1 Purple Rain
Prince and the Revolution, 1984
Sure, there are bigger albums — Billboard behemoths that still move units year after year. But with the benefit of hindsight, most shine pretty dully, like tinsel at an office Christmas party. Prince’s magnum opus, however, is a bona fide diamond — and one of the most artistically out-there achievements in pop history. From the electric tent-revival fervor of opener ”Let’s Go Crazy” to the final notes of the bombastically beautiful title track, there are no weak moments; even Rain’s ”minor” songs (”Darling Nikki,” ”The Beautiful Ones”) are major. It was hardly the last we heard from Prince, but it remains the purest expression of his musical genius.
2 The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill (1998)
The ex-Fugee’s five-Grammy take only confirmed the impact of her solo breakthrough: a genre-busting blend of deep-groove retro soul, hip-hop ingenuity, and intelligent songcraft. See hit single ”Doo Wop (That Thing).”
3 Achtung Baby
The Irish superstars’ seventh studio album made a substantial leap, recognizing the emergence of alt-rock and electronic music in a way that was both ingenious and organic.
4 The College Dropout
Kanye West (2004)
Bridging the gap between socially conscious hip-hop and the Benzes-and-bling tutorials of Biggie, Jay-Z, et al., the Chicago upstart’s debut took off like a bottle rocket.
Can you remember a time when Her Madgesty wasn’t part of our cultural landscape? This scrappy debut (with proto-hits ”Borderline” and ”Lucky Star”) thrust a struggling dancer-singer onto the world stage.
6 American Idiot
Green Day (2004)
Forget the Sex Pistols. Punk didn’t truly go mainstream until these three snotty, snarling post-adolescents broke through to become arena-filling icons; and with songs like ”Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” they proved that a little maturity can be a good thing.
7 The Blueprint
Its release date couldn’t have been worse — Sept. 11, 2001. Still, the disc went straight to No. 1, thanks in part to radio hits ”Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and ”Girls, Girls, Girls.”
Paul Simon (1986)
Today, we take for granted the impact Simon made on multiculturalizing pop music. But in retrospect, his blending of traditional South African rhythms and vivid personal lyricism stands as remarkably prescient.
9 Back to Black
Amy Winehouse (2007)
The Brit songbird blitzed America with her signature brand of beehived blues revivalism, in the grand tradition of Ronnie Spector, Dusty Springfield, and every other troubled, too-talented chanteuse who’s made despair sound so sweet.
10 In Rainbows
Who needs record labels when you’ve got an army of superfans? The British rock gods bypassed the system entirely with this direct-to-the-people masterpiece, the culmination of everything weird and wonderful about their sound.
11 MTV Unplugged in New York Nirvana
Never mind Nevermind. Unplugged captures the band raw and beautiful. Even without their stripped-down originals, the soul-scraping Lead Belly cover ”Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and Bowie’s ”The Man Who Sold the World” marked this as an instant classic.
Before ”Hey Ya!” made OutKast inescapable, this album catapulted the eccentric Atlanta duo from hip-hop cult status to genuine MTV players. So fresh and so clean, indeed!
13 You Are Free
Cat Power (2003)
Three years later, The Greatest would make her a national name, but Free showed how far Chan Marshall’s mercurial songcraft had come since her early days as an erratic, unlikely performer. Her whiskey-honey vocals bring authority and grace to both gorgeous ballads (”I Don’t Blame You”) and mild folk freak-outs (”He War”).
The Cure (1989)
For thousands of alienated high schoolers, it became a musical bible of dark-eyed discontent; for the rest of the world, it’s merely a haunting collection of jangly heartbreak (”Love Song”) and longing (”Pictures of You”).
15 The Marshall Mathers LP
A millennial cherry bomb in the staid pop marketplace, this manic slice of the rapper’s psyche also contains several landmark singles (”Stan,” ”The Real Slim Shady,” ”The Way I Am”).
16 Rain Dogs
Tom Waits (1985)
This junk-store jumble of songs (”Downtown Train,” ”Clap Hands”) defied categorization — and defined an artist.
”Loser” could have made the mop-haired L.A. misfit a one-hit wonder. Instead, he followed with this postmod casserole of gutter funk, lo-fi folk, loopy jazz, and clever turntablism.
18 People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
A Tribe Called Quest (1990)
The brilliantly skewed Afrocentric rappers burst out fully formed on this crackling debut — a syncopated day-in-the-life that boasts such early hip-hop standards as ”I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” and ”Can I Kick It?”
19 Dangerously in Love
Destiny clearly had special plans for this Child: In her first foray beyond the cozy girl-group dynamic, Beyoncéit a solo grand slam. Aside from co-producing the club anthem of the decade (”Crazy in Love”), she also gave the world a sexier, stronger, grown-up B.
Fiona Apple (1996)
At 18, the piano-playing nymphet already displayed a startlingly precocious talent for songwriting — and scandal (the infamous kiddie-porn-aping video ”Criminal”).
21 The Emancipation of Mimi
Mariah Carey (2005)
Her triumphant post-Glitter comeback offered a chart-busting brigade of feather-light, Crisco-slick ballads like ”We Belong Together” and ”Shake It Off.”
22 3 Feet High and Rising
De La Soul (1989)
Unlike most rap music of its era, the New York trio’s debut was playful, witty, and almost giddily childlike. The group riffed on Schoolhouse Rock (”The Magic Number”) but didn’t shy away from sex talk, either (”Jenifa Taught Me”); most of all, they made hip-hop fun.
23 The Soft Bulletin
The Flaming Lips (1999)
A huge step forward for a band of wild-haired weirdos previously best known for a Beverly Hills, 90210 cameo, this midcareer breakout was an epic, psyched-out revelation.
24 Come On Over
Shania Twain (1997)
She had great abs, sure, but an even greater ability to straddle — and conquer — the heretofore walled-off genres of pop and country. The result was a cavalcade of hits, including ”Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and the instant wedding staple ”You’re Still the One.”
25 Turn On the Bright Lights
The lyrics are largely nonsensical: ”Sleep tight, grim rite/We have 200 couches where you can sleep tonight…” What? But the music is hypnotizing, a blend of high-tension guitars, underwater percussion, and haunted vocals.
26 Time Out of Mind
Bob Dylan (1997)
It ain’t over till the folk genius sings. Thirty-plus years after rising to prominence as the voice of a generation, he returned with this scorched-earth wonder.
Arcade Fire (2004)
Despite its morbid title, the Canadian collective’s sprawling debut marked a rebirth of sorts for the indie-rock scene, making melancholia musical in a way that honored predecessors like Talking Heads but clearly held its own.
Only 20 at the time, Nasir Jones was swiftly labeled hip-hop’s Next Great MC with this mid-’90s masterwork — a richly textured urban tapestry vibrating with the rapper’s keen intellect and vivid storytelling skills.
Kelly Clarkson (2004)
No one expected the original American Idol’s second album to be so…huge. A powerhouse vocalist with an unabashed love for Big Moments, she nails them here, especially on the inescapable rocker ”Since U Been Gone.”
30 Appetite for Destruction
Guns N’ Roses (1987)
Who doesn’t hear the propulsive opening chords of ”Welcome to the Jungle” and feel like a teenager all over again? Pulled straight from the dirty, booze-sticky clubs of the Sunset Strip, GN’R conjured up an album of real urgency and raw glamour — without a single bum track.
Justin Timberlake (2006)
The Man Who Would Be Prince nearly fulfills his self-aggrandizing prophecy on this slinky, sexy collection of Timbaland-guided dance tracks.
32 Life’s Rich Pageant
Previously confined to the college-rock ghetto, the Athens, Ga., quartet produced an album of lean, mean, straightforward rockers. The result: a killer collection, highlighted by the chiming ”Fall on Me.”
33 As I Am
Alicia Keys (2007)
Initially a prodigy, then an established R&B thrush, Keys came into her full womanhood on this crystalline distillation of her maturing talents, including the transportive piano stunner ”No One.”
34 Is This It
The Strokes (2001)
The It Boys of 2001 captured the electric energy of NYC’s downtown rock scene, turning out criminally catchy anthems for the fashionably disaffected. Listen again to the retro, fuzzed-out glory of ”Someday” and ”Last Nite.”
35 Jagged Little Pill
Alanis Morissette (1995)
From the banshee howl of ”You Oughta Know” to the sweetly vulnerable ”Head Over Feet,” the singer brought confession rock to new heights.
On their second release, T-Boz, Chilli, and Left Eye dropped the baggy pants and schoolyard chants for more grown-up, sexual personae, showcased to excellent effect on ”Creep,” ”Red Light Special,” and ”Waterfalls.”
37 The Moon & Antarctica
Modest Mouse (2000)
The major-label debut from the Northwest indie heroes is an angular, experimental treasure floated on the strength of spare beauties like ”Gravity Rides Everything.”
38 Raising Hell
Hip-hop was still largely an urban phenom until the Adidas-clad rappers from Hollis, Queens, came along. The crossover smash ”Walk This Way” made them pop stars — and earned Aero-smith some newfound cred.
39 Sheryl Crow
Sheryl Crow (1996)
Following her sunny 1993 breakout, the rootsy rocker digs a little deeper here. She hangs tough on ”If It Makes You Happy” and pisses off Wal-Mart on ”Love Is a Good Thing.”
40 Ready to Die
The Notorious B.I.G. (1994)
Then 22, the gold-plated storyteller with the quicksilver tongue proved himself a larger-than-life ladies’ man and master of the inner-city-ascension narrative on club bangers like ”Big Poppa.”
Bob Marley and the Wailers (1984)
No college dorm room is complete without this reggae-crossover classic, which, though post-humous, was the album that transformed Marley from cult hero to genuine, well, legend.
42 Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Wu-Tang Clan (1993)
A claustrophobic, apocalyptic masterpiece from a group of martial-arts-obsessed Staten Island rappers was also, incongruously, one of the best party albums of the era, full of tongue-twining anthems like ”C.R.E.A.M.” and ”Protect Ya Neck.”
43 Paul’s Boutique
Beastie Boys (1989)
Licensed to Ill established them as the whoopee-cushion kings of white-boy rap, and many initially found this dense follow-up too weird. But the Boys were merely perfecting their magpie eye for the perfect whacked-out sample.
44 Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Lucinda Williams (1998)
Ten years after her self-titled debut, Williams returned with this country-tinged gem, a dusty-footed trek through the heart of folk and blues. With her trademark rasp, she took on subject matter both gritty and tender.
45 If You’re Feeling Sinister
Belle and Sebastian (1996)
Stuart Murdoch’s vocals may be twee, but his lyrics have real bite: What other indie folk-pop frontman would sing, as he does on the church-baiting title track, about ”the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever”?
Everyone’s favorite pixie from another planet delivers a sweeping epic, ballasting icy techno soundscapes with her signature stirring vocals.
47 Liz Phair
Exile in Guyville (1993)
A 2008 reissue should show a new generation just what the whip-smart Chicago songstress achieved on this long-unavailable alt-rock classic. Her voice was reedy, but Phair made up for it with the pure rock & roll audacity of third-wave feminist anthems like ”F— and Run.”
48 American IV: The Man Comes Around
Johnny Cash (2002)
One of the last true titans took other artists’ songs — Nine Inch Nails’ ”Hurt,” Depeche Mode’s ”Personal Jesus” — as well as his own originals, and imbued them with a magisterial grace.
49 A Rush of Blood to the Head
The British foursome hit their sophomore stride with a cohesive album of rock swooners like ”In My Place,” ”The Scientist,” and ”Clocks.”
50 Sounds of Silver
LCD Soundsystem (2007)
Building on the success of his cheeky ‘05 electro ditty ”Daft Punk Is Playing at My House,” LCD mastermind James Murphy produced a heady mix of deep techno stompers, trippy soundscapes, and surprisingly personal narratives.
The Rest of the Best 51-100
51. The Score Fugees (1996)
52. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga Spoon (2007)
53. King of America Elvis Costello (1986)
54. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 Janet Jackson (1989)
55. It Takes a Nation of Millions… Public Enemy (1988)
56. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Wilco (2002)
57. Harvest Moon Neil Young (1992)
58. Surfer Rosa The Pixies (1988)
59. Ray of Light Madonna (1998)
60. Crooked Rain Crooked Rain Pavement (1994)
61. Paid in Full Eric B. & Rakim (1987)
62. OK Computer Radiohead (1997)
63. The Joshua Tree U2 (1987)
64. Mama’s Gun Erykah Badu (2000)
65. Elephant The White Stripes (2003)
66. The Chronic Dr. Dre (1992)
67. Metallica Metallica (1991)
68. Wrecking Ball Emmylou Harris (1995)
69. Give Up The Postal Service (2003)
70. My Life Mary J. Blige (1994)
71. Rock Steady No Doubt (2001)
72. 1984 Van Halen (1984)
73. The Queen is Dead Smiths (1986)
74. Play Moby (1999)
75. Born in the U.S.A. Bruce Springsteen (1984)
76. Heartbreaker Ryan Adams (2000)
77. Dummy Portishead (1994)
78. Vs. Pearl Jam (1991)
79. Let It Be The Replacements (1984)
80. Back to Basics Christina Aguilera (2006)
81. The Downward Spiral Nine Inch Nails (1994)
82. Grace Jeff Buckley (1994)
83. Learning to Crawl The Pretenders (1984)
84. Low-Life New Order (1985)
85. Home Dixie Chicks (2002)
86. Loveless My Bloody Valentine (1991)
87. All Eyez on Me 2Pac (1996)
88. So Peter Gabriel (1986)
89. Bachelor No. 2 Aimee Mann (2000)
90. Toxicity System of a Down (2001)
91. Siamese Dream Smashing Pumpkins (1993)
92. The Writing’s on the Wall Destiny?s Child (1999)
93. Either/Or Elliott Smith (1997)
94. Synchronicity The Police (1983)
95. Trap Muzik T.I. (2003)
96. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea PJ Harvey (2000)
97. Britney Britney Spears (2001)
98. Transatlanticism Death Cab for Cutie (2003)
99. Live Through This Hole (1994)
100. Faith George Michael (1987)