Rolling Stone at 50: How Magazine's Album Reviews Became a Cultural Fixture

Inside the development of our Records section – a launchpad for both key critics and artists they championed

Read how Rolling Stone's Records section became the definitive forum for rock criticism.

One night in the spring of 2001, Jann S. Wenner visited Bob Dylan backstage. The two men had known each other since the late Sixties, but even so, Dylan's greeting was a bit familiar – he began patting Wenner down, rooting around for something in his jacket. "I said, 'Bob, what are you doing?' " Wenner remembers. "He said, 'I'm looking for that extra star. What pocket have you got it in?'"

For those keeping score, Rolling Stone's review of 1997's Time Out of Mind was four stars; the album Dylan released in fall 2001, Love and Theft, would get five – and even Dylan might agree with these ratings, as after Time Out of Mind he began producing his albums himself to better realize the sound he was after. More important, for the world's greatest songwriter to tease Rolling Stone's editor and publisher about holding out on him was a sign that the magazine's Records section was functioning as Wenner had always hoped. He saw Rolling Stone's reviews as "part of that feedback loop – that big circle that was part of the creation of music: artists and audiences and criticism."

When Rolling Stone began, in 1967, Wenner wanted the magazine's reviews to have seriousness and focus. He felt the emerging world of rock criticism was often about image, culture and politics, not always the music itself. So one of his first moves was to sign up Jon Landau as his lead critic. Landau – today the manager of Bruce Springsteen – was then an undergraduate at Brandeis in Boston. A guitar player himself, he brought knowledge and precision to his writing for one of rock's first chronicles, Crawdaddy. As Wenner prepared to launch Rolling Stone, he offered Landau a column. "He sent me a copy of the dummy issue," Landau says. "It was really impressive. And he mentioned that he was paying for the writing, which was fairly novel."

Landau's work established Rolling Stone's authority and had real impact. A review of a Cream concert in RS 10 (May 11th, 1968) took Eric Clapton to task as "a master of the blues clichés." When he read it, Clapton was stunned. "The ring of truth just knocked me backward," Clapton told the magazine in a 1985 interview. "I was in a restaurant, and I fainted. And after I woke up, I immediately decided that was the end of the band."

But Landau's column was a single page in the front of the magazine. The Records section in the back remained without a dedicated editor until RS 38 (July 26th, 1969). Greil Marcus – whose work at Rolling Stone, and later in books such as Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces, would do much to establish the intellectual and literary potential of music criticism – was a grad student at UC Berkeley and already contributing reviews to Rolling Stone when he was introduced one night to the magazine's managing editor, Charles Perry. Marcus complained that the Records section had no sense of what to cover. "All anybody ever does is write about lyrics," he told Perry. "It's like a bunch of folk-music reviews." A day or two later, Wenner called and offered Marcus $35 a week to solve the problem.

The pages blossomed with new voices and fresh approaches. Marcus believed "rock & roll was writing its own history in the moment." His sections were carefully curated. Some focused on reissues of early rock & roll, and others on women's voices, from Fifties girl group the Chantels to Dusty Springfield's new classic, Dusty in Memphis. "It was the past and the present all mixed up, as if there was no such thing as 'oldies,' " he says.

Marcus took chances on experimental albums – his first section featured a Lester Bangs rave about Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica – and on experimental writers. "There was this guy who was sending in short stories," he remembers of J.R. Young. "Those were his reviews." The first was an appraisal of the irresistible erotic effects of the Grateful Dead's Live/Dead that read like a cross between Chekhov and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

But it was Marcus himself who was responsible for the most famous fiction in the history of rock criticism: a review of The Masked Marauders, an album that started off as a joke and then became real. Marcus was disappointed in sketchy one-off supergroup albums like Super Session, a collection of jams from Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills. He imagined what a real supersession would be like. "Obviously, it'd have to have the Beatles, and Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones," he says. So he wrote a parody review that brought them together as the Masked Marauders, with Mick Jagger singing "I Can't Get No Nookie" and Dylan and George Harrison playing the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" on acoustic guitars.

A fake album cover was mocked up, and the whole thing appeared in RS 44 (October 18th, 1969). Desperate fans phoned the Rolling Stone office asking where they could find a copy, as did record distributors – even Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, out of touch with his elusive client, called to see if there was any truth to the piece. And then there was: Marcus and his colleague Langdon Winner recorded a version of "I Can't Get No Nookie," and after it aired on San Francisco radio, Warner Bros. rushed to release a full album. (Berkeley's Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band provided the music.) In a few months, the Masked Marauders had gone from put-on to reality.

Over the next few years, Rolling Stone would become a defining voice in a rapidly changing form of writing that lifted the tools of literary criticism, film-auteur theory and sociology to create a living document of the counterculture overtaking the mainstream, album by album. Landau became Records editor in the early 1970s, inaugurating a finely tuned mix of passion and professionalism that made the magazine's section a launching pad for countless critics (Stephen Holden of The New York Times among them), a tradition that continued under Paul Nelson, who brought in Kurt Loder and David Fricke. Born in Minnesota, Nelson had known Dylan in college, playing him crucial recordings by Woody Guthrie and others. As an A&R man at Mercury Records, he signed the New York Dolls. At Rolling Stone, he was an early supporter of singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon – artists for whom the magazine played an important role in championing – as well as the Clash and the Sex Pistols.

"I was in awe of him," Fricke says of Nelson. "I'd read his writing in the magazine like it was gospel. He'd sit in his office with his little cigarillos, surrounded by chaos – packages and records and everything. He knew everything was changing around him, but he refused to compromise the standards." One of those changes was the 1981 introduction of star ratings for reviews, which Wenner had wanted to adopt since the 1970s. "The editors viewed it as reductive," Wenner says. "They fought it." Stars went against Nelson's view of albums as artworks, but as critical taste and popular music diverged, Wenner believed the magazine had to serve its readers.

The Records section was a crucial showcase for albums by emerging stars, from Prince's Dirty Mind ("The most generous album about sex ever made by a man," wrote Ken Tucker in a lead review in 1981) to Nas' Illmatic ("Like a rose stretching up between cracks in the sidewalk, calling attention to its beauty, calling attention to the lack of it everywhere else," wrote Touré in 1994). That lead spot was a showcase for illustration as well, including a Robert Grossman caricature of Dylan in a shower cap, for Hard Rain, and a striking portrait of Springsteen by Roberto Parada, in the style of Thomas Hart Benton, for The Rising.

In the 1970s, Rolling Stone brought in the best rock writers from smaller magazines – Dave Marsh from Creem, Timothy White from Crawdaddy – and gave them a big microphone and center stage. In the early Nineties, Anthony DeCurtis opened up the section to many writers who would become the defining voices of hip-hop criticism, among them Danyel Smith, Cheo Coker, Scott Poulson-Bryant and Kevin Powell. Rob Sheffield began writing for the magazine in 1997, after contributing to Spin and The Village Voice; Jon Dolan arrived in 2009, after working at Spin and Blender.

Sheffield remembers reading Rolling Stone reviews in middle school, and running out to buy LPs like X's Wild Gift. "Whether I agreed with the writer wasn't the point," he says. "What came across was that idea that there were stakes here. These things mattered." They still do. It was Sheffield who wrote that five-star review of Dylan's Love and Theft. "I remember being told that his publicist read the review to Dylan over the phone, and Dylan asked him to read it to him again," Sheffield says. "The joke in the office was, 'Well, I guess our work here is done.'" But the music keeps coming, and the work never stops.