47. Led Zeppelin, 1969
By the late 1960s, Jimmy Page found himself the sole remaining member of The Yardbirds. As he roped in Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham to fill out the band, Keith Moon famously quipped that the move would go over “like a led zeppelin.” The band would rename themselves in light of this, and later in the 70s, it would take on an ironic meaning, for no band soared higher to rock superstardom than Led Zeppelin, so it’s hard to believe anyone ever doubted their success. Yet Led Zeppelin sounds like nothing else released in 1969. Sure, there were plenty of other blues-based bands in Britain and on the West Coast. And Jimi Hendrix was performing feats on the guitar even Page couldn’t match. But no one had thought to combine the blues rock sound with the prowess of a guitar god before. Zep’s self-titled debut was most heavily seeped in their blues roots. The album is rife with blues riffs and idioms. In fact, Led Zeppelin has stirred up a small amount of controversy since they borrow heavily—if not out-right steal—from the old bluesmen. But what really sets Led Zeppelin apart from its contemporaries is that it’s just so much heavier. The dark guitar riff on “Dazed and Confused” and the frenzy of “Communication Breakdown” signal troubled times ahead in the post-Altamont world. Other well-known songs are "Good Times Bad Times" and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” “You Shook Me” provides a clear example of their blues influence while “Your Time Is Gonna Come” hints at sounds the band would later pursue.
46. Transformer, Lou Reed, 1972
Rock and Roll Poet Laureate of New York City. I don’t know if anyone else refers to Lou Reed as such, but that really ought to be the guy’s official title. No other artist captures the feel of the Big Apple—Uptown, Downtown, Midtown, the Outer Boroughs—quite so well. New York is his city, and each song is, in its own way, a celebration of the people who live there. Transformer came out after Reed had left the Velvet Underground and his solo career wasn’t doing so well. David Bowie, who often cites Reed as one of the biggest influences on his musical career, and Mick Ronson stepped in to produce this album. As such, Transformer and Reed himself often get lumped in with the rest of the early 70s glam rockers—ironic, really, since the VU’s artistic experimentation played a huge role in shaping the sound and image of glam. The songs on Transformer deal with Reed’s personal demons, but at the same time, they give the listener a host of those great New York characters Reed is so famous for creating. The album is best known for “Walk on the Wild Side,” which at the time was its biggest hit and continues to receive airplay on classic rock stations, and for “Perfect Day,” which has received a lot of attention in recent years, notably on the Trainspotting soundtrack and as a start-studded cover promoting the BBC. Other notable songs include the upbeat “Hangin’ ‘Round” and “Satellite of Love,” which features prominently on the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack.
45. Beggar’s Banquet, The Rolling Stones, 1968
Beggar’s Banquet was the last full album The Rolling Stones would ever record with Brian Jones before his death in 1969. It would’ve been his last anyway because Jones had quit or been fired, depending on who you ask, over creative differences. Jones had been largely responsible for taking the band in a psychedelic direction on their last few albums. The experiment hadn’t been much of a success, and Mick, Keith, Charlie, and Bill wanted to get back to doing what they do best. And so on Beggar’s Banquet the Stones return to rhythm and blues, albeit with a greater maturity of songwriting than in their early days. Somewhat uncharacteristically, they verge here on becoming topical. “Street Fighting Man” gently mocks the trendiness of revolution, while “Sympathy for the Devil” seemingly reflects the growing violent side of the counterculture movement. Godard would use the song to tie together his film essay on the role of media in racial violence, and it would come to be associated with the murder of Meredith Hunter at Altamont a year later, though the band was actually playing a different song when the incident occurred. The album also sees the band incorporating country sounds into songs like “No Expectations” and “Dear Doctor.” Beggar’s Banquet, generally speaking, is a return to simplicity. Gone are the psychedelic trappings and in their places is just some good old fashioned rock ’n’ roll. It is perhaps appropriate, then, that the album ends with “Salt of the Earth,” a celebration of the average man and woman. This music is open to everyone.
44. The Joshua Tree, U2, 1987
In 1987, U2 wasn’t yet the biggest band in the world, but all that would start to change after they released The Joshua Tree. This album, U2’s 5th, the band moves a bit away from its earlier, New Wave-ish sound toward more American music. Many of the songs seem to be about life in America, and the music evokes the Southwest not through steel guitars or Navajo drums, but through sonic recreations of the sweeping vistas one would see out west. Like much of U2’s work, the album expresses a deep spirituality without overbearingly forcing it on the listener. Many of the songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” seem to be about searching, but exactly what for—love, God, peace, authenticity, etc.—is left unstated. Despite the title of the aforementioned song, though, the The Joshua Tree’s evocation of the sublime American landscape shows us that there is something, at least, to be found. Side one, with three of U2’s biggest hits also including “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You,” seems to be the stronger half of this album, though the reverse side is not without its high points. “In God’s Country” is a personal favorite.