Legends are often unpredictable. Billy Altman of Rolling Stone proclaimed that hard rock “has unquestionably hit its all–time low” with AC/DC’s High Voltage, while Lester Bangs derided Black Sabbath’s debut album as “a shuck.” Meanwhile, 1992’s best–selling album Some Gave All by Billy Ray Cyrus doesn’t exactly hold up 27 years later; “Achy Breaky Heart” is more a joke than a party playlist staple. With the benefit of hindsight, Street has chosen the most important and influential albums of five, ten, and twenty years prior.

1999: The Year of Breakouts

Nobody anticipated, in the last year of the 20th century, that an eighteen–year–old girl would become a worldwide sensation, not even the girl herself. In a recent interview with The Guardian about her debut single “... Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears said that, although she loved the song, “I don’t think you can anticipate how a song is going to be received.” Instead, the song and debut album of the same name started a craze. Not only was Spears’ own career launched by her debut album, but so was the return of teen pop. Without Britney, there would be no Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez or Ariana Grande. Twenty years later, it’s still Britney, bitch.

Then there was Eminem, whose major–label debut The Slim Shady LP came at the same year as ...Baby One More Time. Both had their own moral panics, from Britney’s scandalous sexuality to Eminem’s profanity and violence, but that may have contributed to their endurance: outrage provokes fame, and not only did The Slim Shady LP turn Eminem’s life around financially, but it also made him into a household name, even among those not interested in rap.

While Enema of the State was blink-182’s third studio album (following Cheshire Cat and Dude Ranch), it might as well have been the first. Songs like “Dammit” and “All the Small Things,” with a distinctly pop sound, gave the band the radio play it had been lacking as a more punk outfit, allowing bands like Fall Out Boy and Paramore to follow, gaining radio play and commercial praise for the new genre of “pop punk.” If that genre were to have an image, it would be Janine Lindemulder dressed as a nurse, pulling on a rubber glove.

Honorable mentions: The White Stripes (The White Stripes), The Battle of Los Angeles (Rage Against the Machine), Californication (Red Hot Chili Peppers), The Gang’s All Here (Dropkick Murphys) 

2009: The Year of Ambition

No list of influential 2009 albums would be complete without a discussion of Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster. Although 2008’s The Fame introduced audiences worldwide to Gaga, it was her Gothic second release that made her into a star, with perennial classics like “Bad Romance” and Beyoncé collaboration “Telephone.” One wonders if the acclaim around The Fame Monster took its toll on Gaga, whose popularity started to fall with 2011 release Born This Way and hit its nadir with 2013’s ARTPOP. Her next two releases were marked departures from previous releases, first jazz collaboration Cheek to Cheek and then stripped–down Joanne. Perhaps the little monsters are best left in the past, but for the time, they were inescapable.

Meanwhile, Green Day was undertaking a new venture of its own: 21st Century Breakdown. Telling the story of fictional couple Christian and Gloria in three acts, the album was meant to be even bigger and bolder than previous rock opera American Idiot. Although the staying power of 21st Century Breakdown is hardly comparable to that of American Idiot, the sound is more mature and diverse than Idiot’s three–chords–and–the–truth schtick, and the American Idiot musical would incorporate Breakdown songs “Last of the American Girls,” “Last Night on Earth,” “Before the Lobotomy,” “Know Your Enemy,” and breakout hit “21 Guns,” ensuring that its legacy would never be left behind.

Finally, there was the glorious rebirth of Jay–Z, whose The Blueprint 3 was an album several years in the making: The Blueprint 2 was released in 2002. The wait paid off critically and commercially, and the frequent guest appearances, from Alicia Keys on “Empire State of Mind” to Rihanna and Kanye West on “Run This Town,” enhance the album more than detract from it. One could even argue that the frequent Kanye collaborations on The Blueprint 3 contributed to their eventual duo The Throne and associated album Watch the Throne. Hova was back.

Honorable mentions: All I Ever Wanted (Kelly Clarkson), Journal for Plague Lovers (Manic Street Preachers), Tonight: Franz Ferdinand (Franz Ferdinand), Halestorm (Halestorm)

2014: The Year of Reinvention

Love her or hate her, Taylor Swift’s 1989 was described by the artist as her “first documented official pop album,” as well as the most “sonically cohesive” album she has ever made. After claiming its position as the eighth fastest–selling album in the United States of all time, it would go on to win Album of the Year at the Grammys and spawn seven singles: “Shake it Off,” “Blank Space,” “Style,” “Bad Blood,” “Wildest Dreams,” “Out of the Woods,” and “New Romantics.” Although Taylor Swift was far from an unfamiliar name before 1989, it was this album that established her new status quo not as a country singer writing about her exes, but as a pop superstar capable of releasing chart–topper after chart–topper.

On the other side of the acoustic spectrum lies Royal Blood, whose self–titled LP debuted in August 2014. The two–piece band, consisting of Mike Kerr on bass and vocals and Ben Thatcher on bass, seemed to be the saviors that modern rock was looking for. They continued the work of The White Stripes and Queens of the Stone Age to provide heavy riffs and danceable beats, a marked departure from the more radio–friendly bands dominating the charts, like Imagine Dragons and Twenty One Pilots. Without Royal Blood, it seems unlikely that other bluesy, hard–rocking bands like Greta Van Fleet and Dorothy would find their foothold.

Taylor Swift spent 2014 reinventing her own sound and Royal Blood was hard at work shaping rock, but what about the reinvention of a self? Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues was the band’s first release after frontwoman Laura Jane Grace publicly came out as transgender in May 2012. From a purely musical perspective, the album offers little new: Against Me!’s classic heavy sound is there, and intensely personal lyrics have always been part of the genre, but the subject matter itself was almost unheard of: when Grace came out, “Gender Identity Disorder” was still classified by the DSM as a mental disorder. Although queercore certainly existed prior to Against Me!, such an intimate account of the transgender experience could have ruined Grace’s career. Instead, it made her an icon.

Honorable mentions: St. Vincent (St. Vincent), My Everything (Ariana Grande), Ultraviolence (Lana Del Rey), Lazaretto (Jack White)


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