May 11, 2020

25 Essential Albums from Our Own Former Music Critic

Brian Passey, senior communications specialist for Scottsdale Arts, built a massive album collection during his years as a music critic, including his favorite album, Abbey Road by The Beatles on vinyl. Photo: Cammie Passey

Before I promoted the arts as senior communications specialist for Scottsdale Arts, I promoted them as an arts and entertainment reporter for a daily newspaper (and occasionally in USA Today). Among my regular tasks was the writing of weekly music reviews for more than a decade.

While there is objectively good music and bad music, tastes are always subjective. As a former critic, I believe some of the albums on this list, like Abbey Road and Pet Sounds, are objectively among the greatest albums of all time; others are simply personal favorites, like the entries here from Dylanesque Wyoming songwriter Jason Tyler Burton and Austin-based fiddler Carrie Rodriguez, whose musical ¡Americano! recently debuted at The Phoenix Theatre Company.

You’ll notice most of the albums here fall solidly within the realm of rock ’n’ roll, my preferred genre, with a few elements of Americana and electronica mixed in. These are my 25 essential albums.

#1: Abbey Road by The Beatles

From George Harrison’s weeping guitar on “Something” and Ringo Starr’s loveably goofy “Octopus’s Garden” to the passionate epic of John Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and Paul McCartney’s stunningly gorgeous “Golden Slumbers,” this is simply the greatest album by the greatest band of all time.

#2: Wildflowers by Tom Petty

This technically “solo” effort by Tom Petty is his masterwork. At once gentle and elegant, it’s the perfect soundtrack for a drive through the mountains.

#3: Clarity by Jimmy Eat World

The emotions are all over the place on this barn burner from Mesa’s own Jimmy Eat World. It helped launch the emo movement, which never lived up to this pioneering record.

#4: Southeastern by Jason Isbell

With this revelatory record, Jason Isbell found love, got clean, and became the best songwriter of his generation with his poetic lyrics and deft turns of phrase.

#5: Automatic for the People by R.E.M.

Well into their career by this point but still at the beginning of their most creative streak, the boys from R.E.M. managed to create a moody masterpiece.

#6: High Violet by The National

We listen to the music of The National to know we’re not alone. High Violet is musical catharsis.

#7: Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys

It inspired much of The Beatles’ best work, but Brian Wilson’s magnum opus also stands on its own as perhaps the most beautiful vision of popular music’s most visionary artist.

#8: Speak for Yourself by Imogen Heap

Effervescent and exuberant, Imogen Heap brought and effortless warmth to electronic music on the heels of her commercial breakthrough as half of Frou Frou.

#9: Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd pays majestic tribute to a former bandmate on Roger Waters’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” while David Gilmour offers up the endearingly sweet title track.

#10: Unplugged in New York by Nirvana

It’s a tragedy that the world didn’t quite grasp Nirvana’s artistic potential until the advent of this brilliant live album, released just seven months after Kurt Cobain’s death.

Rounding out my 25 essential albums are the following. And take a moment to listen to my playlist featuring my top pick from each album listed.

#11: The Rising by Bruce Springsteen

#12: OK Computer by Radiohead

#13: Carrying Lightning by Amanda Shires

#14: Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers

#15: Funeral by Arcade Fire

#16: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by Smashing Pumpkins

#17: The King is Dead by The Decemberists

#18: American Idiot by Green Day

#19: Takk… by Sigur Rós

#20: Noble Beast by Andrew Bird

#21: Music from Big Pink by The Band

#22: Stardust by Willie Nelson

#23: Headwaters by Jason Tyler Burton

#24: Give Up by The Postal Service

#25: Give Me All You Got by Carrie Rodriguez

Me with Carrie Rodriguez
Brian Passey, during is music critic days, poses with singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez at a 2011 concert. Photo: Tim Cretsinger

We would love to hear what your essential albums are. Share entire playlists or individual songs with [email protected]. Simply click on each album icon or listen to Brian’s essential albums on Spotify or Apple Music below!

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