The 50 best rock albums of all time

30. AC/DC: Highway To Hell

Highway To Hell was AC/DC’s big breakthrough, their first million-seller. And, sadly, the last record that Bon Scott ever made. It was a triumph rescued from the jaws of disaster, an album with so much commercial expectation riding upon it that Atlantic Records originally attempted to bully the band into covering The Spencer Davis Group’s 1966 hit Gimme Some Lovin’ in a desperate bid for chart action. Mindful that the pressure was on, Malcolm Young (and the group’s new hot-shot manager Peter Mensch) fired original producer Eddie Kramer, hired in Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange, and forced his band to knuckle down for three month’s solid graft in the studio. The result was the most polished, professional and powerful album of the quintet’s career – and subsequently their first million-selling disc in America.

Mutt Lange’s genius was to translate all the blood, sweat and tears squeezed out of his charges in London’s Roundhouse Studio into an album that sounds effortless, care-free and spontaneous. AC/DC never lacked balls, energy or thuggish aggression, but on Highway To Hell their swinging punches were delivered with precision and poise, impacting with heart-stopping force. The devil, as ever with Lange, is in the details. The lairy gang vocals on the chorus of Walk All Over You (close your eyes and tell me you can’t instantly see Malcolm Young shuffling forward towards his mic stand as you read those words). Those economical, brutally effective guitar stabs on the verses of Touch Too Much. The breath-robbing full-tilt climax of If You Want Blood. The unstoppable, rolling momentum of Girls Got Rhythm.

Bon Scott, throughout, is at his most commanding, compelling and irresistible, cock o’ the walk in a rough ‘n’ tumble, spit ‘n’ sawdust world where “nobody’s playing Manilow”, rolling with the punches (both Beating Around The Bush and Shot Down In Flames lay out scenarios in which the horn-dog singer’s ego takes a bruising) and always on the sniff for the next adventure, as detailed so memorably on the album’s title track. Classic Rock once described Highway To Hell as “not just AC/DC’s greatest song, [but] the ultimate rock anthem, period” and the song is Bon as he’ll always be remembered – cocksure, rambunctious and ready to take on the world with a gap-toothed grin, come whatever may. It’s the sound of freedom, the sound of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band at their most feral and fearless. Highway To Hell is Bon Scott and his band at their most gloriously, thrillingly alive.

29. Faith No More: Angel Dust

The finest rock album of the 1990s? Quite possibly. Faith No More’s follow-up to the hugely successful The Real Thing album is unquestionably one of that decade’s darkest, most bitter releases, and surely one of the most nihilistic records ever released on a major label. 

When the president of Faith No More’s US label first heard these songs about sadomasochistic sex (Be Aggressive), serial murder (Crack Hitler) and masturbation (Jizzlobber) his first comment to the band was “I hope nobody bought houses.” Ouch. “The key phrase from the label was ‘commercial suicide’,” bassist Bill Gould later noted with no small amount of pride.

Possibly the only metal classic to sample a Simon And Garfunkel drumbeat, Midlife Crisis is a song built for huge arenas and vast, singalong crowds. Alongside A Small Victory and Everything's Ruined, it turned Angel Dust into a million-seller and the band into global stars. Unlike The Real Thing, Angel Dust touched upon fewer styles, but it more than made up for it in focus and performance. No other band sounded like Faith No More.

28. Bruce Springsteen: Born To Run

This was the album that saved Bruce Springsteen’s career after sales of his first two were disappointing, and also proved he could write anthemic rock that rivalled Phil Spector. While the title track and Thunder Road have always been live staples, it was the more romantic, orchestral songs like Backstreets and She’s The One that are the album’s overlooked gems. There are only eight tracks on Born To Run, but Springsteen slaved for almost two years making it. He rewrote each line of lyrics dozens of times, experimented with strings, and spent countless hours on minute details such as the running order. The result of his torture is Springsteen’s masterpiece.

Radio embraced Born To Run and helped make it Bruce’s first Top 40 hit, but it was the live show where Springsteen won over most fans. When he played a five-night stand at the Bottom Line in New York in August, with one of the nights broadcast on radio, sales jumped again. By the time the band played their first ever UK date – November 18, 1975 at London’s Hammersmith Odeon – Springsteen was an international star.

The song remains a staple on radio today, all these years after its birth. In a 1994 Greatest Songs Of All Time poll, conducted by The Times and the BBC, Born To Run was voted No.1 beating Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone. “I’ve been coming to Britain for quite a while, since the mid70s,” Springsteen said at the time. “The fans have been tremendously loyal. It’s a kick.”

27. Pearl Jam: Ten

To listen to Ten in one sitting is an almost gluttonous pleasure, like eating too many chocolate liqueurs. It plays like a Greatest Hits and still sounds sufficiently huge. Once was always underrated, crashing in after the false start of the Master/Slave instrumental, but the opener is one of the album’s strongest tracks, built on a seething vocal and a snake-charmer riff. Vedder in character as a vengeful maniac with pedal to the floor and ‘sixteen-gauge buried under my clothes’. A song to make your neck bristle and your fists bunch, it announced Pearl Jam as a band to treasure, right out of the blocks. 

Pearl Jam themselves seem to have a problem with Even Flow, generally agreeing that they flogged the spark out the original demo with too many takes (“Not sure why we didn’t use that one,” said original drummer Dave Krusen, “but I know it felt better”). For everyone else, the version that made it onto Ten was a belter, driven by that muscular-yet-snake-hipped riff, and managing to sing about homelessness without getting up your nose. 

And, yes, while Alive’s riff may now be held as practically the alt.rock Layla, it’s still a stone-cold classic, from Gossard’s stadium-ready intro lick to Mike McCready’s spring-heeled solo (which he admits, incidentally, that he stole from Kiss’s She).

26. Metallica: The Black Album

With over 20 million copies sold worldwide, Metallica’s eponymous fifth album, better known as ‘the Black album’ – in a fitting reference to the similarly packaged The Beatles’ The Beatles, aka The White Album – is one of the biggest-selling metal albums ever. Famously, the San Francisco quartet had sold one million records with 1986’s Master Of Puppets without releasing a single or ever making a promotional video, but five years on, their stated aim was to take over the mainstream, or as their drummer Lars Ulrich would memorably state, to “cram Metallica down everybody’s fucking throat all over the fucking world.”

Producer Bob Rock didn’t fuck about. Rock had turned in big albums for The Cult (Sonic Temple) and Mötley Crüe (Dr Feelgood) and his speciality was rambunctious pop-rock which sounded fantastic pumping from a car radio. Rock put his new charges through nine months of demoing – basic training for metalheads. Lars took drum lessons, and Hammett got coaching from shred legend Joe Satriani. 

Hetfield rose to the occasion, especially with songs like Wherever I May Roam, about the brotherhood of the band on the road, and The God That Failed, a particularly personal song about his childhood. The soundscapes that the band and Rock were creating, though lush and broad, had the new simplicity that they’d been aiming for.

But it was Enter Sandman that battered down the doors to the mainstream for Metallica. An all-time metal classic, it was Lars Ulrich’s skill in identifying and re-arranging Kirk Hammett’s intro riff which transformed Sandman. But it’s far from a ‘pop’ album. The sheer might of Sad But True is undeniable. Bob Rock’s describes the track’s crushing riff as “this force that you just couldn’t stop”, and it’s here more than perhaps any other track that Metallica stamped their authority as metal’s new global kings.

25. The Beatles: White Album

The album doesn’t even have a name. A simple white sleeve with the words ‘The Beatles’ embossed on the cover, the album that came to known all over the world as ‘The White Album’, seems to be a conscious reaction to Sgt Pepper’s technicolour universe, a record without a concept, an LP that was too numb to feel, or to commit to anything with feeling (famously, on rocker Revolution, Lennon claims that when we ‘talk about destruction, don’t you know that you count me out… In’).

On a trip to India in February 1968, with the Maharishi, The Beatles set about writing new material. And with the only Western instrument to hand being an acoustic guitar, the White Album’s sound was born of necessity. Donovan taught John to fingerpick and, utilising the technique, Lennon wrote Dear Prudence (an exhortation to young actress Mia Farrow to join in) and Julia (ostensibly about his late mother, though also about Yoko, the ‘Oceanchild’ in the lyric; Yoko literally means ‘child of the sea’ in Japanese). In all, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison wrote 17 of the songs that would appear on the White Album while in India. And, for the very first time, even Ringo wrote one.

Age, and technology, has been kind to the White Album. Listened to on vinyl, it’s a frustrating experience, with moments of genius punctured by corny pop, annoying song sketches and the experimental Revolution 9. In 2018, however, where anyone can make a playlist of its best bits, it really does sound like the greatest double album ever made.

24. Tool: Lateralus

Delving into and remoulding such diverse influences as King Crimson and Nine Inch Nails to create a shadowy, experimental sound, Tool's impact was immense, even though they firmly deny that they’re a ‘prog’ band. Aenima, from 1996, is often heralded as Tool’s defining moment, but the progressive complexity of Lateralus gives the latter an edge. With forceful instrumental passages and hate-fuelled lyrics, Tool attracted as many Marilyn Manson fans as they did Robert Fripp lovers.

Put simply, Lateralus is one of the greatest records of any genre ever created in the long history of popular music. A genuinely faultless near 80-minute-long piece of music that still sounds like it’s been created by some kind of higher power, even 17 years after it was dropped on an unsuspecting world. From the second that The Grudge kicks into gear, it's hard to fathom where to start with high points, let alone entertain the idea that Lateralus drops anywhere below perfect at any point, but the swaying ocean of the title track or the measured post-prog metal machinations of Parabol and Parabola would be two moments that immediately spring to mind. A landmark band's landmark release. And a genuine classic.

Anything else? Oh yeah, when Black Stone Cherry's Chris Robertson lost his virginity, Lateralus provided the soundtrack.

23. Rainbow: Rising

Rising is the sound of a band on fire. Recorded in the days before digital edits, the album has the intensity of a band getting it right in just a couple of takes, driven by Ritchie Blackmore’s intense desire to prove a point to his former Deep Purple bandmates. 

And then there’s the voice. “Ronnie James Dio was not only a talented singer, he was an amazing songwriter,” said Tony Carey. "Even on the throwaway songs, which would be Run With The Wolf and Do You Close Your Eyes, he was ferocious. All five-foot-two of him.” 

The album kicks off with the keyboard crescendo of Tarot Woman. “I especially like the Minimoog solo Tony does on Tarot Woman,” said Blackmore. “It was the first solo he did for the song. He said he could do much better, and went back and played for about an hour, but it never compared to the first solo.” 

The album’s centrepiece is Stargazer, a nine-minute epic that combines Blackmore’s love of classical music with Dio’s vivid, fantastical lyrics. The track is built around a cello-inspired main riff, but the highlight is Blackmore’s uninhibited lead playing and searing slide work (a recent addition to his repertoire). The sweeping, Eastern scales add to the grandiosity.

22. Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath

It took a day to record. The producer on this project was making his debut in such a role. The studio was a four-track. And the whole thing cost less than one VIP ticket for a Bon Jovi show in London this June. Yet, in 1970, this unprepossessing and rather low-key debut album altered the world as we knew it. For we’re talking here of the self-titled debut album from Black Sabbath. This was where heavy metal breathed for the first time, staring down the burning sun of commercial realism and blinding succeeding generations with an uncompromising darkness of thought, deed and riff.

“We didn’t even hear or see the album before it was released,” admits Tony Iommi. “The first we knew was when we got back from Europe, switched on the radio and heard Evil Woman… It was us. On the radio. That was exciting. But we were never sent the mixes of the tracks, nor shown the artwork. Nothing. Mind you, it was a lot harder back then to get anything to a band on the road.”

The centrepiece of the album was the title track - a formidable epic that builds to a deafeningly dark crescendo. As Geezer Butler says, it’s the band’s anthem. “If you listen to that song, then for me it represents everything about heavy metal,” he insists. “It’s all there - the whole genre in one song."

21. Deep Purple: Made In Japan

Now regarded as one of the all-time great live rock albums, Made In Japan also marked a watershed moment in the history of Deep Purple: a peak of performance that, paradoxically, found the band teetering on the brink of self-destruction. By the time Purple had reached Japan in August 1972, the heady blend of huge success, clashing egos and questionable management had created what Ian Gillan calls “a chaos effect”, triggering irreparable fractures within the band.

When Made In Japan was released in Britain, in December 1972, it was a revelation. There had been momentous live albums before: Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! by the Rolling Stones; Live At Leeds by The Who – but these were single LPs; glorified stop-gaps, highlights packages that weren’t viewed in the same light as the lofty studio albums. There had also been occasional live tracks included on studio albums, most notably by The Faces and Cream. 

There had even been live double albums before. The previous year had seen the release of both Humble Pie’s Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore, featuring extended jams on covers of songs by Dr John, Muddy Waters and Ray Charles, but just one original number, and the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East, a brilliant evocation of an up-and-coming band that became its breakthrough. Made In Japan, however, was the first time a truly international heavy hitter had made such a bold musical statement, and at such a pivotal moment in its career, just as its star was reaching the apex of its commercial ascendancy.

Classic Rock

Classic Rock is the online home of the world's best rock'n'roll magazine. We bring you breaking news, exclusive interviews and behind-the-scenes features, as well as unrivalled access to the biggest names in rock music; from Led Zeppelin to Deep Purple, Guns N’ Roses to the Rolling Stones, AC/DC to the Sex Pistols, and everything in between. Our expert writers bring you the very best on established and emerging bands plus everything you need to know about the mightiest new music releases.