The 50 best rock albums of all time

Rock albums
(Image credit: Louder)

It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. One of history's most fiercely-fought debates, picking the best rock albums is pretty much an impossible task. Everyone has their favourite; that special album that's guided them through life's good times and its bad, that musical hill they're absolutely willing to die on. Being objective is impossible – we all care too much about the music we love for that.

So, when pulling this list together, we opted for the most democratic course of action we could: a public vote. We asked people to vote for their favourite ever rock album, and we didn't restrict the options to a pre-defined list of titles we'd come up with over pints in the pub. You could add any album you liked.

The result is a list that represents a fair few old favourites – but are a few surprises in there, too; albums we probably wouldn't have assumed would make to Top 50. And it's made the results a lot more interesting. 

Here, we present a selection of 50 albums that genuinely broke the mould.    

50. The Clash: London Calling

Most exciting rock’n’roll is made by people in their 20s for people in their teens. It’s like a note slid under our bedroom doors by our big brothers and sisters, that says everything will be alright: we will get laid, we will fall in love, we will get high, our parents won’t rule our lives forever. The Clash gave us all that – and then so much more. Because, while they were in love with ‘the rock’n’roll woah’ – and made music for guys with Ford Cortinas and dead-end jobs – London Calling, Sandinista! and Combat Rock are albums for grownups, albums you take with you after the anger subsides, when you start being less self-obsessed and begin to look out into the world.

London Calling’s stature really began to rise after Rolling Stone voted it the greatest album of the 80s in 1989 (the US version of the album was released in January 1980). A cynic might claim that us poor saps have followed Rolling Stone like sheep in our subsequent re-appraisal of the album. It might be fairer to see it as a more balanced reaction to the album after the frostier reception it had on release. 

London Calling was neither a sell-out nor a conscious attempt to crack America. But it can also be seen as a mature musical and political response to a British pop culture that had been transformed by bands like the Specials and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and a bit of one-upmanship from a band at the height of their powers, encouraged to paint a richer picture by a man with a colourful background in rock’n’roll history.

49. Metallica: Ride The Lightning

Music industry professionals refer to it as Difficult Second Album Syndrome, the condition whereby an emerging artist storms into the spotlight with their first album and then discovers that, after 18 months on tour promoting said release, they have no idea what to do for an encore. With Ride The Lightning, Metallica had no such problems.

Metallica’s second album is, indisputably, a masterpiece. In terms of songwriting, dynamics, musicianship and lyrical depth, Ride The Lightning is such a huge step on from the raw aggression of Kill ‘Em All, that it could be the work of a different band entirely. Which, in effect, it was: when Cliff Burton and Kirk Hammett joined the band on bass and lead guitar respectively, their debut album - save for Burton’s solo showcase Anaethesia (Pulling Teeth) – had already been written.

That remarkable bass solo excepted, neither man had a single songwriting credit on Kill ‘Em All: by comparison, on Ride The Lightning, Hammett is credited with co-writing four of the eight tracks, and Burton no fewer than six. The resulting uplift in quality is undeniable. But then it should also be remembered that at the time they recorded Kill ‘Em All, Metallica’s principal songwriters James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich were just nineteen years old. Read that again: nineteen years old

48. AC/DC: Let There Be Rock

In January 1977, AC/DC entered Alberts Studios in Sydney, and spent two weeks recording what came to be known as Let There Be Rock. The band were furious with their label in the US, who didn’t like the band’s previous Dirty Deeds album and were poised to drop them. 

“There was always a siege mentality about that band,” remembers bassist Mark Evans. “But once we all found out that Atlantic had knocked us back the attitude was: ‘Fuck them! We were seriously pissed off about it. We were going to go in and make that album and shove it up their arse.” The result would be the first utterly explosive AC/DC album.

From the sound of a whisky-guzzling Bon Scott counting in the intro to the swaggering opening track Go Down, a song about a real-life friend of his named Ruby, known for her fondness for ‘lickin’ on that lickin’ stick’, to the frantic finale Whole Lotta Rosie, about another lady friend acquainted with the singer’s lickin’ stick – this one ‘weighing in at 19 stone’ – Let There Be Rock didn’t let up for its eight-track, 40-minute duration. 

It sounded exactly like what it was. Written and recorded fast, before the vibe had time to fade, it was full of blood and spittle and anger and put-a-fuck-into-you fun, fuelled by cheap speed and cold beer, topped up with expensive whisky and at least a million cigarettes, some of them smelling distinctly ‘funny’.

47. Radiohead: OK Computer

These days always close to the top of any list of the best albums of all time, OK Computer is the album that took Radiohead far into the mainstream, while retaining rockist cred. 

Combining prog with alternative influences, they came up with a style that was supple, subtle and sensuous. This wasn’t Pink Floyd for the end of the millennium, it was original, visionary and brilliant. Songs like Paranoid Android and Karma Police cast a spell that propelled Radiohead into the stadium league. 

An epochal album that called time on the narrow colloquial nostalgia of Britpop, sold millions and turned Radiohead into global angst-rock superstars, OK Computer is not quite the flawless masterpiece of fond folklore, but it holds up extremely well. It still sounds rich, beautiful, mysterious, romantic, anguished, baroque and thrillingly experimental.

46. Led Zeppelin: II

On October 22, less than 300 days after their first album, Jimmy Page and co released Led Zeppelin II. Both heavier and more textured than their debut, it far outstripped the success of its predecessor. Their label, Atlantic, received advance orders of 400,000 copies – nearly 10 times as many as Led Zeppelin. It peaked at No.1 in both the UK and the US. The musical revolution they had started had now officially gone worldwide. “That album captured the energy of being on the road,” Page said later. “That’s what I like about it. That record and the period around it seems like a tidal wave now.”

Written on tour and recorded in a variety of far-flung locations (London, NYC, LA, Vancouver), its tapes stowed in a steamer trunk, Zep II comprises the first set of songs Page wrote with the band in mind. Whole Lotta Love wraps blues tradition in boundary-breaking innovation, its 70s-presaging primal riff retains its fundamental power and its effects-laden, free-jazz mid-section still astounds. The song would soon become their onstage anthem – led by Page’s distinctive, stuttering guitar riff that would later change the face of rock forever.

II is tightly wound and brilliantly structured. Ramble On teases with a dreamy opening before exploding into life. And if its Tolkien-referencing lyrics about Mordor and Gollum embarrass Plant today, he needn’t worry too much. The song is not nerdy or adolescent – it’s dipped in raunch and swaggers like The Evil One himself. Bring It On Home, it later turned out, had a loose relation to a Willie Dixon song recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson. Dixon got his credit but only the intro and outro – with the feel of a loose late night jam, all mumbled lyrics and harmonica – bear any relation to the original. It’s a bravura ending to one of the greatest rock albums ever made.

45. Iron Maiden: Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son

For many Iron Maiden fans, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, their seventh studio album, released in 1988, is the greatest record the band ever recorded. Others will disagree, of course, but even they would accept that it’s one of the most sparkling jewels in the band’s vast catalogue that includes a wealth of gems. 

It’s the icing on the cake of an eight-album run, beginning with their self-titled debut in 1988, that has still yet to be bettered in heavy music history, and very probably never will.

In hindsight it’s difficult to see how Maiden could have taken their style further than they did on the Seventh Son album, and Infinite Dreams, The Clairvoyant and Can I Play With Madness are up their among the best tracks Maiden’s have ever recorded, and some others on this album are not far behind. After Seventh Son, guitarist Adrian Smith said goodbye, in came his replacement Janick Gers, and things for Iron Maiden were changed irrevocably.

44. The Who: Who's Next 

Another classic band whose albums never score as highly in polls like this as you might think, The Who are possibly best loved for their extraordinary run of 60s singles than for their long-players. Which is odd, because a) they have made some classic albums and b) Pete Townshend is a man full of big ideas.

Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Fooled Again (the latter released in a chart-troubling single edit) stand strong on their own merits and, bookending the album, have come to define the band in their prime. Baba O’Riley’s trilling synth and organ-treated intro heralded another galvanising performance. Daltrey’s cries of ‘teenage wasteland’ seem like a genuine call to arms.

“You can’t compare The Who to the Stones or Zeppelin,” says producer Glyn Johns. “They’re all completely different. The Who is a combination of three extraordinary musicians – the combination of Entwistle, Moon’s flamboyance and Pete Townshend was like nothing I’d ever heard. It was never discussed, it was just the musical chemistry between them, and the energy level. 

"It was peculiar to them, along with Roger Daltrey’s voice which certainly contributed to the energy and power of the band. And the icing on the cake was Townshend’s material which was completely extraordinary."

43. The Who: Quadrophenia

Arriving hard-at-heel after Pete Townshend’s aborted Lifehouse project, was supposed to be his defining moment of the 70s, a rock opera to out-Tommy anything that had gone before. “If Tommy is rock opera, Quadrophenia is grand rock opera,” says lifelong Townshend associate and Who biographer Richard Barnes. “If Tommy is tabloid, Quadrophenia is broadsheet. I think Pete moved The Who to another level with that record.”

It’s a complex, vaultingly ambitious work that is echoed in the music itself. Surging guitars and big vocals are tempered by brass arrangements, semi-orchestral strings and intricate layers of synths and piano. “At the time, Pete and I were writing to each other and I used to call him Tannhäuser because of Quadrophenia,” says Barnes. “Which was apt because it does sound really Wagnerian with those horns. You can imagine these big, fat ladies in helmets, riding Vespas. It’s a heavy, hard rock album but there are such delicate bits with violins and synthesisers. Pete has such a delicate touch. It’s like porcelain and reinforced concrete side by side.”

Quadrophenia is the late bloomer in The Who’s back catalogue. A record about the 1960s, recorded in the proggy fug of the 1970s. Even given its rather time-specific, niche-culture context, it still feels oddly significant today. These are songs that cut deep into the spiritual malaise; big, sweeping epics to get lost in or shake a fist to.

42. Nirvana: Nevermind 

Nevermind isn’t just a huge-selling record; there have been far bigger. It’s not even just an iconic set of songs. With the 12 songs on the album, Nirvana defined a generation, and in doing so came as close as anyone could possibly expect in the 90s to revolutionising the concept of rock’n’roll. Moreover, it seemingly came out of nowhere. What the Seattle trio (vocalist/guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and new drummer Dave Grohl in the place of Chad Channing) had done before – punk attitude combined with garage insouciance – had been impressive. But with Nevermind they really raised their game. 

What has made Nevermind arguably the most important release of that decade is the songs. They were uncompromising. Kurt Cobain was writing about his moment, but also about all our moments. His ‘secret’ was in talking directly to himself. As with Axl Rose on Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction four years earlier, Cobain didn’t so much reach out to the disenfranchised masses as draw them into his world. Here were his agonies, his doubts, his frustrations, his rages – but opened up for everyone to see. 

Smells Like Teen Spirit is not just an anthem for Generation X, it’s also an expression of self-disgust and uncertainty. This song defined a generation over twenty-five years ago and it’s still damn near perfect. You can deny your love for Nevermind’s opener all you like, but when Smells Like Teen Spirit kicks in and you haven’t heard it in a while… you will get shivers down your spine. Guaranteed.

41. Van Halen: Van Halen

Close to 40 years on, Van Halen’s debut album has lost none of its shine, nor any of its importance. Before it, hard rock was in serious danger of becoming staid and lifeless. Afterwards, every self-respecting rock band cited it as a touchstone. It’s not just one of the great debut albums, it’s one of the great albums full-stop. You can hear its incomparable sound and bravura attitude echoing through the 1980s and beyond, its success revitalising not just the Sunset Strip, but similar scenes all over the world.

Nowhere was this new sound better illustrated than on the band’s take of The Kinks’ classic You Really Got Me. A song they’d been covering for years in the clubs, it took on new dimensions in the studio. The guitar tones were both monstrous and majestic at the same time. Rolling out his vintage Marshalls and plugging in his hot-rodded Stratocaster, Edward provided an early glimpse of what he would call his “brown sound”. 

Roth might not have had the most technically perfect voice in the world, but ultimately, what lifted the album was Edward Van Halen himself – the guitarist redefined the very vocabulary of what a rock guitarist could do. If there was one track that instantly placed the guitarist in the pantheon of greats it was Eruption, his spontaneous, two-handed tapping instrumental masterpiece. It showcased a technique that would initially mystify and ultimately mesmerise every guitar player who heard it.

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