#10 Leonard Cohen – Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Leonard Cohen was already well into his thirties when he made his debut, in the Summer of Love. The Montreal poet had been publishing his books to literary acclaim for years, but he took to songwriting, with his acoustic guitar and the orchestrations of producer John Simon. These were the late-night ballads that made his legend, starting with “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy.” But Cohen specialized in farewells, blowing kisses to his muses in “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” He kept writing brilliant songs past his 80th birthday, right up to his death in 2016.
#9 Bruce Springsteen – The River (1980)
The sources of The River go back into earlier parts of Springsteen’s recording career. “Independence Day”, “Point Blank”, “The Ties That Bind”, “Ramrod”, and “Sherry Darling” were leftovers from his previous album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and had been featured on the 1978 tour, as had parts of “Drive All Night” as a long interpolation within “Backstreets”. “The River” had premiered at the September 1979 Musicians United for Safe Energy concerts, gaining a featured spot in the subsequent documentary No Nukes.
Originally, Springsteen intended The River to be a single album, entitled The Ties That Bind. The single album version was eventually released as one of the discs in the 2015 box set release The Ties That Bind: The River Collection. Springsteen had been working with the E Street Band at his home studio, Telegraph Hill Studios, which was actually a barn at his Holmdel, New Jersey property. By early August, there was an initial cut of 10 songs (recorded at the Power Station in New York City) and Columbia began to believe they might have a new Springsteen record in time for Christmas 1979. Bruce decided on a track sequence, and in September, Bob Clearmountain was brought in to mix twelve tracks. Springsteen signed off on The Ties That Bind, and the tapes were sent off for mastering on October 15. But when they came back, he suddenly cancelled the release, and went back to recording. He later said, “The songs lacked the kind of unity and conceptual intensity I liked my music to have.” His manager and co-producer, Jon Landau, suggested that maybe this record needed to be a double album, in order to encompass everything Springsteen was trying to achieve. After another seven months at the Power Station, the sessions came to an end. The River was released on October 17, 1980, with 20 of the 50 songs that had been recorded. Springsteen added darker material after he’d written the title track. Indeed, The River became noted for its mix of the frivolous next to the solemn. This was intentional, and in contrast to Darkness, for as Springsteen said during an interview, “Rock and roll has always been this joy, this certain happiness that is in its way the most beautiful thing in life. But rock is also about hardness and coldness and being alone … I finally got to the place where I realized life had paradoxes, a lot of them, and you’ve got to live with them.”
On 8th November 2009, at a concert, Bruce Springsteen spoke about the album, saying: “The River was a record that was sort of the gateway to a lot of my future writing. It was a record we made after Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was a record made during a recession—hard times in the States. Its title song is a song I wrote for my brother-in-law and sister. My brother-in-law was in the construction industry, lost his job and had to struggle very hard back in the late ‘70s, like so many people are doing today. It was a record where I first started to tackle men and women and families and marriage. There were certain songs on it that led to complete records later on: ‘The River’ sort of went to the writing on Nebraska, ‘Stolen Car’ went to the writing on Tunnel of Love. Originally it was a single record. I handed it in with just one record and I took it back because I didn’t feel it was big enough. I wanted to capture the themes I had been writing about on Darkness. I wanted to keep those characters with me and at the same time added music that made our live shows so much fun and joy for our audience. So in the end, we’re gonna take you down to The River tonight.”
#8 Nirvana – In Utero (1993)
Nirvana intended for the record to diverge significantly from the polished, refined production of its previous album, Nevermind (1991). Early in 1992, Cobain said that In Utero would showcase “both of the extremes” of its sound, saying “it’ll be more raw with some songs and more candy pop on some of the others. It won’t be as one-dimensional as Nevermind”.
To capture a more abrasive and natural sound, Nirvana hired engineer Steve Albini to record In Utero during a two-week period in February 1993 at Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. The music was quickly recorded within that time with few studio embellishments. The lyrics and album packaging largely incorporated medical imagery that conveyed frontman Kurt Cobain’s outlook on his publicized personal life and his band’s newfound fame.
Soon after recording was completed, rumours circulated in the press that DGC might not release In Utero in its original state, as the record label felt that the result was not commercially viable. Although Nirvana publicly denied the statements, the band agreed to remix parts of the album. When Albini declined to alter the album further, the band hired REM producer Scott Litt to make minor changes to its sound and remix the singles “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”.
Upon release, In Utero reached number one on both the US Billboard 200 and UK Albums Chart. It received critical acclaim as a drastic departure from Nevermind and has been described by several publications as one of the greatest albums of all time. “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” both reached number one on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. The album has been certified 5× platinum by the RIAA and has sold 15 million copies worldwide.
#7 U2 – Joshua Tree (1987)
U2 chose American experiences, literature, and politics as a theme for the record. Recording began in January 1986 in Ireland, and to foster a relaxed, creative atmosphere, the group primarily recorded in two houses. Several events during the sessions helped shape the conscious tone of the album, including the band’s participation in the Conspiracy of Hope benefit concerts for Amnesty International, the death of roadie Greg Carroll, and lead vocalist Bono’s travels to Central America. Recording was completed in November 1986; additional production continued into January 1987. Throughout the sessions, U2 sought a “cinematic” quality for the record, one that would evoke a sense of location, in particular, the open spaces of the United States. They represented this in the sleeve photography depicting them in American desert landscapes.
The Joshua Tree received critical acclaim, topped the charts in over 20 countries, and became the fastest-selling album in British history. According to Rolling Stone, the album increased the band’s stature “from heroes to superstars”. It produced the hit singles “With or Without You”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “Where the Streets Have No Name”, the first two of which became the group’s only number-one singles in the US. The album won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1988. The group supported the record with the Joshua Tree Tour throughout 1987, on which they began to perform in stadiums for the first time in their career.
Frequently listed among the greatest albums of all time, The Joshua Tree is one of the world’s best-selling albums, with over 25 million copies sold. U2 commemorated the record’s 20th anniversary with a remastered re-release, and its 30th anniversary with a concert tour and reissue. In 2014, it was selected for preservation in the US National Recording Registry, having been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress.
#6 Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
The record was conceived as an album that focused on the pressures faced by the band during their arduous lifestyle, and dealing with the apparent mental problems suffered by former band member Syd Barrett, who departed the group in 1968. New material was recorded in two sessions in 1972 and 1973 at Abbey Road Studios in London.
The record builds on ideas explored in Pink Floyd’s earlier recordings and performances, while omitting the extended instrumentals that characterised their earlier work. The group employed multitrack recording, tape loops, and analogue synthesisers, including experimentation with the EMS VCS 3 and a Synthi A. Engineer Alan Parsons was responsible for many sonic aspects and the recruitment of singer Clare Torry, who appears on “The Great Gig in the Sky”.
A concept album, the themes of The Dark Side of the Moon explore conflict, greed, time, death, and mental illness. Snippets from interviews with the band’s road crew, as well as philosophical quotations, were also used. The sleeve, which depicts a prism spectrum, was designed by Storm Thorgerson, following keyboardist Richard Wright’s request for a “simple and bold” design, representing the band’s lighting and the record’s themes. The album was promoted with two singles: “Money” and “Us and Them”.
The Dark Side of the Moon is among the most critically acclaimed records in history, often featuring on professional listings of the greatest albums. The record helped to propel Pink Floyd to international fame, bringing wealth and recognition to all four of its members. It has been certified 14× platinum in the United Kingdom, and topped the US Billboard Top LPs & Tapes chart, where it has charted for 950 weeks in total. With estimated sales of over 45 million copies, it is Pink Floyd’s most commercially successful album, and one of the best-selling albums worldwide. In 2013, it was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
#5 The Who – Who’s Next (1971)
Who’s Next was developed from the aborted Lifehouse project, a multi-media rock opera written by the group’s Pete Townshend as a follow-up to the band’s 1969 album Tommy. The project was cancelled owing to its complexity and to conflicts with Kit Lambert, the band’s manager, but the group salvaged some of the songs, without the connecting story elements, to release as their next album. Eight of the nine songs on Who’s Next were from Lifehouse, the lone exception being the John Entwistle-penned “My Wife”. Ultimately, the remaining Lifehouse tracks would all be released on other albums throughout the next decade.
The Who recorded Who’s Next with assistance from recording engineer Glyn Johns. After producing the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, they relocated to Olympic Studios to record and mix most of the album’s remaining songs. They made prominent use of synthesizer on the album, particularly on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley”, which were both released as singles. The cover photo was shot by Ethan Russell; it made reference to the monolith in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, as it featured group members standing by a concrete piling protruding from a slag heap, apparently having urinated against it.
Who’s Next was an immediate success when it was released. It has since been viewed by many critics as the Who’s best record and one of the greatest albums of all time. It was reissued on CD several times, with additional songs originally intended for Lifehouse.
#4 REM – Automatic for the People (1992)
Automatic for the People is the eighth studio album by REM. The band began production on the album while their previous album, Out of Time (1991), was still ascending top albums charts and achieving global success. Aided by string arrangements from John Paul Jones, Automatic for the People features ruminations on mortality, loss, mourning and nostalgia.
Upon release, it received widespread acclaim from critics, reached number two on the US albums chart, and yielded six singles. Rolling Stone reviewer Paul Evans concluded of the album, “This is the members of REM delving deeper than ever; grown sadder and wiser, the Athens subversives reveal a darker vision that shimmers with new, complex beauty.” Automatic for the People is generally regarded alongside Murmur (1983) as one of the band’s supreme achievements, and it has sold 18 million copies worldwide.
#3 Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
The album depicts a world fraught with rampant consumerism, social alienation, emotional isolation, and political malaise; in this capacity, OK Computer has been said to have discerning insight into the mood of 21st-century life. Unconventional production techniques on the album include natural reverberation through recording on a staircase, and no audio separation, which allowed instruments to not overdub separately. Strings were recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. The band’s guitarist Ed O’Brien estimated that 80 per cent of the album was recorded live.
Despite lowered sales estimates by EMI, who deemed the record uncommercial and difficult to market, OK Computer reached number one on the UK Albums Chart and soon earned a 5× platinum and double platinum certification by the BPI and RIAA, respectively. The songs “Paranoid Android”, “Karma Police”, “Lucky”, and “No Surprises” were released as singles. The album expanded Radiohead’s international popularity and has sold at least 7.8 million units worldwide. A remastered version with additional tracks was released in 2017, marking the album’s twentieth anniversary. In 2019, in response to an internet leak, Radiohead released MiniDiscs, comprising over 16 hours of demos, rehearsals, live performances and other material related to OK Computer.
OK Computer received critical acclaim and has been cited by listeners, critics and musicians as one of the greatest albums of all time. It was nominated for the Album of the Year and won Best Alternative Music Album at the 1998 Grammy Awards. It was also nominated for Best British Album at the 1998 Brit Awards. The album initiated a stylistic shift in British rock away from Britpop toward melancholic, atmospheric alternative rock that became more prevalent in the next decade. In 2014, it was included by the Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
#2 Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Blood on the Tracks initially received mixed reviews, but has subsequently been acclaimed as one of Dylan’s greatest albums by both critics and fans. The songs have been linked to tensions in Dylan’s personal life, including his estrangement from his then-wife Sara. One of their children, Jakob Dylan, has described the songs as “my parents talking”. The album is considered an outstanding example of the confessional singer-songwriter’s craft, having been called “the truest, most honest account of a love affair from tip to stern ever put down on magnetic tape”. In interviews, Dylan has denied that the songs on the album are autobiographical.
#1 Roger Waters – Amused To Death (1992)
Amused To Death is loosely organized around the idea of an ape randomly switching channels on a television but explores numerous political and social themes, including critiques of the First Gulf War in “The Bravery of Being Out of Range” and “Perfect Sense.”
The first track, “The Ballad of Bill Hubbard,” features a recording of the voice of World War I veteran Alfred Razzell, a member of the Royal Fusiliers who describes his account of finding fellow soldier William “Bill” Hubbard, to whom the album is dedicated, severely wounded on the battlefield. After failed attempts to take him to safety, Razzell is forced to abandon him in no-man’s land. The tale is continued at the end of the title track, at the very end of the album, providing a coda to the tragic story, with Razzell describing how he finally found peace. The excerpts are from BBC television’s 1991 Everyman documentary, “A Game of Ghosts”, made to mark the 75th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.
The second song, “What God Wants, Part I”, follows and contrasts the moving words of Razzell by opening with the TV being tuned instead into an excerpt of a child who says, “I don’t mind about the war. That’s one of the things I like to watch – if it’s a war going on. ‘Cos then I know if, um, our side’s winning, if our side’s losing…” he is then interrupted by the channel being changed and a burst of ape-chatter.
“Perfect Sense” is a two-part song about a world where live transmissions of wars are the main form of entertainment. The first part of the song begins with a loud, unintelligible rant, and then a backwards message voiced by Waters: “Julia, however, in the light and visions of the issues of Stanley, we changed our minds. We have decided to include a backward message. Stanley, for you, and for all the other book burners.” The message climaxes with Waters yelling in the aggressive Scottish voice he used to depict the character of the teacher in The Wall. In the second part, famed sportscaster Marv Albert narrates a war as if it were a basketball game.
“The Bravery of Being Out of Range” includes a reference to a song written by Waters on Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals, “Sheep” (and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”). (In “Sheep,” Waters sings, “I’ve looked over Jordan and I have seen/Things are not what they seem”; in “The Bravery of Being Out of Range,” he sings “I looked over Jordan and what did I see? I saw a US Marine in a pile of debris.”)
“Late Home Tonight, Part I,” which opens with the song of a Eurasian skylark, recalls the 1986 US air strike against Libya from the perspective of two “ordinary wives” and a young American F-111 pilot. The lyrics about “removing the jeans from the refrigerator” reference a 1985 Levi’s 501 commercial.
At the beginning of “What God Wants, Part II,” Charles Fleischer (better known as the voice of Roger Rabbit) performs the greedy teleevangelist’s sermon. The lyrics about God wanting silver, gold and “his secret never to be told” reference the nursery rhyme, One for Sorrow. “What God Wants, Part III” musically references the Pink Floyd songs “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Part I),” “Echoes” and “Breathe (In the Air)”. It ends with an audio clip of Tom Bromley, an elderly WWI veteran, singing “Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines, Nellie” a capella. The clip is also from “A Game of Ghosts”.
The song “Watching TV” (a duet with Don Henley) explores the influence of mass media on the Chinese protests for democracy in Tiananmen Square.
In “It’s a Miracle,” Waters makes a scathing reference to Andrew Lloyd Webber (whom he would accuse elsewhere of having plagiarised music from Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” for sections of the musical The Phantom of the Opera): The same song features a sample from the 1977 low-budget zombie film Shock Waves in which the film’s characters wrestle over a flashlight. The title track begins with the lyric, “Doctor, Doctor.” “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the first song written by Waters, opens with the same line.
To prove how difficult it is sticking to only ten albums, here are the albums that didn’t quite make the list (in no particular order):
Nirvana – Nevermind
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
Bob Dylan – Desire
Radiohead – Kid A
Amy Winehouse – Back To Black
The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed
AC/DC – Back In Black
Guns ‘n’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction
Black Sabbath – Paranoid
Portishead – Dummy
Hawkwind – Quark, Strangeness And Charm
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II
The Eagles – Hotel California
Lou Reed – Transformer
Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
Peter Gabriel – So
Neil Young – Rust Never Sleeps
The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers
Radiohead – The Bends
Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman
The Who – Live At Leeds
Lynyrd Skynyrd – (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-’nérd ‘Skin-’nérd)
My Chemical Romance – The Black Parade
Eminem – The Slim Shady LP
Yes – Close To The Edge
Dire Straits – Brothers In Arms
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