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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


Lady Gaga, ‘Born This Way’

“Over-the-top” isn’t an insult in Gaga’s world; it’s a statement of purpose. Her second album is a work of blessed bombast, all arena-size sonics and Springsteenian romanticism, complete with a Clarence Clemons sax solo. There’s a thumping, half-in-Spanish song that proposes marriage to “a girl in east L.A.” (“Americano”), a synth-pop jam that includes a come-on on to John F. Kennedy (“Government Hooker”), and a touching ballad about a guy from Nebraska (“You and I”). Fittingly, the glam-slam title track became an LGBTQ anthem.


Muddy Waters, ‘The Anthology’

Muddy Waters started out playing acoustic Delta blues in Mississippi, but when he moved to Chicago in 1943, he needed an electric guitar to be heard over the tumult of South Side clubs. The sound he developed was the foundation of Chicago blues — and rock & roll; the thick, bleeding tones of his slide work anticipated rock-guitar distortion by nearly two decades. The 50 cuts on these two CDs run from guitar-and-stand-up-bass duets to full-band romps — and they still just scratch the surface of Waters’ legacy.


The Pharcyde, ‘Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde’

These high school friends from L.A. were a little like a West Coast answer to De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, offering their own spin on alternative hip-hop in the Nineties and showing there was something going on in Southern California beyond G-funk. They rapped about innocent topics, like having a crush on a teacher in “Passin’ Me By,” which was a small hit, but also about dating a cute girl who turns out “to be a John Doe” and run-ins with the cops (the Public Enemy-homage “Officer”). It all came out as bright and refreshing as sorbet.


Belle and Sebastian, ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’

Being a self-pitying shut-in has never sounded better than it does on the Scottish twee icons’ breakthrough. The chamber-folk arrangements are second to none — like a cup of tea brewed for you by a hopeless crush with a really good record collection — but don’t sleep on Stuart Murdoch’s subtly sardonic lyrics on “The Stars of Track and Field” and “Seeing Other People,” which give these wistful-sounding songs a bite that sets them apart from most imitators.


Miranda Lambert, ‘The Weight of These Wings’

The Nashville superstar sounded especially free and artistically uninhibited after her divorce from Blake Shelton, and she channeled it all into this expansive, mind-clearing two-CD set, an ambitious grab bag of deep breakup tunes (“Use My Heart,” “Tin Man”), Radiohead-y alt-rock moodiness (“Vice”), eye-rolling, scuz-guitar glam (“Pink Sunglasses”), and tender reflections on the bonds and weights of messy commitment (“Getaway Car”). It’s the sound of bad history falling away in the cracked rearview and nothing but wide-open road ahead.


Selena, ‘Amor Prohibido’

Tejana star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez may not have been long for this world (she died when she was just 23), but she remains one of America’s most beloved singer-songwriters. At the heart of her regional Mexican masterwork, Amor Prohibido, is a universal, glittering pop core. The techno-cumbia title track tells the real-life story of her grandparents, who fell in love across class lines. It’s a Latina fairy tale, if ever there was one. Amor Prohibido, meaning “forbidden love,” became one of the bestselling Latin albums of all time.


The Kinks, ‘Something Else by the Kinks’

Something Else was a commercial flop that nearly killed the band, but it shows off Ray Davies’ genius for writing about the secret lives of everyday people. “Waterloo Sunset” is a gorgeously chilly ballad about a lonely man watching lovers from his window; “Two Sisters” celebrates a housewife dancing around her house with curlers in her hair. He’s got poetic compassion for all these characters, even as he witnesses their private pain in “No Return,” “Afternoon Tea,” and “End of the Season.”


Howlin’ Wolf, ‘Moanin’ in the Moonlight’

“That man was the natural stuff,” Buddy Guy said. “His fists were as big as a car tire.” The Wolf had the biggest roar in Chicago blues — he raved in a fierce growl, backed by explosive playing from guitar geniuses Willie Johnson and Hubert Sumlin. His 1959 debut album has some of the meanest electric blues ever heard, cut for Chess Records, from the eerie railroad drone “Smokestack Lightnin’” to the lowdown “I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline).”


Sparks, ‘Kimono My House’

The duo of singer Russell Mael and songwriter-keyboardist Ron Mael coined a unique, influential sound that mixed glam and prog-rock, the Beach Boys and Frank Zappa. Russell adopts a florid falsetto to sing Ron’s lyrics about clumsy sex (“Amateur Hour”), Albert Einstein’s doting parents (the pun-filled “Talent Is an Asset”), and a broken suicide pact (“Here in Heaven”). The overwhelming sensation from Sparks’ third album is a sense that you’ve arrived at a party where you know no one and hear things you can’t comprehend but still have a great time.


Sheryl Crow, ‘Sheryl Crow’

The Missouri gal finally got to make an album her way, in 1996, with her self-titled, self-produced smash — an ingenious mix of roots-rock raunch and vengeful wit. As Crow told Rolling Stone, “My only objective on this record was to get under people’s skin, because I was feeling like I had so much shit to hurl at the tape.” “Every Day Is a Winding Road” and “A Change Would Do You Good” rock like a feminist Exile on Main Street, while “If It Makes You Happy” became an anthem for bad girls of all ages.


Big Star, ‘#1 Record’

Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were the Memphis whiz kids at the heart of Big Star. They mixed British Invasion pop finesse with all-American hard rock, from the surging “Feel” to the acoustic heartbreaker “Thirteen.” Big Star didn’t sell many records but did become a crucial inspiration to underdogs like R.E.M., the Replacements, and Elliott Smith. As Chilton said later, “If you only press up a hundred copies of a record, then eventually it will find its way to the hundred people in the world who want it the most.”


Daddy Yankee, ‘Barrio Fino’

Just when Latin pop radio was hitting a ballad-heavy plateau, Puerto Rican MC Daddy Yankee set the industry aflame with his 2004 reggaeton opus, Barrio Fino. Crowned by the hydraulic bounce of Yankee’s first international hit, “Gasolina,” the record marked a colossal breakthrough, not just for the rapper himself, but for the entire genre known as reggaeton: a raw blend of hip-hop and reggae, born in the mean streets of San Juan.


SZA, ‘Ctrl’

Thanks to SZA’s lyrics about insecurity, jealousy, loneliness, and her search for “lovin’ and licky,” this assured debut brought a new self-searching spirit to R&B. The tracks are gentle and erotic, but beneath the singer’s soft-grained style, there’s fierceness; in “Dove in the Wind,” she tells a lover she can easily replace him with a dildo. On “Love Galore,” a duet with Travis Scott that describes an ambivalent breakup, she makes clear the vulnerability beneath the bravado: “Gimme a paper towel, gimme another Valium.”


Jefferson Airplane, ‘Surrealistic Pillow’

Psychedelic scholars have long tried to pin down just what the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia did on this album (besides contribute some guitar playing) to earn a credit as “spiritual adviser.” But the real trip is the Airplane’s hallucinatory distillation of folk-blues vocals, garage-rock guitar, and crisp pop songwriting. Grace Slick’s vocal showcases — “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” — made Surrealistic Pillow a commercial smash during San Francisco’s Summer of Love, and Marty Balin’s spectral “Today” is still the greatest ballad of that city’s glory days.


Juvenile, ‘400 Degreez’

From the moment Juvenile asked, “That’s you with that bad ass benz?” and punctuated the bar with a cocky, dismissive “Ha,” rap’s axis tilted. The New Orleans rapper’s third album reorientated hip-hop toward a new Southern sound, driven by producer Mannie Fresh’s intergalactic beats. “Ha” and “Back That Azz Up” were earthshaking singles, and Juvenile’s young-but-old growl brought out the blues in “Ghetto Children” and Dickensian horror in “Gone Ride With Me.” 400 Degreez added new sonic textures that pop music is still mining.


Manu Chao, ‘Clandestino’

Born in Paris to Spanish parents, Manu Chao is a true citizen of the world on his 1998 debut. Clandestino, was a tribute to “clandestinos” everywhere: a derogatory term for undocumented migrants. Running on an internationalist platform of peace (and legalized pot), Chao was a digital busker (“a clown making too much dirty sound”), strumming his acoustic guitar as he moved effortlessly between languages and styles, singing with a playfully light touch as he made feel-good reggae rock for global nomads like himself.


The Rolling Stones, ‘Some Girls’

Why did the Stones call their big comeback album Some Girls? Keith explained, “Because we couldn’t remember their fucking names.” The Stones sounded revitalized on Some Girls, with Mick at his bitchiest, reveling in the NYC sleaze of “Shattered,” “Beast of Burden,” and the disco hit “Miss You.” It became their all-time biggest seller. Keith was in rough shape at the time — as Mick fumed, “Christ, Keith fuckin’ gets busted every year” — but he stands unrepentant in his outlaw theme song, “Before They Make Me Run.”


Maxwell, ‘BLACKsummers’night’

Maxwell was a successful Nineties neo-soul crooner who went on an eight-year hiatus between 2001’s Now and this 2009 release. BLACKSummers’night betrays no anxiety about the time off; in fact, it ranks among the great comeback records. Maxwell sang about post-breakup desperation as he navigated plush, complicated grooves with jazz players like Keyon Harrold and Derrick Hodge giving his arrangements extra zip. The album’s ecstatic triumph is “Pretty Wings,” a keening, chiming lullaby.


The Beach Boys, ‘The Beach Boys Today!’

“I only tried surfing once, and the board almost hit me in the head,” Brian Wilson told Rolling Stone in 1999. But Wilson turned his fantasies into a California dream world of fast cars and cool waves — a world that might even have room for a scared misfit like him. Yet even in this early phase, Wilson was writing yearningly complex tunes — “She Knows Me Too Well” feels like Greek tragedy translated into doo-wop harmonies and surf guitars.


King Sunny Adé, ‘The Best of the Classic Years’

Some of the sweetest, stickiest jams ever recorded, cherry-picked from the Nigerian juju master’s work from 1967 to 1974, years before he got marketed as “the next Bob Marley.” King Sunny’s slow-roll guitar stretches out toward the horizon, rippling over verdant grooves to create a spellbinding vibe even (or especially) when a song saunters on for 18 minutes. Talking Heads and Phish are just two of the bands who’ve proudly cited the sound of Adé’s music as a guiding influence.


The Isley Brothers, ‘3 + 3’

The Isley Brothers ballooned from a trio that impressed the Beatles to a six-piece band on 3 + 3, which helped establish them as a funk force in the 1970s. The hit “That Lady” is stuffed with laser-bright guitar solos, and the slow numbers (including a cover of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” in which Ron Isley unfurled his heartbreaking falsetto and forceful midrange) hint toward the band’s bright future as pre-eminent balladeers in R&B’s Quiet Storm era.


Laura Nyro, ‘Eli & the 13th Confession’

Part confessional singer-songwriter and part would-be soul diva, Nyro was never an easy one to categorize. Her dazzling second album came the closest to blending both of her musical selves. Her pop instincts shine in the best-known songs here, like “Eli’s Comin’” and “Stoned Soul Picnic.” But the rest of the album finds her less restrained lyrically and musically, making for sensuous and often sexually ambiguous music that paved the way for many genre-busting female troubadours.


The Flying Burrito Brothers, ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’

A landmark of country rock — or, as Gram Parsons called it, “cosmic American music.” He and Chris Hillman were a pair of ex-Byrds who’d flown the coop. The Burritos put their poetic twist on hillbilly twang, proudly wearing Nudie suits and bringing in the pedal steel guitar of Sneaky Pete Kleinow. “Boy, I love them,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. “Their record instantly knocked me out.” They sing “Sin City” in high-lonesome two-part harmony, sounding like country boys lost in the decadence of Sixties L.A.; “Wheels” is God-fearing hippie soul.


Bon Iver, ‘For Emma’

Justin Vernon didn’t plan on reshaping a generation’s understanding of love-torn folk music when he retreated to the Wisconsin woods to record his first album (“I was very sad and very lonely”), but that’s exactly what happened. What’s even more staggering is the way Vernon’s Auto-Tune and falsetto-laden DIY debut, which centered around the heartsick “Skinny Love,” would reshape the contours of the pop mainstream — from Ed Sheeran and Kanye West to James Blake and Taylor Swift — for years to come.


Lorde, ‘Melodrama’

Lorde was 16 when the blockbuster hit “Royals” earned her acclaim as the voice of a generation. As her second album showed, that wasn’t quite accurate — she’s more like the voice of smart, self-conscious, neurotic people of all generations. “I think that you might be the same as me/Behave abnormally,” she sings on “Homemade Dynamite.” The sound is bigger-sounding and more club-friendly than the spare sound of her 2016 debut (especially on the single “Green Light”), and she’s even more impressive on a big stage.


Kid Cudi, ‘Man on the Moon: The End of the Day’

Kid Cudi helped Kanye West shape his introspective R&B/hip-hop hybrid 808s & Heartbreak. On his debut LP, the Cleveland rapper took that sound further and deeper, merging emo and psychedelic rock with hip-hop bombast. His introspect runs the gamut from the severe depression of “Day ‘n’ Nite” to the sweet contentment of “Pursuit of Happiness,” both of which became unlikely hits. A decade after Man on the Moon, every chart is dominated by Kudi’s sad children.


Jason Isbell, ‘Southeastern’

After releasing three little-heard solo albums, Isbell turned his personal travails — fresh sobriety, getting married — into what would become his opus. “It gave me a story to tell,” the songwriter said of Southeastern, which featured his sharpest literary writing (“Elephant”), newfound vulnerability (“Traveling Alone”), and his new calling card (“Cover Me Up”). The album set a standard for new-age Seventies-inspired singer-songwriters and coronated the Alabama native and his wife and bandmate, Amanda Shires, as the new king and queen of Americana.


Sinéad O’Connor, ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’

“How could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21?” the Irish art rocker asked on her breakthrough second album. Sinéad O’Connor struck a nerve with her keening voice, her shaved head, and her tortured grandiosity in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “I Am Stretched on Your Grave.” But she hit Number One with an obscure Prince breakup ballad, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Originally just filler on a flop album by the Family, it became O’Connor’s signature song.


Al Green, ‘Greatest Hits’

“In Memphis, you just do as you feel,” Al Green told Rolling Stone in 1972. “It’s not a modern, up-to-par, very glamorous, big-red-chairs-and-carpet-that-thick studio. It’s one of those places you can go into and stomp out a good soul jam.” In collaboration with producer Willie Mitchell and musicians like drummer Al Jackson Jr., Green was a natural album artist, making love-and-pain classics such as 1973’s Call Me. But this collection makes for a unified album in itself, compiling hits like “Let’s Stay Together,” “I’m Still in Love With You,” and “Tired of Being Alone” into a flawless 10-song suite.


Bo Diddley, ‘Bo Diddley/Go Bo Diddley’

Diddley’s influence on rock & roll is inestimable, from the off-kilter rhythmic thump of “Pretty Thing” to his revved-up take on singing the blues. This album — a repackaging of his first two records — has many of his best singles, including “I’m a Man” and “Who Do You Love?” Bands immediately started ripping off his signature rollicking beat, and they haven’t stopped yet — including many on this list, from Bruce Springsteen on Born to Run’s “She’s the One” to George Michael on “Faith.”


Can, ‘Ege Bamyasi’

Chugging out of Cologne, Germany, in the late Sixties, avant-psychedelic crew Can took influence from the Velvet Underground’s subterranean drones, Miles Davis’ molten jazz rock, and James Brown’s circular funk grooves. On Ege Bamyasi, new singer Damo Suzuki mumbles, chants, and shrieks his way through engulfing Kraut-boogie workouts like “Vitamin C” and “I’m So Green.” Spoon took their name from the LP’s Doors-meets-Stereolab closing track, and Kanye West sampled the lupine “Sing Swan Swing.”


Nine Inch Nails, ‘Pretty Hate Machine’

“The music I always liked as a kid was stuff I could bum out to and realize, ‘Hey, someone else feels that way, too,’” Trent Reznor said in 1990. “So if someone can do that with my music, it’s mission accomplished.” Led by the hit “Head Like a Hole,” Nine Inch Nails’ debut album took bleak Midwestern goth-industrial disco to the rock masses, a move that would shape pop culture just as much as Nirvana’s Nevermind did. When Reznor sang, “Grey would be the color if I had a heart,” on “Something I Can Never Have,” millions felt his pain.


Diana Ross and the Supremes, ‘Anthology’

In the heyday of Motown, the Supremes were their own hit factory, all glamour and heartbreak. Diana Ross and her girls ruled the radio with tunes from the Motown brain trust of Holland, Dozier, and Holland. The Supremes could blaze with confidence, as in “Come See About Me.” Or they could sound elegantly morose, as in “My World Is Empty Without You” and “Where Did Our Love Go?” But in “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart,” when Miss Ross gulps, “There ain’t nothing I can do about it,” it’s a spine-tingling moment.


Roberta Flack, ‘First Take’

At the peak of psychedelic soul music, Roberta Flack debuted with a classy quietude and thoughtful grace, recording with jazz musicians and complex horn and string arrangements. Her record was widely admired, but it didn’t become popular until three years later, after her pained version of Ewan MacColl’s 1950s folk ballad, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” scored a love scene in Clint Eastwood’s movie Play Misty for Me, and the song spent six weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart.