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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 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.