‘Albums still matter’: 20 records you should savor end-to-end

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Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
These things are still important. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

When Prince presented the Grammy for best album this week, he made an impassioned case for a musical format that many seem ready to write off as dead.

“Albums, remember those?” he said. “Albums still matter. Albums, like books and black lives, still matter.”

That’s how you present an award, folks.

Albums are collections of musical pieces that work together to create an auditory gestalt larger than the individual songs themselves. With the massive growth in streaming audio these days, many people might be missing out on this incredible old-school experience.

Here’s the cure: a list of amazing albums you should listen to in their entirety, even if you don’t do vinyl. iTunes might have helped kill CDs, but it’s still a great place to buy albums rather than shortchanging yourself with a bunch of singles. There are dozens of other albums you should explore, depending on your musical tastes, but this list should remind us all how awesome albums are as a concept. You can thank us later.

Photo: Columbia Records
Photo: Columbia Records

Sandanista! by The Clash: Released in 1980, this triple album is The Clash’s masterpiece. Lots of reviewers and fans hate it because it’s such a radical departure from the band’s early punk rock. Instead, it’s 36 wildly eclectic tracks ranging from folk to Calypso. It’s a mad stew of musical styles that reflects the group’s growing fascination with — and mastery of — world music. Despite the mix of styles, the album is distinctly The Clash. They put their mark on every song, and the result is glorious. It’s everything that made the Clash great: great tunes, great hooks, great lyrics and a burning passion for the world — even if much of what they observed was outrageous and appalling. It’s the one album I’ve treasured for decades, and have never grown tired of. I have favorite tracks, which have shifted over the years, but it’s best enjoyed as an album, rather than individual tracks. God I miss Joe Strummer. — Leander Kahney

Thriller by Michael Jackson: We almost made this list with two Kanye West albums and no Michael Jackson, despite the fact that every pop artist since 1982 has basically just been doing their best MJ impression. Thriller is the album that started it all. Forget that it’s sold more copies than any other album ever — which obligates you to buy the vinyl too — Thriller is The King of Pop in his prime. There’s no one that’s funner to jam with. — Buster Hein

Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys: The 11th(!) studio album by laid-back surfing dudes The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds is one of those albums that has seen its reputation grow over time. Today it’s difficult to believe that an album featuring “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “God Only Knows” and “Sloop John B” could be considered a flop and an artistic failure but, hey, not everyone understood the iPhone when it arrived, either. Sometimes genius has to wait for everyone else to catch up. — Luke Dormehl

Ready to Die by The Notorious B.I.G.: The debut album from The Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die is, essentially, a concept album that takes you from birth to death. Everyone remembers Biggie’s “overweight lover” anthems, but the darker B-sides truly make the album work as well as it does. And with samples ranging from Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” to Dr. Dre’s “Lil Ghetto Boy,” it’s a masterfully guided tour through black music from the Civil Rights era and beyond. — Luke Dormehl

Photo: The Who
Photo: Polydor

Who’s Next by The Who: While Tommy and Quadrophenia are more obviously conceptual albums that have a rock opera story to them, this fifth studio album by classic rock demigods Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, John Entwistle and Keith Moon came out of songs that Townshend was writing for Lifehouse, a rock opera that never saw the light of day. That’s perhaps why it’s best listened to whole, with the freedom of “Babo O’ Reilly,” the sweetness of “Behind Blue Eyes” and the rock anthem “Won’t Get Fooled Again” telling a story with music for generations to enjoy.— Rob LeFebvre

Joe’s Garage, Acts I, II & III by Frank Zappa: While “rock opera” often seems like code for “unlistenable pretentious drivel,” this three-act miracle from irreverent musical genius Frank Zappa reveals the naked power of dirty pop music. Profane and ridiculously eclectic, this hilarious three-album set pokes fun at religion, sexual repression and the evils of big, bad government, while telling the story of a hapless garage rocker making his way through a hopelessly screwed up world. Tunes like “Catholic Girls” and “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” deliver the goods on their own, but when the entire song cycle plays out as Zappa intended — held together by some inspired narration by a shadowy character known as the Central Scrutinizer — the story proves bigger than the sum of its smutty parts. — Lewis Wallace

In Utero by Nirvana: If Nevermind is Nirvana’s most famous album, In Utero is the band’s most complete: It feels more like a grungy whole than a collection of polished hit singles. There are highlights along the way (“Heart-Shaped Box,” “Pennyroyal Tea” and “All Apologies” spring to mind), but it’s the totality of the experience that makes it work as well as it does. Nirvana tracks were always about a contrast between loud and soft, melodic and furious. In Utero is completely that idea, writ large. — Luke Dormehl

Talking Is Hard by Walk The Moon: Upbeat pop/indie/rock music isn’t too rare a breed nowadays, but Walk The Moon‘s latest album is an addictive dance story about falling in and out of love. Released in December, the band’s second full record brings ’80s sounds to today’s generation. The single “Shut Up and Dance” has become something of a nationwide hit and songs like “Down in the Dumps” and “Avalanche” offer similarly catchy rhythms that mash through the woes and wows of love. “Aquaman,” one of Talking Is Hard’s slower tracks, continues the blast from the past as it sparks memories of Phil Collins while tying in Walk The Moon’s signature flair. In the end, who doesn’t love music that makes you want to get up and dance? — Courtland Jeffrey

Yeezus by Kanye West: You either love or hate Kanye West. Sure, he can be an egomaniacal asshole, but he also makes great music. West’s sixth studio album, Yeezus, was very well received by critics and largely a flop commercially. Produced by heavy hitters like Daft Punk and Rick Rubin, the 10-track record features visceral, racially charged tracks like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves.” As a hip-hop art piece, it doesn’t get much better than Yeezus. I know I’m a white guy telling you this, but the fact that West knows how to transcend race while calling racism into question is impressive. — Alex Heath

The Rat Pack: Live at the Sands by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.: If there’s ever been a compelling argument for why some albums deserve to be listened through from beginning to end, it’s The Rat Pack: Live at the Sands. Not only do you have Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. at the top of their vocal games, but you also get the witty repartee between numbers. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to spend an hour in the company of (still) the coolest group to ever walk the streets of Las Vegas, strike up this album and find out. A one-off Sinatra song slotted into your iTunes playlist is anemic by comparison. — Luke Dormehl


The Wall by Pink Floyd: Written mostly by bassist Roger Waters, Pink Floyd’s 13th album has got to be the gloomiest rock opera ever recorded. It’s a semi-autobiographical trip through the twisted psyche of a damaged rock star, starting with his bleak childhood in post-war Britain. It’s full of heartbreaking anguish for — among plenty of other things — his dead soldier father, his overprotective mother, his sadistic schoolteachers, gold-digging girlfriends and the rotten music business in general. Cheery stuff! It hardly sounds like the raw material for an awesome listening experience, but it soars. The album flows from gentle ballads to raging rock and some of it is just devastating. I only wish I’d seen the live performances. They are supposed to be some of the best stage shows by any band ever. — Leander Kahney

Little Earthquakes by Tori Amos: No one came onto the music scene with more utter feminist brilliance than Tori Amos. Her sexually suggestive writhing on the piano stool wasn’t a call for the male gaze but rather a true expression of Amos’ complete abandonment to her muse. While she continues to put out solid album releases, none are more cohesive than Little Earthquakes, with singles that sound like they were never written to be pulled out of the album format: “Silent All These Years,” “China,” “Winter” and “Crucify” are so utterly influenced by each other and the rest of the record’s 12 songs that this debut album must be delivered in total. Try not to shiver while listening to “Me and a Gun.” — Rob LeFebvre

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel: No indie music-loving hipster’s vinyl collection is complete without what I consider to be one of the saddest, catchiest and most frightening indie pop albums ever made. Aeroplane is lo-fi pop in its purest form with a sound that evokes both Sgt. Pepper and ’90s grunge. Ann Frank looms large on nearly every track, but the irresistible melodies make hanging out with her ghost a delight. — Buster Hein

OK Computer by Radiohead: When my late-1990s bandmates first raved about this album, I was unimpressed. At first listen, it’s full of noise and incomprehensible things. Listen to it again, however, and again, as an utter genius totality, and the noise coalesces into something of brilliance and wonder. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s falsetto shines forth like a beacon of sanity in a crazy universe on songs like “Paranoid Android,” “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and “Karma Police,” reminding us all that non-commercially motivated albums are usually the best. Listen to this one all in one sitting for a glimpse into a future insanity that you’ll be loathe to leave behind. — Rob LeFebvre

Lohio by Ass Ponys: The last record from a criminally underrated Cincinnati band, Lohio is that rarest of things: A final recording from a veteran band that stands among the group’s best work. From the soft, tinkling opening strains of “Last Night It Snowed” to the off-kilter “Outro,” the record builds up steam and rolls over you like an oddball Americana freight train overloaded with equal parts kitsch, cool and Midwestern melancholy. Luckily, chief songwriter Chuck Cleaver continues his excellent work with Wussy. — Lewis Wallace

Photo: Columbia
Photo: Columbia

Random Access Memories by Daft Punk: If ever the dance tunes of the late 1970s — known as disco — caught your ear, you’ve got to jump into Daft Punk’s homage to the fabulous genre with the French duo’s most recent album. It features Chic’s funky leader, Niles Rodgers, on a ton of tracks, and sees Daft Punk eschew its typical electronic production for a more authentic sound with real instruments. Sure, it’s got mega-hits “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance” (both spotlighting wunderkind Pharrell Williams) to power it onto modern radio, but songs like “Giorgio by Moroder,” which features synth tracks overlaid with the musings of EDM pioneer Giorgio Moroder, that really make this album come together as an entity unto itself. Disco isn’t dead, and Random Access Memories is one of the main reasons. — Rob LeFebvre

Straight Outta Compton by NWA: This is an Apple fan site, so you know we gotta show some love for Compton’s most beloved M.C. Just like Apple with the iPhone and smartphones, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E didn’t invent gangsta rap, they were just the first crew to do it right. The group hit the track with more fire, venom and beat-blasting goodness than anyone had ever seen. Dre and Cube have gone on to produce better records, but there’s only one album on which you can listen to them yell “fuck tha police” with Eazy-E. — Buster Hein

Document by R.E.M.: The band’s last great indie album opens with “Finest Worksong,” an unadulterated blast of pop agitprop that signals the album’s fiery intent. Then Document slow-burns through one of the most evocative series of political polemics disguised as catchy pop songs you’ll ever hear. If you bought just the hits, you’d sing along to “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” but you’d miss “Exhuming McCarthy” and the darkly inspirational “Disturbance at the Heron House.” Worse yet, you might miss the point entirely. — Lewis Wallace

The College Dropout by Kanye West: With a mixture of soulful beats, conscious lyrics and a couple of massive singles (“Jesus Walks” and “Slow Jamz”), 2004’s The College Dropout was the album that first introduced us to Kanye West. There’s something to be said for first albums in any genre, but in hip-hop it’s a great chance to hear from artists before they begin living out their own rap star fantasies. In this case, we get a pre-Mr. Kim Kardashian as the “first n*gga with a Benz and a backpack.” What results is still the greatest artistic achievement of Kanye’s impressive career. — Luke Dormehl

Revolver by The Beatles: This album fully expresses the Fab Four in their mid-’60s period: You’ll want to listen to the brilliantly angry, Harrison-penned “Taxman” and the almost-perfect pop harmonies of Lennon’s “And Your Bird Can Sing” in order, as the artists intended. The entire album holds up even now as a testament to musical brilliance over production while remaining a critical step in The Beatles’ musical evolution. — Rob LeFebvre

Be sure to click through to the albums above via iTunes to purchase them all in one go. Alternatively, if you want to stream rather than shuffle these albums, you can hit up our playlists of all these great albums (minus Revolver and Ready to Die due to licensing issues) on Spotify and Rdio.