Arguing over who wrote the best song of all time is a popular thing to do. Personal taste in music guides the choice of who wrote and performed the best albums of all time. Music experts can agree on the merits of some of the most important albums written and performed by iconic musicians.
The best album of all time is subjective, with everybody seeing music in different ways. Despite our taste differences, some classic albums rise to the top of the pile every time a new list is released. Here’s our picks for the best albums of all time:
1. “What’s Going On” (1971) – Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye remains eternally linked to the title track of his greatest album. Gaye had been at the bottom of a long list of artists offered the chance to record Obie Benson’s initial thoughts. The first true concept album crafted protest songs and a classic Motown sound. Gaye’s tragic life story adds to the darkness and unpleasant nature of the album. This is certainly a must listen for ANY music lover.
2. “Revolver” (1966) – The Beatles
The 1966 classic album from the fab four was the band’s seventh album. The album proved a departure from the pop-oriented early period of the Liverpudlian band. A growing interest in spiritualism, Avant-garde art, and drug culture changed the history of popular music. “Revolver” marks the onset of The Beatles’ psychedelic era.
3. “The Velved Underground And Nico” (1967) – The Velvet Underground
Fans of David Bowie owe a debt of gratitude to this classic album from 1967. The Velvet Underground and Nico were part of Andy Warhol’s art project and brought New York culture to the world. A failure on its initial release, the album has become one of the most influential of all time. The album includes several styles, including the dreamy pop of Nico’s songs. “Venus in Furs” is a pulsating experimental rock song for any era.
4. “Trans Europe Express” (1977) – Kraftwerk
Kraftwerk occupied a strange space in popular culture at the time of “Trans Europe Express” release. The album was sleek and stylized at a time when prog-rock and punk were battling for supremacy. The album opened up a link between American electro and European pop. The German electro-pop group changed the future of music with their emergence in Europe in the mid to late-70s.
5. “Blonde on Blonde” (1966) – Bob Dylan
The completion of Bob Dylan’s 1960s rock album trilogy has become known as one of the greatest albums of all time. Dylan had settled into a comfortable space with his backing band, The Hawks. The album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. A move to Nashville under the influence of the producer, Bob Johnson, changed the sound of the album from its New York roots.
6. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967) – The Beatles
The mid to late-60s was a fertile time for The Beatles. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is sandwiched between “Revolver” and “The White Album”. The album is driven by the musical stylings of Paul McCartney and helped turn rock into an art form. The concept album is shown on the first side of “Sgt. Pepper’s” and is followed by a strong of McCartney-inspired songs as the concept is lost by The Beatles.
7. “Straight Outta Compton” (1989) – NWA
Rap and hip-hop had been struggling to be taken seriously before Public Enemy and NWA brought politics and reportage to the genre. “Straight Outta Compton” looks into the gang culture of Los Angeles and brings “Gangsta Rap” to the forefront of popular music culture. Dr. Dre’s production changed the way music was produced for the next two decades.
8. “Electric Ladyland” (1968) – Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix had become one of the world’s biggest bands on the back of Hendrix’s guitar playing. “Electric Ladyland” was the third and final album released during the lifetime of the guitar virtuoso. Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” became the highest-charting single by the band.
9. “Discreet Music (1975) – Brian Eno
The story behind “Discreet Music” is as entertaining as the album itself. The former Roxy Music member was stuck in a hospital bed unable to turn up a radio playing so quietly it was drowned out by the ambient noise. After leaving the hospital, Brian Eno invented true electronic music and the sound that drove David Bowie’s late-1970s and early-1980s successes. Eno’s success as a producer reflects the mood music he began working on during “Discreet Music.”
10. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (1998) – Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill had found fame as a member of The Fugees. Her breakout solo album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, followed and secured her position as a great of soul and hip-hop. The album was performed and written by Hill and artists from Kingston, Jamaica.
11. “Nevermind” (1991) – Nirvana
Kurt Cobain’s classic album was not expected to make an impact by Nirvana’s record company, DGC. The album was released with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” single. The grunge genre is known for providing a surging power. However, Cobain believed his band had brought heart back to the music scene. Nirvana’s album was the precursor to the emergence of a less polished form of popular music created in the Pacific Northwest, and the rest is history.
12. “I Never Loved a Man The Way I Loved You” (1967) – Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin had released nine albums before “I Never Loved a Man The Way I Loved You.” The album has become a classic for music journalists and critics. The song, “Respect,” features on the album and became Franklin’s best-known tune. Franklin has remained as one of the leading figures in soul music since the early-1960s, with her 11th studio album classed as her best.
13. “Born To Run” (1975) – Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen has enjoyed a career spanning many decades. The Boss released “Born To Run” after maturing through his first two studio albums. Springsteen admits his songwriting left adolescence and reached maturity on the album. “Born To Run” was a last-ditch effort to launch the career of Springsteen by his record label. The desperation of Springsteen led to a burst of creativity that gave birth to “Born To Run.”
14. “What’s The 411?” (1992) – Mary J Blige
Mary J. Blige began her career with a classic of the hip-hop soul genre. Blige worked with producer, Sean “P-Diddy” Combs on her debut LP. “What’s The 411?” and became the forerunner to the styles of Beyonce and Mariah Carey.
15. “Blood on the Tracks” (1975) – Bob Dylan
Like many albums on lists of all-time great albums, “Blood on the Tracks” has grown in popularity over the years. Despite Dylan’s refusal to discuss the album in terms of his personal life, the rumors persist about its links to his divorce. Classic songs, including “Tangled Up In Blue” set this album apart from its contemporaries.
16. “Purple Rain” (1984) – Prince And The Revolution
The movie may have received mixed reviews, but the soundtrack album, “Purple Rain”, is a certified classic. The tracklist includes “When Doves Cry”, “I Would Die 4 U”, and “Purple Rain.” Prince’s position as a musician was already secure, but “Purple Rain” made him a global star.
17. “Hounds of Love” (1985) – Kate Bush
“Running Up That Hill” is the standout track on the English singer-songwriter’s album. However, the album is a classic that sees Bush following her story of striking a deal with God before facing her demons. The album has a uniquely English sound and launched the enigmatic singer into the stratosphere of 1980s music.
18. “Rumors” (1977) – Fleetwood Mac
The disintegration of the marriages of the band’s members adds to the legendary nature of the recording. “Rumors” gives us classics, such as “Don’t Stop” and “Rumors.” The breakdown of the relationship between Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham takes center stage on an album that stayed at number one in the U.S. for 31` weeks.
19. “Let It Bleed” (1969) – The Rolling Stones
Another album is driven creatively by times of difficulty. Founding member, Brian Jones’ sacking from the band midway through the recording of “Let It Bleed” pushed Keith Richards and Mick Jagger to become a creative force. The album continues to plumb the depths of The Rolling Stones’ love of rhythm and blues.
20. “Live at The Apollo” (1963) – James Brown
James Brown remains THE dominant name in soul music history. The “Live at the Apollo” album brings the musicality and sheer showmanship of Brown to the fore. Some of the classics of Brown’s career had yet to be recorded to reflect his huge back catalog of songs.
21. “Abbey Road” (1969) – The Beatles
“Abbey Road” was not the final release from The Beatles, but it was the last recording session of the Fab Four. The album was recorded similarly to the early releases under the leadership of producer, Sir George Martin. The album brought modern technology to The Beatles’ sound and has become one of the band’s most loved over the last half-century.
22. “Songs in the Key of Life” (1976) – Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder progressed to become a bonafide megastar with “Songs in the Key of Life.” Dropping the Little Stevie Wonder moniker came with an assured touch in songwriting and performance. “Isn’t She Lovely” and “As” are among the classics on the 21-track album.
23. “The Stone Roses” (1989) – The Stone Roses
Electronic dance music had bounced out of Chicago to make inroads around the world by the late-80s. The Stone Roses combined the driving, loop beats of house music with a traditional rock structure. The self-titled album penned by Ian Brown and John Squire launched the Madchester dance music scene of the late-80s and early-90s.
24. “Pet Sounds” (1966) – The Beach Boys
Brian Wilson’s descent into mental illness was first noted in the aftermath of the release of “Pet Sounds.” Now seen as one of the great albums of all time, “Pet Sounds” has become one of the most influential albums of the 20th-century. Often seen as a solo release from Brian Wilson, the influence of the other Beach Boys was minimal.
25. “Blue” (1971) – Joni Mitchell
NPR ranked “Blue” as the top album ever by a woman. Mitchell was driven creatively by her relationship with James Taylor following the end of her relationship with Graham Nash. Mitchell took control of the album and was responsible for writing, producing, and arranging the album.
26. “Otis Blue” (1965) – Otis Redding
Otis Redding became the face of Southern Soul following the death of Sam Cooke. This 1965 album was released weeks after Cooke’s death and features a cover of “A Change is Gonna Come.” Stax Records jumped into the stratosphere of the U.S. music industry with the release of “Otis Blue.”
27. “This Year’s Model” (1978) – Elvis Costello
The second album from Elvis Costello is the first to feature The Attractions. “This Year’s Model” features the classic, “Pump It Up!” Costello’s immersion in the punk culture is reflected in the structure of the album and its references to modern life.
28. “Black Sabbath” (1970) – Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath remains one of heavy metal’s most popular groups. Their self-titled album takes the listener on a sonic journey in just 30 minutes. The Black Sabbath sound changed the heavy metal scene forever, with Ozzy Osbourne’s vocals screeching across stadiums for decades after. The speed of the album has become the prototype for the debut albums of emerging rock bands.
29. “Blue Lines” (1991) – Massive Attack
Urban music has never felt as impressive as it did during “Blue Lines.” Massive Attack’s leader, 3D, takes his time between albums but continues to craft impressive songs that can be classed as classics. “Blue Lines” includes impactful songs, such as “Unfinished Sympathy.” The combination of electro music and the Bristol sound that gave the world Portishead and Tricky is easy to identify in the songs of “Blue Lines.” 3D began his career as a graffiti artist and has been linked to the work of Banksy.
30. “London Calling” (1981) – The Clash
The Clash had grown from their punk roots to become interested in different musical styles. “London Calling” retains the power of punk rock, with the addition of rockabilly, ska, and new wave aesthetics. Joe Strummer’s move away from punk into other areas of music kept The Clash alive as their fellow punk pioneers drifted into obscurity. The title track became a best-selling song for the band.
31. “Thriller” (1982) – Michael Jackson
Producer Quincy Jones worked with Michael Jackson to create the stadium pop sound of the 1980s. “Thriller” took the most popular aspects of pop, soul, and rock to merge and create a new genre. Jones and Jackson remain beloved by pop fans for this 1982 classic. “Thriller” remains linked to the werewolf-inspired video for the title track. However, the album includes crossover songs including soul and rock hooks.
32. “Back to Black” (2006) – Amy Winehouse
The combination of Amy Winehouse and producer, Mark Ronson, created a throwback album with a modern twist. The girl group sounds of Motown were merged with the grit of Winehouse’s lyrics. “Back to Black” was the final studio album before Winehouse’s death. Winehouse’s relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil was destructive and charted in gritty realism on the album. The sweet sound of the 1960s juxtaposes against the heartbreak of Winehouse’s lyrics to create an unforgettable album of classic songs.
Her unfortunate entry into the 27 club of musicians may have deprived us of further masterpieces, but it certainly elevates her into the stratosphere of music greats, regardless.
33. “The Bends” (1995) – Radiohead
Rock returned with vengeance in the mid-1990s. Oasis and Blur led the Britpop invasion of the U.S., with Radiohead occupying a more thoughtful corner of the indie rock sector in 1995. Thom Yorke’s vocals sit above a grinding set of guitars on “The Bends.” Yorke’s high-pitched falsetto was a juxtaposition to the return of aggressive dad-rock created by the Gallagher brothers and Oasis. Yorke’s thoughtful lyrics and excellent musicianship push Radiohead above their fellow 1990s survivors.
34. “Chic” (1977) – Chic
The disco sound of the 1970s has become linked to the driving beats of The Bee Gees. Chic was masterminded by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. The duo created a catalog of songs carried along by impressive hooks. Rodgers has become renowned as one of the leading members of the music industry. Chic restored credibility to the disco era with the release of their 1977 album, following the plastic sounds of The Bee Gees and their disco imitators.
35. “Screamadelica” (1991) – Primal Scream
Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie first found fame in the 1980s as the drummer with The Jesus and Mary Chain. By 1991, he had become a singer with house and rock music crossover, Primal Scream. Screamadelica combines gospel notes with driving rave beats. Producer Andrew Weatherall is credited with changing the sound of the rock band. Weatherall removed everything but the beat and a few loops to create the classic house psychedelia of “Loaded.” Bobby Gillespie and the band remain chameleons of the music industry.
36. “When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” (2019) – Billie Eilish
Billie Eilish has grown into one of music’s premier artists in the late-2010s and early-2020s. Eilish and her brother, Finneas, released this instant classic in 2019. The sound of the album ranges from art-pop to electronic. Eilish and Finneas continue to craft impressive songs and work with legends of the music industry, including Johnny Marr.
37. “Dare” (1981) – The Human League
Phil Oakey reinvented synthesizer pop in 1981, with “Dare.” The introduction of two female vocalists removed the idea that electronic music was solely for men. Several classic songs were created for the album, including “Don’t You Want Me.” Phil Oakey inspired the haircuts of millions of teenage boys, with his quirky, lopsided cut.
38. “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015) – Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar brought together the big hitters of hip hop, soul, and rock to appear on this 2015 album. Lamar had spent time touring the historic sites of South Africa to learn about racial inequality before writing the album. Pharrell Williams, Dr. Dre, and Thundercat add to the all-star feel of “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
39. “Run DMC” (1984) – Run DMC
Hip-hop took a dramatic and hard turn in 1984, with the release of “Run D.M.C.” The rap artists stripped back the production to sparse beats to place the focus on the words. “It’s Like That” remains a classic hip-hop rock crossover. Run DMC was one of the first hip-hop albums to move away from the high production values of the late-70s and early-80s. The crossover with Aerosmith pushes an album filled with classics to a new level of success.
40. “The Smiths” (1984) – The Smiths
1984 was an impressive year for music. The Smiths came out of Manchester to become one of the most impressive bands of all time. The Smiths 60s inspired sound takes them to new areas of early-80s pop under the influence of Morrissey and Johnny Marr. The north of England plays its role in the work of the band, with 60s girl groups forming the basis of the band’s musical style.
41. “Is This It?” (2001) – The Strokes
The Strokes star burned high and bright for a short period. The band produced the classic album, “Is This It?” in 2001. The New York band produced an album based on the lives of urban youth and found global success in the early-2000s. This masterpiece cemented The Strokes as one of the best bands of the 2000s, rightly so.
The best albums take in different musical genres and styles. The 1960s and 70s were times when innovation changed the music scenes for people around the world. We also saw the 80s all the way through to the present day produce some truly phenomenal music. Did we miss out on any great albums? Let us know by contacting us today.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.