Over the years I’ve grown exceedingly skeptical and often dismissive of almost any article, book, or list that promotes something the reader “must do.”
You don’t have to do anything. However, if you’re interested in the development of rock music as an artistic, historical and/or social movement, there are more than 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, as declared by the popular coffee table reference book edited by Robert Dimery. In fact, if you really want to know your stuff, there are 10,000 albums you need to be familiar with before you can join the conversation.
Originally published in 2005, 1001 Albums was revised in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013 to include newly released albums. The 2010 edition, on which this essay is based, features 1,047 albums. In the meantime, several “clone” versions of the list have popped up online, most notably this one found on Listology.com, the only website that I’m aware of that openly “enables your OCD, one post at a time [sic].”
Although most of the book’s recommendations are rock and pop albums from the Western world, Dimery’s 1001 AYMHBYD features selections from world music, jazz, R&B, blues, folk, hip hop, country, and electronic music. The rock and pop albums include such subgenres as punk rock, hardcore, heavy metal, alternative rock, progressive rock, easy listening, thrash metal, grunge and 1950s-style rock and roll, i.e., rockabilly. Classical and modern art music is excluded.
At least half of the records listed in the book are absolutely essential listening for anyone who enjoys music; but taken as a whole, the selections represent what contemporary critics consider outstanding records from the abovementioned genres at pivotal times in their emergence and popularity. In some cases, the record You Must Hear Before You Die may not be the artist’s best album, hence, the one you really should, as opposed to must hear.
For example, 1001 AYMHBYD includes Adam and the Ants – Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980; #457) ostensibly for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a killer record, no matter what you think of the fruity pirate costumes and racially insensitive face paint. Every song is a champion. Second, it represents a very important moment in the evolution of punk and new wave as those genres morphed into what we now call post-punk and alternative. Thus, Kings deserves to be on this list because of its impact on rock music at a certain point in time. 1001 AYMHBYD got this one right, sort of.
The problem? Kings is NOT Adam and the Ants’ best record.
That honor would belong to their first record, Dirk Wears White Socks (1979), which came before Malcolm MacLaren and the silly suits. Moreover, I would argue that their third album, Prince Charming was as good as anything else that came out in 1981, and for my money, is a fascinating listening experience worthy of inclusion on the list. But I didn’t make the list or edit the book. If I did, I guarantee things would be different.
The fact of the matter is—according to my 40-plus years of listening experience—you do not need to listen to at least a third of the records on this list for any reason. Seriously, all my blustering solipsism* aside, your life will still be complete if you haven’t heard Metallica’s And Justice for All (1988). And nobody needs to hear a single note of Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain (2001). Now we’re at 1,045 and counting…
*sol·ip·sism n. (sŏl′ĭp-sĭz′əm, sō′lĭp-)
(Philosophy) The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified.
The view that the self is the only reality.
One day I printed out the 1001 list and took an honest survey – crossing off the records I had heard, and circling the ones I’d never even heard of. My “listened-to” rate hovered just around 60% (633 out of 1,047), which I’m guessing would be on the high end of the layman’s scale. Bob and Ron of Bob and Ron’s Record Club would probably fall somewhere in the 85-90% range, I reckon.
Anyway, in order for a record to be crossed of the list, I had to have made a conscious (or otherwise) effort to listen to the complete album; thus, partial listens were discounted. For instance, I have heard music from the following 1001 artists, but never sat through an entire album’s worth of jams:
Kanye West, Tortoise, The KLF, Dagmar Krause, The La’s, Adverts, The Julie Ruin, Doves, Bees, Liars, Boards of Canada, Libertines, The Icarus Line, Calexico, Stereo MCs, Coldcut, The Triffids, Hanoi Rocks, Go Betweens, Young Gods, The Sabres of Paradise, Rocket from the Crypt, Barry Adamson, The Divine Comedy, Middle Class Heroes, Leftfield, Goldie, Super Furry Animals, and Fatboy Slim
After sampling work by all of the above 32 artists, I can safely say that I did not need to hear any of it—especially Kanye West, Doves, and Leftfield—except for the purpose and context of writing this piece. And I was really on the fence about Hanoi Rocks, but honestly, the reason they never made it big is because they didn’t really have any memorable jams. Sorry.
Here’s the rub: Hanoi Rocks is arguably an important stepping stone between 70s glam rock (Sweet, New York Dolls) and 80s hair metal (Poison, Guns n’ Roses). Plus, they’re from Finland. And the drummer (Razzle) was killed in the 1984 Vince Neil drunk driving incident. However, all of this simply does not add up to sitting through Back to Mystery City (1983) from start to finish. If you had to sit through an entire album, their Best Of collection would be more than enough of a challenge.
So we’re down to 1,013 albums we must hear before we croak and I feel a bit lighter already. How about you? Let us proceed.
Frankly, a thousand is still a lot of records. At today’s prices, that’s a minimum $10,000 investment. That’s also a lot of time. And so, this where someone like me comes in handy. I’m here to help.
Now, the point isn’t to randomly assassinate a bunch of albums. The idea is to cover as much ground as possible while taking in the major sights. At the same time, I want to gently suggest a substitution whenever possible, as demonstrated by the Human League Dilemma.
The Human League Dilemma
As I went through the list, I came across a bunch of records that I’d heard more than just the “big hit.” For example, Human League – Dare (1982; AYMHBYD #492, and one of a handful of synthpop records to make a significant impact on the Billboard charts prior to the Eurythmics).
Dare’s appeal and success can be boiled down to its enduring MTV-era smash hit, “Don’t You Want Me (Baby)”, which I begrudgingly admit, is kind of a cool song. With the exception of a minor hit in “Love Action (I Believe in Love)”, the rest of Dare was vaguely familiar to me, i.e., I never owned the record, but I knew people who did.
OK, so I’m sitting there thinking, “Yup, this book says I must hear Human League’s third studio album on A&M Records…in its entirety.”
YouTube, do your thing! Not even 30 seconds into the first cut, “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of”, I’ve realized that I’ve made a terrible mistake. And I still haven’t heard Dare in its entirety, and I hope I never do.
Look, you should be familiar with synthpop as a genre, which theoretically could start and end with Gary Numan – Pleasure Principle (1979; #435). Or Tubeway Army’s first record, or maybe even the first three Ultravox records, which weren’t always very synthy or poppy, but still really good.
Go ahead and enjoy “Don’t You Want Me (Baby)” whenever the house DJ gives it a spin. Shake your ass like a fool. That’s fine. Just don’t waste your time slogging through Dare or a thousand other horrible synthpop records, c.g. by artists such as ABC, Spandau Ballet, Orchestra Maneuvers in the Dark, and Soft Cell, etc. Life is far too short.
Of course, there are even more albums on the list that I would wipe out on principle alone, rather than artistic merit or what-have-you. Records in hindsight that didn’t really do me any good. I probably didn’t need to hear Culture Club – Colour By Numbers or Duran Duran – Rio (1983), and I honestly don’t believe anybody else had to hear ‘em, either. However, these albums serve as a point of reference, a beacon of warning: Do not go any further in that particular direction or risk Kajagoogoo. Kajagoogoo, very bad. You don’t want Kajagoogoo; it’s terminal.
All right, phew. Now we’re down to a mere 1,012.
Meanwhile, there were approximately 100 albums and/or artists that I was entirely unfamiliar with, as in, I had never even heard or seen their names, such as Baaba Maal, Miriam Makeba, Koffi Olomide, Nitin Sawhney, Fever Ray, Wild Beasts, Mylo, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Machito. You should probably go ahead and give them a spin, out of curiosity if nothing else, but we’ll get to them eventually.
To demonstrate how the rest of this multi-part essay will unfold, let’s take a random year from 1001 AYMHBYD, 1974, one of my favorite years in music, and run it through the BSM-5000 bullshit detector.
Strikethrough indicates what you probably think it does
Green indicates highly recommended listening
Underlined indicates questionable but ultimately acceptable record
Red indicates generally hazardous material
Plain black text (no formatting) indicates an acceptable listen
Bold blue italic indicates MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE
Note: All suggested alternatives are from the same year as the contested entry.
Albums You Must Hear From 1974…Or Not
10cc – Sheet Music (1974)
10cc is terribly under-rated and sadly pigeonholed by the soft-rock stylings of their biggest hit “I’m Not in Love”, which is not on Sheet Music, a delightfully adventurous work of pop genius, and one of the records that makes 1974 such a unique year in music.
Bad Company – Bad Company (1974)
Bad Company had a couple of solid jams. They were a good-to-very good band that stayed within the narrow confines of underachieving hard rock. Some people say Paul Rodgers is one of the all-time great rock vocalists. But an entire album of Bad Company? Nope. You shouldn’t even sit through a Greatest Hits collection. Having made several long-distance road trips with exactly three cassettes in the car and a tape deck that didn’t have auto-reverse, I can think of a bunch of circumstances where Bad Company might be one of the only albums you have on hand, and thus, you’d almost be forced to listen to it all the way through. Otherwise, just tune into the local classic rock radio station and wait for “Can’t Get Enough” to come on, and keep stuffing that Carl’s Jr. double cheeseburger into your face.
Rush – Rush
The first LP from one of the greatest power trios of all-time. You know I never change the station when “Working Man” comes on the radio.
Sweet – Desolation Boulevard
Thinking in terms of economy, I initially told myself that I wouldn’t comment on suggested alternatives, but I can’t abide. Desolation Boulevard is a fantastic and delightful slice of hard-ass rock and power pop layer cake, which I would recommend on the basis of the drums alone – both in terms of performance and production. Now, you have to be careful on this one: there are two separate releases (U.K. and U.S. – the latter didn’t hit the shelves until 1975), and four different reissue packages, the latest coming in 2005. That’s the one you want, since it contains bonus tracks including one of the greatest songs nobody ever heard for some unknown reason, “Teenage Rampage”. Seriously, every time I listen to it, I think, “How was this not bigger than ‘Ballroom Blitz’?”
Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks (1974)
Spoiler Alert: There are four Bob Dylan albums on the list preceding Blood on the Tracks, so you’ve already heard the best this of what this cat has to offer. To my ears, BOTT is one tedious, 51-minute song. Enjoy the first two or three choruses of “Tangled Up in Blue” and get this fucker off the turntable.
Brian Eno – Here Come the Warm Jets (1974)
I’m not one of those cats who think Brian Eno is King Midas. He has produced both U2 and Coldplay. Obviously, he has flaws and questionable judgment. But Eno’s first three solo records are albums you must hear before you die if there’s ever been such a thing. Run, don’t walk to iTunes and download Here Come the Warm Jets, now.
Wait a minute, you know what else was released in 1974 but didn’t make the list? Eno’s second solo LP, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), regarded by some critics and enthusiasts as the superior effort.
Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue (1974)
The only reason this record might be heard in its entirety is to make sure you didn’t miss out on any type of musical genius. You didn’t. Though it has garnered a certain cult appreciation among Beach Boy fans and neo-hipster vinyl nerds, Pacific Ocean Blue has few highlights, despite contributions from James Jamerson on bass, Hal Blaine on drums, and Robert Lamm (Chicago) on backing vocals. You can take a turd to the beach, but you can’t make it surf.
Eric Clapton – 461 Ocean Blvd (1974)
Did you know that Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “I Shot the Sheriff” is his only #1 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100? Nearly a decade later, “Tears in Heaven” went to #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart, but stalled at #2 on the Hot 100. Anyway, “Sheriff” and “Motherless Children” are the only two jams on 461 worth repeated spins. Clapton never should have quit heroin, not that he was anything special as junkie.
Gene Clark – No Other (1974)
Meanwhile, Gene Clark was probably the best songwriter in the Byrds (“I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Eight Miles High”), but his solo stuff is tiresome, especially this cardboard pastiche of country, gospel, and half-hearted boogie. Therefore, I’ve listened to No Other so you don’t have to. According to Pitchfork, in 2013 the album was performed live, note-for-note by a “supergroup” featuring: Beach House, plus members of Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, and the Walkmen. Enough said.
Genesis – Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974)
The main reason we don’t have time for the likes of Clapton and Clark is that we’re going to be lost in this double-disc concept album for the next six months. Sides 1 and 2 are nearly flawless demonstrations of progressive art rock prowess. It gets murky on Sides 3 and 4. Overall, Lamb is one of the more intriguing concept albums ever made. However, if you weren’t a Genesis fan before hearing Lamb, it probably won’t change your mind.
George Jones – The Grand Tour (1974)
Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson – Winter In America (1974)
Come on, seriously? Who has time for George Jones or Gil-Scott Heron in 1974? Honky-tonk bartenders and finger-snapping poets in red berets, that’s who.
Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters (1974)
Herbie Hancock is a phenomenal musician, but the only Herbie anybody needs in their life is the 1969 soundtrack for the Bill Cosby animated children’s television show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. And “Rockit” wouldn’t come out for another decade or so. Hancock’s Head Hunters marks the spot where jazz-funk fusion bands started recognizing themselves in the mirror, and didn’t like what they saw.
Joni Mitchell – Court And Spark (1974)
Is this THE Joni Mitchell album you need to hear? Probably. Is this the Joni Mitchell album I want to hear before I die? No, that would probably be Ladies of the Canyon (1970), which I’m pretty sure I shit-canned anyway – I dunno, I’d have to check 1969-71.
Kraftwerk – Autobahn (1974)
You should know about Krautrock because Electronic Dance Music (EDM) doesn’t exist without it. In my opinion, Can is the only Krautrock you need to hear, but this is important in the development of electronic music in general. It’s pretty boring shit though. Not much happens, but you might enjoy that monotonous droning shit, I dunno.
Neil Young – On the Beach (1974)
I’ve half a mind to talk shit about Neil Young right now, but at the rate we’re losing iconic musicians, I’m gonna keep it light and bouncy. This is not Neil’s best work by a long, long, long fucking shot from beyond half court.
Queen – Queen II (1974)
Queen – Sheer Heart Attack (1974)
Here’s something mildly interesting about 1974; a bunch of major artists released two studio albums during the calendar year: Brian Eno, Queen, King Crimson, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Sweet, Miles Davis, and Harry Nilsson all doubled-up, and several others (Elton John, David Bowie, etc.) released one studio album and one live and/or best of collection.
Randy Newman – Good Old Boys (1974)
You could essentially pick any Randy Newman album and give it a spin. This cat has one gear: Randy. Everything he does, from “Rednecks” to “Short People” to “I Love L.A.” is Randy. I don’t need that much Randy in my life.
Richard & Linda Thompson – I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1974)
Critics adore Richard & Linda Thompson records. I think their music sucks, hard. The only reason I want you to listen to Bright Lights Tonight is so you can see just how fucking obtuse music critics can be. They love this album. Let’s see if you can figure out why. I sure can’t.
Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom (1974)
Wyatt’s Rock Bottom has a fairly interesting back-story. While in preparation for recording the album, an inebriated Wyatt fell from a third-floor bathroom window and was paralyzed from the waist down, a condition persisting to this day. Nevertheless, within six months, Wyatt was back in the recording studio, making Rock Bottom one of the first known rock records to have been primarily recorded by an artist in a wheelchair.
Roxy Music – Country Life (1974)
Sparks – Kimono My House (1974)
Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic (1974)
Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974)
Supertramp – Crime of the Century (1974)
These are all standard slam-dunks, with Kimono My House being the ultra-sleeper of the lot. Plus, get Crime of the Century under your belt and you’re done with Supertramp.
Tangerine Dream – Phaedra (1974)
Tangerine Dream is the musical equivalent of watching ice cubes melt in a glass of cold water.
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black
King Crimson – Red
Van Morrison – It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)
Albums are like vocabulary words. Once you’ve learned ‘em by heart, you can use ‘em in ways to express yourself in myriad situations. Right, so: Aging sucks, man. Whenever I find myself in a spot where Older Me is struggling with something Younger Me could do on two hours of sleep and three hits of acid, for instance, running 5K at a leisurely pace, I think to myself, “Jesus, I’ve got less in the tank than Van Morrison in ‘74.”
It’s Too Late to Stop Now is frequently named one of the “best live albums ever recorded,” and I’m here to tell you that’s complete nonsense. If, in fact, Morrison was at the so-called height of his powers as a live performer, I’d have hated to seen him on an “off” night. In reality, what you’re hearing is the sound of a guy who was done.
And so we’re done. Rock on, 1974, thanks for playing the game. We’ve managed to pare nine albums from our total, added one Must Hear, and suggested four alternatives. But there’s something missing. There is at least one album that absolutely must be on this list. No, it’s not Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe – a great record for sure, but not essential. What could it be?
Big Star – Radio City (1974)
Conceived by the U.S. Administration during the Cold War, the domino theory speculated that if one state in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow in a domino effect. Wikipedia couldn’t make it any simpler for us.
The domino theory is frequently applied to music when people argue about who’s the best so-n-so. At some point in the conversation, somebody will kick over the first domino. “You know, if there was no Little Richard, there would be no Beatles.” Etcetera.
One thing is for certain. There are fewer than a dozen bands like the Velvet Underground who “spawned more bands than they sold records,” and Big Star is at least partially responsible for any band that falls within a mile-radius of power pop. Cheap Trick, R.E.M., Wilco, The Replacements and Afghan Whigs collectively owe a massive debt of gratitude to Big Star. Radio City, like their other two records, is chock full of moments where I say to myself, “Oh, so that’s where _________ got that riff. He swiped it from Alex Chilton.”
In full disclosure, I had no idea this 1001 thing would turn out to be such a time-consuming pain in the ass. But in my little world, a starting a project like this is akin to jumping off a cliff, or in this case, a really high cliff, in the sense that I will have plenty of time to think about the decision before impact, and more importantly, I can’t change my mind halfway down, and say, “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” Unfinished projects haunt my daydreams.