The 50 best rock albums of all time

20. Black Sabbath: Paranoid

It’s fitting that Black Sabbath’s second album, Paranoid, topped the UK album charts in the first year of a new decade. In capturing the zeitgeist, the eight tracks created by the Birmingham four-piece put a definitive musical full stop to 1960s hippy ideals propagated by Haight-Ashbury, free love and flower power.

This is an album that’s unashamedly built on a bedrock of riffs, riffs and more riffs. Bill Ward’s drumming is appropriately brutal, but there’s an absolute singularity of purpose in the way the songs subordinate themselves to guitarist Tony Iommi’s playing that makes numbers like Iron Man and Electric Funeral come across as utterly relentless and unstoppable. But riffs aren’t the only weapons in the Sabbath armoury on this album. Bassist Geezer Butler’s lyrics are perhaps surprisingly intelligent – if thoroughly pessimistic – for a group that wasn’t afraid of bludgeon. 

War Pigs is an articulate exposé of warmongers, despite the lazy rhyming of ‘Generals gathered in their masses/Just like witches at black masses’. Hand of Doom, meanwhile, offers an unflinching look at hard drug use amongst former soldiers as a means of coping with what was later recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. 

And then there’s Ozzy. It’s perhaps only now, a staggering 47 years after he delivered these performances, that we can see just how different a vocalist he was. Not for him the preening usually associated with band frontmen. Ozzy never sounds like he’s there to fluff up his own ego like, say, early Robert Plant. No, his defiantly sexless vocals are just another tool, willingly and effectively subjugated to this collective musical juggernaut.

19. Deep Purple: Machine Head

Having decamped to Montreux to record, disaster struck Deep Purple when the casino complex they were based in burnt down during a Frank Zappa show (an event that provided the inspiration for Smoke On The Water). Machine Head would eventually be recorded in the freezing, closed-for-the-season Grand Hotel on the outskirts of Montreux, using the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio.

And if they weren’t being hostile to each other, they were provoking it in others. “We did Smoke On The Water there,” said Blackmore, “and the riff I made up in the spur of the moment. I just threw it together with Ian Paice. Roger Glover joined in and we went outside to the mobile unit and were listening back to one of the takes and there was some hammering on the door. It was the local police, and they were trying to stop the whole thing because it was so loud. We knew that they were coming to close everything down. They were outside hammering and taking out their guns – it was getting pretty hostile.”

Astonishingly, the adversity actually brought the band closer together. “It was all of us against the world,” says Glover. “So there was a great feeling of camaraderie on that album.”

Smoke set the template for heavy rock but it wasn’t release as a single until the year after Machine Head’s release. The album went number within a week and changed public perception of the band. Suddenly, belatedly, people began to realise that Messrs Gillan, Blackmore, Lord, Glover and Paice weren’t a Led Zeppelin or a Black Sabbath; neither were they the “pop” Purple of the late 60s. The band had hit on a unique, loose-limbed formula and were determinedly carving their own niche.

Machine Head is a pivotal album because it set the template for Purple’s entire future direction. And, of course, it’s packed with timeless gems such as Smoke…, Lazy, Highway Star and Space Truckin’.

18. The Beatles: Revolver

In December 1965 and the first two months of ’66, The BeatlesRubber Soul album spent eight weeks at No.1 in the UK and six weeks at No.1 in the US, and was still in the US Top 20 when the group returned to Abbey Road studios in April ’66 to begin recording material for their next new album. Rubber Soul had set a new benchmark, and was credited for having shifted the focus of rock music from singles to albums. 

The first track the Beatles worked on for Revolver was the epochal Tomorrow Never Knows, a psychedelic, pseudoIndian cosmic soup dreamed up by Lennon four months earlier, inspired by the lines: “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream,” which he’d read in translator Walter Kaufmann’s book The Portable Nietzsche

It was also the first track that 19-year-old Abbey Road engineer Geoff Emerick worked on, having that very morning been promoted from recording assistant. “I was extremely nervous,” he recalled. “One request from John was that he wanted the vocal to sound like the Dalai Lama singing on a mountain top 25 miles away.” 

This, then, was in which the atmosphere Revolver – the album that transformed them from loveable mop-tops into psychedelic warriors – was created. Eleanor Rigby served notice that Paul McCartney was a great storyteller and the arrangement seems to run counter to all the sonic experimentation littered throughout the album: McCartney, Lennon and Harrison are heard, backed by a pair of string quartets, arranged impeccably by Martin. 

Side One closer She Said, She Said was inspired by an acid-fuelled party during which actor Peter Fonda commented, “I know what it’s like to be dead”. A suitably lysergic meditation on the spiritual quest and driven by George Harrison’s piercing guitar, and Ringo’s circular drum figures, it was one of the worms in the Apple: a paranoid acknowledgement of the dark side of the 60s.

17. Def Leppard: Hysteria

Def Leppard were under no illusions about what they wanted to do: they wanted to become the biggest band in the world, and were prepared to do whatever it took to achieve their ambition. Perhaps if they’d known exactly how much ‘whatever it took’ would turn out to be, they’d have knocked it on the head and got a job at B&Q. But it’s a good thing they didn’t, because the album that resulted from their very real battle against extinction turned out to be one of the classic British rock albums.

“We were scared,” singer Joe Elliott recounts. “We had absolutely nothing in the way of ideas. We’d learned we couldn’t write on the road; you were doing all these shows and interviews and appearances. If you managed to get an idea down, you were proud of the achievement rather than asking yourself whether it was a good idea. Besides, we’d enjoyed Pyromania so much, and we’d been living with that for nearly two years. We had nothing to go on.”

Sales of Hysteria faltered, then stalled at around five million (which for just about any other band would have been a success). But then strip club dancers started using Pour Some Sugar On Me as their backing track, and word of mouth led to rotation play on radio stations across the United States. Suddenly the album was shifting tens of thousands a day. In the end it sold 16 million copies. 

If any one track summarises the Def Leppard philosophy, it must be Pour Some Sugar… It’s simple, it’s anthemic, it acknowledges inspiration from a range of sources, and the lyrics are tongue-in-cheek, entertaining and upbeat. It’s in the spirit of I Love Rock’n’Roll but is much more than that, with the careful blend of guitars, layered vocals, strong melody and shouty bits.

16. Rush: Moving Pictures 

Released in 1981, Moving Pictures was a Top 5 hit in the UK and the US and has gone platinum four times over in their native Canada. But it’s a line-in-the-sand Rush album. An oddball mix of heavy riffs, new wave shapes and 80s technology, it closed the door on the satin kimonos and sci-fi epics that defined Rush in 70s, and embraced a brave new world. In the 70s they had become the undisputed masters of progressive hard rock, famed for their epic conceptual pieces that played out over entire sides of vinyl. But with their first album of the 1980s – Permanent Waves – came a significant change.

Opener Tom Sawyer was the crystallisation of this new, modern Rush: a powerful, finely crafted hard rock song with a punchy yet deeply philosophical message. “Tom Sawyer is a real trademark song for us,” says Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson. “Musically it’s very powerful, and lyrically it has a spirit that resonates with a lot of people. It’s kind of an anthem."

But while Rush were dipping toes in reggae and pop, they were still writing tracks like YYZ: a preposterous instrumental whose opening segment sounds like it was nicked off one of those punishing 70s King Crimson albums nobody actually listens to all the way through. Like La Villa Strangiato, YYZ was built to sate the appetite of bedroom air guitarists/ bassists/drummers. And for all its tricksy fills, there’s that moment of sublime, tuneful beauty at 2:53, when the synth kicks on.

15. The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main Street

Given a critical kicking at the time, this double album has come to be widely regarded as one of the Rolling Stones’ definitive records, even though (or perhaps because) it contains relatively few Stones favourites. At times dark, shadowy and bleak, at others it’s relentlessly upbeat and rockin’ – only repeated listening reveals all of its treasures.

Exile On Main St. is the loosest, funkiest and most soulful album the Stones ever made. And, reflecting Keith Richards’s immersion into heroin addiction, the whole album has a gloriously decadent air, illustrated by the lazy roll of Tumbling Dice, which was a hit single.

“A lot of the songs started off with an idea," says Keith Richards. "Mick [Jagger]’s playing harp, you join in and before you knew it you had a track in the making and an idea working. It might not be the finished track; you’re not trying to force it. As my father used to say: ‘Keith, there’s a difference between scratching your ass and tearing it to bits’.” 

Mick meanwhile was often absent from the sessions, attending to his pregnant wife Bianca who he’d married a month previously. Part of the magic of Exile On Main St. stemmed from the working relationship that had developed between Keith and fellow guitarist Mick Taylor. 

“Brian [Jones] and I would swap roles. There was no defined line between lead and rhythm guitar, but with Mick’s style I had to readjust the shape of the band and it was beautifully lyrical. He was a lovely lead player. I loved playing with Mick Taylor.” The guitarists’ synergy paid off. Exile… is the Stones at their elegantly wasted peak.

14. Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here may have marked the beginning of the end for Pink Floyd but their ninth album remains one of their most loved works and sounds as contemporary now as then. Its torturous gestation, recorded in increasingly indolent sessions at Abbey Road across half a year, almost broke the band apart, as Roger Waters said in 1999: “The whole thing had fallen to pieces during Wish You Were Here.” 

It certainly paved the way for Pink Floyd’s third era – the final near-decade when Waters set himself up solely as bandleader, sidelining guitarist and co-writer David Gilmour, alienating drummer Nick Mason and ultimately dismissing founder keyboard player Richard Wright. 

On title track Wish You Were Here, Gilmour’s vocal and Waters’ lyric provide arguably the greatest illustration of the the salt’n’sweet combination of Waters and Gilmour. Whatever animosity there may have been between them, the balance they brought to Floyd – Waters’ caustic sentiments made palatable by Gilmour’s majestic guitar playing – provided some of the band’s greatest moments. Wish You Were Here has become a standard – much covered and beloved of buskers everywhere. 

Wish You Were Here was released on September 15 and went straight to the top of the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic. It is estimated to have sold more than of 14 million copies worldwide. Richard Wright later said: “I think that’s my favourite album that the Floyd ever did. I feel the best material from the Floyd was definitely when two or three of us co-wrote something together. Afterwards we lost that; there wasn’t that feeling of interplay of ideas between the band.” It was about loss and the end of friendships in more ways than one.

13. Yes: Close To The Edge

It has been said that when Mozart was told by Emperor Joseph II that his new opera had “too many notes” he replied: “Only as many as necessary, your highness.” Moz also suffered reviews calling his music “overloaded and overstuffed” and “impenetrable labyrinths”. Some of this may sound familiar to Yes, whose 1972 grand opus still pulls off the considerable trick of sounding unfamiliar today. “When we did Close To The Edge, I was in heaven,” Jon Anderson has said, “and that still comes off the record...”.

This was the one, they decided, where they’d ignore boundaries. The egos and individuals involved clashed consistently throughout three months of recording in London. Yet the classic line-up of Anderson, Howe, Wakeman, Squire and Bruford (who left upon its completion, believing they’d peaked) conjured up a euphoric album of rare complexity and cohesion, still frequently referred to as the zenith of progressive rock. Lots of notes, sure, but only as many as necessary. Anderson has said that, despite disputes, they were “all very connected to each other” and even the self-deprecating Wakeman rates it as their best work. “No-one has ever come close to it,” says Trevor Horn, a fan at the time.

It initiated the band’s fashion of focusing albums around one epic centrepiece, in this case the 19-minute title track, which, in four joined sections, oozed spirituality – inspired in Anderson by Herman Hesse’s book Siddartha. It was clearly thought-through, with co-producer Eddie Offord splicing multiple sections of tape into a whole: although the band could, technically, play it all, they realised they could perfect a piece at a time, then patch them together. This itself was no mean feat in the pre-computer age.

Part of the wonder of Close To The Edge is the way it starts at such fever pitch, challenging you to doubt it can keep on rising. It just keeps daringly dancing on that precipice, never falling off.

12. Pink Floyd: The Wall 

It’s fair to say The Wall tour of 1980/81 was the antithesis of the no-frills rock’n’roll schlep. As challenging and bitingly satirical as its 1979 parent album, the 31-date odyssey (and Alan Parker’s subsequent 1982 film) had been floated, in embryonic form, right from the start. “When Roger conceived The Wall,” Pink Floyd artist Gerald Scarfe said, “he told me he wanted to make it into an album, then into a show, and finally into a film. We got on well. We had the same ironic-stroke-sardonic view of the world.” 

That world view was apparent on the album, Floyd’s eleventh, for which Waters presented his bandmates with a narrative tracing a picaresque anti-hero, Pink, through a wretched childhood, brutal education, failed marriage and hollow stardom, all under the cloud of his father’s death at war.

From the bombastic, opening In The Flesh to the surprisingly anti-climactic Outside The Wall the plot is peppered with metaphors, flashbacks, nightmares and dreams. What saves it is the compelling musical drama that keeps you hanging in there while it all unravels. 

There’s an abundance of musical highlights, great lyrics, clever dynamics and some great storytelling (that really only made sense when you saw the movie). The sigh at the begining of Mother, before the lyrics take you into Pink’s interior monologue (‘Mother do you think they’ll drop the bomb/ Mother, do you think they’ll like this song?’). 

And Nobody’s Home’s endlessly quotable lyrics may be the greatest insight into rock star alienation ever written (sitting in front of the TV in an American hotel room with ‘the obligatory Hendrix perm and the inevitable pinhole burns’ and ‘13 channels of shit on the TV to choose from’). And there’s show-stopping lines, like Vera Lynn’s opening, ‘Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?/ Remember how she said that we will meet again, some sunny day?

11. The Beatles: Abbey Road 

It may have been the final album The Beatles recorded together (although it was released before Let It Be) but Abbey Road is full of Beatles’ firsts: George Harrison’s first no.1 single Something), Ringo Starr’s first drum solo (The End), and the first-ever three-way guitar jam between John, Paul and George (The End again). That it contains some of the group’s most enduring melodies and breath-taking harmonies is made more significant when one considers that the four of them were barely on speaking terms just before they went into the studio. 

Following the disjointed ‘White Album’ and the joyless process of recording and filming Let It Be, by mid-1969, The Beatles looked finished. The bitter acrimony that was splitting the group apart had even forced George Martin, who had produced all of the band’s historic albums, to wash his hands of the Let It Be sessions (Phil Spector, for years itching to work with the Beatles, jumped at the chance to sort through the tapes). So the debonair Martin was more than a little surprised to receive phone calls from not one, not two, but all four Beatles begging him to come back to produce the last album. “You know, like you used to,” said Lennon, using all his persuasive charm. “Only if you’re like you used to be,” Martin replied, cautiously. “We will be,” Lennon responded quickly. “We promise.”

Lennon kept his word and Abbey Road brought both the 1960s and The Beatles to a close on the highest of highs. Lennon rocked compellingly on Come Together (his thinly-veiled plea to his fractured bandmates) and I Want You (She’s So Heavy). McCartney, increasingly the balladeer, growled his way through the larynx-busting Oh! Darling. Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun hinted at the wonders to come a year later with his solo album All Things Must Pass. Even Ringo turned in a rare self-written tune, the jaunty Octopus’s Garden. The suite that closed Abbey Road, meanwhile, is a dizzying display of the group’s truly wonderful, matchless talents.

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.