25 Years Recording

1977 FLEETWOOD MAC: RUMOURS (WARNER BROS.) One of the great American pop albums of the '70s, Rumours kicked Fleetwood Mac's career into the stratosphere,
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1977

FLEETWOOD MAC: RUMOURS (WARNER BROS.)

One of the great American pop albums of the '70s, Rumours kicked Fleetwood Mac's career into the stratosphere, yielding a slew of hits, including “Go Your Own Way,” “Don't Stop,” “Dreams” and “You Make Loving Fun,” as well as FM staples such as “The Chain” and “Second Hand News” — all strong tunes. Still a sonic marvel, 25 years later.

Producers: Fleetwood Mac, Ken Caillat, Richard Dashut. Engineers: Ken Caillat, Richard Dashut. Studios: The Record Plant (Sausalito, L.A.), Wally Heider (L.A.), Criteria (Miami), Davlen (No. Hollywood), Producer's Workshop (Hollywood). Mastering: Ken Perry/Capitol.

TALKING HEADS: 77 (SIRE)

It wasn't clear what New York's Talking Heads were up to with this bold and artful debut. Coming out of the CBGB's scene in New York, they were famous for David Byrne's jittery onstage personality, but once the album came out, for their unusual songs, too. “Psycho Killer” is the one tune everyone knows from this record, but there are plenty of cool oddities to go around, including “No Compassion” and “New Feeling.” Byrne and the Heads were widely imitated for their entire career.

Producers: Talking Heads, Tony Bongiovi, Lance Quinn. Engineer: Ed Stasium. Studio: Sundragon Studios (NYC), Media-Sound (NYC). Mastering: Joe Gastwirt.

THE RAMONES: THE RAMONES LEAVE HOME (SIRE)

The Ramones' stunning 1976 debut album turned out to be one of the most influential records of the mid-'70s — the album that launched a thousand bands. This follow-up was similar, with the foursome banging their way through 14 punk anthems in quick succession, barely coming up for air to shout “1-2-3-4!” It's easy to forget how melodic The Ramones were until you hear songs such as “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” and their dynamite cover of “California Sun.”

Producers: Tony Bongiovi, T. Erdelyi. Engineer: Ed Stasium. Studios: Sundragon (NYC), Le Studio (Quebec), Track Recorders (D.C.). Mastering: Ray Janos/Media Sound.

DAVID BOWIE: LOW (RCA)

The first of Bowie's moody late-'70s art-rock trilogy, this is light years from the Bowie of Ziggy Stardust and even Diamond Dogs. Lots of fascinating instrumental interludes, courtesy of Brian Eno, and no real “hits” to speak of, though “Breaking Glass” at least got airplay. Still, a mesmerizing slice of Eurorock that has aged beautifully.

Producers: David Bowie and Tony Visconti. Engineer: Tony Visconti. Studios: Chateau d'Herouville (France), Hanza By the Wall (Berlin).

STEELY DAN: AJA (ABC)

After years of being a cult band, Steely Dan breaks into the commercial mainstream with a jazz-inflected pop album that becomes an FM favorite and source of Classic Rock radio favorites for years to come. The top-drawer list of musicians includes Larry Carlton, Steve Gadd, Chuck Rainey, Joe Sample, Jim Keltner, Wayne Shorter and many more. The title song, “Black Cow” and “Deacon Blues” are still ubiquitous.

Producer: Gary Katz. Engineers: Roger Nichols, Elliot Scheiner, Bill Schnee, Al Schmitt. Studios: The Village (L.A.), Producer's Workshop (Hollywood), Warner Bros. (North Hollywood), Sound Labs (Hollywood), A&R (NYC). Mastering: Bernie Grundman.

KRAFTWERK: TRANS-EUROPE EXPRESS (CAPITOL)

Early techno/trance music from the groundbreaking German electronic band. These guys never sold millions of records, but their impact on music, particularly in Europe, was significant. “Europe Endless” is endlessly hypnotic.

Producers: Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider. Engineers: Peter Bollig, Thomas Kuckuck, Bill Halverson. Studios: Klingklang (Dusseldorf, Ger.), Russl (Hamburg, Ger.), Typografie Ink (Dusseldorf), Record Plant (Hollywood).

BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS: EXODUS (ISLAND)

This is arguably the commercial apex of reggae star Bob Marley's career, following on the heels of the international smash Rastaman Vibration, and generating three big hits on its own: the title song, “Jammin'” and “Waiting in Vain,” as well as a pair of tunes that would become famous the world over — “Three Little Birds” and “One Love/People Get Ready.” Few managed to mix the political and the personal as skillfully as Marley; it's no wonder he's still popular today, years after his death.

Producers: Bob Marley & The Wailers. Engineers: Chris Blackwell, Karl Pitterson. No studios listed.

1978

PATTI SMITH GROUP: EASTER (ARISTA)

Smith's most commercial effort (“Because the Night” was her biggest hit), Easter is no less poetic and inspiring than her less accessible albums. “Rock 'n' Roll Nigger” is a ferocious number; “Til Victory” is a stirring call to arms; and the incantory “Ghost Dance” displays her mysterioso spiritual side.

Producer: Jimmy Iovine. Engineers: Thom Panunzio, Charlie Conrad, Shelly Yakus. Studios: Record Plant (NYC), House of Music (West Orange, NJ). Mastering: Greg Calbi/Sterling Sound.

PAT METHENY GROUP (ECM)

Intricate, beautifully constructed, highly melodic jazz instrumentals — with dashes of folk and rock — by one of the great quartets to come down the pike: guitarist Metheny, keyboardist Lyle Mays, bassist Mark Egan and drummer Dan Gottlieb. A very popular album filled with spirit and invention. The “Wave” radio format was practically invented to accommodate this kind of music.

Producer: Manfred Eicher. Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug. Studio: Talent (Oslo, Norway).

VAN HALEN (WARNER BROS.)

Another hugely influential album, this debut record by the L.A.-based Van Halen helped usher in a new era of hard rock/heavy metal. Eddie Van Halen was a new kind of guitar hero — really, the first to emerge in a number of years — and lead screamer David Lee Roth was the perfect brash frontman. They had actual hits — “Running With the Devil” and The Kinks' “You Really Got Me” — but like most metal bands, attracted most of their fans through hard-rocking concerts. Don't blame Van Halen for all the bad bands that copied them; they were for real.

Producer: Ted Templeman. Engineer: Don Landee. Studio: Sunset Sound (L.A.). Mastering: Warner Bros. (No. Hollywood).

BLONDIE: PARALLEL LINES (CHRYSALIS)

For sheer wacky energy and drive, it's hard to top Blondie's eponymous 1976 debut album, but this record best represents the — ahem — mature Blondie sound, mixing punk energy and dancefloor grooves. “Hanging on the Telephone” and “Heart of Glass” show both sides of the band at their best. Other delights include such acknowledged classics as “One Way or Another” and “Fade Away and Radiate.” An underrated band at an undeniable peak.

Producer: Mike Chapman. Engineer: Peter Coleman. Studios: Record Plant (NYC), Forum (Covington, KY). Mastering: Steve Hall/MCA.

THE CARS (ELEKTRA)

The Cars had a new wave look and some of the edge, but at heart they were just a really good pop band, as this debut full of hit singles shows. “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend's Girl” and “Good Times Roll” all benefited from the sheen provided by producer Roy Thomas Baker, who'd helmed Queen's exquisite albums. The album went on to sell more than six million copies and established the group as one of the top bands of late '70s.

Producer: Roy Thomas Baker. Engineers: Roy Thomas Baker, Geoff Workman. Studio: Air (London). Mastering: George Marino/Sterling Sound.

ELVIS COSTELLO: THIS YEAR'S MODEL (COLUMBIA)

Each of Elvis' first four albums is worth singling out for its greatness, but this sophomore effort captures the angry young Elvis at his punky best. As The Attractions rave crisply behind him, Elvis spits out his lyrics with poison-dart precision. Includes the undisputed new wave classics “Radio Radio,” “Pump It Up,” “No Action” and “Lip Service.”

Producer: Nick Lowe. Engineer: Roger Bechirian. Studio: Eden (London).

NEIL YOUNG: COMES A TIME (WARNER BROS.)

A gentle, mostly acoustic masterpiece with some of Young's most touching songs, including “Goin' Back,” the title track, “Human Highway” and “Already One.” This is the album that introduced most of us to the talented harmony singer Nicolette Larson. Like Young's best music, it has a timeless quality to it.

Producers: Neil Young, Ben Keith, Tim Mulligan, David Briggs. Engineers: Mulligan, Michael Laskow, David McKinley, Danny Hilly, Mike Porter, Denny Purcell, Rich Adler, Ernie Winfrey, Gabby Garcia, Paul Kaminsky. Studios: Triad (Ft. Lauderdale), Columbia (London), Wally Heider (L.A.), Woodland (Nashville), Sound Shop (Nashville), Broken Arrow (Redwood City, CA). Mastering: Phil Brown, Stu Romain/Columbia.

1979

PINK FLOYD: THE WALL (COLUMBIA)

Awesome, ambitious double-disc culmination of the Roger Waters-led Floyd, it's a concept album about alienation, detachment and how the world beats us all down until we're quivering wrecks. Or maybe Waters is just projecting! Includes such Classic Rock radio staples as “Hey You,” “Another Brick in the Wall” and the David Gilmour showcase “Comfortably Numb.” One of the best-selling albums of all time.

Producers: Bob Ezrin, Roger Waters, David Gilmour. Engineer: James Guthrie. Additional engineering by Nick Griffiths, Patrice Quef, Brian Christian, John McClure, Rick Hart. Studios: Superbear (France), Miravel (France), Producer's Workshop (L.A.), CBS (NYC). Mastering: Doug Sax/Mastering Lab.

RY COODER: BOP TILL YOU DROP (WARNER BROS.)

In the mid-'70s, guitarist/singer Ry Cooder began to develop an original sound that mixed male gospel backup singers with R&B from the first half of the 20th century. This album, among the first recorded entirely to a digital multitrack, is the apex of that bright, soulful style. It mixes songs about romance with socially conscious numbers to wonderful effect, and the playing is smooth as a silk suit throughout. This sound would turn up on many later albums by the likes of Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and others.

Producer: Ry Cooder, Engineer: Lee Herschberg. Studio: Warner Bros. (No. Hollywood).

THE CLASH: LONDON CALLING (EPIC)

The Clash were, many said, “the only band that matters.” At the vanguard of the British punk/new wave assault, they were loud, brash and blatantly political, and they had a sound that was unmistakable — full of fury and urgency, yet still tuneful. London Calling is their capo lavoro, a glorious collection of 19 songs that span many different styles — punk, ska, rockabilly, hard rock, et al — but always sound like The Clash. “Train in Vain” had mainstream success, but more typical are songs such as “Clampdown,” “Guns of Brixton” “London Calling,” and “Rudie Can't Fail.”

Producer: Guy Stevens. Engineer: Bill Price. Studio: Wessex (UK).

RICKIE LEE JONES (WARNER BROS.)

Talk about an auspicious debut! Rickie Lee Jones burst on the scene a fully formed talent, like some hipster love child of Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell. A classic first album, with memorable tracks such as “Chuck E.'s in Love,” “Coolsville” and “Easy Money.”

Producers: Lenny Waronker and Russ Titleman. Engineers: Lee Herschberg, Lloyd Clift, Roger Nichols, Tom Knox. Studio: Warner Bros. (Burbank). Mastering: Lee Herschberg/Warner Bros.

GRAHAM PARKER: SQUEEZING OUT SPARKS (ARISTA)

You can't go wrong with any of Parker's '70s albums, but this one is so overflowing with passion, it's no surprise it became his biggest seller. His backup band, The Rumour, never sounded better or more polished, and the mix of songs — sizzling, R&B-inflected rockers and searing ballads — is perfect. One of the great works of the “new wave.”

Producer: Jack Nitzsche. Engineer: Mark Howlett. Studios: Lansdowne (London), Cherokee (L.A.). Mastering: Mark Howlett, Jeff Sanders/Crystal.

WEATHER REPORT: 8:30 (COLUMBIA)

Exciting live album by the best of this jazz-rock fusion band's many lineups: Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, the incomparable Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine, with guest percussionist Erich Zawinul. Contains “Birdland,” “A Remark You Made” and “Teen Town” from their landmark Heavy Weather album, plus “Black Market,” “In a Silent Way,” and more.

Producers: Joe Zawinul, Jaco Pastorius. No recording info available.

THE SUGARHILL GANG: THE SUGARHILL GANG (SUGARHILL)

This album is significant because The Sugarhill Gang's “Rapper's Delight” brought rap and hip-hop out of the New York underground and into the mainstream; it was many people's first exposure to this kind of music. It shamelessly used the break from Chic's hit “Good Times,” and that move, too, would prove to be influential — samples became an accepted part of the hip-hop vocabulary. Not all of the album is rap-oriented, but “Rapper's Delight” is the one tune most people remember from the debut of this short-lived aggregation.

Producer: Sylvia Robinson. Engineers: Sylvia Robinson, Nate Edmonds. No recording info available.

1980

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: THE RIVER (COLUMBIA)

The Boss follows up his late-'70s masterworks Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town with a sprawling double LP loaded with rambunctious rockers and emotional ballads. The hit “Hungry Heart” is probably the worst of the album's 20 songs. The real meat is in tunes such as “Independence Day,” “Out in the Street,” “Point Blank,” “The River,” and any number of raucous rockabilly-tinged tunes.

Producers: Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau, Steve Van Zandt. Engineers: Neil Dorfsman, Chuck Plotkin, Toby Scott. Studios: Power Station (New York), Clover (L.A.). Mastering: Ken Perry/Capitol.

GEORGE JONES: I AM WHAT I AM (EPIC)

Jones has had a number of different periods of greatness. This album is from his “middle” period, and it stands with his best — it's full of heartbreak and longing and deep country angst. Has there ever been a sadder song than “He Stopped Loving Her Today”?

Producer: Billy Sherrill. Engineers: Ron “Snake” Reynolds, Lou Bradley. Studio: CBS (Nashville). Mastering: CBS/Nashville.

STEVIE WONDER: HOTTER THAN JULY (TAMLA)

Wonder's first conventional album since his brilliant and ambitious Songs in the Key of Life in 1976 (in between he made the odd, mostly instrumental Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants), Hotter Than July contains a number of standout tunes, including the simmering funk-reggae tune “Master Blaster (Jammin'),” a joyous ode to Martin Luther King called “Happy Birthday,” and the usual complement of songs about love, troubled and otherwise. Not quite up to his '70s classics, but still loaded with soul.

Producer: Stevie Wonder. Engineer: Gary Olazabal. Studios: Wonderland (L.A., with the Record Plant remote truck), IAM Studios (Irvine, CA), Crystal Sound (Hollywood). Mastering: Arnie Acosta, Larry Emerine, Stephen Marcussen/Precision Lacquer.

PRETENDERS (SIRE)

Chrissie Hynde came from Ohio but emerged out of England at the height of the new wave with this tough, exciting album. “Brass in Pocket” and a fine version of “Stop Your Sobbing” (originally by The Kinks, who influenced The Pretenders) were both mainstream hits, but it's a deep album filled with great songs: Remember “Tattooed Love Boys”? An auspicious debut.

Producers: Chris Thomas, Nick Lowe (one song). Engineers: Bill Price, Steve Nye, Mike Stavrou. Studios: Wessex, AIR (London).

AC/DC: BACK IN BLACK (ATLANTIC)

These hard-rock bad boys had already been going strong in their native Austalia for half a dozen years before they had their first big American success, Highway to Hell. Shortly after that, lead singer Bon Scott died; then they came back with this 10-million-selling disc. And they're still selling records today.

Producer: Robert John “Mutt” Lange. Engineers: Tony Platt, Brad Samuelson. Studio: Compass Point (Bahamas).

PETE TOWNSHEND: EMPTY GLASS (MCA)

While not technically the Who leader's first solo album (that would be the skeletal Who Came First in 1970), it was the first solo project that he really labored over, and the result is better than anything The Who made since Quadrophenia. Great, revealing songs including the punky “Rough Boys,” the sensitive “I Am an Animal,” and one of his true masterpieces, “Let My Love Open the Door.” Chris Thomas' varied production keeps everything lively and unpredictable.

Producer: Chris Thomas. Engineers: Bill Price, Steve Nye. Studios: Eel Pie, AIR, Wessex (all in UK). Mastering: Sterling Sound.

X: LOS ANGELES (SLASH)

In the late '70s and early '80s, Los Angeles had a punk and new wave scene nearly as vibrant as New York's, with the band X leading the charge. Their smashing debut is a gripping portrait of the L.A. scene's seamy underside. The rough harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka sound like the Jefferson Airplane on speed, while guitarist Billy Zoom brings a mangled rockabilly sensibility to the group's sonic assault. Ray Manzarek of The Doors produced and played keyboards — appropriate for this group, whose street poetry wasn't that far removed from Jim Morrison's ravings a decade before.

Producer: Ray Manzarek. Engineers: Rick Perrotta, Norm Graichen. Studio: Golden Sound (Hollywood).

1981

DEVO: FREEDOM OF CHOICE (WARNER BROS.)

Devo was one of the strangest products of the new wave — cynical, comical, nerdy, self-proclaimed “spud boys” transplanted from Akron, Ohio, to L.A. They were deep into electronic keyboards before it became fashionable and also one of the first groups to use videos effectively. Though their 1978 debut is not to be missed, this is their commercial and creative high-water mark; it contains the immortal hit “Whip It,” as well as the wry title track, “Girl You Want” and the ominous “Gates of Steel.”

Producers: Devo, Bob Margouleff. Engineers: Bob Margouleff, Howard Siegel. Studio: Record Plant (L.A.) Mastering: Ken Perry/Capitol.

ROLLING STONES: TATTOO YOU (EMD/VIRGIN)

The irresistible “Start Me Up” and the touching “Waiting for a Friend” are the bookends of this solid Stones album, which was patched together from a number of discarded songs by producer/engineer Kimsey. There's a dreamy quality to many of the songs that is positively beautiful and, of course, plenty of raw rockers.

Producers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Chris Kimsey. Engineers: Chris Kimsey, Bob Clearmountain. Studios: Pathè Marconi (Paris), Paris warehouse/Rolling Stones Mobile, Power Station (NY).

PHIL COLLINS: FACE VALUE (ATLANTIC)

The former Genesis drummer and latter-day front man for the progressive group goes solo and comes up with a surprisingly pop, middle-of-the-road effort that sold millions and established a solid solo career. Hugh Padgham's booming drum sound for Collins was widely imitated for years after this release. The spare, haunting “In the Air Tonight” is the most memorable track, but his turn on The Beatles' “Tomorrow Never Knows” is also noteworthy.

Producers: Hugh Padgham and Phil Collins. Engineers: Hugh Padgham, Phil Collins. Studios: Old Croft (UK), Townhouse (London), Village Recorder (L.A.). Mastering: Sterling.

WYNTON MARSALIS (COLUMBIA)

The album that announced that a major new force in jazz had arrived. The trumpeter works out with veterans such as Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock (who also produced), and with “young lions” (as they were sometimes called) Kenny Kirkland, Jeff “Tain” Watts and others. It's almost as if “fusion” never came along at all! This is a classic jazz sound, but still original.

Producer: Herbie Hancock. Engineers: Tomoo Suzuki, Tim Geelan, Nancy Byers. Studios: Sony (Tokyo), CBS (NYC). Mastering: Joe Gastwirt/CBS.

TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS: HARD PROMISES (MCA)

Petty had quite a streak going in the late '70s and early '80s, putting out one great album after another, and building a huge following by touring constantly. This one doesn't have the epic sweep of the preceding Damn the Torpedoes, but it rocks hard, it sounds alive and it's still chock-full of strong tunes, including “The Waiting,” “A Woman in Love,” “Something Big” and “King's Road.” TP unsuccessfully fought MCA over the list price of the album — remember when $9.98 seemed like a rip-off?

Producers: Jimmy Iovine, Tom Petty. Engineer: Shelly Yakus. Studios: Sound City (Van Nuys, CA), Cherokee (Hollywood), Goodnight (L.A.). Mastering: Greg Calbi/Sterling Sound.

JOE ELY: MUSTA NOTTA GOTTA LOTTA (MCA)

One of music's greatest live performers, Texan Joe Ely has also made many fine studio albums filled with tunes drenched in honky-tonk, rockabilly, roadhouse, Tex-Mex and early country flavorings — versatility is his middle name. He's at home doing covers by fellow Texans Buddy Holly, Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Butch Hancock, as he does here, but also a prodigious writer himself. An American original all the way.

Producer: Joe Ely, Michael Brovsky. Engineers: Chet Himes, Richard Mullen. Studio: Pecan St. (Austin). Mastering: Bobby Hatta/Amigo.

RICK JAMES: STREET SONGS (MOTOWN)

Though he later became a cartoonish bad boy and even did time in the Big House, at his peak Rick James was a fabulously talented singer, songwriter, musician and performer. He had a real gift for laying down deep urban funk, as songs such as the smash “Super Freak,” “Ghetto Life” and “Give It to Me Baby” show. James was eventually left in the dust by his innovative rival, Prince, but in the very early '80s, James' songs ruled the dance floor.

Producer: Rick James. Engineer: Tom Flye. Studios: Record Plant (Sausalito), Motown (L.A.).

THE GO-GO'S: BEAUTY & THE BEAT (A&M)

Sure, it sounds like inconsequential fluff today, but 20 years ago The Go-Go's were like a blast of fresh air — on the pop side of the punk/new wave movement from which they sprang; they were five girls who could really rock. The semi-retro feel of “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat” made them stars, but they were also capable of edgier material, which college radio favored over their hits.

Producers: Richard Gottehrer and Rob Freeman. Engineers: Rob Freeman, Thom Panunzio, Doug Schwartz. Studios: Penny Lane (NYC), Record Plant (NYC), Sound Mixers (NYC).

JOE JACKSON: NIGHT AND DAY (A&M)

The one-time new wave tyro developed into a first-class songwriter in the tradition of Gershwin and others. Night and Day is a masterful blend of songs about New York, love ballads and topical tunes, by a crack Latin-influenced band with no guitarist! “Steppin' Out” shows off Jackson's serious composer's chops, but other gems include “Breaking Us in Two,” “Real Men” and the dramatic, moving “Slow Song.” One of many career peaks he's enjoyed.

Producers: David Kershenbaum and Joe Jackson. Engineer: Michael Ewasko. Studio: Blue Rock (NYC).

ROXY MUSIC: AVALON (VIRGIN)

The apex of Brian Ferry's smooth period with Roxy Music, this album sounded so good, it was frequently used as a demonstration disc in hi-fi stores. The title track and “More Than This” are the best-known songs, but the album as a whole has a warm, lovely consistency. By this time, the edge of early Roxy albums had long since vanished, and Ferry was content to be the smooth operator.

Producers: Rhett Davies, Roxy Music. Engineers: Rhett Davies, Bob Clearmountain. Studios: Compass Point (Bahamas), Power Station (NYC). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk.

1982

KING SUNNY ADE: JUJU MUSIC (MANGO)

Nigerian guitarist Ade leads a huge band — more like a tribal orchestra — through some of the most hypnotic grooves you'll ever hear. Eight percussionists, four guitarists, a steel guitarist who sounds like he's on another planet, and a whole mess of chanting singers create quite a sound. This album made King Sunny an international star, long after he was one in Africa, and helped open the door for other African musicians in America.

Producer: Martin Meissonnier. Engineers: Katrin Lesevre, Godwin Logie. Studios: Otodi (Lome, Togo), Island (London).

DONALD FAGEN: THE NIGHTFLY (WARNER BROS.)

With Steely Dan in hibernation, group co-leader Fagen comes up with a brilliant album that sounds just like…Steely Dan! The title track and the hit “IGY” got the most airplay, but it's all pretty cool, and it sounds great; this is another album that was often used in hi-fi stores to test stereo systems.

Producer: Gary Katz. Engineers: Roger Nichols, Elliot Scheiner, David Lazerus. Studios: Soundworks (NYC), Village (L.A.), Automated Sound (NYC). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk.

MICHAEL JACKSON: THRILLER (COLUMBIA)

What is there to say about an album that sold some 40 million copies worldwide (it was popular everywhere); that generated a parade of seven Top 10 singles, including “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “The Girl Is Mine” and the title song; and helped launch both MTV and music videos in general? Jackson became the biggest star in the world because of this album, and it's not clear whether his career has ever truly recovered — talk about peaking early!

Producers: Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson. Engineer: Bruce Swedien. Additional engineering: Humberto Gatica, Matt Forger. Studios: Ocean Way (L.A.), Westlake (L.A.). Mastering: Bernie Grundman.

1983

STRAY CATS: BUILT FOR SPEED (EMI AMERICA)

The Stray Cats' deliciously retro sound brought the new wave movement's rockabilly roots into clear focus. Leader Brian Setzer was the real deal — an excellent guitarist, singer and songwriter. He's managed to forge a remarkably successful career fusing rockabilly and big band sensibilities, and this is the album that really launched him. It contains the radio hits “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut.”

Producers: Dave Edmunds, Stray Cats, Hein Hoven (one track). Mastering: Wally Traugott/Capitol.

VAN MORRISON: BEAUTIFUL VISION (WARNER BROS.)

Van at his most mystical, dabbling in some arcane theology of his own creation. Like his best work, this has an other-worldly quality to it. The “hit” was “Cleaning Windows,” a peppy burst of R&B nostalgia, quite unlike the rest of the album.

Producer: Van Morrison. Engineers: Jim Stren, Hugh Murphy. Studio: Record Plant (Sausalito). Mastering: Kent Duncan/Kendun Recorders.

EURYTHMICS: SWEET DREAMS (ARE MADE OF THIS) (BMG/RCA)

Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox and musician/studio wizard Dave Stewart wrote simple songs that made the most of each's talents: her full, character-filled voice and his knack for using electronic keyboards and other instruments in interesting ways. The result is a soulful techno sound unlike any other group of this era. The title song became their signature tune, but they followed it with a number of other hits over several years.

Producers: Dave Stewart, A. Williams, R. Crash. Engineer: Dave Stewart. No studio info.

BOB DYLAN: INFIDELS (COLUMBIA)

Leaving his Christian period behind, Dylan returns with a great album of topical tunes and sensitive love songs backed by a fantastic band that includes co-producer Knopfler, former Stone Mick Taylor and Jamaican aces Sly and Robbie on drums and bass.

Producers: Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler. Engineers: Neil Dorfsman, Josh Abbey, Ian Taylor. Studio: Power Station (NYC). Mastering: Ian Taylor and Bill Kipper/Masterdisk.

THE POLICE: SYNCHRONICITY (A&M)

As it turned out, this was the final studio album by The Police — they sure went out on an “up” note; it was the biggest album of their storied career. It shows the trio of Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers at the height of their powers, and includes such notable tunes as “Every Breath You Take,” “Tea in the Sahara,” “King of Pain” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” all classics.

Producers: Hugh Padgham and The Police. Engineer: Hugh Padgham. Studios: Air (Montserrat), Le Studio (Quebec). Mastering: Dave Collins.

STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN: TEXAS FLOOD (EPIC)

Texas guitar titan Stevie Ray Vaughan seemed to come out of nowhere as a mature talent, as this incredible debut album shows. His style came from Albert King, Jimi Hendrix and others, yet he sounded completely original. He single-handedly touched off a blues revival in the mid-'80s and became one of the true superstars of the genre. Besides the searing title track, this album's best-known song is “Pride and Joy.”

Producers: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Richard Mullen, Tommy Shannon, Chris Layton. Engineers: Richard Mullen, Lincoln Clapp, James Geddes. Studios: Down Town (L.A.), Riverside (Austin), Media Sound (NYC). Mastering: Ken Robertson/CBS.

MERLE HAGGARD AND WILLIE NELSON: PANCHO & LEFTY (EPIC)

The great thing about these two guys is…almost everything! Never ones to rest on their laurels, Haggard and Nelson have stayed vital for more than four decades by always trying new things, like this made-in-heaven album of duets; their first together. The stirring Townes Van Zandt title song is perfect for their outlaw personae, but in general it's a pretty relaxed affair by guys who have nothing to prove, but live to play fine country music.

Producers: Chips Moman, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard. Engineers: David Cherry, Larry Greenhill. Studios: Pedernales (Spicewood, TX), Chips Moman's (Nashville). Mastering: Woodland Sound.

1984

DEF LEPPARD: PYROMANIA (MERCURY)

Probably the best young British hard rock band of the '80s, Def Leppard seemingly could do no wrong for several years, as each release outsold the previous one, culminating in sales of over 10 million for this album, and a whopping 16 million for its successor, Hysteria. Their secret? Catchy, if obvious, songs; a slathering of pop gloss on top of the crunching guitars and crashing drums; and videos that aired constantly on MTV and other outlets. The group has endured enough tragedies to stock a whole season of VH-1's Behind the Music.

Producer: Robert John “Mutt” Lange. Engineer: Mike Shipley. Studio: Battery (London).

DAVID BOWIE: LET'S DANCE (EMI)

The Thin White Duke is back in top form with a CD full of driving dance tunes and rock tracks, including the infectious title song, “Modern Love,” “China Girl” and his odd theme song for the equally odd film Cat People. His most commercial album in years.

Producers: David Bowie, Nile Rodgers. Engineer: Bob Clearmountain. Studio: Power Station (NYC). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk.

PRINCE: PURPLE RAIN (WARNER BROS.)

Though 1999 established Prince as a serious contender in the rock/R&B crossover market, this was the big breakthrough for the Purple One, thanks in part to the popularity of the film of the same name. “When Doves Cry,” the majestic title track and the rockin' “Let's Go Crazy” show three distinct sides of this musical chameleon, but there isn't a weak track in the bunch. For Prince, though, it was just a brief stopoff in a career that has gone in dozens of different, usually interesting, directions.

Producer: Prince. Engineers: David Leonard, Susan Rogers, Peggy Mac, David Rivkin. Studios: The Warehouse (Minneapolis), Record Plant (NYC), Sunset Sound (L.A.). Mastering: Bernie Grundman.

THE SMITHS (SIRE)

At a time when synth groups pretty much ruled Britain, the Manchester band The Smiths stormed onto the scene with a guitar-driven attack. Johnny Marr — a guitarist and songwriter — and lead singer Morrissey, who also wrote intriguing lyrics, quickly found an audience for their unusual, sometimes topical songs. This first Smiths album contained songs about homosexuality, murder and other odd-for-pop subjects, but they came in appealing melodic wrappings, and Morrissey had some of the suave self-confidence of a latter-day Brian Ferry. Morrissey's successful solo career began in the late '80s.

Producer: John Porter. Engineer: Neill King, Phuil Bush. Studios: Pluto (Manchester, UK), Eden (London), Matrix (London), Strawberry (Manchester, UK).

MADONNA: LIKE A VIRGIN (WARNER BROS.)

One of the first true stars of the MTV age, Madonna always projected a strong image and courted controversy wherever she went. Her soulful dance music became extremely popular, but so did her LOOK — few women have had as much influence on teens and young adults as she did during this period. The title song, “Material Girl” and “Angel” were all big hits internationally; indeed, she became as iconic as Michael Jackson and Bob Marley, to name two other bona fide world sensations.

Producers: Nile Rodgers, Madonna, Stephen Bray. Engineer: Jason Corsaro. Studio: Power Station (NYC). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk.

RUN-DMC: RUN-DMC (PROFILE)

Today, Run-DMC are perhaps best remembered for their rap deconstruction of Aerosmith's “Walk This Way” in 1986, but when they first appeared on the scene in 1983, they had an enormous impact on every facet of rap culture — the sound, the style (gold chains, etc.), the attitude. They integrated rock and heavy metal elements into some of their songs, and Jam Master Jay was one of the first great turntablists. This first album contains “Rock Box,” “Sucker MCs,” “Hard Times” and “It's Like That,” all hits for the band and songs that helped take hip-hop to the mainstream.

Producer: Russell Simmons, Larry Smith. Studio: Greene St. (NYC). Mastering: Herb Powers/Frankford Wayne.

LAURIE ANDERSON: MISTER HEARTBREAK (WARNER BROS.)

A step toward the mainstream by the darling of the New York art/avant-garde community, Mister Heartbreak features outstanding musicianship from the likes of Adrian Belew, Peter Gabriel, Bill Laswell, Nile Rodgers and others. Anderson's musings — some spoken, others sung — range from funny and offbeat observations to dreamy wordscapes.

Producers: Bill Laswell, Laurie Anderson, Roma Baran, Peter Gabriel. Engineer: Leann Ungar. Studio: The Lobby (NYC). Mastering: Bob Ludwig, Howie Weinberg/Masterdisk.

DON HENLEY: BUILDING THE PERFECT BEAST (GEFFEN)

As the principal author and singer of so many of The Eagles' best and most literate tunes, Don Henley was the most likely member of the group to enjoy solo success, and he did, beginning with I Can't Stand Still in 1982. This second solo effort showed him at the peak of his powers, though, and contained a number of AM and FM hits, including “Boys of Summer,” “Sunset Grill” and “All She Wants To Do Is Dance.” Half of the musicians in L.A. appear on the album, including Lindsey Buckingham, Belinda Carlisle, Randy Newman, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, et al.

Producers: Don Henley, Greg Ladanyi, Danny Kortchmar, Mike Campbell. Engineers: Greg Ladanyi, Niko Bolas, Allen Sides, Tom Knox, Richard Bosworth. Studios: Record One (Sherman Oaks, CA), Bill Schnee Studio (Universal City, CA), The Villa (No. Hollywood). Mastering: Doug Sax, Mike Reese/Mastering Lab.

1985

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: BORN IN THE USA (COLUMBIA)

The album that turned Bruce into a mega-star; it's full of fire and bombast, but also some of his most affecting ballads. Hits included “Born in the USA,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “Glory Days.” “My Hometown” and “I'm on Fire” were among many affecting tunes. Still powerful after all these years.

Producer: Bruce Springsteen. Engineers: Toby Scott, Bob Clearmountain. Studios: Power Station (NYC), Hit Factory (NYC). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk.

LL COOL J: RADIO (DEF JAM)

Like Run-DMC, LL Cool J came out of Queens, N.Y.; he was rapping by the age of 9 and made this debut album at 17 under the watchful eye of Run-DMC producer/mastermind Russell Simmons; in fact, this was the first album on Simmons' Def Jam label. There's little here musically besides rapping, scratching, a beat box and a few samples, but LL was such a clever writer and had so much force to his personality, he quickly won over the rap community and became one of its leading lights for many years. He also has had a moderately successful acting career.

Producer: Rick Rubin. Engineer: Steven Ett. Studio: Chung King (NYC). Mastering: Herb Powers/Frankford Wayne.

JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP: SCARECROW (RIVA)

Mellencamp already had a number of hits under his belt when he made this career-defining album. He was clearly influenced by Springsteen, Bob Seger and others, but he also found his own distinctive, populist songwriting voice, which is in full bloom here. The multi-Platinum album contained several hit singles, including “Lonely Ol' Night,” “Small Town,” “Rain on the Scarecrow” and the anthemic “R.O.C.K. in the USA.” Heartland folk-rock at its best.

Producers: Don Gehman, John Mellencamp. Engineers: Don Gehman, Greg Edward. Studios: Belmont Mall (Belmont, IN), Rumbo (L.A.). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk.

TALKING HEADS: LITTLE CREATURES (SIRE)

This is the finest release from the Talking Heads' late period; it's stacked top to bottom with typically interesting rhythms, harmonies and offbeat songs about who-knows-what. “And She Was,” “Stay Up Late” and “Road to Nowhere” rank with the group's best songs.

Producers: Talking Heads. Engineer: Eric Thorngren. Studio: Sigma (NYC). Mastering: Jack Skinner/Sterling Sound.

WHITNEY HOUSTON: WHITNEY HOUSTON (ARISTA)

Though her troubled personal life has drawn more attention than her music in recent years, when Whitney Houston first appeared on the scene with this debut smash, she was rightly hailed as one of the best new singers of her generation. The daughter of soul singer Cissy Houston (not to mention the cousin of Dionne Warwick), Whitney seemed to be a fully-formed talent at 22 — a powerful, gospel-inspired R&B singer with incredible range and great instincts; to some, she was reminiscent of the young Aretha Franklin. This album went to Number One and contained the hit singles “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know?” and the inescapable “Greatest Love of All.”

Producers: Kashif, Narada Michael Walden, Michael Masser, Jermaine Jackson. Engineers: Bill Botrell, Michael Barbiero, Michael Mancini, Michael O'Reilly, Russell Schmitt, Bill Schnee. No studios listed.

THE BANGLES: DIFFERENT LIGHT (COLUMBIA)

Though they started as a humble, popish offshoot from L.A.'s so-called Paisley Underground, the all-female band broadened their following with a series of driving, melodic tunes on their David Kahne-produced major label debut, All Over the Place. Kahne produced this one, too, and it became a huge hit, spawning the quirky pop singles “Walk Like An Egyptian” (which hit Number One), “Walking Down Your Street” and a song given to them by Prince, “Manic Monday.” Lightweight but fun.

Producer: David Kahne. Engineers: Tchad Blake, David Leonard, Peggy McDonald. Studios: Sunset Sound Factory (Hollywood), Sunset Sound (Hollywood).

DIRE STRAITS: BROTHERS IN ARMS (WARNER BROS.)

One of the first fantastic-sounding CDs, Brothers In Arms was also the peak of Dire Straits' often brilliant career. Leader Mark Knopfler really mixes up the styles here, nimbly moving from bright acoustic textures to crunching rock, and back again. The chart-topping “Money for Nothing,” the spry “Walk Of Life” and languid “So Far Away” were hits that led to the album eventually selling more than 25 million copies worldwide; it's one of rock's greatest international success stories. A true classic — rich and smart.

Producers: Neil Dorfsman, Mark Knopfler. Engineer: Neil Dorfsman. Studios: Air (Montserrat), Air (London), Power Station (NYC).

1986

SADE: DIAMOND LIFE (PORTRAIT)

The exotic Nigerian/British singer Sade Adu has made a career out of a sort of relaxed detachment; she mostly sings cool ballads that have a pleasing jazz-pop feeling to them. Diamond Life was her first release, and it yielded hits both in Britain and the U.S.: “Smooth Operator,” “Hang Onto Your Love,” and “Your Love Is King.” The album went on to to sell more than 6 million copies, and it practically defined the sound of the then-popular “Quiet Storm” radio format.

Producer: Robin Millar. Engineers: Ben Rogan, Mike Pela Studio: Power Plant (London).

PAUL SIMON: GRACELAND (WARNER BROS.)

A remarkable fusion of Simon's abstract but evocative writing, South African flavorings and a helping of American roots music. Chock-full of great songs, including the title cut, “Boy in the Bubble,” “You Can Call Me Al,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless” — the last two featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Few albums have opened up Western listeners to the wonder of African music the way this did.

Producer: Paul Simon. Engineer: Roy Hallee. Studios: Ovation (Johannesburg), Hit Factory (NYC), Amigo (L.A.), Abbey Road (London), Master-Trak Enterprises (Crawley, L.A). Mastering: Greg Calbi/Sterling Sound.

BRUCE HORNSBY & THE RANGE: THE WAY IT IS (RCA)

Hornsby was the first piano man to capture the public's imagination since the hey-day of Elton John and Billy Joel. This album introduced millions to his solid singing, literate songwriting and fluid playing. The title cut, about racial injustice in his native South, was a huge hit, and both “On the Western Skyline” and “Mandolin Rain” became FM staples.

Producers: Bruce Hornsby and Elliot Scheiner. Engineers, Elliot Scheiner, Jim Gaines, Eddie King, David Luke, Don Smith. Studios: Rumbo (L.A.), Ocean Way (L.A.), Studio D (Sausalito), Village (L.A.), Capitol (L.A.), Fantasy (Berkeley), Conway (L.A.), The Complex (L.A.).

PETER GABRIEL: SO (GEFFEN)

Gabriel left Genesis after their epic The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album and wasted no time showing that he had the chops for a strong solo career. This was his fifth solo effort, and the one that really established him as a worldwide phenom. Extremely clever MTV videos of his singles certainly helped, too. This exciting polyglot of styles included “Sledgehammer,” “Red Rain,” “In Your Eyes” (which introduced many to the talents of singer Youssou N'Dour) and “Big Time.” A landmark of '80s pop.

Producers: Daniel Lanois and Peter Gabriel. Engineers: Kevin Killen, Daniel Lanois. Additional engineering: David Bottrill, David Stallbaumer, Bruce Lampcov. Studios: Real World (UK), Polygram (Rio de Janeiro), Power Station (NYC). Mastering: Ian Cooper/Town House.

JANET JACKSON: CONTROL (A&M)

Michael's little sister grows up big time on this fun and fast-paced album of groovacious dance tunes and power ballads. Producer/writers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis give Jackson excellent material and arrangements to work with, and to her credit, she has the goods to totally pull it off. The parade of hits this generated includes the title song, “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” “Nasty,” “When I Think of You” and “Let's Wait Awhile.” Her sensational videos and tours helped her establish an image apart from her famous sibling.

Producers: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Studio: Flyte Time (Minneapolis). Mastering: Brian Gardner/Bernie Grundman.

REBA MCENTIRE: WHOEVER'S IN NEW ENGLAND (MCA)

The daughter of an Oklahoma rodeo rider, and one-time rider herself, McEntire is as country as country music stars get. (Just check out her self-titled series on the WB network some time.) She'd already been recording for nearly a decade when this career-making album was released and stormed to the top of the charts behind the Number One hits “Little Rock” and “Whoever's in New England” (as well as a few that didn't make the top slot). Between 1985 and 1992, she racked up 24 consecutive Top 10 country singles, an amazing feat!

Producer: Jimmy Bowen. Engineers: Ron Treat, Bob Bullock, Chip Hardy. Studios: Sound Stage (Nashville), The Castle (Franklin, TN).

DWIGHT YOAKAM: GUITARS, CADILLACS, ETC. (REPRISE)

Yoakam is a contemporary honky-tonk hero who has shown his versatility on album after album since the early '80s. This one was his major-label debut, and it immediately established him as one of the most promising singers and songwriters operating outside of Nashville. It contains fine covers of Johnnny Horton's “Honky Tonk Man” and Johnny Cash's “Ring of Fire,” as well as a slew of solid originals, including the smash hit title song. Another auspicious debut.

Producer: Pete Anderson. Engineer: Brian Levi, Dusty Wakeman. Studios: Excalibur (Studio City, CA), Capitol (Hollywood). Mastering: Eddie Schreyer/Capitol.

1987

BEASTIE BOYS: LICENSED TO ILL (DEF JAM)

White boys turn rap on its ear with a dazzling pastiche of varied samples, beats and crude, macho-man posturing. Man, they were annoying! But also funny and talented. The first rap record to go Platinum, it went on to sell more than five million copies and influenced many white and black artists. Contains “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right to…” and “Brass Monkey.”

Producer: Rick Rubin with the Beastie Boys. Engineer: Steve Ett. Mastering: Howie Weinberg/Masterdisk

GUNS ‘N ROSES: APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION (GEFFEN)

For a while there, it looked as though Guns ‘N Roses would take over the world. With Slash's heavy guitars and the screeching lead vocals of frontman Axl Rose, GNR were a sort of Led Zeppelin for the late '80s, except they imploded much earlier. Contains “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child O' Mine” and other anthemic testosterone-fueled rockers.

Producer: Mike Clink. Engineers: Mike Clink, Steve Thompson, Michael Barbiero. Studios: Rumbo (Canoga Park, CA), Take One (Burbank), Can Am (Tarzana, CA), Media Sound (NYC). Mastering: George Marino/Sterling Sound.

JOHN HIATT: BRING THE FAMILY (A&M)

Hiatt is known primarily as a writer of songs others have recorded, but he's also made a number of excellent albums himself, with this being perhaps the pick of the litter. His material and his singing are always first-rate, and on this album, he's also got a fabulous band to deliver the tunes: Ry Cooder on guitar, Nick Lowe on bass and Jim Keltner on drums. The songs range from the confessional to the acerbic; pain and humor do battle through much of his work. “Memphis in the Meantime,” “Have a Little Faith in Me,” “Thing Called Love” and “Your Dad Did” are just a few of the delights here.

Producer: John Chelew. Engineers: Larry Hirsch, Joe Schiff. Studio: Ocean Way (L.A.). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk.

U2: THE JOSHUA TREE (ISLAND)

Another band where you could pick just about any album they made and argue for its significance. They were already huge when this album came out, but The Joshua Tree turned them into the biggest band in the world. A masterpiece from beginning to end, it opens with four of their strongest songs: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For,” “With or Without You” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.”

Producers: Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno. Engineers: Flood, Steve Lillywhite, with additional engineering by Dave Meegan, Pat McCarthy and Mark Wallace. Studio: Windmill Lane (Dublin).

REM: DOCUMENT (IRS)

These guys have had more distinct periods than Picasso, and each is worth exploring if it's adventurous rock you're looking for. This album marked the beginning of their association with producer/engineer Scott Litt, who cleaned up their famously muddy sound and really seemed to bring out the best in singer Michael Stipe. Lots of choice tunes here, including “The One I Love,” which became the band's first big hit single, “Finest Worksong” and “It's the End of the World As We Know It.” Subsequent albums might have sold more, but this is where they turned a corner…

Producers: Scott Litt, REM. Engineers: Scott Litt, Steve Catania, Todd Sholar, Ted Pattison, Tom Der. Studios: Sound Emporium (Nashville), Master Control (L.A.). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk.

INXS: KICK (ATLANTIC)

With slashing rhythm guitar lines, booming kick drums and the distinctive lead vocals of the late Michael Hutchence, the Australian band INXS developed a sleek hybrid dance/hard rock sound in the mid-'80s that made them popular all over the world, but especially in Great Britain and the coasts of the U.S. “Need You Tonight” became their biggest U.S. hit, while “Devil Inside” and “New Sensation” also were successful tunes for the band.

Producer: Chris Thomas. Engineers: David Nicholas, Bob Clearmountain. Studios: Rhinoceros (Sydney), Studio de le Grande Armee (Paris), Air (London).

1988

MIDNIGHT OIL: DIESEL AND DUST (COLUMBIA)

The socially conscious Australian band has made a number of fine albums; this is the best-known because of the international success of the catchy “Beds Are Burning,” but it's solid throughout. Rock and politics do occasionally mesh well, as the Oils prove. And they're still going strong and fighting the good fight.

Producers: Warne Livesay and Midnight Oil. Engineers: Guy Gray, Nick Launay, Greg Henderson. Studio: Albert (Sydney).

GEORGE HARRISON: CLOUD NINE (DARK HORSE)

Harrison's best solo album since All Things Must Pass showcases his lighter side, with producer Jeff Lynne giving it a little of that old Beatles sheen. Friends Ringo, Clapton, Elton and others help out on what would be George's final studio album.

Producers: Jeff Lynne and George Harrison. Engineer: Richard Dodd. Studio: FPSHOT (UK). Mastering: Brian Gardner/Bernie Grundman.

MICHELLE SHOCKED: SHORT, SHARP, SHOCKED (MERCURY)

What to make of Michelle Shocked? She has a folky side and a punky side and she writes strong, personal songs. With Pete Anderson at the helm, this effort has more of a country feel than some of her other work, though all of it seems to be rooted in her Texas upbringing to a degree. “Anchorage,” “Memories of East Texas” and “When I Grow Up” are fine slices of what she does best, which is writing evocative and heartfelt lyrics and simple but graceful melodies.

Producer: Pete Anderson. Engineers: Peter Doell, Leslie Ann Jones, Patrick Leonard. Studios: Capitol (Hollywood), Larrabee (L.A.). Mastering: Eddie Schreyer/Capitol.

TRAVELING WILBURYS: VOL 1 (WARNER BROS.)

Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison comprise the weirdest supergroup ever, writing all the tunes together and trading off lead vocals (often within the same song!). Some great tunes, including the hit “Handle With Care,” the Orbison showcase “Not Alone Any More” and the catchy “End of the Line.” Quirky, but full of humor; it works.

Producers: Jeff Lynne, George Harrison. Engineers: Richard Dodd, Phil Macdonald, Don Smith, Bill Bottrell. Studios: FP-SHOT, Lucky, Dave Stewart Studios. Mastering: Steve Hall/Future Disc

BOBBY MCFERRIN: SIMPLE PLEASURES (ELEKTRA)

The a cappella vocal cha-meleon Bobby McFerrin is commonly labeled a jazz singer, and that certainly defines his imaginative approach, with all that scatting and mimicry of instruments. On this album, however, he digs deep into the pop/rock bag, reinventing such tunes as The Beatles' “Drive My Car,” Cream's “Sunshine of Your Love” and The Olympics' “Good Lovin.'” There are also some strong McFerrin originals including his one big hit: “Don't Worry Be Happy,” still guaranteed to put a smile on your smile.

Producers: Bobby McFerrin, Linda Goldstein. Engineer: Chris Teregsen. Studios: Power Station (NYC), Fantasy (Berkeley). Mastering: Jack Skinner/Sterling Sound.

ENYA: WATERMARK (WARNER BROS.)

The Irish composer/chanteuse is usually lumped in with new age artists because of the serene, almost meditative quality of her keyboard-based music. But she never goes too far from her roots in Irish folk music; her melodies often have the same sad, elegaic quality of Irish ballads. What no one expected is that she would sell millions of albums. “Orinoco Flow” was a bona fide hit single, but any given song on her records is usually just a part of the strange and beautiful tapestry she and her collaborators create.

Producers: Enya, Nicky Ryan. Engineers: Ross Cullum, Jim Barton. Studio: Orinoco (Ireland), Wessex (England).

TAKE 6: TAKE 6 (REPRISE)

Every once in a while, a gospel record breaks through to a mass audience. This superb a cappella disc, which was a huge hit, goes beyond traditional gospel borders, however, into jazz, pop and doo-wop stylings. They've continued to make a number of excellent CDs.

Producers: Mark Kibble, Claude McKnight III, Mervyn Warren. Engineer: Don Cobb. Studio: Digital recorders (Nashville). Mastering: Denny Purcell/Georgetown Masters.

1989

LITTLE FEAT: LET IT ROLL (WARNER BROS.)

This band disintegrated after the death of leader Lowell George in 1979, but came back strong nearly 10 years later with this record that showed that the rest of the group had an awful lot to do with their classic sound. An powerful beginning to the second great era of Little Feat music.

Producers: George Massenburg and Bill Payne. Engineer: George Massenburg. No studio listed. Mastering: Doug Sax, Mike Reese/Mastering Lab.

ORNETTE COLEMAN: VIRGIN BEAUTY (PORTRAIT)

With two drummers, two bassists, and three guitarists (plus guest Jerry Garcia on three tracks) in his group, free-blowing saxman Ornette Coleman kicks up quite a squall on this release, which is all over the map stylistically. There's an awful lot going on in the dense cross-weave of independent melodies, rhythms and keys, but there's a method to this madness and the attentive listener is richly rewarded. Ornette is, and always has been, one of a kind.

Producer: Denardo Coleman. Engineer: Tom Lazarus. Studios: Master Sound Astoria (NY), Atlantic (NY), Clinton (NY). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk

TOM PETTY: FULL MOON FEVER (MCA)

Though technically a solo album, the other Heartbreakers appear here and there, and three of these songs instantly went into TP & the Heartbreakers' live repertoire, and “Free Fallin',” “I Won't Back Down,” “Running Down a Dream” found their way onto the group's greatest hits CD. What separates this from a regular Heartbreakers album is Jeff Lynne's bright production and the appearance of guests such as George Harrison and Roy Orbison (fellow travelers in the Wilburys). Two other highlights: “Yer So Bad” and the the ultra-goofy “Zombie Zoo.”

Producers: Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty. Engineers: Bill Bottrell, Dennis Kirk, Don Smith. Studios: Mike Campbell's (L.A.), Sunset Sound (Hollywood), Devonshire (Hollywood), Conway (L.A.).

AEROSMITH: PUMP (GEFFEN)

Aerosmith already had years of hit albums and enough ups and downs to fill a dozen episodes of VH-1's Behind the Music when they made this powerful hard-rocking album in the late '80s. All the ingredients of their initial success are here: the riff-heavy rock tunes, the thundering ballads, the mid-tempo rockers that recall the Stones but still manage to sound original. “Janie's Got a Gun” and “Love in an Elevator” both made the Top 5.

Producer: Bruce Fairbairn. Engineer: Mike Fraser. Studio: Little Mountain (Vancouver). Mastering: Greg Fulginiti/Artisan Sound.

NWA: STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (RUTHLESS)

When this raw, visceral, brutal, misogynist and profane slice of gangsta rap exploded out of L.A.'s South Central area with songs like “F — the Police,” “Gangsta Gangsta” and “Express Yourself,” and then went on to sell more than 2 million copies, America freaked out! That's a good thing, because NWA told an unvarnished version of inner-city truth, and spoke for thousands of disaffected people. This album made stars of group leaders Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E, and spawned a zillion, mostly inferior, imitators.

Producers: Dr. Dre, DJ Yella. Engineer: Donovan Sound. Studio: Audio Achievements (Torrance, CA). Mastering: Bernie Grundman.

CLINT BLACK: KILLIN' TIME (RCA)

There was nothing startlingly different or original about Clint Black when he came onto the scene. His sound was based more in traditional country than most artists, but he was also a little glossier than some others. Whatever the appeal, he immediately struck a chord with the public — this debut album hit Number One on the country album chart and stayed there for eight months, thanks to the success of singles such as the title cut, “Nobody's Home,” “A Better Man,” and “Walkin'Away.” The Houston-area native was “discovered” by ZZ Top manager/producer Bill Hamm.

Producers: Bill Hamm, James Stroud, Mark Wright. Engineers: Lynn Peterzell, Milan Bogdan. Studios: Digital Services (Houston), House of David (Nashville), Sound Stage (Nashville), Woodland (Nashville), Reflections (Nashville), Eleven Eleven (Nashville) Mastering: Glenn Meadows/Masterfonics.

K.D. LANG: ABSOLUTE TORCH AND TWANG (SIRE)

This is exactly what the title implies: torch songs with a country twist. It's not as lush as her equally brilliant Shadowland, but it's filled with incisive country love songs (most by lang and Ben Mink) and superb and tasteful playing. k.d. is a different strain of country but she's the real deal — a singer of amazing range and conviction.

Producers: Greg Penny, Ben Mink and k.d. lang. Engineers: Joe Seta and Greg Penny. Studio: Vancouver (B.C.).

NEVILLE BROTHERS: YELLOW MOON (A&M)

A stunning blend of New Orleans R&B, funk struttin', social consciousness and a bit of moody bayou voodoo. The Nevilles have never sold a lot of records, but they've made lots of good ones; this is their best. Aaron Neville's unearthly falsetto never sounded better.

Producer: Daniel Lanois. Engineer: Malcolm Burn; additional engineering: Charles Brady. Studio: A House in New Orleans. Mastering: George Horn/Fantasy.

1990

ELVIS COSTELLO: SPIKE (WARNER BROS.)

Some found the eclecticism of this album a bit much; it does jump from style to style in a fairly haphazard fashion. But the songs are a strong and ageeable lot, and, of course, Elvis has the vocal chops to move easily from one genre to the next. With the Attractions out of the picture at this time, Elvis turned to a host of interesting collaborators, including the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (on the superb “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror”), Roger McGuinn, members of The Chieftains, New Orleans piano great Allen Toussaint, Chrissie Hynde, Paul McCartney, Mitchell Froom…the list goes on and on. The delightful EC/Sir Paul tune “Veronica” was a substantial hit.

Producers: Elvis Costello, Kevin Killen, T Bone Burnett. Engineer: Kevin Killen. Studios: Ocean Way (L.A.), Southlake (New Orleans), Windmill Lane (Dublin), AIR (London). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk.

JANE'S ADDICTION: RITUAL DE LO HABITUAL (WARNER BROS.)

Meanwhile on the planet Perry (Farrell), things are very strange indeed. With their arty-bordering-on-pretentious posturing and bizarre hodge-podge of metal, alternative, trance and opiated punk, Jane's Addiction was unlike any other band. They were impossible to pigeonhole and never stayed in one spot too long, stylistically. From expansive jams to crunching hard rock, to weird, ethereal tone poems, these guys covered a lot of ground — and sold a lot of albums. “Mountain Song” and “Ocean Size” are just two of the standout oddities here.

Producers: Perry Farrell, Dave Jerden. Engineers: Ronnie Champagne, Dave Lacivita. Studios: Track Record (No. Hollywood), Sound Castle (L.A.) Mastering: Eddy Schreyer/Future Disc.

SINEAD O'CONNOR: I DO NOT WANT WHAT I HAVEN'T GOT (CHRYSALIS)

Forget the controversies that have swirled around O'Connor for most of her career. She's a brilliant singer and songwriter, as this disc shows. At once incisive, confessional and always soaked in a fundamental truth, these songs add up to a stirring self-portrait of a very distinctive artist. The hit single from this album “Nothing Compares 2 U,” was written by Prince, but she totally makes the song her own.

Producer: Sinead O'Connor (with Nellee Hooper on one song). Engineer: Chris Burkett (with Sean Devitt on one song). Studio: STS (Dublin).

SONIC YOUTH: GOO (GEFFEN)

This band already had underground cred to spare by the time this major label effort was released, and to their credit, they made no compromises — it's still awash with feedback and noise, and loaded with the sort of arty post-punk rambling that is their trademark. The earlier Daydream Nation is probably their masterpiece, but this one helped elevate them from the underground somewhat.

Producers: Sonic Youth, with Nick Sansano and Ron St. Germain. Engineers: Nick Sansano, Ron St. Germain, Jim Waters. Studios: Sorcerer (NYC), Greene Street (NYC), Right Track (NYC), Waterworks (NYC). Mastering: Howie Weinberg/Masterdisk.

GARTH BROOKS: NO FENCES (CAPITOL)

Brooks' self-titled 1989 debut announced that a major new force had emerged on the Nashville scene, but no one could have guessed just how big he would become. This sophomore effort spawned a number of country hits, including “Friends in Low Places,” “Unanswered Prayers” and “The Thunder Rolls” (a controversial song about domestic violence), but the real secret of Brooks' success is that he managed to attract followers outside of the country market. No Fences remains the best-selling country album of all time.

Producer: Allen Reynolds. Engineer: Mark Miller. Studio: Jack's Tracks (Nashville). Mastering: Denny Purcell/Georgetown Masters.

PAUL SIMON: THE RHYTHM OF THE SAINTS (WARNER BROS.)

After immersing himself in Africa for Graceland, Simon moves on to Brazil, with similarly engaging results. While not quite as spunky as its predecessor, this album is laced with mystery, and the “up” songs, such as “The Obvious Child” and “Proof” are infectious. And there's still plenty of Africa in this album, too.

Producers: Paul Simon, Roy Hallee. Engineer: Roy Hallee. Studios: Hit Factory (NYC), Transamerica (Rio), Impressao Digital (Rio), Guillaume Tell (Paris). Mastering: Greg Calbi/Sterling Sound.

ANGELO BADALAMENTI: MUSIC FROM TWIN PEAKS (WARNER BROS.)

Twisted hipster lounge music and odd and unsettling themes dominate this strange and moody soundtrack from David Lynch's bizarre and influential late '80s TV series. Julee Cruise is the smooth-voiced chanteuse on a few tracks. The music is easier to understand than the show was, but both were/are cool.

Producers: David Lynch, Angelo Badalamenti. Engineers: Art Pohlemus, Jay Healy. Studios: Excalibur, Hit Factory (NYC). Mastering: Howie Weinberg/Masterdisk.

1991

WORLD PARTY: GOODBYE JUMBO (CHRYSALIS)

WP mastermind Karl Wallinger wears his influences on his sleeve — Beatles, Beach Boys, Stones, Stevie Wonder, etc. — yet, he still manages to come up with a singular pop style that is tuneful, loaded with great hooks and sounds like nothing else. “Is It Too Late,” “Way Down Now” and “Put the Message in the Box” are the best of the fine lot here.

Producer/Engineer: Karl Wallinger. Studios: Seaview (London), The Old Rectory (Bedfordshire, UK).

BONNIE RAITT: LUCK OF THE DRAW (CAPITOL)

The beloved Bonnie's much-deserved breakout album, after years of slogging away in the trenches making great music for a mid-sized, but rabid, following. Impeccable song choices, as always, winningly performed and beautifully sung. “Something to Talk About” is classic Raitt — sung with a wink and a leer, and featuring her fine slide guitar work. “Not the Only One” and “Good Man, Good Woman” (a duet with Delbert McClinton) are among the other standouts.

Producers: Don Was, Bonnie Raitt. Engineer: Ed Cherney. Studios: Ocean Way (L.A.), Capitol (Hollywood), Conway (L.A.). Mastering: Doug Sax/Mastering Lab.

MATTHEW SWEET: GIRLFRIEND (ZOO)

Matthew Sweet came out of nowhere with this exceptionally well-crafted album of complex power-pop tunes loaded with odd, layered guitar lines, glistening harmonies and unusual sound effects. The title song was a minor hit; the real gem, however, is “Divine Intervention,” a production that would make Brian Wilson proud.

Producers: Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet. Engineer: Jim Rondinelli. Studios: Axis (NYC), Battery (NYC). Mastering: Bob Ludwig, Scott Hull/Masterdisk.

JONI MITCHELL: NIGHT RIDE HOME (ELEKTRA)

Though her late '80s and 1990s work didn't have the commercial impact of her earlier albums, Mitchell made a number of fine discs in this era. Night Ride Home feels a bit like Hejira, with its spare instrumentation and easy flow from track to track. The writing and singing are, typically, first-rate. It's like hearing her sing pages from her private diary.

Producers: Joni Mitchell and Larry Klein. Engineers: Dan Marnien, Mike Shipley. Additional engineering: Tony Phillips, Steve Churchyard, Julie Last, Henry Lewy, Richard Cottrell. Studios: The Kiva, A&M (Hollywood), One On One (North Hollywood). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk.

NIRVANA: NEVERMIND (DGC)

The success of this album took nearly everyone by surprise. After all, the grungy Seattle sound, which mixed elements of punk and hard rock into a dark mud, had been bubbling under for a while, but this is the album that broke through to the mainstream, eventually selling more than 10 million copies in the U.S. and making Kurt Cobain one of the least likely superstars in rock history. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are” were very different kinds of hit records, and they opened the door for a whole wave of bands who appealed to disaffected teens and young adults.

Producers: Nirvana, Butch Vig. Engineers: Butch Vig, Nirvana, Andy Wallace. Studios: Sound City (Seattle), Smart (Madison, WI). Mastering: Howie Weinberg/Masterdisk.

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS: BLOODSUGARSEXMAGIK (WARNER BROS.)

The Chili Peppers were (and are) masters of the punk-funk groove. Their high energy, testosterone-fueled music influenced scores of bands that followed them; they were often imitated, never duplicated. BloodSugarSexMagic was a typically eclectic set from the group, anchored in their percolating funk, but also with a fair share of ballads, one of which, “Under the Bridge,” became their biggest hit. The album was recorded in an L.A. mansion instead of a conventional studio.

Producer: Rick Rubin. Engineer: Brendan O'Brien.

BOYZ II MEN: COOLEYHIGHHARMONY (MOTOWN)

One of the best groups to come out of Motown during the modern era, Boys II Men were a clean-cut teenage vocal group from Philadelphia who managed to embody elements of great soul vocal ensembles from the doo-wop era through The Temptations and O'Jays, and still sound contemporary. This multi-Platinum album yielded several R&B and pop hits, including “Motownphilly,” “It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” and “Uhh Ahh.”

Producers: Dallas Austin, Mark Nauseef, Walter Quintus, Kurt Renker. Engineers: Steve Berg, Jim Hinger, Dennis Mitchell, Darin Prindle, Chris Trevitt, David Way. Studios: Studio 4 (Philadelphia), Soundworks (NYC), Doppler (Atlanta). Mastering: Bernie Grundman

1992

METALLICA: METALLICA (ELEKTRA)

Metallica is probably the most important and influential metal band to emerge during the 1980s, a word-of-mouth phenomenon that just kept getting bigger and bigger every year. This record, known colloquially as “The Black Album,” marked a commercial turning point for the group, as Bob Rock's sleek production made their sonic squall shine like never before, but also seemed to add even more crunch to their destructo bottom end. A few die-hards cried, “Sell-out,” of course — hit singles? Metallica? But subsequent albums proved they never lost their manic edge.

Producers: Bob Rock, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich. Engineers: Randy Staub, Mike Tacci. Studios: One On One (L.A.).

PEARL JAM: TEN (EPIC)

Though criticized by some as a poor-man's Nirvana when they burst onto the scene with this impressive debut, Peal Jam wasted no time in making their mark with a huge following that appreciated their accessible grunge sound — less punk than Nirvana, less metal than Alice in Chains. Eddie Vedder was a truly original voice and, as its turned out, a very influental one. Includes the classic tunes “Black” and “Alive.”

Producers: Pearl Jam, Rick Parashar. Engineers: Rick Parashar, Tim Palmer, with additional engineering by Dave Hillis, Don Gilmore and Adrian Moore. Studios: London Bridge (Seattle), Ridge Farm (Dorking, UK). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk.

EN VOGUE: FUNKY DIVAS (EAST/WEST)

Long before there were TLC and Destiny's Child, the four women of En Vogue were the reigning queens of vocally based R&B. The hot production/writing team of Foster & McElroy gave them solid material and a delectable sheen; the rest the women did with sheer talent and show biz smarts. The album was a huge seller, thanks to hits such as “Free Your Mind,” “My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It”), “Give It Up, Turn It Loose” and “Giving Him Something He Can Feel.” An unbeatable party album!

Producers: Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy. Engineering: Michael Semanick, Neill King, Steve Counter, Ken Kessie. Studios: Fantasy (Berkeley), Can-Am (Tarzana, CA). Mastering: Brian Gardner.

NEIL YOUNG: HARVEST MOON (WARNER BROS.)

A conscious return to the country feeling of his Harvest album 20 years earlier, this one actually surpasses the original with a full slate of fine acoustic-based tunes. Like Comes a Time, this record highlights Young's pretty, romantic balladry. Hard to believe this is the same guy who lays down the sonic sludge with Crazy Horse year after year.

Producers: Neil Young and Ben Keith. Engineers: Tim Mulligan, John Nowland. Studio: Redwood Digital (Woodside, CA). Mastering: Tim Mulligan/Redwood Digital.

LOS LOBOS: KIKO (WARNER BROS.)

Dreamy, rootsy, gutsy, surrealistic, down-home, rocking, enigmatic, intimate, ethereal. It's Los Lobos' shift from a good-time Tex-Mex rock band to artists with a capital A. The start of their impressive run with the Froom-Blake team. A strange but beautiful album.

Producers: Mitchell Froom, Los Lobos. Engineers: Tchad Blake, Paul duGre, Kevin Killen. Studios: Sound Factory West, Paul and Mike's, Ocean Way (all in L.A.). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Masterdisk.

LYLE LOVETT: JOSHUA JUDGES RUTH (MCA)

People always want to call Lyle Lovett a country singer, but that tag doesn't quite do it, because his eclectic style incorporates folk, gospel, R&B and even jazz, depending on the album. This one has strong gospel and pop influences; in fact, it sounds like a descendant of Ry Cooder's mid-'70s gospel-rock. As always, there's lots of desperation and love-gone-wrong in his songs, but Lovett's dry wit is usually right around the corner. Beautifully recorded by George Massenburg, et al.

Producers: George Massenburg, Lyle Lovett. Engineers: George Massenburg, Nathaniel Kunkel, Gil Morales, Steve Holroyd, Marnie Riley, Noel Hazel. Studios: Ocean Way (L.A.), Conway (L.A.), Mastering: Doug Sax, Alan Yoshida/Mastering Lab.

ERIC CLAPTON: UNPLUGGED (REPRISE)

A surprise smash hit from the veteran Clapton, with acoustic renditions of various old blues and original tunes, including a slowed down “Layla,” the spry “San Francisco Bay Blues,” and the tragic ballad “Tears in Heaven.” His most popular album, and winner of several Grammys.

Producer: Russ Titleman. Engineers: Jim Barton, Steve Boyer. Studios: MTV (NYC), Power Station (NYC). Mastering: Ted Jensen/Sterling Sound.

1993

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: 3 YEARS, 5 MONTHS AND 2 DAYS IN THE LIFE OF… (CHRYSALIS)

It's a shame this group couldn't stay together longer, because this debut album was one of the most exciting and provocative albums of the early '90s. It brought together strains of hip-hop, funk and soul in a completely original way, and managed to have a strong social consciousness at the same time. The multi-Platinum album won the Grammy for Best Rap Album, and the group was Rolling Stone's Band of the Year for 1992.

Producer: Speech. Engineers: Alvin Speights, Speech, Ton Held, Richard Wells. Studios: Bosstown, 2560, Trax 32, UVM. Mastering: Howie Weinberg/Masterdisk.

SHERYL CROW: TUESDAY NIGHT MUSIC CLUB (A&M)

After years toiling away as a backup singer for the likes of Don Henley and Michael Jackson, singer/songwriter Crow steps out with her first solo album, co-written and produced with a group of songwriter friends known as the Tuesday Night Music Club. Though it took awhile to catch on, eventually Crow's loose, catchy folk-pop did find an audience. Behind the success of songs like “All I Wanna Do,” “Leaving Las Vegas,”

“Strong Enough” and “No One Said It Would Be Easy,” this album went on to sell more than 9 million copies and establish Crow as one of the top performers in pop.

Producer: Bill Bottrell. Engineers: Bill Bottrell, Blair Lamb. Studio: Toad Hall (L.A.) Mastering: Bernie Grundman.

JACKSON BROWNE: I'M ALIVE (ELEKTRA)

In the '70s, Browne made some of the definitive “relationship” albums. This is the definitive break-up album. A true return to form; his best since The Pretender. Besides the stirring title track, it contains the gospel-inflected “My Problem Is You” and the lovely “Too Many Angels.”

Producers: Jackson Browne, Scott Thurston, Don Was. Engineers: Paul Dieter, Rick Pekkonen, Ed Cherney. Studios: Groove Masters (Santa Monica). Mastering: Doug Sax and Gavin Lurssen/The Mastering Lab.

SMASHING PUMPKINS: SIAMESE DREAM (VIRGIN)

Their indie debut, Gish, cut with Butch Vig, was huge on college radio and added to the Chicago alternative band's already impressive following. And when they made the jump to a major label with this album, again with Vig on board, they became national stars. Leader Billy Corgan's intense, layered guitars and rambling compositions owed more to psychedelic and progressive rock than to the band's punk roots; it's a formula that let them retain their indie cred while tapping into the fringe of the mainstream. Powerful and trippy.

Producers: Billy Corgan, Butch Vig. Engineers: Butch Vig, Jeff Tomei, Mark Richardson. Studio: Triclops (Atlanta).

JOHNNY CASH: AMERICAN RECORDINGS (AMERICAN)

By the early '90s, Johnny Cash didn't have to prove anything to anybody; he was a living legend who'd done it all. That's what made the stunning success of this album all the more surprising. It's barebones Cash — just him and his guitar, rolling through an inspired set of original songs, and tunes suggested by producer Rick Rubin by the likes of Nick Lowe, Tom Waits, Louden Wainwright and even metal singer Glenn Danzig.

Producer: Rick Rubin. Engineers: David Ferguson, Jim Scott. Mastering: Stephen Marcussen.

COUNTING CROWS: AUGUST AND EVERYTHING AFTER (DGC)

The Counting Crows managed the difficult feat of attracting an alt rock following with music that had classic rock roots — in singer-songwriter Adam Duritz's introspective songs, there are echoes of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, The Band and others; it's literate and loose, sometimes almost sounding like it's stream-of-consciousness. The format-busting album produced three radio hits — “Round Here,” “Rain King” and “Mr. Jones” — and eventually sold more than 7 million copies.

Producer: T Bone Burnett. Engineers: Steve Holroyd, Patrick McCarthy, Robert Hart, Clark Germain, Howard Willing. Studios: “A big house on a hill in Los Angeles, Kiva West (L.A.), Conway (L.A.), Village (L.A.), Sunset Sound (Hollywood), Ocean Way (L.A.).

DIGABLE PLANETS: REACHIN' (A NEW REFUTATION OF TIME AND SPACE) (ELEKTRA)

What a cool band this was. Digable Planets was among the first groups to hit it big by fusing rap with jazz; their breakthough single, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” used a horn sample from an old Art Blakey record! Eschewing the anger and bravado of so many of their rap brethren, Digable Planets instead went for a mellower, more inclusive style that turned out to have very broad appeal. A very influential album; too bad they didn't stick around after the early '90s.

Producer: Butterfly. Engineers: Mike Mangini, Shane Farber. Studios: Sound Doctor (No. Bergen, NJ), Sound On Sound (NYC), Hit Factory (NYC). Mastering: Tom Coyne/Hit Factory.

JOSHUA REDMAN: WISH (WARNER BROS.)

Redman is one of the best young tenor sax improvisers out there, an adventurous spirit also capable of great lyricism. Here he is part of an amazing quartet that includes guitarist Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman's old rhythm section — bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins. That sounds like it would be an invitation to go “outside,” but Redman mostly keeps things fairly restrained, which isn't to say there aren't some heady post-bop flights. With tunes by Ornette, Charlie Parker, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Metheny, Haden and Redman, there's lots of stylistic variety and many moods.

Producer: Matt Pierson. Engineer: James Farber. Studio: Power Station (NYC). Mastering: Greg Calbi/Sterling Sound.

1994

GREEN DAY: DOOKIE (REPRISE)

Fast, funny, punky assault by a trio from Berkeley, California, of all places. They sound like The Clash sometimes, but their concerns are less political, instead touching on teenage boredom and frustration. That they became huge stars is remarkable, but they can sing, play and write catchy songs. This is the peak of their early sound.

Producers: Rob Cavallo, Green Day. Engineers: Neil King, Rob Cavallo, Jerry Finn, Casey McCrankin. Studios not listed.

HOLE: LIVE THROUGH THIS (GEFFEN)

Courtney Love's first post-Kurt album has a scary intimacy and intensity at times, but also great punky performances by guitarist Eric Erlandson and the rhythm section of bassist Kristen Pfaff and drummer Patty Schemel. Love can't help but be annoying some of the time, but you've got to give her credit for really laying out her emotions for the world to hear.

Producers/Engineers: Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade. Additional engineering: Scott Litt, J. Mascis. Studios: Record One (L.A.), Bad Animals (Seattle), Triclops (Atlanta), Sear Sound (NYC). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Gateway.

TOOTS THIELMANS: EAST COAST WEST COAST (PRIVATE)

The jazz harmonica master has made many excellent albums; this one really captured a nice, “up” mood, with songs by the likes of Coltrane, Diz, Monk, Brubeck, Bird, Miles and more. Among the contemporary luminaries helping out are Joshua Redman, Charlie Haden, John Scofield, Robben Ford, Peter Erskine and Christian McBride.

Producers: Miles Goodman and Oscar Castro-Neves. Engineer: Joel Moss. Studios: Conway (L.A.), Hit Factory (NYC), Signet (L.A.). Mastering: Bernie Grundman.

JEFF BUCKLEY: GRACE (COLUMBIA)

Buckley was one of the more interesting male singer/songwriters to emerge during the '90s, and this debut showed a lot of promise. As quirky as his famous father — folkie Tim Buckley — Jeff Buckley had an elastic voice that soared and swooped over the sometimes dense arrangements of his songs. Buckley drowned just before his second album was completed.

Producer/engineer: Matt Wallace. Additional engineering: Clif Norrell. Studios: Bearsville (Bearsville, NY), Quantum Sound (Pomona, CA), Soundtrack (NYC). Mastering: Howie Weinberg/Masterdisk.

IRIS DEMENT: MY LIFE (WARNER BROS.)

Listening to Iris DeMent is like flipping through a book of old black and white photographs. Her backwoods style hearkens back to an earlier era of rural country music, but her heartfelt personal reflections and the characters she draws are powerful, timeless and universal.

Producer: Jim Rooney. Engineer: Rich Adler. Studios: Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa (Nashville), Jack's Tracks (Nashville). Mastering: Denny Purcell/Georgetown Masters.

EAGLES: HELL FREEZES OVER (GEFFEN)

The reunion album nobody believed would happen. Superb live versions of many Eagles hits (including an acoustic “Hotel California,” full of Spanish flavor), and four pretty good new tracks, too. This was also a TV special and 5.1 DVD.

Producers: The Eagles, with Elliot Scheiner and Ron Jacobs. Engineers: David Hewitt, Elliot Scheiner and Ron Jacobs. Studios: Warner Burbank, Le Mobile remote, Village Recorder (L.A.), A&M (L.A.), Hit Factory (NYC). Mastering: Ted Jensen/Sterling Sound.

1995

PINK FLOYD: THE DIVISION BELL (COLUMBIA)

The finest hour of the post-Roger Waters Floyd, the CD is dark but still tuneful, with biting lyrics that seem to address the split between Waters and his ex-bandmates. David Gilmour shines throughout as leader of the band. Tremendously underrated.

Producers: Bob Ezrin and David Gilmour. Engineers: Andrew Jackson, with Steve McLaughlin and Keith Grant; mixing by Gilmour and Chris Thomas. Studios: Astoria, Brittannia Row, Abbey Road, Metropolis (all London), The Creek.

THE CHIEFTAINS: LONG BLACK VEIL (RCA)

As the premier traditional Irish music band in the world for most of the past four decades, The Chieftains have made a lot of musical friends. On this album, the group mixes it up beautifully with a number of musical heavyweights, including Mick Jagger (splendid on “Long Black Veil,” Irish style) and the Rolling Stones, Sting, Sinead O'Connor, Mark Knopfler, Ry Cooder and Van Morrison. It's eclectic but definitely still within the Chieftains' very broad ouevre.

Producer: Paddy Maloney. Engineers: Simon Osborne, Brian Masterson, Jeffrey Lesser, Chris Kimsey, Allen Sides, Andrew Boland, Spencer Chrislu. Studios: Windmill Lane (Dublin), Lake House (UK), Clinton (N.Y.), Westland (Dublin), Metropolis (London), Little Mountain (Vancouver), Ocean Way (L.A.), Utility Muffin Research Kitchen (L.A.).

DAVE MATTHEWS BAND: UNDER THE TABLE AND DREAMING (RCA)

With their jammy mix of rock, folk, jazz and world music elements, the Dave Mattthews Band became an unlikely success story in the late '90s, winning a huge following by touring constantly and becoming masters of improvisation. Producer Steve Lillywhite managed to corral the group's tendency to play long and loose; instead he got them to focus on tight, hook-filled tunes in the studio. This, their second album, is the disc that broke them nationally. It features the DMB standards “What Would You Say,” “Ants Marching” and “Satellite.”

Producer: Steve Lillywhite. Engineer: Chris Dickie. Studios: Bearsville (Bearsville, NY), Power Station (NYC). Mastering: Ted Jensen/Sterling Sound.

CASSANDRA WILSON: NEW MOON DAUGHTER (BLUE NOTE)

Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson became one of the top vocalists of the '90s by choosing her material well — drawing from a wide range of song styles — and delivering them with quiet conviction. On this album, she covers tunes by everyone from Billie Holiday (“Strange Fruit”) to U2 (“Love Is Blindness”) to Hank Williams (“I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry”) to The Monkees (“Last Train to Clarksville”) and pulls it off!

Producer: Craig Street. Engineer: Danny Koppelson. Studios: Turtle Creek Barn (Bearsville, NY), Bearsville (Bearsville, NY), Sound On Sound (NYC), Sear Sound (NYC) Beartracks (Suffern, NY) Mastering: Greg Calbi/Sterling Sound.

ALANIS MORISSETTE: JAGGED LITTLE PILL (MAVERICK)

Though this album is loaded with quirky, intensely personal songs that practically sound like they're part of a musical therapy session, it resonated with millions of people, becoming one of the surprise hits of the mid-'90s and spurring rock radio to play more women artists (for a while). Besides landing a series of idiosyncratic songs on the charts — including “You Oughta Know” “You Learn” and “Ironic” — the album was also recipient of four Grammys, including Best Album.

Producer: Glenn Ballard. Engineers: Glenn Ballard, Ted Blaisdell, Rich Weingart, Chris Fogel, Victor McCoy, Francis Buckley, David Schiffman. Studios: Westlake (L.A.), Signet Sound (L.A.) Mastering: Chris Bellman/Bernie Grundman

EMMYLOU HARRIS: WRECKING BALL (ASYLUM)

A left turn for the mostly country artist, this album features the highly ambient sonics typical of Daniel Lanois productions, and an eclectic batch of tunes by folks such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and others. Unusual and adventurous, but ultimately successful.

Producer: Daniel Lanois. Engineers: Malcolm Burn, Sandy Jenkins, Mark Howard, Trina Shoemaker. Studios: Woodland (Nashville), Kingsway (New Orleans). Mastering: Joe Gastwirt/Oceanview Digital.

1996

BONE THUGS-N-HARMONY: E. 1999 ETERNAL (RUTHLESS)

Blasting out of Cleveland, hard core rappers Bone Thugs-N-Harmony became one of the top groups of the late '90s by fusing clever, literate raps with bright harmony singing, best exemplified in the outstanding track “Tha Crossroads.” Though their underlying philosophy, as expressed in their raps, was a bit hazy, their appeal was not: This album sold more than 4 million copies, as did the follow-up CD, The Art of War.

Producers: Eric Wright, DJ U-Neek. Engineers: Aaron Carter, Tony Cortez, Eric Nordquist. Studios: Trax (Hollywood), Studio Cat (Hollywood), Sound City (Van Nuys, CA)

THE BACKSTREET BOYS: THE BACKSTREET BOYS (JIVE)

It's too easy to criticize the Backstreet Boys and their ilk because their huge fan base was/is dominated by screaming young girls. These Boys can sing, and there is undeniable craft in many of their songs, which tend toward blue-eyed soul ballads and mild R&B dance numbers. For better or worse, this album ushered in the current wave of teen-pop sensations, although it had been a hit in Europe for nearly a year before it caught on with American listeners. Two songs — “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” and “Everybody (Backstreet's Back)” — cracked the Top Five, softening up the market for N'Sync, Britney Spears and others.

Producers: P.M. Dawn, Mutt Lange, Denniz Pop, Mookie, Kristian Lawing, Toni Cottura, Larry Campbell, Kristian Lundin, Mr. Lee. Engineers: Tim Donovan, Stephen George, Rick Behrens, Bulent Aris, Chris Brickley, Hakan Wollgard, Dana Cornock, Chris Trevett, Max Martin. Studios: Cheiron (Stockholm), Battery (NYC), Parc (Orlando), Platinum Post (Orlando).

PHISH: BILLY BREATHES (ELEKTRA)

Phish fans will tell you that the group's studio albums never measure up to the legendary jam band's live performances, but they have made a few good ones that showcase the strong songwriting of guitarist/singer Trey Anastasio and his mates. Typical of Phish, it's a highly eclectic affair, drawing from any number of rock and folk styles and zipping between them with utter confidence. “Free,” “Prince Caspian” and other songs here went on to become Phish concert staples.

Producers: Steve Lillywhite, Phish. Engineer: John Siket. Studio: Bearsville (Bearsville, NY). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Gateway.

JAMIROQUAI: TRAVELING WITHOUT MOVING (SONY)

The multiracial British group has always been more popular in Europe than in the U.S., though they have made inroads in the dance scene with their mixture of acid-jazz and world music rhythms, alt rock energy and American funk and soul. It's quite a jumble of styles, but they wear all of them well.

Producers: Jason Kay, Al Stone, M-Beat. Studio: Great Linford (Milton Keyes, UK)

BECK: ODELAY (GEFFEN)

What an unlikely success story this is: Beck's finest album is a challenging pastiche of styles and textures, ranging from hip-hop to rock to country to blues, sometimes all within the same song. Lots of creative use of samples from everywhere, but that wouldn't add up to much if Beck's own songwriting and performances weren't so compelling. One of the defining albums of the '90s.

Producers: Beck Hansen, The Dust Brothers. Engineers: Beck Hansen, The Dust Brothers, Mario Caldato Jr., Brian Paulson, Tom Rothrock, Rob Schnapf. Studios: Conway (L.A.), G-Son, The Shop, Sunset Sound. Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Gateway.

PAULA COLE: THIS FIRE (WARNER BROS.)

This was a big year for singer-songwriter Cole. “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” shot up the charts and helped This Fire become a top seller. And in the summer, she joined Sarah McLachlan on the popular Lilith Fair tour. A strong, personal writer with a pleasant and distinctive vocal style, Cole has continued to make interesting albums full of heartfelt songs.

Producer: Paula Cole. Engineer: Roger Moutenot. Additional engineering: Kevin Killen, Gerry Leonard. Studios: The Magic Shop (NYC), Room With a View (NYC), Bearsville (Bearsville, NY), Shelter Island (NYC), Paula's apartment. Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Gateway.

PACO DE LUCIA, JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, AL DI MEOLA (VERVE)

Two of jazz's greatest guitarists and a flamenco master get together for an impressive acoustic summit where their disparate styles and ideas merge, mingle and occasionally collide. Each is given ample opportunities to shine and to be supportive, and though there are plenty of speedy runs — as you'd expect from such incredible technicians — there is also lots of subtle and sensitive interplay. Not surprisingly, Paco de Lucia brings a lovely Spanish feeling to a lot of these tunes.

Producers: John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola. Engineers: Stuart Bruce, Russell Kearney, Jaquie Turner, Ben Findlay. Studio: Real World (England). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Gateway.

1997

THE WALLFLOWERS: BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE (INTERSCOPE)

Jakob Dylan was determined not to trade on his famous family name (he's Bob's son) and to make it on his own terms and — lo and behold — he succeeded! He has his own voice and style and has earned his own fans because he's an excellent singer and songwriter. He sounds more like Tom Petty than Bob Dylan, but he does share his father's passion for literate, evocative songwriting. There are several excellent songs on this sophomore release from The Wallflowers, including the Grammy-winning “One Headlight,” “The Difference,” “Invisible City” and, best of all, “6th Avenue Heartache.”

Producer: T Bone Burnett. Engineers: Joe Schiff, Neal Avron, Toby Wright, Tom Lord-Alge, Andy Wallace. Studios: Larrabee West (Hollywood), Cello (L.A.), Encore (Burbank). Mastering: Bernie Grundman.

VARIOUS ARTISTS: BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (NONESUCH)

Every now and then an album comes out of nowhere and becomes a smash just from word-of-mouth. Chances are, whether you first heard this in a restaurant, a store or a friend's house, you said, “Hey, what is that? I gotta get that!” And so a pleasant album of Cuban folk and pop music performed by an ensemble of elderly unknown players (at least in America) went on to sell millions around the world and make belated stars of some of the principal players. A terrific album all the way through; it's as good as its hype. Kudos to Ry Cooder for lacing it together.

Producer: Ry Cooder. Engineer: Jerry Boys. Studios: Egram (Havana), Ocean Way (L.A.). Mastering: Bernie Grundman.

BOB DYLAN: TIME OUT OF MIND (COLUMBIA)

Nearly dying is always a good career move — it helped earn Dylan some overdue recognition from Grammy voters for this bleak, moody album. It also happened to be his best work since another disc he'd cut with producer Daniel Lanois, the underappreciated Oh Mercy, back in 1989. There's an ominous undercurrent to much of this rootsy material that gives it a dark power, and Dylan's gravelly vocals match this set of songs perfectly. Four of Dylan's better late-period songs are here: “Love Sick,” “Cold Irons Bound,” the lovely ballad “Make You Feel My Love,” and the stately “Highlands.”

Producers: Daniel Lanois, Bob Dylan. Engineer: Mark Howard. Studios: Criteria (Miami), Teatro (Oxnard, CA).

SHANIA TWAIN: COME ON OVER (MERCURY)

A Canadian who moved to Nashville in the early '90s, Shania Twain took Music City by storm with her glossy, rock-influenced country sound, which was largely fashioned by her producer/husband Robert John “Mutt” Lange (of AC/DC and Def Leppard fame). Those who complain that Twain's success is all about image — she is strikingly beautiful — haven't checked out her songs (co-written with Lange), which are finely crafted and nicely rendered nuggets of mainstream country-pop. The album boasted nine hit singles (with several crossing over onto the pop charts), including “You're Still the One,” “That Don't Impress Me Much” and “Love Gets Me Every Time.”

Producer: Mutt Lange. Engineers: Jeff Balding, Bob Bullock. Studios: Masterfonics (Nashville), Emerald (Nashville), Glenn Gould (Toronto), GBT (Nashville), Seventeen Grand (Nashville), Sven (Mamaroneck, NY), Sound Barrier (NYC) Mastering: Glenn Meadows/Masterfonics.

WILL SMITH: BIG WILLIE STYLE (COLUMBIA)

He was a rapper before he was an actor, so he's not some guy just cashing in on his Hollywood fame. He's always been funny and clever and literate; all three of those qualities are in evidence here. “Gettin' Jiggy With It” was the mega-hit, but there are other cool tracks, too — such as “Miami” and “Men In Black.”

Producers: Will Smith, Andreao Heard, Poke and Tone, L.E.S., Jeff Townes, Keith Pelzer, Valvin Roane, Sauce. Engineers: Poke, Rich Tavali, Ken Ifill, Rob Chiarelli, Jeff Townes, Tony Maserati, Commissioner Gordon. Studios: The Hacienda (L.A.), Hit Factory (NYC), Right Track (NYC), Touch of Jazz (Philadelphia), Pacifique (No. Hollywood) Mastering: Herb Powers Jr./Powers House of Sound.

1998

JAMES TAYLOR: HOURGLASS (COLUMBIA)

At this point, Taylor doesn't get played much on the radio or generate much excitement with new releases, but he still has a huge, faithful following, and to his eternal credit, he continues to make strong albums filled with warm, likable, personal songs that draw from many different genres but always sound like James Taylor songs. On this outing, he gets a little help from some interesting friends, including Sting, Stevie Wonder, Branford Marsalis, Shawn Colvin and Yo-Yo Ma; talk about eclectic! At the 1997 Grammys, Hourglass won Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.

Producers: James Taylor, Frank Filipetti. Engineer: Frank Filipetti. Studios: Chalker's Creek (Martha's Vineyard, MA), Westlake (L.A.), Right Track (NYC). Mastering: Ted Jensen/Sterling Sound.

PUFF DADDY & THE FAMILY: NO WAY OUT (BAD BOY)

Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs was already famous for producing acts such as the Notorious B.I.G., Faith Evans, Lil' Kim, Jodeci and Mary J. Blige before he cut this, his first “solo” album. “I'll Be Missing You,” his tribute to the slain B.I.G., featured Faith Evans and rocketed to Number One. Other hits included “Can't Nobody Hold Me Down” and the witty “It's All About the Benjamins.” Some clever use of samples, including a snippet of The Police's “Every Breath You Take.”

Producers: Sean Combs, Stevie J., Carlos Broady, Yogi, Nasheim Myrick, Ron Lawrence, Jazz, Jay Garfield, J. Dubb. Engineers: Sean Combs, Tony Maserati, Lane Craven, Doug Wilson, Axel Niehaus, Diana Pedraza, Al Machera, John Eaton, Stephen dent, Michael Patterson. Studios: Daddy's House (NYC), Caribbean Sound Basin (Trinidad) Mastering: Herb Powers.

RADIOHEAD: OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL)

The top young British band of the late '90s (at least in America; Oasis was bigger worldwide), Radiohead is a genre-defying group that boasts a prodigious frontman (Thom Yorke), who has never settled comfortably into any one style. They can rock, they can sound arty and obscure; but their songs are always a canvas for Yorke's often compelling personal vision. This record broke through to a large audience with virtually no mainstream radio play.

Producers: Nigel Godrich, Radiohead. Engineer: Nigel Godrich. Studios: Canned Applause Mobile (UK), Mayfair (London), Abbey Road (London) AIR Lyndhurst (London), The Church (London). Mastering: Chris Blair/Abbey Road.

LAURYN HILL: THE MISEDUCATION OF LAURYN HILL (RUFFHOUSE)

Coming out of the popular, arty hip-hop band The Fugees, Lauryn Hill had one of the great crossover smashes of the late '90s with this album that so deftly mixed hip-hop, reggae, soul and confessional poetry. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” was the biggest of several hits from the record, but really, it was the album as a whole that blew everyone away; it's a marvelous polyglot. At the 1999 Grammys, she took home five trophies, including Album of the Year.

Producers: Lauryn Hill, Che Guevara, Vada Nobles. Engineers: Commissioner Gordon, Tony Prendatt, Warren Riker, Matt Howe, John Wydrycs, Chris Theis, Ken Johnston, Storm Jefferson, Johnny Wyndrx. Studios: Marley Music (Kingston), Chung King (NYC), Hit Factory (NYC), Perfect Pair (NJ), Circle House (Miami), Sony Music (NYC), RPM (NYC), Metropolis (London), Right Track (NYC), Mastering: Herb Powers/Powers House of Sound.

GILLIAN WELCH: HELL AMONG THE YEARLINGS (ALMO SOUNDS)

Though she grew up in New York and L.A., Gillian Welch sounds like she's from the backwoods of North Carolina, and her writing (with partner David Rawlings, a fine guitarist and harmony singer) is firmly rooted in the old-time music tradition. This album could've been made in the '20s, yet it still feels contemporary — a nifty feat.

Producer: T Bone Burnett. Engineers: Rick Will, Roger Moutenot, David Rawlings, Mike Piersante. Studios: Sound City (Van Nuys, CA), Sound Emporium (Nashville), Nevada (Nashville), Ocean Way (L.A.) MCA (Nashville). Mastering: Doug Sax/Mastering Lab.

DIANA KRALL: WHEN I LOOK IN YOUR EYES (VERVE)

There's a timeless quality to Diana Krall's lilting pop-jazz…Is this the '50s, the '60s? There's also an unforced naturalness to both her singing and playing that is unquestionably appealing; it's no wonder she is the best-selling contemporary jazz artist. On this album, she teams up with producer Tommy LiPuma, who places her basic trio sound in an ocean of strings arranged by Johnny Mandel on a number of tracks to mostly good effect. This is lush, sentimental music all the way; self-consciously retro, but still satisfying.

Producer: Tommy LiPuma. Engineer: Al Schmitt. Studios: Avatar (NYC), Schnee (Hollywood). Mastering: Doug Sax/Mastering Lab.

TLC: FANMAIL (LAFACE)

Part of the '90s wave of Atlanta-based hip-hop/R&B groups, TLC consisted of Tionne “T-Bone” Watkins, the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas — three distinctive styles and personalities. Though they put out just three albums over the course of nearly a decade together, every album they made was extremely successful. This one — their last — featured the same blend of hip-hop and classic soul elements that made them so popular; it contained two Number One hits — “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty.”

Producers: Jermaine Dupri, Carl So-Lower, Jimmy Jam, Daryl Simmons. Engineers: Ralph Caccuirri, John Gass, Leslie Braithwaite, Brian Frye, Phil Tan, Alvin Speights, Caludine Pontier, Phil Boutin, Jeff Griffin, Steve Hodge, Thom Kidd, David Rideau, Kevin Lively. Studios: Crosswire (Atlanta), DARP (Atlanta), Brandon's Way (L.A.) Flyte Time (Minneapolis). Mastering: Herb Powers/Powers House of Sound.

MADONNA: RAY OF LIGHT (MAVERICK)

Madonna has reinvented herself so many times, it's hard to keep up with her, but this foray into electronica, drum ‘n’ bass and trip-hop was one of her more successful experiments. Also, in a genre that's sometimes considered cold, Ms. M manages to sound even warmer than usual. There were two Top 10 hits — “Ray of Light” and “Frozen” — and the album was hugely popular internationally with the dance crowd.

Producers: Madonna, William Orbit, Marius de Vries, Patrick Leonard. Engineers: Pat McCarthy, Dave Reitzas, Mark Endert, Matt Silva, Jon Englesby. Studio: Avatar (NYC). Mastering: Ted Jensen/Sterling Sound.

ELLIOTT SMITH: XO (DREAM WORKS)

Though he'd been part of the indie rock scene for a while and put out a few albums on his own, it wasn't until his song “Miss Misery” was used prominently in the film Good Will Hunting that Elliott Smith attracted a real audience for his moody folkish ballads. That song, which was nominated for an Academy Award, led to Smith signing a deal with DreamWorks, which put out this major-label debut. Though he has folky tendencies and is occasionally compared to Nick Drake, Smith has more rock and pop in his system, as the occasionally Beatlesesque production and arrangements on this fine outing show.

Producers/engineers: Elliott Smith, Tom Rothrock, Rob Schnapf. Additional engineering: Larry Crane. Studios: Sunset Sound (L.A.) Ocean Way (L.A.), Sonora (L.A.), Jackpot (Portland, OR). Mastering: Stephen Marcussen/Precision.

VARIOUS ARTISTS: LOS SUPER SEVEN (RCA)

A wonderful, spirited mixture of different Mexican and Tex-Mex music styles (and one Anglo song) by a veritable supergroup, including Los Lobos leaders David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, norteño accordion great Flaco Jimenez, Freddy Fender, Rick Trevino, Joe Ely and Reuben Ramos.

Producer: Steve Berlin. Engineer: Dave McNair. Studios: Cedar Creek (Austin), Sunset Sound Factory (L.A.). Mastering: Doug Sax/Mastering Lab.

1999

RICKY MARTIN: RICKY MARTIN (COLUMBIA)

He may be a pretty boy, but he can also sing and dance. His previous CD, Vuelve, launched his crossover career, but this one went through the roof, thanks to the Grammy-winning “Livin' La Vida Loca” and “Shake Your Bon Bon.” This CD helped touch off a major Latin music craze worldwide.

Producers: Desmond Child, Robi Rosa, Jon Secada, George Noriega, Walter Afanasieff, Madonna, William Orbit, K.C. Porter, Ian Blake. Engineers: Charles Dye, Nathan Malki, Craig Lozowick, Jules Gondor, Elliot Scheiner, Benny Faccone, Mick Guzauski, Sebastian Krys, Scott Canto, Javier Garza, Randall Barlow, Federico Piñero Jr., Marcelo Anez Fontana, Pat McCarthy, Mark Endert, Rob Chiarelli, John Pace, Rik Pekkonen, Pablo Flores, Dave Reitzas, Dave Frazier, David Gleeson. Studios: The Gentlemen's Club (Miami), Capitol (Hollywood), Sound Chamber (L.A.), Hit Factory (NYC), Crescent Moon (Miami), Heaven (Miami), Right Track (NYC), Tone King (L.A.), The Enterprise (Burbank), Guerrilla Beach (L.A.), Ocean Way (L.A.), Barking Doctor (Mt. Kisco, NY), Clinton Recording (NYC), Westlake (L.A.), New River (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) Ochoa (San Juan, PR), Village Recorder (L.A.). Mastering: Ted Jensen/Sterling Sound.

MOBY: PLAY (V2)

This is truly the album that wouldn't die. An intoxicating blend of samples from old Lomax field recordings, live playing, lush melodies and hard dance rhythms, it has something that appeals to almost everyone — no wonder every song on the album has been licensed commercially at one time or another. Despite being extremely quirky, it's sold millions worldwide, and it continues to draw new fans three years later.

Producer: Moby. Engineer: Moby.

SANTANA: SUPERNATURAL (ARISTA)

Santana and Clive Davis bring in a gaggle of outside singers, writers and producers and come up with one of the best-selling albums of recent years — and it still sounds like a Santana record. The Grammy-winning CD features the international hits “Smooth,” “Maria Maria” and “Put Your Lights On,” among others. Is there anyone who doesn't own this album?

Producers: Carlos Santana, Clive Davis, with additional production by Stephen Harris, Dante Ross, Matt Serletic, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, Jerry Duplessis, K.C. Porter, Fher Olvera, Dust Brothers. Engineers: John Seymour, Jim Gaines, Steve Fontano, Mike Couzi, Glenn Kolotkin, Steve Farrone, John Gamble, Tom Lord-Alge, David Thoener, Commissioner Gordon, Tony Prendatt, Chris Theis, Andy Grassi, Jeff Poe, John Karpowich, Benny Faccone, David Frazer, Anton Pushkansky, T-Ray, Jim Scott, Alvaro Villagro. Studios: Electric Lady (NYC), Fantasy (Berkeley), The Plant (Sausalito), South Beach (Miami), Record Plant (L.A.), Chung King (NYC), Hit Factory (NYC), Worldbeat, Conway (L.A.), PCP Labs, Cello (L.A.), Skip Saylor (L.A.), NRG (L.A.), Circo Beat. Mastering: Ted Jensen/Sterling, Stephen Marcussen/A&M.

STEVE EARLE & THE DEL MCCOURY BAND: THE MOUNTAIN (E SQUARED)

A wonderful fusion of Earle's gritty, cinematic story-songs — sung with characteristic passion and fire — and one of the best contemporary bluegrass bands. It's like a whole album of fabulous bluegrass short stories — a real gem. Iris DeMent and Jerry Douglas are among the guests helping out.

Producer: Ronnie McCoury. Engineers: Ray Kennedy, Ronnie McCoury. Studio: Room & Board (Nashville). Mastering: Hank Williams/Mastermix.

NINE INCH NAILS: THE FRAGILE (NOTHING)

On the surface, The Fragile is not tremendously different from NIN's landmark Downward Spiral album five years earlier, but Trent Reznor and company blend their trademark elements — the industrial noize, layered keyboard textures, crushing guitars and Reznor's impassioned vocals into an even more sophisticated weave. Amazingly, this tough, assaultive album hit Number One and sold more than two million copies.

Producers: Trent Reznor and Alan Moulder. Engineering: Alan Moulder, with additional engineering by Bob Ezrin, Steve Albini, Leo Herrera and Dave Ogilvie. Studio: Nothing (New Orleans). Mastering: Tom Baker/Precision.

TOM WAITS: MULE VARIATIONS (EPITAPH)

Waits' singular style is never less than interesting, even at its most bizarre. Here, he mixes some true sonic weirdness — “Big in Japan,” “What's He Building?” et al. — with one of the most beautiful songs he's ever written, “Hold On.” Lots of provocative music and, as always, suprisingly sensitive balladry. His best since 1985's Rain Dogs.

Producers: Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Engineers: Oz Fritz, Jacquire King, Gene Cornelius. Studios, Prairie Sun (Cotati, CA), Sputnik Sound. Mastering: Chris Bellman/Bernie Grundman.

STING: BRAND NEW DAY (A&M)

After a lull of a few years when he seemed to lose his commercial clout, Sting returns with a highly satisfying and eclectic album that became a worldwide hit, thanks to the popularity of the title track and the Arab-influenced “Desert Rose,” featuring Cheb Mami's soaring backup vocals. As with all of Sting's solo work (and The Police before him), the sound is impeccable.

Producers: Sting and Kipper. Engineers: Simon Osborne, Neil Dorfsman, Geoff Foster. Studios: Il Palagio (Tuscany), Mega (Paris), Right Track (NYC), Avatar (NYC), AIR Lyndhurst (London). Mastering: Chris Blair/Abbey Road.

D'ANGELO: VOODOO (VIRGIN)

With its stacks of shimmering vocals, simple melodies and beats that range from hip-hop to funk, D'Angelo's Voodoo stands as one of the musically intoxicating soul albums of recent years — part old school, but unmistakably contemporary. D'Angelo can do it all — and he does, here — but he also has great taste in collaborators, as appearances by folks such as Lauryn Hill, Charlie Hunter, Roy Hargrove, Raphael Saadiq and Method Man & Redman show. Smoov!

Producers: D'Angelo, and one track each, DJ Premier and Raphael Saadiq. Engineer: Russell Elevado. Studio: Electric Lady (NYC). Mastering: Tom Coyne/Sterling Sound.

2000

OUTKAST: STANKONIA (ARISTA)

There's a party goin' on here, and fortunately we're all invited. The Atlanta based hip-hop/funk group throws down some irresistible grooves over the course of this sprawling work, which encompasses 24 songs and interludes into some loose concept about…well, maybe George Clinton could figure it out. But the group covers a lot of stylistic terrain; they're certainly not stuck in any single bag. “Ms. Jackson” was a huge hit for the band and earned a Grammy for Best Rap Performance By a Group, while Stankonia won the Best Rap Album trophy.

Producers: Earthtone III, Organized Noize Productions, Antonio “L.A.” Reid. Engineers: John Frye, Leslie Brathwaite, Bernasky Wall, Josh Butler, Ralph Cacciurri, Kevin Parker, Neal Pogue, Kennth Stallworth, Mark Goodchild, Matt Still. Studios: Stankonia (Atlanta), The Dungeon (Atlanta), Patchwerk (Atlanta), Southern Living (Atlanta), Larrabee (West Hollywood). Mastering: David Kutch/Absolute Audio.

U2: ALL THAT YOU CAN'T LEAVE BEHIND (INTERSCOPE)

After a spell of less than thrilling albums, U2 regains its championship form with an album that rivals their best — and that's saying a lot. This album sold millions around the world, earned a truckload of Grammys and sparked a typically awesome arena tour. The stirring anthems “Beautiful Day,” “Walk On” and “Elevation” are songs we'll be hearing for years, and there are three or four other songs on this deep CD that are as good.

Producers: Brain Eno, Daniel Lanois. Engineers: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Richard Rainey, Mark Howard, Alex Haas, Stephen Harris, Ger McDonnell, Steve Fitzmaurice, Julian Gallagher, Mike Hedges, Steve Lillywhite, Tim Palmer, Richard Stannard. Studios: HQ, Windmill Lane, Westland, Totally Wired (all in Dublin), a house in the South of France. Mastering: Arnie Acosta.

THE CURE: BLOODFLOWERS (ELEKTRA)

Group leader Robert Smith has led various versions of The Cure through more than two decades, and remarkably enough, they still sound relevant today. This CD has been billed as the third album of a trilogy that began with 1982's Pornography and continued with the 1989 opus Disintegration — well, maybe. At any rate, it's classic Cure in many respects: darkly majestic, elegantly constructed, cool but still involving. The group's following remains large and passionate.

Producers: Robert Smith and Paul Corkett. Engineers: Paul Corkett, Sasha Jankovic. Studios: St. Catherine's Court (Avon, UK), Fisher Lane Farm (Surrey, UK), Rak (London). Mastering: Ian Cooper/Metropolis.

VARIOUS ARTISTS: O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU (LOST HIGHWAY)

Who'd have thunk that a record of old-time country music could sell 5 million copies and win a Best Album Grammy? Bolstered by the Coen Brothers' fine movie, this ushered in a new era for traditional music. Artists include the Soggy Mountain Boys (members of Alison Krauss' band), Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch and others.

Producer: T Bone Burnett. Engineers: Mike Piersante. Studios: Sound Emporium (Nashville), Ocean Way (Nashville), Sunset Sound (L.A.), Terminal Recorders (Jackson, MS). Mastering: Gavin Lurssen/The Mastering Lab.

EMINEM: THE MARSHALL MATHERS LP (INTERSCOPE)

If Eminem were controversial and lame (like 2 Live Crew, f'rinstance), he'd simply be annoying. But the fact is he's a compelling writer and a dynamic rapper with lots to say — even if a lot of it is abrasive and/or offensive to some. He's obviously doing something right: This album sold nearly 2 million copies the first week after its release, selling in unprecedented numbers to both black and white listeners. “The Real Slim Shady” and “Stan” (a duet with Dido) are the best-known tracks on an album that is always provocative and often spellbinding.

Producers: Eminem, The Bass Brothers, Dr. Dre, Mel-Man, the 45 King & Louie. Engineers: Chris Conway, Richard Huredia, Steven King, Lance Pierre, Michelle Lynn Forbes, Aaron Lepley, Rick Behrens, James McCrone, Mike Butler, Rob Ebeling, Akane Nakamura. Studios: The Mix Room (NYC). Encore (Burbank), Larrabee (L.A.), Chung King (NYC), Record Plant (L.A.), 54 Sound (Ferndale, MI).

2001

THE BAHA MEN: WHO LET THE DOGS OUT (S CURVE)

Can a group that's been around 20 years really be considered a one-hit wonder? Probably not, because in addition to the incredibly catchy (and for a while, inescapable) dance hit “Who Let the Dogs Out,” the group has also served up such popular and infectious dance-floor fare as “You All Dat,” “Get Ya Party On” and “Getting Hotter,” all from this fine party album. The group's exhilarating blend of Bahamian junkanoo and various contempo R&B ingredients has had considerable international appeal, too.

Producers: Michael Mangini, Steve Greenberg, Mark Hudson, Herschel Small, Peter Amato, Skoti Elliot, Jeffrey Chea, Anthony Flowers. Engineers: Luis Diaz, Skoti Elliot, Scott Gordon, Jules Gondor, Craig Lozowick, Nathan Malki, Rob Eaton, Juan Rosario. Studios: Mojo Music (NYC), Circle House (Miami), Gentlemen's Club (Miami).

ALICIA KEYS: SONGS IN A MINOR (J)

Multi-Grammy-winning debut album by the talented singer-pianist mixes jazz and contemporary R&B colors to great effect. “Fallin'” was the big hit, but the CD is loaded with great tunes, including “Why Do I Feel So Sad,” “Girlfriend,” and a cool version of Prince's “How Come You Don't Call Me.” A star is born!

Producer: Alicia Keys. Additional production: Kerry Brothers, Jermaine Dupri, Jimmy Cozier. Engineers: Gerry Brown, Brian Frye, Phil Tan, Kerry Brothers, Russ Elevado, Manny Marroquin, Chris Wood, Ralph Cacciuri, Acar Key, Paul Flacone, Tony Maserati. Studios: Battery (NYC), Southside (Atlanta), Electric Lady (NYC), Krucial Keys (NYC), Larrabee (L.A.), Backroom (Glendale, CA), Sony (NYC), Doppler (Atlanta), Unique (NYC), Hit Factory (NYC). Mastering: Herb Powers, Jr./Hit Factory.

NELLY FURTADO: WHOA NELLY! (DREAMWORKS)

Furtado is a talented young singer/songwriter who dabbles in all sorts of modern R&B styles on this impressive debut effort. Her confident delivery and uncanny knack for smoothly layering creative vocal parts make her sound like a veteran beyond her years. Whether she's laying down some hip-hop song or soaring on pop tracks like her first hit, “I'm Like a Bird,” Furtado always sounds like she's in complete control. Definitely a talent to watch.

Producers: Nelly Furtado, Gerald Eaton, Brain West. Engineers: Brian West, Victor Florencia, Brad Haehnel, Denis Tougas. Studios: The Gymnasium (Toronto), Can-Am (Tarzana, CA), Metalworks (Toronto), Iguana (Toronto), McClear Digital (Toronto), Mastering: Scott Hull/Classic Sound.

TRAIN: DROPS OF JUPITER (COLUMBIA)

The San Francisco Bay Area band has had its eye on the mainstream for some time, but it wasn't until they cut the grand, sweeping “Drops of Jupiter” for this sophomore effort that they found widespread acceptance. With its cryptic but engaging lyrics, a glorious Paul Buckmaster-arranged string section, and singer Pat Monahan's sandpaper-soul delivery, the song is an epic piece of work, worthy of the Grammy it received in 2002. The rest of the album is more conventional, but not without its charms.

Producer: Brendan O'Brien. Engineers: Nick DiDia, David Bryant, Steve Churchyard, Ryan Williams. Studio: Southern Tracks (Atlanta).

BJORK: VESPERTINE (ELEKTRA)

This mostly serene and reflective effort from Iceland's quirky music queen combines some of her most accessible songs to date with numbers that sound like intensely personal jottings in a diary. The arrangements are unfailingly interesting, employing lush strings, choral vocals, harps, music boxes and other unusual-for-pop instrumentation. A fascinating outing by one of music's most gifted eccentrics.

Producers: Bjork, with additional production by Marius de Vries, Martin Console. Engineers: Jack Davies, Damien Taylor, Spike Stent, Geoff Foster, Valgeir Sigurdsson, Leigh Jamieson. Studios: El Cortijo (San Pedro, Spain), Magic Shop (NYC), Astoria (NYC), Avatar (NYC), Sear Sound (NYC) Thule (Reykjavik, Iceland), Quad (NYC), Looking Glass (NYC), The Loft (NYC), Air Lyndhurst (London), Olympic (London).

DESTINY'S CHILD: SURVIVOR (COLUMBIA)

Just because they're fabulously commercial doesn't mean they aren't good: So far, Destiny's Child has shown an unerring instinct for churning out buoyant R&B/pop hits. This album gave us “Independent Women, Part 1” (from the film Charlie Angels), “Survivor,” “Bootylicious” and “Emotion,” all of which show off the trio's superb vocal blend, which is part-Motown, part-church. Get used to leader Beyonce Knowles — she's going to be part of the popular music landscape for a long time to come.

Producers: Beyonce Knowles, Poke & Tone, Anthony Dent, Rob Fusari, Falonte Moore, Damon Elliott, Errol McCalla Jr., Walter Afanasieff, Ken Fambro, Rapture Stewart, Eric Seats, Dwayne Wiggins, Bill Lee, Calvin Gaines. Engineers: Manelich Sotolongo, Troy Gonzales, Ramon Morales, Rich Travali, Anthony Dent, Orlando Calzada, Tony Maserati, James Hoover, Kent Huffnagle, Damon Elliott, Dave Pensado, Dan Workman, Brian Springer, Dexter Simmons, Greg Bieck, David Gleeson, Dave Way, Michael Conrader, David Donaldson, Jim Caruana. Studios: Lobo (Deer Park, NY), TK (Honolulu), Sugarhill (Houston), Hit Factory (NYC), Chase (Atlanta), Sound on Sound (NYC), Digital Services (Houston), Enterprise (Burbank), WallyWorld (CA), Stay Tuned (Atlanta), Chung King (NYC), 24/7 (Houston), House of Music (Oakland, CA), Sony (NYC).

BLINK 182: TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS AND JACKET (MCA)

You see, it does pay to run around buck-naked in an MTV video. Amazingly enough, this was one of the best-selling rock albums of 2001, appealing mostly to teenage boys, who dig their speedy (and catchy) punk-pop melodies and funny and frank lyrics, many of which address the concerns of angst-y adolescents and party animals everywhere. Raucous and raunchy, Blink 182 dare to be stoopid, and that's something there's always room for in rock'n'roll. It is a great-sounding album, too.

Producer: Jerry Finn. Engineers: Joe McGrath, Tom Lord-Alge. Studios: Signature Sound (San Diego), Larrabee West (Hollywood), Cello (L.A.), Encore (Burbank). Mastering: Bernie Grundman.

BILL FRISELL: BLUES DREAM (NONESUCH)

Wonderful Americana jazz with folk and Western strains, the ghosts of early New Orleans, electric Miles, and much more played by a superb octet led by guitarist Frisell. Everything he does is at least interesting, but this is may be his best.

Producer: Lee Townsend. Engineer: Judy Clapp. Studios: O'Henry (Burbank), Different Fur (SF). Mastering: Greg Calbi/Sterling Sound.