That said (see previous post), here's some good lists to use as guideposts in building a comprehensive collection...
I vehemently contend with self-appointed "Dean of Rock Critics" on, e.g. Shawn Colvin's Fat City and Patty Griffin's Flaming Red (the crudely wraught but charmingly spunky albums by his beloved New York Dolls -- which Christgau insists on touting way out of proportion to their worth or weight -- seem like endearing triflings in comparison to these deeply felt, soaringly melodic and exquisitely crafted masterpieces). However, he's still turned me on to lots of great music over the years and can do the same for you...
Christgau's Consumer Guide A+ list
A Basic Record Library: The Fifties and Sixties
The Seventies and 1980
Rock Library: Before 1980
Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the 90s (see 'the A lists")
See his list of essential recordings up through 1979 in the book Stranded: Rock and Roll For a Desert Island, and his updated version of that list here.
(see especially the lists of Christgau, Dave Marsh, and Rolling Stone)
A great source for discographies and song lists and other information, even if some of the writing has an amateurish ring.
And my personal favorite (wink wink)...
T.S. Minton's Version of the Canon/Favorites/Top 10
A handful of great songs deserve special recognition, nay deification, above and beyond any place they may or may not have on my lists below: "Holy River" and "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Prince (with Rosie Gaines): dig any deeper and you'll be at the center of the earth; "Left of the Dial" and "Little Mascara" by The Replacements, which define teenage angst, yearning, and the button-bursting urge to be somewhere, anywhere but here; many of the impossibly poignant and classy selections from the Burt Bacharach tribute album One Amazing Night and The Very Best of Burt Bacharach ; "True" by Spandau Ballet; the nonsensical ecstasy of "Band on the Run" and "Jet" by Paul McCartney and Wings (Manfredd Mann's Earth Band's version of Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light" falls in this same category); and "Life in a Northern Town" by Dream Academy.
T.S. Minton's Top Ten
First off, I realize such list making is a fan-boyish thing, and there's no such thing as a "definitive" list, plus it's ever-changing. I swear however I won't jerk you around with specious nonsense like the usually urbane and sensible Greil Marcus, who in some list-making book published around 1990 was called upon to produce his list and proceeded to put Germ Free Adolescents by X-Ray Spex at #1 and other 1977-era U.K. punk classics for the other 9. Yes, those albums were all thrilling, revolutionary, ass-kicking, idol-smashing etc. -- BUT WHERE THE HELL were Layla, Abbey Road, Blonde on Blonde, Every Picture Tells a Story etc. etc., i.e. the classics that define the form (many of which Marcus himself spent many insightful pages touting)???
Anyway, here's where it stands for me now:
I could play dirty and place The Grateful Dead's live recording One From The Vault at #1, from the invitation-only performance at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco 08/13/1975. That really wouldn't be fair, though, since it was a live show not an album. It was, though, in my opinion and those of many other aficionados, the Dead's finest hour, and probably the best set of music ever played on American soil (or at least in a dead heat with the best moments of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.) So let's come down from the aery spheres and get real:
1) Blood on the Tracks (1975) - Bob Dylan.
The great troubabdor of our times, or one man wrestles with life's most bitterweet emotions, creating complex allegories and endlessly rich emotional palettes to process his wrenching divorce. Not that the songs are the most transcendent individually; as a whole, however, it's rock's best example of a supremely intelligent, sustained artistic sensibility at work.
2) Blonde on Blonde (1966) - Bob Dylan.
A snotty, acerbic, inpenetrably profound and poignant amphetamine-fueled punk-poet visionary in the thrall of his own genius.
3) Highway 61 Revisited (1965) - Bob Dylan. [Seeing a pattern here? - ed.]
"An explosion of vision and humor that forever changed pop music," says Greil Marcus. Inconsistent, yes, (i.e. not all of it is as moving as "Queen Jane Approximately") and his self-conscious word-salad absurdism can grate, but imagine an album where individual songs can stand on their own as among the greatest, most influential artworks of the 20th century: "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Desolation Row," for starters.
4) A Few Small Small Repairs (1996) - Shawn Colvin.
Sure, she lacks the edginess of early Liz Phair or the avant garde elan of PJ Harvey (nor does she need to wear her sexuality on her sleeve, or stick heroin needles in her arm to win critical cachet like Courtney Love). BFD, in a flash of inspiration she produced the greatest non-Dylan album in this catalog. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined music as endearing, nuanced and beautifully melodic as "You and the Mona Lisa" (with instrumental breaks by John Leventhal as indescribably delicious and richly textured as Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic) or "Wichita Skyline" (a satori above the clouds).
5) Fat City (1992) - Shawn Colvin.
The greatest vocal performance in rock history (although "Set the Night to Music" by Roberta Flack with Maxi Priest, the best of Smokey Robinson and Al Green, "Here and Now" by Del Amitri, and "More Than Words" by Extreme are also strong contenders). "Polaroids" is as multi-layered lyrically as a story of the memory of a dream in which photographs capture images of the deepest love, that vanished into thin air. Every second of every hiccup and heave of her richly timbred voice contains more nuance and emotion than many singers achieve in their entire careers.
6) Exile on Main Street (1972) - The Rolling Stones.
The male version of of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville...an album about the limits of decadence, the peak of rock's most raucous band that also plumbs Mick's depths ("Loving Cup"). (Sorry I couldn't also squeeze in Between the Buttons, Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Some Girls -- all among rock's best.)
7) Flaming Red (1998) - Patty Griffin.
Little would you know if you were relying solely on the likes of Christgau and Marcus (shame, shame) of rock history's great unsung masterpiece.
8) White Album (1968) - The Beatles.
Yeah, but what about Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Abbey Road?
9) Purple Rain (1984)- Prince. The one-man-band plus The Revolution, at his ecstatic, passionate best (or is it Sign O'The Times?).
10) Layla (1970) - Derek and The Dominoes.
The highest highs and the lowest lows of a man (Eric Clapton) madly in love, in peak form, dueling tit for tat -- furiously, lyrically, elegiacally -- with Duane Allman.
Rare video of Derek and The Dominoes appearing on the Johnny Cash Show in 1970. Unfortunately Duane Allman, who was never an offical member of the group, does not appear.
I realize I'm leaving lots out; Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual, Let it Be by the Replacements (the most conspicuous absence on the above list...rock stripped down to its purest expression of no bullshit vitality and poignant enough to rip your heart out of its chest), Blondie's Parallel Lines, and Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps, and many other great records mentioned below deserve a special place at the summit of any comprehensive collection. I'm derelict in my duty to leave out Elvis, Ray Charles, and other heavyweights, I know. And of course if the range of my knowledge extended much beyond rock, I would have to list the best recordings of Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Woodie Guthrie, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis, i.e. Kind of Blue as absolutely unsurpassed as the finest examples of their respective genres.
There's other ways of looking at "best-of" rock history list-making. We can categorize by best of breed: punk (London Calling by The Clash is surely the greatest punk album); psychedelia (Grateful Dead's Live/Dead is the peak of that particular trip); soft rock (name me a better example of soft rock than "Sailing" and "Arthur's Song: The Best That You Can Do" by Christopher Cross and I'll hit you with a wet noodle, or with James Taylor); Brian Eno defines ambient art rock with Another Green World (with mind-boggling help from Robert Fripp); Bob Dylan and Shawn Colvin are the male/female apotheosis of the singer-songwriter; nothing in heavy metal has surpassed Led Zeppelin IV/Zoso, the best hard rock has gotta be AC/DC's Back in Black, the best metal would be whatever is Metallica's best; country rock fans can do no better than Gram Parsons' Return of the Grievous Angel; and so forth. And I can't name great individual albums by the following, but it would be insanity not to include their best-ofs or greatest hits in your collection: Crosby, Still and Nash (and on occasion Young), Elton John, and to some extent Billy Joel.
Here are some more highlights by decade of what I, and many other rock historians and list-mavens consider essential, A+ level(or close) recordings that will fire off endless endorphins, open the heart, stretch the mind, and shake the booty of any discriminating listener .
I'm no expert here, except of course to mention Elvis, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly and other greats better anthologized in the Christgau links above.
Any comprehensive collection of hits by Motown, Stax/Volt and Philly soul, girl groups and Phil Spector [and Motown's 80s counterpart, the monster hits of Madonna like "Crazy For You", "Into the Groove" and "Cherish" as anthologized on The Immaculate Collection. - ed.]
Bob Dylan - The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringin' It All Back Home (1965)
Bob Dylan and The Band - The Basement Tapes (1967, released 1975)
The Band - Music From Big Pink (1967), The Band (1969)
Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967), The Velvet Underground (1969), Loaded (1970)
Jimi Hendrix - Are You Experienced? (1967), Axis: Bold As Love (1967), Electric Ladyland (1968)
The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds (1966), "Good Vibrations"
The Beatles - Help! (1965), Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) [Rock's most over-rated album does have some great parts. - ed.], Magical Mystery Tour, 1968 (parts) The Rolling Stones - Between the Buttons (1966), Beggar's Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969)
Van Morrison - Astral Weeks (1967)
Elvis Presley, "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
Elvis Presley - "Suspicious Minds" (1970)
Van Morrison - Moondance (1970), "Wavelength" (1978)
Sly and The Family Stone - Greatest Hits (1970), There's a Riot Goin' On (1971)
The Who - Who's Next (1971), "Squeeze Box," "Who Are You"
Rod Stewart - Every Picture Tells A Story (1971), "Gasoline Alley," "You Wear It Well", "Tonight's The Night"
Pink Floyd - never a big fan, but can't live without "Wish You Were Here"
The Beatles - Let It Be (parts), (1970)
The Eagles Greatest Hits I and II
Steely Pretzel - Countdown To Ecstasy (1973) , Pretzel Logic (1974)
Blondie - Parallel Lines (1978)
Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run (1975), Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
The Rolling Stone - Sticky Fingers (1971) , Some Girls (1978)
Jerry Riopelle - Take a Chance (1974?), A Little Bit at a Time (1975?) [For samples of this unsung, indelibly soulful and great performer -- a Tucson favorite from the mid-70s and piano session man who played with Ike and Tina Turner on "River Deep Mountain High" -- click here. - ed.]
Grateful Dead - Mars Hotel (except for the stinker "Money Money") (1974)
The Clash - The Clash (U.S. and U.K. versions, 1977 and 1979), Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978)
Bob Marley - Live! At the Lyceum (1976), Exodus (1977)
Jimmy Cliff et al. - The Harder They Come (1972)
Bob Seger - Night Moves (1976 ), Greatest Hits (1994)
Elvis Costello - This Year's Model (1978), Armed Forces (1979)
Neil Young - After The Gold Rush (1970), Decade (1977), Rust Never Sleeps (1979), Live Rust (1979)
Stevie Wonder - Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973 )
David Bowie - Changes One (1976), "Heroes", "Modern Love"
Jackson Browne - Running on Empty (1977)
The Clash - London Calling (1980), Sandinista! (1981)
Elvis Costello - Get Happy! (1980), Trust (1981)
Prince - Sign O' The Times (1987)
Bruce Springsteen - Born in the USA (1985)
The Replacements - Let It Be (1985), Tim
Steve Winwood - "Arc of a Diver" (1981), "While You See a Chance"
Dream Syndicate - "Life in a Northern Town"
R.E.M. - "Reckoning" (1987)
Cyndi Lauper - She's So Unusual (1983)
Foreigner - "I Want To Know What Love Is"
The Cure - Greatest Hits [released 2001, covers 80s and 90s. - ed.]
Til Tuesday - Welcome Home (1986)
Nirvana - Nevermind (1991)
Sonic Youth - A Thousand Leaves (1998)
Shawn Colvin - Cover Girl (1994)
Freedy Johnston - Can You Fly (1992), "Bad Reputation"
Lucinda Williams - Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)
Collective Soul - "World I Know", "Shine"
Eric Clapton & Baby Face - "Change The World" on Babyface MTV Unplugged NYC (1997)
Del Amitri - Twisted (1995)
The Young Dubliners - "Black and White"
Giant Sand - "Shiver" on Selections Circa 1990 - 2000
And some (relatively) recent stuff that I consider some of the best pop music of the last 25 years...(I'll organize it better sometime soon...)
PJ Harvey - Stories From The City, Stories From the Sea (2000)
Alicia Keys - "If I Ain't Got You"
Backstreet Boys - "I Want It That Way," of which Christgau says, "I now regard as one of the great pop songs of the history of rock 'n' roll." I've come to agree with the stamement, and "Quit Playin' Games (With My Heart)" (The Concert for New York City version) is even better.
Five For Fighting - "Superman," "Easy Tonight"
Shawn Colvin - "Anywhere You Go" on Whole New You (2001)
Luca - "Sick of Love"...see MySpace.
U2 - "Stuck in a Moment"
Lisa Loeb - "I Do," "Stay"
Vanessa Carlton, "A Thousand Miles" *
And yes, the department of Guilty Pleasures...
The better songs of Bryan Adams and Journey, which as a critically minded egghead I would've once bashed as corporate "shit-rock", have come to mean a hell of a lot more to me than, say, the New York Dolls (and not to bash them in particular, but rather to show that the vaunted Christgau is occasionally wrong-headed not just in what he denies but in what he affirms).
Kelly Clarkston - "Since You Been Gone"
Plus some assorted gems from the 90s to now that deserve canonization somewhere...
Assorted tunes by The Counting Crows, Norah Jones, Wheezer, Bare Naked Ladies and John Mayer
Sixpence None the Richer, "Kiss Me"
Snow Patrol - "Chocolate"
Tori Amos - "Sleeps With Butterflies"
Sugar Ray - "Fly," "Every Morning"
Deep Blue - "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
Goo Goo Dolls, "Name"
Jack Johnson [For all his finesse and charm, he needs more deep feeling, though -- a little angst would do his art some good. -ed.]
Wallflowers - "The Beautiful Side of Somewhere"
Jet - "Look What You've Done"
Wheat - "I Met a Girl"
Carbon Leaf - "Life Less Ordinary"
Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart (with Sheryl Crow) - "Old Habits Die Hard"
Aqualung - "Brighter Than Sunshine"
Trey Anastasio - "Shine"