50 Greatest Guitar Albums
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.”