Phonograph Birthday Sale (Promotion Expired)

Pet Sounds

The Beach Boys
The best Beach Boys album, and one of the best of the 1960s. The group here reached a whole new level in terms of both composition and production, layering tracks upon tracks of vocals and instruments to create a richly symphonic sound. Conventional keyboards and guitars were combined with exotic touches of orchestrated strings, bicycle bells, buzzing organs, harpsichords, flutes, theremin, Hawaiian-sounding string instruments, Coca-Cola cans, barking dogs, and more. It wouldn't have been a classic without great songs, and this has some of the group's most stunning melodies, as well as lyrical themes which evoke both the intensity of newly born love affairs and the disappointment of failed romance (add in some general statements about loss of innocence and modern-day confusion as well). The spiritual quality of the material is enhanced by some of the most gorgeous upper-register male vocals (especially by Brian and Carl Wilson) ever heard on a rock record. "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "God Only Knows," "Caroline No," and "Sloop John B" (the last of which wasn't originally intended to go on the album) are the well-known hits, but equally worthy are such cuts as "You Still Believe in Me," "Don't Talk," "I Know There's an Answer," and "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." It's often said that this is more of a Brian Wilson album than a Beach Boys recording (session musicians played most of the parts), but it should be noted that the harmonies are pure Beach Boys (and some of their best). Massively influential upon its release (although it was a relatively low seller compared to their previous LPs), it immediately vaunted the band into the top level of rock innovators among the intelligentsia, especially in Britain, where it was a much bigger hit.

Richie Unterberger, Rovi

Let It Bleed

The Rolling Stones
Mostly recorded without Brian Jones -- who died several months before its release (although he does play on two tracks) and was replaced by Mick Taylor (who also plays on just two songs) -- Let It Bleed extends the rock and blues feel of Beggars Banquet into slightly harder-rocking, more demonically sexual territory. The Rolling Stones were never as consistent on album as their main rivals, the Beatles, and Let It Bleed suffers from some rather perfunctory tracks, like "Monkey Man" and a countrified remake of the classic "Honky Tonk Woman" (here titled "Country Honk"). Yet some of the songs are among their very best, especially "Gimme Shelter," with its shimmering guitar lines and apocalyptic lyrics; the harmonica-driven "Midnight Rambler"; the druggy party ambience of the title track; and the stunning "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which was the Stones' "Hey Jude" of sorts, with its epic structure, horns, philosophical lyrics, and swelling choral vocals. "You Got the Silver" (Keith Richards' first lead vocal) and Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain," by contrast, were as close to the roots of acoustic down-home blues as the Stones ever got.

Richie Unterberger, Rovi

The Dark Side Of The Moon

Pink Floyd
By condensing the sonic explorations of Meddle to actual songs and adding a lush, immaculate production to their trippiest instrumental sections, Pink Floyd inadvertently designed their commercial breakthrough with Dark Side of the Moon. The primary revelation of Dark Side of the Moon is what a little focus does for the band. Roger Waters wrote a series of songs about mundane, everyday details which aren't that impressive by themselves, but when given the sonic backdrop of Floyd's slow, atmospheric soundscapes and carefully placed sound effects, they achieve an emotional resonance. But what gives the album true power is the subtly textured music, which evolves from ponderous, neo-psychedelic art rock to jazz fusion and blues-rock before turning back to psychedelia. It's dense with detail, but leisurely paced, creating its own dark, haunting world. Pink Floyd may have better albums than Dark Side of the Moon, but no other record defines them quite as well as this one. The album was celebrating a total of 1,350 weeks on The Billboard 200 and Top Pop Catalog charts in Billboard magazine when Capitol Records released the 30th anniversary edition in 2003. The SACD version, as had previous digital remasterings, added space and definition to the elements of music, dialogue, and sound effects that made up the album, while the 5.1 remix expanded those improvements across multiple speakers. Original designer Storm Thorgerson contributed a new, subtly different album cover and a 20-page CD booklet that was a scrapbook of photographs and artwork associated with the album over the years.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Quadrophenia

The Who
The first great rock opera, Quadrophenia ostensibly tells the story of schizophrenic teen Jimmy as he navigates the youth-culture wars between Mods and Rockers in early-'60s England, but Pete Townshend uses the protagonist's troubled mental state as a chance to examine the complex psychological makeup of The Who itself. The music is as sprawling and ambitious as the plot, yet it's also tough and, quite often, visceral. This version, the 2011 “Director's Cut,” contains three additional discs, mostly of demos. Because Quadrophenia is so rich and dense, these added recordings help shed light on the the album’s genesis and evolution.

Toys In The Attic

Aerosmith
After nearly getting off the ground with Get Your Wings, Aerosmith finally perfected their mix of Stonesy raunch and Zeppelin-esque riffing with their third album, Toys in the Attic. The success of the album derives from a combination of an increased sense of songwriting skills and purpose. Not only does Joe Perry turn out indelible riffs like "Walk This Way," "Toys in the Attic," and "Sweet Emotion," but Steven Tyler has fully embraced sleaziness as his artistic muse. Taking his cue from the old dirty blues "Big Ten Inch Record," Tyler writes with a gleeful impishness about sex throughout Toys in the Attic, whether it's the teenage heavy petting of "Walk This Way," the promiscuous "Sweet Emotion," or the double-entendres of "Uncle Salty" and "Adam's Apple." The rest of Aerosmith, led by Perry's dirty, exaggerated riffing, provide an appropriately greasy backing. Before Toys in the Attic, no other hard rock band sounded like this. Sure, Aerosmith cribbed heavily from the records of the Rolling Stones, New York Dolls, and Led Zeppelin, but they didn't have any of the menace of their influences, nor any of their mystique. Aerosmith was a gritty, street-wise hard rock band who played their blues as blooze and were in it for a good time; Toys in the Attic crystallizes that attitude.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Legend (Remastered)

Bob Marley & The Wailers

Greatest Hits

Al Green

Here, My Dear

Marvin Gaye
Pre-dating the voyeuristic tendencies of reality television by 20 years, Here, My Dear is the sound of divorce on record -- exposed in all of its tender-nerve glory for the world to consume. During the amazing success of I Want You and his stellar Live at the London Palladium album, Marvin Gaye was served with divorce papers from his then-wife Anna Gordy Gaye (sister of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy). One of the conditions of the settlement was that Gordy Gaye would receive an extensive percentage of royalties as well as a portion of the advance for his next album. Initially, Gaye was contemplating giving less than his best effort, as he wouldn't stand to receive any money, but then reconsidered at the last moment. The result is a two-disc-long confessional on the deterioration of their marriage; starting from the opening notes of the title track, Gaye viciously cuts with every lyric deeper into an explanation of why the relationship died the way it did. Gaye uses the album, right down to its packaging, to exorcise his personal demons with subtle visual digs and less-than-subtle lyrical attacks. The inner sleeve had a pseudo-board-game-like illustration entitled "Judgment," in which a man's hand passes a record to a woman's. One side of the sleeve has Gaye's music and recording equipment, while the other side of the board included jewelry and other luxurious amenities. Musically the album retains the high standards Gaye set in the early '70s, but you can hear the agonizing strain of recent events in his voice, to the point where even several vocal overdubs can't save his delivery. Stripped to its bare essence, Here, My Dear is no less than brilliantly unsettling and a perfect cauterization to a decade filled with personal turmoil.

Rob Theakston, Rovi

Innervisions

Stevie Wonder
When Stevie Wonder applied his tremendous songwriting talents to the unsettled social morass that was the early '70s, he produced one of his greatest, most important works, a rich panoply of songs addressing drugs, spirituality, political ethics, the unnecessary perils of urban life, and what looked to be the failure of the '60s dream -- all set within a collection of charts as funky and catchy as any he'd written before. Two of the highlights, "Living for the City" and "Too High," make an especially deep impression thanks to Stevie's narrative talents; on the first, an eight-minute mini-epic, he brings a hard-scrabble Mississippi black youth to the city and illustrates, via a brilliant dramatic interlude, what lies in wait for innocents. (He also uses his variety of voice impersonations to stunning effect.) "Too High" is just as stunning, a cautionary tale about drugs driven by a dizzying chorus of scat vocals and a springing bassline. "Higher Ground," a funky follow-up to the previous album's big hit ("Superstition"), and "Jesus Children of America" both introduced Wonder's interest in Eastern religion. It's a tribute to his genius that he could broach topics like reincarnation and transcendental meditation in a pop context with minimal interference to the rest of the album. Wonder also made no secret of the fact that "He's Misstra Know-It-All" was directed at Tricky Dick, aka Richard Milhouse Nixon, then making headlines (and destroying America's faith in the highest office) with the biggest political scandal of the century. Putting all these differing themes and topics into perspective was the front cover, a striking piece by Efram Wolff portraying Stevie Wonder as the blind visionary, an artist seeing far better than those around him what was going on in the early '70s, and using his astonishing musical gifts to make this commentary one of the most effective and entertaining ever heard.

John Bush, Rovi

ABC

Jackson 5
Not even six months after the Jackson 5 -- Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon, Michael, and Tito -- issued their debut long-player, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 (1969), the vocal quintet returned with ABC (1970), arguably the brothers' most solid effort of the early '70s. The Jacksons' collective (and respective) talents, coupled with exemplary material and the finest behind the scenes crew Motown had to offer, were directly responsible for the enormous success that placed the LP at the crest of the R&B chart and into the Top Five of the pop survey, while the title track and the double-sided hit single "The Love You Save" b/w "I Found That Girl" all went directly to the number one position across the board. Not too shabby for a group whose oldest member was barely in his teens. Granted, the familiar tunes are undeniably the focal point, making it easy to overlook some of the other stellar selections. As was customary, Motown's cache of house composers provide the lion's share of the songs, most notably the Holland-Dozier-Holland-penned "(Come 'Round Here) I'm the One You Need" -- brought to prominence by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles -- and Stevie Wonder's "Never Had a Dream Come True," which Wonder himself had recently included on his own Signed, Sealed & Delivered (1970). There are also a few contemporary nuggets from beyond the boundaries of Detroit, as "La-La (Means I Love You)" is derived from the up-and-coming Philly soul movement and "I'll Bet You" was gleaned from George Clinton's incipient incarnation of Funkadelic. However, the cuts credited to "the Corporation" -- with Bobby Taylor and instrumentalists Deke Richards (guitar), Freddie Perren (keyboard), and Fonce Mizell (keyboards), as well as Motown founder Berry Gordy -- were of primary significance not only on the ABC album, but within the entire Jackson 5 oeuvre.

Lindsay Planer, Rovi

Pearl

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin's second masterpiece (after Cheap Thrills), Pearl was designed as a showcase for her powerhouse vocals, stripping down the arrangements that had often previously cluttered her music or threatened to drown her out. Thanks also to a more consistent set of songs, the results are magnificent -- given room to breathe, Joplin's trademark rasp conveys an aching, desperate passion on funked-up, bluesy rockers, ballads both dramatic and tender, and her signature song, the posthumous number one hit "Me and Bobby McGee." The unfinished "Buried Alive in the Blues" features no Joplin vocals -- she was scheduled to record them on the day after she was found dead. Its incompleteness mirrors Joplin's career; Pearl's power leaves the listener to wonder what else Joplin could have accomplished, but few artists could ask for a better final statement. [The 1999 CD reissue adds four previously unreleased live July 1970 recordings: "Tell Mama," "Little Girl Blue," "Try," and "Cry Baby."]

Steve Huey, Rovi

Green River

Creedence Clearwater Revival
If anything, CCR's third album Green River represents the full flower of their classic sound initially essayed on its predecessor, Bayou Country. One of the differences between the two albums is that Green River is tighter, with none of the five-minute-plus jams that filled out both their debut and Bayou Country, but the true key to its success is a peak in John Fogerty's creativity. Although CCR had at least one cover on each album, they relied on Fogerty to crank out new material every month. He was writing so frequently that the craft became second-nature and he laid his emotions and fears bare, perhaps unintentionally. Perhaps that's why Green River has fear, anger, dread, and weariness creeping on the edges of gleeful music. This was a band that played rock & roll so joyously that they masked the, well, "sinister" undercurrents in Fogerty's songs. "Bad Moon Rising" has the famous line "Hope you've got your things together/Hope you're quite prepared to die," but that was only the most obvious indication of Fogerty's gloom. Consider all the other dark touches: the "Sinister purpose knocking at your door"; the chaos of "Commotion"; the threat of death in "Tombstone Shadow"; you only return to the idyllic "Green River" once you get lost and realize the "world is smolderin'." Even the ballads have a strong melancholy undercurrent, highlighted by "Lodi," where Fogerty imagines himself stuck playing in dead-end towns for the rest of his life. Not the typical thoughts of a newly famous rock & roller, but certainly an indication of Fogerty's inner tumult. For all its darkness, Green River is ultimately welcoming music, since the band rocks hard and bright and the melancholy feels comforting, not alienating.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Band On The Run

Paul McCartney & Wings

Graceland - 25th Anniversary Edition

Paul Simon
Paul Simon's dazzling mix of American roots music, South African pop and highly personal songcraft instantly became one of the key albums of the 1980s and is now internationally considered among the greatest of all time. The zydeco rush of "Boy in the Bubble" and the autobiographical title track both offer musical comfort to confusing, sometimes deadly, modern landscapes, while the transcendent "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" brings magical realism to gritty urban streets.

-- Nick Dedina, Google Play

All Things Must Pass

George Harrison
All Things Must Pass has long been one of the more vexing classic albums to make it to CD. It appeared previously in two distinctly different (yet confusingly similar) packagings in the late '80s, one from England and one from America, both of which were straight reissues of the original triple LP. Neither was a wholly satisfactory release, owing to the same problems that existed on Layla by Derek & the Dominos -- both albums (which have related histories) were recorded using lots of tracks (and no noise reduction technology) to achieve a very big sound, which was impressive on vinyl but had a lot of noise when processed digitally for CD. This expanded and remastered edition, released in January of 2001, solved most of those problems as well as offering five additional tracks. The remastering, done sometime in 2000, has imparted greater resolution to the music without losing the wall-of-sound effect that most of the album was intended to display. In the process, it's possible to discern the various guitars at work far better than on the original LP set, and to better appreciate the virtuosity of the playing involved as well as the sheer size of the ensemble Harrison assembled. Additionally, and almost more important in terms of enjoying the album as a whole, the new edition captures the warmth and nuances of Harrison's singing on songs like "Let It Down," "Run of the Mill," and "Isn't It a Pity (Version Two)." This improvement isn't reflected everywhere -- on "The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp," for example, his voice is still buried fairly deep in the mix and not as up front as it is elsewhere, but that's how it was mastered originally, and even Harrison admits, in the notes introducing the accompanying booklet, that he had to resist the urge to remix the album. Of the five bonus tracks, one is an entirely new song from the original sessions, and three more are outtakes of existing songs in versions that have appeared on various bootlegs, while "My Sweet Lord (2000)" is a stripped-down reconsideration of the song. It doesn't add anything in particular, except to show that Harrison can still play up a storm. The so-called "Apple Jam" tracks that comprised disc three of the original LP have also been remastered, to their considerable advantage -- the nuances of the playing on those sessions, which essentially marked the birth of Derek & the Dominos, are brought out in crisp detail and they are worth hearing, now more than ever, and that goes double for the hard-rocking, Chuck Berry-esque jam "Thanks for the Pepperoni." The new edition comes in a box with each CD in a separate slipcase and a booklet containing photos from the original sessions, full lyrics, recording credits, and an essay by Harrison.

Bruce Eder, Rovi

Music From Big Pink

The Band
Although the five musicians who came together in the late '50s and early '60s to back up Canadian rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins probably had played thousands of shows and had made numerous recordings, none of these public appearances gave much of a clue about how they would sound when they released their first album as the Band in July 1968. If people at that time had heard the 1967 sessions later dubbed The Basement Tapes that the musicians had made with Bob Dylan, they would have been better prepared. As it was, Music from Big Pink came as a surprise. At first blush, the group seemed to affect the sound of a loose jam session, the arrangements giving alternating emphases to different instruments, while the lead and harmony vocals passed back and forth as if the singers were making up their blend on the spot. In retrospect, especially as the lyrics sank in, the arrangements seemed far more considered and crafted to support a group of songs that took family, faith, and rural life as their subjects and proceeded to imbue their values with uncertainty. "Tears of Rage," the leadoff track, was a lament by parents about a rebellious child; "The Weight" considered various acts of kindness that went wrong; and "I Shall Be Released," the closing track, expressed the hopeless hope of a prisoner who determined his salvation by viewing the world in reverse ("I see my light coming shining from the west unto the east," he sang, as if the earth were spinning in the opposite direction from its usual course). Other songs took on the theme of declining institutions less clearly, but the points were made musically as much as lyrically.

Tenor Richard Manuel's haunting, lonely voice gave the album much of its frightening aspect, even when he wasn't singing lead (especially his moans in "The Weight"), while Rick Danko's and Levon Helm's rough-hewn styles reinforced the songs' rustic fervor. The dominant instrument was Garth Hudson's organ, which could be icy and majestic, his other keyboards introducing novel sounds, while Robbie Robertson's unusual guitar work further destabilized the sound. The result was an album that reflected the cultural and political turmoil of the late '60s in a way that emphasized the tragedy inherent in the conflicts. Nevertheless, Music from Big Pink came off as a shockingly divergent musical statement only a year after Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, when rock had moved toward ornate productions. Bob Dylan, the Band's mentor, had begun a move back to a simpler, if more ambiguous style with John Wesley Harding six months earlier, and Music from Big Pink initially attracted attention because of the three songs ("Tears of Rage," "This Wheel's on Fire," and "I Shall Be Released") he had either written or co-written. Soon, however, as "The Weight" became a minor singles chart entry, the album and the group made their own impact, influencing a movement more toward roots styles and country elements in rock. Over time, Music from Big Pink came to be regarded as a watershed work in the history of rock, one that introduced new tones and approaches to the constantly evolving genre.

[The CD reissue released on August 29, 2000, was remastered for a clearer sound that produced a more detailed sound picture, making those rambling arrangements easier to appreciate. The reissue featured extensive liner notes by Band expert Rob Bowman and included nine bonus tracks, expanding the running time from 42 to 74 minutes. Among the new material, there were alternate takes of "Tears of Rage" and "Lonesome Suzie" (the former only marginally different, the latter a completely different approach to the song); versions of four songs previously released on the 1975 album The Basement Tapes ("Yazoo Street Scandal," "Katie's Been Gone," "Long Distance Operator," and "Orange Juice Blues [Blues for Breakfast]"); covers of country and blues material ("If I Lose," "Key to the Highway"); and one original song probably from the group's initial demo session ("Ferdinand the Imposter"). None of these recordings sounded like they should have been included on the original album, but they provided interesting addenda, especially for aficionados who might need a reason to invest in yet another reissue of this classic album.]

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Aqualung

Jethro Tull
Released at a time when a lot of bands were embracing pop-Christianity (à la Jesus Christ Superstar), Aqualung was a bold statement for a rock group, a pro-God antichurch tract that probably got lots of teenagers wrestling with these ideas for the first time in their lives. This was the album that made Jethro Tull a fixture on FM radio, with riff-heavy songs like "My God," "Hymn 43," "Locomotive Breath," "Cross-Eyed Mary," "Wind Up," and the title track. And from there, they became a major arena act, and a fixture at the top of the record charts for most of the 1970s. Mixing hard rock and folk melodies with Ian Anderson's dour musings on faith and religion (mostly how organized religion had restricted man's relationship with God), the record was extremely profound for a number seven chart hit, one of the most cerebral albums ever to reach millions of rock listeners. Indeed, from this point on, Anderson and company were compelled to stretch the lyrical envelope right to the breaking point. [In the digital age, Aqualung has gone through numerous editions, mostly owing to problems finding an original master tape when the CD boom began. When the album was issued by Chrysalis through Columbia Records in the mid-'80s, the source tape was an LP production master, and the first release was criticized for thin, tinny sound; Columbia remastered it sometime around 1987 or 1988, in a version with better sound. Chrysalis later switched distribution to Capitol-EMI, and they released a decent sounding CD, as well as a 25th anniversary edition in 1996. Fifteen years later, the 40th anniversary was marked with varying editions, most of them including a previously unreleased stereo mix of the album plus additional recordings from 1970-71.]

Every Picture Tells A Story

Rod Stewart
Without greatly altering his approach, Rod Stewart perfected his blend of hard rock, folk, and blues on his masterpiece, Every Picture Tells a Story. Marginally a harder-rocking album than Gasoline Alley -- the Faces blister on the Temptations cover "(I Know I'm) Losing You," and the acoustic title track goes into hyper-drive with Mick Waller's primitive drumming -- the great triumph of Every Picture Tells a Story lies in its content. Every song on the album, whether it's a cover or original, is a gem, combining to form a romantic, earthy portrait of a young man joyously celebrating his young life. Of course, "Maggie May" -- the ornate, ringing ode about a seduction from an older woman -- is the centerpiece, but each song, whether it's the devilishly witty title track or the unbearably poignant "Mandolin Wind," has the same appeal. And the covers, including definitive readings of Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is Such a Long Time" and Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe," as well as a rollicking "That's All Right," are equally terrific, bringing new dimension to the songs. It's a beautiful album, one that has the timeless qualities of the best folk, yet one that rocks harder than most pop music -- few rock albums are quite this powerful or this rich.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Hot Buttered Soul (Deluxe Remaster)

Isaac Hayes
Released at the tail end of the '60s, Hot Buttered Soul set the precedent for how soul would evolve in the early '70s, simultaneously establishing Isaac Hayes and the Bar-Kays as major forces within black music. Though not quite as definitive as Black Moses or as well-known as Shaft, Hot Buttered Soul remains an undeniably seminal record; it stretched its songs far beyond the traditional three-to-four-minute industry norm, featured long instrumental stretches where the Bar-Kays stole the spotlight, and it introduced a new, iconic persona for soul with Hayes' tough yet sensual image. With the release of this album, Motown suddenly seemed manufactured and James Brown a bit too theatrical. Surprising many, the album features only four songs. The first, "Walk on By," is an epic 12-minute moment of true perfection, its trademark string-laden intro just dripping with syrupy sentiment, and the thumping mid-tempo drum beat and accompanying bassline instilling a complementary sense of nasty funk to the song; if that isn't enough to make it an amazing song, Hayes' almost painful performance brings yet more feeling to the song, with the guitar's heavy vibrato and the female background singers taking the song to even further heights. The following three songs aren't quite as stunning but are still no doubt impressive: "Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic" trades in sappy sentiment for straight-ahead funk, highlighted by a stomping piano halfway through the song; "One Woman" is the least epic moment, clocking in at only five minutes, but stands as a straightforward, well-executed love ballad; and finally, there's the infamous 18-minute "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and its lengthy monologue which slowly eases you toward the climactic, almost-orchestral finale, a beautiful way to end one of soul's timeless, landmark albums, the album that transformed Hayes into a lifelong icon.

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

Greatest Hits 1974-78

The Steve Miller Band
Save for the few hits that cropped up in the first half of the '80s, Steve Miller's prime covers the years 1974-'78. With blockbuster albums like Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams, Miller dominated the FM airwaves in the mid-'70s and became a fixture of that decade's mammoth outdoor festival circuit. While not quite on par with earlier hits like "Jet Airliner," "The Joker," and "Rock 'n Me," early-'80s singles like "Abracadabra," "Keeps Me Wondering Why," and "Heart Like a Wheel" managed to keep the "Space Cowboy" magic going. This 20-track hits collection includes all these sides plus other smashes like "Jungle Love," "Fly Like an Eagle," "Swingtown," and "Wild Mountain Honey." Supplanting the earlier Greatest Hits 1974-'78 release, this expanded and updated hits package qualifies as the essential first-disc choice for newcomers. And save for a few duds like the pop reggae "Give It Up" and 1993's "Wide River" and "Cry, Cry, Cry," the album is solid from start to finish.

A Night At The Opera

Queen
Queen were straining at the boundaries of hard rock and heavy metal on Sheer Heart Attack, but they broke down all the barricades on A Night at the Opera, a self-consciously ridiculous and overblown hard rock masterpiece. Using the multi-layered guitars of its predecessor as a foundation, A Night at the Opera encompasses metal, pop, campy British music hall, and mystical prog rock, eventually bringing it all together on the pseudo-operatic "Bohemian Rhapsody." It's a lot like Queen's own version of Led Zeppelin IV, but where Zep find dark menace in bombast, Queen celebrate their own pomposity. The appeal of A Night at the Opera is in its meticulous productions. It's prog rock with humor as well as dynamics, and Queen never bettered their approach anywhere else.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Frampton Comes Alive!

Peter Frampton
Ostensibly, Peter Frampton's second live album, Frampton Comes Alive II, was intended to serve the same function as his first, the wildly successful Frampton Comes Alive! (1976): to give greater exposure to some underrated material previously released on such solo albums as I'm in You (1977), Premonition (1986), When All the Pieces Fit (1989), and Peter Frampton (1994), just as Frampton Comes Alive! did for songs from Wind of Change (1972), Frampton's Camel (1973), Somethin's Happening (1974), and Frampton (1975). In addition, it allowed Frampton to introduce a batch of new songs. The tracks were recorded between August 1992 and June 16, 1995. The 13 selections, plus an introduction, ran a CD-filling 72 minutes, 24 seconds, when the disc appeared on October 10, 1995. Six weeks later comes this home-video complement to the audio version, a 127-minute concert recorded at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco on June 15, 1995. The show gives a much more complete sense of what a concert by the 45-year-old Frampton is like, containing 12 of the CD songs ("More Ways Than One" is missing), plus old favorites from Frampton Comes Alive! "Lines on My Face," "All I Wanna Be (Is by Your Side)," the acoustic-guitar instrumental "Penny for Your Thoughts," "I Wanna Go to the Sun," and the hits "Show Me the Way," "Baby, I Love Your Way," and "Do You Feel Like We Do." Frampton, scarred by two bouts as a pretty-boy pop idol (as a teenage member of the Herd in Britain in the late '60s and in the wake of Frampton Comes Alive!) seems at pains to display himself in a grittier, more low-key manner here. He appears on-stage before his three-piece backup group (keyboardist/second guitarist Bob Mayo, bassist John Regan, and drummer John "J.R." Robinson) in an open flannel shirt that he doffs after a few numbers to reveal a gray tank-top T-shirt which in turn demonstrates that, unlike most people who like to be photographed in what are also called "muscle" shirts, he isn't given to upper-body exercising. He has also cut off his long, curly locks, and his hair is clearly thinning. As he goes through the concert sweating heavily through the T-shirt, the effect seems deliberately intended to make the viewer forget his photogenic youth. And yet, he remains an engaging performer, mugging and acting out the greeting-card lyrics of romantic devotion and self-assertion in his mostly self-written songs. And those songs remain relentlessly catchy pop/rock tunes, appealing enough, yet never really more than platforms for his guitar playing. (The concert will delight guitar fans not only for that playing, but also for the extensive collection of different guitars Frampton employs.) Maybe that's why it took his good looks, in addition to his music, to make Frampton a star in the first place. Frampton Comes Alive II the video shows, despite the sweat-stained shirt and slight physique, that he's still a good-looking middle-aged man, and still a terrific guitar player. [The DVD version of the video, released January 30, 2007, in conjunction with an expanded two-CD set of the audio album, contained a 5.1 Surround Sound mix of the concert, but no extras.]

Alive!

Kiss
Alive! was the album that catapulted Kiss from cult attraction to mega-superstars. It was their first Top Ten album, remaining on the charts for 110 weeks and eventually going quadruple platinum. Culled from shows in Detroit, New Jersey, Iowa, and Cleveland on the Dressed to Kill tour, the record features producer Eddie Kramer doing a masterful job of capturing the band's live performance on record. The band's youthful energy is contagious, and with positively electric versions of their best early material, it's no mystery why Alive! is widely regarded as one of the greatest live hard rock recordings of all time. "Rock and Roll All Nite" became a Top 20 smash and was the main reason for the album's success, but there are many other tracks that are just as strong -- "Deuce," "Strutter," "Firehouse," "Parasite," "She," "100,000 Years," "Black Diamond," and "Cold Gin" all shine in a live setting. Although there's been some speculation of extensive overdubbing to correct mistakes, Alive! remains Kiss' greatest album ever. An essential addition to any rock collection.

Arrival

ABBA
ABBA's fourth album appeared after the group had arrived as major stars shows the quartet at the absolute top of their game. In addition to "Dancing Queen," which is probably their best-known hit (a number one single on both sides of the Atlantic), the record was filled with brilliant material, including the spirited "When I Kissed the Teacher"; the dramatic, achingly beautiful "Knowing Me, Knowing You" (yet a further hit); the pounding "Money, Money, Money" (still another hit off the album); and the playful "That's Me." Arrival was reissued in October of 2001 in a 24-bit digital transfer, in a handsome gatefold package with two bonus tracks added on. The upgraded sound puts the piano on "Dancing Queen" practically in the room with the listener, and the rhythm guitars by Björn Ulvaeus and Lasse Wellander on "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "When I Kissed the Teacher," and "Dum Dum Diddle" are up very close. The other big beneficiaries are Rutger Gunnarsson's muscular bass playing throughout the album, which never sounded sharper or more effective, and Benny Andersson's keyboards everywhere, which have real presence. Wellander's power chords over the chorus of "Knowing Me, Knowing You" are some of those dramatic musical effects that this group played for maximum effect, which gave their music a raw power that their detractors usually overlooked; in the new edition, it's impossible to ignore. What's more, the sheer impact of the bass drums behind the choruses on "Tiger" will be pretty impressive to any noise freaks. And all of the voices are in very sharp relief; every iota of richness is now on display. So one can now fully appreciate what Frida Lyngstad was hearing when she found the playback of the backing track on "Dancing Queen" beautiful enough to cry over the first time she heard it. The two bonus cuts are both choice additions: the lost B-side, "Happy Hawaii," is a soaring, rocking dance number that got left off the album, and the chronologically related single "Fernando" had been recorded during the making of the LP but not included on it in most of the world. The latter is a profoundly beautiful song that, with its use of flutes and a folk-like melody, is a sort of disco-era follow-up to Simon & Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa." [Universal's 2007 edition includes bonus tracks.]

Bruce Eder, Rovi

Diana

Diana Ross
Coming off four Top Ten hits in three years for their group Chic, producers Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers were "the" hot R&B/disco team of the day when they wrote and produced Diana Ross' second album named simply diana. (The first was her 1971 TV soundtrack, Diana!.) The result was Ross' best-selling album ever, paced by her biggest singles hit yet, "Upside Down," and its Top Ten follow-up, "I'm Coming Out." For the most part, disco productions tended to emphasize the beat over the voice, and it might be argued, but for the billing, Ross had been reduced to guest vocalist on her own album. But it was exactly her struggle to retain an identity beyond the groove that made this music more compelling than Chic's records. diana marked an important comeback for Ross, who had struggled in the late '70s after the early successes of her solo career. She celebrated by leaving Motown for a six-year, six-album sojourn at RCA.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

Parallel Lines

Blondie
Blondie turned to British pop producer Mike Chapman for their third album, on which they abandoned any pretensions to new wave legitimacy (just in time, given the decline of the new wave) and emerged as a pure pop band. But it wasn't just Chapman that made Parallel Lines Blondie's best album; it was the band's own songwriting, including Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, and James Destri's "Picture This," and Harry and Stein's "Heart of Glass," and Harry and new bass player Nigel Harrison's "One Way or Another," plus two contributions from nonbandmember Jack Lee, "Will Anything Happen?" and "Hanging on the Telephone." That was enough to give Blondie a number one on both sides of the Atlantic with "Heart of Glass" and three more U.K. hits, but what impresses is the album's depth and consistency -- album tracks like "Fade Away and Radiate" and "Just Go Away" are as impressive as the songs pulled for singles. The result is state-of-the-art pop/rock circa 1978, with Harry's tough-girl glamour setting the pattern that would be exploited over the next decade by a host of successors led by Madonna.

William Ruhlmann, Rovi

The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground
Upon first release, the Velvet Underground's self-titled third album must have surprised their fans nearly as much as their first two albums shocked the few mainstream music fans who heard them. After testing the limits of how musically and thematically challenging rock could be on Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat, this 1969 release sounded spare, quiet, and contemplative, as if the previous albums documented some manic, speed-fueled party and this was the subdued morning after. (The album's relative calm has often been attributed to the departure of the band's most committed avant-gardist, John Cale, in the fall of 1968; the arrival of new bassist Doug Yule; and the theft of the band's amplifiers shortly before they began recording.) But Lou Reed's lyrical exploration of the demimonde is as keen here as on any album he ever made, while displaying a warmth and compassion he sometimes denied his characters. "Candy Says," "Pale Blue Eyes," and "I'm Set Free" may be more muted in approach than what the band had done in the past, but "What Goes On" and "Beginning to See the Light" made it clear the VU still loved rock & roll, and "The Murder Mystery" (which mixes and matches four separate poetic narratives) is as brave and uncompromising as anything on White Light/White Heat. This album sounds less like the Velvet Underground than any of their studio albums, but it's as personal, honest, and moving as anything Lou Reed ever committed to tape.

War

U2
Opening with the ominous, fiery protest of "Sunday Bloody Sunday," War immediately announces itself as U2's most focused and hardest-rocking album to date. Blowing away the fuzzy, sonic indulgences of October with propulsive, martial rhythms and shards of guitar, War bristles with anger, despair, and above all, passion. Previously, Bono's attempts at messages came across as grandstanding, but his vision becomes remarkably clear on this record, as his anthems ("New Year's Day," "40," "Seconds") are balanced by effective, surprisingly emotional love songs ("Two Hearts Beat as One"), which are just as desperate and pleading as his protests. He performs the difficult task of making the universal sound personal, and the band helps him out by bringing the songs crashing home with muscular, forceful performances that reveal their varied, expressive textures upon repeated listens. U2 always aimed at greatness, but War was the first time they achieved it.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Uh-Huh

John Mellencamp
Since American Fool illustrated that John Cougar was becoming an actual songwriter, it's only proper that he reclaimed his actual last name, Mellencamp, for the follow-up, Uh-Huh. After all, now that he had success, he wanted to be taken seriously, and Uh-Huh reflects that in its portraits of brokenhearted life in the Midwest and its rumbling undercurrent of despair. Although his lyrics still have the tendency to be a little too vague, they are more effective here than ever before, as is his music; he might not have changed his style at all -- it's still a fusion of the Stones and Springsteen -- except that he now knows how to make it his own. Uh-Huh runs out of steam toward the end, but the first half -- with the dynamic rocker "Crumblin' Down," his best protest song, "Pink Houses," the punky "Authority Song," the melancholy "Warmer Place to Sleep," and the garage rocker "Play Guitar" -- makes the record his first terrific album. [Universal's 2005 CD reissue appends a bonus track, an acoustic version of "Pink Houses."]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Synchronicity

The Police
Simultaneously more pop-oriented and experimental than either Ghost in the Machine or Zenyatta Mondatta, Synchronicity made the Police superstars, generating no less than five hit singles. With the exception of "Synchronicity II," which sounds disarmingly like a crappy Billy Idol song, every one of those singles is a classic. "Every Breath You Take" has a seductive, rolling beat masking its maliciousness, "King of Pain" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" are devilishly infectious new wave singles, and "Tea in the Sahara" is hypnotic in its measured, melancholy choruses. But, like so many other Police albums, these songs are surrounded by utterly inconsequential filler. This time, the group relies heavily on jazzy textures for Sting's songs, which only work on the jumping, marimba-driven "Synchronicity I." Then, as if to prove that the Police were still a band, there's one song apiece from Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers, both of which are awful, as if they're trying to sabotage the album. Since they arrive on the first side, which is devoid of singles, they do, making the album sound like two EPs: one filled with first-rate pop, and one an exercise in self-indulgence. While the hits are among Sting's best, they also illustrate that he was ready to leave the Police behind for a solo career, which is exactly what he did.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Life's Rich Pageant

R.E.M.
Fables of the Reconstruction was intentionally murky, and Lifes Rich Pageant was constructed as its polar opposite. Teaming with producer Don Gehman, who previously worked with John Mellencamp, R.E.M. developed their most forceful record to date. Where previous records kept the rhythm section in the background, Pageant emphasizes the beat, and the band turns in its hardest rockers to date, including the anthemic "Begin the Begin" and the punky "Just a Touch." But the cleaner production also benefits the ballads and the mid-tempo janglers, particularly since it helps reveal Michael Stipe's growing political obsessions, especially on the environmental anthems "Fall on Me" and "Cuyahoga." The group hasn't entirely left myths behind -- witness the Civil War ballad "Swan Swan H" -- but the band sound more contemporary both musically and lyrically than they did on either Fables or Murmur, which helps give the record an extra kick. And even with excellent songs like "I Believe," "Flowers of Guatemala," "These Days," and "What if We Give It Away," it's ironic that the most memorable moment comes from the garage rock obscurity "Superman," which is sung with glee by Mike Mills.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Licensed To Ill

Beastie Boys

Paid In Full

Eric B. & Rakim
One of the most influential rap albums of all time, Eric B. & Rakim's Paid in Full only continues to grow in stature as the record that ushered in hip-hop's modern era. The stripped-down production might seem a little bare to modern ears, but Rakim's technique on the mic still sounds utterly contemporary, even state-of-the-art -- and that from a record released in 1987, just one year after Run-D.M.C. hit the mainstream. Rakim basically invents modern lyrical technique over the course of Paid in Full, with his complex internal rhymes, literate imagery, velvet-smooth flow, and unpredictable, off-the-beat rhythms. The key cuts here are some of the most legendary rap singles ever released, starting with the duo's debut sides, "Eric B. Is President" and "My Melody." "I Know You Got Soul" single-handedly kicked off hip-hop's infatuation with James Brown samples, and Eric B. & Rakim topped it with the similarly inclined "I Ain't No Joke," a stunning display of lyrical virtuosity. The title cut, meanwhile, planted the seeds of hip-hop's material obsessions over a monumental beat. There are also three DJ showcases for Eric B., who like Rakim was among the technical leaders in his field. If sampling is the sincerest form of admiration in hip-hop, Paid in Full is positively worshipped. Just to name a few: Rakim's tossed-off "pump up the volume," from "I Know You Got Soul," became the basis for M/A/R/R/S' groundbreaking dance track; Eminem, a devoted Rakim student, lifted lines from "As the Rhyme Goes On" for the chorus of his own "The Way I Am"; and the percussion track of "Paid in Full" has been sampled so many times it's almost impossible to believe it had a point of origin. Paid in Full is essential listening for anyone even remotely interested in the basic musical foundations of hip-hop -- this is the form in its purest essence.

Steve Huey, Rovi

The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick

Slick Rick
Slick Rick's reputation as hip-hop's greatest storyteller hangs on his classic debut, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, one of the most influential rap records of the late '80s -- for better and worse. Most of the production is standard early Def Jam, but Rick's style on the mic is like no one else's. His half-British accent and odd, singsong cadences often overshadow the smoothness of his delivery, but there's no overlooking the cleverness of his lyrics. His carefully constructed narratives are filled with vivid detail and witty asides, and his cartoonish sense of humor influenced countless other rappers. He'll adopt a high voice for his female characters, and even duets with his old alter ego MC Ricky D on "Mona Lisa." But there's also a dark side to The Great Adventures -- namely its vulgarity and off-handed misogyny. No MC had ever dared go as far on record as Rick, and the tracks in question haven't really lost much of their power to offend, or at least raise eyebrows. The notorious "Treat Her Like a Prostitute" is the prime suspect, undermining well-intentioned advice (don't trust too quickly) with cynical, often degrading portrayals of women. "Indian Girl (Adult Story)," meanwhile, is an X-rated yarn with a barely comprehensible payoff. Yet this material is as much a part of Rick's legacy as his more admirable traits, and he was far from the last MC to put seemingly contradictory sides of his personality on the same record. And it's worth noting that most of his Great Adventures, no matter how dubious, end up as cautionary tales with definite consequences. That's especially true on the tragic "Children's Story," in which a teenage robber's increasingly desperate blunders lead to his destruction. In the end, The Great Adventures is simply too good not to deserve the countless samples and homages by everyone from Snoop Dogg to Black Star.

Steve Huey, Rovi

A Love Supreme

John Coltrane
Inevitably, certain jazz titles will be reissued over and over. Miles Davis' seminal Kind of Blue has been reissued many times, and you can safely assume that A Love Supreme will continue to be a decent seller (by jazz standards) as long as it keeps getting reissued. What separates this deluxe 2002 reissue of the John Coltrane classic from all of the previous versions that have come out over the years? For one thing, this version is a two-CD set; the previous versions were either single CDs or single LPs. While disc one offers the digitally remastered (again) contents of the original A Love Supreme, disc two is devoted to previously unreleased material -- all of which is aimed at serious collectors. Part of disc two focuses on a July 26, 1965, appearance at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France, where Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones perform A Love Supreme's four-piece suite in its entirety. The quartet favors an inside/outside approach, and their live performances of "Acknowledgment," "Resolution," "Pursuance," and "Psalm" are more accessible than the atonal free jazz that Coltrane provided in 1966 and 1967. The rest of disc two is devoted to studio material from December 1964, including alternate takes of "Resolution" and "Acknowledgment." Collectors will be thrilled to learn that the two "Acknowledgment" outtakes find tenor saxman Archie Shepp and bassist Art Davis joining Coltrane's quartet; neither Shepp nor Davis are present on any of the previous A Love Supreme reissues. Casual listeners are advised to pass on this double CD and stick to a single-CD version of A Love Supreme -- this two-disc set is strictly for collectors and hardcore fans, and those who fit that description will no doubt find it to be fascinating.

The Complete Birth Of The Cool

Miles Davis
Capitol's The Complete Birth of the Cool is a double-disc set that's separated into two halves. The first contains all 12 tracks Davis cut in the studio in January 1949 with Gil Evans. The second contains three radio broadcasts that the Birth of the Cool nonet performed in September 1948 at the Royal Roost in New York City. All the recordings have been completely remastered, resulting in the best ever sound for these recordings. The set also features brand new liner notes from Phil Schapp, plus the original liners. All the added features help make The Complete Birth of the Cool the definitive chronicle of one of the most important eras in jazz history.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Getz/Gilberto

João Gilberto
One of the biggest-selling jazz albums of all time, not to mention bossa nova's finest moment, Getz/Gilberto trumped Jazz Samba by bringing two of bossa nova's greatest innovators -- guitarist/singer João Gilberto and composer/pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim -- to New York to record with Stan Getz. The results were magic. Ever since Jazz Samba, the jazz marketplace had been flooded with bossa nova albums, and the overexposure was beginning to make the music seem like a fad. Getz/Gilberto made bossa nova a permanent part of the jazz landscape not just with its unassailable beauty, but with one of the biggest smash hit singles in jazz history -- "The Girl from Ipanema," a Jobim classic sung by João's wife, Astrud Gilberto, who had never performed outside of her own home prior to the recording session. Beyond that, most of the Jobim songs recorded here also became standards of the genre -- "Corcovado" (which featured another vocal by Astrud), "So Danço Samba," "O Grande Amor," a new version of "Desafinado." With such uniformly brilliant material, it's no wonder the album was such a success but, even apart from that, the musicians all play with an effortless grace that's arguably the fullest expression of bossa nova's dreamy romanticism ever brought to American listeners. Getz himself has never been more lyrical, and Gilberto and Jobim pull off the harmonic and rhythmic sophistication of the songs with a warm, relaxed charm. This music has nearly universal appeal; it's one of those rare jazz records about which the purist elite and the buying public are in total agreement. Beyond essential. [The CD was also released with bonus tracks.]