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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


Aretha Franklin, ‘Lady Soul’

Aretha Franklin’s third Atlantic album in less than two years is another classic, with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Ain’t No Way,” and a slinky version of the Rascals’ “Groovin’.” It was a year of triumph and turbulence for Franklin: Although she made the cover of Time, the magazine reported details of her rocky marriage to Ted White, then her manager. But Franklin channeled that frenzy into performances of funky pride and magisterial hurt. Among the best: the grand-prayer treatment of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and her explosive anguish on the hit “Chain of Fools.”


Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’

In 2003, Kanye West was a Chicago kid who’d produced some hot beats for Jay-Z, wore pastel polo shirts with the collars popped, and wanted to be on the mic, not behind it. Record labels were skeptical, but West got over on wit and determination; he wrote and sang the hit “Through the Wire” while his jaw was wired shut after being in a car accident, and followed it with more dynamic tracks, including “Slow Jamz,” about the seductive power of soul music, and the gospel riot “Jesus Walks.” West loved Jesus and strip clubs, made arrogant claims about his talent, and then professed his insecurity — which made his music all the richer.


My Bloody Valentine, ‘Loveless’

This vague, shimmering, gorgeous album reportedly cost as much as $500,000 to make and nearly bankrupted the band’s U.K. label. It was worth it. Forget the lyrics, which are buried in the mix and incomprehensible, and focus on Kevin Shields’ and Bilinda Butcher’s guitars, which build entire noise symphonies out of tremolo effects and pitch bending. Highlights like “Only Shallow” and “I Only Said” use sampling technology to build a distorted, shifting sound that is wholly original and ecstatically beautiful. It’s like being serenaded by ghosts. Generations of shoegaze bands were born in its shadow.


Neil Young, ‘Harvest’

Harvest yielded Neil Young’s only Number One hit, “Heart of Gold,” and helped set the stage for the Seventies soft-rock explosion — both James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt sing on the album. Along with Young, they were in Nashville to appear on Johnny Cash’s variety show the week that Harvest was cut with an odd group of accomplished session musicians that included bassist Tim Drummond, who had played with James Brown. The sound was Americana — steel guitar, slide guitar, banjo — stripped down and rebuilt with every jagged edge exposed. The standout tracks include “Old Man” and “The Needle and the Damage Done.”


Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Exodus’

As the title suggests, this album wasn’t recorded in Jamaica; after Bob Marley took a bullet in a 1976 assassination attempt, he relocated the Wailers to London. But tracks such as “Jamming” are still suffused with the deep essence of reggae and life at home. “Three Little Birds,” for example, had been written on the back step of Marley’s home in Kingston, where he would sit and smoke herb. Each time Marley rolled a spliff, he would discard the seeds — and the birds of the song’s title would pick them up. “The music have a purpose,” Marley said, and his spiritual intent was never clearer than on the anthem “One Love,” with its message of redemption and revolution.


N.W.A, ‘Straight Outta Compton’

N.W.A’s debut brought West Coast gangsta rap to Middle America and changed hip-hop forever. It was the launching pad for the careers of Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre. “Back then we was calling it ‘reality rap,’” Ice Cube told Rolling Stone years later. “‘Gangsta rap’ is the name that the media coined.” Ice Cube’s rage and Dr. Dre’s police-siren street beats combined for a truly fearsome sound on “Express Yourself” and “Straight Outta Compton.” But it was the protest track “Fuck Tha Police” that earned the crew its biggest honor: a threatening letter from the FBI.


Alanis Morissette, ‘Jagged Little Pill’

Alanis Morisette was 21 when Jagged Little Pill was released, but she was a show-business veteran — she’d been on a Nickelodeon TV show and had made two flimsy dance-pop albums — and she knew what kind of music she wanted to make. “I found that the more truthful and vulnerable I was, the more empowering it was for me,” she said. Songs like “Ironic,” “Head Over Feet,” and “Hand in My Pocket” were calm, even philosophical, but it was “You Oughta Know,” her full-throated riposte to a callous ex, that made her reputation, partly because there was no one like her.


Kate Bush, ‘Hounds of Love’

Kate Bush was an avant-garde auteur as well as beloved English pop star. Her New Wave masterpiece Hounds of Love is one of the greatest examples of an artist enjoying Top 40 success while luxuriating in her own eccentricities. Playing a futurist Fairlight CMI synthesizer and singing in an ecstatic operatic chirp, she muses about Freudian psychology, career challenges, love and family, dreaming sheep, and waking witches. Side One had hits like “Running Up That Hill” and “Cloudbusting”; Side Two was an epic “story suite,” moving from goth terror to sci-fi abstraction to dark rustic revelry. It’s no wonder Björk, Florence Welch, and Mitski are just a few of the artists who’ve been swept up in Bush’s sensual world.


Jay-Z, ‘Reasonable Doubt’

Before there was Jay-Z the mogul, the legend, the Beyoncé boy toy, there was Jay-Z on his do-or-die hustle, trying just to get a seat at the UNO table. “Forever petty minds stay petty/Mine’s thinkin’ longevity, until I’m 70,” he rhymes on the virtuosic “22 Two’s,” his earliest experiment in toying with standard rap structures. When he raps about drug dealing and not trusting women, the details are specific and self-aware. Jay’s charisma and comic insouciance are evident even on small touches like his taunting laugh in the chorus of “Ain’t No Nigga,” a gloriously funky track that lit up dance clubs. Here, he planted a flag in the underground — within two years, the pop hits followed and the hustle went worldwide.


John Coltrane, ‘A Love Supreme’

In late 1964, John Coltrane secluded himself in a spare upstairs bedroom in his house in Dix Hills, Long Island, with his saxophone, pen, and paper. His wife Alice later remembered him emerging “like Moses coming down the mountain” with a brand-new album-length suite of devotional music, which he called A Love Supreme. “This album is a humble offering to Him,” he would write in the liner notes of the LP. “An attempt to say, ‘Thank you God’ through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues.” The resulting album’s four movements — from part one, “Acknowledgement,” with its mantra-like chant of the title phrase, to part two, “Resolution,” driven by the thunderous swing of drummer Elvin Jones — perfectly encapsulates the way the saxophonist’s mature work blended prayerful reflection with explosive catharsis.


James Brown, ‘Live at the Apollo’

This may be the greatest live album ever recorded: from the breathless buildup of the spoken intro through terse, sweat-soaked early hits such as “Try Me” and “Think” into 11 minutes of the raw ballad “Lost Someone.” It climaxes with a frenzied nine-song medley, and ends with “Night Train.” Live at the Apollo is pure, uncut soul — and it almost didn’t happen. James Brown defied King Records boss Syd Nathan’s opposition to a live album by arranging to record a show himself — on October 24th, 1962, the last date of a run at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. His intuition proved correct; Live at the Apollo, the first of four albums Brown recorded there, charted for 66 weeks.


OutKast, ‘Stankonia’

There’s a thrilling sprawl on OutKast’s fourth album, a sense of limitless possibilities within the boundaries of hip-hop. Big Boi and André 3000 rap about baby mamas’ mamas (“Ms. Jackson”), the perils of sex (“We Luv Deez Hoez”) and alcohol (“?”), feeling excluded from the American dream (“Gasoline Dreams”), good manners (“I’ll Call Before I Come”), and the trauma of teen pregnancy (“Toilet Tisha”). The music is sexy, bold, and hard, mixing, on “B.O.B.,” distorted metal guitar, an HBCU gospel choir, and a jittery techno beat. Big Boi says OutKast is “cooler than a polar bear’s toenails,” adds that they’re “just lyrically twerking,” and tells the police, “Officer, get off us, sir.” “We call it slumadelic,” said André 3000.


Steely Dan, ‘Aja’

If you were an audiophile in the late Seventies, you owned Aja. Steely Dan’s sixth album is easy on the ears, thanks to both its meticulous production and its songs — this was Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s no-holds-barred stab at becoming a huge mainstream jazz-pop success. And sure enough, thanks to sweet, slippery tracks like “Deacon Blues” and “Peg,” this collegiate band with a name plucked from a William Burroughs novel and a songbook full of smart, cynical lyrics became bona fide superstars, shooting to the Top Five and selling platinum. And, yes, Aja even won a Grammy for Best Engineered Album.


Guns N’ Roses, ‘Appetite for Destruction’

The biggest-selling debut album of the Eighties, Appetite hit the metal scene like an asteroid, bringing the grit and fury of Seventies rock back to a mainstream hard-rock scene that was starved for something real. Indiana-bred Axl Rose’s five-alarm yowl bowled over listeners. Guitarist Slash gave the band blues emotion and punk energy, while the rhythm section brought the funk on hits such as “Welcome to the Jungle.” When all the elements came together, as in the final two minutes of “Paradise City,” GN’R left all other Eighties metal bands in the dust, and they knew it, too. “A lot of rock bands are too fucking wimpy to have any sentiment or any emotion,” Rose said. “Unless they’re in pain.”


Eric B. and Rakim, ‘Paid in Full’

Ice-grilled, laid-back, diamond-sharp: Rakim was the Eighties’ greatest rapper, and this album is the record that cemented his legend. Paid in Full was one of the first hip-hop records to fully embrace Seventies funk samples on stone hip-hop classics such as “I Know You Got Soul” and “I Ain’t No Joke.” With a stark, chill declamatory flow that broke from the singsong-y style of most rapping at the time, Rakim moved hip-hop from stories about the world of the hood to ones about the mind (“I start to think and then I sink/Into the paper like I was ink”). Eric B. built the title track out of a luscious sampled bass line, and Rakim recounted days of poverty when he had “nothin’ but sweat inside my hand,” a problem solved by this debut’s platinum success.


Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

Astral Weeks was the sound of sweet relief. Van Morrison was newly signed to artist-friendly Warner Bros., after a rough ride with his previous U.S. label, Bang, when he made Astral Weeks in the summer of 1968. He used the opportunity to explore the physical and dramatic range of his voice in his extended poetic-scat singing, setting hallucinatory reveries about his native Belfast (the daydream memoir “Cypress Avenue,” the hypnotic portrait of “Madame George”) to wandering melodies connecting the earthy poetry in Celtic folk and American R&B. The crowning touch was a superior jazz quartet, who recorded their basic backing tracks in one three-hour session, without any instruction from Morrison on what he wanted or what the lyrics meant.


Stevie Wonder, ‘Talking Book’

“I don’t think you know where I’m coming from,” Wonder warned Motown executives in 1971. “I don’t think you can understand it.” Indeed, the two albums Wonder released in 1972 — Music of My Mind and Talking Book — rewrote the rules of the Motown hit factory. Talking Book was full of introspection and social commentary, with Wonder producing, writing, and playing most of the instruments himself. “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” were Number One singles; “Big Brother” is political consciousness draped in a light melody: “You’ve killed all our leaders/I don’t even have to do nothin’ to you/You’ll cause your own country to fall.”


Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin IV’

“I put a lot of work into my lyrics,” Robert Plant told Rolling Stone in 1975. “Not all my stuff is meant to be scrutinized, though. Things like ‘Black Dog’ are blatant let’s-do-it-in-the-bath-type things, but they make their point just the same.” On their towering rune-titled fourth album, Led Zeppelin matched the raunch of “Black Dog” with Plant’s most poetic lyrics on the inescapable epic ballad “Stairway to Heaven,” while guitarist Jimmy Page veers from the blues apocalypse of “When the Levee Breaks” to the mandolin-driven “Battle of Evermore.” (“It sounded like a dance-around-the-maypole number,” Page later confessed.)


The Band, ‘The Band’

The Band was four-fifths Canadian — drummer Levon Helm was from Arkansas – but their second album was all American. Guitarist Robbie Robertson’s songs vividly evoke the country’s pioneer age — “Across the Great Divide,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” — while reflecting the state of the nation in the 1960s. The Band’s long life on the road resonates in the brawn of Garth Hudson’s keyboards and Helm’s juke-joint attack. But Robertson’s stories truly live in Helm’s growl, Rick Danko’s high tenor, and Richard Manuel’s spectral croon. “Somebody once said he had a tear in his voice,” Helm said of Manuel. “Richard had one of the richest textured voices I’d ever heard.”


Liz Phair, ‘Exile in Guyville’

“Watch how fast they run to the flame,” Liz Phair sang, and true to that promise her debut double LP set the underground on fire. Phair and co-producer Brad Wood built off the bedroom demo intimacy of Phair’s Girly-Sound cassette releases, creating a loose response record to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (“I had a lot to say on the subject matter they put forth,” she told Rolling Stone). Her strikingly frank sex talk caused a media stir unheard of for a “low-fi” artitst, but it was the caffeinated drive of songs like “6’1” and “Never Said,” the painterly sonic impressionism of the piano piece “Canary” or the sunset majestic “Stratford-On-Guy,” and the real hurt and hunger of “Fuck and Run” and “Divorce Song” that made Exile hit home.


Pink Floyd, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’

“I think every album was a step towards Dark Side of the Moon,” keyboardist Rick Wright said. “We were learning all the time; the techniques of the recording and our writing was getting better.” As a culmination of their inner-space explorations of the early 1970s, the Floyd toured the bulk of Dark Side in Britain for months prior to recording. But in the studio, the band articulated bassist Roger Waters’ reveries on the madness of everyday life with melodic precision (“Breathe,” “Us and Them”) and cinematic luster (Clare Torry’s guest vocal aria “The Great Gig in the Sky”). Dark Side is one of the best-produced rock albums ever, and “Money” may be rock’s only Top 20 hit in 7/4 time.


James Brown, ‘Star Time’

So great is James Brown’s impact that even with 71 songs on four CDs, Star Time isn’t quite comprehensive — between 1956 and 1984, Brown placed an astounding 103 singles on the R&B charts. But every phase of his career is well-represented here: the pleading, straight-up R&B of “Please, Please, Please”; his instantaneous reinvention of R&B with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” where the rhythm takes over and the melody is subsumed within the groove; his spokesmanship for the civil rights movement in “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud (Part 1)”; his founding document of Seventies funk, “Sex Machine”; and his blueprint for hip-hop in “Funky Drummer.”


Jimi Hendrix, ‘Electric Ladyland’

Jimi Hendrix’s third album was the first he produced himself, a fever dream of underwater electric soul cut in round-the-clock sessions at the Record Plant in New York. Hendrix would leave the Record Plant to jam at a club around the corner, the Scene, and “Voodoo Chile” – 15 minutes of live-in-the-studio blues exploration with Steve Winwood on organ and the Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Cassidy on bass – reflects those excursions. In addition to psychedelic Delta blues, there was the precision snap of “Crosstown Traffic” and a cover of “All Along the Watchtower” that took Bob Dylan into outer space before touching down with a final burst of spectral fury.


David Bowie, ‘Station to Station’

The title track is where David Bowie proclaims himself the Thin White Duke. Thin he was: Station to Station was recorded in a blizzard of cocaine in Los Angeles, with Bowie subsisting on green peppers and milk and almost never sleeping. The manic mood fueled an album that was futuristic but accessible, “plastic soul” speeding toward the electronic epiphanies of his Berlin phase. “TVC 15” is New Orleans R&B as robotic funk; “Golden Years” is James Brown from outer space, with Bowie’s amazing falsetto; and the 10-minute title track summed up his constant sense of motion at the time — opening with the sound of a train coming and eventually exploding into a Euro-disco breakdown that sounds like Saturday Night Fever at the android factory.


Chuck Berry, ‘The Great Twenty-Eight’

In the latter half of the Fifties, Chuck Berry released a string of singles that defined the sound and spirit of rock & roll. “Maybellene,” a fast, countryish rocker about a race between a Ford and a Cadillac, kicked it all off in 1955, and one classic hit followed another, each powered by Berry’s staccato, country-blues-guitar gunfire: “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Rock & Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Back in the U.S.A.” What was Berry’s secret? In the maestro’s own words: “The nature and backbone of my beat is boogie, and the muscle of my music is melodies that are simple.” This collection culls the best of that magic from 1955 to 1965.