After many hours of head-scratching and more than a few worn grooves, we present one of the most ambitious and hopefully provocative lists we’ve ever done: The 100 Greatest Rock Albums of all time.
A few ground rules here: We’ve tried to cover the entirety of rock history, while making sure that each album still sounds great a few years after its release. This list adheres to a fairly narrow definition of “rock,” confining it to largely guitar-based music, and making exceptions only in a few cases where the album was too important to leave off. Which means, you won’t find a lot of blues, country, or R&B on this list, even though we realize how important they were as rock influences. (A few entries do fall into the R&B realm, but with so much of a rock sound that they had to be here). We’ve also left off certain genres, like electronica and acoustic singer-songwriter, that are closely related to the rock world but not really part of it. We have (or will) have other lists for that.
That said, we’ve tried to spread the wealth around, not favoring one genre of rock over another. Hence the presence of some highly mainstream albums right alongside the indie/underground entries. Punk and prog, hardcore and AOR, glam and metal, roots and arena rock – they’ve all got a place on this list, and your ears are better off for absorbing all of it.
Finally, this list has been confined strictly to one album per band/artist. When an artist obviously has more than one essential album, we’ve made a case for the one that we believe to be the most important of the lot. Only one artist appears twice, as a group member and solo, but if you were a Beatle and then made a game-changing solo debut we can cut you some slack. And yes, some of your favorites – and for that matter, some of ours – may be missing, but rock history is so loaded by now that 100 albums can only begin to tell the story.
One thing we’ll say without hesitation: Every one of these albums is worth a listen, whether you’re discovering it for the first time or reconnecting with a longtime favorite.
100: Blink-182 – Enema of the State
Skate-punk produced a number of the greatest rock albums ever. But few were catchier, funnier, or savvier than Enema of the State. For all their bluster, this was a band that knew and loved its audience: If you were hitting your late teens around 1999, “What’s My Age Again?” offered reassurance that you didn’t have to grow up just yet. In time, blink-182 proved they had a serious side; at this point nobody needed one.
99: Pearl Jam – Ten
While their Seattle brethren Nirvana distrusted everything about traditional hard rock, Pearl Jam saw the opportunity to make it meaningful again. There were plenty of visceral thrills in Mike McCready’s leads and Eddie Vedder’s vocal flights, but it was all channeled into the dark, sympathetic observations of “Alive,” “Even Flow” and “Jeremy.” Misfits seldom had this much power on their side.
98: Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
Billy Corgan reaches for the heavens, pouring all of his guitar virtuosity and studio wizardry into a richly detailed album that still reveals new subtleties over two decades later. The wonder is that Siamese Dream’s songs, including hunting gems like “Today” and “Mayonaise,” don’t get lost in the mix.
97: Frank Zappa – Apostrophe
There’s a reason many fans remember this fondly as their first favorite Frank Zappa album: Apostrophe had so much musical invention and lyrical hilarity that it even had commercial potential (yes, “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” was even a single). The title track is his great power-trio moment, and it’s a wonder the New Age movement survived “Cozmik Debris.”
96: Television – Marquee Moon
A New York landmark, this album expanded the scope of punk rock by taking in the influence of free jazz and French Symbolist poetry; not for nothing, the leader did rechristen himself Tom Verlaine. And it’s still energetic as all get-up, especially on the classic opener “See No Evil” and the title track’s epic guitar jam.
95: Deep Purple – Machine Head
This isn’t just one of the loudest and greatest rock albums ever – it’s also one of the most joyful. Deep Purple’s darker side (in full display on the last album Fireball) is largely checked this time, on an album of pure rocking celebration. If the interplanetary stomp of “Space Truckin’” and the high-speed cruising anthem “Highway Star” don’t get your blood pumping, call the doctor.
94: Husker Du – Zen Arcade
The protean trio poured everything into this double epic, working psych, hardcore, avant-rock and noisy pop into a loose concept about a young man’s first year of freedom. Bob Mould and Grant Hart both emerge as first-class songwriters, and the band as a formidable power trio. It was famously recorded in a speed-fueled three-day session, and you can hear that too.
93: The Jam – Sound Affects
The trio’s fifth and best album shows why Paul Weller’s been a world-class rock songwriter ever since. They expand in all directions here, from furious commentary to open-hearted love songs to the sardonic classic “That’s Entertainment.” Note that The Jam regularly left their singles off the albums, and you must be at your peak when you can afford to omit a monolith like “Going Underground.”
92: Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
With a thoroughly original songwriter in Stephen Malkmus and a guitar sound to die for, Pavement avoided production trappings and delivered songs that rocked with heart and charmed with cerebral wit. The album’s influence ran deep. For one thing, it proved you didn’t need a massive studio budget when you had the songs.
91: Pretenders – Pretenders
Chrissie Hynde became an instant icon on this debut, but the original Pretenders were also a true band, taking in everything from pure punk to near-arena rock to disco and dub. But Hynde always dazzled as a singer, whether it was the personal revelations of “Tattooed Love Boys” or the cool swagger on “Brass in Pocket.”
90: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell
This album almost had too much going for it: A stack of between the eyes hooks, a band that could swing from raucous punk to classic-level pop, and Karen O’s vocal charisma and instant star quality. They’d get more polished later on, but the try-anything spirit on Fever to Tell makes it a winner – as does “Maps” one of the best rock singles of its time.
89: Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Jeff Tweedy had to fight hard for this album, with his label and even some of his band – but he knew he was on to something. The dense electronic touches prove an essential part of the picture, as the songs (largely written with the late and brilliant Jay Bennett) wrap up a fractured America headed to an uncertain future. The future of musical Americana proved brighter, making this one of the greatest rock albums ever made.
88: Boston – Boston
Originally rejected by nearly every record label, this record-breaking debut wrote the book on AOR rock. But while Boston’s countless imitators got the sound nearly right, they couldn’t get the underlying heart in Tom Scholz’s songs – especially when sung so emotively by the late Brad Delp. Besides, the imitators spent millions getting the kind of sounds that Scholz dreamed up in his living room.
87: The Kinks – The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society
The Kinks wasted no time in growing from their beat-group beginnings to a vehicle for Ray Davies’ sharp-eyed social comments. That trend hit its first peak on Village Green, an album of bittersweet wit, well-drawn characters, and indelible melodies. And The Kinks could still rock hard, anticipating punk on “Johnny Thunder” and becoming a rustic English blues band on “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains.”
86: The Cars – The Cars
Five savvy Boston-based guys give New Wave its first commercial blockbuster. With virtually every song becoming a radio hit, The Cars were the perfect mix of cool artsiness and rock’n’roll heart. Ric Ocasek’s songs put an ironic spin on rock catchphrases – shake it up, let the good times roll – but still invited you to clap along.
85: Siouxsie & the Banshees – Juju
An album full of dark allure, Juju was one of the goth movement’s seminal texts. Having long realized that punk rock didn’t suit her, Siouxsie Sioux became an otherworldly siren, delivering two of her most grabbing vocals in the singles “Arabian Knights” and “Spellbound.” The other key to the Banshees’ golden era was guitarist John McCeogh, whose array of guitar sounds meshed perfectly with the throbbing Severin/Budgie pulse.
84: Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
Fresh from a trailblazing R&B band and a war with his previous label, an angry young man makes an album of meditative, transcendental beauty. It’s arguably the least “rocky” album on this list, but then Astral Weeks – produced like a rock album, played mainly by jazz musicians, and sung with some kind of divine influence – doesn’t fit into any category but classic.
83: Elvis Costello – Armed Forces
Just when the world had him pegged as an angry young man, Elvis Costello hit back with an album of brilliant melodies, textured arrangements, multi-layered wordplay…and plenty of anger as well. As a bonus for the US album, he turned a perfectly lovely Nick Lowe song, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding,” into an anthem for the ages.
82: Genesis –- Selling England By the Pound
One of prog’s pinnacles, Selling England By The Pound finds Genesis at their grandest. On “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight,” Peter Gabriel’s flights of lyrical fancy meet guitarist Steve Hackett’s landmark tapped solo. The instrumental breaks on “Cinema Show” and “Firth of Fifth” are among prog’s most majestic, while Gabriel’s surreal wit runs wild on “The Battle of Epping Forest.”.
81: TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain
This was and is a band bursting with ideas, and found space on this album to try them all out. This is an album to get immersed in, with endless sonic textures to explore, and an underlying sense of existential dread. They made this an old-fashioned album experience, putting the most jarring track “I Was a Lover” right up front and letting you dig for catchier tunes like the single “Wolf Like Me.”
80: Hole – Live Through This
Just before Courtney Love became an endlessly controversial personality, she made one of the greatest rock albums ever. Live Through This was designed to be pretty on the outside, with an attractive alt-pop sound that would get its frank, feminist lyrics on the air. She gives a vocal performance to match, with venom behind the sweetness.
79: The White Stripes – White Blood Cells
Jack and Meg White took the world by storm, with enough raw nerve for their underground fans and enough wattage for the Zeppelin lovers. Few two-piece bands ever had this much intuitive chemistry, and the tracklist bears out their ability to do just about anything – from grisly blues-rockers to the giddy bubblegum of “I Think We’re Going to Be Friends.”
78: The Doors – The Doors
During the first week of 1967 when this album was released, the future of rock could be anything, including a jazz-identified band with a Dionysian Beat poet upfront. The Doors’ self-titled debut is remarkably diverse, with covers of songs by both Willie Dixon and Bertolt Brecht. The first side closes with the sexual release of “Light My Fire” while the second ends with the Apocalypse on “The End.”
77: PJ Harvey – Rid of Me
PJ Harvey was still messing with the blues on her sophomore album Rid of Me, but her songs had taken on more of a raw, personal tinge. Key tracks “50 Ft. Queenie,” “Rub Til It Bleeds” and the previous album’s belated title track “Dry” look fearlessly into the darkest corners of romantic relationships, and producer Steve Albini makes it all razor-sharp.
76: The Police – Synchronicity
By their fifth and final album, The Police had largely dropped their trademark reggae grooves, but by now their sound was so distinctive it was even recognizable on a ghostly textured piece like “Tea in the Sahara.” Side two is Sting’s post-breakup outpouring, while the band’s creative eccentricity is all over Side One. It also marked the first (and probably the only) use of the phrase “humiliating kick in the crotch” in a hit single.
75: Love – Forever Changes
Love’s 1967 classic really stands apart from the rest of the psychedelic masterpieces. There are no studio effects, no freeform jams, and barely any electric guitars. The psychedelic influence came entirely from the mind of Arthur Lee, whose lyrics were always otherworldly and never fully possible to pin down, and whose melodies were completely unforgettable. ‘You Set The Scene’ still ranks as one of rock’s great existential statements.
74: Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak
Thin Lizzy had so much going for them that it still boggles the mind that they were essentially a one-hit-wonder in the US. But the UK knew all about Phil Lynott’s resonant street poetry and the band’s distinctive harmony guitars. “The Boys Are Back in Town” and “Cowboy Song” are the epics on this, their greatest album, but the Irish rock group’s secret weapon was always its musical roots, put to memorable use in “Emerald.”
73: R.E.M. – Murmur
They’d have many peaks over the years but R.E.M.’s long-playing debut really defined their sound, embracing unfashionable things (in 1983) like subtlety, Southern-ness, and jangly Rickenbackers. They already had a flair for hauntingly lovely tunes (see the acoustic “Perfect Circle”) and “Radio Free Europe” became a rallying call for the 80s musical underground. And for all that was said about his enunciation, the poetic imagery in Michael Stipe’s lyrics was immediately apparent.
72: Megadeth – Rust in Peace
Dave Mustaine and his crew had been raising hell for nearly a decade by this time, but Rust in Peace marked the debut of Megadeth’s classic lineup with guitarist Marty Friedman. It was also where Mustaine refined his vision, with equal parts personal dread, dark political forecasts, and just a bit of superhero fantasy. With its tricky structure and underlying fury, “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due,” is one of thrash’s pinnacles.
71: Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out
Sleater-Kinney wanted to say resonant things about society and sexuality; they also wanted to be a rock’n’roll band for the ages. Their third album succeeds grandly at both: Though steeped in heartache and discontent, it’s also one of the more exhilarating albums of its time. Credit that to Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s perfect synchrony as singers and guitarists.
70: Queens of the Stone Age – Songs for the Deaf
Rock in 2002 needed a swift kick, and Josh Homme was the man to do it. On one hand, this is an album that a bunch of music-loving guys made for fun, daring to be quirky with the songwriting and production. But there are so many massive hooks and killer riffs that it couldn’t help being a mainstream smash – especially with Dave Grohl going wild on drums throughout.
69: Grateful Dead – Workingman’s Dead
After four albums of unabashed psychedelia, the Grateful Dead pulled a classic shapeshifting trick and invented (or at least perfected) cosmic Americana. You didn’t have to be a Deadhead to catch the groove on “New Speedway Boogie,” the words of wisdom in “Casey Jones” or the profundity of “Uncle John’s Band.” This has to be taken as a whole with the equally essential American Beauty, released just five months later.
68: Soundgarden – Superunknown
The Seattle underground produces a hard rock monolith, as producer Michael Beinhorn brings out the band’s psychedelic tinge. Superunknown had emotional power to match its sonic heft, thanks largely to Chris Cornell’s singing. “Black Hole Sun” and “The Day I Tried to Live” are heavy rock at its most expressive.
67: Arcade Fire – Funeral
Probably the greatest band ever rooted at a prep school, Arcade Fire made their debut at a time when modern rock was in danger of getting soulless. Funeral hit like a blast of pure emotion, with the urgency of Win Butler’s vocals as the immediate grabber, but further listens revealed how much was going on instrumentally. The semi-conceptual Funeral is a cry of desperation that ultimately provides hope.
66: Arctic Monkeys – AM
Take Arctic Monkeys away from the nightclub scene, and what do you get? An even better and more thoughtful band, one that can embrace electronica and textured pop without losing the raw edge. AM marked a personal turn in Alex Turner’s writing; it also gave a long-deserved payoff to the band’s mentor, street poet John Cooper Clarke, who gets a song covered.
65: Betty Davis – They Say I’m Different
Whoever said that sure wasn’t kidding. With its groundbreaking funk-rock fusion, edgy sexual talk, and Betty Davis’ over-the-top singing and female strength, They Say I’m Different was just too much for the early 70s. But if it had gotten its due upon release, rock history would have been very different.
64: Rush – Moving Pictures
Rush’s best-loved album caught them halfway between the three-piece rock of their early days and the heavily textured prog to come. There’s a thrill of discovery on every track on Moving Pictures, from the arena-shaking “Tom Sawyer” to the reggae-inspired “Vital Signs.” And there’s a peak Rush moment in “Red Barchetta,” where high ambitions ride along with cheap thrills.
63: The Go-Go’s – Beauty and the Beat
Historically, the Go-Go’s debut ranks as the first No.1 album ever performed, and largely written, by an all-female band. It’s also a blast of pure fun, showing Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, and Kathy Valentine as first-class songwriters who’d absorbed everything great about California pop. “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed” never get old.
62: The Strokes – Is This It?
With Is This It?, The Strokes delivered New York punk for a new era, taking the best from the past – mainly the Cars, Stooges, and Velvets – and channeling them into songs that are invariably short and tasty (all under four minutes) and never quite linear. Originally catching on in late 2001, it became a welcome reminder that New York was never going to lose its attitude.
61: Motörhead– Ace of Spades
Leader and mastermind Lemmy always insisted that Motörhead wasn’t heavy metal, it was rock’n’roll. Which may be why the punks and metalheads both got behind them – or it maybe because they were too much fun to resist. Of all the albums from Motörhead’s classic stretch, this has the most anthems – “We Are the Road Crew,” “The Chase is Better Than the Catch” and the title track – and exemplifies the Motörhead philosophy: Not so much “Live fast, die young” as “Live even faster and die old.”
60: Blondie – Parallel Lines
Like many 70s punks, Blondie grew up on classic AM radio and loved everything about it. The third album was where they became a world-class pop band, finding room on their dial for punk, disco, Brill Building pop, and even a bit of prog (with Robert Fripp on “Fade Away & Radiate”). Three songs on Parallel Lines were hit singles, at least a half-dozen others could have been.
59: Joy Division – Closer
Ian Curtis left the world with an influential album that defined the dark and moody, yet still danceable territory that would characterize post-punk. None of Joy Division’s best-known singles are here, but the soundscapes of Closer create a world that’s equally forbidding and enticing.
58: KISS – Alive!
If you grew up at a certain time, Alive! was your Bible – and the future superstars who did grow up on it are a legion. Early KISS was nothing but anthems and attitude, and these songs were made for an arena in Detroit Rock City. This is one of the few live albums where you can literally catch the roar of the greasepaint.
57: ZZ Top – Tres Hombres
Before the synthesizers and the videos, ZZ Top was that little ole band that lived and breathed Texas. The spare, tasty sound of Tres Hombres evinced the trio’s chemistry, Billy Gibbons’ knack for a great lick, and their solid blues roots, with “La Grange” treating the classic rock audience to a John Lee Hooker groove.
56: Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
Daydream Nation was simultaneously Sonic Youth’s most accessible album to that point, and the most packed with ideas. The mini-epic “Teen-Age Riot” opened with Kim Gordon’s spooky invocation, giving way to an onslaught of guitars and a surprisingly joyful hook. The roller coaster ride continues for two LPs packed with volume and invention.
55: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Damn the Torpedoes
After two albums full of should’ve-been hits (yes, “Breakdown” and “American Girl” flopped at the time), Tom Petty and company decided it was time to haul out the big guns. So they pulled in producer Jimmy Iovine, amped up the sound, and treated each song like the last one they’d ever play. “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” kicked the doors open, while deeper cuts like “Louisiana Rain” made Damn the Torpedoes the perfect road-trip album.
54: Derek & the Dominos – Layla
A broken heart never did a bluesman any harm, and Eric Clapton made his defining statement while his muse Pattie Harrison was out of reach. Guitar heroics abound, but every big-guitar moment – some by Clapton alone, some in tandem with Duane Allman – is a cry from the heart. The unsung hero of the band and album is keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, whose harmonies add a deeper shade of soul.
53: Bad Brains – Bad Brains
Bad Brains found a world of possibilities in the hardcore movement; as African-American Rastafarians they also saw that it could embrace positivity and spirituality. For all that, they could be fast and furious with the best of them, and were one of the first hardcore bands to dabble both in heavy metal and in almost-pop chorus hooks.
52: Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine
A groundbreaker in a few respects, Rage Against The Machine remains the most powerful case of a rock band absorbing hip-hop. Key tracks “Bullet in the Head” and “Killing in the Name” were made to provoke discussion, and the lyrics dared to be multi-layered. It’s still a fist-waver from start to finish, and Tom Morello took his place among modern guitar heroes.
51: Talking Heads – Remain in Light
Plenty of artful rock bands fell in love with Fela Kuti and James Brown, but nobody did more with that influence than Talking Heads in 1980. Remains in Light was not quite rock and not quite funk, but a new invention capped by David Byrne’s endlessly fascinating lyrics. It was also one of Brian Eno’s landmark productions, even if he fell out with the band afterward.
50: The Cure – Disintegration
Having scored a left-field breakthrough with the pop-friendly Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Robert Smith turned the other direction, reportedly dabbled in acid, and returned The Cure to its gothic roots. The result was the band’s darkest and most daring album – and perversely enough, one that stands as their greatest.
49: Metallica – Master of Puppets
After mastering thrash on their first two albums, Metallica was now reaching for grandeur – very loud grandeur of course. Monolithic tracks like “Battery” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” broke musical boundaries with acoustic breaks and prog-like complexity, while the lyrics evince social conscience and a general sense of dread. The loose theme was power, which was something Metallica had to spare.
48: Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville
One of the wonders of the 90s indie scene was that an album this good could appear out of nowhere. Liz Phair’s songs were disarmingly frank, with pop hooks all over the place, but she was always a step ahead of the listener – for starters, nobody’s ever figured out if she was entirely serious about modeling the album after the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Either way, it remains one of the best albums of the 90s.
47: Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East
Has there ever been a better jam-heavy, live rock album than At Fillmore East? Much has been said about the Duane Allman/Dickey Betts guitar magic and Gregg Allman’s deep-soul vocals, but don’t overlook the band’s secret weapon, its hypnotic double-drum interplay. The Allmans didn’t even headline these historic shows (Johnny Winter did), but they’d never be just the “special guest” again.
46: U2 – Achtung Baby
How often does the most popular band in the world do something completely unexpected? With its innovative electronic sound, Achtung Baby redefined U2 while presenting five of its most indelible singles. And it spawned Zoo TV, which forever upped the ante for rock tours as conceptual spectacle.
45: The Replacements – Let It Be
The wonder of the Replacements was that they could play a glorious shamble of a live show, then go home and write an anthem for the ages. By now Paul Westerberg’s songs were evincing self-doubt, sympathy, and dogged hope (all three on “I Will Dare”), and they could still come up with a hilarious aside or two.
44: Van Halen – Van Halen
Perhaps the greatest party album ever made, Van Halen’s debut immediately upped the hard rock ante for technical skills and pure attitude. The album’s 1978 release immediately sent a generation of guitarists to their basements to figure out “Eruption.” Many of them are still working on it.
43: Bon Jovi – Slippery When Wet
If Bruce Springsteen gave voice to everyone living to escape from New Jersey, Bon Jovi spoke for those who stuck around. Their greatest rock album had three smashes, but “Livin’ on a Prayer” was the kind of street-life story-song – with a whooping radio hook, of course – that would be their specialty from here on in.
42: Pixies – Doolittle
An aptly-named band makes an album that gets your blood pumping while it messes with your head. The Pixies were writing some of the catchiest hooks in indie rock, then harnessing them to songs about mutilation, strange sex, and lab monkeys. Plenty of important bands borrowed the Pixies’ sound, but nobody could match the sense of mischief of Black Francis’ screams.
41: Bikini Kill – The First Two Records
Ground zero for the riot-grrl movement, Bikini Kill delivered on punk’s promise of liberation. But this is more than a feminist manifesto with a soundtrack: It’s jarring, exploratory punk rock that shouts truth. This essential album begins by calling for a revolution, then it goes ahead and starts one.
40: Black Sabbath – Paranoid
Retaining the killer riffage of their first album, Black Sabbath turned their attention to various social ills, from the war machines to guys with bad taste in footwear. They also inspired punk metal with the title track, one of the few (pre-Motörhead) heavy rock classics under three minutes. Buried treasure: “Hand of Doom,” perhaps the strongest anti-heroin statement that metal ever produced.
39: Creedence Clearwater Revival – Willie and the Poor Boys
Willie and the Poor Boys was CCR’s only concept album, and the one where John Fogerty’s social conscience came to the fore. And a perfectly symmetrical album too: Each side begins with one side of the classic “Down on the Corner”/”Fortunate Son” single, followed by a searing topical rocker, a country/folk cover, an instrumental, and finally one of the two longer, darker pieces that give this album its depth.
38: Def Leppard – Hysteria
Hysteria is the pinnacle of high-tech, 80s style hard rock, where digital wizardry and a hopped-up band could find common ground (producer Mutt Lange was the ultimate, painstaking studio rat). Def Leppard sweated blood over this album; including the loss of drummer Rick Allen’s arm. But they somehow kept their heads in party mode, and produced one of the greatest rock albums ever.
37: Patti Smith – Horses
Punk and poetry collide on a game-changer of an album that imagines Arthur Rimbaud and Cannibal & the Headhunters as kindred spirits. Patti Smith’s “Gloria” remains one of the strongest statements of purpose ever to open a debut album. Extra points for the Robert Mapplethorpe cover photo, by now as iconic as the album itself.
36: My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
Less an album of songs than an immersive sonic experience, Loveless both influenced and transcended the shoegaze trend. With its sensual layers of guitars and voices, it’s the perfect soundtrack for dreaming, and other bedroom activities. Easily one of the greatest rock albums ever made.
35: Neil Young – After the Goldrush
Sometimes Neil Young picked up his acoustic for tender intimate albums, sometimes he called in Crazy Horse and became the godfather of punk (or grunge or metal, depending on the year). After the Goldrush handily does both: You get soft and touching Neil on “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and searing topical Neil on “Southern Man,” and those tracks even come back to back.
34: Green Day – American Idiot
The breakout success of Dookie wound up fueling Green Day’s ambitions; they wanted to get beyond pop-punk and take their place as a great American band. Even so, the giant step they took on American Idiot came as a surprise, with epic tracks that rocked and a satirical narrative that actually hung together. They also pulled off a great ballad with, “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” which they’d been trying to nail for years.
33: Janis Joplin – Pearl
The sad part here is that Janis Joplin was really hitting her stride on her last album: She’d formed her first really great band in Full Tilt Boogie, and moved beyond the Big Brother acid blues to a more rootsy mix, showing what a soulful and versatile singer she was. Though not a hit, “Get It While You Can” was the statement of her life. Just think of the follow-ups we missed out on.
32: John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band
At least three Beatles made big musical statements in the year after their breakup, but John Lennon took the occasion to bury both The Beatles and the 60s – yet accomplished this in songs that still had a bit of Beatlesque magic to them. Characteristically, he provided a few beautiful songs to go along with the dark cathartic ones.
31: Steely Dan – Aja
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s masterstroke puts all of their hipster inflections into an album that’s still heavy on film-noir romance and cerebral wit. “Deacon Blue” remains the most sympathetic portrait of a jazzman that any rock band has written, while “I Got the News” includes a couple of rock’s funniest sexual one-liners. Still a sonic wonder, Aja proves that spending weeks to get a drum sound isn’t always a bad idea.
30: AC/DC – Back in Black
How many bands can simultaneously bounce back from tragedy, pay a fitting tribute to their lost brother, have a great party, and double their fanbase while they’re at it? AC/DC’s Back in Black is one of classic rock’s greatest albums, with “You Shook Me All Night Long” going right to the history books.
29: The Who – Who’s Next
The Who truly became larger than life on Who’s Next, with “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” setting the tone for decades of arena rock to come. But there was still room for Pete Townshend’s spiritual yearnings, a bit of lighthearted fun on “Goin’ Mobile” and as always, a touch of dark humor from John Entwistle.
28: David Bowie – The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars
On one hand, this was a conceptual masterstroke: David Bowie created the character of a pansexual, otherworldly rock star and that’s just what he became. But on a more down-to-earth level, it takes all the musical styles Bowie had been experimenting with for a few years – theatrical cabaret, Dylanesque folk-rock, proto-prog, and tough Stonesy rock – and rolls them into one of the greatest rock albums ever.
27: Ramones – Ramones
This album upended everything we know about rock’n’roll in 1976: It wasn’t supposed to be this raw, this snotty, or this much fun. The punk movement started here, but few at the time noticed how smart the Ramones really were: Just try writing a song (“I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You”) that creates recognizable characters and a situation with exactly 10 words.
26: Queen – A Night at the Opera
It was typical of Queen in 1975 that they could record something this grand and symphonic, then poke fun at it with a Marx Brothers album title. Starting off with the nastiest song ever written about an ex-manager (“Death on Two Legs”), A Night at the Opera goes everywhere from metal to music hall. Rock opera “Bohemian Rhapsody” had to come near the end, because few things could follow it.
25: Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
Dark Side of the Moon is all about insanity and alienation, and it’s one of the best-selling and greatest rock albums of all time. Toured live for a good year before its recording, Dark Side found both Pink Floyd’s improvisational skills and their studio wizardry at a pinnacle. David Gilmour’s classic “Money” solo created plenty of new Floyd fans by itself.
24: The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground & Nico
For all the hippies it scared in 1967, The Velvet Underground’s debut was anything but an avant noisefest (that came next, on White Light/White Heat). It was a provocative and often beautiful collection of songs, where love and heroin were treated with the same care. Dark and dangerous they may be, Lou Reed’s characters treat the listener as a trusted confidante.
23: Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Elton John truly became a larger-than-life rock star on an album about larger-than-life movie stars. The fantasy Hollywood theme proves the perfect occasion for him and Bernie Taupin to let their imaginations flow. It was his most musically adventurous album to date, while the lyrics range from poetic to downright raunchy.
22: Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
Everybody has a favorite Springsteen album but Born to Run is the most mythic of them all, an epic ride from the great escape on “Thunder Road” to the dead-end highway exit of “Jungleland.” No Springsteen concert – and for that matter, no young adult life – has since been complete without it.
21: Buddy Holly & the Crickets – The ‘Chirping’ Crickets
The ‘Chirping’ Crickets is one of the earliest rock albums that holds together as a full LP, where the deeper cuts (covers of Roy Orbison, Chuck Willis, and Little Richard) show the band’s roots and give context to the hits. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when those hits are “Not Fade Away,” “Oh Boy” and “That’ll Be the Day.”
20: Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks
The singles brought England to its knees during the Silver Jubilee summer, with “God Save the Queen” throwing a monkey wrench into the royal festivities. Never Mind The Bollocks wrapped up most of the Sex Pistols’ setlist during their crash-and-burn existence, just in time for them to implode – making the original Pistols a band that never released a bad track.
19: Iggy & the Stooges – Raw Power
Funny how things can change over time: Upon release, Raw Power was called a punk record before that was a compliment – way too rough and scary for the mainstream. But listen to it now and you hear how much thought went into Iggy Pop’s lyrics, how well those guitars are layered (Bowie wasn’t in the studio just to look good), and how many killer riffs and tunes Pop and James Williamson came up with. In short, there was never a reason not to love one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
18: Funkadelic – Maggot Brain
The title track to Maggot Brain is rightly acclaimed as one of George Clinton’s masterpieces, with his doomsaying monologue and Eddie Hazel’s heavy guitar solo telling the hippies everything they weren’t yet ready to hear. But not to forget, this was an album; and some of its less celebrated tracks are just as notable – like “Wars of Armageddon,” which works Afro-Cuban rhythms, acid-drenched studio tricks, and the Apocalypse into 10 mind-blowing minutes.
17: Ike & Tina Turner – River Deep-Mountain High
The Phil Spector-produced title track is arguably the greatest flop in pop history, a passionate outpouring that proved too intense for the charts. As a result, only the UK got the original release of River Deep-Mountain High – with more Spector tracks (some of his last great ones, Beatles and Ramones aside) and tougher rock/R&B overseen by Ike. Tina of course wails throughout.
16: Radiohead – OK Computer
Radiohead’s triumph here was to revive the multi-layered concept album, one that demanded you put on headphones, ponder all the musical surprises, and absorb its take on modern alienation. And wouldn’t you know it, this wilfully noncommercial album produced their biggest singles, at least in the UK, and remains a classic.
15: Prince & the Revolution – Purple Rain
During his 1984 peak, Prince verged on superhuman. You want funkafied Ramones? “Let’s Go Crazy.” You want modernized Hendrix? The title track. You want a classic pop single with no bass? “When Doves Cry.” You want a gorgeous ballad? “The Beautiful Ones.” You want wild sexuality and the best party in town? The whole damn album.
14: The Clash – London Calling
In 1979 the Clash weren’t just the “only band that matters,” they were arguably the most ambitious band in rock. They wanted to take every sound they loved – reggae, vintage R&B, rockabilly, vocal jazz, Motown – and put it into an empowering punk-rock format. Above all, this double LP shows the majesty of the Strummer/Jones songwriting team – delivering one of punk’s definitive battle cries in the title song, and a gem of an accidental hit single in “Train in Vain.”
13: Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
Fleetwood Mac weathered every kind of interpersonal drama and studio misadventure – and somehow they came up with a collection of perfect pop songs whose delivery sounds absolutely effortless. In addition to the music, listeners were entranced by the backstory of the members that made it: Christine and John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks. To this day, no couple in a band can break up without drawing Mac comparisons.
12: Led Zeppelin – IV
Their untitled fourth studio album represented the peak of everything Led Zeppelin did – their hardest rockers, their heaviest blues, their loveliest folk tunes (including the one that introduced Sandy Denny to US ears) and of course, “Stairway to Heaven.”. Robert Plant becomes a mythic figure, John Bonham and John Paul Jones jell into an earthshaking rhythm section, and Jimmy Page is Jimmy Page.
11: The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
Brian Wilson takes pop arrangements to new levels of sophistication, getting the Wrecking Crew’s performances of their lives. But what really lingers on Pet Sounds is the sheer beauty of the singing and the timeless nature of the songs, which trace a young-adult relationship from a hopeful start to its gorgeously sad finish.
10: The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street
Exile on Main Street is dirty, messy, and The Rolling Stones at their absolute peak. Steeped in blues, country, and gospel, recorded in countless all-night sessions and fueled by Lord only knows what, Exile is above all the work of serious blues scholars – and one of the greatest rock albums ever written.
9: Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction
Both Guns N’Roses and Appetite for Destruction revitalized heavy rock, making it dangerous and fun again – and made instant icons out of Slash and Axl Rose. On an album full of gritty street-life lyrics, GNR could somehow do a timeless love song (what else but “Sweet Child o’Mine”) without breaking character.
8: Jerry Lee Lewis – Live at The Star Club, Hamburg
It’s 1964, Jerry Lee’s career is in limbo, and his band for the night is one of the least-known British Invasion bands, the Nashville Teens. And Jerry Lee Lewis absolutely kills, rampaging through his own and other peoples’ hits. The definitive version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” is here, with its raunchy breakdown and furious finale.
7: Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
It was the first fully electric Bob Dylan album, the first without a ballad, the one where his surreal wordplay really takes flight, and the one that demanded he wear a motorcycle jacket on the cover. With the number of landmark tracks here, Highway 61 Revisited would still be one of the greatest rock albums ever if it didn’t have “Like a Rolling Stone.” But of course, it did.
6: Elvis Presley – From Elvis in Memphis
It doesn’t seem like a tall order to put Elvis Presley in the studio with a great band, a sympathetic producer, and songs worthy of his gifts – but this was one of the few times post-Army when it actually happened. He stepped forward with the vocal performances of his life, completing the triumph of the ‘68s comeback and delivering one of the greatest rock albums to date.
5: Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland
There is no bad Jimi Hendrix album, but this double LP was where he harnessed the album format to create a real experience. The two long tracks are a lowdown late-night blues and a heady sonic trip; elsewhere there’s proto-metal, slinky R&B, New Orleans rock’n’roll, and with “All Along the Watchtower,” one of the all-time top Dylan covers.
4: Nirvana – Nevermind
Nevermind wound up having a far greater cultural impact than its creators intended or even wanted. But at the end of the day, the songs really were strong enough to make this one of the greatest rock albums ever. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics really were that sharp, and his singing that effective – and of course, the drummer clearly had a future ahead of him. Not to mention Butch Vig’s savvy production, which became the grunge-era standard.
3: The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album)
Revolver stands as one of the best rock albums ever. And Sgt. Pepper inspired a million bands to get psychedelic. But the “White Album” created its own template too: The wildly eclectic, everything-goes double album. But nobody ever had the stylistic reach the Fab Four had here. Just try to name another album with a protest song, a vaudeville novelty, a nursery rhyme, a tough rocker, an easy-listening lullaby, and an avant-garde sound collage – and that was only Side Four.
2: Chuck Berry – The Great Twenty-Eight
Chuck Berry was such a master of the rock 45 that his definitive statement has to be this greatest hits album. There’s no filler or deep cuts in sight: Every track is a touchstone, from the debut single “Maybelline” to the Merseybeat nod on “I Wanna Be Your Driver.” If rock’n’roll has an Old Testament, this is it.
1: Little Richard – 17 Grooviest Original Hits
This is it, the essential sound that made most of the greatest rock albums possible. The deeper tracks here, like “Boo-Hoo-Hoo-Hoo” and “Send Me Some Lovin’”, bear out the gospel and blues roots that Little Richard channeled into rock’n’roll. But to listen to “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” you have to wonder if rock ever got any wilder.
Think we missed one of the greatest rock albums ever? Let us know in the comments below. And, in case you’re hungry for more, you can complete your collection with some of the greatest rock albums on vinyl.