The Top 50 Albums of All Time
Eleven months into the 50th-anniversary year of this magazine, we still just want to celebrate. And ever since we ran our "Top 50 DVDs of All Time", you just knew we'd have to do the music side of the Sound & Vision equation. So, here they are: our "Top 50 Albums of All Time." But wait (all together now), there's more! Because we know you love bonus tracks, we've gathered 50 additional records, covering the best in live albums, jazz, classical, surround, and miscellaneous stuff.
The Top 50 tally honors original studio albums. We didn't take the easy way out and pad it with greatest hits and boxed sets. If the artists worked hard to create these classics, shouldn't we work hard to put 'em in a list?
My colleagues gave me some good-natured ribbing on exactly how hard this assignment was. "What an arduous, unforgiving task," quipped Parke Puterbaugh, "trying to condense 50 years of rock & roll history into a list of 50 albums." Nonetheless, condense he did. Echoed our most veteran music critic, Steve Simels: "A more arduous task I can't recall." He then summed up: "This has been among the most exhausting and exhilarating undertakings of my entire professional life." And we all loved every minute of it. - KEN RICHARDSON
1: The Beatles: Revolver (Capitol)
The original label, of course, was Parlophone in England. Which brings up the most important discussion about this album's physical format. I'm not talking LP, cassette, 8-track, or CD. I'm talking British album - as the Beatles sequenced it, George Martin produced it, and Geoff Emerick engineered it - vs. the American "version."
Hard to believe that we still have to point that out. But when some people continue to cling to the "nostalgia" of the U.S. releases, and when Dave Marsh devotes an entire book to defending The Beatles' Second Album, it bears repeating, again: Stay away from the old Capitols.
The programmatic and sonic liberties taken with 1966's Revolver weren't as egregious as in earlier botches. But only with the original will you get "I'm Only Sleeping" as the proper link between "Eleanor Rigby" and "Love You To"; only here will "And Your Bird Can Sing" give you a jolt between the piano tunes "Good Day Sunshine" and "For No One"; and only here does the burbling-guitar fade-out of "Doctor Robert" segue into the burbling-guitar fade-in of "I Want to Tell You."
"But," you want to ask me, "why is this the best album of all time?" Remember: All of those genre-defining songs above are on the same record. Need I really say more? Sure, I could go on about the final track. But the importance of "Tomorrow," everyone knows. - KEN RICHARDSON
2: Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde (Columbia)
Having made the transition from acoustic folksinger to electric rocker, Bob Dylan was bursting with creative energy when he recorded 1966's Blonde on Blonde in, of all places, Nashville. Maybe it's the fact that the crack country session players used by underrated producer Bob Johnston weren't especially well versed in Dylan's verse-heavy songs, but there's a clarity and ease to the music that lends Dylan a tremendously supportive backdrop to bob and weave against. The elusive bard of the '60s gave us much to mull over on this double LP, from lyrical carnival rides like "Absolutely Sweet Marie" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" to the (count 'em) three Top 40 hits, all drastically different: "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," "I Want You," and "Just Like a Woman." But the crowning glory is "Visions of Johanna," whose 7 ½ minutes of brilliantly evocative stream-of-consciousness poetry stillfly by after all these years. - BILLY ALTMAN
3: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland (Reprise; Experience Hendrix)
"Produced and Directed by Jimi Hendrix." So read the credits to 1968's Electric Ladyland - and the key word is Directed, for this is the album that would get me on the hunt for a better pair of headphones so I could absorb all of its cinematic nuances. For almost a year, the only way I engaged this swirling cauldron of creativity was in the dark and on my Sennheiser HD420s, trying to unravel the eerie sci-fi mysteries of "1983" and "Moon, Turn the Tides." Such intense listening sessions revealed this double album's other sonic gems: the Hawaiian slide riffs on "All Along the Watchtower," the cellophane-wrapped comb comps on "Crosstown Traffic," Jimi's multitracked gospel harmonies on "Long Hot Summer Night," and the perpetually punishing wah-wah riff clinic on the epic closer, "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." Man oh man, what a mind-blowing Experience. - MIKE METTLER
4: The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed (London; ABKCO)
This isn't just a 1969 farewell to a decade. As a counterpart to Goodbye Baby & Amen (Stones cover photographer David Bailey's book of portraits, published earlier the same year), it's the sound of an era shutting down. The album opens with the aural equivalent of a pistol shot in the apocalyptic "Gimme Shelter." And it ends with an ode to resignation, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" - which is also, in Greil Marcus's apt phrase, the most outrageous production ever staged by a rock & roll band. In between, there's a lot of stuff that sounds like cowboys playing the blues, a lot more stuff about sex and death and power (the Stones' great subjects), and best of all, Keith Richards's first solo vocal, on the utterly gorgeous "You Got the Silver." The band's next two studio LPs were variations on the theme; if Let It Bleed was the last gasp of the '60s party, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. were the staggering home at sunrise and the subsequent hangover. - STEVE SIMELS
5: Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia)
Even with the 2003 SACD remaster in the catalog, I still prefer the vinyl. Here's an album that requires surface noise, to boost the electric guitars and add extra static to the drums. No one will ever confuse this 1965 set with the studio wizardry of Steely Dan, but no one has ever gotten a better sound for a live-playing band either. Of course, Dylan's lyrics are hallucinatory and spellbinding. But Bobby Gregg's drums, mashing through "Tombstone Blues," are every bit as revelatory, and Michael Bloomfield's country-flamenco picking on "Desolation Row" matters as much as whatever Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are arguing about in the captain's tower. (Don't forget the organ on "Ballad of a Thin Man.") Meanwhile, the best-sung line on the entire album just might be when Bob takes a healthy bite out of the word "good" in asking, "Don't the moon look good, mama, shinin' through the trees?" - ROB O'CONNOR