500 Greatest Albums List (2003)
The RS 500 was assembled by the editors of Rolling Stone, based on the results of two extensive polls. In 2003, Rolling Stone asked a panel of 271 artists, producers, industry executives and journalists to pick the greatest albums of all time. In 2009, we asked a similar group of 100 experts to pick the best albums of the 2000s. From those results, Rolling Stone created this new list of the greatest albums of all time.
Read the New 500 Greatest Albums of All Time List Published in 2020
The Zombies, ‘Odessey and Oracle’
Odessey and Oracle wasn't released in the U.S. until 1969 – two years after it was recorded and the Zombies had broken up. But its baroque psychedelic-pop arrangements still felt fresh – combining the adventure of Sgt. Pepper with the concision of British Invasion pop. And "Time of the Season" went on to become a Number Three hit.
Sly and the Family Stone, ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’
Sly's 1969 album Stand! burst with optimism. But he met the Seventies with implosive, numbing, darkly self-referential funk that was deeply compelling in its anguish over dreams deferred.
Elvis Costello, ‘This Year’s Model’
Costello's second album, and his first with the Attractions, is his most "punk" – not in any I-hate-the-cops sense but in his emotionally explosive writing and his backing band's vicious gallop. "Radio, Radio," the broadside against vanilla-pop broadcasting, distills his righteous indignation: Elvis versus the world. And Elvis wins.
Bob Dylan, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’
On Dylan's second album, the poetry and articulate fury of his lyrics and the simple, compelling melodies in songs like "Masters of War" and "Blowin' in the Wind" transformed American songwriting. Not bad for a guy who had just turned 22.
The Who, ‘Tommy’
"Rock opera" is one way to describe this exploration of childhood trauma, sexual abuse, repression and spiritual release. Here's another way: the slash and thunder of "My Generation" blown wide open. Driven by Keith Moon's hellbent drumming, the Who surge and shine, igniting the drama in Pete Townshend's melodies.
Miles Davis, ‘Bitches Brew’
Davis wanted to connect his music to the audience of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. The result was this double album of jazz-rock fusion, cut with an electric orchestra that included saxophonist Wayne Shorter and guitarist John McLaughlin. It’s full of visceral thrills and the brooding darkness Davis brought to everything he touched.
Hank Williams, ’40 Greatest Hits’
When he died on New Year's Day 1953, at age 29, in the back of a Cadillac, Williams was the biggest star in country music. His vocal twang, lovesick ballads and long-gone-daddy romps left their stamp on decades of rock & roll – from Elvis to Dylan to the Replacements to Beck.
Prince, ‘Sign ‘o’ the Times’
Paisley Park, 1987
The most expansive R&B record of the Eighties is best known for the apocalyptic title track, the funk banger "Housequake" and the gorgeous "If I Was Your Girlfriend." Yet the simplest moments are unforgettable: the guitar plea "The Cross" and the Stax revamp on "Slow Love."
Buddy Holly, ’20 Golden Greats’
The country-weened Texan put his trademark hiccup on springy rockabilly, tight rave-ups and orchestral ballads – 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.
Elton John, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’
Elton John compared this double album to the Beatles' White Album, and why not? By this point he was the most consistent hitmaker since the Fab Four, and soon enough he would be recording with John Lennon. Everything about Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is supersonically huge, from the Wagnerian-operalike combo of "Funeral for a Friend" and "Love Lies Bleeding" to the electric boots and mohair suit of "Bennie and the Jets." "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" is strutting rock & roll, "Candle in the Wind" pays tribute to Marilyn Monroe, and the title track harnesses the fantastic imagery of glam to a Gershwin-sweet melody.
Stevie Wonder, ‘Talking Book’
"I don't think you know where I'm coming from," Stevie 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. But it's still radiant pop. "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."
Dusty Springfield, ‘Dusty in Memphis’
London-born 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 Wilson Pickett hits that she never actually managed to sing a note there ("I always wanted to be Aretha," she recalled years after). 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.
Johnny Cash, ‘At Folsom Prison’
By the late Sixties, Johnny Cash was ignored by country radio and struggling for a comeback. At Folsom Prison was the gold-selling shot in the arm that revived his career. A year later, he was writing liner notes for Bob Dylan's countrified Nashville Skyline and logging four weeks at Number One with his second prison album, At San Quentin. But At Folsom Prison is essential Cash. Backed by his 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.
Pink Floyd, ‘The Wall’
Pink Floyd's most elaborately theatrical album was inspired by their own success: the alienating enormity of their tours after The Dark Side of the Moon [see No. 43]. As the band played arenas in 1977, bassistlyricist Roger Waters first hit upon the wall as a metaphor for isolation and rebellion. He finished a demo of the work by July 1978; the double album then took the band a year to make. Rock's ultimate self-pity opera, The Wall is also hypnotic in its indulgence: the totalitarian thunder of "In the Flesh?," the suicidal languor of "Comfortably Numb," the Brechtian drama of "The Trial" and the anti-institutional spleen of the album's unshakable disco hit, "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2." Rock-star hubris has never been more electrifying.
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’
Bruce Springsteen wrote many of these songs in a fit of inspiration that also gave birth to the harrowing Nebraska [see No. 226]. "Particularly on the first side, [Born] is actually written very much like Nebraska," he said. "The characters and the stories, the style of writing – except it's just in the rock-band setting." It was a crucial difference: The E Street Band put so much punch into the ironic title song that millions misheard it as mere flag-waving instead (conservative pundit George Will wrote a rhapsodic column titled "A Yankee Doodle Springsteen"). The immortal force of the album is in Springsteen's frank mix of soaring optimism and the feeling of, as he put it, being "handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper's Ford."
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 released in 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," the revved-up longing of "Since You've Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)" and her explosive anguish on the hit cover of Don Covay's "Chain of Fools."
Aretha Franklin, ‘I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You’
Aretha Franklin's Atlantic debut is the place where gospel collided with R&B and rock & roll to make soul music as we know it today. The Detroitborn preacher's daughter was about $80,000 in debt to her previous label, Columbia – where she had recorded a series of somewhat tame early-Sixties albums – when Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler signed her in 1966. "I took her to church," Wexler said, "sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself." She immediately cut the album's title hit, a slow fire of ferocious sexuality, while her storefrontchurch cover of Otis Redding's "Respect" – Franklin's first Number One pop single – became the marching song for the women's and civil rights movements.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Axis: Bold as Love’
Jimi Hendrix's first album remade rock & roll with guitar magic that no one had ever dreamed of; his second album had even more sorcery. 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 6 Was 9": "I'm the one who's gonna have 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.
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 ABC-TV variety show the first weekend that Harvest was being cut with an odd group of accomplished session musicians that included bassist Tim Drummond, who had played with James Brown (Young's bandmates Crosby, Stills and Nash also appeared on the album). The sound, on tracks like "Old Man" and "The Needle and the Damage Done," was Americana (steel guitar, slide guitar, banjo) stripped down and rebuilt with every jagged edge exposed.
The Clash, ‘The Clash’
"I haven't got any illusions about anything," Joe Strummer said. "Having said that, I still want to try to change things." That youthful ambition bursts through the Clash's debut, a machine-gun blast of songs about unemployment ("Career Opportunities"), race ("White Riot"), the Clash themselves ("Clash City Rockers") and the sick English music industry ("[White Man] In Hammersmith Palais"). Most of the guitar was played by Mick Jones, because Strummer considered studio technique insufficiently punk. The American release was delayed two years and replaced some of the U.K. tracks with recent singles, including "Complete Control" – a complaint about exactly that sort of record-company shenanigans.
John Lennon, ‘Imagine’
After the primal-scream therapy of Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon softened up and opened up on his second solo album. There is still the stinging "Gimme Some Truth" and Lennon's evisceration of Paul McCartney, "How Do You Sleep?" – both featuring George Harrison on guitar. But there is also the aching soul of "Jealous Guy" and the irresistible vulnerability of "Oh Yoko!" Imagine is self-consciously luminescent, pointedly embraceable, the sound of cynicism melting. Lennon said of the title track, "Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anticonventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugarcoated it is accepted… Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey."
Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin II’
This album – recorded on the fly while the band was touring – opens with one of the most exhilarating guitar riffs in rock & roll: Jimmy Page's searing stutter in "Whole Lotta Love." As Page told Rolling Stone, "On the second LP, you can hear the real group identity coming together," by which he meant the unified might of his own white-blues devilry, John Bonham's hands-of-God drumming, Robert Plant's misty-mountain howl and John Paul Jones' firm bass and keyboard colors. Other great reasons to bang your head: "The Lemon Song," "Heartbreaker" and "Ramble On," where Plant meets a girl in the darkest depths of Mordor and singlehandedly engenders a sales spike for J.R.R. Tolkien books.
Otis Redding, ‘Otis Blue’
Otis 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." Two years later, his life would also be tragically cut short.
AC/DC, ‘Back in Black’
In the middle of album rehearsals, singer Bon Scott went on a drinking spree; he choked on his own 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 and savvy producer Mutt Lange. The resulting album has the relentless logic of a sledgehammer. Back in Black might be the purest distillation of hard rock ever: The title track, "Hells Bells" and the primo dance-metal banger "You Shook Me All Night Long" have all become enduring anthems of strutting blues-based guitar heat
Prince and the Revolution, ‘Purple Rain’
Warner Bros., 1984
The blockbuster soundtrack to Prince's semiautobiographical movie was raunchy enough to inspire the formation of the censorship watchdog group Parents' Music Resource Center. It also showcased Prince's abilities as a guitarist, especially on "Let's Go Crazy." But at heart, Purple Rain is defined by its brilliant idiosyncrasies. Its breakthrough hit, "When Doves Cry," has no bass track (looking for a different sound, Prince removed it). According to keyboardist Dr. Fink, the title track was inspired by Bob Seger – when Prince was touring behind 1999 [see No. 163], Seger was playing many of the same markets. Prince didn't understand his appeal but decided to try a ballad in the Seger mode.
James Brown, ‘Star Time’
So great is James Brown's impact that even the four-CD Star Time isn't quite comprehensive – between 1956 and 1988, Brown placed an astounding 100 singles on the R&B Top 40 charts. But every phase of his career is well represented here: the pleading, straight-up soul of "Please, Please, Please"; his instantaneous reinvention of R&B with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," where the rhythm takes over and melody is subsumed within the groove; his spokesmanship for the civil rights movement in "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud (Pt. 1)"; his founding document of Seventies funk, "Get Up (I Feel Like Sex Being a) Sex Machine"; and his blueprint for hip-hop in "Funky Drummer." At 71 tracks, it never gets close to running out of soul power.
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 in 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 (check the bracing "Southern Man"). Nils Lofgren, then a 17-year-old hotshot guitarist, squeezed into the sessions, but Young assigned him to the piano, an instrument he had never played in his life; it was a characteristically contrary move that worked out beautifully.
Led Zeppelin, ‘Physical Graffiti’
Swan Song, 1975
"Let's put it this way: I had a sitar before George Harrison," said Jimmy Page, explaining his longtime love for Indian music. Zep's frontman shared that affinity: In 1972, Robert Plant and Page journeyed to Bombay to make experimental recordings with Indian studio musicians and perform in an underground disco. Physical Graffiti is the ultimate in Led Zeppelin's attempts to fuse East and West, exploring the Arabic and Indian sonorities of "Kashmir" and "In the Light." It's Zeppelin's most eclectic album, featuring down-and-dirty blues ("Black Country Woman," "Boogie With Stu"), pop balladry ("Down by the Seaside") and the 11-minute "In My Time of Dying." An excessive album from the group that all but invented excess.
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-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 worldly-wise falsetto, narrating the bleak ghetto tales of "Pusherman" and "Freddie's Dead," telling hard truths about the drug trade and black life in the 1970s; it was Marvin Gaye's What's Going On at street level. "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."
Paul Simon, ‘Graceland’
Warner Bros., 1986
Frustrated by the experience of writing good songs that didn't come to life in the studio, Paul Simon set out "to make really good tracks," as he later put it. "I thought, 'I have enough songwriting technique that I can reverse this process and write the song after the tracks are made.'" Simon risked severe criticism by going to South Africa (then under apartheid) and working with the best musicians from the black townships. With the fluid energy and expertise of guitarist Ray Phiri and the vocal troupe Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Simon created an album about isolation and redemption that transcended "world music" to become the whole world's soundtrack. The bright grooves backed some of the sharpest, funniest lyrics of his career.
Billy Joel, ‘The Stranger’
Billy Joel had been on the verge throughout the mid-Seventies. But his fifth album had 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 hones 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 to Me" or the doomed Long Island greaser couple Brenda and Eddie in "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant." Meanwhile, he 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.
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 fourth album, Led Zeppelin match the raunch of "Black Dog" with Plant's most poetic lyrics for the inescapable epic ballad "Stairway to Heaven," while guitarist Jimmy Page veers from the blues apocalypse of "When the Levee Breaks" to the torrid Little Richard tribute "Rock & Roll" to the mandolin-driven "Battle of Evermore." ("It sounded like a dance-around-the-maypole number," Page later confessed.) Maypole or no, IV was the peak of Seventies hard rock.
Michael Jackson, ‘Off the Wall’
"The ballads were what made Off the Wall a Michael Jackson album," Jackson remembered of his big solo splash, which spun off four Top 10 hits and eclipsed the success of the Jackson 5. "I'd done ballads with [my] brothers, but they had never been too enthusiastic about them and did them more as a concession to me than anything else." In "She's Out of My Life," you can hear Jackson actually break down and cry in the studio. But the unstoppable dance tracks on Off the Wall – sculpted by Jackson and producer Quincy Jones – remain more or less perfect examples of why disco didn't suck. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Rock With You" and "Burn This Disco Out" still get the party started today.
Radiohead, ‘Kid A’
"Kid A is like getting a massive eraser out and starting again," Thom Yorke said in October 2000, the week this album became the British band's first Number One record in America. "I find it difficult to think of the path we've chosen as 'rock music.'" In fact, Kid A remains the most groundbreaking rock album of the '00s – Radiohead rebuilt, with a new set of bsaics and a bleak but potent humanity. Just when the Nineties alt-rock heroes seemed destined to become the next U2, they made a fractured, twitchy anti-opus. Despite esoteric nods to electronica ("Idioteque") and free jazz ("The National Anthem"), they morphed alien sounds into a surprisingly accessible elegy to tenderness – and had a hit anyway.
Van Morrison, ‘Moondance’
Warner Bros., 1970
"That was the type of band I dig," Van Morrison said of the Moondance sessions. "Two horns and a rhythm section – they're the type of bands that I like best." Morrison took that soul-band lineup and blended it with jazz, blues, poetry and vivid memories of his Irish childhood, until songs such as "And It Stoned Me," "Crazy Love" and "Caravan" felt like lucid dreams – it's some of the most romantic music ever made. In the lushly swinging title hit, Morrison turns the words over and over in his mouth, not scatting so much as searching for a new language of desire. The title of the album's transporting centerpiece, "Into the Mystic," serves as an apt summary: This is an album of late-night revelry and ecstatic visions.
Phil Spector, ‘Back to Mono (1958-1969)’
When the Righteous Brothers' Bobby Hatfield first heard their "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," with partner Bill Medley's extended solo, he asked, "But what do I do while he's singing the whole first verse?" Producer Phil Spector replied, "You can go directly to the bank!" Spector invented the idea of the rock producer as artist. He built his Wall of Sound out of hand claps, strings, massive overdubs and mountains of percussion, making some of the most frenzied, dramatic teenage-lust pop ever heard. This box has hits such as the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," Darlene Love's "A Fine, Fine Boy" and the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron," one of Spector's "little symphonies for the kids."
The Rolling Stones, ‘Sticky Fingers’
Rolling Stones Records, 1971
Drummer Charlie Watts remembered the origin of Sticky Fingers as the songs Mick Jagger wrote while filming the movie Ned Kelly in Australia. "Mick started playing the guitar a lot," Watts said. "He plays very strange rhythm guitar… very much how Brazilian guitarists play, on the upbeat. It is very much like the guitar on a James Brown track – for a drummer, it's great to play with." New guitarist Mick Taylor stretched out the Stones' sound in "Sway," "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" and "Moonlight Mile." But "Brown Sugar" is a classic Stones stomp, and two of the best cuts are country songs: one forlorn ("Wild Horses") and one funny ("Dead Flowers").
U2, ‘Achtung Baby’
After fostering a solemn public image for years, U2 loosened up on Achtung Baby, a prescient mix of sleek rock and pulsing Euro grooves recorded in Berlin and Dublin with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. They no longer sounded like young men sure of the answers; now they were full of doubt and longing. "It's a con, in a way," Bono told Rolling Stone about the album in 1992. "We call it Achtung Baby, grinning up our sleeves in all the photography. But it's probably the heaviest record we've ever made." "One" may be their most gorgeous song, but it's a dark ballad about a relationship in peril and the struggle to keep it together. Yet the emotional turmoil made U2 sound more human than ever.
Guns N’ Roses, ‘Appetite for Destruction’
The biggest-selling debut album of all time, Appetite for Destruction, features a lot more than the yowl of Indiana-bred W. Axl Rose, the only member still in Guns N' Roses. 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" and "Mr. Brownstone." When all the elements came together, as in the final two minutes of "Paradise City," G N' R left all other Eighties metal bands looking like poodle-haired pretenders, 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."
Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Greatest Hits’
Sly and the Family Stone created a musical utopia: an interracial group of men and women who blended funk, rock and positive vibes. Sly Stone, the Family mastermind, was one of the Sixties' most ambitious artists, mixing up the hardest funk beats with hippie psychedelia in hits such as "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." Greatest Hits ranges from gospel-style ballads ("Everybody Is a Star") to rump shakers ("Everyday People") to soulful bubblegum ("Hot Fun in the Summertime"). Stone discovered his utopia had a ghetto, and he brilliantly tore the whole thing down on 1971's There's a Riot Goin' On [see No. 99]. But nothing can negate the joy of this music.
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, ‘Trout Mask Replica’
On first listen, Trout Mask Replica sounds like a wild, incomprehensible rampage through the blues. Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart) growls, rants and recites poetry over chaotic guitar licks. But every note was precisely planned in advance – to construct the songs, the Magic Band rehearsed 12 hours a day for months on end in a house with the windows blacked out. (Producer and longtime friend Frank Zappa was then able to record most of the album in less than five hours.) The avant-garde howl of tracks such as "Ella Guru" and "My Human Gets Me Blues" have inspired modern primitives from Tom Waits to PJ Harvey.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Chronicle Vol. 1’
Between 1968 and early 1972, CCR rolled out 13 Top 40 songs, which still stand as the most impressive run of hits made by an American band. Former Army reservist and Little Richard fan John Fogerty was the dance-band populist on the San Francisco ballroom scene, writing concise, catchy songs like "Down on the Corner" and "Proud Mary" that fused R&B boogie with longhaired West Coast chooglin'. He also tapped into the spirit of the times, tackling the Vietnam War on "Who'll Stop the Rain" and class politics on "Fortunate Son." This compilation demonstrates over and over how much American possibility you can pack into two-minute blasts of car-radio heaven.
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 1967's 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" is an anthem for the darkness in every human heart – in other words, just one more example of the Stones getting back to basics.
Stevie Wonder, ‘Songs in the Key of Life’
Making this record, Stevie Wonder would often stay in the studio 48 hours straight, not eating or sleeping, while everyone around him struggled to keep up. "If my flow is goin', I keep on until I peak," he said. The flow went so well, Wonder released 21 songs, packaged as a double album and a bonus EP. The highlights are the joyful "Isn't She Lovely" and "Sir Duke," but Wonder also displays his mastery of funk, jazz, Afrobeat and even a string-quartet minuet. Nineteen years later, Coolio turned the haunting groove of "Pastime Paradise" into the Number One single "Gangsta's Paradise," just one example of Life's vast influence on decades of pop.
Elvis Presley, ‘Elvis Presley’
In November 1955, RCA Records bought Presley's contract, singles and unreleased master tapes from Sun Records. His first full-length album came out six months later, with tracks drawn from both the Sun sessions and further recordings at RCA's studios in New York and Nashville. It became the first rock & roll album to make it to Number One on the Billboard charts. "There wasn't any pressure," guitarist Scotty Moore said of the first RCA sessions. "They were just bigger studios with different equipment. We basically just went in and did the same thing we always did." On tracks such as "Blue Suede Shoes," that meant revved-up country music with the sexiest voice anyone had ever heard.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Electric Ladyland’
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 Jefferson Airplane's Jack Casady 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.
Ray Charles, ‘The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Recordings’
Soul music is a blend of the holy and the filthy: gospel and blues rubbing up against each other. And Ray Charles was just about the first person to perfect that mix. Charles was knocking around Seattle when Atlantic bought out his contract in 1952. For the next seven years, he turned out brilliant singles such as "What'd I Say" and "I Got a Woman," which was a takeoff on a gospel tune, "It Must Be Jesus." He was inventing the sound of ecstasy, three minutes at a time. This box collects every R&B side he cut for Atlantic, though his swinging take on "My Bonnie" will have you thinking it covers his Atlantic jazz output as well.
The Beatles, ‘Meet the Beatles!’
For Americans in the full grip of Beatlemania, this was the first album they could buy. Meet took the Fab Four's second British record, With the Beatles, dropped five covers and added three tracks, including the singles "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "I Saw Her Standing There." (This may have made a hash of the Beatles' artistic intentions, but it made for a much better record.) John Lennon and Paul McCartney were on a songwriting roll that would be unmatched in rock history, and at this point they were still a real team. They wrote "I Want to Hold Your Hand" together on a piano in the basement of Jane Asher, McCartney's actress girlfriend – as Lennon put it, "eyeball to eyeball."
Al Green, ‘Greatest Hits’
Al Green made some of the most visionary soul music of the Seventies, in Memphis with producer Willie Mitchell. "In Memphis, you just do as you feel," he told Rolling Stone in 1972. "It's not a modern, up-to-par, very glamorous, big-red-chairs-and-carpet-that-thick studio. It's one of those places you can go into and stomp out a good soul jam." In collaboration with Mitchell and subtly responsive musicians like drummer Al Jackson Jr., Green was a natural album artist, making love-and-pain classics such as 1973's Call Me. But this collection makes for a unified album in itself, compiling hits like "Let's Stay Together," "I'm Still in Love With You" and "Tired of Being Alone" into a flawless 10-song suite.
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 "Cuba Sí, Nixon No," and Simon nixed Garfunkel's idea for a Bach chorale. But 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."