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.”
10. Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
What always made Genesis interesting — no matter who was singing lead vocals — was that they were a prog-rock band enchanted with pop music. No band before or since ever sounded jauntier playing Mellotrons and 12-string guitars in 7/8 time. On this, their final album with Peter Gabriel, those competing pop and prog instincts came together to greatest effect. A concept album about a New York graffiti artist who gets sucked into another dimension filled with lamias and carpet crawlers and slippermen and other bizarre products of Gabriel's febrile imagination, The Lamb grounds its surreal subject matter in some of the band's best riffs and prettiest melodies. Just try not to rock out to the lumbering, metal-like onslaught of “Fly on a Windshield” or hum along to “Counting Out Time,” as catchy as anything from the Collins era but twice as weird. It's also, not incidentally, Genesis' funniest album, with lines like, “He'll whip off your windshield wiper” to describe a particularly ridiculous sequence involving penis removal.
9. Prince, 1999 (1982)
Ask most fans to name their favorite Prince double album and they'll go with 1987's Sign o' the Times, mainly because a lot of people have forgotten that before the CD era, the Purple One's even more masterful 1999 was in fact released on two LPs. Though Purple Rain would become an even bigger smash, 1999 was both Prince's commercial breakthrough and arguably his funkiest set of songs, full of slinky, extended jams like “D.M.S.R.” (originally omitted from the album's CD version to save space) and “Automatic” that took the rubbery grooves of Sly & the Family Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic and sexed them up with layers of chrome-plated synths and Prince's distinctively priapic vocals. Add in the immortal title track and one of Prince's steamiest singles, “Little Red Corvette,” and 1999 is a front-to-back classic.
8. The Who, Quadrophenia (1973)
Though less known to casual fans than Tommy, The Who's second rock opera is a more mature, satisfying work that features some of Pete Townshend's most powerful, heartfelt songwriting. Based on the clashes between rival “mod” and “rocker” gangs in mid-1960s England, it tells the story of a young mod named Jimmy and his struggles with work, girls, amphetamines and finding his place in his scene's elaborate caste system. Beyond the excellent but overplayed singles “5:15” and “Love Reign O'er Me,” Quadrophenia is filled with songs like “I'm One” and “Sea and Sand” whose arrangements whiplash powerfully between rage and melancholy in that distinctively Townshend-esque way, as well as one of the band's most underrated epics, the eight-minute “Doctor Jimmy.” And if you ever need to convince a doubter what made The Who such an unparalleled force among rock bands of their era, play them “The Real Me,” on which every member's strengths — Townshend's slashing guitar, Roger Daltrey's muscular yet somehow plaintive voice, John Entwistle's dancing bass lines, Keith Moon's furiously chaotic drums — leap out of the mix.
7. The Clash, London Calling (1979)
The Clash's third release still stands as the greatest punk-rock double album of all time — assuming you can even call it punk, as part of its greatness comes from the band's eagerness to stretch out into reggae (“The Guns of Brixton”), rockabilly (“Brand New Cadillac”) and even, most famously, soulful pub-rock (“Train in Vain,” a hastily recorded Mick Jones ditty that became the band's biggest U.S. hit up to that point, and foreshadowed their transition into the full-blown pop of “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Rock the Casbah”). Stylistic shifts aside, what makes London Calling such a classic is the extraordinarily high quality of songwriting. Nearly every one of its 16 original tracks is a knockout, from the anthemic title track to the wistful “Lost in the Supermarket” to Strummer's blue-eyed soul safe-sex PSA, “Lover's Rock.” Not even Strummer and Jones could ever match its consistency again.
6. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003)
Andre 3000 and Big Boi are the Lennon and McCartney of hip-hop, coaxing one another's genius to ever-greater heights through a mix of collaboration and rivalry, a relationship that peaked on this, their wildly entertaining fifth studio release. Though packaged and promoted as two solo albums — Big Boi's funkier, more rap-focused Speakerboxxx, Andre's kaleidoscopic, Prince-like The Love Below — it's impossible to separate the two halves, each brilliant in its own way. With its psychedelic flourishes and the collection's biggest hit, “Hey Ya!”, The Love Below tends to get more attention, but Speakerboxxx is no slouch, boasting some of the set's funkiest (“Bowtie,” “The Rooster”) and heaviest (“Bust,” “Knowing”) moments. The set rightly became the duo's best-selling album but it was also their swan song; apart from the 2006 soundtrack album Idlewild and a 2014 reunion tour, Big and Dre have gone their separate ways, and neither's genius has really been on full display since.
5. Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti (1975)
Physical Graffiti became a double album almost by accident; the band had too much good new material to fit onto a single LP, so they took the best outtakes from their previous three albums to pad out the running time. What's even more remarkable than the quality of the leftovers (don't you wish your band was good enough to leave a riff-fest like “The Rover” on the cutting-room floor?) is how well they hang together with the new material; in their early-’70s heyday, Zep forged a sound so distinctive and immediately recognizable that they could string together three songs recorded five years apart, such as “Bron-Yr-Aur,” “Down by the Seaside” and “Ten Years Gone,” and make it sound like part of some master plan. As on their masterpiece, Led Zeppelin IV, a pair of monster epics anchor this set: the Eastern-tinged “Kashmir” and its less famous but even mightier companion, “In My Time of Dying,” a broke-down blues that explodes thanks to some hypnotic Jimmy Page slide guitar and one of drummer John Bonham's most relentless grooves. Zep would never sound this heavy again, and hard rock has yet produce a double album half as inspired.
4. Pink Floyd, The Wall (1979)
No band mastered the art of the concept album better than Roger Waters–era Pink Floyd, and no album better encapsulates Waters' gift for combining lyrical bombast, cinematic studio trickery, psychedelic experimentation and arena-rock pomp than The Wall. The subject of a famously elaborate tour and even more famously bizarre film starring Bob Geldof, the album itself has held up over the years thanks less to its odd mix of traumatic personal narrative and rock-concert-as-fascist-rally metaphors and more because it's just crammed with flat-out great songs, from the disco-influenced “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” (whose “We don't need no education” chorus became the rallying cry of every school kid for the next decade) to the swirling, druggy psychedelia of “Comfortably Numb.” Waters' uneasy ally in all this, David Gilmour, deserves nearly as much credit for the album's success; without his contributions as songwriter, guitarist and more soulful vocal foil to Waters' eternally sneering delivery, the set might have sunk into pure self-indulgence (as did the band's final album with Waters, 1983's The Final Cut). As it is, The Wall stands as probably the greatest concept album of all time, a perfect mix of surreal narrative and catchy songcraft.
3. Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
Early versions of Wonder's mid-’70s masterpiece were sort of a double-and-a-half album, including a four-song bonus EP. But even excluding those tracks (not that you should — “Ebony Eyes” is Wonder at his piano-pop best), Songs stands as perhaps the greatest double LP ever released by a solo artist, a tour de force of soul, funk and synth-pop shot through with its creator's trademark ebullient vocals and endlessly imaginative arrangements. The hits, “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Isn't She Lovely,” are as sunny and life-affirming as anything Wonder ever recorded, and even the album's darker moments (“Village Ghetto Land,” “Ordinary Pain”) glow in a way many an R&B artist has tried to emulate but never quite matched. Unlike Wonder's earlier masterwork Innervisions, on which he played nearly every instrument, Songs was recorded with a small army of studio musicians, and the added instrumentation seems to help Wonder find another gear, especially on side four's extended, jazzy jams, “As” and “Another Star,” on which he's aided by such heavy hitters as Herbie Hancock and George Benson.
2. The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main St. (1972)
Everything that's great about the Stones — their sleaziness, their love for classic rhythm and blues, Keith Richards' genius for a great rhythm guitar riff — is perfectly encapsulated on Exile, the band's grittiest album. Part of the secret to its greatness lies in how it was recorded — first in a makeshift studio in the basement of Richards' French villa, then at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, where Mick Jagger enlisted backup singers and additional musicians (including Billy Preston and an uncredited Dr. John) to flesh out the album's raw, basement-like feel. What in lesser hands might have come off as slapdash instead sounds inspired, especially on gospel-influenced tracks such as “Tumbling Dice” and “Let It Loose” and horn-fueled rave-ups like “Happy,” which still stands as Richards' best lead vocal performance. Perhaps because of that star turn, and the mythology that has grown up around the album's drug-fueled basement origins, Exile is often described as the most Keef-driven of the Stones' catalog, but that's an oversimplification. Every member of the band, from Jagger to drummer Charlie Watts (and his whip-crack snare) to lead guitarist Mick Taylor and unofficial band members like pianist Nicky Hopkins and saxman Bobby Keys, shines on the album, even under its famously murky production.
1. The Beatles, The Beatles (1968)
Baby boomers who remember its earth-shattering arrival will tell you Sgt. Pepper is The Beatles' best album. Pop purists favor the perfection of Revolver, or even Rubber Soul. But most hardcore fans agree that “The White Album,” while perhaps too sprawling and messy and weird to qualify as the Fab Four's “best,” is their favorite. And wherever you think it ranks in The Beatles' catalog, it's hard to argue that any band before or since has released a double album as wildly creative or as endlessly fascinating.
Like many of the other double sets on this list, part of the White Album's allure is that it is both a wild, woolly collection of great songs and, on some level, the sound of its creators slowly falling apart. The humor, on “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” has grown darker; the experiments, from the angry trudge of Lennon's “Yer Blues” to the tongue-in-cheek primitivism of McCartney's “Why Don't We Do It in the Road?”, seem almost born out of frustration with the heavily orchestrated pop of their Sgt. Pepper period. If The Beatles' genius had grown too expansive to fit onto a single LP, so too had the turmoil of their competing ideas over where to take the band next.
Ultimately, what makes The Beatles the greatest double album of all time is precisely what makes it hard to claim that it's the best thing The Beatles ever recorded. Too sprawling, too messy, too weird. Too much, in other words, to fit onto a single LP. That's why generations of fans and fellow musicians keep revisiting it, savoring all of its disconnected moments of brilliance, its cacophony of ideas, its mix of ambition, beauty, noise and just plain goofing off. Like all great double albums, the White Album contains multitudes.