We’re getting close people. As the list winds down to its final picks, the Rolling Stone writers save some time for Michael Jackson, Van Morrison, and Miles Davis. What an amazing super group these three would make! Right? They also give time to Dylan, Springsteen, and The Velvet Underground. This section of the list has some truly amazing albums and some… less amazing ones. Check out the correct takes on each pick below.
20. Michael Jackson, Thriller
Come on. I mean, come on! How can an album that has “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” BACK TO BACK TO BACK not be this high on the list? Thriller is an epic encapsulation of Michael Jackson’s bizarre energy, the glossy commercialism of a fervent ‘80s, and the sheer brilliance of one man and a few great beats.
Sure, Thriller has plenty of low lights. “The Girl is Mine” features the most homosexual duet that has ever been recorded in the history of music. As a 40-year-old Paul McCartney sings with a 24-year-old Michael Jackson, the song devolves into pure hilarity as these two self-obsessed maniacs giggle at each other over who gets to possess an unnamed girl. Also, “Human Nature” is yet another Michael Jackson number in which Jackson waxes for minutes about world peace and the inner glory of every man, woman, and child – something Jackson spent far too much time researching with a rather hands-on approach.
But when Thriller hits its mark, it is simply unbeatable. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” kicks off the record with a groovy hit that sounds like it was plucked from Jackson’s teenage Off the Wall days. A choral group from The Lion King and the horns of Buckingham Palace take this song to the Valhalla of groove. “Thriller,” perhaps the most cinematic song of the last 50 years, is often discarded among the more vanilla hits of Jackson’s musical history. Ultimately, however, the song is fantastic. From the spooky sound effects to the blasting horns to the unforgettable chorus, it fails to skip a beat. “Billie Jean” is funk to the bones. If the US Military had access to a loudspeaker that could send sound across the globe, all they would have to do is hook up my iPhone to the Aux chord and play “Billie Jean.” The result would be a worldwide dance party, and a little thing called world peace. Get on it, Donald!
Look, there’s no question that Michael Jackson had a few flaws (I know that’s a bit of an understatement but bear with me). But Thriller is pure joy. If you feel happy, sad, depressed, manic – just add a bit of Thriller to your queue and watch your day brighten before you.
19. Van Morrison, Astral Weeks
Warner Bros., 1968
This is the sort of album where, after the last recording, Van Morrison probably told his producer that it would be the most excellent album ever made. Like most of Astral Weeks, Morrison oozes pretentious, acoustic guitar strumming, nonsense whenever he opens his mouth. For these reasons, he should be banished from this list for the rest of time.
Astral Weeks is a completely fine album. For 47 minutes, Morrison whines over flutes, strings, and other soft instruments that leave no real impression in the nooks of your cortex. By the end of the album, you’re left questioning where the last three-quarters of an hour went and cursing yourself for never having the chance to get that time back. I’m convinced that the Rolling Stone writers put Astral Weeks so high on this list because they thought, with so many Beatles and Bob Dylan albums clogging the top 20, they needed another folk sounding white guy to balance out their biases.
18. Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run
It’s a statement that will sound obvious to any declared Springsteen fan but Born to Run is the story of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Though Springsteen speaks about the band’s origins and members throughout the album, that’s not exactly what I mean. Many groups have tried and failed to make albums about their roots. Rather than a collection of pretentious, self-revelatory song, Born to Run is an all-inclusive tribute to a generation of men and women who were brought up in New Jersey bars, worked in factories or fought overseas, and sent their children across the country as prophets of the boss, Bruce Springsteen.
Though it contains only eight songs, Born to Run has as much emotional and instrumental diversity as any album on this list. The stripped down tribute to the band’s founding and the discovery of Clarence Clemens on “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and the percussive drums and fast-strumming guitars on “Night” and “She’s the One” prevent the record from being placed in a single subgenre of rock. Each song simultaneously stakes its own claim as a unique dedication to a set group of individuals while capturing emotions felt by everyone. For example, “Meeting Across the River” echoes the sentiments of desperation that would define The River and Nebraska. Although Springsteen sings from the perspective of two men getting together to pull off a robbery, the soft piano and echoing trumpet reveals the familiar pain that is fueling their doomed mission.
“Thunder Road” delivers one of Springsteen’s most potent slice-of-life tableaus in his discography. As harmonica and piano dance into the beginning of the song, Springsteen kicks off the album with a subtle but heartfelt vocal performance that reflects his desire. By the end of the song, “Thunder Road” has transformed into a tense ballad of epic stature. When Bruce exclaims “It’s a town for losers, I’m pullin’ out of here to win,” you don’t doubt for a second that he didn’t think those exact words hundreds of times in his adolescence. “Born to Run” must be celebrated as Springsteen’s most recognizable and enduring classic. Unlike every other track on the album, “Born to Run” sounds like it was recorded in an abandoned missile silo. Tinkling bells pound against the walls, colliding with a deep, buzzing saxophone, and pounding drums to create a massive soundscape. “Born to Run” is a true classic that only Springsteen could have built.
“Jungleland” sends Born to Run off on its highest note. This nine minute and thirty-six-second epic is awe-inspiring. Along with possessing the most beautiful and powerful piano used at any point on this entire list, “Jungleland” contains an extensive build up and a compelling story that elevate the track even further. When the first person heard these pieces of the track collide as Bruce screams “Down in Jungleland!” they should have unplugged their stereo and thrown out their records. Music simply does not get better. On “Jungleland,” however, it does. Every time I listen to this song, Clarence Clemens’ saxophone solo hits me in a more profound way than my previous listen. Surely, this piece of absolute musical perfection that begins around three minutes and fifty-five seconds into the song must be the most exceptional individual performance so far on this list. Right? “Jungleland” is a beautiful track that caps a great album with quality and grace. Forty-four years later, Born to Run remains an inspiring, powerful, unique, and compelling collection of songs that’s might is unparalleled in musical history.
Take me to the river.
17. Nirvana, Nevermind
Nevermind’s position on this list, though somewhat deserved, feels like the pandering of a group of Rolling Stone writers who feel guilty for originally slating such a generation-defining album. Though its impact has been diluted by 13-year-olds in Nirvana t-shirts and two decades of mocking the grunge era, after 28 years, Nevermind still sounds like the future of rock ‘n’ roll.
Bridging the commercialized ‘80s with the garage-land ‘90s, Nirvana combines more pop and punk on Nevermind than any album that has since been released. Following Nevermind’s release, Nirvana became the poster-child of the new wave of rock, a cultural anointment that ultimately proved fatal for the genre. Kurt Cobain’s slaloming between soft rock and throat screaming metal is only sustained by Dave Grohl’s rhythmic sanity grounding each track. As many attempted to imitate this delicate combination, many artists and bands fell into melodramatic angst that lacked any musical quality.
Like The Sex Pistols, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, and so many others, Nirvana’s legacy was cemented in death. The moment Kurt Cobain turned a gun on himself, he and his band were elevated to an untouchable status in music history that simply cannot receive criticism. This sort of enthusiastic commitment to a single artist, however, only deteriorates their legacy when those unfamiliar with the band tune in to see what the hype is all about.
Ultimately, Nevermind is only one-half of a jaw-dropping, fist-clenching album. The other half, the second half, plays out in a series of repetitive, angst-driven complaints that slog against the statements of the first few tracks. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Come As You Are,” “Lithium,” and “Polly” are tremendous songs that should be celebrated for their role in defining the ‘90s for millions of people across the globe. In comparison, however, the second half sounds like a Nirvana cover band trying to write songs like their favorite band.
So, is Nevermind the best album of the ‘90s? Of course not. It’s definitely not better than Pearl Jam’s Ten. After all, no song on Nevermind contains the versatility or scale of “Release.” But is Nevermind the most important album of the ‘90s. Without hesitation, the answer is yes. The ‘90s deserves more recognition on this list, and Nevermind is a fitting album to stake the decade’s claim to rock greatness.
16. Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
Blood on the Tracks must be regarded as Dylan’s angriest burst of genius in his star-studded catalog of musical prowess. Released nearly ten years after Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s image as a mystical muse of Minnesota, singing sweet folk songs for a generation had worn thin. Not that Dylan cared. Blood on the Tracks turned Dylan’s focus expressly inward. Rather than spout about Woody Guthrie’s vision of America, Dylan screams and gurgles through multiple tracks about loss, spite, and despair.
“Tangled Up in Blue” begins the album with a melodic number that makes you look up after four and a half minutes and ask, “How’d he get here?” This song of suspicion and frustration turns from thick strumming to high pitched harmonicas as Dylan’s iconic squeal elevates the track to one of his best numbers.
“Simple Twist of Fate,” “If You See Her Say Hello,” and “You’re a Big Girl Now” are sung with a heavy heart and a narrative bent that are delivered like tableaus from a Cohen brothers movie. The flat narration emphasizes a touching sensibility towards subjects of growth, loss, and moving on.
While many speak of “Like a Rolling Stone” as Dylan’s shining burst of inspiration that should be regarded as his best song, “Idiot Wind” must be considered as a contender for this hypothetical award. “Idiot Wind” warps an equally chaotic and confusing message of raw anger and hate as it repeatedly flings an ax into a wood chipper, hoping for some semblance of closure. Dylan’s brilliance is on full display on “Idiot Wind,” a track that proves that even the most talented musicians fail to find happiness behind the veil of success.
Blood on the Tracks is a deserving contender for the top positions on this list. Had Dylan released an album of this caliber in the mid-60s, it would rightfully take the spots of his other two albums in the top ten.
15. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced
Both of Jimi Hendrix’s two previous albums on this list, Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland, I derided for failing to sustain a level of emotional depth or emotional captivation beyond one or two songs. There was no question on either record of Hendrix’s musical capabilities; however, his ability to deliver upon them lacked significantly. Are You Experienced proves Hendrix’s total control over producing a malicious piece of music.
Flecked with soul and oozing electricity, Are You Experienced remains a generational totem pole of the ‘60s. As the guitar riffs float out of the bottom of the speakers, Are You Experienced enters your nostrils and your eardrums, hypnotizing you into believing that maybe those hippies were on to something after all.
“Purple Haze” kicks off the album with an electrical seizure that only obeys the fingers of Mr. Hendrix. This track reveals the blueprint for Hendrix’s mastery. Where his other records would fail to carry this track over the finish line, “Purple Haze” includes a catchy lyric, a helpful percussive backing, and a clear objective. With these essential elements, the song is elevated to a level of brilliance suitable for perhaps the greatest guitarist who ever held a pick. “Hey Joe,” showcases the narrative potential held by Hendrix. Delivered in his iconic fusion of blues and rock, the track tells a story that seems plagiarized from Johnny Cash. “Foxey Lady,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” and “Fire” straddle both ends of Hendrix’s musical spectrum of raw energy and succulent blues.
Are You Experienced captures Hendrix at the musical peak of a glorious generation. The ‘60s was a decade in which nearly every artist claimed to be tapping into a divine presence to create their music. Many of these musicians, however, ended up procrastinating so much that they ended up writing woeful covers of songs by Elvis or The Beatles. As Jimi Hendrix sat down to record Are You Experienced he was about to achieve the closest thing to divine the ‘60s actually ever produced. While Jimi was sitting there, God himself probably tapped him on the shoulder and said, “You’re it.”
14. The Beatles, Abbey Road
Abbey Road is The Beatles’ final album. Yes, they later salvaged Let It Be as a fumbled send off, but Abbey Road is the band’s real goodbye. Fittingly, Abbey Road contains many of the elements that established The Beatles as a constant fixture in pop culture. The album begins with its best track, the funky, raw, punching “Come Together.” While the album repeatedly veers into strange and unexplainable territory with songs like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Mean Mr Mustard,” The Beatles were able to keep it together for long enough to squeeze out a few more classics. “Something” remains a touching number that swings from wall to wall with emotional output. “Here Come’s the Sun” is one of the most overrated and overplayed songs of all time that finally got its rightful resting place when Seinfeld used it in the soundtrack for The Bee Movie.
Look, Abbey Road is a fine album. It’s not better than most of the records that have come before it, but, remember, it’s The Beatles, so Rolling Stone is contractually obligated to treat it with affection and admiration. Abbey Road is neither The Beatles’ best album nor their worst. In their collection of album’s, it’s really just ok. It should move out of 14th place for an album of greater creativity or expression than this playful tribute to a band whose only genuine concern was the scale of their individual members’ egos.
13. The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground is an album that, when listening in 2019, can easily be understood as having had a powerful impact in 1967. Kickstarting a few dozen musical revolutions, The Velvet Underground is continuously heralded as your favorite band’s favorite album. But does it really hold up?
Much of my hesitation towards The Velvet Underground is the sheer contrived nature of their founding. They feel like Andy Warhol’s response to The Monkees. Many band’s try to adopt identities that attract specific audiences. Lou Reed and his fellow musicians decided that if they acted like drugged-out, New York City cool kids, they would be celebrated for being individual geniuses. To their credit, this tactic worked. But just because they looked the part does not necessarily mean they had the music to back it up.
Yes, “Heroin” and “Waiting for the Man” are brilliant tracks. While they romanticize the life of adultery, addiction, and creating art in abandoned warehouses, they do so in a slightly ironic way that pulls back the curtain of cool to reveal a terrifying reality of despair.
However, the many songs on this album that would have been classified as “experimental” in 1967 have faded out of “influential” and into the pit of convention. The album certainly influenced a vast swath of musicians who went on to influence many others. Listening to the record five decades after its release, however, one can’t help but feel disappointed.
12. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
As I said in my review of Bitches Brew, don’t expect me to start analyzing the ins and outs of any jazz album. My understanding of the genre is equivalent to Sammy Sosa’s understanding of the word “dignity” – it’s non-existent. But Kind of Blue may have sparked a miniature revelation deep within my ear. Walking around with my earbuds in, Kind of Blue played out like a soundtrack to my day. I know that sounds somewhat self-obsessed for me to say, but it’s true. The album contains just enough intimacy, spontaneity, and energy to keep me intrigued. Yes, at numerous points, I felt like my college campus had transformed into the world’s most massive Panera Bread, but that was not enough to deter me.
I’m not entirely sold on jazz yet, and I’m not even close to claiming to understand it, but Kind of Blue is definitely on to something. I look forward to revisiting it in a few years. Now, where can I find the nearest bread bowl of tomato soup?
11. Elvis Presley, The Sun Sessions
This album features so high on this list not for its musical brilliance or the strength of any particular songs but rather because it captures Elvis moments before his breakthrough. Preserved in this anthology is the energy, personality, and uniqueness of the king before he ever got his crown. Just because The Sun Sessions details this period in Elvis’ history, however, does not make it a significantly good album. After all, his first album has already featured on this list and was a much stronger representation of how he would have appeared to the masses when he first strutted in front of a microphone.
Compared with any of the Beatles, Springsteen, Stones, or Zeppelin albums on this list, The Sun Sessions places dead last. It fails to compare with other giants through no fault of its own but because it is just not an album. Rolling Stone wasted a pick here with The Sun Sessions. Ultimately, Elvis will be remembered for his bedazzled outfits and unmistakable presence on the microphone. Regardless of whether or not this is how the king should go down in history, it will be hard to shake this perception of Elvis from the minds of the masses. Putting an anthology from 1999 outside the top ten of this list certainly isn’t going to change anyone’s mind.