I know, I know, my God! One glance at this list and everyone starts screaming, “Dear Lord, they forgot the Beatles!?!” We did not forget. The Beatles contribution to music and rock is all-encompassing. Their first album Please, Please Me (1963) took the UK by storm, Rubber Soul (1966) shook the foundations in the US and Sgt. Pepper (1967) threw out the book on what music was supposed to be. We could sit here for days writing about how the Beatles changed music, but instead we’re going to talk about nine other albums that changed the face of rock, from its early beginnings to the not so clear cut place it is now.
King of the Delta Blues Singers – Robert Johnson (1961)
For those unfamiliar with linear progression, rock is not just a happenstance, a musical genre that emerged from the time fog. Elvis did not just wake up one day, put on his “Blue Suede Shoes” and start breaking hearts and gyrating around the stage. It started with blues legends like Robert Johnson, who despite releasing only 29 songs before his mysterious death (another member of the 27 club), would leave enough material behind to creep through the ages of rock, constantly being adapted and built upon. If Elvis was the King, blues was the castle, and Johnson was one of its many builders.
Seminal Track: “Hellhound on My Trail.”
Had it Not Happened: We’d be missing a whole lot of Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Tom Waits.
Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley (1956)
In a time of the segregated South and building racial tensions, Elvis took hold of rhythm & blues and brought it with his own style to white-middle America. The result was a complete and utter shift in popular music, the subsequent birth of Rock n’ Roll and the emergence of its King. “That’s Alright Mama” and “Blue Suede Shoes” took to the airwaves and with it the teenage-driven Presleymania. Elvis became the first badass of the rock movement, the rebellious larger-than-life figure that would become a standard in years to come and forever leave an older generation furrowing their brows and turning the volume down.
Seminal Track: “That’s Alright Mama.”
Had it Not Happened: Music as we know it might be some sort of Bjorkian-country hybrid completely unfamiliar to the ear. Anyone who ever picked up an instrument after 1956 was influenced by Elvis, but his biggest contribution was the persona and culture he built.
Bringing It All Back Home – Bob Dylan (1965)
Dylan blew the doors off the folk scene in 1965 with his fifth studio release. Stepping away from the protest songs he had unwillingly come to champion, Dylan turned on his folk roots with snarling, biting lyrics and a gritty electric sound that blindsided everybody but him. Bringing It All Back Home might well be the birthplace of modern rock. Dylan’s weaving of multiple genres and convoluted antipathy towards audience and authority might as well be the textbook definition of what it means to be rock n’ roll.
Seminal Track: “Maggie’s Farm”
Had it Not Happened: We’d be lost. Dylan was a chameleon; his ever-changing brand of music not only opened the book on a new era of rock but ensured it never got stale. Everyone owes Dylan, from rock to rap and even MTV; Subterranean Homesick Blues produced the first real music video.
The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground (1967)
Ushering in the drug ballads that would later fill out the libraries of rock, The Velvet Underground staked their place in the genre with their first studio release, a long, hard and lyrical look at the literal highs and lows of New York in the late sixties. Under the management and flippant, devil-may-care attitude of Andy Warhol, front man Lou Reed was able to go full bore into the limelight with his then experimental brand of rock. The calm, cool, collected drones of Reed backed by the eclectic musical genius of John Cale would be the base point for numerous musical branches, from New Wave to Psychedelic and make rock something more than just an electric guitar and set of drums.
Seminal Song: All of them – “Sunday Morning”, “Waiting for my Man”,” Heroin”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” – the whole album.
Had it Not Happened: R.E.M, Joy Division and the Pixies all take cues from The Velvet Underground & Nico but mostly it set the stage for the next set of innovators: Pink Floyd and David Bowie.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – David Bowie (1972)
While Pink Floyd expanded on the work of Velvet Underground, Bowie borrowed from it and began toying with both image and sound until the experiment exploded and Ziggy Stardust and the Cult of Bowie formed. Bowie's chameleon nature would go on to shape several areas of rock, but none more so than the glam rock of the late 70s and 80s. The album itself was a culmination of all his previous endeavors and gave way to rock music blending with radio pop. What we got was a diversion; rock bands could now seamlessly pass between rock and pop and maintain a certain image in both.
Seminal Song: “Ziggy Stardust”
Had it Not Happened: We’d be without a whole host of 80s hair and glam bands but our biggest loss would be that of Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen and the original RockOpera.
Trans-Europe Express – Kraftwerk (1977)
Leading up to their sixth studio release, Kraftwerk steadily pushed the boundaries of experimental electronica and their efforts showed full bore on the seminal Trans-Europe Express. The albums deadpan poetry and thunderous beats, offset by the long lingering tonal melodies and sharp electronic rhythms shifted the pace of rock away from the standard four-man band and into the brave new world of synthesizers, sound boards and digital alterations.
Seminal Track: “Trans-Europe Express”
Had it Not Happened: We’d be without New Wave: Depeche Mode, a-Ha, New Order and of course the Talking Heads. For arguments sake, we can also thank Kraftwerk for autotune, club beats and every sweaty hook-up you’ve had on the dance floor.
Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – Sex Pistols (1979)
While Bowie, the Talking Heads and AC/DC, we’re all moving the chains of their respective avenues of rock, a couple bad boys in London were overhauling the genre in their own way. The early punk rock movement was picking up steam with bands like The Clash and the Ramones leading the charge, but Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols stole the show with their one and only album and their notoriously anarchic live shows. Punk Rock quickly became the medium of choice for disenfranchised youth looking for somewhere to vent. The Sex Pistols gave them that and more. If Dylan sought to lay bare the wrongs of the world and Lennon sought to change them, the Sex Pistols just wanted to burn the whole thing to the ground, faults and all.
Seminal Song: “God Save the Queen”
Had it Not Happened: We’d be without Sonic Youth, NOFX, Rancid and the Misfits.
Nevermind – Nirvana (1991)
There are people abound who would disagree with Nirvana’s placement on this list and those people would be wrong. Unfortunately, Cobain’s suicide spawned the exact monster he sought to destroy: mainstream angst music for teens otherwise known as Emo. We would be ignorant to ignore the fact that rock music is still progressing. It is a living breathing thing out of our hands and early ought’s Emo and the prog rock of the late nineties owe their existence to Cobain. Nevermind brought rock back down from the fluffy heights of 80s air and back into the power ballads of old, the anthems that hit a deep and often dark place.
Seminal Track: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Had it Not Happened: We’d probably still be dealing with ever-more-elaborate incarnations of Twisted Sister and Poison. Who is to say what rock might have become had Cobain been at the helm throughout the decade, but like all good front men, fame, paranoia and heroin got the better of him.
Ok Computer – Radiohead (1997)
Maybe the last great game changer, Radiohead’s notable shift in sound would become one of the key influences of the indie rock movement. Combining their old instrumental styling with tonal melodies that dove and spun their way around the infinitely melodramatic vocals of Thom Yorke, Radiohead, like Dylan before them shocked their audience with such a seismic shift. Their albums that followed noted a total conversion to their new found form and the long flowing sound and twisted lyrics spread like wildfire through the rock world.
Seminal Track: “Karma Police”
Had it Not Happened: Radiohead took their cues from just about everyone mentioned on this list and acted as a bridge to influence a whole new slew of emerging rocks bands, most notably Muse and Coldplay.