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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


Nirvana, ‘In Utero’

After Nevermind went megaplatinum, Kurt Cobain detested how the band had drawn frat boys and homophobe fans — “plankton,” he called them, adding, “Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” Nirvana hired indie-rock producer Steve Albini to record their new album, resulting in a record sonically forbidding enough that Geffen Records asked them to clean it up. In “Scentless Apprentice,” he screams, “Go away!” at no one and everyone, summarizing this powerfully unsettling third album. Melodies peak through the clouds of his wrath, especially on “All Apologies,” “Dumb,” and “Pennyroyal Tea,” but the prevailing mood is queasy, like a visit to the inside of Cobain’s aching stomach.


Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’

On their fifth and final studio album, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were pulling away from each other: Simon assembled some of it while Garfunkel was in Mexico starting his acting career with a part in the film version of Catch-22. Garfunkel vetoed Simon’s song “Cuba Sí, Nixon No,” and Simon nixed Garfunkel’s idea for a Bach chorale. What remains is the partnership at its best: wry, wounded songs with healing harmonies such as “The Boxer,” though the gorgeous title track was sung by Garfunkel alone, despite his resistance. “He felt I should have done it,” Simon told Rolling Stone in 1972. “And many times, I’m sorry I didn’t do it.”


Sonic Youth, ‘Daydream Nation’

Sonic Youth took an ecstatic, specifically New York sound created in the late 1970s by the band Television and by composers Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, and turned it into an international clamor. On this double album, they make a move away from doomy riddles about pop culture and toward joyful riddles about pop culture. Their unconventional guitar tunings result in jarring chords and overtones, but also an array of gnarled hooks. Thurston Moore’s and Lee Ranaldo’s guitars are like antennae picking up otherworldly signals and channeling them into the scuzzy urban haze of “Teen Age Riot” and “Eric’s Trip,” and on “The Sprawl,” bassist Kim Gordon sums up the album’s measured chaos: “Does ‘Fuck you’ sound simple enough?”


Cream, ‘Disraeli Gears’

Of all Cream’s studio albums, Disraeli Gears is the sharpest and most linear. The power trio focused their instrumental explorations into colorful pop songs: “Strange Brew” (slinky funk), “Dance the Night Away” (trippy jangle), “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (a wah-wah freakout that Eric Clapton wrote with Martin Sharp, who created the kaleidoscopic cover art). The hit “Sunshine of Your Love” nearly didn’t make it onto the record; the band had trouble nailing it until famed Atlantic Records engineer Tom Dowd suggested that Ginger Baker try a Native American tribal beat, a simple adjustment that locked the song into place.


Billy Joel, ‘The Stranger’

On this record, Billy Joel found the recipe for success: a bottle of red, a bottle of white, and a sharp eye for the local color of New York street life. The Piano Man sharpens his storytelling gifts with a Scorsese-style sense of humor and compassion, whether he’s singing about a down-and-out Little Italy hustler in “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” the femme fatale in “She’s Always a Woman,” or the doomed Long Island greaser couple Brenda and Eddie in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” Meanwhile, Joel hit the pop charts with the Grammy-winning “Just the Way You Are” (written for his first wife and manager, Elizabeth), which became a wedding-band standard.


Steely Dan, ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’

Working as hired songwriters by day, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker rehearsed this debut in executives’ offices by night. “We play rock & roll, but we swing,” said Becker. For proof, check the cool lounge-jazz rhythms of “Do It Again” and the hot guitar of “Reelin’ in the Years.” Even florid lead vocalist David Palmer (who the band soon fired) couldn’t damage the sad, stately beauty of “Dirty Work”; on “Brooklyn,” Becker and Fagen wrote the perfect elusive ode to their native borough. Their debut kicked off an amazing run of albums, like 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy and 1974’s Pretzel Logic, that are just as fantastic.


Depeche Mode, ‘Violator’

One of England’s first synth-pop bands, Depeche Mode had moved beyond their bubblegum phase by the time of their seventh album and, under the influence of hip-hop, began playing with samples and loops, even betraying their keyboard roots with the twangy guitar that opens “Personal Jesus.” Alan Wilder created the dense, constantly shifting arrangements, Martin Gore wrote the pervy lyrics, and Dave Gahan croons implacably about betrayal, immorality, and sexual domination. The percolating “Enjoy the Silence” became their only U.S. Top 10 single, and “Policy of Truth” did almost as well. With its panoply of high-gloss hooks and arresting, artificial sounds, Violator cemented Depeche Mode’s status as the first electronic band that could fill stadiums.


Buddy Holly, ’20 Golden Greats’

Buddy Holly spent his teenage years kicking around Texas playing straight country music — until, at 19, when he got a gig opening for Elvis Presley. With that, Holly later claimed, he became a rock & roller. For the next two years, he put his trademark vocal hiccup on springy rockabilly, orchestral ballads, and Chuck Berry covers — an eclecticism that had a huge impact on the future Beatles. “Rave On,” “Peggy Sue,” and “Not Fade Away” made Holly one of rock’s first great singer-songwriters. He was also its first major casualty: dead at 22, in a plane crash after a show in Iowa in 1959.


R.E.M., ‘Murmur’

“We wanted to have this kind of timeless record,” guitarist Peter Buck said of R.E.M.’s debut LP, and this “technically limited” band (according to producer Don Dixon) did just that. Buck was a rock scholar who had worked in a record store; singer Michael Stipe unspooled his lyrics as if they constituted some new secret language. Murmur is full of ringing guitars and mystery. The lyrics and the melodies seem buried, almost subliminal, and even the songs with something approximating hooks, such as “Radio Free Europe,” resist clarity. Murmur was a founding document of alternative rock, released just as Gen X was heading off to college.


Johnny Cash, ‘At Folsom Prison’

By the late Sixties, Cash was ignored by country radio and struggling for a comeback. At Folsom Prison was a million-seller that reignited his career. A year later, he was writing liner notes for Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and logging four weeks at Number One with his second prison album, At San Quentin. But Folsom Prison is essential Cash. Backed by a tough touring band, including fellow Sun Records alum Carl Perkins on guitar, Cash guffaws his way through “Cocaine Blues,” “25 Minutes to Go” (a countdown to an execution), and “Folsom Prison Blues,” with its line about shooting a man just to watch him die. The 2,000 inmates in attendance roar their approval.


Various Artists, ‘Saturday Night Fever’

In the mid-Seventies, the Bee Gees swept away the arch pop of their Sixties hits and applied their silvery-helium harmonies to the creamy syncopation of disco. They made great albums in their new incarnation (such as 1975’s Main Course), but none bigger or more influential than this movie soundtrack. Over the decades, Saturday Night Fever sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, and its musical worth justifies the numbers. The Bee Gees dominate (“Stayin’ Alive” is the pulse of the picture as well as the album), but the Trammps’ hot-funk assault “Disco Inferno” and Tavares’ yearning “More Than a Woman” affirm disco’s black-R&B roots.


Pulp, ‘Different Class’

Pulp blew up in the Brit-pop scene of the 1990s, yet Jarvis Cocker outclassed all his rivals as a master storyteller and wit. This man was a born rock star in the Bowie mode, striking a pose in his thrift-shop razzmatazz, but with his own sly sense of compassion. On Different Class, he croons his breathy tales of working-class lust, envy, and dread, over the swishy, trash-disco grooves of “Common People” and “Disco 2000.” You can hear the shabby glamour in his voice when he sighs, “I’ve kissed your mother twice/And now I’m working on your dad.” But in the finale, “Bar Italia,” he makes a post-clubbing hangover sound like the most romantic adventure in the world.


Crosby, Stills & Nash, ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’

Harmony singing existed before Crosby, Stills and Nash became one of rock’s first supergroups, in 1968. But during a particularly tumultuous time for the country, their distinctive, hippie-angelic blend felt hopeful and uplifting, whether they were singing about the distressed state of America (Crosby’s “Long Time Gone”) or their own wounded hearts (Stills’ epic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”). No wonder Jimi Hendrix called the album (which captured the group at its most cohesive) “groovy, Western-sky music.” The tumultuous reality of the band’s existence meant their harmony would be hard to sustain, but here it’s practically an advertisement for community in action.


Pearl Jam, ‘Ten’

More than any of the Northwest bands that preceded them, Pearl Jam turned grunge into rock’s dominant new sound. Their first album includes stories about homelessness (“Even Flow”), murder (“Once”), execution (“Footsteps”), incest (“Alive”), psychiatric hospitals (“Why Go”), and romantic disappointment (“Black”). Most notoriously, “Jeremy” told the story of a high school kid who takes revenge on his bullies by killing himself in class — though the lyrics don’t make that clear, the accompanying video did. Pearl Jam committed themselves to songs of darkness and trouble, especially in adolescent life, and Eddie Vedder delivers them with conviction, in a voice that makes you feel like the events are happening right now, in front of you.


The Police, ‘Synchronicity’

“I do my best work when I’m in pain and turmoil,” Sting told Rolling Stone. And indeed, the dissolution of his first marriage produced some of his best work, including “King of Pain” and the stalker’s anthem “Every Breath You Take.” There was pain and turmoil in the band, too — it would be the Police’s last album. But it became one of the Eighties’ biggest pop-rock blockbusters, perhaps the finest example of Sting’s unique gift for distilling complex psychological and romantic dramas, which still ruled radio and MTV, while making proggy musicianship and dense composition palatable to the mall-rat masses.


Erykah Badu, ‘Mama’s Gun’

Richly direct and meditative, Erykah Badu’s second album took no prisoners. Mama’s Gun gave us an even more personal version of the neo-soul brilliance she displayed on her 1997 debut, focused by a few more years of life experience (including the dissolution of her relationship with OutKast’s André 3000 and the time off she took to welcome their son, Seven). On the J Dilla-produced “Didn’t Cha Know,” she’s luminously lost; by “Bag Lady,” she’s made peace with her past emotional baggage. With contributions from like-minded artists like Questlove and Roy Ayers, Badu created a wildly free, deliciously ambitious song cycle out of her own hard-won truths.


Oasis, ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’

With their second album, the fighting Gallagher brothers embraced their Stones and Beatles comparisons, then went ahead and established themselves as a rock & roll force in their own right with barnburners (“Roll With It”) and epic tunes, like the glorious “Wonderwall.” “The whole of the first album is about escape,” Noel Gallagher told Rolling Stone in 1996, of 1994’s Definitely Maybe. “It’s about getting away from the shitty, boring life of Manchester. The first album is about dreaming of being a pop star in a band. The second album is about actually being a pop star in a band.”


The Replacements, ‘Let It Be’

Copping a Beatles title was cheeky; attaching it to a post-punk masterpiece was a sign of maturity. Said Paul Westerberg, “This was the first time I had songs that we arranged, rather than just banging out riffs.” Mixing punk, pop, and country with wry lyrics, his songs describe heroes (the gender-bending couple in “Androgynous”) and villains (an unsanitary dentist in “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out”; MTV in “Seen Your Video”), and pack in quips about the group’s lack of success (“Fingernails and cigarettes, a lousy dinner”) with swagger and pride. The coup is “Unsatisfied,” a pained howl of unhappiness that forced people to take this ratty band seriously.


Jay-Z, ‘The Black Album’

By 2003, Jay-Z was out of antagonists to dominate and his Roc-A-Fella label was a true dynasty. So he pulled the rap version of Michael Jordan’s 1993 retirement, with his much vaunted “farewell record.” Backed by a phalanx of superproducers (Kanye West, the Neptunes, Timbaland), he proved himself, once again, “pound for pound … the best to ever come around.” As you might expect, The Black Album is a towering feat of melodramatic self-mythologizing, tracing his birth (“December 4th”), hustler peak (“99 Problems”), and afterlife (“Lucifer”). Apparently, Jay wasn’t too happy with the eulogy, because three years later he was back.


Aretha Franklin, ‘Amazing Grace’

“I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Amazing Grace is Aretha’s singular masterpiece,” Marvin Gaye observed. Recorded in an L.A. church with her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, on hand and Mick Jagger dancing in the back of the congregation, this return to Aretha Franklin’s gospel roots remains the bestselling album of her career, containing, arguably, the greatest singing she recorded. Part of this is because it didn’t sound like it took place in a church; Franklin approaches sacred songs as if they were soul standards, and delivers Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” like it’s a hymn. “How I Got Over,” her fervent thank you to Jesus, must have made the Lord blush.


PJ Harvey, ‘Rid of Me’

“I very much wanted to write songs that shocked,” Polly Jean Harvey said years after releasing her second album. The shock came partly from her lyrics, which were often proclamations of sexual compulsion, and also from the intense dynamic shifts in her music, which careen from blues to goth, often in the space of one song. Harvey was under the influence of Howlin’ Wolf, Tom Waits, and Flannery O’Connor, and her singing, writing, and lead-guitar playing coalesce into something marked by flames. The lyrics have lots of licking, moaning, bleeding, stroking, open mouths, and dismembered body parts. The songs spew viscera as they build to a sticky ecstasy.


The Pretenders, ‘Pretenders’

After years of knocking around Ohio and England, writing record reviews and hanging with the Sex Pistols, Chrissie Hynde put together a band as tough as her attitude. The Pretenders’ debut is filled with no-nonsense New Wave rock such as “Mystery Achievement” — plus a cover of “Stop Your Sobbing,” by the Kinks’ Ray Davies (three years later, the father of Hynde’s child). The biggest hit was “Brass in Pocket,” a song of ambition and seduction. Hynde, however, wasn’t so sure about the song’s success. “I was embarrassed by it,” she said. “I hated it so much that if I was in Woolworth’s and they started playing it, I’d have to run out of the store.”


George Michael, ‘Faith’

As the main singer and writer in the 1980s British pop band Wham!, George Michael paraded around in sleeveless mesh shirts and Fila short-shorts. Wham! songs were smarter than they appeared, and when Michael went solo to prove what he could do, he nailed it on the first try, integrating R&B in his songwriting, from soul ballads (“Father Figure,” “One More Try”) to horny Prince-inspired funk (“I Want Your Sex,” “Hard Day”). The album sold 25 million copies worldwide, and four singles went to Number One in the U.S. “You either see pop music as a contemporary art form, or you don’t. I do, very strongly,” Michael said.