50 Greatest Guitar Albums
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.”
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