5 Albums That Truly Changed the Course of Popular Music

If you were to chart the progress of music since the dawn of the rock era, it would probably come out looking something like a straight line, with slight undulations representing modest deviations from what had been the norm. But you’d also see spikes here and there, caused by events that reset all expectations and standards. These albums provided those spikes. We’re not saying they’re the five best albums of all time. (In a couple cases, they may not even be the best albums by that particular artist.) But they certainly shook the music world, and forever altered its winding path.

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1. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan (1963)

Dylan’s 1962 debut album featured just two songs he wrote himself, with only one of those (“Song to Woody”) even offering a glimpse of what he would become. By the following year, he had absorbed all his folk and blues influences, filtered them through his own mercurial sensibilities, and spit out The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Dylan turned 22 just days after the album was released, which is mind-blowing when you consider the wisdom of songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Love songs also would never quite be the same after clear-eyed weepers like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” It was an album that forced others to raise their games to try and keep up. Artists ranging from The Beatles to Sam Cooke, along with all those who hadn’t started yet, could no longer write about trivial topics if they wanted to sound relevant next to Dylan’s weighty writing.

2. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles (1967)

Nitpickers (one of whom was John Lennon himself) have knocked Sgt. Pepper’s for not really being a concept album, since there isn’t any literal connection between the songs after the first and last pairs. But there is a through-line proclaiming how life’s mundanities can be uplifted by the power of music. Hence, a morning stroll (“Good Morning Good Morning”), a first date (“Lovely Rita”), even a simple conversation among friends (“Within You Without You”), they all take on otherworldly qualities thanks to the magical touch of the Fab Four. The alter egos and the inventive packaging made it an event, forever changing the industry hierarchy by making the album as important, if not more so, than the single.

3. Tapestry by Carole King (1971)

The singer/songwriter genre existed in the ‘60s, but most of the folks who toiled within it did so without making much of a commercial impact. Female singer/songwriters struggled even more to be heard. Perhaps that’s why there was skepticism about Carole King’s prospects as a solo artist, despite all her success co-writing smash hits as part of the Brill Building collective.

When her first album sank without a trace, it looked as if those fears were well-founded. Tapestry changed it all; it was a runaway success on the charts and among the intelligentsia (it swept three of the four major Grammys), and proved there was commercial viability for that style of confessional intimacy—from any gender. The groundswell of singing tunesmiths that followed might not have happened with the same intensity were it not for this record.

4. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy (1988)

Rap had produced some monumental singles throughout the late ‘70s and the bulk of the ‘80s. But as the latter decade wore on, there were some who still felt the genre was more a fad than anything else, incapable of producing an album-length work that could stand the test of time.

Enter Public Enemy, whose debut album had already signaled the arrival of a standout MC in Chuck D. Chuck’s willingness to tackle serious topics set him apart from the partying, boasting raps that were commonplace, while the production of the Bomb Squad ensured that the music on this tour de force of a record was as fierce as the lyrics. It was a matter of time before other hip-hop artists began stepping up to the bar that PE had set.

5. Nevermind by Nirvana (1991)

Except for the way hip-hop bloomed, the latter part of the 1980s wasn’t exactly a realm for new musical ideas. Artifice reigned on the pop charts as the ‘90s dawned, which meant that the three somewhat slovenly characters from Washington State known as Nirvana were way out of place among that company.

[RELATED: All Songs on Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ Ranked]

Yet fans looking for something authentic immediately gravitated to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the walloping lead single off the band’s 1991 album Nevermind. That title alone resonated with a whole faction of disaffected youngsters who cathartically banged their heads to the walled guitars and found a kindred spirit when they heard Kurt Cobain’s lyrics. Grunge seemed to take over from the moment this record helped birth it. While the genre’s dominance on the music world and pop culture at large was relatively short-lived, the impact of this record hasn’t waned in the three decades since its release.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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