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500 Greatest Albums

Here’s our list of seminal international albums including The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones among others

Rolling Stone India May 19, 2011
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30. Blue – Joni Mitchell

“The ‘Blue‘ album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals,” Mitchell told Rolling Stone in 1979. “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy.” With song after song of regrets and sorrow and a smoky-blue cover shot of Mitchell on the edge of tears, this may be the ultimate breakup album. Its whispery minimalism is also Mitchell’s greatest musical achievement. Stephen Stills and James Taylor lend an occasional hand, but in “California,” “Carey” and “This Flight Tonight,” Mitchell sounds utterly alone in her melancholy, turning the sadness into tender art.

29. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin

On their first album, Led Zeppelin were still in the process of inventing their own sound, moving on from the heavy rave-up blueprint of guitarist Jimmy Page’s previous band, the Yardbirds. But from the very beginning, Zeppelin had the astonishing fusion of Page’s lyrical guitar playing and Robert Plant’s paint-peeling love-hound yowl. “We were learning what got us off most and what got people off most,” said Plant, who was, in 1969, a relatively untutored twenty-one-year-old from England’s West Midlands. The template for everything Zeppelin achieved in the 1970s is here: brutal rock (“Communication Breakdown”), thundering power balladry (“Your Time Is Gonna Come”), acid-flavored folk blues (“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”).

28. Who’s Next – The Who

Pete Townshend suffered a nervous breakdown when his planned follow-up to the rock opera Tommy, the ambitious, theatrical Lifehouse, fell apart. He was also left with an extraordinary cache of songs that the Who pruned down and honed to a beefy sheen on what became their best studio album, Who’s Next. “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Going Mobile” and “Bargain” all beam with epic majesty, often spiked with synthesizers ”” especially “Baba O’Riley,” which Townshend partly named after avant-garde composer Terry Riley. “I like synthesizers,” Townshend said, “because they bring into my hands things that aren’t in my hands: the sound of the orchestra, French horns, strings. . . . You press a switch and it plays it back at double speed.”

27. King of the Delta Blues Singers – Robert Johnson

“You want to know how good the blues can get?” Keith Richards asked. “Well, this is it.” The bluesman in question was Robert Johnson, who lived from 1911 to 1938 in the Mississippi Delta, and whose guitar prowess was so great, it inspired stories that, in exchange for his amazing gift, he had sold his soul to the devil. Johnson recorded only twenty-nine songs, but their evanescent passion has resonated through the decades. This initial LP reissue of Johnson’s original 78s was a fountainhead for 1960s rockers such as Richards and Eric Clapton, who plundered it for covers. A better starting point today might be the recently released sixteen-track compilation King of the Delta Blues.

26. The Joshua Tree – U2

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“America’s the promised land to a lot of Irish people,” U2 singer Bono told Rolling Stone. “I’m one in a long line of Irishmen who made the trip.” On U2’s fifth full album, the band immerses itself in the mythology of the United States, particularly the wide-open spaces and possibilities of the Western frontier, while guitarist the Edge exploits the poetic echo of digital delay, drowning his trademark arpeggios in rippling tremolo. While many of these songs are about spiritual quests ”” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” ”” U2 fortify the solemnity with the outright joys of rock & roll, although one of the most moving songs is “Running to Stand Still,” a stripped-down slide-guitar ballad about heroin addiction.

25. Rumours – Fleetwood Mac

The sixth-best-selling album of all time owed its success to Fleetwood Mac’s willingness to turn private turmoil into gleaming, melodic public art. The band’s two romantic couples ”” bassist John and singer-keyboard player Christine McVie, who were married; guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks, who were not ”” broke up during the protracted sessions for Rumours. This lent a highly charged, confessional aura to such songs as Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way,” Nicks’ “Dreams,” Christine’s “Don’t Stop” and the group-composed anthem to betrayal, “The Chain.” The Mac’s catchy exposes, produced with California-sunshine polish, touched a nerve; Rumours, a landmark Seventies pop album, ruled Billboard’s album chart for thirty-one weeks.

24. Live At The Apollo – James Brown

This document of brown’s prowess onstage may be the greatest live album ever recorded. From the breathless buildup of the spoken intro through terse, sweat-soaked early hits such as “Try Me” and “Think” into eleven epic minutes of the raw ballad “Lost Someone,” climaxing with a frenzied nine-song medley and ending with “Night Train,” Live at the Apollo is pure, uncut soul. And it almost didn’t happen. Brown defied King Records label boss Syd Nathan’s opposition to a live album by arranging to record a show himself ”” on October 24th, 1962, the last date in a run at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. His intuition proved correct; Live at the Apollo ”” the first of four albums Brown recorded there ”” charted for sixty-six weeks.

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23. Innervisions – Stevie Wonder

tevie Wonder may be blind, but he reads the national landscape, particularly regarding black America, with penetrating insight on Innervisions, the peak of his 1972-73 run of albums ”” including Music of My Mind [see No. 284] and Talking Book [see No. 90]. Fusing social realism with spiritual idealism, Wonder brings expressive color and irresistible funk to his synth-based keyboards on “Too High” (a cautionary anti-drug song) and “Higher Ground” (which echoes Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of transcendence). The album’s centerpiece is “Living for the City,” a cinematic depiction of exploitation and injustice. Just three days after Innervisions was released, Wonder suffered serious head injuries and lay in a four-day coma when the car he was traveling in collided with a logging truck.

22. Plastic Ono Band – John Lennon

Also known as the “primal scream” album, referring to the painful therapy that gave rise to its songs, Plastic Ono Band was Lennon’s first proper solo album and rock & roll’s most self-revelatory recording. Lennon attacks and denies idols and icons, including his own former band (“I don’t believe in Beatles,” he sings in “God”), to hit a pure, raw core of confession that feels like reality, however agonizing, and, in its echo-drenched, garage-rock crudity, is years ahead of punk. Lennon sings about childhood loss in “Mother” and skirts blasphemy with “Working Class Hero”: “You’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.” But the unkindest cut came in his notoriously frank 1970 Rolling Stone interview. “The Beatles was nothing,” Lennon stated acerbically.

21. The Great Twenty-Eight – Chuck Berry

In the latter half of the fifties, guitarist, singer and songwriter extraordinaire Berry released a string of singles that defined the sound and spirit of rock & roll. “Maybellene,” a fast, countryish rocker about a race between a Ford and a Cadillac, kicked it all off in 1955, and one classic hit followed another, each powered by Berry’s staccato, country-blues-guitar gunfire: “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Back in the U.S.A.” What was Berry’s secret? In the maestro’s own words, “The nature and backbone of my beat is boogie, and the muscle of my music is melodies that are simple.” This collection culls the best of that magic from 1955 to 1965.

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