Our Ten Best- Episode 37: Top Classic Rock Albums
Classic-rock albums were always the lifeblood of this genre of music. Some have threads between songs that create a musical tapestry, while others have loosely associated tracks. Many of them have beautifully crafted covers with groundbreaking artwork or a unique style, but more importantly, they’re collections of songs that flow together seamlessly. Here is my top 10 list of classic-rock albums. In order for a release to make the cut, it must meet three criteria: Have a tremendous impact on the classic-rock world, maintain high quality from beginning to end and, most importantly, be timeless.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967) – The Beatles – It is the most significant album in classic-rock history. It is revolutionary in its content, presentation and impact on the music world. Originally conceived as a concept album about an imaginary band, it evolved into a sonic masterpiece with rockers (“It’s Getting Better” and the title track), psychedelia (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), mysticism (“Within You Without You”) and symphonic brilliance (“She’s Leaving Home”). Songs like “Lovely Rita” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” are mini-movies with wonderful music and lyrics. In addition, its groundbreaking cover, which features the Beatles alongside cultural icons like Edgar Allan Poe, Marlon Brando, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Bob Dylan just to name a few, is priceless. The album is also one of the first major releases that took a long time to produce (700 hours). It also included the lyrics to the songs, a novel idea at the time. Produced by George Martin and engineered by Geoff Emerick, it is a shining moment for John, Paul, George and Ringo.
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (1973) – Elton John - John and lyricist Bernie Taupin’s streak of fantastic albums continued with this career zenith. Released as a double album, its 17 songs are a bouillabaisse of assorted musical styles. From the gothic organ of the anthem “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” to the melodic “Harmony,” this masterpiece covers all bases. We are introduced to the seamy underbelly of the city with “All the Girls Love Alice,” teenage angst is explored in “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and John and Taupin pay tribute to sex goddess Marilyn Monroe in “Candle in the Wind.” Elton’s backing band of Davey Johnstone (guitar) Dee Murray (bass) and Nigel Olsson (drums) never rocked harder or played better. John’s Jerry Lee Lewis-inspired piano work is dynamic, while his vocals are both touching and rocking. Though John has had many highlights in his career, they never surpassed this effort. Producer Gus Dudgeon got the most out of the band on this rock opus, which was recorded at Strawberry Studios in France.
“Who’s Next” (1971) – The Who - This rock masterpiece, penned by Pete Townsend, came out of the “Lifehouse” rock opera he abandoned. Some songs were retained for this album, and they shook up the world of rock. The use of synthesizers and other keyboards on “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was groundbreaking at the time. Roger Daltrey’s vocals are at their best (“Bargain,” “The Song is Over” and “Behind Blue Eyes”), Townsend’s power chords are inspiring, John Entwistle’s bass lines are intricate and Keith Moon’s frenetic drumming is unrivaled. A great track is the Entwistle classic “My Wife,” which underscores the old adage, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Even though the Who gave us “Tommy” before and “Quadrophenia” after this release, the quality of this album makes it the Who’s signature release. There is a 1995 edition with bonus tracks and a double-disc version that features a live performance from the Young Vic Theater in London on April 26, 1971.
“Are You Experienced” (1967) – The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Hendrix burst onto the music scene in England in 1966, wowing such rock luminaries as Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton with his electrifying live performances. As if that were not enough, his debut is a landscape of electrified blues (“Red House”), in-your-face rockers (“Purple Haze” and “Foxey Lady”), lilting, spacey ballads (“The Wind Cries Mary”) and cosmic excursions (“Third Stone from the Sun”). Feedback, backward sounds and distortion aside, Hendrix demonstrates why he is the best classic rock guitarist to ever strap on an ax. Along with Noel Redding (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (check out his drums on “Fire”), Hendrix redefined the parameters of songwriting and recording with his maiden effort.
“Dark Side of The Moon” (1973) – Pink Floyd – The sixth album of this progressive rock band remained on the Billboard charts for 14 years, eventually selling 45 million copies. Recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios and engineered by Alan Parsons, this landmark art-rock concept album addresses greed (“Money”), madness (“Brain Damage”- a reference to ex-band member Syd Barrett) and aging (“Time”). The tracks all flow together without any separation, which adds to its magic. It has a striking cover shot of a prism, designed by Hipgnosis. Roger Waters’ brilliant lyrics and compositional skills were at their peak, and guitarist David Gilmour’s tapestries of sound envelopes the listener. As late keyboardist Richard Wright stated, “It felt like the whole band were working together. It was a creative time. We were all
“Machine Head” (1972) – Deep Purple - Recorded at the Grand Hotel in Montreaux, Switzerland, this dream album includes “Highway Star,” Deep Purple’s ode to a woman and an automobile, and “Smoke on the Water,” every beginning guitarist’s rite of passage. “Never Before” and “Pictures of Home” are songs that do not get a lot of airplay on a certain classic-rock station in New York City, but are musical highpoints nonetheless. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore shines throughout (especially on “Lazy” and “Space Truckin’”), while Ian Gillan (vocals and harmonica) and Ian Paice (drums) are in top form. A 25th anniversary edition (1997) features remastered versions of the tracks on the original, plus a great B-side, “When a Blind Man Cries.” Though Deep Purple had many brilliant moments (“In Rock” is considered the starting point of heavy metal), nothing matches this release, which eventually received double-platinum sales.
“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” (1972) – David Bowie – This concept album chronicles the tale of an extraterrestrial who tries to save earthlings from destroying Earth in five years (a song title on the album). In addition, Stardust is a drug-addled and promiscuous rock star, whose message of peace and love is undermined by his hedonistic tendencies. Beyond this interesting subplot, the album rocks from beginning to end. The wonderful Mick Ronson’s (guitar) tasty guitar licks add to such classics as “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City” and “Hang on to Yourself,” while Trevor Bolder (bass) and Mick Woodsmansey (drums) round out the Spiders from Mars expertly. A 1990 reissue contains a demo track of “Lady Stardust” and a previously unreleased outtake of “Sweet Head,” a rarely heard diamond in the rough. Often called “Ziggy Stardust,” the release is a glam-rock staple and still maintains the same musical relevance today.
“Sticky Fingers” (1971) – The Rolling Stones – The ninth album from the band is a creative and musical zenith for the “Glimmer Twins” (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards) and the rest of the Stones. It was also Mick Taylor’s (guitar) first full appearance on a Rolling Stones album. Its tracks range from your molten rockers like “Brown Sugar,” “Sway,” “Bitch” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (along with a great Mick Taylor solo) to ballads like “Wild Horses,” the drug-inspired “Sister Morphine” and the dreamy “Moonlight Mile.” Its Andy Warhol-designed cover with a working zipper that reveals a man wearing briefs is inspired. (In Spain, this cover was replaced by a photo of a can with fingers in it, and “Sister Morphine” was replaced by a great live version of “Let it Rock,” a Chuck Berry classic.) There are so many Rolling Stones albums that are impressive efforts, but “Sticky Fingers” is the Stones at their raw, blues-soaked best.
“Led Zeppelin IV,” “Untitled,” “ZOSO,” or “Runes Album” (1971) – Led Zeppelin – Having sold 37 million copies worldwide, this album is the most significant release in Led Zeppelin’s history. What other band would have the guts to leave a cover of an album untitled? The cover shot of a countryman in an oil painting on the wall of a shoddy house gives the album a rural/city dynamic. From the sexually charged “Black Dog” (with guitarist Jimmy Page’s call and response guitar solo) and the early-rock inspired “Rock and Roll” to the epic “Stairway to Heaven,” this release never ceases to amaze a listener. It also contains “The Battle of Evermore,” with the angelic voice of Sandy Denny singing with Robert Plant. Page shines on the acoustic “Going to California” and the Mississippi Delta-drenched “When the Levee Breaks,” while John Bonham’s drumming is thunderous and unique throughout. This landmark album has something for every classic-rock fan.
“Aqualung” (1971) – Jethro Tull – Last, but certainly not least, Jethro Tull’s fourth album put them on the classic-rock map. It contains the classic-rock staple “Aqualung,” but also boasts “Cross-Eyed Mary,” “Locomotive Breath,” “My God” and the lost classic, “Wind Up.” The cover illustration is of a lecherous, homeless man, who is the character described in the title track. The first side (it was an LP) features character studies, while side two offers a pro-God,anti-church message. Ian Anderson’s voice is at its peak, as is his flute playing and acoustic guitar work. Martin Barre’s (guitar) licks and riffs are first-rate, while Clive Bunker’s drums are dynamic and perfectly suited for the material. The songs on the album are intricately structured and contain intelligent lyrics, making “Aqualung” a legendary release.
Honorable mentions: “ Brain Salad Surgery” (1973) – Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Back In Black” (1980) – AC/DC, “Bad Company” (1974) – Bad Company, “Fragile” (1972 in the U.S.) – Yes and “Jailbreak” (1976) – Thin Lizzy.
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