There are certain bands and albums that define an era, who establish a sound that will come to embody pop music itself. It’s so wonderfully rare to discover an album that truly changes the way the listening world thinks about popular music, so let’s celebrate the artists who manage to do that, whether on purpose or simply by happy accident.
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles
The Beatles burst onto the scene with a wave of unprecedented hype in 1962, but it wasn’t until later in their career that they used production techniques and the novel idea of a concept album to elevate pop music into a proper art form. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band found The Beatles dawning new personas for this loose concept, which allowed them to abandon their usual four-man band sound for something more orchestral and varied, from the ripping guitar and horns section of the title track to the soaring, shifting piano ballad “A Day in the Life” that closes the album. The Beatles showed the entire listening world that pop music could be beautiful and original instead of formulaic.
2. Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan
Before going all-out rock with Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan memorably dipped his toes in the water with an LP split between acoustic and electric, treating both sides of the divide with equal heft. When rock music was still often thought of as a popular but lesser form of songwriting, the premier voice of the folk movement penned charged but poetically thoughtful tracks like “Maggie’s Farm” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” proving rock music could say just as much as any other more “legitimate” genres. Anyone still left denying the new face of popular music in 1965 needed only to listen to Dylan’s precursor to “Like a Rolling Stone” to see that this was more than just a fad.
3. Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk
All electronic music you hear today can be traced back to these German innovators, who used the still fresh technology of synthesizers to craft great album after great album, with Trans-Europe Express representing a creative peak. Despite their strong grasp on melody, Kraftwerk was hardly concerned with mainstream appeal but rather with expanding the limitations of electronic music and illustrating their own ideas about science and technology through music. Trans-Europe Express broadened the horizons of the genre by incorporating a sample from another electronic pioneer, the more rhythmic Afrika Bambaataa, forming an important bridge between early electronica that allowed bands like Daft Punk to come into being.
4. Raw Power by The Stooges
The Stooges never managed any mainstream success of their own, but their hard-edged sound became familiar to most audiences with the explosion of punk rock in the late ’70s, a couple years after they released their final studio album (for a while anyway) in 1973. Fittingly titled, Raw Power is a firm demonstration of the muddy but driving sound of The Stooges’ brand of proto-punk, filled with noisy guitar distortion, memorable vocal hooks as snarled by frontman Iggy Pop, and a do-it-yourself attitude that would soon become the hallmarks of punk rock and alternative rock.
5. Thriller by Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones blended rock with soul and added a whole lot of irresistible melody to create arguably one of the most perfect pop albums of all-time. Each track is brimming with creative hooks and musical competence brought to life with Jackson’s soulful vocals, making for an entire album of radio-ready classics. This sort of pop music picks and chooses what it needs from various musical genres but mostly transcends them in favor of a broad mass appeal that somehow doesn’t feel disingenuous. Thriller paved the way for most major pop-stars and popular producers from the ’80s and onward, from Pharrell to Madonna.
6. Run DMC by Run DMC
The first rap album to go gold has become a touchstone for the world’s current most popular genre, as Run DMC’s self-titled debut managed to synthesize the works of hip hop pioneers like DJ Grandmaster Flash into something that felt raw and dangerous and plodding without alienating audiences. The beats sound spare by today’s standards, but the pioneering production style, the in-your-face flows and even the socially conscious lyrical themes established the face of an entire genre in a world that was only just becoming ready to truly embrace rap music.
7. Nevermind by Nirvana
Alternative rock thrived in the 1980s, but not many people were actually aware of this renaissance of underground music until a group of Seattle rockers creating their own spin on the hard-edged but melodic alt-rock of Steve Albini and The Pixies emerged as unlikely ambassadors for alternative music. Nevermind was the album that made Nirvana huge by giving their angsty hard rock sound the lush production style it deserved to make each track as radio friendly as it was emotionally charged. Its popularity spawned a wave of alt-rock stars including grungey Pearl Jam, britpop Blur and even pop-punk rockers like Green Day, bands that once would have been doomed to the underground but now had at least a glimmer of a chance at mainstream recognition, thanks to Nirvana’s breakthrough.
8. OK Computer by Radiohead
Despite their great critical reputation, Radiohead isn’t exactly pop music, but their third studio album sounds today like the first breath of a newborn era of popular music that began with the 21st century. Released in 1997, OK Computer‘s themes of isolation and paranoia ring truer than ever in an increasingly digital age, and the album’s sound doubles down on the lyrical themes by cleverly inserting electro-tinged production techniques into otherwise guitar-centric tracks, somehow making both sides of the production process sound equally organic. In an age where electronic production is so often inseparable from the actual instruments of any given song, most alternative and popular acts that combine synthetic with organic instrumentation have Radiohead to thank for establishing the sound of a new millennium.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf