All 88 Diamond-Certified Albums Ranked From Worst to Best: Critic's Take
By Andrew Unterberger
September 29, 2016
It's worth celebrating whenever we get a brand new, RIAA-certified diamond-selling album -- indicating sales (and streaming equivalent sales) of ten million units -- because for a while, it looked like we might never get another one again. For a half-decade after Usher's Confessions was released in 2004, no album of new material was released that even got particularly close to diamond status, largely the result of a download-reeling music industry adjusting slowly to the decline of physical media.
Then, Adele. In 2011, the singer/songwriter's four-quadrant-appealing 21 was released, sparking sales unseen since the beginning of the millennium. The album stayed on top the Billboard 200 for 24 weeks, and was given the Diamond certification in November of 2012, eventually going 14x platinum. For her next act, Ms. Adkins demolished *NSYNC's record for first-week sales with her follow-up effort, 25, moving an incomprehensible 3.38 million in its debut frame, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And last week (Sept. 22), Adele was awarded her second consecutive diamond plaque, for 25 -- less than a year after the album's release.
To honor the exclusive club that Adele joins with her latest sales achievement, we've ranked every one of the RIAA-certified diamond albums. That's not counting compilations -- including greatest-hits collections, live albums, and certain soundtracks -- unless the set is comprised mainly of contemporary material. (The Dirty Dancing soundtrack, for instance, includes seven contemporary songs and five old ones, so it's in, but Garth Brooks' The Ultimate Hits -- itself certified diamond earlier this week -- has only four new songs in 34 tracks, so it's out.) It's still a whopping 88 albums, though, ranging nearly 60 years back to Elvis Presley's Elvis' Christmas Album.
Read our list here, and let's hope we don't have to wait for another Adele album -- whenever that comes -- to welcome our next newcomer to these ranks. (Each album's year of release and most-recent platinum certification as of Sept. 2016 is included.)
88. Kenny G, Breathless (1992, 12x Platinum)
Some day, a smooth-jazz scholar will make the rounds informing us about why Kenny G was actually a genre innovator and stealth underground influence, shaming us for all the thoughtless jokes made at his expense over the years. Until then, all we can say about Breathless is that it’s not actively unpleasant to listen to.
87. Creed, Human Clay (1999, 11x Platinum)
Close, but not quite the nadir of post-grunge alt-rock it’s often made out to be – that’d probably be Weathered, the Creed album after this one. Human Clay at least has some riffs, and “Higher,” a bro hymn as righteous as the sun coming out five minutes before kickoff.
86. Garth Brooks, Sevens (1997, 10x Platinum)
Professional but slightly pandering, down to its definitively C&W magazine-pose of an album cover. “How You Ever Gonna Know” is one of his most pristine pop/rock efforts, though, and kudos to Garth for being the first country megastar to recognize the potential in swagger-jacking Jimmy Buffett (“Two Pina Coladas”), beating Alan Jackson to the punch by a half-decade.
85. Various Artists, Titanic Soundtrack (1997, 11x Platinum)
No better testament to the world-swallowing phenomenon that was Titanic than the score going Diamond: Celine Dion’s signature love theme “My Heart Will Go On” is the only song here not a James Horner instrumental, and you have to wait until the very end to get to it. Kudos to Horner & Co. for not even trying to fudge a “Songs From and Inspired By” collection, but unless you’re really never gonna let go of the late ‘90s, you don’t need this in your life.
84. Matchbox 20, Yourself or Someone Like You (1996, 12x Platinum)
When Matchbox 20 went supernova in the late ‘90s, it was obvious grunge’s moment was officially over, though what it was being replaced with wasn’t totally clear: Rob Thomas wrote pretty good singles, but what exactly they added up to remained ambiguous. “Real World” and “Back 2 Good” feel like personal statements in search of coherent theses, “3AM” is strangely lacking in urgency for a song with its title, and “Push” might be the most narratively confused song about domestic abuse ever released.
83. Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love (1997, 10x Platinum)
An expert collection of Adult Contemporary super-competence, its 65-degree placidness is broken only by the mega-ballad you already knew from Titanic and the song where Celine tries her hand at dancehall for some reason. Carl Wilson wrote a great book about it; that and the Bee Gees and Babs duets may be all you really need to take away from this one.
82. Santana, Supernatural (1999, 15x Platinum)
The least-likely blockbuster LP of the TRL era, with a then-52-year-old Carlos Santana riding two Hot 100-topping, big-name-featuring smashes to sales that not even Britney and Backstreet could match. This one isn’t all smiles and Rob Thomases, though: A surprising amount of Supernatural is comprised of the kind of somberly atmospheric noodling found in the worst Pink Floyd albums.
81. Britney Spears. …Baby One More Time (1999, 14x Platinum)
Britney’s chips-half-in debut effort has aged about as well as an album with a Sonny & Cher cover, special guest appearances from Mikey Bassie and Don Phillip, and a climactic slow song called “E-Mail My Heart” could be expected to. But “Crazy” still goes – if not as hard as in its Melissa Joan Hart-approved remix – and we’ll know the aliens come in peace if they make first contact via the title track’s three-note piano hook.
80. Hammer, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em (1990, 10x Platinum)
It takes a village to raise rap’s first-ever Diamond-seller, and to help send his breakout album into eight digits, Hammer enlisted (via sample and interpolation): Rick James, Marvin Gaye, The Chi-Lites, The Jackson 5, Earth, Wind & Fire, Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown (twice) and Prince (three times). Even with all that, the MC’s teaching-and-preaching efforts get mildly tiresome by album’s end, but as the ‘90s would say, it’s a history lesson that makes learning fun -- ring the bell, school’s in, sucker.
79. *NSYNC, ‘N Sync (1998, 10x Platinum)
The singles are imprinted on the DNA of anyone who grew up with Carson Daly narrating their late afternoons, even though “Tearin’ Up My Heart” is the only one whose existence anyone actively bothers to remember. The rest is predictably negligible, minus a surprisingly yacht-worthy cover of Christopher Cross’ “Sailing.”
78. Elvis Presley, Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957, 10x Platinum)
A perennial best-seller that ultimately became The King’s only diamond-certified album, Elvis’ Christmas Album generally delivers the combination of fireplace intimacy and profound melancholy you want from the best holiday music, before getting a little gospel-heavy in the last third. “Blue Christmas” is the classic, and as timeless as that other-colored Xmas tune -- which Elvis also does here, in a relatively innocuous cover Irving Berlin nonetheless dubbed a “profane parody” of his standard.
77. Backstreet Boys, Backstreet Boys (1997, 14x Platinum)
Kicking off the second (possibly third?) golden age of the boy band in earnest, the five hits on Backstreet’s U.S. debut were likeable enough -- the world probably wasn’t ready for the Full Max Martin yet, but lukewarm pop/rock trifles like “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” and “As Long As You Love Me” were already mildly entrancing. The PM Dawn cover shows how relaxed the early part of this era was; a 1998 reissue added frenetic crowd-pleaser “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” and by millennium’s end, most pop songs sounded like they were recorded inside a pinball machine.
76. Various Artists, Dirty Dancing Soundtrack (1987, 11x Platinum)
Established AM classics from a generation earlier awkwardly mingle with polished contemporary pop from the late ‘80s, a mixer that made marginally more sense in the movie than it does on record. When the Ronettes and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs are butting up against new smashes from Eric Carmen and, yes, Patrick Swayze himself, it works well enough; when it’s over-caffeinated synth-pop from Merry Clayton and Alfie Zappacosta getting in the way of “Hey! Baby” and “Love Is Strange,” less so.
75. Celine Dion, Falling Into You (1996, 11x Platinum)
Gets soggy in the latter half, and covers of “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” and “River Deep, Mountain High” can’t help coming off a little stilted. Her “All By Myself” redo fares far better, though, “Seduces Me” is as sensual as it should be, and “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” reaches heights of Jim Steinman-conducted melodrama that even Meat Loaf would only scale with extreme trepidation.
74. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003, 11x Platinum)
A diamond-selling double-album that won both the Album of the Year Grammy and the Pazz & Jop critics poll, and boasts one of the most popular songs of all-time… but does anyone actually still listen to it? OutKast empirically proved they were more than the sum of their parts by segregating the contributions of Big Boi and Andre 3000 to their own discs, and while the results were rapturously received at the time, S/TLB’s rep sags farther every year since, as fans realize how critical the balance and interplay the duo provided one another was to their overall alchemy.
73. Garth Brooks, Ropin’ the Wind (1991, 14x Platinum)
“Must be rebel blood just flowin’ through my veins,” Brooks sings on “Against the Grain,” the opener to his third diamond-selling album in three tries. Maybe not, but Garth’s winning streak was certainly extended here by classics like the blithely sordid “Papa Loved Mama,” the serenely anthemic “The River” and the soaring “Shameless,” which proved Billy Joel really needed to get better advice about his single choices.
72. Backstreet Boys, Millennium (1999, 13x Platinum)
Only four singles were pulled from Millennium, partly because those that were released lasted forever: “I Want It That Way” somehow only peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100, but those of us who lived through it can testify to it being the most the most popular American song since “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Not many missed hits here anyway: Of the ceaseless ballads that comprise the album’s post-singles portion, only closer “The Perfect Fan” stands out -- Backstreet’s very own “A Song for Mama.”
71. Jewel, Pieces of You (1997, 12x Platinum)
Closer to Tori Amos territory than you might remember, as excoriating missives like “Daddy” and the title track (which repeats the word “f----t” until it can see you physically squirming) are just as vicious and bruised -- albeit a tad more clumsy -- as anything on Little Earthquakes. What really hurts here are the love songs, though: Breakup lament “You Were Meant for Me” easily justifies its tear-choked vocals, and “Morning Song” makes leaving bed in the a.m. an act of true betrayal.
70. Shania Twain, Up! (2002, 11x Platinum)
Sort of a cheap diamond, since Shania notched double-album sales for a multi-disc set that was really the same album twice, just in “Red” (pop), “Green” (country) and occasionally “Blue” (world/dance) editions. Up! failed to produce the monster U.S. hits that Come On Over tossed off like complimentary mints, and the incongruous self-righteousness of “Ka-Ching!” and “What a Way to Be!” are a strange look for Shania, but weaponized country-pop blasts like “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” and “Nah!” are exuberant enough to earn their Elaine Benes-like exclamation mark usage.
69. Bon Jovi, Slippery When Wet (1986, 12x Platinum)
Metal sans metal, far more enamored with Bruce Springsteen than Bruce Dickinson, and much better (and muuuuch more successful) for it. Aside from young-and-restless closer “Wild in the Streets,” not much of the rest stands up to the big singles, but those three are titanic enough that karaoke bartenders are still tearing out the “Bo-” pages from their songbooks for temporary relief three decades later.
68. Hootie and the Blowfish, Cracked Rear View (1994, 16x Platinum)
A solid power-pop album -- just one whose genial frat-rock veneer blankets any underlying urgency or desperation. Underestimate “Hannah Jane” at your own peril, and don’t forget the surprisingly powerful black-man-in-the-south lament “Drowning,” proof that Darius & Co. had more on their minds than just baseball caps.
67. Boyz II Men, II (1994, 12x Platinum)
Actually a pretty chill album, until a handful of asteroid-sized power ballads come crashing down to spoil all the vibin’. “I’ll Make Love to You” is the stuff of countless middle-school-dance dreams and nightmares, but “Water Runs Dry” is the one that endures: a slow-burner of such exquisite stillness that the Five Satins would beam with pride.
66. Mariah Carey, Daydream (1995, 10x Platinum)
The “Open Arms” cover is a pretty good call, “Always Be My Baby” is forever (way moreso than “Forever”) and Boyz II Men duet “One Sweet Day” is the ‘90s pop equivalent of Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen swapping guitar solos. But Daydream commits the cardinal sin of following “Fantasy” with 11 songs that are not “Fantasy,” and that we cannot forgive -- not even Kanye would try to get away with that ****.
65. Kid Rock, Devil Without a Cause (1999, 11x Platinum)
Regardless of your feelings about young Robert James Ritchie, how many artists can say they were instrumental in the rise of both nu-metal and Auto-Tune? He wasn’t always graceful about it, but Kid Rock innovated almost by accident, effortlessly mixing genres and signifiers that he’d never thought to keep discrete, and occasionally ending up with a tour de force of hybridized id like “Cowboy.”
64. Various Artists, The Lion King Soundtrack (10x Platinum, 1994)
The tunes from the movie itself are undeniable – international pizzazz-pop like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Matata” and sweeping theatrical pieces like “Be Prepared” and “Circle of Life” – and the trio of Elton John versions rightly brought the soundtrack to top 40. Making you sit through four Hans Zimmer instrumentals in between the two sets is pretty low, though.
63. Def Leppard, Pyromania (1983, 10x Platinum)
Making Union Jack short shorts and the phrase “Gunter glieben glauchen globen" inextricable parts of ‘80s pop culture, Pyromania was as dead-on a shot at the American mainstream as the incinerated building on its album cover. Can’t pretend cuts like “Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop)” and “Billy’s Got a Gun” have aged brilliantly, but the list of pop-metal songs more flawless than “Photograph” doesn’t even need a full hand to count.
62. Britney Spears, Oops!... I Did It Again (2000, 10x Platinum)
Packs the edge Spears’ debut sorely lacked: the title track establishes that not-that-innocent Britney would be taking over from here, “Don’t Let Me Be the Last to Know” proved her capable of post-puppy-love balladry (rightly enduring as a fan and artist favorite), and even the Stones cover is impressively nervy. Doesn’t last the whole way, unfortunately: Once Lucky accepts her Academy Award, feel free to FF through the rest.
61. Lionel Richie, Can’t Slow Down (1983, 10x Platinum)
The ex-Commodore’s own mini-Thriller, with five top 10 hits, though a significantly lesser musical reach. Regardless, “All Night Long” is as wedding-classic as they come, “Hello” remains an unkillable ‘80s touchstone even without its famously bizarre video, and the fizzy title track could’ve been a sixth top-tenner if anyone had bothered to release it as a single.
60. Dixie Chicks, Wide Open Spaces (1998, 12x Platinum)
Appropriate to its appellation, The Dixie Chicks’ major-label debut -- and first album with the fiery Natalie Maines at the forefront -- sounds like the universe opening up to the trio’s expansive brand of tinderbox country. “I’ll Take Care of You” has nothing to do with Drake or Gil-Scott Heron but lends the same tenderness, “Tonight the Heartache’s on Me” manages to export a ska skank to a honky-tonk throwdown, and the title track still sounds like the last scene of Six Feet Under, minus all the death.
59. *NSYNC, No Strings Attached (2000, 11x Platinum)
A major leap forward from the boy band’s self-titled debut, leading with a pair of instant-K.O. singles that raised the bar for all of Orlando-based pop music at the turn of the century. The rest is a more mixed bag, with eye-rollers “Digital Get Down” and “Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay)” likely expediting Justin Timberlake’s search for the exit. “It Makes Me Ill” began the venting that’d consume the group on Celebrity, and closer “I Thought She Knew” is a thankfully stripped-down moment of emotional calm and clarity.
58. Norah Jones, Come Away With Me (2002, 10x Platinum)
Jazzy enough to be released on Blue Note records, Come Away With Me hardly fits the usual bill as a Diamond album, but became enough of a sensation for its smooth sailing that it swept the Grammys and sold eight digits. Fourteen years later, it’s hard to imagine many of those customers having their lives changed by the album, but equally tough to picture many regretting the purchase -- even Jones’ cover of Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart” feels like a ticket to the tropics.
57. Phil Collins, No Jacket Required (1985, 12x Platinum)
If not the least-likely megastar of MTV’s first decade then certainly the baldest, Phil Collins had perfected his brand of turbo-pop by 1985, leading to his most successful album with or without Genesis. “Sussudio” and “Who Said I Would” sound like they’re from a Motown record sped up to 45 RPM, while “Take Me Home” is a power ballad as inspired by Casio drum auto-play – pop classicism for ‘80s attention spans that may have sounded natural at the time, but seems intriguingly alien three decades later.
56. Mariah Carey, Music Box (1993, 10x Platinum)
Like most ‘90s Mariah albums, there’s one narcotic pop single and one world-beating power ballad – though in the case of Music Box, “Hero” was cast in the latter role when it actually should’ve gone to “Anytime You Need a Friend.” The deep cuts here are better than on Daydream, with a couple C+C-produced bangers: “Now That I Know,” a skronking jam that should’ve been a club-killer and “I’ve Been Thinking About You,” a frisky dance-pop wink that one-ups Londonbeat.
55. Linkin Park, Hybrid Theory (2000, 10x Platinum)
For all the skeptics who view Linkin Park as a bunch of whiny, repetitive, dull, uncreative mooks: No, you’re thinking of every other popular band from that time. LP were guilty of the first two, but not the last three -- few bands of any genre put as much care into their songcraft and soundscapes, resulting in spellbindingly Reznorian productions like “Papercut,” “Points of Authority” and “In the End,” the “Bad Vibrations” of the early ‘00s.
54. Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell (1977, 14x Platinum)
A stirred-up cauldron of Wagner, Spector and Andrew Lloyd Webber whose brew was potent enough to make an overweight, overzealous theater kid a rock god for at least one album. Meat Loaf and songwriter Jim Steinman were smart to keep it to seven mini-epics -- even at 46 minutes, the thing risks being laughably overwhelming -- but “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth" and the title track are all still recommended for stretching your dollar as far as it’ll go at the bar jukebox.
53. ZZ Top, Eliminator (1983, 10x Platinum)
Largely thanks to a combination of beards (theirs), legs (not theirs) and “Legs” (definitely theirs), ZZ Top underwent the most successful MTV makeover of the early ‘80s, reinvented as a sleek new-wave killing machine and selling more than ever. To be honest, Eliminator could’ve gotten most of the way there even without the videos -- their brand of synth-rock was a shockingly natural, alluring hybrid that made TV Dinners sound seductive and even turned the trio’s friggin’ car into a sex symbol.
52. Adele, 25 (2015, 10x Platinum)
25 managed to put up Wilt Chamberlain numbers in a depressed sales era mostly by giving the people what they wanted: Big ballads based around Adele’s generational pipes and down-to-earth glamour. “Hello” is as successful a comeback single as pop has managed this decade, and Max Martin collab “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” offered hope of a more spritely direction for her grand drama, though 25 leaves it as something of a tease, instead submerging in a stately sorrow until the show-stopping climax of “All I Ask.”
51. Various Artists, The Bodyguard Soundtrack (1992, 17x Platinum)
Bump up about 25 spots if you see fit to cut this one off at the end of Whitney’s all-classic A-side, but sadly, the back end weighs this down with less-enjoyably overwrought Joe ****er balladry and two (!!) Kenny G songs. The S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M. track is fun post-P.M. Dawn hip(pie)-hop, though, and can’t be mad that the inclusion of Curtis Stigers’ “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” cover ensures that Nick Lowe eats for life.
50. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin (I) (1969, 10x Platinum)
The blown-out blues covers are hardly as essential as early Zeppelin got, but the mind-melting “Dazed & Confused” and road-tripping “Good Times Bad Times” were close, while acoustic instrumental “Black Mountain Side’ and closing extendo-jam “How Many More Times” pointed towards how much more the band would soon have to offer. A staggering amount of the next 40 years of rock music can be traced back here in some way.
49. Nelly, Country Grammar (2000, 10x Platinum)
At the onset of the 21st century, Nelly shook up the map of American hip-hop until its center finally landed in the country’s actual center – and he did it wearing a St. Louis Blues hat. Country Grammar was indeed the hot ****, a whooping set of homespun bangers that crossed over without needing to try that hard -- only closer “Luven Me” points the way to the sappiness the St. Lunatic would eventually resort to -- instead banking on its leading man's affability, and some of rap’s most undeniable chorus hooks since Naughty By Nature.
48. Usher, Confessions (2004, 10x Platinum)
Unjustly overshadowed in the public memory by fellow triple-threat Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, an album that sold less and had fewer No. 1s. FS/LS gets the edge just for the superbad sonic coherence offered by Timbaland and Danja doing his full album, but JT was always too perfectly-coiffed to match Usher’s rawness in emotional live-wires like “Throwback” or “Confessions, Pt. 2,” and he never had a Big Three team-up as star-powered as the ’11 Miami Heat-worthy crunk anthem “Yeah!”
47. Garth Brooks, Garth Brooks (1989, 10x Platinum)
Good as Garth’s first LP is, you wouldn’t likely have predicted the seven diamond albums to follow from it – a clever, unassuming debut from a performer who sees himself falling somewhere between Dave Loggins and Chris LeDoux, and who seems strangely fatalistic (“If Tomorrow Never Comes,” “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)”) for a dude about to take over the world. He does leave us one clue: closer and eternal heartstring-tugger “The Dance,” which goes ten rounds with Diane Warren while maintaining an unlikely grace.
46. Billy Joel, The Stranger (1977, 10x Platinum)
Call it Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Vol. 0.5 -- you have to get to the second side, maybe all the way to the penultimate track, to reach a song you won’t already know by heart just by living in the world. That’s fine: Joel’s McCartney-as-Lennon songcraft is strong and familiar enough that hearing about the sagas of Anthony and Mama Leone or Brenda and Eddy for the millionth time is as comforting as hearing an uncle tell a joke the entire room already knows the punchline to.
45. Pearl Jam, Ten (1991, 13x Platinum)
Ten was the sound of a grunge-era Seattle band that actually wanted to still be around a quarter-century later, and was willing to create the songs to merit such longevity. “Alive” and “Even Flow” snuck complex personal and social issues into chest-beaters that instantly earned the band their stadium stripes, and the brutal “Black” is an anti-lighter-waver, a “Tuesday’s Gone” for when you’re absolutely crippled by Wednesday.
44. Shania Twain, The Woman In Me (1994, 12x Platinum)
Impressive that Come On Over essentially reduced this to album-before-the-album status, considering how massive this was: Four country number-ones, including her first Top 40 hit crossover, the stadium-rocking reverse-double-standard anthem “Any Man of Mine.” Smart, seductive, and impressively worldly – the title track’s video was even shot in Egypt -- the whole thing sounds like a million bucks; if only its younger sibling hadn’t sounded like half a billion.
43. Eagles, Hotel California (1976, 16x Platinum)
The least fun that becoming the biggest band in the world has ever sounded, a mess of existential banality, contorted metaphors and vaguely hellish riffs. There’s a reason it sold enough copies to bridge the Atlantic, though: No other band ever made emptiness sound as much like an essential part of the human condition, and certainly no band did it with dueling guitars and Mexican stand-off harmonies like these.
42. Dixie Chicks, Fly (1999, 10x Platinum)
Somehow both tighter and looser than Wide Open Spaces, 1999’s Fly packs a supergroup’s worth of fun into the trio’s sophomore effort, so much so that even the song about domestic abuse and mariticidal vengeance was a rollicking corker (and the biggest single). Surprisingly, it was the less-murdery “Sin Wagon” that inspired the first of the group’s many showdowns with country radio over its “mattress dancing” lyric; undoubtedly, DJs were just salty they didn’t think of the phrase first.
41. No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom (10x Platinum, 1996)
The national introduction of spunk-punk superstar Gwen Stefani could do with 10 perfect less bloat and 20 percent less self-seriousness, certainly. But the diversity of singles predicts the later musical twists and turns band and singer would take in their careers: “Just a Girl” is the Alternative Nation’s own “Kids in America,” “Spiderwebs” nudged the mainstream ever closer to embracing a ska revival, and “Don’t Speak” could’ve been a Peter Cetera power ballad a decade earlier.
40. Eminem, The Eminem Show (10x Platinum, 2002)
More self-aware than Marshall Mathers, if not necessarily funnier:Eminem's third act asked that you finally pay some attention to the man behind the curtain. “Without Me” is one of his great moments of WWE-style rabble-rousing, “Cleaning Out My Closet” may be the most bilious top 5 hit in Hot 100 history and Dr. Dre collab “Say What You Say” is a gratifyingly score-settling team-up, but “Sing for the Moment” was the first time Em allowed a single to be overwhelmed by a sample, a dangerous portent for his career to follow.
39. Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston (1985, 13x Platinum)
Whitney crashed the back half of the ‘80s with a limitless voice and limitless pop potential -- both on full display in the ace ballads of the diva’s self-titled debut, including the least-conflicted Other Woman song ever (“Saving All My love for You”) and the indefatigable show-stopper that turns us all into raving Patrick Batemans (“The Greatest Love of All”). You might wish for more upbeat songs than the couple here, but when one of those is “How Will I Know,” it’s hard to get too mad.
38. Def Leppard, Hysteria (1987, 12x Platinum)
“Mutt” Lange just kept polishing Def Leppard until they shined like the top of the Chrysler building, and producer and band were rewarded for their diligence with a Diamond album that made even their previous Diamond album seem old and busted in comparison. Inexplicably, the inert “Women” was chosen as the album’s first U.S. single; perhaps they were just trying to clear the room before the eventual detonation of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”
37. Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti (1975, 16x Platinum)
Led Zeppelin’s successful too-big-to-fail gambit may be a lot for casual fans, but once you get past the obvious standouts (“Kashmir,” “Ten Years Gone”), the meat is in the more inscrutable tracks: interminable church lamentation “In My Time of Dying,” shimmering instrumental “Bron-Yr-Aur,” even silly throwback-to-nowhere “Boogie With Stu.” The last triumphant moment before Zep’s increasingly hard-to-hide bloat officially became a problem.
36. Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill (1995, 16x Platinum)
Jagged Little Pill may be the most undeniably human album to ever sell eight digits; a pigeonhole-proof statement from an artist who broke out with the bloodiest post-breakup anthem ever inspired by a Full House alum, and who turned her schizophrenic creativity into one of the cuddliest videos of the decade. Not all of it is necessarily fun to listen to in 2016, but it’s always admirable for the sheer fact that we’ll never experience anything quite like it ever again.
35. Boston, Boston (1976, 17x Platinum)
The unfollowable debut that briefly launched Boston into rock’s outer limits, setting new genre standards for technical proficiency and FM radio saturation in the process. Studio wizardry aside, this thing has some jams: “Foreplay/Long Time” is the countdown-to-liftoff that could’ve soundtracked MTV’s launch a half-decade later and “More Than a Feeling” is the greatest song ever about the joy of listening to the greatest song ever.
34. Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995, 10x Platinum)
The impossible was possible for Billy Corgan & Co. in the mid-‘90s, when the world briefly opened like an oyster to the Great Pumpkin’s brand of re-circulated teen angst and unapologetically precious poetry. Your mileage may vary when you get into the swampy thick of Mellon Collie’s two discs and 28 tracks, but many moments are undeniable: the searing glam-goth of “Zero,” the soaring affirmation rock of “Muzzle” and the crystalline future-nostalgia of “1979.”
33. AC/DC, Back in Black (1980, 22x Platinum)
A bounce-back album beyond what should have been physically possible, AC/DC were able to shrug off the shocking death of legendary frontman Bon Scott with ten tracks of expertly titrated bar-rock raunch, hated by Tipper Gore and loved by everyone else. You’d be forgiven for mentally merging “Given the Dog a Bone” and “Let Me Put My Love Into You,” but any album that gets to kick off its two sides with the tolling intro to “Hells Bells” and the beginning count-off to “Back in Black” is gonna find its way to your record player and/or Spotify playlists pretty regularly.
32. George Michael, Faith (1987, 10x Platinum)
Not like Andrew Ridgeley’s shadow was particularly tough to escape from, but it’s still astonishing how quickly George Michael was able to establish himself as a solo star without peer: Two-thirds of Faith’s nine tracks went top ten on the Hot 100, and four of ‘em bested the damn thing. The songs hold up: “I Want Your Sex” makes conscientiousness hot as hell, “One More Try” is perhaps the finest of Michael’s singular set of desperate torch songs, and even “Monkey” is delectably indecipherable in its Jam and Lewis-helmed bumper-car funk.
31. Garth Brooks, No Fences (1990, 17x Platinum)
The thunder you hear rolling in the distance is the sound of best-selling artist of the ‘90s approaching, and this time, he doesn’t bother disguising his ambitions – “Victim of the Game” even ever-so-subtly nicks the “Stairway to Heaven” riff, seemingly just to invoke the Hammer of the RIAA Gods. Luckily, No Fences justifies Garth’s grasp: “Unanswered Prayers” is a religious ballad of impressive perspective, “Two of a Kind, Working on a Full House” is a lousy poker metaphor but a fantastic barn-burner, and even your “everything but country and metal” friend sings along to “Friends in Low Places” after a couple drinks.
30. Van Halen, 1984 (1984, 10x Platinum)
America’s best rock band adds synths to their arsenal, and everyone except the band’s oddly stodgy frontman rejoices. “Jump” is basically “Ode to Joy” for the MTV generation, “I’ll Wait” proves David Lee Roth could’ve taken on love songs eventually (maybe, possibly), and “Hot for Teacher” has an intro more exciting and jaw-dropping than a hundred Slam Dunk Contests.
29. Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (1972, 15x Platinum)
Prog-rock expertly streamlined to the point where it can be easily understood by impressionable teens, flowing like a movie despite following no narrative besides its own dreamlike logic, with classic-rock staples like “Time” and “Money” serving as the central set pieces. When you can go to a college dorm and not see Dark Side’s prismatic cover on the walls of any room, that’s when you’ll know that rock music is really in trouble.
28. Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy (1973, 11x Platinum)
If any album should be let off the hook for selling half as much and having half the reputation as its predecessor, it’s Houses of the Holy, one of the best hard-rock albums of the ‘70s that has the misfortune of following up the likely No. 1. But even IV had no tracks as intriguingly enigmatic as “No Quarter,” or as stupidly funny as “The Crunge,” and “Over the Hills and Far Away” has arguably outlived “Stairway” as the group’s greatest acoustic-to-electric epic.
27. 2Pac, All Eyez on Me (1996, 10x Platinum)
Two discs’ worth of Amerika’z Most Wanted lighting fires and laughing while they burn, and it's about as exciting (and catchy) as youthful nihilism gets. Nah, you probably don’t need all 27 tracks, but classics abound throughout, and it’s worth listening to all 27 each time to remember the couple towards the end of side four that you always forget about.
26. U2, The Joshua Tree (1987, 10x Platinum)
An album so massive in sound and scope that calling it “alternative rock” seemed insincere at best – U2 may have started as peers of Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen, but by The Joshua Tree, they were really competing with Bon Jovi and Def Leppard, albeit with much richer, more resonant singles. Most of those are frontloaded on Joshua, and the desert gets pretty arid by the end of the second side, but any album that kicks off with “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You” deserves all 24 carats of its diamond.
25. Guns N’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1988, 18x Platinum)
The gutter-punk masterwork that bought Axl Rose a lifetime’s supply of goodwill and patience from fans who’d give entire years off their lives to be able to hear the “Welcome to the Jungle” intro for the first time again. Later G N’ R efforts have been unfairly hurt by comparison, and not every track here is as classic as you might recall, but few debuts have ever provided such a rush; it’s unsurprising everyone wants to recreate that first high.
24. Carole King, Tapestry (1971, 10x Platinum)
Tapestry crystallized the solo singer-songwriter as a viably commercial proposition; at the very least, it's the album everyone still thinks about when picturing the mode’s ideal. As much sense as it made for powerhouse singers like Aretha Franklin to pair with King’s powerhouse compositions, Tapestry showed how vocal frailty could be similarly effective; the way King’s voice frays as she recaptures the chorus to her own “Natural Woman” touches emotions not even the Queen of Soul could quite reach.
23. Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. (1984, 15x Platinum)
The mainstream explosion Bruce had been building towards for over a decade; an album that spawned seven top 10 singles and deservedly launched Jersey’s finest into the same orbit as Madonna, Michael and Prince. Due to their heavy reliance on synths, there was a time when gems like “I’m on Fire” and “Dancing in the Dark” were absurdly perceived as Less Than in the Springsteen catalog -- but after a decade where one out of every five cool bands has covered at least one of them, it’s unlikely anyone under 20 will ever know of it.
22. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (1977, 20x Platinum)
Late-‘70s Fleetwood Mac may have been a living soap opera, but soaps don’t have soundtracks this good – copious amounts of sex, drugs and betrayal inspiring the creeping-smile funk of “You Make Loving Fun” and the shrugging devastation of “Dreams,” classics that somehow manage not to let torrential emotion overwhelm immaculate craft. Side two has some duds and “Don’t Stop” may not be salvageable from Clinton-era misuse, but no musical document of a period this messy should ever risk total perfection.
21. Green Day, Dookie (1994, 10x Platinum)
No blistering collection of paeans to youthful aimlessness has ever ended up foisting such a sense of purpose on a band – within a decade of Dookie conquering suburban America, Green Day were making rock operas protesting the Bush Administration. The trio may not have been ordinary slackers to begin with: If they were, they wouldn’t have bothered with the brilliant build to “Longview,” the piercing harmonies of “She,” the epic Dead Kennedys breakdown to “Welcome to Paradise,” or the sweater that Billie Joe wore in the “When I Come Around” video.
20. Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill (1986, 10x Platinum)
Brilliantly produced, marketed and executed frat-hop satire that eventually ate its own tail, Licensed to Ill didn’t invent rap-rock, but it certainly made damn sure that every suburban white kid across the country knew of its existence. Nonetheless, it was dope enough to get sampled by both N.W.A and Public Enemy, and if “Paul Revere,” “Brass Monkey” and “No Sleep to Brooklyn” can’t still rock a party 30 years later, it’s the party’s fault.
19. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II (1969, 12x Platinum)
The album that cemented Zeppelin as the band that all future rock bands would at some point want to be; the quartet should get a yearly stipend from Sam Ash and Guitar Center. The band casually masters rock dynamics on “What Is and What Should Never Be,” redefines the literal guitar solo on “Heartbreaker,” and invents the late-‘80s power ballad with “Thank You” – that this came the same calendar year as their first album was just insulting.
18. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967, 11x Platinum)
No LP opened up more possibilities for the format than Sgt. Pepper -- an album of dubious conceptual coherencce but obvious sonic fluency, with peaks and valleys and an epic climax that remains unmatched in rock history. The song set isn’t quite the Fab Four’s strongest, but there are no outright duds, and every track is supported by the dozen that surround it; the first time a rock band was done an obvious disservice by having its songs taken outside of album context.
17. Notorious B.I.G., Life After Death (1997, 10x Platinum)
Life After Death posthumously turned the Notorious B.I.G. into easily the country’s most popular rapper – a cruel irony in an album full of ‘em -- thanks in large part to the triumphant singles “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money Mo Problems.” Those still resonate today, but so do the Bone-Thugs mind meld “Notorious Thugs,” the Knick-fan-baiting “I Got a Story to Tell,” and the doggedly sanguine “The Sky’s the Limit,” whose video’s vision of a kiddie Bad Boy empire is almost impossible to watch without crying.
16. Shania Twain, Come On Over (1997, 20x Platinum)
The country-pop crossover album that even made Garth sound like Steve Earle with its Mutt Lange-blessed largesse. Come On Over moves with the confidence of an album strong enough across its 16 cuts that it can save its two best singles for tracks 10 and 13 without it being that weird -- even if that still doesn’t stop the first ten seconds of “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” from going off like a goddamn atom bomb.
15. Metallica, Metallica (The Black Album) (1991, 16x Platinum)
Metal -- the real stuff -- finally had its summer blockbuster moment, and Winger’s career never recovered. Just about every song on The Black Album is its own kickass action sequence, and while the lack of eight-minute songs or endless instrumental sections inevitably got the band branded sellouts, Metallica were rightly incredulous about anyone who didn’t consider “Sad But True” and “Holier Than Thou” f---in’ heavy.
14. Pink Floyd, The Wall (23x Platinum, 1979)
The definitive rock opera, largely because it’s willing to be as over-the-top and grotesque as the real thing, pocked with absolutely gut-churning, gaping-wound moments. The ugliness makes The Wall transfixing, through singular soundscapes like the post-apocalyptic new wave of “Run Like Hell” and fascist disco thump of “Another Brick in the Wall” -- and the album model holds: When Kendrick Lamar spends 80 minutes in a hotel room getting uncomfortably numb on 2015’s most acclaimed album, Roger Waters must’ve been right about something.
13. Adele, 21 (2011, 14x Platinum)
Proving a 2001-style blockbuster was still possible in 2011, it’s a tribute to Adele’s peerless abilities as a singer-songwriter that overplay couldn’t dull the viciousness of “Rolling in the Deep,” the humiliation of “Someone Like You,” even the cheekiness of “Rumour Has It.” Even more importantly, deeper 21 cuts like “He Won’t Go,” “One and Only” and “Turning Tables” are just as devastating left-hooks, and even the water-logged Cure cover feels like a necessary tribute to the tears-on-my-pillow history of pop’s past.
12. Van Halen, Van Halen (1978, 10x Platinum)
Finding the happy medium between two-finger tapping and barbershop breakdowns, Van Halen’s first album was bursting with so much virtuosic brio in scorched-earth riffers like “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” that it went Diamond virtually without a hit single, setting the template for the next decade of hedonistic West Coast party metal. Chuck Klosterman says the kids would call the band “teeth metal” because they smiled so damn much -- can you blame them?
11. Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life (1976, 10x Platinum)
Recently celebrating its 40th birthday and taken out on tour by its composer a couple years back, Songs in the Key of Life has the essential vitality to always bubble back up to the forefront of discussion. 104 minutes is a lot, and not everything here is “Sir Duke” or “As,” but if the title’s an oversell, it ain’t by much – the album seems to have a song for all seasons, and in the second half of the ‘90s alone, two different tracks on it were sampled for Hot 100 No. 1 hits.
10. Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (2000, 10x Platinum)
An EMP of negative energy unleashed by one man on his wife, his mother, his label, his fans, and -- last and absolutely least -- himself. The Marshall Mathers LP might stand as the last album to really make parents feel like one artist could single-handedly bring about the end of Western Civilization, and Eminem made his apocalyptic case with humor, hooks, and some of the most creative wordplay hip-hop has ever seen, creating a savage and frequently inexcusable masterpiece of not giving a f---.
9. Madonna, Like a Virgin (1984, 10x Platinum)
Madonna’s musical and conceptual ambitions would grow from here, but the pure thrills of Like a Virgin are not to be overshadowed: “Angel” and “Dress You Up” are perfectly synth-popped chewing gum, “Material Girl” does Marilyn and Motown proud, and the title track is rivaled only by “Billie Jean” as the defining jam of MTV’s formative years. A year later she’d give away a couple brilliant singles away to soundtracks, seemingly just because she could.
8. The Beatles, The Beatles (The White Album) (1968, 19x Platinum)
The double album all other double albums are patterned after, subconsciously or not -- mostly because it’s the first double album to suggest that you can follow a reggae-pop ode to domesticity with an atonal minute-long shriek-along and an absurdist Western ballad, and have it all be equally essential to the album’s character. Your favorite song will never be the same from listen-to-listen, nor will your least favorite, but the overall stew is so rich that at a certain point you stop comparing bites anyway.
7. TLC, CrazySexyCool (1995, 11x Platinum)
So cold chillin’ that Busta Rhymes, Phife Dawg and Andre 3000 all stop by just to hang, CrazySexyCool successfully rebranded the condom-wearing candy kids of “What About Your Friends” as grown-ass women, capable of making cheating seductive, raising AIDS awareness, and flipping genders back on Prince. With a ‘90s Atlanta Braves-caliber squad of producers giving up the funk, TLC created the gold standard for ‘90s R&B... maybe for post-hip-hop R&B, period.
6. Various Artists, Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack (1977, 15x Platinum)
Sure, the six Bee Gees songs are all beyond-classic, but Saturday Night Fever endures as the definitive document of the disco era (and ranks way higher here than Bodyguard) because of how superlative the rest of it is, too. KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” is pure Vitamin C, Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” does Barry Gibb as well as his brothers ever did, and don’t you dare try to hate on Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” -- we can see you strutting already.
5. Nirvana, Nevermind (1991, 10x Platinum)
The most fundamentally surprising inclusion of all these albums -- a quarter-century later, it feels weirder than ever that an album with “Territorial Pissings” and “Breed” on it ended up bending the shape of late-20th century American culture. It just goes to show that pop music really is where the people find it, and sometimes, that’s in the form of a short-fused set of smartly produced, brilliantly written and fearlessly performed punk songs whose urgency taps into something so real among the youth that even the dance clubs have to start rocking it.
4. Michael Jackson, Thriller (1982, 32x Platinum)
Chris Rock has deemed both Purple Rain and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy superior to Thriller, the best-selling album in U.S. history, saying that “there’s no ‘Baby Be Mine’” on either of those albums. He’s right that there’s one dud keeping the supernatural brilliance of Thriller from being completely unassailable, but he’s wrong about the song: it’s the corny-even-by-Macca-standards Paul McCartney duet “The Girl Is Mine.”
3. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (1971, 23x Platinum)
Eight tracks of boundless melodic creativity and instrumental virtuosity, Led Zeppelin’s ambiguously titled fourth album defines the phrase “classic rock” in perpetuity. Bands simply shouldn’t be able to pull off the time-defying prog-funk of “Four Sticks” and the flower-child acoustic balladry of “Going to California” and the howling future-blues of “When the Levee Breaks”; that they can and do so much more on IV is why Beyoncé is still sampling it 45 years later.
2. The Beatles, Abbey Road (1969, 12x Platinum)
Sgt. Pepper suggested that an album could be more than the sum of its parts, but Abbey Road’s side two moved to make those parts essentially inseparable: Chances are, you’ve never once in your life heard “Carry That Weight” without it coming between “Golden Slumbers” and “The End.” The suite’s majesty represented such an obvious peak in the Beatles’ recording career that Paul McCartney still ends solo concerts with the LP’s closing medley, managing to overshadow an A-side that contains a pair of No. 1 hits, Macca’s greatest Fab Four vocal, and a trance-inducing lust ballad that gets eaten by the Lost smoke monster by song’s end.
1. Prince, Purple Rain (1984, 13x Platinum)
A soundtrack that actually makes for a more coherent cinematic experience than the film it accompanies, Purple Rain is certainly in contention for the most perfect album in rock or pop history, expertly flowing from track to track while delighting, surprising and astounding at each bend. Personal and universal, familiar and challenging, romantic and narcissistic, religious and orgasmic, accessible to all and profoundly weird, Purple Rain rightly remains the cornerstone of Prince’s recorded legacy, almost too obvious in its brilliance to even be worth discussing at length.