I find when I'm perusing lists of the so-called greatest albums of all time, that two major problems occur again and again:
1) The lists are dominated by a handful of bands from the sixties (The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Who, The Rolling Stones) and a whole whack from the seventies. There will be a couple from the nineties and a few new releases in a desperate attempt to not look hopelessly dated, with the eighties almost invariably left in the lurch and...
2) Critics have a raging hard-on for certain genres and will more or less completely exclude others. Thus, I always steel myself for plenty of punk and art rock with little or no attention given to metal, progressive rock, underground hip-hop etc.
So here's my attempt to somewhat rectify this. Kids, if you love indie or emo, metalcore or death, crunk or modern R&B, you owe it to yourself to look back at the decade where the roots of today's music began to take hold.
This list's approach to the concept of 'greatness' is simple. I can't eliminate the human factor. There's very little electronica or synth-y new wave, because frankly I know nothing about it and have little regard for its value. Thus, while Duran Duran and Kraftwerk may be some manner of genius, I just don't feel it. But rather than make a pointless list of my favourite records (my personal favourite album, Warren Zevon's Sentimental Hygiene
didn't even make the list!) I've tried to assemble a list of fifty albums that cross high artistic value with lasting influence. Some of these albums I don't care for very much, like Appetite for Destruction
, while others are records whose greatest influence has come elliptically, such as Gretchen Goes to Nebraska
The ordering of the list is largely arbitrary, but I've generally tried to order them in terms of impact on popular music both at the time and today; if two albums are comparable in this regard, I place the record I think is more artistically valid ahead.
Hopefully this will spawn some good discussion. Enjoy!
Smash crossover success that signaled the death of seventies prog.
49. King's X
- Gretchen Goes to Nebraska
The first masterpiece by a seminal, if subtle, influence on much of the 90's hard grunge and alternative rock scene.
- The Land of Rape and Honey
Key, breakneck, industrial rock from the originators of the form.
47. Tom Waits
- Rain Dogs
Too eccentric for true mainstream success, Tom Waits is your favourite artsy roots rock singer's favourite artsy roots rock singer and this, amongst his finest works.
46. Morbid Angel
- Altars of Madness
Perhaps the earliest fully-formed expression of modern death metal blistering by at 300bpm.
45. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
- Tender Prey
Brainy, gothic, romantic and evil, Tender Prey
is the most elegant and soul-destroying post-punk experience of them all, by the form's greatest supergroup.
44. The Jungle Brothers
- Straight Out the Jungle
Groundbreaking R&B-heavy, socially conscious, jazz-rap from some of the founders of the Native Tongues posse.
43. Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Costello could have stopped writing after his first three towering achievements, but he continued on and never stopped doing it his own way. His earlier work is more influential, but this record is almost certainly his best.
- Operation: Mindcrime
No other album quite captures the paranoid zeitgeist of Reagan's America like Operation: Mindcrime
, a stunning fusion of post-Maiden melodic metal and art rock that proved high-class metal could be commercially viable.
41. Van Halen
The standard-bearer for American party rock, 1984
was one of the
event albums of the decade and defined the psyche of the average teenage male. Every pop-rock band in the land aimed for this.
- Ultramega OK
Weird and brilliant, Soundgarden were the band everyone expected to break out of Seattle first and this record demonstrated why they were the band everybody else followed.
39. Celtic Frost
- To Mega Therion
The original avant-garde metal band, Celtic Frost exploded the possibilities of extreme metal even as the helped to define it. Even Kurt Cobain worshipped at their feet.
38. The Stone Roses
- The Stone Roses
Sixties pop, the Jesus & Mary Chain, and rave music collide in this indie rock sensation, the progenitor of the Madchester scene and an influence that carries through even unto todays superstar dance rock acts like Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand. Essential.
37. Peter Gabriel
Fusing worldbeat, art rock, and conventional pop, Gabriel's socially-aware work influenced both the intellectuals and the commercial giants of eighties pop.
36. Guns N' Roses
- Appetite for Destruction
The sounds of a conventional hair band with a serious heroin addiction, GNR spoke to the nihilism of a dissatisfied nation by dirtying up old Aerosmith riffs for a new audience.
35. The Police
The final Police album was their biggest, their already massively polished new wave/reggae/punk sound buffed to a point of blinding shininess. Everybody stole something from these guys.
- Moving Pictures
A.K.A. the shape of prog rock to come, Moving Pictures
surrendered nothing to the times, yet still broke the bank on the strength of its futuristic yet warm bombast.
- Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing
Frenzied political metalcore in its original form, Discharge were the alpha and omega of countless early thrash and hardcore bands.
32. Eric B. & Rakim
- Paid in Full
The technician's choice of hip-hop, DJ Eric B. broke all kinds of ground with his wide array of R&B and soul cuts and samples while Rakim revolutionized the art of MCing.
31. Talk Talk
- Spirit of Eden
The key bridge between the psychedelic explorations of Pink Floyd, the ambient sound collages of Brian Eno, and the modern experimental post-rock of today, Spirit of Eden
was the first of its kind. And it's as absolutely compelling as the day it was released.
30. Black Flag
Discharge may have turned punk on its ear, but Black Flag are hardcore's greatest innovators because they were so unproductively ugly and chaotic. Catharsis incarnate.
- Black Metal
An absolute mess, whose every move seemed to influence someone. Horrific production, over-the-top evil, nonstop speed, croaked vocals... the vomitous root of extreme metal.
28. Talking Heads
- Remain in Light
Heartbreaking genius, Remain in Light
was as much an irresistible dance record as it was an excoriating, depressing piece of powerful art. And that's why it found so many adherents.
27. Beastie Boys
- Paul's Boutique
In which the Beasties prove themselves and hip-hop as worthy of deep critical respect. One of the two great masterworks of sample-based production in the eighties, and a touchstone for all experimental hip-hop since.
26. The Pixies
All sorts of influence stemming from this one, all based around the simple precept that great sophistication can be hidden in mindnumbingly abrasive soundscapes. Spiritual kin to Celtic Frost, but projecting a slacker aesthetic that made them much more palatable to the alternative scene.
25. Sonic Youth
- Daydream Nation
Just as the world became more accepting of white noise experimentation in rock, Sonic Youth delivered their masterpiece of the form and in the process, completed the paradigm shift begun by the Velvet Underground so many years earlier.
24. Green River
- Dry as a Bone
Molten grunge from its first practitioners, this band was noisy and ugly long before the thought had occurred to the Pixies or the Melvins. A milestone for grunge, sludge metal, and even stoner rock.
23. Def Leppard
Fusing the MOR of Foreigner to the histrionics of the NWOBHM, Def Leppard were both the originators of hair metal and its greatest practitioners. Incinerated the charts and the braincells of many a young axeman.
22. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
- The Message
The first hip-hop record of any serious relevance, bringing depth and focus to what had previously been an extremely shallow genre.
21. The Jesus & Mary Chain
Immersive yet hugely esoteric, the Chain were the foundation for lo-fi indie, shoegaze, and myriad another white-noise avant-gardists. Worthy of immense respect.
- Master of Puppets
As important to art metal as it is to thrash, Master
was the record that brought extreme metal to the masses and critical appreciation to the genre. Perhaps the standard by which metal is measured.
19. De La Soul
- 3 Feet High and Rising
The other masterpiece of sample-based production, this humorous and jazzy classic is the best Native Tongues album of them all. An album that redefined the possibilities of what hip-hop could be.
- Reign in Blood
Metal has been faster, heavier, and better than Reign in Blood
, but it has never been more authentically violent. This is the
extreme metal album, and it redefined the way the genre perceived itself. Metallica brought them in, but Slayer corrupted them forever.
17. Jane's Addiction
- Nothing's Addiction
A remarkable pastiche of sounds and ideas from which alternative rock would draw heavily from. Where most early alternative bands were depressive wrecks or hopeless eccentrics, Jane’s Addiction were actually cool. Art-school punks who partied like Guns N’ Roses, Jane’s were the first alternative rockstars.
16. Boogie Down Productions
– Criminal Minded
The first gangster rap record from one of the icons of socially conscious rap, there is no genre of hip-hop that BDP did not directly inspire or influence. From their pioneering use of reggae vocal inflections to the truly threatening atmosphere KRS-One’s lyrics evoked, BDP were nothing less than the real deal.
15. Michael Jackson
The best selling album of all-time, for a time, and for all-time the standard to which all pop albums are compared. Of course, it’s rather spotty for a record for five massive singles, but all such criticisms tend to wilt in the face of the revolutionary Quincy Jones production of tracks like Billie Jean
and You Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
– Straight Outta Compton
If any record from the eighties could be called the shape of rap to come, it’s this. Looking past even the fact that it spun off the careers of the most significant rapper of the early nineties (Ice Cube) and the genre’s greatest producer (Dr. Dre), the record would be highly-placed because it’s what every prospective gun-toting b-boy aspires to be: raw, funky, and dangerous.
13. Hüsker Dü
– Zen Arcade
A crucial band in the development of alternative rock, pop-punk, and myriad other flavours of cult cool that would find ascendance in the nineties. Mould and Hart are no less than the Lennon and McCartney of 80’s hardcore, and this record their coming out party. If London Calling
wasn’t proof enough that the punk ethic could expand to encompass any style, Zen Arcade
rammed the point home.
12. Iron Maiden
– The Number of the Beast
Iron Maiden and the NWOBHM built upon the legacy of Judas Priest by refining out all eccentricities until a formula was created that could be endlessly replicated by any metalhead of reasonable skill. The Number of the Beast
is the first fully-realized example of this formula, and within it are the blueprints for virtually every form of heavy metal to follow it.
11. The Cure
– The Head on the Door
Marking the emergence from their most dour days, The Cure finally cement their legacy as the goth-pop outfit of choice for angsty teens. This is the sound of adolescent pain, enunciated in a poetic style just classy enough to both capture the feeling and present it in a way that it doesn’t become insufferably annoying.
– Raising Hell
Wherein rap crosses over in a big way, and stays. A great album by any standard, Raising Hell
marks the logical conclusion of Run-D.M.C.’s journey from the street to the stadium, Rick Rubin’s pioneering production and canny pop sensibility combining to make the “Kings of Rock” accessible to both b-boys and crackers.
9. Bruce Springsteen
– Born in the U.S.A.
Talk about capturing the zeitgeist. Born in the U.S.A.
is about everything America wanted to keep but feared was slipping away, set to a soundtrack of monster arena roots rock that proved not every rock and roll star was prepared to lose himself in fussy window-dressing. The result? An appreciative public gobbled up ten million copies.
8. Prince & The Revolution
– Purple Rain
Prince decided that he needed to be a superstar, and he made himself one. This album is
eighties pop, in all its cheesy, bombastic, self-involved grandiosity. It’s also utterly genius, Prince going lightyears beyond Michael Jackson in an attempt to prove that, yes, he really can do it all.
7. Joy Division
Probably the first post-punk band, Joy Division were all about restrained emotion and the beautiful self-destruction of this record continues to captivate audiences to this day. They are the ultimate enigmatic indie artists, and the death of Ian Curtis (like Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur) ensured that they would remain forever an object of obsessive fascination.
– Back in Black
What to write about Back in Black
? It’s simply the archetypal kick ass and drink beer record, and little more need be said. Virtually every kid who ever strapped on a guitar has played licks from this album, and a good many of them went on to fail to match its easygoing brilliance.
5. The Smiths
– The Queen is Dead
For better or for worse, The Smiths are the anchor and anvil of modern indie rock. Excessively emotional, literary, and melodic, The Smiths managed to create in The Queen is Dead
a form that is endlessly recyclable. But both Marr and Morrissey remain such iconic, singular talents that most others can only create pale approximations of it.
– The Joshua Tree
Emotion writ large, U2 are the masters of the grand gesture. Everything they did burned with a singular passion, but it was The Edge’s ringing, effects-laden guitar that communicated them massively. The Joshua Tree
opens with sounds that can only be described as angelic, and the audience feels that they are being invited into a world of heightened consciousness. People used to sing along in concerts; U2 introduced a way to inspire a collective nirvana.
It’s possible that there wouldn’t be any such thing as indie pop without R.E.M. At a time when every band outside the majors seemed hell bent on diving into the moshpits of punk, R.E.M. used the independent lo-fi aesthetic to shroud their sound in mystery. Thousands, and eventually millions, of college kids listened closely in hopes to unravelling the enigma. They’re still trying.
2. Public Enemy
– It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
As serious as a truncheon to the back of the head, PE took popular music by storm. They were twice as threatening as the punks, because they weren’t looking at disaffected suburban kids. They aimed right at the streets, and the potential for revolution seemed very real. The first serious hip-hop record, Public Enemy’s stature only grows with time.
1. The Clash
– London Calling
I’m using the U.S. release date here, and honestly, the seventies don’t need this album. London Calling
is the brilliant sun in the sky of eighties rock. Virtually all alternative, punk, and even general modern rock records in some way stem from the shattering genius that is London Calling
. Hyping it to much? Not really. The Clash embrace style after style, but their artistic integrity is such that the record never loses focus. And that cover? Damn. That’s rock n’ roll.
So that’s the list! Thanks for scanning.
Faith No More – The Real Thing
Echo & the Bunnymen – Crocodiles
LL Cool J – Radio
X – Los Angeles
John Mellencamp – Scarecrow