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Recall the albums that saw us through some memorable firsts. From "My Girl" to "Hotel California," these tunes moved us like no others. So indulge us (or not — we'd love to hear from you!) in the 25 albums we present in chronological order — who could ever rank them by greatness?
Patsy Cline, 1961
After hours of trying to sing "Crazy," the Willie Nelson song that would become her biggest hit, Cline walked out of the recording studio in frustration. (Broken ribs from a recent car crash had left her unable to hit the high notes.) Thankfully, she recovered enough to complete this gorgeous album, which features not just "Crazy" but also "Walkin' After Midnight" and the plaintive "I Fall to Pieces." You can thank Elvis Presley's Jordanaires for the LP's beautiful backing vocals.
Ray Charles, 1962
Uh, country music?! Though it didn't contain "Georgia on My Mind" — the song that would become his personal anthem — this oddly titled album debuted such Charles classics as "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "You Don't Know Me." Charles was never in better voice, and this would remain his best-selling record (as well as reach No. 105 on Rolling Stone's list of "500 Greatest Albums of All Time").
Bob Dylan, 1965
Renegade Bob Dylan made a generation sit up and take notice when he wailed, "How does it feel / To be on your own / With no direction home?" Fans have been debating the meaning of that song, "Like a Rolling Stone," ever since. Highway 61 also features the mordant "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," in which Dylan signals his disillusionment with the '60s music scene: "But the joke was on me / … I do believe I've had enough." As for the origin of the LP's title, well — that's still anybody's guess.
The Beatles, 1965
It's nowhere near as tight as the immaculately produced Abbey Road, but the band's sixth studio album might just be their best. Recorded in only four weeks, it's heavy on love ballads: Think of "Michelle," "Girl" and the haunting "In My Life." George Harrison introduced Western ears to the sitar on "Norwegian Wood" — but was the song the work of a psychopath or a comic genius? Discuss.
The Beach Boys, 1966
Some unassailable authorities — Rolling Stone for one, Sir Paul McCartney for another — have singled out Pet Sounds as the greatest pop album ever. Songwriting genius Brian Wilson was at the top of his creative game, while brother Carl's angel voice soars on the intricate "God Only Knows," one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written. The record is a testament to belief in what we all truly want: hope, love, acceptance.
The Temptations, 1966
You'll find few compilation albums on this list, but we couldn't resist this virtual jukebox of Motown Records, which includes such classic boomer earworms as "Get Ready," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "Since I Lost My Baby," "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep" and that perennial "our song" for every couple in love, "My Girl." Many of these hits were written for the Temptations by Miracles frontman (and later Motown VP) Smokey Robinson.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1967
Hendrix would grow artistically until his death three years later, but he never topped his debut album's synthesis of rock, blues and soul — from the pulsing frenzy of "Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady" to the mournful tenderness of "The Wind Cries Mary." Coaxing a sound from his guitar no one had heard before, Hendrix pioneered psychedelic rock.
Aretha Franklin, 1968
After her smash debut in April 1967 with Otis Redding's "Respect," the young blues singer knocked it out of the park again with this album, rocking "Chain of Fools" and singing the Gerry Goffin/Carole King tune "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" the way God intended.
Simon and Garfunkel, 1970
The final studio album recorded by the influential duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel was released into an American culture riven by antiwar protests and racial unrest. Featuring sweet, comic ballads such as "Cecilia" and "Song for the Asking" — and with its title song promising "I will comfort you" and "I will ease your mind" — the album seemed to hint that hard times pass, but music lasts.
James Taylor, 1970
The balladeer's battle with heroin began at roughly this time, as evidenced by his two hospitalizations ("My body's aching and my time is at hand.") He was also weathering the death by suicide of a close friend — the subject of "Fire and Rain." Taylor's strong, sweet vocals combined with the funky lilt of his melodies and the confessional quality of his lyrics ("Sunny Skies" is none too sunny!) to establish sweet baby James as a major force in bluesy rock.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970
The coolest crew ever — David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash — annexed gritty Neil Young for their second album and came up with a No. 1 winner. From the exquisite harmonies on "Helpless" to the startling hippie homeyness of "Our House," and from the legacy-minded homily "Teach Your Children" to Joni Mitchell's generational anthem "Woodstock," CSN&Y laid down hard social truths with a deceptively folksy sound.
Carole King, 1971
King was a 29-year-old veteran troubador when she recorded this monumental record, studded with hit after hit — from "I Feel the Earth Move," "So Far Away" and "It's Too Late" to "You've Got a Friend," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." With 25 million copies sold, it remains one of the top-selling records of all time. King's raw, imperfect voice, said one critic, set women free to sing the truth, not just "sing sweet." The fifth track on the album, "Beautiful," was reprised as the title of a 2014 Broadway musical about King's life and work.
The Rolling Stones, 1971
Filled with dark undercurrents, the Stones' 11th studio album kicks off with the stark jangle of "Brown Sugar," a gleeful tribute to interracial sex — still a taboo at the time. Mick Taylor would leave the Stones in 1974, but his guitar brilliance shines bright (and long!) on "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." The record's masterpiece, "Wild Horses," finds Keith Richards ruing the need to leave his newborn son to go on tour and Mick Jagger mourning his breakup with Marianne Faithfull. (Her spiraling drug use led her to cowrite the terrifying "Sister Morphine.")
Marvin Gaye, 1971
Soul singers weren't known for protest songs when Gaye inhabited the character of a black Vietnam veteran for his 11th solo studio album, which assailed not just the war overseas but urban decay and environmental woes back home. Those concerns emerge in the melancholic title song ("Brother, brother, brother — there's far too many of you dying") as well as in the lament "Mercy, Mercy Me." Gaye's watershed LP placed No. 6 on Rolling Stone's list of 500 greatest albums.
Joni Mitchell, 1971
This album furnished the soundtrack for every teenage girl going through a tearful breakup in the '70s, with each song adding one more ingredient to the crazy cocktail of longing and desire. On her fourth LP, the Canadian singer-songwriter ranged in mood from bitter ("A Case of You") to nostalgic ("River") to achingly poignant: "Little Green" chronicled Mitchell's decision to surrender her newborn baby girl for adoption.
Don McLean, 1971
An elegy to a passing era ("Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry"), McLean's melodic prose poem spawned more than one final-exam essay. Challenged to explain the convoluted lyrics ("While the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown"), McLean once said they meant he'd never have to work again. Sure, the album questioned everything — and knocked "a generation lost in space" — but "Vincent" turned us on to Van Gogh.
Elton John, 1973
Carefully designed to be a blockbuster, this record stands out as Elton John's definitive statement as an entertainer: It's glam, fabulous and over the top — and artistically ambitious, too. Today (as back then) we respond viscerally to the sorrow it expresses, from the nothing-good-lasts-forever message of the title track to the song that would become the official elegy for Princess Diana, "Candle in the Wind."
Bruce Springsteen, 1975
A 25-year-old Jersey boy turned a high-pressure hose on music as usual with the desperate energy of his third album's "broken heroes" seeking "glory in suicide machines." In addition to that title track, Born to Run gave the world the wistful "She's the One," the turnpike operas and alley ballets of "Jungleland," and the funky bounce of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." Springsteen may have crooned "maybe we ain't that young anymore" on "Thunder Road," but nearly 40 years later this album tells us why Bruce is still "The Boss."
The Eagles, 1976
If this album consisted of the title track alone, it would still be one of the most mysterious recordings of all time. Reservoirs of ink have been drained by journalists asking Glenn Frey, Don Felder and Don Henley what is truly meant by the "Hotel California," where "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." Guesses have ranged from a state mental hospital to a symbol of glorious excess, but the answer may simply be that these kids from "back East" found everything about California glitzy and spooky. Not to be overlooked: the coruscating "Life in the Fast Lane" and the haunting, underrated "Last Resort."
Fleetwood Mac, 1977
A modest British pop group grafted on a couple of Americans (Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham) and soared into the rock stratosphere with this album, dubbed Rumours by founder Mick Fleetwood to capture the unraveling relationships of the couples in the band. The resulting tracks — cutting-edge songs born of raw anguish, like "The Chain" and "Go Your Own Way" — have become family FM standards by now, but always worth a revisit is keyboardist Christine McVie's sleeper, "Songbird."
Billy Joel, 1977
He would insist he played rock music, but Billy Joel was actually the consummate balladeer: His lyrical "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," "She's Always a Woman" and "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" made him the Hoagy Carmichael of his era. Whether you think the piano man's reputation as a lyricist is overstated or not, there's no doubting the enduring popularity of his compositions: Many a Billy Joel tune has become "musical wallpaper" on classic rock stations. Or, as boomers label that distinction, immortal.
Willie Nelson, 1978
Breaking free of his "outlaw country" box, the self-styled "redheaded stranger" hopped from one decade (and genre) to another to record the 10 standards here in just nine days. Stardust honored stars from Irving Berlin (whose "Blue Skies" was originally recorded in 1926) to Duke Ellington, who first laid down his bop lament "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" in 1940. When many of us think of American-songbook classics such as "All of Me" (1931), "Moonlight in Vermont" (1944) or "On the Sunny Side of the Street" (1930), it's typically Willie's version we hear playing in our heads.
Michael Jackson, 1982
Whatever else transpired in his tragically abbreviated life, Jackson's sixth studio album has only grown in stature since he produced it, becoming perhaps the definitive pop album. Not only did Thriller smash racial and genre barriers, it produced the incandescent "Billie Jean," "Beat It" and "Human Nature." The other half-dozen tracks are only slightly lesser wonders.
Tom Petty, 1989
Why is Tom Petty so consistently good? Because he kicks it old-style: It's all about the songs, the throaty guitars, the unpretentious style, the humility. On this solo album — a garage record, as a matter of fact — the now-63-year-old Heartbreaker delivered "Runnin' Down a Dream," "I Won't Back Down" and the slacker anthem "Free Fallin.'"
Stevie Wonder, 1999
Having spent six decades in front of a microphone, funky bluesman Stevie Wonder has graced us with some stunners: "Living for the City," "Superstition," "I Just Called to Say I Love You," "For Once in My Life" and "Higher Ground." Happily, all of those appear on this 4-CD greatest-hits collection. Paul Simon once accepted a Grammy by thanking Wonder for not making an album that year, and Bill Clinton hailed Wonder as "the prodigy who became a prophet."
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