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Popular music is tough to agree on. Sure, we might have bands and tracks that we love as much as our friends, but it’s guaranteed that no two people have exactly the same taste in music. Indeed, with the popularity of iTunes and Spotify, it’s pretty tough to find people below a certain age that appreciate albums as anything more than a collection of songs that can be skipped or played through at random.
However, for many, the album still represents the optimum expression of musical quality: a work of art comprising 10 (ish) songs, a statement of intent, a snapshot of a band or artist at that particular point in time.
A recent Reddit thread highlighted the passion people still have for the long-playing music format, a useful read if you’re looking to discover new music. Inspired by the list, here are our favorites, in no particular order…
David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
As experimental music goes, shaving your eyebrows, dying your hair orange (not ginger, orange) and portraying yourself as a sexually ambiguous messenger from the stars is pretty original. That any of these things should be accompanied by a collection of outstanding tracks, played by a close-knit backing band from South Yorkshire (the highlight of which was undoubtedly the late Mick Ronson on guitar) and you’ve got a hit.
David Bowie wasn’t an incredibly famous singer and songwriter before this album; like many in this list, it is the collection of tracks that helped define his style (which he subsequently turned his back on), but he had been in the business for the best part of a decade before this (1969’s “Space Odyssey” a rare success before the 1970s arrived).
With a collection of hit singles such as “Starman,” “Ziggy Stardust,” and “Suffragette City”, and compelling album tracks (“Five Years” still gives me nightmares), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is both a creative and popular success, edging it just ahead of Bowie’s other great early 1970s album, Hunky Dory.
Bowie remains hugely influential. He even had a Mars base named after him in one of Doctor Who‘s best ever episodes!
King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King
If you’re new to any form of psychedelic or progressive rock, then In the Court of the Crimson King is going to prove quite an enlightening experience. King Crimson, despite (or more likely because of) the astonishing guitar work of Robert Fripp, are something of an acquired taste, but this remains one of the oft-underrated greats of 1960s rock music.
With just five tracks, the album nevertheless runs to almost 44 minutes, and if the unforgettable “21st Century Schizoid” which opens the experience doesn’t leave you wondering just what you’ve been doing all your life to have overlooked this, then the closing track, “The Court of the Crimson King,” surely will. It may even prompt you to burn your Britney Spears CDs – or at least use them as coasters.
Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine
“All of which are American dreams,” repeats Zack de la Rocha’s lyric at the close to “Know Your Enemy”, track 6 on Rage Against the Machine’s eponymous and awe-inspiring debut album. But this album is no dream; rather it is the realization of the postindustrial nightmare, successfully fusing rap and heavy metal to offer a number of political messages.
Essentially this is protest music, a collection of tunes that opened the eyes of many to the inequalities of society and ineptitude of government and the threat of the corporate machine, 20 years before people began to fear Monsanto and the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) agreement. Every track on Rage Against the Machine stands out with a lesson of its own. That isn’t true of many albums.
Paul Simon – Graceland
The story behind this album is fascinating, a word that can be accurately adapted to describe the music on it. Inspired by a bootleg of South African township music, Paul Simon – whose career had been on a low ebb since splitting with Art Garfunkel – headed to the apartheid state to visit Johannesburg to meet and record with South African musicians.
Due to the cultural boycott of South Africa, controversy followed the release of Graceland in 1986, with Simon accused of exploitation and breaking the boycott. However the surrounding fuss didn’t affect the reception of the redemption-themed album, which features a mix of musical styles including zydeco, isicathamiya, and mbaqanga, alongside the pop and rock for which Simon is known.
While the title track and “Call Me Al” (which featured Chevy Chase in the video) are probably the most well-known songs on this album, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” is also one that you should look out for.
The stunning blend of pop, rock and South African music pushed Simon’s career in a new direction, one that he would maintain until a 2010 reunion with Art Garfunkel. Meanwhile, other big-name rock stars would follow his lead into what was the rather uncool “world music”, most notably former Genesis vocalist Peter Gabriel and later Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
“Oh The Dark Side of the Moon, undoubtedly” says the classic rock fan when asked about his or her favorite Pink Floyd track. In the case of a Pink Floyd fan, however, the answer is usually Wish You Were Here (occasionally Animals or The Wall) and for very good reason. Perhaps it is so loved because it acts as an audio tribute to former member Syd Barrett, who left the band some years earlier and struggled with mental health throughout his life.
If the 13 minutes of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” doesn’t draw you in (and it should, it’s the first track) with its astonishing guitar line, the title track will. These songs are certainly reflective but never tip over into being self-indulgent. Honest, authentic regrets are beautifully expressed in lyrics and music by all members of the band, making Wish You Were Here an unforgettable album.
Portishead – Dummy
Many people discovered Portishead in 1995 (I certainly did) when singles from their debut album Dummy (1994) were re-released and the group deservedly won the Mercury Music Prize. Hailing from Bristol in South West England, the curiously-named group took their moniker from a nearby town.
What is really interesting about Portishead is that the trip hop trio created such an astonishing, layered, and textured album at the first attempt. It would be unfair to say that they peaked too early as the follow up records are competent and entertaining, but Portishead certainly set themselves a high mark with their debut.
Look out for “Numb” and “Glory Box” in particular, and if you’re listening for the first time, do so in a dark room, with your eyes closed, and enjoy what Melody Maker described at the times as “musique noire for a movie not yet made.”
Michael Jackson – Thriller
Any consideration of a top 10 album list without this groundbreaking LP is, frankly, folly. With unprecedented crossover of rock and disco music in “Beat It” and the duet with former Beatle Paul McCartney on “The Girl is Mine”, not to mention the perennially popular “Billy Jean” and the appropriately-titled “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”, Thriller had quality on its side.
However, it is the astonishing title track that elevates Thriller beyond the everyday 1980s pop album. Accompanied by one of the most influential music videos of all time, the single sold countless copies of this album, which still stands up over 30 years later as Jackson’s best solo effort. In the public consciousness, Thriller transformed Michael Jackson from a cute kid who could sing and dance into a serious creative force in rock and pop music.
Nirvana – Unplugged in New York
Undeniably, a chunk of Nirvana diehards were disgusted that the famously amplified sound of Seattle’s greatest contribution to rock music were announced by MTV for one of its acclaimed unplugged sessions. They were, of course, completely wrong.
Abandoning the big hits in favor of more low-key album tracks and covers, Unplugged in New York represents the moment Nirvana transformed from a rock group into a trio of intelligent musicians, with Kurt Cobain wielding the acoustic guitar like a modern day Neil Young, opening hearts and writing wrongs with lyrics and voice.
The subsequent album release captures the show perfectly, but if you get the chance to view the concert on TV/DVD, do so. If you haven’t already heard the cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”, you’re in for a treat.
The Beatles – Abbey Road
In 1969, the fracturing Beatles recorded what they knew would be their final album, after Get Back sessions were abandoned (but would later be released as Let it Be in 1970, as the band went its separate ways). Abbey Road is the perfect illustration of just how the personnel within the band had matured, with George Harrison’s songs finding equal footing alongside those by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
But despite the inner turmoil, there is an innate optimism in the LP, from Harrison’s “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” to the three-track medley on side 2 (the highlight of which is probably Lennon’s “Polythene Pam”), concluding, appropriately, with “The End”. And who can forget Ringo Starr’s single most important contribution to the Beatles, his cheeky appearance as lead vocalist on “Octopus’s Garden”.
And let us not forget the Paul is Dead-trolling barefooted zebra crossing by McCartney on one of the most famous album covers of all time.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II
Following the success of Led Zeppelin’s debut self-titled album, the group was on the road in the first half of 1969 when they recorded this second, a combination of original material and reworked classics.
Quantifying Led Zeppelin II ahead of, say Led Zeppelin IV or Houses of the Holy is a tough deal. With an impressive nine tracks in 40 minutes, it is probably the group’s most populist and accessible collection, combining fast, hard, blues rock (see “Whole Lotta Love” and “The Lemon Song”) with one of the most moving rock ballads ever (“Thank You”) while steering clear of the more self-indulgent approach of later albums (such as “Stairway to Heaven”, “Trampled Under Foot”, etc.).
Add Your Own Favorites To This List!
Reddit hath spoken. But which of these would you consider among your top 10 albums of all time? Which tracks would you add to your digital mix tape to teach your American Idol-loving friends a thing or two about music? And which albums would you add to this list? You get extra points if any (or all) are unavailable to stream online. Because Neil Young is amazing.