The 20 Greatest Double Albums of All Time
Ask any fan or music critic to compile a list of the greatest albums of all time, and it's likely that most (or all) of the list will be records that could fit onto a single disc. But ask them to list albums they're obsessed with, and records that take up two discs will suddenly dominate the conversation (especially if you're asking anyone old enough to remember why some vinyl double albums put sides 1 and 4 on one LP and sides 2 and 3 on the other).
Before we binge-watched TV shows or stayed up all night to play the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto, we binged on double albums. They served as prima facie evidence of a great artist's greatness, proof that their music and message was so expansive that a more conventional format could not contain it. They also proved the depth of our fandom; anyone could memorize the track list for Led Zeppelin IV, but if you knew Physical Graffiti by heart, you had earned your right to wear your Zoso T-shirt.
The below list of double albums is ranked partly by personal preference (because how could it not be?) but also based on conversations with friends and fellow journalists, study of other lists, and some vague, highly subjective accounting of each album's impact and influence on what came after it. Not all double albums are created equal, so I needed to establish some ground rules: no live albums, no compilations, no soundtracks or cast recordings, no triple/quadruple albums. That means no Live at the Fillmore East, no Jesus Christ Superstar, no Beatles 1967-1970 and no 69 Love Songs. Perhaps more controversially, I also decided to omit any albums originally released in separate packages; that means no Use Your Illusion. Sorry, GNR Nation.
The double album's heyday was the 1970s, so not surprisingly, half this list comes from that most pretentious of decades for rock and pop music. What's more surprising is how much of the list comes from the CD era, when that longer format supposedly killed off the double album (it's often said, for example, that great ’90s albums such as Exile in Guyville and (What's the Story) Morning Glory? would have been double albums in an earlier time). Five albums here were released after 1995 — but it's telling, I think, that the most recent album comes from 2005, the same year as the arrival of YouTube and the first 80-gig iPod. Though some bands — notably Arcade Fire and The Red Hot Chili Peppers — have released double albums in the digital era, the format feels increasingly irrelevant in the age of ones and zeroes, when you can shuffle a band's entire catalog with a few clicks or a single voice command. (It's also possible, I suppose, that Stadium Arcadium will stand the test of time and one day be revered as a classic. But I doubt it.)
So let's take a moment to celebrate — and debate, because these lists are always debate starters, not the last word — the greatest achievements in popular music's most ambitious format. The double album is dead. Long live the double album.
20. Aphex Twins, Drukqs (2001)
"Intelligent dance music" pioneer Richard D. James wrapped up a remarkable decade-long run with this double album before mostly disappearing from view until 2014, when he finally resurfaced with Syro, his first Aphex Twin album in 13 years. Drukqs hasn't gotten nearly as much praise over the years as earlier Aphex releases like Selected Ambient Works and Richard D. James AlbumWilson, but it's worth revisiting precisely for how its 30 tracks, unlike those more conceptually holistic albums, cheerfully pull out every trick in James' bag. There's intricate, casually virtuosic drum ’n’ bass ("Meltphace 6"), ominous ambient head trips ("Gwety Mernans"), avant-garde treated piano experiments ("Kladfvgbung Micshk"), brutal breakcore freakouts ("54 Cymru Beats") and everything in between. No wonder most other experimental electronic producers are, to this day, still striving to get within shouting distance of James' genius.
19. Fleetwood Mac, Tusk (1979)
Fleetwood Mac must have known when they entered the studio in 1978 that they faced an impossible task: creating a follow-up to Rumours, as flawless an album as any band had ever produced. Wisely, they decided to sidestep any obvious comparisons by creating a messy double LP on which you could hear the band's three songwriters — Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks — pulling the band in conflicting directions to baffling but occasionally brilliant effect. McVie's contributions still sound like classic Mac, but Nicks was drifting ever further into the ether and Buckingham's vocals and studio experiments were getting nuttier by the day, culminating in the tribal drums of the title track and the new-wave bounce of "The Ledge," which sounds like Dexys Midnight Runners trying to sound like Fleetwood Mac. None of it quite hangs together, but that's half the fun.
18. Wu-Tang Clan, Wu-Tang Forever (1997)
The second studio album from the Staten Island hip-hop ninjas plays out like a great ensemble film, with the group's different voices wandering in and out of RZA and 4th Disciple's bleak, menacing soundscapes and telling their stories with a mix of fury, braggadocio and cold-blooded matter-of-factness. It's the vivid personalities behind each voice that keep the 27-track collection moving as briskly as a single LP: Method Man's swaggering menace, Ghostface's breathless wordplay, Inspectah Deck's staccato intensity, ODB's unhinged rants. It's the collection against which every posse cut has been measured ever since.
17. Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)
Punk rock was never just about two-minute songs with fast tempos and three-chord structures, but it got downright grandiose in July 1984, when two great underground American bands released double LPs within days of each other. Although the other of those albums, Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, is brilliant in its own right, I have to give the edge (and a spot on this list) to Minutemen's Double NickelsDexys Midnight Runners — not just because they're hometown heroes but because their album's mix of punk primitivism, jazzy experimentation and funk urgency has aged better than Hüsker's guitars-to-11 approach. Mike Watt's popping bass is still the main ingredient that set the band apart from their peers, but D. Boon's chattering guitar and sneering vocals never sounded better than on the smash-and-grab punk-funk of "Viet Nam" and "West Germany," and drummer George Hurley made a welcome contribution to the insanity with his jazzbo piss-take, "You Need the Glory." Punk in the ’80s never got weirder, or smarter, than Double Nickels.
16. Kate Bush, Aerial (2005)
Since her relatively prolific run in the ’80s, Kate Bush has released albums so infrequently — an average of about one every nine years — that her fans greet each fresh batch of songs like manna from heaven. They were especially ecstatic upon the arrival of Aerial, a double album that was her first new music since 1993's The Red Shoes. Much was made upon its release of the track "Pi," in which the ever-eccentric Bush literally sings the digits of the world's favorite irrational number. But the album's best moments come on its second disc, a 42-minute song cycle called "An Endless Sky of Honey" that features some of Bush's most stirringly beautiful melodies — which, as fans know, is saying a lot.
15. Chicago, Chicago Transit Authority (1969)
You have to forget everything that Chicago became later — the schlock-rock, power-ballad avatars responsible for some of the most fragrant easy-listening cheese of the late ’70s and early ’80s — to go back and fully appreciate how astonishingly good their double-disc debut was. Here was a band that could turn out stately pop songs ("Beginnings," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?"), horn-fueled jazz-rock excursions ("Introduction") and bluesy psych-rock ("South California Blues") with equal aplomb. And they featured a guitarist, Terry Kath — whose death in 1978 hastened the band's decline into soft-rock schmaltz — visionary enough to lay down a nearly seven-minute exercise in distortion and feedback ("Free Form Guitar") heavier than Hendrix's deconstruction of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Even the presence of Peter Cetera — later of "Glory of Love" infamy, here mainly just an excellent, expressive bassist and high-harmony vocal specialist — can't detract from an album that, if any other band's name were on the cover, would be universally recognized as a classic.
14. 2Pac, All Eyez on Me (1996)
The last album Tupac Shakur released in his lifetime was a fitting swan song, two full discs' worth of defiant, charismatic rhymes delivered over sticky, throbbing G-funk that was both an invitation to party and a warning to get out of the way. It was the first double album of original material any rapper had ever released, and every MC who's attempted the same since has been judged against it. Considering that it clocks in at over two hours, it's a remarkably consistent collection, and its highlights — the title track, "California Love," "How Do U Want," the George Clinton/Dr. Dre collab "Can't C Me" — stand as some of the best West Coast hip-hop tracks of all time.
13. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde (1966)
After Dylan shocked fans by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he stunned them again with this double-LP collection, one of the longest albums ever released by a popular musician up until that time. Opening track "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," with its drunken New Orleans brass band accompaniment and lyrics that appeared to be about getting high ("Everybody must get stoned"), immediately announced that nothing was off-limits here — and indeed, over Blonde on Blonde's 18 tracks, Dylan proceeded to explore everything from flower-child folk-rock ("Visions of Johanna") to shambling blues ("Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat") to jangly pop ("I Want You"), all stuffed with lyrics so vivid they were almost hallucinatory. Taken altogether, it was a virtuoso display of songwriting unlike anything popular music had ever before seen — and paved the way for similarly ambitious artists, from The Beatles to The Beach Boys, to follow in its wake.
12. Miles Davis, Bitches Brew (1970)
Very few albums can be said to have inspired entire new genres — but most of what we now call "jazz fusion" can be traced back to this landmark double album by legendary trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis. Davis wasn't the first artist to combine the rhythms and electric instruments of rock & roll with the improvisational structures of jazz, but the way in which he did it was revolutionary — so revolutionary that, upon its release, most critics had no idea what to make of Bitches Brew. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called it "unfocused"; Steely Dan's Donald Fagen called it a "big trash-out." Even today, after nearly 50 years of jazz fusion, the album's long, meandering numbers and densely layered instrumentation — with two bassists and at least three percussionists playing on every track — can be an acquired taste. But Davis and his musicians crammed so many ideas into Brew's 94-minute running time that today's jazz and rock artists are still trying to unpack them all.
11. Todd Rundgren, Something/Anything? (1972)
Singer-songwriter Rundgren famously cranked out the 25 songs on his third solo album so quickly, wired on Ritalin, that he swore off writing conventional pop songs for most of the rest of his career. He also produced the whole album and played every instrument on its first three sides — then brought in a whole mess of session players for the loose, studio-chatter-filled tracks on side four, a brilliant change-up that highlighted the jewel-box perfection of tracks like "I Saw the Light" and "One More Day (No Word)" that were recorded in isolation. The album's most famous song, "Hello It's Me," is just the tip of the iceberg here — nearly every track is just as heartfelt and hook-filled, especially sweet ballads like "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference" and what might be the most perfect power-pop song ever recorded, "Couldn't I Just Tell You."
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