Music is also known as The Universal Language. And that’s because literally every single human culture that has ever existed has some version of it. It can cheer you up when you’re down and it can commiserate with you if you’re not looking to be cheered up. Simply put, music is an incredibly human form of art – perhaps the most human, actually.
While everyone has their own individual tastes, there are still some recordings that are widely considered to be the most influential and/or most important, if not the best. And it is these collections of songs we believe everyone should keep in their repertoire, both because they are enjoyable but also because they help give us a bit of depth, perspective, and understanding we might not otherwise have. So, while it is admittedly difficult to pin down a “best of” list of albums, we’ve boiled down 50 complete records (read:not greatest hits) that we believe every man should listen to and own, in some form or another. Whether you stream, still cling to CDs, or are a part of the vinyl turntable revival, give these a listen.
All Eyez On Me
When it came out in 1996, this album topped the Billboard charts. And it’s still wildly popular today. A part of that reason is because, even at his most nihilistic, 2Pac was a visionary lyricist. But it doesn’t hurt to have someone as prolific in your corner as Dr. Dre, either. From “Only God Can Judge Me” to “California Love,” All Eyez on Me is, simply put, brilliant.
Back In Black
This offering from AC/DC – which boasts hits such as “Hells Bells,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” and the titular “Back in Black” – is the 6th best-selling album in United States history. And although it was released after the tragic death of the band’s original lead singer, Bon Scott, there’s no denying how anthemic this entire record is.
The Last Waltz
This album is a legendary one for two reasons. Firstly, it’s an unbelievably well-performed live record with features from some of rock and roll’s greatest – including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and more. But it’s also a documentation of The Band’s final show, making it an emotional one, to say the least. If you have any appreciation for rock music, you should give this one a listen.
The Beach Boys
Though it is not their most popular album, the 11th record in the Beach Boys’ catalogue is arguably the most long-term influential. A part of that is thanks to songs like “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” which have enjoyed an interestingly long life in popular culture. But it’s also because Brian Wilson garnered most of the creative control in regards to the build and flow of the writing on this album.
Licensed To Ill
It’s an odd story – a group of white jewish kids from New York turning from punk rock to hip hop and becoming one of the most influential groups in rap history. But it’s true. The debut album from the Beastie Boys is still one of the best hip hop albums of all time and, so it seems, is comprised entirely of big hits from start to finish.
Though their career as a band was relatively short-lived, it’s still really hard to decide which of the Beatles’ albums is the best. There’s a pretty good argument to be made, however, for this one. It’s versatile, expansive, and features a whopping 30 original tracks. And it’s influence can be traced to just about every corner of pretty much any popular musical genre.
Blonde On Blonde
People forget that the Jimi Hendrix song, “All Along The Watchtower,” was actually written by Bob Dylan. Simply put, the nobel prize-winning musician is a lyrical virtuoso. And, although that particular song cannot be found on Blonde on Blonde, this record still shows Bob Dylan at perhaps his most bizarre and creative. The blues-inspired opening track, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” is one of his most simple and fun, by the way.
Bob Marley & The Wailers
It should come as no surprise that Bob Marley made it on our list of records everyone should own. He is, after all, the reigning king of reggae – and likely will be for at least the entirety of our lifetime, if not longer. Exodus is special, however, as it is what we believe to be the most cohesive and complete record in his catalogue. And it doesn’t hurt that it features some of the group’s biggest hits, as well.
In our opinion, the Clash are the greatest punk band of all time. And, with what they offered up on London Calling, it’s easy to see why. The album is loaded with hits that serve both to exhibit the sheer versatility of Joe Strummer and company and to keep your head shaking from beginning to end. Sorry, die-hard Ramones and Sex Pistols fans, but the Clash just had that little bit extra that rocketed them into the rock and roll pantheon.
Crosby, Stills, & Nash
David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and their eventual addition of Neil Young can reasonably be called one of rock’s first supergroups. And they’d go on to have a tremendous amount of success and go down as one of the best rock ensembles of all time. If only for the opening track, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” this record deserves a spot on your shelf – and your record player.
Comprised solely of two Frenchmen, Daft Punk has become one of the greatest musical groups of all time. In fact, their influence has reached so far beyond their humble beginnings in the house genre, it’s practically absurd. Even people unfamiliar with the group themselves have likely enjoyed their music at one time or another – thanks in part to their collaborations; ubiquitousness in popular television, radio, and film; and involvement in advertising. They are also part-owners of Jay-Z’s music streaming service, Tidal.
The Grey Album
In 2004, now-legendary producer Danger Mouse created what might be called the greatest mash-up record of all time. It was comprised of samples from the Beatles’ White Album overlaid with the vocal track from Jay-Z’s The Black Album. The result was glorious, to say the least. In fact, the Grey Album could be credited as starting the mash-up craze that happened in the late 2000s. As a note, this is not an official pressing of the record, as only 3,000 were ever originally produced.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Jazz is a strange beast, as far as musical genres go. That being said, we still believe every man should have a fairly intimate knowledge of at least one excellent jazz record. This one from the Dave Brubeck Quartet is definitely a good place to start. It’s approachable, but still complex and deep. And it helps that some of the songs sound familiar, thanks to their frequent use in other mediums – like movies and television shows.
The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust
As crass as it sounds, there was a lot of crappy music that came out of the ’70s and ’80s. By contrast, David Bowie was a shining light of creativity and originality. Perhaps his most remembered, if not his ultimate album, The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a concept album to end all concept albums. It also features the original appearances of “Suffragette City,” “Moonage Daydream,” and – of course – “Ziggy Stardust.”
Let's Get Free
Dead Prez is a challenging hip hop group to listen to – partially because of their socially charged and, at times, violent lyrics. But, if you can understand where they are coming from or even just listen to it objectively, Let’s Get Free is an astoundingly good record. If “Hip Hop” is the only song of theirs you’ve heard, it’s time to expand your understanding of this group. Just remember that it’s not for the faint of heart.
There should be no doubt in your mind that Dr. Dre is one of the best rap producers of all time. It should also come as no surprise that his solo record, The Chronic, is a musical staple in our minds. To be sure, this record is an explicit one, but that’s hardly a drawback to anyone who appreciates good rap. Similarly, if you think you like rap and you’ve never actually listened to The Chronic, it’s time to rethink your choices.
In March of 1956, the world was introduced to Elvis Presley, not knowing that he would go on to become one of the most iconic rock stars of all time. And while some of the songs remembered as Elvis songs were not, in fact, penned by the hip-swinger himself, he still immortalized quite a few of them – including “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Blue Moon” – here on his debut record.
Released in 1975, this multi-platinum rock album is incredible, to say the least. And, apart from its obvious commercial success, there’s also a lot to be said about the story surrounding Fleetwood Mac and all of the group’s trials and tribulations. As a fun fact, one of the band’s namesakes, Mick Fleetwood, is also a huge car fanatic and has an incredibly collection and knowledge of motor vehicles.
In The Wee Small Hours
Ol’ Blue Eyes had an extremely expansive career that stretched from about 1935 all the way to 1998. And that makes it pretty difficult to pin down which album of his you should own. It should go without saying, however, that you absolutely should own one of this crooner’s records. And there’s a lot of good to be said for In The Wee Small Hours. If we had to pick one, this is it.
Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash are some of the most highly respected musicians ever to have played country music. And this supergroup is comprised of all four of them. If you like a little bit of twang to your music, you’re not gonna do better than this.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Are You Experienced
It seems a little bit unnecessary to tell you why this record should be in your collection. Jimi Hendrix was an innovator, a soulful musician, and extremely creative when it came to writing and playing music – especially guitar. Don’t pass this one up.
At Folsom Prison
Not often is a musician’s live record also their best. But that’s exactly the case with Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison. And that’s not just because it was a stellar performance by the legendary country star (which it was), but also because of the energy given off by the rowdy crowd of inmates in the audience.
The College Dropout
Say what you will about the Kanye of today, but there’s no denying his lyrical prowess and ability to put together a stellar tune on his first few records. His debut release, this album exhibited the hunger and raw talent of a promising young star. And, we hope he can find his way back to that humility and creativity sometime soon.
good kid, mA.A.d city
While Kanye west’s debut record may go down as his best ever, Kendrick Lamar – a similarly visionary hip hop artist – hit his stride on his second. good kid, mA.A.d city is an astonishingly good musical journey from start to finish and, though we’ve listened to it a thousand times, we can still listen to it today.
Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround
Much of what we know of as indie music today can trace its roots back to a band that emerged in the mid 60s: the Kinks. And, to this day, they are still considered one of the most important and influential groups of the era. You’re probably already familiar with their song “Lola,” but we suggest giving “This Time Tomorrow” and “Powerman” a few extra listens.
You probably know Led Zeppelin, but were you aware that they were heavily influenced by the Lord of the Rings book series? Well, “Misty Mountain Hop” is actually a direct reference to The Hobbit. Even if you don’t care about their appreciation of J.R.R. Tolkien, this is still a superb rock record from beginning to end.
Let's Get It On
Yes. Marvin Gaye is on our list of must-have records. And no, we aren’t even remotely ashamed of that fact because, the truth is, Marvin Gaye was an incredibly good musician with a hefty dose of soul. Seriously, give this one a listen and try to say otherwise.
The Black Album
Not everything Metallica has produced has been worth listening to. In fact, a great number of fans will tell you that this album was the last worthwhile one they wrote. It also happens to be one of their absolute best. Opening with what is definitely the band’s most commercially successful track, “Enter Sandman,” this record gets off to an explosive start and doesn’t quit until it’s over.
This crotch-grabbing, Jheri curl-having, red leather jacket-wearing pop star was one of the greatest performers of all time. And it’s a testament to his talent that Thriller is still one of the world’s most popular records. Though his death was surrounded by mystery and his life was touched by controversy, there’s no denying his stellar musicianship.
Kind Of Blue
There are a vast number of jazz fans who will tell you that Kind of Blue is the greatest jazz record of all time. While we’re not quite ready to jump on that bandwagon, we could certainly see why. At the very least, it’s an beautiful performance by some truly impressive musicians – headed, of course, by one of the coolest cats to ever pick up a trumpet, Miles Davis.
When the fans, musicians, and critics alike proclaim from the mountaintops that an album is one of the absolute best offerings of a genre ever, you should probably take note. And that’s exactly the case with Illmatic by Nas. His debut album from 1994 is harsh, raw, and powerful – and definitely deserves all the respect it’s garnered.
Nirvana had an unfortunately short lifespan, due to the tragic suicide of Kurt Cobain. Thankfully, because their music was so impactful and important to so many people, it’s still easy to get your hands on pretty much their entire discography. As far as best records go, this one won out by a hair over In Utero, but if you’re going to get one, you’ll likely end up with both.
The Notorious B.I.G.
Ready To Die
Biggy was to the east coast what 2Pac was to the west and, similarly, his collected works have certainly stood the test of time. As far as hip hop goes, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear from any fan that this isn’t a classic – even those with hardcore loyalty to any one coast or style. One thing to remember: the one with the white cover is the official original studio release; The black cover is an unfortunately tweaked (in a bad way) remaster on which several of the original samples have been removed due to legal issues. Stick with the original.
Straight Outta Compton
It could be said that this was one of the albums that ushered in a new wave of music that has, especially on the west coast, weathered the test of time quite well. If you like hip hop and have a special place in your heart for California, then you can truly do no better than N.W.A.
There’s a lot of talk about East Coast vs. West Coast in the hip hop community, but we’d be remiss in our duties if we didn’t give some love to rap from the south. And while they might not be what you’d call “commonplace,” Outkast is most definitely a staple group of southern hip hop. Although their debut album, ATLiens, is still one of our personal favorites, Stankonia is the LP that catapulted the hip hop duo into super stardom.
If you’re a fan of hip hop, jazz, or even rock and you’ve never dabbled in funk – the time is now. And there’s no better group to start with than Parliament. Headed by the now-legendary George Clinton, this record is anything but boring and exemplifies the funk genre on the whole. Give it a listen; you might like what you hear.
There were three giants to emerge from the early ’90s grunge genre: Nirvana, Soundgarden, and – of course – Pearl Jam. Piloted by Eddie Vedder, this record is a staple of the entire rock and roll genre, not just grunge. It’s powerful, energetic, and passionate from start to finish and certainly has earned a spot amongst the best ever.
Fostering a bit more attitude than Bob Marley, this co-writer of “Get Up, Stand Up” doesn’t get nearly the amount of recognition he deserves. His socially charged reggae is certainly less approachable than the radio-friendly Marley, but it is no less masterful in its own right. Equal Rights is a reggae record that certainly does not disappoint.
While Dark Side of the Moon is certainly their most popular album, it is our belief that The Wall is superior to it in nearly every other way. For starters, it offers much more lengthwise from start to finish, but it also manages to tell an interesting story interwoven throughout the record that is somehow not lost even when listening to it in individual doses. This album is absolutely one of the best ever.
Though they came out around relatively the same time as grunge, the Pixies actually fit into a slightly different genre, called post-punk. They draw much inspiration from the aggressive late ’70s anti-establishment youth-in-revolt musical style, but twist it in a more personal and, perhaps, conscious way. If you’re entire familiarity with this band extends no further than “Where is my Mind?” it’s time to change that.
Prince & The Revolution
Prince was an incredible musician in his time. Want proof? Just find some footage of him shredding on the guitar and allow your jaw to promptly drop. And while we wouldn’t say that the film that shares a name with this album will go down in history as a great one, the record is nothing shy of outstanding.
OK Computer came out a whopping 20 years ago, but you can still turn on the radio to just about any rock station across the nation and hear a song off of it today. That’s impressive and it’s a testament to the writing prowess of Thom Yorke and company. Truth be told, singling out just a couple songs off of this album is doing the entire project a disservice. Listen to the whole thing. And then do it again and again and again.
The Rolling Stones
Let It Bleed
People often compare this group to the Beatles – but, apart from time of emergence, musical genre of choice, and nationality, the comparison is moot. They are not similar and that’s a good thing. The Beatles had experimentation and ephemerality, whereas the Rolling Stones have always been more about simple charged emotion. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
One of the early giants of hip hop, RUN-D.M.C. is partially responsible for the first cross-genre collaboration with “Walk This Way,” their twist on a popular Aerosmith song. They’re also the group that can be credited with popularizing the Adidas shell toe sneaker outside of sporting applications. And did we mention how solid this album is? Seriously, pick it up.
Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66
Herb Alpert Presents
If you think that Bossa Nova is just a preset on one of Casio’s keyboards, you’re doing the entire genre a horrible disservice. Get reacquainted with it courtesy of one of the greats: Sergio Mendes. You’ll likely find that you already know at least a couple of his songs, but if you don’t: you’re welcome for the introduction.
There are bands that have far-reaching popularity amongst the masses. And then there’s the bands that those bands look up to. Spoon is one of the latter group. Sure, they might not be a household name the world-round, but their incredible catalogue of music is about as good as they come. And Gimme Fiction sits squarely at the top.
Songs In The Key Of Life
It might seem hard to believe, but Songs In The Key of Life is Stevie Wonder’s 18th studio album and 20th album overall. And, as such, it acts as proof not just of the man’s ability to play music, but his overall ability to stay relevant and fresh. Stevie Wonder is a virtuoso – and this album proves it.
Built For Speed
Their first U.S. release, Stray Cats managed to do something very interesting in their time: revive and revolutionize a dying form of music. These rockabilly bandits brandished the perfect mix of retro style with virtuosic playing that would’ve made Chuck Berry himself blush.
One of the leading groups of the “British Invasion,” The Who have a vast and impressive catalog of albums and songs. The collection on Who’s Next, however, is probably their best. With the distinct howling of Roger Daltrey over the music of Pete Townsend, John Entwistle, and rabid drumming of Keith Moon – The Who are certainly one of the most energetic of all classic Brit rock bands.
Enter The Wu-Tang Clan
The larger group (and several individual members) known as the Wu-Tang Clan actually derived their name(s) from old-school martial arts movies. And, while that’s super cool on its own, the more important fact is that they are easily one of the most far-reaching and important hip-hop groups of all time. Interesting side note: RZA, one of the Clan’s members, did the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.