Fifty Years of Great Music: Yet Another 100 Essential Albums


Once again we return to the Fifty Years of Great Music series for the probable final celebration of albums. While these may not be in the same class as the ones already mentioned, in some way (or many ways) I still believe them to be essential additions to any music lover’s collection.

As always, I’ve taken strides to include a wide range of artists and genres, critical darlings and crowd pleasers, stuff that everyone already knows deserves reverence and stuff that perhaps most don’t value but I still do. There are still numerous LPs out there worthy of consideration, and many that I wish I had room for (Icky Mettle? The Man-Machine? Criminal Minded? Red Medicine? After the Gold Rush? Things We Lost in the Fire? ‘Fraid not). And as I did with the last song list, along with widely acclaimed works and “more of the same” for those familiar with the earlier entries, I’ve tried to select a small handful of underappreciated or curiously scorned full-lengths that may not warrant intense favoritism but I feel still deserve some manner of recognition (for the songs, it was mostly fodder from the 80s; this time, it’s mostly releases from the 90s).

Anyone who needs a refresher can find links to previous entries in the Fifty Years of Great Music series below:


Once again, I have provided links to related entries after each album so you can read more about similar music. As stated on the last album list addition, these are not necessarily among the next twenty-five albums in rank, but a wide array of close calls, worthy ventures, underrated efforts, and even a qualified semi-guilty pleasure or two (generally invoked by nostalgia). With 100 More Essential Albums, I recognized the lack of depth in the 60s because of the late-decade arrival of the viable LP, so I reduced the number from that span to fifteen and gave extra attention to the overstuffed 70s. This time, I’m playing a little looser, lifting restrictions completely for the number of albums per decade to be featured. Once again, the 60s are slim (just twelve this outing) while the 90s bloated considerably to a total of twenty-seven.

So check out another hundred albums below that you really should listen to if you haven’t already. And I apologize sincerely for failing once again to give Toto their due.

60joanbaezJoan Baez
by Joan Baez

Before Joan Baez joined the ranks of socio-political-minded modern folkies (including Bob Dylan, with whom she had a relationship and helped to gain an audience at the start of his career), she recorded a debut album comprised of traditional arrangements and public domain compositions. Baez has long been known as an interpreter of other people’s music (though not strictly a cover artist), and while later work would be more aggressively personal, notices of leftism, pacifism and humorlessness made her an easy target for many groups and personalities. But here, with just her extraordinary vibrato and her melancholy acoustic guitar, she avoids any semblance of statement politics or clunky songwriting for a series of brisk, spare and wonderfully performed tunes, most of which even folk newbies will be familiar with (including “House of the Rising Sun,” before the Animals recorded the definitive version). Among the highlights are the extended ballad “Mary Hamilton,” the former parlor song “Wildwood Flower,” and the lovely, haunting “Silver Dagger,” her signature number for some fifteen years prior to “Diamonds & Rust.” Avoid the original CD version and get the remastered edition—vastly superior audio quality.

See also: Saint Etienne's "Like a Motorway" (#89)

60songformyfatherSong for My Father
by Horace Silver

Horace Silver’s piano lines often leaned closer to soul/R&B than traditional jazz (a Ray Charles influence is almost undeniable), and his quintet’s definitive release, Song for My Father, adds to that wisps of gospel, tropicalia and an overt reference to bossa nova in the unforgettable title track. That song ultimately proved to be one of the most iconic singular recordings in not only hard bop but all of jazz music (even proving formidable in the pop spectrum with basis/samples in songs from Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, and more), but the remainder of the LP is formidable as well, from the lively trumpet and elaborate rhythms of “The Kicker” to the soothing sojourn of “Calcutta Cutie” and the poignant piano melody of “Lonely Woman.” One of the best recordings of its kind for mainstream accessibility, rewarding for detailed study and ambient mood both, and one of the great entryways into jazz music.

60ifyoucanbelieveIf You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears
by the Mamas & the Papas

In terms of songwriting advances, the Mamas & the Papas are running distant to scores of folk, pop, rock and psychedelic acts of the time. Likewise, ambitious advances in studio experimentation can’t be attributed to their relatively brief tenure. But the crisp, lush, glowing polish brought to the recordings of the group’s debut LP was as impressive as anything ever released before it (and stands as tall as virtually everything that followed, too). The richness of the harmonies rivaled anything coming from the Beach Boys at the time and the clarity of each instrument through the faint ethereal haze of its sunshine pop film is pristine. Some of the credit is due, of course, to producer Lou Adler as well as John Phillips’ songwriting prowess (who had a hand in penning every tune except for the covers) but the individuals in the group are what insists its timeless sound—like a quality barbershop quartet, you can decipher each vocalist’s role, and clearly hear each one even when they’re all piled on top of each other.

by the Rolling Stones

It was the most ambitious album the Rolling Stones had yet produced, but today it’s easy to wonder how much Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were obsessed with catching up with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The Stones were the gnarly, nasty, down-n-dirty alternative, but they were almost two years behind the Beatles in devising an originals-only LP and the broadening of their palette and instrumentation (“Lady Jane”’s stuffy Victorian atmosphere and “Under My Thumb”’s marimbas among them) was still a distant echo to Rubber Soul—and would be obliterated by Revolver less than four months later. And based on the patterns and hooks of “Mother’s Little Helper,” maybe they were also obsessed with Ray Davies. But even though, to reiterate, it’s easy to recognize this today, it requires a certain amount of cynicism to view the competition as anything but subliminal (and healthy for both acts’ eternal excellence). When you listen to Aftermath, get shoulder-deep inside of the sleazy degradation of “Stupid Girl,” the extreme blues epic “Goin’ Home” and the warm, marching R&B of “Out of Time,” and nothing beyond the moment ever occurs to the listener.

See also: “Paint It Black” (#28), Beggars Banquet (#60)

60youngerthanyesterdayYounger Than Yesterday
by the Byrds

As it sometimes is, the Byrds didn’t start making really good albums until they were beginning to break (sorry, but Mr. Tambourine Man is one of the decade’s most overrated full-lengths). There’s little recognition left on Younger Than Yesterday of the quasi-hippie folk rock group from two and three years before; instead, the Byrds are going into “C.T.A.-102”’s outer space (chintzy sci-fi sound effects and all), south of the Mason Dixon for some groovin’ country twang, high up in the sky with psychedelia that would sound off the map if it weren’t for Fifth Dimension, and into self-aware parody by way of their hit “So You Want to Be a Rock n’ Roll Star.” Of course, the absence of Gene Clark is felt (same as “of course, they included a Bob Dylan song”) and of course, there isn’t a single song here as instantly memorable as “Eight Miles High” or “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season).” And with Clark gone and the squabbling among the other members becoming public (especially over David Crosby’s “subtle” attempts to make a band-direction coup), the Byrds seemed destined for self-destruction. As a result, cohesion is virtually nonexistent in Yesterday, but top-to-bottom it rivals the quality of any of their other records.

See also: Fifth Dimension (#73)

60safeasmilkSafe As Milk
by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band

Trout Mask Replica is Cap’s true must-own, but I would advise introducing yourself through Safe As Milk, which, compared to what was coming, could indeed be described as such. But that doesn’t mean this stuff sounds like the Carpenters; it’s blues rock whittled to the husk and then bent and warped askew, giving it a trademark sound while appealing to anyone with even a casual interest in Delta blues and southern R&B. That “trademark sound” belongs to Don Van Vliet, though, and there’s no presumption for AM glory in any of his outings—like the Velvet Underground, he never sold well but influenced thousands. Hinting at the weird times ahead (if those Zappa-esque dashes of doo wop didn’t do it already) are wild avant exercises like “Abba Zabba” and “Electricity,” jagged, rambling and filled with unusual sounds. Features an appearance from a young Ry Cooder who, although never a true member of the Magic Band, provides terrific slide guitar work that gives these tough and gaping compositions a lot of juice.

See also: Trout Mask Replica (#27)

60buffalospringfieldagainBuffalo Springfield Again
by Buffalo Springfield

While it has plentiful supporters, I find several stretches of Buffalo Springfield’s eponymous debut to be a little dull and precious few completely excellent cuts worth revisiting again and again, but is cohesive and well-rounded as a whole. Meanwhile, their follow-up, Buffalo Springfield Again, is stylistically messy and has its share of below average outings (a sub-par Richie Furay song and Neil Young’s well-meaning but pretentious closer “Broken Arrow”), but almost all of the group’s best “album cuts” are here, too, making it far and away their most indispensable effort. Neil’s “Mr. Soul” (more than a little similar to the Stones classic “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” from the following year) and Stephen Stills’ “Bluebird” (with a guitar lick and bridge vocal more than a little indebted to Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker) both rank among the most immediately appealing—and among the furthest from their folk rock origins—while “Expecting to Fly” is touched by country, orchestral pop and acid. And “Everydays” and “Sad Memory,” despite the fuzz guitar outbursts of the former and the feathery wispiness of the latter, offer some of the group’s loveliest melodies. Though Young and Stills lacked the cooperative spirit necessary to keep the act running for more than one more LP, this showcase of their individual genius talents is not to be missed.

See also: “For What It’s Worth” (#90)

60ladysoulLady Soul
by Aretha Franklin

The Queen of Soul’s move to Atlantic provided her most fertile period both commercially and artistically—the artistry was almost entirely in her lungs and commerce had no choice but to follow. Lady Soul, her second straight LP to jump to the top of the charts, featured some of her most recognizable and best-loved singles, including classics like “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” as well as smaller (but no less indelible) hits like “Ain’t No Way” and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” the latter of which being one of the few times that Aretha co-wrote one of her own singles instead of reinterpreting (and sometimes perfecting) other writers’ and artists’ material. If those four aren’t enough to seal its legacy—and it would have been—add in her take on the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” a James Brown redo, and Ray Charles’ “Come Back Baby” in a rendition that rivals his own, and you end up with one of the era’s great soul full-lengths.

See also: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (#76)

by Dr. John the Night Tripper

With skewed sensibilities shuffling among Don Vliet, Cajun-fried R&B, tropicalia, Creedence, disheveled boogie woogie, gator funk, jungle, West Coast acid rock, and voodoo hoodoo, Mac Rebennack carved himself out a very specific spot in late-60s music, terminally weird but eternally engaging. As a frontman taking the moniker Dr. John, Rebeneck is a tough sell (he wanted white soul singer Robbie Barron to do the vocals), but considering the long pauses between each lurch and galoomp of the swamp muscle, it’s fitting that he sounds a little froggy, gin-stained and eccentric. Spotting him are more native New Orleans “professional” back-ups (including Tami Lynn and Shirley Goodman, who’d later appear on Exile on Main St. with Dr. John) that sell most of the unconcealed hooks, providing the soul to the “boogaloo crap,” as an Atlantic exec described it when discovering the record would be as tough a sell as Dr. John’s singing style. Tough it was, failing to chart on either side of the pond, but Gris-Gris has enjoyed a healthy life in rediscovery. If not a household name, he’s been a prominent fixture in the music industry for more than four decades now, from Carly Simon back-ups to fried chicken jingles to Martin Scorcese concert films to sitcom theme songs. But Gris-Gris remains his definitive work as an artist.

60songsfromaroomSongs from a Room
by Leonard Cohen

With its bare (though not blank) production, Leonard Cohen’s sophomore LP earns its title—if not for the occasional integration of thin and often haunted orchestral bits (and, unsuccessfully, a cheap synthesizer patch on “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes” and an organ line for “The Old Revolution”), it sounds like it could have been recorded and mixed in a cramped little room. The music is often as close to country as it is acoustic folk rock, primarily in the lonesome despair that haunts both the music and singer, but in the details comes a tentative unease that might be considered a debit in most hands, but is worn as a genuine and intimate instinct by a young Cohen. “The Story of Isaac,” “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” the “win me or lose me” challenge of “Lady Midnight,” and his version of the French WWII-era song “Partisan” are well worth any of its minor shortcomings. As for the seminal “Bird on the Wire,” I knew the Neville Brothers version first and used to snicker at the way the watery falsetto sang, “Like a bird on the wire/Like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free”—unimpeded by the waver, Cohen makes it sound justly poetic.

See also: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (#20), Songs of Love and Hate (#45)

60nashvilleskylineNashville Skyline
by Bob Dylan

Faced with an increasing lack of privacy, Bob Dylan became even more uncomfortable in the unceasing spotlight as the 60s drew to a close; he’d been through his angry young artist phase, so he needed a new format in order to break out from the malaise of expectation. He had also already gone electric, incited freak poetry with more than a whiff of earned arrogance, and then embraced rock n’ roll, so why not follow the country inflections that scored some of his earlier work and go all out? He lets us in easy by reworking one of his best folk songs, “Girl from the North Country,” as a duet with Johnny Cash (one of popular music’s great “lost albums” is the series of duets he did with the Man in Black that only occasionally saw the light of day via fractured bootlegs). Kicking off the second side is “Lay Lady Lay,” Dylan’s biggest UK chart hit since “Like a Rolling Stone.” In between those highlights is “I Threw It All Away” (with the Beatles-esque declaration that, “Love is all we need, it makes the world go round”), the childish rhymes of “To Be Alone with You,” and the country rock devotional “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You”—as expressionism, tame (and intentionally so), but as simple songwriting played with affecting sincerity, worth cherishing. Dylan would follow this up with several forgettable mistakes (if not outright wretched, like the self-titled collection of Self Portrait outtakes) before saving his career with Blood on the Tracks.

See also: “Girl from the North Country” (#31), John Wesley Harding (#96)

60hotratsHot Rats
by Frank Zappa

Before Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and anything conditionally worthwhile from Yes was Hot Rats, the first album Frank Zappa released after the collapse of the Mothers of Invention. Typically gonzo weird, establishing footholds in both progressive rock and composer music while fully exploring jazz-fusion, tinkering with modulations of 16th century Japanese folk music, flamenco, and more, and employing incredible advancements in recording techniques (16-track MM-1000? Listen to that!). As it is with Zappa’s output (of which I’ve missed or avoided plenty more than I’ve sampled), there are stretches of blankness, dribbles of boredom, sheets of impressive sound study, and just enough pieces of brilliance to remind you why, as dismissed as he can be, there’s a reason why the “freaks” usually love him. Hot Rats never overcomes the landmark highs of “Peaches en Regalia” and “Willie the Pimp” (two of the most famed compositions in the artists’ massively prolific career) but provides enough meat down the stretch to make it more than worth your time. In addition to the amazing drum sound, this album also contains some of the greatest sax solos ever recorded for a “rock” album.

See also: The Mother of Invention’s Freak Out!




Matt Medlock


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