I was recently asked by a relative to list my choices for the best albums in popular music history, in response to a similar list derived through polling viewers of Australia’s public broadcaster (the A.B.C.), the results of which aired shortly thereafter as a “Top 10 Albums of All Time”. As with any such list or poll, the entirely subjective nature of our personal preferences and the inability to be entirely comprehensive in our musical literacy limits the validity of such critical evaluations, however I believe it is still a worthy and interesting exercise to attempt to ascribe a rough meritocratic list of albums that this reviewer believes better exemplifies the ‘best and brightest’ in popular music, as compared to that aforementioned viewers’ poll.
Please note that I have tried to give extra weight to those albums that are not merely a collection of songs arbitrarily brought together in a ‘best of’ or ‘greatest hits’ anthology, but instead form a unified and internally consistent artistic work. I have also deliberately excluded Jazz albums, whether it be Miles Davis or John Coltrane, or Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton, because I believe this genre is as entirely different and completely removed from “popular music” as opera or classical music.
So, there you have it. For better or worse, what follows is my personal selection of the top 25 albums of all time, with some attempt to justify their inclusion. I’ve then added a list of the next best 25 albums immediately below them, just for good measure.
#1: Veedon Fleece: Van Morrison
Van Morrison’s unsung masterpiece, a lilting and melancholic song cycle that elegantly mirrors, and ultimately compliments magnificently, his touchstone “Astral Weeks” album. Emotionally resonant songs, such as the brilliantly evocative “Streets of Arklow”, the mysterious fable “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights”, the delicately poetic “Who Was That Masked Man”, the wistful “Country Fair”, the romantic mysticism of “Come Here My Love”, and the swirling stream of consciousness meditation “Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River”, highlight a fantastic collection of songs that represent the pinnacle of Van Morrison’s songwriting prowess. This is a gorgeous, melodic and transcendent album, blending as it does the spiritual and the emotional in perfect synchrony. For my more detailed critique on this wonderful album, please consult my essay elsewhere on this site entitled- “The Ultimate Veedon Fleece Album Review”.
#2: Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan
As innovative and transformative an album as any in the Rock pantheon, “Highway 61” combines folk, rock, blues and country influences into a swirling, hallucinatory, literate and surrealistic blend of poetry, whimsy, bitterness and regret. From the opening bars of the iconic “Like A Rolling Stone”, through the comedic nightmare of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and the disdainful rebuke of “Ballad of a Thin Man”, until the last verse of the sardonic 11 minute acoustic folk poem in “Desolation Row”, all 9 songs display a range and artistry never previously encountered in popular music, the result of which practically defined the 1960’s counter-culture, while simultaneously smashing the staid traditions of Dylan’s beloved American folk music to smithereens. Whilst lyrically often magnificent (if obscure) and endlessly analysable, the literary content is nonetheless matched by its estimable musical accompaniment from luminaries like Mike Bloomfield (guitar) and Al Kooper (organ), who manage a visceral and rollicking fluidity which at times equals that performed by the great Chicago Blues bands of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and with an authenticity and looseness that compliments the complexity, the angst and the surrealism of those inspired lyrics.
#3: The Complete Recordings: Robert Johnson
The defining music of the blues idiom, quintessential Delta bluesman Robert Johnson’s complete recording output is one of the most influential and groundbreaking musical transitions of 20th Century music. It is visceral, subtle, lyrically sophisticated and unique, played with compelling and haunting conviction by an innovative and yet enigmatic performer, who as legend would have it, sold his soul to the devil to achieve the level of prowess and artistic vision on display here. The inspiration for blues guitarists everywhere, none more so than guitar virtuoso Eric Clapton, for whom Johnson’s music remains the wellspring of his devotion to the blues. Songs such as “Hellhound On My Trail”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”, “Walking Blues”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Love In Vain” and “Rambling On My Mind” are absolute icons of the genre and reflect an artist who was a tormented genius, driven by demons and apocalyptic visions, and who was doomed to a terribly sad and all too early demise.
#4: Astral Weeks: Van Morrison
Van Morrison’s highly improvised, unique and daring valentine to his childhood memories, to the pain of love and relationships lost and opportunities missed, and to the dreamlike interior life to which he retreated that offered him both redemption and, ultimately, transcendence. An extraordinary burst of creative energy, born out of despair and financial hardship, “Astral Weeks” seamlessly blends the mystical with the mundane, the poetic with the prosaic, and the beauty of nature with the grinding poverty of his upbringing in working class Belfast, wherein its vignettes bear a more than passing resemblance to James Joyce’s short stories in “The Dubliners”. This extraordinary album, for a long time my personal favourite, is a modern operatic song cycle populated by eccentric characters and colourful detail, simultaneously interweaving a blend of folk, soul, blues, jazz and classical music, and which is more emotionally raw and self-revealing than mainstream popular music had dared to be up until that point in time. It is an impressionistic masterpiece of passionate intensity and delicate tenderness, breaking new ground by defying the stereotypical musical expectations of its time, and expanding the perceptual possibilities for what constituted popular music into the modern era.
#5: OK Computer: Radiohead
Radiohead’s third album, after the smashing artistic and critical success of their sophomore effort “The Bends”, reached new heights of creativity and originality in their Orwellian depiction of a dystopian nightmare world of all-pervasive technology, and its dehumanising and demoralising effect upon the individual. An internally cohesive suite of thematically linked songs, “OK Computer” explores the limits of electronic music with flashes of psychedelia, chiming guitars, ambient melodic interludes, dissonant chord progressions, and complex rhythm and tempo changes that demonstrate a musical virtuosity unmatched in this genre since the album was first released in 1997. Thom Yorke’s often anguished, melancholy and deceptively raw vocals run the full gamut of emotions, complimenting the diverse instrumental flourishes and the widely contrasting shifts in mood and style as the album evolves. Standout tracks include the shimmering, wistful “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, the complex multi-segmented rhapsody of “Paranoid Android”, the choral ambient crescendo of “Exit Music (For a Film)”, and especially the eerie and discordant masterpiece depicting a psychotic breakdown in “Climbing the Walls”, but ultimately every track is vital to the overall effect of the album, with the perfect sequencing and conceptual unity making this album so spectacularly successful and unique.
#6: Revolver: The Beatles
Innovative and often revolutionary album, which transitioned from the folk-influenced “Rubber Soul” album to the overt psychedelia of “Sgt Pepper’s”. A monumental leap forward in aural effects and sonic experimentation, with a diverse and eclectic mix of songs from widely divergent genres which serve to amply demonstrate the Beatles’ complete mastery of the medium. The wry humour and resentful scorn of the hard rocking “Taxman” flows seamlessly into the string octet neo-classical melancholia of “Eleanor Rigby”, which in turn is followed by the sonically inventive psychedelia of “I’m Only Sleeping” and the Indian classical music inspired hedonism of “Love You To”. McCartney pays artful homage to Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” in the romantic ballad “Here, There and Everywhere”, while “Yellow Submarine” mixes sea shanty with children’s nursery rhyme for light comic relief, and is then juxtaposed with the mordant satirical rebuke of “She Said She Said”. Side two continues in this same highly inventive vein, highlighted by the wide-eyed optimism of “Good Day, Sunshine”, the whimsical “And Your Bird Can Sing”, the innovative and evocative “I Want to Tell You”, the soulful sophistication of “Got to Get You Into My Life”, and finally the ground-breaking, LSD influenced aural experimentation of the hypnotic “Tomorrow Never Knows”. The sheer breadth of musical exploration and creativity involved have rarely been matched before or since in popular music history, and the album remains a pivotal work whose ongoing influence is difficult to overestimate.
#7: Dark Side of the Moon: Pink Floyd
The ultimate concept album of the 1970’s, “Dark Side of the Moon” is an iconic magnum opus whose majestic whole is somewhat greater than the sum of its parts. It’s slow, atmospheric soundscapes are perfectly complimented by samples of carefully chosen ‘found voices’ and skilfully interwoven sound effects (cash registers, ticking and chiming clocks, human heartbeats), to provide a suite of songs encompassing the many facets of human existence in the modern world, detailing the eternally confounding issues of the nature of conflict, money, peace, stress, time and ultimately death. Side one commences with an overture, the instrumental “Speak to Me”, followed by a cautionary tale about the transient nature of human existence in “Breathe”, the instrumental depiction of the stress and pace of modern life in “On the Run”, the brilliantly evocative “Time”, and finally the death metaphor “Great Gig in the Sky”. Side two opens with the anti-consumerism anthem “Money”, then flows into the delicate “Us and Them” which deals with conflict and the duality of human relationships, followed by the dream-like ambience of “Any Colour You Like”. The last two songs draw all these threads together, with “Brain Damage” dealing with emotional and mental breakdown under the stressors of the modern age, while the finale, “Eclipse”, draws the album to a satisfying resolution with an all-encompassing meditation upon the complexities of life and the fragility of our existence. “Dark Side of the Moon” therefore remains not only a critical and commercial success, but is a thought-provoking musical experience that engages on multiple levels with subtlety and creativity.
#8: Pour Down Like Silver: Richard and Linda Thompson
Husband and wife duo Richard and Linda Thompson made 3 brilliant albums over a seven year period prior to their very public and acrimonious divorce, each demonstrating an exceptional lyrical and musical sophistication that elevated each work to the apex of English folk rock. “Pour Down Like Silver” is the most delicate and spiritual of the trio, dealing as it does with the couple’s conversion to Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. While the lyrics make allusions to religious themes and writings, it more immediately deals with the complexity of human relationships and investing in a deep, spiritual connection with one’s partner, and it is this that gives songs such as “Night Comes In”, “For Shame of Doing Wrong”, “Beat the Retreat” and especially the luminous “Dimming of the Day” their resonance and sense of immediacy. A truly beautiful collection of finely crafted songs, with brilliant virtuoso guitar work from Richard Thompson complimenting beautifully, in a work of artistry and grace that belies its relative obscurity.
#9: Exile on Main Street: The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones may have produced albums of better songs (“Sticky Fingers” for example), but nothing quite epitomises their edginess, their rough and ready musicianship, their bluesy approach or their devil may care attitude quite like “Exile on Main Street”, a loose collection of songs demonstrating a bewildering range as they explore the length and breadth of American roots music, whether it be gospel, blues, folk, country, rock or soul. The lyrical sophistication and soulfulness of “Tumbling Dice”, “Loving Cup” and “Shine a Light”, are effectively counterbalanced by the fierceness and low down meanness of tracks such as “Rip this Joint”, “Rocks Off”, “Turd on the Run” and “Ventilator Blues”, which are among the most uncompromising and raw rock and roll in their entire career. Unfortunately, the Stones would never be able to match this level of achievement again in their career, and this remains at the very apex of their entire musical canon.
#10: Siren: Roxy Music
Roxy Music’s masterpiece, bridging the divide between their avant garde and experimental art rock past with the more accessible (and admittedly somewhat less ground breaking) synthesizer pop and disco sensibilities that were to become an increasingly prevalent feature of their later albums. Bryan Ferry’s idiosyncratic vocal stylings perfectly compliment the sophistication of the lyrics, and these thematically-linked vignettes often flow seamlessly into each other giving the album an impressive aural cohesion. The album begins with the irrepressible ebullience and irresistible rhythms of “Love is the Drug”, then segues into the trenchant yet elegant pessimism of “End of the Line”, the brilliant self-reproach of “Sentimental Fool”, and then the pulsating and frenetic “Whirlwind”. Side two continues the same themes initiated on side one, but more overtly examining aspects of his ultimately doomed relationship with model/girlfriend Jerry Hall in “She Sells”, the pitfalls of finding love unexpectedly in “Could it Happen to Me?”, the toll of a hedonistic lifestyle in “Both Ends Burning”, and finally summed up in the wistful resignation of Ferry’s signature tune, “Just Another High”. A rare blend that is at once danceable, artful, melodic and atmospheric, “Siren” represents not only the apex of the glam-rock genre, but also an engaging dissertation on the emptiness of the self-obsessed celebrity lifestyle.
#11: Five Leaves Left: Nick Drake
Nick Drake’s delicate and refined debut album, infused with a lingering sense of existential romanticism and a gentle poetic sensibility, is a gorgeous blend of the folk rock and singer-songwriter genres. A collection of subtle and reflective songs that have been greatly enhanced by marvellous cello and string arrangements, Drake’s soft spoken but expressive vocals deliver beautiful melodies that have only become more widely and greatly appreciated with the passage of time, and with the artist’s premature death at 26 years of age. Outstanding tracks such as “Day Is Done”, “Three Hours”, “Way To Blue” and “Fruit Tree” have an autumnal beauty and lyricism rarely encountered in modern music, and are all the more impressive given their tragic and at times prescient context.
#12: Are You Experienced? (U.S.): Jimi Hendrix
A brilliant and innovative guitarist who single-handedly redefined how the instrument could be played, Jimi Hendrix’s first album is a revolution in itself, in a complex fusion of jazz, avant-garde, funk, blues and rock that stands as one of the most potent and inspired debuts in rock history. His heavily distorted, entirely unconventional, fuzz-tone electric guitar riffs and effects are legendary, and are a source of inspiration for countless guitarists and bands who followed in his considerable wake. Highlights include the legendary acid-rock anthem “Purple Haze”, the bluesy revenge fantasy “Hey Joe”, the luminous “The Wind Cries Mary”, the overtly sexual “Foxy Lady”, the propulsive and revealing “Manic Depression”, and the smouldering, slow-burning blues of “Red House”. The title track ends the album in a burst of psychedelia with slashing guitar, and unifying the whole work with the question posed of the audience, the affirmation of which signifying that Jimi Hendrix had arrived as an entirely new and radical musical force, and that a seismic shift in the rock landscape had occurred. An absolutely essential album by a legendary performer in his prime.
#13: New Adventures in Hi-Fi: REM
REM’s relative commercial failure, “New Adventures in Hi-FI” is an under-appreciated gem that artistically surpasses many, if not all of the more famous and critically successful albums that preceded it. Stand out songs such as the undaunted and self-assertive “Bittersweet Me”, the wonderfully devotional “Be Mine”, the scathing “So Fast, So Numb”, the stream-of-consciousness valediction of “E-Bow the Letter”, and especially the scarifying “Low Desert” are further complimented by an eclectic range of songs of a similarly high standard that were derived from various out-takes, sound checks and live performances, giving the music an immediacy and a primitive feel that moved diametrically away from the polished, studio-bound efforts of their commercial peak. As such, this album is a deliberately rough-hewn diamond whose lustre increases with each playing, and whose treasures reveal themselves subtly, and often unexpectedly.
#14: Grace: Jeff Buckley
A miraculous debut, with Jeff Buckley’s marvellous vocal ability and expressiveness to the forefront in a uniformly excellent blend of well chosen covers (including the definitive version of Leonard Cohen’s iconic “Hallelujah”) alongside stunningly inventive originals, including such highlights as the Led Zeppelin inspired “Mojo Pin”, the romantic despair of “Lover, You Should’ve Come Back”, the melancholy “Last Goodbye”, the ethereal “Dream Brother”, and especially the intensely personal and confessional bonus track “Forget Her”. A lush, romantic and emotional experience, this album remains a tragic epitaph to a career cut short by Buckley’s accidental drowning at age 30, and has only increased in stature over the succeeding years as its timeless qualities have come to be more fully and more universally appreciated.
#15: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Beatles
The definitive psychedelic album, a justly famous and influential pastiche with a fusion of disparate musical styles, from classical to music hall to Indian music to baroque pop to rock and roll, which is then merged with the Fab Four’s highly developed Pop Art sensibilities, and producer George Martin’s unflinching resolve in exploring and expanding the limits of sonic embellishment, to form what amounts to their most exuberant collective burst of unbridled creativity. The album set the stage for, and duly dominated the “Summer of Love” in 1967, pushing the contemporary boundaries not only in its concept, sound and technical proficiency, but also in demonstrating the group’s complete mastery of the popular music genre. Only the addition of the omitted contemporaneous hit, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, could have improved upon the sheer brilliance on display here, with such standout tracks as “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, “A Day in the Life” and “Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite” especially being at the absolute pinnacle of The Beatles’ artistic vision and expression.
#16: Achtung Baby: U2
Leaving behind their somewhat productive infatuation with Americana, with the generally excellent “Joshua Tree” album and the somewhat under-rated “Rattle and Hum”, and eschewing the sometimes bombastic social themes that at times marred some of their previous work, U2’s “Achtung Baby” marked a bold departure toward a more introspective approach,with the songs revolving around themes dealing with the meaning of love, sexuality and even spirituality. The lyrics are often very dark, with some expressing anger and resentment at infidelity and betrayal, while the majority deal one way or another with troubled or doomed relationships or their emotional toll in consequent feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. Songs such as “Love Is Blindness”, “One”, “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” and “So Cruel” are among the best of U2’s career, and mix sometimes spartan instrumentation with pervasive industrial alternative rock textures and electronic dance music rhythms to create soundscapes that perfectly compliment the torturous emotions on display. A uniformly excellent collection of songs that represent the band, and Bono as a lyricist, at their very absolute peak.
#17: Who’s Next: The Who
The high watermark of The Who’s stellar career, “Who’s Next” began as an abortive attempt at a science fiction concept album tentatively entitled “Lifehouse”, but when that failed to come to fruition what remained were a collection of excellent songs that bore a loose affinity with one another, but were essentially self-contained and probably all the better for it. Iconic songs such as the devotional “Baba O’Riley”, the anthemic “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and the brilliant angst-ridden “Behind Blue Eyes” are among the top 20 or 30 rock songs ever recorded, and are an impressive representation of a band who had by now fully matured from the young Mods with attitude of their youth to become fully rounded artists at their peak. “Song Is Over”, “Getting In Tune”, “Love Ain’t For Keeping”, and especially the dynamic and lyrical “Bargain”, are all top notch rock songs, and the album is further distinguished by the early innovative use of synthesiser effects and tape loops, which were not only pioneering in their novelty, but also represent some of the best examples of the judicious use of these effects, without becoming slavish to them (as much of the ’80’s music would subsequently become) to the detriment of the music it is meant to enhance.
#18: Moondance: Van Morrison
Van Morrison followed his improvised, acoustic masterpiece in “Astral Weeks” with a more conventional, but no less brilliant album in the incandescent and spiritual “Moondance”. Beginning with the beautiful and evocative narrative to memory “And It Stoned Me”, there follows the jazzy and seductive “Moondance”, the impassioned falsetto of the heartfelt ballad “Crazy Love”, the joyous celebration “Caravan” and finally, to end a perfectly sequenced side of music, the metaphysical ode to secular and religious devotion in the transcendent “Into the Mystic”. While the second side perhaps represents a minor notch below this very high standard of excellence, it still contains the spirited and jaunty confidence of “Come Running”, the soulful horn-laden gem “These Dreams of You”, and the gloriously resonant spiritual awakening of “Brand New Day”. This latter song and “Into the Mystic” are religious-themed songs of the highest order, subtle and profound in spite of their apparent simplicity, and which remain as timeless and iconic as the day they were recorded. For these two songs alone, this album would be worthy of inclusion in any “Best of…..” list, but this merely scratches the surface of the treasures found within this meticulously conceived and finely honed collection.
#19: Darkness on the Edge of Town: Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen’s fourth studio album, coming three years after his smashing success with “Born to Run”, was a marked departure thematically from his previous work, which was populated with urban characters and told stories revolving around city life and growing up in New Jersey and New York City. Instead, “Darkness on the Edge of Town” told largely dark and foreboding tales of the working class in small town America, where frustration, violence, passion and regret walk hand in hand, and where the honest toil of labour can wear away the last vestiges of hope and optimism, leaving only a hollow shell in its place. Songs like “Badlands”, “Factory” and “The Promised Land” deal with straight-forward if downbeat ideas of working class aspirations being thwarted by circumstances beyond their control, while the stinging bitterness and anger found in “Adam Raised A Cain”, “Something in the Night” and “Streets of Fire” are as fierce and as brutally passionate a response as any ‘grunge’, ‘indie’ or ‘punk’ band has been able to muster within their respective idioms. These tracks in particular highlight Springsteen’s expressive vocal raspiness, which perfectly compliments his fearsome and at times tortured and heavily distorted guitar playing. The closing songs on each side, “Racing in the Streets” and the title track are both at times wistful and despondent, at times bitter and resentful, but with each offering redemption through acceptance and making the best of life’s offerings and, in the case of the latter song, in admonishing the desire for the impractical and the unattainable. A brilliant and passionate album of high quality songs, this also marked a remarkably fertile songwriting period for Springsteen, as evidenced by the recently released, uniformly excellent double album of outtakes from these same recording sessions, entitled “The Promise”.
#20: Howlin’ Wolf (Red Rocking Chair Album): Howlin’ Wolf
The most essential single album of the Chicago Blues renaissance in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, showcasing the primeval, gravelly yet soulful vocals of the one and only Chester Burnett, a.k.a Howlin’ Wolf. Combining a larger than life persona, a massive girth and awesomely powerful delivery, he managed to blend passion, grit, emotion and wry humour in delivering Blues classics of the calibre of “Shake For Me”, “Little Red Rooster”, “Going Down Slow”, “Who’s Been Talking” and “Down In the Bottom”, most of whom were penned by his bassist Willie Dixon and laced with more than a modicum of venom, sexual innuendo and humour. Hubert Sumlin’s guitar playing is inspired and ground-breaking, and the whole band of accompanists demonstrate a looseness and raw energy that would inspire a generation of predominantly English blues guitarists, and bands such as The Animals, The Rolling Stones, Them, Cream, Led Zeppelin, etc, etc. ‘The Blues’ doesn’t get any more definitive than this.
#21: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs: Derek and the Dominoes
The best album of virtuoso guitarist Eric Clapton’s career, this double album of songs is dedicated to the guitarist’s conflicted feelings at falling in love with his best friend George Harrison’s wife, Pattie. The result of his obsession, and the (at that time) unrequited love for her, was a collection of songs running the full gamut of emotions, from the soaring cover of Hendrix’s “Little Wing”, to the fiery remake of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway”, from the definitive reading of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, to the all out attack of the frenetic “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad”. The luminous title track, whose name was taken from a 12th century book of Persian poetry, stands as Clapton’s best (and most heartfelt) song of his stellar career, and the entire album particularly is noteworthy for featuring his dynamic interplay with ace guitarist Duane Allman that pushes both men to their absolute limits as musicians. Combine that with a collection of songs all of an exceptionally high standard, and a backing band of the highest possible order, and “Layla” confirms itself as one of, if not the best purely guitar-oriented albums in the history of Rock music.
#22: Led Zeppelin IV: Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin’s most archetypal song, “Stairway to Heaven”, blends folk and blues with a lyric styled on a medieval template to produce one of the most famous, and somewhat unique rock songs of all time, barely diminished by over-exposure over decades of radio airplay. The album on which it is found contains a mere 8 songs, all of prime quality, which together produce the definitive ‘heavy metal’ statement. From the demented blues of “Black Dog”, to the improvised rockabilly of “Rock and Roll”, to the folkish and melodic “Going to California”, to the Tolkien-inspired “Battle of Evermore”, on to the final thundering reverberation attack of the 12-bar blues standard, “When the Levee Breaks”, the playing is never less than inspired, while the singing and unique phrasing of Robert Plant redefined the standard for Rock God superstardom. Highly influential and much imitated, but never equalled, Led Zeppelin IV remains one of the best examples of its genre, and among the most innovative and inspired albums from any group in Rock and Roll history.
#23: Liege and Lief: Fairport Convention
The brilliant folk and rock fusion, “Liege and Lief”, is an innovative and stimulating mixture of ballads (the wistful lament of “Farewell, Farewell”, “Crazy Man Michael”), British and Celtic folk tales (“Matty Groves”, “Tam Lin”), jigs and reels (“The Lark in the Morning” medley) performed with consummate musicianship by a stellar band including Dave Swarbick (viola and fiddle), Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson (electric and acoustic guitars), Ashley Hutchings (Bass) and Dave Mattacks (Drums), and adorned with the absolutely stunning, ethereal and at times other worldly vocals of the late, great Sandy Denny. With their original material blending seamlessly with the traditional folk arrangements, and the complex interplay between the players and vocalist wringing every last emotion out of each song, the album is nearly universally recognised as the pivotal and most influential album in the British folk rock idiom, and rightly so. An album that entrances and becomes more imbued with emotional connections with each listening, it stands as the definitive response to the American folk renaissance that had just occurred, through Bob Dylan and The Band and others, across the Atlantic.
#24: The Bends: Radiohead
Radiohead’s second album is a masterpiece of aural textures, light years ahead of their debut, “Pablo Honey”. From the shimmering and plaintive “Planet Telex” and the hard rocking grunge of the title track, through until the metronomic rhythms of the stunning emotional climax “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, the album displays an impressive expansiveness and musical diversity that is at once instantly accessible and memorable, and yet seems entirely new and experimental also. Songs dealing with abandonment (“High and Dry”), the shallowness of modernity (“Fake Plastic Trees”), human frailty (“My Iron Lung” and “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was”), shameless self- imposed victimhood (“Just”), the unattainable nature of love and happiness (“(Nice Dream)”) and the vicissitudes of melancholic depression (“Black Star”), are performed with supreme vocal conviction coupled with the engaging melodic complexity of its instrumental accompaniment that effectively enhances the thematic connections between the songs in order to facilitate a coherent and cohesive journey of emotional exploration that stands up right until the final note. A remarkable achievement.
#25: Little Feat: Dixie Chicken
Graduating from the earthy garage band rock and blues of their eponymous debut, to the country-inflected grace and quirkiness of their brilliant sophomore effort, “Sailin’ Shoes”, created a dilemma for this quintessential southern rock band, the only American rival to remotely incorporate the Rabelaisian spirit and musical influences of the Rolling Stones. With minimal sales impact in spite of the critical success of the first two albums, a change of direction was needed, and as a result their subsequent effort, “Dixie Chicken”, incorporates the syncopated rhythms and flavour of the musical melting pot New Orleans to produce their most definitive album. Stunning originals such as the country funk of the title track, the easy rolling rhythms of “Two Trains”, the slow burning sexuality of “Roll Um Easy”, the humorous blues workout of “Fat Man in the Bathtub” and the gorgeous soulful “Juliette” are complimented perfectly by crackerjack readings of Allen Toussaint’s scornful “On Your Way Down” and Fred Tackett’s admonition, “Fool Yourself”. The album features irresistible rhythms, a diverse musical palette and sophisticated lyrics which combine into a piquant musical gumbo that many have tried to emulate, but has never been equalled within its genre.
SO NEAR, AND YET SO FAR…….
#26: Pink Moon: Nick Drake
Third and final album of Nick Drake’s career, with sparse arrangements , delicate guitar textures and obscure allusions which leave a troubling epitaph to an artist cruelly deprived of recognition and fame he so richly deserved. The despair at this lack of acknowledgement is palpable throughout the album, which is adorned with such classic if obscure and elusive tone poems as the whimsical title track, the lilting “Things Behind the Sun”, the self-deprecating “Parasite”, and the elliptical “Harvest Breed”.
#27: The Joshua Tree: U2
U2’s commercial colossus, adorned with a collection of uniformly outstanding songs, and steeped in Americana but also intensely personal and emotionally engaging on a number of levels. The cautionary and highly symbolic drug tale “Running to Stand Still”, the romantic inquisition “With or Without You”, the spiritual quest of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and the iconic “Where the Streets Have No Name” are particular standout tracks. That being said, lesser known tracks such as “In God’s Country”, “One Tree Hill”, “Red Hill Mining Town” and “Trip Through Your Wires” match this high standard and the album’s sequencing holds up till right near the end, giving the songs a fluidity and flow that is highly impressive, and builds in cumulative fashion throughout the album.
#28: Wish You Were Here: Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd casts a cynical eye over the exploitative nature of the music business (“Welcome to the Machine”, “Have a Cigar”), as well as engaging in a devotional suite of songs (“Shine On You Crazy Diamond”) dedicated to the fragile soul of founder member, Syd Barrett, whose nervous breakdown under the pressures of the music industry and fame forms the backbone of the album. The iconic title track, “Wish You Were Here”, is an acoustic and lyrical masterpiece, and is undoubtedly the best song on the album, and likely also of the band’s stellar career.
#29: Sticky Fingers: The Rolling Stones
A fantastic rock album, containing some of the best songs penned by the Jagger/Richards writing duo, namely the country-folk parable “Wild Horses”, the scarifying drug valediction “Sister Morphine”, the lilting “I Got the Blues” and the brilliantly evocative classic “Moonlight Mile”, and it features some searing and dynamic guitar work from Brian Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor prior to his departure from the band, to be replaced by erstwhile Faces alumnus Ron Wood. Concert staple “Brown Sugar”, a twisted tale with controversial undertones, has the raw sexuality and morally ambivalent attitude the Stones were famous for, while “Sway”, “Bitch” and the latin-influenced “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” are as hard edged as any in the Stones’ canon. Finally, “You Gotta Move” is probably their most faithful (along with “Love In Vain”) Delta Blues invocation, and is adorned with gorgeous acoustic slide guitar work by Taylor that brings it all back home with consummate ease.
#30: Live at the Star Club Hamburg: Jerry Lee Lewis
Quite probably the greatest live rock album ever, from the supremely talented, ferocious and incendiary “ball of fire”, Jerry Lee Lewis. Utterly inspired, and playing and singing like a man possessed, Lewis runs through a choice selection of many of the most popular and iconic hits of the 1950’s, not only his own, but those of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, which he throws into the mix and attacks with passion and venom. Essential Rock and Roll from “the Killer” at his absolute peak, with a point to prove and taking absolutely no prisoners.
#31: Beggar’s Banquet: The Rolling Stones
Beggar’s Banquet is a Delta Blues inspired collection of top notch songs, with slide guitar to the forefront on such classics as “Love In Vain”, “Stray Cat Blues” and “No Expectations”, and tinges of country (“Dear Doctor”, “Factory Girl”), roots rock (the overtly political “Street Fighting Man”, “Salt of the Earth”) and even a macabre samba jazz inspired anthem of sorts (the notorious “Sympathy for the Devil”). Inventive and complex, while firmly grounded in blues and rock traditions, this excellent album boasts exceptional playing , attitude to spare and a diversity of influences that provide one of the touchstone albums of the late 1960’s, and somewhat of an antidote to the rampant psychedelia of that era.
#32: Hallelujah I Love Her So: Ray Charles
Ray Charles’ unique blend of blues and gospel formed the nascent foundation for the development and popularisation of the ‘soul music’ genre that would dominate the R&B charts from the late 1950’s to the mid ’70’s. This 1962 album reissue of his 1957 eponymous debut collects his most groundbreaking and iconic music, from stunning originals like the title track and “I Got a Woman”, with definitive covers of “Drown In My Own Tears”, “Losing Hand” and “Sinner’s Prayer”. Essential and timeless.
#33: St Dominic’s Preview: Van Morrison
An album of rich textures and transcendent emotions, highlighted by such evocative tracks as the soulful and autobiographical title track, the charming valentine to childhood “Redwood Tree” and the incandescent “Gypsy”. Dominating the album, however, are two extended tracks: “Listen to the Lion” which features one of Morrison’s most primal and intense vocal performances, where he expresses his inner most personal feelings in utterly compelling and innovative fashion; and the trance-like closing track “Almost Independence Day” that induces an almost mystical and meditative state in the listener that is somewhat unique, and ultimately emotionally cathartic. An album of an artist luxuriating in the peak of his creativity, unafraid to experiment and to boldly step outside the mainstream to achieve a higher level of sophistication in his musical communication.
#34: The Band: The Band
Following on from their rough hewn, but nonetheless masterful debut album “Music From Big Pink”, The Band’s second effort went one step further, delivering a superlative set of a dozen original songs, penned by guitarist Robbie Robertson, that depict vignettes of 19th century rural life in the American South. Such classics as “Rag Mama Rag”, “Up on Cripple Creek” and the iconic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” are just a few of the gems found on this uniformly excellent set, while “King Harvest (Will Surely Come)”, “Whispering Pines” and “The Unfaithful Servant” in particular are notable songs of the highest order. The album displays expressive and distinctive harmonies that are interwoven with consummate musicianship, from Robertson’s understated guitar to Garth Hudson’s majestic organ and keyboard embellishments, that gives these songs a timeless quality that perfectly compliments the album’s themes, and the vivid portraits being drawn therein.
#35: London Calling: The Clash
Punk rock’s magnum opus blends the reactionary angst and attitude of the ‘punk’ movement with an overtly political and anti-authoritarian thematic base, and combining that with a dizzying array of styles from reggae to ska to rockabilly, to New Orleans R&B and inevitably hard rock in an eclectic mix that brought a new level of sophistication and diversity to the genre. The searing anthem “London Calling”, “Spanish Bombs,” and “The Guns of Brixton” are among the standout tracks in a landmark album that defined an era.
#36: No Other: Gene Clark
Gene Clark’s once unjustly maligned album was considered over-wrought and over-produced on initial release, but through succeeding decades has been re-evaluated and has become generally regarded as a sublime masterpiece. Opening with the gospel and country inflected “Life’s Greatest Fool” building to a choral crescendo, each subsequent song boasts awe-inspiring arrangements, top notch musicianship and often unexpected and at times overwhelming emotional depth. Highlights include the serpentine title track, the haunting drug anthem “Silver Phial”, the Eastern mysticism of the brilliant abstraction “Strength of Strings”, and the emotionally resonant closing track, “Lady of the North”. This little known gem generously rewards repeated listening, revealing ever deeper layers of both sound textures and meaning, and deserves a wider popular exposure and appreciation.
#37: Let’s Get It On: Marvin Gaye
The most erotic and sensual album of Marvin Gaye’s career, which is to say that “Let’s Get It On” is without peer as the most sexually seductive album of all time. Each track casts Gaye’s impeccable vocal abilities against a backdrop of both sexually explicit and none-too-subtly implicit lyrics that flow seamlessly into one another to form the ultimate aural depiction of carnal desire, intimacy and passion. The music is sophisticated, rhythmically irresistible and incredibly smooth, yet still manages to remain masculine, earthy and lustful. The emotional crescendo is reached with the wonderful, heartfelt ballad “If I Could Die Tonight”, while the title track is persuasively soulful yet funky and insistent, “Distant Lover” is dreamily romantic eroticism, and the controversial single “Baby You Sure Love to Ball” is so overtly explicit as to feature prominently the sounds of a couple moaning during love-making intertwined within and framing the song’s melody. Much imitated by the lesser artists who followed, but never equalled.
#38: Right Place, Wrong Time: Otis Rush
An album all the more essential and remarkable because it lay unwanted and unappreciated for five years, and because the career of Otis Rush has been a litany of false starts, near misses, wrong turns, poor management and unsympathetic production. Nonetheless, this particularly fine album is a wonderful example of blues crossover, merging soul and blues idioms in a similar vein to the incomparable B.B.King, although more directly paving the way for the likes of Robert Cray in the decades following. For once in this performer’s chequered career, the production is note perfect, the material is never less than prime quality, and Rush’s virtuoso guitar work never less than inspired and subtly innovative, yet at the same time wholly understated. The album contains such gems as “Tore Up”, “Three Times a Fool” and the wonderful career defining title track, while also including the definitive reading of Tony Joe White’s classic hit “Rainy Night in Georgia” and the pained regret of the brilliant and moving closer, “Take a Look Behind”.
#39: Chuck Berry Is On Top: Chuck Berry
The primordial source and wellspring for what would eventually become Rock and Roll. Needless to say, Chuck Berry invented much of the idiom’s foundation language through his trademark guitar licks and riffs, which were endlessly imitated by those whom he inspired. This his third album contains many of his most famous and influential material, from “Johnny B. Goode” to “Roll Over Beethoven” to “Around and Around” to “Almost Grown” to “Maybelline”. Every song is virtually a classic of the genre, invoking an era more perfectly then almost anything else recorded in the 1950’s (against some admittedly very stiff competition), or since for that matter. Absolutely essential recordings from a pioneer and consummate artist, with lyrics whose simplicity belies their sophistication and wit.
#40: Robbie Robertson: Robbie Robertson
Infused with subtle textures, rhythms and themes related to his Native American ancestral heritage, ex-The Band guitarist Robbie Robertson’s first solo album diverges substantially from the rural Americana of that musical excursion, and instead opted for a moody and atmospheric, more contemporary sound in a similar vein to Peter Gabriel or U2 (who, not coincidentally, also appear on the album), and then benefitted greatly in acquiring the talents of ace producer Daniel Lanois (The Joshua Tree, So, Yellow Moon). The album opens with “Fallen Angel”, a sad and loving tribute to departed friend and band mate Richard Manuel, while other highlights include the plaintive gem “Broken Arrow”, the apocalyptic “Showdown at Big Sky”, the passionate U2 collaboration “Sweet Fire of Love”, the menacing “Hell’s Half Acre” and the brilliantly evocative memoir “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”, a spoken word ‘song’ that sounds like a Dashiell Hammett novel describing the seedy underbelly of New Orleans at night. One of the best and most under-appreciated albums of the 1980’s.
#41: Every Picture Tells A Story: Rod Stewart
Rod Stewart’s third solo album is a sublime collection of excellent originals (“Maggie May”, “Mandolin Wind”, the title track) with a brilliantly selected collection of covers, the interpretations of which often equal or even surpass that of the original artist’s version. Vocally, Stewart is in prime form, with estimable support from his former Faces bandmates (especially guitarist Ron Wood), delivering among others a searing rendition of the Temptations hit “(I Know) I’m Losing You”, a gorgeous and heartfelt version of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, and a beautifully rendered interpretation of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe”. A near perfect album that thoroughly deserved the commercial success and critical accolades accorded it, with a recipe that Stewart attempted on several occasions to repeat but whose serendipity he subsequently failed to recapture.
#42: Blood on the Tracks: Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s album output became increasingly inconsistent after the motorcycle accident that nearly claimed his life in the 1960’s, but an exception to this was the bittersweet and emotionally resonant album, “Blood on the Tracks”. Inspired it would seem by the emotional turmoil and pain caused by the impending breakdown of his marriage, Dylan delivered an album of finely-honed songs that were sentimental and nostalgic without being maudlin, starkly honest and yet often artfully obscuring its true meaning behind a veil of symbolism and metaphor. The highlights of this exceptional work of maturity and conviction include such classics as the warm and inviting “Shelter from the Storm”, the romantic fable and lament of “Simple Twist of Fate”, the complex ode to memory “Tangled Up in Blue”, and the wistful regret of “If You See Her Say Hello”.
#43: Here’s Little Richard: Little Richard
Richard Penniman, a.k.a Little Richard, was a true original and a formidable force of nature, merging fire and brimstone gospel fervour with New Orleans rhythms, and a tincture of the blues hollering just for good measure. His debut record was infused with so much energy, such unbridled excitement and a strange sexual tension that it ignited Rock and Roll with its explosive combination of perversity, desperation and anarchic flare, with particularly his trademark vocal attack being much imitated, but never equalled. Choice cuts include “Long Tall Sally”, “Rip It Up”, “Tutti Frutti”, “Miss Ann” and “Slippin’ and Slidin'” to name but a few in this exceptionally strong collection of his most galvanic tracks.
#44: The Beatles (White Album): The Beatles
The Beatles’ White Album is a masterpiece of ragged eclecticism, its 30 songs covering a breadth of musical influences that are awe-inspiring in their sprawling diversity, from the manic, heavy metal attack of “Helter Skelter” (where Paul McCartney effectively presages Led Zeppelin et al), the Chuck Berry meets Beach Boys of “Back In the USSR”, the blues influence of “Yer Blues”, the 1920’s jazz of “Honey Pie”, ska/reggae of “Ob La Di, Ob La Da”, mock country with “Rocky Raccoon”, baroque harpsichord and string quartet of “Piggies”, and the acoustic folk of “Mother Nature’s Son”, to the ground-breaking ‘musique concrete’ of the avant garde and experimental “Revolution 9”. Some of the band’s best music is found here, with the gorgeous and childlike “Dear Prudence”, the emotive “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, the lyrical satire of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, the heartfelt valentine to Lennon’s dead mother in “Julia”, the distorted looking-glass encapsulation of the band in “Glass Onion”, and the stinging rebuke to misguided activism in “Revolution”. The Beatles display all their trademark ambition, audacity and artfulness in this musical chocolate box collection, thereby underlining and reinforcing their utter uniqueness and conspicuousness within the popular musical landscape.
#45: The Sun Collection: Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley’s formative recordings, recorded for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, were the root source for what would become the genre of rockabilly, a blend of country with southern R&B, with Elvis’ trademark swagger and sexuality as well as soulful vocal styling proving such an inspiration for much of the white American popular music that followed. Presley was a product of the regional melting pot influences of his home town (Memphis, Tennessee), where black performers like Junior Parker and Arthur Crudup merged with such country icons as Bob Wills and the Carter Family, acting as high quality raw material for the cross pollination that would propel Elvis to eventual superstardom. Hits such as “That’s Alright, Mama”, the iconic “Mystery Train”, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Trying to Get to You”, are merged with covers of many country standards, given what would at that time be considered to be a modern ‘Rock and Roll’ twist that brought a new vitality to the material. These early recordings remain Elvis’ most enduring, innovative and iconic, and form the most important foundation stone of his musical legacy.
#46: Live at the Apollo: James Brown
Great live albums are often determined by the sheer intensity of the performance (as in Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Live at the Star Club Hamburg” above), and by the rapport and interplay between the performer and the audience. Much like B.B.King’s similarly iconic “Live at the Regal” recording, James Brown’s performance in “Live at the Apollo” is not only powerful and intense, but it is matched by the passionate fervour and responsiveness of his wildly enthusiastic audience. In this performance, the “Godfather of Soul”, with able support from his Famous Flames, literally powers through the cream of the material he had released up to that point in time, and his passion and boundless energy and enthusiasm is vividly displayed in this album, the most seminal work from one of the pivotal figures in the history of R&B music.
#47: The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society: The Kinks
The Kinks were the most quintessentially English of the British Invasion bands of the 1960’s, and in this quiet gem chief songwriter Ray Davies has fashioned a valentine to a vanishing England, depicting village life that probably only ever existed in the imagination, and much in the vein of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milkwood”. This concept album is a brilliantly executed paean to disappearing traditions, nostalgic for simpler times and for the quirky characters and idealised memories of youth. From the statement of purpose extolled in the lyrics of the title track, the songs invoke images of childhood friends (“Do You Remember Walter”), rural idyll (“Animal Farm”, “Sitting By the Riverside”), the romance of a bygone era (“Last of the Steam Powered Trains”), memory and ageing (“Picture Book”), as well as vignettes that celebrate eccentricity and individuality (a rebellious biker in “Johnny Thunder”, a local witch in “Wicked Annabella”, the town prostitute in “Monica”). A glorious collection that paints vivid, sepia-toned portraits with affection and intelligence.
#48: Abbey Road: The Beatles
The Beatles’ swansong, “Abbey Road” is the product of a band at the end of its collaborative life, but yet still manages to sound like a cohesive and coherent whole in spite of this. Some of the gems contained within are among their very best, not least of which being the highly idiosyncratic classic “Come Together”, the gorgeous ballad “Something”, the exquisitely crafted perfection of “Here Comes the Sun”, the joyous “Oh, Darling!” and the classically inspired harmonic splendour of “Because”. The second side of the LP, segues into an extended medley of musical fragments that coalesce to form a pastiche thematically linked by the dualism inherent in love and relationships. The selection of songs within this medley is not as random as it might initially appear, with each component being either a mirror image of a previous fragment, or interconnected in some other way either lyrically or musically to enhance the meaning of the piece as a whole. As such, this sequence is an inventive and unique accomplishment, enhancing an album fully deserving of all of the critical sobriquets it would receive.
#49: Dummy: Portishead
Emerging from the vibrant Bristol music scene of the 1990’s, Portishead defined the trip hop genre with this classic album, which merge influences of hip hop, electronica, jazz and cabaret to form a highly cinematic musical melange that blended seductive grooves with dark backbeat rhythms and torch song vocal stylings. This seductive combination crossed over from the narrow dance club scene (as exemplified by groups like Massive Attack) to a broader appeal to alt rock and indie audiences without sacrificing credibility or creativity. Songs like “Sour Times”, “Wandering Star”, “It Could Be Sweet”, “Numb” and the luminous “Glory Box” highlight an incredibly strong set that is by turns sultry then melancholy, sophisticated then confessional. The pinnacle of the dance/hip hop genre.
#50: Nevermind: Nirvana
To my mind the most contentious selection of the lot, Nirvana’s “Nevermind” is without doubt a highly influential recording, an essential era-defining album of the early 1990’s that energised an entire burgeoning movement in rock music, namely “grunge”- a blend of punk and heavy metal emanating out of the Seattle music scene. Lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain evolved a songwriting style that utilised an angst-ridden, self-deprecating and simplistic approach that emphasised melodicism over literary flourishes. Songs such as the anthemic “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Come As You Are”, “Lithium” and “In Bloom” garnered Cobain an enviable reputation as a gifted songwriter able to cut down his original songs to their barest essence. While I consider the album overall to be somewhat over-rated, there is no denying that it represented a timely reflection of, and a driving force for, a cultural shift that was evolving among a jaded generation looking for new forms of musical expression. As such it deserves inclusion in spite of any misgivings I may have regarding its originality or its likely longevity as a musical statement.