The 50 best rock albums of all time

10. Led Zeppelin: Physical Graffiti

From the sizzling funk of opener Custard Pie to the dizzying tempo changes of In My Time Of Dying, it was clear that along with their battering mastery of electric blues, Led Zeppelin had broadened their outlook considerably on Physical Graffiti. Forays into elegant acoustics (Bron-Yr-Aur), California country rock (Down By The Seaside) and roof-busting Dixieland blues (Boogie With Stu) fixed Zepp’s ambitions beyond amped-up Elmore James worship. The apex was Kashmir, that mesmerising Middle-Eastern paean to heaviness, powered by Bonzo’s hypnotic Levee-esque stomp and a sweeping orchestral backsplash.

Guest reviewing for Classic Rock, producer Youth perhaps summed it up best: “Side two ends with another cornerstone and possibly their finest moment, the mighty Kashmir. Another epic running to over eight minutes and testament to Bonham’s unequalled status as best drummer of all time. Engineered by Ron Nevison (who also engineered another best ever double album contender, The Who’s Quadrophenia), Bonzo’s drums are phased, there’s a strange time signature which belies the simplicity of the beat and the sheer voodoo of it twixes your head. Bonham is like Hannibal, riding through the Alps on huge elephants… an ecstatic trance inspired by the deserts of India and North Africa…” 

Robert Plant himself has commented: “I wish we were remembered for Kashmir more than Stairway To Heaven. It’s so right; there’s nothing overblown, no vocal hysterics. Perfect Zeppelin.”

9. Iron Maiden - The Number Of The Beast

Widely regarded as one of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time, The Number Of The Beast turned Iron Maiden into superstars. Their first album with Bruce Dickinson, it brought them top 10 hits in the UK and established them as major players on the world stage. It also contains some of the finest songs ever written in the name of heavy metal. 

The first chance anyone had to hear the new Iron Maiden was in February 1982, with the release of first single Run To The Hills. A Top 10 hit in the UK, Run To The Hills is one of the most celebrated metal anthems of all time. It introduced everyone to the ‘Air Raid Siren’ – that’s Bruce Dickinson, obviously – and completely nailed Maiden’s swashbuckling, gung-ho approach and insane levels of energy in just under four minutes of triumphant, euphoric heavy metal abandon. It’s still ridiculously exciting 35 years later, despite regularly falling from favour in the band’s live sets. Run To The Hills is, inevitably, the people’s choice. 

“I knew that I had joined a great band,” said Dickinson. “I also knew I could make it even better. I had a vision for The Number Of The Beast: my voice glued on to Maiden equals something much bigger.”

Hallowed Be Thy Name was recently voted Maiden’s best song by readers of Metal Hammer magazine and it brought the pre-encore curtain down on virtually every one of the band’s gigs for at least two decades after TNOTB was released. One of their greatest ever epics, and quite possibly quintessential Maiden song, Hallowed… gives you everything that’s great about this band in seven overwhelmingly dramatic and exhilarating minutes. Machine Head, Cradle Of Filth, Dream Theater and Iced Earth have all recorded cover versions, which serves to prove what a vast influence this song – and the album that it appears on – has had on generations of metal musicians.

8. AC/DC: Powerage

Put simply, Powerage is arguably the best rock album of the 70s. But, sandwiched between two of the band’s other peaks, Let There Be Rock and Highway To Hell, AC/DC’s fourth international release, it didn’t immediately stake a claim as their best album. That Powerage is the only AC/DC album title not to feature in a chorus of one of their songs speaks about one of the record’s key virtues: subtlety. 

Granted, there’s little that’s subtle about the throttling riffs on Riff Raff or the crunching Kicked In The Teeth, but elsewhere – on the beautifully lachrymose Down Payment Blues, the playful What’s Next To The Moon, the plaintive, in-the-pocket Gone Shootin’ – AC/DC display a discipline, control and restrained power that only the most mature and confident of players can attain.

Emphatically, it’s late frontman Bon Scott’s album. Much of the beauty of Powerage comes from Bon Scott’s wonderfully sketched portraits of disappointed, desperate men pushed beyond breaking point by lost love and empty pockets. As cocksure as he could be, Scott always had an affinity for the broken and bruised; that guy with holes in his shoes, holes in his teeth and patches on the patches on his old blue jeans, and Powerage is a celebration of fortitude in the face of soul-crushing setbacks. 

Crucially, though, at the heart of the album there is always hope, always a glimpse of blue skies for those knocked in the gutter, as evinced by Sin City, a glorious ‘fuck you’ to the fates, a defiant last hurrah in the face of cruelly stacked odds. After Powerage, AC/DC would get louder, slicker and bigger, but they would never again display this much heart, soul and humanity.

7. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 

For the generation who experienced The Beatles first-hand, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band wasn’t just the greatest Beatles album, it was also the greatest album of all time. There had been nothing like it before: a sort of concept album, born of studio experiment, and taking recorded music where it had never gone before. Its reputation dominated the popular and critical view of The Beatles for nearly 20 years, until the arrival of CDs and the renewed popularity of Fabs records such as the White Album and, particularly, Revolver, shifted the balance away from Pepper

People started to say that with Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever harvested for singles, Sgt. Pepper lacked great songs (apart from With A Little Help From My Friends and A Day In The Life). They said that there were better tunes and just as much experimentation on Revolver, whose conciseness and, well, lack of 1967- ness, endeared it to a more modern audience.

But Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is now over 50, and still a brilliant album. Even without all the experiments, the tapes being thrown in the air, orchestral climaxes and use of Indian musicians, this is (largely) a set of extraordinary songs. The intro to Lovely Rita (and Paul McCartney’s inspired cry of ‘Rita!’); the warmth of With A Little Help; the spooky brilliance of A Day In The Life; the reprise of the title track; the daring of Within You, Without You; the internal rhyming of ‘and’ and ‘grand’ in When I’m Sixty Four.

Rock music was changed by Sgt. Pepper and so were The Beatles. Paul McCartney once said of his solo career that each new album was a reaction to the previous one, and so it was with the rest of the Beatles’ career: the White Album is almost a polar opposite to Pepper, with its plain cover and half-produced songs. They never did anything like Pepper again (although the repackaging of the Magical Mystery Tour EP as an album was an attempt to clone it). It’d be unfair to expect them to. This is the album that all others are measured against.

6. Queen: A Night At The Opera 

The arguments still rage. “Queen were a singles band!” someone will say. “Like The Kinks, The Who and ELO! It doesn’t make them a bad band – not at all! But Greatest Hits I & II – those are their best albums…” 

Don’t listen to them. Queen were perfectionists. Sure, they mastered the single. Famously, they’re the only band where every member wrote a number 1 single. Bassist John Deacon wrote Another One Bites The Dust, drummer Roger Taylor penned Radio Ga Ga, guitarist Brian May sculpted We Will Rock You out of the finest rock clay, and frontman Freddie Mercury wrote A Night At The Opera’s most famous song –arguably the most famous song in the whole of rock – Bohemian Rhapsody.

A Night At The Opera wasn’t really where they found their feet – the previous year’s Sheer Heart Attack was where their songwriting really came into its own – but it was the album where the public finally caught up, thanks to the greatest calling card of all time, in Bo Rhap. Warned by everyone, including friend and DJ Kenny Everett that, at six minutes, it was too long for the radio, Everett then played it 14 times on his radio show that weekend. An American DJ followed suit and suddenly the record company felt compelled to release a song they thought was commercial suicide.

“We’re just very different,” Mercury told Melody Maker’s Harry Doherty at the time. “We do things in a style that is very different to anybody else. There are literally scores of songs that have been rejected for this album. If people don’t like the songs we’re doing at the moment, we couldn’t give a fuck."

5. Led Zeppelin: IV 

For sheer impact, immediacy, concision, endurance, influence and intrinsic Zepishness, Led Zeppelin IV is unbeatable. Of all their records, Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, released in late 1971, remains their most admired work. From Page’s unimpeachable riffs, through Jones musical invention and Plant’s clarity of vocal to that titanic John Bonham drum sound, IV (sometimes referred to as “Four Symbols”) still emits a freshness that belies its age. 

Black Dog’s machismo, Rock And Roll’s Bonham-propelled brutality, Plant’s honeyed, evocative Sandy Denny-complemented vocal on The Battle Of Evermore, Stairway To Heaven’s mainstream-slaying production and dynamism – and that’s just side one. 

And talk about influence: after pretty much defining metal and folk-rock, IV’s encore was to unwittingly provide hip-hop with the source of its ultimate breakbeat, When The Levee Breaks.

The epithet ‘tight but loose’ has always accurately described the band’s aesthetic. Squeaks, scrapes and microphone bleed were not errors to be corrected in Page’s production ethos, but rather characterful and inherent ingredients of the feel. Combined with the biggest fuck-off drum sound ever committed to tape, IV feels raw and crafted.

It’s been both loved and loathed in equal measures, but nowhere is Page’s supreme understanding of rock dynamics better illustrated than on Stairway To Heaven, with a song that teases and caresses and then climaxes with nothing less than the world’s greatest ever guitar solo. All that glitters is not gold. But this is. This is what we came here for.

4. Metallica: Master Of Puppets

The heaviest album in the top 20 is the record that transformed the band from being cult thrash heroes into a major heavy metal force – easily the most important band of their generation in the genre. 

The third Metallica album, not only is Master Of Puppets rightly regarded as an all-time metal classic, but some still believe this to be the finest album the band have ever created. It was the first album Metallica put out in America on a major label, Elektra (they were still signed to Music For Nations in the UK and Europe), and was to the be last to feature Cliff Burton, the bassist tragically dying during the band’s subsequent tour. 

It’s hard to overestimate how important this album was not just for Metallica, but for metal in general. Says Alter Bride’s Mark Tremonti: “When I heard the opening bars of Battery it completely blew my mind. The whole album made me a believer. I like that it was heavy and brutal at some points, but that it was so beautiful at others. And I loved the way they had their finger-picked, clean, classical-influenced versions and then beat you over the head with the electric guitar in the chorus. It was like a heavy metal concerto; almost as if Bach had come down and assisted a metal band in writing an incredible album.”

Structurally, Master Of Puppets aped the format of its predecessor, Ride The Lightning, but here Metallica’s ideas were more developed, their confidence in their own abilities more pronounced. Master Of Puppets is both uncompromising and uncompromised throughout, the work of men now utterly convinced of their own destiny.

3. AC/DC: Back In Black

There was a powerful significance in that title, and that none-more-black cover. On February 19, 1980, AC/DC’s singer Bon Scott was found dead in a parked car in East Dulwich, south London. The night before, he’d been out in London’s Camden, watching bands and drinking himself into oblivion. On the drive home, he’d gotten into such a state that his companion couldn’t wake him, so left him in the car. He never woke again. “Acute alcohol poisoning,” said the death certificate. “Death by misadventure.” Bon Scott was 33. AC/DC’s previous album, Highway To Hell, had broken the top 20 in the US. After years of slogging in Australian bars, and then the UK gig circuit, the band had seemed on the verge of breakthrough. 

Against the odds, however, they quickly regrouped, deciding that Bon would want it that way. Auditions were quickly held for a new singer (they went for Johnson after someone remembered Bon Scott raving about the singer from one-hit wonders Geordie) and six months later, released Back In Black. Guitarist Angus Young described Back In Black as “our tribute to Bon”, but it became so much more than that. The biggest-selling album of AC/DC’s career, Back In Black is the mother of all comeback records and arguably the greatest hard rock album of all time.

On previous album Highway To Hell, Mutt Lange had polished up the band’s sound and made them more commercial without losing their core identity. You Shook Me All Night Long perfectly illustrates Lange’s ability to bring an entirely acceptable pop sensibility to a hard rock band as he helps the band deliver a singalong, ‘arms around your best mate’s shoulder’ winner of a tune.

It has so many classic songs: Hells Bells, Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution, Shoot To Thrill, What Do You Do For Money Honey (a song that dates from sessions for 1978’s Powerage album), and of course that genius title track, built on a juddering riff that sounds like the blues would if it was deconstructed by Satan and then rebuilt by Tony Stark.

2. Guns N' Roses: Appetite For Destruction

Appetite For Destruction is one of the greatest records of all time, and one of the biggest – the biggest-selling debut album, ever – with over 30 million sales worldwide. It revolutionised rock music in the late-80s and transformed Guns N’ Roses into superstars, its success all the more amazing given the chaos in which it was created.

But at the heart of the album was a core of truly great songs: In many ways, Welcome To The Jungle is the definitive Guns N’ Roses song, and an album opener which – from Axl’s opening words, ‘Oh my God’ – warns the listener in no uncertain terms that they better buckle up tight for the road ahead. Detailing Indiana boy Rose’s first wide-eyed, open-mouthed impressions of Los Angeles, this was the first song Slash and Axl ever wrote together, and it remains the ultimate statement of Guns’ fearless, reckless, last-gang-in-town swagger. It’s So Easy was Guns’ first UK single, a snarling, seething introduction which double-dared you to get closer to these obnoxious, aggressive, misogynist shitbags. It’s hardly the band’s most sophisticated tune, but no other early Guns song carries such bad-boy menace.

And if much of Appetite Of Destruction declares that Los Angeles is a dirty, depraved, dangerous shithole, Paradise City is the album’s kicker – an admission that Guns N’ Roses wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. The quintet’s first UK Top 10 single, its simplistic singalong melody is arguably a little too eager to please, though the song may have had less global appeal had the band not changed its original lyric: ‘Take me down to the paradise city, where the girls are fat and they got big titties’. Slash’s guitar playing, meanwhile, transforms the whole thing into a sleaze-rock Born To Run, all marauding riffs and elegiac solos. 

Mr. Brownstone, You’re Crazy, Out Ta Get Me: the album oozes bad attitude and is littered with great lines (‘I used to do a little, but a little wouldn’t do, so the little got more and more’, ‘Some people got a chip on their shoulder/An’ some would say it was me’, ‘Welcome to the jungle it gets worse here everyday/You learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play’). 

And in Sweet Child O’ Mine, Guns N’ Roses had a secret weapon: a beautiful rock ballad inspired by Southern rock icons Lynyrd Skynyrd. Slash didn’t much care for the song at first, dismissing it as “sappy” and his own lead guitar melody as “this stupid little riff”. But it topped the US chart for two weeks in September 1988, regularly tops polls to find the greatest guitar solo or riff, and it remains the best-loved song of Guns N’ Roses’ career. 

Appetite For Destruction arrived at the height of the hair metal era and was born of the LA rock scene, but its roots lay in the great rock music of the 70s – in Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and the Sex Pistols. It’s the newest album album in the top 10 and understandably so – has anybody has made a better rock’n’roll record since its release?

1. Pink Floyd: Dark Side Of The Moon

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of Pink Floyd as a defining force in rock culture. And it’s not just about the number of records they’ve sold. You can reel off pages of statistics concerned with the success of The Dark Side Of The Moon, but that doesn’t tell you why that album – both the music and the album sleeve itself – from 1973 became an icon for a generation. Or why Pink Floyd became a phenomenon that has affected every generation since. 

The answer is that they have made some of the most amazing, most singular music in rock. The punks may have hated the band and what they often (wrongly) perceived they stood for, but Pink Floyd’s bile against the system was often as venomous as anything the punks could spit out. 

It’s an album that brings people together – that metal guys like as much as alternative rockers. “It’s the perfect record,” says Clutch’s Neil Fallon. “I think The Dark Side Of The Moon is one of the albums we’ve heard so much that we tend to grow a little deaf to it, but it’s perfect. The lyrics match the music and the music matches the lyrics. I remember listening to it also at a very young age, and that was one of the very first records I remember closing my eyes to. I still do to this day, which says something.”

One of the most consummate rock albums ever recorded, Dark Side was an ambitious, groundbreaking concept that has become a timeless classic. It’s themed around the pressures of modern life and the insanity that can provoke, and the dynamic sound reinforces the songs’ contrasting images, from the paranoia of On The Run to the seductive requiem that is The Great Gig In The Sky, a sensitive contemplation of death that ends up in a place you’d never expect given the pretty keyboards that Richard Wright brings to the tune’s first minute. Session singer Clare Torry suddenly unleashes a wordless vocal from somewhere uncharted and deep within her soul, well, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

The impact was heightened by linking sound effects, often integrated into the songs: a heartbeat, the cacophony of clocks at the beginning of Time and the coin-dropping speaker-hopping till-ringing jangle that opens Money. Waters decided that the album needed “an overture” and “I fiddled around with the heartbeat, the sound effects and Clare Torry screaming, until it sounded right”. Speak To Me was born. From there to closer Eclipse, the listener his taken on a journey.

"The music grows, it gets bigger,” said Rick Wright. “We would lift it up and up. If I ignore the depression of the words, which I tend to do, I think there’s hope in it, because of the music.” 

And there is. To this day, TDSOTM has a beauty and vitality that still has the power to thrill.

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.