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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


The Breeders, ‘Last Splash’

How did a weird little tune like “Cannonball” make the Top 40? It’s an only-in-the-Nineties mystery that may go forever unsolved. On the Breeders’ breakthrough LP, Kim Deal made a record every bit as good as her old band, the Pixies, with her sister Kelly on guitar, singing about sex and summer over the surfy buzz of “Divine Hammer” and “I Just Wanna Get Along.” The adorable, acoustic “Drivin’ on 9” is a wonderful alt-rock take on the age-old rock & roll theme of going to the chapel of love.


Van Halen, ‘Van Halen’

This debut gave the world a new guitar hero (Eddie Van Halen) and charismatic frontman (David Lee Roth). Tunes such as “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” put the swagger back in hard rock, and Van Halen’s jaw-dropping technique, particularly on “Eruption,” raised the bar for rock guitar. “It sounded like it came from another planet,” Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready said of first encountering Van Halen’s playing. “Like hearing Mozart for the first time.”


Destiny’s Child, ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’

Looking back now, Destiny’s Child seem like the last gasp of the R&B vocal group, a tradition that was swept out of the mainstream in the 2000s. On this kinetic, shattering album, the group — especially a wunderkind named Beyoncé Knowles — took a more hands-on approach to writing and producing, helping to craft juddering club singles like “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Bug a Boo.” The ballad “Say My Name” quickly became a modern standard.


OutKast, ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’

For a decade, OutKast were a duo defined by dichotomies — regional versus celestial, order amid chaos, blackness and the universal. On their fifth studio album, that tension could no longer be contained on one CD. Big Boi’s verbal funk overflowed on Speakerboxxx, his half of the double-disc set, while André 3000’s inner crooner exhaled like never before on The Love Below. It was a gamble to break up their twin alchemy this way, but in dividing themselves, OutKast conquered: America fell as deeply in love with the borderless pop bliss of “Hey Ya!” as it did with the slick talk and soulful horns on “The Way You Move.”


Björk, ‘Post’

“I have to re-create the universe every morning when I wake up,” Björk said, explaining her second solo album’s utter lack of musical inhibition. Post bounces from big-band jazz (“It’s Oh So Quiet”) to trip-hop (“These Modern Things” seems to be both of those things at once). Lush and disorienting, dissonant yet ensnaringly lovely, it proved the “Icelandic pixie” who’d dazzled MTV viewers fronting the Sugarcubes, was, in fact, one of the Nineties’ truly boundless musical thinkers. Fun fact: For her vocals, Björk extended her mic cord to a beach so she could sing to the sea.


The Modern Lovers, ‘The Modern Lovers’

Jonathan Richman moved from Boston to New York as a teenager in hopes of sleeping on Lou Reed’s couch. That influence shows on the two-chord anthem “Roadrunner.” Recorded in 1972 but not released until 1976, Lovers turned the tough sounds of the Velvets into an ode to suburban romanticism. “Rock & roll was about stuff that was natural,” Richman said. “I wasn’t about drugs and space.” Songs like “Pablo Picasso,” “Girl Friend,” and “Dignified and Old” touched generations of punk and indie-rock innocents.


The Byrds, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’

“Wow, man, you can even dance to that!” said Bob Dylan on hearing the Byrds’ harmonized electric-12-string treatments of his material. Their debut album defined folk rock with L.A. studio savvy and ringing guitars. The Byrds hit Number One with their jangled-up “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but as they soon proved, they were a whole band full of brilliant songwriters. Gene Clark wrote most of the album’s highlights, like the moody “Here Without You” and the irresistible “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.”


Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Californication’

Turning their focus completely to songs instead of jams, the Red Hot Chili Peppers steered frontman Anthony Kiedis’ voice into a radio-friendlier wail on Californication. That, and the reappearance of guitarist/secret weapon John Frusciante, helped form beautifully composed songs such as “Scar Tissue.” “When John gets excited, he’s like 8 billion volts of electricity,” said Kiedis. “He was knocking things over — it was absolutely chaotic, like a little kid trying to set up a Christmas tree.”


Big Star, ‘Third/Sister Lovers’

Big Star’s first two albums were crisp power-pop full of bright Sixties melodies. Their third album very much wasn’t. The band recorded it, their final LP, in 1974, but it didn’t get released until 1978, in part because singer Alex Chilton sounds like he’s having a nervous breakdown. It’s a record of gorgeous, disjointed heartbreak ballads such as “Take Care,” “Nighttime,” and “Blue Moon.” Even when they’re more optimistic, the songs almost seem to disintegrate as they unfold, finally collapsing into the sublime apocalypse of the album-closing “Kanga Roo.”


Merle Haggard, ‘Down Every Road 1962-1994’

Haggard’s tough country sound was born in Bakersfield, California, a.k.a. Nashville West. His songs are full of drifters, fugitives, and rogues, and this four-disc set — culled from his seminal recordings for Capitol as well as MCA and Epic — is the ultimate collection from one of country’s finest singers. Songs like “Mama Tried” and “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers” are archetypal statements of lonely tough-guy individualism, and like James Brown’s Star Time, the quality stays rock solid over four CDs.


Donna Summer, ‘Bad Girls’

The Boston-born Donna Summer was the Queen of Disco by the end of the Seventies — but she wanted more. With her double-vinyl epic Bad Girls, she set out to conquer every corner of pop music in the name of disco, along with her longtime producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. “Hot Stuff” was her rock anthem, while “Bad Girls” found the sweet spot where the toot-toot meets the beep-beep. The underrated highlight: “Sunset People,” her post-Steely Dan snapshot of L.A. malaise.


Frank Sinatra, ‘In the Wee Small Hours’

In the Wee Small Hours, the first collection of songs Frank Sinatra recorded specifically for an LP, sustains a midnight mood of loneliness and lost love — it’s a prototypical concept album. From the title track, brought in on the bell tones of a celesta, through a trenchant recast of “This Love of Mine,” a hit from his Tommy Dorsey days, Sinatra — reeling from his breakup with Ava Gardner — is never less than superb.


Harry Nilsson, ‘Nilsson Schmilsson’

A brilliant outlier on the Seventies L.A. singer-songwriter scene, Harry Nilsson had a voice and pop savvy like Paul McCartney and a biting ironic side like John Lennon. Nilsson Schmilsson produced three hits — the oddball island novelty “Coconut,” a cover of Badfinger’s “Without You,” where Nilsson sounds like a depressed Barry Manilow, and the surprise monster jam “Jump Into the Fire.” Nilsson was later covered by LCD Soundsystem. It was par for the course for a guy who could shruggingly pull off anything he wanted.


50 Cent, ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin”

The backstory — promising street rapper gets shot nine times and lives to make a classic debut — was irresistible. So were the precision-engineered beats and hooks 50 Cent cooked up with his new mentor, Dr. Dre. Through a mixture of melody and menace, 50 enraptured the suburbs with “In da Club” and antagonized an entire generation of his peers on “Many Men.” His hulking figure, physically and metaphorically, loomed over the rap charts for years, teaching a generation of artists that nothing sold like fear itself.


Nirvana, ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’

Nirvana shine brightly on this live set because the volume is just low enough to let Kurt Cobain’s tortured tenderness glow. The powerful, reverent covers of Lead Belly, David Bowie, the Vaselines, and Meat Puppets songs sum up Nirvana as a haunted, theatrical, and, ultimately, truly raw band. Though Cobain was going through heroin withdrawal the morning of the taping, it remains one of three Unplugged performances to be recorded without having to pause for any retakes.


Led Zeppelin, ‘Houses of the Holy’

Led Zeppelin stuck close to their core sound on earlier albums — supercharged blues, celestial folk — but here they got into a groove. “D’yer Mak’er” (rhymes with “Jamaica”) is their version of reggae, and “The Crunge” is a tribute to James Brown. The band also indulged its cosmic side with “The Rain Song” (featuring one of Robert Plant’s most amazing vocals), “The Song Remains the Same,” and the Viking death chant “No Quarter.”


Alicia Keys, ‘The Diary of Alicia Keys’

Alicia Keys’ debut, Songs in A Minor, released when she was just 20, fused her classical piano chops with a love of old soul and New York hip-hop for a bold, ambitious R&B sound. Her second LP built on that promise with songs that owed a debt to Aretha and Nina Simone, and still felt wholly her own — particularly on the sweeping “Harlem’s Nocturne” and the lovelorn hit “You Don’t Know My Name.”


Radiohead, ‘The Bends’

If the first half of the Nineties was shaped by Nirvana, the template for the second half was set by Radiohead. The Bends marries a majestic and somber guitar sound to Thom Yorke’s anguished-choirboy vocals. “Fake Plastic Trees” was something of a radio hit, an introspective acoustic ballad of alienation. And not yet shying away from guitar anthems, Radiohead drew on the epic grandeur of U2 and the melancholy of the Smiths in “Nice Dream,” “Just,” and the haunting finale, “Street Spirit (Fade Out).”


Curtis Mayfield, ‘Curtis’

In the late Sixties, Curtis Mayfield fronted the Impressions, masters of doo-wop soul with a knack for hiding bracing political commentary inside honeyed harmonies. His biting, tender solo debut proved he was lethal as a lone wolf, able to write complex, sprawling, intricate soul music: “Move On Up,” a persistence mantra; “The Makings of You,” impossibly lavish; and “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” a damning indictment of societal dysfunction that still stings today.


The Byrds, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

On release, this bold experiment in Nashville classicism was shunned by rock fans and country purists alike. But the American rural song had been central to the Byrds’ folk-rock sound; here, driven by junior Byrd Gram Parsons, the band highlighted that connection, dressing Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard songs in steel guitar and rock & roll drive, setting the stage for country rock. Parsons left signs of his short, glorious future in his originals “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years From Now.”


Gang of Four, ‘Entertainment!’

Formed in 1977, Gang of Four combined Marxist politics with punk rock. They played staccato guitar-driven funk, and the stiff, jerky aggression of songs such as “Damaged Goods” and “I Found That Essence Rare” invented a new style that influenced bands from the Minutemen to LCD Soundsystem to agit-rappers Run the Jewels, who sampled Entertainment!’s “Ether.” Even when they’re barking at you about the capitalist commodification of desire, they never sound like dogmatic grad students because the songs bite so hard.


The Velvet Underground, ‘White Light/White Heat’

“It’s a very rabid record,” bassist-violist John Cale wrote in the liner notes to the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See. “The first one had some gentility, some beauty. The second one was consciously anti-beauty.” Drowning their songs in guitar fuzz and drone, the Velvet Underground captured the toe-clenching freakouts of their live shows with their second album — the most extreme disc in VU’s extreme catalog. The blow-your-wig-back highlight: “Sister Ray,” 17 minutes of amplifiers screaming.


Mary J. Blige, ‘What’s the 411?’

There was no way R&B was going to keep its distance from hip-hop; they had too much in common. But it required the right singer to build a road between the two. On her first album, Mary J. Blige was marketed as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, and the Bronx-born singer lived up to the regal hype, singing about pain and resolve in equal measures. Even when songwriters stuck her with pedestrian lines, you feel genuine longing and the weight of her experiences in every word.


Kacey Musgraves, ‘Golden Hour’

On this album, Kacey Musgraves became Nashville’s most compelling crossover star since Taylor Swift, where she sings about acid trips, homesickness, and falling wildly in love with the witty precision of her earlier small-town polemics, but on a much bigger scale. Golden Hour’s lush yacht-country production re-envisioned what millennial pop might sound like: “I’ve always loved Sade, but I also love Dolly Parton,” Musgraves said. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a world where all these things can live together.’”


Kanye West, ‘Yeezus’

“No one’s near doing what he’s doing,” said Lou Reed. “It’s not even on the same planet.” When the guy who made White Light/White Heat [see No. 272] is complimenting your hate-caked noise assaults, you’re doing something right. Kanye West channeled his ever-darkening megalomania into the violent minimalism of “On Sight” and the pummeling pestilence of “I Am a God.” He goes out with the maximalism of “Blood on the Leaves,” flipping a sample of Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” into an engulfing vision of asshole-rock-star hell.


Randy Newman, ‘Sail Away’

Producer Lenny Waronker called him the “King of the Suburban Blues Singers.” Randy Newman went on to a long career scoring Hollywood movies, but on Sail Away, he was still L.A.’s weirdest singer-songwriter, a piano man singing sardonic tales of sleazy grifters in tunes full of New Orleans R&B and Tin Pan Alley showbiz. Sail Away is his meanest and funniest American portrait, with the cold-blooded “Political Science,” the blasphemous “God’s Song,” and the romantic “You Can Leave Your Hat On.”


Minutemen, ‘Double Nickels on the Dime’

“Our band could be your life,” sing the Minutemen on “History Lesson – Part 2,” and never did a lyric better articulate punk’s everyman aesthetic. Guitarist D. Boon and bassist Mike Watt push each other to fast, funny, and agitated heights; they sing about everything from Vietnam to Michael Jackson, and cover CCR and Steely Dan, expanding their magnum opus double LP out to 46 songs. Sadly, Boon would die a year later in a van accident.


The Beatles, ‘Help!’

The moptops’ second movie was a Swinging London goof, but the soundtrack included the classics “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “Ticket to Ride,” as well as the lovely “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” And, of course, Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday,” recorded without the help of any other Beatles, became the most widely covered song in pop-music history. The sense of confidence and possibility paved the way for the Beatles’ next stop: Rubber Soul.


Pavement, ‘Wowee Zowee’

The Nineties indie-rock princes took everyone by surprise by mellowing out for their third album. Wowee Zowee is a kaleidoscopic mix of ideas, the sound of noise-guitar dudes kicking back for some summer fun. Pavement switch gears with every song, from the ballad “We Dance” to the pop-punk spritzer “AT&T” to cryptic blurts like “Fight This Generation.” As Stephen Malkmus explained, “We did neuter many of the silly things about rock, but we still embraced a lot of them, too, because we’re party kids and we like a Bo Diddley beat.”


Pink Floyd, ‘Wish You Were Here’

For the follow-up to Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd got even darker, exploring their main themes of lunacy and alienation. The poignant title ballad is a lament for their ex-bandmate Syd Barrett, one of the Sixties’ saddest acid casualties. They pay tribute in “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a 26-minute, nine-part suite that both opens and closes the album, with David Gilmour’s elegiac guitar. They also skewer the music business in “Have a Cigar” and “Welcome to the Machine.”


The Beatles, ‘Hard Day’s Night’

This soundtrack to the Richard Lester film cemented all that U.S. listeners had heard about the Beatles’ genius in the off-kilter beauty of John Lennon’s “If I Fell” and the rockabilly bounce of Paul McCartney’s “Can’t Buy Me Love.” It was their first album of all-original material, showcasing leaps in their songwriting as well as new tricks like George Harrison’s 12-string guitar, picked up on tour in America, and the Dylanesque harmonica blast that opens “I Should Have Known Better.”


New Order, ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’

On Power, Corruption & Lies, Manchester, England’s New Order fully moved past the death of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis to create a gloriously danceable synth-rock breakthrough. It was a whole new sound, heavily influenced by their early tours of America. “In England, clubs played dead-straight cheesy music,” said frontman Bernard Sumner, “but in America, they played the Clash, funk, a great mix of black and white music, and American dance music, early electronic music.… We were right there, and this new sound found us.”


Beastie Boys, ‘Check Your Head’

On Check Your Head’s “Professor Booty,” Mike D raps the Beasties’ mantra: “Life ain’t nothing but a good groove.” The trio returned to their rock-band roots for their third LP, playing its funky, punky, spunky beats themselves. They channel John Bonham’s booming drums on “So What ‘Cha Want,” Black Sabbath’s guitar growl on “Gratitude,” and Bad Brains’ hardcore spirit on their surprising Sly Stone send-up “Time for Livin’.” They also explore lounge-lizard jams and psychedelic jazziness, introducing backward-ball-cap alt-rock kids to new worlds of sound.


The Slits, ‘Cut’

Avant-garde you can dance to — that’s the Slits’ Cut in a nutshell. The British group’s raucous debut took the best of late-Seventies post-punk’s favorite genre influences (dub, girl groups, abstract jazz), tossed them all into a blender, and somehow ended up with joyously anarchic songs like “Shoplifting,” with its awesome catchphrase, “We pay fuck-all!” Kurt Cobain would call “Typical Girls” one of the best songs ever recorded, and we can’t help but agree.


Janis Joplin, ‘Pearl’

On Pearl, Janis Joplin finally made a solo album worthy of her mighty blues-mama voice. She had her first Number One album, Cheap Thrills, as lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and made an uneven solo debut. Pearl was more intimate, more assured, unleashing her Texas-bred wail on the country-style soul tune “Get It While You Can” and the Number One hit “Me and Bobby McGee.” Sadly, Joplin didn’t live to enjoy her fame. She died of a drug overdose in 1970, before the album was completed.


Joni Mitchell, ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’

Joni Mitchell got deeper into glamorous L.A. groove theory on her seventh album, reveling in the possibilities of pure melody for a set of songs where her genius as a producer shines just as brightly as her writing. “In France They Kiss on Main Street” bids farewell to the rock & roll era in a blaze of freewheeling, jazzy joy; “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” frames a story of a loveless high-society marriage in supper-club swank. The rest of the pop world would take years to catch up to where she was here.


Dolly Parton, ‘Coat of Many Colors’

Dolly Parton’s starkest, most affecting album. The title track is about wearing rags but keeping your pride. “That was a very sad and cutting memory that I long kept deep within myself,” she said of the song in a 1977 Rolling Stone interview. “I remembered all the pain of it and the mockery.” The rest is more hard country: On “Traveling Man,” Parton’s mom runs off with the singer’s boyfriend; on “If I Lose My Mind,” her boyfriend has sex with another woman in front of her.


Tracy Chapman, ‘Tracy Chapman’

Somehow, this young folk singer came out of nowhere to catch everyone’s ear during the hair-metal late Eighties. Tracy Chapman had already spent time strumming her acoustic guitar for spare change on the streets around Boston, but her gritty voice and storytelling made “Fast Car” a huge hit. Her debut confronted listeners with the raw truths of songs like “Behind the Wall,” a grueling portrayal of domestic violence sung a cappella, and the radical hope of the anthemic opening track, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.”


Bob Dylan, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’

Bob Dylan’s second LP was released on May 27th, 1963 – three days after his 22nd birthday. It was a tender age for such a triumph. On Freewheelin’, the poetry and articulate fury of Dylan’s lyrics and his simple, compelling melodies transformed American popular songwriting. His wholly original grip on grit, truth, and beauty in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Masters of War” still changes everyone who hears this album, four decades later.


Herbie Hancock, ‘Head Hunters’

One day in the early Seventies, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock was chanting in front of his Nichiren Buddhist scroll when he heard Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” looping in his head. He immediately got to work on Head Hunters, an aerodynamic groove machine built around catchy riffs, squelching synths, and airtight, danceable beats. As Hancock put it, the LP unified “the jungle, the intellectual, and the sex” — and gave jazz its first platinum-selling album.


Pink Floyd, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’

“I’m full of dust and guitars,” Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett told Rolling Stone. Here’s what that sounded like. The band’s debut is all playful, psychedelic imagery and acid guitars. “Astronomy Domine” shows the group’s pop side; “Interstellar Overdrive” shows its spacier freakouts. Released at the height of the Summer of Love, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn sums up the headlong feeling of the moment just as aptly as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.


Devo, ‘Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!’

They came from Akron, Ohio, wore matching jumpsuits, and had a sinister theory of devolution. Their debut album runs on rubber-punk energy and mechanized New Wave beats, with a robotic, soul-chilling version of the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” demented highlights like the troublingly catchy “Mongoloid,” and the Chuck Berry parody “Come Back Jonee.” Devo never got slowed down by their concept; “Gut Feeling/(Slap Your Mammy)” is warped Midwestern guitar mania at its finest.


Elton John, ‘Honky Château’

After a couple of weightier singer-songwriter outings, it was delightful to hear Elton John revel in the simple pop pleasures of “Honky Cat.” Written in four days and using his signature touring band for the first time, his fifth album is a snapshot of an artist loosening up and coming into his full powers, rendering classics like “Rocket Man” and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” as well as curveballs like the adolescent angst of “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself,” into jaunty confection.