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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


Rage Against the Machine, ‘Rage Against the Machine’

“I believe in this band’s ability to bridge the gap between entertainment and activism,” declared Zack de la Rocha, whose radical politics found sympathetic muscle in Tom Morello’s howling one-guitar army, making a furor unheard since the MC5 and Clash. “Killing in the Name” took on historical racism within U.S. policing, a message that remains sadly prescient, and songs like “Bombtrack” and “Wake Up” were funky fusillades that proved rap rock could change minds as well as roil arena mosh pits.


Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, ‘Déjà Vu’

Neil Young was just getting his solo career underway when he joined his old Buffalo Springfield bandmate Stephen Stills, ex-Byrd David Crosby, and former Hollie Graham Nash in the first of the West Coast supergroups. Young’s vision and guitar transformed the earlier folk-rock CSN into a rock & roll powerhouse. The CSNY combination was too volatile to last, but on their best album, they offered pop idealism (Nash’s “Teach Your Children”), militant blues (Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair”), and vocal-choir gallop (Stills’ “Carry On”).


Raekwon, ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’

The finest Wu-Tang solo joint stands out due to Raekwon’s understated, eternally unflustered cool and densely woven verses. Abetted by hyperactive sideman Ghostface and hypnotically stark beats courtesy of the RZA, Raekwon crafts breathtaking drug-rap narratives. On “Knowledge God,” an Italian drug dealer with a “hairy chest” and “many minks” meets his colorful demise in just six words: “Sixteen shots in his fish tank.” It’s the rare hip-hop album that rivals the mob movies it celebrates for gripping detail.


TLC, ‘CrazySexyCool’

Things were not well with TLC during the making of CrazySexyCool: Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was lighting fires, and the group was in a financial slide that would end in bankruptcy proceedings. But they emerged with the most effervescent and soulful R&B pop anyone had heard since the Supremes. “Creep” is hard-edged but cute, the summery “Diggin’ on You” is almost pastoral in its intimate flow, and the transcendent “Waterfalls” may be the greatest song ever about how it’s not a great idea to go after your dreams.


Oasis, ‘Definitely Maybe’

Oasis didn’t get the memo about how Nineties rockers had to be all angst-y and fame-hating, but the Gallagher brothers’ cockiness would have been hollow without the supersonic songs on their debut. Liam’s insolent snarl and his brother Noel’s dialed-to-11 guitar on working-class anthems like the elevating “Live Forever” and the blaring “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” built off the Beatles and T. Rex to reach for their own glorious future.


Elliott Smith, ‘Either/Or’

Elliott Smith had ambitions to make records with a Beatlesque sound — but zero interest in Beatlesque fame — when he recorded Either/Or. While he achieved his dreams on several subsequent major-label releases, the Portland, Oregon, indie-folk singer-songwriter’s third album resonates because of his low-fi whisper and gritty, sepia-toned lyrics. His songs struck a nerve well beyond the Northwest music scene — Madonna, of all people, covered the morosely pretty drunk’s lullaby “Between the Bars.”


Grateful Dead, ‘American Beauty’

The Dead never sounded better in the studio than in the down-home stoner country of American Beauty. Released just five months after the folkie classic Workingmans Dead, American Beauty has some of their most beloved songs in “Ripple,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Truckin’.” Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were on a hot streak, writing the ultimate outlaw credo in “Friend of the Devil.” “Box of Rain” has the Dead’s most emotional harmony vocals, especially in the haunting final lines: “Such a long, long time to be gone/And a short time to be there.”


Tom Petty, ‘Wildflowers’

Petty struggled for two years to make the Rick Rubin-produced follow-up to 1989’s hit Full Moon Fever. He left tons of songs in the can, and the final product stretched to 70 minutes but didn’t have any filler. Petty hit a new songwriting peak, going from intimate, soul-bearing songs like the title track and “Crawling Back to You” to rockers like “You Wreck Me” and “House in the Woods.” “I think it’s maybe my favorite LP that I’ve ever done,” Petty said.


Fiona Apple, ‘The Idler Wheel’

The Idler Wheel continued Fiona Apple’s run as one of modern pop’s most thrilling eccentrics. There’s a single-minded intensity to songs like “Every Single Night” and “Hot Knife,” where she puts an almost shocking amount of feeling into each syllable. Apple can sound like a cabaret singer in one song and a blueswoman in the next, her voice full of sandpaper edges and bestial roars. “I may need a chaperone,” she wonders on “Daredevil,” but this album proves she’s at her very best when left to her own devices.


Nina Simone, ‘Wild Is the Wind’

Aretha was the Queen of Soul, but Nina Simone, as one of her album titles proclaimed, was its high priestess, and this 1966 LP is among her most enthralling and eclectic. With her dusky voice at its most commanding, Simone works her way through roadhouse soul (“I Love Your Lovin’ Ways”) and dramatic set pieces (the melancholic “Lilac Wine,” later covered by Jeff Buckley). It peaks with “Four Women,” an ambitious saga of racially diverse women and their struggles, written by Simone.


Joy Divison, ‘Unknown Pleasures’

Joy Division came from the northern England industrial gloom of Manchester, four blue-collar lads chasing a new kind of goth-punk grandeur. Right from the opening, “Disorder,” Unknown Pleasures sounds like nothing else, with the doomed Ian Curtis yelping his dark poetry (“I got the spirit!”) over Peter Hook’s bass pulse. But for all the despair, there’s something inspiring in the surge of “Interzone” and “New Dawn Fades.” Black-clad young bands have been imitating Joy Division ever since.


Ray Charles, ‘The Birth of Soul’

Ray Charles was just about the first person to perfect that mix of blues and gospel, holy and filthy, that we know as soul music. He was knocking around Seattle when Atlantic bought out his contract in 1952. For the next eight years, he turned out brilliant singles such as “What’d I Say” and “I Got a Woman.” This box collects every R&B side he cut for Atlantic, though his swinging take on “My Bonnie” will have you thinking it covers his Atlantic jazz output as well.


Run-DMC, ‘Raising Hell’

Working for the first time with producer Rick Rubin, the Hollis, Queens, crew of Run, DMC, and Jam Master Jay made an album so undeniable, it forced the mainstream to cross over to hip-hop. “Peter Piper” kicked the rhymes over a jingling cowbell sampled from an old jazz-fusion record. On “My Adidas,” “It’s Tricky,” and “You Be Illin’,” Run and DMC talked trash while the DJ made their day. They even hit MTV with a vandalistic remake of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” featuring Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.


Lil Wayne, ‘Tha Carter III’

By 2008, Lil Wayne contained multitudes: Best Rapper Alive, Pussy Monster, Martian, Weezy F. Baby (and the “F” is for, well, pretty much any word starting with “F”). Tha Carter III was a monument to this multiple-personality menagerie. “A Milli,” a glorified freestyle, fully crossed over to the mainstream, while “Lollipop,” a robotic R&B jam, rightly bet that an audience was ready to invest in Wayne’s croaky, syrup-addled singing voice. More than a decade later, even Wayne’s most outré personalities are still birthing musical descendants.


Eagles, ‘Eagles’

This debut created a new template for laid-back L.A. country-rock style. Behind the band’s mellow message — “Take It Easy,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling” — was a relentless drive. “Everybody had to look good, sing good, play good, and write good,” Glenn Frey told Cameron Crowe in Rolling Stone. Beyond the album’s three hit singles, songs like the somber waltz “Most of Us Are Sad,” the pickin’ and grinnin’ “Earlybird,” and the down-home rocker “Nightingale” showed a band that had perfected a sound right out of the gate.


David Bowie, ‘Low’

David Bowie fled to Berlin to kick cocaine — not to mention his other drug of choice, stardom. He moved into a flat above a hardware store and restarted his music from scratch, teaming up with Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti. Low was split between electronic instrumentals and quirky funk like “Sound and Vision.” It began his famous “Berlin trilogy” — though it was cut mostly in France — topped off by Heroes and Lodger. In 1977, Bowie also produced Iggy Pop’s two finest solo albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life.


Cat Stevens, ‘Tea for the Tillerman’

With its chamber-pop arrangements, Tea for the Tillerman is one of the British folkie’s most ambitious albums (to take one example of Cat Stevens’ thinking at the time, the LP’s gentle, advice-dispensing “Father and Son” began as a song for a musical he wanted to write about the Russian Revolution). It soothed countless living rooms in the Seventies, but the album is deceptively angst-y. Both the hit single “Wild World” and the bleak ballad “Hard-Headed Woman” find him condemning his ex Patti D’Arbanville — who later shacked up with Mick Jagger.


Kanye West, ‘Graduation’

“I’m doin’ pretty good as far as geniuses go,” Kanye West rapped on Graduation’s “Barry Bonds.” At the time, no one could argue with that. For his third album, West pared down the ornate production for a new kind of sleek stadium rap, deftly expanding his sampling palette to include Steely Dan, Daft Punk, and even Krautrockers Can, while giving his fame-sucks brags and gripes an introspect that points toward emo rap.


Nick Drake, ‘Pink Moon’

Nick Drake recorded his last album in a couple of nights, mailed the tapes to Island Records, and checked himself into a psychiatric ward. If the music were as dark as the lyrics, it might be unlistenable. But Drake’s soothing vocals and unadorned acoustic picking unfold with supernatural tenderness. Few heard Pink Moon when it was released, but its stark beauty has touched the intimate bedroom folk of Cat Power, Elliott Smith, and many others.


Björk, ‘Homogenic’

Björk’s third album was a departure from the fun, playful electronics of her mid-Nineties solo sets Debut and Post, adopting a more uniform, chilly, and distinctly Icelandic sound in its fusion of trip-hop with neo-classical strings. “Jóga,” with its stratosphere-high vocals and beats inspired by volcanic eruptions, may be Björk’s signature song, but it’s only one sample of the album’s palette, jagged and luminescent like broken stained glass. The sheer beauty underneath its boldness and abrasion has enraptured countless artists, from Thom Yorke to Arca, in the years since its release.


A Tribe Called Quest, ‘Midnight Marauders’

Tribe had a lot to live up to on the follow-up to The Low End Theory, but they kept the boho rap groove going. Q-Tip and co-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad layered the LP with vintage jazz samples and intentionally doubled-up drums to retain the spirit of New York boom-bap, as Q-Tip and Phife Dawg deepened their rhymes on tracks like “Electric Relaxation.” In a historic moment of New York hip-hop synergy, Midnight Marauders was released the same day as the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang.