By EW Staff
Updated May 03, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

You know the sensation. You’re at a party when someone slips an old CD into the stereo — Rumours or Purple Rain or Saturday Night Fever. Suddenly, everyone shimmies. Everyone shouts the lyrics. Everyone feels the same goofy rush of recognition — a rush that crosses all boundaries of race, class, and gender. Here, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY pays tribute to those records by talking with many of the superstars who made them — artists like Whitney Houston, Don Henley, Slash, Jon Bon Jovi, Lindsey Buckingham, Quincy Jones, the Bee Gees, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin. No, these are not necessarily the 25 best albums in rock & roll — M.C. Hammer makes the cut, the Beatles don’t — but they are the biggest. And by that measure, they’re as much a part of the collective American consciousness as gas lines, Forrest Gump, and the Whopper. Thanks to pop craftsmanship and sheer commercial muscle, these are the albums that worked their way into our heads…

1 Thriller
Michael Jackson

Like Woodstock, Beatlemania, and the birth of rock & roll itself, the creation of the most popular album in history took place amid fits of genius, spasms of second guesses, and bursts of tears. Its first single, ”The Girl Is Mine,” came out before the rest of Thriller was even finished — and producer Quincy Jones wondered whether Michael Jackson’s moon-walking masterpiece had gotten off on the wrong foot. ”If we didn’t put the song out first, we might never have put it out at all,” Jones laughs now. ”If you’re singing ‘The doggone girl is mine,’ you’re really living dangerously.” (Within days of Thriller‘s eventual release, that doggone duet with Paul McCartney climbed to No. 2, and the hype machine ground into full gear.)

Playing it safe, it seems, was never an option. Just before the Thriller sessions started, Jones and Jackson agreed to slap together a storybook album for the biggest movie of all time — E.T. That left them a mere two and a half months to complete Thriller in time for Christmas. Four weeks into the project, with ”no time to analyze or paralyze,” Jones decided to chuck four songs — and to replace them with what most people now consider indispensable tracks: ”The Lady in My Life,” ”PYT (Pretty Young Thing),” ”Human Nature,” and ”Beat It.” Later, while listening to what was supposed to be the final version of the album, Jackson was so disappointed that he started to cry. ”The record company guys were there with their champagne,” Jones recalls. ”But when they said, ‘This is it,’ we had to say, ‘No, this is not it.”’

After a major reworking, Thriller, true to the B-movie excess of its title track, became a hydra-headed monster, devouring MTV, begetting seven top 10 singles, and, at one point, luring one million buyers a week. But, like all consuming monsters, it eventually turned on its creator, and its otherworldly success has haunted Jackson ever since. No matter. In the video to ”Billie Jean,” the sidewalk will always light up when touched by his magic shoes.