The fact that our music now lives in the cloud and streams on demand confirms, as if any confirmation were needed, that manhood cannot be measured by the size of one’s record collection. But no man’s truly grown if he can’t whip up a party playlist or irrationally fears country or jazz.
Some of the following 25 albums you need to know because they’re by men’s men who are actually much more than that. Others are by women who could teach you a thing or two. And one’s by a husband-and-wife team of L.A. punks (they broke up, but not before thrashing out a few of their differences). They all, though, sound great played just a tad too loud.
James Brown, Live at the Apollo (1963)
Brown’s the closest thing music has ever had to a sports hero, and this legendary concert album—which he recorded on his own dime, knowing it would finally secure his then elusive fame—showcases his athletic potency. He sweats out the funk and bleeds through the ballads for 32 furious minutes, cheers and cries going up constantly from the crowd. His star quality’s obvious. But listen for how he leads his world-class band: with impeccable accuracy and feeling. The soul here is very much a team effort.
Aaliyah, Aaliyah (2001)
Aaliyah wasn’t just a pretty face on the back of Missy Elliott’s jacket. The ultra-assured R&B singer died at 22, only months after this album’s release, spawning half poignant, half tacky tributes from Elliott, her friend and collaborator.
But her late-career legacy remains pure class, a perfect coupling of producer Timbaland’s boundary-prodding musical influence with her own velvety sexual poise. (She got her start with R. Kelly, who married her when she was just 15.
Luckily her parents had that annulled, and still allowed her to leave the house.) “Rock the Boat” alone creates a stunning paradox: It’s a deeply romantic slow jam in which she bluntly reminds you to “change positions.”
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison (1968)
Cash didn’t invent outlaw country, but on this classic live document he took it to its logical (and rather literal) conclusion, playing unvarnished songs about death row (“25 Minutes to Go”) and the injustice of jails (“Folsom Prison Blues”) to a bunch of rowdy convicts. It’s no macho exercise: He duets adorably with his future wife June Carter on “Jackson,” and even when he’s blasting through a sordid tale of murder and cop-dodging in “Cocaine Blues,” it’s not with any kind of posturing but matter-of-fact empathy.
Eric Church, The Outsiders (2014)
The country music charts today resemble the worst kind of bar scene: They’re awash in bros who can’t seem to shut up about beer and pickups. A 36-year-old dad with a few albums under his buckle, Eric Church would be the guy playing hard rock on the jukebox and actually telling you something about life.
His best album yet boasts some of the biggest guitar riffs in all of music, and a few ballads that hit even harder. “Like a Wrecking Ball,” the one about coming home from tour and making foundation-quaking love to his wife? The unlikeliest country classic in ages. [Listen on Spotify]
D’Angelo, Voodoo (2000)
D’Angelo’s famously naked video for this atmospheric album’s most pop-song-like cut, “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” lives on in countless women’s spank banks. And there’s even more to Voodoo‘s timelessness than that (the fact that D’Angelo hasn’t released another full length since then helps—although he promises one this year).
It’s the exquisite balance of bear-rug coziness and live-bear muscle, the chill vibe with the tensed-up rhythm section, that makes this a full-body musical experience whether or not somebody’s got their shirt off. Although somebody should probably take their shirt off. [Listen on Spotify]
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (1959)
Kind of Blue is kind of a cliche: the best-selling jazz album of all time, it’s famous for being famous. But willfully ignoring it won’t make you any more sophisticated—and giving it a generous listen almost definitely will.
The great trumpeter Miles Davis recruited the great saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and the great pianist Bill Evans to carry out a concept from the great composer George Russell: modal jazz, an ambitious new approach liberated from chord changes. And no, the form was never the same. Studying how they pulled it off just happens to be a pleasure.
Al Green, Call Me (1973)
You probably know the gloriously blaring horns and sweet, sweet falsetto of “Call Me (Come Back Home)” and “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” from the radio or the Greatest Hits album or every semi-classy wedding you’ve been to.
Imagine that pair of classics in their natural state, surrounded by seven other equally supple ideals of Memphis soul, two of them reinventions of tunes by Hank Williams (“So Lonesome I Could Cry”) and Willie Nelson (“Funny How Time Slips Away”), and another one earmarked for the lord (“Jesus Is Waiting”). But you can tell the ladies all these songs go out to them.
PJ Harvey, Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
Harvey toughed out the ’90s playing flinty, standoffish rock—she called her ’92 debut Dry. But as the millenium turned, she found something like love and tenderized her sound.
The result’s starkly, weirdly beautiful—you may well find yourself humming along with “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore,” and her brilliant duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, “The Mess We’re In,” might be better defined as a mutual haunting.
What’s there to learn from a seriously uncompromising woman who discovers what she was searching for? Only everything.
Billie Holiday, The Ultimate Collection (2005)
Billie Holiday’s remembered as one of the all-time great singers 55 years after her death (at age 44, after a long odyssey with addiction) not because she had a juggernaut voice. It’s how she used it: with a casual, accessible brilliance, stretching technical and emotional limits like she was shooting rubber bands.
This set takes you through her career in a whirlwind, from the speakeasy to the big-band ballroom, anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit” to “‘Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.” There’s wisdom in it, and a whole lot else, too.
Jay Z, The Blueprint (2001)
You can—and should, really—argue your opinion on the greatest rapper of all time. Ditto the greatest rap album. But in the case of The Blueprint, just take for granted that it’s the greatest display of confidence ever put onto one hip hop LP, and enjoy it.
Whether he’s absolutely leveling his then-enemy Nas on “Takeover” or just screwing around on “Girls, Girls, Girls,” the man (who had yet to hook up with Beyonce!) cruises to his peak like he’s piloting a creampuff Mercedes. And who provided him with four of these uniformly fantastic beats? Kanye West, still three years off from his own first bid for rap’s biggest ego.
B.B. King, The Best of B.B. King, Volume One (1991)
There’s nothing wrong with those John Mayer albums you’ve got. Honest. But as Mayer himself would no doubt tell you, to know the blues—to know this country—you’ve got to know B.B. King. He’s a guitar hero, sure, but for deepening the seemingly simple style of earlier stars like Blind Lemon Jefferson, starting in the ’40s.
He’s also a terrific singer, important songwriter (you can find his classic “Sweet Little Angel” on this, the best of his best-of collections) and a key DJ from back when radio first launched the all-black format. The reason why we all know of a guitar named Lucille is because B.B. King brought her along as he made the blues what it is today—and what it was at its height.
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city (2013)
Compton, California didn’t just disappear after N.W.A. and Dr. Dre stopped releasing albums. On his major label debut, Lamar, a Dr. Dre protege born and raised in Compton, returns that legendary (and legendarily scary) place to reality, circa now, with a perceptiveness and a playfulness that showcases just how far rap has come since the early ’90s.
He’s a joy to listen to, whether you’re parsing his technique or following his engrossing narratives. The story he tells isn’t just about L.A. or hip hop, though. It’s really about the endlessly complex life of a young black man in America.
LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver (2007)
This might already be the token hip album in your collection. When LCD Soundsystem broke up in 2012, on the verge of Coachella-level popularity, they were the band most likely to get Manhattan models and Brooklyn DJs dancing.
And yet James Murphy’s true passion was genuinely geeky: Honoring the golden era of post-disco NYC club music, with songs about being the aging record collector who’d obsess over such a thing. These nine perfect tracks celebrate an important chapter of musical history, but more importantly, they celebrate whatever you damn well like whenever you put them on. Suddenly that jog feels like a night on the town.
Bob Marley, Burnin’ (1973)
You needn’t dig too much deeper than Legend, one of the best-selling greatest hits discs of all time, to hear Bob Marley as a living artist rather than a stale dorm-room soundtrack.
Burnin’ is his hard-hitting second major label album, and while it includes the familiar “Get Up, Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff,” it also reveals a guy in the midst of refining his sound and his politics—”Small Axe” is a beautifully modest example. He’s already a righteous artist here, but he’s also a man you might identify with.
Metallica, Metallica (1991)
It’s only natural for teenage boys to agonize over whether their favorite band has sold out or gone soft. Grown men have more important things to worry about—and The Black Album, as it’s known, to remind us of how profoundly awesome conquering the mainstream can sound.
The riffs here measure up to anything Metallica fired off when they were helping invent thrash metal in the early ’80s. And the songs themselves equal the very best in all of hard rock, a genre that, like so many things, the baby boomers did their best to exhaust. Metallica reclaimed the genre for later generations—lucky for us, even if we didn’t quite know it at the time.
Nirvana, In Utero (1993)
You don’t need to told that Kurt Cobain was important. Magazines never stopped doing that after his death, and nothing goes unnoticed or uncelebrated online, including the 20th anniversary of this album, which you may have seen tweeted about last fall. (Along with the new deluxe edition, which includes worthwhile new tracks, demos and special mixes.)
The enduringly great thing about In Utero, Nirvana’s searing last disc, is how keenly Cobain plows through all the bullshit that had already built up around him. The noise, anguish, anger and acid jokes (like the “teenage angst has paid off well” line that starts the album off) strip away everything but the core of his legacy: a desire, often frustrated, to connect.
Pretenders, Learning to Crawl (1984)
As difficult as the Pretenders—a punky band with a classic rock vibe and true pop songs—were to pin down, Chrissie Hynde is even harder to figure. Is she tough or vulnerable? Flirty or aloof? Ironic or crushingly honest? Nowhere are these lines finer than on the group’s prettiest and punchiest album, which climaxes with the swaggering piano anthem “Thin Line Between Love and Hate”: “The sweetest woman in the world/could be the meanest woman in the world/if you make her that way.”
Hynde (who’s got an excellent solo album coming in 2014) is the kind of woman to make you reevaluate what kind of man you want to be.
Prince, Purple Rain (1984)
There’s never been another man like Prince in part because he’s flitted through so many personas—not all of them strictly male. And you don’t need to have seen the Chappelle’s Show “skins versus blouses” sketch to know how potent his gender-bending (and genre-blending) could be up against more conventional types.
Purple Rain may be the poppiest album of his, but it also showcases the reach of his genius, from anarchic rock power (“Let’s Go Crazy”) to experimental pop smashes (“When Doves Cry”) to alien-sent soft rock (“The Beautiful Ones”). He’s a giant, with or without platform heels.
Frank Sinatra, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (1956)
He’s a symbol of easygoing, untouchable ego, but even early in his early golden period (his first five albums, released on Capitol Records), Sinatra needed to play defense: This collection of ’30s and ’40s standards pushed back at the rock and roll that was then ascendant.
If that’s ancient history, his masterful interpretations of these tunes—unhurried, subtly heated-up—remains fully accessible and utterly engrossing. The schmaltzy years were still a ways off. Here he woos the big band arrangements like a true gentleman.
Bruce Springsteen, Born in the US.A. (1984)
Bruce had been around the block by the time he achieved synthesizer-soaked megafame with this album. (He’d already released six others, including Nebraska, his super-dark acoustic one-off from two years earlier.)
He reined in his usual impulse to make jumbo-sized symbols of his blue-collar heroes, even if “Born in the US.A.” was co-opted as a patriotic anthem—which is absurd when you hear how powerfully melancholy that song becomes as it breaks down at the end. And there’s no shortage of hard-won beauty, either, from “I’m on Fire” to “Bobby Jean.”
Those awesome ’80s synths? He earned ‘em.
The Strokes, Is This It (2001)
The Strokes never did blow up, and frontman Julian Casablancas’s solo stuff has been willfully primitive (although “11th Dimension” ranks among the best Strokes songs, hokey drum machines and all). But their streamlined take on NYC flash was always more timeless than up-to-the-moment, and their debut remains one of the sweetest achievements in thrift-store suavity.
There’s not a note out of place here, not in the finely machined songs nor in Casablancas’s hyper-emotional, just-this-side-of-sloppy singing. In a way, they’ve become the kind of underground band they modeled themselves after.
Television, Marquee Moon (1977)
There was plenty more to punk rock than glue-sniffing and “God Save the Queen,” never mind mohawks and black leather jackets.
Television were playing CBGB alongside the Ramones before the Sex Pistols even formed, but they didn’t cunningly debase rock music, they exalted it the same way bands like the Grateful Dead did: with astounding and gorgeous guitar work (courtesy of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd).
The title track of this, their subversively urbane debut album, voyages past 10-minute mark, and deep into the mystic.
Stevie Wonder, Innervisions (1973)
Wonder got his start at Motown when he was 11, so although it was his 16th album, he was just 23 when he released Innervisions. But he was a 23-year-old in full command of his music, writing and performing virtually everything, and of his intentions, which included finding spirituality beyond peace protests (“Higher Ground”) and also, you know, sneaking a little heaven on earth (“Golden Lady”).
He also contributes lovely, landmark songs on poverty (“Living for the City”) and civil rights (“Visions”). But this is not merely a message album; it’s an model of self-discovery.
X, Wild Gift (1981)
Yes, L.A.’s greatest punk band was fronted by a married couple. Or at least, Exene Cervenka and John Doe were married by the time they released Wild Gift, their second (and best) album. He played bass, and they both sang.
And domesticity fueled some terrific, slashing, melancholy songs—and excellently punk titles, even, like “When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch” and “We’re Desperate” and “White Girl,” in which a man, tempted by a blond, pointlessly muses over his options: “She’s a white girl, but I’m living with a white girl.” Inside jokes don’t come any better than that.
Van Halen, 1984 (1984)
Van Halen’s sixth album is important for a couple reasons—it’s David Lee Roth’s last album with the band, a benchmark of the early MTV era … but the last thing Van Halen intended was for their music to be important.
They just wanted to dazzle people (well, teenage dudes and nudie bar DJs) with inscrutable guitar stunts, overly-obvious sex references (remember “I brought my pencil!” on “Hot for Teacher”?), and showmanship to shame the most shameless ’70s rock stars. 1984 squeezes in more of this sublime ridiculousness than any of VH’s other albums. “Panama,” for one, is an epic on par with anything by Led Zeppelin, and is just three and a half minutes long. You don’t have to respect it. Just love it.
With a little bit of digging, any man can assemble a great collection of albums that will last a lifetime. These are only 25 suggestions to get you started – there are plenty more out there waiting to be discovered. So start listening, and find your favorites!