43. Synchronicity, The Police, 1983
If you, as a band, are on the brink of imploding, then you’d better go out with a masterpiece. And that’s exactly what The Police did with their 1983 release Synchronicity. Afterward, the band broke up (for a while) and Sting went on save the rain forest. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that Synchronicity is merely an example of lightweight 80s fluff pop. The lyrics display an interest in human realities—just think of the meaning of the title—and psychologies (listen to the incredibly Oedipal “Mother”), and the production brings The Police’s Caribbean-tinged punk to its full sonic potential and beyond. The album will always be remembered for the stalker-romance “Every Breath You Take,” which, in addition to being ripped off—uh, I mean, sampled by Puff Daddy for his tribute to Biggie Smalls, has one of the most iconic music videos of all time. Those black and white (or the rarely seen tricolor) images of Sting, Andy Summer, and Stewart Copeland are what come to mind when most people think of The Police. Other notable songs include, “King of Pain,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” “Murder by Numbers,” and “Synchronicity II.”
42. Exile on Main St., The Rolling Stones, 1972
Exile on Main St. is the the most quintessentially Rolling Stones of all Rolling Stones albums. Though—odd for a double album—only a handful of songs stand out strongly on their own, every single one is clearly identifiable as the Stones. Exile, perhaps, is the darling of music critics because it is precisely what we hear in our heads when we think of a typical Rolling Stones song. All the usual influences are present—rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues, delta blues, country, even a little gospel—yet here they are more integrated than on other albums. For example, “Sweet Virginia” transcends being the album’s country songs by virtue of its backing horns, unlike “Country Honk” or “Faraway Eyes” which remain truer to the genre. Thus, Exile on Main St., in the way it presents a unified sound throughout, just might be the most cohesive album the Rolling Stones have ever produced. Plus it’s an incredibly well-sequenced album. Among side openers are “Sweet Virginia,” “All Down the Line,” and the Richards-sung “Happy.” “Tumbling Dice,” “Let It Loose,” and “Loving Cup” all finish sides. The sides start strong and end strong. Exile on Main St.’s big surprise, though, is Side 4’s “Shine a Light,” which, up there with Dylan’s “Forever Young,” is one of rock’s great benedictions. It really sounds like it should be the album’s conclusions, but instead we get “Soul Survivor” as an encore.
41. Imagine, John Lennon, 1971
We like to remember John Lennon in his solo years as a stalwart activist for peace. While his political involvement is certainly nothing to be forgotten, I think sometimes we forget what an acerbic wit he had in our efforts to beatify him. In 1971 when Imagine was released, he was in the middle of the famous Lennon-McCartney feud, in which the former songwriting partners exchanged blows via their albums, here notably on “How Do You Sleep?” in which he—no kidding—calls Paul a pretty-boy. But one of the great things about Lennon was that he knew he could be a jerk—as he explains on the tender “Jealous Guy.” Imagine strikes a nice balance between the personal and the political. As to the latter, there’s the anti-war “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” and the politically disillusioned “Gimme Some Truth.” But there are also plenty of songs written to and about his wife, including the previously mentioned “Jealous Guy” and the joyous “Oh Yoko!” Of course, you can’t talk about Imagine without mentioning the title track. “Imagine” is one of the greatest songs ever written, and has become an anthem for world peace. With little instrumentation other than its simple piano rhythms, it asks us not to take up picket signs or overthrow the government, but merely to picture a better world. Lennon understood that, in order for change to occur, people first have to believe that things can be different. And that is why “Imagine” remains such a powerful song these 40 years later.
40. Station to Station, David Bowie, 1976
At just six songs, Station to Station is a weird little album. Recorded during the darkest days of Bowie’s cocaine addiction, it comes from and takes the listener to very strange places. The album starts with what sounds like a train in motion and soon moves on to some ominous—though funky—chords. It is not until over three minutes later that we get lyrics: “The return of the Thin White Duke/Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.” We don’t know exactly who this mysterious Duke is, but it’s clear he’s into some dark shit and probably up to no good. Don’t let that fool you, though, into thinking the album is a work of coke-fueled paranoia. “Station to Station” switches to a literally more upbeat tone mid-way through. “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine,” Bowie sings, “I’m thinking that it must be love.” The rest of Station to Station remains fairly positive, though the darkness is always there, lurking at the edges. Following the title track is the album’s big hit “Golden Years,” which, as close to a love song as Bowie ever gets, was supposedly written for his then-wife Angie—or so she says—and “Word on a Wing,” a prayer that, though offered out of desperation, still feels hopeful. Side 2 opens with the playful “TVC 15” which Bowie once described as about a girl in love with her television set, and is thought to have been inspired by his involvement in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Next is the funky “Stay,” which also offers a plea, this time a lover’s more earthly concerns. Finally, the album ends with a cover of “Wild Is the Wind.” Again—another plea, and yet the understated vocals lend the song a gentleness that make it a perfect conclusion to the otherwise strange ride that is Station to Station.