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The Top 25 Albums of the Classic Rock Era

Classic Rock, that bastion of boomers and head-bangers is still a major musical force today, even if the hipsters out there refuse to admit it. It was a genre that had deep impact on the musical, technical and cultural landscape, and it can never be repeated. The Classic Rock Era only lasted 27 years – indeed a fertile 27 years, but nevertheless. Luckily there was so much great music produced during the era that serious music fans can still look forward to years of musical exploration joy. By contrast, the Hip-Hop Era could be said to have started in earnest in 1979 and is still enjoying peak status today – forty-three years later.

Jazz and Blues gave birth to rock & roll in the 1950s, but the genre didn’t really hit stride until the mid-1960s, roughly ten years after it became mainstream. Certainly, there have been some fantastic “rock” records recorded after the end of the Classic Rock era in 1991, but the case can be made that anything after that point merely follows in the footsteps of the music gone before.

Our list of the Top Twenty-Five Albums of the Classic Rock Era focuses on the music that was groundbreaking or that intentionally or unintentionally changed the course of the culture. There are definitely some albums folks will disagree with, and even more so with albums that were omitted, but that’s the fun of these types of lists!

So, to celebrate Rock Month, here is our chronological list of the 25 albums that created, defined and steered the course of the Classic Rock Era.
1965 - Rubber Soul. Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield summed up this importance of this album perfectly: “We’re all living in the future this album invented.” Rubber Soul is the album that ushered in the Classic Rock Era, and the best part is that at the time no one had any clue what was about to happen. The people involved were true pioneers. The songwriting reached another level, especially George Harrison who gives us a glimpse of what was to come. Girls are now independent women who could take or leave the Fab Four and the battlefield of love is now confusing and formidable. The production is “modern,” with full, round bass, a distinctive upper register and rich and complex vocal arrangements – an often-overlooked key component of the music of the Classic Rock Era. Whether you know it or not, Rubber Soul is the album that informed every musician and listener who followed.
1966 - Pet Sounds. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band doesn’t happen without Pet Sounds – and that comes directly from Paul McCartney. Not a smashing commercial success when first released but as a singular work of art it is a stunning album, and several of its songs are still part of the modern musical conversation. The combination of great melodies sung by the finest group of singers in all of rock history, Pet Sounds is also among the first albums to exist purely in the recording studio, produced specifically to be listened to as a singular activity and not as a promotion for the band’s live shows. And, any album containing Wouldn’t It be Nice and God Only Knows should automatically be considered in the Top Twenty of any list. Incidentally, God Only Knows is the first popular song containing the word “God’ to hit the popular charts in the US.
1967 - Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. What Rubber Soul unleashed, and Revolver made foundational, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band made historical. No album – then or since – captures the zeitgeist of a time while simultaneously setting the bar for every musical work of art to follow. This album leaves no musical stone unturned – from Classical, to raga to dance hall to straight ahead rock & roll, it’s all here. This is also the record that made psychedelia mainstream. Regardless of what genre or style, if an artist made a record after June 1, 1967, it could only exist in the shadow of this record. Seriously, on what other album could When I’m 64 and Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite actually be cool?
1969 - Nashville Skyline. American music has always tended to divide itself by genre and demographic. Rock & roll was a hybrid of Delta blues, urban soul and church music, but in 1969 Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline made country and western hip enough for the rock & roll crowd, and vice-versa. Dylan is in amazing form here, both as a performer and songwriter, and is backed by some of the finest studio musicians Nashville ever produced. The combination makes this a stellar and important album. Once Dylan finally got his way and unchained himself from the bounds of folk music, musicians like Poco, New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and even to some extent the Grateful Dead, to name a few were also now free to explore country music as a rock statement, and audiences became open and accepting of rootsier music in their rock & roll libraries. And of course, Johnny Cash helped open the album. The Americana movement of the past ten years or so owes its existence directly to this album. 
1969 – Tommy. Hailed as the “World’s First Rock Opera” when it was released in May 1969, Tommy has maybe not aged as well as some other albums of the period, but it's still a landmark release. As an ‘opera’ the plot is thin and a little hard to dig into, but as a pop album it’s chock full of great songs that have stood the test of time. Tommy is also important as it took the over-the-top grandiosity of albums like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to an entirely – harder-edged – level. Tommy signaled to artists in the 1970s that more was maybe not always better, but it was ‘more’ and that was enough.
1970 – Déjà Vu. Crosby, Stills and Nash’s eponymous 1969 release (released in the weeks between Nashville Skyline and Tommy), featured the close-harmonies of the three main members and their stellar songwriting, but Déjà Vu features the addition of Neil Young and a new way to record albums. Of course, the Beatles and Beach Boys were old pros at recording albums with only one or two members at a time while the rest of the band were off chasing whatever it was musicians chased in those days, but Déjà Vu is an album made by a group of people who really couldn’t stand being in the same room with each other, yet it succeeded in espousing the hippie-ethos of the era while scoring three major popular hits.  
1970 – Paranoid. Steppenwolf’s 1968 debut album is generally considered the genesis of Heavy Metal, but Paranoid brought the genre to the popular culture. This record changed the direction of rock & roll – a change that was still reverberating twenty years later as pop metal gasped its last breaths. Paranoid is a dark album that was perfect for a very dark time. War, nuclear annihilation, uncontrolled technology, mental illness and substance abuse are some of the lighter topics covered in the album’s 40-odd minutes, but because this artistic take on life was so fresh, none of it came off as pandering or theatrical. It’s just dour music for a dour time recorded by four dour musicians. Although, despite their limited musial vocabularies, Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi are the main attraction, drummer Bill Ward and bassist Geezer Butler deftly meld jazz stylings into hard and furious music, which makes it all the more listenable.
1971 – At Fillmore East. Without hyperbole, At Fillmore East is the most important live album of the rock era, which is also ironic because it is more of a blues-jazz hybrid album than a rock & roll album. Recorded over two nights in March 1971 at the venerable Fillmore East theater in lower Manhattan, the double-set was released in July 1971 to much acclaim, and even today, years later, it’s still a must-listen album. The album is also not necessarily a verbatim recording of the band’s shows. Producer Tom Dowd seamlessly condensed hours and hours of performance into two disks without destroying the flow and integrity of the performances. At Fillmore East paved the way for every live rock & roll album to follow while introducing Southern Blues-inflected music to the masses.
1971 - Led Zeppelin IV. In 1971, weary of the rock & roll press and music industry in general, Led Zeppelin released the album without a name or even a reference to the band on the cover. Because people need to reference things, the album has since morphed into Led Zeppelin IV, although at the time Zeppelin fans referred to the record as “the Four Sticks Album.” The album is a brilliant melding of rock & roll, folk, blues and psychedelia and fifty years later it still works as a stand-alone musical masterpiece. Side one closer, Stairway To Heaven is now considered a quaint relic of a bombastic age, but at the time, no one had ever heard anything like it. A folk song that got bluesy before turning into a heavy metal raver, all in eight minutes, was the next logical step in the evolution started by the Beatles and the Who a few years earlier. 
1972 – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. In 1972, the future was a scary place. Surely tech was going to take over and rule our lives. Space travel was going to become commonplace. Gender was going to become fluid. And society was going to breakdown into a dystopian hell. He may have been fifty years ahead of his time, but don’t say David Bowie didn’t hip us to what was to come. Movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange set the stage for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, but David Bowie put the exclamation point to the discomfort the future was poised to unleash. There are some stand-out pop hits on this record that even casual music fans are intimately familiar with, but this is most definitely an album to listen to from start to finish. Dial in and listen to Bowie become literally unhinged with emotion as he sings the refrain to Five Years, and you’ll know everything you need to know about Bowie’s career.
1972 - Machine Head. Everyone knows the riff. Everyone knows the story but take 37 minutes and listen to a band at their peak, performing as if their lives depended on it. Their lives didn’t but Deep Purple’s career did, and Machine Head is a perfect example of grace under pressure. Along with Paranoid, Led Zeppelin Four and Dark Side of the Moon, Machine Head stands as a cornerstone to British heavy metal and 70s rock in general. The musicianship is stellar. Ritchie Blackmore is at the top of his craft as a guitarist, but Jon Lord (keyboards) and Ian Paice (drums) are utter virtuosos and the interplay between the three is about the best you’re going to hear on any record. The lyrics may be a little sophomoric at times, but no one bought Deep Purple records in search of literary brilliance, they bought them because the band was great.
1972 - Exile on Main Street. For forty years, the Rolling Stones have been the senior rock & roll ambassadors. Today they’re perceived more or less as an Oldies act – a really old Oldies act, strutting across the stage in a never-ending advertisement for how the rock & roll lifestyle can actually prolong your life, but in the late 60s and early 70s, no band was more reviled by the Establishment and more revered by the counter-culture than the Rolling Stones. Everything adults feared and loathed – and kids of the age admired and pursued – was right there in the grooves of whatever Stones album was current. Other bands may have played at being terrifying to mom and dad, but the Stones were unashamedly out to make all of our dreams and nightmares come true. Exile On Main Street is the pinnacle of the Rolling Stones’ career and therefore the argument could be made Exile is also the pinnacle of the Classic Rock era. 
1973 – Mott. While David Bowie and the New York Dolls brought us glam, Mott the Hoople gave us Glam Rock. The band’s brilliant and unfortunately overlooked 1973 release Mott, is a sardonic – and sarcastic – look at what rock & roll was really all about. The Glam movement of the early 70s and the throwback rock & roll movement of the mid-70s all had their start on this album. As an historical piece the album is important, but it’s also a great rock & roll record without needing to look too deeply into its meaning. Mott is also a record about being in a band and why that might not always be all it’s imagined to be, so just for that alone it’s a great look at what Classic Rock was all about.
1973 – Dark Side of the Moon. Dark Side of the Moon is a masterfully recorded, decently good album that contains some brilliant songs. It’s depressing and desperate, but then again, it’s Pink Floyd, right? You should have known this before placing the record on the platter. The density of the production and the sheer power of the musicianship combined to make this the album of the Classic Rock era. It’s also a dark and perfect reflection of the times in which it was created.

1974 – 461 Ocean Boulevard. Layla…And Other Love Songs by Eric Clapton’s post-Cream project Derek and the Dominoes was a better selling album, but 461 Ocean Boulevard introduced the world to the Eric Clapton that would become a pop mainstay for the next twenty years. A mixture of new songs, traditional blues, and songs from other writers (most notably I Shot the Sheriff), 461 Ocean Boulevard is a laid-back exploration of groove and musicianship set to the vibe of Clapton’s post-addiction climb out of the abyss. 461 Ocean Boulevard is a great record disguised at a meandering attempt at pop and it’s what Clapton did with the lessons he gleaned from this record that made the latter 70s and mid-80s such a fertile musical time for the guitar player formerly known as god.

1976 – Frampton Comes Alive. Something peculiar happened in January of 1976. A well-respected former member of Humble Pie who had released a few solo albums to no real acclaim released a double live set that set the world on fire. Peter Frampton was kind of a guitar hero, but he was by no means a household name. By the summer of 1976 that all changed – and with that so had the entire music industry. Whether it was the generally superior music, the solid songs, an incredible marketing strategy – or some combination of all of the above – Frampton Comes Alive changed the music industry from a nice way to make money and provide entertainment into a colossal money-making machine. Enter the bean counters who in the aftermath of Frampton Comes Alive became more influential than the A&R people, and with the exception of a few brave years in the 1990s, the writing was on the wall. The peak of Classic Rock had been reached and it was all downhill from here. Still and all, this is a great record that should be a mainstay in every music library.

1976 – Boston. Tom Scholz is a genius. He’s an engineering graduate of MIT, worked in product development as a senior engineer for Polaroid (where he holds several patents), and just so happened to build an incredible recording studio in his basement in suburban Boston. He also hoodwinked his record label into believing his band Boston’s debut album was recorded in a label-approved studio – it was not, see preceding sentence. This was all before he was thirty years old. More a studio project than a real band at first, Boston’s eponymous debut record was a monster hit, that along with Frampton Comes Alive ushered in the age of Arena Rock. With no less than five legit Arena Rock anthems this album helped make rock & roll big. With that being said, it’s still a great album filled with great songs and performances. And also, the UFO's on the cover are upside-down guitars.

1977 – Rumours. There is literally nothing left to write about this album. It was as big as a record could get. We all know the stories and the background, but despite the familiarity no list of the top anything blah-blah-blah albums of any period of time is complete without Rumours. This was the complete package of stellar songs, arrangements, performances, production and backstory that all combined to make a timeless album.

1978 – Darkness on the Edge of Town. Sure, Born to Run was debatably a more appealing album, and without a doubt Born In the USA was a bigger album, but Springteen’s 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town was the album that allowed Springsteen to be Springsteen and in the process turned the rest of us into Springsteen fans. In between Born to Run and Darkness On the Edge of Town was a three year hassle with his label and management that effectively stopped New Jersey’s favorite son’s rock and roll ascendency. The conventional wisdom of the day was that he would never recover, but that was dead wrong. Suddenly all of those characters and stories of Springsteen’s earlier albums had focus and meaning. The album's success was made all the sweeter by the fact that he held out and stuck to his vision rather than giving in to the people he was under contract to. The corporate mega-rock hit Born In the USA is all the more ironic because of the struggles Springsteen faced in producing this record.

1979 – London Calling. What Springsteen was to the blue collar in America, the Clash were to everyone else. Prior to this release, they were a charming, pre-packaged punk band with better chops than the Sex Pistols, but they weren’t important players on the rock & roll stage. That all changed with the December 1979 release of London Calling. With styles ranging from lounge lizard cool, ska and reggae to folk and rockabilly bookended by harder-edged pop songs, London Calling is a masterpiece and a direct reflection of the times. This is a seminal album that poked its thumb in the eye of corporate arena rock while simultaneously ushering in the New Wave and Alternative Rock that would rule the world for the next half decade and beyond.

1979 – The Wall. A month before The Clash released the anti-bloat London Calling, Pink Floyd released the biggest record of their career, and arguably the biggest record (not titled Rumours) of the decade. We all know the hits and most of us know the rest of the record. The Wall was, however, not a Pink Floyd album, it was a Roger Waters solo album with a lot of collaboration from David Gilmour and producer Bob Ezrin. Without fear of being labeled a one trick pony, Waters dove deep into his favorite subjects – World War II, the sad nature of being a rock star and former bandmate Syd Barrett’s mental illness. Other than that, it’s a cheery album, oh wait never mind. Other than that, it’s a dark reflection of a very scary and dark time – and a complete must listen.  

1983 – Confrontation. Produced by Rita Marley in the months after Bob Marley’s death and taken from unfinished recordings made over a period of years, this album is surprisingly cohesive and ultimately listenable. It also denotes the importance of reggae in general and Bob Marley in particular to the world-wide musical lexicon. This was an album that stood on its own despite the tragedy surrounding it while firmly planting reggae as an important component of popular music on the world stage. 

1986 – 5150. There are two types of people in the world: David Lee Roth Van Halen fans, and Sammy Hagar Van Halen Fans. There is no argument that Sammy Hagar is a better songwriter than David Lee Roth, and some may contend Hagar has a better singing voice, but simply put, Sammy Hagar is not David Lee Roth, so the only Van Halen that mattered was the David Lee Roth Van Halen. However, 5150 is a fabulous record that bridges the gap between the rock and roll of the 1970s and the rock of the 1980s. Van Halen never really released a bad album, but the musicianship and production on 5150 shows a band at the peak of their powers – if only Sammy had David’s x-factor.

1987 – Appetite for Destruction. Little did anyone know in the summer of 1987 that Guns n’ Roses Appetite for Destruction would be the last important (and huge) rock and roll album. In the brief four years that followed the release of this record, Hair Metal took over and proceeded to burn out faster than any other mini-genre rock music ever produced. Even Glam Rock outlived Hair Metal. Sadly, Appetite for Destruction gets lumped in with the pretenders who followed which is completely unfair. Appetite is a groundbreaking record both lyrically and musically and it changed the musical landscape, slapping us all out of our MTV-induced pop stupors. And…in the history of the entire world, no one had ever heard a guitar sound like Slash’s guitar sounded on this record.

1991 – Nevermind. Now that Dave Grohl is the de-facto elder statesman/spokesman for rock & roll, it’s kind of hard to keep perspective on the impact Nirvana’s second album had on rock music. On September 23, pop R&B and hair metal ruled the land. We got our music from MTV and the only antidote was hip-hop. On September 24 all of that (except for hip-hop) was passe and uncool. An entire generation of musicians literally turned into has-beens overnight. Nothing like that had happened since February 9, 1964, when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Even Elvis Presley didn’t have the impact on the culture as Nirvana. Nevermind is a good album that approached art from a completely different angle, and that’s the sole reason it killed Classic Rock: We were all bored with the same-old-same-old. Rock music had truly run its course, and overnight rock & roll became cool again.

By Jack Sharkey for KEF
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