I know there are more pressing things going on than Rolling Stone’s new edition of the 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time being released last week, while things are also on the verge of getting a whole lot spookier on this blog. Still, I feel compelled to share some thoughts on this new edition of the RS 500 list, since this new list is quite an overhaul of the original one that was published in 2003 (there was also a slight update to the list in 2012). I’m not sure that Rolling Stone necessarily needed to publish an updated version, since it’s already become apparent that contemporary tastes in “great albums” have changed considerably since the 2003 list came out, whether or not there was a list to confirm it. But I’m glad they did, as the new list both preserves what was good about the original 500 while also adding plenty more albums that feel much more applicable to today’s music landscape.
First off, I’ll just say that Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums was the closest thing I had to a sacred text as a teenager. That list came along at the perfect time in my life, when I was becoming more and more uninterested in what was going on in mainstream music at the dawn of the 21st century while also embracing music as something that I could dissect and obsess over on almost a scientific level. I’m not saying that Rolling Stone’s original list was perfect by any means, but it was a great roadmap. As someone who didn’t have a cooler older sibling to get me into “the good stuff”, it pointed the way towards the artists that were worth exploring if you wanted to be a serious music fan.
Obviously, there were some problems with the idea of a “serious music fan” at that time, which was typically thought to be a white male who probably looked something like myself. Additionally, perhaps because Rolling Stone was so intertwined with the 60s and 70s era of music, the list tended to lean a little boomer-centric. I was ok with this (and still kind of am) because I think that era was a pretty unprecedented time for popular music, and also one where the album really flourished as its own distinct art form. Still, there have been a lot of great albums to come out since then, and a lot of them haven’t been made by old white men.
Which isn’t to say that the original list didn’t have its share of recent hip-hop classics (like Nas’s Illmatic or both of Notorious B.I.G.’s albums) or then-modern rock classics (like The Strokes’ Is This It or The White Stripes’ Elephant). But because it was a big, broad list, it couldn’t help but skew a little bit towards a certain kind of music fan, which in turn influenced music fans like myself to gravitate towards certain kinds of great albums. However, I’ve learned to question these more traditional ideas of what makes a “great album”, and I’m glad Rolling Stone (and all of this list’s various contributors) have done the same. Again, it’s not a perfect list, but how could one so ambitious and all-encompassing ever be perfect?
With a list so massive, I’m not really sure where to start by getting into the specifics, but I think I’ll just note a few albums that I’m happy to see were added. Also, I don’t want to get into any albums that were left off, since we all know there are a lot of great albums out there worth listening to that can’t always be recognized for their greatness. If you want to gander at the full list (and have some time on your hands), you can start here.
Anyways, here are a few additions I was happy to see:
- Laura Nyro – Eli & The Thirteenth Confession – There are a lot of great singer-songwriters to come out of the late 60s, but Laura Nyro is easily one of the most underrated. I’ve spent a lot of the last few years with her first few records, so it’s nice to see that her most ambitious album is getting some love.
- Paul McCartney – RAM – This was an album Rolling Stone famously panned when it came out, so it’s nice to see this album’s greatness coming full circle. Not that Paul necessarily needed more love on this list, but this one seemed overdue.
- More (or any) women jazz musicians – These aren’t albums I’ve listened to, but I couldn’t help but notice that Billie Holiday, Alice Coltrane, and Nina Simone all make appearances on the list. The original RS list’s inclusion of just a few jazz artists in general always felt a little weird to me, so the fact that they’ve elaborated a bit on this genre was nice to see.
- Isaac Hayes – Hot-Buttered Soul – I don’t know how this album wasn’t on the original Rolling Stone list, not only because it’s from RS’s favorite era, but also because it’s great in a very ambitious way.
- Nilsson – Nilsson Schmilsson – Another great album from an over-represented era that somehow got passed by on the original list.
- Dixie Chicks – Fly – As I’ve written about before, the Dixie Chicks were much greater than most people assumed they were. It’s debatable if this is their best album, but it’s probably the most rock-solid in terms of honing the kind of pumped-up country hits they were known for.
- More (or any) Fiona Apple – I’ve made it no secret I’m a huge Fiona-head, so it’s nice to see three of her albums on this list when I’m pretty sure none were featured on the previous two versions of this list.
- Erykah Badu – Mama’s Gun & Baduizm – Another artist that could have been recognized by the time of the original list’s publication, but whose stature and influence has certainly risen since then. I actually haven’t heard Baduizm yet (despite hearing most of her other albums), so I’m looking forward to checking it out.
- Leonard Cohen – Songs of Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush – Hounds of Love – These are albums that I’m sure were revered by music fans in 2003, but weren’t yet hailed as classics. Listening to them now, it’s a little hard to wrap your mind around how this wasn’t always the case, but I suppose tastes change and it’s always hard to put your finger on why.
- Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of The City, Solange – A Seat At The Table, Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour – All of these albums (as well as Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel) showed up on my Best Albums of the 2010s list, so it’s a little reaffirming to see them here. Not that these are terribly obscure albums or anything.
Now here’s a few grievances I have with this list:
- John Mayer – Continuum – It’s pretty low on the list, but come on. I’m willing to reevaluate music from the past that I’d once dismissed, but John Mayer? Fuck that.
- I guess we still love Michael Jackson? – He’s been one of the harder artists to grapple with taking his personal life into account, mainly because his musical legacy has only become more pronounced since his death. Consequently, it seems that Bad, Off The Wall, and Thriller all moved up in their rankings on this list. Not sure how to feel about that.
- Whole lotta Drake – Speaking of creeps who are into minors… lot of Drake on this list. This is more just a beef I have with his music being boring, but people seem to think the former Degrassi star is important. That’s fine I guess, but I’m not that excited about it.
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik & Californication – I was perfectly fine with these albums being recognized as “great” when the original list came out. But that’s because I was 14. Of all the artists to not boot from the list, this one is a little mind-boggling. But sure, let’s continue to treat albums as stupidly-named as these ones as classics.
- Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP & The Slim Shady LP – It’s good to see more hip-hop on this list, but I don’t know that these Eminem albums needed to be preserved from the old list. He’s an artist that I don’t hate, but feel like has very little relevance anymore. Though I guess if you need to represent one of the many artists (of questionable quality) that embodied turn-of-the-century white male angst, he’d be the one.
- The Eagles are still hanging around – Perhaps as a ploy to not burn all of their boomer cred, Rolling Stone has kept two Eagles albums on this new list. Maybe you can make a case for this band’s presence on the list just due to the fact that they were (and still are?) very popular. At least Hotel California was bumped out of the Top 100.
While reading this list, I couldn’t help but notice there were a number of artists whose representation seemed to solidify their already well-established musical legacy, which wasn’t necessarily there on the original list. Here’s a few artists that ended up having 3 or more albums on the list that stood out to me.
- D’Angelo – If the release of 2013’s Black Messiah hadn’t already made it apparent, D’Angelo has certainly earned the “reclusive genius” label. With the addition of Black Messiah and Brown Sugar to the list (as well as Voodoo shooting into the top 50) that label seems here to stay.
- Janet Jackson – I believe Rhythm Nation and The Velvet Rope were on the original RS 500 list, but the addition of her break-out album Control is another welcome addition. I’ve become a pretty big Janet Jackson fan, so it’s nice to see it pointed out that she has just as many classic albums as her more famous brother.
- Prince – There were already a bunch of Prince albums on the original list, but it looks like basically all of them have jumped up on this new edition. I don’t have a problem with this, as Prince is the greatest and I think his death a few years ago has only made it more obvious what a gigantic talent we lost.
- Wu-Tang Clan – I can’t really speak to the deservedness of the Wu-Tang Clan popping up all over this list, since I’ve really only heard Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), which makes another appearance on this list. But since Raekwon, GZA, and Ghostface Killah all make individual appearances on the list, their influence on hip-hop seems hard to deny.
- Joni Mitchell – On the original list, she was the woman with the highest-ranked album, and that continues to be true as Blue shoots up to #3. A pair of her later, jazzier albums are also added to this new edition with Hejira and The Hissing of Summer Lawns. This is totally deserved, since the more I dig into Joni’s 60s and 70s work it becomes apparent she was one of the great songwriters of her generation. Honestly, I could’ve used another album or two of hers (Clouds, For The Roses), but as I said, I’m not here to judge what should’ve been on the list.
- Kanye West – There were already a handful of Kanye albums added to the 2012 version of the list, and here there are even more. This isn’t really surprising, since Kanye’s musical legacy was already pretty firmly in place before he started routinely having public meltdowns. I guess I’m just so exhausted by Kanye at this point that praising his music feels like a waste of time. Maybe when the next version of this list comes out I’ll feel like enjoying his albums again.
- Kendrick Lamar – The fact that Kendrick Lamar’s first album was released in 2012 and he’s already produced 3 albums on this list is pretty impressive. Considering we’ve spent the last decade talking about whether Kendrick is great, really great, or the greatest seems to indicate that it’s probably not worth quibbling over whether these albums are a little too new to be included.
- Beyoncé – She’s a popular singer you may have heard of. I like some of her songs but don’t have particularly strong feelings about her.
Obviously, the fact that these are the artists that stand out as being prominent on the new RS 500 list shows that diversity was the aim of this new list, and I think it’s all the better for it. However, in the process the likes of The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan see their greatness being softened just a little bit. That said, they still have a shitload of albums on this list (just not ranked quite as high generally), so I don’t think anyone’s going to be forgetting about these dudes any time soon.
Lastly, let’s take a look at the Top Ten, since we of course love Top Ten lists here at Mildly Pleased:
10. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) – I was just listening to this album a few weeks ago, since it had been a while and it didn’t seem like an album I’d spent enough time with. After revisiting it, it was apparent that Miseducation was even better than I’d remembered. It’s maybe an odd choice for the lone hip-hop album in the top ten (since it’s just as much an R&B album), but maybe that’s why it’s been so influential. It mixes in so many different sounds while sounding fresh and timeless at the same time, while its status has greatly benefitted from the fact that Hill has still yet to put out a follow-up.
9. Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks (1975) – I don’t have any problem with this now being framed as the best Dylan record. In fact, it makes a lot of sense. As much as I love the wild blues-rock of his mid-60s albums, I’m not sure that they completely represent what Dylan does best. On Blood On The Tracks, we get a quieter, more introspective Dylan, and one that can craft a story-song like no other.
8. Prince & The Revolution – Purple Rain (1984) – There was a part of me that thought Purple Rain might be #1 on this new list, just because Prince’s legend has grown so much in the hearts of music lovers since his death. Also, it’s just a fantastic album that sees Prince at his most transcendent.
7. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (1977) – Speaking of artists whose legend has grown considerably in the last few years, Fleetwood Mac has somehow not gotten burned by being the epitome of boomer excess. It’s probably just because they write great songs and Rumours is certainly the height of their cohesiveness as a songwriting unit, despite it being the height of their disfunction as human beings. It would’ve been nice to have seen other Fleetwood Mac albums like Tusk or Tango In The Night added to the overall list, but I suppose there’s nothing wrong with giving more love to Rumours.
6. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991) – Not surprising to see that this album was pushed even farther up on the list, considering at this point Nirvana feels like the closest thing to The Beatles that we’ve experienced in the past few decades. I am a rock and roll fan from the Pacific Northwest, so I will recuse myself from commenting on this album’s greatness.
5. The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969) – It’s a little odd to me that this is the highest ranked Beatle album on the list, but I think you could randomly pull Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, The White Album, or Abbey Road out of a hat to decide the “greatest Beatles album” and you’d probably be fine. All of The Beatles’ albums from their late mid-to-late-60s golden run are great in their own ways, so maybe it makes sense to rank the culmination of this unprecedented run in pop music as their peak.
4. Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key of Life (1976) – I was once asked in a high school music class to name my 5 desert island albums and this was one of them, so I have a hard time complaining about it cracking the top five. Granted, I may have more been choosing it because of its generous length, but I think the consistency in this soulful epic is where its greatness lies.
3. Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971) – As I already mentioned, Joni rules, so I have no problem with this. Like so many hippy moms, I’ve put on this album hundreds of times as a respite from the world and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
2. The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966) – I haven’t run the numbers, but this might be the only album from the original RS 500 list that has stayed in the same position. This isn’t super surprising, considering Pet Sounds has very quietly continued to be one of the most beloved albums of all time. I put it on the other night, and it still sounds great. It just has great song after great song, while featuring some of the most intricate and unusual production that’s ever been pulled off on a pop record.
1. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971) – This is perhaps the most interesting choice of all the rankings in the top ten. Not because there’s anything objectionable about it being at the number 1 spot, but more because its position feels like such a product of the times we’re living in. Obviously, more socially conscious, empathetic, political music feels vital right now, so picking an album that kind of started the trend feels like a no brainer. To be fair, a lot of Curtis Mayfield’s solo music and his work with The Impressions laid the groundwork for Marvin Gaye’s foray into “message music”. But none of those records are quite as mesmerizing as this one.
I always thought Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band felt like a bit of an odd choice (and maybe a cop-out) on the previous iterations of the RS 500 list. Mainly because it wasn’t necessarily the best Beatle album song-for-song, though it had a vibe like no other. I would say What’s Going On is the same way, since the looser, more meditative songs aren’t going to be that impressive if you listen to them on their own. But taken as whole, the album feels like a kind of prayer for the future of a war-laden, divided America. Fortunately, the album is lyrically broad enough and musically adventurous enough that the trouble Marvin Gaye was feeling in 1971 still resonates today and most likely will into the future.