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.
"I came from a family where my people didn't like rhythm & blues," Little Richard told Rolling Stone in 1970. "Bing Crosby, 'Pennies From Heaven,' Ella Fitzgerald was all I heard. And I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but didn't know where to find it. And I found it was me." Richard's raucous 1957 debut album collected singles such as "Rip It Up" and "Long Tall Sally," in which his rollicking boogie-woogie piano and falsetto scream ignited the unfettered possibilities of rock & roll. "Tutti Frutti" still contains what has to be considered the most inspired rock lyric ever recorded: "A wop bop alu bop, a wop bam boom!"
Rock's greatest live double LP is an unbeatable testimony to the Allman Brothers' improvisational skills, as well as evidence of how they connected with audiences to make jamming feel communal. "The audience would kind of play along with us," singerorganist Gregg Allman said of the March 1971 shows documented here. "They were right on top of every single vibration coming from the stage." The dazzling guitar team of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts was at its peak, seamlessly fusing blues and jazz in "Whipping Post" and "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." But their telepathy was interrupted: Just three months after the album's release, Duane died in a motorcycle accident.
Def Jam, 1988
Loud, obnoxious, funky, avant-garde, political, hilarious – Public Enemy's brilliant second album is all of these things, all at once. Chuck D booms intricate rhymes with a delivery inspired by sportscaster Marv Albert; sidekick Flavor Flav raps comic relief; and production team the Bomb Squad builds mesmerizing, multilayered jams, pierced with shrieking sirens. The title and roiling force of "Bring the Noise" is truth in advertising. "If they're callin' my music 'noise,'" said Chuck D, "if they're saying that I'm really getting out of character being a black person in America, then fine – I'm bringin' more noise."
Two important things happened to John Coltrane in 1957: The saxophonist left Miles Davis' employ to join Thelonious Monk's band and hit new heights in extended, ecstatic soloing. Coltrane also kicked heroin addiction, a vital step in a spiritual awakening that climaxed with this legendary album-long hymn of praise – transcendent music perfect for the high point of the civil rights movement. The indelible four-note theme of the first piece, "Acknowledgment," is the humble foundation of the suite. But Coltrane's majestic, often violent blowing (famously described as "sheets of sound") is never self-aggrandizing. His playing soars with nothing but gratitude and joy. You can't help but go with him.
Bob Marley said, "Reggae music is too simple for [American musicians]. You must be inside of it, know what's happening, and why you want to play this music. You don't just run and go play this music because you think you can make a million off it." Ironically, this set of the late reggae idol's greatest hits has sold in the millions worldwide. In a single disc, it captures everything that made him an international icon: his nuanced songcraft, his political message (and savvy), and – of course – the universal soul he brought to Jamaican rhythm and Rastafarian spirituality in the gunfighter ballad "I Shot the Sheriff," the comforting swing of "No Woman, No Cry" and the holy promise of "Redemption Song."
The Band were four-fifths Canadian – drummer Levon Helm was from Arkansas – but their second album is all American. Guitarist Robbie Robertson's songs vividly evoke the country's pioneer age ("Across the Great Divide") and the Civil War ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), while reflecting the fractured 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."
From its first defiant line, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," the opening shot in a bold reinvention of Van Morrison's Sixties garage-rock classic "Gloria," Patti Smith's debut album was a declaration of committed mutiny, a statement of faith in the transfigurative powers of rock & roll. Horses made her the queen of punk before it even really existed, but Smith cared more for the poetry in rock. She sought the visions and passions that connected Keith Richards and Rimbaud – and found them, with the intuitive assistance of a killing band (pianist Richard Sohl, guitarist Lenny Kaye, bassist Ivan Kral and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty) and her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, who shot the stark, beautiful cover portrait.
"I think every album was a step toward 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"). It's one of the best-produced rock albums ever, and "Money" may be the only Top 20 hit in 7/4 time.
After blowing minds as the house band at L.A.'s Whisky-a-Go-Go, where they got 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." The Blakean pop art on their debut was beyond Top 40 attention spans. But they hit pay dirt by editing down one of their jams: "Light My Fire," written by guitarist Robbie Krieger when Jim Morrison told everybody in the band to write a song with universal imagery.
Warner Bros., 1977
"If the sessions had gone the way I wanted, it would have been unlistenable for most people," Johnny Rotten said. "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 had to offer. True, the music was less shocking than Rotten himself, who snarled about abortions, anarchy and hatred. But Never Mind. . . is the Sermon on the Mount of U.K. punk – and its echoes are everywhere.
"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: The third record by his biracial L.A. band is wild and funny and totally pioneering: folk rock turned into elegant Armageddon with the symphonic sweep and mariachi-brass drama of "Alone Again Or" 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."
The Beatles recorded 10 of the 14 songs on their debut album at EMI's Abbey Road studio in just over 12 hours on February 11th, 1963. For productivity alone, it's one of the greatest first albums in rock. The Beatles had already invented a bracing new sound for a rock band – an assault of thrumming energy and impeccable vocal harmonies – and they nailed it using the covers and originals in their live repertoire: the Shirelles' "Boys" and Arthur Alexander's "Anna"; the Lennon–McCartney burners "There's a Place" and "I Saw Her Standing There." Fittingly, John Lennon finished the epochal all-day session shirtless and shredding what was left of his vocal cords on two takes of "Twist and Shout."
McKinley Morganfield – a.k.a. Muddy Waters – started out playing acoustic Delta blues in Mississippi. But when he moved to Chicago in 1943, he needed an electric guitar to be heard over the tumult of South Side clubs. The sound he developed was the foundation of Chicago blues – and rock & roll; the thick, bleeding tones of his slide work anticipated rock-guitar distortion by nearly two decades. Jimi Hendrix adapted Waters' "Rollin' Stone" for "Voodoo Chile," Bob Dylan found inspiration in it for "Like a Rolling Stone," and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards took their band's name from it. The 50 cuts on these two CDs run from guitar-and-stand-up-bass duets to full-band romps – and they only scratch the surface of Waters' legacy.
In pursuit of note-perfect Hollywood-cowboy ennui, the Eagles spent eight months in the studio polishing take after take after take. As Don Henley recalled, "We just locked ourselves in. We had a refrigerator, a ping-pong table, roller skates and a couple of cots. We would go in and stay for two or three days at a time." With guitarist Joe Walsh replacing Bernie Leadon, the band backed off from straight country rock in favor of the harder sound of "Life in the Fast Lane." The somber "New Kid in Town" ponders the fleeting nature of fame, and the title track is a monument to the rock-aristocrat decadence of the day and a feast of triple-guitar interplay. "Every band has their peak," Henley said. "That was ours."
For nearly a decade, Carole King wrote Brill Building pop with her then-husband, Gerry Goffin: hits such as Little Eva's "The Loco-Motion" (Eva Boyd was the couple's baby sitter) and the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday." Then King's friend James Taylor encouraged her to sing her own tunes. She slowed down "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" (originally a hit for the Shirelles in 1960), heightening the melancholy inside, while her warm, earnest singing brought out the sadness in "So Far Away" and "It's Too Late" and the earthy joy on "I Feel the Earth Move." On Tapestry, King remade herself as an artist and created the reigning model for the 1970s female singer-songwriter – not to mention a blockbuster pop record of enduring artistic quality.
This album documents one of the most elaborate self-mythologizing schemes in rock, as David Bowie created the glittery, messianic alter ego Ziggy Stardust ("well-hung and snow-white tan"). The glam rock Bowie made with guitarist Mick Ronson on tracks like "Hang on to Yourself" and "Suffragette City" is an irresistible blend of sexy, campy pop and blues power. The anthem "Ziggy Stardust" is one of rock's earliest, and best, power ballads. "I consider myself responsible for a whole new school of pretensions," Bowie said at the time. "They know who they are. Don't you, Elton? Just kidding. No, I'm not."
"Big Pink" was a pink house in Woodstock, New York, where the Band – Bob Dylan's '65-'66 backup band on tour – moved to be near Dylan after his motorcycle accident. While he recuperated, the Band backed him on the demos later known as The Basement Tapes [see No. 292] and made their own debut. Dylan offered to play on the album; the Band said no thanks. "We didn't want to just ride his shirttail," drummer Levon Helm said. Dylan contributed "I Shall Be Released" and co-wrote two other tunes. But it was the rustic beauty of the Band's music and the drama of their own reflections on family and obligations, on songs such as "The Weight," that made Big Pink an instant homespun classic.
"Our early songs came out of our real feelings of alienation, isolation, frustration – the feelings everybody feels between 17 and 75," said singer Joey Ramone. Clocking in at just over 28 minutes, Ramones is a complete rejection of the spangled artifice of 1970s rock. The songs are fast and anti-social, just like the band: "Beat on the Brat," "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue." Guitarist Johnny Ramone refused to play solos – his jackhammer chords became the lingua franca of punk – and the whole thing was recorded for just over $6,000. Yet amid the buoyantly nihilist fury, Joey Ramone's leather-tender plea "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" showed that even punks need love.
The Rolling Stones' final record of the Sixties kicks off with the terrifying "Gimme Shelter," the song that came to symbolize not only the catastrophe of the Stones' free show at Altamont but the death of the decade's utopian spirit. And the entire album burns with apocalyptic cohesion: the sex-mad desperation of "Live With Me"; the murderous blues of "Midnight Rambler"; Keith Richards' lethal, biting guitar on "Monkey Man"; the epic moralism, with honky-tonk piano and massed vocal chorus, of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which Mick Jagger wrote on acoustic guitar in his bedroom. "Somebody said that we could get the London Bach Choir," Jagger recalled years later, "and we said, 'That will be a laugh.'"
"It's very complicated to play with electricity," Bob 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.
"The Blue album, there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals," Joni Mitchell told Rolling Stone in 1979. "At that period of my life, I had no persona defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy." With song after song of regrets and sorrow, this may be the ultimate breakup album. Its whispery minimalism is also Mitchell's greatest musical achievement. Stephen Stills and James Taylor lend an occasional hand, but in "California," "Carey," "This Flight Tonight" and the devastating title track, Mitchell sounds utterly alone in her melancholy, turning the sadness into tender, universally powerful art.
On their first album, Led Zeppelin were still in the process of inventing their own sound, moving on from the heavy rave-ups of guitarist Jimmy Page's previous band, the Yardbirds. But from the beginning, Zeppelin had the astonishing fusion of Page's lyrical guitar-playing, Robert Plant's paint-peeling love-hound yowl, and John Paul Jones and John Bonham's avalanche boogie. "We were learning what got us off most and what got people off most," said Plant. Yet the template for everything Zeppelin achieved in the 1970s is here: brutal rock ("Communication Breakdown"), thundering power balladry ("Your Time Is Gonna Come"), acid-flavored folk blues ("Babe I'm Gonna Leave You"). Heavy metal still lives in its shadow.
Pete Townshend said he suffered a nervous breakdown when his planned follow-up to the rock opera Tommy, 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 and Townshend's spiritual guru Meher Baba) 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."
"America's the promised land to a lot of Irish people," Bono told Rolling Stone. "I'm one in a long line of Irishmen who made the trip." On U2's fifth studio album, the band immersed itself in the mythology of the United States, while the Edge exploited the poetic echo of digital delay, drowning his trademark arpeggios in rippling tremolo. One of the most moving songs is "Running to Stand Still," a stripped-down slide-guitar ballad about heroin addiction, but for the most part this is an album that turns spiritual quests and political struggles into uplifting stadium singalongs: See hits like "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," a rock anthem with a gospel soul.
Warner Bros., 1977
On Rumours, Fleetwood Mac turned private turmoil into gleaming, melodic public art. The band's two couples – bassist John and singer-keyboard player Christine McVie, who were married; guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks, who were not – were in the midst of breakups during the album's protracted sessions. This lent a highly charged, confessional aura to songs like Buckingham's "Go Your Own Way," Nicks' "Dreams," Christine's "Don't Stop" and the group-composed anthem to betrayal, "The Chain." The Mac's catchy exposés, produced with California-sunshine polish, touched a nerve: Rumours became the gold standard of late-Seventies FM radio and the seventh-bestselling studio album of all time.
Perhaps 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," climaxing with a frenzied nine-song medley and ending with "Night Train," Live at the Apollo is pure, uncut soul. And it almost didn't happen. James Brown defied King Records label boss Syd Nathan's opposition to a live album by arranging to record a show himself – on October 24th, 1962, the last date in a run at Harlem's historic Apollo Theater. His intuition proved correct: Live at the Apollo – the first of four albums Brown recorded there – charted for 66 weeks.
Stevie Wonder's high-flying musical experimentation and penetrating lyrical insight made Innervisions a textured, but never self-indulgent, work of soulful self-discovery. Fusing social realism with spiritual idealism, he brings expressive color and irresistible funk to his keyboards on "Too High" (a cautionary anti-drug song) and "Higher Ground" (which echoes Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of transcendence). The album's centerpiece is "Living for the City," a cinematic depiction of exploitation and injustice. He brought his most innovative music to life in the nick of time: Three days after Innervisions was released, Wonder was put into a four-day coma after the car he was traveling in collided with a logging truck.
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 consigning Sixties dreams to the rubbish bin, there's also room for a fragile sense of possibility (see "Hold On"). Plastic Ono Band is the sound of Year Zero.
"You want to know how good the blues can get?" Keith Richards asked. "Well, this is it." The bluesman in question was Robert Johnson, who lived from 1911 to 1938 in the Mississippi Delta, and whose guitar prowess was so great, it inspired stories that he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his amazing gift. In his only two recording sessions, Johnson cut just 29 songs, but their evanescent passion has resonated through the decades, crucial inspiration for everyone from Chicago blues originator Elmore James to British blues inheritors like the Stones and Eric Clapton. Every one of his songs (along with 12 alternate takes) is included here – a holy grail of the blues.
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 Days," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," "Back in the USA." 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.
Michael Jackson towered over the 1980s the way Elvis Presley dominated the 1950s, and here's why. On Thriller, the child R&B star ripened into a Technicolor soulman: a singer, dancer and songwriter with incomparable crossover instincts. He and producer Quincy Jones established the something-for-everyone template with 1979's Off the Wall, a crisp fusion of pop hooks and dance beats. On Thriller, the pair heighten the sheen ("The Girl Is Mine"), pump up the theater ("Thriller") and deepen the funk. But the most thrilling thing was the autobiography busting through the gloss: the hiss of denial on "Billie Jean"; the to-hell-with-haters strut of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." Jackson was at the peak of his art and adulthood.
Warner Bros., 1968
Van Morrison never sounded more warm and ecstatic, more sensual and vulnerable, than on his enigmatically beautiful solo debut. Fresh off the success of "Brown Eyed Girl" and newly signed to artistfriendly Warner Bros., he explored the physical and dramatic range of his voice during extended poetic-scat singing, and set hallucinatory reveries on his native Belfast to wandering Celtic-R&B melodies. The crowning touch was the superior jazz quintet convened by producer Lewis Merenstein to color the mists and shadows. Bassist Richard Davis later said that Morrison never told the musicians what he wanted from them or what the lyrics meant. Maybe he didn't know how to. He was going deep inside himself, without a net or fear.
Bruce Springsteen spent everything he had – patience, energy, studio time, the physical endurance of his E Street Band – to make his masterpiece. There are a dozen guitar overdubs on the title track alone. "The album became a monster," Springsteen recalled. But in making his third album, he was living out the central drama in its gun-the-engine rock & roll: the fight to reconcile big dreams with crushing reality. He found it so hard to re-create the sound in his head – the Jersey-bar dynamite of his live gigs, Phil Spector's grandeur, Roy Orbison's melodrama – that he nearly gave up and put out a live album. But his attention to detail produced a timeless record about the labors and glories of aspiring to greatness.
The overnight-success story of the 1990s, Nirvana's second album and its totemic first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," shot up from the nascent grunge scene in Seattle to kick Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard album chart and blow hair metal off the map. No album in recent history had such an overpowering impact on a generation – a nation of teens suddenly turned punk – and such a catastrophic effect on its main creator. The weight of fame led already troubled singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain to take his own life in 1994. But his slashing riffs, corrosive singing and deviously oblique writing, rammed home by the Pixies-via-Zeppelin might of bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, put the warrior purity back in rock & roll. Lyrically, Cobain raged in code – shorthand grenades of inner tumult and self-loathing. His genius, though, in songs like "Lithium," "Breed" and "Teen Spirit" was the soft-loud tension he created between verse and chorus, restraint and assault. Cobain was a pop lover at heart – and a Beatlemaniac: Nevermind producer Butch Vig remembers hearing Cobain play John Lennon's "Julia" at sessions. Cobain also fought to maintain his underground honor. Ultimately, it was a losing battle, but it is part of this album's enduring power. Vig recalls when Cobain was forced to overdub the guitar intro to "Teen Spirit" because he couldn't nail it live with the band: "That pissed him off. He wanted to play [the song] live all the way through."
Bob Dylan once introduced this album's opening song, "Tangled Up in Blue," onstage as taking him 10 years to live and two years to write. It was, for him, a pointed reference to the personal crisis – the collapse of his marriage to Sara Lowndes – that at least partly inspired this album, Dylan's best of the 1970s. In fact, he wrote all of these lyrically piercing, gingerly majestic songs in two months, in mid-1974. He was so proud of them that he privately auditioned almost all of the album, from start to finish, for pals and peers including Mike Bloomfield, David Crosby and Graham Nash before cutting them in September – in just a week, with members of the bluegrass band Deliverance. But in December, Dylan played the record for his brother David in Minneapolis, who suggested recutting some songs with local musicians. The final Blood was a mix of the slow, pensive New York sessions and the faster, wilder Minneapolis dates. Together, they frame the gritty anguish in some of Dylan's most passionate, confessional songs – from adult breakup ballads like "If You See Her, Say Hello" to the sharp-tongued opprobrium of "Idiot Wind," his greatest put-down song since "Like a Rolling Stone." "It's hard for me to relate to people enjoying that type of pain," Dylan said after the album became an instant success. Yet he had never turned so much pain into so much musical splendor.
This is what Britain sounded like in late 1966 and early 1967: ablaze with rainbow blues, orchestral guitar feedback and the personal cosmic vision of black American émigré Jimi Hendrix. Rescued from dead-end gigs in New York by ex-Animal Chas Chandler, Hendrix arrived in London in September 1966, quickly formed the Experience with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell and in a matter of weeks was recording the songs that comprised his epochal debut – which stands four and a half decades later as rock's most innovative and expressive guitar record. Hendrix's incendiary playing was historic in itself, the luminescent sum of his chitlin-circuit labors in the early Sixties with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers and his melodic exploitation of amp howl. But it was the pictorial heat of songs like "Manic Depression," "I Don't Live Today" and "The Wind Cries Mary" that established the transcendent promise of psychedelia. Hendrix made soul music for inner space. "It's a collection of free feeling and imagination," he said of the album. "Imagination is very important." Widely assumed to be about an acid trip, "Purple Haze" had "nothing to do with drugs," Hendrix insisted. "'Purple Haze' was all about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea."
"It was a very happy record," said producer George Martin. "I guess it was happy because everybody thought it was going to be the last." Abbey Road – recorded mostly in two months during the summer of 1969 – almost never got made at all. That January, the Beatles were on the verge of a breakup, exhausted and angry with one another after the disastrous sessions for the aborted Get Back LP, later salvaged as Let It Be [see No. 392]. Determined to go out with a sense of recaptured glory, the group reconvened at EMI's Abbey Road Studios to make its most polished album: a collection of superb songs cut with an attention to refined detail, then segued together (especially on Side Two) with conceptual force. There was no thematic link, other than the Beatles' unique genius. John Lennon veered from the stormy metal of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" to the exquisite vocal sunrise of "Because." Paul McCartney was saucy ("Oh! Darling"), silly ("Maxwell's Silver Hammer") and deliciously bitter ("You Never Give Me Your Money"). George Harrison proved his long-secret worth as a composer with "Something" and the folk-pop diamond "Here Comes the Sun," written in his friend Eric Clapton's garden while playing hooky from a business meeting. And Lennon, McCartney and Harrison reputedly sang more three-part harmony here than on any other Beatles album. Let It Be was the group's final release, but this album was its real goodbye.
"We were trying to do a Phil Spector thing with as few instruments as possible," John Cale, the classically trained pianist and viola player of the Velvet Underground, said of this record. It was no idle boast. Much of what we take for granted in rock would not exist without this New York band or its seminal debut: the androgynous sexuality of glitter; punk's raw noir; the blackened-riff howl of grunge and noise rock; goth's imperious gloom. Recorded dirt-cheap at a studio that was literally falling apart, it is a record of fearless breadth and lyric depth. Singer-songwriter Lou Reed documented carnal desire and drug addiction, decadence and redemption, with a pop wisdom he learned as a song-factory composer for Pickwick Records. Cale introduced the power of pulse and drone (from his work with minimalist composer La Monte Young); guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker played with tribal force; Nico, a German vocalist added to the band by manager Andy Warhol, brought an icy femininity to the heated ennui in Reed's songs. Rejected as nihilistic by the love crowd in '67, the Banana Album (so named for its Warhol-designed cover) is the most prophetic rock album ever made.
This painterly masterpiece would become one of the most important, influential and popular albums in jazz. But at the time it was made, Kind of Blue was a revolution all its own, a radical break from everything going on. Turning his back on standard chord progressions, trumpeter Miles Davis used modal scales as a starting point for composition and improvisation – breaking new ground with warmth, subtlety and understatement in the thick of hard bop. Davis and his peerless band – bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb, pianist Bill Evans, and the titanic sax team of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley – soloed in uncluttered settings, typified by "melodic rather than harmonic variation," as Davis put it. Two numbers, "All Blues" and "Freddie Freeloader" (the latter featured Wynton Kelly at the ivories in place of Evans), were in 12-bar form, but Davis' approach allowed his players a cool, new, collected freedom. Evans wrote in his original liner notes, "Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances." Or as the late critic Robert Palmer wrote, "Kind of Blue is, in a sense, all melody – and atmosphere." The bass line in "So What" is now among the most familiar obbligatos in jazz, and there is no finer evocation of the late-night wonder of jazz than the muted horns in "All Blues."
Many believe rock & roll was born on July 5th, 1954, at Sun Studio in Memphis. Elvis Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black were horsing around with "That's All Right, Mama," a tune by bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" 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." The A side of Presley's first single (backed with a version of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky"), "That's All Right" was issued by Sun on July 19th. It may or may not be the first rock & roll record. But the man who would be King was officially on wax. Bridging black and white, country and blues, his sound was playful and revolutionary, charged by a spontaneity and freedom that changed the world. "It's the blues," critic Greil Marcus wrote in his classic book Mystery Train. "But free of all worry, all sin; a simple joy with no price to pay." Presley 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 when Phillips sold his contract to RCA for $35,000. Incredibly, it took more than 20 years for Presley's Sun output to be properly collected on a 1976 LP – which has since been superseded by this 1999 double-CD chronicle of the King's beginnings at Sun. It collects everything he cut at the studio, including alternate takes and the 1953 acetate he recorded as a gift for his mother as a shy and awkward recent high school graduate.
They wrote the songs while on retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, taking a break from the celebrity whirl. As John Lennon later said, "We sat in the mountains eating lousy vegetarian food and writing all these songs." They came back with more great tunes than they could fit on a single LP, and competed fiercely during the sessions. "I remember having three studios operating at the same time," George Harrison recalled. "Paul was doing some overdubs in one, John was in another, and I was recording some horns or something in a third." The sessions became so tense that Ringo Starr quit the band in frustration for two weeks. Yet the creative tension resulted in one of the most intense and adventurous rock albums ever made. Lennon pursued his hard-edged vision into the cynical wit of "Sexy Sadie" and "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," but also infused "Julia" and "Dear Prudence" with childlike yearning. Paul McCartney's playful pop energy came through on his inversion of Chuck Berry's American values, "Back in the U.S.S.R.," and he showed off his raucous side in "Helter Skelter." Harrison's spiritual yearning led him to "Long, Long, Long" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," featuring a guest guitar solo from Eric Clapton. Even Starr contributed his first original, the country-tinged "Don't Pass Me By." "I think it was a very good album," said McCartney. "It stood up, but it wasn't a pleasant one to make."
Released on May 16th, 1966, rock's first studio double LP by a major artist was, as Dylan declared in 1978, "the closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind… that thin, that wild-mercury sound." There is no better description of the album's manic brilliance. After several false-start sessions in New York in the fall of 1965 and January 1966 with his killer road band the Hawks – "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" was the only keeper – Dylan blazed through the rest of Blonde on Blonde's 14 tracks in one four-day run and one three-day run at Columbia's Nashville studios in February and March 1966.
The pace of recording echoed the amphetamine velocity of Dylan's songwriting and touring schedule at the time. But the combined presence of trusted hands like organist Al Kooper and Hawks guitarist Robbie Robertson with expert local sessionmen including drummer Kenneth Buttrey and pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins created an almost contradictory magnificence: a tightly wound tension around Dylan's quicksilver language and incisive singing in barrelhouse surrealism such as "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," the hilarious Chicago-style blues "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and the scornful, fragile "Just Like a Woman," still his greatest ballad.
Amid the frenzy, Dylan delivered some of his finest, clearest songs of comfort and desire: the sidelong beauty of the 11-minute "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," recorded in just one take at four in the morning after an eight-hour session, and "I Want You," the title of which Dylan almost used for the album.
Recorded in 1979 in London, which was then wrenched by surging unemployment and drug addiction, and released in America in January 1980, the dawn of an uncertain decade, London Calling is 19 songs of apocalypse, fueled by an unbending faith in rock & roll to beat back the darkness. Produced with no-surrender energy by legendary Seventies studio madman Guy Stevens, the Clash's third album skids from bleak punk ("London Calling") to rampaging ska ("Wrong 'Em Boyo") and disco resignation ("Lost in the Supermarket"). The album was made in dire straits too. The band was heavily in debt and openly at war with its record company. Singer-guitarists Joe Strummer and Mick Jones wrote together in Jones' grandmother's flat. "Joe, once he learned how to type, would bang the lyrics out," Jones said. "Then I'd be able to bang out some music while he was hitting the typewriter." Strummer, Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon spent nearly three months rehearsing and demoing songs in a garage in the Pimlico section of London – "with one light and filthy carpet on the walls for soundproofing," recalled Strummer in 1989. "We felt that we were struggling," he said, "about to slide down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails." But Stevens was on hand for inspiration. He threw chairs around the room "if he thought a track needed zapping up," according to Strummer. The album ends with "Train in Vain," a rousing song of fidelity (unlisted on the back cover because it was added at the last minute) that became the sound of triumph: the Clash's first Top 30 single in the U.S.
Rolling Stones Records, 1972
A dirty whirl of blues and boogie, the Rolling Stones' 1972 double LP "was the first grunge record," guitarist Keith Richards crowed proudly in a 2002 interview. But inside the deliberately dense squall – Richards' and Mick Taylor's dogfight riffing, the lusty jump of the Bill Wyman-Charlie Watts rhythm engine, Mick Jagger's caged-animal bark and burned-soul croon – is the Stones' greatest album and Jagger and Richards' definitive songwriting statement of outlaw pride and dedication to grit. In the existential shuffle "Tumbling Dice," the exhausted country beauty "Torn and Frayed" and the whiskey-soaked uplift of "Shine a Light," you literally hear the Stones in exile: working at Richards' villa in the South of France, and on the run from media censure, British drug police (Jagger and Richards already knew the view from behind bars) and the country's onerous tax code. Exile is rife with allusions to their outsider status: The album's cover is a collage of freakish American characters, and on "Sweet Black Angel" they toast imprisoned activist Angela Davis – one set of renegades to another. The music rattles like battle but also swings with clear purpose on songs like "Rocks Off" and "All Down the Line." As Richards explained, "The Stones don't have a home anymore – hence the Exile – but they can still keep it together. Whatever people throw at us, we can still duck, improvise, overcome." Great example: Richards recorded his jubilant romp "Happy" with just producer Jimmy Miller on drums and saxman Bobby Keys – while waiting for the other Stones to turn up for work. Exile on Main Street is the Stones at their fighting best, armed with the blues, playing to win.
"In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say," Marvin Gaye said. "I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world." The masterpiece that followed Gaye's awakening revolutionized black music. From its rich, string-suffused grooves to its boundless sense of possibility, What's Going On is the Sgt. Pepper of soul.
Gaye was determined to shatter Motown's pop formula and address pressing social issues. Motown founder Berry Gordy was not pleased. He claimed that "What's Going On" was the worst song he had ever heard. As for "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," Gordy asserted that he didn't even know what the word "ecology" meant. Gaye responded that he would never record for Motown again unless "What's Going On" was released as a single. After initially being rejected by Motown's quality-control committee, it was; when the song became a Top Five hit, the album – and a burst of socially conscious music from Motown – followed soon after. Working amid a haze of marijuana smoke, Gaye made one intuitively brilliant decision after another – from letting the tapes roll as his friends mingled to recording the rehearsal exercises of saxophonist Eli Fontaine. When Fontaine told Gaye that he had just been goofing around, Gaye replied, "Well, you goof exquisitely. Thank you." And that's how the plaintive saxophone line that announces What's Going On came to be.
In 1965, radios were abuzz with such groundbreaking singles as "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Like a Rolling Stone." That December, the Beatles met their peers' challenge head-on with Rubber Soul, a stunning collection that preserved the taut pop focus of the band's earlier LPs while introducing newfound sophistication and depth. Producer George Martin described Rubber Soul as "the first album to present a new, growing Beatles to the world," and so it was.
The moptops were evolving in remarkable ways. "Drive My Car" is a comic character study of a sort not previously in the Beatles' repertoire. More profoundly, however, Bob Dylan's influence suffuses the album, accounting for the tart emotional tone of "Norwegian Wood," "I'm Looking Through You," "You Won't See Me" and "If I Needed Someone." (Dylan would return the compliment the following year, when he offered his own version of "Norwegian Wood" – titled "4th Time Around" – on Blonde on Blonde, and reportedly made John Lennon paranoid.) Lennon's "Nowhere Man," which he later acknowledged as a depressed self-portrait, and the beautifully reminiscent "In My Life" both reflect the more serious and personal style of songwriting that Dylan had suddenly made possible.
George Harrison's sitar on "Norwegian Wood" – the first time the instrument was used in a pop song – and Paul McCartney's fuzz bass on "Think for Yourself" document the band's increasing awareness that the studio could be more than a pit stop between tours. Harrison called Rubber Soul "the best one we made," because "we were suddenly hearing sounds that we weren't able to hear before." And as for why the band's hearing had grown so acute, well, that was another aspect of the times. "There was a lot of experimentation on Rubber Soul," said Ringo Starr, "influenced, I think, by the substances."
Bruce Springsteen described the beginning of "Like a Rolling Stone," the opening song on Highway 61 Revisited, as the "snare shot that sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind." Folk singer Phil Ochs was even more rhapsodic about the LP: "It's impossibly good… How can a human mind do this?"
Recorded in a staggering six days, Highway 61 Revisited – named after the road that runs from Bob Dylan's home state of Minnesota down through the Mississippi Delta – is one of those albums that changed everything. In and of itself, "Like a Rolling Stone," rumored to be about Andy Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick, forever altered the landscape of popular music – its "vomitiﬁc" flow (Dylan's term), literary ambition and sheer length (6:13) shattered limitations of every kind. "Ballad of a Thin Man" delivered the definitive Sixties comment on the splintering hip-straight fault line: "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?" If anyone questioned whether or not Dylan had truly "gone electric," the roaring rock & roll of "From a Buick 6" and "Tombstone Blues" – powered by guitarist Mike Bloomﬁeld – left no doubt.
The album ends with "Desolation Row," a surrealist night journey that runs 11 minutes. Dylan evokes a Hieronymus Bosch-like season in hell that seems to foretell all the Sixties cataclysms to come. "The Titanic sails at dawn," he sings wearily. "Everybody is shouting, 'Which side are you on?'" That "Desolation Row" is an all-acoustic track – a last-minute decision on Dylan's part – is one final stroke of genius: a spellbinding new vision of folk music to close the album that, for the time being at least, destroyed folk music.
"I don't see too much difference between Revolver and Rubber Soul," George Harrison once said. "To me, they could be Volume One and Volume Two." Revolver extends the more adventurous aspects of its predecessor – its introspection, its nascent psychedelia, its fascination with studio artistry – into a dramatic statement of generational possibility.
The album, which was released in August 1966, made it thrillingly clear that what we now think of as "the Sixties" was fully – and irreversibly – under way.
The most innovative track on the album is John Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows." Attempting to distill an LSD trip into a three-minute song, Lennon borrowed lyrics from Timothy Leary's version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and recorded his vocal to sound like "the Dalai Lama singing from the highest mountaintop." Tape loops, a backward guitar part (Paul McCartney's blistering solo on "Taxman," in fact) and a droning tamboura completed the experimental effect, and the song proved hugely influential. For his part, on "Eleanor Rigby" and "For No One," McCartney mastered a strikingly mature form of art song, and Harrison, with "Taxman," "I Want to Tell You" and "Love You To," challenged Lennon-McCartney's songwriting dominance.
Part of the album's revolutionary impulse was visual. Klaus Voormann, one of the Beatles' artist buddies from their days in Hamburg, Germany, designed a striking photo-collage cover for Revolver; it was a crucial step on the road to the even trippier, more colorful imagery of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which would come less than a year later.
Revolver signaled that in popular music, anything – any theme, any musical idea – could now be realized. And, in the case of the Beatles, would be.