Hundreds of thousands of movies have been shot, but there’s only one Citizen Kane. Millions of houses have been constructed, but there’s only one Fallingwater. Countless books have been written, but there’s only one Anna Karenina. Art has few masterpieces. It takes years, sometimes decades, for us to come face to face with a painting like Guernica or a play like Streetcar Named Desire, even a revolutionary statue like Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. These pieces transcend time; they reflect who we are as humans and move us to our very core. The same happens with music.
The fact that music is probably the oldest art form created by humanity has provided us with our fair share of great musical masterpieces to take our pick, from great classics like Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” Mozart’s Requiem, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, to those that innovated and changed the medium, like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. And yet we don’t need to look so far into the past. Contemporary music has given us some truly great albums, unforgettable works of art that will be remembered for a long time after we’re gone. But what makes an album transcend and become something more? A work of art worthy of being compared with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”?
I decided to look at the top rated albums in three highly influential music websites –Rolling Stone, NME, and Pitchfork– trying to find what the experts think turns about a dozen songs into a life changing experience. Their respective top picks are very different and they offer a wide variety of genres, artists, and periods in music history.
Rolling Stone’s pick:
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) by The Beatles
Often recognized as one of the most influential rock masterpieces of all time, this conceptual album’s arrival helped define an era of turmoil and change. The sixties will always be remembered as the decade of the civil rights movements, student marches, psychedelic drug use, and hippies. The album’s esthetic and experimentation served as an inspiration to young people everywhere. It also marked the beginning of a new genre in music: progressive rock. The album is deep, complex, and daring. Every risk it took brought about a revolution in music and influenced countless great bands that would eventually start making their own music. A turning point in pop music, complex and unafraid to experiment and try new things.
The Queen is Dead (1986) by The Smiths
Considered one of the defining albums of the eighties, this indie gem was released when Morrissey and Johnny Marr were at the top of their game. Packed with deeply critical lyrics that chastised the British media obsession with royalty, the songs seemed to understand and even talk to those who felt like outsiders, to young people everywhere who felt isolated and alone while having to endure the conservative policies of Margaret Thatcher's government. It bisected British society and left its insides for all to see: “Pass the pub that wrecks your body / And the church, all they want is your money / The Queen is dead, boys / And it's so lonely on a limb.” Another turning point in pop music, politically charged as it spoke to a generation.
To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) by Kendrick Lamar
After critics loved his two previous albums: Section.80 and Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Kendrick Lamar had set the bar so high it seemed highly unlikely that he would be able to push it even higher. But that’s exactly what he did. Like his previous conceptual record, Lamar takes us on a journey with a start, middle, and end, this time an exploration of black culture and Kendrick’s role as a survivor in a country that’s not as post-racial as it thinks it is. It draws on all sorts of African American music, tweaked until it does service to express contemporary ailments. A turning point in hip hop, politically charged, experimental, and with sincerity oozing out of every syllable.
So there you have it, three albums that perfectly capture the tumultuous times when they were created. Each tried new things in their own way, took risks, and revolutionized their respective genres, crucial aspects that helped turn them into works of art.