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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


Queen, ‘A Night at the Opera’

“Queen will be the Cecil B. DeMille of rock,” proclaimed singer Freddie Mercury, and this far-ranging, rococo album is the group’s ready-for-my-close-up moment. Bassist John Deacon wrote the melodic highlight “You’re My Best Friend,” a bouncy bit of Paul McCartney-esque pop; Mercury wrote the brutal rocker “Death on Two Legs,” about the band’s former manager; and guitarist Brian May wrote “The Prophet’s Song,” a doomy portent of a flood that runs 8:21 and includes a vocal canon from Mercury. But the coup was “Bohemian Rhapsody,” an opera buffa in which Mercury combined three different songs he’d been writing into a suite that took weeks to record.


Ray Charles, ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’

Country and soul were deeply entangled Southern traditions and had been cross-pollinating for years. But Modern Sounds was still the audacious boundary smasher its title promised, with Ray Charles applying his gospel grit and luscious soul-pop strings to standards by Hank Williams (“Half as Much,” “You Win Again,” “Hey, Good Lookin’”) and Eddy Arnold, whose lover’s lament “You Don’t Know Me” is recast as a parable about race relations in light of the civil rights struggle. Modern Sounds became the most popular album of Charles’ career and includes the hits “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Born to Lose.”


Mary J. Blige, ‘My Life’

The crucial development on Mary J. Blige’s second album is her emergence as a songwriter; in lyrics and interviews, she began to describe the traumas she’d had, both as a child growing up in the projects and as an adult. For fans, that intimacy turned her from a beloved singer to a member of the family. “Down and out, crying every day,” she sings on the title song. There’s plenty of thematic contrast — the playful bedroom come-on “Mary Jane (All Night Long),” a smashing cover of the 1970s funk ballad “I’m Going Down” — but the strongest impression from the album is that Blige had been through it, and her hopefulness was hard-won.


Beastie Boys, ‘Paul’s Boutique’

“I went to this party in Los Angeles,” recalled Adam Horovitz, “and they were playing this music, like … four breakbeat records playing at the same time.” The party soundtrack consisted of tracks by the Dust Brothers, who ended up co-producing this entire second record from the Beasties, providing the rap trio with some of the best samples ever put on wax, including the Ramones, Mountain, and the Funky 4 Plus 1. Paul’s Boutique is also an extended goof on Abbey Road [see No. 5], which was Paul McCartney’s boutique — and like that record, it ambitiously stitches together song fragments in a way rarely heard before or since.


U2, ‘Achtung Baby’

After fostering a solemn public image for years, U2 loosened up on Achtung Baby, recorded in Berlin with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. They no longer sounded like young men sure of the answers; now they were full of doubt and longing. “It’s a con, in a way,” Bono told Rolling Stone about the album in 1992. “We call it Achtung Baby, grinning up our sleeves in all the photography. But it’s probably the heaviest record we’ve ever made.” “One” may be their most gorgeous song, but it’s a dark ballad about a relationship in peril and the struggle to keep it together. Yet the emotional turmoil made U2 sound more human than ever.


Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin II’

This album — recorded on the fly while the band was touring — opens with one of the most exhilarating guitar riffs in rock & roll: Jimmy Page’s searing stutter in “Whole Lotta Love.” As Page told Rolling Stone, “On the second LP, you can hear the real group identity coming together,” by which he meant the unified might of his own white-blues sorcery, John Bonham’s hands-of-Zeus drumming, Robert Plant’s love-god howl and surprisingly tender lyrics (the gorgeous “Thank You”), and John Paul Jones’ firm bass and keyboard colors. Other great reasons to bang your head: “The Lemon Song,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Ramble On.”


Nine Inch Nails, ‘The Downward Spiral’

“When I rented the place, I didn’t realize it was that house,” claimed NIN’s Trent Reznor about recording Spiral in the onetime home of Manson-family victim Sharon Tate. Despite “a million electrical disturbances,” Reznor made the most successful album of his career — a cohesive, willful, and overpowering meditation on the central theme running through all of NIN’s videos, live shows, music, and lyrics: control. While Spiral has its share of Reznor’s trademark industrial corrosiveness, it’s balanced by the tentatively hopeful (and intensely personal) “Hurt” and soundscapes inspired by David Bowie’s Low.


Elvis Costello, ‘This Year’s Model’

His second album and first with his crack backing band, the Attractions, This Year’s Model is the most “punk” of Elvis Costello’s records — not in any I-hate-the-cops sense but in his emotionally explosive writing (“No Action,” “Lipstick Vogue,” “Pump It Up”) and the Attractions’ vicious gallop (particularly the psycho-circus organ playing of Steve Nieve). Many of the songs rattle with sexual paranoia, but the broadside against vanilla-pop broadcasting, “Radio, Radio” (a U.K. single added to the original U.S. vinyl LP), better reflects the general, righteous indignation of the album: Costello versus the world. And Costello wins.


Van Morrison, ‘Moondance’

“That was the type of band I dig,” Van Morrison said of the Moondance sessions. “Two horns and a rhythm section — they’re the type of bands that I like best.” Morrison took that soul-band lineup and blended it with jazz, blues, poetry, and vivid memories of his Irish childhood, until songs such as “And It Stoned Me” and “Caravan” felt like lucid dreams. In the title hit, Morrison turns the words over and over in his mouth, not scatting so much as searching for the sound of magic. “Into the Mystic” serves as an apt summary: To listen to the album is to get your passport stamped for Morrison’s world of ecstatic visions.


Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Stand!’

Stand! is party politics at its most inclusive and exciting — Sly Stone at the top of his funk-rock-soul game. A DJ and producer in San Francisco during the Dawn of Hippie, Stone rides the bonfire momentum of the civil rights movement in motivational-soul sermons such as “Stand!” and “You Can Make It If You Try” without denying the intrinsic divisions that threatened civil war (“Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”). There was also the uplifting pure-pop beauty of “Everyday People” as well as the R&B ecstasy of “I Want to Take You Higher” and the swirling black psychedelia of “Sex Machine.” It makes Stand! a greatest-hits album in all but name.


The Eagles, ‘Hotel California’

In pursuit of note-perfect Hollywood-cowboy ennui, the Eagles spent eight months in the studio polishing take after take after take. As Don Henley recalled: “We just locked ourselves in. We had a refrigerator, a ping-pong table, roller skates, and a couple of cots. We would go in and stay for two or three days at a time.” With guitarist Joe Walsh replacing Bernie Leadon, the band backed off from straight country rock in favor of the harder sound of “Life in the Fast Lane.” The highlight is the title track, a monument to the rock-aristocrat decadence of the day and a feast of triple-guitar interplay. “Every band has their peak,” Henley said. “That was ours.”


Kanye West, ‘Late Registration’

The College Dropout introduced the world to a polo-shirt-wearing preppy who merged backpack-rap politics and bling-rap materialism. But it was on Late Registration that Kanye West really started showing off, calling in savvy producer Jon Brion to co-produce an album that ranged from triumphal autobiography (“Touch the Sky”) to witty club pop (“Gold Digger”) to heartstring-tuggers (“Hey Mama”), packing in Chinese bells, James Bond themes, and Houston hip-hop. The end result was a near-perfect album that remade the pop landscape in West’s own oddball image.


The Cure, ‘Disintegration’

According to the kids on South Park, this is the best album ever made. According to many depressive Eighties-minded kids, it’s the only album ever made. Disintegration was the height of stadium goth rock, with the Cure stretching out for long, spacious wallows like ‘Plainsong” and “Prayers for Rain.” But it also shows off Robert Smith’s stunning pop mastery on “Lovesong,” which Smith wrote as a wedding present for his wife, and the rapturously forlorn “Pictures of You.” On “Fascination Street,” his voice shakes like milk as he makes adolescent angst sound so wonderfully, wonderfully pretty. “I was trying to put in one or two beacons of light in amongst the darkness,” he told Rolling Stone.


Kendrick Lamar, ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’

Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop autobiography came as a shock in 2012: musically downbeat, with a film director’s eye for narrative but the voice of a poet. Good kid is his story of growing up in Compton, surrounded by gunfire, gang warfare, police brutality, drugs, liquor, dead friends — billed on the cover as “A Short FIlm by Kendrick Lamar,” like a West Coast answer to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. K-Dot goes for emotional detail instead of gangsta bravado, whether cruising the streets in “Backseat Freestyle” or pondering addiction in “Swimming Pool (Drank).” As he told Rolling Stone, “The best entertainers have to have the most wickedest sense of humor, to be able to take pain and change it into laughter.”


The Strokes, ‘Is This It’

Before Is This It even came out, New York’s mod ragamuffins were overnight sensations, jumping from Avenue A to press hysteria and the inevitable backlash, all inside a year. The objective of Is This It, said singer Julian Casablancas, “was to be really cool and non-mainstream, and be really popular.” Recorded literally under the streets of New York, this blast of guitar-combo racket passionately reconciled those seemingly contradictory aspirations, and accomplished both, updating the propulsion of the Velvet Underground and the jangle of Seventies punk with Casablancas’ acidic dispatches mixed to the fore and ringed with distortion like he was singing from a pay phone.


The Smiths, ‘The Queen Is Dead’

Morrissey’s maudlin moanings have never been more acidic or self-aware than on the Smiths’ third studio album: “A dreaded sunny day, so let’s go where we’re happy/And I meet you at the cemetery gates,” indeed. Johnny Marr is the sugar to Morrissey’s rock salt, and his layered webs of guitar riffs and arpeggios, often in unconventional tunings, build a shifting but stable platform for Morrissey to croon about the drudgery of employment or being cruelly, cruelly shunned by the world. It’s mope rock with its eye on grandeur: With “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” Marr said, “I was trying to write my ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash.’”


Elton John, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’

Elton John compared this double album to the Beatles’ White Album, and why not? He was by this point the most consistent hitmaker since the Fab Four, and soon enough he would be recording with John Lennon. Everything about Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was supersonically huge, from the Wagnerian-opera-like combo of “Funeral for a Friend” and “Love Lies Bleeding” to the electric boots and mohair suit of “Bennie and the Jets.” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” was strutting rock & roll, “Candle in the Wind” paid tribute to Marilyn Monroe (and later, Princess Diana), and the title track harnessed the fantastical imagery of glam to a Gershwin-sweet melody.


Janet Jackson, ‘Control’

If properly, successfully maturing in pop after a childhood in the spotlight is an artform, then Janet Jackson is Michelangelo and Control her statue of David. The youngest member of the Jackson family released her third studio album while on the cusp of her twenties. Working with the dream team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson made an assertive, hook-y, and powerful proclamation of her star power on sparkling, sculpted electro-pop dance songs like “Nasty,” “The Pleasure Principle,” and the title track. Control remains the blueprint for any young artist looking to find their own voice.


Joni Mitchell, ‘Court and Spark’

Joni Mitchell followed up Blue with the underrated For the Roses, a set of harmonically and lyrically complex songs. Court and Spark is, in comparison, smoother and more straight-ahead; it became the biggest record of her career, hitting Number Two. Working with saxophonist Tom Scott’s fusion group, L.A. Express, Mitchell settled into a folk-pop-jazz groove that remains a landmark of breezy sophistication, particularly on the Top 10 single “Help Me.” Strange but true: A cover of “Twisted,” by the scat-jazz vocal group Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, closes the album — with stoner comics Cheech and Chong singing backup.


Lou Reed, ‘Transformer’

David Bowie counted the former Velvet Underground leader as a major inspiration — and paid back the debt by producing Transformer. The album had glam flash courtesy of Ziggy Stardust guitarist Mick Ronson as well as Reed’s biggest hit, “Walk on the Wild Side” — which brought drag queens and hustlers into the Top 20 — and the exquisite ballad “Perfect Day.” It was Reed’s first producer, VU impresario Andy Warhol, who inspired the lead cut when he suggested “Vicious” as a song title. “You know, like, ‘Vicious/You hit me with a flower,’” Warhol elaborated. Reed took him at his word, penning the song and cribbing the lines verbatim.


Fiona Apple, ‘When the Pawn …’

Following the success of her precocious debut, Tidal, and saddled with a pop audience that didn’t quite know what to do with her, Fiona Apple took her critics to task on the mature yet daring When the Pawn … Backed by her expressive piano playing and impressionistic production from Jon Brion, Apple makes resentment seem almost fun on songs like “Fast as You Can,” “Paper Bag,” and “The Way Things Are.” In years to come, Apple would make peace with her outcast status, leaving far behind the MTV-generation gatekeepers who once gave her so much grief. For generations of young fans, the raw, hard-won triumph of When the Pawn … will always feel timeless.


Television, ‘Marquee Moon’

When the members of Television materialized in New York, at the dawn of punk, they played an incongruous, soaring amalgam of genres: the noirish howl of the Velvet Underground, brainy art rock, the double-helix guitar sculpture of Quicksilver Messenger Service. As exhilarating in its lyrical ambitions as the Ramones’ debut was in its brutal simplicity, Marquee Moon still amazes. “Friction,” “Venus,” and the mighty title track are jagged, desperate, and beautiful all at once. As for punk credentials, don’t forget the cryptic electricity and strangled existentialism of guitarist Tom Verlaine’s voice and songwriting.


Hole, ‘Live Through This’

One week before Hole’s breakthrough album was released, Kurt Cobain killed himself and made Courtney Love a widow. The media attention that followed guaranteed a close listen for Love’s fearsome songs and her shift from pure riot-grrrl punk to a more stable sound that MTV could embrace. Her coded songs have dark topics, including death (“Kill me pills”), violence (“Pee girl gets the belt”), and body shame (“Bad skin, doll heart”), as well as motherhood. (Cobain and Love became parents two years earlier, and briefly lost custody after she was reported to have used heroin while pregnant.) The horror in Love’s exposed voice on “Asking for It” and “Doll Parts” gives immediacy to her firsthand stories about being an outcast “pee girl.”


The Allman Brothers, ‘At Fillmore East’

Although this double album is the perfect testimony to the Allman Brothers’ improvisational skills, it is also evidence of their unprecedented connection with the crowds at New York’s Fillmore East. “The audience would kind of play along with us,” singer-organist Gregg Allman said of those March 1971 shows. “They were right on top of every single vibration coming from the stage.” The guitar team of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts was at its peak, seamlessly fusing blues and jazz in “Whipping Post” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” But their telepathy was cut short: Just three months after the album’s release, Duane died in a motorcycle accident.


The Rolling Stones, ‘Sticky Fingers’

Drummer Charlie Watts remembered the origin of Sticky Fingers as the songs Mick Jagger wrote while filming the movie Ned Kelly in Australia. “Mick started playing the guitar a lot,” Watts said. “He plays very strange rhythm guitar … very much how Brazilian guitarists play, on the upbeat. It is very much like the guitar on a James Brown track — for a drummer, it’s great to play with.” New guitarist Mick Taylor, replacing Brian Jones, stretches out the Stones sound in “Sway,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and “Moonlight Mile.” But “Brown Sugar” is a classic Stones stomp, and two of the best cuts are country songs: one forlorn (“Wild Horses”) and one funny (“Dead Flowers”).


De La Soul, ‘Three Feet High And Rising’

Long Island high school friends Posdnuos, Trugoy, and Maseo linked up with Stetsasonic DJ Prince Paul to create a left-field hip-hop masterpiece, heralding a “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” and weaving samples of Steely Dan, Malcolm McLaren, and Johnny Cash with raps about everything from Public Enemy-style politics (“Ghetto Thang”) to individualism (“Take It Off”) to body odor (“A Little Bit of Soap”). “There was no plan back then,” Trugoy told Rolling Stone in 2009. Indeed, De La Soul’s anything-goes spirit sparked generations of oddballs to rise up and get theirs.


The Clash, ‘The Clash’

“I haven’t got any illusions about anything,” Joe Strummer said. “Having said that, I still want to try to change things.” That youthful ambition bursts through the Clash’s debut, a machine-gun blast of songs about unemployment (“Career Opportunities”), race (“White Riot”), and the Clash themselves (“Clash City Rockers”). Most of the guitar was played by Mick Jones, because Strummer considered studio technique insufficiently punk. The American release was delayed two years and replaced some of the U.K. tracks with recent singles, including “Complete Control” — a complaint about exactly those sort of record-company shenanigans.


Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zeppelin’

On their first album, Led Zeppelin were still in the process of inventing their own sound, moving on from the heavy rave-ups of guitarist Jimmy Page’s previous band, the Yardbirds. But from the beginning, Zeppelin had the astonishing fusion of Page’s lyrical guitar playing and Robert Plant’s paint-peeling love-hound yowl. “We were learning what got us off most and what got people off most,” said Plant. Yet the template for everything Zeppelin achieved in the 1970s is here: brutal rock (“Communication Breakdown”), thundering power balladry (“Your Time Is Gonna Come”), and acid-flavored folk blues (“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”).