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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


Bob Dylan, ‘John Wesley Harding’

Recovering from his 1966 motorcycle crash, Bob Dylan made a left turn into country fables and stark mystic folkways. He took a quick trip to Nashville and banged out John Wesley Harding. It’s his most ominous album, with characters from the Bible and the shadowy side of American history, from “I Am a Lonesome Hobo” to “All Along the Watchtower.” With his stripped-down sound and a black-and-white cover photo, Dylan was defiantly rejecting all the current trends — going his own way, as usual.


Roxy Music, ‘Avalon’

Peter Sinfield, the producer of Roxy Music’s angular and wild 1972 debut, said that on Avalon they “ran out of naiveté.” Their sound was now woozy and refined, horny yet mature, and unabashedly, unironically romantic. A synth-soul landmark, Avalon was their biggest hit, their swan song, and the height of rock elegance and sophistication. The reggae lilt of the album’s title track was inspired by Bob Marley, who had recorded at the same studio as Roxy Music during the Seventies.


Bob Dylan and the Band, ‘The Basement Tapes’

Bob Dylan and his pals spent the Summer of Love in Woodstock, messing around in the basement of a house they called Big Pink. The songs were so deeply weird, they sat unreleased for years, until The Basement Tapes finally collected bootleg favorites like “Million Dollar Bash” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” (For a deeper dive, see the 2014 box set.) “They were a kick to do,” Dylan told Rolling Stone’s Jann S. Wenner in 1969. “That’s really the way to do a recording — in a peaceful, relaxed setting — in somebody’s basement. With the windows open … and a dog lying on the floor.”


Santana, ‘Abraxas’

“Black Magic Woman,” the Top Five hit from Abraxas, is definitive Santana: Afro-Latin grooves and piercing, lyrical, psychedelic blues guitar. It’s a cover of a Fleetwood Mac song written by one of Carlos Santana’s guitar heroes, Peter Green. The album’s other hit was also a cover: Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va.” The clarion quality of Santana’s solos inspired many guitarists, especially artists looking to bridge seemingly divergent styles, including Prince.


Bill Withers, ‘Still Bill’

“Too many black artists get conned into doing so-called standards,” Withers said in 1972. “Songs by white writers who make the big money.” On his second album, Withers simply decided to write his own standards. The friendship anthem “Lean on Me” became his signature, while the propulsive “Use Me” would become one of the most-beloved tunes of all time, later sung by D’Angelo, Fiona Apple, and many others. If Just As I Am introduced Withers as a vital voice, Still Bill solidified him as a songwriter’s songwriter.


Elvis Presley, ‘Elvis Presley’

In November 1955, RCA Records bought Elvis Presley’s contract, singles, and unreleased master tapes from Sun Records for $35,000. His first full-length album came out four months later, with tracks drawn from both the Sun sessions and from further recording at RCA’s studios in New York and Nashville. “There wasn’t any pressure,” guitarist Scotty Moore said. “They were just bigger studios with different equipment.” On tracks such as “Blue Suede Shoes,” that meant revved-up country music with the sexiest voice anyone had ever heard.


Madonna, ‘Like a Prayer’

“I like the challenge of merging art and commerce,” Madonna told Rolling Stone. After dominating Eighties pop without always getting the critical respect she deserved, Madonna finally won artistic recognition with her most personal set of songs, including “Till Death Do Us Part” and “Oh Father.” And she nailed the commerce side with “Express Yourself” and the title track, the video of which had the Vatican talking about blasphemy. “I pray when I’m in trouble or when I’m happy,” she said. “When I feel any sort of extreme.” Like a Prayer fused all of her extremes brilliantly.


The Rolling Stones, ‘Aftermath’

The Stones sound mean and jaded on Aftermath, writing bad-boy songs about Swinging London’s overnight stars, groupies, hustlers, and parasites. This is the first Stones album completely written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, a collection of tough riffs (“It’s Not Easy”) and tougher acoustic blues (“High and Dry”); of girls seeking kicks (“Under My Thumb”) or just escape (“Think”), of zooming psychedelia (“Paint It, Black”), baroque-folk gallantry (“I Am Waiting”), and an epic groove (the 11-minute “Going Home”).


DJ Shadow, ‘Endtroducing…..’

Northern California beat junkie Josh Davis (a.k.a. DJ Shadow) spent a year and a half chasing his dream of “the ultimate sample record,” and nailed it with his debut LP. Endtroducing….. is the height of the mid-Nineties trend of the hip-hop DJ as an experimental sound painter, a mix of head-trip beats, absurdist samples, and old-school block-party showmanship that touched listeners way beyond the turntablist underground. “Endtroducing was a big influence on OK Computer,” Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead recalled.


Vampire Weekend, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’

On Halloween 2012, with their hometown New York subsumed in a blackout, Vampire Weekend went on late-night TV to play an atheist reggae jam called “Unbelievers” dressed as skeletons. It was the perfect introduction to Modern Vampires of the City, a record that darkened their buoyant indie pop, as Ezra Koenig sang about moving beyond his post-college years into something scarier and weirder — hitting a cloudy peak with the beautifully worried Dylanesque travelogue “Hannah Hunt.”


The Who, ‘Live at Leeds’

Faced with the impossible task of following up the grand statement of Tommy [see No. 190], the Who just cranked up their amps. Rather than wade through 80 hours of American shows for a live album, Pete Townshend claimed he burned those tapes “in a huge bonfire” and selected a concert at the University of Leeds in England. Live at Leeds is a warts-and-all live album, including an accidental clunking sound on “My Generation.” There’s no finesse, just the pure power of a band able to play as loud as it wants to.


Prince, ‘Dirty Mind’

A mix of slinky funk, synth-driven rock, jittery pop, and sexual innuendo, Dirty Mind was Prince’s first great album, even if it only hinted at where he was headed. “White, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a freakin’,” he sang on “Uptown,” a utopian ode to the Minneapolis club scene. The album includes the world’s merriest done-me-wrong song, “When You Were Mine,” and the incest ditty “Sister.” “I wasn’t being deliberately provocative,” Prince said. “I was being deliberately me.”


Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘All Killer No Filler!’

Jerry Lee Lewis is best known for his frenzied piano-pumping Sun classics like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” cut in the late Fifties (before he derailed his success by marrying his 13-year-old cousin), yet his career as a country hitmaker lasted decades. Listen to “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)” and you might agree with the Killer’s characteristically self-deprecating claim that “Elvis was the greatest, but I’m the best.”


Coldplay, ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’

In the early 2000s, starry-eyed Brit-pop boys doing a cuddly version of Radiohead were a dime a dozen. (Remember Starsailor?) It was Coldplay’s second album that showed they were true contenders. Songs like “Green Eyes” and “The Scientist” brought back the comforting melodies of “Yellow,” but the twinkling sonics suggested prime Smiths or U2. And darker stuff, like the austerely beautiful death meditation “Amsterdam” and the OK Computer-worthy “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face,” showed the group had more than arena anthems on its mind.


The Clash, ‘Sandinista!’

The Clash’s ballooning ambition peaked with Sandinista!, a three-album set named after the Nicaraguan revolutionary movement. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones reached beyond punk and reggae and into dub, R&B, calypso, gospel, and even a kids’ chorus on “Career Opportunities” — whatever crossed their minds. As Strummer said years later, “Even though it would have been better as a double album, or a single album, or an EP! Who knows? The fact is that we recorded all that music in one spat, at one moment. In one three-week blast. For better or worse, [Sandinista!] is the document.”


Elvis Presley, ‘From Elvis in Memphis’

“I had to leave town for a little while,” Elvis Presley sings on the first track. Along with his 1968 TV special, this record announced he was back. With help from a crack crew of Memphis musicians, Presley masterfully tackles quality material from country (“I’m Movin’ On”), gospel (“Long Black Limousine”), soul (“Only the Strong Survive”), and pop (“Any Day Now”), as well as message songs (“In the Ghetto”). The same sessions also yielded one of Presley’s greatest singles, the towering pop-soul masterpiece “Suspicious Minds.”


Lana Del Rey, ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’

Lana Del Rey became a music-blog sensation playing the poker-faced millennial Nancy Sinatra on her debut single, “Video Games.” She kept growing as an artist, and on her wonderfully titled sixth album perfected her epic vision of doomed, decadent, Seventies-steeped California romance on songs like “Mariner’s Apartment Complex” and the nine-minute crusher “Venice Bitch.” Del Rey dropped references to the Eagles and Graham Nash, merging her own music into the Laurel Canyon canon. No less an authority on Seventies greatness than Elton John called the album’s songs “timeless.”


X, ‘Los Angeles’

X stood out from the other L.A. punks — for one thing, they had a married couple in the band, John Doe and Exene Cervenka, venting their sexual and cultural rage over the high-speed rockabilly thrash of Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake. Doe and Cervenka met in a poetry workshop, and you can hear it in the complex wordplay of “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” and “Sex and Dying in High Society.” But they kick off their debut with a hilariously nasty bang: “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not.”


The Stone Roses, ‘The Stone Roses’

For a few glorious moments at the dawn of the Nineties, the Stone Roses looked like they were going to lead another British Invasion, this one of baggy-panted, floppy-haired bands that loved Sixties guitars and rave-y dance beats with the same whimsical fervor. The sound never crossed over here, and the band fell apart — but first they made this incredible album, highlighted by the ecstatic eight-minute-long “I Am the Resurrection.” It laid the foundation for the Brit pop that blew up a few years later.


Janet Jackson, ‘The Velvet Rope’

Janet Jackson left behind her girl-next-door image forever with The Velvet Rope, an album of sexy, confessional, freewheeling hip-hop soul. She fuses Joni Mitchell and Q-Tip in “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” but the shocker is her girl-girl version of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night.” “I always write about what’s in my life,” she told Rolling Stone. “I did that on Control, and I did the same thing with this album. It’s kind of like cutting yourself open and exposing yourself to the world, which is really a vulnerable thing.”


Billie Holiday, ‘Lady in Satin’

By the time she cut this album in 1958, Billie Holiday had lived several lives, battling drug and alcohol addiction and emerging with a battered psyche and a delivery to match. Holiday had trouble remembering lyrics and sounded weathered no matter if the song was hopeful or desolate. But on what amounts to one of the last great saloon-pop albums of the rock era, her voice retained its supple, distinctive tone, and Ray Ellis’ elegant orchestrations supported and cushioned her — a year before her death.


The Who, ‘The Who Sell Out’

The Who’s third record was their first concept album, a tribute to the U.K.’s offshore pirate-radio stations. The band strung the songs together with mock commercials (“Heinz Baked Beans”) and genuine radio jingles. It’s the Who’s funniest record — the sad love ballad “Odorono” turns out to be an ad for deodorant. The band expanded its maximum-R&B sound with mini rock opera “Rael,” giving a hint of things to come (Tommy was two years away), and “I Can See for Miles” rode Pete Townshend’s thrashiest power chords into the Top 10.


Rosalía, ‘El Mal Querer’

In her Grammy-winning breakthrough album, El Mal Querer (in English, A Toxic Love), groundbreaking Spanish singer-producer Rosalía not only mainstreamed the centuries-old tradition of flamenco music, she also freaked it, using the power of 808s and a whole lotta heartbreak. Rosalía assumes a rapper’s bravado in the opening track, “Malamente,” and in the palma-pop gem “Di Mi Nombre,” she grabs her bullish lover by the horns. The result is one of the best ancient-modern mash-ups of the 21st century.


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.