Rolling Stone is the only major music publication that has made a substantial greatest albums list. The first version was in 2003, and it was slightly updated in 2012. On Tuesday, they completely redid the list, and it felt pertinent to go through the entire list and see how successful it ended up being. I’ll go through the list 50 albums at a time and offer insights on each album they chose. This will be done through a re-ranking of the 50 albums from worst to best to make it clear what albums belong and which don’t.
For the first 50 albums, there honestly weren’t that many surprises — especially if you have noticed Rolling Stone‘s shift away from being a Rockist safe haven in the last five years or so. Their end-of-year lists have been better in recent years as they have been more accepting of newer acts and have strove for a better diversity (both in nationality and genre) in their picks. In that process, they have become a bit more predictable and more in line with most other publications in terms of music taste. What this all means is that the new list might actually be a good measure of where the standard music taste among music critics stands today.
Now when I say that I wasn’t often surprised, it doesn’t mean my eyes didn’t roll in the back of my head at some picks. 500 albums over a 55+ year period with the long-form being the most important measure of an artist’s legacy is truly not that much space. That is less than 10 albums per year and before you factor in how many albums from 1968-1977 deserve to get in. Every merely-decent album included means a classic has been left off, and it starts immediately at 500 — every album included should be an undeniable classic. So far, unfortunately, most aren’t. Let’s rank them.
50-46: Greatest Hits Compilations:
- Al Green – Greatest Hits
- Diana Ross and the Supremes – Anthology
- King Sunny Ade – The Best of the Classic Years
- Muddy Waters – The Anthology
- Phil Spector and Various Artists – Back to Mono (1958-1969)
Never been a fan of including greatest hits compilations because it’s not a true display of artistry. Albums best reflect an artist’s current aesthetic and headspace; there’s a creative intention behind the track order and a true connective tissue that has inspired this work. If the songs were never envisioned to be side-by-side, then it affects the entire listen; I personally can’t listen to a greatest hits collection without being distracted by how they were made in completely different settings with different artistic motives. Also for The Supremes, King Sunny Ade, and Al Green, I find it insulting to include compilations as if they all didn’t release classic albums worthy of inclusion (I assume Al Green will have at least 1 actual album on the list). Various artist compilations that represent a subgenre or a scene’s sound should be represented however, as we’ll see later on.
45. Harry Styles – Fine Line (2019) — Okay, this one surprised me. The album isn’t even 10 months old, but that isn’t the main reason it shouldn’t be included. It’s a shoulder-shrug type of album: the sound is polished with that easy-going soft rock sound that everyone enjoys in some form or another. Styles isn’t a great singer though — better eye candy than ear candy which explains much of his popularity.
44. Lady Gaga – Born This Way (2011) — Lady Gaga musical output is a mixed bag, and that was never more present than on this attempt at a weird pop magnum opus. It’s just all over the place without much truly great music. If Lady Gaga has to be included, why not The Fame Monster with all her best work?
43. Manu Chao – Clandestino (1998) — Chao’s version of Latin alternative rock has never really excited me; whenever it plays, it stays firmly in the background.
42. Sheryl Crow – Sheryl Crow (1996) — Crow has never received much critical love, which makes this pick a bit surprising. Everyone of a certain age knows her though and can hum along with a few of her songs. Her country rock is still nowhere exciting enough to be on a list like this.
41. Boyz II Men – II (1994) — Boyz II Men were a big deal in the ’90s, but there’s a good reason pop music practically shifted as far away as possible from the sound of this album in the 21st century. “I’ll Make Love to You” is still fun to belt out though.
40. Selena – Amor Prohibido (1994) — Selena’s loss is still tragic, and it’s important to recognize what kind of presence in the growing world of diverse pop music she would have today. Much of the production of Amor Prohibido sounds too much like the standard ’90s Tejano sound of the time.
39. Jason Isbell – Southeastern (2013) — Starting with Southeastern, Isbell has been a critical darling with sites like Rolling Stone, so this inclusion is to be expected. Isbell’s alternative country is decent and a fresh respite from the genre’s conservative tendencies. I have a problem seeing how it stands out at all from the great wealth of alt-country acts.
38. Bonnie Raitt – Nick of Time (1989) — I will admit that I’m particular harsh against any blues rock act from the ’80s on, but I think it’s justified when some of the songwriting on albums like Nick of Time is this stale and formulaic.
37. Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974) — Richard Thompson’s Fairport Convention puts me to sleep, and his work with his wife doesn’t fare much better. Their folksy singing style and plodding acoustic arrangements creates an overall dour atmosphere that I find little joy in.
36. Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon: The End of Day (2009) — Kid Cudi has grown on me, and everything good about him strictly comes from his debut. His praise should be relegated to a few tracks and some aesthetic influence on his peers rather than including this entire album above who knows how many classics.
35. Shakira – ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? (1998) — With a Super Bowl halftime show appearance and more artists of today citing her influence, Shakira is experiencing a critical resurgence. It’s deserved though none of her albums reach “classic” status. I would like to see her work pop up in more ’90s and genre-specific lists.
34. Rufus and Chaka Khan – Ask Rufus (1977) — The collaboration of these two acts yielded a lot of great work, but it was spread out across over a half-decade. It’s hard to point to any album and say it deserves inclusion, though this is their most popular work. This is a singles act getting a little too much love.
33. Daddy Yankee – Barrio Fino (2004) — Daddy Yankee brought Reggaeton to the states with singles like “Gasolina” off this album. It’s an essential release for this genre, and the go-to for maybe the most vital artist out of Puerto Rico. The album could use some editing and a less repetitive sound though.
32. Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow (1967) — Back in 2012, this album was top 150 for Rolling Stone, so you can see how far Jefferson Airplane have fallen out of favor. No matter what the album represents or has been touted as in the past, the production and vocals sound stuffy to younger audiences.
31. John Mayer – Continuum (2006) — Minus a few songs (particularly the tacky “Waiting on the World to Change”), Continuum has a good argument for inclusion. Much of Mayer’s signature soft rock coolness comes from this album, and it should definitely receive more critical attention. I’d stop well short of including it in this list, but maybe it’s a step in the right direction?
30. Maxwell – BLACKsummers’night (2009) — Up there with Harry Styles, this was the biggest surprise. With Maxwell, I thought maybe Urban Hang Suite stands out a little more. Despite that, this is a good album that has flown under the radar for over a decade. I don’t think I would be able to find a space in the top 500 for Maxwell, so it’s still a bit odd to see this here.
29. Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings (2016) — Miranda Lambert has benefited from music critics taking mainstream country a little more seriously, and The Weight of These Wings — with 24 tracks — is her definitive release. This pick all depends on how essential 2010s country music is to you, and I fall on the more cynical side with this era for the genre.
28. The Flying Burrito Brothers – The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969) — Due to Gram Parsons, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is The Byrds’ best album, though it’s more by default if you don’t love the band’s folk rock hybrid sound leading up to it. Parsons’ work in The Flying Burrito Brothers has never screamed “classic” to me; the country rock sound here doesn’t sound as influential or groundbreaking as the album’s legacy suggests.
27. Juvenile – 400 Degreez (1998) — Juvenile put Cash Money Records on the map with a new electrifying brand of southern hip-hop. 400 Degreez is the still the best-selling album for the label. This is an album I enjoy very much in spurts, but across a whole listen, Juvenile’s rapping style and the production can be too one-note.
26. Linda Ronstadt – Heart Like a Wheel (1974) — Ronstadt has a beautiful voice, which makes many of these covers her own. The song choices span multiple eras and genres, but Ronstadt reigns it all in for a cohesive album. It ends up being a bit too safe for me to ever rank it in the top 500, but it is a great listen.
25. The Kinks – Something Else by the Kinks (1968) — Most people love a few songs from the Kinks, but many of their non-single tracks are completely unknown. With Something Else, there are a lot of solid, short rock tracks and then boom — “Waterloo Sunset.” The gap between the all-time greatness of that track and everything else is a bit too jarring.
24. Sparks – Kimono My House (1974) — It’s justified that Sparks are on a lower rung of glam rock greatness than the major artists of the ’70s. This is the only great album they made and features their signature track — “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us.” It’s steadily great, but top 500 is a major stretch.
23. The Rolling Stones – Some Girls (1978) — The last Rolling Stones’ classic with two of their best songs — “Miss You” & “Beast of Burden” — makes sense for inclusion. Too much of this album is inessential though, and because The Rolling Stones already have four albums that should indisputably rank high on this list, I would look elsewhere to round out the top 500.
22. The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys Today! (1965) — With it comes to Beach Boys albums, there’s Pet Sounds and then everything else; the gap in quality is too glaring to not always take into account. Every album before Pet Sounds carries a bit too much early-era corniness to take 100% seriously as a top 500 album all time, but The Beach Boys Today! probably comes closest.
21. Various Artists – The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (1985) — Starting here, each album from here on out is a pretty good pick and something I would strongly consider for the list. That makes 21/50 so far, which isn’t great but that number should steadily improve (fingers crossed). This is the sort of compilation I am in favor of including because it’s music that didn’t exist in a prior platform. It’s making an argument for the undiscovered pleasures of South African music, and it unquestionably succeeded.
20. Laura Nyro – Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) — Laura Nyro’s first two albums display a singer-songwriter that is 100% comfortable bending the molds to accustom her creativity. The amount of ’70s artists that cite her work as influences makes it clear she was ahead of her time. This album and New York Tendaberry are both worthy of inclusion.
19. The Isley Brothers – 3+3 (1973) — The Isley Brothers released a ton of great music, and one of those ’70s albums deserves a spot. 3+3 works as it kicked off a five-album run of classic funk that stands the test of time.
18. Roberta Flack – First Take (1969) — Roberta Flack didn’t need a second take considering how great this album is and that this was her only album that went to #1. I would need another listen to see if I would go with Killing Me Softly or this one, but Flack should certainly be on the list.
17. Howlin’ Wolf – Moanin’ in the Moonlight (1959) — This is another compilation that felt worthy of inclusion because it acts as a definitive collection of singles in a time before making albums was what you had to do. This and the next compilation — Howlin’ Wolf in 1962 — both work to best represent Wolf’s classic blues.
16. Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (1978) — This album has one of the best behind-the-scenes stories, which just adds upon the legacy of the great music within. Everything Gaye touched in the ’70s turned to gold, and this double album capped it all off.
15. Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley (1958) — Rolling Stone listed the package of Bo Diddley’s first two albums for this spot, but I’m just going to go ahead and reject that silly loophole and just have his first album included. It’s great enough to stand on its own as a early rock classic.
14. Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine (1989) — This is Trent Reznor’s best work, though I expect The Downward Spiral to make an appearance later. It’s as straightforward and digestible as he would ever be, which with his naturally-off kilter sound, serves him well.
13. The Stooges – The Stooges (1969) — I’m a little more down on this album than the average music critic, but considering it barely made the top 500, maybe that’s not the case? The 10-minute third track has always dragged the album down for me, but outside of that, this album is an obvious inclusion and probably should be higher.
12. Lorde – Melodrama (2017) — I was very interested how the 2010s would be incorporated in the new list, and it’s so far a mixed bag. They’ve included six albums from the newly-finished decade, and four of them should not have. Melodrama and the one I have next were among the best of the decade and should be higher.
11. SZA – Ctrl (2017) — This one is pretty much even with Melodrama in my head, so it’s interesting they ended up so close to each other. They’re probably the two best albums of 2017 and already classics without much debate.
10. Sinéad O’Connor – I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990) — This was the first ’90s album on the list that also appeared in their 2012 list. It’s nice to see that O’Connor has not lost any of her legendary status in the years since her fall from the public eye.
9. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde (1992) — I’m always going to be a little surprised at Rolling Stone’s inclusion of a rap album that wasn’t a big commercial success, but hey, maybe this is a new era. This album’s too great to not include, and one of the best alt-hip-hop releases ever.
8. Big Star – #1 Record (1972) — I’m interested to see if any other Big Star albums end up on this list. On the 2012 list, all three ended up in the 401-450 range. Considering the most well-known of the three ends up this low, I would say probably not. That would be a real shame.
7. Black Flag – Damaged (1981) — I’m still trying to figure out the trends in this new list, and with The Stooges’ debut and Black Flag barely making it, garage punk rock doesn’t seem to be faring well. This one should be top 200.
6. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004) — This is the album that ended up #500, and as you can see, it’s better than just about every album that has followed on the list. Arcade Fire has fallen off a cliff when it comes to critical attention in recent years, but Funeral barely making the list is blasphemy. This is still a top 25 album from the 2000s.
5. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) — This is the best Bon Iver album — undoubtedly his best collection of songs. Flawless is a good word to throw around with this album. It’s crazy to be this low — will be interesting if Bon Iver’s self-titled makes it (I’d guess no).
4. The Ronettes – Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica (1964) — This album is quite possibly the greatest display of early-’60s pop, so it barely making the list is criminal. Overall, it looks like the ’60s is underrepresented in this voting. We’ll see how that affects the list.
3. Suicide – Suicide (1977) — Suicide had a sound all their own — the synthesizers, the cheap drum machines, Vega’s vocals, etc. It’s all best represented on their debut — one of the best from 1977 (an epochal year in music). Appearing in the 490s is a slap in the face to this band’s legacy.
2. Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996) — This might be the greatest chamber pop album of all time — ten perfect songs that are all near the top of B&S’s extensive discography. This is potentially a top-100 worthy album.
1. CAN – Ege Bamyasi (1972) — It’s taken until the third iteration of this list over 17 years to get 1 CAN album on this list. It only happens to be one of the best non-jazz drum albums ever. This is an avant-funk masterpiece featuring CAN’s best song (“Vitamin C”). For a band that needs four albums on this list, CAN continues to be undervalued by Rolling Stone.