The 50 Albums Everyone Needs to Own, 1963-2013

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No one buys albums anymore, goes the music industry truism. And yet, for all that the format’s commercial viability may or may not be on the wane, sitting and listening to a great album from start to finish is one of the greatest pleasures that music can bring. Flavorwire recently got to thinking about how one might build a record collection if you really only did buy one record a year. So here’s the result of our thought exercise: 50 albums you really should own, one a year from 1963 until the present day. Yes, of course this mean things are gonna get left out. Do feel free to argue the merits of our choices in the comment section. Just be nice. (And no, Random Access Memories isn’t the best album of 1976. Smartypants.)

1963: James Brown — Live at the Apollo

The Beatles would be the easy choice here — they released their debut Please Please Me in March — but that’s an album appreciated more in principle than in actuality, and rather pales in comparison to the band’s later work. Instead, let’s go with a record that captures one of the greatest performers of the 20th century at the height of his powers, tearing up the stage of the Apollo in Harlem. Oh, to have been there.

1964: Nina Simone — In Concert

Another live album, and one of the most powerful and significant concert recordings of the 20th century. The album was recorded at the height of the civil rights movement, and it found Simone using her performance as a platform to catalog her dissatisfaction with the state of the country. It culminates in the immortal “Mississippi Goddam,” a visceral howl of frustration and anguish.

1965: John Coltrane — A Love Supreme

That rarest of things: a jazz record that can appeal even to people who hate jazz.

1966: Bob Dylan — Blonde on Blonde

1966 brought an embarrassment of riches: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles’ Revolver, debut albums from The 13th Floor Elevators and The Mothers of Invention, Otis Redding’s Soul Album, The Monks’ proto-garage classic Black Monk Time, and plenty more. There are cases to be made for all of these, but Blonde on Blonde wins out because it’s arguably Dylan’s best record.

1967: Leonard Cohen — Songs of Leonard Cohen

The world’s introduction to the work of perhaps the 20th century’s greatest lyricist. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this album is how utterly contemporary it still feels — the simple, sparse arrangements are timeless, and the lyrics of tracks like “The Stranger Song” and “Stories of the Street” are just as relatable and relevant now as they were nearly half a century ago.

1968: Johnny Cash — At Folsom Prison

“San Quentin, I hate every inch of you.” Again, this is a year for which one is spoiled for choice — The Beatles’ White Album, The Band’s Music from Big Pink, and Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul are all contenders, as well as the fascinating and largely overlooked self-titled debut by The United States of America. But still, it’s hard to go past this; the atmosphere is genuinely unlike any other record before or since, and Cash never sounded better.

1969: The Velvet Underground — The Velvet Underground

The debut album has Nico and “Heroin,” White Light/White Heat has the glorious 17-minute meltdown of “Sister Ray,” but this is arguably the Velvets’ most coherent and fully realized record, trading the chaos of the Lou Reed/John Cale axis for the relative stability of Doug Yule, and in the process coming up with the best collection of songs the band would ever record together.

1970: The Stooges — Fun House

Brutal, primitivist proto-punk with surprisingly profound things to say about the nature of life — the simple wisdom of “Dirt,” in particular (“I’ve been dirt, and I don’t care/ ‘Cos I’m burning inside/ With the fire of life”) resounds across the years. Elsewhere the songs both address and undermine the desperate hedonism of Iggy et al’s lifestyle — when he shrieks “I feel alright!” like a mantra over and over at the end of “1970,” you get the feel that he’s anything but.

1971: Sly and the Family Stone — There’s a Riot Goin’ On

The wave of the ’60s had broken and rolled back, as Hunter S. Thompson would say, and the two best albums of 1971 cataloged the state of discontent that was revealed when the waters receded. Those albums, of course, are Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On and this record, and which of the two you choose is really a matter of personal preference between Gaye’s quiet melancholy and Sly’s coke-fueled descent into madness.

1972: Can — Ege Bamyasi

Meanwhile, in Germany, people were making music that sounded like absolutely nothing that had gone before. The likes of Can, Neu!, and Kraftwerk were so ahead of their time that their albums still sound futuristic.

1973: Brian Eno — Here Come the Warm Jets

And also on the futurist front, here’s Brian Eno’s debut solo album, a record that largely tears up the rulebooks for both songwriting and production, and in doing so reinvents both in ways both strange and wonderful. (An appreciative nod to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, too — Flavorwire is very much pro-Floyd.)

1974: Betty Davis — They Say I’m Different

They said she was different, and by god she was. This was largely overlooked on its release (and, indeed, remains so), but it was genuinely groundbreaking in that it placed female sexuality front and center, and did so with songs that were as awesome as they were confrontational. All together now: “I USED TO BEAT HIM WITH A TURQUOISE CHAIN!”

1975: Patti Smith — Horses

Horses! Horses! Coming in all directions! White! Shining! Silver!

1976: Ramones — Ramones

These days we call it punk, of course, but listening to the Ramones’ debut album again, it’s easy to see it for what it is: ’50s bubblegum pop played at breakneck pace and furnished with lyrics about glue-sniffing, chainsaws, and turning tricks for drug money. No wonder it detonated like a bomb in a world of long-winded prog instrumentals and men in robes playing King Arthur on ice.

1977: David Bowie — Low

When people talk about Low, they tend to focus on the Berlin mythos, the production, the weird instrumentals on side two… anything except the songs. But the thing is that in addition to being perhaps Bowie’s most interesting album, it’s also one of his best in terms of songwriting: side one of Low is a string of flawless three-minute pop songs.

1978: X-Ray Spex — Germfree Adolescents

People tend to cite the Sex Pistols as the band that encapsulated UK punk, but really, the movement’s sense of liberation and its DIY ethos are best embodied by its female artists — they embraced the spirit of personal and artistic freedom with gusto, and in doing so produced some of the era’s most remarkable and forward-thinking music. Germfree Adolescents fairly bursts with ideas and energy, and still sounds fresh and exciting.

1979: The Clash — London Calling

Also on the punk-as-artistic-freedom front, The Clash’s masterpiece comprehensively rejects the orthodoxy that came to surround the movement, embracing genres as disparate as rockabilly and reggae in the course of 19 songs and 70 exuberant minutes.

1980: Fela Kuti — Coffin for Head of State

This remarkable record has been discussed a couple of times on Flavorwire before, but its story bears repeating — it recounts the 1977 incident in which the Nigerian government, incensed by Kuti’s song “Zombie,” sent soldiers to storm his compound in Lagos. The soldiers burned the building to the ground and murdered Kuti’s elderly mother. This album is his reaction, two 20-plus-minute songs that manage to be both exuberantly unbowed and completely, utterly outraged.

1981: The Gun Club — Fire of Love

Former Blondie fan club president Jeffrey Lee Pierce was one of the great lost talents of the 1980s, and the dynamic country/blues/punk hybrid sound that this album pioneered would influence the work of a whole host of artists — you can hear echoes of it in everyone from the Bad Seeds to the White Stripes. Pierce never approached its glories again, sadly, but this record stands as a testament to his abilities as both songwriter and arranger.

1982: Michael Jackson — Thriller

It’s a tough cop for Bruce Springsteen’s masterful Nebraska, but really, there’s only one answer as far as 1982 is concerned. Thriller was that rarest of beasts: an album that was both an artistic triumph and a global mega-hit. (It is, however, a rather disconcerting experience to compare the attractive, dashing young man of the cover art with the sad figure who died in 2009.)

1983: Tom Waits — Swordfishtrombones

Waits’ great creative reinvention is one of the strangest left turns taken by any artist, ever. It’s also jam-packed with great songs, all rendered in that instantly recognizable Waitsian growl.

1984: This Mortal Coil — It’ll End in Tears

It’s one of the quirks of music history that it was most excellent British label 4AD’s house band that would end up making one of the label’s best and most influential records. It’ll End in Tears featured contributions from Dead Can Dance, Alex Chilton, Howard Devoto, Cocteau Twins, and various others, along with label boss Ivo Watt-Russell, and its idiosyncratic mix of covers and unheralded originals made for an unexpectedly wonderful record. (Also, Liz Fraser’s “Song to the Siren” is one of the most beautiful things ever.)

1985: Kate Bush — Hounds of Love

The mid-’80s have a pretty terrible reputation as far as music goes, but there are decent albums to be heard if you scratch beneath the surface. You could make a case for the likes of The Replacements’ Tim here — albums that flew beneath the commercial radar while proving influential on the bands that would eventually reinvent rock in the 1990s — but Hounds of Love is all the more interesting for managing to be both artistically fascinating and commercially successful, a rarity both in the 1980s and since.

1986: Throwing Muses — Throwing Muses

It’s hard to understate how important this album was, both in the way that it prepared the road for bands that would later prove hugely successful (it was Throwing Muses’ signing to 4AD that catalyzed the label signing the Pixies a year later), and also in that it embodied the first stirrings of an artistic resurgence for guitar music. And historical significance aside, it’s just a really fucking great record — Kristin Hersh’s songs move to an internal logic all their own, full of shifting rhythms and strange, evocative lyrics.

1987: Prince — Sign ‘O’ the Times

Prince really didn’t put a foot wrong during the ’80s, but even so, Sign ‘O’ The Times stepped things up a notch — the little genius had proven time and again that he could write pop songs like no other, but this album came with a healthy serving of social commentary and a general air of unprecedented seriousness. Of course, Prince being Prince, it also came with a bunch of pretty great party jams. What more could anyone ask?

1988: Sonic Youth — Daydream Nation

The point of perfect equilibrium between Sonic Youth’s abrasive, noise-influenced past and their comparatively restrained, song-centric future. There isn’t a bad song on this epic double record, and it’s one of those albums that really does deserve every single critical plaudit that’s been sent in its direction.

1989: Janet Jackson — Rhythm Nation 1814

Two years after Sign ‘O’ The Times, Jackson proved all over again that an album could be both socially conscious and rock the dance floor. Rhythm Nation 1814 was a concept album about social injustice and the state of America — an ambitious undertaking, but Jackson carried it off with aplomb. The end of the 1980s was a strange time for everyone, but better things were around the corner.

1990: Public Enemy — Fear of a Black Planet

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is Public Enemy’s best-known album, but there’s an argument to be made that its successor is better. It contains two of the group’s greatest tracks — viz. “Fight the Power” and Flavor Flav vehicle “911 Is a Joke” — but really, there’s not a bad song here, and Big Daddy Kane’s verse on “Burn Hollywood Burn” is one of the great under-appreciated performances of the ’90s. The album also kicked down the door of the mainstream in a big, big way, selling a million copies in its first week of release.

1991: Massive Attack —Blue Lines

Whether or not this record has aged well was recently the subject of a somewhat heated intra-office debate at Flavorwire central. It’s true that the house-y backing vocals sound a little dated, but the timeless thing about Blue Lines is the sense of space in its mixes — it’s beautifully understated and perfectly constructed. And the title track remains timeless, no matter what anyone says.

1992: L7 — Bricks Are Heavy

Y’know, if you want to declare a definitive grunge record, you could do a lot worse than this. People tend to cite Nevermind, but that album’s radio-friendly sheen means that it doesn’t really capture the sound’s punk-inspired rawness (a fact that Nirvana themselves were only too happy to acknowledge, and one they’d react to with its successor). Nevermind producer Butch Vig also produced this, and he didn’t make the same mistakes twice — Bricks Are Heavy is raw, nasty, and all kinds of awesome.

1993: Nirvana — In Utero

An obvious choice, perhaps, but one worth making, especially with the recent contrarianism around Nirvana. In Utero was the anti-Nevermind, an album that was unashamedly abrasive and a deliberate attempt to sabotage the band’s commercial appeal. It was also their best record by quite a stretch.

1994: Nas — Illmatic

Look, if you want the best hip hop album of the 1990s, then here it is.

1995: Radiohead — The Bends

For whatever reason, it’s kinda fashionable to hate on Radiohead these days. You may or may not think that Thom Yorke is a miserable so-and-so, or that the band’s decade-long detour into experimental electronica has worn thin, or whatever else — but in the mid-1990s they were pretty much unimpeachable. The Bends and OK Computer were both magnificent; we’re choosing the former because we have other things in mind for 1997, but they’re both great.

1996: Manic Street Preachers — Everything Must Go

Coming back from the loss of a band member is hard enough, let alone when that band member is both your childhood friend and your spiritual leader/lyrical genius, and his disappearance remains forever unresolved. But Manic Street Preachers managed to do so with both dignity and aplomb on this record, which serves as both an elegy for the disappeared Richey Edwards and a new beginning for the band’s sound.

1997: Spiritualized — Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

Flat out the single best break-up album ever recorded, and a strong contender for the best album of the 1990s. That’ll be all.

1998: Neutral Milk Hotel — In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

An example of an album whose reputation and fan base have grown exponentially since its release, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea got mixed reviews and sold poorly on release, but the world has come to appreciate its charms in the years since. And rightly so — it’s a strange, wonderful record, both idiosyncratic and entirely universal in its concerns. How strange it is to be anything at all, indeed.

1999: Mos Def — Black on Both Sides

Now that’s he’s an actor and mildly embarrassing political dilettante called Yasiin Bey, it’s easy to forget what a vital musical force Mos Def used to be. Around the end of the 20th century, he hit the purplest of purple patches — in 1998 there was the classic Talib Kweli collaboration Black Star, and the year after came this, his debut solo album and still his best. It’s intelligent, literate, and dynamic, a reminder of everything that hip hop can be when it’s not concerned with guns and idiot materialism.

2000: At the Drive-In — Relationship of Command

The genius of At the Drive-In was the way that the band’s hardcore-centric rhythm section reined in the proggy excesses of Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodríguez-López, creating a sound that was both dynamic and frighteningly virtuosic. The tension between the two styles meant that this was never going to be a band that held together for long, but boy they were good while they did.

2001: Missy Elliott — Miss E… So Addictive

Welcome to the future. People kicked up an almighty stink when Flavorwire named Missy Elliott one of our most influential acts of the 2000s — but it’s a claim we stand by, and this record found her employing Timbaland to basically create the robotic, futuristic sound that has dominated hip hop in the decade or so since its release. Also, if “Get Ur Freak On” doesn’t make you want to dance, you probably need CPR.

2002: William Basinksi — The Disintegration Loops

The concept behind The Disintegration Loops is simple — it’s the sound of an old tape loop playing endlessly as it slowly decays into nothing. The result is both immersive and remarkably emotive, seeming to speak of mortality and the transience of existence, a connotation made all the more powerful by the fact that Basinski finished the record on the morning of September 11, 2001.

2003: Cat Power — You Are Free

Chan Marshall’s most fully realized work, You Are Free is a surprisingly breezy collection of songs, especially in comparison to her previous records. Marshall being Marshall, of course, there’s a dark undercurrent — “Names” is one of the saddest songs anyone’s ever recorded, and the likes of “Good Woman” and “Fool” are as melancholy as they are beautiful.

2004: Electrelane — The Power Out

Honestly, where else do you find songs that have co-writing credits for Siegfried Sassoon and Friedrich Nietzsche? Electrelane often get lumbered with labels like “art rock,” but this album is first and foremost a celebration of rock ‘n’ roll’s possibilities, marrying driving beats and danceable rhythms to unashamedly high-concept lyricism. We were very excited when they got back together a couple of years back, and are still holding out hope that they might write new material.

2005: Fiona Apple — Extraordinary Machine

It was supposed to come out at least two years earlier, but hey, at least it was worth the wait.

2006: Joanna Newsom — Ys

Newsom’s early work was perhaps too whimsical for its own good, but this record proved that she was as gifted and ambitious a songwriter and lyricist as she was a musician. It’s nearly an hour long and yet contains only five songs, all of which are apparently based on true stories, and come with labyrinthine lyrics that you can lose yourself in for hours.

2007: of Montreal — Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

In which Kevin Barnes has a post-breakup breakdown and transforms into an African-American transsexual. And it’s genius.

2008: Portishead — Third

Portishead’s long-awaited comeback proved more triumphant than anyone could ever have hoped for — Dummy and Portishead were both great, but this… this was something else entirely. Liberated from the self-doubt and obsessive perfectionism that paralyzed him for the best part of a decade, Geoff Barrow crafted something remarkable with Third, an album that drew on everything from gentle folk music through the influence of electronic pioneers Silver Apples to jarring, abrasive industrial elements to create a sound that was startlingly original.

2009: Fever Ray — Fever Ray

For all that The Knife have made some great records, there’s a strong argument to be made that this remains the single best Dreijer-related project. With Fever Ray, Karin Dreijer Andersson created a record that’s relatively stripped down, and all the more effective for it — with The Knife, it sometimes feels like the arrangements and sounds overwhelm the songs, but that’s never the case here. The album’s sparse, dry sonic landscape is decidedly dreamlike, a feeling that’s mirrored in the four marvelous videos that accompanied its singles.

2010: Janelle Monáe — The ArchAndroid

A fascinating mix of futurism and nostalgia, The ArchAndroid drew on the sounds of classic R&B and soul to create a portrait of a dystopian future. It delivered on the promise of Monáe’s debut EP and also put Afrofuturism back in the spotlight — as “Tightrope” pointed out, “You either follow or you lead,” and Monáe is most definitely leading.

2011: Lost Animal — Lost Animal — Ex-Tropical

By far our favorite record of 2011, even though it didn’t get a US release until early 2013, Lost Animal’s Ex-Tropical is an unlikely blend of narcotized rock ‘n’ roll and strangely… well, tropical sounds. The above “Lose the Baby” is a strong contender for best song of the 2010s thus far, and the rest of the album is pretty much just as good.

2012: Swans — The Seer

In an age where it’s very much de rigeur to sit and complain about people’s short attention spans and how the Internet has ruined our minds, it’s worth noting that the best album of last year made precisely no concessions to any such things. The Seer is long, dense, and demands your attention — the whole thing is best appreciated by taking two hours to sit down and immerse yourself in it, something that many people were only too happy to do.

Bonus page:

2013 (thus far): Standish/Carlyon — Deleted Scenes

And finally, our favorite record of the year to date: ex-Devastations duo Standish/Carlyon’s just-released Deleted Scenes, which layers futurist melodies over some of the densest dub-influenced low-end sounds you’ll ever hear. (Your correspondent wrote about it for The Quietus here.)