Despite what you may hear when you turn on the radio today, rock music was not always adolescent kids screaming and banging their heads. Your average teen today probably considers rock to be rap-metal or rage-rock, and is ignorant of the wide variety of music that has, over the years, gone under the moniker of “rock.” But because rock has always been about crossing boundaries and stretching limits, new forms of rock are continuously being invented. That’s why angst-fueled rockers like Rage Against The Machine and the Deftones can coexist with lite-punkers like Green Day and Blink 182 on popular radio.
So, for better or worse, rock n’ roll has always been in a constant state of evolution and experimentation. And as a result, the term rock encompasses a fairly eclectic territory. From Elvis’ hip-swaying, to the punk energy of the Sex Pistols, to the incoherent rage of Korn, it’s all rock n’ roll, baby! Here it is: a loose history of rock, from its earliest formative years, to its current state.
But first a disclaimer. These are not my favorite albums; that wouldn’t make much sense, because nobody would care. Nor are these meant to be the absolute best albums ever. What these are intended to be is a listing of the most important albums in rock n’ roll history. These are the records that have gone on to influence countless other musicians and change the very definition of what can be considered rock.
So sit back, pick up your air guitar, and get ready to rock.
Elvis Presley — Elvis Presley (1954) Forget the fat, sweating drug addict he was at the end of his career; forget the Las Vegas imitators; forget all the myth and legend surrounding the man. When you strip all that away, you’re left with the artist who single-handedly broke rock n’ roll into the mainstream with his intensely sexual (for the time) persona, and set the stage for every act that would follow. His 1950s singles are perhaps his most famous works, but of his complete albums this is the best, featuring “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Bob Dylan — The Freewheeling… (1963) Say what you will, but Bob Dylan made it acceptable for rock singers to have bad voices. On his second album, Dylan crafted some of his most enduring and emotional folk standards. “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Oxford Town” were biting social commentaries, while “Don’t Think Twice” was a bittersweet love song. On all these songs, though, it’s Dylan’s gritty, cracking voice that conveys his strong emotions and makes this album such a classic.
The Beatles — Revolver (1966) The Beatles, along with Elvis, are the kind of artists that seem more like legends than people who actually live on Earth. But at this point, they have been pretty much ingrained in popular culture. On Revolver, the band evolved from its poppy, upbeat early records. Revolver has its darker moments, like the Eastern-tinged “Love You To,” but it has an equal share of charming pop, such as the string-laced “Eleanor Rigby.” This is not the Beatles’ most well-known album, but it is one of their more consistent ones, and it marked the moment when they transformed from loveable, mop-topped lads into full-fledged rock icons.
The Velvet Underground — The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) When this album was released, it was met with almost complete critical and commercial disinterest. Now, 33 years later, it is widely regarded as one of the most influential albums that rock music has ever seen. This, the Velvets’ first record, is the one that defined their trademark sound: Lou Reed’s deadpan sing/speak vocals, John Cale’s screeching viola, and lots of feedback. But the album also contained some straightforward rock gems like “There She Goes Again” and “Venus In Furs,” the clear forerunners to the ’90s alternative scene.
The Stooges — The Stooges (1969) Even before the Sex Pistols or the Ramones, Iggy Pop and his Stooges were trashing away on their instruments with more sheer punk fury than anyone had ever heard at the time this album was released. But while the Sex Pistols ranted with a social conscience, and the Ramones just wanted to get laid, the Stooges simply made noise for the sake of making noise. Never before had there been such a pure celebration of aggression and cacophony, but buried within the clatter are some great rock riffs and anthemic, singalong choruses.
Led Zeppelin — IV (1971) Best known for the epic “Stairway to Heaven,” this album was probably the best of a career that spanned eight studio albums. They’ve been credited with starting heavy metal, but we won’t lay all that blame on their heads. (Think about it, is it fair to say that Zeppelin is responsible for, say, Slayer?) Quite simply, this is an excellent blues-rock hybrid, with heavy riffs and stomping drums. And nobody else has done this kind of thing quite as well since.
Pink Floyd — Wish You Were Here (1975) The follow-up to Pink Floyd’s legendary Dark Side Of The Moon, this album has generally been considered a lesser work, but it’s actually more innovative and unique than its famous predecessor. The lovely title track has rightfully become a classic rock staple, but the rest of the songs here have benefitted from not being overplayed on the radio. “Welcome To The Machine” and “Have A Cigar” are two spooky, electronic-textured pieces that are way ahead of their time as far as studio effects.
Madonna — Like A Virgin (1984) This, along with a handful of Madonna’s other ’80s records, is arguably one of the only albums that defined the sound of the entire decade. Armed with a seductive voice, an unrivaled dancing ability, and a gift for writing succinct dance-pop masterpieces, Madonna has become a pop culture icon. On this album, her second, she wrote some of her most enduring pieces, including the title track and the ubiquitous anthem “Material Girl.”
R.E.M. — Automatic For The People (1992) This is probably the only album from the ’90s that will have as much influence on future generations as the Beatles have today. On Automatic, R.E.M. tackled a darker, more depressing side of their music, and came up with a masterpiece. Songs like “Everybody Hurts” and “Man On The Moon” have become synonymous with R.E.M. This was the creative pinnacle for a band that essentially started the alternative movement and redefined pop music.
Radiohead — OK Computer (1997) If you need proof that the rock music of Generation X-Y-whatever has not been stagnant, you don’t need to look much further than Radiohead. After two excellent but standard albums, the band shocked the world with this disc in 1997. Combining a distinctive three-guitar assault with Thom Yorke’s plaintive, emotional vocals and many well-placed electronic effects, this album made Radiohead the most original and potentially enduring band of the ’90s. The thematic content is distinctively of the decade too; the album’s lyrics explore our increasing reliance on computers and the ways technology dehumanizes us.
‘N Sync — No Strings Attached (2000) Just kidding.
Archived article by Ed Howard