The 25 albums that changed music
1 The Velvet Underground and Nico
The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
Though it sold poorly on its initial release, this has since become arguably the most influential rock album of all time. The first art-rock album, it merges dreamy, druggy balladry (‘Sunday Morning’) with raw and uncompromising sonic experimentation (‘Venus in Furs’), and is famously clothed in that Andy Warhol-designed ‘banana’ sleeve. Lou Reed’s lyrics depicted a Warholian New York demi-monde where hard drugs and sexual experimentation held sway. Shocking then, and still utterly transfixing.
Without this, there’d be no … Bowie, Roxy Music, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Jesus and Mary Chain, among many others.
2 The Beatles
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
There are those who rate Revolver (1966) or ‘the White Album’ (1968) higher. But Sgt Pepper’s made the watertight case for pop music as an art form in itself; until then, it was thought the silly, transient stuff of teenagers. At a time when all pop music was stringently manufactured, these Paul McCartney-driven melodies and George Martin-produced whorls of sound proved that untried ground was not only the most fertile stuff, but also the most viable commercially. It defined the Sixties and – for good and ill – gave white rock all its airs and graces.
Without this … pop would be a very different beast.
Trans-Europe Express (1977)
Released at the height of punk, this sleek, urbane, synthesised, intellectual work shared little ground with its contemporaries. Not that it wanted to. Kraftwerk operated from within a bubble of equipment and ideas which owed more to science and philosophy than mere entertainment. Still, this paean to the beauty of mechanised movement and European civilisation was a moving and exquisite album in itself. And, through a sample on Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal ‘Planet Rock’, the German eggheads joined the dots with black American electro, giving rise to entire new genres.
Without this… no techno, no house, no Pet Shop Boys. The list is endless.
Straight Outta Compton (1989)
Like a darker, more vengeful Public Enemy, NWA (Niggaz With Attitude) exposed the vicious realities of the West Coast gang culture on their lurid, fluent debut. Part aural reportage (sirens, gunshots, police radio), part thuggish swagger, Compton laid the blueprint for the most successful musical genre of the last 20 years, gangsta rap. It gave the world a new production mogul in Dr Dre, and gave voice to the frustrations that flared up into the LA riots in 1992. As befits an album boasting a song called ‘Fuck tha Police’, attention from the FBI, the Parents’ Music Resource Centre and our own Metropolitan Police’s Obscene Publications Squad sealed its notoriety.
Without this … no Eminem, no 50 Cent, no Dizzee Rascal.
5 Robert Johnson
King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961)
Described by Eric Clapton as ‘the most important blues singer that ever lived’, Johnson was an intensely private man, whose short life and mysterious death created an enduring mythology. He was said to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in Mississippi in exchange for his finger-picking prowess. Johnson recorded a mere 29 songs, chief among them ‘Hellhound on My Trail’, but when it was finally issued, King of the Delta Blues Singers became one of the touchstones of the British blues scene.
Without this … no Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin.
6 Marvin Gaye
What’s Going On (1971)
Gaye’s career as tuxedo-clad heart-throb gave no hint he would cut a concept album dealing with civil rights, the Vietnam war and ghetto life. Equally startling was the music, softening and double-tracking Gaye’s falsetto against a wash of bubbling percussion, swaying strings and chattering guitars. Motown boss Berry Gordy hated it but its disillusioned nobility caught the public mood. Led by the oft-covered ‘Inner City Blues’, it ushered in an era of socially aware soul.
Without this … no Innervisions (Stevie Wonder) or Superfly (Curtis Mayfield).
7 Patti Smith
Who would have thought punk rock was, in part, kickstarted by a girl? Poet, misfit and New York ligger, Patti channelled the spirits of Keith Richards, Bob Dylan and Rimbaud into female form, and onto an album whose febrile energy and Dionysian spirit helped light the touchpaper for New York punk. The Robert Mapplethorpe-shot cover, in which a hungry, mannish Patti stares down the viewer, defiantly broke with the music industry’s treatment of women artists (sexy or girl-next-door) and still startles today.
Without this … no REM, PJ Harvey, Razorlight. And no powerful female pop icons like Madonna.
8 Bob Dylan
Bringing it All Back Home (1965)
The first folk-rock album? Maybe. Certainly the first augury of what was to come with the momentous ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Released in one of pop’s pivotal years, Bringing it All Back Home fused hallucinatory lyricism and, on half of its tracks, a raw, ragged rock’n’roll thrust. On the opening song, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, Dylan manages to pay homage to the Beats and Chuck Berry, while anticipating the surreal wordplay of rap.
Without this … put simply, on this album and the follow-up, Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan invented modern rock music.
9 Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley (1956)
The King’s first album was also the first example of how to cash in on a teenage craze. With Presleymania at full tilt, RCA simultaneously released a single, a four-track EP and an album, all with the same cover of Elvis in full, demented cry. They got their first million dollar album, the fans got a mix of rock-outs like ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, lascivious R&B and syrupy ballads.
Without this … no King, no rock and roll madness, no Beatles first album, no pop sex symbols.
10 The Beach Boys
Pet Sounds (1966)
Of late, Pet Sounds has replaced Sgt Pepper’s as the critics’ choice of Greatest Album of All Time. Composed by the increasingly reclusive Brian Wilson while the rest of the group were touring, it might well have been a solo album. The beauty resides not just in its compositional genius and instrumental invention, but in the elaborate vocal harmonies that imbue these sad songs with an almost heartbreaking grandeur.
Without this … where to start? The Beatles acknowledged its influence; Dylan said of Brian Wilson, ‘That ear! I mean, Jesus, he’s got to will that to the Smithsonian.’
11 David Bowie
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)
Bowie’s revolutionary mix of hard rock and glam pop was given an otherwordly look and feel by his coquettish alter ego Ziggy. It’s not so much that every act that followed dyed their hair orange in homage to the spidery spaceman; more that they learned the value of creating a ‘bubble’ of image and presentation that fans could fall in love with.
Without this … we’d be lost. No Sex Pistols, no Prince, no Madonna, no Duran Duran, no Boy George, no Kiss, no Bon Jovi, no ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ … I could go on.
12 Miles Davis
Kind of Blue (1959)
A rare example of revolutionary music that almost everyone liked from the moment they heard it. Its cool, spacey, open-textured approach marked a complete break with the prevalent ‘hard bop’ style. The effect, based on simple scales, called modes, was fresh, delicate, approachable but surprisingly expressive. Others picked up on it and ‘modal jazz’ has been part of the language ever since. The album also became the media’s favourite source of mood music.
Without this … no ominous, brooding, atmospheric trumpet behind a million radio plays and TV documentaries.
13 Frank Sinatra
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (1956)
The previous year Sinatra had cut In the Wee Small Hours, a brooding cycle of torch songs that was arguably pop’s first concept album. Once again working with arranger Nelson Riddle, he presented its complement; a set of upbeat paeans to romance. Exhilarating performances of standards like ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ defined Sinatra’s urbane, finger-snapping persona for the rest of his career and pushed the record to number one in the first ever British album chart.
Without this … the ‘singer as song interpreter’ wouldn’t have been born, karaoke menus would be much diminished.
14 Joni Mitchell
Though Carole King’s Tapestry was the biggest-selling album of the era, it is Joni Mitchell’s Blue that remains the most influential of all the early Seventies outings by confessional singer-songwriters. Joni laid bare her heart in a series of intimate songs about love, betrayal and emotional insecurity. It could have been hell (think James Taylor) but for the penetrating brilliance of the songwriting. Raw, spare and sophisticated, it remains the template for a certain kind of baroque female angst.
Without this … no Tori Amos or Fiona Apple – and Elvis Costello and Prince have cited her as a prime influence.
15 Brian Eno
Discreet Music (1975)
Brian Eno, it is said, invented ambient music when he was stuck in a hospital bed unable to reach a radio that was playing too quietly, giving him the eureka moment that set the course not only for his post-Roxy Music career as an ‘atmosphere’-enhancing producer, but for the future of electronic music.
Without this … we wouldn’t have David Bowie’s Low or Heroes, the echoey guitars of U2’S The Edge, and no William Orbit, Orb, Juana Molina. To name but a few.
16 Aretha Franklin
I Never Loved a Man the Way I love You (1967)
‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me!’ Is there a more potent female lyric in pop? Franklin’s Atlantic Records debut unleashed her soulful ferociousness upon an unsuspecting public, and both the singer and her album quickly became iconic symbols of black American pride.
Without this … Tina Turner, Mariah Carey, girl power would not exist, and rudeboys would not spit ‘res’pec’ through kissed teeth.
17 The Stooges
Raw Power (1973)
Produced by David Bowie, who also helped re-form the band, Raw Power was the Stooges’s late swansong, and their most influential album. The Detroit group were already legendary for incendiary live shows and first two albums, but Raw Power, though selling as poorly as its predecessors, was subsequently cited as a prime influence by virtually every group in the British punk scene.
Without this … no punk, so no Sex Pistols (who covered ‘No Fun’); no White Stripes.
18 The Clash
London Calling (1979)
The best record to come out of punk, or punk’s death knell? On this double album, The Clash fused their rockabilly roots with their love of reggae, moving away from the choppy snarls of the scene that birthed them. This was the album that legitimised punk – hitherto a stroppy fad – into the rock canon. Its iconic cover, and songs about the Spanish Civil War brought left-wing politics firmly into musical fashion.
Without this … would the west have come to love reggae, dub and ragga quite so much? We certainly would have no Manic Street Preachers … or Green Day, or Rancid … or possibly even Lily Allen.
19 Mary J Blige
What’s the 411? (1992)
When the Bronx-born ‘Queen of Hip Hop Soul’ catapulted her debut on to a legion of approving listeners, she unwittingly defined a new wave of R&B. Before Mary, R&B’s roots were still firmly planted in soul and jazz (ie Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan). The emergence of hip hop and this album from Blige and her mentor and producer Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs (aka P Diddy) gave birth to a new gritty sound, informed by the singer’s harrowing past.
Without this … no R&B/soul divide, which means no TLC, Beyonce, or Ashanti, to name just three.
20 The Byrds
Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)
At one inspired stroke, Sweetheart vanquished the cultural divide between acid-munching, peace-preaching long hairs and beer-swilling, flag-waving good old boys by creating the enduring hybrid of country-rock. Allying rippling guitars and silky vocal harmonies with a mix of country tradition (‘I Am a Pilgrim’) and Gram Parsons originals, the record irrevocably altered the perspective of two previously averse streams of Americana. The group even cut their hair to play the Grand Ole Opry.
Without this … no Hotel California, no Willie Nelson, no Shania Twain.
21 The Spice Girls
The music business has been cynically creating and marketing acts since the days of the wax cylinder, but on nothing like the scale of the Spice phenomenon, which was applied to crisps, soft drinks, you name it. Musically, the Spice’s Motown-lite was unoriginal, but ‘Girl Power’, despite being a male invention, touched a nerve and defined a generation of tweenies who took it to heart.
Without this … five-year-olds would not have become a prime target for pop marketeers. Most of all, there’d be no Posh’n’Becks.
22 Kate Bush
The Hounds of Love (1985)
On Side One our Kate strikes a deal with God, throws her shoes in a lake and poses as a little boy riding a rain machine. Turn over, and she’s drowning, exorcising demons and dancing an Irish jig. All this to a soundscape that employs the shiniest synthesised studio toys the Eighties had to offer in the service of one women’s unique yet utterly English musical genius. Listen again to the delirious cacophany of ‘Running Up That Hill’, and it sounds like God struck that deal.
Without this … Tori Amos would have spawned no earthquakes, Alison Goldfrapp would lack her juiciest cherries and romance would have withered on the vine.
23 Augustus Pablo
King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown (1976)
Jamaica’s invention of dub – a stripped-down, echo-laden instrumental remix of a vocal track – was spawned principally on the B-sides of local reggae hits and in the island’s competing sound-systems, with technician-engineer King Tubby as its master creator, a man who could ‘play’ the mixing console. This collection of ethereal melodies by melodica maestro Augustus Pablo distilled the art into album form. It would be years before the West caught up.
Without this … no DJ remixes, no house, no rave.
24 Youssou N’Dour
The charismatic N’Dour, Senegal’s top star, changed the West’s perception of African musicians, just as he had revolutionised Senegalese music. Nothing sounded like the fusion on Immigres, with its lopsided rhythms, whooping talking drums and discordant horns, topped by N’Dour’s supple, powerful vocals. Immigres also redefined the role of West African griot, addressing migration and African identity.
Without this … N’Dour wouldn’t have met Peter Gabriel, there’d have been no African presence at Live 8. In fact, ‘world music’ would not exist as a section in Western collections.
25 James Brown
Live at the Apollo (1963)
This remains the live album by which all others are measured, and is still the best delineation of the raw power of primal soul music. It propelled James Brown into the mainstream, and paved the way for a string of propulsive hits like ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ (1965) and ‘Cold Sweat’ (1967). The catalyst for many great soul stylists, from Sly Stone to Otis Redding, it also provided an early lesson in dynamics for the young Michael Jackson.
Without this … great chunks of hip hop – which has sampled Brown more than almost any other – would be missing.