himself, who feel like aliens on Earth. Soon an entire army of kids would attempt to remake themselves in his spangled image, proving his point.


Miles Davis, ‘Bitches Brew’

In February 1969, Miles Davis recorded In a Silent Way, a bold step into ambient funk and electric futurism. Then just six months later, he was back in the studio, driven by his desire to assemble “the best damn rock & roll band in the world.” The idea was to connect his music to the audience of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. The result was this double album of jazz-rock fusion, cut in three days of on-the-spot improvisations with an electric orchestra that included three keyboardists, three drummers, two bassists, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and guitarist John McLaughlin. The music was full of visceral thrills and the brooding darkness Davis brought to everything he touched.


The Doors, ‘The Doors’

After blowing minds as the house band at the Whisky-a-Go-Go, where they were fired for playing the Oedipal drama “The End,” the Doors were ready to unleash their organ-driven rock on the world. “On each song, we had tried every possible arrangement,” drummer John Densmore said, “so we felt the whole album was tight.” “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” “Twentieth Century Fox,” and “Crystal Ship” are pop-art lighting for Top 40 attention spans. But the Doors hit pay dirt by editing one of their jam songs for airplay: “Light My Fire,” written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, after Jim Morrison told everybody in the band to write a song with universal imagery.


John Lennon, ‘Plastic Ono Band’

Also known as the “primal scream” album, referring to the painful therapy that gave rise to its songs, Plastic Ono Band was John Lennon’s first proper solo album and rock & roll’s most self-revelatory recording. Lennon attacks and denies idols and icons, including his own former band (“I don’t believe in Beatles,” he sings in “God”), to hit a pure, raw core of confession that, in its echo-drenched, garage-rock crudity, is years ahead of punk. He deals with childhood loss in “Mother” and skirts blasphemy in “Working Class Hero”: “You’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.” But the unkindest cut came in his frank 1970 Rolling Stone interview. “The Beatles was nothing,” Lennon stated acerbically.


AC/DC, ‘Back in Black’

In the middle of album rehearsals, singer Bon Scott went on a drinking spree; he choked on his vomit and was found dead in the back seat of a car. After two days of mourning, guitarist Malcolm Young thought, “Well, fuck this, I’m not gonna sit around mopin’ all fuckin’ year.” He called his brother, guitarist Angus Young, and they went back to work with replacement vocalist Brian Johnson. The resulting album has the relentless logic of a sledgehammer. Back in Black remains the purest distillation of hard rock: “Hells Bells,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and the title track have all become enduring anthems of strutting blues-based guitar.


Dusty Springfield, ‘Dusty in Memphis’

Born in London, Dusty Springfield was a great soul singer hidden inside a white British pop queen — racking up Motown-style hits such as “I Only Want to Be With You” — when Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler brought her way down South, to Memphis, to make this album. She was so intimidated by the idea of recording with session guys from her favorite Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding hits that she never actually managed to sing a note there. Her vocals were overdubbed later, when the sessions moved to New York. But the result was blazing soul and sexual honesty (“Breakfast in Bed,” “Son of a Preacher Man”) that transcended both race and geography.


Sly and the Family Stone, ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’

This highly anticipated studio follow-up to Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 blast of hope, Stand!, was the grim, exact opposite: implosive, numbing, darkly self-referential. Sly Stone’s voice is an exhausted grumble; the funk in “Family Affair,” “Runnin’ Away,” and especially the closing downward spiral, “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa,” is spare and bleak, fiercely compelling in its anguish over the unfulfilled promises of civil rights and hippie counterculture. “It is Muzak with its finger on the trigger,” wrote critic Greil Marcus in Mystery Train. Take that as a recommendation.


Beyoncé, ‘Beyoncé’

“I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve done it,” Beyoncé said. “I am bored with that.” So she dropped her self-titled album on an unsuspecting world at the end of 2013, without a word of warning. Her fifth solo album, Beyoncé showed off her musical scope and feminist outreach, but it was also a visual album with a film for each song, shot around the world: New York, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and of course, her native Houston. She had high-profile collabs: “Superpower” with Frank Ocean, “Mine” with Drake, “Flawless” with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Drunk in Love” with her husband, Jay-Z. But Beyoncé proved that nobody else was on her level.


The Sex Pistols, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols’

“If the sessions had gone the way I wanted, it would have been unlistenable for most people,” Johnny Rotten said. “I guess it’s the very nature of music: If you want people to listen, you’re going to have to compromise.” But few heard it that way at the time. The Pistols’ only studio album sounds like a rejection of everything rock & roll — and the world itself — had to offer. True, the music was less shocking than Rotten himself, who sang about abortions, anarchy, and hatred on “Bodies” and “Anarchy in the U.K.” But Never Mind the Bollocks is the Sermon on the Mount of U.K. punk — and its echoes are everywhere.


Frank Ocean, ‘Blond’

Frank Ocean turned the release of Blond into a daring aesthetic stunt in itself. After years of high expectations after Channel Orange [see No. 148], he fulfilled his Def Jam contract with the visual project Endless, but then — within hours — he released his own Blond. It’s a boldly personal statement full of layered harmonies, as Ocean mutates his voice to match every mood. The songs were so nakedly intimate, it felt like a post-hip-hop Pet Sounds in the spirit of Beyoncé (who sings on “Pink + White”) and Elliott Smith (whose voice appears on “Seigfried”). “Ivy” is his most deeply melancholic confession — Ocean mourns a lost love over a distorted guitar, lamenting, “We’ll never be those kids again.”


Elvis Presley, ‘The Sun Sessions’

On July 5th, 1954, at Sun Studios in Memphis, Elvis Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bassist Bill Black were horsing around with “That’s All Right,” a tune by bluesman Arthur Crudup, when producer Sam Phillips stopped them and asked, “What are you doing?” “We don’t know,” they said. Phillips told them to “back up and do it again.” Bridging black and white, country and blues, Presley’s sound was playful and revolutionary, charged by a spontaneity and freedom that changed the world. He released four more singles on Sun — including definitive reinventions of Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” — before moving on to immortality at RCA. They’re all here on a collection that serves as well as anything out there as a definitive chronicle of the birth of rock & roll.


The Who, ‘Who’s Next’

Pete Townshend suffered a nervous breakdown when his planned follow-up to the rock opera Tommy[see No. 190], the ambitious, theatrical Lifehouse, fell apart. But he was left with an extraordinary cache of songs that the Who honed for what became their best studio album, Who’s Next. “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Bargain,” and “Baba O’Riley” (named in tribute to avant-garde composer Terry Riley) all beam with epic majesty, often spiked with synthesizers. “I like synthesizers,” Townshend said, “because they bring into my hands things that aren’t in my hands: the sound of the orchestra, French horns, strings.… You press a switch and it plays it back at double speed.”


Curtis Mayfield, ‘Superfly’

Isaac Hayes’ Shaft came first — but that record had one great single and a lot of instrumental filler. It was Curtis Mayfield who made a blaxploitation-film soundtrack album that packed more drama than the movie it accompanied. Musically, Superfly is astonishing, marrying lush string parts to deep bass grooves, with lots of wah-wah guitar. On top, Mayfield sings in his world-wise falsetto, narrating the bleak tales of “Pusherman” and “Freddie’s Dead,” telling hard truths about the drug trade and black life in the 1970s. “I don’t take credit for everything I write,” Mayfield said. “I only look upon my writings as interpretations of how the majority of people around me feel.”


Aretha Franklin, ‘Lady Soul’

Aretha Franklin’s third Atlantic album in less than two years is another classic, with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Ain’t No Way,” and a slinky version of the Rascals’ “Groovin’.” It was a year of triumph and turbulence for Franklin: Although she made the cover of Time, the magazine reported details of her rocky marriage to Ted White, then her manager. But Franklin channeled that frenzy into performances of funky pride and magisterial hurt. Among the best: the grand-prayer treatment of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and her explosive anguish on the hit “Chain of Fools.”


Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’

In 2003, Kanye West was a Chicago kid who’d produced some hot beats for Jay-Z, wore pastel polo shirts with the collars popped, and wanted to be on the mic, not behind it. Record labels were skeptical, but West got over on wit and determination; he wrote and sang the hit “Through the Wire” while his jaw was wired shut after being in a car accident, and followed it with more dynamic tracks, including “Slow Jamz,” about the seductive power of soul music, and the gospel riot “Jesus Walks.” West loved Jesus and strip clubs, made arrogant claims about his talent, and then professed his insecurity — which made his music all the richer.


My Bloody Valentine, ‘Loveless’

This vague, shimmering, gorgeous album reportedly cost as much as $500,000 to make and nearly bankrupted the band’s U.K. label. It was worth it. Forget the lyrics, which are buried in the mix and incomprehensible, and focus on Kevin Shields’ and Bilinda Butcher’s guitars, which build entire noise symphonies out of tremolo effects and pitch bending. Highlights like “Only Shallow” and “I Only Said” use sampling technology to build a distorted, shifting sound that is wholly original and ecstatically beautiful. It’s like being serenaded by ghosts. Generations of shoegaze bands were born in its shadow.


Neil Young, ‘Harvest’

Harvest yielded Neil Young’s only Number One hit, “Heart of Gold,” and helped set the stage for the Seventies soft-rock explosion — both James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt sing on the album. Along with Young, they were in Nashville to appear on Johnny Cash’s variety show the week that Harvest was cut with an odd group of accomplished session musicians that included bassist Tim Drummond, who had played with James Brown. The sound was Americana — steel guitar, slide guitar, banjo — stripped down and rebuilt with every jagged edge exposed. The standout tracks include “Old Man” and “The Needle and the Damage Done.”


Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Exodus’

As the title suggests, this album wasn’t recorded in Jamaica; after Bob Marley took a bullet in a 1976 assassination attempt, he relocated the Wailers to London. But tracks such as “Jamming” are still suffused with the deep essence of reggae and life at home. “Three Little Birds,” for example, had been written on the back step of Marley’s home in Kingston, where he would sit and smoke herb. Each time Marley rolled a spliff, he would discard the seeds — and the birds of the song’s title would pick them up. “The music have a purpose,” Marley said, and his spiritual intent was never clearer than on the anthem “One Love,” with its message of redemption and revolution.


N.W.A, ‘Straight Outta Compton’

N.W.A’s debut brought West Coast gangsta rap to Middle America and changed hip-hop forever. It was the launching pad for the careers of Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre. “Back then we was calling it ‘reality rap,’” Ice Cube told Rolling Stone years later. “‘Gangsta rap’ is the name that the media coined.” Ice Cube’s rage and Dr. Dre’s police-siren street beats combined for a truly fearsome sound on “Express Yourself” and “Straight Outta Compton.” But it was the protest track “Fuck Tha Police” that earned the crew its biggest honor: a threatening letter from the FBI.


Alanis Morissette, ‘Jagged Little Pill’

Alanis Morisette was 21 when Jagged Little Pill was released, but she was a show-business veteran — she’d been on a Nickelodeon TV show and had made two flimsy dance-pop albums — and she knew what kind of music she wanted to make. “I found that the more truthful and vulnerable I was, the more empowering it was for me,” she said. Songs like “Ironic,” “Head Over Feet,” and “Hand in My Pocket” were calm, even philosophical, but it was “You Oughta Know,” her full-throated riposte to a callous ex, that made her reputation, partly because there was no one like her.


Kate Bush, ‘Hounds of Love’

Kate Bush was an avant-garde auteur as well as beloved English pop star. Her New Wave masterpiece Hounds of Love is one of the greatest examples of an artist enjoying Top 40 success while luxuriating in her own eccentricities. Playing a futurist Fairlight CMI synthesizer and singing in an ecstatic operatic chirp, she muses about Freudian psychology, career challenges, love and family, dreaming sheep, and waking witches. Side One had hits like “Running Up That Hill” and “Cloudbusting”; Side Two was an epic “story suite,” moving from goth terror to sci-fi abstraction to dark rustic revelry. It’s no wonder Björk, Florence Welch, and Mitski are just a few of the artists who’ve been swept up in Bush’s sensual world.


Jay-Z, ‘Reasonable Doubt’

Before there was Jay-Z the mogul, the legend, the Beyoncé boy toy, there was Jay-Z on his do-or-die hustle, trying just to get a seat at the UNO table. “Forever petty minds stay petty/Mine’s thinkin’ longevity, until I’m 70,” he rhymes on the virtuosic “22 Two’s,” his earliest experiment in toying with standard rap structures. When he raps about drug dealing and not trusting women, the details are specific and self-aware. Jay’s charisma and comic insouciance are evident even on small touches like his taunting laugh in the chorus of “Ain’t No Nigga,” a gloriously funky track that lit up dance clubs. Here, he planted a flag in the underground — within two years, the pop hits followed and the hustle went worldwide.


John Coltrane, ‘A Love Supreme’

In late 1964, John Coltrane secluded himself in a spare upstairs bedroom in his house in Dix Hills, Long Island, with his saxophone, pen, and paper. His wife Alice later remembered him emerging “like Moses coming down the mountain” with a brand-new album-length suite of devotional music, which he called A Love Supreme. “This album is a humble offering to Him,” he would write in the liner notes of the LP. “An attempt to say, ‘Thank you God’ through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues.” The resulting album’s four movements — from part one, “Acknowledgement,” with its mantra-like chant of the title phrase, to part two, “Resolution,” driven by the thunderous swing of drummer Elvin Jones — perfectly encapsulates the way the saxophonist’s mature work blended prayerful reflection with explosive catharsis.


James Brown, ‘Live at the Apollo’

This may be the greatest live album ever recorded: from the breathless buildup of the spoken intro through terse, sweat-soaked early hits such as “Try Me” and “Think” into 11 minutes of the raw ballad “Lost Someone.” It climaxes with a frenzied nine-song medley, and ends with “Night Train.” Live at the Apollo is pure, uncut soul — and it almost didn’t happen. James Brown defied King Records boss Syd Nathan’s opposition to a live album by arranging to record a show himself — on October 24th, 1962, the last date of a run at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. His intuition proved correct; Live at the Apollo, the first of four albums Brown recorded there, charted for 66 weeks.


OutKast, ‘Stankonia’

There’s a thrilling sprawl on OutKast’s fourth album, a sense of limitless possibilities within the boundaries of hip-hop. Big Boi and André 3000 rap about baby mamas’ mamas (“Ms. Jackson”), the perils of sex (“We Luv Deez Hoez”) and alcohol (“?”), feeling excluded from the American dream (“Gasoline Dreams”), good manners (“I’ll Call Before I Come”), and the trauma of teen pregnancy (“Toilet Tisha”). The music is sexy, bold, and hard, mixing, on “B.O.B.,” distorted metal guitar, an HBCU gospel choir, and a jittery techno beat. Big Boi says OutKast is “cooler than a polar bear’s toenails,” adds that they’re “just lyrically twerking,” and tells the police, “Officer, get off us, sir.” “We call it slumadelic,” said André 3000.


Steely Dan, ‘Aja’

If you were an audiophile in the late Seventies, you owned Aja. Steely Dan’s sixth album is easy on the ears, thanks to both its meticulous production and its songs — this was Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s no-holds-barred stab at becoming a huge mainstream jazz-pop success. And sure enough, thanks to sweet, slippery tracks like “Deacon Blues” and “Peg,” this collegiate band with a name plucked from a William Burroughs novel and a songbook full of smart, cynical lyrics became bona fide superstars, shooting to the Top Five and selling platinum. And, yes, Aja even won a Grammy for Best Engineered Album.


Guns N’ Roses, ‘Appetite for Destruction’

The biggest-selling debut album of the Eighties, Appetite hit the metal scene like an asteroid, bringing the grit and fury of Seventies rock back to a mainstream hard-rock scene that was starved for something real. Indiana-bred Axl Rose’s five-alarm yowl bowled over listeners. Guitarist Slash gave the band blues emotion and punk energy, while the rhythm section brought the funk on hits such as “Welcome to the Jungle.” When all the elements came together, as in the final two minutes of “Paradise City,” GN’R left all other Eighties metal bands in the dust, and they knew it, too. “A lot of rock bands are too fucking wimpy to have any sentiment or any emotion,” Rose said. “Unless they’re in pain.”


Eric B. and Rakim, ‘Paid in Full’

Ice-grilled, laid-back, diamond-sharp: Rakim was the Eighties’ greatest rapper, and this album is the record that cemented his legend. Paid in Full was one of the first hip-hop records to fully embrace Seventies funk samples on stone hip-hop classics such as “I Know You Got Soul” and “I Ain’t No Joke.” With a stark, chill declamatory flow that broke from the singsong-y style of most rapping at the time, Rakim moved hip-hop from stories about the world of the hood to ones about the mind (“I start to think and then I sink/Into the paper like I was ink”). Eric B. built the title track out of a luscious sampled bass line, and Rakim recounted days of poverty when he had “nothin’ but sweat inside my hand,” a problem solved by this debut’s platinum success.


Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

Astral Weeks was the sound of sweet relief. Van Morrison was newly signed to artist-friendly Warner Bros., after a rough ride with his previous U.S. label, Bang, when he made Astral Weeks in the summer of 1968. He used the opportunity to explore the physical and dramatic range of his voice in his extended poetic-scat singing, setting hallucinatory reveries about his native Belfast (the daydream memoir “Cypress Avenue,” the hypnotic portrait of “Madame George”) to wandering melodies connecting the earthy poetry in Celtic folk and American R&B. The crowning touch was a superior jazz quartet, who recorded their basic backing tracks in one three-hour session, without any instruction from Morrison on what he wanted or what the lyrics meant.


Stevie Wonder, ‘Talking Book’

“I don’t think you know where I’m coming from,” Wonder warned Motown executives in 1971. “I don’t think you can understand it.” Indeed, the two albums Wonder released in 1972 — Music of My Mind and Talking Book — rewrote the rules of the Motown hit factory. Talking Book was full of introspection and social commentary, with Wonder producing, writing, and playing most of the instruments himself. “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” were Number One singles; “Big Brother” is political consciousness draped in a light melody: “You’ve killed all our leaders/I don’t even have to do nothin’ to you/You’ll cause your own country to fall.”


Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin IV’

“I put a lot of work into my lyrics,” Robert Plant told Rolling Stone in 1975. “Not all my stuff is meant to be scrutinized, though. Things like ‘Black Dog’ are blatant let’s-do-it-in-the-bath-type things, but they make their point just the same.” On their towering rune-titled fourth album, Led Zeppelin matched the raunch of “Black Dog” with Plant’s most poetic lyrics on the inescapable epic ballad “Stairway to Heaven,” while guitarist Jimmy Page veers from the blues apocalypse of “When the Levee Breaks” to the mandolin-driven “Battle of Evermore.” (“It sounded like a dance-around-the-maypole number,” Page later confessed.)


The Band, ‘The Band’

The Band was four-fifths Canadian — drummer Levon Helm was from Arkansas – but their second album was all American. Guitarist Robbie Robertson’s songs vividly evoke the country’s pioneer age — “Across the Great Divide,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” — while reflecting the state of the nation in the 1960s. The Band’s long life on the road resonates in the brawn of Garth Hudson’s keyboards and Helm’s juke-joint attack. But Robertson’s stories truly live in Helm’s growl, Rick Danko’s high tenor, and Richard Manuel’s spectral croon. “Somebody once said he had a tear in his voice,” Helm said of Manuel. “Richard had one of the richest textured voices I’d ever heard.”


Liz Phair, ‘Exile in Guyville’

“Watch how fast they run to the flame,” Liz Phair sang, and true to that promise her debut double LP set the underground on fire. Phair and co-producer Brad Wood built off the bedroom demo intimacy of Phair’s Girly-Sound cassette releases, creating a loose response record to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (“I had a lot to say on the subject matter they put forth,” she told Rolling Stone). Her strikingly frank sex talk caused a media stir unheard of for a “low-fi” artitst, but it was the caffeinated drive of songs like “6’1” and “Never Said,” the painterly sonic impressionism of the piano piece “Canary” or the sunset majestic “Stratford-On-Guy,” and the real hurt and hunger of “Fuck and Run” and “Divorce Song” that made Exile hit home.


Pink Floyd, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’

“I think every album was a step towards Dark Side of the Moon,” keyboardist Rick Wright said. “We were learning all the time; the techniques of the recording and our writing was getting better.” As a culmination of their inner-space explorations of the early 1970s, the Floyd toured the bulk of Dark Side in Britain for months prior to recording. But in the studio, the band articulated bassist Roger Waters’ reveries on the madness of everyday life with melodic precision (“Breathe,” “Us and Them”) and cinematic luster (Clare Torry’s guest vocal aria “The Great Gig in the Sky”). Dark Side is one of the best-produced rock albums ever, and “Money” may be rock’s only Top 20 hit in 7/4 time.


James Brown, ‘Star Time’

So great is James Brown’s impact that even with 71 songs on four CDs, Star Time isn’t quite comprehensive — between 1956 and 1984, Brown placed an astounding 103 singles on the R&B charts. But every phase of his career is well-represented here: the pleading, straight-up R&B of “Please, Please, Please”; his instantaneous reinvention of R&B with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” where the rhythm takes over and the melody is subsumed within the groove; his spokesmanship for the civil rights movement in “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud (Part 1)”; his founding document of Seventies funk, “Sex Machine”; and his blueprint for hip-hop in “Funky Drummer.”


Jimi Hendrix, ‘Electric Ladyland’

Jimi Hendrix’s third album was the first he produced himself, a fever dream of underwater electric soul cut in round-the-clock sessions at the Record Plant in New York. Hendrix would leave the Record Plant to jam at a club around the corner, the Scene, and “Voodoo Chile” – 15 minutes of live-in-the-studio blues exploration with Steve Winwood on organ and the Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Cassidy on bass – reflects those excursions. In addition to psychedelic Delta blues, there was the precision snap of “Crosstown Traffic” and a cover of “All Along the Watchtower” that took Bob Dylan into outer space before touching down with a final burst of spectral fury.


David Bowie, ‘Station to Station’

The title track is where David Bowie proclaims himself the Thin White Duke. Thin he was: Station to Station was recorded in a blizzard of cocaine in Los Angeles, with Bowie subsisting on green peppers and milk and almost never sleeping. The manic mood fueled an album that was futuristic but accessible, “plastic soul” speeding toward the electronic epiphanies of his Berlin phase. “TVC 15” is New Orleans R&B as robotic funk; “Golden Years” is James Brown from outer space, with Bowie’s amazing falsetto; and the 10-minute title track summed up his constant sense of motion at the time — opening with the sound of a train coming and eventually exploding into a Euro-disco breakdown that sounds like Saturday Night Fever at the android factory.


Chuck Berry, ‘The Great Twenty-Eight’

In the latter half of the Fifties, Chuck Berry released a string of singles that defined the sound and spirit of rock & roll. “Maybellene,” a fast, countryish rocker about a race between a Ford and a Cadillac, kicked it all off in 1955, and one classic hit followed another, each powered by Berry’s staccato, country-blues-guitar gunfire: “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Rock & Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Back in the U.S.A.” What was Berry’s secret? In the maestro’s own words: “The nature and backbone of my beat is boogie, and the muscle of my music is melodies that are simple.” This collection culls the best of that magic from 1955 to 1965.