What is classic rock? It is one of the most nebulous terms in the music business. When exactly does the classification of classic rock begin, and where does it end? How do you compare different eras of disparate talents with other rockers who may have been the first to unleash their sound? Is a band with an innovative sound better than an act that sold millions of records? There is always room for debate.
With that in mind, here's our list of great classic rock albums. It includes a diverse roster of bands, celebrating various time periods, sounds and volumes of hairspray, spanning from Van Halen to Fleetwood Mac. The common denominator between these top hits of dad rock and arena anthems is timelessness.
These are rock albums that will sound as good in another 20 or 30 years as they do today.
Ranking classic rock albums is difficult, but as Faith No More postulate in their song “We Care a Lot,” “It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it.”
Below, we humbly submit our solid list of 20 classic rock records everyone should have in their catalog.
Did we miss anyone? Let us know what records you think should be added to the canon of classic rock.
20. Budgie, Bandolier (1975)
For many, Metallica's 1980s covers of Budgie’s “Breadfan” and “Crash Course in Brain Surgery” were your gateway to this heavy Welsh outfit. Metallica did not cover any songs from this record, but Bandolier is the best record and the final ripper of Budgie’s peak MCA years. Album opener “Breaking All the House Rules” is a hard-driving rocker that manages to rock nonstop for all of its seven minutes without any lull. The band also integrated sleazy 1970s funk swagger into their blueprint on “I Can’t See My Feelings” and kept their streak of unusually titled songs with the proggy closer “Napoleon Bona – Part 1 / Napoleon Bona – Part 2.” — Jason Roche
19. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1977)
You can practically hear the cocaine, chardonnay and revenge sex on this album. You can also hear some of the finest post-Beatles pop-rock in existence. Witchy woman Stevie Nicks enshrouds listeners in her shawl on crystal-necklace themes “Dreams” and “Gold Dust Woman.” Nicks and former flame Lindsey Buckingham turn their throwing-plates-against-the-wall drama into FM gold on “The Chain.” Drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie stroke their metaphorical mustaches and stoke love-triangle grooves. In the middle of it all, keyboardist Christine McVie keeps her ice-blue-iris cool, cooing ethereal on “Songbird” and lusty-playful on “You Make Loving Fun.” —Matt Wake
18. Frank Zappa, Joe's Garage (1979)
Joe’s Garage isn’t timeless, but every few years it becomes relevant again, unfortunately. In the 1980s it was the Parents Music Resource Center crusade. In the current year, it’s social justice warriors. Oh, right: It’s also great, musically, beyond its message of slaying conformity, censorship and the tropes of rock & roll life. Taking influence from the various eras of rock, the album also offers a wide array of sounds served up with a sense of humor. “Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt” might be the funniest rock song ever. And it's actually good musically, too. Then there's “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” What more needs to be said? A timeless classic. —Nicholas Pell
17. Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
This is the most ambitious and diverse album of the esteemed career of Elton John and collaborator Bernie Taupin. The best rock songs of their partnership are on this record, exemplified by bruisers like “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” Conversely, Elton and Taupin also produced their best ballads here, exemplified by the title track and “Candle in the Wind.” On the production side, this album is a technical marvel as well. Hit single “Bennie and the Jets” is often mistaken for a live song thanks to its collage of live audience samples and reverb effects. Album opener “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” is an 11-minute masterpiece of Elton’s masterful piano playing blended with a phalanx of overdubbed synthesizers. —Jason Roche
16. Allman Brothers Band, At Fillmore East (1971)
Is progressive blues a musical genre? If so, the Allman Brothers invented it on the group’s landmark concert double-LP At Fillmore East. Slide-guitar sorcerer Duane Allman has long been singled out as the Allman Bros.’ musical genius. But jazzy swing bassist Berry Oakley and drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson on songs like “One Way Out” gave Duane’s and Dickey Betts’ hummingbird-helix guitars wings. Gregg Allman was just 23 when these songs were recorded over three 1971 nights yet his supple, soulful vocals sound like a man who’d already experienced a lifetime of joy and pain. —Matt Wake
15. Aerosmith, Rocks (1976)
The ratty guitar work on Rocks is undeniable. You can easily hear Aerosmith numbers like “Back in the Saddle” and “Last Child” as having inspired Guns N’ Roses’ sound 10 years later. Joe Perry and Brad Whitford put on an ax-slinging master class here. Not just on the hits, either. Check out Zep-tastic deep cut “Get the Lead Out.” Steven Tyler’s vocals balance rhythm and range, whether on the metallic “Nobody’s Fault” or underrated power ballad “Home Tonight.” —Matt Wake
14. Slade, Whatever Happened to Slade? (1977)
Never heard this one? Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan both have mentioned this album as one of their favorites. The record bombed at the time. Despite being perhaps the biggest British influence on the rising punk movement, Slade and their giant, glittering boots were decidedly out. The cover features the four members posed in front of portraits of themselves from their skinhead days. “Gypsy Roadhog” and “One Eyed Jacks With Mustaches” are undeniable rock ragers. “Dogs of Vengenace” is what is missing from classic rock radio. This isn’t just the template for grunge, it’s everything good about hair metal 10 years early. —Nicholas Pell
13. Supertramp, Breakfast in America (1979)
The 1970s were a great time for rock, if for no other reason than the marriage between prog and pop. I like the guitar heroics of Yes and the flute theatrics of Gentle Giant as much as the next guy, but I like how Supertramp tamed the beast a lot more. Nearly every track on this album is a pop classic, but also interesting, innovative and complex at the same time. The guys are musicians’ musicians but still manage to produce songs like “Take the Long Way Home” (written and sung by Roger Hodgson) that will get stuck in your head for the next six months. —Nicholas Pell
12. Derek & the Dominos, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (1970)
This album features the most compelling performance — vocally and compositionally — of Eric Clapton’s career. Yes, that includes Cream. Clapton dug deep and produced bona-fide soul with his vocals and songwriting on ballads such as “Bell Bottom Blues.” Title track “Layla” showcased what pinch-hitting guitarist Duane Allman brought to the table, with one of the most enduring sets of riffs from this era, and showcased Allman as a star that shined brightly even away from the Allman Brothers Band. An unsung hero on this record, though, is keyboardist and co-songwriter Bobby Whitlock, his presence lurking in the background on every song and his own vocals adding hefty depth, most notably on the blues-rocker “Keep on Growing.” —Jason Roche
11. Van Halen, Van Halen (1978)
As the ’70s were ending, the popularity of the rock genre was being assaulted by the up-and-coming genres of punk, new wave and disco. In order to transition into a new decade, rock had to evolve. These Pasadena backyard rockers shook up the rock scene with a debut album that brought a much-needed attitude adjustment, musically and aesthetically. Van Halen would hit the ground running with opener “Runnin' With the Devil” and presage the eventual shape of rock in the ’80s, with David Lee Roth’s bombastic shrieks and what would become the band’s trademark harmonic choruses in full force. Then when that song ends, rock guitar is changed forever by the introduction of Eddie Van Halen’s shred on “Eruption.” —Jason Roche
10. Bob Seger, Night Moves (1976)
Night Moves is one of those records you can put on anytime and it just makes sense. If you’re feeling good, great, bad, worse, nostalgic, wistful or any other emotion, Night Moves has something for you. It’s an engaging synthesis of Dylan’s post-folk rock & roll, the R&B roots from whence rock came and Bob Seger’s personal experience as a gigging musician for the better part of the previous decade. Throw on some Detroit blue-collar bleakness and you’ve got the idea. —Nicholas Pell
9. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Damn the Torpedoes (1979)
Tom Petty has said he thinks they did more than 100 takes of “Refugee” in the studio to get the right performance. Which makes it even more impressive that the Damn the Torpedoes version sounds so natural. Like the band just walked in, plugged in and that was it. Whereas some great LPs must be heard in totality to truly impress, Torpedoes sounds like it could be a greatest-hits collection. “Don’t Do Me Like That.” “Even the Losers.” “Here Comes My Girl.” Radio rulers stocked with Florida-drawl vocals, Southern California jangle and “insert yourself here” lyrics. — Matt Wake
8. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Even with heads full of psychedelia, the Fab Four remained tuneful and tight. It all starts with the title track’s adventurous arrangement and Paul McCartney belting out his vocals as if he’s still back in the Cavern Club. Even the blissed-out “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” with John Lennon’s helium-head vocals and those LSD keyboards, is hooky as hell. Hardcore Beatles fans relish the day-glow pop of “Lovely Rita” and “Getting Better.” And the stunning “A Day in the Life” brings Sgt. Pepper's to its unforgettable, symphonic whirl finale. —Matt Wake
7. Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell (1977)
We cannot argue against any criticisms one might have of this record. Everything about the entirety of Bat Out of Hell is overly pretentious, overwrought, overly operatic, overly bombastic and overly self-serious. Theoretically, this album is anti-rock & roll. But somehow every minute of this is fantastic and no single element _ whether it was Jim Steinman’s compositions or Meat Loaf’s vocal presence — never worked as well in any other context. The album-opening title track starts with a fast-paced barrage of rapid-fire piano and squealing guitars before Mr. Loaf storms in with one of the greatest rock vocal performances of this time period, juggling between angry shouts and wistful quiet croons, all of it full of heart-wrenching emotion. That emotion stays high throughout the remainder of the record. —Jason Roche
6. AC/DC, Back in Black (1980)
Bon Scott was AC/DC’s coolest, most charismatic singer, but the band made their best album after he died. From the mournful, Black Sabbath–like bell opening “Hells Bells” to swaggering closer “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” Back in Black is an airtight, hard-rock missile. With Brian Johnson’s demonic yelp replacing Scott’s lurid drawl, the band’s sound veered closer toward metal. Brothers Angus and Malcolm Young laid down a career’s worth of riff-worms and producer Mutt Lange gave the LP just enough shine without compromising toughness. Musical trends come and go. But dudes will swill beer and strippers will strip to “You Shook Me All Night Long” as long as recorded sound exists. —Matt Wake
5. Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick (1977)
Don’t get me wrong, I love Big Black’s Songs About Fucking, but who needs it when you’ve got Cheap Trick? I can’t imagine Steve Albini would disagree. “Hot Love,” “ELO Kiddies” and “He’s a Whore” are the rough, rocking edges of the album. “Oh, Candy” and “Taxman, Mr. Thief” are gorgeous slices of Beatlesque pop. “Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School” and “Mandocello” are genuinely interesting and original without trying too hard or being weird for the sake of weird. —Nicholas Pell
4. Boston, Boston (1976)
Regular readers of my column Unpopular Opinion know that I believe this is one of the few truly perfect rock records. There’s not a bad song anywhere. Not bad for a record recorded in a basement in Watertown, Massachusetts. All false modesty aside, the boys were clearly never “just another band out of Boston.” Eight perfect tracks straddling the the line between prog and pop. If we lived in a perfect world these guys would be getting at least as much respect from Cool Guys™ as Rush. —Nicholas Pell
3. Van Halen, Van Halen II (1979)
Which is better? Van Halen or Van Halen II? Reasonable adults can disagree. For my money, though, Van Halen is little more than an appetizer for one of the best rock records of all time. Their version of “You’re No Good” is, for me, the definitive. No fewer than four of these tracks are my favorite Van Halen songs: “Dance the Night Away,” “D.O.A.,” “Women in Love…” and “Beautiful Girls.” This was the template for the next decade of rock for a reason: It mastered the perfect balance between AC/DC and The Kinks. —Nicholas Pell
2. Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti (1975)
If you ever came across a poor soul who had never heard a Led Zeppelin song and they asked what the band were all about, this should be the go-to record for the answer to all their questions. Other albums have individual songs that may be better than anything here, but Physical Graffiti is the closest the band came to having every skill-set they mastered — musically and compositionally — represented on one album. If your favorite Zeppelin songs are overblown symphonic rock opuses, “Kashmir” is waiting for you. If your preferences lean more toward dirty hard-rock riffage, “The Rover” has you covered. If you are more in the mood for lengthy explorations of heated-up blues riffs cooked on low, click on “In My Time of Dying.” If you are craving some funk-influenced keyboard-based jams, you’ve got “Trampled Under Foot.” And that’s just on disc one of this double album. —Jason Roche
1. Rolling Stones, Exile on Main St. (1972)
Oh, Exile on Main St., you charming decadent mess. Of your 18 tracks, only one of them was really ever a hit, the sauntering “Tumbling Dice.” Yet more than any other album from the classic-rock era, this Rolling Stones double LP makes the best case for a band playing rock & roll as a legit art form. Not in some super-creative-studio-artiste way. Like a bunch-of-zonked-out-Brits-jamming-away-in-a-rented-French-villa-basement way.
Blues, country, gospel and rock crossfire all across Exile. Dirty-fingernail boogie on “Rocks Off.” Punk acceleration on “Rip This Joint.” The chicken-fried ballad “Sweet Virginia.” Mick Jagger’s lothario snarl remains in play on songs like “Casino Boogie” and the Slim Harpo cover “Shake Your Hips.” But the frontman sounds appealingly vulnerable on the appropriately titled “Torn and Frayed” and weary “Let It Loose.” During “I Just Want to See His Face,” the Stones sure sound sanctified for a bunch of heathens – ditto “Shine a Light.” Sweltering horns accent many of the songs and really up the vibe. Hot-shot guitar recruit Mick Taylor charges “All Down the Line” and “Stop Breaking Down” with electrifying bottleneck. In many ways Exile, with its ragged, stoned, natural sound, is the ultimate Keith Richards album, and the guitarist dials up some of his filthiest tones here — and even gets a star turn at the mic for rogue-anthem “Happy.” But perhaps most importantly, Keef always connects with drummer Charlie Watts to keep all of Exile’s dealers, groupies and hangers-on dancing. —Matt Wake
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