Another set of top 100 albums, another ode to soft rock from the unoriginal and boring Rolling Stone writers. Joni Mitchell’s Blue like every other James Taylor, Neil Young, or Carole King project barely crosses the line for consideration as an album. Like the rest of these acoustic icons which are too mediocre to be spoken about with Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell showcases a unique voice over a series of basic piano and guitar melodies. The passive nature of her backing makes sense when you glance at the credits of the albums and find James Taylor’s name scrawled across every song like rocket ships on a bathroom stall.
The album contains some sincere dedications to pain and sorrow on songs like “Blue” and “My Old Man.” The effect of these tracks, however, is immediately washed away by the recurring image of Mitchell scrawling these lyrics in some San Francisco Café in ’71 across from some asshole with an acoustic guitar. Not for me, I’m afraid.
My only knowledge of Blue before listening was that it’s the album Alan Rickman gets Emma Thompson as a last minute Christmas gift in Love Actually. Given the fact that Joni Mitchell is Thompson’s character’s favorite musician, it’s hard to blame Rickman for being eager to hook up with his secretary.
Jokes aside, her lyricism really lets her down on this album. In the opening song, “All I Want,” Mitchell says, “I want to talk to you / I want to shampoo you / I wanna renew you.” Really Joni? Really? Keep your shampoo and your screeching to yourself.
29. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin
For as long as reviewers and pundits have critiqued music, film, art, and food, they have repeatedly gotten it wrong. The constant urge of criticism to shift perceptive to the new, hot thing and discard the old has clashed with the highbrow authority of aged critics determined to hail the era of their youth as the best. Rolling Stone writers fell victim to the pretention of criticism and superiority when a pressing of Led Zeppelin first arrived in their office. Notoriously, the magazine slated the young British ensemble of talented studio musicians as yet another plodding blues rock hype band. Regardless of how harshly they insulted Robert Plant’s feminine howlings, or John Bonham’s raucous drum fills, the Rolling Stone writers could not hold back the real deciding force behind the album’s legacy – time. So, here we are, 50 years later, with our mouths still agape over Led Zeppelin’s first album – a record that deserves to be heralded as one of the most influential rock albums in history.
Led Zeppelin is a masterfully constructed debut album that sounds like the unhinged emotional chasms of a veteran ban. The progressive tones of dark, full, heavy percussion behind sweeping melodies of angelic proportion allow the album to transcend rock and float between blues, folk, and soul. The project is as concise as it is expansive with every song, note, lyric, and chord playing an integral role in the construction of an entire artistic piece.
The opening two-beats of “Good Times Bad Times” echo like shotguns in an alleyway, hounding the listener to take note of what is about to unfold between their eardrums. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” plays like an original take of “Stairway to Heaven” that grounds its melodic swooning in passion and emotion rather than fantastical allusions. The disguised vocal backing, fascistic drums, and sarcastic picking build to an overwhelming conclusion two minutes into the song when all four band members clash their instruments together in full force. The song is genuinely massive. “Communication Breakdown” takes a slight break from the bluesy melodies of past tracks to reveal the punk love urges of the band. The amped guitar slides across the track like bullets ricocheting off the brick wall. This was one of many tracks on the album that showcased the band’s versatility parallel to their sheer musical talent. “Dazed and Confused” takes a psychedelic trip through the inner workings of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s minds as they slip through time alongside soul-crushing chords and high pitched solos. The song paints a renaissance portrait of an apocalyptic scene as multiple elements clash to produce a song that clogs the arteries and grinds the bones.
Led Zeppelin is an inspiring look back at the power and creativity that established rock as the most expressive and powerful genre of music. Not only does Led Zeppelin deserve to be on this list, but it also deserves to be in the top 5 albums ever created. Yet again, time reveals the legacies of true greats. Zeppelin is no exception.
28. The Who, Who’s Next
When The Who’s Tommy appeared earlier in this list, I quickly pointed out how Quadrophenia was The Who album that deserves the most recognition. Who’s Next, however, makes an equally strong claim to the throne. Just as Born in the USA captured Springsteen at his commercial peak, Who’s Next preserves The Who at the height of their glamorous stardom of the early ‘70s.
Drawing on the advantages of a new decade, Townshend and company pumped Who’s Next with bounding synthesizers and echoing guitar solos that had featured in a limited capacity on their previous projects. While some bands would use this technology to produce tacky anthems remembered only for their presence at college football games, The Who balanced the energy of these instruments with a core of robust and sturdy songwriting. “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” are the most significant representations of the massive effect created by the use of new strategies in the studio. Though today it is most recognizable as a backing score in Mazda commercials, “Baba O’Riley” remains among the most recurrent, continuously engaging songs in rock. From Daughtry’s epic declarations to a generation, Moon’s swaying drums, and Townshend’s masterful vocal and guitar performance, the track has every critical aspect of a classic song by The Who. Additionally, the hypnotic, snake-charming outro of the song remains a perplexing gamble for the end of a such a sweeping ballad as “Baba O’Riley” that undoubtedly pays off.
The rest of the album maintains the elements of The Who’s musical spectrum that even the most distant listener would expect. “Bargain” and “Going Mobile” deliver energetic bursts of rhythm and blues that sway between alternating sections of full throttle rock and melodic consideration. “Behind Blue Eyes” reveals the powerful cohesion between the band members that allows them to produce a song that escalates from an acoustic pity ballad to an electric force of a track. “Behind Blue Eyes” is by no mean The Who’s best attempt at combining these two emotions in a song – in fact, it may be their most overrated track – but it maintains an ability to awe the listener in the scale it wields in just three minutes and forty-one seconds.
Who’s Next is a phenomenal album that captures a genuine rock band at the peak of their cohesion and force. Though the album may not be their best, it delivers the most accurate portrayal of the band’s capabilities. It is a fitting selection for their sole spot in the top thirty.
27. U2, The Joshua Tree
A band that began as a scrappy punk group echoing out of Ireland in the early ‘80s, U2 has always carried a vision of greatness and reverence as a demand that is ingrained in their collective consciousness. Following War and The Unforgettable Fire both landing in the U.S. top 20, the band jumped at their popularity of the moment, touring every nook and cranny of the U.S. as they reloaded for their most refined and powerful album yet. In 1987, U2 released The Joshua Tree and cemented their place as true superstars of their generation. 30 years later, the four Irishmen remain among the most creative and routinely entertaining performers still rocking.
The Joshua Tree does not play like the political firebomb of War, nor does it contain the chasmic echoing of The Unforgettable Fire. Instead, The Joshua Tree captures the band in a moment of reflection and appreciation. Rather than churning out a poppy, chorus-heavy, set of ballads – a familiar tactic in 1987 – U2 redirected their observations from the US and UK towards a uniquely poignant album.
From the opening reverberations of sound on “Where the Streets Have No Name,” U2 state the thesis of The Joshua Tree. The album will be a systematic approach at reflection and expression. As The Edge cuts the silence with his trademark rapid, high pitched strumming, and Larry Mullen Jr. fills the silences with a soft, fast-paced pounding, the band calms any fears that they are departing their iconic sound.
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With Or Without You” are unmistakable odes to the band’s religious origins. Both tracks serenade the topic with beautiful and inventive arrangements that three decades of technological advancements has yet to match. Bono’s performance on both songs and throughout the rest of the albums must be noted. The alternating levels of his voice on “Red Hill Mining Town” serve as the base for a tremendous song that inspires and invigorates the listener through Bono’s repeated declaration, “I’m hanging on!” Though his philanthropic celebrity image has overtaken his musical performance in recent years, The Joshua Tree is an appreciated reminder that this man should be celebrated for his remarkable voice and emotional performances rather than the tints of his sunglasses.
“Bullet the Blue Sky” rages out of the speakers in a raw frenzy that immediately establishes the song as a classic of the band’s discography. Though the track contains energy not felt on the majority of the album, it is entirely at home amongst a series of tracks that deal with similar tones of confusion and frustration. “Running to Stand Still” is yet another remarkable track that morphs from a blues pitched slide-guitar opening from The Edge into a soft, spiritual harmony.
The Joshua Tree may paint a bleaker picture than the rest of U2’s albums. The album constructs a portrait of ruptured aspirations, pointless violence, innocent victims, sorrow, and anguish. The Joshua Tree comforts the listener through soothing tones and calming anthems of epic proportions. Amongst the chaos of the era, The Joshua Tree remains rooted as an integral member of rock and surely a contender for the greatest album of the last four decades.
26. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
Warner Bros., 1977
Rumours just may be the greatest album on this entire list. There is a reason why Rumours became the fastest selling LP of all time, shifting 800,000 copies a week following its release. There’s a reason why Rumours became a symbol of the mid-‘70s, cocaine-fueled, California dreams of a generation. There’s a reason why Rumours plays like an immaculately polished fallout of the chaotic ‘70s and the tense difficulties lying right around the corner. When Fleetwood Mac released Rumours after a year of production and a few kilos of cocaine, there was no knowledge of AIDS, drugs were no longer a hippie trademark, but a recreation for the masses and the punk movement was sticking its head out from under the rug. Rumours twisted a tight cap on the past two decades, preserving the prosperous aspirations and hedonistic indulgences of this generation while maintaining a thread of desperation and darkness beneath the surface.
Listening to Rumours is a breeze. The tracks fly by in a series of pleasing melodies and soaring harmonies. Just as the songs on the album thread into one another as unique pieces of an intricate whole, these tracks permeate the farthest reaches of our culture. Even if you have never owned a copy of the album, you are sure to know all the lyrics to over half of the songs. This recognizable position is recognized by only a handful of albums, most of which are overproduced pop albums by Michael Jackson or The Beatles, produced at the height of their popularity. Rumours rises above the status of fame, resting on a shelf of cultural acknowledgment and influence for every individual who happens to listen to one or two songs off of the album.
The collective brain trust of Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, John, and Christine McVie, and Stevie Knicks, as well as a few others, merged through anger, frustration, and companionship to fill each track with sarcasm, anger, love, and truth. “Second Hand News” and “Go Your Own Way” stand as anthems of redemption – two beautiful, shining middle fingers. Stevie Knicks showcases her brilliance on “Dreams” and “Gold Dust Woman.” “Dreams,” the only number one of her career, sounds like a tearful but triumphant declaration of her personal strength. Similarly, “Gold Dust Woman” uses women as a metaphor for cocaine and the deterioration of her psyche from the band's chaotic drama.
“Never Going Back Again” and “The Chain” reveal the band's incredible versatility. The beautiful guitar picking of “Never Going Back Again” contrasts harshly with the resentful but reserved lyrics as Buckingham admonishes, “You don’t know what it means to win.” “The Chain” acts as a thundering statement of injustice, fueled by a continuous kick drum, as the band joins into a sweet harmony and proceeds to tear the doors off the concept of love.
So far, I’ve recycled many terms when describing the impact and extent of an album’s success. Transcendent, indulgent, overrated, insulting, phenomenal, and amazing have been frequently used throughout the last seventy reviews. For Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, however, only one word seems right to describe this masterpiece. It is perfect.
25. James Brown, Live at the Apollo
To distill the sexual energy, emotional tension, and physical might of James Brown into a twelve track album is an impossible task. Live at the Apollo is an exception to this rule.
Live at the Apollo must be in contention as the greatest live album ever recorded. Not only does James Brown maintain divine energy throughout the performance, but he sings along to his songs as they blast out at twice their normal speed. For this reason, in particular, serious credit must be paid to his accompanying band. Their frenzy of jazzy horns, percussion, and rhythm is impeccable as they manically chase Brown’s lightning pace.
Live at the Apollo may be described as a pure essential in music history. The complex rhythms of “Night Train,” the powerful yearning of “Please Please Please,” and the tragic pleading of “Try Me” expose Brown’s manic psyche to his audience. James Brown remains a divine presence in the current of musical progression. Live at the Apollo squeezes his immense presence into a compact album that presents the king at his very best.
24. Stevie Wonder, Innervisions
Though it may not have the scope of Songs in the Key of Life, Innervisions is Stevie Wonder’s most compact testament to his genius. At just 23-years-old, Innervisions was Stevie Wonder’s 16th studio-album. The album is a magnificent fusion of lyrical ingenuity, musical talent, and social criticism. It must be noted that Wonder played nearly every instrument on every song on the album.
“Higher Ground” has remained the most recognizable song off of the album and for a good reason. The song breathes funk and energy as it wails across your eardrums. Wonder played every single instrument on the song that reached number four on the U.S. chart. Though “Higher Ground” is an enjoyable dance number, Wonder reserves topics of injustice, drugs, and inequality for the album’s other tracks.
“Living for the City” is a cinematic masterpiece that follows a pattern of civic injustice with a constant musical drive that is interspersed with synth riffs and sections of dialogue. The song follows the story of a boy who migrates from Mississipi to New York City only to be jailed for ten years for selling drugs he was tricked into carrying. The track is simultaneously beautiful and challenging to listen to as it pits a theme of frustration against a pleasing composition.
Innervisions reminds its listener why Stevie Wonder is the most significant individual innovator in R&B, funk, and soul. Not only is Wonder recognized as a pure musical genius, but he is admired by millions of fans who have been individually touched, comforted, and driven to dance by his music. Stevie Wonder carries a sense of completeness in his music. Not only is he exceptionally important, but his music will elevate his legacy to the deserved realms of glory.
23. John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band
John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ego-driven puff piece Plastic Ono Band may be the most undeserving album on this list. The album plays out in a series of short, consistent songs that play like forgotten B-sides from unreleased Beatles albums. The greatest trick the devil ever played was not convincing the world he did not exist. The greatest trick the devil pulled was giving John Lennon credit for the Beatles’ greatest hits. In truth, McCartney wrote the Beatles songs you know, Lennon wrote the ones that music critics tell you that you should know. Fittingly, the Rolling Stone writers thought Plastic Ono Band deserved to outrank every Who, Zeppelin, and James Brown album ever released.
Plastic Ono Band contains a select number of tracks that ponder the grave topic of Lennon’s childhood loss of his mother. Lennon really experiences some tangible emotions on these songs, referencing an inability to cope with a loss he cannot comprehend. Dealing with similar themes, “Isolation” refers to Lennon’s fear of the world and lack of protection. This is Lennon at his best, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
The track “Hold On” and “Working Class Hero” gives us the Lennon we are familiar with – one who drones on complaining about responsibility and trying his best to sound as much like David Bowie as he possibly can.
The rest of the album plays out as a dedication to the ‘60s and an acceptance of a new generation – the ‘70s. Lennon desperately emphasizes this shift, bringing up themes of departure and emergence in every other line. Though he claims to be moving on, Lennon drags the ‘60s with him in every possible way. His songs maintain a sense of boredom and monotony that he probably thought was edgy and artistic. It’s not. It’s annoying.
Remember the golden rule of the Rolling Stones writers office – if it’s connected to the Beatles, it must be good. In truth, if Lennon’s name was not on the cover, this album wouldn’t be on the list.
22. Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson is just that. Every song he ever recorded. All twelve of them in two takes each. Each take deserves your full attention. His music does not hit you in the stem of your brain or in the deepest realms of your heart. Hell no, leave that to Bob Dylan and The Jonas Brothers. Robert Johnson plays gut-level music.
When you hear this man sing about the devil knocking on his door or selling his soul for a couple chords on the guitar, there is no question of whether or not his stories are tall tales. Every word he speaks is the truth, the echoes of his guitar and the depth of his voice is all the proof he needs.
The weight of every single note rings through your stomach and into your intestine. The songs may sound simple, but they could not be more complicated. Robert Johnson is a true musician. His Complete Recordings is an immaculate preservation of the work of true genius. Check it out.
21. Chuck Berry, The Great Twenty-Eight
You really can’t go wrong with any of the songs on The Great Twenty-Eight. Setting aside Berry’s musical significance, the songs themselves hold up as energetic slices of the USA in the ‘50s. His hopping melodies and sharp swoons of verse scream nostalgia and force movement from every limb on your body. As the decades fall, Berry’s significance as a musical legend will inevitably wane. Who knows, maybe Back to the Future will become fact rather than fiction and “Johnny B. Good” will be credited to Michael J. Fox. Regardless of how history views Berry, his musical legacy will never falter.
Without Chuck Berry, there would be no rockabilly rhythms that were streamlined into the traditional 4/4 beats of rock ‘n’ roll. Without Chuck Berry, there would be no songs where guitar solos are elevated to the same level as the lyrics of the tune. Without Chuck Berry, there would be no wordsmiths obsessing over every syllable of their neatly constructed verses. In short, without Chuck Berry, there would be no such thing as rock ‘n’ roll.