Double albums are always bold statements from artists, and often they can make or break a band. While some have too much filler and lack direction, there have also been several fantastic double albums in the rock genre. These records often celebrate everything that is so great about the band, but it also gives them the time and space to explore new musical avenues and themes. Sometimes, double albums take the form of concept records, which gradually unfold brilliant and fascinating tales. Many of the following excellent double albums are even considered the artist’s most celebrated and successful work.
15. The Clash – London Calling
Many double albums have too much filler and lack direction, but this cannot be said about The Clash’s immensely popular 1979 record London Calling. Each track is excellent and vital to the record’s cohesion, and this has led many to label it as one of the best albums of all-time, and a pioneering post-punk record. It incorporates a range of styles, including punk, ska, rockabilly, pop, lounge jazz and hard rock. Whilst some claim that The Clash abandoned their roots with this album, others argue that it pushed the punk genre into new terrain. The subject matter of London Calling is also varied, with themes that include social displacement, unemployment, drug use, racial conflict and the responsibilities of adulthood. The album also features the titular track, which is by far their most famous and celebrated song. Other noteworthy singles from the album include “Clampdown” and “Train in Vain”.
14. Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Whilst many artists use the double album format to experiment and delve into new musical avenues, this is not Elton John’s style. 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is pure pop rock and regarded as one of his best albums (it also happens to be his best-selling studio record). Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road features some of Sir Elton’s better known songs, such as “Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” and the title track. Elton John at first aimed to create a regular single album, but he was forced to move production from Jamaica to France, which inspired him to write more material. The album is Elton John at his superstar, musician and entertainer best, and hinted at what was to come from the flamboyant English pianist, singer-songwriter and composer.
13. The Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
While Siamese Dream arguably remains the Smashing Pumpkins’ best, most definitive work, their massive follow-up Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is right behind it and both are frequently cited as some of the best rock albums of the 90s. Recorded over the summer of 1995, Mellon Collie was designed from the outset to be an impactful double album, as lead singer/songwriter Billy Corgan approached it as if it would be the band’s last. In a way, Corgan was right, as Mellon Collie marked the final time the original Pumpkins lineup would record together, with touring keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin dying suddenly the following year and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain departed prior to the recording of the band’s next album, 1998’s Adore.
It’s fitting then that Mellon Collie was the last truly great Smashing Pumpkins record, featuring a slew of hit singles such as “Zero,” 1979,” and “Tonight, Tonight,” as well as a maturing of the band’s sound, as the 28 tracks run the gamut from guitar-heavy alt-rock anthems to experimental electronic pop. Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and self-indulgent, but that’s also true of lots of great art.
12. Derek and the Dominos – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
The only release by Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is regarded by many as Clapton’s greatest musical achievement. In addition to Clapton, the group also features Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, and Duane Allman, and they chose the band name Derek and the Dominos out of a desire to not let Clapton’s celebrity get in the way. The centerpiece to the album, “Layla,” was an extremely personal song for Clapton about his infatuation with Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend George Harrison at the time (Harrison was actually a participant in the band’s first session).
Although the album is now widely regarded as one of the best rock albums and features some of the best blues-rock ever recorded, it was not well received at first. It is thought that one of the reasons for this negative reception was because many did not know of Clapton’s involvement until the label released badges which bluntly stated “Eric is Derek”.
11. Pink Floyd – The Wall
Their 11th studio album and one which was later adapted into a film by the same name, Pink Floyd’s 1979 release The Wall is not only a double album; it’s a full-blown concept album. The Wall is a fascinating story that unfolds over two discs, featuring a character called Pink (modeled after former Floyd singer/guitarist Syd Barrett), who endures the death of his father, abuse from his schoolteachers, an overprotective mother, and a breakdown of his marriage. This sees Pink isolate himself from society, represented by a metaphorical wall with each trauma being a “brick in the wall.” Once the wall is up, Pink is tormented and puts himself on trial, seeing his inner judge order him to tear down the wall. The Wall is widely thought of as one of the great rock albums, but is often overlooked when discussing Pink Floyd’s discography due to the popularity of Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.
10. The Who – Tommy
No band mastered the double concept album better than The Who, which is why we’ve included both of the band’s massive rock operas on this list. Released in 1969, Tommy was a groundbreaking record and widely considered to be the first rock opera. Telling the story of the titular deaf, dumb, and blind kid dealing with some serious emotional and physical trauma, Tommy works as a compelling (though occasionally juvenile) narrative piece but the music-listening public would hardly have cared if the songs themselves weren’t any good.
Fortunately, few bands could match The Who’s lineup in terms of sheer rock aggression and thanks to Pete Townshend’s wonderful arrangements, Tommy also works as a fun rock album. The band displayed this fact in legendary fashion at Woodstock 1969 where they played most of Tommy live, contributing one of the festival’s greatest performances in the process.
9. George Harrison – All Things Must Pass
Yes, it’s technically a triple album but considering it would be very difficult to do a list of the greatest triple albums — plus the fact that disc three is largely inessential — George Harrison’s incredible first solo record arguably falls into the double album category. Though Harrison resigned himself to only contributing a couple of songs to each new Beatles album, the band’s lead guitarist had amassed dozens of songs by the time the band broke up in 1970, so he decided to grab a bunch of musician friends including Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and Peter Frampton and start recording.
The result was All Things Must Pass, arguably the greatest solo album released by an ex-Beatle, featuring now-classics like “My Sweet Lord,” “What is Life,” and “Isn’t It a Pity.” With this album, Harrison confirmed that his small sample size with the Beatles was no fluke and that he was just as strong a songwriter as Lennon or McCartney.
8. Prince – 1999
While Prince’s other double album Sign o’ the Times could easily slot in anywhere on this list, we have to go with his even better earlier release 1999 (it was a double album in the pre-CD era, so it counts). Representing Prince’s commercial breakthrough, 1999 is a funky masterpiece, full of catchy tunes with synth and drum-machine-heavy instrumentals. Like much of Prince’s work, 1999 toes the line between commercially viable pop and experimentation, which helped make this 70-minute-long, 11 track behemoth a hit with both the music-buying public and music critics alike. 1999’s singles included the title track, the steamy “Little Red Corvette” and the extended jam “D.M.S.R.”
7. Stevie Wonder – “Songs in the Key of Life
Stevie Wonder had already built a massive catalog of soul/R&B albums by the time he released Songs in the Key of Life in 1976, but no one was prepared for how staggeringly good the solo artist’s ambitious double album would be. A culmination of Wonder’s “classic” period, Songs in the Key of Life was an immediate commercial and critical hit, and indeed, it now stands as Wonder’s best-selling and most critically acclaimed work.
Featuring legendary hits such as “Sir Duke,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” and “I Wish,” it’s no surprise that Songs in the Key of Life has received accolades from numerous other artists, including many of Wonder’s contemporaries (both Elton John and Prince cited it as one of the greatest albums ever made and an important influence on their own music). Double albums are often thought to be too bloated or indulgent but when an album is incredible from front-to-back like Songs in the Key of Life is, those concerns aren’t even a factor.
6. The Who – Quadrophenia
As already stated, The Who certainly know how to make great double albums and rock operas, with Quadrophenia being their second after 1969’s Tommy. Released in 1973, Quadrophenia was such a success that it even spawned a film adaptation. The story which unfolds follows a young mod named Jimmy, who enjoys fighting, drugs and romance, but is disillusioned with how his parents treat him. After destroying his scooter and contemplating suicide, Jimmy decides to travel to Brighton where he had previously been happy. However, here he finds the person that once led his gang is now working as a bellboy. Feeling rejected, he steals a boat and sails out to a rock where he contemplates life. His fate is ambiguous as the album closes. The album was a tremendous success and cemented The Who’s legacy as not only one of the loudest bands, but also one of the greatest.
5. The Beatles – The White Album
The White Album will forever be tainted due to its association with Charles Manson, who interpreted the album as a sign of an imminent race war and played it repeatedly for his followers. Setting that unfortunate legacy aside, the album itself contains some of The Beatles’ greatest work, topping the charts in both the US and UK. As a double album, the group was able to be more experimental, resulting in an incredibly diverse album, which explores a range of styles. The success and cohesiveness of the album is surprising, considering the fact that there were all kinds of issues throughout the recording process. There were creative differences, Yoko Ono started attending their sessions, and Ringo Starr even briefly left the band. The album contains 30 tracks, but only 16 feature all four Beatles performing, and this would mark the beginning of the end for the band.
4. Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
One of rock’s first double albums, Bob Dylan’s 1966 record Blonde on Blonde remains one of the greatest and most celebrated albums of all-time. It is a sprawling record which features pop songs, bluesy rock, and lengthy, experimental tracks, Blonde on Blonde is a defining record from the 60s and one that Dylan has stated is the closest he ever got to the sound in his head. It marked the end of a prolific recording period for Dylan, who released Bringing It All Back Home in 1965 and Highway 61 Revisited a year later, and these releases saw him make the transition from folk artist to rock artist. Blonde on Blonde also features some of his best known work, including “I Want You,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat,” “Visions of Johanna” and “Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35”.
3. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland
Widely considered to be one of the greatest rock albums ever, Electric Ladyland was the third and final studio album by the English-American rock act The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Many view it as Hendrix’s best work, and it also contains The Experience’s highest selling single – a cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Much like the previous two records, this one blew people’s minds and the additional recording time allowed the band to experiment, recording extended and lengthy improvisational jams (“Voodoo Chile” clocks in at 15 minutes). While some critics felt that the album lacked structure, it would prove to be hugely successful and a pioneering psychedelic album. Interestingly, Hendrix disliked the artwork, which featured nineteen nude women, and many record stores banned the cover, while some sold it with the gatefold cover turned inside out.
2. Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti
A mammoth record which has been labeled a “tour de force through a number of musical styles,” Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti was released in 1975 and was the band’s sixth studio record. Using archived material along with 8 new tracks, the group decided to create a double album after these new tracks extended the time way beyond that of a regular length E.P. Whilst many cite Led Zeppelin II or IV as their best work, it has to be said that Physical Graffiti contains a few of Zeppelin’s best tracks, including “In My Time of Dying,” “In The Light” and “Kashmir.” The album probably could have been condensed into one record, but they decided to have some fun and the result shows the band’s ability to play a variety of different music styles. Physical Graffiti went on to be a huge success, with the album going 16X platinum in the US in 2006.
1. The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street
A record that is famed for its debauched recording sessions in Nellcôte, a villa located outside of Nice, France, (in order to avoid the taxman seizing the band’s assets), 1972’s Exile on Main Street is widely considered to be the Rolling Stones’ greatest album and an important record in rock history. The chaotic and messy nature of the recording is reflected in the music (and album art), which incorporates a range of different styles and features a host of guests who came to stay with the band in France. Interestingly, although it is considered by many to be their best work, there is no standout track or huge single, which reflects the idea that it is a complete album and should be listened to from start to finish. A few of the more notable tracks include “Rocks Off,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Happy” and “All Down the Line.”