Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Issue

This post is done in memory of the late great Dick Clark, a good friend of young people and their music for more than three decades, and to whom many artists owed their very careers. In the history of American popular culture Dick Clark’s American Bandstand will go down as one of the most important television shows of the last 50 years, helping to ease social and racial tensions during and after the civil rights era.

Rolling Stone is trying to survive in the mostly post-rock n’ roll era and so they’ve taken to serving up all sorts of anthology issues. The latest is ‘the 500 greatest albums of all time’. Of course the two operative questions about this enterprise is are: according to whom, and according to what criteria? For one thing, there are no classical or gospel or bluegrass albums really listed and precious little country (o.k. there is Patsy Cline). What is odd, however, is that there is a smattering of jazz albums listed — specifically the ones that seem to have most influenced rock n’ roll and soul and R+B. In other words, it’s not just rock n’ roll and soul albums that are listed, and this becomes especially clear when various rap albums are also included. The reviewers are musicians and others involved in the rock/pop/rap/r+b music industry. A few numbers tell some of the story.

The oldest album listed, The Anthology of American Folk Music, dates to 1952. So we are talking about music from my lifetime… but barely. There are just 11 albums from the 50s, 105 from the 60s, 187 from the 70s, 82 from the 80s, 75 from the 90s, 38 from the period 2000-2010, and finally just two more recent than that. That in fact tells us a lot. The consensus is, all this great music reached its peak in the 70s, and its been downhill since then. I quite agree with this assessment.

But what they don’t tell you is that even a good majority of the best albums of the 80s, 90s, and even beyond were done by increasingly older artists still producing the kind of quality stuff they did at least as early as the 70s. This too is a depressing fact. The list confirms what many have suspected— there was a golden age of popular music in the 60s and 70s when musicians actually had to play instruments, sing their own songs, write their own music (not to be confused with sampling) and this era was given a mortal wound by technology. By this I mean synthesizer and other forms of technology that allowed people to create music with little or no musical ability to speak of, just some sort of creative interest.

This degenerated to such a degree that we actually got to the point where ‘the best albums’ consisted of rhythmic talking, often laced with profanity, by people who cannot sing or write music or play instruments (you know who you are). Now it has to be said, that this is not true of all rap artists. Some of them actually are artists, some are not, some are decent poets, some are not, some can actually sing, but my point is that those folks would never have even made any chart in the 60s and 70s, and this had nothing to do with race or racism. Some of the best music of that whole era came out of Motown and Memphis and was entirely created by African American artists. It has to do with the quality of the actual music, which has dramatically degenerated since the 70s — in part due to technology. Let me give you another for instance.

I went to a smooth jazz festival not long ago. Various of the artists were simply playing on top of their pre-recorded materials, and as for they themselves, they were in auto-tune mode so it would sound groovy and smooth and harmonious. I have seen what happens when artists from the auto-tune era don’t use auto-tune, and its not pretty.

For example I was watching a music awards show and Taylor Swift was singing a duet with Stevie Nicks– a Nicks classic song. Swift was sharp, flat, anything but on key whenever she tried to do harmonies. This is not to say she is not a gifted song writer and an energetic performer. What it is to say is that she needs some more music lessons, especially about harmonizing. The temptation to depend on technology to do the lion’s share of the work is one the music industry has not resisted since the rise of the synthesizer, and sometimes it has led to best selling artists who are posers rather than composers, entertainers rather than actually talented musicians. I’m just sayin’…. but back to the RS issue at hand.

There are 10 Dylan lps, 10 Beatles lps, and 10 Stones lps along with 8 from ‘the Boss’ and 7 from the Who. These are the most represented bands or individual artists. What does this tell us— that the best music of my lifetime was definitely the rock n’ roll music followed by pop and soul. In those days albums were actually albums.

If you read the opening editorial of sorts by Sir Elton John himself he rightly stresses that the best albums are actually albums! That is the songs cohere, belong together and do not go on ad infinitum. Elton suggests that 18 songs is too many for a good album for the most part. The reason is in part because it needs to sustain your attention from start to finish— like say the No. 1 album on the list– Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, or say an album like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. There need to be no duds on the album for it to be a good album. Take for example an album that spent an astounding 91 weeks on the Billboard charts— Michael Jackson’s Thriller, at the dawn of the music video era.

The top 20 albums are as follows— after Sgt. Peppers, there is the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the Beatles Revolver, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, the Beatles Rubber Soul, Marvin Gaye’s game changing What’s Goin’ On, The Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the Clash’s London Calling (the only near-the-top punk rock album), Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, the Beatles’ White Album, Elvis’s Sunrise (which has his classic numbers recorded for Sun records), which some credit with actually kick-starting the rock n’ roll era into motion on July 5th 1954.

Amazingly at no. 12 is Miles Davis (with Trane and Evans) Kind of Blue – the best selling jazz album of all time. Then we have The Velvet Underground and Nico, Abbey Road, Hendrix’s Are you Experienced, my personal favorite Dylan album (1975)– Blood on the Tracks, Nirvana’s Nevermind (the only grunge album in the top echelon), the Boss’ Born to Run, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (they should have put Moondance here) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller rounds out the top 20.

If you go closely through the top 500 you will certainly notice some over-looked albums and some head-scratchers. It is interesting that there are no rap albums in the top 40, and the first one that enters the list is ‘Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation at 48…. even though many of the judges are young and like rap music. The two major live albums of rock n’ roll on the list are the Allman Bros Live at Fillmore East (no. 49) and the Who’s Live at Leeds (much later at 170). Interestingly CSN initial great album comes in at 262, but CSN and Y Deja Vu at 147.

Neil Young as a solo artist has no less than five albums but the other three of the team have no albums in the top 500— a real shock considering albums like Stephen Stills much praised first solo album. Artists like the Moody Blues or Emerson Lake and Palmer do not make the list at all, but then neither do Chicago, Dan Fogelberg or David Clayton Thomas’s incarnation of Blood Sweat and Tears. Were this a top 100 list that would be one thing, but a top 500 that excludes such artists? No way. Go figure. But then the only way some of the greatest artists make it at all is through a Greatest Hits collection which were not albums in the first place (see e.g. the Supremes Anthology), but creations of record companies doing their best to make more money off an artist (perhaps we should discuss the morbid trend of suddenly producing such stuff only days after the artist dies).

I could go on and on about this little issue of RS, but I will let you read the write ups and see what you think. I will just say that even with a list of 500, this just touches the tip of the iceberg of the rock n’ roll era. There were many albums not on this list that were great from start to finish (to name three— the Rare Bird album, the Aztec Two Step first great album, or even Paul Simon’s recent So Beautiful or So What which certainly should be in the top 100 or so).

Forward Thinking about “Reading Backwards’ Conclusions
Kingsman– The Secret Service
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’–The Interview Part Six
Finding Jesus— Reboot
  • Jon Altman

    You need to listen to Adele, Lady Gaga and Kelly Clarkson

  • Mike

    I do think today has some great music in it, but there is too much choice. There are some great albums out there, but most of the time they’re in genres that either aren’t intended for popular consumption, or are specific to a genre. The days of folk music making the top 100 are over. However, the Fleet Foxes and the Low Anthem produce quality album after quality album. Neither of those artists will ever taste any kind of popular success beyond the occasional soundtrack appearence, but the albums are great and gain critical acclaim. There are bands like that in all styles right now. The days of a band getting “u2 status” are likely over. With the selection we have today, people won’t choose to wrestle with an album (and learn to love it) they might’ve when the radio was the only thing you had. You simply move on to whatever fits you a bit better.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Jon; I have listened to all three. Adele is the one that shows the most promise, Lady Gaga strikes me as a B grade Madonna wannabe. Kelly Clarkson has a nice voice, but she’s no Carrie Underwood.

  • Danny Dawson

    Mike – “people won’t choose to wrestle with an album (and learn to love it)” Sounds like a magazine! Very few tmes have I managed to stick with an album all the way through, although my favorite stuff is from albums like this.

  • mark

    Every generation produces something of value. But, what was once mainstream, Dylan, Hendrix, Sam Cooke, or for that matter, Benny Goodman and Woody Herman no longer is—meaning musicians who can actually play at a high level. Derek Trucks and band for example, are as good as many of the best artists of the last 45 years. And where they sell records and concert tickets, it’s a fraction of what Madonna or Justin Beiber sell. The market has changed so much, with the internet, that it may not be feasible to develop talent the way the industry once did. Which meant investing for the long haul, why losing money in the short term. On the bright side, inexpensive recording technology has made it possible to record with equipment that’s far better than anything dreamed of by The Beatles or Miles Davis in their heyday. And the internet has given musicians as well as artists of every kind a forum to speak through, enabling some truly fine performers the opportunity to be heard without having to go through a very small handful of labels that dominate the business. The effect has been democratizing to say the least. But if you are dreaming of being one of the few shining stars who make all the money, you’re going to have to think differently. In the end what’s happening is for the good. A lot’ a people will make a lot ’a music, most of it won’t be very good, but enough will. And the sheer volume will do the rest. Such is the nature of democracy.

  • David Rogers

    I only skimmed the list but I did not find Rush “Moving Pictures” or Kansas “Leftoverture”. That is pathetic. Were there any Yes albums on it? For example, “Fragile.”

  • Kyle

    There is still plenty of great music being made today by real musicians. It’s just that it’s mostly in the indie rock scene, and doesn’t receive the kind of mainstream exposure that its equivalent did in previous decades. You really have to search it out.

  • Daniel

    You mean to tell me that not one Led Zeppelin album made the top 10, let alone the top 20?

  • Ben Witherington

    There are, sadly, no Yes albums listed in the top 500 which is absurd. As for Led Zepplin there are in fact 5 Zep albums listed, the top of which is there first album at 29 and IV at 69. There are no Kansas or Rush albums in the whole list. You have to realize that it looks to me like most of the judges were not old enough to be listening to music in any serious way in the late 60s or 70s.

  • Beth Petrie

    …Dr. W – you are certainly a “Renaissance Man” – is there ANY topic about which you know nothing?? :-)

  • Ben Witherington

    Yes Beth: I know nothing of basket weaving :) BW3

  • Cam

    Dr. W,

    I love hearing theologians talk about rock n’ roll! Please tell me Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen made the list.

    I do wonder if you’re not being a bit dismissive of the current musical climate. It’s lamentable that iTunes appears to be hammering a final nail into the coffin of albums, and that we now prefer individual songs to an organically unified collection of music, but I don’t think technology has deadened musical talent; I think it’s changed the paradigm in some ways. By that I simply mean that producers are now viewed as artists as well, and I think they should be. I’m sure you’d agree that behind every great album, there’s a visionary producer. Sadly, many artists now lean too heavily on their producers.

    Another problem is, I think, the sheer over-abundance of musicians. This tends to elevate PR and publicity concerns over the actual artistic achievement of a band. Nevertheless, stunning bands continue to emerge. I’m thinking of Fleet Foxes, Wilco, The Shins etc. Finding quality new music requires a higher degree of work and discernment these days, but it’s work that still gets rewarded. Wouldn’t you agree?

  • Ben Thomas

    Can anyone give me a link to the list?

  • Alex

    Disappointed that Chicago Transit Authority or Chicago II did not make the list. These are classic albums that are deeply ingrained in the time period – but musically are transcendent.

  • Beth Petrie

    …too bad – I was hoping there was a “Basket Weaving 101″ to slide through for my elective pool…

    On a more serious note – since you’re also reviewing film – you’ll not want to miss BLUE LIKE JAZZ which opens (limited run) in Lexington this weekend – this is an important film with a strong message to the church… Hope you’ll take it in before it moves on…

  • Jason Bridges

    I’m not too impressed when Nirvana is listed above U2.

  • Ben Witherington

    I’m with you. Why should either Nirvana or the Clash be listed ahead of any U2 albums?

  • Max

    Great list. I like their other lists too like top 500 rock n roll songs, and top 500 country songs. The Stone’s Black and Blue should have been there, and Frampton’s double live album. What about Enya? And only one Abba album? Dylan’s Slow Train made no mention, but when it was released Rolling Stone praised it to heaven as his best ever.

  • Max

    Answer: Smells Like Teen Spirit was number 9 in the Rolling Stone Top 500 songs list, and London Calling was 15, in the midst of Blowin’ in The Wind, Yesterday, A Change Is Gonna Come, My Generation, What’d I Say, Hey Jude, Johnny B. Goode, Good Vibrations, Respect, What’s Going On, Imagine, Satisfaction, and Like A Rolling Stone at number one.
    U2′s One however was at 36. The strength of these songs (and their albums) put Nirvana and Clash ahead of U2.