1. The release must be a studio album. No EPs, singles, live albums, compilations, etc. I am permitting just one exception: The Shadows. Their best material was released in 1960-62, when the single rather than the album was dominant, so the easiest way to get their material is via compilations. As The Shadows have been so influential on my musical tastes, it would be wrong to omit them, so the compilation I own is on the list.
2. Once five Porcupine Tree and two Blackfield albums appeared in the top 25, I said "that's it, no more". This isn't a Steven Wilson And Friends list. I am fairly confident that had I kept going, every Porcupine Tree album apart from On The Sunday Of Life would have made it, and at least another album from one of his side projects would be floating around too. I otherwise felt no need to limit any band.
One of my concerns was high placings for albums that are very recent and yet to stand the test of time - however, this is a snapshot of my opinions right now, so my qualms about including releases from the last few years is thus pretty minimal. I've provided brief explanations of why I like each album or what it sounds like, but I have tried to keep it brief - more successfully in some places than others.
So here goes!
50. Able Tasmans: Hey, Spinner! (1990, Dunedin Sound)
They were an Auckland band, but they're Dunedin Sound by association. The band are best known for A Cuppa Tea And A Lie Down, but this album is by far the superior artistic statement. Sometimes jangly, sometimes meditative, sometimes gloomily atmospheric - and it is a true Kiwi album, full of the local character.
49. REM: Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985, alternative rock)
REM are not an albums band. Their albums, by and large, are weak bodies of work littered with legendary songs that aren't quite put together as they should be. This album is an exception. It brilliantly showcases their jangly style with only a brief dip in quality at the end. The rest is an array of wonderful songs.
48. Crowded House: Crowded House (1986, pop-rock)
Neil Finn's extraordinary songwriting talents are showcased brilliantly by this album. It is full of songs that demonstrate he has mastered the pop-rock craft, and his almost angelic vocals take the anthemic choruses to another level entirely.
47. Anathema: A Fine Day To Exit (2001, alternative rock)
Anathema started out as death doom pioneers, but by this point, all sonic and thematic traces of metal had vanished. This album is instead a work of melancholic rock consisting of songs that in true Anathema style overflow with intense feeling, and it closes on a soft and optimistic note with the extremely beautiful Temporary Peace.
46. Nick Drake: Pink Moon (1972, folk)
Nick Drake was not just a fantastic songwriter who could churn out melancholic folk that subtly works its way into your subconscious. He was also a stunningly talented guitarist, and with the exclusion of a single piano line on the title track, this album is just him and his guitar - and what a beautiful experience it is.
45. The Chills: Submarine Bells (1990, Dunedin Sound)
One of the definitive New Zealand albums of all time. Martin Phillipps covers a lot of territory - and with a revolving door of bandmates - but somehow manages to keep it all together. While many Dunedin Sound albums are just a bunch of songs, this truly can be called an album.
44. Cynic: Focus (1993, jazz-influenced technical death metal)
One of the most important albums of all time. When metal was just recovering from thrash metal nearly speed riffing it into oblivion and death metal was in its infancy, Cynic came along. They gave metal a depth it never had, bringing in influences from jazz fusion and some serious technical skill to create a metal album that stands as eloquent testimony to what a bunch of wildly talented guys with very loud instruments can do when they put their minds to it.
43. The Cure: Pornography (1982, bleak post-punk)
This is an almost overwhelmingly depressing work, full of darkness, despair, and plenty of melancholy. If you want to listen to an album that will plunge inside the darkest corners of your mind, this is it. Unfortunately, it suffers from some incohesion, with a couple of tracks that are serious duds, thus its comparatively lower placing on this list.
42. The Chameleons: Script Of The Bridge (1983, post-punk)
The Chameleons take the post-punk template and run with it to create a very mature album. Its catchiness draws the listener in and the depth of thought that went into its details keeps the listener coming back time and time again. Plus it has one of the best samples ever used to open an album: "In the autumn before the winter comes man's last mad surge of youth." "What on earth are you talking about?" Doooooon't faaaaalll!
41. Borknagar: Empiricism (2001, avantgarde black folk metal)
This is ridiculously hard to categorise. It has a who's who cast of black metal musicians, but goes in a completely different direction, drawing on Norwegian folk culture. The vocals are intense but listenable, and the music is not raw; its power is more refined. Time is taken both to build up to furious heights and to reflect.
40. Wolves In The Throne Room: Diadem Of 12 Stars (2006, black metal)
This album is on the intense atmospheric side of black metal, and is one of the greatest ever made. Sure, it's in the mould of Weakling's Dead As Dreams, but it dramatically improves upon it, especially in the vocals department. The sound will suffocate you - if it does not crush you first. This might just be the most gigantic sounding album on this entire list.
39. U2: Boy (1980, post-punk)
U2 have come a long way since they burst onto the scene with this infectious slab of energetic post-punk. This is one of the best post-punk albums, full of youthful determination expressed through a variety of themes and musical ideas.
38. Straitjacket Fits: Hail (1989 edition, Dunedin Sound)
Possibly the greatest album of the Dunedin Sound. Shayne Carter's hard rocking, abrasive preferences and cynical vocals are complemented by Andrew Brough's soaring, sweet vocals and thoughtful, sincere compositions. A great experience that covers a vast spectrum of emotions without ever losing direction.
37. Passengers (aka U2): Original Soundtracks 1 (1995, experimental/atmospheric rock)
U2 and Brian Eno here create a collection of songs for movies that - in most cases - do not exist. It is a fantastic sampling of atmospheric moods and allows Eno to indulge his experimental tendencies while U2 achieve their greatest artistic expression of the 1990s.
36. Marillion: Fugazi (1984, progressive rock)
As a collection of songs, this is much superior to Misplaced Childhood - Assassing, Jigsaw, Emerald Lies, and the title track are some of the best prog ever created. But it lacks a little in cohesion, and thus I rate it below Misplaced Childhood on a list of albums.
35. Split Enz: Frenzy (1979, art rock)
This is the ultimate expression of the Enz, originating as it does in the midst of their transition from quirky progressive/art rock to equally quirky pop-rock. It brings the best of both worlds together in a very original and wholly satisfying experience. Get the 2006 remaster; it blows the original out of the water. And come on, Hermit McDermitt? That is the essence of quirkiness turned into a fantastic song.
34. Subterranean Masquerade: Suspended Animation Dreams (2005, experimental rock metal)
What on earth do you call this? It clearly draws on progressive death metal, atmospheric rock, and related styles, and spits out this experimental, bizarre, original result. The metal edge is blunted for the most part, and some beautiful, soaring compositions are in the mix, along with a good dose of insanity and some unconventional instrumentation.
33. Marillion: Misplaced Childhood (1985, progressive rock)
This album is made by the personality of Fish, a true performer. The album functions as one cohesively linked piece, seamlessly moving between catchy hits (yes, Marillion had hits in this era), progressive epics, and songs driven by the sheer force of Fish. Marillion has never recovered from his departure after the subsequent album.
32. Crowded House: Together Alone (1994, atmospheric pop-rock)
Crowded House's previous albums had some of the best pop songwriting of the 20th century, but with this album, Neil Finn kicked everything up one notch by bringing the delicate touch of sublime atmospheres to the material. The music goes from simply being catchy anthemic bliss to catchy anthemic bliss that washes over you and captivates your imagination.
31. Opeth: Still Life (1999, progressive death metal)
Many would say Blackwater Park was Opeth's pinnacle; I'll go two years earlier and say it came at Still Life. Mikael Akerfeldt unleashed this beast of an album with a storyline that links diverse and original material without ever seeming strained. It is dark, forbidding, and at the end of the day, very, very powerful. The Moor stands as one of the band's best tracks and an example to metal artists everywhere.
30. Russian Circles: Enter (2006, post-metal)
I was attracted by the band name and I stayed for the stunning music. This is more than just chugging guitars pummelling you for ten minutes, then changing chord and repeating the dose. This is amazingly well composed music, and a fantastic example of what can be done with the metal sonic template when creative minds use all of their energy.
29. Agalloch: Ashes Against The Grain (2006, atmospheric metal)
Agalloch show some more post-rock influences on this album, but stick very thoroughly to the atmospheric metal that has made them one of the best bands around. This White Mountain On Which You Will Die is the perfect title for their music; lost in the wilderness, the sound creates the entire lonely, desolate experience in a manner that grips the listener.
28. Solar Powered People: Solar Powered People (2007, shoegazer-influenced rock)
This isn't quite shoegazer itself, but it is clearly influential on the band's huge sound. While they make immense, anthemic songs, they are not drowned in walls of sound; the liberal use of delay serves only to increase their size without overpowering the listener.
27. Woods Of Ypres: Pursuit Of The Sun And Allure Of The Earth (2004, atmospheric black metal)
Focused, distinct, clear black metal with contemplative softer moments, frequent clean vocals, comprehensible raspy vocals, and sometimes positive lyrics? Hearing is believing!
26. Sculptured: The Spear Of The Lily Is Aureoled (1998, experimental metal)
This album is a musical experiment that thoroughly succeeds. Don Anderson, guitarist and pianist for Agalloch, is the brains behind Sculptured, in which he employs unconventional musical theories to create very unique, distinctive, dissonant metal - often prominently featuring instruments typically foreign to metal.
25. Ride: Nowhere (1990, shoegazer)
Kevin Shields, eat your heart out. This is the ultimate in shoegazer. It is a masterful collection of intricate walls of sound, and the songs not-quite-hidden behind the walls of thunderous guitar noise are pretty damn good too. You can't go past Seagull or Vapour Trail.
24. The Cure: Faith (1981, bleak post-punk)
If you ask me, this is both the darkest and most profoundly moving album created by Robert Smith. The changes of tempo and style help to highlight the cynical, gloomy, and nihilistic thread woven through the entire album.
23. Blackfield: Blackfield (2004, progressive pop-rock)
Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson and Israeli pop singer Aviv Geffen collaborate here on a fantastic album that uses Geffen's pop sensibilities to focus Wilson's songwriting. Despite being two very different vocalists, their unique interaction reveals plenty of mutual creative chemistry.
22. U2: The Joshua Tree (1987, atmospheric rock)
Everybody remembers the opening trio. Nobody remembers the Suite of Death, the haunting and moving closing trio. This is one of those rare albums where the second half is far superior to the first. The entire album is thematically and sonically rich and it defines the classic atmospheric-yet-anthemic sound of U2.
21. Porcupine Tree: The Sky Moves Sideways (1995, psychedelic progressive rock)
At this point in Porcupine Tree's career, Steven Wilson was still very influenced by psychedelia and comparisons with Pink Floyd, especially the Wish You Were Here/Animals era, are obvious. But this is no copy; it has an abundance of originality and provides a redefinition of the classic sound.
20. Anathema: Alternative 4 (1998, atmospheric doom rock)
This album is part of Anathema's transition from death doom to much softer alternative rock. It has the intensity of doom metal but is played in a rock style. Fragile Dreams is in particular essential. The title track is one of the more disturbing slices of music out there.
19. Porcupine Tree: Fear Of A Blank Planet (2007, progressive rock)
Steven Wilson & Co. take a stab at modern society's materialistic, mindnumbing excesses and produce a classic. Anesthetize stands out in particular; it is a 17.5 minute summary of what Porcupine Tree are all about.
18. Agalloch: Pale Folklore (1999, atmospheric metal)
Agalloch's debut is for the most part more raw, more metal than their subsequent albums, and its opening suite is one of the most stunningly evocative experiences in all metal.
17. Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here (1975, progressive rock)
Some of the most stunning material Pink Floyd ever produced - gorgeous atmospheres, strong lyrics, and emotionally moving themes all come together and work as one to produce a work of the highest quality.
16. Porcupine Tree: In Absentia (2002, progressive rock)
Widely considered to be Porcupine Tree's best work; I would not rank it so highly, but I would definitely consider it a milestone. Steven Wilson brings heavier influences from his role as Opeth's producer and weaves them effortlessly into a dark prog rock classic.
15. Blackfield: Blackfield II (2007, progressive pop-rock)
The second collaboration between Steven Wilson and Aviv Geffen shines even more than the first. Wilson's progressive tendencies allow the compositions to soar, while Geffen's pop style focuses the songwriting in an immensely enjoyable package of songs.
14. Pink Floyd: Animals (1977, progressive rock)
The songs may be epic affairs, but the album itself is relatively concise by modern standards and it serves the theme well. What is the theme? Pink Floyd draw on Orwell's Animal Farm to make their own commentary on society. It hardly gets better than that.
13. Porcupine Tree: Deadwing (2005, progressive rock)
Everything that's right about Porcupine Tree. This album contains beautifully crafted songs with a broad and subtle theme to cohesively link the material together.
12. Dream Theater: Images And Words (1992, progressive rock)
Dream Theater's classic album, the defining moment of the third wave of prog, and the birth of prog metal. I'll let the 101 rules of prog metal speak for me on this one:
96. In case you wondered, Dream Theater is and will always be the benchmark for prog metal. The more something sounds like Images and Words, the more progressive it is.
97. Proclaim Rule 96 to people with a straight face in all seriousness. This is not optional.
Keeping in mind that:
16. Refer to progressive metal as intelligent music for intelligent people, preferably at every occasion where a mainstream group or genre is mentioned.
17. Note that the above does not qualify as arrogance any more than pointing out that wine is drink for the more sophisticated.
11. Orphaned Land: Sahara (1994, Hebrew death metal)
Orphaned Land's debut is a fantastic milestone in death metal, with an attentiveness to atmospheres preceding that of many other progressive death bands. On later work, the Hebrew/Arabic folk music and metal work together in tandem, while on this earlier effort, the metal is central and the local influences are augmentation.
10. Dream Theater: Awake (1994, progressive rock)
This album constitutes the height of Dream Theater's creative expression. It is a further development of Images And Words' style, with more variation entering the mix. Kevin Moore's artistic influences elevate the creativity of this album, and ever since he left immediately after recording Awake, the band has never again been able to capture this sublime balance of technical proficiency with focused songwriting and creative maturity.
9. Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures (1979, post-punk)
Most people would say Closer is Joy Division's best album, but most people are wrong about a lot of things and this is no exception. Unknown Pleasures features the band's best compositions, with the band's intense instrumentation made more sparse and thus more forbidding by Martin Hannett's inspired production, and Ian Curtis's bleak lyrics and even bleaker and haunting baritone vocals give the material a stranglehold over the listener.
8. The Shadows: The Final Collection (N/A, instrumental rock)
The Shadows were one of the most influential bands of all time. Hank Marvin's guitar playing influenced everyone from Pete Townshend to Frank Zappa, Neil Young, and Mark Knopfler. A 2CD compilation such as this one does justice to the body of work that warrants The Shadows a place on this list, even if their best material came out on singles rather than albums. The songs from their 1960-62 glory days naturally stand out, and they still sound just as fresh as when they were first recorded.
7. Agalloch: The Mantle (2002, atmospheric metal)
You are traipsing through a forest in the northwestern US or western Canada in the depths of winter. It is bitterly cold, dark, and eerily still. All around you is a thick and mysterious blanket of trees, both beautiful and threatening. You wonder how you could possibly translate this into music. Then you pick up The Mantle and realise Agalloch have beaten you to it with atmospheric metal that draws not just from various metal subgenres but also the occasional folk influence.
6. Alcest: Souvenirs D'un Autre Monde (2007, shoegazer black metal)
Alcest is one man - French black metal musician Neige. This album thus has a black metal foundation, as reflected by its intensity, but upon this foundation is built a thematically very positive structure that draws on shoegazer influences to develop a wall of sound. It is a highly original, ethereal, and thunderously beautiful piece of work.
5. Orphaned Land: Mabool (2004, Hebrew death metal)
On this album, Orphaned Land pretty much perfect their formula of mixing forward-thinking death metal ideas with traditional Hebrew/Arabic instrumentation. It is one of the most original metal releases out there, and it is made all the more interesting by its thematic content. As an Israeli band, this is a group of people whose lives have been intimately affected by religious conflict. The album is thus a response to violence; it tries to bring together the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions of the Middle East to emphasise their shared heritage and humanity in the common myth of The Flood.
4. Pure Reason Revolution: The Dark Third (2006, atmospheric progressive rock)
This is the masterpiece Pink Floyd probably should have made, but drawing on the best influences since their decline/demise and adding a very healthy dose of originality. The atmospheres are rich and envelop the listener; the soundscapes give new meaning to 'sprawling'; and the vocal harmonies and interaction between the band's multiple vocalists is nothing short of stunning.
3. Porcupine Tree: Stupid Dream (1999, progressive rock)
The best Porcupine Tree album ever. On this album, Steven Wilson chooses to temper his earlier psychedelic-influenced sprawling sound with more focused songwriting skills and the effort pays off. The songs are crafted extremely well and combine large soundscapes with memorable choruses and very considerable thematic depth and variation.
2. Anathema: Judgement (1999, alternative progressive rock)
It's a bit hard to put a genre label on this. Anathema were originally a doom death band, and the bleak melancholy remains thematically, but by Judgement, their style drew more from alternative and progressive rock. All I can say is that the first time I listened to this album, I had the most powerful musical experience of my life. I was profoundly moved by the intense, enthralling, overwhelming emotional expression conveyed by this album. Now this, this is music that affects the listener in ways words cannot capably articulate.
1. U2: The Unforgettable Fire (1984, atmospheric rock)
My fondness for this album is no secret. I think it has hardly any blemishes and is one of the most engrossing listening experiences ever created. It covers a diverse palette and combines the energy of U2's post-punk years with an overt Brian Eno influence and intelligent, often dark themes unlike any the band had previously explored. The soundscapes are sweeping, both spacious and detailed, and they reward repeat listens abundantly. And then there are all the non-album songs from the era to explore if you ever get tired of being immersed in the album's beauty.
That was very hard. I'm really only confident in my top three. Regardless of the order and what I may remove in future, these are all fantastic albums that are well worth a listen and they come highly recommended from me.