An album – what a novel concept for our modern sensibilities.
Under normal conditions progress is good, but when it comes to our relationship with music, and our interactions with the corpus of great bands more generally, I often pine for the old days.
I suppose some healthy hypocrisy is in order here – I would never give up the ability to instantly stream any song on earth.
But what I would like us to reclaim as a culture is our awe and passion for the lost musical form of the album.
An album is an opportunity for our favorite musicians to add a layer of density, complexity, and thematic vigor to a scattered collection of songs.
It allows them to inject their songs into a larger creative and social conversation and enables them to curate the terms of their own reception.
Here are thirty of the best rock albums ever – some tried and true favorites with sustained critical buzz behind them, and some which might surprise you.
And ultimately, that’s what the best albums offer – a sensation of surprise, and if we’re lucky, reverence.
1. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
Greatest rock album of all time? I wouldn’t be the first to say it – Led Zeppelin IV is like opium for all the classic rock purists and retro obsessives out there.
The metaphoric, sociocultural, and symbolic range is truly astounding – cementing Led Zeppelin as demigods and latter-day philosopher kings.
Were they to form their own church, this album would be their bible – it is a veritable treasure trove of soaring vocals, relentless vision, and dizzying dynamism.
I can relisten to “Battle of Evermore”, “When the Levees Break”, and “Stairway to Heaven” ad infinitum.
2. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
Sorry to be trite to all you haters of the mainstream out there, but you gotta understand – when Nevermind came out it wasn’t mainstream, not at all.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it tectonic, revelatory, or paradigm-altering.
The dizzying vitality and strength of vision captivated confused, curious onlookers and became a point of entry for thousands of disenfranchised Gen-X’ers.
The poignant urgency of Nirvana’s sound is still arresting to this day, offering a strange clarity in a genre packed with fuzzy guitars and distorted vocals.
Cobain’s carnal, sardonic voice elevated compelling original melodies to their anachronistic apex.
This is the best rock album of the 90s and doesn’t have a single weak track on it.
3. Neil Young – Harvest (1972)
How does one begin to describe the plaintive, earnest, melancholic magic that is Neil Young?
To this day, the Canadian folk and counterculture icon remains in a class of his own, as disruptive and subversive as ever.
He tends to his melodies with such poignant care and meticulous attentiveness that every chord becomes an act of grace.
Young took speculation and reflection to a sublime place, never blinking from the tenor of lonesomeness, restlessness, and apathy that his songs like “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold” so candidly convey.
4. The Eagles – Desperado (1973)
More redolent of the lonesome heart of the American outlaw spirit than a listless tumbleweed, a rough-hewn saloon, or the specter of a Ford silhouetted against the setting sun – that’s Desperado for you!
The bluegrass and frontier verve of American rock is given all due respect here, and I consider this meditative, ruminative, heartsick album to be the best album the genre has produced.
Life itself is contained within its contours: all the loss, dreams, naivete, and soul you could want.
It’s like a postmodern mash-up of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
5. Def Leppard – Hysteria (1987)
Raunchy, overwrought, and theatrical like their lives depend on it, we have the frisky and inimitable British power-metal group, Def Leppard.
I can’t think of a more indulgent, campy, outrageous band and Hysteria is their crown jewel (and the best rock album of the 80s).
The listening experience is pure pleasure with zero politics, philosophy, or introspection,
Hysteria represents the full range of high-voltage expressionism, from the sentimental and histrionic to the gauche and NSFW.
They were, and will always be, the sound of the eighties, the sound of roller rinks, and the sound of neon-apparelled ski trips. I’m getting giddy thinking about it.
Know Hysteria? Know fun.
6. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (1977)
Rumours has a legacy that precedes it, known in circles near and far as one of the bestselling classic rock albums of all time, and the definitive coming-out of a band that changed music forever.
Capturing the flightiness of emotions, the candor of the soul, and the unbound trajectory of the wandering spirit, Rumours endures because it holds up a mirror to ourselves, allowing us to see our fluid identities capturing and refracting the light.
Poised between the boundaries of pop, folk, and rock Fleetwood Mac made music that was addictive, feel-good, and timelessly resonant.
7. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
Capturing the dark eclipse of the human mind, and indeed, the very crevices and unexamined spaces of our culture writ large, Dark Side of the Moon is a lyrical dream that dabbles in nightmares.
I can only describe it as self-conscious yet effortless, academic yet accessible, a tour de force of cultural motifs, visual whimsy, and metaphoric opacity.
Psychosomatic, it has the capacity to make stargazers of us all. We become both spectators and accomplices in the strange and tortured human condition.
Give “Breathe (In the Air)”, “Money”, and “Brain Damage” a listen and you’ll be apt to agree with our assessment that Dark Side of the Moon is the best rock album of all time.
8. Metallica – Metallica (1991)
The album that well and truly put metal heavyweights Metallica on the map for the mainstream, their self-titled album was heavy on power chords, relentless pacing, and heavily emotive vocals.
Also known as the Black Album, it proved they could examine the lowest lows of the human psyche, taking a vicious perspective for one song, and a somber, poignant perspective for the next.
This album alone sold 30 million copies, more than some bands can claim for their entire catalog, and is considered by many to be the best rock album of all time and the best metal album of the 90s.
9. The Clash – London Calling (1979)
Not just an album, but a political moment extraordinaire, London Calling for many people is where British 70s punk begins and ends.
I’ve noted before what a visionary, ambitious album it is; deftly teasing out themes of distinctly British import while entrancing the listless, cynical masses with textured rhythms, vital vocals, and riffs to play again and again.
London Calling certainly owes its brazen self-assurance to the swagger of youth, but the thematic complexity and nuanced melodies bespeak a maturity and introspection far beyond their years.
Don’t take my word for it, though – London Calling has been rated the 8th best rock album of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine.
10. Pink Floyd – The Wall (1979)
The Wall had the philosophical, intellectual vigor of anything out of Karl Marx or Freud’s canon, and it served the same incendiary role in a tepid culture weaned on the status quo.
One of the best psychedelic concept albums, The Wall takes us on a fractured, meandering journey through the surreal self-isolation of a wearied, disillusioned rock star.
The effect is one of intense alienation, discomfort, and reflection – a musical pill with variegated side effects.
Some leave the album spaced out and disjointed, others leave it energized with screw the man energy, some leave it with a sensual appreciation of textured prog rock – but no one gets to leave the journey unchanged.
11. The Who – Who’s Next (1971)
British legends The Who cultivated their sound at a heretofore unexplored crossroads: an audacious musical nexus of sixties garage, punk-individualism, and stadium-inspired rock.
They created their own musical vernacular, one equipped with sweeping instrumentals, vivacious vocals, and boundless, big-picture melodies.
Their grammar was one of ferocity, playfulness, and daring.
The Who didn’t sit down for anyone, nor did they censor themselves – ironically creating, in the process, a sound that was palatable and vital to the mainstream.
12. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA (1984)
Born in the USA captures the boundless, uncommonly generous heart of a country in transition – torn between glory day nostalgia and fervent hope for the promise of tomorrow.
Springsteen gave a voice to the growing pains, restlessness, wistfulness, and sensibilities of the American spirit, and indeed, informed the very substance of that spirit.
Like Tom Petty, Springsteen’s songs are saturated with an intoxicating patina that allows us to carve out a space for the emotional vagaries and surprises of a life fully lived.
With anthems like “Glory Days”, “Born in the USA”, and “Dancing in the Dark” you can rest assured that this is one of the best rock albums ever.
13. The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Someone somewhere is going to come for me for this decision. And how could they not?
With so many albums in their glittering catalog, you’re bound to ruffle some feathers by including one at the exclusion of the others.
A Hard Day’s Night is not a lot of critics’ first choice, which reflects, in my opinion, an unfair preference for the band’s post-1966 work.
I think this is a huge oversight!
In their early work, you can hear all of the raw, unsullied Liverpool charm and the wide-eyed generosity that defined their inimitable career.
The songs are heartfelt and possessed of a certain innocence and bashfulness that was lost as the sixties progressed.
14. Van Halen – Van Halen (1978)
Not to be flippant but have you heard the guitar on “Eruption”? That’ll convince even the hard of hearing that Van Halen was a force, coming onto the late seventies music scene like a tempest.
With pulsating, electrifying guitars redolent of the best Iron Maiden and the audacious, swaggering vocals of a stadium-ready Motorhead, Van Halen demanded to be heard.
Their sound is feverish, unrelenting, and possessed of an insatiable energy that can’t be tamed, particularly on songs like “Little Dreamer”, “Aint Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”, and “Runnin’ With the Devil”.
The razor-sharp vocals and high-octane pace served the American rockers well – the album sold over ten million copies and raised the stakes for the bands that followed.
15. Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast (1982)
So electric and high-voltage you’re liable to get a shock, the power instrumentals on Iron Maiden’s 1982 epic will have you feeling like you’re standing in front of a white-hot speaker.
With unapologetically campy lyrics, satanic themes, and hermetic medieval references, Iron Maiden could care less if you were offended or horrified by their outrageous philosophy.
The head-shaking on the part of the mainstream is just fine where Maiden fans are concerned, it serves as something of a filtering method, ensuring only the cool kids get into the scene.
Ultimately their music is riotous, impolite, and morbidly fun and it amounts to The Number of the Beast is the best rock/metal album in history.
16. The Velvet Underground & Nico – Velvet Underground (1967)
Dashing, urbane, and confronting in its intimacy, The Velvet Underground had a grown-up sensibility infused with the ingenuity and frivolity of youth.
Lou Reed’s honeyed vocals lent a moving candor and delicate humanism to this delightful album, as though he were imparting secrets from the heart at every turn.
Their earnest sound demands to be listened to with all the senses and shrouds listeners in the serenity, dislocations, and frailties of a post-war generation coming into its own in a world not ready for them.
17. Tom Petty – Damn the Torpedoes (1979)
The heart may indeed be a lonely hunter, but with Petty’s nourishing fare as a companion, the turbulence, sorrow, and magic of life feel less individuated, and more like a valuable component of the whole.
Petty captures the nostalgia, the lazy summer nights, and the sensitive beauty of a life spent living from the heart.
Petty’s generosity of spirit and his poetic flourishes transmute the banalities of quotidian life into a boundless, exuberant space.
This is one of the most tender albums I know of, and one of the best rock albums of the 70s.
18. Alice in Chains – Dirt (1992)
Somber, disconsolate, and wrenchingly beautiful, Dirt is a heavy, moody, and uncompromising listen packed with taut tension and radical release.
Layne Staley, Jerry Cantrell, and Sean Kinney pioneered a haunting, unforgettably melancholic sound that found its subject matter in the darkest, saddest, and most unexposed parts of the human psyche.
They never exploited their emotionally riveting subject matter and instead gave it the most poignant, insightful treatment possible.
Dirt is my harrowing, unrepentant companion for life and is one of the best rock albums of the 90s.
19. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
Dripping with the poetry and introspection of the moody Pacific Northwest, Ten announced Pearl Jam as the band that the socially and environmentally conscious Gen-X cohort deserved.
Ten was an elegy, a yearning in the wilderness, a stoic reflection, and a manifesto, wrapped in the emerging contours of Seattle grunge.
Lacing their music with a wistful, pained reflectiveness and a drowsy, self-assured folk, their sound got as close to high-brow literature as one can go.
Their music is nothing if not potent, an intoxicating, mesmerizing, often disconcerting reverie that is at once grounded and ghostly.
20. Tom Petty – Full Moon Fever (1989)
I am unapologetically raising Petty’s profile here with the addition of a second album on this list – for the sheer heartland majesty of his songs, yes, but also for the wider impact he had on American road culture.
Full Moon Fever is musing yet down-to-earth, relaxing yet rousing, visionary yet subtle in its examinations of the heart, spirit, and human condition.
In my mind, Petty is not just a songwriter par excellence but is also the consummate philosopher on the meaning, mystery, and multitudes of life.
21. Grateful Dead – American Beauty (1970)
Radical, folksy, and fiercely down to earth, American Beauty is an ode to a life less ordinary, and to the whimsy and expansiveness of living with a generous spirit.
At a time when the summer of love philosophy was churning out hippie-philosopher hopefuls by the minute, it took a rare streak of courage and talent to rise above the fray.
Grateful Dead was that rare beam of light, fostering a sense of wonder and communion with the unseen in listeners stoned or sober.
The exuberant, meditative, happily subversive tracks of American Beauty serve as a wake-up call for the rest of us – to live with intention, vision, and authentic non-judgment.
22. The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (1971)
Other acts have tried and failed to replicate the patent blend of bravado, candor, and charisma that made the Stones legends in their own time.
From jangly rockabilly in the early sixties to audacious and sensual post-1967 to brazen and unrepentant in the seventies, there is a flavor of Stones for every taker.
They could be melodic, soulful, satirical, playful, subversive, and unholy- but they were never anything but their assured, unforgiving selves.
Sticky Fingers marks their foray into a sensual, lightly chauvinistic space and I for one love this turn for my fave British heavyweights.
A best rock albums list would hardly be complete without ‘em.
23. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Darklands (1987)
This groundbreaking album, which has nary a mediocre song on it, swung open the doors for the emergent genres of dream pop and shoegaze.
With delicate, ethereal vocals occasionally punctured by fuzzy, disjointed guitars, the effect was nothing short of hallucinatory.
Out of Glasgow with the endearingly downcast ethos of any good Scottish rockers, brothers Jim and William Reid possessed a preternatural self-assurance, and a staunch unwillingness to play by any melodic, lyrical, or instrumental rules.
The result is lush, haunting, psychologically deft music that will capture a bit of your heart and mind and give you a well-earned reflective pause.
24. R.E.M. – Murmur (1983)
I’ll be honest, Murmur is not exactly a mainstay on best rock album lists – which I think is a glaring oversight and perhaps even a sign of creative laziness on the part of reviewers.
R.E.M.’s’ jangly, downtempo, melancholic alternative debut launched them firmly into the despondent heart of the eighties indie movement.
R.E.M. always takes a sardonic pleasure in the cryptic and elusive lyrics that they dole out, leading to a head-scratching rite of passage for all new R.E.M. fans.
While they are most renowned for their stroppy and disconsolate nineties tracks, it is vital to start at the beginning and experience the full weight of their maudlin talent.
25. AC/DC – Back in Black (1980)
Vigorous, chauvinistic, and crude like it’s going out of style, AC/DC are the neighbors next door who won’t turn down the noise no matter how nicely you ask – indeed, they welcome a cheeky run-in with the cops.
High octane, visceral, and confrontational – however you want to describe them, you can’t avoid their crass and compulsive sound.
Infused with outlandish Aussie banter and overt sexual innuendos, AC/DC is one of the least academic bands around.
If it’s dirty, vulgar, and raunchy they are all over it like a heat rash and stadium rock was never tame again after these devils had their way with it.
26. The Cure – Disintegration (1989)
Painfully gothic, Disintegration sounds like the lullaby of a distant shade or a somber, lonesome apparition caught between this world and the next.
I wax lyrical, but any cursory listen of Disintegration will lay you low.
Indeed you might end up feverish and stunned into silence while you cope with the emotional fallout from the listening experience.
You can probably assume that, as ethereal and serene as it is, this is far from easy, passive listening material.
The Cure grabs you in the darkest, most haunted crevices of your mind and whispers poetic impressions and elusive fragments into your ears.
27. Oasis – Definitely, Maybe (1994)
The spirit, cheek, wit, and charm of the nineties Brit-pop movement, Definitely, Maybe came onto the scene like a bolt from the blue (or the grey considering the dreary skies of Oasis’s hometown Manchester)
Restless, intransigent, and haughty all while being perfectly earnest and accessible – how did they manage that?
The album introduced the world to some of Oasis’s best-loved songs, charting the trajectory from riveting and raw to playful and incorrigible.
To this day nary a pub night can go by without the ever-present spirit of Oasis looming large and many consider this the best rock album of the nineties.
28. Pulp – Different Class (1995)
The underdogs of the Brit-rock genre, Pulp is an uncommonly earnest and erudite band to come out of the chilly, windy isles.
In Different Class they indulge their intellectual wonder, their sociocultural commentary, and their unflinching passion for the hearts and minds of the working classes.
Different Class penetrates the psyche of those who society may cast aside as mediocre or perhaps not worthy of note and gives them a luminous, poignant treatment.
The album engages with the disparate emotions and sensations that make a life: wistfulness, measured hopefulness, delight, and sorrow.
29. The Doors – The Doors (1965)
Lush as the dying embers of an Indian Summer and sultry as a Los Angeles roadside bar in the heady sixties, The Doors debut had a maturity, allure, and strength of vision that was, frankly, arresting.
Prophets by night, bohemian deadbeats by day, The Doors became the aesthetic, poetic, and creative idols of a generation high on freedom and keen to imbibe in the pleasures of hedonism.
They rollick, they soothe, they lament, they swagger – Morrison et al are unmatched kings of metamorphosis and experimentation.
Morrison’s untimely death precluded us loyalists from experiencing the full flowering of his wisdom and philosophy but at least we have this amazing rock album as consolation.
30. The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses (1989)
Intrepid, unrepentant, and well-equipped to artfully navigate the labyrinth of the human experience – who else could it be but The Stone Roses?
Their music is a veritable mood board – an expansive, erudite palette of candor and soul.
The cadence of their melodies luxuriates in the air long after the songs have ended, allowing us to be sojourners in a world of rare beauty.
Enhancing every track is the Manchester verve, unrepentance, and grit that any music lover would expect from the city’s best.
Best Rock Albums of All Time – Final Thoughts
So, there we have it: the best rock albums of all time. How do my choices stack up to your own? I’m a big believer that music lovers should always seek out the best albums of any given genre or decade in order to gain a sturdy entry point.
The classics are classics for a reason and I’ve included some of the best here. But I hope you are also inspired to seek out some bands that you may have previously overlooked. I promise that these albums will become a part of your daily listening routine.