Skip to Content

20 Albums You Have to Listen to Front to Back

20 Albums You Have to Listen to Front to Back

In an age of Spotify playlists and 99-cent downloads, owning an entire album is kinda pointless. Why buy or listen to a full album when you can just grab the highlights, right? That’s sound thinking … most of the time. There are times, however, when an album is so perfect, so great from start to finish that simply listening to the few tracks that made the radio is a complete disservice. There are albums where every song could be a single. Whether you pledge your allegiance to Spotify or Apple Music, or actually have a record player and a collection of vinyl, here are the albums you have to listen to front to back. They’re just that good.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - <em>Kanye West</em>
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - Kanye West

You hate Kanye West. He’s pompous, self-absorbed, and kind of a dick. We get it. But don’t let Kanye the guy turn you off of Kanye the artist, because some of his albums are damn near perfect. In fact, one might actually be perfect: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. From the title alone you know what you’re getting—an odd, grotesque adventure into Kanye’s mind. And in the darkest corners is apparently where Kanye stores his most brilliant ideas, because the tracks sound like Kanye on steroids. The thoughts and feelings are all dialed up to 11 and nothing is held back. It’s ludicrous, outlandish, and beyond brilliant.

The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars - <em>David Bowie</em>
The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars - David Bowie

With The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust, the late David Bowie created a fictional universe to explore. You could dip your toes in by listening to “Starman” or “Five Years,” but we’d recommend diving headfirst to fully appreciate what the iconic artist created. Often called a “sci-fi soap opera,” The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust delivers a listening experience that’s both incredible and incredibly unique.  Sure, the idea of an album about an alien visiting Earth with a message of piece sounds like the making of something that would end up in the $1 bin at your local record store, but not in the hands of Bowie.

For Emma, Forever Ago - <em>Bon Iver</em>
For Emma, Forever Ago - Bon Iver

For Emma, Forever Ago is mostly about singer Justin Vernon’s split with then-girlfriend Christy Smith and his feeling of being lost in the world that followed. Yet, simply calling it a “breakup album” is unfair, as such a label is often applied to any record that mentions separation, no matter how devoid of emotion the songs are. No, For Emma, Forever Ago is much more than a breakup album. After the pair split, Vernon retreated to his father’s secluded cabin to be alone and write songs. He did this by first creating melodies he felt spoke on a deeper level. Then he paired them with words. The result was an aching, painful release of raw emotion that is as beautiful as any record released over the last decade. On a winter day, just drop the needle and let it go. Every track is perfect.

Demon Days - <em>Gorillaz</em>
Demon Days - Gorillaz

Concepts can easily fall flat on their face if the public doesn’t get it. So when Blur’s Damon Albarn teamed with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett to create a virtual band, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if they released an album and faded into obscurity. As you may know, the opposite happened. Gorillaz, the group the duo formed, were a huge success, playing shows behind a screen as visuals of the characters delighted the crowd. Their self-titled debut was good; their follow-up was better. Demon Days features contributions from MF DOOM, De La Soul, and many, many more, and includes such gems as “Feel Good Inc.” (you know that one), “Dirty Harry” and “DARE.” Often placed on best album lists, this one lives up to the hype.

Kind of Blue - <em>Miles Davis</em>
Kind of Blue - Miles Davis

You don’t become the best-selling jazz record of all time with just a few good cuts. Kind of Blue is, perhaps, the greatest jazz record ever, and that means every track is exceptional. Recorded over two days at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio, in 1959, Kind of Blue has found its way onto just about every “Greatest Albums of All Time” list. Instead of handing each musician involved a complete score, Davis had everyone work withing a set scale to produce the modal jazz epic. For a lazy Sunday, you could do far worse than letting the record drop on Kind of Blue.

Untrue - <em>Burial</em>
Untrue - Burial

If there’s one album on this list that you might not be familiar with, it’s Untrue, the second studio album for electronic musician Burial. Most of it would have no business on Top 40 radio waves. The dubstep album, which, to many, is the dubstep album, is a hodgepodge of beats and warped vocals. But what makes it stand out from many others in that genre is its ability to make people revisit their confusion over dubstep. It’s oddly approachable, catchy, and can float effortlessly in the background. “Archangel” is such a stunning track, and it gives way to other gems throughout, but Untrue is best experienced as a whole, not as individual tracks.

OK Computer - <em>Radiohead</em>
OK Computer - Radiohead

After the release and subsequent popularity of the single “Creep,” it could have been assumed that Radiohead was set to be another moody pop-rock band of the time. With OK Computer they showed the world what they were really about. Delving into topics as large as consumerism and politics, the band succeeded in creating the gloomy atmosphere they would become known for. Whereas “Creep” was catchy and simple, the tracks on OK Computer were complex, at times ethereal, and genre blending. Thom Yorke’s voice feels as much an instrument as any of the pieces used.

Graceland - <em>Paul Simon</em>
Graceland - Paul Simon

Singer-songwriter is a term that brings certain things to mind—simplicity, well-thought-out lyrics, gentleness. In the right hands, however, this type of music can be as exciting as any grand score from an 8-piece band. For proof, just look to one of the greatest of all time, Paul Simon. Graceland, Simon’s seventh solo album, is infused with a unique African element, which helps the songs feel fresh in a genre often ragged on for being stale. It won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1987 along with countless other awards.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - <em>The Beatles</em>
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles

Do we really need to sell you on the greatest album from the most important group in musical history? Probably not, so why don’t we just go with some basics. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was ranked the greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone. Over 30 million copies have been sold. It received a perfect score for The A.V. Club, The Daily Telegraph, Paste, Pitchfork, and countless other publications. It’s the most perfect album on a list of perfect albums.

Discovery - <em>Daft Punk</em>
Discovery - Daft Punk

With the release of Homework, in 1997, Daft Punk floated into the periphery of popular music. Songs like “Around the World” got them noticed, but it wasn’t until the release of their sophmore album, Discovery, until the robotic French music makers were loved. Released in 2001, Discovery is a digital dance-y record with catchy hits like “One More Time” and “Digital Love” mixed in with songs that float effortlessly in the background like “Nightvision.” It’s an audible journey full of beeps and blips and a ton of cool.

Pinkerton - <em>Weezer</em>
Pinkerton - Weezer

The obvious choice when it comes to Weezer is The Blue Album. We mean, it is the one with all the hits—”Buddy Holly,” “Say It Ain’t So,” “My Name Is Jonas.” The Blue Album is great. Pinkerton is better. Pinkerton is packed with songs just as catchy and poppy as the first album from Weezer, only they’re filled with far more emotion. Rivers Cuomo set out to write songs that were more honest and true to his feeling of loneliness at Harvard, and one listen to Pinkerton will show you just how far he went. After the album came out, it received mixed reviews, probably because of how different it was from the lighthearted Blue Album, and those reviews pushed Weezer back into the fun, slightly goofy sound you can find on their albums today. That, coupled with the fact that Pinkerton is actually really great, has given the album a cult-like following.

Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) - <em>Wu-Tang Clan</em>
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) - Wu-Tang Clan

Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was the album that launched a ton of careers. Besides being the first Wu-Tang album and thus introducing the world to the likes of RZA, Ghostface Killah, ODB, Method Man, and more, Enter the Wu-Tang is credited as the album that established the East Coast Renaissance in hip-hop. The sound is raw, utilizing beats and clips from martial arts movies and soul tracks. The album gave us hits like “Protect Ya Neck” and “C.R.E.A.M.,” but there isn’t a track on the record that falls short of greatness.

Rumours - <em>Fleetwood Mac</em>
Rumours - Fleetwood Mac

Recorded in California, in 1976, Rumours is one of the most wonderfully perfect albums from the second the needle drops til it comes to a scratchy halt. You can credit the heavy lyrics to the inner-band turmoil that existed right before they entered the studio to record. In fact, the only song that everyone collaborated on is “The Chain.” The process produced a record that sounds like a therapy session, with powerful tracks from Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, and Christine McVie all tossed together. Instead of a shouting match, you, the listener, was gifted a series of calmly composed masterpieces of heartbreak.

Good Kid, M.A.A.D City - <em>Kendrick Lamar</em>
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City - Kendrick Lamar

When Kendrick Lamar released Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, he released something more than a great rap album. The record, which came out in 2012, somehow sounded both fresh and classic at the same time. It felt fresh thanks to an atmospheric, spacy sound and production work from the likes of Pharrell Williams. Yet, at the same time, it felt like a complete throwback, an album that was plucked from the heyday of Compton artists like Dr. Dre and N.W.A. Though it was his sophomore album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City really introduced the world to Kendrick Lamar’s unique brand of rapping and telling a story in the process.

Boston - <em>Boston</em>
Boston - Boston

If an artist is lucky, their debut album will have a few songs hit the airwaves. In fact, they may even consider themselves lucky with one. Boston was more than lucky. Their self-titled debut featured so many songs that made the radio that you might mistake it for a Greatest Hits record. If you grew up in the 1970s, the album forms some of the soundtrack from your youth, and many of the tracks are still being played on classic rock radio today.

Led Zeppelin IV - <em>Led Zeppelin</em>
Led Zeppelin IV - Led Zeppelin

Some time in the distant future, when all genres have evolved into something unrecognizable, people will look back on Led Zeppelin IV as the album that is rock. Both a commercial and critical smash hit, Led Zeppelin’s fourth studio album is filled with some of the most iconic rock songs of all time—”Going to California,” “Black Dog,” and a little ditty called “Stairway to Heaven.” While Led Zeppelin is no doubt one of the most important rock acts in history, it’s not as if every album they put out was perfect. Led Zeppelin IV was when they got it all right.

Turn on the Bright Lights - <em>Interpol</em>
Turn on the Bright Lights - Interpol

It is incredibly difficult to be both popular and cool. Most things that are cool become popular and, in turn, see their coolness fade. This is why Turn on the Bright Lights, the debut album from Interpol, is so special. Not only did it become a hit both stateside and overseas, but it still feels like a record by that band only you and a few people know about. Part of the reason is the music, which doesn’t feel radio-ready and certainly doesn’t allow for epic sing-a-longs. Despite that, it was named the best record of the year in 2002 by Pitchfork, one of the 100 best albums of the decade by Rolling Stone, and is adored by millions who feel the record is their personal secret.

Channel Orange - <em>Frank Ocean</em>
Channel Orange - Frank Ocean

The album drifts between genres, as it dabbles in hip-hop, funk, soul, jazz, spoken word, and more. But where it really shines is the lyrics, which give the album a weight that unexpecting listeners probably wouldn’t be ready for. It feels like you’re stepping into a confessional with each of his characters, as they let all their fears and heartaches spill forth. Through surrealist imagery and different voices, Ocean crafted one of the most complex albums about love and loss that would make any singer-songwriter jealous.

The Dark Side of the Moon - <em>Pink Floyd</em>
The Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd

Forget the fact that the album art hangs in every frat house across the country. Forget the fact that stoners could talk your ear off about the lyrics. Forget the fact that your dad loved it. The Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most beautifully composed albums of all time, whether or not you’re watching The Wizard of Oz while you listen to it. The eighth studio album from Pink Floyd pares down the band’s sound and ramps up the message. Each song speaks to some inherent longing or longstanding belief deep inside you. It’s appeared on every “Greatest Albums of All Time” list for good reason. And when it comes to cohesion, The Dark Side of the Moon feels like one complete work, not a series of tracks, as each song reflects a different stage of human life, and when listened to in order presents the band’s attempt at describing the human experience. Yeah, it’s that heavy, dude.

Pet Sounds - <em>The Beach Boys</em>
Pet Sounds - The Beach Boys

Often viewed as one of the most groundbreaking albums of all time, Pet Sounds from The Beach Boys brings together elements from genres as different as jazz and classical. The common theme, however, is how catchy and haunting the deeply personal songs can be. With layers of harmonies and a slew of unique effects, Brian Wilson and company produced an album of poppy, psychedelic, completely original gems that stick with you long after you’ve stopped listening.

Do Not Sell My Personal Information