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Top 100 Greatest American Albums of All Time

Updated: Jan 19


Top 100 Greatest American Albums of All Time

Pictured - Marvin Gaye (1973)

The concept of an "album" appeared in the United States in the1920's, a few years after recorded operas and symphonies had begun being passed around amongst European elite. By the 1940's the process was is full swing with jazz and blues records making headway in American Popular music. As history will tell us though, by the '50s and the explosion of rock and roll engulfed the US and it didn't take long for albums to become advanced, complete, collections of music, made to played all the way through and form some sort of unified compilation of tracks. With much of the best albums of the second half of the 20th century coming from the UK, we have elected to celebrate the finest American albums in recorded history. Here at Melophobe, we generally focus primarily on rock but today we're doing it all. We have selected what we believe to be the 100 finest American albums of all time alongside 25 honorable mentions including jazz, blues, rap, rock, soul , country and everything in between. Most of our selected albums are studio albums, however there are a few live albums and compilation albums. Our criteria for this list is pretty simply, American bands, with American artists. A few exceptions have been made for bands formed in the US, with one member or two born outside of the states, assuming they moved here young. This omits bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Band and The Pretenders to name a few. For a look at just rock albums or artists, be sure to check out The Top 100 Greatest Rock Albums of All Time or The Top 100 Greatest Rock Artists of All Time.

1. Are You Experienced - The Jimi Hendrix Experience

The unequivocal greatest American album of all time goes to the greatest guitarist the world has ever known, Jimi Hendrix with his debut album Are You Experienced. This will be the first of four albums in the top ten also considered to be the greatest rock albums of all time by our metrics. Not only did this album completely change how the guitar would forever be played, but it changed songwriting for the rock musicians to follow. On this album, Hendrix used unusual chords and amplifier effects in a way that had never been done before to craft some of the most iconic songs of the entire decade. Jimi Hendrix saw songwriting in a way that nobody else did, mixing psychedelia with heavy, distorted and sometimes atonal guitar playing, fit often within a standard three-minute pop format. Alongside Jimmy, his gifted drummer Mitch Mitchell put forth some of the best drum performances of the decade on songs like Fire. To this day, nothing quite sounds like Jimi and his legacy has lived on in a way that few American rockstars have since been able to achieve.


2. Blonde on Blonde - Bob Dylan

Blonde on Blonde is the second entry on our list, finding itself in the top ten greatest rock albums of all time. Bob Dylan has built an impressive legacy as a unique figure in folk and rock music. The folk-turned-rock hero Bob Dylan has released a handful of records considered to be among the best of all time, with fans generally being split between Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited as Dylan’s masterpiece. Backed by an esteemed group of musicians including Al Kooper, Charlie McCoy, alongside Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson from The Band, Dylan crafted a near-perfect collection of rock-forward folk on his astounding 1966 release. Even though the tracks from this record generally don’t fall within Dylan’s top five most popular songs, each song on the double album has since become a folk rock classic. Dylan’s early country rock sensibilities played a role in paving the way for the early ‘70s American country rock explosion while also being one of the first double albums the world was exposed to. Once again, and certainly not for the last time, Bob Dylan pushed the boundaries of what recorded music could be.


3. Nevermind - Nirvana

Fast-forwarding a couple of decades in American music, Nirvana took the world by storm, taking center stage in the early '90s American grunge explosion. Although Nevermind can't be called the first grunge album, it can certainly be called the most profound grunge album. Released in 1991 shortly after Pearl Jam’s debut Ten, Nevermind kicked off the golden age of grunge. Tracks from the record like Smells Like Teen Spirit, Lithium, and Come as You Are dominated American rock music in the early '90s, with Smells Like Teen Spirit turning into an anthem for outcast American youth before becoming the retrospective best rock song of the '90s. Nirvana took the sludgy sounds of Pixies and Sonic Youth and built upon the blossoming sounds of pre-grunge bands like Green River, or the early Alice in Chains demos. One thing's for sure, though, once Nirvana’s second release Nevermind hit the shelves, the gloves were off, and grunge took over American alternative rock. Frontman and guitarist Kurt Cobain's dark and ominous lyrics, paired with his sludgy guitar sound and massive dynamic contrast, turned out to be exactly what youthful American audiences were looking for in the '90s, with Nirvana dominating the scene before Cobain’s 1994 death essentially ended it.

4. What's Going On - Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye’s eleventh studio album What's Going On has gone down in history as the premier soul album the world has ever known. Apart from being the finest and most emotional soul album the world has ever been graced with, the record is also a masterful blend of R&B, blues, gospel, and soft rock, coming together in one of the most thought-provoking and introspective albums of the 20th century. Described as a concept album, it dives into social and political issues from the Vietnam War to drug abuse, to poverty. The album-titled single has since become a classic, appreciated across racial and economic boundaries through the soulful voice of a true American legend, Marvin Gaye. Released in 1971, towards the end of the golden age of Motown, or at least the end of the Detroit wing of Motown, What's Going On sent the Detroit sound out on a high note, making its presence known cross-culturally, although not finding much success outside of the US. What's Going On has received a near unanimous amount of praise from American critics and listeners to a degree that few other Motown releases ever did.


5. Thriller - Michael Jackson

The universally renowned "King of Pop" released his masterpiece Thriller in 1982, topping charts worldwide before becoming the quintessential pop album of the ‘80s. Thriller housed some of the decade's most iconic ‘80s tracks like P.Y.T., Billie Jean, Beat It, and of course, the one that perhaps tops them all, Thriller. The album-titled track came with one of the most ambitious and equally impressive music videos of the MTV era. Michael Jackson assembled one of the most impressive teams of studio musicians ever seen in American music, featuring Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Lukather, Jeff Porcaro, alongside two of his sisters, La Toya and Janet. The record was released to immediate critical acclaim and even more dramatic praise in the time since, establishing itself as the cornerstone record of American pop music. Michael Jackson compiled something really special on Thriller, and there is no doubt that his legacy, although it would still be incredibly impressive, would be dramatically different without Thriller.


6. Pet Sounds - Beach Boys

Of the ten American records that cracked the top ten, perhaps none changed the concept of a pop album more so than The Beach Boys' 1966 studio album Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds became one of the first albums known as “progressive pop,” greatly challenging the norms of traditional pop songs while incorporating avant-garde elements alongside psychedelia, jazz, and classical influences, all of course wrapped together in a Beach Boys' chamber pop bow. Created during intense periods of infighting within the group, with Brian Wilson taking the lead in the recording process. Although the other band members did not have much of a distaste for what they were recording, reports state that Wilson’s level of talent was simply eons ahead of the rest of the group as they claimed the record was too artsy, and too out there. Brian Wilson avoided the genre safety already attributed to the successful Beach Boys, pushing the record into uncharted territory within pop with its strange chord structures, massive orchestral studio personnel, and unique post-production techniques. Retrospectively, Pet Sounds transformed The Beach Boys from a catchy pop band into an incredibly advanced musical outfit that harnessed far more talent than listeners may have realized. The record has since been compared to an American prequel to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

7. Live at the Apollo - James Brown & The Famous Flames

James Brown’s first live album, Live at the Apollo, released in 1963 and backed by The Famous Flames, cemented James Brown as a larger-than-life R&B figure, an emblem he never wore out. Although the record is on the shorter side for a live album, what James packed into the 31 minutes and 31 seconds of music is as powerful and passionate as could be. The record went on to be an incredibly well-selling record, with record stores, particularly in the south, struggling to simply keep it in stock. Being the centerpiece of the 1963 live album was track six, Lost Somebody. Sitting a little above ten minutes long, the song is a soulful journey told by a passionate, young James Brown. Featuring Brown as the centerpiece of the track, the band stays on the softer side behind Brown as he sings with all his heart. James Brown simply sings with a level of emotion that hardly anyone ever has been able to replicate since, and he does it the best on this record.


8. Kind of Blue - Miles Davis

Kind of Blue, released by Miles Davis in 1959, sits as the finest jazz album in American history. Its importance lies not only in its innovative approach to improvisation and modal jazz but also in how it encapsulated the essence of an era, exhibiting a still high-caliber American jazz scene, incredibly popular in spite of the birth of rock n’ roll. Davis was backed by an elite group of musicians for his 1959 release, including John Coltrane, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Bill Evans, and Jimmy Cobb, an ensemble made up of many of the finest American jazz musicians of all time. The album's fluidity and emphasis on mood over complex chord progressions marked a significant departure from the bebop style prevalent at the time. As a result, Kind of Blue appealed to a broad audience, extending beyond jazz aficionados to touch listeners across the musical landscape. Its influence can be heard in the works of countless artists and in the development of various music styles, making it not just a landmark jazz record but a pivotal piece of American music history. The five-song album was made up of some of the more popular jazz standards to come. The record continues to be deeply impactful in jazz circles today while adding a modern and emotional flair to jazz.

9. Stankonia - Outkast

For longtime fans of hip-hop, and Outkast in particular, it may be hard to fully understand the impact Stankonia had on people who may not consider themselves fans of the genre. Songs like So Fresh, So Clean and Ms. Jackson captivated countless listeners outside of hip-hop spheres with Outkast’s progressive style of hip-hop. These songs appealed to wider arrays of pop, R&B, and even rock listeners (albeit to a lesser extent), with the group's extensive sample use of infectious keyboard lines and the guitar playing of André 3000. The upbeat nature of B.O.B - Bombs Over Baghdad turned the song into a catchy club anthem, with Big Boi and André 3000’s complex lyrics sit perfectly over the beat. Ms. Jackson has gone on to become one of the most iconic tracks of the 2000s, expressing the vocal ability of the duo, aside from just rapping. Outkast’s advanced use of backing beats brought southern hip-hop to a national stage, even more so than their previous stellar records, turning these tracks into earworms well outside the hip-hop realm. Following the success of ATLiens and Aquemini, Outkast had a lot to lose if Stankonia flopped, but instead, it turned out to be their finest work, challenging societal and political motives of those in power in their raps while at the same time laying down some of the fattest beats of the era.


Closing out our top ten is the second studio album by Pixies, Doolittle. Doolittle can be held largely responsible for kicking off the grunge explosion of the ‘90s while also changing the path of indie rock’s American evolution. Pixies' trademark sonic effects of loud choruses and soft verses (heard in Tame) alongside the band's more traditional, jangle-pop guitar sound over cryptic, often dark lyrics (heard in Hey) hit on a deep, previously unknown desire in American rock music. Guitarist Joey Santiago stole the show on the record, exhibiting his jangle-pop knack while also playing with distortion, reverb, and sludgy amplifier effects throughout the LP. Doolittle was the Dante’s Inferno of American rock music, taking listeners on some sort of hellish journey while still being deeply pleasing and uniquely hypnotic. There is a good reason Pixies have garnered such a loyal cult following over the years and have been cited by countless musicians as being incredibly impactful, and man, those first two albums, Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, make one hell of a case. In terms of accolades and praise, Doolittle has them all: being one of the best albums of the ‘80s, one of the best rock records of all time, one of the best indie records of all time, one of the most influential records of all time, and of course, one of the best American records of all time. Although the record can often get overshadowed by albums which garnered more mainstream appeal, its greatness is never to be forgotten.

11. The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground & Nico

12. Ready to Die - The Notorious B.I.G.

13. Highway 61 Revisited - Bob Dylan

14. Horses - Patti Smith

15. The Stranger - Billy Joel

16. Graceland - Paul Simon

17. Illmatic - Nas

18. Elvis Presley - Elvis Presley

19. In the Wee Small Hours - Frank Sinatra

20. A Love Supreme - John Coltrane

21. Master of Puppets - Metallica

23. Purple Rain - Prince

24. Surfer Rosa - Pixies

25. Songs in the Key of Life - Stevie Wonder

26. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back - Public Enemy

27. Daydream Nation - Sonic Youth

28. Slanted and Enchanted - Pavement

30. The Anthology (1947-1972) - Muddy Waters

31. Lady Soul - Aretha Franklin

32. Crazy Rhythms - The Feelies

33. Electric Ladyland - The Jimi Hendrix Experience

34. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) - Wu-Tang Clan

35. Loaded - The Velvet Underground

37. John Prine - John Prine

38. Off the Wall - Michael Jackson

39. Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul - Otis Redding

40. Born to Run - Bruce Springsteen

42. King of the Delta Blues Singers - Robert Johnson

43. I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You - Aretha Franklin

44. Tapestry - Carole King

45. Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon & Garfunkel

46. Here's Little Richard - Little Richard

47. At Folsom Prison - Johnny Cash

48. Ten - Pearl Jam

49. The Low End Theory - A Tribe Called Quest

50. Automatic for the People - R.E.M.

51. 1999 - Prince

52. Hotel California - Eagles

53. Superunknown - Soundgarden

54. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - Kanye West

55. American Beauty - Grateful Dead

56. Let It Be - The Replacements

57. The Chronic - Dr. Dre

58. At Fillmore East - The Allman Brothers Band

59. Double Nickels on the Dime - Minutemen

60. Grace - Jeff Buckley

61. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain - Pavement

62. Murmur - R.E.M.

63. To Pimp a Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar

64. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music - Ray Charles

65. Bad - Michael Jackson

66. Aja - Steely Dan

67. L.A. Woman - The Doors

68. Straight Outta Compton - N.W.A.

69. Blood on the Tracks - Bob Dylan

70. Red Headed Stranger - Willie Nelson

72. In Utero - Nirvana

74. The Doors - The Doors

75. There's a Riot Goin' On - Sly and the Family Stone

76. Ramones - Ramones

77. Bitches Brew - Miles Davis

78. Appetite for Destruction - Guns N' Roses

79. Marquee Moon - Television

80. Parallel Lines - Blondie

81. The Downward Spiral - Nine Inch Nails

83. Channel Orange - Frank Ocean

84. Elephant - The White Stripes

85. Blood Sugar Sex Magik - Red Hot Chili Peppers

86. Van Halen - Van Halen

87. Let's Get it On - Marvin Gaye

88. (Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd) - Lynyrd Skynyrd

89. ATLiens - Outkast

90. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan

91. Illinois - Sufjan Stevens

92. Fear of a Black Planet - Public Enemy

93. I'm Still in Love With You - Al Green

94. Excitable Boy - Warren Zevon

95. Sign 'O' the Times - Prince

96. Giant Steps - John Coltrane

97. Cheap Thrills - Janis Joplin

98. Green River - Creedence Clearwater Revival

99. 20 Golden Greats - Buddy Holly & The Crickets

100. The Notorious Byrd Brothers - The Byrds

 

Just Outside the Top 100

101. Paul's Boutique - Beastie Boys

102. Raising Hell - Run DMC

103. If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears - The Mamas and the Papas

104. Idlewild South - The Allman Brothers Band

105. Rain Dogs - Tom Waits

106. Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine

107. The Gilded Palace of Sin - The Flying Burrito Brothers

108. Fun House - The Stooges

109. Innervisions - Stevie Wonder

110. The Marshall Mathers LP - Eminem

111. Eat a Peach - The Allman Brothers Band

112. The Good Earth - The Feelies

113. Chuck Berry Is on Top - Chuck Berry

115. Whitney Houston - Whitney Houston

116. Live at the Regal - B.B. King

117. Surrealistic Pillow - Jefferson Airplane

118. Reasonable Doubt - Jay-Z

119. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco

120. New York Dolls - New York Dolls

121. From Elvis in Memphis - Elvis Presley

122. Superfly - Curtis Mayfield

123. The College Dropout - Kanye West

124. Boston - Boston

125. Nothing's Shocking - Jane's Addiction



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