These are the 100 best albums of all time… at least, according to Apple Music based on cultural impact and quality rather than numbers.

Music is such an incredibly vast and varied medium, how could you ever choose the greatest of all the albums released in history? Well, Apple Music have attempted to do just that with their list of the 100 Best Albums.

Apple Music states that this list is not based on streaming numbers. It is instead an “editorial statement” based on the influence and impact of the great music of today and yesterday. Apple Music’s senior director of content and editorial, Rachel Newman writes:

“100 best brings together all the things that make Apple Music the ultimate service for music lovers – human curation at its peak, an appreciation for the art of storytelling, and unparalleled knowledge of music and an even deeper love for it. We have been working on this for a very long time, and it’s something we are all incredibly proud of and excited to share with the world.”

So, without further ado let’s find out what (Apple reckons are) the best albums of all time with descriptions from Apple’s editorial team.

Album links are for Spotify based on where people listen the most.

100. Body Talk – Robyn

Body Talk - Album by Robyn | Spotify

Early on in her seventh full-length album—and international breakthrough—the Swedish pop star makes a declaration: “Fembots have feelings, too.” And, boy, does Body Talk have feelings. The album launched two of the 21st century’s definitive “sad bangers”—“Dancing on My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend”—inspiring a wave of aching but triumphant crying-on-the-dance-floor anthems.

99. Hotel California – Eagles

Hotel California (2013 Remaster) - Album by Eagles | Spotify

In early 1976, the Eagles released Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, a compilation that would spend the next half decade on the Billboard 200 and go on to become the biggest-selling album of the 20th century in the United States. But the band’s most popular, career-defining song was still months away: the title track to Hotel California, the record where the Eagles expunged any lingering trace of their country-rock roots and took up residence in the football stadiums of the world.

98. ASTROWORLD – Travis Scott

ASTROWORLD - Album by Travis Scott | Spotify

Named for a now-closed Six Flags in Travis Scott’s native Houston, ASTROWORLD delivers on any good amusement park’s promise and premise, offering breathtaking peaks and drops and daring thrills. Perhaps the biggest hairpin turn: By stacking and expertly curating his third solo album with a sprawling and adventurous collection of both A-list and emerging musical, vocal, and production talent, the rapper/superproducer emerges as the most exciting attraction in the park.

97. Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine

Rage Against The Machine - Album by Rage Against The Machine | Spotify

Like the revolutionaries, MCs, and hard rock that inspired it, Rage Against the Machine exists in all caps. Its most lasting lyrics—“Some of those that work forces/Are the same that burn crosses” (“Killing in the Name”), “Anger is a gift” (“Freedom”)—have the instant memorability of a protest chant. The immediacy isn’t just a metaphor for their message; it’s a way to spread the word and put power into the hands of the people. It’s an album you could listen to at the gym or build a syllabus around.

96. Pure Heroine – Lorde

Pure Heroine - Album by Lorde | Spotify

During the aughts, the party-hearty teen-pop pantheon was a sea of Auto-Tuned vocals, sugary-sweet lyrics, misappropriated school uniforms and twerking Disney stars. Then came Lorde. On Pure Heroine, her 2013 debut album, the Auckland-born singer-songwriter born Ella Yelich-O’Connor relied instead on restrained, almost growled vocals set to skeletal, programmed beats. She focuses on the realities of suburban teenage ennui from the very first track, “Tennis Court”, which opens with the line “Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?”

95. Confessions – USHER

Confessions (Expanded Edition) - Album by USHER | Spotify

If you have a distinct memory of 2004, then you remember how inescapable USHER’s fourth studio album was for the entirety of that year. This was Usher Raymond in his final form: No longer a boyish heart-throb under the tutelage of top producers who doubled as mentors, he’d finally reached his artistic prime.

94. Untrue – Burial

Untrue - Album by Burial | Spotify

Released in 2007, Untrue immediately became a touchstone of UK electronic music, aided by the mystique surrounding Burial’s anonymity (to this day, William Emmanuel Bevan rarely grants interviews). The album is gritty without being abrasive, with house-like vocals that lend a gentleness to the thundering, muddy bass. The album’s second track, “Archangel”, is perhaps one of the most recognisable songs in electronic music, with its pitched-down soprano sample consisting of the lines “Holding you/Couldn’t be alone/Couldn’t be alone/Couldn’t be alone.” (Bevan apparently wrote and produced the song in 20 minutes, following the death of his dog.)

93. A Seat at the Table – Solange

A Seat at the Table - Album by Solange | Spotify

“Fall in your ways so you can wake up and rise,” Solange sings in the intro track of her third album. The line encapsulates the journey of the then 30-year-old artist—formerly known as Beyoncé Knowles’ little sister—emerging from an eight-year hiatus from music and recognised as a bona fide visionary in her own right.

92. Flower Boy – Tyler, The Creator

Flower Boy - Album by Tyler, The Creator | Spotify

Even when he was the enfant terrible of underground hip-hop, Tyler, The Creator’s most provocative and irony-soaked albums still provided windows into his anxiety and self-loathing. But his fourth solo album, 2017’s Flower Boy, was the moment Tyler fully embraced his role as bloodletting diarist, stripping away the appeals for shock and fully embracing expressions of lovesickness and loneliness. He emerges as a pan-genre auteur, as likely to spit rhymes as croon in a Pharrell-ian falsetto, landing somewhere at the intersection of hip-hop, neo-soul and chilled jazz.

91. Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 – George Michael

Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 - Album by George Michael | Spotify

The pervading mood of Listen Without Prejudice is one of subtlety, political consciousness and emotional desolation. Woodwinds evoke sparse battlefields (“Mothers Pride”), echo adds ghostly desperation (most notably on the spine-tingling Stevie Wonder cover “They Won’t Go When I Go”) and wind-blown acoustic guitar nods to folk (“Something to Save”). Crowned by the grand Lennon-ian sweep of “Praying for Time”, it is a quietly radical, deeply affecting creative progression—the sound of an artist retreating from pop’s synth-driven orthodoxy into something touched by timelessness, profundity and, in almost every sense, real soul.

90. Back in Black – AC/DC

Back In Black - Album by AC/DC | Spotify

When impish AC/DC singer Bon Scott died on 19 February 1980, the band’s career—one that had, after years of hard touring, made a huge leap in America on the back of 1979’s Highway to Hell—seemed destined to go with him. But after Scott’s father pulled Angus and Malcolm Young aside at the funeral and gave his blessing for the band to continue, the brothers began working on new music—at first as a way of mourning, but soon as a chance at rebirth. Six weeks later, Brian Johnson was in, and AC/DC were back. (Yes, they’re back.)

89. The Fame Monster (Deluxe Edition) – Lady Gaga

The Fame Monster (Deluxe Edition) - Album by Lady Gaga | Spotify

With the arrival of 2008’s The Fame, a star was (forgive us) born. But before Lady Gaga was living the lifestyle of the rich and famous, Stefani Germanotta was getting ready in the New York club scene. That’s what makes The Fame such a self-manifesting statement—it chronicles the glamorous A-list culture Gaga had yet to actually experience.

88. I Put a Spell on You – Nina Simone

I Put A Spell On You - Album by Nina Simone | Spotify

I Put a Spell on You became one of Nina Simone’s most successful albums, and its title track—a string-laden, melodramatic cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ campy rock classic—would turn out to be her biggest single since her debut. But it was “Feeling Good” that ultimately became the album’s best-known track—the scale of the horn section and orchestra are no match for Simone’s vocal force on the completely reimagined show tune. It’s the rare minor-key celebratory anthem.

87. Blue Lines – Massive Attack

Blue Lines - Album by Massive Attack | Spotify

Inspired by the reggae music of the Caribbean diaspora in their native Bristol as much as by nascent UK rap, DJ and MC collective Massive Attack forged a new aesthetic by mixing remarkable clarity with the paranoid fug of weed smoke. This tension between unease and harmony continues throughout their debut, but ultimately it’s the album’s most well-known track, “Unfinished Sympathy”, where they reach their peak: Pairing luscious string orchestrations with eerie vocal samples and singer Shara Nelson’s yearning vocal lamenting an unrequited love, Massive Attack create five minutes of soul music that stirs as much as it soothes.

86. My Life – Mary J. Blige

My Life - Album by Mary J. Blige | Spotify

With Mary J. Blige’s first album, What’s the 411?, the emerging “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” had imbued diaristic R&B with a youthful hip-hop sensibility. For the follow-up, 1994’s career-defining My Life, the 23-year-old got even more personal, drawing on her depression, struggles with drugs and alcohol, experiences with domestic violence and heartbreak, and the spiritual fortitude that carried her through it. All this while trying to process her breakneck trajectory from a Yonkers housing project to worldwide fame.

85. Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves

Golden Hour - Album by Kacey Musgraves | Spotify

No one saw it coming: not even Kacey Musgraves—just look at the “surprise face” meme that went viral after she won the Grammy for Album of the Year for Golden Hour. It was a passion project dedicated to fresh love, made with a new production team (Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian) and a little bit of LSD, and partly recorded above Sheryl Crow’s horse barn. But it was a passion project that exploded Kacey Musgraves from critically adored artist into global superstar.

84. Doggystyle – Snoop Dogg

Doggystyle - Album by Snoop Dogg | Spotify

Coming fast on the heels of Dr. Dre’s seminal solo debut, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle plays like the night of partying and ensuing hangover that must inevitably follow The Chronic’s long lazy afternoon of Crenshaw cruising. Though tracks like the unforgettable “Gin and Juice” and “Doggy Dogg World” provide moments of gleeful levity to rival the sun-saturated joy of “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang,” Doggystyle often sounds stressed and weary where The Chronic was celebratory.

83. Horses – Patti Smith

Horses - Album by Patti Smith | Spotify

In some ways, Patti Smith was a traditionalist, taking inspiration from the likes of Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger and ’60s pop. In others, she was a radical—the resolve, the intensity, the way she informed a nascent, rough-hewn downtown New York art and punk scene with poetry and jazz, name-checking Rimbaud and Kerouac. Her 1975 debut (produced by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale) covered all of this ground and more.

82. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ – 50 Cent

Get Rich Or Die Tryin - Album by 50 Cent | Spotify

On the cover of Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 50 Cent essentially looks like a superhero—but if anything, the album was an origin story for one of rap’s all-time great supervillains. 50 learned the ropes under the mentorship of Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay, landed a deal with Columbia Records and built a buzz with single “How to Rob” before being hit with nine bullets outside of his grandmother’s home in Queens. After he recovered, his legendary mixtape run with his G-Unit crew reworked the hit rap and R&B records of the time, adding his own deadpan, street-savvy choruses.

81. After the Gold Rush – Neil Young

After The Goldrush - Album by Neil Young | Spotify

After the Gold Rush is probably the first multi-platinum album to be recorded in someone’s basement, but just as importantly, it sounds like it. Young settled into the style that defined him for the next 50-plus years: intuitive, direct, a little messy, but with a reliable line on what often felt like deeper creative truths. When the hotshot teenage guitarist Nils Lofgren fielded his request to play piano by saying he didn’t know how, Young said great—that’s exactly the kind of pianist he was looking for.

80. The Marshall Mathers LP – Eminem

The Marshall Mathers LP - Album by Eminem | Spotify

By Eminem’s own admission, The Marshall Mathers LP was a peak. He was already a lightning rod after his legend-making The Slim Shady LP a year prior, but here his provocations were more provocative (the ultraviolence of “Kim”), his catchier moments among the catchiest in early-2000s pop (“The Real Slim Shady”). And if you didn’t think he was capable of something as complex and empathetic as “Stan”—which did nothing less than invent one of 21st-century pop culture’s most inescapable words—it’s as acute in its portrayal of everyday desperation as a Springsteen tune.

79. Norman Fucking Rockwell! – Lana Del Rey

Norman Fucking Rockwell! - Album by Lana Del Rey | Spotify

Tucked inside Lana Del Rey’s dreamscapes about Hollywood and the Hamptons are reminders—and celebrations—of just how empty these places can be. Winking and vivid, Norman F*****g Rockwell! is a definitive riff on the rules of authenticity from an artist who has made a career out of breaking them. She paints with sincerity and satire, and challenges you to spot the difference.

78. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Elton John

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Remastered) - Album by Elton John | Spotify

Having rocketed from the lavish orchestrations of “Your Song” and “Levon” to the barroom romps “Honky Cat” and “Crocodile Rock” in less than three years, Elton John saw fit to make a Big Statement tying together all his musical impulses. The double LP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road cemented not only his nearly wayward eclecticism, but also his audience’s willingness to follow any path he took. The result was his critical and commercial peak—an album whose tracklist looks, at first blush, like a greatest-hits anthology.

77. Like a Prayer – Madonna

Like a Prayer - Album by Madonna | Spotify

From the gospel ecstasy of its chart-topping title track—and its controversial accompanying video, which mixed religion, racism and interracial desire as only Madonna could—Like a Prayer is the work of a pop sensation who’s made it through tabloid hell and has come out of the experience reborn as a true-blue artist. And while there’s only an occasional reference to her then-recent split with husband Sean Penn—most notably on the dizzying synth-pop bop “Till Death Do Us Part”—the album finds Madonna making the personal stuff about her and not her ex.

76. Un Verano Sin Ti – Bad Bunny

Un Verano Sin Ti - Album by Bad Bunny | Spotify

After a couple years spent collaborating with and co-signing new talent—and then watching the effects of his influence—the sudden arrival of Un Verano Sin Ti in May 2022 put the focus back on Bad Bunny himself. Described by the artist as a summer playlist of sorts, it’s his most expansive and evocative musical vision to date: Gone was the streetwise trap of his past, supplanted by potent and uniquely genre-bent takes on reggaetón, pop, indie and tropical forms. Its release signalled a clear and kaleidoscopic shift in global pop, emphatically sweeping away any misconception that Latin American music (and its many fans) was just a regional phenomenon.

75. Supa Dupa Fly – Missy Elliott

Supa Dupa Fly - Album by Missy Elliott | Spotify

By 1997, Virginia rapper Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott and producer Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley were already two of the most forward-thinking hitmakers of the era, writing boundary-pushing avant-R&B tracks for Aaliyah, SWV and more. But nothing could prepare the world for Elliott’s star turn—a rap-sung tangle that played like a stroll through a malfunctioning robot factory, which she delivered dressed as a crazysexycool funkateer in inflatable garbage bags.

74. The Downward Spiral – Nine Inch Nails

The Downward Spiral - Album by Nine Inch Nails | Spotify

Even at a moment when bands like Nirvana could become famous, The Downward Spiral felt extreme. Trent Reznor once called Nine Inch Nails’ second full-length album a “celebration of self-destruction in the form of a concept record that somehow managed to become a multi-platinum worldwide hit.”

73. Aja – Steely Dan

Aja - song and lyrics by Steely Dan | Spotify

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s approach to recording had evolved from a fixed group of people playing a set of songs from start to finish to a piecemeal process in which they tried out multiple players for the same part until they found a satisfactory combination—all before doing it all over again on the next song. As sophisticated as the process was, Steely Dan never sounded as direct as they do on Aja. There’s the R&B of “Josie”, the bounce of “Black Cow” and the fact that “Peg” felt like actual dance music rather than a dissertation on it.

72. SOS – SZA

SOS - Album by SZA | Spotify

In 2017, Ctrl—a 14-track project filled with songs about love, sex, self-doubt and heartbreak—became one of the most influential albums in modern R&B. It was the soundtrack for many people in their twenties, highlighting the growing pains of young adulthood via diaristic, ultra-relatable lyrics and ruminations straight out of friend group chats. Five years later, SZA returned—just as honest, but trading self-love and acceptance for defiance. SOS is the sound of someone who’s had enough.

71. Trans-Europe Express – Kraftwerk

Trans-Europe Express - 2009 Remaster - song and lyrics by Kraftwerk |  Spotify

Kraftwerk were never shy about reinventing themselves. If their electronic period began with the pinging arpeggios of 1974’s Autobahn, their synth-pop era kicked off in earnest with 1975’s Radio-Activity, where they explored shorter songs and sharper hooks. But with 1977’s Trans-Europe Express, they perfected their fusion of electronic experimentation and futurist philosophy.

70. Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A.

Straight Outta Compton - Album by N.W.A. | Spotify

Straight Outta Compton turned N.W.A. from a local phenomenon in LA into a nationally feared public menace. Dr. Dre’s simple but impeccably equalised production, Ice Cube’s powerhouse flow and incipient Black radicalism, Eazy-E’s sneering nihilism and MC Ren’s stolid ice grill started to shift the focus of the hip-hop universe 3,000 miles west.

69. Master of Puppets – Metallica

Master Of Puppets (Remastered) - Album by Metallica | Spotify

With 1984’s Ride the Lightning, Metallica found themselves caught between the worlds of underground purity and mainstream recognition, the bruising and brutal outsider art of thrash metal starting to make its way inside. Its successor, Master of Puppets, was even more intense—in speed, in aggression, in its hostility toward forces of control—yet its appeal managed to be even broader; their days in vans were numbered.

68. Is This It – The Strokes

Is This It - song and lyrics by The Strokes | Spotify

Few albums in modern rock history can match the instant, game-changing impact of Is This It in 2001. Seemingly overnight, rock ’n’ roll turned grittier, haircuts grew shaggier and the secondhand-blazer section at your local thrift store got a lot more crowded. It’s impossible to separate The Strokes from the wave of like-minded turn-of-the-millennium bands at home in NYC (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, TV on the Radio) or further afield (The Hives, The White Stripes, The Libertines), but Is This It bore a singular mix of grime and glamour that felt like a sea change.

67. Dummy – Portishead

Dummy - Album by Portishead | Spotify

Few debuts have arrived as distinct and fully formed as Portishead’s 1994 release Dummy, a downtempo template for the eerie sound that would go on to become known as trip-hop. Named after a ’70s British TV drama about a deaf woman who becomes a prostitute, the record is replete with turntable scratches, shuddering drums and scrapes of fragmented guitar, all anchored in vocalist Beth Gibbons’ crystalline falsetto singing about “the blackness, the darkness, forever” (“Wandering Star”).

66. The Queen Is Dead – The Smiths

The Queen Is Dead - Album by The Smiths | Spotify

Morrissey had already aspired to be the Oscar Wilde of pop music, but The Smiths’ third album is the first time he sounds like a lock for the title. The singular chemical reaction between his perpetual despair and Johnny Marr’s ringing guitars is indie rock’s often imitated but never duplicated formula—songs about sadness that are also a hoot to listen to.

65. 3 Feet High and Rising – De La Soul

3 Feet High and Rising - Album by De La Soul | Spotify

Transmitting live from Mars—or, more specifically, the Long Island suburbs—De La Soul emerged fully formed and casually bugged-out in 1988 with “Plug Tunin’”, a 12-inch that mixed off-the-wall wordplay with the most off-kilter samples hip-hop had ever seen. On their subsequent debut album, Trugoy, Posdnuos, DJ P.A. Pasemaster Mase and producer Prince Paul laid out a playful 63-minute blueprint for rap’s odd future. They were outcasts before Outkast, the roots of The Roots.

64. Baduizm – Erykah Badu

Baduizm - Album by Erykah Badu | Spotify

In 1997, as the Soulquarians—a new collective of socially conscious hip-hop soul songwriters that included Common, The Roots, D’Angelo and more—began to emerge from the underground, Baduizm shifted the entire R&B landscape. A 25-year-old Texan with a seemingly preternatural sense of groove and a jazzy twang that evoked a modern-day Billie Holliday, Badu brought an approach to songwriting that embodied the sound of neo-soul.

63. Are You Experienced – The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Are You Experienced - Album by Jimi Hendrix | Spotify

Like a lot of science fiction, the futuristic qualities on Jimi Hendrix’s debut album—his sky-kissing use of feedback and noise and imagery—are offset by familiarity. He wasn’t experimenting with modern classical music like The Beatles or high-minded pop orchestration like The Beach Boys; he wasn’t even tapping into out-there psychedelia like Pink Floyd. Instead, he took the simple, gut-level sounds of the Muddy Waters and Little Richard records he grew up on and turned them into something new, foreshadowing the Black psychedelia of Prince and Outkast, not to mention almost everything blues-related that came in his wake.

62. All Eyez on Me – 2Pac

All Eyez On Me - Album by 2Pac | Spotify

In a recording career that lasted less than five years, hip-hop’s most complex figure showed us many sides. He was a political firebrand on 1993’s Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., an introspective diarist on 1995’s Me Against the World and a temperamental hothead on his Makaveli project, released shortly after his death in September 1996. However, most of the 27 tracks on All Eyez on Me—the last album released during his lifetime—showcase 2Pac as a gangsta-rap tough guy, one of the reigning kings of ’90s G-funk on one of the genre’s most defining releases.

61. Love Deluxe – Sade

Love Deluxe - Album by Sade | Spotify

Sade’s revelatory fourth album Love Deluxe is an exercise in pure immersion, beginning with the opening bassline of the immortal “No Ordinary Love”. Its nine songs represent rich-sounding music that, in less capable hands, would risk becoming totally overwhelming. Just as the smash debut Diamond Life arrived at the peak of quiet storm’s popularity in the mid-1980s, the slinky dub and drum machines of Love Deluxe coincided with trip-hop’s emergence in the early 1990s, sharing ostensible shelf space and musical DNA with Massive Attack’s monumental 1991 debut Blue Lines.

60. The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Velvet Underground & Nico - Album by The Velvet Underground | Spotify

When The Velvet Underground & Nico came out in early 1967, it was part of a continuum with Beat poetry, Pop Art, and French New Wave filmmaking—movements that stripped away myths about expertise and put art in the hands of whoever wanted to make it. It can be noisy and confrontational (“European Son,” “The Black Angel’s Death Song”), but it can also be sweet (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”). And even when their subject matter gets dark, they never make it too difficult to grasp.

59. AM – Arctic Monkeys

AM - Album by Arctic Monkeys | Spotify

AM feels like the record Arctic Monkeys had been building up to for the preceding half-decade. There was a willingness to move away from the sound of a band playing together in a room and combine ’70s, Black Sabbath-style riffs with the sleek production of the Dr. Dre records they had bonded over as teenagers. Out of that emerged the most forward-thinking record of their still-young career—a mesmerizing blend of slick, rhythmic rock ’n’ roll with an R&B swing.

58. (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? – Oasis


This was the apex of the Britpop era, full of outsize egos and attitude and ambition, yet none bigger than theirs. How could it be allowed for so many classics to be next to each other on the same album? As well as “Wonderwall” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” there’s the melancholy uplift of “Cast No Shadow,” the cosmic opus of “Champagne Supernova,” the thrilling crackle of the title track. It’s the story of the decade, unfurled in 50 minutes.

57. Voodoo – D’angelo

Voodoo - Album by D

When D’Angelo released his masterpiece Voodoo at the turn of the century (and five years after his debut, Brown Sugar), it was immediately clear he’d avoided the dreaded sophomore slump to evolve into a musician as concerned with honoring the past as he was with following his artistic impulses. At the time, the neo-soul movement was an alternative to the flashier edge of ’90s hip-hop and R&B, and Voodoo was its apex: a gumbo of Black innovation—blues, jazz, soul, funk, gospel even—peppered by a full spectrum of humanity, from despair to ecstasy.

56. Disintegration – The Cure

Disintegration (Remastered) - Album by The Cure | Spotify

Disintegration is a deep dive into a singular mood: wistful and deeply melancholy, informing (and informed by) waves of British shoegaze and dream pop. Alt-rock staples “Pictures of You,” “Lovesong,” and “Fascination Street” are as immediate and indelible as anything in their catalog, but the band tempers its emotions so that even the major-key tonality of a track like “Plainsong” is marked not by brightness, but a deeper, richer hue.

55. ANTI – Rihanna

ANTI (Deluxe) - Album by Rihanna | Spotify

When Rihanna unleashed ANTI on the world, it quickly became clear that this wasn’t the Rihanna we’d come to know. Having left her longtime label and tossed her own hit-factory formula—which she had polished to perfection since her 2005 debut—out the window, she was free from expectation, free to cultivate her own mystique, and free to rethink what a modern pop blockbuster could sound like.

54. A Love Supreme – John Coltrane

A Love Supreme - Album by John Coltrane | Spotify

It’s astonishing to think of what Coltrane achieved in 10 years, between his debut as a leader in 1957 and his death in 1967 at age 40. A Love Supreme remains the watershed—concise yet thoroughly immersive, a founding document in the genre that would become known as spiritual jazz.

53. Exile on Main St. – The Rolling Stones

Exile On Main Street (Deluxe Version) - Album by The Rolling Stones |  Spotify

More than songs or performances, Exile on Main St. was about mood. Can you hear the young gods sweating it out in the basement of a French mansion overlooking the Mediterranean, surrounded by junkies and hangers-on, eating lobster in the afternoon and working all night? Never had the band managed to translate their myth so faithfully into sound. But Exile was also the closest The Rolling Stones ever got to something truly avant-garde, an album whose perceived mistakes—the muddy mix, the dislocated performances—conjured a feeling that something more correct would have wiped away.

52. Appetite for Destruction – Guns N’ Roses

Appetite For Destruction - Album by Guns N

It isn’t just that Guns N’ Roses’ epochal 1987 debut is dark, it’s that the album never flinches from its full impact, no matter how ugly. The drug songs aren’t about getting high, they’re about blacking out (“Mr. Brownstone,” “Nightrain”). The sex songs don’t relish the physical act so much as the power that comes with it (“Anything Goes”). When they give you an anthem, it’s against a backdrop of filth and misery (“Paradise City”). And when they give you a ballad, it’s with the paranoid sense that nothing so pure could actually be real (“Sweet Child o’ Mine”).

51. Sign O’ the Times – Prince

Sign "O" the Times - Album by Prince | Spotify

Sign O’ the Times isn’t just the most comprehensive album in Prince’s catalog, it’s one of the most comprehensive albums in pop. Everything he explored in his first 10 years as an artist is here: R&B, soul, rock and gospel, Beatles-like vignettes (“Starfish and Coffee,” “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”), and carnal funk (“U Got the Look”)—all without backing band The Revolution. He’s as contemporary and politically charged as rap (“Sign O’ the Times”) and as classic as a doo-wop ballad (“Adore”), and in both discovers the minimal but highly expressive sound that makes Prince Prince.

50. Hounds of Love – Kate Bush

Hounds Of Love - Album by Kate Bush | Spotify

If Kate Bush’s first two albums were steeped in the art-rock of the ’70s, then the British singer-songwriter’s fifth LP in 1985 didn’t just reflect its era—it helped define it. Few songs are more evocative of the sound of mid-’80s pop than the eternal “Running Up That Hill,” with its gated drums, quasi-dance beat, eerie vocal effects, and instantly recognizable synthesizer melody. Likewise, few albums did more to take the ambition of progressive rock and port it into the digital era.

49. The Joshua Tree – U2

The Joshua Tree - Album by U2 | Spotify

The Joshua Tree represented something new for U2: the gospel influences, the emotional nakedness, the introduction of understatement to a sound that had defined itself by its forthrightness. In the past, they’d let their songwriting be loose and in the moment. Now they were exploring the liberations that come with constraint.

48. Paul’s Boutique – Beastie Boys


In 1989, sampling in hip-hop was in its Wild West period, before lawsuits slowed the free-for-all with a morass of legal hurdles. As it turns out, in 1989, the Beastie Boys were also in their Wild West period, having decamped from their native NYC to the Hollywood Hills to reap the many benefits of Licensed to Ill’s runaway success. Paul’s Boutique is the frenetic and fried collision of these two concurrent phenomena.

47. Take Care – Drake

Take Care (Deluxe) - Album by Drake | Spotify

As the title suggests, Take Care is a testament to the theory that the best art requires time. After his studio debut Thank Me Later—an album Drake himself felt was rushed—he enlisted musical savant Noah “40” Shebib to draw on the very Toronto sound they’d pioneered—the sweet spot between rap and R&B that had defined the acclaimed 2009 mixtape So Far Gone.

46. Exodus – Bob Marley & The Wailers

Exodus (Remastered) - Album by Bob Marley & The Wailers | Spotify

What you hear on Exodus is the tension between the hope that every little thing will be all right and the creeping worry that it won’t. Marley recorded the album during a self-imposed exile in London, a distance that cast his optimism about Jamaica in a cautious light. And while his politics had never been of more public interest, the album’s most uplifting songs turned inward toward matters personal, romantic, and spiritual: “Three Little Birds,” the lovelorn “Waiting in Vain,” the legacy-defining “One Love.”

45. Björk – Homogenic

Homogenic - Album by Björk | Spotify

The Icelandic superstar’s third album is a rippling tapestry of techno innovation and orchestral songcraft. The urgency of the lyrics is real: The singer had been deeply affected by a string of personal incidents, including the highly publicized suicide of a stalker who had attempted to assassinate her with a letter bomb. That tension manifests on tracks like the towering, string-laden “Bachelorette”—“I’m a fountain of blood/In the shape of a girl”—and siren-like ballad “Jóga,” with its urgent couplets about emotional rescue and states of emergency.

44. Innervisions – Stevie Wonder

Innervisions - Album by Stevie Wonder | Spotify

The boldest political statement of Wonder’s career yet—assailing drug addicts, infrastructural racism, charismatic con men, and superficial Christians—Innervisions also managed to be deliriously funky. Wonder played and produced just about everything, and the musical peaks were as high as Wonder would ever get, though the tone was more accusatory than ever.

43. Remain in Light – Talking Heads

Remain in Light - Album by Talking Heads | Spotify

Talking Heads and their producer Brian Eno shared a love of African music, especially the work of Nigerian firebrand Fela Kuti, who built 15- to 20-minute songs out of repeated funk and jazz riffs. Fela was one of the strongest influences on Remain in Light, which used polyrhythms like no rock record had before. All four band members and Eno played multiple instruments on the album’s eight songs, and they also brought in percussionists, guitarist Adrian Belew, soul singer Nona Hendryx, and avant-garde trumpeter Jon Hassell.

42. Control – Janet Jackson

Control - Album by Janet Jackson | Spotify

By 1986, the 19-year-old baby of the Jackson family juggernaut had released two albums but had yet to become a superstar in her own right. All that changed when she bossed up and fired her own father, Joe Jackson, as her manager and went to Minneapolis to work with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on what would be her true debut. The pairing of streetwise Prince protégés with sheltered music royalty was an odd coupling that worked, putting a nasty spin on Minneapolis funk that was all Miss Jackson. The result was one of the most successful and enduring artist-producer collaborations in pop history.

41. Aquemini – Outkast

Aquemini - Album by Outkast | Spotify

Aquemini is the connective tissue between Outkast’s beginnings as local heroes in Atlanta and the duo’s full-fledged pop stardom. While their first two LPs featured no shortage of André 3000 and Big Boi’s tongue-twisting rhymes and the Dungeon Family collective’s off-kilter beats, Aquemini was the creative leap forward that turned an already critically acclaimed group into thought leaders of the hip-hop avant-garde.

40. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You – Aretha Franklin

I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You - Album by Aretha Franklin | Spotify

Franklin would release nine albums with Columbia before moving to Atlantic Records and working with producer Jerry Wexler, the legendary record man who, alongside his partner Ahmet Ertegun, signed and recorded the greatest R&B artists of the 1950s and 1960s. The first record in this partnership, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, opens with Aretha’s signature, definitive take on Otis Redding’s “Respect”—a version so dynamic, Redding had no choice but to acknowledge its superiority.

39. Illmatic – Nas

Illmatic - Album by Nas | Spotify

Nas introduces turns of phrase and perspective previously unheard within the art form: “My mic check is life or death, breathing a sniper’s breath/I exhale the yellow smoke of buddha through righteous steps,” he spits on “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”. Illmatic’s sample-heavy sound comes courtesy of a dream team of production talent—DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q-Tip, Pete Rock and L.E.S.— a lineup that helped break a long-standing tradition of single-producer hip-hop albums. Together they present a unified vision of the murky, guttural, jazz-heavy hip-hop that would come to define the ’90s New York sound.

38. Tapestry – Carole King

Tapestry - Album by Carole King | Spotify

Carole King’s second solo album, 1971’s Tapestry, virtually defined the singer-songwriter era of the 1970s. Its warm, intimate tone; the simple, piano-based arrangements; and the cosy living-room feel of the album captured a moment in time and rightfully turned the limelight onto a songwriter who’d crafted so many classics for others over the preceding decade.

37. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan

Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) [Expanded Edition] - Album by Wu-Tang Clan  | Spotify

Wu-Tang emerged as a nine-member crew in the post-MTV age of small cliques, a mix of styles and voices: the violent beat poetry of Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Inspectah Deck; the drunken sing-to-scream ping-pong of Ol’ Dirty Bastard; the $5 words and scientific flows of GZA and Masta Killa; the boisterous coaching of RZA; the gritty rasp of U-God; and the slick talk of Method Man, who was already getting a star turn on his eponymous track. Though melancholy reminiscences like “Can It Be All So Simple”, “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Tearz” made a trilogy of evocative narratives, the Wu provided few easy inroads to their mythology and poetry. 

36. BEYONCÉ -Beyoncé

BEYONCÉ - Album by Beyoncé | Spotify

Pop’s sound had shifted at the turn of the decade, with electropop-influenced tracks taking the spaces on radio and on the charts where Beyoncé and other R&B-leaning artists had ruled during the 2000s. On BEYONCÉ, the singer and mogul showed that, radio play or no, she was still a member of pop’s ruling class—and she did so not by flipping pop’s script, but by drawing inspiration from its most enticing aspects to write a new playbook.

35. London Calling – The Clash

London Calling (Remastered) - Album by The Clash | Spotify

What was—and is—remarkable about London Calling wasn’t just how much ground it covers, but how comfortably the band stake their claim to it. They’re heavy (“Death or Glory”, “Hateful”), they’re light (“Revolution Rock”, “Lover’s Rock”), they sing about public struggles (“Clampdown”) and private relationships (Mick Jones’ “Train in Vain”) and advance the old chestnut that our inner lives are always products of our outer realities. What had once been framed as a local struggle—poor white English kids searching for a future in the face of diminishing prospects—became international, the plight of working-class people generally, the ballads of the common man.

34. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – Public Enemy

It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back - Album by Public Enemy |  Spotify

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back felt like a veritable firebombing—a rap blitzkrieg led by a boisterous lyricist with a defiantly militant mindset. That revolutionary energy was palpable on “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype”, seminal songs with hooks that sounded more like marching orders. Even further down the tracklist, cuts like “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and “Rebel Without a Pause” hit as hard as what came before, the messaging as provocative and righteous as any on the album.

33. Kid A – Radiohead

Kid A - Album by Radiohead | Spotify

With its seasick sequences and Yorke’s multiplied vocal lines folding in and over and around one another like an Escher sketch, “Everything in Its Right Place” is both taunt and gambit—a little wink from the band that had gone from “Creep” to these so-called creepy sounds. That was simply the start. The demented bass and howling horns of “The National Anthem”, the operatic tremors of “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, the refracted guitars and babbling circuity of “In Limbo”: Radiohead found new space to explore on every track. Each was anchored to a hook—however obscured—before setting off into unfamiliar terrain.

32. Ready to Die – The Notorious B.I.G.

Ready To Die - Album by The Notorious B.I.G. | Spotify

By naming his debut Ready to Die, Christopher Wallace bluntly encapsulated both his fearless, take-no-prisoners lyrical style and his sense that death could come for him at any time. While hardly the first to rap about the pleasures and pitfalls of drug dealing, Biggie Smalls elevated the form to a divine, brutally honest art.

31. Jagged Little Pill – Alanis Morissette

Jagged Little Pill - Album by Alanis Morissette | Spotify

Beneath the record’s radio-friendly hooks and shiny harmonies were observations on the messiness and banality of life. Human weakness is a theme—she’s distracted on “All I Really Want”, disoriented by happiness on “Head Over Feet”. Yet even if the album’s core spirit is disillusionment, its legacy is hopefulness—the idea that bleeding, screaming and learning is also, ultimately, living. Perhaps that’s why, for all her angst and anger, Morissette is relatively kind to herself. In the easygoing “Hand in My Pocket”, now a time capsule of cigarettes and taxi cabs, she forgives herself for not having it all figured out.


WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? - Album by Billie Eilish | Spotify

Billie, who is both beleaguered and fascinated by night terrors and sleep paralysis, has a complicated relationship with her subconscious. “I’m the monster under the bed, I’m my own worst enemy,” she told Apple Music. “It’s not that the whole album is a bad dream, it’s just…surreal.” With an endearingly off-kilter mix of teen angst and experimentalism, the album quickly and decidedly launched Billie Eilish as the perfect avatar for a new, uncertain era.

29. The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest

The Low End Theory - Album by A Tribe Called Quest | Spotify

In the wake of the release of A Tribe Called Quest’s first album, 1990’s stellar People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, critics who had previously ignored hip-hop sat up and took notice of Q-Tip’s sophisticated and unorthodox productions and Phife Dawg’s party-rocking, self-deprecating rhymes. But those critics often overlooked Tribe’s far-reaching roots in the hip-hop underground and their larger place in the history of Black music in general. The Low End Theory was in many ways a conscious attempt to redress these oversights. It also happens to be one of the finest hip-hop albums ever recorded.

28. The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd

The Dark Side of the Moon - Album by Pink Floyd | Spotify

Even compared to other big rock albums of its time, Dark Side of the Moon was a shift, forgoing the boozy extroversion of stuff like The Rolling Stones for something more interior. As much as the album marked a breakthrough, it was also part of a progression in which Floyd managed to blend their most experimental phase with an emerging sense of clarity, exploring big themes—greed (“Money”), madness (“Brain Damage”, “Eclipse”), war and societal fraction (“Us and Them”)—with a concision that made the message easy to understand no matter how far out the music got.

27. Led Zeppelin II – Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin II - Album by Led Zeppelin | Spotify

What had sometimes felt clunky the first time around on their 1969 debut—British blues rock rendered slower, heavier, louder—felt seamless just eight months later on Led Zeppelin II. Their time on the road showed: A couple songs either originated or evolved live, while others (especially “Whole Lotta Love”) reflected a relationship between the band members that made the music much more direct, but also enabled them to take bigger, weirder chances.

26. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - Album by Kanye West | Spotify

Despite its ostentatious appearance, the heart of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is that of raw honesty, with West’s frayed ends of reflection, self-criticism, relationship woes, ruminations on fame and moments of anger. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would forever change the landscape of hip-hop, its genre-crossing boldness, limitless imagination and sheer sumptuousness of presentation foreshadowing the genre’s 2010s turn towards maximalist sounds and arthouse design.

25. Kind of Blue – Miles Davis

Kind Of Blue - Album by Miles Davis | Spotify

In the years between the dissolution of Miles Davis’ first great quintet and the formation of his second, the trumpet master ventured into something new in 1959—not knowing it would become one of jazz’s biggest albums ever. The fast-moving progressions of bebop and post-bop required improvisers to jump hurdles—something Davis knew all about as Dizzy Gillespie’s successor in the Charlie Parker Quintet. But on Kind of Blue, there were longer durations between chords, opening up space in the music; the soloist had the option of taking a breath.

24. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – David Bowie

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars - Album by David  Bowie | Spotify

The decadent-alien-rock-star concept behind David Bowie’s fifth album was revolutionary, but the subversion was in the music: nasty but glamorous (“Moonage Daydream”, “Suffragette City”), theatrical but intimate (“Five Years”), primordial punk (“Hang On to Yourself”) and cabaret for an audience who would’ve never deigned (“Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide”). Bowie talks about himself in the third person but is so arrogant his fans kill him for it (“Ziggy Stardust”), so deluded he thinks rock ’n’ roll can save the world but so brave he’s willing to die trying (“Star”). The artifice brings him down, but it also sets him free.

23. Discovery – Daft Punk

Discovery - Album by Daft Punk | Spotify

You can easily trace Discovery forward to EDM and the continuing entwinement of techno and rock. But you can also trace it back to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pet Sounds and Smile: music that took pop seriously as art, but also recontextualised older, seemingly uncool styles in ways that felt progressive and fresh. Most of all, though, Daft Punk wanted to be universal. And as implausible as it may have seemed for two French men in robot helmets, Discovery got them there.

22. Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen

Born To Run - Album by Bruce Springsteen | Spotify

His first two albums had featured epic tales populated with wild characters. But with Born to Run, he finally cracked the code on how to tighten those stories, making them easier to absorb. Springsteen would later pinpoint the title track as the moment he learned to successfully combine power and emotion—lyrically and musically—in a shorter form, while still delivering the same impact. Built like a grittier, more fantastical version of Phil Spector’s infamous Wall of Sound, Born to Run manages to feel at once exhilarating, heartbreaking, thoughtful and tragic—the defining moment for Springsteen as a performer and as a songwriter.

21. Revolver – The Beatles

Revolver (Remastered) - Album by The Beatles | Spotify

For a band that put out “I Want to Hold Your Hand” less than three years earlier, the relative complexity of Revolver in both sound and subject matter not only challenged The Beatles’ image as the pop band the whole family could agree on, but it also put pop on a course toward unfamiliar horizons. Not only were The Beatles able to bridge their interest in of psychedelia, experimental and Indian classical music with Motown (“Got to Get You Into My Life”) and what we now think of as classically Beatlesque pop (“Good Day Sunshine”), Revolver cemented the idea of the pop album as an intricate, laboured-over studio creation.

20. Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys

Pet Sounds - Album by The Beach Boys | Spotify

Of all Pet Sounds’ legacies, the most profound is the idea that pop music—something accessible and extroverted—could be used to express deep, internal worlds. Wilson’s experiments with LSD aren’t obvious in any garish way, but you can hear him trying to excavate feelings buried so deep that seeking them out is an adventure on par with any.

19. The Chronic – Dr. Dre

The Chronic - Album by Dr. Dre | Spotify

The album, named for a high-grade marijuana of its time, contains fiercely competitive posse cuts (“Deeez Nuuuts”, “Stranded on Death Row”), vivid depictions of the lives of young hustlers (“Let Me Ride”, “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang”) and a handful of ruminations on the perils of street life and also solidarity in the Black community (“Lil’ Ghetto Boy”, “A N***a Witta Gun”). All of which is not to mention a large dose of misogyny (“Bitches Ain’t Shit”, etc). But The Chronic was then, and is still, everything the legendary Death Row Records would become known (and notorious) for—god-tier street rap and incubator of some of the most memorable talents in rap history.

18. 1989 (Taylor’s Version) – Taylor Swift

1989 (Taylor

Like Shania Twain’s Come On Over or even Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home1989 is an instance in which an artist defies expectations and thrives. Swift didn’t exactly grow up with the synthesised, ’80s-inspired sounds that producers like Martin, Shellback, Ryan Tedder and future bestie Jack Antonoff help her create here; as the album’s title reminds us, she wasn’t even born until the decade was ending. But just as she played with the traditions and conventions of country music on her early albums, Swift uses the nostalgia of 1989 not to look back, but to move ahead.

17. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye


The album’s genius is in its lightness. Songs drift and breathe; performances feel natural, even offhand—Eli Fontaine’s saxophone part on the title track, for example, was recorded when Fontaine thought he was just warming up. As Sly & The Family Stone channelled their anger into bitter funk (1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On), Gaye sublimated his in lush string sections and Latin percussion—signals not just of gentleness, but sophistication. Even in the face of bleakness (the addiction portrait of “Flyin’ High [In the Friendly Sky]”, “Inner City Blues [Make Me Wanna Holler]”), he floats. The revelation was that political music doesn’t have to be confrontational—it can also be warm and inviting.

16. Blue – Joni Mitchell

Blue - Album by Joni Mitchell | Spotify

Blue took shape in a moment of personal transition for Mitchell, right after the end of her relationship with Graham Nash and as she was falling for James Taylor; she wrote her way out of an old love and into a new one. And while Blue offers a glimpse into the recesses of Mitchell’s heart at the time, it explores all love and loss—“Little Green” is an ode to the daughter she gave up for adoption, which she wouldn’t reveal until the ’90s. Blue is as much a testament to her talent as her willingness to share her most intimate truths.

15. 21 – Adele

21 - Album by Adele | Spotify

On 19, Adele established herself as a key part of the 2000s class of British R&B-inspired singers that included Amy Winehouse and Duffy. For 21, however, she added new dimensions to her sound, bringing in ideas borrowed from country, rock, gospel and modern pop—as well as a gently psychedelic take on the downcast “Lovesong”, originally by fellow Brit miserablists The Cure. But Adele’s powerful voice and unguarded feelings were 21’s main draw, and her savvy about using them—as well as going all in only when a song’s emotional force required her to—made it one of the 21st century’s biggest albums, both a refuge and a rallying cry for anyone nursing a broken heart.

14. Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan

Highway 61 Revisited - Album by Bob Dylan | Spotify

On these nine songs, Dylan is over most everything—the world’s barbarity on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, high society’s superficiality on “Ballad of a Thin Man”, the heart’s tangles and briars on “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”. As war escalated, the country heaved and Dylan battled his new status, these were the images of an overheated mind acting out the theatre of human experience in song. That gave listeners something to hold on to as the language and landscape of rock shifted in real time, which happened on—and because of—Highway 61 Revisited.

13. The Blueprint – JAY-Z

The Blueprint - Album by JAY-Z | Spotify

The Blueprint pushed the lyrical parameters of mainstream hip-hop while returning to the form’s origins, thanks to the album’s samples of classic rock and soul (courtesy, in part, of a young producer named Kanye West). The result was a record that would help establish rap as music with historic continuity.

12. OK Computer – Radiohead

OK Computer - Album by Radiohead | Spotify

For all of its dread, OK Computer is ultimately an act of hope, the expression of a belief that our inexorable path of progress does not have to cost us our goodness. And if there is a remedy to the dizzying pace of, well, everything, it’s simple enough: “Idiot, slow down,” Yorke sings for the last words of closer “The Tourist”. In the decades since OK Computer made Radiohead rock’s new standard-bearers, its grievances—namely, our accelerating isolation—have only mounted. But the answers and the hope it holds linger still.

11. Rumours – Fleetwood Mac

Rumours - Album by Fleetwood Mac | Spotify

To understand what made Rumours so impactful, you have to look at the music that came out around it. This was the era of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt—artists who, like Fleetwood Mac, combined the intimacy of singer-songwriters with a softened take on rock ’n’ roll. But it was also the era of Boston, Foreigner, Pink Floyd and a wave of bands that scaled up the ambition of ’60s rock to blockbuster heights. And there, in the middle of the road, is Rumours. For an album that went on to sell more than 10 million copies, it’s more unsettling than it probably should be.

10. Lemonade – Beyoncé

Lemonade - Album by Beyoncé | Spotify

There’s one moment critical to understanding the emotional and cultural heft of Lemonade, Beyoncé’s genre-obliterating blockbuster sixth album—and it arrives at the end of “Freedom”, a storming empowerment anthem that samples a civil-rights-era prison song and features Kendrick Lamar. An elderly woman’s voice cuts in: “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up,” she says. “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”

The speech—made by her husband JAY-Z’s grandmother Hattie White on her 90th birthday in 2015—reportedly inspired the concept behind this radical project, which arrived with an accompanying film as well as words by Somali British poet Warsan Shire. Both the album and its visual companion are deeply tied to Beyoncé’s identity and narrative (her womanhood, her Blackness, her marriage) and make for her most outwardly revealing work to date.

The details, of course, are what make it so relatable, what make each song sting. The project is furious, defiant, anguished, vulnerable, experimental, muscular, triumphant, humorous and brave—a vivid personal statement, released without warning in a time of public scrutiny and private suffering. It is also astonishingly tough. Through tears, even Beyoncé has to summon her inner Beyoncé, roaring, “I’ma keep running ’cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.” This panoramic strength—lyrical, vocal, instrumental and personal—nudged her public image from mere legend to something closer to real-life superhero.

9. Nevermind – Nirvana

Nevermind (Remastered) - Album by Nirvana | Spotify

Even now, years after you first felt its edges, the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still sounds too dangerous—too loud, too ugly, too upset—for any mainstream. And yet Nevermind’s opening salvo didn’t just mark an unlikely breakthrough for the Seattle trio, it upended popular culture in ways we haven’t seen since. Punk became pop, grunge became global vernacular, industry walls broke into rubble, and lead vocalist Kurt Cobain was anointed the reluctant voice of a generation in need of catharsis, all seemingly overnight. But what makes Nirvana’s second album special isn’t its rage, but its innocence. For as haunting and corrosive as it can often be, it was never at the expense of melody or songcraft or humanity.

The old guard was actually still alive and well: Both Metallica’s Black Album and Guns N’ Roses’ two-volume Use Your Illusion famously came out within weeks of Nevermind. And while the album went on to sell about as well as those—even displacing Michael Jackson’s Dangerous as the best-selling album in the United States for a brief moment in 1992—Nirvana’s influence extended well beyond sheer economics, cutting a path for generations of forward-looking artists that stretches from Radiohead to Billie Eilish. They presented themselves not as rock gods, but ordinary (and highly sensitive) mortals. As an alternative to the pin-up in leather pants, they offered the proud feminist, screaming until his voice gave out (“Territorial Pissings”). In place of the glossy power ballad, they delivered something fragile and raw (“Polly”, “Something in the Way”).

Nirvana’s angst didn’t only come across in the lyrics, but in the delivery. None of Cobain’s wisdom or fury would have resonated in the culture-shaking way it did if not for the sort of tunefulness that has always had a way of making wisdom and fury go down a little easier.

8. Back to Black – Amy Winehouse

Back To Black - Album by Amy Winehouse | Spotify

Producer Mark Ronson remembers when Amy Winehouse came in with the lyrics for “Back to Black”. They were at a studio in New York in early 2006, their first day working together. Ronson had given her a portable CD player with the song’s piano track, and Winehouse disappeared into the back for about an hour to write. What she re-emerged with was masterful: bleak, funny, tough, hopelessly romantic. The chorus, though, kept tripping him up because it didn’t rhyme: “We only said goodbye in words, I died a hundred times.” He asked her to change it, but she just gave him a blank look: That’s just how it came out, she didn’t know how to change it.

For all her brashness, what makes Back to Black so moving is the sense that Winehouse is constantly trying to punch through her pain—not to suppress it exactly, but to wrap it in enough barbed wire that nobody could quite reach its core. The appeal to soul music is obvious: the Motown horns (“Rehab”, “Tears Dry on Their Own”), the girl-group romance (“Back to Black”), the organic quality of the arrangements (“You Know I’m No Good”)—much of it courtesy of Brooklyn outfit The Dap-Kings.

7. good kid, m.A.A.d city (Deluxe Version) – Kendrick Lamar

good kid, m.A.A.d city (Deluxe) - Album by Kendrick Lamar | Spotify

A few days after releasing 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, the then-25-year-old Kendrick Lamar deemed his sophomore studio album “classic-worthy”. He wasn’t lying: Lamar’s sophomore album is one of the defining hip-hop records of the 21st century. On the surface, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a hood tragedy, with Lamar painting a vivid picture of Black and brown youths growing up in underserved communities. But the album is also powered by faith and hope, with Lamar chronicling his turbulent coming-of-age through a cast of compelling characters that portray the trauma, familial guidance and relationships that led to his inevitable ascent.

West Coast hip-hop elders like Snoop and Dre anointed Lamar to carry on the legacy of gangsta rap, and his second studio album—conceptual enough to be a rock opera—certainly uplifts the genre with its near-biblical themes: religion vs. violence and monogamy vs. lust.

Sitting just a few miles from Compton, where much of good kid, m.A.A.d city takes place, Lamar pieced together tracks alongside collaborators Sounwave and Dave Free, both of whom had known the prolific rapper since high school. Throughout the writing process, Lamar would frequently return to his childhood neighbourhood to relive the “mental space” he was in during the early days of his rap career, unearthing the deeply personal tales that came to shape the monumental artist.

From the album’s opening scene—a collective prayer of gratitude—Lamar’s approach is entirely theatric (he even gives good kid, m.A.A.d city a subtitle: “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar”). And he never misses an opportunity to hold listeners in his grip, unspooling a series of vulnerable confessions over the album’s 12 tracks. Graphic scenes of violence, addiction and disillusionment are pervasive here. But Lamar makes even the harshest truths easy to swallow, as he does on “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, a vivid tale of alcoholism. good kid, m.A.A.d city’s legacy is a crucial example of American storytelling that established the future Pulitzer Prize winner as perhaps his generation’s most accomplished writer.

6. Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life

Songs In The Key Of Life - Album by Stevie Wonder | Spotify

In 1974, Stevie Wonder was the most critically revered pop star in the world; he was also considering leaving the music industry altogether. So when Songs in the Key of Life was released two years later, demand was so high that it became, at the time, the fastest-selling album in history. All was forgiven.

Wonder positioned himself as the benevolent overlord of a vast self-drawn cosmos, one with a remarkable cache of songs: Songs in the Key of Life, which runs nearly 90 minutes, is effortlessly melodic, broad in scope, deeply personal—and often just plain weird. In the era of the overblown rock epic, Wonder had created the most searching and sprawling soul album ever released.

Start with the brassy, hook-filled and positively effusive chart-topping singles “Sir Duke” and “I Wish”, both of which have soundtracked countless barbecues and wedding receptions for decades. At the other end of the spectrum: the stark reality-soul of “Village Ghetto Land” and “Pastime Paradise”, on which Wonder leaves the bandstand for the op-ed pages to decry the abandonment of the civil rights dream. Then Wonder’s daughter Aisha shows up in the sugary Girl Dad anthem “Isn’t She Lovely”.

As Songs in the Key of Life nears its conclusion, Wonder clears the dance floor for 15 minutes of sumptuous gospel-disco in “As” and “Another Star”. But the album’s defining moment might come on a bonus track, one originally issued as an extra 45 with the album’s vinyl release. It starts in deep space with the Afrofuturist fantasia “Saturn”, but as its last synthesiser chords fade out, Wonder zooms light-years to an urban playground where we can hear the sound of Black children skipping Double Dutch. Sonically, culturally and emotionally, Songs in the Key of Life is much more than a gigantic collection of songs—it forms an entire world view.

5. Blonde – Frank Ocean

Blonde - Album by Frank Ocean | Spotify

In the four years between Frank Ocean’s debut album channel ORANGE and his second, blond, he had revealed some of his private life—he published a post on social media about having been in love with a man—but still remained as mysterious and sceptical towards fame as ever, teasing new music sporadically and then disappearing like a wisp on the wind. Behind great innovation, however, is a massive amount of work, and so when blond was released one day after a 24-hour streaming performance art piece (Endless) and alongside a limited-edition magazine entitled Boys Don’t Cry, his slipperiness felt more like part of a carefully considered mystique. Even the apparent indecision over the album title’s official spelling can be seen in hindsight as being characteristically mischievous.

Endless featured the mundane beauty of Ocean woodworking in a studio, soundtracked by abstract and meandering ambient music. blond built on those ideas and imbued them with more form, taking a left-field, often minimalist approach to his breezy harmonies and ever-present narrative lyricism. His confidence was crucial to the risk of creating a big multimedia project for a sophomore album, but it also extended to his songwriting—his voice surer of itself (“Solo”), his willingness to excavate his weird impulses more prominent (“Good Guy” and “Pretty Sweet”, among others).

Though blond packs 17 tracks into one quick hour, it’s a sprawling palette of ideas, a testament to the intelligence of flying one’s own artistic freak flag and trusting that audiences will meet you where you’re at. They did. And Ocean established himself as a generational artist uniquely suited to the complexities and convulsive changes of the second decade of the 21st century.

4. Purple Rain – Prince & The Revolution

Purple Rain - Album by Prince | Spotify

You can’t very well tell a story about a troubled artist whose difficult personality belies his musical genius without, you know, actual musical genius. In this sense, the soundtrack to Purple Rain began life with the highest degree of difficulty imaginable; the impossibility that its success could ever have been in doubt is the project’s greatest legacy.

With half its tracklist comprising Top 10 singles, the soundtrack is what truly turned Prince Rogers Nelson from just big enough to get to star in a summer blockbuster based on his life to one of the most instantly recognisable and distinctive pop artists ever. This is no slight to the movie, which has its charms (shout-out Morris Day), as much as it’s a testament to Prince’s all-engulfing star power and genre-fluid/gender-fluid virtuosity—nine perfect, definitive pop-soul-dance-rock-R&B-funk-whatever-else songs that couldn’t help but swallow everything in their orbit.

The brilliance of Purple Rain is how it stirs seemingly contradictory moods—lust, devotion, intimacy, alienation—into a brew where nothing can be separated from anything else. Prince makes trauma sound erotic (“When Doves Cry”) and salvation sound reckless (“Let’s Go Crazy”). His sexual escapades are spiritual, disorienting and almost psychedelic (“Darling Nikki”, “Computer Blue”), while his spiritual journeys are grounded in the mechanics of a guitar solo (“Purple Rain”). The album broke records and brains: Tipper Gore’s overreaction to the image of Darling Nikki masturbating to a magazine begat a congressional witch hunt debating the morality of pop music. Prince often drew comparisons to Jimi Hendrix for the way he mixed music that felt Black and white, sacred and profane. The reality is that he had no precedent then and no comparison now.

3. Abbey Road – The Beatles

Giles Martin, son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, once told Apple Music that Abbey Road is the perfect gateway into the Beatles universe because it sounds so contemporary. And it’s true: While other Beatles albums conjure a specific moment frozen in amber—the matching suits and mop-tops or the mid-period mischievous experimentation with pop form or the technicolour burst into psychedelia—Abbey Road sounds like nothing more or less than four extremely gifted humans playing one indelible song after another in the same room together.

The 11th and penultimate album in The Beatles’ historic catalogue was the last on which all four members worked in the studio as a unit, all at the same time. And while singling out one album as their most impactful is a fool’s errand, 1969’s Abbey Road is indeed the most ageless, simply an immaculate, unmatched collection of songs by a world-changing band at their creative peak.

Following the sprawl of 1968’s White Album, Abbey Road is a relatively concise representation of The Beatles’ entire deal: wholesome (“Here Comes the Sun”), a little freaky (“Come Together”, “Polythene Pam”), macabre and wholesome (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), first-wedding-dance romantic (“Something”), whimsical (“Octopus’s Garden”, “Mean Mr. Mustard”) and, with its album-closing eight-song, 16-minute medley, playful with form. The embers of pop music’s most dynamic collaborative force were dying out, but not before yielding one final and definitive document of unmatched creativity and camaraderie.

2. Thriller – Michael Jackson

Thriller - Album by Michael Jackson | Spotify

There are few pop albums, or even works of art, that denote a wholesale shift in time and space the way Michael Jackson’s Thriller did in 1982. Noting its impact on the career trajectory of a child star turned R&B hitmaker feels reductive; talking about its record-smashing commercial success diminishes its creative leaps.

Stripping the weight of history from Thriller is a big job, but hearing the record as a statement in itself remains hugely rewarding. Seven of its nine original cuts were Top 10 singles, and it became one of the best-selling albums ever made, but more important is the way Jackson and producer Quincy Jones turned the singer’s obsessions into intricate, stunningly sung pop-funk.

The album’s opening throwdown, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, is Jackson at his fiercest and funkiest, picking up right where 1979’s Off the Wall left off—and shoring up his R&B bona fides. But from the Paul McCartney-blessed pop of the first hit single “The Girl Is Mine” to the Eddie Van Halen-revved pyrotechnics of “Beat It”, Jackson’s crossover moves opened up the eyes and ears of the industry—and audiences around the world—to what music could sound, look and feel like if we blurred those old colour lines. “Billie Jean” is a gripping psycho-study of the paranoia and persecution that he was already feeling—yet it still maintains the mysterious allure of an artist who became the avatar for the omnipresent global pop superstar.

1. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill’s debut—and only—solo studio album was a seismic event in 1998: a stunningly raw, profound look into the spiritual landscape not just of one of the era’s biggest stars, but of the era itself. Decades later, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill still counts as a life-changer, with the preternaturally talented Hill rapping with the confident ferocity of a woman in total creative control and singing with the gospel-hued richness of the soul canon. It was an expression of interior depth during a time in which Black women were often portrayed as one-dimensional archetypes, and Hill delivered her magnum opus of life’s triumphs and setbacks with such singular heart, sincerity and specificity that it transcended from an album into a universal statement of being. Her fortitude was so powerful that new generations continue to discover an album whose specific mastery of musicality, lyricism and frankness has not been replicated.

Miseducation was forged in emotional fire. After seven years as the voice of the politically cogent, critically acclaimed New Jersey hip-hop trio Fugees—and in the aftermath of a protracted, tumultuous relationship with her bandmate Wyclef Jean—Hill set out to document a period of major life transitions, including the slow erosion of the group she’d been with since high school. With the trauma came new beginnings: Hill was also inspired by the physical and mental transitions of pregnancy and the birth of Zion, her first child with Rohan Marley, using her attendant spirituality as a guiding light. This potent emotional crossroads led to what remains one of the rawest albums ever created, a lasting artistic beacon for musicians across genre, and a moment in which the whole world recognised Hill’s talents.

Miseducation’s opening track, in which a teacher announces a classroom roll call only for Lauryn Hill to be absent, speaks to its thesis: that its lessons were of the sort that can only be learned through lived experience. As she weaved through painful eviscerations of an ex, which even at the time were understood to be directed at Jean, she redefined the way gritty, sharp rapping and lavish R&B harmonies could fuse together in an era of nearly catholic separation between the two genres. (Even three years after Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s “All I Need” remix, hardcore rap was largely still teeming with misogyny, and R&B was seen as a softer, more feminine pursuit.) Miseducation centred a young woman’s point of view, in all her rebellions and vulnerabilities, amid terrain dominated on the hip-hop charts by a certain vision of hyper-masculinity. But it also served as an entry point for a mainstream still inclined to denigrate hip-hop’s musicality.

The album was recorded, in part, at Hope Road in Jamaica, in Bob Marley’s home—a legacy reflected in Hill’s idea for the album’s cover art, which echoes The Wailers’ Rastaman Vibration cover. Yet the DNA of these songs, and a key to their endurance, draws on a classic Motown/Stax sound that showcases Hill’s immaculate vocal approach; the layered “Doo Wop (That Thing)” alone won her two of the five Grammys she took home in 1999, a validation of the freshness of her sound, as well as the way her music spoke to the emergent feminism of the Hip-Hop Generation.

The vulnerability in Miseducation’s singles is often discussed, but Hill’s concerns, and powers, were multi-valent. Once a history major at Columbia University, Hill explored her upbringing in Newark, New Jersey, with a sharp, subtle sociopolitical eye (“Every Ghetto, Every City”, featuring clavinet from Loris Holland, minister of music at the storied Brooklyn Pilgrim Church) and philosophised on the nature of growing up in a disenfranchised world (“Everything Is Everything”, whose classic ’70s soul sound comes courtesy of a backing band including a then-unknown pianist named John Legend).

Miseducation is also proof that pure intention and unflinching emotional truth can be a path to deliverance unto itself. As Hill raps on the politically charged koan “Everything Is Everything”: “My practice extending across the atlas/I begat this.” She was, and remains, a once-in-a-generation talent whose inspiration, and innovation, can be heard through the decades. Artists exhaust long discographies hoping for a cohesive piece of work resonant enough to reshape culture and inscribe its creator into the pantheon; Lauryn Hill did it in one.