Saxophone Colossus (1956)
From 1951 until his 1959 "sabbatical," Sonny's music had a masculine force and emotional versatility that has rarely been matched. If you had to pick one of Sonny's best 1950s recordings, it might as well be this – with its iconic cover art, titanic blowing, and tunes including "St. Thomas," "Strode Road," and "Blue 7."
Bags' Groove (1957)
Few players ever made a better sideman than Sonny, and he did a lot of his best work during the 1950s with people like Monk, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, and Miles Davis. This Davis disc happens to be one of Rollins' finest, most notably for Rollins compositions like "Doxy," "Oleo," and "Airegin," all of which went on to become classics.
The Bridge (1962)
Largely unappreciated when it was released, The Bridge is now considered one of Rollins' signal achievements.
His playing on "God Bless the Child" moves the famous tune into another realm. This album and the rest of his 1960s RCA work can also be found on the sprawling, superb Complete RCA Victor Recordings.
If you want to hear the full-throated pop side of Sonny's playing, this is the place to start: The soundtrack to the Michael Caine movie is generous, humorous, and totally entertaining. The hip nursery rhyme refrain of "Alfie's Theme" is a joy, and the orchestrations by Oliver Nelson take this recording way beyond most soundtrack work.
Silver City (1996)
Rollins' 25 years on Milestone Records tended to be spotty, so cut the guesswork and just pick up this overview, which has songs from 13 of his Milestone albums and is spectacular start to finish. "Someone to Watch Over Me" is a real tearjerker, and the live version of "Autumn Nocturne" sends you, as they say, through the roof like 151 proof.
Road Shows (2008-2011)
This collection of Sonny's recent live shows (two volumes, with a third on the way) proves that the man is still out there, reaching toward nirvana. Check out "They Say It's Wonderful" on Road Shows Vol. 2. He comes out like a fighter, showing you from the get-go that there's plenty in the tank. At 80, Sonny is swinging, capable of the sublime at any given time.