We exist in a once unimaginable world of musical abundance. The internet means that more or less the entirety of pop history is available to anyone at the touch of a button; more than 100,000 new tracks are uploaded to just one streaming service every day. Complete obscurity has been essentially eradicated: even if a song is too arcane for Spotify or Apple Music or Tidal, it is more than likely someone will have uploaded it to YouTube. Indeed, music is so abundant, the sheer volume on offer can feel overwhelming – where do you start?
The obvious answer is a greatest hits record or a best-of playlist, but there is something more fulfilling about taking in a complete statement from an artist, even – or perhaps more so – in an era when the album increasingly seems like a devalued currency, just a collection from which you can cherrypick tracks for a playlist. Picking the ideal introduction to an artist is sometimes very straightforward – their best-known album may be their best-known album for a reason – and sometimes more serpentine: not every artist’s biggest album shows the full breadth of what they do. But here are 15 potential embarkation points for some of the most important artists of the pop era. Alexis Petridis
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
By 1959, trumpeter Miles Davis was reaching a new phase. His staple was the frenetic world of bebop and hard bop – a rhythmically charged sound trading in bluesy improvisations – but he was growing tired of the relentless pace of touring and considering retirement.
Luckily, a new form – modal jazz – piqued his interest. Creating harmony more freely from scales, rather than the confines of chords, modal music allowed Davis a slower and more expansive setting in which to improvise. He decided to form a new group, calling on instrumentalists including saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist Bill Evans to make an all-star sextet. The resulting album runs through a potted history of modern jazz, from the blues of Freddie Freeloader to the bop lines of So What and the tender balladry of Blue in Green. Accessible in its keening melodies but containing ample depth for a lifetime’s worth of listening, if you are looking for a gateway drug into the world of jazz, this is it. Ammar Kalia
Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home
Bob Dylan has offered greatness on multiple occasions over the course of 60 years. But if we are forced to be selective, we’ll go for 1965 and Bringing It All Back Home, the album on which Dylan was still both folk singer and groundbreaking rock’n’roller. Being Dylan, he gives listeners the rock’n’roller first: a barrelling, robust thing that sprawls and spreads, sounding like the greatest bar band in history setting up. From the dramatic opening of Subterranean Homesick Blues, through the anthemic Maggie’s Farm, the gorgeous Love Minus Zero/No Limit, to the absurd Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, it’s the sound of pop evolving in real time.
Side two brings back the acoustic guitar, but no simple protest songs here: Mr Tambourine Man sets the scene for a series of densely fantastical tracks whose meaning is elusive, but which offer one memorable aphorism after another (“He not busy being born is busy dying”), concluding with the perfect It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. It’s a flawless record. Michael Hann
Joni Mitchell – Hejira
A heartbreak album, 1971’s Blue is often cited as Mitchell’s most canonical work. But her eighth album, released in 1976, is another towering landmark, one in which Mitchell wove together multiple strands of her previous songcraft to create something so fully realised that she said “Hejira could have only come from me”.
Across nine tracks, she resolves her folk storytelling with newfound jazz structures without visible joins; sophisticated, oblique music that goes down easy. Mitchell’s voice is a thing of wonder, her fragile soprano transformed into an elastic instrument “diving, diving, diving” at audacious angles to her music.
Hejira refers to the migration from Mecca to Medina undertaken by Muhammad; it’s an album written across a series of road trips taking in themes of wanderlust, what it means to be a woman alone, having flings with men like the titular Coyote, and pondering a Blue Motel Room and the Refuge of the Roads. Ever perceptive, Mitchell queries her own well-intentioned but voyeuristic tourism in down-at-heel Memphis too, on Furry Sings the Blues. Kitty Empire
Fela Kuti – Zombie
The 12-minute duration of Fela Kuti’s Zombie, the title track from his 1977 album, contains the full spectrum of the multi-instrumentalist’s power. It opens with a percussive guitar line mimicking west African highlife melodies, before Kuti bursts into the frame with a lyrical saxophone solo playing over drummer Tony Allen’s kinetic shuffle. Five minutes in, Kuti takes to the mic and rails against Nigeria’s military, labelling them mindless, violent “zombies”. The song is relentless and forceful, coupling Kuti’s disdainful delivery with the thumping backing of his ensemble band.
Over Zombie’s four sprawling tracks, Kuti and his band use the unifying power of their dancefloor-focused music to deliver a vital message of resistance. The album was massively successful but not without consequences: the Nigerian government was outraged and an ensuing raid of Kuti’s compound led to his elderly mother being thrown from a window and killed.
His protest message never quite reached the urgency of Zombie again; the cry of despair from an artist about to unleash life-changing consequences. AK
Bob Marley – Exodus
Exile has often proved to be a creative catalyst: the South African jazz artists Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim produced some of their most important work during an escape from apartheid. Following an assassination attempt in 1976, Jamaican reggae pioneer Bob Marley undertook an exile of his own to London and produced what became one of the most politically urgent records of his career, 1977’s Exodus.
Opening on the dubby dilations of Natural Mystic before progressing to the anthemic yearning of the title track, the first half of Exodus is Marley at his most fierce and determined. The second showcases his looser and more sensuous side, moving from the joyousness of Jamming to an astounding run of hits: Waiting in Vain, Three Little Birds and One Love/People Get Ready.
A year after the release of Exodus, Marley would be diagnosed with the melanoma that would ultimately end his life in 1981. The album stands as a late-career masterpiece and a testament to the music Marley would have gone on to make. AK
Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express
The defining Kraftwerk album for newcomers? One could make a case for any of the five they released between 1974 and 1981. There’s even an argument that since the versions of the classic songs performed in concert are radically altered, the 2005 live album Minimum-Maximum gives the best sense of what to expect if you see them. But 1977’s Trans-Europe Express gives full focus to Kraftwerk’s gifts: beauty, sadness, propulsion, melody and that unique combination of chill and warmth.
It is an album within the experimental tradition that is also wholly accessible, which is probably why it is often considered to mark the birth of modern electronic music. What’s remarkable, though, is how it still sounds timeless: yes, some of the rhythms now seem a little clunky, but the utter delight to be found in the chugging-engine percussion in the title track, and that synth whoosh as the train whizzes by, will never fade. MH
David Bowie – “Heroes”
Which Bowie do you want? Remarkable singer-songwriter? Go for Hunky Dory. Glam rock alien? Ziggy Stardust, obviously. Avant-funkateer? Young Americans. Inventor of the new romantics? That’s Scary Monsters. But, released in 1977, “Heroes” feels like the Bowie record most full of Bowieness: futuristic, but familiar; formally experimental, but deeply melodic; filled with lyrics made up on the spot, but with a stirring title track that captured something completely universal.
From its opener, Beauty and the Beast, “Heroes” makes its intentions clear: the noises sound all wrong – guitarist Robert Fripp and general conspirator Brian Eno fill it with discordance and spikes – yet the soulful backing vocals anchor it firmly in the rock tradition. According to producer Tony Visconti, it has a direct relationship to its chillier predecessor in the Berlin trilogy, Low: “One is the dark and the other is the light of the same coin,” he told me. “Low is low, it’s dark, it’s depressive; ‘Heroes’ is like: ‘Ta-dah, I’m here, I’m a hero.’” MH
Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
With a catalogue as rich and deep as Kate Bush’s, it feels almost too easy to recommend her best-known and biggest-selling album as a first point of contact. But her most famous album is also her best. It has all the strangeness, density and boldness of 1982’s The Dreaming – it variously involves Tennyson, Wilhelm Reich, Gregorian chant, Irish jigs and a song about maternal love written from the point of view of a murderer – but allied to more directly appealing music.
Running Up That Hill didn’t become a No 1 single earlier this year just because it was featured in Stranger Things, but because it combines a stunning melody with a curious atmosphere that buries itself under your skin. To make commercially successful music this complex and fascinating takes unique skill; so does making music that exists so apart from anything else happening at the time that it inhabits its own space: Kate Bush’s genius in miniature. AP
Prince – Sign O’ the Times
Sometimes the moving parts can detract from a masterpiece’s aura. But it is worth knowing that Prince’s glorious 1987 double album drew from a handful of stymied projects: a triple outing that never saw the light of day, and the similarly unreleased Camille, a concept album starring Prince’s falsetto and gender fluidity. He was, we know, prolific.
But despite its compromised beginnings, and the fact that this ninth album marked the end of Prince’s band, The Revolution, Sign O’ The Times works as an ideal gateway drug for this singular artist. A generous tracklisting and Prince’s own blistering versatility mean that Sign O’ manages to cram in virtually all the Princes: the emotionally sensitive lover, the funk virtuoso, the pop genius, the guitar hero, the experimental electronic pioneer. He’s a minimalist on the title track, a rare instance of explicit activism. He is reliably raunchy on Hot Thing and U Got the Look; the opposite on If I Was Your Girlfriend and I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man; a beatific innocent on Starfish and Coffee. LinnDrums and processed horns mark this as peak 80s, but its vintage soul and nods to Joni Mitchell point towards Prince’s wide ears. Everything else points to the future. KE
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
On its release, 1988’s Daydream Nation felt like a culmination, a drawing together of everything Sonic Youth had done since the release of their eponymous 1982 debut EP. On one level, it continued the process begun on its predecessors, EVOL and Sister, of streamlining their unruly sound – clangorous, semi-improvised, driven by detuned guitars – into something a wide audience might find palatable.
Opener Teen Age Riot is their greatest song, an irresistible rock anthem that sounds nothing like any rock anthem before it; the melody of Candle is beautiful; Silver Rocket hits the listener with one amazing riff after another. But it does all that without sacrificing Sonic Youth’s experimental edge. You are never far from a reminder that this is the same band who recorded 1983’s confrontational Confusion Is Sex: on the ferocious Rain King and Eric’s Trip, they bear out critic David Fricke’s contention that, at full pelt, Sonic Youth sounded like a New York subway train screaming into a station. AP
Madonna – Like a Prayer
Starting with 1982’s self-titled debut, Madonna’s early run of albums bear witness to the rapid expansion of a fissile new pop star. But it wasn’t until Like a Prayer, seven years later, that Madonna turned into a versatile artist whose works moved the cultural dial. It kicks off with the title track, a tune powered by funk and gospel that pondered the loneliness of existence, likened romantic love to religious ecstasy and drove racists crazy with its video depiction of a wrongfully accused Black Jesus. Then there is Express Yourself, a song that contradicts Material Girl’s gimlet-eyed gold-digging with a plea for true connection and female agency.
Much of the rest of the tracklist rams home key Madonna themes: True Blue-style retro fun in the form of Cherish, a none-more-80s Prince hook-up on Love Song, Iberian high jinks on Spanish Eyes. Her religious fixation, meanwhile, reaches a kind of apogee on the avant-collage Act of Contrition. KE
Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92
You could argue that the first volume of Selected Ambient Works isn’t an all-encompassing introduction to the Aphex Twin: the Richard D James who notoriously DJed with two sheets of sandpaper instead of records or who bludgeoned listeners with unrelenting tracks such as Quoth or Come to Daddy is noticeably absent.
But perhaps that’s for the best – early exposure to his most extreme music could put you off entirely – and besides, if there is little stark terror, there’s plenty of creeping disquiet here, on the discordant Hedphelym or the dark-hued Schottkey 7th Path. And Selected Ambient Works offers ample evidence of why James became such a revered figure in the early 90s. You can hear how he was inspired by both electro (Ptolemy) and Chicago house (Delphium) alongside the sound of an artist taking leave of his influences and exploring his own, wildly idiosyncratic path through electronic music, a route that takes in the impossibly lovely Xtal, the wonderfully understated Actium and Green Calx’s warped version of acid house. A brief, beatless track – i – aside, it doesn’t really fit the ambient tag. Then again, not fitting into genres is rather the point of Aphex Twin. AP
Beyoncé – Beyoncé
In the early years of Beyoncé’s career, it was often claimed that she was too perfect: too polished, too unrelatable, not willing to experiment outside chart-friendly R&B. By the end of 2013, these critiques were in tatters as she set about not only finding her sociopolitical voice but expanding her sonic and emotional palette.
From the randy kitchen antics of Drunk in Love to the quiet insecurities of Mine (“I’m not feelin’ myself since the baby / Are we gonna even make it?”), Knowles-Carter tells us more about herself than ever before, tackling motherhood and sexuality and beauty standards in deeply humanising ways. The pinnacle is Flawless; its brusque, choppy hip-hop speaks to a mood of unapologetic confidence, sparking millennial discourse about intersectionality and ushering in a whole new era of sloganeering empowerment. Girlboss-branded feminism may have had its day, but Queen Bey’s career gearshift remains seismic. Jenessa Williams
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
If 2012’s Good Kid, MAAD City proved that there was a new breakout star in Compton, Kendrick Lamar’s third album cemented him fully in the lineage of hip-hop’s all-time greats. Ricocheting between jazz, P-funk and mile-a-minute rap, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly plays like a college-level thesis on the diasporic history of African American music.
Flitting between conscious characters and flawed braggadocio, it offers up complex narratives while leaving room for the listener’s interpretation, valuing the journey as much as the destination. Adopted as the unofficial theme song of the Black Lives Matter movement, Alright still sends shivers up the spine, a depressingly ongoing cry of defiance in the face of repeated police brutality.
Follow-up album Damn might have earned Lamar his Pulitzer prize, but without … Butterfly, his pen may never have soared; it’s a rich, imaginative celebration of unbridled creativity. JW
BTS – Map of the Soul: 7
Once dismissed as heart-thumping fodder for prepubescent girls, the ground-shifting power of K-pop has become hard to deny. The appeal of the genre is its performance precision and commitment to excellence, which sees bands building whole “eras” and campaigns around individual tracks until they are elevated to the level of cinema.
K-pop’s gold standard is BTS. Although their earlier releases were hugely successful, 2020’s Map of the Soul: 7 marks the moment where Jin, Jimin, V, J-Hope, Jungkook, Suga and RM went from being Korea’s biggest boyband to global sensation.
Boy With Luv, a candyfloss collaboration with American singer Halsey, remains their most immediate hit, but there are darker delights to be found in the thumping trap-ballet of Black Swan, or in the lyricism of On, striving for resilience in tough times. JW
• This article was amended on 21 November 2022. An earlier version referred to the title of Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira being derived from the Hajj, a devotional pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken by Muslims. Although sometimes used interchangeably, Hejira more accurately refers to the migration or flight taken by Muhammad from Mecca to Medina.