From USA Today: “A great album functions as a self-contained universe. USA TODAY music critic Edna Gundersen salutes 40 that stand as cohesive bodies of work – not just fine collections of songs. Some guidelines have been applied to separate this from the many best-of lists. History’s most frequent list-topper, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club, has been excluded, as have live albums (James Brown’s Live at the Apollo), formal concept albums (The Who’s Tommy), soundtracks (Superfly, The Harder They Come) and greatest-hits sets. This top 40, listed chronologically, spans 50 years to cull works that made the album configuration such a success.”
I’ve posted the list with its original one-sentence comments on each album. Click on an album title to see its DMDB page.
Check out other publications and organizations’ best-of album lists here.
- Frank Sinatra In the Wee Small Hours (1955). The jazzy and melancholy collection of ballads arranged by Nelson Riddle focuses on a failed love affair and forms one of the earliest concept albums.
- Miles Davis Kind of Blue (1959). The iconic trumpeter rewrote the jazz rulebook with this liberating celebration of improv and mood. It’s still a primer for both jazzbos and rockers.
- Johnny Cash Ride This Train (1960). Though not his best songs, the country growler’s ruminations on America’s railroad history prove intriguing.
- The Beatles Revolver (1966). Though less acknowledged, this psychedelic, adventurous predecessor to 1967’s Sgt. Pepper is a superior work.
- The Beach Boys Pet Sounds (1966). Brian Wilson’s intensely personal tour de force inspired The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience Are You Experienced? (1967). The guitar prodigy's inventive and cosmic psychedelia continues to influence new waves of rockers.
- The Who Sell Out (1967). Potent power pop compensates for an unsteady commercialism concept replete with phony radio ads and jingles.
- Aretha Franklin I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967). Producer Jerry Wexler coaxed the previously muted fire from the Queen of Soul on this R&B masterpiece, the touchstone for diva wannabes.
- Love Forever Changes (1967). A stunning achievement in majestic folk-rock by Arthur Lee’s underacknowledged cult band.
- Van Morrison Astral Weeks (1968). This rock monument actually draws from jazz, folk and blues to showcase Morrison’s bewitching voice.
- Dusty Springfield Dusty in Memphis (1969). What started out as a simple batch of songs became a gold standard of blue-eyed soul, thanks to the alchemy between the British pop queen and visionary producer Jerry Wexler.
- Marvin Gaye What’s Going On (1971). The soulster shattered Motown’s pop formula with his powerful social commentary on race, war and the environment.
- Sly & the Family Stone There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971). Cynicism and decadence seep into drug-hazed stories set in dense funk, a radical departure from the party vibe of Stand! two years earlier.
- Joni Mitchell Blue (1971). The singer exposes a fragile, battered heart in an exquisitely sad and lovely song cycle.
- The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street (1972). The band’s scrappy, ramshackle blues-rock manifesto foreshadowed grunge.
- David Bowie The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). Bowie’s androgynous extraterrestrial conveys the panic and paranoia of a coming apocalypse in glitzy, theatrical glam-rock with a heavy undertow.
- Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon (1973). The seeds of madness that lurk in the dreary predictability of daily life are magnified by the band’s foreboding melodies and lush textures.
- Stevie Wonder Innervisions (1973). The summit of the wunderkind’s blend of funk-addled synth-pop and socially conscious lyrics.
- Bob Marley & the Wailers Catch a Fire (1973). Marley and his phenomenal band ushered reggae into the mainstream with this sunny and sexy island carousal.
- Bob Dylan Blood on the Tracks (1975). Dylan’s failed marriage fueled pained and poignant songs that brought a new emotional depth to his legacy.
- Patti Smith Horses (1975). The punk poetess and her crack band blazed a new trail in this brazen hybrid of literary smarts and feral rock.
- Ramones Ramones (1976). A 29-minute explosion of bratty speedy unschooled punk knocked the wind out of art-rock.
- Fleetwood Mac Rumours (1977). Internal romantic tumult is grist for confessional pop-rock gems.
- The Clash London Calling (1979). The punk band’s third album embodies the genre’s thrilling fury and blind devotion to rock ‘n’ roll’s revolutionary powers.
- Michael Jackson Thriller (1982). The Jackson 5 pipsqueak emerges as an unstoppable star on this mature, feisty and hit-laden pop set helmed by Quincy Jones.
- Paul Simon Graceland (1986). World music found a global stage with the former folkie’s rich and exotically fanciful collaborations with such African talents as Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
- Metallica Master of Puppets (1986). The heavy-metal outfit explores the tyranny of drugs in whiplash rhythms and stinging guitars.
- Prince Sign ‘O’ the Times (1987). After winning fans over with seductive balladry and guitar sizzle, Prince pushes his own boundaries on a sprawling rock-soul soundscape dotted by searing messages and wild mood swings.
- Bruce Springsteen Tunnel of Love). The Boss has executed concept marvels from Nebraska to The Rising, but Tunnel ranks as a personal best for its anguish and intimacy.
- Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction (1987). Exquisite pain, uncorked rage and pure rebellion meet in a full metal racket of howler Axl Rose and the smoking Guns.
- N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton (1989). Gangsta rap stormed through pop’s delicate barricades with the divisive “Fuck Tha Police” and snarling diatribes about racism, injustice and murderous rage.
- Public Enemy Fear of a Black Planet (1990). The Bomb Squad production team’s dazzling and intricately layered sonics provide a vibrant platform for Chuck D’s seething but articulate raps.
- Sinéad O’Connor I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990). The stark cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” pulled listeners into the startling confessions and brutal catharsis of a complicated singer whose gorgeous voice conveys vulnerability and defiance in equal measures.
- Nirvana Nevermind (1991). “Smells Like Teen Spirit” crashed the hair-band party and anointed Kurt Cobain the Elvis of the grunge movement.
- U2 Achtung Baby (1991). After the triumphant Joshua Tree Rock’s revered idealists detour into the darker realms of irony, decay and turmoil on accessible avant-garde rock tunes recorded in Berlin.
- R.E.M. Automatic for the People (1992). Eloquent examinations of death and loss are countered by graceful arrangements, soothing melodies and Michael Stipe’s achingly beautiful vocals.
- Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral (1994). Trent Reznor’s endlessly intriguing one-man show distills wide-ranging styles and mesmerizing sound effects into his singular brand of brooding computerized art-rock.
- Radiohead OK Computer (1997). Themes of alienation and dysfunction bubble up through the band’s fearlessly experimental textures and Thom Yorke’s astonishing vocal prowess.
- Eminem The Marshall Mathers LP (2000). Rap’s superlative wordsmith blurs the line between autobiography and cartoons in hilarious and vulgar high-velocity rhymes.
- Neil Young Greendale (2003). The latest in Young’s long series of daring concept albums spins a cinematic yarn about a small-town family coping with a murder.
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First posted 12/11/2021.
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