Rock is one of my favourite genres, and one which has evolved so much since its rise to popularity in the late '40s. While it's a far more accessible genre than something like jazz, the sheer variety of rock music and the countless number of subgenres could make it an intimidating genre to get into for beginners. In this list, I'll go through twenty-two rock essentials for any beginner. The list is a mixture of essential classics and accessible introductions to the genre's different sounds, touching on a range of styles from hard rock to post-punk.
1. Jimi Hendrix - Electric Ladyland (1968)
Electric Ladyland is the perfect place to start for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's an accessible record, with complex instrumentation and fantastic guitar solos which are as accessible as they are memorable and impressive. Secondly, it's hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, and will give you a good indication of what the genre of rock has to offer. This album combines elements of blues and psychedelia, with passages of slowly building instrumentation followed by crescendos of blaring guitar and crashing drums. It captures such a summery and bright sound, striking the perfect balance between accessibility and raw skill. So much rock music deviates from the sound of this album, but if you end up loving Electric Ladyland, I have no doubt you'll enjoy most forms of rock.
2. David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Ziggy Stardust is a masterpiece in glam rock. Glam rock fuses the conventions of rock and roll with mainstream pop appeal and a theatrical flare, which is evident in Bowie's performance here. The sheer amount of emotion he conveys with his voice is remarkable, capturing so much passion, despair, and anguish across this album. It's concise, it's catchy, and you'll probably recognise a handful of tracks here already, making it another accessible album to ease you into rock. The album follows the concept of Ziggy Stardust, a rock and roll superstar whose ego and greed leads to his downfall as the world reaches its end.
3. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here (1975)
Progressive rock is a wild and messy subgenre incorporating elements of classical and jazz into a storm of eccentric sounds, with constant changes in instrumentation making for lengthy and unpredictable songs. The conventions of prog make it a more challenging sound compared to other subgenres, but Wish You Were Here is a gentle gateway into that style. The instrumentation on this album is gorgeous. The production is patient, with long stretches of slow guitar and the sizzle of drums building into these powerful climaxes. Each song is long, with each instrumental given the time to breathe and fully evolve. It's Pink Floyd at their best, and a fantastic entry point into progressive rock.
4. Nirvana - Nevermind (1991)
Nevermind is the defining album in grunge. Grunge is defined by its moody sound, with an emphasis on electric guitar and rough, angsty vocals. Kurt Cobain has an enraged tone to his voice, matching his impassioned vocals to the roar of the guitar. The instrumentation is full of smooth basslines and screaming guitar, but despite its abrasiveness, the album is still accessible, with its catchy instrumentation resonating with so many in the '90s mainstream. For those who want to dive into grunge and the harsher sounds of rock music, this isn't the most abrasive album you'll ever hear, but it's a fantastic starting point.
5. Radiohead - OK Computer (1997)
Radiohead helped push a wave of art rock in the late '90s, and OK Computer is a fantastic entry point into their catalogue. This album contains all the elements which make the band so special. Thom Yorke has a crestfallen, whiny voice, matching well with the often despairing lyrics which are one of Radiohead's main appeals. The instrumentation has moments of vicious electric guitar, but for the most part, OK Computer embodies a spacious and light sound, focussing more on atmosphere rather than hard-hitting tracks. OK Computer is art rock to its fullest potential, emphasising elements of mood and lyrics often overlooked by other bands to create a grand, despondent masterpiece.
6. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
While Wish You Were Here showcases the softer side of progressive rock, In the Court displays the more chaotic side. The opener, "21st Century Schizoid Man", is a perfect example of how unpredictable prog can be, with a fast-paced bombardment of horns, guitar, and endless drumming. The rest of the album departs from this sound, with "Moonchild" and "Epitaph" being these grand, theatrical tracks with powerful vocals and strings. With its diverse range of sounds, In the Court gives a much better impression of the potential of prog rock, with more of an emphasis on classical and jazz elements than Wish You Were Here. While its sound is messy and loud, it's not too inaccessible, and if you happen to enjoy this, I implore you to explore the world of prog rock further.
7. The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
The Beatles are one of the most important groups in music history, so their inclusion on this list was inevitable. Sgt. Pepper's is my favourite album of theirs, balancing strange psychedelia with the pop rock sound the band is known for. This makes for a diverse album full of different sounds, whether it be the hard-hitting title-track, the spiritual "Within You Without You", or the laidback fun of "With a Little Help From My Friends". The Beatles's catalogue is viewed as one of the most essential in music, and this is a great starting point to get into them, walking the tightrope between the more avant-garde and mainstream sides of their sound.
8. The Strokes - Is This It (2001)
The late '90s and early 2000s brought about a wave of indie rock, a form of rock embracing the rustic and authentic sound of indie artists, contrasting the more polished sound of pop rock. While there are plenty of great gateways into indie rock, Is This It may be the best introduction. Julian Casablancas offers a fantastic vocal performance, with his raw delivery complemented by the compressed sound of this record. The instrumentation is quick, catchy, and simple, capturing a distinctly summery sound. It's a fantastic album where each song passes by so quickly that it feels like it has only just begun by the time the last song ends.
9. Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation (1988)
Daydream Nation is a fantastic noise rock album. The instrumentation on this album is intricate and dense, with long passages where vocals take a backseat to the guitar and drums, allowing the instrumentals to swell into these mesmerising walls of sound. The album is long, and each track takes its time to develop, but it never drags. Daydream Nation has the same catchy appeal as any great rock album, but it's the complexity of its composition that really makes it special.
10. Pixies - Doolittle (1989)
Doolittle is another indie rock classic, but its sound nothing like the aforementioned Is This It. This album's sound is in-your-face and explosive, with blaring instrumentals and a bombastic performance from lead vocalist, Black Francis. The sheer amount of energy each member presents is incredible, bouncing off each other to create this electric atmosphere where every song hits hard and no moment feels unnecessary. The songs are short and straight to the point, making for a cohesive album that goes by incredibly fast. For those who like high energy and tracks that loop in your head, I could not recommend Doolittle more.
11. The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
While it may sound ordinary by today’s standards, The Velvet Underground helped define the alternative scene in the late ‘60s with their debut album. The instrumentation is rustic, but that gives it an old-fashioned charm which reminds the listener of how old it is, making the musical risks the band take all the more impressive. The instrumentation is often dissonant and messy, with instruments clashing against each other to create a rugged but captivating sound. Lou Reed and Nico aren’t the strongest vocalists, but their understated performances add another layer of strangeness to the album which separates it from the mainstream. Although it may not sound experimental today, it’s an essential (and still fantastic) listen for the risks it took for its time.
12. Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath (1970)
Metal is an entire genre in itself, but it’s closely related to rock music, and so an introduction to metal was necessary for this list. Black Sabbath is the first album by the legendary band, described as heavy metal. Its instrumentation is harsh and aggressive, with roaring electric guitar, heavy bass, and a thunder of drums on every track. Ozzy Osbourne offers a theatrical performance, contrasting well against the abrasive instrumentation and never being drowned out in the noise. Black Sabbath are a phenomenal metal band, and there is no better way to get into the genre.
13. Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
This is an incredible hard rock album which incorporates elements of folk, leading to an album with loud, abrasive passages followed by more tranquil moments. The band have such a loud and in-your-face sound, especially from lead vocalist Robert Plant, which makes for such a fun listen. It’s loud, but unlike metal, it’s not harsh. Led Zeppelin take elements of blues rock and amplify them, creating a more bombastic and engaging sound that few could resist loving.
14. The Clash – London Calling (1979)
Just as rock closely relates to metal, it’s also deeply connected with punk, and so London Calling works as a fantastic introduction to the world of punk rock. The eccentric lead vocals are loud and unapologetic, so animated and expressive. The instrumentation ranges from blaring riffs to a blend of ska, rock, and reggae, making for a strange blend of sounds which remains cohesive thanks to the consistent vocal performance weaving each song together. It may not be for everyone, but it’s an exciting listen and far different to anything on the list so far.
15. Queens of the Stone Age – Songs for the Deaf (2002)
This is one of my favourite rock albums and an easily accessible masterpiece for anyone wanting to delve into the darker sound of stoner rock. The instrumentation takes inspiration from doom metal, with the same deep, throbbing bass, rustic production and psychedelic influence. The guitar solos are impeccable, not to mention the moody vocals from Josh Homme which add another layer of darkness to the record. It sounds dark and foreboding, but maintains a catchy sound, making for an unforgettable album to ease listeners into rock’s dark side.
16. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000)
Lift Your Skinny Fists is an incredible post rock album, stripping away the traditional structure and conventions of rock to offer more of an emphasis on atmosphere. In four lengthy songs, Lift Your Skinny Fists creates one of the most powerful experiences in rock music. The tracks are slow burns of ominous guitar which slowly swell into these triumphant crescendos of strings, synths, and crashing drums, making the build-up worth it every time. Though it features no singing, the music is just as engaging, and perhaps even more emotionally potent than most rock music featuring a vocalist, because the instrumentation is just that profound.
17. Talking Heads – Talking Heads: ’77 (1977)
Talking Heads are an incredible band in new wave, a subgenre with an emphasis on layered, intricate instrumentation with chattering percussion and jittery guitar melodies. David Byrne is such an expressive vocalist, with off-kilter vocal inflections and so much emotion packed into every song. The instrumentation is complex and layered, often with a tropical flare thanks to the inclusion of the steel pan. It’s such a fun and eccentric album. It’s a great gateway into the catalogue of Talking Heads, and an even better introduction to the exciting sound of new wave.
18. Slint - Spiderland (1991)
Math rock is a difficult genre to describe without first hearing it, thus listening to Spiderland is likely a far clearer way to understand its sound than any words could convey. To put it briefly, math rock sounds precise in its instrumentation, with tight, jagged melodies and consistent structures, creating a mechanical or mathematical sound. Spiderland’s instrumentation is a great example, with looping melodies followed by bursts of harsh guitar, all so deliberate and planned. The vocals on the album are often in spoken word, so while it may not always be the most hard-hitting album, it does create an ominous atmosphere which makes those bursts of noise all the more satisfying.
19. Cream – Disraeli Gears (1967)
Disraeli Gears is an important to have here, not only for its excellent songs, but for the immense impact it had on rock going forward. The album is a departure from the blues rock roots of Cream, instead embracing the warped sound of psychedelic rock. The instrumentation is dazzling, with twisted guitar work and sleepy vocals, capturing the laidback and dreamy feeling of being high on psychedelic drugs.
20. Alice In Chains - Jar of Flies (1994)
Jar of Flies is another grunge album, with a much more foreboding and dreary sound than Nevermind mentioned earlier. The heavy bass is prominent, added to with layers of luscious guitar which transition into darker passages which build on the dark atmosphere created by Layne Staley’s grim vocals. In only half an hour, it offers another short and sweet example of grunge at its most consistent.
21. The Cure - Disintegration (1989)
The Cure are an incredible gothic rock band, and Disintegration may be their most powerful body of work. Gothic rock, as its name implies, is a much darker form of rock, but more melancholic than it is foreboding. Disintegration is a great example of this melancholy, with Robert Smith’s crestfallen voice adding a layer of despair to the gloomy sound of this album. The instrumentation rises into grand climaxes of bright synths and strings, but the tone of the melodies and the ache in Robert’s voice makes it sound more tragic than powerful. It’s such an evocative and unforgettable album.
22. Black Country, New Road - Ants From Up There (2022)
While it may not be as impactful or universally beloved as the classics on this list, I believe it’s always important to include a modern example to showcase the current direction of the genre. Ants From Up There is a modern take on art rock, with eccentric lyricism and a strange vocal performance from Isaac Wood where he trembles with his words, conveying so much emotion because of it. His hesitant voice contrasts well against the crisp instrumentation which incorporates the grander elements of chamber pop with the slow and satisfying build-up of post rock. Ants From Up There is the culmination of decades of rock’s evolution, and a glimpse into where the genre is headed next.