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The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

The classics are still the classics, but the canon keeps getting bigger and better

Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time was originally published in 2003, with a slight update in 2012. Over the years, it’s been the most widely read  — and argued over — feature in the history of the magazine (last year, the RS 500 got over 63 million views on the site). But no list is definitive — tastes change, new genres emerge, the history of music keeps being rewritten. So we decided to remake our greatest albums list from scratch. To do so, we received and tabulated Top 50 Albums lists from more than 300 artists, producers, critics, and music-industry figures (from radio programmers to label heads, like Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman). The electorate includes Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Billie Eilish; rising artists like H.E.R., Tierra Whack, and Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail; as well as veteran musicians, such as Adam Clayton and the Edge of U2, Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan, Gene Simmons, and Stevie Nicks.

How We Made the List and Who Voted

When we first did the RS 500 in 2003, people were talking about the “death of the album.” The album —and especially the album release — is more relevant than ever. (As in 2003, we allowed votes for compilations and greatest-hits albums, mainly because a well-made compilation can be just as coherent and significant as an LP, because compilations helped shaped music history, and because many hugely important artists recorded their best work before the album had arrived as a prominent format.)

Of course, it could still be argued that embarking on a project like this is increasingly difficult in an era of streaming and fragmented taste. But that was part of what made rebooting the RS 500 fascinating and fun; 86 of the albums on the list are from this century, and 154 are new additions that weren’t on the 2003 or 2012 versions. The classics are still the classics, but the canon keeps getting bigger and better.

Written By

Jonathan Bernstein, Pat Blashill, Jon Blistein, Nathan Brackett, David Browne, Anthony DeCurtis, Matt Diehl, Jon Dolan, Chuck Eddy, Ben Edmonds, Gavin Edwards, Jenny Eliscu, Brenna Ehrlrich, Suzy Exposito, David Fricke, Elisa Gardner, Holly George-Warren, Andy Greene, Kory Grow, Will Hermes, Brian Hiatt, Christian Hoard, Charles Holmes, Mark Kemp, Greg Kot, Elias Leight, Joe Levy, Angie Martoccio, David McGee, Chris Molanphy, Tom Moon, Jason Newman, Rob O’Connor, Park Puterbaugh, Jody Rosen, Austin Scaggs, Karen Schoemer, Bud Scoppa, Claire Shaffer, Rob Sheffield, Hank Shteamer, Brittany Spanos, Rob Tannenbaum, David Thigpen, Simon Vozick-Levinson, Barry Walters, Jonah Weiner

From Rolling Stone US


Aaliyah, ‘One in a Million’

Aaliyah’s second album was her first with producer Timbaland, and until the singer’s tragic death in 2001, the pair reshaped the landscape of R&B. Aaliyah seems to be sparring with Timbaland’s hide-and-seek drum tracks, ducking and weaving — and, somehow, singing beautifully — as high-hats and shakers zip past her ears. As futuristic as this album sounds, even today, Aaliyah also benefited from her close study of the classics: Her version of the Isley Brothers’ “Choosey Lover” rises to the level of the original.


PJ Harvey, ‘Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea’

Polly Jean Harvey happy? Album number five found her in New York and in love, crowing “I’m immortal/When I’m with you” in the surging opener, “Big Exit.” Harvey had spent four records howling her sexual obsessions and romantic disappointments over stark postmodern blues. Her guitar attack was still forceful, but softened around the edges by marimba, piano, organ, and guest vocalist Thom Yorke, especially on the garage-y “Good Fortune” and the yearning “A Place Called Home” — mash notes to lovers in the big city.


Solange, ‘A Seat at the Table’

Solange came into her own on A Seat at the Table, with songs she wrote mostly in the Louisiana town where her family had its roots. She includes spoken-word interludes from her parents as well as narrator Master P — as she said, “The album feels very, very Southern in my storytelling.” “Cranes in the Sky” is a soulful lament, anchored in Raphael Saadiq’s bass groove, while protests like “Don’t Touch My Hair” are about African American identity politics. “The hair journey of a black woman is so specific,” she explained.


Neil Young, ‘On the Beach’

Reeling from the losses that sparked Tonight’s the Night the previous year, Neil Young shelved that album for a while and made this one instead: a wild fireball of anger (“Revolution Blues”), nihilism (“For the Turnstiles”), and tentative optimism (“Walk On”). The album peaks on Side Two, a stoned symphony of grieving whose three songs (“On the Beach,” “Motion Pictures,” “Ambulance Blues”) are among the most emotionally real in Young’s catalog.


Wire, ‘Pink Flag’

This first-generation U.K. punk band made sparse tunes that erupted in combustible snippets on its 21-track debut album. America never got it, but Pink Flag — as revolutionary discs tend to do — influenced some important bands, including Sonic Youth and the Minutemen. It also might be one of the most-covered punk LPs ever: Minor Threat did “12XU,” R.E.M. did “Strange,” the New Bomb Turks did “Mr. Suit,” Spoon did “Lowdown,” the Lemonheads did “Fragile,” and on and on.


Joy Divison, ‘Closer’

One of the most depressing albums ever made, with droning guitars and synthesizers, chilly bass lines, stentorian vocals, and drums that sound as if they’re steadily beating out the rhythm of doom. And that’s not even considering the lyrics, which are about singer Ian Curtis’ failing marriage and how he suffered from epilepsy. (Curtis hanged himself on May 18th, 1980, at the age of 23 — the rest of the band regrouped as New Order.) On Closer, Joy Division fully earned their reputation as England’s most harrowing punk band.


Brian Eno, ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’

The former Roxy Music keyboardist’s first solo album pioneered a new kind of glammy art rock: jagged, free-form, and dreamy, sounding like nothing else in rock at the time. “Baby’s on Fire” and “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” are vicious rockers with detached vocals, and Robert Fripp’s warped guitars swarm and stutter, while “On Some Faraway Beach” and the title track are glistening slo-mo-drone pastorales. “I called it ‘warm jet guitar’ because it sounded like a tuned jet,” Eno said later.


Sam Cooke, ‘Portrait of a Legend’

“Sam Cooke was the best singer who ever lived, no contest,” asserted Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler. Cooke was a gospel star who crossed over to rock & roll, helping to invent the music that would become known as soul. This collection spans his whole career, from his early work with gospel kings the Soul Stirrers to the civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which became a posthumous hit after Cooke was shot to death at an L.A. motel in 1964.


Al Green, ‘I’m Still in Love With You’

Al Green made one classic after another in the early Seventies — the Memphis soul master turned each LP into an all-out passion play, capturing the highs and lows of romance. After his smash Let’s Stay Together, I’m Still in Love With You was his second great album of 1972. It’s an even more sensual experience, with the sweat-dripping acoustic groove of “Simply Beautiful” and the vulnerable confessions of “Look What You Done for Me.” “We used chords that people never used before,” producer Willie Mitchell said. “Al Green always wanted to advance.”


Kiss, ‘Alive!’

“We wanted to put out a souvenir, almost like when you go to the circus,” said Kiss lead singer Paul Stanley. This double live album, recorded largely in Detroit (with some bonus material from Iowa, New Jersey, and Ohio, plus a whole bunch of studio overdubs), was the breakthrough record for Kiss, with exuberant versions of “Strutter” and “Rock & Roll All Nite,” and a classic litany of alcohol choices in the intro to “Cold Gin.”


Bill Withers, ‘Just As I Am’

On the cover, Bill Withers totes a lunch pail, highlighting the down-to-earth everyman vibe of the folk-soul music of his debut album (that’s Withers himself tapping on a box to keep the beat in “Grandma’s Hands”). As he said at the time, “I’m sick and tired of somebody saying ‘I love you’ with both arms up in the air like that.” Instead, Withers strummed his acoustic guitar and spun tales about absent fathers, his West Virginia grandmother, and life in Harlem.


ABBA, ‘The Definitive Collection’

These Swedish pop stars became the world’s biggest group in the 1970s, with a streak of Nordic despair under the sparkly melodies. Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad were the bewitching frontwomen in the sequined pantsuits; their husbands, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, wrote global hits like the joyful “Dancing Queen,” the double-divorce drama “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and the haunting farewell “Thank You for the Music.”


Neil Young, ‘Tonight’s the Night’

Neil Young made this album as a tribute to two friends who died from drugs, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Young sounds like he’s on the edge of a breakdown in the mournful ballads “Tired Eyes” and “Speakin’ Out,” recorded (mostly in one tequila-heavy night) with a loose, heavily emotional sound — “a drunken Irish wake” in the words of Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot. Quintessentially Young, it was recorded just a year after his soft-rock hit Harvest. “Everybody was hoping I’d turn into John Denver,” Young said. “That didn’t happen.”


New York Dolls, ‘New York Dolls’

“Do you think that you could make it with Frankenstein?” they asked, not kidding. Glammed-out punkers the New York Dolls snatched riffs from Chuck Berry and Fats Domino and fattened them with loads of attitude and reverb. Produced by Todd Rundgren, songs like “Personality Crisis” and “Bad Girl” drip with sleaze and style. “What the Dolls did to be influential on punk was show that anybody could do it,” singer David Johansen said. Indeed, its hard to imagine the Ramones or the Replacements or a thousand other trash-junky bands without them.