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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


The Who, ‘Tommy’

“Rock opera” is one way to describe the pioneering ambition in Pete Townshend’s musical exploration of childhood trauma, sexual abuse, repression, and spiritual release (after all, it does have an overture). Here’s another way: the slash and thunder of “My Generation” blown wide open. Driven by the hellbent drumming of Keith Moon, the Who surge and shine, igniting the drama in Townshend’s melodies (“Pinball Wizard,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It”). “We worked out the sociological implications, the religious implications, the rock implications,” Townshend said. “When we’d done that, we went into the studio, got smashed out of our brains, and made it.”


Sleater-Kinney, ‘Dig Me Out’

“I wanna be your Joey Ramone,” Corin Tucker promised on Sleater-Kinney’s 1996 album, Call the Doctor. Their next record made good on that mythic ambition. When drummer Janet Weiss joined singer-guitarists Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, a riot-grrrl force of nature became one of the world’s most potent rock bands. Tucker’s indelible vibrato takes off with avenging-angel ferocity on songs like the almost impossibly explosive title track and “Words and Guitar,” an awe-inspiring statement of rock & roll’s power to transform a broken world.


T. Rex, ‘Electric Warrior’

“A successful, hit rock & roll record is a spell,” T. Rex leader Marc Bolan told Rolling Stone. And so, muttering “eye of Bowie, toe of Slade,” Bolan cast a spell over all of England. He took his Tolkienesque hippie music and gave it a glammed-out Chuck Berry update on sexy singles like “Bang a Gong (Get It On)”; this was rock that thrusted, quivered, and recklessly employed metaphors equating cars with sex (“You got a hubcap diamond star halo”). He outdid himself with “Jeepster,” an entire song on the topic, vibrating with lust, a shuffling beat, lots of guitar, and the sound of Bolan stomping on the studio floor.


Ice Cube, ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’

Six months after quitting N.W.A, the group’s most gifted lyricist returned with a vengeance on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, recorded with Public Enemy’s production crew, the Bomb Squad. Lyrically, it sharpened N.W.A’s politics; “Why more niggas in the pen than in college?” Cube asks on “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate.” The album’s rapacious sexism has aged horrendously, though give Cube some credit for being smart enough to include the stunning “It’s a Man’s World,” in which female rapper Yo-Yo tells him off straight to his face.


Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’

No one ever disputed the boisterous energy of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ music — it was only a matter of whether these funky monks could write riffs and songs that stood alongside their idols. On their fifth studio album, they got the balance right. They went touchy-feely (and multiplatinum) with the ballad “Under the Bridge,” the biggest of the album’s five hit singles. In addition, guitarist John Frusciante brought energizing, songful riffs, producer Rick Rubin kept the songs streamlined and free of juvenilia, and Anthony Kiedis brought a new degree of simplicity to his singing.


The Rolling Stones, ‘Beggars Banquet’

“When we had been in the States between 1964 and ’66, I had gathered together this enormous collection of records, but I never had any time to listen to them,” Keith Richards recalled. “In late 1966 and ‘67, I unwrapped them and actually played them.” After the wayward psychedelia of Their Satanic Majesties Request, and with guitarist Brian Jones largely AWOL, Richards’ record collection led the Rolling Stones back to their version of America: country music on “Dear Doctor,” the blues on “Prodigal Son,” and urban riots on “Street Fighting Man.” And “Sympathy for the Devil,” of course, is an anthem for the darkness in every human heart.


Cyndi Lauper, ‘She’s So Unusual’

With her garish thrift-store fashions and exaggerated Queens accent, Lauper had a kooky image that was perfect for MTV. But she also had a superb, clarion voice and a pack of great covers, including “Money Changes Everything” (originally by Atlanta New Wave band the Brains) and Prince’s saucy “When You Were Mine.” Lauper co-wrote four songs, including the lovely ballad “Time After Time” and the masturbation call-to-arms “She Bop.” But her smartest move was to change the lyrics of Robert Hazard’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” until it became a “very blatantly feminist” song about equality. “For a minute, I made it popular to be the odd guy out,” she said.


D’Angelo, ‘Brown Sugar’

A minister’s son from Richmond, Virginia, who performed in a hip-hop group as a teenager, D’Angelo was just entering his twenties when he released his debut, a visionary fusion of Seventies soul and Nineties R&B that paved the way for neo-soul. D’Angelo did nearly everything on Brown Sugar, layering his own dazzling harmonies while displaying a studio command that recalled Prince and Stevie Wonder, whether on the down and dirty “Jonz in My Bonz” or psychedelic soul of “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine,” sounding so warm and chill you almost don’t notice that “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” is a did-me-wrong double-murder fantasy.


James Taylor, ‘Sweet Baby James’

Taylor’s second album landed him on the cover of Time magazine, and its gentle melodies drew the blueprint for many of the Seventies singer-songwriters that followed. But he went through a private hell on his way to success; the hit “Fire and Rain” was inspired by his stay in a psychiatric institution in the mid-1960s (he had committed himself) and the suicide of a close friend. In the months before making this album, Taylor committed himself again, this time to kick heroin. His confessional lyrics set a new standard, as did the spare melodicism of his songs. But it was the quiet strength in his voice that makes this album a model of folk-pop healing.


Bob Dylan, ‘Bringing It All Back Home’

“It’s very complicated to play with electricity,” Dylan said in the summer of 1965. “You’re dealing with other people.… Most people who don’t like rock & roll can’t relate to other people.” But on Side One of this pioneering album, Dylan amplifies his cryptic, confrontational songwriting with guitar lightning and galloping drums. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm” are loud, caustic, and funny as hell. Dylan returns to solo acoustic guitar on the four superb songs on Side Two, including the scabrous “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and the closing ballad, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” arguably his finest, most affectionate song of dismissal.


Love, ‘Forever Changes’

“When I did that album,” singer Arthur Lee said, “I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words.” Lee, who died of cancer in 2006, was still performing this album live well into the ‘00s. And for good reason: Love’s third record is his crowning achievement. A biracial cult band from L.A. that rarely gigged out of town in its 1960s heyday, Love were Lee’s vehicle for a pioneering folk-rock turned into elegant armageddon with the symphonic sweep and mariachi-brass drama of “Alone Again Or,” “Andmoreagain,” and “You Set the Scene.” In the late Nineties, Lee served time in prison. After his release, he brought extra pathos to “Live and Let Live” when he sang, “Served my time, served it well.”


Notorious B.I.G., ‘Life After Death’

Biggie’s second album was a victory lap following the immense, earth-shaking success of his 1994 debut, Ready to Die, and was prophetically and tragically released less than a month after the 24-year-old was shot and killed. The rubber-grooved “Hypnotize” was already on its way to becoming a smash when he died, and his lyrical genius and gift for narrative were on display all over this two-CD set, as he grapples with rap-game politics and delivers thinly veiled knocks at the West Coasters he long beefed with over clean, lush-sounding production. He was just getting started.


Otis Redding, ‘Otis Blue’

Redding’s third album includes covers of three songs by Sam Cooke, Redding’s idol, who had died the previous December. Their styles were different: Cooke, smooth and sure; Redding, raw and pleading. But Redding’s versions of “Shake” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” show how Cooke’s sound and message helped shape Redding’s Southern soul, heard here in his originals “Respect” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and in a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which was itself inspired by the Stax/Volt sound. “I use a lot of words different than the Stones’ version,” Redding noted. “That’s because I made them up.”


Rod Stewart, ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’

“We had no preconceived ideas of what we were going to do,” Rod Stewart said. “We would have a few drinks and strum away and play.” With a first-class band of drinking buddies (including guitarist Ron Wood and drummer Mickey Waller), Stewart made a loose, warm, compassionate album, rocking hard with mostly acoustic instruments. “Mandolin Wind” was his moving ballad of a country couple toughing out a long winter on the farm; the title tune was a hilarious goof. But Stewart scored his first Number One hit with “Maggie May,” his autobiographical tale of a young stud getting kicked in the head by an older lady.


Public Enemy, ‘Fear of a Black Planet’

Public Enemy derived the title of their pyrophoric third album from the writing of Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, a professor who theorized that the purpose of racism was to assure “white genetic survival.” (That’s her speaking in the first few bars of “Meet the G That Killed Me.”) The lyrical flap surrounding “Welcome to the Terrordome” couldn’t overwhelm Public Enemy’s widescreen vision of hip-hop, which included the righteous noise of “Fight the Power,” the uplifting sentiment of “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” and the agit-funk of “911 Is a Joke.”


Kendrick Lamar, ‘DAMN.’

After the sprawl of To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar tightened up, going for the jugular in the most aggressive, banger-based album of his career. He dissects his own “DNA,” as well as America’s, raving about “the feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’.” He delves into his family history in “Duckworth” and scored his first Number One hit with “Humble.” It’s an album where both Bono and Rihanna sound right at home — but it all sounds like Lamar. “It came out exactly how I heard it in my head,” he explained at the time. “It’s all pieces of me.” Grammy-haters were vindicated when DAMN. lost out to Bruno Mars for Album of the Year, but DAMN. did end up pulling a Pulitzer Prize for Music, a first for a rap album.


Jimmy Cliff and Various Artists, ‘The Harder They Come: Original Soundtrack’

This was the album that took reggae worldwide. The movie was a Jamaican stew of Robin Hood, High Sierra, and Easy Rider — reggae singer turns outlaw hero, goes on the run with guns blazing — with patois dialogue so thick that U.S. audiences needed subtitles. But the soundtrack needed no translation, introducing Babylon to the new beat. The film’s star, Jimmy Cliff, sings six songs, including the hymn “Many Rivers to Cross.” There are glorious one-shots (especially Scotty’s demented “Draw Your Brakes”), as well as artists such as Desmond Dekker (“Shanty Town”), the Melodians (“Rivers of Babylon), and Toots and the Maytals (“Pressure Drop”).


Nirvana, ‘In Utero’

After Nevermind went megaplatinum, Kurt Cobain detested how the band had drawn frat boys and homophobe fans — “plankton,” he called them, adding, “Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” Nirvana hired indie-rock producer Steve Albini to record their new album, resulting in a record sonically forbidding enough that Geffen Records asked them to clean it up. In “Scentless Apprentice,” he screams, “Go away!” at no one and everyone, summarizing this powerfully unsettling third album. Melodies peak through the clouds of his wrath, especially on “All Apologies,” “Dumb,” and “Pennyroyal Tea,” but the prevailing mood is queasy, like a visit to the inside of Cobain’s aching stomach.


Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’

On their fifth and final studio album, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were pulling away from each other: Simon assembled some of it while Garfunkel was in Mexico starting his acting career with a part in the film version of Catch-22. Garfunkel vetoed Simon’s song “Cuba Sí, Nixon No,” and Simon nixed Garfunkel’s idea for a Bach chorale. What remains is the partnership at its best: wry, wounded songs with healing harmonies such as “The Boxer,” though the gorgeous title track was sung by Garfunkel alone, despite his resistance. “He felt I should have done it,” Simon told Rolling Stone in 1972. “And many times, I’m sorry I didn’t do it.”


Sonic Youth, ‘Daydream Nation’

Sonic Youth took an ecstatic, specifically New York sound created in the late 1970s by the band Television and by composers Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, and turned it into an international clamor. On this double album, they make a move away from doomy riddles about pop culture and toward joyful riddles about pop culture. Their unconventional guitar tunings result in jarring chords and overtones, but also an array of gnarled hooks. Thurston Moore’s and Lee Ranaldo’s guitars are like antennae picking up otherworldly signals and channeling them into the scuzzy urban haze of “Teen Age Riot” and “Eric’s Trip,” and on “The Sprawl,” bassist Kim Gordon sums up the album’s measured chaos: “Does ‘Fuck you’ sound simple enough?”


Cream, ‘Disraeli Gears’

Of all Cream’s studio albums, Disraeli Gears is the sharpest and most linear. The power trio focused their instrumental explorations into colorful pop songs: “Strange Brew” (slinky funk), “Dance the Night Away” (trippy jangle), “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (a wah-wah freakout that Eric Clapton wrote with Martin Sharp, who created the kaleidoscopic cover art). The hit “Sunshine of Your Love” nearly didn’t make it onto the record; the band had trouble nailing it until famed Atlantic Records engineer Tom Dowd suggested that Ginger Baker try a Native American tribal beat, a simple adjustment that locked the song into place.


Billy Joel, ‘The Stranger’

On this record, Billy Joel found the recipe for success: a bottle of red, a bottle of white, and a sharp eye for the local color of New York street life. The Piano Man sharpens his storytelling gifts with a Scorsese-style sense of humor and compassion, whether he’s singing about a down-and-out Little Italy hustler in “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” the femme fatale in “She’s Always a Woman,” or the doomed Long Island greaser couple Brenda and Eddie in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” Meanwhile, Joel hit the pop charts with the Grammy-winning “Just the Way You Are” (written for his first wife and manager, Elizabeth), which became a wedding-band standard.


Steely Dan, ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’

Working as hired songwriters by day, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker rehearsed this debut in executives’ offices by night. “We play rock & roll, but we swing,” said Becker. For proof, check the cool lounge-jazz rhythms of “Do It Again” and the hot guitar of “Reelin’ in the Years.” Even florid lead vocalist David Palmer (who the band soon fired) couldn’t damage the sad, stately beauty of “Dirty Work”; on “Brooklyn,” Becker and Fagen wrote the perfect elusive ode to their native borough. Their debut kicked off an amazing run of albums, like 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy and 1974’s Pretzel Logic, that are just as fantastic.


Depeche Mode, ‘Violator’

One of England’s first synth-pop bands, Depeche Mode had moved beyond their bubblegum phase by the time of their seventh album and, under the influence of hip-hop, began playing with samples and loops, even betraying their keyboard roots with the twangy guitar that opens “Personal Jesus.” Alan Wilder created the dense, constantly shifting arrangements, Martin Gore wrote the pervy lyrics, and Dave Gahan croons implacably about betrayal, immorality, and sexual domination. The percolating “Enjoy the Silence” became their only U.S. Top 10 single, and “Policy of Truth” did almost as well. With its panoply of high-gloss hooks and arresting, artificial sounds, Violator cemented Depeche Mode’s status as the first electronic band that could fill stadiums.


Buddy Holly, ’20 Golden Greats’

Buddy Holly spent his teenage years kicking around Texas playing straight country music — until, at 19, when he got a gig opening for Elvis Presley. With that, Holly later claimed, he became a rock & roller. For the next two years, he put his trademark vocal hiccup on springy rockabilly, orchestral ballads, and Chuck Berry covers — an eclecticism that had a huge impact on the future Beatles. “Rave On,” “Peggy Sue,” and “Not Fade Away” made Holly one of rock’s first great singer-songwriters. He was also its first major casualty: dead at 22, in a plane crash after a show in Iowa in 1959.


R.E.M., ‘Murmur’

“We wanted to have this kind of timeless record,” guitarist Peter Buck said of R.E.M.’s debut LP, and this “technically limited” band (according to producer Don Dixon) did just that. Buck was a rock scholar who had worked in a record store; singer Michael Stipe unspooled his lyrics as if they constituted some new secret language. Murmur is full of ringing guitars and mystery. The lyrics and the melodies seem buried, almost subliminal, and even the songs with something approximating hooks, such as “Radio Free Europe,” resist clarity. Murmur was a founding document of alternative rock, released just as Gen X was heading off to college.


Johnny Cash, ‘At Folsom Prison’

By the late Sixties, Cash was ignored by country radio and struggling for a comeback. At Folsom Prison was a million-seller that reignited his career. A year later, he was writing liner notes for Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and logging four weeks at Number One with his second prison album, At San Quentin. But Folsom Prison is essential Cash. Backed by a tough touring band, including fellow Sun Records alum Carl Perkins on guitar, Cash guffaws his way through “Cocaine Blues,” “25 Minutes to Go” (a countdown to an execution), and “Folsom Prison Blues,” with its line about shooting a man just to watch him die. The 2,000 inmates in attendance roar their approval.


Various Artists, ‘Saturday Night Fever’

In the mid-Seventies, the Bee Gees swept away the arch pop of their Sixties hits and applied their silvery-helium harmonies to the creamy syncopation of disco. They made great albums in their new incarnation (such as 1975’s Main Course), but none bigger or more influential than this movie soundtrack. Over the decades, Saturday Night Fever sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, and its musical worth justifies the numbers. The Bee Gees dominate (“Stayin’ Alive” is the pulse of the picture as well as the album), but the Trammps’ hot-funk assault “Disco Inferno” and Tavares’ yearning “More Than a Woman” affirm disco’s black-R&B roots.


Pulp, ‘Different Class’

Pulp blew up in the Brit-pop scene of the 1990s, yet Jarvis Cocker outclassed all his rivals as a master storyteller and wit. This man was a born rock star in the Bowie mode, striking a pose in his thrift-shop razzmatazz, but with his own sly sense of compassion. On Different Class, he croons his breathy tales of working-class lust, envy, and dread, over the swishy, trash-disco grooves of “Common People” and “Disco 2000.” You can hear the shabby glamour in his voice when he sighs, “I’ve kissed your mother twice/And now I’m working on your dad.” But in the finale, “Bar Italia,” he makes a post-clubbing hangover sound like the most romantic adventure in the world.


Crosby, Stills & Nash, ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’

Harmony singing existed before Crosby, Stills and Nash became one of rock’s first supergroups, in 1968. But during a particularly tumultuous time for the country, their distinctive, hippie-angelic blend felt hopeful and uplifting, whether they were singing about the distressed state of America (Crosby’s “Long Time Gone”) or their own wounded hearts (Stills’ epic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”). No wonder Jimi Hendrix called the album (which captured the group at its most cohesive) “groovy, Western-sky music.” The tumultuous reality of the band’s existence meant their harmony would be hard to sustain, but here it’s practically an advertisement for community in action.


Pearl Jam, ‘Ten’

More than any of the Northwest bands that preceded them, Pearl Jam turned grunge into rock’s dominant new sound. Their first album includes stories about homelessness (“Even Flow”), murder (“Once”), execution (“Footsteps”), incest (“Alive”), psychiatric hospitals (“Why Go”), and romantic disappointment (“Black”). Most notoriously, “Jeremy” told the story of a high school kid who takes revenge on his bullies by killing himself in class — though the lyrics don’t make that clear, the accompanying video did. Pearl Jam committed themselves to songs of darkness and trouble, especially in adolescent life, and Eddie Vedder delivers them with conviction, in a voice that makes you feel like the events are happening right now, in front of you.


The Police, ‘Synchronicity’

“I do my best work when I’m in pain and turmoil,” Sting told Rolling Stone. And indeed, the dissolution of his first marriage produced some of his best work, including “King of Pain” and the stalker’s anthem “Every Breath You Take.” There was pain and turmoil in the band, too — it would be the Police’s last album. But it became one of the Eighties’ biggest pop-rock blockbusters, perhaps the finest example of Sting’s unique gift for distilling complex psychological and romantic dramas, which still ruled radio and MTV, while making proggy musicianship and dense composition palatable to the mall-rat masses.


Erykah Badu, ‘Mama’s Gun’

Richly direct and meditative, Erykah Badu’s second album took no prisoners. Mama’s Gun gave us an even more personal version of the neo-soul brilliance she displayed on her 1997 debut, focused by a few more years of life experience (including the dissolution of her relationship with OutKast’s André 3000 and the time off she took to welcome their son, Seven). On the J Dilla-produced “Didn’t Cha Know,” she’s luminously lost; by “Bag Lady,” she’s made peace with her past emotional baggage. With contributions from like-minded artists like Questlove and Roy Ayers, Badu created a wildly free, deliciously ambitious song cycle out of her own hard-won truths.


Oasis, ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’

With their second album, the fighting Gallagher brothers embraced their Stones and Beatles comparisons, then went ahead and established themselves as a rock & roll force in their own right with barnburners (“Roll With It”) and epic tunes, like the glorious “Wonderwall.” “The whole of the first album is about escape,” Noel Gallagher told Rolling Stone in 1996, of 1994’s Definitely Maybe. “It’s about getting away from the shitty, boring life of Manchester. The first album is about dreaming of being a pop star in a band. The second album is about actually being a pop star in a band.”


The Replacements, ‘Let It Be’

Copping a Beatles title was cheeky; attaching it to a post-punk masterpiece was a sign of maturity. Said Paul Westerberg, “This was the first time I had songs that we arranged, rather than just banging out riffs.” Mixing punk, pop, and country with wry lyrics, his songs describe heroes (the gender-bending couple in “Androgynous”) and villains (an unsanitary dentist in “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out”; MTV in “Seen Your Video”), and pack in quips about the group’s lack of success (“Fingernails and cigarettes, a lousy dinner”) with swagger and pride. The coup is “Unsatisfied,” a pained howl of unhappiness that forced people to take this ratty band seriously.


Jay-Z, ‘The Black Album’

By 2003, Jay-Z was out of antagonists to dominate and his Roc-A-Fella label was a true dynasty. So he pulled the rap version of Michael Jordan’s 1993 retirement, with his much vaunted “farewell record.” Backed by a phalanx of superproducers (Kanye West, the Neptunes, Timbaland), he proved himself, once again, “pound for pound … the best to ever come around.” As you might expect, The Black Album is a towering feat of melodramatic self-mythologizing, tracing his birth (“December 4th”), hustler peak (“99 Problems”), and afterlife (“Lucifer”). Apparently, Jay wasn’t too happy with the eulogy, because three years later he was back.


Aretha Franklin, ‘Amazing Grace’

“I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Amazing Grace is Aretha’s singular masterpiece,” Marvin Gaye observed. Recorded in an L.A. church with her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, on hand and Mick Jagger dancing in the back of the congregation, this return to Aretha Franklin’s gospel roots remains the bestselling album of her career, containing, arguably, the greatest singing she recorded. Part of this is because it didn’t sound like it took place in a church; Franklin approaches sacred songs as if they were soul standards, and delivers Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” like it’s a hymn. “How I Got Over,” her fervent thank you to Jesus, must have made the Lord blush.


PJ Harvey, ‘Rid of Me’

“I very much wanted to write songs that shocked,” Polly Jean Harvey said years after releasing her second album. The shock came partly from her lyrics, which were often proclamations of sexual compulsion, and also from the intense dynamic shifts in her music, which careen from blues to goth, often in the space of one song. Harvey was under the influence of Howlin’ Wolf, Tom Waits, and Flannery O’Connor, and her singing, writing, and lead-guitar playing coalesce into something marked by flames. The lyrics have lots of licking, moaning, bleeding, stroking, open mouths, and dismembered body parts. The songs spew viscera as they build to a sticky ecstasy.


The Pretenders, ‘Pretenders’

After years of knocking around Ohio and England, writing record reviews and hanging with the Sex Pistols, Chrissie Hynde put together a band as tough as her attitude. The Pretenders’ debut is filled with no-nonsense New Wave rock such as “Mystery Achievement” — plus a cover of “Stop Your Sobbing,” by the Kinks’ Ray Davies (three years later, the father of Hynde’s child). The biggest hit was “Brass in Pocket,” a song of ambition and seduction. Hynde, however, wasn’t so sure about the song’s success. “I was embarrassed by it,” she said. “I hated it so much that if I was in Woolworth’s and they started playing it, I’d have to run out of the store.”


George Michael, ‘Faith’

As the main singer and writer in the 1980s British pop band Wham!, George Michael paraded around in sleeveless mesh shirts and Fila short-shorts. Wham! songs were smarter than they appeared, and when Michael went solo to prove what he could do, he nailed it on the first try, integrating R&B in his songwriting, from soul ballads (“Father Figure,” “One More Try”) to horny Prince-inspired funk (“I Want Your Sex,” “Hard Day”). The album sold 25 million copies worldwide, and four singles went to Number One in the U.S. “You either see pop music as a contemporary art form, or you don’t. I do, very strongly,” Michael said.