WHILE MANY SO-CALLED Internet visionaries suggest that digital downloads will revive the single as the most popular music format, artists continue to set their sights on creating the perfect album. Since the dawn of rock and roll, many musicians have viewed the full-length record as a variant on the novel, either writing to a cohesive theme or happily stumbling across motifs as they plow through song after song.
In the process, artists have influenced one another through their albums, helping music evolve and new styles to blossom. MP3s make it easier to download and listen to single songs, but the album is hardly an endangered species. (It helps to remember that many wags predicted the death of magazines/newspapers/novels because of the Internet.)
We've compiled a list of the 20 albums that shaped the future of music, basing our decisions on their timelessness, influence, and reverberations.
1. Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (Capitol, 1966)—From its groundbreaking arrangements to its heartbreaking harmonies to its shockingly introspective lyrics, this remains the standard for psychedelia, pop, and all points between.
2. Buddy Holly and the Crickets, The "Chirping" Crickets (Decca, 1957)—The impact of Buddy Holly's experiments with multitracking and singular vocal approach is still being felt. But his debut gets included because it's arguably the first rock album. Rejecting the common hits-plus-filler approach, every song shines, setting a precedent that the Beatles and scores of others would follow.
3. Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express (Capitol, 1977)—Sure, there were electronic musicians before Kraftwerk. But none of them were, as Juan Atkins so aptly described it, "so stiff they were funky." Both Europe and black America (!) responded: This album's title meisterwork provided the DNA for a generation of planet-rockers looking for the perfect beat.
4. Rolling Stones, Exile On Main Street (Rolling Stones/Virgin, 1972)—In which a band accused of playing second fiddle to the Beatles unleashes a gritty, angst-ridden, paranoid, melodic, twangy ode to decadence and destruction, to womanizing and boozing, and sets the standard for the rock of the future.
5. Nirvana, Nevermind (Sub Pop/DGC, 1991)—The first album to smartly employ pop melodies (courtesy of Kurt), punk aggression (from Dave Grohl's drums), and arena-rock recording (Butch Vig before he became a Garbage man), Nevermind provided the blueprint for a generation. Oh yeah, and it saved rock's ass.
6. The Chemical Brothers, Exit Planet Dust (Astralwerks, 1995)—Techno may have been the new rock and roll in spirit, but this inspired amalgam of beat-science and rock dynamics rendered that spirit flesh. From The Fat of the Land to Fatboy Slim, crossover techno doesn't exist without it.
7. Michael Jackson, Thriller (Epic, 1982)—Over and above its considerable artistry, this cultural monolith, the Star Wars of pop records, changed irrevocably the rules of the game: Thriller ushered in the five hit singles per album era, something we've yet to escape completely.
8. Marvin Gaye, What's Going On (Tamla, 1971)—It's simple: If you're an R&B musician with an ounce of ambition—Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu—Gaye's epic of political outcry and spiritual yearning is what you're shooting for. The Pet Sounds of black pop.
9. R.E.M., Murmur (IRS, 1983)—With its mumbled lyrics, muted production, and magnificently understated guitar riffs, this album came straight outta Athens, Georgia, like a musical answer to all the Southern gothic literary masterpieces that preceded it. Brooding yet brightly poppy in spots, Murmur confused, enthralled, and amazed, while wrapping lessons from the Velvet Underground in a package that rang as clear as a signal from Radio Free Europe.
10. NWA, Straight Outta Compton (Priority, 1988)—It angered the police, it scared suburbans, it pickpocketed Public Enemy, and it glorified gangs, but above all, NWA's brilliant debut established hip-hop as a poetic, brutally honest narrative musical form.
11. Massive Attack, Blue Lines (Virgin, 1991)—Even before everybody and their U.N.K.L.E. tried to go trip-hop, Despair-plus-Beats was a merger begging to be brokered. Though fellow Bristolians Portishead and Tricky have done it better since, Mushroom, 3D, and Daddy G drew the genre's first Blue-print.
12. Black Sabbath, Paranoid (Warner Bros., 1971)—A concoction of nightmarish guitars, scowling vocals, and rousing choruses, this album did more than invent heavy metal, it created a soundtrack to a subculture that's still growing and splintering today. If any rock star was sent from another planet to steer music in a different direction, it's Ozzy.
13. Derrick May, Innovator (Transmat, 1997; recorded 1986-90)—Plangent, melodic, rhythmically savvy, the singles collected here (especially the epochal "Nude Photo" and "Strings of Life") revolutionized dance music—and invented a disproportionate number of its cliches.
14. The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead (Sire, 1986)—An eloquent blend of politics, romanticism, and social commentary, this record pioneered the notion that punk needn't sound ugly. And for all his egotistical flaws, Morrissey proved that intellectualism and even poetry had a place in pop; meanwhile, his sidekick Johnny Marr put on a masterful display of the guitar's diverse powers.
15. Chic, Risque (Atlantic, 1979)—Their tense, lavish sound, built upon the greatest bass lines known to man, has been mercilessly plundered by two decades (and counting) of funk, disco, house, and dance-oriented rock artists. In particular, everyone from Queen to the Sugarhill Gang has ripped off "Good Times." Chic's sound has also been relentlessly thieved, thanks to Bob Clearmountain's crystalline engineering.
16. Wendy Carlos, Switched on Bach (CBS/Sony, 1968)—A sort of plug for her friend Bob Moog's new invention, this interpretation of Bach masterworks caused a fury among purists, who watched in horror as it became the first classical recording to sell a million copies. The public embraced the warm sounds of the analog synth, and the disc has taken on new levels of meaning as the Moog has gone on to power the krautrock, electronica, and indie-rock movements.
17. De La Soul, 3 Ft. High and Rising (Tommy Boy, 1989)—When Strong Island neighbors Public Enemy brought hip-hop into the limelight, nobody envisioned that the music could have a lighter, whimsical side except this inventive group. Gangsta rap currently has the nation's attention, but this record will become more significant with time.
18. Brian Eno, Music for Airports (Editions EG, 1978)—Forget MUZAK: By placing background music in the foreground, Eno jumpstarted a cottage industry that demanded that we, as ambient acolyte Mixmaster Morris put it, "Lie down and be counted."
19. Joni Mitchell, Blue (Reprise, 1971)—Though Nick Drake had quietly perfected it earlier, Joni Mitchell took the bittersweet downer folk sound mainstream on this piercingly insightful record. In its day, the gentle yet well-rounded songs helped strung-out hippies come down from the crazy '60s, and it continues to serve as a touchstone for Lilith folkies and hipsters like Elliott Smith.
20. Radiohead, OK Computer (Capitol, 1997)—Oh sure, the Who and Pink Floyd's theme albums made a bigger splash, but OK Computer broke through the alt-rock landscape to remind the music world that an artful, futuristic vision could be presented without bombast. And its titular statement is now as poignant as Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'."