I'm no music critic, but I know what I like. I ferreted out these choices by running through my most played songs on iTunes, but I didn't always choose the albums whose songs got the most number of plays.
1) Freewheelin' Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan
Sometimes I think I should have come of age in the sixties, but I'm thankful for the cynical and/or prophetic distance that kept me from becoming a true believer in postwar, anti-establishment romantic idealism. Still, my heart is very much with the man (lowercase m) here, whether it's the pain of lost love ("North Country Girl") or raging protest against the military-industrial complex ("Masters of War"). I only hope that my writing could one day give voice to others' protest against this world but also direct them toward the good news which ultimately provides the basis for a better one.
2) The White Album - The Beatles
I didn't like this at first, as I had just been introduced to the Beatles with the relative thematic unity of Sgt. Pepper's but esp. Abbey Road. However, The White Album has remained that most consistently engaging and entertaining of their corpus (so far). Even if the songs are a scattershot collection, they mix tastefully just as Huck Finn described good food doing in the opening bit of his eponymous adventure.
3) Kind of Blue - Miles Davis
Scott Bowles once pointed out how even this album's busiest parts remain smooth and soothing. The whole thing has an unforced air, Davis's horn lilting jauntily over the ensemble's engaging rhythms.
4) Pan's Labyrinth - Javier Navarette
One of my favorite movies and, by all accounts, favorite scores, Javier Navarette built the score around the bedtime lullaby sung to the young heroine as a frail comfort within a world of terror. That motif, usually played on a rich and lonely cello, is haunting, beautiful and mythical all at once.
5) Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Harmonized pastoral laments and ballads accompanied by an Appalachian ensemble of strings and drums.
6) How the West Was Won - Led Zeppelin
A thrilling, 3-disc live album recorded in Los Angeles in these rock Olympians' heyday, HtW3 shows the band stretching their sound both in terms of live-wire intensity and extensive riffing not common to studio produced tracks. The album opener is an aggressive performance of "Immigrant Song"--the highlight a 25 minute "Whole Lotta Love" doubling as a history of rock and roll. Way hardcore!
7) Thriller - Michael Jackson
At least he deserved the title "King of Pop," if not the right to demand to be called it. Except for "The Girl is Mine" (the dreadful collaboration between Jackson & McCartney) the tracks are infectious and engaging. Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah!
8) St. Elsewhere - Gnarls Barkley (Cee-Lo Green / DJ Danger Mouse)
Hands down, Cee-Lo has an amazing voice. It's powerful, rich, soulful, piercing and full. Combined with Danger Mouse's skilled genre mash-up approach to music (Google "Gray Album"), the two produced a fantastic pop album.
9) Spirited Away - Joe Hisaishi
Joe Hisaishi is Miyazaki's go to composer, and he has an old fashioned sensibility recalling both classical Hollywood as well as Baroque waltzes. He retains a distinct eastern flavor, however, and his sounds here evoke the excitement, playfulness, terror and mystery of the world the heroine finds herself in.
10) Ratatouille - Michael Giacchino
Giacchino has composed the most memorable scores from the last decade, beginning with his big picture debut in The Incredibles, whose brilliant horns-heavy score was catchy and retro and plain awesome. In Ratatouille he combines playful Parisian melodies with rousing orchestral crescendos to highlight both the joys and dramas of artistic fluorishing. I love love love this score. (See also Lost, Star Trek, Up)
11) Grace - Jeff Buckley
A fantastic and moody rock album that shifts wildly from contemplative whispers to Zeppelin-esque jams. It is most remembered for his transcendent cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," but the ethereal" Dream Brother" and love-drunk "Lilac Wine" will stick with you as well. What could have been a long and fruitful art-rock career was cut short by the artist's untimely death by accidental drowning in 1997.
12) The Doors - The Doors
Energetic, loose and passionate. Morrison sells the whole package with his unhinged vocals, jumping off from a mostly restrained musical background ("Back Door Man" would more or less sound like piddling on the organ without his zeal).
13) Dying Star - Jason Upton
This is the only Christian album I've included on this list, as it's not usually specific worship albums that I love but rather the holy God they point me to. However, Upton's Dying Star has stayed with me for years because of its multi-track metanarrative spanning the journey of faith from disillusionment to calling to running to rest to glory.
14) Crash - Dave Matthews Band
I'm not the unabashed fan I once was, but DMB served as my introduction to secular music after being raised on a Christian-only diet for the first 21 years of my life. Crash is their best album--tight, energetic, bawdy and spiritual. My coming of age with music began with them, and my favorite genres can all be found in their mix-up of rock, blues, jazz, folk and world sounds.
15) Viva la Vida - Coldplay
A grand departure from the somewhat bland but highly listen-able ethereal soft rock of X&Y, VLV mixes metaphors and emotions, apparently saying something about God & politics but mostly ending up really fun. "Yes" has some of the dark longing of "I Want You" (Abbey Road) but is counterpointed by the sweet breeziness of "Strawberry Swing." The title track has energy and inventiveness, even if they might have cribbed a major riff from Joe Satriani.
Additionally, I just downloaded Cee-Lo's new album, The Ladykiller, and it's fantastic.