50 Greatest Guitar Albums
Guitar World ranks the 50 greatest guitar albums in rock and roll history.
50) The Doors, 1967 (The Doors)
The Doors’ stunning debut album established Jim Morrison as the shaman poet of the psychedelic explosion. The Lizard King’s darkly incandescent imagery captivated listeners like a pied piper’s spell, but the Doors’ hypnotic music is what held them rapt. Serpentine riffs from Robbie Krieger’s guitar danced in the magic gateway where Delta blues and ancient Indian ragas converge. Organist Ray Manzarek wove swirling baroque arabesques, his steady left hand holding down the bass line. Drummer John Densmore handled the beat with the supple freedom of a jazzman, leading band and singer on epic improvisational journeys. Many kiddies came to the album through the edited-down AM radio hit version of “Light My Fire.” There, they found themselves in a strange new world of Oedipal drama and mystical sensuality.
WHAT THEY SAID Ray Manzarek: “The first Doors album was recorded on four-track, and it captured the way we played live. Onstage, we’d hit something every once in a while that was absolute transcendental magic. Each of us was sending out these tentacles of energy concentration to each other. Then the audience would get caught up in that wave of energy we were creating.”
49) Ashes of the Wake, 2004 (Lamb of God)
Major labels have been known to destroy a band’s soul, but entering the big leagues actually helped Lamb of God deliver their first truly lethal blow. Their previous two albums were musically engaging and technically sophisticated but lacked artistic direction and, just as crucial, financing. Then came big-budget producer Machine, who worked with guitarists Willie Adler and Mark Morton to excise the extraneous elements without detracting from their jawdropping musicianship. Sometimes the axmen riff in tandem, other times they play against one another, but either way, they always demolish. Ashes may be leaner than its predecessors, but its more focused and precise, annihilating like a precision sharpshooter instead of a messy serial killer.
WHAT THEY SAID Mark Morton: “We’ll always be a thrash metal band, but I’m interested in exploring what we can get away with within the boundaries of the genre.”
48) Boston, 1976 (Boston)
When Boston's self-titled first album was released in the fall of 1976, few industry insiders thought that a guitar-heavy rock record could make much of a dent in the charts, much less become the best-selling debut of all time. “Everybody thought that it was impossible, because disco ruled the airwaves at the time,” recalls Boston leader Tom Scholz. “But we stumbled onto a sound that worked, and soon everybody was imitating it.”
It may have been unlikely that an album dominated by brawny riffs, harmonized guitar leads and multilayered vocal workouts would capture the imagination of America’s bell-bottomed youth. What was positively bizarre was the source of this blockbuster. Scholz was hardly your typical rock-star-in-waiting; then 29, he was a gangly project manager for Polaroid, with a Master’s degree from M.I.T. in engineering, who spent his off hours writing and recording in his basement. “I was basically a dork that hit the books and liked to build things and did all of the things that you weren’t supposed to do to be popular,” he says. “But somehow I ended up onstage, playing guitar in front of everybody else.”
It’s likely this very dorkiness—along with the fact that Boston vocalist Brad Delp had a throat of gold and a staggering range—that engendered Boston’s success. For who but a died-in-the-wool braniac could compose, arrange, record and perform most of the guitar, keyboard and bass parts on an album—in his basement no less—and produce such powerful results? Even 30 years after its original release, Boston is still widely regarded as one of the best-sounding rock albums of all time, and when tracks like “More Than a Feeling” and “Rock & Roll Band” come on the radio, few can resist indulging in fits of fleet-fingered air guitar and a spirited falsetto sing-along. And now, according to Scholz, the album, along with it’s most-solid follow up, Don’t Look Back, sound even better, as they were painstakingly remastered by the guitarist himself for a new set of deluxe reissues.
47) A Night at the Opera, 1975 (Queen)
It was the first of two Queen albums to be named after a Marx Brothers film comedy. A Night at the Opera was Queen’s fourth album and the disc that established them as a completely unique entity in rock music, quite distinct from the Seventies glam/proto metal pack with which they’d formerly been grouped. Freddie Mercury’s ambitious, bombastic, campy and grandiloquent compositional proclivities were just the thing to encourage young Brian May’s adventurous ideas about multitracked guitar orchestration. Eccentric British producer Roy Thomas Baker was more than happy to oblige the boys, piling on the overdubs until the analog 16-track tape shed almost all its oxide and literally went transparent.
WHAT THEY SAID Brian May: “Freddie would come into the studio with sheets and sheets of paper with notes scribbled all over them in his own particular fashion—not conventional music notation, but As and Bs and Cs and sharps and flats in little blocks, like busses zooming all over his bits of paper. He had it all in his head. We just helped him bring it to life.”
46) Metallica, 1991 (Metallica)
Metallica, a.k.a. the Black Album, is either the band’s musical high point or the beginning of its downfall. For the album, Metallica enlisted Mötley Crüe producer Bob Rock, who added a previously nonexistent warmth and depth to their sound. Metallica slowed down the tempos, streamlined the arrangements and set their sights on mainstream glory. The results were in every way better than anyone could have predicted: “Enter Sandman,” “Sad But True” and “Wherever I May Roam” are three of the most direct and compelling tunes in Metallica’s catalog, and the album’s incredible success made them the biggest band in the world.
WHAT THEY SAID Kirk Hammett: “We wanted to create a different record and offer something new to our audience. I hate it when bands stop taking chances. A lot of bands put out the same record three or four times, and we didn’t want to fall into that rut.”
45) Badmotorfinger, 1991 (Soundgarden)
The two biggest grunge albums of 1991, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten, appropriated tried-and-true rock styles and passed them off them as something radically new. Badmotorfinger was their polar opposite, an album of songs that, on the surface, seemed a piece with archetypal hard rock, but were full of odd time signatures, atonal guitar noise, unusual chord choices and various other quirks. Chris Cornell’s extraordinary pipes (and often bare chest) soaked up most of the accolades, but the band’s rhythm section was beyond reproach, and guitarist Kim Thayil was always one of hard rock’s most idiosyncratic and inventive players.
WHAT THEY SAID Kim Thayil: “Your lack of technique can be part of your style. The thing about style is that it’s more entertaining, more important and hopefully more intellectual than technique.”
44) Hate Crew Deathroll, 2003 (Children of Bodom)
Employing the same murderous, single-minded intensity as the “Reaper” figure on their CD artwork, Finnish metal madmen Children of Bodom slashed their way to stateside recognition with their fourth album, Hate Crew Deathroll. Alexi Laiho’s blindingly fast lead runs established him as a guitar hero for the new millennium, but the abundance of catchy hooks, cartoonish lyrics and almost comically cheesy keyboards on tracks like “Sixpounder,” “Bodom Beach Terror” and “Triple Corpse Hammerblow” flashed a blood-encrusted middle finger to anyone who dared to pigeonhole Bodom as one-dimensional speedsters.
WHAT THEY SAID Alexi Laiho: “To me, our music is just metal; it’s not black metal, it’s not death metal, it’s not thrash. But I don’t really care what people call it, as long as they don’t call it power metal.”
43) Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, 1973 (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
The Allman Brothers may have been the first southern rock band, but Lynyrd Skynyrd and their three-guitar army (Allen Collins, Ed King and Gary Rossington) set the standard for the good (the Outlaws), bad (Black Oak Arkansas) and ugly (Molly Hatchet) to follow. “Free Bird” rocks like a redneck “Stairway to Heaven,” but with no bustling hedgerows or May queens to confuse your average Earl Hickey or Larry the Cable Guy—just a simple ode to sweet freedom, concluding with five uninterrupted minutes of hot dueling-guitar boogie. “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man” and “I Ain’t the One” served up the tastiest licks to emerge from the South since Colonel Sanders perfected his original recipe.
WHAT THEY SAID Gary Rossington: “ ‘Free Bird’ is just a love song. I thank God that people dig it and that it got so big, but it just took a minute to write. I guess it had some kind of magic about it.”
42) Follow the Leader, 1998 (Korn)
With every late-Nineties aggro band openly biting the Bakersfield Five’s extreme detuned, hip-hop/metal hybrid style, Korn had every reason to be as cocky as the title of their third album suggests. The band were so confident of their trailblazer status that they went disco on the album’s first single, “Got the Life,” enlisted Fred Durst for the battle rap “All in the Family,” and had lead singer Jonathan Davis scatsing the breakdown on “Freak on a Leash.” But the true stars are Munky and Head, whose seven-string guitars grunt and slither through the mix, spitting out shards of corrosive, twisted metal at every turn.
WHAT THEY SAID James “Munky” Shaffer: “We found a happy medium between selling a lot of records and making the music we love. Don’t expect our music to get any softer. If anything, it’s going to get sicker.”
41) Highway 61 Revisited, 1965 (Bob Dylan)
On a rainy day in 1965, Michael Bloomfield walked into Columbia Records’ studio on Seventh Avenue in New York City, trailing Bob Dylan and carrying his soaked, caseless Telecaster. He wiped the guitar off, sat down, plugged in and made history.
Bloomfield’s playing on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is revolutionary. His ringing licks on “Like a Rolling Stone” are among the most distinctive guitar signatures in the history of rock songwriting. Jimi Hendrix copied them outright when he performed the tune. Then there’s Bloomfield’s darting melodies and moaning bent-stringed solos on “Tombstone Blues,” his sensitive accompaniment to Dylan’s harmonica and piano on “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” and his bell-like slide tones and shivering vibrato on the title track. Throughout the sessions, Dylan’s spontaneous method of recording put Bloomfield’s improvisational skills and sonic vocabulary to the test, and the guitarist aced every turn. When the album was completed, Bloomfield had arrived at the nexus of blues and rock, paving the way for the genre blending of Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Cream and Led Zeppelin.
Dylan had found Bloomfield in Chicago, where the then-22-year-old had abandoned his silver-spoon upbringing for the gritty stages of the South Side. There he apprenticed beside Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Big Joe Williams, along with his peers Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites and Elvin Bishop, all of whom, like Bloomfield, played a role in making blues accessible for a hip young white audience.
By the time Bloomfield recorded with Dylan and joined the troubadour’s first electric band, he had assimilated what he could from the Chicago masters and built up his fingerpicking skills by absorbing, through records, the techniques of country legend Merle Travis and the ragtime style of Blind Blake. (For an overview of Bloomfield’s command of blues styles, check out his semi-instructional album If You Love These Blues, Play ’Em As You Please.)
Highway 61 Revisited introduced Bloomfield to the mainstream, but his next major recording, 1966’s East-West with the Butterfield Blues Band, had an even more potent effect on the world of guitar. His playing on the album is as knotty, dramatic and unpredictable as his troubled psyche. The tune “East-West,” a 13-minute exploratory fusion of blues and Indian modality that features Bloomfield’s and Bishop’s guitars, flipped the switch for long-form rock improvisation. His shimmering slide licks and shrieking, treble-toned lead on “Walking Shoes,” akin to Hubert Sumlin’s playing on Howlin’ Wolf classics like “Killing Floor,” are ghostly, needling, vicious and patently unforgettable. On the band’s showcase, “Work Song,” Bloomfield’s melodies climb through scales in a manner closer to free-jazz saxophonist John Coltrane than to B.B. King, balancing chromatic ascents and descents with radically slurred bends and off-the-beat accents. And Bloomfield’s linear single-note playing on “I Got a Mind to Give Up Living,” which acknowledges his debt to King with wrist-shaking vibrato, captures the soulful essence of simmering slow blues.
Sadly, the rest of Bloomfield’s career was entwined with a spiral of mental illness, insomnia and drug abuse. He recorded at least one other exceptional album, the 1968 jam-based Super Session with Al Kooper, who played organ on Highway 61 Revisited, but by then Bloomfield’s behavior had become erratic. He departed in the middle of the sessions, leaving Kooper to call in Stephen Stills to finish the recording.
For the next 13 years, Bloomfield ricocheted between occasional live performances, uneven recordings for a series of mostly independent labels and outright disappearances from the music scene. On February 15, 1981, he was found dead of an overdose in his car, parked on a side street in San Francisco. He was 37.
40) Electric Ladyland, 1968 (Jimi Hendrix)
The third album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland, ranks among the greatest rock double albums of all time. The sprawling set captures many different aspects of Hendrix’s genius. The concise songcraft he’d perfected on the band’s previous album, Axis: Bold As Love, is well represented on Electric Ladyland classics like “Crosstown Traffic," “Long Hot Summer Night” and “House Burning Down.” Other selections, like the classic “Voodoo Chile” and “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” have more of a loose, open-ended jam quality. On other tracks, like the brilliant “1983” suite, Hendrix created shimmering soundscapes of strange and wondrous beauty. His playing had gone beyond mere virtuosity; for him the guitar had become a tonal instrument of great subtlety and expressiveness from which he could evoke a rainbow spectrum of moods and textures.
Work on Electric Ladyland began at Olympic Studios in London, site of sessions for Hendrix’s two previous albums, Are You Experienced and Axis. Midway through, the project hopped from London to New York’s newly opened Record Plant, the first in a new breed of hip, rock-oriented recording facilities. Technology was evolving rapidly in 1968 when Electric Ladyland was created. The album sessions started out on fourtrack tape, but then moved to the short-lived l2-track tape format and then on to 16-track. Hendrix put this miraculous new multiplicity of tracks to good use, piling on inventive overdubs and augmenting the Experience’s power trio sound with new instrumentation, such as the sax, congas and Hammond organ that grace “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming.”
Jimi had become friendly with the band Traffic, then enjoying great popularity, and many members of that band ended up on Electric Ladyland. Guitarist Dave Mason played acoustic on early sessions for Jimi’s recording of Bob Dylan’s “Along the Watchtower.” Flutist Chris Wood appears on “1983,” and organist Steve Winwood rips it up on “Voodoo Child,” as does Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Cassidy. Hendrix had run into the latter two musicians one night at New York’s hip Scene club and invited them back to the Record Plant to cut tracks. Clearly, his social life was starting to intersect with his studio work.
But all the hanging out and sonic experimentation was a little too much for Hendrix’s manager Chas Chandler, who walked out on sessions for Electric Ladyland and resigned his post. Fame and fortune had taken their toll on Hendrix’s relationship with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell as well. The three parted company soon after Electric Ladyland was released, making the album a glorious last hurrah for the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
FUN FACT To create the opening riff on “Crosstown Traffic,” Hendrix sang through a comb covered with a piece of tissue paper. This old vaudevillian trick creates a sound like that of a kazoo.
39) Disraeli Gears, 1967 (Cream)
When the dust settled and the hype died down, it became clear that Cream’s debut album—1966’s Fresh Cream—had been a solid success rather than a phenomenon. Had the album been recorded by any other trio of musicians, it would have been deemed a massive achievement. But given the pedigree of Eric Clapton (guitar/vocals), Jack Bruce (bass/vocals) and Ginger Baker (drums), nothing less than a masterpiece would suffice. Fresh Cream, some said, wasn’t so fresh. It had too many covers and too little punch.
It was an opinion shared by Cream’s U.S. label, Atlantic Records, who pushed the group to record its second album at the company’s New York studios. Upon arrival, the band members were introduced to the production team of Tom Dowd and Felix Pappalardi. The former was a seasoned engineer with the ability to tame Cream’s sound; the latter, a visionary who would prove central to Disraeli Gears. “He was like an A&R man,” Clapton recalls of Pappalardi, “who would take what we had and make it more evolved.”
As it turned out, Pappalardi’s approach was more revolution than evolution. One of the first things the band laid down in New York was a version of “Hey Lawdy Mama,” a fairly standard 12-bar workout. In short order, Pappalardi twisted it into the pop psychedelia of “Strange Brew.” “Felix turned it into a [Paul] McCartney-esque pop song,” recalls Clapton, who reluctantly agreed to play on the track when it was decided he could add a blues solo. “That was like an unspoken deal: if I gave in and played on this pop song, I could play an Albert King guitar solo.”
Like all the best albums, the recording of Disraeli Gears was characterized by an underlying tension. Cream’s management was keen to push Clapton into the spotlight as the frontman and resistant to some of Bruce’s songs, many cowritten with lyricist Pete Brown. “I was kinda gutted,” recalls Bruce, “because I’d mostly been the lead singer.”
Despite this, it was clear that Cream had found another gear, both in their own compositions and their interpretative skills. “SWLABR” was an angular stomper that dealt with, as Pete Brown put it, “the war between the sexes.” “Dance the Night Away” was a hypnotic wig-out inspired by the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” “We’re Going Wrong” was an atmospheric romantic complaint that had its origins in an argument between Bruce and his wife, while equally memorable was the cover of Blind Joe Reynolds’ “Outside Woman Blues.” “I had a predisposition to take things from the early history of blues and adapt them for a rock outfit,” Clapton says of this last number.
One track stood out above the others. The descending riff of “Sunshine of Your Love” had been created by Bruce and Brown as they sat up writing late into the night, and after Clapton provided the perfect counter-melody on guitar, it sounded like nothing else around at the time. Only label boss Ahmet Ertegun failed to recognize the song’s potential. “He called it ‘psychedelic hogwash’,” remembers Bruce.
History, of course, has proved Ertegun wrong. “Sunshine of Your Love” was the springboard that broke Cream in mainstream America, the flash of true genius that alerted people to its parent album and brought them in droves to the band’s exhausting tours of the States.
Cream were, in many ways, the perfect band, and Disraeli Gears was their finest hour. The record drips with formidable talent, while addressing the everyman issues of passion, selfdoubt, hatred and, most important, volume. Turn it up loud, and remember them this way.
38) Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 1995 (The Smashing Pumpkins)
Selling boatloads of copies of Siamese Dream freed Billy Corgan to unleash his inner overachiever. On this wildly ambitious and overly indulgent double CD (28 songs, clocking in at over two hours), Corgan and his approval-hungry bandmates pulled out all the stops. The resulting album wasn’t so much a display of disparate musical styles as it was a study in contrasts, that of pulverizing, guitar-driven metal (“Tales of a Scorched Earth,” “Jellybelly”) and serene lullabies (“Cupid De Locke,” “By Starlight”). The hit single “1979” stood out like a rush of fresh spring air, evoking yearning for youthful days gone by. Whether raging in a cage or cooing like a lovesick Romeo, Corgan had his cake and ate it, too, on this dense, overstuffed confection.
WHAT THEY SAID Billy Corgan: “It was basically a big ‘fuck off’ to anyone who has doubted us as a band. In a positive way, I wanted to really embrace the notions of creativity, to just go as far out as we wanted to go and not get too hung up about the commercial aspects.”
37) Elephant, 2003 (The White Stripes)
Has their ever been a band as deliciously subversive as the White Stripes? When they weren’t taunting the media and their fans with biographical falsehoods about being siblings, the formerly wed Jack and Meg White were exploiting their minimalist musical setup to create a songbook that incorporates American folk, blues and garage punk. Elephant, the band’s fourth full-length album and a flat-out stunner, finds the Stripes by turns teasing, provoking or pledging eternal love. It’s every bit a passion play as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. On the vicious guitar blues breaker “Ball and Biscuit,” Jack is all sexual swagger, while on “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart,” he assumes the aw-shucks pose of Mr. Innocence. For her part, Meg turns in a winning vocal performance on the spooky “In the Cold, Cold Night.” Sexy, hypnotic and cathartic art rock you can play air guitar to.
WHAT THEY SAID Jack White: “We never premeditate much when it comes to recording. When I first walked in, I thought it was going to be a quieter record, but right after we got into the studio, we wrote the song ‘Ball and Biscuit,’ and that made us go back and make some of the other songs more powerful.”
36) Vulgar Display of Power, 1992 (Pantera)
That dude getting his face rearranged on this album’s cover? It’s nothing compared to the sonic pummeling Pantera unleashed upon listener’s ears with their second major-label effort. A thundering thrash/hardcore amalgam, Vulgar Display of Power is not only Pantera’s best album but the best metal album of the Nineties, period. Its 11 tracks, which include such imposing classics as “Mouth for War” and “Walk,” are imbued with a passion, confidence and white-hot intensity that countless current metal acts still vainly attempt to match. “We stand alone,” sings Phil Anselmo on “Fucking Hostile,” and he’s right on. In 1992, no one could touch Vulgar. They still can’t.
WHAT THEY SAID Dimebag Darrell: “A lot of bands whine about the road and how tough it is. Fuck all that. There’s obviously gonna be highs and lows, and the trick to it is to be able to maintain composure and stay high even when you’re in the lows. That way when you hit the highs it’ll be twice as killer.”
35) 1984, 1983 (Van Halen)
Keyboards. What had the world come to? The better question was, what had become of Eddie Van Halen, that avatar of unbridled guitar showmanship? By placing keyboards front and center on 1984 hits like “Jump” and “I’ll Wait,” the guitarist had led many to assume he’d lost both his mind and his touch? In fact, keyboards had been an object of growing fascination for Eddie for years (check out the heavily distorted synth that formed the bedrock of 1980’s “And the Cradle Will Rock”). But one listen to turbocharged tracks like “Panama,” “Top Jimmy” and the joyous guitar solo in “Jump” made it clear that the lightning celerity of Eddie’s ax work hadn’t dimmed by a long shot.
WHAT THEY SAID Eddie Van Halen: “I just go with whatever comes out. I can’t help the fact that I’ve written ‘Can’t Stop Loving You’ or ‘Jump.’ Don’t blame me. Actually, if I could deliberately sit down and write a pop hit, all my songs would be pop hits!”
34) The Joshua Tree, 1987 (U2)
Seven years after their debut, U2 were the world’s biggest band. They were also in a rut. The Edge’s pedal-drenched guitar sounds, once U2’s shibboleth, had become a crutch, and worse, a cliché. Prodded by maverick producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the band tossed out its old sound and threw its arms around the U.S. of A. In many ways, The Joshua Tree is one big bear hug to the great American songbook. Blues, gospel,folk—U2 absorbed the ghosts and spirits of each genre, so the church choir epiphanies of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and the Hendrix-y sonic squalls of “Bullet the Blue Sky” came off as more than credible impressions.
WHAT THEY SAID The Edge: “It was an important record for us. It was a breakthrough, sure, but we always try to use our breakthroughs to lead us somewhere else.”
33) Toxicity, 2001 (System of a Down)
There’s so much unorthodox stuff going on here, it’s amazing that this record turned System from cult heroes into rock stars. Toxicity is a zany, diverse and sometimes contrary mix of sonic styles that explodes like a cluster bomb. The band seems to have tapped the riffage of Anthrax and Slayer, the lunacy of Frank Zappa, the politics of Dead Kennedys, the sensitivity of acoustic Red Hot Chili Peppers and the ethnic color of Greek and Armenian music. What holds it together is the outstanding musicianship and clever arrangements of guitarist Daron Malakian, a schizophrenic misanthrope with an equal taste for death metal and pop.
WHAT THEY SAID Daron Malakian: “I think people know we don’t care about rules, about acceptance or becoming stars. We didn’t get into this to be some dudes at the mall who have a bunch of teenagers chase after them. That’s not our goal.”
32) Mafia, 2005 (Black Label Society)
Given Zakk Wylde’s prolific work habits, it’s often been hard to keep up with the steady flow of Black Label releases. Mafia stands out from the rest of the BLS discography thanks to its emotional ballads “In This River” and “Dirt on the Grave.” Written before the murder of Wylde’s buddy Dimebag Darrell, the songs took on added significance in the wake of his untimely death. Of course, no BLS album would be complete without some alcohol-fueled hard rock, and Mafia boasts more than its fair share, culminating with a hidden (but totally smokin’) cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “I Never Dreamed.”
WHAT THEY SAID Zakk Wylde: “All Black Label records are recorded the same way. We just get a shitload of booze, go down to the studio and press ‘record.’ ”
31) Passion and Warfare, 1990 (Steve Vai)
Steve Vai once described Passion and Warfare as “Jimi Hendrix meets Jesus Christ at a party that Ben Hur threw for Mel Blanc.” A bracing and, at times, exhaustive collection of some of the most challenging guitar instrumentals ever committed to tape, Passion and Warfare runs the gamut from rock-out-with-your-cock-out bombast (“The Audience Is Listening”) to deeply spiritual workouts (“For the Love of God”). Before recording the latter track, Vai has admitted to fasting, meditating and abstaining from sex for 10 days. We can’t think of a better impetus to nail a song on the first take.
WHAT THEY SAID Steve Vai: “For each project I do, I try to get a vision of the entire project as a whole and create an atmosphere for that project. With Passion and Warfare, I wanted to make a bigger-sounding record with a lot more production and orchestration. It was a very dense and complex album.”
30) British Steel, 1980 (Judas Priest)
Judas Priest's 1980 masterpiece wasn’t just the archetypal metal album; it was also a powerful social critique. Written as Britain’s steelworkers began a general strike, British Steel was a reflection of the growing discontent at the dawn of the [Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher years. From the mission statement of “Breaking the Law” to the confrontational rabble-rousing of “United,” the album’s track listing reads like a call to arms. The songs are laced with empathy and aggression, bound together by the theme of defiance in the face of misfortune. “It was definitely a statement,” says guitarist Glenn Tipton.
Priest were already respected, but they needed a truly classic album to match their visual flair and live prowess. They finally got one in early 1980, as the band and producer Tom Allom headed into the Startling Studios at Tittenhurst Park. Located within the former Berkshire estate of John Lennon, the studio was rented out as recording space by Lennon’s former bandmate Ringo Starr, who’d purchased the estate in 1973. “There were some funny things,” recalls vocalist Rob Halford. “Like, in John’s bedroom, there were two loos side by side, with a plaque behind each one. One says ‘John’ and the other says ‘Yoko.’ ”
As it turned out, Tittenhurst would play a major role in the recording of British Steel. Having decided that the studio wasn’t working, the band took over the house itself, recording the drums in the marble entrance hall and the Tipton and K.K. Downing’s duelling guitar parts in a huge room that created arena-like atmospherics. Soon enough, the group’s imagination was running riot: “Metal Gods” featuring the sound of doors being slammed and trays of cutlery being dropped, and “Breaking the Law” including the sound of smashed milk bottles and a police siren emulated on a guitar. “In those days, we used to invent everything we could,” says Tipton. “It was a fun album to do.”
British Steel was the turning point. It marked the moment when Judas Priest broke America (thanks largely to the airplay of “Living After Midnight”), while staying true to their parochial Midlands roots. “After British Steel,” notes Halford, “things just notched into another gear. It just exploded.”
29) Reign In Blood, 1986 (Slayer)
For their third full-length Slayer teamed up with producer Rick Rubin, who sharpened the guitars until they slashed and hacked like rusted razors, convinced Tom Araya to (mostly) ditch the castrato screams and instructed Dave Lombardo to beat his drums like Godzilla stomping out Tokyo. The result? An instant classic, bookended by two of metal’s most terrifying tunes: “Angel of Death,” the song responsible for Slayer’s being hit with Nazi sympathizer accusations for the past two decades, and “Raining Blood,” to this day still the band’s main set closer because, honestly, what the hell are you gonna follow it with?
WHAT THEY SAID Kerry King: “When we started, nobody was doing what we did. Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth were all playing fast, but Reign in Blood was a new frontier.”
28) OK Computer, 1997 (Radiohead)
The fire and skill of Radiohead’s three-guitar frontline first drew major attention on 1995’s The Bends. Two years later, these Brits upped the ante with OK Computer, creating a captivating brand of space rock. While singer Thom Yorke handled the rhythm guitar parts, guitarist Jonny Greenwood took on the more “traditional” lead work (those freakazoid solos on the epic “Paranoid Android” are his doing) and Ed O’Brien specialized in wacky noises (that’s him pushing an AMS digital delay to its breaking point at the end of “Karma Police”). Lauded by critics, musicians and fans alike, OK Computer is arguably the most influential rock guitar album of the past decade.
WHAT THEY SAID Jonny Greenwood: “Our ears get bored very quickly. Sometimes a guitar plugged into an amplifier isn’t really enough. So you hear sounds in your head, or on a record, and you say, ‘I want it to sound like this.’ And sometimes it won’t—I can’t play the trumpet, so it’s not going to sound like Miles Davis. But we aim for these things and end up with our own garbled version.”
27) Moving Pictures, 1981 (Rush)
A keyboard-heavy, new wave/hard rock amalgam, Moving Pictures contains no proggy sci-fi tunes about rebellious trees or Syrinx-dwelling priests. Instead, we get one song named after a Mark Twain character and another based on a short story about a freakin’ car. The thing is, both songs— “Tom Sawyer” and “Red Barchetta,” respectively—totally rule, as does the crunchy, crystalline “Limelight,” which features a stellar wang barabusing solo by Alex Lifeson. Add the Morse code cribbing instrumental “YYZ,” and you have that rare beast that classic rock radio used to refer to as the Perfect Album Side.
WHAT THEY SAID Alex Lifeson: “If we’ve influenced a generation of bands or musicians, it’s because they look at Rush and think, Here’s a band that wasn’t popular in a mainstream way, yet they’ve been around for 30 years.”
26) Alive!, 1975 (Kiss)
Although renowned for their elaborate stage shows that filled arenas, Kiss’ albums were stiffing. Shrewdly, the band recorded Alive!, an album that packed all of the excitement of their live act into a two-record set. Listeners got the feeling that they were front-row center for white-hot takes on “Deuce,” “Strutter,” “Black Diamond” and “Cold Gin.” So vivid were the performances, one could almost smell the smoke emanating from Ace Frehley’s guitar. The live version of the previously released “Rock and Roll All Nite” became a radio staple, making Alive! a massive hit and perhaps the first album that inspired basement tailgate parties. Gene Simmons’ ego (and bank account) would never be the same.
WHAT THEY SAID Gene Simmons: “The record exploded and immediately the world changed for us. For the next three years straight, we were the number-one band in the Gallup Poll, above the Beatles and everyone else. It quickly became larger than life. And all you had to do was look out into the audience and see everyone with painted faces to understand it.”
25) Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?, 1986 (Megadeth)
Recorded with the assistance of massive amounts of drugs and booze, Megadeth’s sophomore album and commercial breakthrough cemented Dave Mustaine’s status as both thrash metal’s blackest sheep and baddest dude. Tracks like “Wake Up Dead,” “Devil’s Island” and the MTV fave “Peace Sells” are fueled by his sneering vocals, piss-and-vinegar lyrics and rapid-fire riffs, and fortified with technically dizzying performances by fusion guitar whiz Chris Poland and jazzbo drummer Gar Samuelson. The cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” may be a tad blasphemous, but no more so than the band’s subsequent slaughtering of “Anarchy in the U.K.”
WHAT THEY SAID Dave Mustaine: “I don’t care what anybody says; they can talk shit about me all they want. I’ve accomplished more in my career than most people can do in two or three lifetimes.”
24) Rising Force, 1984 (Yngwie J. Malmsteen)
In the Eighties, very few guitarists could make Edward Van Halen quiver in his Converse, but of all the great players that emerged from that decade, Swedish-born Yngwie J. Malmsteen came the closest. Like Van Halen, Yngwie rewrote the book on rock soloing. By combining a distinctly Bach-influenced compositional style with the raw psychedelic fury of Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore, he created a new language that has been adopted by at least three decades of metal guitar virtuosos.
Malmsteen’s razzle-dazzle technique is evident on all of his albums, but Rising Force, his first release with his own band, is considered his best and most revolutionary. Never before had a rock guitarist played with such breathtaking speed and precision. Yngwie’s gonzo command of exotic scales, sweep-arpeggios and chromatic runs was every bit as innovative as Van Halen’s use of tapping and false harmonics. And even though Yngwie’s larger-than-life personality and huge ego is the stuff of legends, this recording proves he’s always had the goods to back up his biggest brag.
WHAT THEY SAID Yngwie Malmsteen: “ ‘Black Star’ and ‘Far Beyond the Sun’ from that album sort of sum up my style. There are fast runs, slow harmonies and some really nice arpeggios in them. I’ll probably play those songs until the day I die.”
23) Who's Next, 1971 (The Who)
In the early Seventies, still buzzing from the success of Tommy, Pete Townshend labored long and hard on an elaborate concept piece called Lifehouse. Embracing everything from Sufi mysticism to avant-garde electronic composition, it proved unrealizable, even for a supergroup of the Who’s stature. So the band took nine of the best songs from the project, went into the studio with producer Glynn Johns and emerged with one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time. From the skittering synth telepathy that kicks off “Baba O’Riley” to the final crashing power chords of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” this is rock on an epic scale, and an album that captures Townshend, singer Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon at the height of their formidable powers.
WHAT THEY SAID Pete Townshend: “I’d been fucking damaged by the Lifehouse project. In the end I had an actual nervous breakdown. So by the time we were in the studio making Who’s Next, we had great music and we were playing great because we’d already recorded the album something, like, 15 fucking times!”
22) Wish You Were Here, 1975 (Pink Floyd)
A lot was resting on Pink Floyd’s collective shoulders as they entered EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in 1975 to make Wish You Were Here. Their previous album, Dark Side of the Moon, had been a massive success, and the pressure was on them to come up with something just as remarkable, both artistically and commercially. Bassist Roger Waters and drummer Nick Mason were working through marital strained relations, which would end in divorce for both couples. Within Abbey Road, Waters and guitarist David Gilmour were quarreling over musical direction—the early stages of a friction that flared into an all-out conflagration by the time the group made The Wall some four years later.
In these volatile relationships, Waters found his grand theme for Wish You Were Here: the music business itself, and its tendency to crush the dreams of those who pursue fame, fortune and a chance at creative self-expression. As in the past, Waters made the central figure of the piece Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s original leader, who had had cracked under the pressure of stardom and become too mentally unstable to continue with the group. It is Barrett who served as the inspiration for Waters’ “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a messianic martyr to the soulless mechanisms of the music biz. The ominous “Welcome to the Machine” and the unctuously disquieting “Have a Cigar” rank among Waters’ darkest compositions. But David Gilmour’s yearning lead guitar lines shoot rays of light and glimpses of hope throughout the album. His playing on the epic “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” which both opens and closes the album, ranks among his greatest guitar work. As is often the case in Pink Floyd’s oeuvre, Waters and Gilmour manage to counterbalance one another with yin/yang poise.
In “Wish You Were Here,” Waters calls out to the absent Barrett, evoking him as a comrade and counterpart. (After Barrett’s departure, the job of leading Pink Floyd fell to Waters.) And while Waters’ concepts and lyrics would see the band through numerous artistic triumphs, here he seems keenly aware of the dangers of falling over the edge.
WHAT THEY SAID David Gilmour: “Wish You Were Here is about the feeling we were left with at the end of Dark Side, that feeling of ‘What do you do when you’ve done everything?’ But I think we got over that. And for me, Wish You Were Here is the most satisfying album. I really love it. I mean, I’d rather listen to that than Dark Side of the Moon, because I think we achieved a better balance of music and lyrics on Wish You Were Here.”
21) Rage Against the Machine, 1992 (Rage Against the Machine)
They came out of L.A. at the dawn of the Nineties. The aptly named Rage Against the Machine combined the ghetto anger of hip-hop and the testosterone fury of metal with a keenly felt political mandate to champion the oppressed and fight the abuses of privilege and power. It was a new and exciting concept back then, and what really drove the point home was the fiercely disruptive guitar work of a Harvard educated young Marxist named Tom Morello. The napalm cry of exploding bombs, the jagged rhythm of strafing machine guns—Morello wrought seemingly impossible sounds with his ax and became an innovative and radical force in metal, as Hendrix and Van Halen had before him.
WHAT THEY SAID Tom Morello: “Rather than being influenced by other guitarists, my playing in Rage was more influenced by hip-hop and techno DJs. The rhythmic freedom they have to drop sounds into a track. That’s what I aspired to.”
20) Surfing with the Alien, 1987 (Joe Satriani)
Peaking at No. 29, Surfing with the Alien was the first instrumental rock guitar record to crack the Billboard album charts since the Ventures’ Sixties heyday, but, as its title suggests, this was surf music from another galaxy altogether. From the new millennium blues of “Satch Boogie” to the cosmic lyricism of “Always with Me, Always with You,” Satriani dared to boldly go where no Shrapnel label artist had gone before by injecting harmony, humor and humanity into his outrageous displays of technique. Unlike Jeff Beck on his jazz-inspired Wired and Blow by Blow albums, Satch aimed below the belt instead of at the brain, rocking out with balls-to-the-wall abandon.
WHAT THEY SAID Joe Satriani: “ ‘Satch Boogie’ was intended as an instrumental guitar “barn burner’ in the great tradition of tunes like ‘Jeff’s Boogie’ by Jeff Beck or ‘Steppin’ Out’ by Eric Clapton.”
19) Exile on Main St., 1972 (The Rolling Stones)
The Stones were on a roll in the early Seventies, riding out a long creative streak. It all peaked at Keith Richards’ rented villa in the south of France amid scenes of rock-star decadence and epic consumption of intoxicants and drugs, including heroin. Exile on Main St. is a sprawling double-disc set that distills the Stones’ itchy blend of raw blues voodoo, shit-kickin’ country honk, world-weary balladry and dirty old rock and roll. Richards was wasted on smack but in top musical form, nonetheless, and coguitarist Mick Taylor was fitting like a glove. Exile was a perfect moment in the summertime of rock that would never again be equaled by the Stones—or anyone else.
WHAT THEY SAID Keith Richards: “Mick Taylor’s a really shy guy. I wouldn’t say that you ever get to know him. I don’t think anybody does. But probably the closest I ever got to Mick was playing guitar on Exile on Main St.”
18) Blood Sugar Sex Magik, 1991 (The Red Hot Chili Peppers)
It came out of a haunted mansion in the Hollywood Hills—the album that established the Red Hot Chili Peppers as major-league contenders in the game of rock. By this point, the Peppers had survived the Eighties L.A. punk scene, a head-spinning succession of personnel changes and the death of founding guitarist Hillel Slovak. But now they had John Frusciante in the fold, not to mention producer Rick Rubin, who worked with the band for the first time on Blood Sugar Sex Magik. There would be no Rage Against the Machine, nor any rap metal, without Blood Sugar’s amalgam of funk, metal and hip-hop vocalizing.
WHAT THEY SAID Flea: “That was the beginning of a new era for us. Breaking into the mainstream was a real change in our lives. Also it was a time when John brought a whole new concept into the band as a guitar player and songwriter. It suddenly gave us so much more to draw from—a bigger launch pad for us all to get launched into outer space from.”
Frusciante: “Following the great creative peak of recording Blood Sugar, the positive feelings I had had began to dissipate.”
17) The Number of the Beast, 1982 (Iron Maiden)
“You know when astrologers talk about a planetary lineup?” Iron Maiden’s foghorn-in-chief Bruce Dickinson once mused. “Like, ‘this conjunction only happens once in a blue moon’ sort of thing? What you have with Number of the Beast is the musical equivalent.” The metaphor, while extravagant, was and is absolutely right. Released in 1982, Maiden’s third album marked the moment when all the pieces fell into place for the British band.
Prior to its recording, Iron Maiden were a band in transition. Paul Di’anno, the group’s volatile frontman, walked out after the world tour for Maiden’s second album, Killers. While his departure lessened the group’s internal friction, it also left a sizable void. Di’anno wasn’t the ideal metal singer— his stage presence owed more to the snarl and spittle of punk—but he was a vital ingredient in the band’s growing success. Now, the remaining members—bassist Steve Harris, guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, and drummer Clive Burr—faced the challenge of building upon their accomplishments with an unproven frontman.
What happened next is the stuff of modern mythology. Dickinson, then the singer in Samson, had been watching Maiden from the pit on their tours—and thinking that he could do a rather better job of fronting them. Word of his talent and aspirations reached Maiden’s manager, who tracked him down at the Reading Festival and subsequently signed him to the band’s lead singer slot.
The Beast lineup was in place, consolidated by the return of Martin Birch, the production legend who had given Killers its muscle and whose past clients included Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. With little more than a desire to make a record that would maintain their career trajectory, Maiden headed into the Battery Studios to start work. When they lef, they were armed with what many consider the most important metal album of the decade.
The Number of the Beast was anything but a lobotomized metal juggernaut. Thanks in part to Dickinson—who, alongside his abilities as a vocalist, was obsessed with military history, fencing and literature—the new album combined its aggression with imagination and an awareness of culture. The title track, for instance, was based on Tam O’ Shanter, a Robert Burns poem that Harris had read at school. “The Prisoner” was inspired by the cult Sixties TV program of the same name (and required the band’s manager Rod Smallwood to seek permission from Patrick McGoohan to sample the dialog). Meanwhile, the reflective “Children of the Damned” combined lyrics inspired by the classic horror film with Harris’ love of prog-rock time signatures. Inevitably, Maiden’s detractors ignored Beast’s kaleidoscope of subjects in their rush to condemn it as a youth-corrupting work of Satanism. Some burned the record in mass bonfires; others battered it into shards with hammers. As the band toured the U.S. in support of the album, protesters showed up at gigs, dragging crosses and handing out leaflets. “Americans do tend to be over the top about things like that,” says Harris.
Fortunately, the hand wringing of the minority could not change the fact that Maiden had found their audience. Even with no airplay and little marketing, The Number of the Beast reached 33 on the Billboard Pop charts, earning a Gold disc the following year and going Platinum a few years later, setting up the band for the hallowed position they occupy to this day.
16) The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, 2002 (Stevie Ray Vaughan)
Stevie Ray Vaughan had a tremendous impact in his too-brief career, which featured just four studio albums and one live recording. From the moment his debut, Texas Flood, hit the streets in 1983, Vaughan made the world safe again for old-school blues-based rock and simultaneously took the music he loved into the future. His impassioned, yet highly technical, style altered the perceived parameters of virtuoso guitar playing. This two-CD collection features 33 of his best tracks, each beautifully remastered, and makes an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to dig into this modern master.
WHAT THEY SAID Stevie Ray Vaughan: “If people tell me they don’t want to hear a blues band because it brings them down, they’re not paying attention at all. I like a lot of different kinds of music, but if it doesn’t have any soul I can’t relate to it.”
15) Ten, 1991 (Pearl Jam)
Although Pearl Jam rose from the ashes of Mother Love Bone (whose singer, Andrew Wood, overdosed on heroin), Ten didn’t explode out of the box. That would be the case with Nirvana’s major-label debut, Nevermind. Slowly, however, radio programmers in search of acceptable “grunge” to play alongside Led Zeppelin, U2 and Guns N’ Roses started spinning tracks like “Alive” and “Even Flow.” What they discovered were songs that sounded great anytime, anywhere. Between the urgent, highly distinctive timbre of Eddie Vedder’s voice and the emotionally charged guitar playing of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, commitment poured from Pearl Jam. Music fans who viewed other grunge acts as too aloof (or just too damned weird) suddenly had new heroes.
WHAT THEY SAID Mike McCready: “Eddie’s lyrics are extremely honest. People can tap into that. They know something real is coming from that. He’s a man full of conviction. That comes in his singing and writing, and hopefully our music backs that up.”
14) Aenima, 1996 (Tool)
Their 1993 debut, Undertow, was harsh and compelling, but Tool paved their more experimental future with Aenima, their sophomore outing. The band’s first major foray into epic structures and unconventional arrangements, Aenima showed that prog-metal needn’t sound like Dream Theater or Porcupine Tree. While the songs are technical and challenging, they’re also suffused with enough mystery and emotion that they don’t resemble music lessons. Guitarist Adam Jones plays an equal balance of crushing chords, jagged riffage and ominous noodling, and the unusual time signatures and sprawling passages keep the tension in the songs building until the fierce, climactic release.
WHAT THEY SAID Maynard James Keenan: “The record is written so that there are layers to get into. It’s about unity—realizing that everything is connected. It’s about breaking down the process of pointing the finger.”
13) Blizzard of Ozz, 1980 (Ozzy Osbourne)
The album that introduced Randy Rhoads to the world (the previous two albums he made with Quiet Riot came out only in Japan), Blizzard of Ozz set the template for the shreddin’ Eighties with its combination of NWOBHM aggression and Hollywood flash. Rhoads burst onto the scene as the most unique and influential rock guitar hero since Eddie Van Halen, distilling inspiration from Ritchie Blackmore, Van Halen and classical maestro Andres Segovia while placing his tasteful personal stamp on “I Don’t Know,” “Crazy Train” and the acoustic solo centerpiece “Dee.” Osbourne may have rescued Rhoads from obscurity, but Randy made Ozzy a star.
WHAT THEY SAID Randy Rhoads: “We were just thrown together on that album. It wasn’t planned out; whatever came out was purely inspiration.”
12) ...And Justice For All, 1988 (Metallica)
When Metallica entered Los Angeles’ One On One studios with producer Flemming Rasmussen in early 1988, they were, musically speaking, at the height of their powers, having achieved critical and mass acceptance with Master of Puppets. Emotionally, it was a whole different story. James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and Lars Ulrich were shattered from the death of bassist Cliff Burton two years earlier and still had not (did they ever?) completely gelled with his replacement, Jason Newsted. The new music they brought to the recording sessions—crude and jittery, incredibly aggressive and complex, and occasionally lacking direction—reflected the band members’ bruised psyches. Justice’s nine marathon-length songs (which at the time had to be issued on two separate slabs of vinyl) are full of unexpected compositional quirks, among them jarring tempo shifts and musical transitions, multiple key changes, odd-metered time signatures, awkwardly grouped note patterns and long, labyrinthine instrumental sections. Hetfield’s lyrics, meanwhile, are among his most nihilistic, from the apocalyptic “Blackened” (“Evolution’s end/never will it mend”) to the blistering “Dyer’s Eve,” a pointed depiction of a damaged upbringing (his own?) at the hands of callous parents.
And then there’s the album’s overall sound: Rasmussen’s wonky production almost entirely squeezes out the bass guitar, leaving only Hetfield’s vocals, the heavily scooped six-strings and Ulrich’s clicky drums to carry the load. Many reasons for the absence of low end have been offered over the years: Newsted merely doubled all of Hetfield’s riffs, rendering his bass indistinguishable from the guitars; it ws intentional "hazing" directed at the new kid by his bandmaates; and so on. Whatever the reason, the production on Justice-harsh, unsettling and bone dry-accentuates the music's raw-nerve intensity.
For all of its idiosyncrasies, Justice quickly eclipsed the success of Master of Puppets upon its release. This was in large part due to the overwhelming popularity of the power ballad “One.” With lyrics based on the gruesome antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun and accompanied by a disturbing video (the band's first) that featured clips from the 1971 film adaptation of the book, the song made Metallica unlikely MTV darlings. Nominated for a Grammy in the category of "Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal," Metallica infamously lost out to aging British rockers Jethro Tull. Talk about disturbing.
But …And Justice for All is not significant for these moments of mainstream triumph. Rather, it is a remarkably raw and uncompromising document of a band exorcising their demons, as well as the sound of thrash metal pioneers taking the music they helped to create as far as possible before washing their hands clean of the whole damn thing for good.
WHAT THEY SAID James Hetfield: “The idea for the opening on ‘One’ came from a Venom song called ‘Buried Alive.’ The kick drum machine-gun part at the end wasn’t written with the war lyrics in mind, it just came out that way.”
Kirk Hammett: “I had only eight days to record all my leads for the album because we were heading out on the Monsters of Rock tour. With ‘One,’ the first solo went fine, but I had trouble with the second lead. I did the third one in a couple of hours. I worked out the tapping thing at the beginning, and from there it flowed very well, I think because I was so pissed off about the second solo.”
11) Cowboys From Hell, 1990 (Pantera)
The first Pantera record to be heard by anyone outside of the Lone Star State, Cowboys from Hell was also the first to fully capture the hard-swinging, head-pummeling interplay of guitarist Diamond Darrell (soon to be renamed Dimebag) and his older brother, drummer Vinnie Paul. Songs like “Primal Concrete Sledge,” “Cemetery Gates” and “Cowboys from Hell” kicked shit and kicked ass in equal measures, while Dime’s soulful shredding and Texas-sized riffs served notice that here indeed was a young gunslinger to be reckoned with. This was extreme metal before the term existed.
WHAT THEY SAID Terry Date, Cowboys producer: “I think we won’t see another guitar player with Dime’s kind of creativity and passion for his instrument for a long, long time, if ever.”
10) Revolver, 1966 (The Beatles)
The Beatles had already altered the course of music forever by the time they set out to record Revolver. What they had yet to do was create an album that reflected their growth and maturity as composers and recording artists. Revolver filled that void, and did so in remarkable fashion, reflecting both the band members’ emerging consciousness, via LSD, and the changing cultural landscape. Pop art, drugs, free love, Dylan, politics, the I Ching, the sounds of the Far East and the West Coast—Revolver refracted these influences, and more, with such stunning alacrity that it was hard to tell which was moving faster, society or the Beatles. The studio innovations used to create Revolver loom large in Beatles lore. What lasts, however, are the songs: “Taxman,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” and the endlessly fascinating “Tomorrow Never Knows” are standouts in rock’s first bona fide work of art.
WHAT THEY SAID John Lennon: “We’d had acid on Revolver. Everybody is under this illusion—even George Martin was saying, ‘Pepper was their first acid album.’ But we’d had acid, including Paul, by the time Revolver was finished.”
9) Physical Graffiti, 1975 (Led Zeppelin)
Daring, Sprawling, and enthusiastically eccentric, Physical Graffiti is one of the most beloved of all Led Zeppelin albums and also the most misunderstood. To many, its synthesis of funk and Eastern music into the Hammer of the Gods Zeppelin thunder is a joy to behold, the sound of a band realizing there are no limits to its powers. To others, the album is dense and frustrating, stuffed with filler. By any measure, it’s an artistic gamble, full of detours and moments of supreme triumph and quirky experimentation. And like all successful double albums, it captures the unique personality of each band member. That nary of trace of caution can be found on the record is a testament to the band’s unwavering belief in its craft.
Although the bulk of Physical Graffiti resulted from recording sessions at Headley Grange in 1974, some of the tracks had been waiting for a home for years. The instrumental “Bron-Yr-Aur” was recorded at Island Studios in London and was originally tagged for Led Zeppelin III. “Night Flight” and “Boogie with Stu” (as in Ian Stewart, who played on “Rock and Roll”) were cut during the Led Zeppelin IV sessions. “The Rover” and “Black Country Woman” were recorded at Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s house in Newbury, Berkshire, and were originally pegged for Houses of the Holy. Despite such gaps in time, the tracks, once assembled in a playing order, seemed to meld together as if by some grand, magical design.
“Trampled Underfoot,” “Houses of the Holy,” “Custard Pie” and “The Rover” rock the sure-shot like nobody’s business. The 11-minute “In My Time of Dying” is some of the heaviest Delta-style blues Zeppelin ever laid down. But Physical Graffiti’s signature track is the wondrous “Kashmir.” With Page’s tense, unyielding DADGAD chord pattern, John Paul Jones’ “Arabian string symphony,” John Bonham’s steady 4/4 beat against the 3/4 riff, and Plant’s surrealistic lyrics (written while driving through the Sahara Desert in Morocco, far from Kashmir, which is located between Central and South Asia), the song is a spellbinding monolith that sends tendrils of anxiety in all directions. In many ways, it distills the essence of Led Zeppelin: dramatic, epic, bewitching and fiery till the end.
WHAT THEY SAID Jimmy Page: “It just made sense for Physical Graffiti to be a double. There may have been double and even triple albums by other bands at the time, but I didn’t really care, because ours was going to be better than any of them.”
8) Nevermind, 1991 (Nirvana)
The grunge revolution started with Nirvana’s 1991 breakthrough album. Nevermind united the sludgy distortion of metal with punk rock’s “who gives a fuck?” attitude. The anguished voice and guitar of frontman Kurt Cobain encapsulated the hopeless frustrations of the Ritalin generation. The arrangements were violent mood swings—somnambulistic verses buoyed by clean, watery guitar tones that then exploded into screaming, distorted choruses. Cobain’s suicide a few years later lent dramatic emphasis to Nevermind’s troubled cry for help. From the Warped Tour to Ozzfest, rock music is still working out the implications.
WHAT THEY SAID Dave Grohl: “I was in awe of what was happening with Nevermind. I was in awe of those songs. And intimidated. I didn’t feel like my own songs were anywhere near the ones that we were doing. When you’re in a band with somebody like Kurt, who’s an amazing songwriter, you do anything you can to keep from polluting the songwriting process. I thought, I don’t want to be the person responsible for ruining these songs. There’s a famous old joke: ‘What was the last thing the drummer said before they kicked him out of the band? “Hey guys, I got a new song I just wrote.” ’ ”
7) Van Halen, 1978 (Van Halen)
There is no exact accounting of the number of guitarists who crapped their pants upon hearing “Eruption,” the second track on Van Halen’s self-titled debut. but the safe money is on “a lot.” Yet, while Edward Van Halen brought boys back to the electric guitar in droves, what’s often overlooked is what Van Halen brought to the party: girls. Perhaps it was Eddie’s Cheshire-cat grin or frontman David Lee Roth’s over-the-top bravado. More than likely, it was the songs. “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” “Jamie’s Cryin’ ” and the band’s riotous remake of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” rocked like a nonstop wet T-shirt contest, allowing the little girls to finally understand what the guys knew all along—that metal was fun.
WHAT THEY SAID Eddie Van Halen: “ ‘Eruption’ wasn’t even supposed to be on the album. I showed up at the recording studio early one day and started to warm up. I had a gig that weekend and I wanted to practice my solo guitar spot. Our producer, Ted Templeman, happened to walk by and he asked, ‘What’s that? Let’s put it on tape!’ ”
6) Paranoid, 1970 (Black Sabbath)
A primal howl of fear and loathing at a time when it was far more fashionable to sing gentle acoustic songs about “getting back to the garden,” Black Sabbath’s second album perfectly captured the rage, confusion and, yes, paranoia of the Vietnam era. Tony Iommi’s stump-fingered leads and down-tuned riffs provided the perfect platform for songs about war-mongering generals, boots-wearing skinheads and nuclear fallout, and set the standard against which all heavy music would forever be judged. And with the title track, a three-chord classic dashed off as last-minute album filler, Sabbath presaged the coming of punk rock.
WHAT THEY SAID Ozzy Osbourne: “Tony Iommi, in my opinion, is the most underrated guitar player on the face of the earth. And if you take into consideration that he plays with plastic tips on the end of his fret fingers—I mean, how the fuck can you feel where you are?”
5) Dark Side of the Moon, 1973 (Pink Floyd)
Pink Floyd’s 1973 masterpiece is an epic musical rumination on time, money, war and madness. It’s the album on which Pink Floyd found their identity a second time, having lost their leader and guitarist, Syd Barrett, to insanity in 1968. With Dark Side, bassist Roger Waters emerged as the band’s sole lyricist and chief conceptualist, while David Gilmour blossomed as a deeply expressive guitarist, one whose soaring style has become an indispensable part of rock. Dark Side classics like “Money,” “Us and Them” and “Breathe” have gone into perpetual heavy rotation all around the world.
WHAT THEY SAID Roger Waters: “I knew there had to be a song about money on the album. Having decided that, it was extremely easy to make up the seven-beat intro that went with it. I often think the best ideas are the most obvious ones.”
4) Master Of Puppets, 1986 (Metallica)
It could be said that Master of Puppets was the realization of all the promise Metallica, and thrash metal music in general, had previously hinted at, but who knew either was capable of so much? Metallica, for starters. Puppets features requisite barnstormers like “Battery” and “Damage, Inc.,” but elsewhere, particularly on the tremendous title track, the band plays metal as modern-day classical music, offering up harmonically and structurally complex arrangements that convey a stunning range of ideas and emotions. It’s a masterfully executed statement of purpose, and it is still thrash metal’s finest moment.
WHAT THEY SAID Kirk Hammett: “I really felt that Master of Puppets was the album that defined that lineup—James, Lars, Cliff and I. We had gotten to know each other’s musical capabilities and temperaments over the three-year period we’d been together, and every song we came up with was another great conception.”
3) Are You Experienced, 1967 (Jimi Hendrix)
The first Jimi Hendrix album was one of the most stunning debuts of 1967, a year packed with amazing new artists and album releases. The world had never seen anyone quite like James Marshall Hendrix. His flamboyant electric-gypsy image wowed the ladies, while his astounding guitar technique had greats like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend scratching their heads in wonderment as they stood on the floors of Swinging London’s hippest nightspots and took in early gigs by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
When he arrived in London in September 1966, Hendrix was an unknown young American guitarist, broke and scrambling for a break. He quickly assembled a killer band consisting of veteran British musicians Mitch Mitchell, on drums, and Noel Redding, on bass. The trio began laying down tracks for their first two singles, “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze,” plus other tunes that would emerge on Are You Experienced. Working on a tight budget, they booked sessions at a variety of London studios during downtime, to get a cheap rate. But once Hendrix secured a U.S. record deal with Warner Bros., sessions moved to Olympic Studios, then the hot new facility in London and soon to host the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Who, among others.
Released in May 1967, Are You Experienced was a stylistic tour de force. Hendrix artfully fused his blues and R&B roots with the amped-up excitement of the new psychedelic sounds then starting to emerge from both London and San Francisco. His boldly unique guitar tone came from a combination of elements. On Pete Townshend’s advice, he’d started using 100-watt Marshall and Hiwatt amp stacks, powerful gear that had only recently come on the market. These were combined with a right-handed Fender Stratocaster that the left-handed Hendrix played “upside down,” with the strings reversed so that the low and high strings were in a different relationship than usual to the Strat’s slanted bridge pickup. In the studio, Hendrix employed a variety of techniques, including “backward guitar,” a tape effect that had been pioneered by the Beatles but which Hendrix took to new heights on Are You Experienced’s title track. Psychedelic manifestos like “Are You Experienced?” “Purple Haze,” “Manic Depression” and “Third Stone from the Sun” captured the hallucinogenic mood of the hippie movement, just then peaking in 1967s Summer of Love. But the music remains just as vital and popular today.
FUN FACT Jimi’s amps were so loud that the bank above London’s De Lane Lea Studios complained that the high-volume vibrations were disrupting their computer system.
FUN FACT Hendrix manager Chas Chandler, formerly bassist with the successful beat group the Animals, had to pawn his bass to pay for early Jimi Hendrix Experience studio sessions.
WHAT THEY SAID Recording Engineer Eddie Kramer: “Once we got to Olympic, Jimi really got a chance to stretch out. The sounds become deeper. The drum sounds improved. Originally, we recorded four-track with mono drums on one track, the bass on another, the guitar on the third and Jimi’s voice on the fourth. But when we got to Olympic, I’d record stereo drums, bass and guitar on one four-track machine and then bounce that down to two tracks of a second four-track machine, which gave us two more tracks for overdubs.”
2) Appetite For Destruction, 1987 (Guns N' Roses)
Before he became a wacky-looking white guy with shaved eyebrows and cornrows, Axl Rose was the real deal: a Sunset Strip–stridin’, Jackswillin’, coke-tootin’ rock and roller. His band at the time (which, in addition to Axl, included guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagen and drummer Steven Adler) was the real deal, too, living the wasted rock star lifestyle with such earnest determination that you’d think they invented it. They also played lacerating music that was tough, ugly and sometimes misogynistic, and when they did, they were fucking giants.
Rock was in a sorry-ass state in the mid Eighties. Bon Jovi was riding his steel horse, Van Halen had turned into the mainstream Van Hagar, and that’s about all she wrote. As Slash recalls: “When we had to go up against whatever was going on at the time, there were no gritty rock bands, and we were sort of a break-through rock band, sort of a fluke in a way.” Appetite for Destruction was released on July 21, 1987, to raging apathy. Radio and MTV showed no love at all. A year after the album’s release, David Geffen, convinced of the album’s appeal, got on the horn and begged MTV to play “Welcome to the Jungle.” He didn’t have to beg twice. Once music fans got a look at Guns N’ Roses, they liked what they saw: five tough dudes who weren’t all gussied up like Cinderella or some other pussy band.
And the record? Forget about it. “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “It’s So Easy”—this was raw, hard-driving, classic-sounding rock and roll. The riffs were heavy, the solos soaring, and that Axl had some voice on him. It was metallic enough for metalheads but melodic enough for the chicks. Glam Metal kids weren’t embarrassed to be seen with it, yet Bob Seger fans could drink beer to it. Suddenly, everybody loved Guns N’ Roses. Twenty-five million everybodys, in fact.
Five years later, of course, the band imploded. Slash and Duff are now part of Velvet Revolver, Steven Adler is M.I.A., Axl is still promising Chinese Democracy, and Izzy recently joined Axl onstage at a New York City Guns N’ Roses show. But for many music fans, Appetite for Destruction remains a desert-island disc, a powerful one-off from a band that could have had the world.
WHAT THEY SAID Slash: “In the early Guns days the solos were a little bit more thought out, I have to admit. As time goes by, I realize that when solo sections get a little bit complex, it gets to sound a bit corny.”
FUN FACT When signing with Geffen Records, Axl Rose revealed to A&R exec Tom Zutaut that he promised a female A&R scout from Chrysalis Records that he would sign with her if she walked naked down Sunset Boulevard. A nervous Zutaut spent three days watching Sunset Boulevard from his office window.
FUN FACT For the Appetite sessions, Slash did not play a Gibson ’59 Les Paul Standard, as is commonly assumed. Instead, the guitarist relied on a Les Paul Standard copy built by a luthier in Redondo Beach.
1) Led Zeppelin IV, 1971 (Led Zeppelin)
Call it Led Zeppelin IV, Four Symbols, Runes, Sticks, Zoso, Four or even Untitlted. By any name, Zeppelin's fourth effort is widely considered rock's Holy Grail, fusing hard rock, Celtic folk, boogie-woogie rock and roll and blues into one staggering, beguiling, epochal, masterpiece. (For the record, Jimmy Page has been known to refer to it as simply Led Zeppelin IV.)
The album was released in the States on November 6, 1971 (November 19 in the U.K.), and for Led Zeppelin, the timing couldn’t have been better. The public’s tepid response to the folky, acoustic-drenched Led Zeppelin III was a letdown, considering the wild reception that greeted the band’s smash-hit predecessors. (And forget the music press, which famously hated the band.) Zeppelin needed to come back strong.
Led Zeppelin IV was rehearsed and partly recorded at Headley Grange, a two-story, mostly stone structure, built in 1795 and located in the village of Headley in eastern Hampshire, England. While the rest of the band initially balked at the less-than-luxurious conditions, Jimmy Page was smitten: “Right from the early days of working at Headley Grange, it was very, very spooky. It had been a workhouse. The whole place was very grey and damp. There was no heating...I thought it was fantastic!”
While the old country workhouse undoubtedly influenced laidback numbers like "The Battle of Evermore" and "Going to California," Jimmy Page found that the 18th-century structure's acoustics perfectly suited rockers like "Black Dog," "Rock and Roll" (featuring an uncredited Ian Stewart on piano) and "Four Sticks." When it came time to track "When the Levee Breaks," Page had John Bonham set up his drum kit in the stone stairway that connected the floors. The resulting sound is one no studio in the world has been able to replicate.
Of course, the album’s apogee is “Stairway to Heaven,” renowned as much for Robert Plant’s curlicue poetry as for Jimmy Page’s fluid compositional structure. Remarkably, what has become radio’s most-requested song came together late one night in the most relaxed of settings. As Robert Plant recalls, “It was done fairly quickly… Jimmy and I just sat down by the fire and came up with a song which was later developed by the rest of the band in the studio.”
Thirty-five years after its release, Led Zeppelin IV stands as a marvel of rock record making. The music comes at you from all directions: Jimmy Page’s limitless array of riffs, Robert Plant’s air-raid screams, John Bonham’s chest-pounding drumming and John Paul Jones’ Rock of Gibraltar bass playing. It is as powerful, magical and oddly elusive today as when it first appeared.
WHAT THEY SAID Jimmy Page: “We were recording something else—I can’t remember what it was...and John Bonham just started playing the opening bars of ‘Keep a Knockin’,’ by Little Richard. I heard that and just started playing what you know as the riff of ‘Rock and Roll.’ The other song was just totally forgotten about and we did ‘Rock and Roll’ in a matter of minutes.”