50 Greatest Guitar Albums
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.”