The Police (1983)
It’s not too surprising that the album containing the song I’ve already tagged as the best of all time would end up somewhere on this list. More than “Every Breath You Take” and the sister hits “King of Pain” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger”, the album is solid throughout, with the exception of the rather unfortunate “Mother”. The music sounds timeless and the lyrics are strong – not much more you can ask for.
“Enter Sandman”, “Sad But True”, “The Unforgiven”, “Wherever I May Roam”, “Nothing Else Matters”… that’s all in the first eight tracks, son. If Metallica and their label wanted to, they could have released eleven of the twelve songs on this album as singles, and they would have charted. Ironically, the songs that keep it in my personal rotation are the unreleased ones – “The God That Failed” and “My Friend of Misery”.
“Wonderwall” has the feel of a once-in-a-generation anthem, “Don’t Look Back in Anger” is a near-perfect ballad, and “Champagne Supernova” stands as the best song to listen to when alone and drunk. Oasis fairly mastered making perfect pop albums, and this was their peak effort.
Florence + the Machine (2011)
There is simply not a bad song on this album. It’s hard to go wrong with Florence Welch’s vocals, granted, but the music backing her is so lushly layered and nuanced it’s clear this effort was not the sonic equivalent of a one-trick pony. Welch’s vocals on “Spectrum” are downright goosebump-inducing, but you can’t go wrong picking any tune on Ceremonials to start the journey.
Admittedly, Slayer is not most folk’ s cup of tea. Tom Araya and company make music that is, um, aggressive. Though the taste is an acquired one, excellence is excellence, and this is an excellent album. Yes, the imagery is dark and brooding – borderline juvenile in places – but the music is so tight, raw, and relentless that you can focus on its majesty instead, if you prefer. A perfect introduction to Slayer for the uninitiated is the title track of the album – not too heavy to lose the powerful groove, but packed with plenty of Slayer-ness.
Stone Temple Pilots (1994)
There are few feelings in life superior to driving around a pastoral autumn scene with your windows down on a crisp sunny day, “Interstate Love Song” blasting from the stereo. Purple is filled with cold-weather anthems; “Big Empty”, “Still Remains”, and “Silvergun Superman” resonate twenty years on, and “Pretty Penny” provides a palate cleanser of hushed tones inside them all.
Alice in Chains (1994)
Yes, it is technically an EP. Never, though, has an
album EP captured the spirit of an event more than Jar of Flies does a campfire. You can almost smell burnt leaves listening to its seven tracks. Mellow, acoustic, and completely unexpected given the Alice in Chains work that bookends it, Flies is more lullaby than rock album, but it’s executed perfectly.
Ray LaMontagne (2006)
As the haunting echoes of “Be Here Now” fade in, one realizes they are best served to sit down and just absorb this album in its sparsely gorgeous entirety. LaMontagne’s voice is so sincerely melancholy that he could generate sympathy over the phone ordering a pizza. The album closes with a pair of gorgeous and uplifting songs that melt together better than any pair of songs on any album – the title track segues unnoticed into “Within You” for a perfect end to the album.
The Black Crowes (1992)
I’m a big-time Crowes’ mark, so keeping their work in perspective was difficult. Southern Harmony, though, is undeniably their masterpiece. A modern incarnation of Southern Rock in a time of Grunge and the dying vestiges of Glam, the album oozed soul and melody from stem to stern. “Sting Me” and “Remedy” had rightful commercial success, but the heart of the album follows after those tracks – the achingly intimate trilogy of “Thorn in My Pride”, “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye”, and “Sometimes Salvation”. It doesn’t hurt, either, that my personal favorite Crowes’ song, the invigorating “My Morning Song”, resides on this album as well.
Lyrically, the best R.E.M. album – and I love me some good lyrics. “Drive” makes you wonder, “Everybody Hurts” makes you cry, “Nightswimming” makes you relax, and “Sweetness Follows” makes you… ok it makes you cry also, but for completely different reasons than “Everybody Hurts” does. Automatic For The People is a time stamp of a legendary band at the peak of their song crafting.
Kanye West (2010)
No one made an album like this before Kanye. No one could. Sure, he’s an asshole, but he’s an asshole who knows it (“Runaway”), and he’s an asshole who sees hip hop in a way no one else can. He’s playing chess while the rest of the rap community brags about how well they play checkers. Fantasy doesn’t sound like any other hip hop album ever made, but the listener never, for one moment, questions that this is a hip hop album. That’s fucked up when you think about it. A rap song with nothing but a single piano keystroke for the first 35 seconds? Sure. Release it as a single? Why the fuck not?
With so much rap created as product for you to buy or use as phone ringtones, Kanye is making art. Love him or hate him, he’s almost single-handedly pulling the genre forward.
Sarah McLachlan (1994)
Before she went on to depress the shit out of everyone in ASPCA commercials, Sarah McLachlan made some quality music. Everything came together for her on Fumbling Towards Ecstasy; the album was a perfect blend of folk and pop that never gave you a reason to skip a track. The fact that I almost never knew or cared what the names of the tracks on the album were was a testament to the cohesiveness of the album’s spirit.
Faith No More (1992)
You just have to…listen to it. All of it. I’ve always equated Faith No More (and Mike Patton, by extension) as roughly the equivalent of the Kanye West of rock, only a decade or two earlier, and cursed to always be a little too far ahead of the times to ever really get much traction with commercial success. Take a listen to “Midlife Crisis” or “A Small Victory” as an entree into the deliciously weird world of Faith No More, and forget everything you were expecting if “Epic” is all you knew of their work.
…And Justice For All has no musical equivalent : not in Metallica’s catalog, and not in anyone’s catalog. The never-ending barrage of riffs and tempo changes, the almost-comical length of the songs, and the dry, sterile anger that rattles out of the speakers hasn’t been duplicated since.
Justice marked the peak of James Hetfield’s lyrical prowess as well, the songs all standing as variations on a precarious existentialism theme. Dark, foreboding, and – unfortunately – prophetic, the album paints a picture of a great nation falling to corruption and the ills of war.
The Roots (2011)
I cringe at the label of “concept album”; the words invoke knee-jerk imagery of an album about some overwrought science-fiction fantasy with no discernible payoff for your trouble. Or, worse yet, the term applies to a directionless piece of instrumental junk that uses the “concept” moniker as a free pass to, well, suck.
What The Roots have created with undun is an album that tells a story -in amazingly communicative detail – without beating the listener over the head with the idea that you’re in the midst of being told a story. Left to their own devices, the listener would probably have an ‘Aha!’ moment somewhere after 20 listens of this album; only after appreciating the album for the collection of stellar individual songs that it is do they then realize that the songs were in fact all connected, and in a linear (albeit backwards) fashion. This approach not only respects the intelligence of the listener to figure it out, it keeps the emphasis on the music – where it belongs.
In telling the tragic story of fictional Redford Stevens from death to birth, The Roots have created an album that bridges the gap between a meaningful connection between songs and the ability of each song to be an enjoyable experience in and of itself. You can rock each of these tracks out of order at a party and nod your head with the grooves for an hour, or you could listen to it in proper order in a classroom and have a 2-hour debate about fate, responsibility, and socio-economic politics.
As a collection of great hip-hop tracks, as a provocative story, or simply for its importance in keeping alive the hope that an album can still mean something – undun is, without doubt, the best album that I own.