IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS
For a decade, Sinatra pushed to make a cohesive LP at a time when no one else in the record business was thinking beyond singles. Finally his breakup with Ava Gardner provided the perfect catalyst. These 16 ballads, recorded in just a few days, are the authoritative take on masculine loneliness.
I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU
The centerpiece of Franklin's first album for Atlantic Records was her cover of Otis Redding's Respect, a song that, released in the midst of the racial and sexual tumult of 1967, meant so much to so many people. It remains her signature anthem--and for good reason--though its overexposure means that her versions of Ray Charles' Drown in My Own Tears and Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come and her emotionally delicate performance of Do Right Woman--Do Right Man are criminally overlooked.
Legend has it that the Ramones spent about $6,000 recording this debut, which leads to an obvious question: Where'd all the money go? On the original, these 14 tracks sound as if they were mixed on a runway at LaGuardia, but the playing is impressively clean, given its speed (no song lasts longer than 2:40). Joey's singing also proves you don't need range to sound exuberant.
How good is Thriller? Put it on right now, and you'll be amazed at how easily the most frightening public image of the late 20th century melts away. Michael Jackson was 24 when he released what became the best-selling album of all time (until it was eclipsed in the late '90s by the eponymous Eagles: Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975). And there's no whining about celebrity, no messiah complex, just nine immensely catchy tracks, seven of which went Top 10.
SLANTED AND ENCHANTED
Sales of Pavement's fuzzed-out masterpiece don't stack up to the rounding errors on Nevermind, but its influence on Beck, Blur, Radiohead and countless other musicians of the '90s is incalculable. Lead singer and former Whitney Museum of Art security guard Stephen Malkmus expressed alienation with the same lo-fi guitar grit of Kurt Cobain, but his lyrics and vocals were models of cryptic passion. Somehow his word salads communicated both the ennui of a suburban smart-ass and an awareness that ennui isn't tragic.
THE COLLEGE DROPOUT
Even with extended skits and lots of filler, West's debut stands as the smartest, funniest and most important rap album of the new century. The pink-Polo-wearing son of an ex--Black Panther and a college English professor, West wasn't the first to bring a buppie sensibility to hip-hop, but he infused Jesus Walks, All Falls Down and Never Let Me Down (which featured a tremendous guest verse from his mentor and record-company president, Jay-Z) with wit, intelligence and, most of all, complexity.
Tyrangiel is TIME's music critic. To see his complete list of the 100 best albums, go to time.com