Finally, an end to the debate.
I’ve calculated once-and-for-all which year truly was the greatest of all-time. Yes, it’s incredibly nerdy – but it had to be done.
Before we get into the fun stuff, here’s how I did it. I looked at several top 100 albums of all-time lists – some compiled by critics, others by public voting or based on sales data – and allocated points based on each album’s position on the list.
For example, every time ‘Revolver’ topped a list, it earned 100 points for 1966. Whenever ‘The Wall’ appeared second, it scored 99 points for 1979, and so on down to a single point for albums ranked 100th.
If a list was compiled prior to 2019, the years not included got compensated the average the number of points available for each year the list covered.
I also did the same for a few greatest singles of all-time lists.
The points from these made up the bulk of the scoring. I also used 15 years of my own listening data from last.fm to allocate points in a similar way, and lastly added one point for each song in my own 15,000-strong song collection – this way years that had a lot of great records which didn’t crop up in the critics’ and public’s lists got recognised.
Lastly, I gave 2019 a 50 percent bonus to its score, considering we’re only two-thirds of the way through it.
All up, 93,100 points were allocated. The top-scoring year got 3891, the worst only 19.
Right- that out of the way, let’s start with the worst year in musical history since the dawn of the rock’n’roll era.
66th and last: 1962
The year before Beatlemania broke is, by my calculations, the worst year in music. Most of its points came from the presence of a few good singles – Skeeter Davis’ ‘The End Of The World’ the best, with the Tornados’ ‘Telstar’ and the Beatles’ debut ‘Love Me Do’ among them – but without any albums of great significance, there’s not a lot to say really, except that things would soon get a whole lot better.
It really wasn’t the end of the world – though it might have felt like it to anyone listening to the radio.
A year so bad, I only personally have one song in my collection from it. 1955’s top-ranked album according to most sites – Frank Sinatra’s ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ – failed to have an impact on the scoring, regularly failing to reach anyone’s top 100. BestEverAlbums, for example, has it #1 for the year but only 430th overall.
A common problem through much of the 1950s is a lack of classic albums that are still popular with critics and the public decades down the track. 1958’s points came largely from a few Buddy Holly singles, with backup from Johnny Cash. But again, no classic records anyone still bothers to listen to (and is willing to admit it).
Not even the arrival of the mighty Elvis Presley could save 1956 from the same fate as its contemporaries – the cover of his debut is iconic, but not every song on it is up to the standard set by ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. The top-ranked album of 1956 doesn’t even make the top 400 of all-time on BestEverAlbums.
We’re now in this little lull between rock’n’roll’s big impact and the ’60s revolution, where the jazz greats kind of dominate the critics’ and listeners’ charts. There’s one particular jazz classic in the late 1950s which towers above all others, propelling its year high in the list… but it’s not 1957, which languishes near the bottom with the rest of the decade’s entries. John Coltrane’s ‘Blue Train’ made the only significant impact on the scoreboard.
I’m kind of baffled as to how 1961 made it this high, to be honest. I have four songs from the year in my own collection – two of them by a pre-fame Beatles. BestEverAlbums’ list has the top-ranked album of the year a collection of Robert Johnson tunes recorded in the 1930s. RYM has one man – John Coltrane – occupying the top three spots. Slim pickings.
1954’s success over most of its colleagues was down to Elvis’ ‘The Sun Sessions’ album. I know it came out in the 1970s, but one of the first lists I looked at said it was largely recorded in 1954, so that’s where I put it.
Let’s just say if I’d put it in any other year, 1954 would struggle to get off the bottom spot – even if it was the year rock’n’roll arguably began.
Finally, our first post-Beatles year! 1974 had a few good records, but clearly none that still resonate with audiences and critics. Like having a centre-right head of state, it’s an oasis of mediocrity when compared to what came immediately before and after.
Standout albums include Bowie’s ‘Diamond Dogs’, ELO’s ‘Eldorado’, Queen’s ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ and John Lennon’s ‘Walls & Bridges’ – while each have their merits, arguably none are their respective artists’ best work. Genesis’ ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ did well in public lists, and when a Genesis album is the best a year has to offer, you know it’s going to struggle.
Strangely, Homer Simpson once declared rock “attained perfection” in 1974. Worst. Taste. Ever.
John Coltrane still reigns, Miles Davis is in there on most lists with an album that still gets mixed reviews, and Elvis was “back” with a record of songs whose titles you wouldn’t recognise.
I would joke the audience that made ‘The Twist’ a craze wasn’t interested in good music, but then again I lived through two years of ‘The Macarena’ whilst still finding decent stuff to listen to, so…
And now we have the lowest-ranked year of our most recent decade. Perhaps a coincidence it’s the most recent – classics can take time to digest, after all – but that would ignore the recency bias some public-voted lists have.
If anything, recent years benefited from the methodology described above, receiving a default average score if they didn’t feature in static lists compiled in the past.
Personally, 2018 for me was a year of decent, if unspectacular, records by old favourites – the Manics dipped into another mellow phase, Muse went synthwave with mixed results and Suede just kept doing their thing.
Records beloved by the critics – Janelle Monae’s ‘Dirty Computer’ and Kanye’s ‘Kids See Ghosts‘, for example – aren’t yet showing up in all-time favourite lists.
Time may prove favourable to 2018 yet.
And now we have not just the first Beatles year, but arguably the first year of the album era.
It’s a harsh irony however it’s the year they released their first all-original collection, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, though.
1964’s score is heavily dependent on this one record, while later years in the decade would see the Fab Four with plenty of support from their peers.
There’s not a single year in this list as dependent on a single record as 1959. Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ towers over everything else like a colossus. It’s ranked inside BestEverAlbums’ top 40, nearly 300 places ahead of its closest competitor.
Sucks to be in 1959 if you don’t like jazz.
To be honest, most of my listening this year has been historical. I’m doing a chronological listen to all those 15,000 tracks I mentioned earlier, and am currently up to 2001.
I haven’t even heard ‘Old Town Road’ yet – honestly – but what I’ve heard about it suggests I’m winning.
I suspect the methodology outlined above did 2019 favours, but what do I know? I’ve heard good things about the new Lana Del Rey record though. Will check that out soon.
An underrated year. 1990, like 1974, suffers from being sandwiched between years jam-packed with bona-fide cross-appeal classics.
Instead, 1990 gives us near-flawless records that don’t appear to have caught the ears of most younger listeners – Depeche Mode’s ‘Violator’, Public Enemy’s ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ and the La’s self-titled only record the standouts that put points on the board.
Other records fondly remembered by those who were there by the likes of Slayer, Redd Kross and Sonic Youth simply didn’t feature on any of the lists I consulted.
Like much of the 1950s, 2017 doesn’t feature any records that do well in the public vote lists. Of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Damn’, Tyler the Creator’s ‘Flower Boy’ and Lorde’s ‘Melodrama’ – the most popular across the sites – none feature in the all-time top 400 on BestEverAlbums, and on RateYourMusic, none of them even get four stars out of five.
The albums I liked that year – Wolf Alice’s ‘Visions Of A Life’ for example – sank without trace as far as list-voting types were concerned.
2016 was the year Bowie, Prince and George Martin left us, breaking the space-time continuum and sending us down the horror timeline we now find ourselves in.
For that reason alone it should perhaps sit 10 places lower on this list, but it’s saved by… well, as far as the lists go, I think a few hit singles on one of the Billboard lists I used.
But forgetting the methodology for a second, Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ was perhaps best record ever dropped by a literally dying man; veterans Suede, Deftones and Weezer delivered records warmly received by fans; and Radiohead phoned in a mellow record and easily topped a few end-of-year lists. None of this was enough to elevate 2016 higher than 51st, but history might be kinder (not politically, just musically).
Coming one place ahead of the year it all kind of ended, is the year it all kind of began. 1963 saw the Beatles release their first two records – mostly decent listens, but still the work of an early ’60s pop group.
The album era was just around the corner, and the best efforts of the Fab Four, Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys were still ahead.
I’m a bit of a loss for this one. The music I dug in 2014 – a rare good one from Weezer, NZ legends Shihad returning to their ’90s roots, and an emo band frontman’s great debut – is nowhere to be seen on these lists. The stuff that tops BestEverAlbums and RYM didn’t exactly hit the top 100s I used to make this ranking either.
The War on Drugs’ ‘Lost in the Dream’ was perhaps the biggest critical hit of the year. Tried listening to it once and found it boring. *shrug emoji*
I did use a Billboard top 100 singles of all-time chart in the rankings, which seemed to have a lot of crap I’d never heard of on it. Maybe that was it?
Anyway, here’s some kick-ass Kiwi rock.
Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love‘ was the driver for 1985, with support from The Smiths’ ‘Meat is Murder‘ and The Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Psychocandy‘.
The public-voted lists rate Tom Waits’ ‘Rain Dogs’ highly, but not high enough to help.
The mid-1980s were a bit dry on the classic albums front – indie was still a bit too indie for most, hip hop yet to mature and rock in a commercial stupor. The next year on this list would have none of those excuses for its poor showing.
1999’s most critically acclaimed album wasn’t even the band’s best record. ‘The Soft Bulletin’ by the Flaming Lips drove 1999’s score, alongside Sigur Ros’ ‘Ágætis byrjun’.
This might just be the Xennial in me talking, but I can’t help but feel 1999 was hard done by the methodology I chose. By limiting most of the points to albums that made lists’ top 100 – largely for reasons of practicality – years that had a lot of great records that didn’t necessarily hit the critics’ zeitgeist simply didn’t register.
A whole bunch of artists released career highlights in the last year of the 1900s, including Nine Inch Nails, Underworld, Ben Folds Five, Trans Am, Shihad, Rage Against the Machine and Travis, but few of their efforts appear to still be recognised.
Strange year this one. By far the most critically and publicly acclaimed record – Animal Collective’s ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ – to my ears is a largely unlistenable tinny Beach Boys pastiche.
But it got the votes, while numerous other records from that year didn’t. It’s truly baffling* to me the Manics’ ‘Journal for Plague Lovers’, Depeche Mode’s late-career classic ‘Sounds of the Universe’ and the Black Eyed Peas’ all-time best worst song ‘Boom Boom Pow’ weren’t the ones racking up the points.
* May not actually have been baffling.
Loads of records this year are really popular with the kinds of people who vote on BestEverAlbums and RYM – ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ by Kendrick Lamar, Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Carrie and Lowell’ and Tame Impala’s ‘Currents’ among them.
2015 could be a contender to rise up the all-time charts in the future, but for now it wallows down in the 40s.
Like 1974 before it, 1981 was somewhat of a comedown year after a classic run.
It has a number of albums many of you would probably consider classics – Rush’s ‘Moving Pictures’ perhaps the best-loved – but the professional critics hate Rush. There was a lot of very good music, I personally think – Human League’s ‘Dare‘, U2’s ‘Boy’ – still one of their best, King Crimson’s ‘Discipline‘, Duran Duran’s debut, Ultravox’s ‘Rage in Eden‘. But like Rush, the critics don’t rate any of this.
The Guardian did an article a few years back rating 1981 as the most revolutionary year in pop, and they make a good case. But revolutions don’t always make for good listening years down the track – think how much of the first-wave punk was awful, but was necessary to make way for the likes of Joy Division and Talking Heads.
I’ve got a soft spot for 2008. It was the soundtrack to my last year of being childfree… Anyway. Portishead’s ‘Third‘ was a long-awaited comeback that took a left turn; Coldplay did the cliched thing – hire Brian Eno to make an album that isn’t the cliched thing; NZ’s own Ladyhawke dropped a near-perfect debut; the Killers’ third – and arguably best – album arrived; Guns ‘n Roses released the underated ‘Chinese Democracy’; and Metallica proved ‘St Anger’ wasn’t a once-off and released the even worse-produced ‘Death Magnetic’, but at least it had guitar solos and decent songs.
But here 2008 is at 43rd. Thanks, Obama.
1992 – the year between new Nirvana studio albums – rested heavily on two records that sound nothing like each other, but were both part of the alternative movement the Seattle trio inspired: Rage Against the Machine’s debut, and REM’s ‘Automatic for the People’.
Looking at my own collection, it was a bit of a lean year by 1990s standards – I guess the shockwave from Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Metallica’s seismic releases the year before was forcing many artists to have a bit of a rethink.
There were highlights though – Nine Inch Nails’ bruising and lacerating ‘Broken’ EP, the Manics’ ludicrous debut ‘Generation Terrorists’ and Nirvana’s odds-and-ends ‘Incesticide‘ keeping things ticking over.
We’re still in the bottom half, but getting years the likes of 1983!? A year which saw REM release their best record of the 1980s, New Order’s ‘Power, Corruption and Lies‘, U2’s ‘War’, Violent Femmes’ debut, and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘She’s So Unusual‘?
I don’t understand how this happened. Well, I crunched the numbers, so I do. Those records just don’t appear in many top 100s – just narrowly out of them, usually. Hits over consistency, sadly.
Great year for music. Look at this top 10 on BestEverAlbums – even the few I don’t really dig I know are stone-cold classics in their genre (the RYM top 10 is a mess, in comparison).
Muse’s best record ‘Absolution’ dominated the year for me. The critics tended to plump for the White Stripes’ mainstream breakthrough, ‘Elephant‘. Most other big-name bands had transitional records – Radiohead’s limbo-years ‘Hail to the Thief’ was still good enough to top some critics’ lists though.
At the indie end, the Postal Service, Death Cab for Cutie, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Expolosions in the Sky and the Shins all released records still talked about now.
And 50 Cent released the first mumble-rap song.
2012’s position on the list was achieved almost entirely thanks to one record – Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’ – with a little bit of help from Tame Impala’s ‘Lonerism’.
Going by my own stats, it looks like I spent most the year listening to the Smashing Pumpkins’ last good album, ‘Oceania’.
1988 was a key year for the decade to come – it saw the release of Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’ masterpiece and the Pixies’ ‘Surfer Rosa’, which paved the way for the alternative boom of the 1990s; ‘…And Justice For All’, Metallica’s last underground thrash record before hiring a bass player and going mainstream; and ‘Straight Outta Compton’, which would set the template for ’90s gangsta rap.
Surprised it isn’t higher!
2011 wasn’t that good. I don’t know how it managed to crack the top 40. Adele’s ‘21‘ was pretty huge I guess? Bon Iver’s self-titled and PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake‘ are the only big critical hits it seems. Even Radiohead managed to release an album that made the critics shrug.
There was good stuff – St Vincent’s ‘Strange Mercy’, Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi’s ‘Rome’ and Duran Duran’s best album in three decades – but when a year is relying on Duran Duran to impress the kids and critics, it’s gonna struggle.
Underrated year. One I think will do better in 100 years, when everyone who was alive when ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ came out is dead.
The early 2000s saw the last big wave of rock bands hit – Queens of the Stone Age crushed all opposition in ’02 with ‘Songs for the Deaf’, getting Nirvana’s Dave Grohl in to play drums and obliterating anything the Foo Fighters were working on in their wilderness years.
Wilco’s rejected ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ found an audience online, making the alt-country group unlikely internet superstars well before MySpace was even invented.
The Datsuns briefly became the biggest NZ band in history overnight with their debut, Beck showed he had feelings with ‘Sea Change’, Bowie made his critical comeback with ‘Heathen‘, the Mars Volta released their brilliant – and only listenable – record, Johnny Cash took ownership of NiN’s ‘Hurt’, and even Coldplay wowed the critics with their career-best ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’.
That’s not to mention Norah Jones making her debut, the Flaming Lips releasing perhaps the single greatest song of all-time, Interpol’s critics-wowing ‘Turn on the Bright Lights’, or the best song ever written about getting revenge on a pirate.
36th is far too down the list, really. Sort it out, fellow music geeks!
Jebus, another good year that doesn’t deserve to be in the bottom half of this list!
2000’s most critically acclaimed record was also one of its most controversial – Radiohead’s left-turn away from rock, ‘Kid A’.
If rock was still your thing, Marilyn Manson delivered their best album (at least according to Allmusic), and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s debut dropped, easily their defining work.
Outkast’s ‘Stankonia‘, Godspeed You Black Emperor’s ‘Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven!’, Ryan Adams’ debut ‘Heartbreaker‘ and Coldplay’s first ‘Parachutes‘ dropped in too.
The millennium was off to a good start. If only it weren’t for those goddamn Millennials screwing it up… (I jest! *waves fist at cloud*)
Rounding out the bottom half of this list is 1998.
Almost all its points were generated by one record – Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’. I find that record OK in small doses – but at the risk of sounding like Patrick Bateman, tend to lean towards the more commercial stuff that came out, such as Marilyn Manson’s actual best record ‘Mechanical Animals’, Rob Zombie’s ‘Hellbilly Deluxe’ and Garbage’s ‘Version 2.0’.
The ‘Spawn’ soundtrack might have come out in 1997, but 1998 really was peak year for ’90s electronic/rock crossovers.
Massive Attack, Boards of Canada, Madonna and Lauryn Hill also contributed here and there to 1998’s score. Records that didn’t really pitch in, but should in future critics’ lists include Refused’s ‘The Shape of Punk to Come‘, Mansun’s bonkers magnum opus ‘Six‘ and The Living End’s debut.
Another year I thought would do better, but at least we’re in the top half of the list now.
The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Siamese Dream’ leads the way, Billy Corgan reinventing what guitar distortion could do on the band’s big breakthrough record.
Other big contributors to 1993’s score were the Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘36 Chambers‘ and Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’.
On this side of the world, 1993 saw the release of the expanded version of the Headless Chickens’ ‘Body Blow’, one of the best Kiwi albums ever made.
Cancelling Morrissey in 2019 doesn’t mean never listening to ‘The Queen is Dead’ again, right?
The other record helping lift 1986 into the top half was Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’, in what appears to have been a seminal year for metal – RYM’s top 10 also has Slayer’s ‘Reign in Blood’, Megadeth’s ‘Peace Sells’ and Iron Maiden’s ‘Somewhere in Time’.
Elsewhere, Paul Simon’s career peaked with the controversial ‘Graceland‘, Sonic Youth hinted at future glories to come with ‘Evol‘, XTC recorded yet another critical hit and commercial flop in ‘Skylarking‘, and REM started to work out how to rock on ‘Lifes Rich Pageant’.
Not a bad year all round, but I’m sure time is the only reason it’s ahead of a year like 1998.
At first glance, I’m a little confused how 2013 made it this high (the second-ranked year of the present decade on this list).
None of its records make the top 100 on RYM or BestEverAlbums, but there were a couple of lists I looked at in which users seemed more willing to rate modern records, like the Arctic Monkeys’ ‘AM’ or Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus‘; and it also saw the release of Daft Punk’s long-awaited ‘Random Access Memories‘ and Lorde’s hit debut ‘Pure Heroine’.
Vampire Weekend’s ‘Modern Vampires Of The City‘ was another good one, Bowie made his comeback with ‘The Next Day’ and ageing Paul McCartney didn’t embarrass himself with ‘New’.
So not a bad year really. At second glance, no confusion at all.
From here on, every year featured will likely feature a huge record that underpins its score – if not more.
2005’s is Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Illinois‘, the second of his 50-album set covering the entire United States, which 14 years later remains a series of… two.
A bit of assistance came from Gorillaz’ ‘Demon Days’ and Kanye West’s ‘Late Registration’, but that’s about it for the scoring.
Plenty of other good stuff though – Paul McCartney’s best album since the 1970s ‘Chaos And Creation In The Backyard’, Ryan Adams released three records – saving the best for last, the sombre and downbeat ’29’ – and its polar opposite, LCD Soundsystem’s iconic debut.
Prince was on top of his game in the mid-1980s, with ‘Purple’ Rain’ dominating critics’ charts for 1984.
The Smiths pitched in with two records – their debut and ‘Hatful of Hollow’ – still popular, despite Morrissey’s thoughtcrimes of the recent past.
’80s legends U2 and Bruce Springsteen released the albums that made them superstars, and support came from the growing metal scene – still-underground Metallica and Iron Maiden releasing well-received records too.
But the Purple One reigned. Check out this 13-minute live clip, where he fits about six hours of aerobics into a single song.
No guessing which record dominates 1982’s scoring. Of course, the hipsters over at RYM rate it second behind The Cure’s ‘Pornography’, but ‘Thriller’ has not just the critics behind it, but listeners and buyers.
Prince hit the big-time with ‘1999‘, while Duran Duran dropped their best – Rio – and Iron Maiden made sure everyone knew the number 666.
The runt of the late ’70s litter is 1976, caught in a no-man’s land between Floyd albums and decent Zep records. It was also a bit early for most of the punk classics.
Opinions on top record for the year are pretty closely split between Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’, Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’, and the Ramones’ debut.
Boston’s debut pitched in a few points, but that’s about it. Critics love the 1970s, putting 1976 into the top half almost by default – but it’s the bottom of the pack for the decade’s second half for a reason.
2007 is all about Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’.
Bon Iver’s debut also earned the year a few points, but without Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want masterpiece, 2007 would have likely ranked down in the 50s or 60s.
Personally, I think there were a lot of decent records that year – the Good, the Bad and the Queen, the Manics’ commercial comeback ‘Send Away the Tigers’, and LCD Soundsytem’s ‘Sound of Silver’. Was kind of surprised MGMT’s ‘Oracular Spectacular’ was nowhere to be seen on the lists.
Just pipping 2007 at the post is the year before it, 2006. Odd one this – BestEverAlbums and RateYourMusic, the two biggest meta-lists, have almost completely different top 10s. Joanna Newsom’s ‘Ys‘ is the only record they have in common.
The former skews more commercial, featuring the Arctic Monkeys’ debut, Muse’s ‘Black Holes and Revelations‘, My Chemical Romance’s ‘The Black Parade‘ and Amy Winehouse’s big-selling ‘Back to Black’, while the latter’s topped by underground rapper J Dilla and features Tom Waits.
Thom Yorke’s incredible debut solo record ‘The Eraser’ strangely didn’t feature in the lists – weird, considering how well Radiohead tend to do.
The 1980s are slowly, but surely, ending… Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails released their debuts this year, the Pixies’ biggest album came out and the Stone Roses set the template for the ’90s Britpop boom.
Madonna, Tom Petty, Faith No More and the Cure also had a big year, in case anyone forgot it was technically still the 1980s.
We’re starting to enter that part of the lists where the hits are becoming too numerous to list…
This was Sabbath’s year – two of the top three records on RateYourMusic, for example.
Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, John Lennon and George Harrison all had career highlights too.
The Beatles – for perhaps the first time in their career – contributed nothing with their entry, ‘Let It Be’. Not surprising, since it has the distinction of being the only one of the band’s original UK records that doesn’t have a five-star rating on Allmusic.
At the time seen as ‘Kid B’, ‘Amnesiac’ nowadays enjoys just as much kudos as its older sibling – and its year of release ranks higher than both 2000 and ‘In Rainbows” 2007.
But in 2001’s case, it wasn’t Radiohead doing the heavy lifting – splitting the load with the Strokes’ ‘Is This It’.
Bjork, the White Stripes, Muse, Tool and Daft Punk all contributed a few points here and there.
Big year for me, being 16 and all. Weezer’s sophomore record ‘Pinkerton‘ was critically mangled at the time – I think I dubbed maybe three songs from it when I borrowed the CD from the library – but now it’s unbelievable a band that recorded excrement like ‘The Black Album‘ was once capable of such honest and tortured genius.
Elsewhere, Beck hit the bigtime with ‘Odelay‘, DJ Shadow put out the one record he’s still known for, Tool did ‘Aenima‘, Marilyn Manson was still scary.
I really could go on here – the Manics recovered after losing Richey, Ash’s debut ‘1977‘ remains their only essential album, and Stone Temple Pilots proved they were more than just a grunge facsimile with the underrated Beatles-grunge of ‘Tiny Music’.
But as I mentioned earlier, few of these artists are popular with critics.
Kanye West’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ drove the score for 2010, the second-highest ranked year of this millennium.
Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning ‘The Suburbs’ helped Kanye drive 2010 into the top 20, but there wasn’t much after that putting points on the board.
In a just world, MGMT’s ‘Congratulations‘ would have shot the duo into the stratosphere, but instead it got ignored and they haven’t made a decent album since.
The post-punk period’s a favourite with critics, and for good reason.
Kraftwerk released a virtual pop record in ‘Die Mensch-Maschine’ (The Man Machine); Blondie – never really a punk band, but in the scene – made disco cool; the Cars released their debut record and almost completely exhausted their supply of great songs in the process; and Van Halen invented ’80s rock.
In 18th place it’s the highest-ranked year of the current century, 2004.
It’s one of those years I suspect might rise when people my age – or younger – start writing the history books.
Arcade Fire’s ‘Funeral‘ was huge – a lo-fi indie record I could put on and sell to virtually anyone in the store I worked at, at the time. It’s a top 10 record of all-time on BestEverAlbums’ list. I sometimes wonder if the women in their 50s who heard ‘Crown of Love’ when I played it in the store and bought the record without hesitation ever listened to it again.
Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’ also came out in 2004, and it’s an indictment on critics that it didn’t really feature on the lists I looked at. It was as good as any Beach Boys version would have been in 1967.
Elsewhere, Franz Ferdinand and the Killers made their debuts, and Ryan Adams released the full version of his still unmatched masterpiece ‘Love is Hell’.
Music – according to this methodology – has never again been as consistently good as it was in 2004.
Huge year – another one I’m surprised isn’t higher.
Prince put out ‘Sign o’ the Times’ and invented the lyric video (embedded below). Guns ‘N Roses released ‘Appetite for Destruction‘. Def Leppard’s ‘Hysteria‘. INXS’ ‘Kick’. U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’. REM’s commercial breakthrough ‘Document‘. The Smiths’ ‘Strangeways’.
Problem is, I think, none of those records are across-the-board favourites. GnR and Def Leppard are ’80s rock, so not cool; U2 simply aren’t cool, regardless of the decade. REM would have bigger critical and commercial hits, Prince would have records with bigger singles, the Smiths were past their peak and INXS were Australian.
We’re into the top quarter now.
1980’s the year I was born. Talking Heads’ least accessible album of their career turned out to be their biggest critical hit, and David Bowie released his last great record before going pop.
Joy Division’s ‘Closer‘ (released when I was 11 days old!) and ACDC’s ‘Back in Black’ (a week after that) closed out the scoring – could there be two rock albums more different?
Loads of other great albums came out that year – Devo’s ‘Freedom of Choice’, Simple Minds’ ‘Empire and Dance’, Split Enz’s ‘True Colours’, Gary Numan’s ‘Telekon‘ and John and Yoko’s swansong ‘Double Fantasy‘ among them.
It was all downhill from here though – 1980 was the top-ranked year of the decade.
From here, you’ll notice the points start to exponentially escalate. We’re getting into the years which have multiple albums acclaimed across the board.
The highest-ranking year of the early ’60s was 1963, coming in 50th. Thirty-five places higher we have 1965, the lowest-ranked year of the decade’s second-half. If that doesn’t illustrate what a revolution in music occurred once the Beatles started dropping acid, I don’t know what would…
Anyway. Bob Dylan topped the list with ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, and also scored with ‘Bringing it All Back Home‘. The Beatles also pitched in with two critical hits, ‘Rubber Soul’ and to a lesser extent, ‘Help!’.
John Coltrane put jazz points on the board for perhaps the last time with ‘A Love Supreme‘.
Those few albums scored so well, you don’t have to scroll far in either the RYM or BestEverAlbums lists to see stuff you’ve probably never heard.
There’s a pretty good chance 1973 would be slumming it with the pitiful, execrable 1974 if it weren’t for one all-conquering record… Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’.
Not only a critical favourite, it’s reported an entire West German CD plant in the 1980s was dedicated to pressing copies of the iconic album. And no other record syncs as well with ‘The Wizard of Oz’.
1973 wasn’t otherwise all a wash however. Wings’ ‘Band on The Run’ was good, and Elton John released ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. But outside of that… 1973 is lucky to have made it this far.
Few would argue 1972’s best album, ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars‘ by David Bowie, is a better record than ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, but it’s just the tip of a much bigger iceberg the year had to offer.
While 1973’s score was racked up by just the two records, 1972 had Bowie, Nick Drake, Yes, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones all having a go.
My initial justification for making this list was to figure out whether 1991, 1995 or 1997 was the best year for music ever. Being born in 1980 made such a bias inevitable, of course.
Considering the fetish most critics have for years past, it was actually refreshing to see 1995 place this high.
Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ top most lists, with Oasis’ ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?‘ and the Smashing Pumpkins’ magnum opus ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ completing the medal count.
Bjork, Pulp, Alanis Morisette, Portishead, the Foo Fighters and PJ Harvey also made waves. Under the critical radar, I’d add White Zombie’s ‘Astro-Creep 2000‘, Blur’s ‘The Great Escape’, Supergrass’ ‘I Should Coco’, Bowie’s ‘Outside‘, the Presidents’ first record and NZ’s own Jan Hellreigel with ‘Tremble’.
Punk, post-punk, classic rock and the beginnings of what would dominate the ’80s all came together to close out the 1970s, in a year that was all-but robbed of a top-10 placing.
The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ actually showed up on a few lists as a 1980 album, which if I didn’t know better would probably have resulted in 1979 and 16th-placed 1980 swapping places.
Also scoring were Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures‘ (the better-known, but weaker of the two studio records they did) and Pink Floyd’s double-disc opus ‘The Wall’.
Records that pitched in here and there included Talking Heads’ nervy ‘Fear of Music’, Gang of Four’s ‘Entertainment!’ and Michael Jackson’s solo hit ‘Off the Wall’.
Now, for the top 10 musical years of all-time…
You’ve probably worked this out by now, but critics *love* the 1960s. Well, from ‘Rubber Soul’ onwards anyway (little reminder that 66th and last place went to 1962).
Coming in 10th is 1968 – flower power is all the rage, but the cool kids are starting to move onto tougher things. The Beatles’ self-titled double record wiped the slate clean for the Fab Four, literally, dabbling largely in folk, experimental sounds and a bit of murder-inspiring hard rock.
Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ took the guitar to new heights, while the Velvet Underground proved you could also have a critical hit without being able to play at all.
The Kinks’ ‘The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society’ this many years later is their most popular record, but reportedly sank on release – making it perfect for critics in 2019 to love.
Others posting points were the Band with ‘Music From Big Pink’, Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’ and Simon and Garfunkel’s best record, ‘Bookends‘.
The first of three ’90s years to make the top 10 is 1994, with post-grunge in full swing, Britpop kicking in and hip hop slowly taking over the airwaves.
Portishead’s ‘Dummy‘, Nas’ ‘Illmatic‘ and Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace‘ top the critical pack; debuts by Weezer and Oasis and Nine Inch Nails’ ‘The Downward Spiral’ remain favourites too.
Chuck in Nirvana’s posthumous ‘Unplugged in New York’ (first album I ever bought!), Green Day’s ‘Dookie‘, Blur’s ‘Parklife‘ and Soundgarden’s ‘Superunknown‘, and it’s hard to deny 1994’s spot in the top echelon.
The original idea for this blog entry started as a joke on Twitter.
1997 was the year I originally had in mind. ‘OK Computer’ is the obvious standout, and after combing through various top 100 lists on the internet, it would appear the world agrees.
It’s the top-ranked album of all-time on both RYM and BestEverAlbums, and infamously topped a Q list compiled in 1998 – just a year after its release.
But at the time, us fans weren’t so sure. I asked a friend whose defined role in our group was the Radiohead fan (at the time, I was the Blur fan) whether it was good. “Yeah, it’s OK,” he told me.
Since then, enough’s been written about ‘OK Computer’ to fill the internet twice over (probably 20,000 times over in ’97), and based on the methodology I used, was responsible for probably about 90 percent of 1997’s score.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a year packed with other great music – I was 17 after all, so it’s only natural I’d say that!
Check it out though – Bjork’s ‘Homogenic’, Prodigy’s ‘The Fat of the Land’, Chemical Brothers’ ‘Dig Your Own Hole’, the Foo Fighters’ ‘The Colour and the Shape’, Supergrass’ ‘In It for the Money’, Rammstein’s ‘Sehnsucht’, Daft Punk’s debut, Mansun’s ‘Attack of the Grey Lantern’ – the list goes on.
Note I didn’t put ‘Be Here Now’ on that list. If that record had lived up to the hype, I’m sure 1997 would be competing for #1, not slumming it down here in eighth.
The peak of big-era ’70s rock. 1975 was so huge, it birthed a Led Zeppelin double album, a Floyd record with a song so long it had to be split into two parts and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Chuck Bruce Springsteen’s breakthrough ‘Born to Run’ and critical darlings like Patti Smith’s ‘Horses‘ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’, and it’s clear why 1975 made the top 10.
1966 earned its place largely on the strength of just three records – the Beatles’ ‘Revolver‘, Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde‘, and – featuring surely the worst album cover of any record on this list – the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds‘.
It’s fairly slim pickings outside that trio, but they’re beloved enough for 1966 to earn its place in the top 10.
Perhaps if I was slightly more insane and recorded the top 500 in some of the longer lists, 1966 wouldn’t have fared so well. (Yes, I will find a way to give 1997 its due…)
The year the Beatles released their album which has best stood the test of the time was always going to do well – and here it is at #5.
‘Abbey Road’ and King Crimson’s iconic ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ dominated the charts on behalf of 1969, with support coming from Led Zeppelin’s first two records.
As is common for the 1960s, 1969 relied heavily on a few well-loved records, with little for modern ears outside those. Some – like The Who’s ‘Tommy’ – sound fantastic to me – and probably everyone not used to hearing music on earbuds – but are in other ways so of their time, it’s no wonder they largely remain fans-only.
The highest-ranked year of the 1990s couldn’t really be anything other than 1991. Unlike some years – looking right up at you, 1966 and 1969 – 1991 had enormous depth on the album front.
There were the records that were both commercial and critical hits, such as Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind‘, REM’s ‘Out of Time‘ and U2’s pinnacle, ‘Achtung Baby’.
There were records critics were never going to like, but sold like crazy anyway and have gone on to be considered classics, such as Metallica’s self-titled, Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ and Guns ‘N Roses’ twin ‘Use Your Illusion’ records.
But many of 1991’s points came from albums that likely sold sweet fuck all but are remembered fondly, like My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’ and Slint’s ‘Spiderland’ .
Chuck efforts from Massive Attack, Primal Scream, Soundgarden and the Smashing Pumpkins in there, and you’re left scratching you’re head how 1991 isn’t #1.
New and old clashed in spectacular style in 1977.
On the one hand you had the peak of the first-wave punk explosion, and hints of the second – the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, Wire, the Damned, Elvis Costello and Talking Heads all released their debut albums.
On the other, you had the dinosaurs – Pink Floyd. But in their defence, they unleashed most bitter, angry record yet. ‘Animals’ might have had songs 17 minutes long with extended guitar solos and an overarching concept, but the atmosphere and message was one of disgust and hatred of the direction humanity was heading. (Roger Waters has barely changed since.)
Across the channel you had David Bowie decamping to Berlin and inventing the ’80s with ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’, West Germany’s Kraftwerk on the other side of the border laying down one of hip hop’s first beats in ‘Trans-Europa Express’, and across the ocean Bob Marley laying down the album that would make him a star, ‘Exodus‘.
Overshadowing all of this was Fleetwood Mac, whose ‘Rumours’ probably outsold every other 1977 album I’ve mentioned put together.
And on the singles front, Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ took what Kraftwerk were doing and made it pop.
1967 was peak 1960s – the rapid changes of the previous couple of years reaching full bloom, with ’70s-style hard rock still barely a glint in Jimmy Page’s eyes.
The big one is of course The Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band‘. Thought its critical star has fallen in recent years, there’s still recognition of its place in the canon. It was more than just another record – ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ was a milestone, proof anything could be done provided a band was good enough. With technology that gave them only as many tracks to work with as there were band members, the newly studio-bound Beatles crafted a series of miniature masterpieces – and in the case of ‘A Day in the Life’, colossal – without a second thought given to how they’d perform them live.
An album the critics have never stopped loving – but it never translated into sales – is the Velvet Underground’s debut.
Rounding out the top five point-scorers for 1967 were the Doors’ debut, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced‘ and Love’s ‘Forever Changes’.
Unlike some other high-scoring years from the ’60s, the 1967 goodness doesn’t end there however. Pink Floyd’s ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn‘, recorded just down the hall from where the Beatles were working, documented the mind of a true madcap; and the Beatles, Hendrix and the Doors all released excellent second albums later that same year – something that would never happen today.
#1 – 1971
And here we are. The all-time greatest year in music, at least according to this nerdy little survey. Homer Simpson was just three years off.
I mentioned earlier how much critics love the 1970s, and 1971 was full of the kinds of music they like (at least before punk hit).
Topping the list is Led Zeppelin’s fourth self-titled record, the one with ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on it. And ‘Black Dog’. And ‘Rock and Roll’. And ‘When the Levee Breaks’. I could – like a Zeppelin album – go on for a while here.
Let’s just list the classics that put points on the board, shall we? You know how to google.
The Who – ‘Who’s Next’
Marvin Gaye – ‘What’s Going On’
David Bowie – ‘Hunky Dory’
Carole King – ‘Tapestry’
Black Sabbath – ‘Master of Reality’
Rolling Stones – ‘Sticky Fingers’
Joni Mitchell – ‘Blue’
Yes – ‘Fragile’
Pink Floyd – ‘Meddle’
T.Rex – ‘Electric Warrior’
John Lennon – ‘Imagine’
Paul McCartney – ‘Ram’
So whether you think those records combined are the best batch ever released in a calendar year or not, there’s no doubting 1971 was good. Best of all-time good? Well, certainly a lot better than 1962, surely.
If I ever do another one of these lists, I’m going to find a way to make sure the 1990s come first.
The full rankings
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