We’ve reached the top of my 250 albums, 250 seasons project. Following are my 50 favorite albums since 1950, each matched up with a player season from the same span. The seasons aren’t necessarily ranked, but the top few seasons do correspond with the top few players. For background and album/seasons 250 through 51, see the links below:
And now, the best of the best:
50. Dark Side of the Moon , Pink Floyd , 1973 = Johnny Bench , 1972
The Floyd’s best and most well-known record matches up with Bench’s best season, a 40-homer campign in which he won his second NL MVP.
49. Fun House , Stooges , 1970 = Sam McDowell , 1970
More raw power from Sudden Sam, in the form of 304 strikeouts in 305 innings, meets an even better album from Iggy and the Stooges.
48. Buffalo Springfield Again , Buffalo Springfield , 1967 = Ron Santo , 1967
Two west-coast entities who did their best work in ’67s, Santo was overshadowed by Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, while Buffalo Springfield’s legacy drowned in the wake of Neil Young and Crosby, Stills, & Nash.
47. Doolittle , Pixies , 1989 = Mike Schmidt , 1977
Not necessarily Schmidt’s best season, but a great one sandwiched between the other two on the list, this one lines up with the Pixies’ best, which came between Surfer Rosa and Bossanova.
46. Civilian , Wye Oak , 2011 = Craig Kimbrel , 2012
Kimbrel was only worth 3.2 rWAR in 2012, as the closer role has evolved to a minor one in terms of volume, but when he did pitch, he was perhaps more dominant than any pitcher in history, striking out 116 and walking 14 in 62 2/3 innings. Wye Oak may not have broken a lot of new ground with Civilian, but their sound is as rich and engaging as perhaps any album I’ve heard.
45. Exile in Guyville , Liz Phair , 1993 = Mickey Mantle , 1956
Mantle makes the list more times than the Rolling Stones, so I had to match him up with Phair’s Stones homage/critique/adaptation in Guyville. In ’56, Mantle hit 52 regular-season homers and added three in the World Series.
44. The King is Dead , Decemberists , 2011 = Fernando Rodney , 2012
Depending on how one measures a pitcher’s success, Rodney’s 2012 (0.60 ERA) may have been even more impressive than Kimbrel’s. Similarly, King is my favorite album of the current decade, timeless and comfortable where Civilian is modern and daring.
43. The Beatles , Beatles , 1968 = Willie Mays , 1958
The deepest, most adventurous album in the Beatles’ catalogue meets what was nearly a 30-30 season (31 HR, 29 SB) from Mays.
42. In the Court of the Crimson King , King Crimson , 1969 = Al Kaline , 1955
At #193, I praised King Crimson’s longevity and consistency by comparing them to Kaline. Here, I’ll honor the archetype-shattering immediacy of their debut with a nod to Kaline’s .340/.421/.546 line in ’55.
41. Nevermind , Nirvana , 1991 = Mark McGwire , 1998
Just as everything changed when Nirvana killed the ’80s with Nevermind, everything changed (for better and worse) when McGwire launched 70 dingers in 1998.
40. Daydream Nation , Sonic Youth , 1988 = Robin Yount , 1982
Sonic Youth was Nirvana before Nirvana, as evidenced by their ironically anthemic double album released three years before Nevermind. Yount wasn’t exactly McGwire before McGwire, but he exemplified pre-McGwire baseball with 46 doubles in ’82, adding 12 hits in the World Series.
39. Rain Dogs , Tom Waits , 1985 = Phil Niekro , 1978
Waits never sounded like anyone else, growling witty and morose lyrics over a wide range of instruments. Niekro never pitched like anyone else, throwing knuckleballs with ease and pitching 334 1/3 innings with 22 complete games in ’78.
38. The Velvet Underground , Velvet Underground , 1969 = Rickey Henderson , 1985
Continuing with the Rickey and the Velvets theme, VU’s second self-titled album was its most straightforward and joyful to-date, while Henderson reached base at a .414 clip and scored 146 runs in ’85.
37. The Doors , Doors , 1967 = Frank Robinson , 1962
Probably both underappreciated and overappreciated at times, Robinson and The Doors are true classics, very visible in their time and revered generations later.
36. Innervisions , Stevie Wonder , 1973 = Ernie Banks , 1959
Of all Stevie’s classic albums in the ’70s, Innervisions is his grand slam. Banks peaked in ’59 with 45 homers and 143 RBI, one of the great offensive seasons by an shortstop.
35. Rumours , Fleetwood Mac , 1977 = Roger Maris , 1961
Rumours gets by on tension and passion, much like the choas surrounding Maris and Mantle as both chased Ruth’s single-season home run record in ’61. Both appeal to the general public, perhaps more than to critics.
34. After the Gold Rush , Neil Young , 1970 = Fergie Jenkins , 1971
Canada’s never been prouder than in the early ’70s, when Young released his masterpiece and Jenkins completed an absurd 30 games.
33. Mingus Ah Um , Charles Mingus , 1959 = Tom Seaver , 1971
Seaver had a 1.76 ERA in ’71, one of the great pitching seasons ever. Like Seaver, everything Mingus touched was gold, most notably his ’59 masterpiece Ah Um.
32. Illinoise , Sufjan Stevens , 2005 = Mike Piazza , 1997
A mammoth, sprawling work of beauty and power, Stevens rewrote the rules with the second installment of his later-aborted one-album-per-state project. Piazza rewrote the rules concerning what a catcher was capable of offensively, hitting .362/.431/.638 in ’97.
31. If You’re Feeling Sinister , Belle and Sebastian , 1996 = Ben Zobrist , 2011
Zobrist may be in over his head in the top 50, but he hit 46 doubles and played brilliant defense at multiple key positions in ’11, perhaps justifying comparison to another underappreciated classic in Sinister.
30. Grace , Jeff Buckley , 1994 = Bret Saberhagen , 1989
Buckley was a shooting star, releasing one of the greatest testaments to the power of the human voice before dying at 30. Saberhagen pitched brilliantly every other year of his young career before fading away soon after turning 30.
29. The Freehweelin’ Bob Dylan , Bob Dylan , 1963 = Greg Maddux , 1992
Maddux’s first great season, a 2.18 ERA-effort, meets Dylan’s first great album, a folk record with a punk edge.
28. Kind of Blue , Miles Davis , 1959 = Albert Pujols , 2003
It’s hard to pick Pujols’s best season, but he hit .359 in 2003, with 43 homers and 51 doubles. Despite the phenomenal depth of his catalogue, it’s easier to pick Davis’s best album, the silky-smooth Kind of Blue.
27. Stankonia , OutKast , 2000 = Sandy Koufax , 1966
Koufax went out with a bang, carrying a 1.73 ERA through 323 innings in his last season. OutKast expanded on their already brilliant canon with 2000’s explosive Stankonia, an hour-long ode to the dirty south and parenthood.
26. Aquemini , OutKast , 1998 = Sandy Koufax , 1963
Koufax’s best seasons are indistinguishably excellenct, much like OutKast’s best albums. By a hair, I’ll take 11 shutouts in ’63 and the inexplicably brilliant “Spottieottiedopaliscious”.
25. In the Wee Small Hours , Frank Sinatra , 1955 = Ted Williams , 1957
Music’s first superstar in the post-war era, Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours is as challenging as it is accessible. Williams was baseball’s first post-war superstar, one whose greatness was as accessible as his demeanor was challenging to writers.
24. Loveless , My Bloody Valentine , 1991 = JD Drew , 2004
As great as he was in Atlanta, and as solid as he was in Boston, the inexpressive Drew never got much love from fans. He and My Bloody Valentine may have co-founded shoegazing, but Drew did it all in ’04, with a .436 OBP and outstanding right field defense.
23. London Calling , Clash , 1979 = Joe Morgan , 1975
The best album from “the only band that mattered” meets the best season from the only middle infielder that mattered in the mid-’70s. Morgan reached base at a .466 clip and stole 67 bases for the finally-triumphant Big Red Machine.
22. Enter the Wu-Tang/36 Chambers , Wu-Tang Clan , 1993 = Rickey Henderson , 1982
Rickey shows up more than the Velvet Underground, so he gets a match with Wu Tang, whose ’93 debut was as shocking as Henderson’s 130 steals in ’82.
21. Forever Changes , Love , 1967 = Norm Cash , 1961
The greatest one-year wonders in music and baseball history, respectively. Cash hit an otherworldly .361/.487/.662, while Love recorded the defining album of the summer of love.
20. Led Zeppelin , Led Zeppelin , 1969 = Bob Gibson , 1969
It’s hard to believe 196 was neither Zeppelin’s nor Gibson’s best year. Hoot had a 2.18 ERA in 314 innings, while Zeppelin taught the world what blues-rock sounded like when turned up to eleven.
19. Exile on Main Street , Rolling Stones , 1972 = Mickey Mantle , 1961
As great as Maris was in ’61, Mantle was even better, adding 126 walks to his 54 homers. As great as Rumours was, the Stones probably have a better claim to the best album of the ’70s with their last great record.
18. Agaetis Byrjun , Sigur Ros , 2001 = Zack Greinke , 2009
Neither Sigur Ros nor Zack Greinke is a great fit for this planet. The Icelandic band’s impossibly beautiful debut is as strangely wonderful as Greinke’s kitchen sink repertoire and Jekyll and Hyde personality.
17. Madvillainy , Madvillain , 2004 = Dick Ellsworth , 1963
If you promise to familiarize yourself with Madvillain, dear reader, I promise to find out who Dick Ellsworth was and how he pitched 290 2/3 innings with a 2.11 ERA in 1963 without my noticing until 50 years later.
16. Electric Ladyland , Jimi Hendrix Experience , 1968 = Barry Bonds , 2001
The pinnacle of two epic heroes’ groundbreaking careers. Hendrix redefined the capabilities of the guitar and Bonds redefined the capabilities of a batter, hitting 73 home runs despite being walked 177 times.
15. Revolver , Beatles , 1966 = Willie Mays , 1963
Just another phenomenal year for Willie Mays meets just another genre-redefining record from the Fab Four.
14. (Led Zeppelin IV) , Led Zeppelin , 1971 = Bob Gibson , 1968
Now we’ve seen the best of Gibby and Zep. A ridiculous 1.12 ERA. “Stairway to Heaven” and “When the Levee Breaks”.
13. Let it Bleed , Rolling Stones , 1969 = Mickey Mantle , 1957
Let it Bleed, like Mantle in ’57, pulls out all the stops, hitting .365/.512/.665 and earning universal praise by somehow topping the prior year’s brililance.
12. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea , Neutral Milk Hotel , 1998 = Al Rosen , 1953
In critical circles, Jeff Mangum and NMH are larger than life, while in record stores, their display is smaller than Bel Biv Devoe’s. Rosen is renowned in SABR circles for his .422 OBP, 43 homers, and hot-corner defense in ’53, but he finished his career with just 30.8 rWAR, well short of Hall of Fame standards.
11. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back , Public Enemy , 1988 = Jackie Robinson , 1951
The most important album in hip-hop meets the most important person in baseball history. These may both be understatments.
10. Somethin’ Else , Cannonball Adderley , 1958 = Gaylord Perry , 1972
Perry played by a different set of rules, mastering the spitball and finding creative ways to get pitchers out, including over 1,000 of them in 1972, with a 1.92 ERA. Cannonball Adderley assembled one of the great lineups in jazz history, but played by his own rules, showing up the bigger names with six jazz classics.
9. Blue , Joni Mitchell , 1971 = Larry Walker , 1997
The most impressive offensive season by a Canadian showed he could do a little bit of everything (ok, a lot of everything: .452 OBP, 49 homers, 33 stolen bases), while the best solo album by a Canadian demonstrated Mitchell’s brilliant vocal range and unmatched songwriting dexterity.
8. Funeral , Arcade Fire , 2004 = Mike Trout , 2012
If we put Barry Bonds aside, Mike Trout just completed the most dominant season of the new millenium, hitting 30 homers, stealing 49 bases, and establishing himself as perhaps the game’s best hitter, fielder, and baserunner. The best rock album of the new millenium is likely Arcade Fire’s Funeral, a glorious pastiche of bombast and sorrow.
7. Pet Sounds , Beach Boys , 1966 = Steve Carlton , 1972
Carlton was up against a lot, playing for a pitiful Phillies team, but he pitched 346 1/3 innings and struck out 310 hitters, accumulating 27 wins and a 1.97 ERA. The original Brian Wilson wanted the Beach Boys to be the best band in the world, at a time when the Beatles were raising the stakes with every album. Both would ultimately fail, either finishing last in their division or having a nervous breakdown after hearing Sgt. Pepper, but each’s greatest triumph is among the best performances of all time.
6. Abbey Road , Beatles , 1969 = Willie Mays , 1965
Perhaps the best player in the era in question, Mays appears on this list eight times, and probably could have snuck in a few more. Only the Beatles show up as many as seven times on the music list, acheiving near-perfection with the gorgeous second half of Abbey Road. Mays raised his game in ’65, with a .398 OBP and 52 homers in a down year for human hitters.
5. Marquee Moon , Television , 1977 = Wilbur Wood , 1971
Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood once pitched 334 innings with a 1.91 ERA? Proto-punk rockers Television released the best album of the 1970s and one of the most epic guitar showcases ever? Yup, both happened, whether you were paying attention or not. And neither is in the Hall of Fame.
4. The Velvet Underground and Nico , Velvet Underground , 1967 = Rickey Henderson , 1990
The greatest American band in history, the Velvet Underground changed all the rules, layering odd instruments and fits of dissonance over lyrics about S&M and drug use. Not long after their reign ended, Rickey changed the rules of baserunning (just go, every time) and sports interviews (third person, every time). Rickey’s best season lines up with the Velvets’ best album.
3. The Queen is Dead , Smiths , 1986 = Dwight Gooden , 1985
According to baseball-reference, the player who provided the most value to his team (13 wins) in a single season since 1950 was Gooden, who struck out 268 in 276 2/3 innings on his way to a 1.53 ERA. A year later, a relatively young band put out a stunning album, only to fade away nearly as quickly as Gooden would after his ’85 masterpiece.
2. Highway 61 Revisited , Bob Dylan , 1965 = Carl Yastrzemski , 1967
Baseball-Reference credits Yaz with the most valuable hitter season of the last half century (12 wins), and who am I to disagree? With the mound raised and pitchers flying high, Yaz hit .326/.418/.622 with 44 homers for the Impossible Dream Red Sox. Two years earlier, Dylan released one of the most perfect efforts in the rock canon.
1. OK Computer , Radiohead , 1997 = Pedro Martinez , 1999
The best album of all time was released two years before the most dominant pitching season in the history of baseball. In 213 1/3 innings in 1999, Pedro struck out 313 batters, walked 37, and gave up nine home runs. He did all this in Fenway Park against American Leaguers in the heart of the steroid era. No album but Radiohead’s finest can match up with this season.