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The Ten Greatest Albums of the Century

By Paul J. MacArthur

The following article first appeared in the December 23, 1999 issue of Event Magazine as part of the regular column Black and White Noise.  Some minor editorial changes have been made to the original text by the author. 

The Ten Greatest Albums of the Century

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, the century really doesn't end until Dec. 31, 2000, but every other music writer has a best of the century list and I'm at least as opinionated as they are. So, what were the greatest albums of the century? Well, for an album to be considered for this list, it had to meet some specific criteria. 

1) It must be timeless. It must still sound fresh and vibrant today. 

2) It had to change music. Whether its impact was immediate or several years down the road doesn't matter. 

3) I have to like it. I can't call something great if I don't like it. 

4) Compilations, box sets, soundtracks, greatest hits, etc. are disqualified.  They do not represent an artist's singular vision and as such aren't albums in the truest sense of the word. 

5) I have to have heard it. Seems obvious, but you'd be amazed how many writers put lists together based on music they've never heard. 

Based on this set of criteria, many albums regarded as the greatest of the century by other writers won't make the grade here.  Never Mind the Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols is an important album and it changed music, though not for the better. However, the simple fact is Bollocks is an unlistenable piece of rubbish. Always has been. Always will be. Commerce defeats art. 

Meanwhile the Beach Boys' Holland album is phenomenal and is on my Desert Island list (you know, what albums would you bring with you if you were stuck on a desert island?). So is Al Kooper's Super Session.  But I would be hard pressed to show either album had any demonstrable impact on music, either when released or today. 

Since we are dealing with albums, there will be no entries by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker or Art Tatum, all of whom made great recordings that changed music, but did so before the LP concept was firmly entrenched in the early 50s.  By then, these artists had already made their mark on music and the subsequent recordings were not so much musical landmarks as they were documents of greatness. 

So that's the how.  Now here's the list. 

10) King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (EG, 1969). Ah the excesses of Art Rock. Ambitious arrangements and production and lyrics filled with pretense. Yet as progressive as Crimson King is, Robert Fripp and company sound like innocent kids having fun making a grand scale rock production. Most every Î70s art/progressive rock band tried to capitalize on what Crimson did, but no one ever really got it right. Crimson King lasts because, more than anything else, the melodies were the stars, not the production. 
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9) Ray Charles: The Genius Of Ray Charles (Atlantic, 1960). Just about every Ray Charles album broke ground in the Î50s and Î60s, but The Genius Of... accentuates Charles singing with jazz based arrangements in brilliant fashion.  Most every song is a ballad and Charles performance penetrates the heart on every track.  Tearjerkers? That's a given.  What did it change? Everything to anyone who's heard it. 
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8) Grover Washington, Jr. Winelight (Elektra, 1980). One of the best albums to have on when you dim the lights, Winelight is the epitome of the word groove, a sexy recording with some amazing blowing. Winelight represents all that is good about smooth jazz without every succumbing the genre's shortcomings. 
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7) John Coltrane: Ballads (Impulse, 1962). John Coltrane was breaking down walls and traveling down new paths in 1962 when he recorded Ballads. But, on Ballads, his groundbreaking quartet played beautifully "inside" from start to finish. The result silenced critics and made everyone reevaluate just what Coltrane was about.  Today, this work not only stands out as a beautiful recording, but the most essential piece of the Coltrane puzzle as it puts all of his other influential work in context. 
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6) Mahavishnu Orchestra: Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1972). On Birds of Fire, the Mahavishnu Orchestra took jazz-rock fusion several steps beyond what anyone ever imagined. Tight arrangements, slick production, unusual time signatures, rock guitar sound, unrivaled guitar mastery: every band that heard Birds of Fire knew it was time to either give it up or go back to the shed. The high watermark of fusion that changed not only what was expected from a guitar player, but from a band. 
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5) The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967). Make no mistake about it, when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper they put showed that art, rock and roll, and commerce could peacefully coexist. Great songs and adventurous production. Though it wasn't the first art rock album, Pepper's artistic and commercial success made every rock musician take notice. Within 24 hours the standards of what was expected from a rock and roll album had been exponentially increased. 
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4) Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon (EMI, 1973). One of the most ambitious sonic projects ever, Dark Side is much more than a production masterpiece. The songs tell a story,  have good hooks and unparalleled effects. Dark Side of the Moon spent more than 700 weeks on the Billboard album charts and its still sounds so vital, it could have been made yesterday, that is if there was a band today with enough talent to make it.  The standard by which multi-tracked stereo rock productions are judged. 
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3) Jimi Hendrix: Are You Experienced? (Warner Brothers, 1967).  Though some of Hendrix's later recordings were more adventurous, nothing ever topped the perfection of his first album. Leading the ultimate power trio, Hendrix made the guitar the most powerful force in rock music. No one sounded like him before Are You Experienced, everybody tried to sound like him after. Hard rock anthems, blues, ballads, psychedlia, you name it, Hendrix delivered everything with unmatched excitement and intensity. In the process he made the most significant guitar album of the century. His singing was also vastly underrated. Not a single track is subpar. 
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2) Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959).  Jazz was never the same after Davis's all-star sextet recorded five modal tunes.  Kind of Blue is so progressive and influential that it sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. 40 years after its release, jazz musicians are still trying to unlock the magic Davis and company pulled off in the studio.  Miles Davis changed music several times, but this may very well be his greatest accomplishment. 
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1) The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (Capitol Records, 1966).  Pet Sounds is rock's first successful concept album, in that it tells a story while creating high art.  Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys entered a new musical realm with this tour de force musical statement that combines catchy pop hooks, beautiful melodies, brilliant harmonies, dynamic production, and vocals that only the Beach Boys in their prime could pull off. Then there's the lyrics which revealed that boys were now men.  Gone were the surf, girls and cars. In their place were Brian Wilson's and Tony Asher's words about the joys and pains of romance, silent love, isolation and alienation. There has never been a musical statement as intense, loving and heartbreaking as Pet Sounds. 
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