30. Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
The sneering put-down “Like a Rolling Stone” is arguably rock and roll’s greatest revelation, but Highway 61 Revisited is perhaps best described by a lyric from the album’s own “Ballad of a Thin Man” on which Dylan sings, “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.” This record is nearly an hour of mostly electrified blues that places the listener in a room with no less than Jack the Ripper, Lady Jane Grey, and Einstein disguised as Robin Hood.
From the surreal romp of the title track to the delicate strumming of the record’s epic closer, “Desolation Row”, precise meaning always seems just out of reach, and yet a nerve is always touched somehow. The language, both musically and lyrically, of Highway 61 Revisited is poetic, sarcastic, and ironic—tongues that have always spoken to some essential part in the human makeup. And while listeners may never quite get Dylan, everyone comes away with something worthwhile. -Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Desolation Row”, and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
29. AC/DC – Back In Black
In the wake of Bon Scott’s death, Back In Black could have easily been both the band’s funeral march for its fallen leader and its official goodbye to its legion fans. Instead, with new lead singer Brian Johnson at the helm, the band proved that there was still plenty of life, screams, and killer riffs left in the band – if not more. Opening solemnly with the haunting toll of the bell on “Hells Bells”, the album is a tribute to Scott’s songwriting, as well as the endurance of a truly great band. Today, we celebrate its material like it’s a national anthem. “Shook Me All Night Long” tends to soundtrack any victory (both personal or public), while “Back in Black” signifies every one of our triumphant returns. It doesn’t look like that’s going to change. Ever. -Christine DiPaolo
Essential Tracks: “Shoot to Thrill”, “Shook Me All Night Long”, and “Back in Black”
28. Joni Mitchell – Blue
Joni Mitchell’s Blue opened a floodgate for thousands of other imitators in 1971. It took obvious and not-so obvious cues from Miles Davis, offered heartfelt ballads still heard on radio stations across the country today, and strung together so much unadulterated Joni that it catapulted her into Canadian Americana like few other artists since or hereafter. Fragile, precious songs like “All I Want” and “River” are rock-solid singer-songwriter jewels spangled across the folk spectrum.
By the time she had released it, Mitchell had spent six years professionally making music over the course of four studio albums. Like Leslie Feist, another female Canadian singer-songwriter with a heart of gold, who released a critically acclaimed fourth album in 2007, Blue’s success just feels right. Unlike Feist’s The Reminder, Joni Mitchell’s Blue has long since turned timeless. On the album’s first song “All I Want”, Mitchell sings, “I want to belong to the living / Alive, alive…” Forty years later, her album still is. -Eric Vilas-Boas
Essential Tracks: “All I Want”, “Blue”, and “A Case of You”
27. Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced (US Version)
Shaking hands is a polite way to introduce one’s self to someone, but Jimi Hendrix left the prim and proper behind on his 1967 debut. Instead, Hendrix, with the help of Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, took the world by the ears and rattled them out of their cozy, folked-out cocoons. Released just three months after the UK version, the stateside release of Are You Experienced introduced Americans to a sound that was hard and psychedelic at the very same time. Having been influenced by legends like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Little Richard, Hendrix used the hour-long album to pack legendary songs like “Foxey Lady”,“The Wind Cries Mary”, and “Purple Haze” in between lesser known, revolutionary tracks like the title track and “Manic Depression”, which finds Hendrix unearthing a new style of guitar playing while singing a line that any music lovers of any degree can get behind: “Music sweet music/I wish I could caress in a kiss.” -Ray Roa
Essential Tracks: “Are You Experienced”, “Purple Haze”, and “Red House”
26. Johnny Cash – Live at Folsom Prison
This live record begins with a simple “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” followed by resounding applause. The catch, of course, is that the cheering audience members are all inmates of California’s Folsom State Prison. The idea of playing a prison show had always appealed to Cash, and with his career floundering in 1968 due in large part to drug abuse, the time seemed opportune for an unlikely comeback. Accompanied by June Carter, Carl Perkins, and the Tennessee Three, Cash rolled out every prison song he knew over two sets at Folsom.
Two elements make this recording so remarkable. The first is Cash’s conviction while singing these songs. When he confesses, “But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” part of the listener believes him, and when he sings about a prisoner who misses his wife and wishes to know his young son on “Give My Love to Rose”, it’s easy to forget that, unlike his audience, Cash gets to go home after the show. The other element that resonates is Cash’s interaction with the inmates.
Not only did he pick a set list that they could relate to, but he constantly pauses to speak and joke with them. This human touch coupled with the way he openly carried his own troubles and shortcomings on his sleeve create a camaraderie that the listener can’t help but notice. And, as Cash himself admitted, those two shows in prison resurrected his career. -Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Give My Love to Rose”, and “25 Minutes to Go”
25. Peter Gabriel – So
Peter Gabriel’s two albums before So, both called Peter Gabriel, were landmark prog rock albums. On those albums, Gabriel used the latest music hardware to compose with sampled sounds as well as music and rhythms from cultures who’d never before been integrated into Western music. Gabriel was breaking breathtaking new ground, and with So he brought his sonic discoveries to the mainstream. So is a landmark pop album that overwhelms listeners with emotional and rhythmic songs drawing from the heart of the human spirit. Case in point, the No. 1 song to play outside someone’s window, “In Your Eyes”. Gabriel’s voice and lyrics are raw and passionate with simple but overwhelmingly powerful imagery. African rhythms keep the song alive and away from the sappy path so many love songs tread, and the soaring vocals of Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour transcend language with pure celebration.
This theme of emotional, boundary-breaking, human communication permeates all of Gabriel’s works but is strongest in So, where it continues to touch the most people. When Gabriel screams “only love can make love” in “That Voice Again” even the most cynical listener can’t help but feel some tingle of truth. Tracks like “Red Rain”, “Mercy Street”, and “Don’t Give Up” (a duet with Kate Bush) operate on the opposite end of the spectrum, discussing vulnerability, weakness, and the chance to carry on. So even accommodates a couple avant garde tracks such as the unnerving “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” and the moody “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)” written and performed with Laurie Anderson. And of course, everybody knows “Sledgehammer” and its outstanding music video. No heady concept there, just pure fun and a brilliant renvisioning of Motown soul. Depending on your state of mind going into listening to it, So will either leave you charged or worn-out. Either way, it’s a good feeling. – Cap Blackard
Essential Tracks: “Sledgehammer”, “Red Rain”, “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)”, and “In Your Eyes”
24. Neil Young – After the Goldrush
Neil Young was a busy man in the late 60’s and early 70’s. After recording three albums with his first band, Buffalo Springfield, he went solo – only to join another group, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, after two solo albums. That didn’t hinder his solo output though – in fact, his best solo album came the same year that CSN&Y put out their first album. After the Gold Rush was not immediately universally recognized as a brilliant album – Rolling Stone was especially critical when it first came out – but over the years even initial naysayers have changed their mind.
Now, 40 years later, even Rolling Stone has realized the error of their ways, and now call the album what it should be called – a masterpiece. The entire album is full to the brim with classic songs of heartbreak and mystery. From the hard rock of “Southern Man” and the balladry of “Birds” to the twangy folk of “Cripple Creek Ferry”, there’s something for fans of every side of Neil Young on After the Gold Rush. Some of Young’s best songwriting can be found here as well, from the otherworldly “After the Gold Rush” to the always-poignant “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”. While Young has had a long and storied career filled with multiple near-perfect albums, this one stands above the rest as his absolute masterpiece. -Carson O’Shoney
Essential Tracks: “After the Gold Rush”, “When You Dance I Can Really Love”, and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”
23. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Music, as we know it, has its origins at least partially rooted in a revolutionary soil. And Public Enemy’s sophomore record, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, is one of music’s all-time great political game changers. With this record, Public Enemy singlehandedly changed the idea of what a hip-hop group and rap album could be and influenced an entire generation of socially conscious black and white youth. Chuck D booms like a play-by-play sportscaster while hype man extraordinaire Flavor Flav manically interjects on driving tracks like “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype”, which are equal parts PSA and house party.
Chuck D is backed by the Bomb Squad’s innovative production, which samples everything from funky James Brown horns and drums to spoken-word clips of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. On “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, Chuck D details a fictitious prison escape over a teetering Isaac Hayes piano sample; it’s a bone-chilling commentary on the effects of both American racism and the country’s prison system. Chuck D, perhaps, said it best: “Hip-hop is the CNN of the black community, and nobody broadcasts louder than Public Enemy.” -Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, “Louder Than a Bomb”, and “Bring the Noise”
22. The Beatles – The Beatles (White Album)
Detractors often call The Beatles an overstuffed mess. In this accusation, they are entirely correct. It is an overstuffed mess. That’s why it’s great. Sure, you could pare the tracks down to a dozen or so classics. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Blackbird” along would certainly hold up any single album. Do so, though, and you lose what makes The Beatles special. The other songs, the non-classics, give the album its unique character.
From Harrison’s hippie harpsichord on “Piggies” to Lennon’s horndog howl on “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” you can’t lose a single moment without making the rest collapse. The confounding moments, the ones that only work in context, lift the album from pop to art. Taken alone, the ambient-noise “Revolution 9” seems a sick joke, but in context the joke makes perfect sense. You can’t explain it, but somehow you know why it’s there. The Beatles is the sound of the biggest band ever breaking all the rules. It’s a messy process. –Ray Padgett
Essential Tracks: “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, “Cry Baby Cry”, and “Helter Skelter”
21. Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
It’s hard to believe that Astral Weeks was only the second album in Van Morrison’s career. Its loose, combustible jazz sound still ranks as one of the most innovative things he’s done. But this display of the singer-songwriter’s early genius was birthed not from meticulous musical planning, but rather circumstances that were dire and stressful. After a dispute with his record label, founder Bert Berns died of a heart attack, which his wife blamed Morrison for, going as far to try and deport him back to Europe.
Morrison avoided this by marrying his then girlfriend (now ex-wife) Janet Minto, moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts with her where he worked on the club circuit, playing with a group of student musicians as his backing band. Although he would only bring along the bass player for the recording sessions of his next album, it was in Cambridge (and from producer Lewis Merenstein) that Morrison was heavily exposed to jazz, something he was unfamiliar with at that point. The improvisational atmosphere was the perfect musical fit for Morrison’s mindset at the time. He’s stated in interviews that he was broke, tired, and simply did not know what to do. He didn’t want to think about it and he wanted musicians skilled enough to just follow him.
And thus came Astral Weeks, a gorgeous, freewheeling meditation on life and looking forward, a kaleidoscopic, sylvan soundscape focused on images and feelings rather than a coherent narrative. The only constant is the gentle strum of Morrison’s acoustic guitar as the nodding lull of the upright bass, horns, and I-didn’t-know-it-could-actually-be-cool jazz flute swirl around it, always on the verge of floating away, but preferring to stay in place to catch Morrison on his next musical shift.
His vocals are constantly morphing (a practice he would take up in later live performances), sometimes crooning, sometimes clipping the words, and sometimes not even finishing sentences at all as he floats through the optimistic, string-soaked “Madame George”, the whimsical harpsichord of “Cyprus Avenue”, through ferry boats and forests all the way until the baroque Nashville pluck of the closing title track. Morrison may have been high strung at the time, but you would never know it listening to such a dazzling and relaxed album. -Dan Caffrey
Essential Tracks: “Madame George”, “Cyprus Avenue”, and “Sweet Thing”