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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


Eric Church, ‘Chief’

Eric Church emerged in the mid-2000s as one of country music’s best new singer-songwriters, and his third album rolled all of his gifts into a tight package that was rock-influenced, rough around the edges, and catchy as hell. “Hungover & Hard Up” shows the North Carolina native’s abiding gift for drowning his sorrows in booze and melody, and on the classic “Springsteen,” he invokes Bruce’s music as a way to access the passion of youth. The songwriting is so confident, even the ballads swagger a bit.


Dire Straits, ‘Brothers in Arms’

Mark Knopfler started writing “Money for Nothing” when he overheard a New York appliance salesman’s anti-rock-star, anti-MTV rant. The song, of course, became a huge MTV hit, and this album shows off Knopfler’s incisive songwriting and lush guitar riffs on hits like “Walk of Life” and “So Far Away,” as well as hidden gems like the Dylanesque blues “The Man’s Too Strong” and “Why Worry,” where Knopfler’s clear, subtle playing flows by like a cool brook over slick pebbles.


Ornette Coleman, ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’

Ornette Coleman’s sound was so out there, one audience at an early gig threw his tenor sax over a cliff. He switched to alto and pioneered free jazz: no chords, no harmony, any player can take the lead. It’s still a jarring sound to encounter for the first time, but Coleman’s freedom was grounded in the cathartic release of the gospel and blues of his native Texas. On his first album for Atlantic Records, his music can be just as lyrical as it is demanding, particularly on the haunting “Lonely Woman.”


The Roots, ‘Things Fall Apart’

The Nineties’ alternative-rap scene hit its high-water mark as an album-length art form with this love letter to black music in the late 20th century. That theme is most explicit on on “Act Too (The Love of My Life),” a tender dedication to hip-hop’s redemptive power, but it’s also there in the playful way Black Thought and Malik B bounce rhymes off each other and in the beats that riff affectionately on everyone from Sly Stone to Schoolly D in a kaleidoscopic celebration of musical soul.


The Meters, ‘Looka Py Py’

The Meters were the house band for New Orleans’ genius producer Allen Toussaint and played on Seventies landmarks such as LaBelle’s Nightbirds, while also running off a series of their own rock-solid LPs. These instrumentals — sampled by rappers including Nas and Salt-N-Pepa — are funk of the gods; tight, cutting, but also relaxed and inviting, with Art Neville’s lyrical Hammond B3 organ adding chill texture to George Porter Jr.’s monster bass and the off-the-beat Second Line swing of drummer of Ziggy Modeliste.


Chic, ‘Risqué’

Nobody thought a disco band was supposed to make a brilliant third album — but Chic always thrived on defying the odds. On Risqué, the dynamic duo of guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards fuse sleek tropical R&B, Anglophile New Wave, and NYC club flash for a sound that’s been the blueprint for pop radio ever since. “Good Times” is Chic’s most prophetic groove — the story of hip-hop on wax begins here, with the Sugarhill Gang rhyming over it for “Rapper’s Delight.”


Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Cosmo’s Factory’

Cosmo’s Factory was CCR’s third classic album in under a year. John Fogerty began it with the seven-minute power-choogle “Ramble Tamble,” raging against “actors in the White House.” The hits include the country travelogue “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” the Vietnam nightmare “Run Through the Jungle,” the Little Richard tribute “Travelin’ Band,” and the Stax-style ballad “Long as I Can See the Light.” But the triumph is CCR’s 11-minute cowbell-crazed jam on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” proof these guys could mix hippie visions with populist grit.


Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, ‘Going to a Go Go’

Motown at its most debonair and sexy. Smokey Robinson works his sweeping soul falsetto over unbelievably sad ballads, including “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Ooo Baby Baby,” as the Miracles sob along. Robinson made it seem effortless to write a constant string of hit singles for the Miracles, as well as the rest of the Motown roster, but this album also has some of his finest deep cuts, especially the helpless yearning of “Choosey Beggar.”


Bob Dylan, ‘Love and Theft’

The blood and glory of 1997’s Time Out of Mind had raised the bar: This was the first Dylan album in years that had to live up to fans’ expectations. He didn’t just exceed them — he blew them up. Dylan sang in the voice of a grizzled drifter who’d visited every nook and cranny of America and gotten chased out of them all. Love and Theft was full of corny vaudeville jokes and apocalyptic floods, from the guitar rave “Summer Days” to the country lilt of “Po’ Boy.”


The Beach Boys, ‘Wild Honey’

After Pet Sounds and the aborted Smiley Smile, what was left for the Beach Boys to do? Invent the idea of DIY pop. Ditching the opulent and intricate arrangements of those two albums, Wild Honey returned them to their days as a spunky, self-contained band. In 24 concise but utterly winning minutes, they romp through set of low-fi sunbaked melodies and R&B and soul homages — all suffused with warmth, sly hooks, and a sense of band unity, even as a frazzled Brian Wilson was starting to pull back.


Grateful Dead, ‘Workingman’s Dead’

“We weren’t feeling like an experimental music group, but were feeling more like a good old band,” Jerry Garcia said. The Dead stripped down for Workingman’s Dead, with eight spooky blues and country songs that rival the best of Bob Dylan, as in the morbid “Black Peter” and “Dire Wolf.” Garcia and Robert Hunter proved themselves one of rock’s sharpest songwriting teams, with the acoustic hymn “Uncle John’s Band.” Hunter said, “It was my feeling about what the Dead was and could be. It was very much a song for us and about us, in the most hopeful sense.”


Motörhead, ‘Ace of Spades’

Neither punk nor metal, Motörhead played rock & roll nastier, grittier, and snarlier than their forebears on Ace of Spades. Amid a miasma of hypercharged guitar riffs and death-rattle drumming, frontman Lemmy Kilmister, splits his time between sleazy come-ons (“Love Me Like a Reptile”), war stories (“(We Are) The Road Crew”), and underdog maxims (“Live to Win”). The blazing title track epitomized the Motörhead experience: “You know I’m born to lose, and gambling’s for fools,” Lemmy growls, “but that’s the way I like it, baby, I don’t wanna live forever.” He meant it, too.


Neil Young, ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’

Neil Young and Crazy Horse hadn’t been together for more than eight weeks when they cut this album. It’s down-home hippie-grunge with the feel of a jam session conducted by master jammers. Both sides of the album end in monster, 10-minute guitar excursions, especially “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and “Cinnamon Girl” was Young’s first big solo single, three minutes of crunching distortion featuring a one-note guitar solo for the ages — “the closest thing Crazy Horse had to a hit,” Young said.


Magnetic Fields, ’69 Love Songs’

“It started with the title,” Stephin Merritt said of 69 Love Songs, which he imagined in the Sinatra-era tradition of “theme” albums. A tour de force of pop mastery, his three-disc splurge had everything from lounge jazz to Podunk country to punk parody, peaking with sidelong standards like “Papa Was a Rodeo” and “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side.” God-level moment: “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure,” which is titled after a French linguist and rhymes his name with closure, bulldozer, and classic Motown songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, hooking it all to an unforgettable tune.


Various, ‘Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era’

This collection of Sixties garage rock, compiled by rock critic and soon-to-be Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, became a touchstone for Seventies punks and, years later, for the aftershock of post-punk. The 27-track, two-LP set was a radical idea in 1972: While rock was getting bigger, Nuggets established a new canon out of forgotten AM-radio hits — brutally simple singles like the Standells’ “Dirty Water,” the Shadows of Knight’s “Oh Yeah!” and the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction.” Rhino expanded Nuggets into a sprawling four-CD box in 1998.


Anita Baker, ‘Rapture’

Before releasing Rapture, her breakout album, Anita Baker spent months “going to every publishing house in Los Angeles” hunting for what she described as “fireside love songs with jazz overtones.” She found eight songs that satisfied her requirements and polished them until they gleamed, combining an unpredictability that hinted at jazz with reassuring, unimpeachable hooks to create an album of deep romantic intimacy that sounded like little else in Eighties pop but still went multiplatinum.


Ghostface Killah, ‘Supreme Clientele’

“I feel like I got my whole style from Ghostface,” Kanye West has said. Lavishly unhinged and viciously hard-hitting, Ghostface Killah’s second solo album helped revive the Wu-Tang franchise, marinating lines like “Ghost is back, stretch Cadillacs, fruit cocktails/Hit the shelves at Paul’s pastry rack,” in serrated Seventies-soul samples. On “Nutmeg” he drops a mind-boxing cluster of psychedelic bullshit, then simply stands back during the chorus, letting the tape roll as he mocks all comers — an untouchable champ at the top of his game.


Fela Kuti and Africa 70, ‘Expensive Shit’

The title track is a 13-minute odyssey that epitomizes Nigerian funk king Fela Kuti’s knack for channeling fearless social commentary into body-moving grooves; the Africa 70 horns blare out infectious riffs as peerless drummer Tony Allen keeps up an indefatigable shuffling pulse, while Fela calls out the “fools” who would “use your shit to put you for jail.” Side Two’s “Water No Get Enemy” slows things down to a celebratory strut, concluding a short-yet-sweet effort that plays like a primer on the joys of Afrobeat.


Blondie, ‘Blondie’

“We’re gonna shoot the tube!” Debbie Harry promises on “In the Sun,” hanging 10 on the Bowery. Blondie had a hard time getting taken seriously in the CBGB punk scene. But while the band’s debut celebrates Sixties rock & roll at its campiest — girl groups, garage trash, surf bubblegum — Harry’s heart-on-sleeve swoon during “In the Flesh “ sincerely updated the Shangri-Las for the Lower East Side circa 1977, and the gritty “Rip Her to Shreds” showed Blondie could get down with the tough guys, too.