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.]