The 50 best rock albums of all time

40. Beach Boys - Pet Sounds

Historically, Pet Sounds has never been taken quite as seriously as Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde or The Beatles’ Revolver. Perhaps this is down to the fact that The Beach Boys lacked the counter-cultural edge of Bob Dylan and The Beatles, or maybe it had something to do with its literal, artless front cover. But that was then. In 2017, Pet Sounds is regarded not only as the equal of those records but, in some quarters, their superior. Certainly, together with the equally groundbreaking single Good Vibrations, which followed it five months later, it drew up an ambitious road map for rock’s future.

Pet Sounds was a sustained act of complex creation, one part work of orchestral ambition, one part proto-concept album. A nervous breakdown on a flight between LA and Houston in December 1964 had prompted Brian Wilson to refocus his energies from touring and promotion to the more enjoyable pursuits of songwriting and the boundless potential of the recording studio.

The resultant songs – Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), I’m Waiting For The Day, God Only Knows, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, Caroline, No – were perfect miniatures of hymnal wonder, which expressed with devotional clarity the anxieties and longings of an adolescent poised on the cusp of agonising maturity.

39. Metallica: ...And Justice For All

Obvious laws aside (that's the last time we'll mention Jason Newsted's non-bass), back in 1988 Justice was mostly greeted with enthusiasm by fans and critics, praised for the musicianship displayed in the labyrinthine song structures, the dizzying changes of Blackened and the title song a logical extension of earlier tracks like Master Of Puppets. And for disciples of the riff it’s hog heaven, each song a stream of memorable motifs. 

Weaker moments occur as To Live Is To Die drags early on and Harvester Of Sorrow plods, and Dyer’s Eve lacks the lasting melodies of previous thrashers such as Damage Inc, but each has redeeming elements, and the otherwise high calibre of what’s on offer wins out overall. 

Justice marked the moment at which Metallica, having survived the tragic loss of bassist Cliff Burton, entered the big league, playing arenas and cracking the Billboard Top 10. This immersive collection captures the excitement of an era sometimes overlooked between their twin peaks of Master Of Puppets and the Black Album.

38. Megadeth: Rust In Peace

Something magical happened to Megadeth when Dave Mustaine and David Ellefson joined forces with guitarist Marty Friedman and drummer Nick Menza. 

Rust In Peace is one of those albums: a masterpiece with no obvious flaws, not an ounce of filler or flab and some of the most obscenely thrilling moments in all of recorded metal history. Holy Wars… The Punishment Due, Hangar 18 and Tornado Of Souls may be the obvious highlights, but the entire record still leaps from the speakers 26 years later, sounding supremely arrogant and startlingly powerful. 

But beyond its hallowed contents, Rust In Peace is a seminal work because it completely upgraded metal’s sonic vocabulary, heroically raising levels of precision, technicality and compositional suss and kick-starting the ‘90s with a sustained blast of immaculate, state-of-the-art savagery that continues to send shockwaves through the metal world today.

37. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours

Few rock’n’roll stories are as downright weird as the strange tale of Fleetwood Mac: a 40-year saga involving drug-induced madness, bitter in-fighting, a ‘fake’ band that stole their name, a bizarre on-tour disappearance, two broken marriages, at least one coke-ruined nose, and the kind of bed-hopping normally seen in an old-fashioned West End farce. Oh, and also involving some of the best rock music of the 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. 

On the simplest level, Rumours is a set of brilliant songs, beautifully played. That alone has made it the thirteenth-biggest-selling album of all time. On a deeper level, these bitter-sweet, autobiographical songs spoke of the complex emotional turmoil at the heart of this uniquely dysfunctional band. John and Christine McVie’s marriage was falling apart; Lindsey Buckingham had broken up with Stevie Nicks. 

“We were only like every other band of that era,” Fleetwood told Classic Rock. “When I talk war stories with other bands, I think we weren’t so bad. ‘You did what?’ We were lightweights compared to many. Look at the Stones or Johnny Cash, the stuff they took. We didn’t do that, we were just boozers and mounds of cocaine. I thank God we didn’t go to the opiate place. Cocaine eventually is bad, but we were still young kids. It didn’t hamper us, it just meant we stayed up for three or four days and did some good music.” 

Nicks’s Gold Dust Woman documented the madness of cocaine addiction (‘Rock on gold dust woman/Take your silver spoon/Dig your grave’). She later confessed: “I curse the day I ever took cocaine.” But it was at their most fucked-up, radiating paranoia and mutual enmity, that Fleetwood Mac created their iconic masterpiece.

36. Kiss: Alive!

With painted faces, outlandish costumes and seven-inch stack-heeled boots, Kiss arrived in the 70s like superheroes straight out of a comic. They had superhero names: The Starchild, The Demon, The Space Ace, The Catman. In concert the presented The Greatest Show On Earth, with explosions, blood, fire-breathing, a rocket-launching guitar… At the heart of it was a great all-American rock band. 

They might have been derided by serious music fans (and, of course, critics) as nothing more than a circus act, but Kiss didn’t go on to sell 100 million records by fluke. In the band’s vast catalogue are some of the greatest and most influential rock albums of all time. One of those is Alive!

Always a huge live draw, for the recording of Alive! they’d brought together all the finest anthems from three previous studio records, and let rip in front of thousands of ecstatic fans. The results sounded utterly compulsive. No wonder generations of kids took to standing in front of the mirror, wearing their mum’s make-up and waving clenched fists while hollering along to Rock And Roll All Nite or Strutter. How many of them went on to their own piece of stardom? Probably quite a few.

35. David Bowie: The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars

'To Be Played At Maximum Volume’, advised the back of the sleeve, and that is indeed the best way to enjoy David Bowie’s creative pinnacle. Ziggy Stardust marks the moment when Bowie got it absolutely right. Like all good concept albums it felt like a journey, from the apocalyptic Five Years to the pain-racked Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide. Unlike most concept albums, the abundance of pop hooks meant it sounded just as good heard in snatches on the radio. While Bowie would never be better, you can argue that the album belongs equally to guitarist Mick Ronson.

Starman was the hit single – the track behind the Top of The Pops appearance that blew minds and had dads tutting. But those perfect tumbling drums and snake-hipped groove makes it irresistible. Suffragette City is little bit Jerry Lee, a little bit Stones, and climaxes in a deliciously salacious ‘Wham bam thank you ma’am’-punctuated false ending, It is glam rock in excelsis.

The album’s closer, Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide, is one of the most perfect closing songs ever constructed. It begins by putting a self-analytical cigarette into its listener’s mouth (‘Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth’), it’s understated, acoustic… it’s wearing a denim shirt. But it’s noticed you, and how wretched you feel, stuck between childhood and adulthood: confused, unacknowledged, alone. Then, as if reading your mind, at 1:39, Bowie delivers the line: ‘Oh no, love, you’re not alone’ and in an instant your 60s Kansas monochrome life turns 70s Oz Technicolour.

34. Slayer: Reign In Blood

It was in the autumn of 1986 that Slayer released their third album, Reign In Blood.

Just three years previously the LA quartet – whose line-up then starred guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King, drummer Dave Lombardo and bassist/vocalist Tom Araya – had unveiled their debut disc, the lightweight, cack-handed and thoroughly unconvincing Show No Mercy. Slayer, at this point, were the laughing stock of the nascent thrash metal scene.

Come 1986 though, no one was laughing or poking fun any more. The distance between second album Hell Awaits and Reign In Blood was vast – almost as if the music was made by a different band, from a different time. 

Listen to Slayer’s third album now and it still sounds feral, as if you need shots just to put the thing into the CD player. From the unnecessarily unpleasant Angel Of Death to the punishing Raining Blood, the sound here is taut, tortured, wired… aggressive and unrelenting. The tone is violent by design, the band infamous by reputation. And when Metal Hammer’s celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2006, readers voted it the greatest album ever made.

33. Rush: 2112

To truly appreciate the brilliance of Rush’s 2112 – concept and title track combined – one must reflect on the zeitgeist of the 1970s, and specifically the year 1976. Rush had released three albums up to this point – a self-titled first album, Fly By Night and Caress Of Steel – but by and large, the band were still, to echo a track title from their aforementioned debut, finding their way.

Their bosses were not impressed. “After Caress Of Steel flopped, the record company, Mercury, had made it very clear to us that we were disappointing them,” remembered singer and bassist Geddy Lee. “We figured we’d be dropped if the next record didn’t do well. Deep down, I think we were all convinced that our careers were over and we would have to get ‘real’ jobs. So 2112 saved our career. There’s no question about that.”

Within a year, 2112 had gone gold. It’s now triple platinum in the US and double platinum in Canada. Listening today, one is struck by both its brilliance and its brevity. The main concept suite, which occupied side one of the original vinyl record, lasts a shade over 20 minutes. The five songs on the flip-side (as was) are all around the three- or four-minute mark. But sometimes less is more, and the title track – which of course details the failed struggle of a lone man to bring the joys of music back to a dystopian world – remains an awesome piece of work. 

32. Queensryche: Operation: Mindcrime

This first-rate concept album tells the story of a genius, a junkie and a street girl and their alienation from 80s society. Layered guitars, operatic vocals and Michael Kamen’s orchestrations lend the whole thing a grand, epic feel, but this is a rare beast: an 80s metal album that puts the song – or, more specifically, the story – first and lets everything else take a back seat.

Operation: Mindcrime is the album that briefly crystallised the previously wandering artistic visions of Queensrÿche into something exciting and challenging. An almost flawless collection of songs, it went against the grain by proving that a heavy metal band was capable of displaying intelligence in their music. 

Their next album, Empire, outsold it by some margin, but …Mindcrime is the benchmark against which everything else the band do is measured.

31. Iron Maiden: Powerslave 

The album that sent Iron Maiden around the world on the legendary World Slavery tour, turning them into global megastars in the process, it is both the definitive record of the band’s first decade and perhaps the album with the best artwork of all time. 

If you could prove such things scientifically, there would be no room for argument: Aces High, 2 Minutes To Midnight, Powerslave (featuring Dave Murray’s greatest ever solo, fact fans!), the mighty Rime Of The Ancient Mariner… thanks to those four songs alone, Powerslave makes pretty much everything else that’s ever been recorded sound a bit half-arsed. We're exaggerating, of course. But not much.

And then there's Eddie, as important a part of the b(r)and as any musician. Regarded by many as the best Eddie, Powerslave takes a sojourn to the outer reaches of Ancient Egypt, casting Ed as a majestic Egyptian pharaoh. As if that wasn’t cool enough, Eddie embodies an electrocuted mummy for the World Slavery Tour poster, making it one of the raddest pictorial representations of the band’s mascot ever.

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